Contributed 2008 by Asher ben Shimon
Torah Portions Archive
R' Nathan's Law
This week's Torah portions Vayak'hel records the actual implementation of G-d's instructions on
how to build the Mishkan (Tabernacle), recounted earlier in the
Parshah of Terumah
After it tells us how the men gave their wood, animal hides and other
materials, and the women spun the wool, linen and goat hair, it tells
us that the tribal heads brought the precious stones for the High
Priest's apron and breastplate and the herbs for the Anointing Oil
and the Incense.
Rashi realized that it was interesting that the account of the
leaders' donations comes after everyone else'. He quotes the
following Midrash to explain:
"Rabbi Nathan said: What prompted the princes to donate for the
dedication of the altar first before the rest of the Jews while in
contrast they did not donate first for the work of the Mishkan?
This is what the princes said, "Let the community donate what they
will donate, and whatever they are missing [i.e., whatever is left to
be donated] we will complete."
Since the community completed everything, as it is said: "And the
work was sufficient", the princes said, "What are we to do?" So they
brought the shoham stones, etc. Therefore, they brought donations
first for the dedication of the altar.
Since at first they were lazy, a letter is missing from their name.
(the words princes in Hebrew is Nesi'im which is usually spelled with
two 'yud's. Here it is spelled with only one 'yud'.)"
There are several questions that come to mind when reading this
First of all the way Rashi poses the question has to be understood.
He asks why by the ALTAR the princes donated first. Since we are not
reading about the altar here, the question should have been
formulated differently. It should have said "Why did they donate last
by the mishkan?"
The answer also needs clarification. Why does Rashi elaborate so much
when it comes to the princes' reasoning? He should have just
said: "Since they were lazy etc." Why is it important for us to know
that they originally intended to give whatever would be missing?
Rashi seems to contradict his own words. First he says that the
community completed EVERYTHING, but then the princes still found what
That in itself needs to be understood. Why didn't the other people
donate those gems and oil?
On the other hand we also have to understand why the princes felt a
need to donate first by the altar as a result of not having donated
anything by the mishkan. Ultimately they DID donate essential items
to the Mishkan.
"Let the community donate what they will donate, and whatever they
are missing we will complete."
What does "whatever they are missing" mean? It should have
said "whatever they don't bring".
When they saw there was nothing left to bring they said: "What are we
to do?" Why didn't they say "what should we BRING?"
In general we have to understand why the Torah is telling us all
this. Isn't this slander? Why is it important for us to know that the
tribal leaders were lazy people? And if they were really so much
lazier than all the other people, why had they been selected to
become the leaders?
R' Nathan's question was why the princes donated FIRST by the altar.
It never bothered him that they donated last by the Mishkan.
Obviously, according to his understanding, the right thing to do for
a leader is to donate LAST. Therefore Rashi brings R' Nathan's
question here, by the Mishkan, to EXPLAIN why here they were last. In
other words, since there it is a question why they weren't last by
the altar, it is understood why they were last here by the Mishkan.
This level of complete dedication of a leader to the people Rashi
discussed earlier in connection with Moshe. Before the Torah was
given, Moshe ascended the mountain and was told by Hashem to instruct
the Jewish people to prepare themselves for the giving of the Torah.
"Moshe descended from the mountain to the people, and he prepared the
Rashi comments: "This teaches us that Moshe did not turn to his own
affairs, but went directly from the mountain to the people. "
To think Moshe would take care of his private business instead of
following Hashem's instructions is absurd. That is not what Rashi is
telling us. Rashi is saying that Moshe did not take care of his own
spiritual preparations before helping the people he was the leader
of. If the giving of the torah was such important an event that
everyone was instructed to be prepared, Moshe, who would be the one
to bring it down from heaven, certainly needed preparation.
Nevertheless he went to the people first before he took care of his
own spiritual affairs.
Similarly the princes took care of the people's needs before their
own. They said :
"Let the community donate what they will donate" - Let them fulfill
their potential - "and whatever they are missing we will complete."
It doesn't say "what they wont bring". As leaders they would make
sure everyone brought whatever was expected from him. Only if they
would be missing something, i.e. they would not have the particular
items needed, the princes would help out.
