One Prince Per Day, One Prince Per Day – Naso 5779

Frans de Waal, the famous primatologist, conducted an experiment which, if you have not seen footage of, you should.

Two Capuchin monkeys are placed in cages, side by side.  They are trained to perform a task in order to receive food.  A monkey gets a small pebble, gives it to the researcher through a hole in the cage, and in return, gets a piece of cucumber.  The two monkeys quickly learn the deal, and quite happily trade pebbles for cucumbers.

Then, a change is introduced.  One of the monkeys, instead of being given a piece of cucumber, receives a grape.  Grapes are way better than cucumbers, I am sure you will agree.

So monkey A gives the researcher a pebble, and gets a cucumber.  Monkey B gives the researcher a pebble, and gets a grape.  Monkey A is intrigued.  “They are giving out grapes now,” she thinks to herself “I want a grape.” So she quickly grabs another pebble and gives it to the researcher—who gives her a cucumber.  She starts to put it in her mouth. Monkey B, meanwhile, gives another pebble—and gets a grape.

At this point, Monkey A takes the cucumber out of her mouth and throws it at the researcher.

Monkey B gives another pebble—and gets another grape.  Monkey A tries again, frantically—and gets a cucumber, which she immediately throws at the researcher.  She then grabs the bars of the cage and starts shaking them in rage, screaming.

At the beginning of the experiment, Monkey A was perfectly happy with cucumbers.  But as soon as she realizes that her neighbor is getting something better, what was once fine becomes unacceptable.  Her happiness is not based on any internal measure.  It depends solely on how much she has relative to Monkey B.

Are human beings any different?  Do we measure happiness on our own, internal barometer, or does our happiness depend on comparing how much we have to how much we think other people have?  We’ll leave that as an open question.

The Torah repeatedly expresses its concern for extreme economic imbalances in society.  We see this in many of the Torah’s laws pertaining to agriculture and tzedakah. A related theme is the inherently competitive nature of human beings.  We see this as far back as the story of Cain and Abel, in which jealousy between siblings leads to the first murder.

We can only experience true happiness when we eliminate the temptations to be jealous of those with more or to dominate those with less.  This is a subtle message in this morning’s Torah portion.

The end of parashat Naso describes the offerings that are brought by chieftains from each of the twelve tribes.  The Mishkan, or Tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites have just completed building, is ready.  Moses has anointed and sanctified it.  There is one final step to be taken before it can be used.  Chieftains from each of the 12 tribes must bring offerings for the Tabernacle’s dedication.  Chanukat HaMizbeach, as it is called.

First, the Chieftains collaborate on a gift of 6 carts with 12 oxen to pull them.  The give them to two of the three Levite clans whose job is to disassemble and carry the Tabernacle through the wilderness. As for their offerings, which are all identical, the chieftains collectively bring: 12 silver bowls weighing 130 shekels each, 12 silver basins weighing 70 shekels each, and 12 gold ladles weighing 10 shekels each, filled with incense. Altogether, that comes to about 63 pounds of silver, worth just over $15,000 at current prices.  The gold would be worth over $68,000. As for livestock, the Chieftains bring the following animals for sacrifices: 36 bulls, 36 rams, 60 he-goats, and 72 yearling lambs.  I’m not sure what those would be worth at a cattle auction—but it is safe to assume that it would be more than the gold and silver.  

In other words, this is a substantial gift.

All of this occurs in the longest chapter in the Torah: 89 verses.  And it is super repetitive.  Our text does not just give us the executive summary.  It details the individual gifts of each chieftain, 12 times in a row. This is not sloppy editing.  The detail and the repetition is quite deliberate.

When the Chieftains bring forward their offerings, it seems that Moses is confused about how he is to accept them.  So God tells him.

וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל־מֹשֶׁה נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם יַקְרִיבוּ אֶת־קָרְבָּנָם לַחֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ׃

The Lord said to Moses: One prince per day, one prince per day—they shall offer their offerings for the dedication of the altar.

Numbers 7:11

נָשִׂיא אֶחָד לַיּוֹם – “One prince per day.”  God repeats this expression to Moses.  We must assume that it is an important detail.  Important enough to turn chapter 7 into the longest in the Torah, and Naso into the longest Parashah of the year.

The 12th century French commentary, Bechor Shor, explains that the Torah could have easily listed one day’s gift, and then summarized the rest by saying something along the lines of “and each of the other princes brought the same gift for the following eleven days.”  The purpose of repeating the detail is to accord honor to each of the princes, equally.  None of the gifts is any more special than the others.

Other commentaries are concerned that, despite getting equal ink time, the Princes will still compete with one another over position and power.  Specifically, what to do about the guy who goes first? That lucky guy is Nachshon, from the tribe of Judah.  This is no coincidence.  Judah will become the dominant tribe in Israel.  King David will one day be born into the tribe of Judah. (Numbers Rabbah 13:8)

Nachshon, destined for greatness, might decide to lord it over the others, saying, “I’m more special than you, since I get to go first.”  After his special day, he might decide to crash the days for the other Princes. So God emphasizes through repetition, Nasi echad layom, nasi echad layom.  One prince per day.  One prince per day.  “No Nachshon.  Stay in your lane.”  (Chizkuni)

That is why, of the 12 times that the offerings are repeated, there is a subtle distinction made for Nachshon.  For all of the other gifts, the text says korbano, “his gift.”  For Nachshon, it adds a single letter, v’korbano.  “And his gift.”

Usually, when we use the word “and,” it is because we want to add something to a list that we have already started.  “Grapes and cucumbers.” So it is strange that the Torah uses “and” for the first offering, and leaves it out for all of the others.  That is like saying “and grapes cucumbers.”

According to the midrash, this premature “and” sends the subtle message that while Nachshon may get to go first—someone has to, after all—his gift could just as well have followed any of the other eleven.

Removing the temptation for competition allows the entire nation, the Princes, and even Nachshon, to celebrate wholeheartedly on each of the twelve days, without feelings of jealousy or inadequacy.  They can experience true happiness.

Remember the Capuchin monkey experiment?  The surprise is that Monkey B, seeing the distress of her cell mate, sometimes stops accepting the grapes as well.  Perceived unfairness diminishes her happiness, even though she is the one who is better off. Can we say the same about ourselves?

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