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Parshas Nasso (5772)

Individuality and the Penguins

At the end of this week’s long Torah portion (it is actually the longest single Torah portion with 176 verses!), we find the Nesi’im, or tribal leaders, of the Jewish people offering up their personal sacrifices to G-d in celebration of the momentous event of the inaugural service of the Tabernacle that Moses and the Jewish people had built.

The Torah tells us how each of the twelve tribal leaders brought his offering: “one silver bowl, its weight a hundred and thirty [shekels]; and one silver basin of seventy shekels in the sacred shekel; both of them filled with fine flour mixed with oil for a meal-offering; one gold ladle of ten [shekels] filled with incense; one young bull, one ram, one sheep in its first year for an elevation-offering; one he-goat for a sin-offering; and for a feast peace-offering: two cattle, five rams, five he-goats, and five sheep in their first year” (see Numbers 7:13-17).

The major difficulty with these verses is that if you look into the Torah, you will see that each of the twelve tribal leaders brought the identical offering!! So why then did the Torah feel the need to repeat each individual tribal leader’s offering, making an already long Torah portion even longer?

I believe that the reason why the Torah spends an additional 62 verses just to repeat the offering of each of the twelve tribal leaders is to teach all of us an important lesson about individuality.

You might have seen media coverage of a recent gathering of well over 50,000 (!) concerned Orthodox Jews at Citi Field (home of the New York Mets) to discuss the potential dangers of the internet and of exposure to pornography and all the social ills that are readily available to our children with just one click of the mouse.

If you see photos of the huge crowd at Citi Field that evening, you will undoubtedly notice that pretty much every single person in the stands is wearing the same exact uniform - a white shirt and a dark suit and some form of black hat. And you start to wonder how these religious Jews could possibly feel like separate individuals when they’re all dressed exactly the same! Where is the individuality? The uniqueness?

[In Israel, the chiloni, or secular, Israelis, even have a derogatory nickname for the chareidi, or so-called “ultra-orthodox”, Jews because of this uniform of black suits and white shirts they’re always wearing – they call them “penguins”.]

The truth is that, as with most things in life, it is all a matter of perspective. If you see yourself as merely a physical, material being, then the only way you can express your individuality is externally through your body or through your clothing and the fashion statement that it makes.

However, if you understand and appreciate – as the Torah teaches us in many places – that each and every one of us has a unique soul and mission here on this earth, then you will feel that individuality even when you are surrounded by 50,000 Jews who are all wearing the exact same clothing that you’re wearing.

As the great kabbalist, Rabbi Tzadok HaKohein of Lublin, writes in Tzidkas HaTzaddik (#49): “Each and every one of us was put on earth at a particular time in history, with a particular set of character traits, in order to effect a particular tikkun, or rectification, in the world that no one else before him of after him is capable of doing.” Now that’s what I call unique!

The Torah repeats the offerings of each of the twelve tribal leaders in this week’s Torah portion – despite the fact that they each brought the identical offering – to teach us that although the offerings might have looked the same physically, they were as different and as unique as were the leaders who brought them. Each tribal leader put his own soul and individual spirituality into the offering that he brought, so that no two offerings were exactly alike.

From this we can learn an important lesson about what it means to be a true individual.

We can differentiate ourselves from those around us through our physical bodies and our choices of clothing only so much – for at the end of the day, we are all pretty much alike.

However, if we can train ourselves (and especially our children who, as they grow up, will likely deal with self-definition and self-esteem issues) to identify primarily as “soul beings” – each of us with a special, unique spiritual mission to fill here on earth – then no matter what we and those around us wear, we will always be able to retain our own sense of individuality and uniqueness – with the sense of happiness and self-worth that comes with it.

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