Monday, June 29, 2020

The Predicament of Sameach b’Chelko

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Artwork: Quiet Contemplation, by Magali Villeneuve

The Predicament of Sameach b’Chelko 

Avos 4:1 famously states: “Eizehu ashir? ha’Sameach b’chelko,” which translates to: “Who is wealthy? One who is happy with one’s portion” or “content with one’s lot.” 

The basic predicament with this concept is: How can one be sameach b’chelko and also be driven to engage in self-improvement? 

Consider, for example, one’s Torah learning. An average person might be motivated to learn more Torah in order to improve his knowledge and skills, but if he were truly sameach b’chelko, wouldn’t he be content with his current level of learning and not try to improve? 

Another example: if a person who was sameach b’chelko were presented with an opportunity to give tzedakah, wouldn’t he just say: “Nah, man, I’m good where I’m at right now.” And if he did choose to tzedakah, wouldn’t this indicate that prior to his act of giving, he was not happy with where he was at? 

Similarly, what if a person’s chelek (portion) is really bad? What if they’re in severe debt, or in an abusive relationship, or suffering from morbid obesity? If they endeavor to improve their situation, wouldn’t that imply that they aren’t content with their lot? And if they were content with their lot, how would we explain their drive to improve it? If you asked, “Why change?” would they not say, “because I’m not happy with my current state” or “because I would be happier if things were better”? 

The solution to this predicament is as follows: one’s “chelek” is not limited to one’s actual circumstances, but also includes one’s potentiality as a human being and, by extension, as a Torah-observant Jew. In other words, a life of sameach b’chelko is a life in which one is continually striving to actualize one’s potential in accordance with one’s nature – an objective which the Torah itself is designed to achieve. And if a person did not strive to actualize their potential, then they could not be said to truly be sameach b’chelko, since there is an aspect of their chelek which is not being enjoyed. 

Consider the following simple case: a person is sitting at a table with a delicious meal in front of him. Practically speaking, would it mean to be sameach b’chelko in such a case? Obviously, being sameach b’chelko would involve actualizing the potential for the enjoyment of the food – namely, by eating and deriving pleasure from the meal. And if a person did not partake of the meal, but just sat there, could we really say that such a person is sameach b’chelko? Of course not! The very idea of being sameach b’chelko necessitates actively taking part in enjoying whatever can be enjoyed in one’s chelek

Let us apply this to the examples above. In Torah learning a person’s chelek is not just enjoying the Torah knowledge they presently have, but also includes enjoying knowledge they have not yet acquired but is within their grasp. Therefore, to be sameach b’chelko necessarily involves expanding one’s knowledge in accordance with one’s capacity, and striving to acquire intellectual virtues and skills which better equip one to enjoy this knowledge. If one did not strive to actualize their chelek of Torah-learning potential, then they could not be said to be sameach b’chelko

In mitzvah observance, a person’s chelek includes not only the mitzvos that one is presently observing at that very moment, but also includes taking advantage of the mitzvah opportunities that present themselves and seeking out even more opportunities. Again, this is no different than being sameach b’chelko in the case of the meal: the only way to do so is to actually partake of the food, and the only way to do that is to seek out an opportunity to obtain the food in the first place. 

As for the case of a person who is in debt, or in a harmful relationship, or in a state of ill bodily health: these are all obstacles which stifle one’s human potential and prevent a person from enjoying the good that Hashem gave them in their chelek. In order to actually rejoice in the portion they were given, they would need to do everything in their ability to extricate themselves from that bad state. 

This view of sameach b’chelko has a number of practical ramifications, but perhaps the most important one is this: in order to be sameach b’chelko, one must constantly be engaged in the pursuit of self-knowledge with the objective of differentiating between realistic potentialities and unrealistic ambitions. For example, in the realm of learning it would be unrealistic to think that one can reach the level of Rebbi Akiva or the Rambam, and to attempt to do so would end in frustration and disappointment. At the same time, each person does have an actual potential that they can reach in their lifetime, and to the extent that they aren’t on that path, they cannot be sameach b’chelko. What is that potential? What developmental pace is realistic? How can one know if one is on the path to self-actualization or the path of fantasy and self-delusion? These are the questions that a person who is sameach b’chelko never stops asking. That inherent uncertainty is also part of one’s chelek

Matters are further complicated by fact that each of us has a finite amount of time and resources. To the extent that a person strives to actualize his potential in learning, he detracts from the ability to actualize his potential in tzedakah, and vice versa. It is simple for a seed to actualize its potential as a tree, or a caterpillar as a butterfly; these developmental paths are linear. In contrast, a human being is a multifaceted creature with many potentialities and innumerable paths that life can take. We may have a fixed set of potentialities, but these can be actualized in an infinite number of ways. 

To be sameach b’chelko does not imply self-resignation to a passive life of allowing oneself to be battered about by one’s circumstances, nor does it necessitate a monastic, ascetic, withdrawn existence in retreat from life’s vicissitudes. To be sameach b’chelko is to live a dynamic life of active choices which continually shape one’s path, guided by a constant quest for self-knowledge.

Friday, June 26, 2020

Korach: The Mystery of the Holy Fire-pans

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Korach: The Mystery of the Holy Fire-pans

The Question 

In response to Korach and his rebel alliance of Dasan, Aviram, and the 250 leaders, Moshe sets up a “test” to determine whose claim of the kehunah (priesthood) would prevail: 
[Moshe] spoke to Korach and to all his assembly, saying: “In the morning Hashem will make known who is His, and him who is holy He will bring close to Him, and him whom He chooses He will bring close to Him. [1] Do this: take your fire-pans, Korach and all your assembly, and place fire in them and put incense on them before Hashem tomorrow. And the man whom Hashem chooses, he is the kadosh (holy one). You have too much, sons of Levi!” (Bamidbar 16:5-7) 
The men do as they’re told. Korach [2] and his contingent are swallowed by the earth. As for the men who brought the incense on their fire-pans: “A flame came forth from Hashem and consumed the 250 men who were offering the incense” (ibid. 16:35). 

As soon as the rebellion is crushed, Hashem issues the following set of instructions: 
Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: “Say to Elazar son of Aharon the Kohen and let him pick up the fire-pans from amid the fire – and he should throw away the flame – for they have become holy. As for the fire-pans of these sinners with their souls – they shall make them hammered-out sheets as a covering for the Altar, for they offered them before Hashem and they became holy; they shall be for a sign to the Children of Israel.” Elazar the Kohen took the copper fire-pans that the consumed ones had offered and hammered them out as a covering for the Altar, as a reminder to the Children of Israel, so that no strange man who is not of the offspring of Aharon shall draw near to bring up the smoke of incense before Hashem, that he not be like Korach and his assembly, as Hashem spoke about him through Moshe (ibid. 17:1-5). 
The two phrases underlined above – in Hebrew, “ki kadeishu” and “vayikdashu” – are the source of much puzzlement. The Abravanel [3] explicitly formulates the central question: 
How could He say: “for they (i.e. the fire-pans) have become kedoshim”? If these fire-pans were from men who sinned with their souls, how could they become kedoshim
The nature and origin of this kedushah [4] is a matter of contention among the meforshim (commentators), as we shall now see. 

