The princes brought the shoham stones and the filling stones for the Ephod and for the Choshen (Shemot 35:27).
Moshe Rabbeinu delivered the good news that Hashem had forgiven the people’s sin of worshipping the idol of the golden calf and instructed his officers to collect precious materials from the people to construct a House of G-d — the Mishkan. Hashem, Moshe explained, would show the world that He had forgiven us by “residing” amongst us in the Tabernacle. In short order, all that was needed — and even more — was in hand, and so the collection was halted. In listing the precious items that were brought, the passuk relates that the princes brought the rare, expensive jewels that were needed for the Kohen Gadol’s unique garments.
Rashi points out that the word nesi’im — princes — is spelled defectively in the Torah scroll. It is missing the letter yud. Quoting Midrash Rabbah, he explains: The princes said the following: “Let the public contribute whatever they will contribute, and whatever they fall short we will complete.”
Since the public completed everything… the princes said, “What is there left for us to do?” Therefore they brought the shoham stones, etc., which were the only items missing. In fact, when it came time to dedicate the Mishkan, the princes came with alacrity to be first to offer on the new altar. To indicate that they erred by being lazy, the Torah intentionally removed the letter yud from the spelling of their name.
The commentators ask: The offer to complete the amount that was lacking from the general collection seems like a very generous overture. Also, the most expensive and rare items on the list of requirements for the construction were the stones that the princes gave. Why are they called lazy and blamed for not doing their duty?
Harav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l, brings three answers to the question (Sefer Kol Rom, pp. 436–438).
The Midrash calls them “lazy” because they did not react with alacrity. When one has an opportunity to perform a good deed, one is expected to jump at the chance — as did our patriarch Avraham, who rose early and saddled his own donkey to do the will of Hashem. It appears to be that their offer was generous, yet the Torah senses a trace of indolence in their behavior.
A second answer is the fact that they underestimated the spiritual greatness of the people. They believed that the appeal to the people would fall short of the goal and accusingly offered to fulfill the shortfall. Moshe Rabbeinu was also held accountable for a lack of belief in their faith when, at the burning bush, he said to Hashem, “And they will not believe me!” (Shemot 4:1).
One must believe that the heart of every Jew is good and desires to do the will of Hashem. Rambam says (Hilchot Gittin 2:20) that when a man refuses to give a divorce document, the court may beat him until he submits and says, “I want to give the get.” Since the effectiveness of the divorce requires his consent, how could the admission under duress be valid? Rambam explains that every Jew wants to do what is best, yet sometimes the evil inclination negatively influences behavior.
The third answer is that they overestimated their own value; they demonstrated the negative trait of gaavah — haughtiness and pride. It is not for us to question or criticize the actions of such great people as Nachson ben Aminadav and his fellow princes, but the defective spelling of their identity begs explanation. Rav Moshe said that they felt the job would never be completed without their involvement. What they failed to realize is that the needs of Am Yisrael are achieved regardless of who it is that has the merit to contribute. As Mordechai told Esther, “If you shall remain silent, salvation will come to the Jews from elsewhere.”
The novelty of the approach is that one should never underestimate the greatness of Hashem’s people and one should not overestimate one’s contribution to its success!