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Mosaic of 12 Tribes

For many readers the detailed list of identical offerings brought by the tribal leaders at the Tabernacle’s inauguration, at the end of Parshat Naso, ranks at the top of cumbersome Torah readings. Many of us simply don’t understand the need for the Torah to list the exact same gift offering, twelve times, as each was presented by the twelve different tribal princes.

With a more careful reading of the entire Book of Bemidbar, however, the repetition can be viewed as part of a larger, inspiring message.

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Sefer Bemidbar brings into sharp focus the vital role of tribal affiliations to the individual Jew. Larger than a family yet smaller (and thus more easily grasped) than a nation, a person’s tribe was the intermediate identification that helped each Jew develop a sense of place in the peoplehood of Israel. This is, in some respects, similar to how many U.S. citizens relate more closely to their state affiliation (rooting for the local sports teams, using local slang, associating with their elected officials, etc.) than to the more amorphous sense of being an ‘American.’

For much of Sefer Bemidbar, the different natures of the tribes are put into sharp relief – the census points out their disparate sizes, how their encampments are assigned reveal the company each keeps (for good or for ill), and the actions of different tribes and/or some of their prominent members brings shame on some and honor to others.

The Torah’s repetition of each tribe’s offering at the inauguration of the Tabernacle, as well as its emphasis on each offering’s being exactly the same, softens the Torah’s treatment of tribal hierarchy. This seemingly superfluous narrative expresses the Torah’s insistence on the basic equality of the tribes.

This message of the 71 verses delineating the twelve princes’ identical offerings is that, despite their significant differences in size, placement, character, and actions, when establishing the first house of prayer of the Jewish people all the tribes brought the same gifts. No one outshone the other.

This symbolism may help us as we struggle in our own era to find ways to work with the various Jewish denominations, sub-groups, and hashkafot. We’d be wise to keep in mind that our vital institutions as well were established by diverse groups of Jews with similar gifts.

{Adapted by Harry Glazer from Rabbi Francis Nataf’s book Redeeming Relevance In the Book of Numbers: Explorations in Text and Meaning (Urim Publications)}

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Rabbi Francis Nataf (www.francisnataf.com) is a Jerusalem-based educator and thinker and the author of four books of contemporary Torah commentary. His parshah column appears weekly in The Jewish Press. Rabbi Nataf is also the author of, "Redeeming Relevance in the Book of Leviticus"