Friday, June 01, 2012

Parshat Naso - פרשת נשא

With 176 verses, Parshat Naso is noted for being the longest in the Torah. The reading this week is very long mainly due to the full account of the gifts that the Nesi'im (the heads of the tribes) brought to the temple. It would seem to us that there is an endless repetition here of the gifts brought. We might be excused for thinking that it would have been enough for the Torah to give a brief summary, but clearly Hashem saw fit to write this episode in full, without skipping even the smallest of details.

There are a number of reasons for the Torah's meticulous recording of the gift offerings being brought here. I wrote about one reason earlier this year in Parshat Vayakhel: there, the Nesi'im resolved to wait until the rest of the nation had brought whatever they could for the temple, and when the rest of the people had brought all that they could, the Nesi'im planned to provide all that which had not yet been supplied. Unfortunately for them, they did not anticipate that the people would be so generous, and only managed to make a donation at the last minute when they saw that everything was going to be provided without their help. There, the Torah writes their name והנשיאים, "(And the) Nesi'im" without the letter י, so that it appears as והנשאם. This removal of a letter associated with God's name was a form of rebuke for the princes' seeming lack of eagerness.

Fast forward to this week's parsha, and we read of the princes' willing and abundant procession of gifts. Having first rebuked their behaviour, the Torah ensures that when the princes make good on their earlier error, they are afforded a full account of their deeds. The message is clear: when someone corrects his ways, it is only proper to give that person recognition for having made the effort.

An alternative reason as to why this event is written in full is given by Rabbi Paysach Krohn. Rabbi Krohn tells a story about Rav Yitzchak Elchonon Spektor, the Kovno Rav, who lived in Russia. Back in those days, the Jewish population lived in fear that their young men would get drafted into the Russian Army; something that was very hard to get out of. One who did enter the Russian military had a tough time in store; quite apart from the usual problems of serving in an army, the Russian army made it especially hard for people to remain religiously observant. The only hope was to acquire a military exemption.

In this story, Yaakov, one of his students had applied for an exemption and was waiting for Moscow to respond to his request. Knowing that obtaining such an exemption was a tricky matter, Yaakov and his friends nervously anticipated the authorities' reply. One day, while Yaakov's Rabbi, Rav Yitzchak Elchonon, was engaged with other Rabbis in resolving a complex and thorny affair through Jewish law, a young man interrupted proceedings to tell his Rabbi that he had just received the wonderful news that the case had been resolved satisfactorily, with Yaakov given an exemption from military service. The Rabbi smiled, thanked him, and blessed him for bringing the news.

The boy left happy and the Rabbis resumed their deliberations. But not long afterwards, another student burst into the room. Again, he told the Rabbi that he had very important news to convey; that Yaakov, one of the Rabbi's most beloved students, had managed to get out of serving in the army. Again, the Rabbi was thankful and proceeded to bless him for having brought such good news. A little while later, yet another boy entered the room. Yet again, the Rabbi was careful to smile and thank the "intruder", making sure to bless him for having been considerate and letting the Rabbi know of this development. As the afternoon unfolded, this chain of events went on to repeat itself a number of times over, and each time the Rabbi was careful to treat each visitor in the exact same manner.

The lesson here is one that goes a long way teaching us how to treat others. Despite the news being old, the Rabbi made sure to receive each and every guest in the same manner as the first person who came to tell him. Unaware that their Rabbi had already heard the news, they were eager to share it with him and were each clearly anticipating seeing him take pleasure and relief. Although he could have explained gently that he already knew, the Rabbi understood that it was more important to allow each of them to express their feelings and therefore acted as he did.

Coming back to this week's unusually lengthy parsha, we may now understand why its seemingly inordinate length is necessitated. While each and every gift brought by the princes may have been no more than a repetition of that which was brought previously, Hashem wanted to show them that their intentions and desires were very much appreciated.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom!

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