Every weekday, the Jew places on his head above the brain, and on his arm opposite his heart, a pair of tefillin—black leather boxes containing small parchment scrolls on which are inscribed the basic tenets of our faith, chief amongst them the proclamation:
“Hear O Israel, the L-rd our G-d, the L-rd is one.”
Our sages tell us that G-d, too, dons tefillin. And what is inscribed in G-d’s tefillin?
“Who are like Your people Israel, one nation on earth.”
As we attest to the oneness of G-d, G-d attests to the oneness and integrity of His chosen people.
Yet from its very beginnings, this “one nation” has been comprised of twelve distinct tribes. Jacob had twelve sons; before his passing he blessed them:
“Each man according to his individual blessing.”
He granted Judah the majesty of the lion, Issachar the perseverance of the donkey, Dan the ingenuity of the snake, Naftali the swiftness of the gazelle, and so on. Each tribe was thereby given a distinct vocation and role: Judah produced kings and legislators; Issachar, scholars; Zebulun, seafarers and merchants; warriors came from Gad, schoolteachers from Shimon, olive growers from Asher, shepherds from Menasseh, and so on.
The descendants of Jacob’s children preserved their tribal identities throughout their exile in Egypt. When the Red Sea parted to allow them passage, it split into twelve pathways—one for each tribe. Each tribe was counted separately in the various censuses taken of the people of Israel; each had its own stone on the High Priest’s breastplate, its own flag (in the color of its stone), its designated place in line when the people of Israel journeyed through the desert, and its designated position when they camped around the Sanctuary (mirroring the places that Jacob designated for his sons around his bier at his funeral). Twelve spies, each representing his respective tribe, made up the reconnaissance mission sent in preparation for the conquest of the Holy Land, where each tribe was allotted its own territory suited for its particular vocation; there was even a time when certain restrictions were placed on marriages between the tribes to prevent the ownership of land to pass from one tribe to the other.
The tribulations of exile and dispersion have blurred the delineation of Israel into its twelve tribes; today, most Jews have no certain knowledge as to which tribe they belong. But the concept of “one nation” nevertheless distinguished by various tribal identities remains. While all Jews are bound by the same Torah and the same 613 mitzvot, communities differ in the texts of their prayers, their application of certain laws, and their observance of certain customs. By the same token, the traditional partnership between the “Issachars” and the “Zebuluns”—between those who devote their lives to the study of Torah and those who support them with the proceeds of their business dealings—remains a time-honored institution in every Jewish community.
There are twelve days on our calendar on which we touch base with our tribal identities and the “tribalism” of Israel. These are the first twelve days of the month of Nissan, on which we remember the dedication of the Sanctuary by the twelve tribal heads or nessi’im (nassi in the singular) of Israel.
The Sanctuary was the “Tent of Meeting” which G-d instructed Moses to build to serve as the dwelling place of His manifest presence (shechinah) within the camp of Israel. The Sanctuary accompanied the people of Israel for their 40 years’ journey through the desert, following which it was set up in various places in the Holy Land, until a permanent home for G-d was built in Jerusalem by King Solomon.
As a rule, the service in the Sanctuary did not relate in any overt way to Israel’s division into tribes; it was carried out by Aaron and his sons, whom G‑d had chosen to serve as the emissaries of all the people. Thus, when the Sanctuary was inaugurated on the 1st of Nissan in the year 2449 from creation (1312 bce—one year after the Exodus) and the nessi’im of the twelve tribes approached Moses with the desire to bring gifts in honor of the Sanctuary’s dedication, Moses hesitated to accept their offerings, feeling that an offering by a single representative on behalf of the people as a whole would be more appropriate. But G-d desired that each tribe should be individually recognized and represented in the establishment of His “dwelling” within the Israelite camp, and instructed Moses to:
“Accept it from them…. One nassi a day, one nassi a day, shall they bring their offerings for the inauguration of the altar.”
So for twelve days the nessi’im brought their gifts. On Nissan 1, Nachshon ben Aminadav, the nassi of the tribe of Judah, presented a series of offerings to the Sanctuary; on the 2nd day of Nissan, Nathaniel ben Zuar, the nassi of Issachar, brought his tribe’s offerings; on the 3rd day, it was the turn of Eliav ben Cheilon, nassi of Zebulun; and so on until the 12th of Nissan, when the nassi of Naftali, Achira ben Enan, presented his tribe’s contribution.
