Thursday, May 28, 2015

Naso, Bamidbar. The Korbanos of the Nesiim

The Medrash and the Ramban are famous - Why does the Torah repeat, twelve times,  identical lists of korbanos that each Nassi brought?  Because although each Nassi brought a set of Korbanos that was physically identical with those of his peers, every item they brought meant something unique to each individual Nassi,each item symbolized different things to the different Nesiim.  The כבש בן שנתו that Reuven's Nassi brought was meant to express a thought that was very different than the metaphorical meaning of the  כבש בן שנתו that Shimon's Nassi brought.  Although they were physically identical, the underlying motivation and intent was different, and in Korbanos, the kavana is as important as the physical form of the items.  The similarity was only superficial.

This is well known.  But very few people realize the amazing lesson about ידיעה ובחירה that is implicit in this story.

It is obvious that the identical korbanos were the right thing to bring- that they were mechavein to Hashem's will.  So that means that Hashem intended for every one of them to bring precisely קערת כסף אחת שלשים ומאה משקלה מזרק אחד כסף שבעים שקל בשקל הקדש שניהם מלאים סלת בלולה בשמן למנחה כף אחת עשרה זהב מלאה קטרת פר אחד בן בקר איל אחד כבש אחד בן שנתו לעלה שעיר עזים אחד לחטאת כג ולזבח השלמים בקר שנים אילם חמשה עתודים חמשה כבשים בני שנה חמשה.  But their decisions about what to bring were totally independent.  That means that although their ultimate choice was predestined, each individual made his decision on the basis of a lifetime of personal experience and hard-earned wisdom and spiritual achievement that informed his choice about what was the best and most appropriate korban they could offer, both as individuals and in their capacity as nasi of their shevet.

You have these twelve separate individuals, scattered all over the Machaneh Yisrael, sitting in their tents and pondering what the best and most meaningful Korban they could bring would be, and these twelve people decided, for twelve different sets of reasons, to bring exactly the same korbanos.   Visualize Nachshon ben Aminadav sitting on the east side of the Machaneh Yisrael, carefully thinking about what he should bring, and seven miles to the west is Alisha ben Amihud, thinking about the same thing, and the light bulb goes on in both tents- and ten other- that they should bring "kaf achas....." Biologists would call this convergent evolution.  In Chazal, it's reminiscent of the story in Sukkah 53a where Shlomo HaMelech quickly sent his two scribes to Luz because he heard that the Malach HaMaves was after them, and ironically it turned out that the Malach HaMaves had been told that he could only take their lives at the gate of the city of Luz.  It was Shlomo's personal choice, but what he chose was predestined and inevitable.

The Satmarer Rov takes this approach, with a slightly different perspective.  See his Divrei Yoel on this parsha, starting on page 147, paragraphs ו) ויהי ביום  and  וביארנו הענין, and then page 151 beginning from  ומעתה.  He uses it to illustrate the classic yediah/bechira idea of foreknowledge not contradicting free will because the foreknowledge is not based on an understanding of the inexorable and inevitable consequence of the facts of the present, but rather a supernatural awareness of what the future holds; he sees it as meaning that each person has innate proclivities and experiences which encourage (ensure? predetermine?) certain behaviors.

It's interesting how easy it is to overlook this powerful example of yediah u'bechira. Ironically, some of our readers will come away from this thinking that they knew it all along.  That's what the Briskers want in their Divrei Torah.  Before you know the pshat, it was impossible to see.  Once you know it, it appears to be self-evident.
 אמר רבי בנימין הכל בחזקת סומין עד שהקדוש ברוך הוא מאיר את עיניהם

Thanks to a comment, I realized that this concept is commonplace.  We ask for Siyata dishmaya in psak, לאסוקי שמעתתא אליבא דהלכתא.  This is seen in many places in Chazal, such as the famous example of Rava in Gittin 77b:
אמר ליה רב עיליש לרבא מה שקנתה אשה קנה בעלה איכסיף לסוף איגלי מילתא דארוסה הואי
And in Mishlei 16:10, קסם על שפתי מלך במשפט לא ימעל, the Gaon says 
מאן מלכי רבנן ששפתותיהם כמו קסם אף שיטעו לפי השאלה, מ"מ במשפט לא ימעל פיו כלומר בדין עצמו לא יטעו כי בסוף יתגלה שלא כן היה המעשה ופסקם אמת
and the Chazon Ish (Igros I:33)
השגחתו ית' הוא בכל דור ודור על היחידים ששתלן בכל דור להורות חוקיו ומשפטיו לישראל, וכשהן מעמיקין בהלכה, הן בשעה זו כמלאכים ורוח ממרום שורה עליהן, ועל פיהן נקבעו הלכות באישות החמורה, ובשבת ובשאר הלכות חמורות
The point is that there can be siyata dishmaya to reach a true psak halacha, even though the person goes through his own reasoning, and might even be misinformed as to the facts of the case. The connection to the Nesiim is that if you think of the choice of nedavos as halacha, the fact that they came to a particular conclusion is just an example of סייעתא דשמיא  לאסוקי שמעתא אליבא דהלכתא.
I don't understand the mechanics, but this seems to be the simple explanation of the Nesiim, as the Satmarer explains.


