Rabbi Mordechai Willig
Rabbi Mordechai Willig

Unified Diversity in Avodas Hashem

The dedication of the Altar (mizbe'ach) was accompanied by the offerings of the princes (nesi'im) of each tribe (shevet). These identical offerings are recorded in twelve separate paragraphs (7:12 – 83). Why did the Torah, so often laconic, repeat the contents of the offerings so many times?

The Ramban (7:2) suggests that the answer lies in the medrash (13:!3 – 14:11). Although outwardly identical, each offering represented the individualized theme of the particular shevet. For Yehuda, the silver bowl symbolized the seas, which surround the world like a bowl, as Shlomo and Moshiach, from shevet Yehuda, rule over the world and the seas.

Yissachar's nasi thought about Torah, symbolized by bread contained in a bowl. And Zevulun focused on the seas, because by sailing the seas he financed Yissachar's study of Torah. Each nasi's intention is enumerated in the medrash.

Therefore, the Ramban concludes, the Torah records the offering of each nasi separately as if the others didn't exist. Since each nasi's intention was unique, there was, in fact, no other offering like his.

The creativity of thought exhibited by the nesi'im serves as a model for the sublimation of the irrepressible human creative spirit for the service of Hashem. It is not necessary to deviate one iota from a specific and complex halachic norm, such as the divinely mandated nasi offering, to be innovative and individualistic.

The voluminous midrashic literature reflects the creativity of Chazal in deriving moral lessons from biblical interpretation. The parshiyos before and after Shavuos, Bamidbar and Naso, contain by far the lengthiest sections of Medrash Rabba, indicating that agada, like halacha, is rooted in the revelation at Sinai.

Although there is no single normative position when aggadic opinions conflict, nonetheless, all interpretations must fall within the bounds of acceptable Torah thought. Generally, the rabbonim of the medrash, Talmudic agad'ta, and rabbinic moral literature, both rishonim and achronim, are halachic scholars, many of whom we recognize from their halachic teachings. Universally, the approach was one of fear and trembling reminiscent of the revelation at Sinai, a prerequisite for proper Torah study (Berachos 22a).

Recent commentary referred to as “new medrash” sometimes fails to meet these criteria. Occasionally these comments run counter to fundamentals of belief. Particularly egregious is the trend to attribute monumental moral and developmental shortcomings to biblical giants, without any proof or precedent. Such comments must be rejected as misinterpretation.


The separateness of each shevet, expressed in the private thoughts of each nasi, finds public expression in their respective banners (Medrash Rabba 2:7). The Emes L'Yaakov notes that the tribal flags were not ordained until Iyar of the second year (1:1), for fear that the accentuation of individuality might lead to disunity.

Only after the mishkan was dedicated in Nissan of that year to serve as a spiritual center around which all of Israel encamped could each shevet wave its own flag without causing disunity. Rather, each shevet made its own unique and distinct contribution to a unified cause, just as the ears and the eyes of a person serve different needs without disunity or strife.

The dedication of the mishkan as a unifying spiritual center required outward uniformity. Therefore, Hashem ordered each nasi to bring an identical offering, even as the Torah recorded each one individually to emphasize the different creative symbolism of each shevet.

The phrase “each man with his own banner” (1:52) is preceded, in zemiros for Shabbos, by “his reward is very great in accordance with his deed”. Every community has its own customs regarding the special food and clothing for Shabbos. “Every person who sanctifies Shabbos as befits him”, as a member of his respective kehila, is rewarded. He must, however, “protect Shabbos from desecration”. Only after the basics of Torah are fully observed is there room for communal, and even individual, innovation. Apart from its intrinsic indispensability, shmiras Shabbos unites a people whose customs in enhancing Shabbos vary so widely.

The Medrash (1:3) likens the flags to those of the angels. Am Yisroel yearned to have flags like the angels, and Hashem provided them so that each shevet should be individually recognizable like the angels. Each angel has a particular mission. Each member and shevet yearned for individuality and creativity in avodas Hashem, just as angels have individual missions. Hashem acceded to the request and confirmed the legitimacy of the motivation – k'dei sheyihyu nikarim, so that each person and group be recognizable.

However, such creative license and individuality is permissible, and even laudable, only for one whose sense of mission reflects that of the angels. They all accept the Kingdom of Heaven, and view their respective roles as critical to the fulfillment of the divine mandate and the sanctification of Hashem. Their words and deeds are unadulterated by ulterior motives.

Indeed there are many legitimate paths in the service of Hashem. The shevatim thought, and later acted, differently. Mutual respect for others whose way of Avodas Hashem differs from one's own is critical (see Meishiv Davar I, 44). The fundamentals of belief, reverence for Torah texts and personalities, and strict observance of halacha must serve as the unifying forces for a multifaceted community.

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