The Answers 

The simplest explanation is offered by Rashi [5]: since the fire-pans were designated as klei shareis – “service vessels” for use in avodas ha’kodesh (the holy service in the Tabernacle) – they became kedoshim, and were assur b’hanaah (prohibited to derive personal benefit from). [6] The fact that they were used for a sinful purpose doesn’t negate their halachic kedushah

Other meforshim follow Rashi’s lead. Sforno [7] writes that the 250 men “sanctified [the fire-pans] as service vessels for use in other services aside from their invalid [incense] service.” In other words, even though the men used their service vessels for “incense of abomination,” their intent was to designate them for general use, and that is why they became kedoshim

Likewise, Ralbag [8] maintains that these vessels “became kedoshim even without anointment, [9] merely by placing into them that which would be utilized [in the divine service].” Unlike Sforno, Ralbag holds that these fire-pans took on their kedushah status once they came in contact with the substance of the incense. He then explains that “their service [with the illicit incense] did not sanctify them, because it wasn’t a [legitimate] service.” 

The Ramban [10] rejects this entire approach. After citing Rashi’s view, he writes: 
I don’t know the reason for this prohibition, for they offered a foreign (i.e. illegal) incense offering, and [if] a non-Kohen makes a service vessel in order to bring an offering outside [of the Tabernacle or Temple], it would not become kadosh
The Ramban then offers two answers of his own: 
Perhaps one can say that since [these 250 men] acted in accordance with [the instructions of] Moshe, [their fire-pans] became kedoshim, for they sanctified them for heavenly use thinking that God would response to them with [heavenly] fire which, in turn, permanently rendered these fire-pans into service vessels for the Tent of Meeting.  
But the correct [answer] in my eyes is that the pasuk (verse) states: “for they offered them before Hashem and they became kedoshim, and they shall be for a sign to the Children of Israel.” In other words: “I sanctified them from the time they were brought before Me in order that they should be as a sign for the Children of Israel.” 
The Ramban’s first answer is that the mere act of compliance with Moshe’s instructions for the purposes of the “test” of the incense was sufficient to permanently sanctify these fire-pans as service vessels. His second answer is based on the pasuk’s implication that Hashem, Himself, sanctified these vessels in order to subsequently make them into a sign for Bnei Yisrael. 

The Abravanel sharply diverges from the all of the views mentioned above. He answers his own question by boldly asserting – contrary to the straightforward reading of the text – that the vessels didn’t become halachically sanctified at all. He writes: 
[The text] did not say “ki kedoshim heim” or “ki kadosh heim” (two phrases which both mean “because they were sanctified”) but rather “ki kadeishu” (“because they sanctified”), because Korach and his assembly sanctified them for the divine. However, in reality, they didn’t have any kedushah at all, for these fire-pans belonged to men who were “sinners with their souls,” and since their intent was evil and their plot was poisonous, how could it produce kedushah? … [Rather,] the statement “for they were brought before Hashem and sanctified” means that [these men] intended to sanctify them. [Alternatively,] it is possible to explain “ki kadeishu” and “va’yikdashu” in sense of “designation,” [11] in the sense of “heekdeesh keruav” (“He has designated His guests” – Tzephanya 1:7), for they designated [the fire-pans] for this test
Like the Ramban, the Abravanel maintains that the evil intent of these men made it impossible for their fire-pans to become sanctified through their incense offerings. He suggests that the term “ki kadeishu” (“because they sanctified”) describes the subjective intent of these men rather than the objective outcome of their actions. Alternatively, he theorizes that the root K.D.SH is not being used here in its primary sense of “to sanctify” but in its secondary usage of “to designate.” Both explanations allow him to read the pesukim in a manner which avoids attributing halachic kedushah to the fire-pans. 

Similarly, the Netziv [12] rejects the notion that these fire-pans became halachically sanctified and proposes an alternative explanation based on a somewhat shocking source: 
“ki kadeishu” is not to be explained in the sense of “sanctity,” because if this is what it meant, it would have needed to say “ki kedoshim heimah” implying that they had already become sanctified on the altar; also, based on precise Hebrew grammar, it should have said “ki nikdashu.” 
Rather, the meaning of “kadeishu” is like “there shall not be a kadeish (male prostitute) among the sons of Israel” (Devarim 23:18), the implication of “kadeish” meaning one whose prominence has been desecrated. Here, the fire of the altar which was sanctified became de-sanctified and desecrated. Therefore, it was neither proper for the altar nor for mundane purposes, just like the kedushah of any physical object which cannot be redeemed once it becomes blemished. 
On the basis of Hebrew grammar, the Netziv rejects the notion that the fire-pans became halachically sanctified. His interpretation relies on the fact that K.D.SH is a contronym – a word that means something and its opposite. K.D.SH can either mean “sanctify” or “de-sanctify.” In the case of a kadeish (male prostitute), it refers to someone who has “de-sanctified” through his debased behavior. In the case of the fire-pans “ki kadeishu” means that they had become “de-sanctified” through the illegitimate offerings of the 250 men. 

To sum it up, there are three basic approaches: 
(1) according to Rashi, Sforno, and Ralbag the fire-pans became halachically sanctified by these men in the usual manner, despite their sinful intentions and actions
(2) according to the Ramban the fire-pans became sanctified in an unusual manner
(3) according to the Abravanel and the Netziv the fire-pans did not become sanctified at all. 

The Significance 

After examining these answers we are left with a very basic question. To put it bluntly: Who cares? So what? Why did the Torah highlight the fact that these fire-pans became sanctified? 

Those who maintain that the vessels actually became halachically sanctified might be tempted to answer that it was necessary for the Torah point this out for “halachic context purposes.” If the Torah hadn’t mentioned this sanctity one might wonder why Hashem commanded Moshe to take these fire-pans, which were associated with sinfulness and rebellion, and make them into a covering for the Altar, which is used for legitimate divine service. Why couldn’t these fire-pans have been destroyed or used for mundane purposes? Accordingly, the Torah explains that since these vessels had become halachically sanctified, they had to be used for some holy purpose. Indeed, this type of explanation is given by the Malbim [13]
Since [the fire-pans] were hekdesh (sanctified property), maalin bakodesh v'ein moridin (“we [only] go up in sanctity, and we do not go down”), and since they were once used as accoutrements for the Altar, they became part of the Altar itself. 
There isn’t necessarily any problem with this answer … and yet, I still don’t buy it. If the pesukim only mentioned the sanctity of the fire-pans once? Maybe. But the fact that the pesukim mention this fact twice leads me to believe that the Torah is going out of its way to emphasize that these fire-pans had sanctity for a reason beyond mere halachic justification. 

Intuitively it would seem to make sense that the sanctity of these fire-pans is related to their repurposed function, namely: 
they shall be for a sign to the Children of Israel … a reminder to the Children of Israel, so that no strange man who is not of the offspring of Aharon shall draw near to bring up the smoke of incense before Hashem, that he not be like Korach and his assembly, as Hashem spoke about him through Moshe. 
I would like to suggest the following: since Korach’s rebellion was predicated on a false conception of kedushah, the memorial that would serve as a warning against future rebellions needed to intrinsically embody the true concept of kedushah to refute that false concept. 

Korach challenged the authority of Moshe and Aharon with the famous words: “For all the assembly, they are all kedoshim” (Bamidbar 16:3). Regardless of how one understands this statement, Korach clearly believed that he had the authority to declare who is and isn’t kadosh. In reality, there is only One Being Who has the ability to determine kedushah: Hashem, Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu, Ha’El ha’Kadosh, ha’mavdil bein kodesh l’chol. [14] Indeed, this message was underscored in Moshe’s initial response to Korach in his explanation of the fire-pan test: “the man whom Hashem chooses, he is the kadosh.” This was clearly intended as a direct retort to Korach’s assertion that “they are all kedoshim.” 

