Rashi comments on the verse1 “The nesi’im , the tribal leaders, brought the sardonyxes and other precious stones…,” and notes the reason why the nesi’im did not donate at the outset for the construction of the Mishkan :

“The nesi’im said, ‘Let the congregation donate that which they wish to donate, and we will make up the rest.’ When they observed that the congregation had completed everything, as the verse states, ‘the labor was sufficient,’ the nesi’im said: ‘What are we to do?’ They then brought the sardonyxes and other precious stones.”

As the commentators explain,2 Rashi’ s comment shows he was aware of a question implied by the text. Since the gifts of the nesi’im are mentioned last, it follows that they were the last to give their gifts. How is it, wonders Rashi , that the nesi’im conducted themselves in this manner? He answers by stating: “The nesi’im said: ‘Let the congregation donate that which they wish to donate….”

What, exactly, is Rashi’ s answer?

Additionally, there seems to be a clear contradiction in Rashi’ s words. In stating “When they observed that the congregation had completed everything” it is obvious that the congregation had brought everything necessary for the labor of the Mishkan. How, then, was it possible that precious stones, oils and perfumed incense — the gifts of the nesi’im — were still lacking?

On the other hand, what were the nesi’im so upset about, and why did they state: “What are we to do?” when in fact they were able to bring so many things necessary for the Mishkan and the priestly vestments?

Also, why did the nesi’im say: “What are we to do ?” — their question should have been “What are we to bring ?”

In stating that the nesi’im brought their gifts last because “The nesi’im said, ‘Let the congregation donate that which they wish to donate and we will make up the rest’ ”, Rashi means to declare the following: The aim of Jewish leaders is to first and foremost see to it that the Jewish people do all that they need to do; only afterwards do the leaders think of themselves.

This is in keeping with which Rashi previously explained on the verse3Moshe descended from the mountain to the nation” — “This teaches us that Moshe did not turn aside to [tend to] his own needs; rather, ‘from the mountain [directly] to the nation.’ ”

What novelty is there in Moshe’s immediately transmitting G‑d’s message to the Jewish people without first tending to his own needs; one would expect no less from any of G‑d’s messengers, and surely so of Moshe?

However, “Moshe did not turn aside to [tend to] his own needs” refers not only to his physical needs, but also to his spiritual needs, including the personal preparations necessary for him to receive the Torah.

For as the leader of the Jewish people, Moshe’s foremost desire was to transmit G‑d’s message to them, and see to it that they fulfilled it. Only afterward would he permit himself to think of his own spiritual needs, including his preparations for receiving the Torah.

Here as well, the first concern of the nesi’im was to assure that the Jewish people donated as much as they could to the Mishkan ; only after the Jews concluded their giving would they think of giving themselves. That they were successful in inspiring the nation is to be seen from the fact that indeed “the congregation had completed everything.”

But if the masses had truly “completed everything,” the original question remains: how come there were still so many things that the nesi’im were able to bring?

When the Jewish people donated, “gold, silver, etc.,” for the purpose of constructing the Mishkan , its vessels and the priestly vestments, they found that they were lacking certain of the objects needed, such as the stones and special oil brought by the nesi’im. They therefore donated sufficient money with which to purchase these objects.

This, then, is the meaning of “the congregation had completed everything, as the verse states, ‘the labor was sufficient ,’ ” i.e., even those objects that they lacked were made up for by their giving money with which to purchase them.

Since the money was already there, and it was but necessary to use it to purchase these items, the nesi’im felt that they did not have an equal role in constructing the Mishkan.

They therefore asked, “What are we to do” and not “What are we to bring ,” for in actuality there were indeed objects for them to bring. But since the money for these objects had already been donated, they felt they were not “doing” equally. For the Jewish people gave all that was necessary for the construction of the Mishkan , while the gifts of the nesi’im were not as vital, since the money for them had already been supplied.

Based on Likkutei Sichos , Vol. XVI, pp. 424-430.