Today, we commemorate the Sanctuary’s dedication by reading, on each of these days, a daily section of the “Nassi”—the verses describing the offerings of the day. After recounting the offering brought by that day’s tribe, we conclude with the prayer:
… May it be Your will, L-rd my G-d and G-d of my fathers, that if I, Your servant, am from the tribe of … whose section of the Nassi I have read today in Your Torah, may all the holy sparks and holy illuminations that are included within the holiness of this tribe shine upon me, to grant me understanding and intelligence in Your Torah and my awe of You, to do Your will all the days of my life….
What is most puzzling about the Nassi readings, however, is that they each describe exactly the same offering! On the first day, we read how the nassiof Judah brought:
“One silver dish, weighing 130 shekels, one silver bowl of 70 shekels … both filled with fine flour mixed with oil … a golden spoon, ten shekels in weight, filled with incense … an ox … a ram … a sheep … a he-goat…”
And so on—some thirty-five items in all. On the next day, we read how the nassi of Issachar brought those very same 35 items, identical in every way—to the weight of each vessel and the age of each animal. The same occurs when we read of Zebulun’s offering on the 3rd day, Reuben’s offering on the 4th, and so on to Naftali’s offering on the 12th of Nissan.
Indeed, this is how the account appears in the seventh chapter of the Book of Numbers, from which the Nassi readings are taken. The Torah, which is often so “mincing” with words that it expresses many complex laws with a single extra letter, recounts each nassi’s offerings separately, repeating the detailed list twelve times. Thus it expends seventy-two “extra” verses in its account of these offerings, making the section of Nasso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) the longest in the Torah (176 verses).
Why, then, do we say that each day’s Nassi reading calls forth the unique “holy sparks and holy illuminations that are included within the holiness of this tribe”? On the other hand, if the “sparks” and “illuminations” represented by these offerings are not unique, but common to all the tribes of Israel, why did each tribe bring its offerings separately, and bring them each on a different day?
Six Wagons and Twelve Oxen
In addition to the offerings they brought on the first twelve days of Nissan, there was another contribution made by the twelve tribal heads in connection with the Sanctuary’s inauguration. Six wagons, each with a pair of oxen, were given for the purpose of transporting the Sanctuary. Each tribe contributed one ox and joined with another tribe to bring one of the six wagons. This gift was presented by all twelve nessi’im together on the 1st of Nissan, as described in the “Nassi” reading of that day.
An examination of these two groups of gifts shows that they both address the same paradox: the paradox of a “one nation” composed of various “tribes.” Both these offerings—each in its own way—show how though Moses’ vision of a common offering from all the people of Israel was rejected in favor of individual offerings by each tribe, these, in fact, actually underscore the unity of Israel.
How, indeed, do a people comprised of various tribes, each with its own character, temperament, talents and vocation, achieve union as “one nation”?
One approach is to focus on our “interdependence”: to appreciate that since we share a common goal—namely, to build for G-d: “a dwelling in the physical world”—and since we each have a crucial role to play in the achievement of this goal, our various “tribes” and types complement and fulfill one another to create a single people. In other words, our differences themselves are what unite us. Since the entity “Israel” and what it stands for would be incomplete were any one “tribe” missing from the equation, no Jew is fully Jewish without his relationship with every other type of Jew.
This is what the nessi’im demonstrated with their gift:
“Six covered wagons and twelve oxen, a wagon for each two of the nessi’im, and for each one, an ox.”
True, they were saying, we are comprised of various “tribes,” each distinguished by its particular character. True, we each bring our own distinct contribution to the fulfillment of Israel’s mission. Yet we recognize that while we each have been blessed with something our fellow “tribes” do not have, it is they who provide us with what we lack. Half a wagon is useless—we must combine our gifts in order to have something with which to transport the “Tent of Meeting” in our journey through the spiritual desert that is our material world. And while we may perhaps be able to produce a complete “ox” by our own efforts, it takes two oxen to pull our common wagon.
There is, however, another aspect to the unity of Israel—a vision that sees the many and diverse vocations and personalities that make up the Jewish nation as but the variant expressions of a singular essence. It is not only that all these callings work in tandem to achieve a collective goal (as with the oxen and wagons), but that they are all intrinsically one. The nation of Israel is a single soul shining through a many-faceted prism: while each facet unleashes its individual collage of hues in the ray it refracts, the light they all convey is one and the same.
