By Rabbi Daniel Glass, June 6, 2008

“One silver bowl, one silver basin”
Bemidbar 7:13

In Judaism, legislation governs everything from how you wage a war to how to tie your shoelaces. Where, then, is the space for self-expression? This week’s portion suggests a pathway into this issue. As a text, the Torah concentrates intense, immense meaning into all of its words and even letters — it takes only 31 sentences to describe the entire creation of the universe…

In this week’s portion, however, we see quite the opposite: it is the moment of the inauguration of the Mishkan (the portable temple that accompanied the Jews in the desert after they left Egypt) and the twelve princes of twelve tribes bring their offerings. Although each prince’s offering is identical, the Torah describes each one in full, taking 72 sentences, more than twice as many as its description of the creation of the entire universe! Why?

Classical music provides a key. Certain pieces of music — the same piece, the same notes — have been recorded hundreds of times. One way of understanding this phenomenon is that the objective, unchanging notes are refracted like a beam of light passing through the prism of the performer’s personality, making each performance a unique expression of individuality. The paradox is that the structure creates the freedom.

Returning to the princes’ offerings, the Midrash explains that, despite the identical outer content of the offerings, each prince in fact attached an entirely different, unique symbolism and inner meaning to his own offering, which is why the Torah describes each one separately.

So often, that which seems to limit self-expression, whether it is the unchanging notes of a piece of music, the identical nature of each offering, or, for example, the wording of Jewish prayers which have remained unchanged for almost 2,500 years, provides the very structure, the language, the opportunity through which the self can be both liberated and expressed.

Last updated: 5:12pm, June 5 2008