How to be Unique
Based on Parasha U’Likcha by Rabbi Moshe Grylak
by Braha Bender
You have no idea how much they know. They know whether you finished high school. They know your credit rate. They know whether or not you have kids. And I am not talking about the people you allow through the privacy settings on your Facebook.
Companies like [x+1] Inc. track, cross-reference, and statistically analyze vast amounts of data from your internet use to figure out how companies can most effectively manipulate you into buying their products. Personalization technology turns every facet of your personality and value system into a number. You are not a “you”. You are a series of code in the computer of someone you have never met.
Welcome to Parashas Naso, where Torah takes the original stand against dehumanization, taking away the “you” in you and turning identities into numbers.
Twelve Part Mystery
The scene is set grandly. The Mishkan is being inaugurated. Each leader of the twelve tribes is set to bring a royal gift, an offering, to celebrate the extraordinary occasion. The Torah describes their lavish donations at length:
“The one who brought his offering on the first day was Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Yehuda (Judah). His offering was: one silver bowl, its weight a hundred and thirty shekels; and one silver basin…both of them filled with fine flour mixed with oil for a meal-offering; one golden ladle…filled with incense; one young bull, one ram, one sheep…”
Next come the gifts of Nesanel ben Tzuar of Yisaschar (Issachar): “one silver bowl, its weight a hundred and thirty shekels…”
The same verses repeat to describe the offerings of each of the tribe leaders. (BaMidbar-Numbers 7:12-83) Strangely, every single one of the twelve gifts is exactly the same.
Based on this data, [x+1] Inc. would place each of the nesi’im (leaders) in the same demographic segment. To the marketers of the twenty first century, they have no names. They have no faces. The nesi’im, like all other human beings around the world, are nothing but buying machines which need to be fine-tuned until they work like a charm – ka-ching, ka-ching – putting money into the coffers of the advertisers that use them.
But Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher, a thirteenth century Torah commentator, explains that it is the unusual similarity of their donations that conveyed how different and unique each one of those gifts really were.
What Are You Worth?
How do you identify yourself? Are you a home-owner? Do you measure your worth in dollars?
Number crunching corporations measure your worth by your material circumstances, but the Hebrew term for measuring the worth of a human being is kavod, a derivation of the three letter root word kaved, meaning heavy, weighty, important.
How does G-d measure an individual’s kavod quotient? Rabbeinu Bachya gives the secret away:
“The Holy One, Blessed Be He, gives kavod to those who are in awe of Him and relates with kavod to those who relate with kavod to Him. If He had only mentioned and related with kavod to the first and said, ‘This is the offering of Nachshon ben Aminadav’ and continued, ‘And so offered all the other nesi’im each on his day,’ this would have been a lessening in the kavod of [the] others.” (ibid Rabbeinu Bachya)
According to G-d, your true worth is measured by the depth of your relationship with Him. Do you live in awe and honor of the Source, Master, and Purpose of all things? Or are you distracted and emotionally swayed by any of His creations? False honor and transitory political power are very seductive distractions from what true kavod, true human worth, is really about.
This was precisely why the gifts of the nesi’im made such a powerful statement. At this, the most prominent moment every one of those nesi’im might ever have had, it wasn’t about taking care of number one, it was about emulating the real Number One by being sensitive to others.
In contrast with politicians of today, these leaders were not interested in gaining from the downfall of their peers. They did not try to gain favor in the eyes of the people by scrambling to grab any opportunity they could for self-promotion. Instead, every nasi did everything that he could to care for and to protect the honor of all the other nesi’im.
Furthermore, not one of the nesi’im desecrated the holy occasion of the inauguration of the mishkan with a cheap, flashy declaration of his own wealth, ingenuity, or power. At the moment of the marriage between heaven and earth, the nesi’im kept the focus off of themselves and on what genuinely deserved celebration – the relationship the Jewish People shared with the Almighty.
The sensitivity, wisdom and integrity of the nesi’im’s behavior in that moment showed their kavod in spades.
But don’t miss the boat. The point here is that just doing the right thing isn’t enough. The Jewish People were not meant to be mitzvah-doing machines. If the actions of the nesi’im were all that mattered, the Torah could have saved a lot of space by just telling us that they all brought the same thing. Good job. A-plus.
Instead, eleventh century author of the classic Duties of the Heart Rabbeinu Bachya Ibn Pekudei cuts to the quick:
“If [the duties of the heart] were to be undermined, there would be no point to any of the duties of the limbs… [Our Sages] have said that if a person performs a mitzvah but has no intention of doing it for the sake of Heaven, he receives no reward for it.” (Chovos HaLevavos, Introduction)
In other words, what you do is only meaningful if it is an expression of authentic inner content, the inimitable “you” in you. The nesi’im did not receive credit for boringly identical good behavior. Rather, the nesi’im received eternal credit for the individuals that each of them had chosen to become in that special moment.
Their sensitive, heroic behaviors were just the trappings. The real gold was on the inside where nobody but G-d could see. Each one of those twelve men had chosen to use that moment to forge a completely unique individual relationship with G-d. This choice defined them.
That was what made it into the Torah, His map of reality for all time. The flesh inside the beautiful skin of the fruit. The relationship with G-d, the tough calls, the vulnerable and courageous hearts that had made the right choice then, and in all likelihood had made many, many good choices to create the emotional muscle that led up to that great moment.
Because “unique” isn’t what you have or do. Everything in the physical world is replaceable. Sorry to break the bad news, but every action that you perform can be imitated and one day someone will do it better than you. Shlomo HaMelech put it plainly: “There is nothing new under the sun.” (Ecclesiastes-Koheles 1:9) Define your identity based on anything physical and [x+1] Inc. will have you right under their thumb.
What makes each one of us genuinely, electrifyingly unique is that which can’t be seen by the physical eyes. What is that? Well, what are you choosing to be? It’s the hand behind the glove, the “you” that can’t be nailed down by any algorithm or statistic.
As Torah Jews, that’s what we’re aspiring towards, the real thing. A relationship with G-d is not static, it moves. It’s alive. Let’s not just do it, let’s be it. Starting now.