This is the idea expressed by the second group of offerings—those brought by the nessi’im over the first twelve days of Nissan. As we said, these offerings were all exactly the same, down to the weight of the silver in each plate and the age of each lamb; yet the Torah recounts each offering separately. In its commentary on these verses, the Midrash expounds on the allegorical significance of these gifts. Each and every detail of these thirty-five items—the type of vessel, its material, its weight, the species of the animal offerings, their number, their age, etc.—symbolized something. But to each tribe they symbolized something else. To Judah they represented different aspects of the tribe’s role as sovereigns and leaders; to Issachar, they all pertained to scholarship and Torah study; and so on.
This explains the allocation of these offerings to twelve different days, and their twelve-fold “repetition” in the Torah. The Torah wishes to emphasize that each tribe brought its own experience and perspective to its offering. The very same act was differently colored by the individual nature of each of its actors: each was expressing the same eternal truth via his own personality and lifestyle.
Unity in Two Dimensions
Hence the necessity for both sets of offerings by the leaders of the tribes of Israel.
With their first offering of six wagons and twelve oxen, the leaders of the tribes expressed how our differences themselves, when applied in concert and harmony, unify us as “one people.”
The second group of offerings expressed a more profound unity: that even as we each pursue our divinely ordained role, each living his life on his “day” in his way, we are all doing the same thing. For in origin and essence we are one, and our individual lives and accomplishments are but the many expressions of a single quest.
The first aspect of our unity concerns only the end, but not the means, of our national mission. It sees the common goal that is the ultimate purpose of it all; but the process of life—what we actually do to attain this goal—remains an area of difference and disparity. So even if our present-day efforts are guided by, and permeated with, the vision of our common objective, our actual lives are conducted in apartness and disconnection. The second aspect, however, sees an intrinsic oneness in the process of life itself. Even before our individual paths have converged upon the same destination, it sees in the many ways in which we apply our particular talents and abilities a single process, a single deed, a single endeavor: making our lives a “Tent of Meeting,” a place to house the goodness and perfection of our Creator.
Based on the Rebbe’s talks, Nissan 12, 5740 (March 29, 1980) and Nissan 5, 5743 (March 19, 1983)
Adapted from the teachings of the Lubavitcher Rebbe by Yanki Tauber
. Talmud, Berachot 6a.
. Reuben, Shimon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher, Joseph and Benjamin. The descendants of Jacob’s third son, Levi, who served as priests and priestly assistants (“Levites”) in the Sanctuary, are generally not counted as one of the twelve tribes. Because of their exclusively spiritual role, they were not given a territory of their own in the Holy Land, were not drafted into military service, nor included in any other “earthly” endeavor. On the other hand, Joseph’s two sons, Menasseh and Ephraim, were elevated by Jacob to the status of sons, and the descendants of each constituted a tribe in their own right (Genesis 48:5; see Rashi there). Thus there are two ways of counting the twelve tribes of Israel: when Levi is not counted (as in the division of the Land), Menasseh and Ephraim are counted as two separate tribes; when Levi is included in the twelve (such as in the twelve stones of the priestly breastplate), Menasseh and Ephraim are regarded as the tribe of “Joseph.” (See note 17 below.)
. Genesis, ch. 49.
. Genesis, ibid., and Rashi’s commentary there; see also Moses’ blessings to the tribes of Israel in Deuteronomy 33, and Rashi’s commentary there.
. Rashi on Psalms 136:13.
. Numbers 1:1-47, et al.
. Exodus 28:21.
. Numbers 2:2; see Rashi there.
. Numbers ch. 2; Rashi, ibid.
. Numbers 13:2-15.
. Ibid. 26:55; Joshua, chs. 13-19; see sources cited in note 4 above.
. Numbers ch. 36.
. Solomon completed the building of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem in the year 2935 (826 bce), where it stood for 410 years, until its destruction by the Babylonians in 3338 (423 bce). It was rebuilt by Ezra in 3412 (349 bce), and again destroyed, by the Romans, in 3829 (69 ce). Daily we await its rebuilding by Moshiach and the restoration of G-d’s revealed presence in our world.
. See notes 2 and 17.
. Ohr HaChaim on Numbers 7:10.
. Numbers 7:5; ibid., v. 11.
. On the 13th of Nissan we read the verses (Numbers 8:1-4) describing G-d’s instructions to Aaron regarding the lighting of the Sanctuary’s menorah, representing the priests and Levites of the “13th tribe” of Levi (see note 2 above).
. Midrash Tanchuma, Nasso 16; Tanya, ch. 36.
. Numbers 7:3.
. For a full interpretation, see Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 13 and 14.
. Likkutei Sichot, vol. XXIII, pp. 53-57.