“God said to Moses, ‘One leader each day shall bring their offering for the dedication of the altar’” Numbers 7:11

By Dr Leya Landau, June 4, 2009

Like the extended genealogies listed in Genesis, the 72 verses in Naso devoted to the painstaking itemisation of the gifts brought by each of the twelve tribes of Israel for the dedication of the sanctuary can make for challenging reading. Each tribe brought its gifts on a different day, but in each case, the 35 items — down to the weight of silver dishes and bowls — were identical.

It is a fundamental principle of biblical interpretation that there are no superfluous words in the Torah. Its language is mainly characterised by its brevity and sparse detail, and rabbinic commentary reflects this: midrashic readings fill in apparent gaps in the biblical narrative; complex legal commentaries pivot on a single word; even the shapes of the letters are considered important.

All of which makes the dense texture and unvarying succession of repeated gift-bearing feel excessive. It would be a mistake, however, to imagine that this is a challenge only to modern sensibilities. The Talmud (Chullin 60b) acknowledges that certain sections of the Torah can, indeed, appear superfluous.

The Midrash (Bemidbar Rabbah 13, 14) engages at length with this question, too. It suggests that the gifts symbolised something different to each tribe. All lived by the Torah, but each inflected its commands with its own unique approach and character. Diversity inevitably generates different perspectives. Accordingly, suggests the Midrash, each tribe interpreted the externally identical gifts through different lenses.

This is a message that resonates more than ever today. Religious practice and tradition can feel monotonous and conformist. The Midrash understood this. A people is united by individual performance of the same practices. But it is strengthened and kept alive by the unique character and approach of different communities and the rich creativity of the individuals within them.

    Last updated: 12:09pm, June 4 2009