In this vein, the kedushah of the fire-pans was intended to reinforce the message that when it comes to kedushah, Hashem is the sole determiner. How so? It depends on the approach: 

According to Rashi, Sforno, and Ralbag, the message was reinforced by the fact that these men, who brought their incense offerings with the intention of asserting themselves as being kedoshim, were burned to death as a punishment for opposing Hashem’s will – and yet, their fire-pans nevertheless became kedoshim precisely because they conformed to the halachos procedures governing the sanctification of service-vessels. What better way to demonstrate that kedushah only comes about as a result of conforming to Hashem’s will! 

According to the Ramban, who rejected the idea that the fire-pans became kedoshim in the usual manner, the message was reinforced specifically by the fact that the fire-pans became kedoshim in an unusual manner. The Ramban explained that Hashem directly sanctified the fire-pans, contravening His own laws of service-vessel sanctification, specifically in order to demonstrate that kedushah is endowed on His terms, as He chooses. 

And according to the Abravanel and the Netziv, who refuse to acknowledge that the fire-pans had any halachic kedushah whatsoever – this fact itself demonstrated Hashem’s absolute authority over kedushah. When these men attempted to usurp the position of kedushah held by the Kohanim, perform a service of kedushah with the incense, and endow their service vessels with kedushah, all of their efforts utterly failed without producing one iota of kedushah. Instead, their bodies were incinerated, their offerings were thrown out like garbage, and the fire-pans they used to bring those offerings were not successfully sanctified by them (as they would have been if brought by the Kohanim ha’kedoshim), but were destroyed and remade into a warning to not attempt to encroach on Hashem’s kedushah authority. 

Thus, the kedushah of the fire-pans was integral to the message they were repurposed to convey. Perhaps this is why the Torah goes out of its way to call attention to this kedushah

[1] I know it looks like that sentence was either poorly translated or grammatically incorrect. I’m pretty sure the grammar is fine, and you can blame the lack of poetry in the translation on Robert Alter. 
[2] Actually, it’s unclear what happened to Korach himself, as I wrote about in my article: What Happened to Korach
[3] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 17:1, Question #1 
[4] I have decided to transliterate much of the terminology having to do with the Hebrew root K.D.SH. rather than committing to specific translations as “holy,” “consecrated,” or “sanctified” – partially because these translations carry connotations which are somewhat at odds with the Torah’s concept of kedushah, and partially because the nature of the kedushah in this context is part of the question that this article aims to answer. 
[5] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 17:2 
[6] In the world of Mishkan (the Tabernacle) and the Beis ha’Mikdash (Holy Temple), halachic sanctity is synonymous with an issur hanaah – a prohibition to use the sanctified object for mundane purposes. 
[7] Rabbeinu Ovadiah Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 17:3 
[8] Rabbeinu Levi ben Gershon (Ralbag / Gersonides), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 17:2-5 
[9] According to halacha, all of the service vessels that were made by Moshe Rabbeinu in the Wilderness only became sanctified through the shemen ha’mishchah (anointing oil). In contrast, service vessels in the Beis ha’Mikdash became sanctified through their usage in the avodah. See Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Avodah, Hilchos Klei ha’Mikdash ve’ha’Ovdim Bo 1:12. 
[10] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 17:2 
[11] “hazmanah” which can also be translated as “invitation” or “preparation.” 
[12] Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin (Netziv), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 17:2 
[13] Rav Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel Wisser (Malbim), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 17:3 
[14] Translation: the Holy One, Blessed is He; the Holy God; He Who separates between the holy and the mundane. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Shelach: Tzitzis, Indigo, and the Plague of the Firstborns

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Can you tell which of these are dyed with indigo? Didn't think so.

Shelach: Tzitzis, Indigo, and the Plague of the Firstborn

Parashas Shelach concludes with the topic of tzitzis, and the discussion of tzitzis concludes with a reminder of Yetzias Mitzrayim (the Exodus from Egypt): 

Hashem said to Moshe, saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them that they shall make themselves tzitzis on the corners of their garments, throughout their generations. And they shall place upon the tzitzis of each corner a thread of techeiles. It shall constitute tzitzis for you, that you may see it and remember all the mitzvos of Hashem and do them, and not explore after your heart and after your eyes after which you stray. So that you may remember and do all My mitzvos and be holy to your God. I am Hashem, your God, Who has taken you out from the land of Egypt to be a God unto you; I am Hashem, your God. (Bamidbar 15:37-41) 

This reference to Yetzias Mitzrayim in and of itself isn’t particularly noteworthy. The Torah mentions Yetzias Mitzrayim dozens of times in connection with other mitzvos. The question here is: What does Yetzias Mitzrayim have to do with tzitzis in particular? With other mitzvos – such as Pesach, matzah, maror, Shabbos, the laws about how we treat our slaves, or how we treat Egyptian converts, or how we relate to the “stranger” in our midst – the thematic relationship is either explicitly spelled out in the pesukim or it is obvious. But in the case of tzitzis, the connection is not at all apparent. 

Rashi [1], citing a Gemara in Bava Metzia 61b, addresses this question explicitly: 

Why was Yetzias Mitzrayim stated [here]? [In order to say:] “I am the One Who discerned in Egypt [the difference] between the drop [of sperm] that became a firstborn and the drop that did not become a firstborn. [So too,] I am the One Who will discern and exact punishment from one who attaches [a thread dyed with] indigo [2] on his garment and says it is techeiles.” 

The mitzvah of tzitzis has two basic components: lavan (the white fringes) and techeiles (the thread of blue). The lavan can be made from wool, linen, or from whatever kind of material the garment is made of. The techeiles is made from wool dyed a specific shade of blue using a substance secreted by a marine creature known as the chilazon. Rashi [3] explains why a person would be inclined to use indigo as a substitute for properly made techeiles

Indigo is a color that resembles techeiles, but the Torah specified “a thread of techeiles”; techeiles is very expensive, since it is dyed with the secretion of the chilazon which only comes up from the sea once every 70 years. 

Rashi only cited the part of the Gemara that focused on techeiles. The original statement asks the same question with regards to two other mitzvos which are also inexplicably juxtaposed with Yetzias Mitzrayim, and offers a similar answer to address all three cases: 

Why did the Merciful One need to write about Yetzias Mitzrayim in conjunction with [the prohibition against charging] interest [4], and in conjunction with [the mitzvah of] tzitzis, and in conjunction with [the prohibition against using unjust] weights [5]

[The answer is:] The Holy One, Blessed is He, said: “I am the One Who discerned in Egypt [the difference] between the drop [of sperm] that became a firstborn and the drop that did not become a firstborn. [So too,] I am the One Who will exact punishment from one who attributes [ownership of] his money to a non-Jew and lends it to a Jew with interest [6], and [I am the One Who will exact punishment] from one who buries his weights in salt [thereby changing the weight in a manner undetectable to the eye], and [I am the One Who will exact punishment] from one who attaches [a thread dyed with] indigo on his garment and says it is techeiles

On a superficial level, this Gemara’s message is clear: even though a human being cannot visually detect the difference between indigo and techeiles, or the difference between accurate weights and weights that have been tampered with, or the difference between money that belongs to a non-Jew and money that belongs to a Jew – Hashem can discern the difference. And just as He used His “Divine discernment” to mete out punishment to the firstborns in Egypt in a manner that would have been impossible for a human judge to do, so too, He will exact retribution from those who violate halacha by making recourse to these loopholes. 

