The same, yet different
Naso | Numbers 4:1-7:89
The pressures of conformity are strong in all human societies. We all want to be part of the group, part of the crowd.
And yet we all feel the need to assert our own individuality.
Obviously, conformity is necessary for a society to function efficiently and maintain its equilibrium. Individual self-expression is also necessary, to introduce new coping methods into the social process.
There are dangers to both tendencies.
Countless times in history we have witnessed terrible results intrinsic to crowd behavior. We have seen the negative effects of cults, which encourage blind conformity to group norms. We have seen entire nations unquestioningly follow calls for the genocide of targeted populations.
We have seen the urge to be different result in equally dangerous behavior. Individuals who just want to be noticed will resort to serial murders of innocents or to venting their rage by spraying a school campus with bullets — self-expression carried to the extreme.
The secret lies in the balance between the two.
In Naso, even the casual reader will be troubled by the repetitive description of the offerings of the 12 tribal princes. Each contributes a identical set of celebratory gifts to the Tabernacle. It seems as if each of the 12 strove to totally conform to the others, and none dared defy the standards of the rest.
Congregants who hear the repetition of the monotonous lists often feel bored and ask, “Why the repetition and why the uniformity?”
Here, the rabbis of the Midrash take a deeper and more perceptive view. Motivated by the same discomfort as today’s Torah listener, they exclaim, “Their gifts are all identical, but each has his own unique intention.”
Although the gifts all share common language, the thoughts and emotions behind each differed. Each prince lent a different kavana, a distinct meaning, to his gifts based upon his unique nature and that of the tribe he represented. The gifts were all the same; the underlying intentions were as different as one can imagine.
All human societies contain the tension between the pressure to conform and the urge to be distinctive. Religious societies contain that tension all the more. Judaism requires conformity to an elaborate set of behavioral guidelines. The casual observer of a group of Jews at prayer, or at the Passover seder table, or circling the bima with their palm fronds during Sukkot will see people who seem to be obsessively imitating each other.
But the observer familiar with the inner lives of those who comprise that group of Jews will realize that each person’s prayer is different and reflective of his or her unique experience. Everyone around the seder table is responding to different religious memories, and each of those circling the bima is doing so with a distinctive and unique set of religious emotions.
Religious behavior calls for a great deal of uniformity, but also insists that each individual draw from his or her own wellspring of inspiration. This paradox is true of all human societies; it is especially true of the society of Jews.