Naso: Between Jew and Gentile

Aristotle wrote, “Happiness is … the whole aim and end of human existence.”  While not disagreeing, Judaism would put it like this: “God’s purpose in creation was to bestow of His good to another” (Way of God, 1:2:1).  The question is: How is humanity, as a whole, to achieve the happiness that is God’s goodness?

Strange as it may seem, the answer can be found in the dedication offerings brought by the twelve princes of Israel described at the end of this week’s parsha.  The text, in a seemingly flagrant violation of conservation of words, does not simply relate that each prince brought the same offering as his fellow prince but explicitly enumerates the offerings of each and every one of the twelve princes.  This has caused no small amount of consternation amongst commentators, from ancient to modern, who have striven to derive meaning from this anomaly.

Of all the commentaries that address this issue, that of Rashi (Numbers 7:19-23) is the most peculiar.  Rashi quotes a Midrash that reasons that each prince’s offering is stated explicitly to denote that each prince gave his offering with his own unique motivations (See Nachmanides 7:2).  What is curious, however, is that Rashi only brings the motivations of the second prince.

Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Rotenberg (“Hidushei HaRim”) explains that Rashi wanted to convey the idea of the Midrash – that each prince had his own intent – as concisely as possible.  To do this, Rashi only gave a reason for the second prince, thus implying that, while surely the first prince had his motivations, the second prince’s motivations were quite different.  By supplying the motivations for the second prince, but not for the others, we are given to understand that each had his own individual motivations.

While one may find this explanation difficult, its cogency lies in realizing Rashi’s penchant for brevity.  Indeed, Rabbi Avigdor Bonchek explains that Rashi “strives to give the student a greater appreciation of the literal meaning and spiritual message of the Torah text … with brevity, clarity and fine-tuned precision” (What’s Bothering Rashi, Bereishis, pp.2-3).

Another anomaly in Rashi’s commentary on the princely offerings is that the motivations he associates with the second prince’s offerings are, according to Nachmanides, the motivations of the first prince!  What would prompt this selective application of the Midrashic source?  The answer is that Rashi is not only interested in concisely disclosing the literal meaning of the text but, as Rabbi Bonchek noted, in communicating a “spiritual message”.  As such, while the Midrash provided motivations for each prince’s offerings, Rashi employed the motivations that transmitted the most vital spiritual message for posterity.  Indeed, Rabbi Reitzes explains that Rashi quoted the motivations that encompass all the other motivations.

Given all this, what exactly were the motivations that Rashi found of such import?  The Midrash, using various numerological associations of the 15 components of the prince’s offerings, symbolically provides a genealogy from the Adam to the Jewish people, punctuated with references to Torah and commandments as follows:

(1) Adam, (2) Seth, (3) Noah, (4) Noah’s children, (5) seventy nations, (6) Torah, (7) Ten Commandments, (8) Six hundred and thirteen commandments, (9) Abraham, (10) Isaac, (11) Jacob, (12) Joseph,  (13) Moshe and Aaron, (14) Cohen, Levi, Israel, (15) Torah and Ten Commandments.

Deriving the message from this list is not trivial, for while the genealogy is quite obvious, it is not clear what message it conveys.  And even more puzzling is the placement of the Torah and commandments within the lineage, not to speak of their repetition.  Indeed, what need is served by representing the same idea twice?

We can attain a better understanding if we structure the list as follows:

  • (1) Adam, (2) Seth, (3) Noah, (4) Noah’s children, (5) seventy nations, (6) Torah, (7) Ten Commandments;
  • Six hundred and thirteen commandments;
  • (1) Abraham, (2) Isaac, (3) Jacob, (4) Joseph, (5) Moshe and Aaron, (6) Cohen, Levi, Israel, (7) Torah and Ten Commandments.

A pattern emerges.  Whereas before we saw only one long unintelligible list, we now discern two distinct lists – each delineating a specific genealogy, each ending with “Torah and Ten Commandments.”  The first list is clearly that of the nations of the world, starting with Adam and culminating with the archetypal seventy nations.  The second list is clearly that of the Jewish people, starting with Abraham and ending with Israel.  Given that both lists conclude with “Torah and Ten Commandments,” the inference is that the Torah and the Ten Commandments are as relevant to the seventy nations as they are to the nation of Israel.

This message, while not widely appreciated, should come as no great surprise; for indeed, the first order of business when the Jews entered the land was to write the Torah in seventy languages – in order that all the nations could learn from it (Deuteronomy 27; Sotah 32a; Rashi on Sotah 35b, s.v. heyach).  Furthermore the Midrash (Mechilta DeRebbi Yishmael, Yitro) teaches:

“The Torah was given in an ownerless place [i.e., the desert], for had it been given in the land of Israel, they would say to the nations of the world, “you have no portion in this.”  Therefore it was given in an ownerless place – and all who desire to receive it can come and receive it.”

And the nations did “come and receive it”, for they themselves refer to the Ten Commandments as the “cornerstone”, and the Bible as the “foundation”, of Western civilization.

But just as the Midrash provides to two distinct genealogical lists, there is a distinction between the seventy nations and Israel.  What distinguishes between the two is what distinguishes between the two genealogical lists: six hundred and thirteen commandments.[1]  These are incumbent only upon the Jewish people as mandated in their mission statement given at Sinai: “… if ye will hearken unto My voice indeed, and keep My covenant …” (Exodus 19:5).  Rashi explains these words to refer to the obligation to keep the commandments of the Torah.  Following this precondition, God defines the actual mission of the Jewish people to be “a kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) – a task, Rabbi Ovadya Seforno explains, that consists of “understanding and teaching all of humanity to call the name of God, and worship Him, all together as one.”

This is the message underlying the dedication offerings.  That is, the fundamental motivation, the one that encapsulates all the motivations of all the princes’ offerings, is that of being a kingdom of priests.  It is expressed at the dedication of the altar, for the altar is really nothing but the device through which we formally recognize the Creator and “call the name of God.”

The purpose of creation, as stated at the outset, is to bring mankind to happiness. This goal will only be reached when mankind “calls the name of God”, when humanity recognizes the Creator whose only goal is to give of His goodness.  This ideal will ultimately be achieved when the “kingdom of priests” teaches God’s ways to the world, as the prophet states:

“And it shall come to pass in the end of days, … many peoples shall go and say: ‘Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and He will teach us of His ways, and we will walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. … and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:2-5).


[1] Thanks to my son Eitan Navon for this insight.

About the Author
Rabbi Mois Navon, an engineer and rabbi, has modeled himself on the principle of "Torah U'Madda" based on the philosophy of R. Soloveitchik as articulated by R. Lamm: Torah, faith, religious learning on one side and Madda, science, worldly knowledge on the other, together offer us a more over-arching and truer vision than either one set alone. In this column Navon synthesizes Torah U'Madda to attain profound perspectives in the Parsha. His writings can be accessed at