The Maharsha [7] is unsatisfied with this elementary understanding. He is bothered by the fact that in the cases of unjust weights and improper charging of interest the wrongdoer is actually defrauding his fellow Jew or causing him to sin, but in the case of indigo he’s just cheating himself out of his own mitzvah. It would be fine if the point of this Gemara were to reinforce the idea that Hashem will punish a person for committing an interpersonal transgression even if the victim is unaware of the crime. However, if the point of this Gemara is to teach us that a person who cuts corners [8] in his personal mitzvah observance will be punished for his failure to fulfill that mitzvah, then what makes the indigo case different than any private violation of halacha? As the Maharsha puts it: “Why, then, didn’t the Torah mention Yetzias Mitzrayim in conjunction with every positive and negative commandment?” The case of indigo and techeiles must be teaching us something more. 

This leads the Maharsha to a startling conclusion: 

It is for this reason that it was necessary to say that a person transgresses from the time he attaches [the indigo], for he will be punished for the very thought of transgressing the mitzvah of tzitzis [in this manner]. 

The Maharsha maintains that our Gemara can’t simply be teaching us that a person will be held accountable for failing to use valid techeiles. Rather, the Gemara is teaching us that in addition to failing to fulfill the mitzvah of tzitzis, there is a separate transgression in the very act of attaching indigo to one’s tzitzis with the intention of substituting it for authentic techeiles

How the Maharsha’s explanation makes sense in a halachic framework is beyond the scope of this article. Instead we will attempt to understand the mentality that this halacha is intended to address. What, exactly, is the underlying flaw in this person’s thinking? What is the nature of this separate transgression in the very thought of circumventing the techeiles requirement by using indigo? 

It is natural to attempt to answer this question by examining this person’s motive. We can understand the motive for utilizing this loophole in the laws of charging interest, as well as the motive for using unjust weights and measures: namely, to make an easy profit. But in the case of the person who substitutes indigo for techeiles, there are a number of possible motives: 
  • He, too, wants to save money on techeiles by purchasing the less costly knock-off brand; it’s that same classical techeiles appearance at less than half the cost! 
  • His view of mitzvos is utilitarian; his reasoning is: “My tzitzis need a thread of blue for a specific philosophical reason, so as long as it looks the same, what difference does it make what the dye is made of?” [9] 
  • His identity is tied to the self-image of religiosity rather than conformity to the actual halacha; therefore, the only thing that matters is his ability to look in the mirror and content himself with the fact that he’s wearing the right looking “religious uniform.” 
  • Alternatively, he only cares about appearing religious in the eyes of others; as long as other people perceive him as someone who follows halacha, that’s all that matters. 
  • Like many disenfranchised Orthodox Jews who resent the minutiae and technical demands of halacha, he rationalizes his transgression, saying: “C’mon. Does God really care what my techeiles is made of? It looks exactly the same to me.” 

This list of motives is not intended to be exhaustive, but is sufficient to illustrate a common denominator: the attribution of greater importance to appearances than to reality. No matter how the indigo-user rationalizes his behavior, it all boils down to the notion that “if it looks the same, then it is the same.” 

We can now understand the nature of the transgression mentioned by the Maharsha. Substituting indigo for techeiles will certainly invalidate a person’s tzitzis. Beyond this, however, such an individual is committing a transgression of the mind [10] by ascribing more reality to human perception than to what is actually real. The same goes for the one who relies on a loophole to charge interest and to the one who uses unjust weights: in addition to their breach of justice and the loss they cause their fellow Jew, they have also warped their own sense of reality by reinforcing the notion that appearances are all that matters. 

This, I believe, is why the Gemara’s statement emphasizes Hashem’s ability to discern and punish the Egyptian firstborns. The firstborns in Egypt held positions of leadership. People could readily identify who was and wasn’t a firstborn based on their societal distinction. But as Chazal teach, the plague of the firstborn didn’t only target the individuals who held the societal role of firstborn. Every firstborn was killed, even those who weren’t identifiable as such. Rashi [11] provides an example of this in his commentary on the pasuk: “there was no household in which there was no dead person” (Shemos 12:30): 

Some Egyptian women were unfaithful to their husbands and bore children from unmarried men. Thus they would have many firstborn; sometimes one woman would have five, each one the firstborn of his father. 

Despite the fact that these bastard firstborns were excluded from the hierarchical prominence of their firstborn status, this didn’t protect them from death. Hashem’s smiting of real firstborns over merely perceived firstborns shattered the primacy of human perception over actual reality. 

This, according to Rashi, is the thematic association we are to make between Yetzias Mitzrayim and tzitzis. In his final comment on the parashah of tzitzis he underscores this theme yet again: 

[The thread of blue] is called “pesil techeiles” because of the bereavement [suffered by the Egyptians] over the loss of their firstborns. The Aramaic translation of [the Hebrew word for] “bereavement” (sheekool) is teechla [a word similar to techeiles], and they were stricken at night, and techeiles is similar to the color of the sky as it darkens towards the evening. 

In other words, when a person sees the techeiles in his tzitzis, he is supposed to associate to the plague of the firstborn based on the name “techeiles” which alludes to Egypt’s “bereavement” over the loss of their firstborns, the shade of blue which alludes to the color of the sky close to the time that the plague occurred, and to Hashem’s ability to discriminate between firstborn and non-firstborn, as reflected in the halacha prohibiting the use of indigo. 

As “drushy” (i.e. homiletical and “loose” in their interpretive style) as these explanations may sound, they clearly convey Rashi’s answer to our original question about the thematic connection between Yetzias Mitzrayim and tzitzis

Let us conclude on another homiletical point. My chavrusa suggested that perhaps this idea can be extended to one of the other functions of tzitzis: “so that you may remember and do all My mitzvos and be holy to your God.” When it comes to the observance of Hashem’s mitzvos and the ongoing quest to become kedoshim (holy), what matters is our adherence to halacha – not the appearance of religiosity in the eyes of human beings. 

[1] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 15:41 
[2] The term used in halacha here is kala ilan (קלא אילן), which I have only ever seen translated as “indigo.” 
[3] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Talmud Bavli: Bava Metzia 61b, d”h kala ilan 
[4] It is prohibited for a Jew to charge interest from another Jew. The source-pesukim mention Yetzias Mitzrayim: “Do not take from him interest and increase; and you shall fear your God, and let your brother live with you. Do not give him your money for interest, and do not give your food for increase. I am Hashem, your God, Who took you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan, to be a God unto you” (Vayikra 25:36-38). 
[5] It is prohibited to use unjust weights and measures. The source-pesukim mention Yetzias Mitzrayim: “You shall not commit a perversion in justice in measures of length, weight, or volume. You shall have correct scales, correct weights, correct dry measures, and correct liquid measures – I am Hashem, your God, Who brought you forth from the land of Egypt” (ibid. 19:35-36). 
[6] Without getting into the intricacies of the halacha, this refers to some “loophole” which would allow a Jew to effectively charge interest from another Jew without technically violating the prohibition against charging interest. 
[7] Rav Shmuel Eidels (Maharsha), Chidushei Halachos d”h she’toleh kala ilan 
[8] Genuinely not intended as a tzitzis pun. 
[9] This is reminiscent of Korach’s view in the famous midrash about the tallis made entirely of techeiles. Korach’s argument boils down to: “As long as it achieves its philosophical objective, what difference does it make how we get there? This insistence on conformity with the technical halacha is bogus!” 
[10 The fact that this is a transgression of the mind is why he violates it based purely on his intent. The very moment he plans to substitute indigo for techeiles, he has already evidenced the underlying flaw at the root of this transgression, even if he never actually wears the garment. 
[11] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Shemos 12:30 citing Mechilta 13:33

Friday, June 12, 2020

Behaalosecha: Moshe’s Mysterious Marriage

For an response to the view of Ibn Kaspi as presented in this post, see Rabbi Yaakov Trachtman's enlightening article Moshe's Disguised Divorce - a Response to Ibn Caspi.

