Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
June 1, 1996 14 Sivan 5756
Ismar Schorsch is the chancellor of The Jewish Theological Seminary.
You will indulge me, I hope, if I stay with the minor biblical figure of Nethanel son of Zuar, leader of the tribe of Issachar, for another week. The birth of my grandson Nathaniel exquisitely coincides with our reading about his namesake in the Torah. How often do the weekly words of the Torah relate to the events in our personal lives at the moment. Interpreting Scripture is a two–way street: as we struggle to penetrate its opaque world, it will often grace us with a comment of poignant relevance.
Toward the end of this week's rich parasha, we are treated to the gifts brought by the twelve tribal leaders of ancient Israel at the completion of the Tabernacle: "six draught carts and twelve oxen, a cart for every two chieftains and an ox for each one (Numbers 7:3)." Thereafter, they dedicate the altar. Each day, for twelve successive days a single chieftain makes a lavish contribution of expensive utensils and animals to initiate the sacrificial system. Strikingly, these individual gifts are absolutely identical. No invidious distinctions are admitted (Numbers 7:10–83). The other time of the year that we read this section of the Torah in the synagogue is during Hanukkah, a festival that commemorates the rededication of the Temple altar by Judah Maccabee in 164 B.C.E. History expands the meaning of the text.
Nevertheless, the repetition of twelve identical gifts is slightly numbing, were it not for the ingenuity of midrash. Sensitive to the slightest variation in the text, whether stylistic or orthographic, the Rabbis turned an inert list into a moral tale.
Unlike us, the Rabbis did not regard the generosity of the tribal leaders as natural or self–evident. Their sudden appearance betrays a note of discomfort, if not downright urgency. The fact is that these same leaders were nowhere to be seen when Moses had earlier issued the call for the building materials of the Tabernacle. The midrash takes us back to chapter 35 of the book of Exodus in order to feel the force of the words of our parasha: "And the chieftains of Israel... drew near and brought their offering before the Lord (Numbers 7:2–3)." A text is hard to fathom in isolation; we need to contextualize it.
The midrash notes that in Exodus, the chieftains were not the first but the last to give, and then not for the Tabernacle but only for the priestly garments: "And the chieftains brought lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breastplate... (Exodus 35:27)." Accordingly, the midrash imagines that when Moses issued a general call to every Israelite – "Take from among you gifts to the Lord, everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them (Exodus 35:5)" –– the chieftains took offense. Why had Moses not asked them first? In pique they decided to withhold their offering. They would not give till the end of the campaign, when it would be clear to all how ungenerous the people had been and what still remained to be collected.
But they miscalculated. The Torah stresses that the people gave enthusiastically and without limit, enough to build the entire sanctuary and then some. The intensity of their response prompted Moses to issue a second call: "Let no man or woman make further effort toward gifts for the sanctuary (Exodus 36:6)." Thus, there was nothing left for the leaders to contribute but the few precious stones for the garments of the high priest. God encoded the episode in the text. In praise of the people it was written: "So the people stopped bringing: their efforts had been more than enough for all the tasks to be done (Exodus 36:6–7)." As rebuke of the leaders' unwarranted pride, the Torah dropped the letter "yud" from their title (Exodus 35:27 – vehanesiim, written without a single "yud"), as if their leadership at the time was bereft of divine grace (signified by the "yud" representing God's name).
This is the backdrop of our parasha, a tale of grandeur and greed concocted out of textual fragments. But the lesson had not been lost on the leaders. When the Tabernacle was finished, they hurried to make amends. The midrash credits Nethanel son of Zuar with the idea of bringing wagons and oxen. The Tabernacle was designed to be a mobile sanctuary. But how? So Nethanel counseled his peers to contribute the means. The midrash accounts thereby for the suddenness of their appearance and the nature of their gift.
The detail about Nethanel's reconciling roles also helps to explain another puzzle. Why is he the second leader to make his tribe's offering in the ceremony dedicating the altar? The order of the presenters certainly does not follow the order of Jacob's twelve sons by birth, in which Issachar ranked ninth. The answer of the midrash is that the sequence of presenters corresponds to the arrangement of the tribes around the Tabernacle (Numbers 2:1 034) and is at least partially determined by merit. Thus Nahshon son of Amminadab of the tribe of Judah heads the list because he was the first leader to plunge into the Sea of Reeds. While the other chieftains were oblivious to the danger of the moment and argued over who deserved to go first, Nahson acted with decisiveness. In Hebrew, the name "Nahshon" is nearly identical with the word for maelstrom, nahshol, thus preserving an echo of his heroic deed.
Nethanel came second as a reward for the sage counsel he gave his fellow leaders. But not without protest from Reuben, Jacob's firstborn, who complained to God that his descendant on earth should go second. The complaint was rejected and Moses instructed to proceed. Hence the verb at the beginning of Numbers 7:19, written without a "yud," could be read as a command as well as a simple past tense. God had overruled Reuben.
Not only was Nethanel rewarded for his sage counsel; his wisdom proved to be a harbinger of things to come. The territory of Issachar in the land of Israel became known as a place of Torah. The book of I Chronicles (12:33) spoke of its denizens as endowed with the ability "to interpret the signs of the times," which the midrash celebrated as excelling in the study of Torah. From the loins of Issachar would come the religious leaders of the first two Jewish commonwealths.
Adjacent to its territory in the lower Galilee dwelled the tribe of Zebulun. And Eliab son of Helon of Zebulun is the third chieftain to offer his gifts to the altar (Numbers 7:24). Again the midrash fills in the gaps. Endowed with an equal love of Torah, the two tribes forged an alliance in which Zebulun would support Issachar financially to advance the frontiers of Torah. Hence Eliab follows Nathanel. As the descendants of the latter withdrew into the tents of Torah, the progeny of the former went forth to ply their trades. In the words of Moses' final blessing: "Rejoice, O Zebulun, on your journeys, and Issachar in your tents (Deuteronomy 33:18)." Their collaboration secured the centrality of Torah in the life of Israel. Nethanel, my grandson's forebear, founded a religious culture that would endure till the millennium.
To read our parasha in conjunction with these midrashim is to transpose a flat melody into a rich symphony.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,