From Last to First: The Story of the Nesi’im

By Shmuel Reichman

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When you wake up in the morning, how do you start your day? Many people immediately look at their phones, look at their messages, and are bombarded by the rush and stimulus of incoming data. But in so doing, we have begun our day in a reactive state, allowing external stimuli to become the starting point of our day. As a result, the rest of our day can end up becoming one long reactive experience. Studies have shown that highly successful people do not immediately look at their phones upon waking. Rather, they wait at least an hour before looking at their phone and messages. In so doing, they create a proactive momentum to their morning, choosing what to think about and what to focus on. Instead of allowing external stimuli guide their first waking thoughts, they replace that with mindful, guided, and goal-oriented thinking. Davening is an embodiment of this same concept, of starting our day with mindfulness and directed thought. This idea connects to an important theme in this week’s parsha, Naso.

The Nesi’im 

This week’s parsha features the chanukas ha’Mishkan, the inauguration of the tabernacle. At this ceremony, the nesi’im- princes of each shevet- contributed spectacular gifts towards the Mishkan. Chazal explain that these donations were intended to be a tikun- rectification- of their previous sin. Earlier on, in parshas Vayakhel (Rashi- Vayakel: 35:27), the nesi’im were criticized for their inappropriate calculation in regards to donating towards the building of the Mishkan. They delayed in donating gifts to the Mishkan, and in the interim the Jewish people donated everything needed for the Mishkan, leaving the nesi’im with nothing to donate.

However, what is striking to note is that their intention was pure; they planned to wait and see what was still needed in the Mishkan after the rest of Klal Yisrael donated, and hoped to donate the rest. They assumed that if everybody donated simultaneously, there would be overlapping gifts; many things would be given multiple times, while other essential things might be left out completely. The nesi’im wanted to then fill in the gaps, ensuring that the donation process was complete. Unfortunately, though, when the giving stopped and the dust settled, there was nothing left to give. Klal Yisrael had surpassed all expectations, donating every single required item and even surpassing the required quotas. The nesi’im, due to their delay, had lost out on their chance to donate to the Mishkan. 

The nesi’im are criticized for their lack of alacrity in donating to the Mishkan, and they clearly realized their mistake, as they try to rectify it by contributing elaborate gifts during the chanukas ha’Mishkan. However, we must ask what the nesi’im did that was so improper. After all, their calculation seems completely logical. Why donate something that someone else already has? Isn’t it worthwhile to ensure that your gift will be useful? Why then do we view their actions, or lack thereof, in such a negative way? Furthermore, how do the nesi’im’s gifts in parshas Naso rectify their mistake? In order to understand this, we must first understand the nature of chesed, loosely translated as kindness and giving.

Chesed

Even on the simplest level, chesed is a fundamental character trait: the ability to expand beyond our limited selves and contribute towards others. As the pasuk in Tehillim says, “Olam chesed yibaneh” (Tehillim 89:3), the world was built from chesed. Hashem created this world as an act of pure kindness, with the goal of giving to each and every one of us, and when we give to others, we emulate Hashem.  

Two Forms of Chesed

Within the discussion of varying degrees and levels of chessed, the Maharal develops two fundamentally different forms of giving. The first form is responsive, when a person only gives what is needed. In essence, this means giving only when a person sees a need, or when someone asks for help. The limitation in this form of giving is that you give only because it is needed, input resulting in output, cause and effect. If he had not seen the person in need, he would not have helped. The motivation of such giving can, therefore, be questioned. The usual motivation is guilt or empathy; if you see a person in dire need of help, perhaps looking much less fortunate than you, you tend to feel bad for them. You want to help them, but you also want to make yourself feel better, to assuage your own feelings of guilt. Another possible motivation is to prevent potential self-hatred. If you walk away without helping this person in need you may feel like a rotten person. Therefore, to save yourself from this emotional pain, you help this person out.

The second form of chesed is proactive, when you give for the sake of giving. This reflects an overwhelming desire to give and help others. In this case, nothing external caused your desire to give, it stems from within, from a deep desire to expand and overflow outwards and help others. In this case, you don’t wait reactively for people to come to you, but rather, you proactively seek out opportunities to help. In a deep sense, this form of chesed doesn’t stem from someone’s external need to receive, but from your internal desire to give. You will therefore happily give to someone, even if they aren’t in need, even if they already have what you wish to give them.

