Rashi, commenting to Parashat Vayakhel (35:27), cites the well-known remark of the Midrash regarding the participation of the nesi’im – the leaders of the tribes – in the donation of materials for the Mishkan. The Torah tells that the nesi’im donated the precious stones that were affixed to the kohen gadol’s apron and breastplate, as well as materials for the kindling of the menorah, the ketoret (incense), and the anointing oil. Citing the Midrash, Rashi writes that after Moshe instructed the people to donate materials for the Mishkan, the nesi’im decided to wait until after all the people made their donations, planning that they would then supply what was still needed. To their surprise, the people donated everything that was needed for the Mishkan itself, and thus the nesi’im donated only the aforementioned materials. The Midrash is critical of the nesi’im’s conduct in this regard, and comments, as cited by Rashi, “Since they were initially lazy, a letter was taken from their name – it is written ‘nesi’im’ [without the letter yod].”
Many writers addressed the question of why the nesi’im are accused of “laziness” for initially abstaining from the donation of materials. They made this decision not out of “laziness,” but rather due to their mistaken assumption that the people would not donate all that was needed. The nesi’im, from the Midrash’s description, were fully committed to ensuring the success of the project to build a Mishkan, and generously pledged to bring all that was needed after the rest of the nation made their donations. Why are they criticized for being “lazy”?
Rav Simcha Zissel Brody (as cited and discussed by Rav Yissachar Frand) suggests that the Midrash seeks to teach that when we delay an opportunity to perform a good deed, even when we think we do so for noble reasons, this is often a product of laziness. He notes as an example the introduction to Chovot Ha-levavot, where the author, Rabbenu Bachya Ibn Pekuda, writes that after he conceived of the idea to compose this work, he quickly decided against it, feeling he was unworthy of such a lofty undertaking. This decision, he writes, brought him a sense of relief, which ultimately led him to realize, later, that he had reached this decision out of laziness. Although he thought his motivation for scratching the idea was noble, borne out of genuine humility, it was in truth the product of laziness, his preference not to bear the burden of this responsibility. Similarly, Rav Simcha Zissel explained, the nesi’im thought they abstained from donating with noble intentions, but in truth, as Chazal tell us, it was due to a degree of laziness.
Certainly, there are occasions when we have legitimate reasons to delay or abstain from performing a good deed. Sometimes we are justifiably burdened by other responsibilities that indeed deserve priority, and sometimes it is true that we are not worthy to assume lofty challenges. However, Rav Simcha Zissel here urges us to scrutinize our decisions with strict honesty, to determine whether our reasons for assuming ambitious responsibilities are truly valid, and not just excuses.