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Artwork: Autumn's Veil, by Kekai Kotaki

Behaalosecha: Moshe's Mysterious Marriage

The Question 

Parashas Behaalosecha marks the turning point in Sefer Bamidbar from the hopeful to the nopeful.[1] Bnei Yisrael are marching towards Eretz Yisrael with the Ark of Hashem in their midst, poised to bring the Redemption from Egypt to a close with the establishment of a Torah society in the land promised to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Then tragedy strikes. A series of missteps by the nation and by individuals culminates in the sin of the spies, resulting in 40 years of wandering the Wilderness, and the death of the generation that left Egypt. 

Our parashah concludes with one such misstep: the sin of Miriam and Aharon. The sin itself is recorded in a single pair of pesukim (verses): 

Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the matter of the Kushite [2] woman that he married, for he had married a Kushite woman. They said, “Was it only to Moshe that Hashem spoke? Didn’t He also speak with us?” and Hashem heard. (Bamidbar 12:1-2). 

What, exactly, happened here is murky, to say the least. We are told that Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe “regarding the matter of the Kushite woman that he married” – yet, the statement attributed to them is entirely about prophecy, as is Hashem’s focus when He subsequently reprimands them. What does this have to do with “the matter of the Kushite woman that he married”? Furthermore, how are we to understand the seemingly redundant phrase “for he had married a Kushite woman”? What is this intended to add or explain? 

But perhaps the most basic question of all is: Who is this Kushite woman? She is not identified by name and is not mentioned anywhere else in Tanach. This is the question we will focus on. We will not aim to explain the sin of Miriam and Aharon in full. Instead, we will focus on the three methodological approaches taken by the commentators. 

A survey of the commentators reveals that there are essentially two camps. One camp maintains that the Kushite woman is Tziporah, the daughter of Yisro whom Moshe married in his youth after fleeing Egypt as a fugitive. The second camp maintains that the Kushite is some other woman, aside from Tziporah. 

Camp “Tziporah” 

According to the Tziporah camp, there are two questions which must be addressed. The first question is: Why is she called “the Kushite woman”? After all, Tziporah has been mentioned by name three times prior to this incident. Why not call her by name here? The second question is: Why is she called “the Kushite woman” if she was, in fact, not Kushite, but Midianite? 

Onkelos, the Aramaic translator of the Torah, often deviates from a literal translation of the Hebrew in order to address certain issues in the pshat (straightforward meaning of the verse). In this case he is bothered enough by our questions that he makes two rather radical changes. 

Original Hebrew: Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the matter of the Kushite woman that he married, for he had married a Kushite woman. 

Onkelos’s Aramaic: Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the matter of the beautiful woman that he married, for the beautiful woman he married he [subsequently] abandoned. 

Rashi, following Onkelos’s lead, answers both of our questions by explaining that “Kushite” is a euphemism for Tziporah’s beauty – either her physical beauty or the beauty of her deeds. How does “Kushite” function as a euphemism? Rashi explains: “just as the skin-color of a Kushite is universally acknowledged, so too was Tziporah’s beauty universally acknowledged.” [3] Apparently, it was deemed uncouth, immodest, or somehow inappropriate to explicitly speak about Tziporah’s beauty – hence the need for circumlocution. Rashi adds that the gematria (numerical value) of the word “Kushite” equals that of the phrase “beautiful appearance.” 

Onkelos maintains that the phrase “for he had married a Kushite woman” actually means that Moshe “abandoned the beautiful woman he had married.” It is unclear whether “abandoned” means that Moshe separated from Tziporah, or whether he actually divorced her. The question is: How did Miriam know that Moshe separated from Tziporah, and why was she talking about this now? Rashi [4], citing a midrash of Chazal [5], fills us in with the backstory: 

From where did Miriam know that Moshe separated from his wife? Rebbi Nosson says: Miriam was next to Tziporah at the time when it was said to Moshe: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” (Bamidbar 11:27). Upon hearing this, Tziporah exclaimed: “Woe unto the wives of these [men] once they are needed for prophecy, for they will have to separate from their wives in the same way that my husband separated from me!” From there Miriam knew [about Tziporah’s separation from Moshe] and told it to Aharon. And if Miriam didn’t intend to degrade Moshe and was punished thus, kal va’chomer (all the more so) one who speaks in order to degrade his friend! 

There you have it: “Camp Tziporah” answers our questions by positing that “the Kushite woman” is Tziporah, by explaining “for he had married a Kushite woman” to be a veiled reference to their separation, and by filling in the back-story explaining why Moshe and Tziporah separated and why Miriam only brought this up now. 

Camp “Other Woman” 

The Rashbam is known for his pshat explanations. He rarely cites midrash and prefers to answer questions conservatively, based on the principles of Hebrew grammar and the information provided in the text. It is not surprising that he rejects Rashi’s midrashic explanation. What is surprising is that he bases his answer on an obscure “outside text” entitled Divrei ha’Yamim Shel Moshe Rabbeinu (loosely translated as The Moses Chronicles in English). 

This non-canonical text is controversial, to say the least. Those who hold by its authenticity, such as the Rashbam, treat it as a historical account of “the missing years” of Moshe’s life which are not recorded in the Torah. Those who question or reject its authenticity, such as the Ibn Ezra [6], treat it as little more than “Moshe Rabbeinu fan-fiction,” and regard it as worthless. 

Nevertheless, the Rashbam [7] cites this text to explain who Moshe married, supporting his answer with the second question we raised on the position of Camp Tziporah: 

It is written in The Chronicles of Moshe Rabbeinu that he ruled as king in Ethiopia for 40 years and married an [Ethiopian] queen but didn’t sleep with her, as it is written there – but [Miriam and Aharon] didn’t know when they spoke about [Moshe] that he didn’t sleep with her. This is the essential pshat, for if they were speaking about Tziporah, what need was there to explain “for he married a Kushite woman”? Did they not know until now that Tziporah was a Midianite? Another objection is as follows: she wasn’t Kushite! Kush was one of the suns of Cham, but Midian was one of the children of Keturah who was descended from Avraham. 

Unlike Rashi, the Rashbam does not elaborate on why Miriam saw fit to bring this up to Aharon now, nor does he explain why the subsequent dialogue focuses on prophecy rather than on Moshe’s marriage to this Ethiopian queen (whom the Torah doesn’t bother to mention). 

But there is another pshat commentator who answers our question based on the text, and he has quite a lot to say. I am speaking of R’ Yosef ibn Kaspi. Allow me to preface my citation of his commentary with a confession: the whole reason I wrote this article was as an excuse to bring up this excerpt from ibn Kaspi’s commentary. It is one of the most scathing indictments of Rashi’s midrashic approach that I have ever encountered. My jaw dropped as I read it. 

Here is a full translation of what ibn Kaspi had to say, with my own paragraph divisions: 

I am astounded by the early [commentators], who were all more perfect than I am – I who couldn’t even reach their heel. How did they always fall into their own imagination, explaining the Torah to be the opposite of what is written, whether by substituting one word for the opposite word, or adding words with the opposite meanings? 

