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THE SMALL SYM"PHONIC" MOVEMENT

by Rabbi Elie Cohen    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

Everyone is invigorated upon reading the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel, the first of this week's two Torah portions. The Torah describes how each person was "lifted up by his heart" (Exodus 35:21) to donate to the building of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in the desert.

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Everyone is invigorated upon reading the beginning of Parshat Vayakhel, the first of this week's two Torah portions. The Torah describes how each person was "lifted up by his heart" (Exodus 35:21) to donate to the building of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle in the desert. This excitement, according to our sages, was a product of the fact that the Mishkan's construction testified to the truth that G-d had forgiven them for their enormous sin with the golden calf and that He would return His Divine Presence to their midst.

At the end of this donation procession, the Torah informs us, "The princes brought the shoham stones and the stones for the settings of the apron and the breastplate" (ibid. 35:27). One cannot help but notice the fact that the princes, who were the leaders of the tribes, brought their donation last. Why did the princes wait? Why didn't they set the tone by zealously coming forth at the start of the collection?

If one would want to give the princes the benefit of the doubt, one would suggest that they wanted to honor the Mishkan by "topping off" the donations of the people with their precious stones. However, this does not seem to have been the case. Later in the book of Numbers, after the Mishkan has been built and the people are ready to inaugurate it through the offering of various sacrifices, the princes do come forward first, each presenting a very expensive offering. Why in the construction of the Mishkan did the princes donate last, whereas for its inauguration they are the first in line?

Rashi, probably the most studied of all the Torah commentators, explains that the princes reasoned that they would let the community donate whatever it wanted and afterwards they would "pick up the slack" by contributing whatever was lacking at that point. What in fact happened was that the people completed the donation process, and nothing but these stones was left to be brought. Therefore, having learned their lesson from the construction of the Mishkan, the princes brought their offerings for the inauguration first, making sure to participate to their utmost ability. Rashi concludes that because the princes acted out of laziness in the Mishkan's construction, the word used in this verse for "princes" is written deficient, without the letter "yud".

This final point of Rashi is intriguing. We are used to extra words or phrases in the Torah being explicated to uncover deeper understandings of the text, but how in the world should a missing letter yud tell us anything? The meaning of the word has not changed! The student who would try to tackle this puzzle would analyze how the word is affected by the absence of the yud, but he would be further frustrated by the following point: The word "nesi'im - princes" often contains two letter yuds, and it is unclear as to which one is deemed here to be missing. A brief look in a concordance (a reference book used to find the various appearances of a specific word in the biblical canon) reveals that throughout the 24 books of the Bible, the word "nesi'im" is often spelled with only the first yud and often with only the second. Our verse in Parshat Vayakhel is the only place where it is spelled with no yuds at all. It is the fact that this "nesi'im" is uniquely spelled that indicated to Rashi that a lesson is being taught.

Concerning the more basic question as to how this yud-absence relates to laziness, we turn to the rudiments of Hebrew grammar. In English, vowel sounds are divided into two groups: long vowels (like the "a" in "drape" or "ate") and short vowels (like the "a" in "cat"). In Hebrew, vowel sounds are divided in a similar manner. Of the ten Hebrew vowel sounds, five are long and five are short. In Hebrew, a vowel is called a "tenuah", which literally means a "movement". The term for a long vowel is a "tenuah gedolah" (literally, a "big movement") and the term for a short vowel is a "tenuah ketanah" (a "small movement"). That a vowel is called a "tenuah" is really quite intuitive, since consonants are merely formed by setting the various parts of the mouth into various positions, whereas the true "movement" of a word comes from the vowels which cause a flow from one consonant to the next. (Think of the word "cat" as an example.) Thus, a long vowel in Hebrew is a "big movement" as it creates more movement of sound from one consonant to the next, and a short vowel is a "small movement".

In our case, the missing yud is very operative. Grammatically, it changes the long "e" sound (of nesi'eem) into a short sound (nesi'im). This means that although the word for princes normally has at least one "big movement", in this spelling both "big movements" are converted into "small movements". Hence, this diminishing of movement could very well represent laziness.

Although the princes had a rationale for their behavior, afterwards they realized that there was laziness latent in their motivation. They serve as an example of how we must be honest with ourselves to reveal any problematic motivations behind our behavior, and of how we must then take the initiative to correct our mistakes.

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Rabbi Elie Cohen, who grew up in Atlanta and is an alumnus of Yeshiva Atlanta, is an educator at the Columbus Torah Academy in Ohio.

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