Individuality within Structure

June 12, 2019

6 min read


Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89 )

Diversity and unity of the Jewish people.

"There are 70 faces to Torah." (The Talmud)

As a child, I felt sympathy for my brother, whose Bar Mitzvah fell out on Parshas Naso. He undertook to perform the Torah reading – which at 176 verses is the longest Parsha in the Torah!

Upon closer inspection, however, we see that much of the parsha is repetitive. The 89 verses of chapter 7 describe the offerings brought after the completion of the Tabernacle in the desert. One by one, on 12 successive days, the prince of each of the Twelve Tribes brought his own set of offerings.

For example, on the first day, the Prince of Yehudah brought a 130-shekel silver bowl, a 70-shekel silver basin, a 10-shekel gold incense ladle, and a total of 21 animals. The Torah then repeats the exact same description 12 times, as each of the 12 princes donated exactly the same offerings!

This seems to contradict the basic principle that the Torah is never superfluous and does not contain even one extra letter (which is the basis for many Talmudic teachings). One must wonder: Why doesn't the Torah simply list the offerings brought by the first prince, and then say that the other tribes brought the exact same thing?!

70 Faces to Torah

The answer is that despite bringing the exact same offerings, each of the princes actually brought their own, unique offering. In fact, there is an entire book written, based on the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabba 13:13), which details how each prince brought each item for his own specific reason.

For example, each brought a silver basin weighing 70 shekels. For one it symbolized the 70 Jewish souls who went down to Egypt. For another it symbolized the 70 judges in the Sanhedrin. For another it symbolized the 70 nations of the world. For another it symbolized Abraham's age (70) at the "Covenant Between the Pieces" (Genesis 15), and so on.

The fact that the Torah repeats itself 12 times perforce means that although there were 12 identical offerings, each was stamped with its own special meaning and significance.


Often we hear a complaint about Judaism: "How can I find my unique expression in a system that is so bound by rules and structure?"

Consider the game of basketball: The rules state that a player must dribble and not run with the ball. He is restricted from hitting other players. He must shoot within an allotted time. And he must always stay in-bounds. There are so many rules and limitations – he even has to wear a uniform!

But as every basketball fan knows, it is this structure that produces the greatest personal expression. Michael Jordan's greatness is because of what he can do within the rules. It is those very rules which give him discipline and direction.

The same is true with Torah. We have structured prayer because that gives us the framework to truly express ourselves. The words, precisely crafted by prophets, are the vessels which we fill with our own personal thoughts and feelings. Imagine the prayer book as the sheet music, our soul as the symphony, and each of us as the conductor. The music we make is beautiful and unique. Through the rules comes liberation.

Collectively and Individually

We can now understand an interesting Midrash in this week's parsha. God says: "The offerings of the princes are as beloved to me as the song the Jewish people sang at the Red Sea." (The Midrash derives this from the identical word "zeh," used in both references, Exodus 15:2 and Numbers 7:17.)

At the Red Sea, 3 million men, women and children, witnessed the miraculous splitting of the Sea, as the verse says, "This is my God and I will glorify Him."

But shouldn't the verse say, "This is OUR collective God"? No. Millions of individuals saw the same thing, but each experienced it differently, as "my personal God." Hence the Midrash draws the comparison: Just as the Red Sea was a unique personal experience, so too each of the princes brought a unique personal offering.

Beautiful Mosaic

The last of the 613 mitzvot recorded in the Torah is that each Jew must write his/her own Torah Scroll (Deut. 31:19). In a symbolic sense, this means we must forge our own emotional relationship with Torah. In the introduction to Yam Shel Shlomo, Rabbi Shlomo Luria (Maharshal, 16th century Poland) explains that each Jew possesses a particular spiritual conduit, through which he channels Torah understanding in a way that relates to his unique soul. Just like stations on a radio dial: We all share the same circuitry, but the tune is different.

And that's what makes for beautiful harmony. Through the framework of "Mosaic law," we build the "mosaic diversity" that is the Jewish people.

Of course, it has to be within the rules, or else it's faulty reception. The Torah tells us: "Only at the place where God will choose to place His Name shall you seek out His presence and come there" (Deut. 12:5). Service of God is not arbitrary and cannot be on our own terms. The Torah sets out eternal, immutable guidelines for Jewish expression and observance.

Yet at the same time, it is for each of us individually to "seek out His presence." When Abraham and Isaac set out on the Akeida ("binding"), they head toward the place that God has pre-selected – yet they are left to discover that place for themselves. (see Genesis, chapter 22)

Road to Jerusalem

I frequently encourage people to visit Israel, by telling them that it is likely to be the most profound experience of their lifetime. They invariably ask me: "But what will the experience be like?" There is no adequate way to answer that question because, since the experience is one of "self-discovery," by very definition it differs for each individual. Which is precisely what makes it so profound.

In biblical times, there were purposefully no road signs leading to Jerusalem – forcing every person to ask, "Where is Jerusalem?" Nachmanides (13th century Spain) explains this metaphorically: Through the framework of Torah and mitzvot, each of us is ennobled to seek and explore the CONCEPT of Jerusalem ... to discover our oneness with God ... within the formulated guidelines of Torah ... in our own unique way.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Shraga Simmons

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