I am referring to the well-known commentary of Onkelos, about whom the Rambam said, “Onkelos ha’Ger was a great chacham (wise man)!” From where did [Onkelos] get the idea to explain “Kushite” as “beautiful,” [two words] which are as opposite as black and white? [8]

Furthermore, where did he get the idea to add opposite words after “for he married a Kushite woman” as though it was written in the Torah that “the Kushite woman he married he [subsequently] abandoned” or “distanced himself from.” If this were the intent of the Giver of the Torah, why didn’t He write this, and why did He write its opposite? 

Furthermore, who permitted us to do this? Who gave Onkelos so much power, or the Sages of the Talmud, or the Ibn Ezra – all of whom agree on this? Why can’t we do something like this, each man doing what is upright in his own eyes, to the point where we invert, “and you shall love Hashem, your God” to say – God forbid – “you shall hate Hashem, your God,” or “the one whom Hashem loves to “the one whom He hates.” 

And if you’ll say, “The Torah was received at Sinai and transmitted to Yehoshua, who taught us [as part of the] Oral Torah that this is the explanation of this verse” – the answer is what we responded to the initial claim: Why wasn’t the matter written out as it actually was, rather than writing a word which has the opposite meaning? Is the substitution of a word for its opposite worthy of being called an “explanation”? Rather, an “explanation” is what we call something which explains the words in accordance with their meaning in some way, as [the Sages] explained, “you shall not kindle a fire,” and “you shall not eat over the blood” with deep explanations which fit into what is written, and which certainly do not reverse its meaning. Anything other than this we call “an exchange” or “a reversal” or “an erasure” or “a revision” or “an uprooting.” And this is true in every language whatsoever. [According to the approach of Onkelos et al.,] why shouldn’t we say that “Hashem took you” really means “[Hashem] abandoned [you]”? Similarly, “he and his neighbor should take [can be interpreted to mean, “he and his neighbor should leave]. What advantage is there of this over this? 

As Hashem lives, this method – which is unanimously accepted by all of the early Sages, the pillars of the world and of faith and of strength to the Torah of Moshe – is so beyond me that I cannot accept it. God forbid I should do something like this, [which would be tantamount to] completely abandoning the Torah of Moshe and believing that a New Testament was made – God forbid! 

Let us pause here to process the ibn Kaspi’s objection to the approach taken by Onkelos, Rashi, and Chazal. He vehemently objects to those commentators who “interpret” the term “Kushite” as “beautiful,” based on his premise that the two terms are opposites. He refuses to accept the notion that this explanation is “part of the Oral Torah,” and he is so dedicated to the pshat that he implicitly equates the midrashic explanation to pledging allegiance to a New Testament! To be fair, his objection is not to midrash per se, but to midrashic explanations which go against the plain meaning of the text. This will be apparent from what follows. 

After this diatribe, he offers his own explanation: 

Therefore I say that the explanation of what is written here is according to what is necessarily understood from the Hebrew language, namely, that “Kushite” means a woman from the Land of Kush, and the meaning of “because he L.K.CH. [9] a Kushite woman” is that he took her [in marriage], for this is the explanation of the root L.K.CH. as opposed to A’.Z.V. All of this [is based on] the conventional use of the language. 

Accordingly, after Moshe married Tziporah, he married a Kushite woman in addition to Tziporah for a reason that he (peace be upon him) knew. One shouldn’t question the motives of his actions, for he undoubtedly did this out of wisdom. We don’t know the time period in which he married her, whether now when they were traveling or beforehand, because this hadn’t been mentioned in the Torah until this point, just as the Torah didn’t record many of the events that transpired. 

Because this wasn’t mentioned until now, then in order [that the reader] not be confused when it said “regarding the Kushite woman he married,” which we haven’t ever heard about, it said after this, “for he married a Kushite woman” – as if to say, “you should know that he married a Kushite woman, even though this hasn’t been mentioned yet, and this is what [Miriam and Aharon] were speaking about.” 

Because the reason for this additional marriage was hidden from them – perhaps Tziporah fell ill, or maybe she disobeyed him, or maybe it was some other reason we don’t know, or maybe they knew her reason, but they didn’t know [his] secret and the wisdom in this – therefore, they spoke about Moshe’s marriage to an additional wife, because one wife should have been enough for this perfected person. 

To summarize: ibn Kaspi maintains that Moshe married an ethnically Kushite woman in addition to Tziporah for reasons that were unknown to Miriam and Aharon, and undisclosed to us. The seemingly redundant phrase “for he had married a Kushite woman” is intended to validate the reader’s confusion upon learning of this fact, as if to say, “yes, this is a thing Moshe did, even though the Torah didn’t mention it until now.” 

Ibn Kaspi then goes on to explain the connection between Miriam’s statement and the subsequent discussion of prophecy. Miriam and Aharon reasoned that they were on a high enough level of prophecy to be “let in” on Moshe’s reasons for his unconventional decision to take a second wife. Because they overestimated the level of their own prophecy in relation to that of their brother, Hashem rebuked them and explained just how categorically superior Moshe’s prophecy was. And as for the “secret” reasons behind Moshe’s second marriage, Hashem’s silence on the matter indicates that it was really none of their business. 

Methodological Take-aways 

We have seen three approaches taken by the commentators to these two cryptic pesukim

(1) Onkelos and Rashi opt for a midrashic explanation which neatly answers all of the questions and fills in the gaps with an elaborate narrative. The weakness of this approach is that it puts a heavy strain on a literal reading of the text. 

(2) Rashbam rejects the midrashic approach and explains the text by making recourse to an outside source. The benefit of this approach is that it supplies us with missing information. This approach is very similar to the academic method employed by modern day Bible scholars. The weakness of this approach lies in the credibility of his source. Moreover, according to the Rashbam, what did Hashem intend for the reader of Torah to make of this episode? Did He expect everyone to have read The Chronicles of Moses

(3) Ibn Kaspi also rejects the midrashic approach – not only as false, but as a perversion of God’s word and the Hebrew language. Instead, he relies exclusively on the literal meaning of the text and conservatively infers a larger narrative from the minimal information provided in the pesukim. The downside of this approach is that it completely rejects the wisdom offered in the midrashic literature. 

Each of these three approaches has its pros and cons. Students of Chumash will likely be drawn towards one approach or the other. I, myself, favor the third, but recognize the value – and sometimes, the necessity – of the other two. 

This multiplicity of approaches is part of what makes the study of Chumash such an enjoyable and rich experience. 

[1] I began writing this article on two hours of sleep, and the conclusion of this first sentence was the amusing result. I was going to change it, but my friends convinced me to leave it in – perhaps as a memorial to my folly. 
[2] The word “Kushite” is traditionally translated as “Ethiopian,” but is often used to refer to people from sub-Saharan Egypt, in general. 
[3] Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 16b 
[4] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 12:1 
[5] Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13 
[6] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Long Commentary on Sefer Shemos 4:20 
[7] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Meir (Rashbam), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 12:1 
[8] This statement will undoubtedly strike the modern reader as strange, inappropriate, or false. Others will deem it to be offensive, racist, and condemnable. Like it or not, the fact of the matter is that certain Rishonim (medieval commentators) regarded Kushites as unattractive, and maintained that the same aesthetic valuation was held by the figures in Tanach whose words and actions they aimed to decipher. Whether Miriam and Aharon actually found Kushites to be unattractive is a question for the historians and anthropologists. Our task as students of these Rishonim is to set aside our personal views in an attempt to understand what insight these commentators intended to convey through their explanations, regardless of whether or not we agree with the premises on which these explanations were based. (I would like to thank the members of the Facebook group “Orthodox Jews Against Discrimination and Racism” for reviewing this footnote to ensure that it was worded in a sensitive manner.) 
[9] Here the Ibn Kaspi actually spells out each letter of the three-letter root – presumably for snark value.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Naso: Twelve Identical Offerings

