Parashat Naso is the longest of the weekly Torah portions — 176 verses. It covers many topics: the completion of the census of the Levites; the laws of theft and restitution; the laws pertaining to the Sotah, the wife suspected of adultery; the laws of the nazir, a person who takes a vow to abstain from alcohol and cutting his hair as a form of spiritual discipline; and Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.
However, one of the things that makes this parasha so long is the description of the gifts brought by the nisi’im, the heads of the tribes, for the dedication of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary. Basically, we read the exact same paragraph 12 times, because each of these chieftains brought exactly the same gifts.
This generates commentary. After all, the Torah might have said simply, “the heads of the tribes each brought….” and listed the gifts only once. Or it might have added the names of the chieftains and the day on which each brought his gift and it still would have been possible to tell the story with some 50 fewer verses.
And so, according to the way the Rabbis look at things, this detailed and repetitive section must have important lessons to teach that could not have been accomplished in another way. Therefore, one of the questions the midrash addresses is the order in which the nisi’im brought their gifts. They don’t do it according to the birth order of the tribes — from the oldest to the youngest of Jacob’s sons — a logical possibility.
So what is the significance of the order? The first chieftain to bring his gift was Nahshon ben Amminadab of the tribe of Judah. This makes sense, for Judah was the tribe of the kings of Israel and, through the line of David, is to be the tribe of the Messiah.
The second chieftain to bring his gift was Netanel ben Tzuar of the tribe of Issachar. Why did Issachar deserve to go second? Because they were Torah scholars. We learn this from Moses’ blessing at the end of the Torah. He says, “Rejoice, O Zebulun, on your journeys, and Issachar, in your tents.” In midrash, the Rabbis interpret “tents” to mean houses of study. And, of course the Rabbis believe, quite naturally, that Torah scholars are worthy of great honor.
The third chieftain to bring his gift was Eliav ben Helon of the tribe of Zebulun. What was the special merit of this tribe? They were merchants. The verse from Devarim refers to their journeys and they were known as seafarers. Therefore, Zebulun deserved a position of honor because they loved Torah and lavished money without stint on Issachar so that the tribe of Issachar would not be compelled to earn a livelihood and thus have to neglect the study of Torah.
Honoring big donors is a practice of all Jewish communities. There are those who object, claiming that this is just a reflection of excessive American materialism. However, it’s not just an American thing; one of the ways that archeologists identify the remains of ancient synagogues is by the donor plaques on the walls. As we learn in Pirkei Avot, “im ein kemach, ein Torah — if there is no sustenance, there is no Torah.”
Members of any community each have different abilities and circumstances and so each one is able to contribute something different. And all of these contributions are needed for the community to survive and thrive.
Torah scholarship, money, time, professional knowledge, caring, and more — all of these are needed and all of these are worthy of honor. Quite simply, they all contribute to the present and future of am Yisrael.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.