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The following is an excerpt is adapted from our recently re-published book on individuality in education, Nurture their Nature (Mosaica Press), based on this week’s parasha (Nasso):
The student of Torah quickly learns that the Torah simultaneously expresses itself in a more straightforward way, called “pshat,” as well as a deeper expression that requires peeling away the surface meaning, which is called “drash.”
A rule of thumb that allows one to more precisely map what the Torah is saying to what it is describing in the world is: the deeper the meaning is found in the text, the deeper what is being described is found in the world. The actions of people are more likely to be found in pshat, whereas their intentions are more likely to be revealed through drash.
For example, upon receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai, the Jews are described as standing “בתחתית ההר” which literally means “in the underbelly of the mountain,” which, of course, makes no sense. Therefore, the pshat reads it more intuitively “at the foot of the mountain. The drash, however, reads the text as it is written — even if its meaning is counter-intuitive. It understands it to refer to the deeper experience at Mount Sinai of feeling like the mountain was held over our heads. On some level, we had no choice but to accept the Torah. We were overwhelmed by the experience, and were not about to turn around and go back to Egypt. We were stuck. This is a poignant example of how the more superficial reading of the Torah (pshat) describes the more superficial view of reality, while the deeper reading of the Torah (drash) describes the deeper dimension of reality.
Redundancy is another way that the Torah makes room for the deeper tracks of meaning of drash. The hands down, most dramatic use of redundancy in the Chumash occurs in Parashas Nasso, the last section of which is ostensibly eleven times longer than it should be.
During the dedication of the Mishkan, each prince of the twelve tribes had an opportunity to bring a korban of his own design. What is eyebrow-raising is that even though each of them brought the exact same set of physical items, the Torah details twelve separate times, word for word, item by item, what each prince offered as a korban. We quote part of it here for effect:
“The princes also brought the dedication offering for the altar upon its being anointed. As the princes were presenting their offerings before the altar, Hashem said to Moshe: Let them present their offerings for the dedication of the altar, one prince each day.
The one who presented his offering on the first day was Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Yehudah. His offering was: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs. That was the offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav.
On the second day, Nesanel ben Tzuar, prince of the tribe of Yissachar, made his offering. He presented as his offering: one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs. That was the offering of Nesanel ben Tzuar....”
This continues with the next ten princes. No joke. We don’t subscribe to the stereotype of Jews being cheap, but we certainly are economically-minded. We don’t like waste. Why then does the text of the Torah, in which every letter is of cosmic proportions, go to such lengths when it could have been so much more concise?
Moreover, although the princes of all twelve tribes brought the exact same thing, the Torah emphasizes for each that it was uniquely “his offering — קרבנו.” In what way were these offerings unique to each prince if they were exactly the same?
The Midrash answers these questions with the following framework: while from an external perspective, they all brought the same arrangement of physical items, the intent of each prince was totally different. The silver bowl brought by Nachshon, the prince of the tribe of Yehudah, represented the dome of the heavens under which the whole world would be united under the leadership of Yehudah’s descendant, the future king of Israel commonly known as “Mashiach,” of the Davidic dynasty. Whereas the same silver bowl for the prince of the tribe of Yissachar represented the sustenance that comes from Torah, which is likened to bread, and is their hallmark as they were known for their Torah scholars. And in the mind of the prince of the tribe of Zevulun, the silver bowl represented the sea on which they had to embark in order to engage in commerce to be able to support the learning of Yissachar.
Although the externals may look the same, the internal worlds of people can be worlds apart.
To teach this profound and foundational perspective, Hashem deemed it worthwhile to invest on ink describing each of the twelve gifts even if they were ostensibly the same. The intentions behind them were dramatically different.
If you want to see the difference between two artists, don’t have paint a surrealist painting and the other build a wire sculpture. Have them both paint the same still life, or make something out of the same set of materials, or both do self-portraits.
The external similarity will highlight their deeper, internal differences.
Too often, we focus on uniqueness as it appears on the outside. We try to be different. The younger we are, the harder we try. As we grow older and wiser, we come to realize that we don’t have try that hard to be different.
Trying to be unique actually distracts us from the reality that we simply are unique.
The primary element of our uniqueness is not the way we dress, our title at work, or the make and model of what we drive. The deeper we can train our eyes to see, the deeper we can perceive the one-of-a-kind-ness of every person.
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