The princes' gifts to the Tabernacle illustrate important principles of leadership and methods of balancing personal and communal needs.
They were surprised that the people brought as much as they did; at the end of the process there was very little left for them to donate. This, according to Rashi, is the reason why they hurried to bring the gifts of the wagons and oxen; to fill a gap that they perceived, before one of the people did. The nesi'im wanted this opportunity, which, until now, because of their leadership style, they had not had, to bring something of their own for the Tabernacle.
This model of leadership, wherein those in charge leave room for their 'followers' to act, and see themselves as being there only to do whatever is left undone, is a fascinating one. I have often thought about parenting in this way--the challenge is to leave space for your kids to do the right thing on their own. The Jewish people, at this early sage of their nationhood, were getting some very good parenting.
A former teacher of mine, Rabbi Jay Miller, once compared the Ari's (16th century Zfat) Kabbalistic model of the creation of the world to parenting. God has to do an act of tzimtzum--shrinking, contracting--in order to make room for something other than himself to exist--that something being the created universe. Parents, too, must do an act of tzimtzum in order to leave space for their children to function and grow. The difficulty that the nesi'im had with this, when they saw that their 'children', the people of Israel, had gone ahead and done just about everything for themselves, leaving them to scramble to try and find some area where thy could make a contribution, is interesting and beautiful.
There is also the theme of egalitarianism, and brotherhood. The Levites are assisted in their role in the Tabernacle by the rest of the people; the nesi'im, representing their tribes, act sensitively, and in harmony, to make the Levites' work easier. In this way, the entire nation has an ongoing stake in the day-to-day functioning of God's Temple. The S'forno (15th-16th century Italy) also points out that having every two nesi'im give one ox is another sign of cooperation and brotherhood.
After this section, the nesi'im AGAIN approach Moses, with yet ANOTHER voluntary gift. Each one of the twelve nesi'im brings a series of animal and vegetable sacrifices to be offered on the altar, along with vessels that they donate to the Tabernacle. Once again, Moses is nonplussed, until God gives him the go-ahead, and orders each one of the nesi'im to bring his sacrifice separately, one day at a time. What is the purpose of this second round of unbidden gifts? Why did the nesi'im bring them? What need do they serve, what hitherto un-thought role do they play?
Rashi has a beautiful explanation: "After they offered the wagons and cattle used to transport the Tabernacle, their hearts moved them to volunteer these sacrifices to dedicate the altar." The language Rashi uses is highly suggestive. If their first batch of giving--the wagons and the oxen--was essentially a response to a real need that the Levites had, this second round is an answer to an inner need on the part of the nesi'im to give. The nesi'im inspired themselves: they were moved by their unselfish, creative, sensitive and brotherly act of giving to give more.
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