Nobility? Responsibility! by Ruchi Koval
My elderly German-Jewish piano teacher was an intimidating presence to this young teenager. Her home, heavy with German wood and the smell of furniture polish, featured thick drapes and four pianos. She wanted me to hone my Mozart; I wanted to play by ear. She wanted me to practice an hour each day; I wanted to flit around with my social posse.
“Noblesse oblige,” she told me, one cold Thursday afternoon. “Those who are the nobility have an obligation, a responsibility.” If you have a talent for piano playing, she implied rather unsubtly, you must accept that responsibility with care and devotion. Oy! I seethed. Girls just wanna have fun.
Her words have rattled around my brain for 27 years. Noblesse oblige. The nobility is obligated.
Who gets paid the most in a company? Is it the one who works the most hours? Not always. Is it the one who does the most taxing labor? Usually not. The one who gets paid the most is the one whose problem it is when there’s a mess. The lowest one on the totem pole gets the small problems, but the top banana can’t shift the mess to anyone else. The buck stops there, and he or she is likely getting the biggest salary. Or at least should. Responsibility is a burden, and if you’re one who has talent, ideas, promise or social or financial leverage, it’s really on you to shoulder it with grace and dignity. Noblesse oblige.
This week’s Torah portion is the longest of them all (good luck, bnei mitzvah), clocking in at 176 verses, for an interesting reason. The dedication of the Tabernacle is described, amid joy and festivity. The “prince” of each of the 12 tribes, their spiritual leaders, brought gifts for the Tabernacle, and each one is described in detail. One silver bowl, one silver basin, flour and oil, a golden ladle with incense, cattle, etc.
This very same gift is repeated in all its detail 12 times, once for each prince, for each of the 12 tribes. Each prince brought the same gift. Ummm, copy and paste anyone? Or “ditto” (as those of us who remember ditto machines understand)?
Let’s travel back in time for a moment to when the Jewish people was fundraising for the building of the Tabernacle. (See, fundraising is a time-honored Jewish communal activity.) The very same princes of whom we speak said: “You know what? Let’s wait and see what everyone else donates. Then, we’ll fill in with whatever’s missing.”
And what happened? The fundraising campaign was successful beyond imagination, and there was nothing left to give.
So this time around, for the inauguration of the Tabernacle, the princes weren’t taking any chances. Noblesse oblige! They stepped up to the plate and were miraculously inspired to give the same, generous mystically symbolic gift.
Perhaps the Torah is sending us a message. The princes learned a lesson about responsibility, about leadership. You have an obligation as the nobility of the Jewish people. Don’t pass the buck. Shoulder the burden with pride and love. The restitution was a beautiful show of repentance, of improvement. Perhaps that’s why each prince’s gift is recounted individually. Each one showed his unique and individual acceptance of that message, echoed thousands of years later by one Mrs. Susan Krausz of Cleveland Heights, Ohio: Noblesse oblige.