Yisroel Isaacs.jpg

On the list of items and materials required to produce the priestly uniforms, there was one thing that was particularly difficult to obtain. To follow the plans for making the choshen (breast plate) and ephod (apron), the craftsman would need a list of several rare gem stones. How would they obtain the specific stones on the list in the middle of the desert? The Torah says that the 12 wealthy tribal leaders personally contributed them. But there is something peculiar about the terminology that the Torah employs in reference to these leaders. Normally, it refers to them as the leaders of the people, the leaders of the tribes or the leaders of Israel. In this context, however, they are called simply the Nessiim, the leaders. Why is their title simplified?

Rabbi Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941) in his Torah Temimah, writes that this is what the Talmud intends to resolve with its midrashic interpretation of the word Nessiim. The word can have a completely different meaning than “leaders” — it can also mean “clouds” (see, for example,

Tehilim 135, recited weekly in the Shabbat morning service). This interpretation states, in anticipation of the current experimental Amazon drone delivery program, that the gemstones were not provided by natural, human means but rather miraculously — they were delivered to the leaders with the clouds (Yuma, 75a). The Torah is intentionally ambiguous when it doesn’t refer to the leaders here with the typical specificity (e.g. leaders of Israel), but rather uses the general term nessiim to allude to the miraculous way they obtained the stones in the first place.  

The double meaning of the word nesiim may allude to the theological idea of Divine providence. The Torah intentionally provides a mixed message. On the one hand, the Torah’s portrayal of the donation of the tribal leaders does not explicitly reveal that the stones arrived via anything other than natural means. On the other hand, it alludes to the role of supernatural means of delivery.  This is perhaps representative of the Torah’s view of our personal and national histories and stories. The people, experiences and challenges that we encounter throughout our lives always appear natural, random or at best coincidental. The Torah’s lesson is that these are all actually brought upon us by “the clouds” — sent by Heaven as some type of opportunity, reward or challenge.

The idea that God runs the world behind the scenes has particular importance to the modern Jew. Jewish observance has undergone a significant shift in the last generation. In many ways, the contemporary religious community is more halachically observant than in prior generations. In in the past, most Jewish observance was based on tradition — as mentioned more than once or twice in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Observance based on tradition is generally not as strict. Haym Soloveitchik has pointed out that the depth of the Jewish heart, whether we see the world through a prism of basic Jewish attitudes, beliefs and paradigms, follows an inverse trajectory. In the past, despite less detailed observance, we felt a palpable sense of the Almighty in our lives. This came out in the tears we shed in shul on the Days of Awe. Today, even when we have greater knowledge of the technical details of how to be Jewish, the simple faith that was once obvious, including this concept of God’s providence, has become a novelty. 

The idea that events are the amalgamation of various and numerous random forces can cause anxiety and uncertainty. Looking at those same events as part of the Almighty’s miraculous master plan for one’s self and for mankind can bring much calm and confidence. It is time to bring this message of the nesiim (leaders/clouds) back into our hearts. JN


Rabbi Yisroel Isaacs is director of the Greater Phoenix Vaad Hakashruth, associate rabbi at Beth Joseph Congregation and director of the Jewish Enrichment Center.

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