That explains why after they realized that everything had been
donated they said : "What are we to do?" instead of "What should we
bring?". They were wondering if there was still anything left for
them to do in their role as leader. It was then, after they came to
the conclusion that they had helped all their tribe members reach
their fullest potential, that they started thinking about how to
fulfill their own obligation to donate to the Mishkan.
The Torah says that the community completed everything yet there was
still left what to give.
Although this seems to be a contradiction it can be very easily
explained. The community donated all the necessary materials which
they found among their possessions. However, there were a few items
which they did not have such as the shoham stones. Knowing that they
would have to be purchased, they donated plenty of money to buy the
lacking materials. The princes somehow did have access to the
precious stones and herbs that were still missing. By donating them
however, they did not really fill a need in the Mishkan since the
money to buy them was already there. Therefore they felt as if they
did not really take part in the contribution, which is what prompted
them to be the first on line when it came to the altar.
Based on this explanation that the task of a prince is to first deal
with his following before taking care of his own needs, we have to
understand why by the altar they came first.
Although their waiting too long by the Mishkan is
considered 'laziness', it is hard to say that atonement for that
comes by acting in a way contrary to that of a leader by donating
BEFORE everyone else.
The Mishkan was built after the sin of the golden calf. Hashem said
he would rest His presence in the physical structure of the
tabernacle. Returning G-d's presence to the Jewish people was
therefore dependent on the completion of the Mishkan. As leaders of
the Jewish nation, the princes had to see to it that this essential
need was fulfilled as soon as possible. Therefore, although in
general a leader has to wait till his congregation has done their
best, in this case they had to act different for the benefit of the
people. Since atonement for the sin of the golden calf was depending
on the completion of the Mishkan, the leaders were meant to give
their own donation together with the rest of the people. At the same
time they were of course also meant to urge all their followers to
Since the inauguration of the altar was also for the benefit of the
entire Jewish people, they made up for their original mistake by
donating first, thereby hastening the return of Hashem's presence to
the Jewish people.
What was it that caused the princes not to act in a way they were
supposed to in this specific situation?
They did not take the law of R' Nathan (the one who discusses this
issue) into consideration.
The Talmudic sage R' Nathan is mostly known for a law he instituted.
The law is as follows. When A owes money to B, and B owes money to C,
then C can go directly to A to get the money he owes to B (if it is
the same amount). Although A's connection to C is only through B;
when it comes to paying the debt B is no longer in the picture.
The princes knew they had two obligations. On one hand they had to
take care of their communities, and on the other hand they had to
donate to the Mishkan. They figured that urging their people to give
would be enough to be considered building the Mishkan. After all,
without their involvement the people would possibly give much
This is what they said: "Let the community donate what they will
donate, and whatever they are missing we will complete." In their
minds there was no need for them to give at all unless there would be
According to the law of R' Nathan they were wrong though. Although
the connection of A (the people donating) to C (the mishkan -Hashem)
went through B (the princes urging them to give), the law is that B
is no longer part of the picture.
Only when -beyond their wildest expectations- everything had been
donated, the princes started to feel left out.
Since they had been 'lazy' the Torah took away the letter 'yud' from
The letter 'yud' is a small dot. It shows on self-nullification. This
was something the tribe leaders were missing (in a very subtle
manner). Although they put away their personal interest and totally
dedicated their time and effort to help other people, they still
wanted to receive credit for their actions as leaders. They felt as
if it had been their personal achievement that the people had donated
so much to the Mishkan.
To teach them a lesson, Hashem made sure that EVERYTHING was given so
that the princes would feel left out.
Like everything else in the Torah there is a lesson every individual
can take from this.
Every Jew is meant to be a leader. In general one must always try to
be a role model to his surroundings and be a good influence on his
neighbors. More in particular everyone has to rule his own body to
make it do what it has to and not do what it isn't allowed to. In
order to do this properly, we have to always remember that the
success we have with it is not our own achievement, but as a result
of the help we get from above.
Then we won't make the mistake the princes made then, and suffice
ourselves with making others do good, but we will add in our own
service of G-d till we bring about the coming of Moshiach NOW!
Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll
Stone Edition Chumash and from
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash
Torah Portions Archive
here or Torah for Tots