Thursday, May 20, 2010

So Whats In A Name?

Have you ever noticed, when the great Torah personalities sign their names to a document they never use their title "rav". They simply sign their first and last names. That's in-keeping with a matter of halacha. One is not supposed to use his/her title when referring to him/herself. To do otherwise reflects pretentiousness. We are not to refer to ourselves using any approbation or title.

In this week's parsha of Naso we have a long section detailing the gifts of the princes of the tribes of Israel on the occasion of the dedication of the Mishkan. Each brought on a different day. Yet each brought exactly the same gift. The Medrash points out that the Princes earlier had lacked a certain humility. When the initial call went out to the people to bring the raw materials for the building of the Mishkan the Princes felt slighted. They thought their donations should be separate, a category of their own, in accord with their stature. When that did not happen they said, "We will wait til the people bring their gifts. And what remains lacking we will supply".
They misjudged the generosity of their own people. Not only did the people not bring too little, on the contrary, they brought too much.The Torah told us that Moshe sounded the trumpets in the camp to announce to the People to stop bringing gifts.

Seeing their mistake, we read this week, that the Princes spontaneously brought the animals for transporting the components of the Mishkan, during the periods of travel. And still later they brought the individual gifts we referred to earlier, with a different Prince bringing each day.
Yet the Torah saw the Princes as culpable for their earlier arrogance, and in the text the Hebrew spelling of Princes, Neseyim, is missing the letter yud.

We might wonder from where did the Neseyim learn that their attitude was wrong-headed. Sure, they realized that they misjudged the generosity of the people. After-all, in the end their was nothing left for them to bring. But I mean, from where did they learn that their attitude was inappropriate? That its wrong to wait for a special invite or stand on title?

I think the Torah text itself may reveal the answer to us. When the pasuk tells us of the initial gift of the Neseyim, the animals used to transport, it provides the following "And the Princes of Israel, the heads of their respective families, those Princes, heads of the Tribes, the ones who stood over the counting came near and brought their offering...."

I understand why the Torah makes reference to the Princes in terms of their stature as family and community leaders. But why do we need to be told now that these are the same men "who stood over the counting". What relevance does their role in the count of the Israelites,of which we have been reading, have to do with the gifts they brought to the sanctuary. What relationship does their role in the count have in their decision to make a spontaneous offering at this time.

I believe the Torah is telling us something profound here. The Neseyim learned the wrong-mindedness of their attitude from their experience in supervising the count of the nation. How was the count conducted? We know that we are forbidden from taking a direct count of heads. Rashi and other commentaries tell us the count was taken via the half shekels contributed by the people. Counting the half shekels revealed the number of the Israelites.

Why are we forbidden from direct counting? Many have suggested reasons for this halachic restriction. Years ago I heard a most beautiful reason that is most compelling. One great Rav said "the reason we cannot count Jews with a direct census is because each Jews is absolutely unique. We can no more sum the total of Jews then sum the total of apples and oranges. Half shekels can be counted. Each and very Jew stands alone,unique and existentially individual."

Perhaps it is this message the Princes came to understand when they over-saw the count of the nation. They came to realize that its not title that gives a person stature. On the contrary, the person gives meaning and stature to their title. Each and every Jew is absolutely unique and brings a unique gift to the world. Even the ordinary Jew can't be counted with his fellow because of his uniqueness. The uniqueness of the Neseyim, no matter how important they are, can be no greater.

The Princes, in standing over the count, came to realize that waiting for an invite based on title misses the point. Yes, they are the Princes, but any honor due them in that role emerges out of who they are, not what title they carry. They are not great because they are Princes but rather they are Princes because they are great. And in coming to know that they also came to know that whatever gift they would have brought would have had its unique meaning because they brought it, not because it was a gift of the Princes perse. In the end we are all unique. And everyones contribution is equally unprecedented.

The lesson here is so important. So often we feel small relative to others who have larger titles in the work-place or community than do we. We tend to measure ourselves based on position, responsibility, or status. Often we exaggerate what we do just to feel more worthy.
Or worse, like the Princes we expect to be treated a certain way because we have title and/or position and become indignant when we don't get the honor we feel we have coming to us.

The Torah teaches us that each Jew is absolutely unique. Title does not make us important. Who we are gives credibility to any title we may have. And its who we are that warrants recognition.

No, we may not call ourselves by our title. Our job is to be authentically who we already are and who we are meant to become. If we are ourselves the honor will be genuine and personal. If we are not, any title bestowed on us from without, be it Rabbi or Doctor, Judge or Member of the Kenesset, ultimately has no meaning other than as a description of our occupation.
Our task is to be our unique selves. Nothing says that more clearly that the simplicity of our given name.

Shabbat Shalom

Shabbat Shalom

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