In our previous article, we began exploring the mistake and tikkun of the Nesiim. To review, during the chanukas haMishkan, the Nesiim from each Shevet contributed spectacular gifts toward the Mishkan (Bamidbar, perek 7). Earlier in the Torah, the Nesiim are criticized for their inappropriate approach regarding their donations toward the building of the Mishkan (Rashi, Shemos 35:27). They delayed in donating gifts for the Mishkan, and in the interim the Jewish people donated everything needed for the Mishkan, leaving the Nesiim with nothing to give.
The Nesiim are criticized for their lack of alacrity in donating to the Mishkan, and it is apparent that they realized their mistake, as they tried to rectify it by contributing elaborate gifts during the chanukas haMishkan. However, we must ask what the Nesiim did that was so improper. In order to understand this episode, we began exploring the nature and meaning of chesed, loosely translated as kindness and giving.
Two Forms of Chesed
Beyond the varying degrees and levels of chesed, the Maharal explains that there are two distinct forms of giving. The first is responsive, when a person gives only that which is needed. This means giving only when a person sees a need or when someone asks for help. The drawback of this is that it is only done because it is compelled; it is caused by an external need. While giving in this situation can still be done with pure intentions, there is a possibility that the giving is motivated by guilt or to avoid feeling the emotional pain of another person’s lack. If you see a person in dire need of help looking much less fortunate than yourself, 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.
The second form of chesed is proactive, i.e., when you give purely for the sake of giving. This reflects a compelling desire to give and help others. In this case, there is no external cause for giving; rather, it stems from a deep internal desire to expand outwards and help others. Instead of waiting for people to come to you, you proactively seek out opportunities to help. In a deep sense, this form of chesed does not stem from someone else’s need to receive but from your internal desire to give. You will therefore happily give to someone, even if they aren’t in need and even if they already have what you wish to give them.
Avraham: Ish Chesed
This is why Avraham is the ultimate paradigm and exemplar of a baal chesed. The four walls of his tent were continually open, declaring to travelers that they were always welcome. On the third day after his bris milah, the most painful point, he sat outside in the blazing sun, waiting and hoping for travelers whom he could help. Rashi explains that Hashem actually made that day unusually hot with the specific intent to discourage people from traveling (Bereishis 18:1); this way, Avraham could have a day off hospitality, to rest. However, it was more distressing for Avraham to be unable to perform chesed than to help guests while in this physical state. Hashem therefore sent him the three angels as guests. Avraham had a constant, overwhelming desire to perform chesed. As such, when Sodom was destroyed and travelers stopped coming his way, Avraham moved his tent so that he could continue hosting guests and perform chesed.
There is an interesting question that arises from the story of Avraham and the three malachim. Much attention is given to Avraham’s exemplary chesed when he fed and hosted these three malachim. However, according to many opinions, these angels did not become human, even when encountering Avraham, and therefore had no need for the food that Avraham served them. And even according to the opinions that they did eat the food, it was simply out of courtesy. Why, then, is this the ultimate paradigm of chesed?
Based on what we have said, the answer is 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 to give stem completely – and proactively – from within Avraham, but Hashem gave him a situation in which he could give so purely that the recipients didn’t even need that which he gave them. In other words, he was able to give without being compelled by the recipients’ need.
Examples of Proactive Chesed
The ultimate paradigm of proactive chesed was Hashem’s decision to create the world. There was no external recipient when Hashem created the world, there was no “need,” and there was no external force pressuring Hashem to “give” the world existence. As the Rambam, the Ramchal, and others explain, Hashem’s decision to create the world was spontaneous and proactive, stemming only from His desire to give.
This is also the Jewish approach to spirituality. We don’t wait for spirituality to come to us; we proactively seek it out. We don’t let time wash over us; we actively ride the waves of time. For the Shalosh Regalim, all of Klal Yisrael travel toward Yerushalayim, proactively seeking out holiness from the point of its physical origin, the Beis HaMikdash. On Friday evening, we proactively greet Shabbos through Kabbalas Shabbos. This practice stems from the great sages who used to go out into the fields to greet Shabbos and bring it in (Bava Kama 32b). They also accepted Shabbos early, in order to play an active role in bringing Shabbos in, and we emulate this as well.
Understanding the Nesiim
We can now understand the mistake, and the subsequent rectification, of the Nesiim. When it came to the building of the Mishkan, the Nesiim were reactive. Their calculation may have been rational and sound, 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 eagerly give to the Mishkan – for the sake of giving – even if there may be overlap between the gifts. The practical concern of specific inventory can be dealt with at a later stage. By waiting until the end to give their gifts, the Nesiim displayed a slight lack in their love for Hashem.
The Nesiim’s Tikkun
The Nesiim rectified their mistake at the chanukas haMishkan when they gave their gifts spontaneously and proactively. Whereas they gave last when it came to the building of the Mishkan, they gave first at its inauguration.
But there is another unique feature of these gifts. The commentators note that all twelve of the Nesiim gave identical gifts at the chanukas haMishkan. Yet, the Torah enumerates each gift individually, repeating the same exact description over and over again, which seems redundant and unnecessary. This, in fact, was their ultimate rectification. Their sin lay in being reactive; over-calculating and worrying about overlapping their gifts; their tikkun came specifically through proactivity, giving the same exact gift, an explicit expression of repetition, and a true expression of giving for the sake of giving.
There is an additional layer to this as well. While it appears that each of the Nesiim gave the same gift, that is true only on the surface level. The Midrash explains that while each Nasi gave an identical gift, each gift reflected the unique spiritual essence of the Nasi’s Shevet. The internal meaning of each gift was fundamentally different. This idea is essential to our own lives as well. We say the same words of Shemoneh Esreh three times a day, but each and every tefillah should be unique. We say the same physical words, but each time we have the opportunity for a new and elevated internal experience of connection and meaning. The thoughts and feelings that infuse the words of this prayer will never be the same as those that shape another prayer.
This idea is deeply connected to the one gift that the Nesiim did end up giving originally. After Klal Yisrael donated everything for the Mishkan, there was one gift left for the Nesiim to give: the Avnei Milu’im, the twelve beautiful stones that were placed within the Choshen (breastplate worn by the Kohen Gadol). Commentators explain that the twelve unique stones represent the twelve Shevatim, each destined to fulfill their own unique role and purpose. All the Shevatim come together to create a single klal, where the individuals come together so brilliantly that the result transcends the sum of its parts. So too, each of us is destined to fulfill a unique role in the world, to embark on our own unique journey to greatness, and to become part of something infinitely greater than ourselves.
The gifts of the Nesiim teach us a powerful lesson: the stones of the Avnei Milu’im are each unique and separate on the surface, but they come together into a collective whole, reflecting the deeper spiritual oneness of Klal Yisrael. The second gifts of the Nesiim appeared the same on the surface, while their uniqueness lay within. The physical surfaces mirrored one another, but internally, each Nasi had their own unique intentions and thoughts. These two sets of gifts teach us both sides of an essential principle:
- Things that appear the same on the surface can be entirely unique within.
- Even that which appears individual, unique, and separate on the surface can connect into the deeper oneness of a greater whole.
When you wake up in the morning, how do you start your day? Are you reactive to that which comes your way, or do you proactively pave your path? Success does not come by accident; it comes from mindful planning, intense commitment, and consistent execution. If we live a reactive life, we will wake up one day and wonder why we are so far from our desired destination. True success requires proactivity, 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 full of love that we proactively seek out ways to contribute to those around us.