Avraham: Ish Chesed

This is why Avraham is the greatest paradigm and ultimate exemplar of a ba’al chesed. All four walls of his tent were constantly open, his way of informing travelers that they were always welcome. On the third day after his bris milah, the most painful time period of the healing process, in the blazing sun, he was waiting outside, trying to find someone he could help. As a matter of fact, Hashem only made it so hot that day to discourage people from traveling, in the hopes that Avraham would have a day off to rest. Not surprisingly, it was more painful for Avraham to not to do chesed than to help guests in this physical state. Hashem, therefore, sent him the three angels as guests. And after Sodom was destroyed and nobody was coming anymore, Avraham didn’t simply wait around, he moved his tent and went out looking for a different opportunity to give.

There is an interesting question that arises from the story of Avraham and the three angels. The most famous example of chesed in the Torah is this story of Avraham serving these three malachim food. However, according to many opinions, these angels weren’t human, even at this point in time, and therefore couldn’t eat. If this is true, then why is this the ultimate paradigm of chesed, the angels didn’t even eat the food? And even if they did eat it, they definitely didn’t need it!

Based on what we have said, the answer is so clear. The ultimate act of chesed is one that is spontaneous, proactive, and stems from an inner desire to give, as opposed to originating in someone else’s desire and need to receive. In this case, not only did the desire stem from within Avraham to give, but Hashem gave him a case where he could give so purely that the recipients didn’t even need what he gave them.

Understanding the Nesi’iim

We can now understand the mistake and the rectification of the Nesi’im. When it came to the building of the Mishkan, the Nesi’im were reactive. True, their calculation was rational and made sense, but that itself was the problem. When you truly love someone, you give for the sake of giving, spontaneously, as an expression of overwhelming love. If you love Hashem, you give to the Mishkan for the sake of giving, even if there might be some overlap in the gifts. That practical concern can be dealt with at a later stage. By waiting until the end and giving their gifts last, the Nesi’im displayed a slight chisaron- lack- in their love for Hashem. 

Their Tikkun

The nesi’im rectified their mistake at the chanukas ha’Mishkan when they gave their gifts immediately and spontaneously. Whereas they gave last when it came to the building of the Mishkan, they gave first at its inauguration.

But there is another unique characteristic of these gifts. The commentaries note that every single one of the nesi’im gave the same exact gift at the chanukas ha’Mishkan. Yet, the Torah enumerates every single gift individually, repeating the same exact description over and over again. This seems repetitive and unnecessary- why give the same exact thing as eleven of your fellow nesi’im? But this, in fact, was their ultimate rectification. Their sin lay in being reactive, so their tikkun laid in proactivity. Their sin was in being so over-calculating and worried about overlapping with other people’s gifts, their tikkun was in all of the nesi’im giving the same exact gift, an explicit expression of overlap, and explicit expression of giving for the sake of giving.

Same Gifts?

There is an additional layer to this as well. While it appears that each of the nesi’im gave the same gift, that’s only on the outside, the surface layer. The Midrash states that while each nasi gave the same physical gift, each one reflected the unique spiritual essence of his shevet. The external may be the same, but the internal was fundamentally unique to each nasi. This is just like shemonah esrai, where we say an identical prayer three times a day, but every single tefilah is meant to be different and unique. We say the same physical words, but each and every time we have the opportunity for a new and elevated internal experience of connection and meaning. The thoughts and feelings that we infuse into the words of any one prayer will never be the same as that which shapes another prayer.

Living Proactively

This brings us full circle. When you wake up in the morning, how do you start your day? Are you reactive to everything in life that comes your way, or are you proactively paving your path? Success does not come by accident, it comes from mindful planning, consistent good choices, and careful execution. If we live reactive lives, we will wake up one day and wonder how we ventured so far from our desired destination. It is only from constant proactivity that true success is built. And the virtue of proactivity stems from the middah of chesed, proactively seeking ways to do good, to help others, to improve the world around us. May we be inspired to become so overwhelmingly full of love that we proactively seek out ways to contribute to those around us.

 

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