Nasso (Israel)/Shavuot: Celebrating Israel, celebrating G-d

Connecting Jews with G-d, their nation and their land.

Daniel Pinner

Judaism שבועות

Just over half of Parashat Nasso – 89 verses out of 176 – is devoted to the sacrifices which the leaders of the twelve Tribes offered over twelve consecutive days, beginning “on the day that Moshe finished erecting the Mishkan [Tabernacle] and anointed it and sanctified it and all its accoutrements” (Numbers 7:1).

That day was the 1st of Nissan, two weeks shy of a year after the Exodus.

The twelve leaders of the Tribes all offered identical sacrifices; as the Midrash tells us, “Moshe did not know in which order they should sacrifice – in the order in which they were to travel, or in order of their birth, until G-d Himself told him that they would sacrifice in the order in which they were to travel” (Sifri Bamidbar, Nasso 47).

We will read the order in which the Tribes would travel next week, in Parashat Beha’alot’cha (Numbers 10:12-28), and the order in which they travelled, beginning on the 20th of Iyyar, was:

Judah, Issachar, Zebulun, Reuben, Shimon, Gad, Ephraim, Manasseh, Binyamin, Dan, Asher, Naphtali.

In a very long and intricate section, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:3-14:11) explains why they offered their sacrifices in this order.

When the ten brothers stood before the Egyptian viceroy – before they yet knew that he was their long-lost brother Joseph – who had taken their brother Benjamin prisoner, it was Judah who humbled himself before this powerful despot, referring to himself s “your servant” (Genesis 44:18, 32, 33). “G-d said: Judah! You humbled yourself before your brother who is younger than yourself; as you live! – when the Mishkan will be erected and the Tribes will come to sacrifice, none of them will sacrifice before you. Rather, they will honour you and you are the one who will sacrifice first” (Bamidbar Rabbah 13:3).

Furthermore, Nachshon son of Aminadav, prince of the Tribe of Judah, had jumped into the Red Sea even before it split, ahead of the rest of the nation, thereby demonstrating ultimate faith and self-sacrifice. G-d said to Moshe: The one who sanctified My Name at the Red Sea – he shall be the first to sacrifice.

It was the Tribe of Issachar who, when the Mishkan had been constructed and nothing was lacking, advised the other tribal leaders to bring the wagons in which all the parts of the Mishkan were transported (Numbers 7:3, Bamidbar Rabbah 12:16). Because Issachar merited giving advice, he merited wise counsel which helped Israel defeat the Canaanite general Sisera generations later. As Deborah the prophetess, who had led Israel in that war, sang, “The princes of Issachar were with Deborah, just as Issachar was with Barak” (Judges 5:15). In this merit, their prince, Nethanel son of Zuar, was honoured to sacrifice on the second day.

The Tribe of Zevulun was privileged to be the third to sacrifice because of their love of Torah, which they expressed with their generosity in financially supporting the Tribe of Issachar so that they could devote their entire time and effort to learning Torah and not worry about working for their income (Bereishit Rabbah 72:5, 99:9, Vayikra Rabbah 25:2; Tanhuma, Vayechi 11, et al.)

Now that Judah’s triad (Judah-Issachar-Zevulun, the three Tribes who encamped east of the Mishkan) had finished, Reuben, who was the firstborn of Israel came to sacrifice.

Reuben had hastened to save his little brother Joseph from being killed by his other brothers (Genesis 37:21-22) and Shimon had jealously avenged his sister Dinah’s violation by Shechem and rescued her from impure people (Genesis 34), so Shimon merited offering his sacrifice immediately after Reuben.

And just as Shimon had taken up arms and fought against Shechem to rescue his sister, so too the Tribe of Gad crossed the River Jordan to assist their brothers to conquer the Land of Israel (Numbers 32, Joshua 1:12-18, 4:12). Therefore Gad was privileged to offer his sacrifice the day after Shimon.

And then on the seventh day Elishama son of Ammihud, prince of the Tribe of Ephraim, offered his sacrifice. This was not only “the seventh day” of the sacrifices – it was “the seventh day” of the week, meaning Shabbat. And 40 years later, the Children of Israel would conquer Jericho on the seventh day, on Shabbat, led by Joshua of the Tribe of Ephraim (Joshua 6:15-21).