  1. Dear me, I find much of this post to be quite confusing, and it is quite unclear what is exactly the point that is being made. Furthermore:
    1) You seem to assume that because the nesi'im made the same choices, this means that their choices were all predestined, and they could not have made any other choice. I do not see any compelling reason to make that assumption.
    2) I similarly do not understand the way you are characterizing what happened with Shlomo Hamelech and the Malach HaMaves. Why do you assume that he had no choice but to send the two scribes to Luz? Perhaps he had a choice to send them somewhere else, but if he had done so, there would have been another incident that would have caused them to go to Luz so that the Malach HaMaves could do his work with them there?
    3) In the next paragraph, you write two sentences about the Satmarer Rav's approach that seem to contradict one another. First you write that foreknowledge does not contradict free will because the foreknowledge is not based on an understanding of the inevitable facts of the present, but rather on a supernatural awareness of the future. But immediately afterwards, you write that this means that each person has proclivities and experiences which ensure/predetermine his future behavior. Lichorah, this second part directly contradicts the first. For the first statement means that a person's choices are not predestined, but rather, he has free will to choose. (And foreknowledge is supernatural.)

  2. Thank you for your thoughtful comments!
    You are not alone. Many people find being confused an unpleasant experience, especially if one is used to certainties. I sincerely encourage you to read something less confusing. Perhaps "The Little Medrash Says"?
    1. Yes, I do assume that. If you don't see any compelling reason to make that assumption, I see that as a compelling reason to assume that you are a dunce.
    2. The fact that the Malach Hamaves let Shlomo Hamelech overhear his troubles is clear evidence that he was being used as a means to an end.
    3. The problem is in the Satmarer's words, not mine, which is why I said "which encourage (ensure? predetermine?) certain behaviors". I believe that a man is given proclivities and placed in circumstances that make certain outcomes likely. Certain? I don't know.

  3. 1) The reason why your original post is confusing is because it seems that in your usage of the word "predestined", you are assuming the conflation of two things, which are 1) the fact that a particular outcome was predestined (e.g. that the identical korbanos were brought, or that the 2 scribes were to die in Luz), and 2) that a person's choice that (as it turned out) brought about that outcome was inevitable, and could not have been otherwise (e.g. that the nesi'im each chose to bring those particular korbanos, or that Shlomo chose to send the scribes to Lud). To me (- "dunce" though I may in fact be -) it is obvious that these two things are separate and distinct, and it is a mistake to conflate them. For, as I mentioned before, Shlomo could have made a different choice (e.g. not to send them to Luz, or to send them somewhere else, or what-have-you), and the outcome of the two scribes dying in Luz could have still ended up happening, via a different set of intervening circumstances. Similarly, the nesi'im were not forced to choose as they did; there was a possibility of them making other choices, and yet the outcome could still have turned out (through any number of possible intervening circumstances) that the korbanos brought by the nesi'im would all be kaf achas, etc. So, the fact that an outcome is "pre-destined" does not compel any particular individual to make any particular choice. This perspective is the same as the approach to explain why it made sense to punish Par'oh for enslaving Bnai Yisrael, even though they were "pre-destined" to experience slavery, for he was not personally compelled to make the choices that he did; he could have chosen otherwise, and the "pre-destined outcome" of slavery would have been fulfilled in another manner.
    2) If your point in the post is only to say that Divine foreknowledge does not contradict free will, you could make the same point even if the nesi'im each brought different korbanos. Indeed, this is true in all generations and regarding every person's choices. The general principle is that Divine foreknowledge of our future choices does not compel us to make those choices, in the same way that human knowledge of the past does not compel our past choices. (Agav, this is the point that the Satmarer Rov concludes with.) This concept can be summarized in the familiar phrase from Pirkei Avos, הכל צפוי והרשות נתונה.
    3) Perhaps you have a different perspective on yediah and bechirah that I am not picking up. If so, I would appreciate if you would clarify what it is. Additional witty ad hominem insults are optional.

  4. Thank you.
    Regarding the Nesi'im. Here you have twelve individuals who put deep thought into choosing what offerings - which could have been any number of any objects of value and beauty which in some way relate to the inauguration of the Mishkan - would best express their personal hashkafos and hakaras hatov and hopes. They each find the perfect set of korbanos. Each one feels that their choice, both what objects and the number, is exquisitely personal. All twelve choose exactly the same thing. How did this happen? Was their bechira taken away? Were they unwitting puppets whose thought and choice process was merely an illusion, and אַשְׁלָיָה? No. Their choices were the product of pure bechira chofshis. And still they all chose the same objects in the same quantity. The chances of this occurring randomly are laughably infinitesimal. So what would you call this?

    Please forgive the respectful correction, but the term ad hominem is inapposite. A prerequisite for ad hominem insult is an identity. In this case, it is an insult ad sine nomine.

  5. Nothing is random, everything is בהשגחה פרטית, we are all playing our part and making our (free) choices as part of a huge orchestra whose strings are being pulled by the great Conductor above. Yes, I agree that we are not usually privy to visual examples of this, and incidences such as the nesi'im all choosing the same set of korbanos give us a special opportunity to wonder at the mysteries of the universe that are beyond our daily experience.

    1. Our discussion made me realize that the story of the Nesi'im is not a rare event. What seems like a singular and miraculous coincidence that is inconsistent with bechira chofshis is generally accepted as taking place on a daily basis. I have updated the post to incorporate this.