Parashat Naso

Numbers 4:21–7:89
June 6, 2009 / 14 Sivan 5769

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice chancellor and chief development officer, JTS

I imagine that all of us have noticed that the only thing unequivocally going up right now is the number of pundits—professional and amateur—who are chiming in on what it is that economic indicators seem to be telling us. At kiddush in my shul, in airports, on television, and certainly on the Internet, anywhere you turn there are people pontificating about where the economy is headed. While you will certainly hear no projection here, in my own reading what caught my eye were two economic indicators that focus specifically on construction and building.

While many of the indicators used by the Economics and Statistics Administration focus on orders, sales, shipments, GDP, and personal income, if we can ever consider a conversation about economic indicators to be spiritual, there is something actually inspiring about including new construction as a predictor of our future growth.

There is something inherently Jewish about building. Beyond the brick-and-mortar business, we frequently hear people talking about builders of Jewish communities in the spiritual sense. The Rabbis, for example, embraced the idea that there is a spiritual aspect to building communities. In the Talmud, two passages in particular come to mind. The first, from Shabbat 114a, describes the educators in the community as concerning themselves with "the building of the world all their lives." In our liturgy as well: "The disciples of the wise increase peace in the world," as it says, "And all your children shall be taught of the Lord, and great shall be the peace of your children. You should not read 'your children' but rather 'your builders'" (Musaf service and Tamid 32b).

Rabbi David Wolpe of Sinai Temple in Los Angeles, a JTS graduate, commented on the importance of building Jewish communities in his column, "Musings," in last week's Jewish Week. Stepping back, he wondered, "Do we labor for results so that we can show the impressive polished permanence of all our work? Or do we cherish the task itself? Do we build for the love of creation or for the rewards of having created?"

Here we face essential questions: Is it our product or the process? Is it the building or the act of building that we value?

As Wolpe contends, and I am inclined to agree, it is the task itself that is considered the primary act. What Judaism comes to teach us is that the process of building is essential. Here, we value the means, not the end.

As we find in much of Judaism, however, the opinion is not as clear-cut as it seems. Even in the Talmud, the debate surfaced and focused on the value of study and action (Kiddushin 40b). Was it more important that we spend our time immersed in Torah study, or that we leave the comfort of the academy to face and embrace the needs of the community? As with many debates in the Talmud, the resolution is cryptic and makes you question whether or not it truly is a resolution. It tells us that study is more important because it leads to action. Fine, great. Study is more important; however, because it leads to action, that would insinuate that, if action is the end product, then action is greater than study. How can we possibly state that study is greater when action is the ultimate product? This week in Parashat Naso, there are a confusing number of verses that actually may shed some light on means, ends, and their importance.

After the completion of the Tabernacle, the heads of each of the twelve tribes of Israel express their desire to make offerings to God. Moses, still reeling from the episode where Nadav and Abihu (Aaron's sons) were consumed by fire when they did so, is reluctant to agree until God gives the okay.

What follows in the text is surprising and somewhat confusing. You see, the Torah is generally very careful about what it expends ink on. There are passages that are missing so much detail that commentators through the ages have themselves written volumes explaining what is going on. Yet here, the Torah details the specific offerings of each of the twelve chieftains. While that itself would be a curious expenditure when it comes to word count, what is more baffling is that the offerings are exactly the same. Exactly. Word for word. No variation. Over and over again. Twelve times. Okay, you get the idea.

The Slonimer Rebbe (Sholom Noah Berezovsky), in his commentary on this curious repetition, sees not tribe after tribe imitating one another, but an expression of individuality and intent in each offering. Specifically, though the repetition seems to imply that there was no difference to their offerings, the Slonimer teaches that we must look beyond the action and actually seek to understand the motivation behind the gifts. Although the contributions of the tribes were all the same, the inspiration behind them reflected the individuality of each of the chieftains.

From this the Slonimer Rebbe teaches a lesson about the place of each individual in the interpretive tradition: "Every person has a particular interpretation of the Torah." As such, to develop a full meaning of the Torah, each individual is not only embraced by the interpretive tradition, but essential to it.

In these economic times, as the economic indicator of building has slowed, spiritual building is all the more important. Judaism encourages us to lend our voices to the interpretive process and become builders alongside the generations that came before us and shed their light on the Torah.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.