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Naso: Twelve Identical Offerings

The Question 

Without a doubt, the strangest section of Parashas Naso is its conclusion. Bamidbar Chapter 7 begins by establishing the narrative context: 

And it happened on the day Moshe finished setting up the Mishkan (Tabernacle) that he anointed it and consecrated it and all its furnishings, and he anointed them and consecrated them. And the leaders of Israel – the heads of their fathers’ houses, they are the leaders of the tribes, they are the ones who stand over the reckoning – brought forward and set their offering before Hashem … And the leaders brought forward the dedication offering of the altar on the day it was anointed, and the leaders brought forward their offering for the dedication of the altar. And Hashem said to Moshe: “One leader each day, one leader each day, shall offer his offerings for the dedication for the altar.” (Bamidbar 7:1-2,10-11) 

The first of these offerings is then described in detail: 

And the one who brought forward his offering on the first day was Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Yehudah. And his offering was one silver bowl, a hundred thirty shekels its weight, one silver basin, seventy shekels by the sanctuary shekel, both of them filled with fine flour mixed with oil for a grain offering. One golden ladle of ten shekels filled with incense. One bull from the herd, one ram, one yearling lamb for the burnt offering. One goat for an offense offering. And for the communion sacrifice two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, five yearling lambs. This is the offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav. (ibid. 7:12-17) 

And that’s when things start to get repetitive. The Torah goes on to describe the offering brought on the second day by the second tribal leader, Nesanel ben Tzuar. It is exactly the same offering, and its contents are spelled out in exactly the same words. The Torah continues in this manner with the third, fourth, and fifth identical offerings – all the way up to the twelfth. Each tribal leader brings exactly the same offering, which the pesukim describe in exactly the same way. It is as if Moshe Rabbeinu took these same six pesukim, with the same 66 words, and copied and pasted them eleven more times, then went back and changed the name of the tribal leader and in the ordinal designation of the day for each. 

This seemingly gratuitous repetition has astounded medieval and modern commentators alike. The Abravanel [1] raises this question explicitly: 

Why did the text here mention the offering of each leader in elaborate detail, considering that their offerings were exactly equal without any variation? It would have been enough for it to say about the first of them “this was the offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav” as an example, and afterwards for each and every day, “and likewise, so-and-so offered on the such-and-such day” – as opposed to writing the same thing twelve times, which is excessively repetitive and is a very strange thing

The modern translator and commentator, Robert Alter [2], notes how anomalous this section is: 

This is the one single instance in the entire Bible of extensive verbatim repetition without the slightest variation … Biblical narrative, as we have had many occasions to see, characteristically deploys significant swerves from verbatim repetition as it approximately repeats strings of phrases and whole clauses and sentences. This passage, however, is manifestly not narrative, but a kind of epic inventory. 

In simple terms the question is: Why did the Torah repeat the list of these twelve identical offerings verbatim when it only needed to list them once? 

The Simple Answer 

The most straightforward answer is given by several commentators, namely, that the Torah wanted to stress the absolute equality of the leaders and their offerings, for them and for us. The Bechor Shor [3] states that this was the reason why each leader was given his own day and why his offering was spelled out in detail, despite it being identical with the others: 

“one leader each day” – in order to give honor to the leaders, that each one would have his day; so too, a section [describing the offering] was written for each one of them, so that they would not become jealous of one another – for it could have written the first section and then said, “Thus did so-and-so, and thus so-and-so.” 

The Ramban [4] offers a similar explanation: 

The best reason for Scripture [stating each leader’s offering separately] is that Ha’Kadosh Baruch Hu apportions honor to those who fear Him, as it was said: “for I honor those who honor Me” (I Shmuel 2:30). Now, all the leaders brought on the same day this offering upon which they agreed together, but it was impossible that one should not precede his fellow [in the actual offering. Therefore, Hashem] honored those that had precedence in the arrangement [of the camp] with precedence in the days [of offering,] but He wanted to mention them by name and their offerings in detail and to mention each one’s day, rather than [simply] mentioning and honoring the first one, [saying:] “This is the offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav” and [then] saying: “And so the leaders offered, each man on his day,” since that would have been an affront to the others’ honor. And afterwards He went and combined them [by stating the total quantities of the offerings] to teach that all of them were equal before Him, blessed is He. And thus [the Sages] said there in Sifrei: “Scripture teaches that just as [the leaders] were all equal with regard to the idea [of these offerings,] so were they equal with regard to the merit.” 

Alter [5] also favors this approach, depicting the Torah’s intended rhetorical effect as follows: 

Each of the tribes, here accorded absolutely equal status before the sanctuary without political hierarchy, brings exactly the same offering. One can readily imagine that the members of each tribe in the ancient audience of this text would be expected to relish the sumptuousness of its own tribal offering exactly equal to all the others, as it hears the passage read. 

Yet, as reasonable as this objective may be, was it really necessary to “waste” 726 needless words simply in order to demonstrate the equality of the tribal leaders? Surely the Torah could have found a more verbally efficient way to convey the same sentiment. For example, Chazal [6] interpret the Torah’s extremely concise statement: “and the sons of Yaakov were twelve” (Bereishis 35:22)to teach that all of them are equal.” Likewise, on the pasuk: “they are Aharon and Moshe” (Shemos 6:26), Rashi [7] observes that “in some places Moshe precedes Aharon and in other places Aharon precedes Moshe in order to convey their equality.” So too here: the Torah could have stated the contents of the identical offerings and framed them in a manner which would have conveyed the equality of the tribal leaders. 

Two Midrashic Approaches 

The Abravanel notes that there are two categories of answers given in the midrashic literature: 

In [the midrashic collection] Bamidbar Sinai Rabbah (13:14) they expound “and his offering” in a different manner, saying: “Why did the leaders see fit to bring their offerings in this manner? The Rabbis say: even though their offerings were the same, each one brought them [in order to allude] to great principles, each and every one in accordance with his own intent.” Likewise, Rebbi Shimon (ibid.) expounded: “Why does the pasuk say, ‘from the leaders of Israel’? This teaches that they donated of their own accord.” Consequently, each one’s offering was equal in its value, its quantity, and its weight. In other words, each and every one was motivated by himself to offer these items mentioned in the pasuk in accordance with his own intention, in order to allude to the concepts in his own mind … 

The midrash then proceeds to expound on the symbolism of each leader’s offering in accordance with a specific theme. For example, the tribe of Yehuda is the tribe of malchus (Kingship), and its tribal leader intended each detail of his offering to allude to different ideas about malchus. The tribe of Yissachar was known for its prowess in Torah, and its tribal leader intended each detail of his offering to allude to concepts about Torah. And so on for each of the other ten tribes. After paraphrasing [8] the themes of each of these offerings based on this midrash, the Abravanel concludes: 

The general thrust of this view is that each of the leaders made his offering in accordance with his own intentions which differed from the intentions of the other leaders. Thus, their offerings were the same, but their intentions were different

Next, the Abravanel cites an opposing view stated in the same midrash: 

However, Rebbi Pinchas ben Yair held that all of the leaders had a single intention and a single allusion in mind, namely, [that their offerings] correspond to the generations from Adam ha’Rishon until the Mishkan. 