The next day, the eighth day, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur, prince of the Tribe of Manasseh, offered his sacrifice. Ephraim and Manasseh were brothers, both sons of Joseph. Joseph had been scrupulous in keeping the Seventh Commandment, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13), when he refused Potiphar’s wife’s advances, and the Eighth Commandment, “You shall not steal” (ibid.), by his honesty when dealing with his master Potiphar’s property. And in recognition, the princes of the Tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh offered their sacrifices on the seventh and eighth days with no other Tribe intervening, just as Joseph allowed nothing to intervene between the two Commandments “You shall not commit adultery” and “You shall not steal”.

Then on the ninth day, Abidan son of Gideoni, prince of the Tribe of Benjamin, offered his Tribe’s sacrifice, alluding to the future loci of the Shechinah (the Divine Presence) – the Mishkan in Shiloh, in the territory of Ephraim, which stood for 369 years, and later in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, in the territory of Benjamin.

(The Holy Temple actually straddled the border between Judah and Benjamin, uniting the Tribes, the son of Rachel and the son of Leah; Judah had already offered his sacrifice on the first day.)

Three Tribes yet remained, and the Tribe of Dan was the first of these final three because in the blessings which Jacob had conferred upon his twelve sons, the progenitors of the Tribes of Israel, he had compared Dan to Judah: “Dan shall judge his nation, as one (ke-echad) of the Tribes of Israel” (Genesis 49:16), and the word “ke-echad” (as one) denotes “ka-meyuchad” (like the unique one) of the Tribes of Israel, an oblique reference to Judah, who was unique in having the royalty. So just as Judah was the first among the twelve Tribes, Dan was the first among the final three Tribes.

The next day was the turn of Pagiel son of Ochran, prince of the Tribe of Asher: Dan’s name alludes to judgement (din), and Asher’s name alludes to its ratification (ishur). The dayyan (judge) must ratify (asher) his judgement.

And finally, on the twelfth day, Ahira son of Enan, prince of the Tribe of Naphtali offered his sacrifice, immediately after Asher, meaning “happy”; Asher alludes to Israel’s happiness. The name Naphtali is a cognate of nophet li (a honeycomb for me), and the Torah is described as “sweeter than honey and the nophet, honeycomb” (Psalms 19:11). The Torah is the nophet that was given in 40 days, “li” (for me) having a numerical value of 40. Because Israel’s happiness depends upon the Torah, Naphtali offered his sacrifice after Asher.

These allusions are replete with references to Israel’s national destiny in its Land, which compels the intimate connexion between sacrifices – the pinnacle of worship of G-d – and the Land of Israel.

Torah demands three aspects of Jewish identity: the Jew is commanded to have a connexion with G-d, with the Jewish nation, and with the Land of Israel.

And just as the sacrifices which the tribal leaders brought, and the order in which they brought them, connects worship of G-d with Israel’s national destiny with the Land of Israel, so too does this season of the year – the seven weeks of the Omer from Pesach to Shavuot.

Ever since the yearly cycle of Torah readings was standardised towards the end of the Second Temple era, and the fixed calendar as calculated by Hillel II (Hillel ben Yehudah, Nasi or head of the Sanhedrin) was adopted in 4119 (359 C.E.), Parashat Nasso invariably falls on the Shabbat either immediately before or immediately after Shavuot.

This year 5776, the connexion is closer than usual: as Shabbat Parashat Nasso goes out, Shavuot begins.

Shavuot is the culmination of Pesach. The Jewish nation became free and independent on Pesach with the Exodus, and achieved its destiny of becoming a holy nation with the Giving of the Torah on Shavuot seven weeks later.

Parashat Nasso, telling of the twelve leaders of the Tribes, whose order of sacrifice was intimately connected with Israel’s national destiny in the Land of Israel.

Pesach, 15th-21st Nissan – the eternal celebration of the Exodus, the day 3,328 years ago when Israel became a free nation.

– Also the annual celebration of the beginning of the barley harvest in Israel.

Israel Independence Day, 5th Iyyar – the day 68 years ago that Israel restored its independence on part of its ancestral homeland.

Jerusalem Liberation Day, 28th Iyyar – the day 49 years that Israel not only resisted the most concerted attempt at extermination of Jews since the Holocaust, but also returned to Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria, the heartland of the historic Jewish homeland.

Shavuot, 6th Sivan – the eternal celebration of the Giving of the Torah, the day 3,328 years ago when Israel accepted G-d’s sovereignty and thereby justified its very existence as a holy nation.

Also – the annual celebration of the beginning of the wheat harvest and the season of first-fruits in Israel.