The least striking element in this week’s Parsha is in fact the most striking. When the Princes of the tribes line up to offer their gifts upon the dedication of the Mishkan, G-d instructs that they each bring their gift on a different day. 12 gifts over 12 days. The first tribe is Judah, of course. His gift consisted of:
One silver bowl – 130 shekels its weight – containing flour mixed with oil for a meal offering
One silver basin – its weight 70 shekels – containing flour mixed with oil for a meal offering
One golden ladle – its weight 10 shekels – filled with incense
One yearling bull, one ram and one yearling sheep – as an elevation offering
One goat – for a sin offering
2 heads of cattle, 5 rams, 5 goats and 5 yearling sheep – as peace offerings
The next day the tribe of Simon had its turn, and its offering was identical to that of the tribe of Judah, word for word description. The next day the third tribe approached, and – you guessed it – its offering was identical to its predecessors. The list goes on, 12 paragraphs long, each paragraph detailing precisely the same offering, with no change except for the name of the tribe and its prince.
Of course there are numerous explanations offered by the commentaries to answer the glaring question of why the Torah need repeat itself, with all the detail, when it should have sufficed to write it once and put ditto marks for the rest.
All of the explanations have merit, and some beautiful ideas are expressed as a result of this challenge in the text of the Torah. I just want to focus on one idea.
A popular explanation is The Ramban’s, in his second explanation. He notes that although technically each gift was the same, they were in fact very different from one another. The physical gifts were identical, but the trappings of the offerings were really only the wrappings of the gifts. The actual gift was the desire of the tribe to participate in the dedication of the Mishkan. The particulars and details of the gift were the tokens, the lacing and the bow that enveloped the expression of goodwill.
Now, if the essence of a gift is the goodwill and intent of the giver, it will invariably differ based on the benefactor and beneficiary. The great Roman Philosopher Seneca, attributes much of the weight of a benefit to the intent of the giver. If the giver does not have goodwill toward the recipient, and the gift is coincidental, the recipient of the gift is not beholden to the giver. Only where the benefactor intends to bestow a benefit gratitude is owed to him by the beneficiary.
Now, Judaism does not share this sentiment. If one receives a benefit, despite lack of intent by the giver for a benefit to be given, one nevertheless owes gratitude to the giver. That said, Seneca’s assertion still holds merit for the insight it offers us into the nature of a gift. While it may all be the same to the recipient, intent makes all the difference in the world to the giver. Especially when “giving” to G-d, where gift’s purpose is to promote our relationship with G-d, the intent is a decisive factor in the nature of the gift. In fact, it is just is such a relationship – between man and G-d – that Seneca’s assertion has a place. The value and nature of a gift is defined exclusively by the goodwill and desire of the giver.
No two people think alike and therefore no two gifts are the same, even if they are externally identical. Since the 12 princes of the respective tribes of Israel represented very different elements of the nation, and they obviously had different strengths and drives, their gifts as well differed tremendously from one another.
I want to take this a little bit further. You cannot contrast two objects unless they share something common. If two things are very different you cannot find any meaning in their contrast. It is only when they share a common denominator that we can find any meaning in their differences. You cannot compare apples and oranges – they are two different fruits. In order to compare, both items have to be apples. Ramban’s ability to assert that the gifts offered by the various tribes were different bases itself on the commonalities they share – that they are all apples. The gifts differ from one another not despite the fact that they were identical, but because they appear identical.
There are many things that appear identical on the surface but are actually very different from one another. We pray the exact same prayer as the worshiper in the next pew. The Siddur is of the same edition; we are on the same page and reading the identical words. There is nevertheless a vast difference between the prayers of each worshiper. Because I am in one place and you are in another. I have one set of circumstances, challenges of a particular nature, while you have an entirely different experience and perspective. We both communicate with G-d using the same words, but our prayers are fundamentally different.
And indeed it is precisely the variation between our prayers that is pleasing before G-d. The harmony resulting from the myriad mindsets of prayer is a symphony unparallelled in this world. Similarly, the mingling vapors of the various gifts of the princes provided a richness that no single offering could provide on its own.