Uniformity and Individuality in the Service of God-Thoughts on Parshat Nasso

The second half of this week’s Torah portion describes the offerings that the Princes of Israel brought to the Mishkan on the day that it was established. The verses write:“And it was that on the day that Moses finished erecting the Mishkan, he anointed it, sanctified it, and all its vessels, and the altar and all its vessels. The Princes of Israel, the heads of their fathers’ houses, presented [their offerings]. They were the leaders of the tribes…”(Bamidbar 7:1-2) The subsequent verses continue this thread and describe in specific detail the sacrifices that each Prince brought –- even though every Prince brought the exact same kind of offering. The result is that there is a block of verses in the Torah essentially repeating the same information twelve consecutive times. Because the Torah is normally concise with its wording, a clear question arises: why repeat the details for each Prince individually, and what is the deeper message that can be gleaned by the repetition of these verses?

To this question, the Ramban offers two uniquely fascinating explanations, the latter of which is especially appropriate to ponder as we enter the holiday of Shavuot. Firstly, the Ramban explains that the reason for the detailed repetition of the offerings was in order to allocate them each with an equal amount of respect. Though they all brought the same offering, each one was important in and of itself and dear to God and therefore deserved special mention. Secondly, the Ramban elucidates based on comments of the Midrash, that while the content of the offerings were the same, the essence of each was different. Each Prince brought his offering with unique meaning and intent which represented the individualized mission of his particular tribe. Despite the fact that on the surface each offering was the same, since the gift was defined by the unique intent of the particular Prince who offered it, in reality no two offerings were alike. The Ramban concludes that this is in fact the reason why the Torah records each Prince’s offering separately: to highlight the message that over and above outward appearances of uniformity, it is the internal intent and individuality of a person which is paramount. (Commentary on 7:2)

The Ramban’s abovementioned explanation can also be understood not only as an answer to our original question concerning the Princes’ offerings, but also as a blueprint for Avodat Hashem in general. The healthy combination of these two ideals — uniformity vs. individuality — – is admittedly one of life’s great balancing acts. When the Jewish people received the Torah, they not only accepted an established baseline of divinely ordained proper conduct actualized through the performance of the mitzvot, but also bound themselves to the transmission of those laws and ideals to the future generations. Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik writes, “The Massorah society was founded by Moshe at the dawn of our history… What characterizes that society? An unqualified dedication to learning and teaching. Its motto is –teach and let yourself be taught. It demands that every Jew be simultaneously teacher and pupil that every member of the society hold on with one hand to an old teacher while the other rests upon the frail shoulders of a young pupil. This society, which represents the essence of Judaism, cuts across the ages and millennia and holds the key to our miraculous survival.”(Insights of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, pg.24-25) The transmission of the Torah’s fixed laws and ideals is an essential component of Jewish life, however this should not be taken to imply that there is no room for individual self-expression in the service of God.

Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the former Dean of Yeshivat Har Etzion, quotes Rav Abraham Isaac Kook who explains the importance of finding our individuality as it relates to matters of holiness. He writes:“Each individual must know that he has been called upon to serve [God] according to his own unique understanding and feeling, based on the root of his soul… A person must say that it is for me that the world was created…As he steps along this way of life, in his own special lane, in the path of the righteous that is unique to him, he will become filled with the might of life and spiritual joy. The light of God will reveal itself to him, from the letter in the Torah that is especially his, from which his light and strength will issue forth.”(Jewish Values in A Changing World, pg. 69) According to this explanation of Rav Kook, each individual has their own unique path in life which they must traverse in order to truly actualize their infinite potential. Today, more than ever, we must leave place to celebrate, cultivate and encourage the expression of each person’s individuality.

When a parent, teacher – and even the educational system as a whole — begins the noble task of educating the next generation, it is imperative to remember that each child has his “own special lane, in the path of the righteous that is unique to him.” Furthermore, what every child and student can contribute to the nation of Israel is uniquely and irreplaceably his own. Just like each Prince bringing their offering in the Mishkan, each Jewish child is worthy of their own unique mention. As we approach Shavuot, the holiday which commemorates the Jewish people’s receiving of the Torah, may we merit to further actualize our unique spiritual potential in the service of God.

About the Author
The Author is a Jerusalem based Rabbi and Jewish Educator. He is a Lieutenant in the IDF reserves where he serves as a battalion Rabbi, and is the author of the book "A People, A Country, A Heritage-Torah Inspiration from the Land of Israel."
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