For example, the first item in the offering was “one silver bowl (kaaras kesef), a hundred and thirty shekels its weight.” The phrase “kaaras kesef” has a numerical value of which is 930, which represents Adam ha’Rishon who lived for 930 years. The fact that there was only one such bowl represents Chava, since she was created from him. Its weight of 130 shekels represents the 130 years that Adam separated from Chava before they reunited and had their third son. The second item in the offering was “one silver basin (mizrak echad), seventy shekels by the sanctuary shekel.” The phrase “mizrak” (from Z.R.Q., meaning “to throw”) represents Noach, who was “thrown out” of the Generation of the Flood. Its weight of 70 shekels corresponds to the 70 nations that emerged from him. And so on. 

Even though I tend to favor pshat, I find that both of these approaches provide a more satisfactory answer to our question than the pshat explanations cited above. If these offerings were intended to convey ideas through the symbolism of their particulars, then the Torah going out of its way to emphasize these particulars is a great way to draw the mind. According to the first midrashic approach, each offering is restated in full because each detail has its own ideational content. According to the second midrashic approach, each offering is restated in full in order to underscore the unanimity of the tribal leaders in their common intent. 

The Methodological Underpinnings of These Midrashic Approaches 

No matter how appealing these symbolic interpretations may be, one cannot help but wonder: “How did the authors of these midrashim know what the tribal leaders intended to symbolize in their offerings?” 

For those who believe that midrashim were given at Sinai, along with the rest of Torah she’baal Peh (the Oral Torah), the answer is simple: mesorah (an oral tradition). But for those who follow the mainstream approach, [9] maintaining that midrashim reflect the views of their authors, the answer is even simpler: the authors of these midrashim didn’t know the intentions of the tribal leaders. Rather, these midrashim reflect their own speculative theories which may or may not correspond to what the tribal leaders actually intended. 

This attempt to find meaning in the details of the leaders’ offerings is reminiscent of an approach mentioned by the Rambam. The Rambam states that it is incumbent upon every person to seek out the reasons for the mitzvos of the Torah. This injunction applies to both categories of mitzvos: to mishpatim, those mitzvos whose reasons are evident, and to chukim, the mitzvos whose reasons are hidden. At the end of Hilchos Me’ilah the Rambam [10] writes: 

It is proper for a person to contemplate the laws of the Holy Torah and to know their ultimate concepts according to his ability. If he doesn't find a reason and doesn't know a cause of something, it should not be less in his eyes, nor should he break forth to ascend to Hashem lest He burst forth against him, nor should he think of it as a mundane matter … a person should not kick against them just because he doesn’t know their reasons, nor should he ascribe matters which are not true onto Hashem, nor should he think about them as he thinks about mundane matters. It was stated in the Torah: “And you shall guard all of my chukim (statutes) and all of my mishpatim (judgments) and you shall do them” (Vayikra 19:37; 20:22). The Sages said that we should apply shmirah (guarding) and asiyah (doing) to chukim in the same manner as mishpatim. The [meaning of] “asiyah” is evident: namely, that we should do the chukim. The [meaning] of “shmirah” is that we must be careful with them and not imagine that they are less than mishpatim. The mishpatim are the mitzvos whose benefits in this world are evident, such as the prohibitions of stealing and murder, and honoring one's father and mother. And the chukim are the mitzvos whose reasons are not evident. The Sages said: “[These are] the statutes that I have inscribed for you, and you do not have permission to be suspicious about them, and man’s yetzer (inclination) confronts him regarding them, and the nations of the world dispute them.” Examples include the prohibition of [eating] pork, meat and milk, the decapitated calf, the red heifer, and the goat which is sent away. 

In this excerpt the Rambam speaks of "finding" the “cause” of the chukim – the actual reasons why they were commanded. In contrast, at the end of Hilchos Temurah [11] he writes: 

Even though all of the chukim of the Torah are [Divine] decrees, as we explained at the end of Hilchos Meilah, it is proper to contemplate them; anything for which you can give a reason, you should give a reason. The Early Sages said that Shlomo ha’Melech understood the majority of reasons for all of the chukim of the Torah. 

All of these matters [in Hilchos Temurah] are to subdue man’s inclination and to correct his character traits. And the majority of the laws of the Torah are but counsels from afar, from the Great Counselor, to correct [our] character traits and to make all [of our] actions upright. Likewise, it is written: “Surely, I have written for you extremely noble things, with counsel and knowledge, to teach you the veracity of true words, so that you may answer words of truth to those who send word to you” (Mishlei 22:20-21). 

Here the Rambam does not speak about finding the “cause” of the chukim. Instead, he states, “anything for which you can give a reason, you should give a reason.” In other words, in contrast to the approach of Hilchos Me'ilah, the approach of Hilchos Temurah is not to attempt to find the actual reason why Hashem commanded us to keep this mitzvah in all of its particulars. Rather, the objective is to ascribe meaning to the structure of this mitzvah in order to transform it from an incomprehensible ritual into “counsels from afar, from the Great Counselor, to correct our character traits and make all of our actions upright.” Whether or not our explanations correspond to the Divine intent is irrelevant. What matters is that our explanation renders the mitzvah into a vehicle for perfection. 

If we were to interpret Chazal’s explanations of the offerings of the tribal leaders as the type of analysis advocated by Hilchos Me’ilah, we would have ample grounds for suspicion. How could the authors of the midrashim know with such precision what the tribal leaders had in mind? But if we understand these midrashim in the sense of Hilchos Temurah, then the ingenuity of these symbolic interpretations becomes a feature, rather than a bug. The more ideas of human perfection we can associate with the details of these chukim and the stronger the association, the better.

These two methods for understanding taamei ha’mitzvos (the reasons for the commandments) ought to be kept in mind whenever one encounters a theory about why the structure of a mitzvah is the way it is. It is easy to dismiss an “explanation” of a mitzvah on the grounds of being speculative if one assumes that the explanation is being offered as a theory about the cause of the mitzvah, in the vein of Hilchos Me’ilah. But if one allows for Hilchos Temurah type explanations, then homiletic creativity is a boon.

[1] Don Yitzchak Abravanel, Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar, Introduction to Chapter 7, Question #8 
[2] Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (2004), pp. 716-717 
[3] Rabbeinu , Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 7:11 
[4] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 7:13 
[5] ibid. Alter adds another explanation: “It is also well to remember that lists and the repetitions they entail constitute an established literary form with its own aesthetic pleasures – as, for example, in the catalogue of the ships in the Iliad or in the cumulative repetitive structures of songs like Had Gadya (‘An Only Kid’) and, more apposite to this catalogue of gifts, ‘On the Twelve Days of Christmas.’” 
[6] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Bereishis 35:22, paraphrasing Shabbos 55b. 
[7] ibid. Commentary on Sefer Shemos 6:26 
[8] In case you’re wondering about the themes of each tribe, here is the Abravanel’s summary: Zevulun’s is about his partnership with Yissachar, Reuven’s is about saving Yosef, Shimon’s is about the order of the Mishkan, Gad’s is about Amram and his descendents, Ephraim’s is about Yaakov’s blessings of Yosef’s sons, Menashe’s is about Yaakov’s transfer of the bechorah status from Reuven to Yosef, Binyamin’s is about the offspring of Rachel, Dan’s is about Shimshon, Asher’s is about Israel as Hashem’s Chosen People, Naftali’s is about the Avos and Imahos; as you can see, some of these themes are directly connected to the identity of the tribe, whereas others are only loosely connected, or are not apparently connected at all. 
[10] Rabbeinu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides), Mishneh Torah: Sefer Avodah, Hilchos Me’ilah 8:8
[11] ibid. Sefer ha'Korbanos, Hilchos Temurah 4:14