Parashat Naso

“And now, gentlemen,” said d’Artagnan, without stopping to explain his conduct to Porthos, “All for one, one for all–that is our motto, is it not?”
“And yet–” said Porthos.
“Hold out your hand and swear!” cried Athos and Aramis at once.
Overcome by example, grumbling to himself, nevertheless, Porthos stretched out his hand, and the four friends repeated with one voice the formula dictated by d’Artagnan:  “All for one, one for all.”
From The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, Chapter 9.

When I speak to the staff at the regional medical center on the subject of treating Jewish patients, one of the first things I say to them, is that Jews, like all of their patients, have to be treated as individuals.  For we come in different denominations, with differing views on what our tradition teaches.  This has been true for centuries.  The Pharisees held that the soul lives on after death; the Sadducees held the opposite.  Moving through history, there are the hasidim and mitnagim (opposers) and the Litvaks and Galitzianers.  Today, Jews are divided into a number of movements, or denominations, including one for whose adherents, God need not exist.

It is one thing for different groups of Jews to hold differing views on issues.  Hillel and Shammai did; yet, they taught us that Jews can disagree without being disagreeable – mahaloket shehi l’sheim shamayim – their “disagreement was for the sake of heaven” (Mishnah Avot 5:17), because each one’s views were eilu v’elu divrei Elohim hayyim hein – “these and those are the words of the living God” (Talmud, Eiruvin 13b).

These days, however, Jews, take their individual differences so seriously that, individually and as a group, vilify one another, some even claiming that their fellow Jews are not Jewish.  Perhaps we all should pay particular attention to the final section of this week’s parashah, which we also read during the eight days of Hanukkah, and which demonstrated how Jews can work together for a common goal.

The tribal leaders of the Israelites, whom the Torah variously describes as the nesi’ei yisrael (princes of Israel), the rashei beit avotam (heads of the ancestral houses), the nesi’ei ha’matot (the princes of the tribes) and heim ha’omdim al ha’pikudim (those in charge of enrollment), jointly brought an offering before God – six carts, one for every two of them and twelve oxen, one for each chieftain.  Why only six carts?  Sforno explained that the shared gifts were a reflection of the brotherhood between those chieftains; that within the Sanctuary, unity existed.

Thereafter, the tribal leaders presented dedication offerings for the altar.  God instructed that one chieftain should present his offering each day, rather than a joint presentation by all twelve.  But in which order?  The Torah records no squabbling among the tribes or their leaders; no cries of “me first”.  Midrash Rabbah (Naso 12:18) suggests that they all looked to Nahshon, who led them into the Reed Sea, while Rashi explained that God had instructed that the order of presentation should be the order in which the tribes were to march  (Numbers 2:9f., and Rashi).

Each chieftain’s gifts were identical in every respect and every one was spelled out in detail each day in the Torah text, as each chieftain took his turn to make his presentation.  This repetition, day after day, Ramban told us, demonstrates that each chieftain’s gifts were viewed as equal in God’s eyes; that one chieftain’s honor should not, and did not, impinge on the honor of the others.

All is not perfectly equal, of course.  The Torah makes clear that certain tasks and benefits are reserved for the Kohanim – Aaron and his sons – and for the other members of the Tribe of Levi.  Some of those distinctions continue to this day.  The Talmud instructs us that when reading the Torah in public, a Kohein reads first, followed by a Levi, and then by Israelites – and, yet, many modern congregations have abandoned this order of precedence.  But among the Israelites – the rest of us – there should be no distinction; no discrimination.  The honor of each and every Jew, like those of our ancestral chieftains, should not impinge upon the honor of any other.

We each may have our halakhic differences.  We each may interpret Torah through a different lens.  But in the end, are we not all equal in the eyes of God?  And if so, when it comes to dealing with one another, shouldn’t Jews today follow the example set by our ancestral chieftains and be “all for one, one for all”?


Rabbi Michael G. Kohn was ordained at the Academy for Jewish Religion and serves as the Rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Meriden, Connecticut.