On the list of items and materials that would be needed to properly construct the Mishkan and the priestly vestments, there was one type that was particularly difficult to obtain. To follow the plans and specifications of the Choshen and Ephod, the craftsman would need a list of several rare and precious gem stones. How would they obtain them? The Torah says that the twelve wealthy tribal leaders personally contributed them. But there is something peculiar about the Terminology that the Torah employs in reference to these leaders. Normally, it refers to them as the leaders of the people, the leaders of the tribes, the patriarchal leaders, or the leaders of Israel. In this context, however, they are called simply the Nessiim, the leaders. Why is their title simplified here?
R. Baruch Halevi Epstein (1860-1941), in his classic Torah Commentary Torah Temimah, writes that this is what the Talmud intends to resolve with its midrashic interpretation of the word Nessiim. The word can have a completely different meaning that “leaders,” it can also mean “clouds” (this is not an obscure use of the word. See, for example, Tehilim 135, recited weekly in the Shabbat morning service.) This interpretation states that the gemstones were not provided by natural, human means but rather miraculously – they were delivered with the clouds (Yuma, 75a). Another Midrash elaborates that the tribal leaders received the gems with one of their portions of Manna, which also originated in the clouds. The Torah is intentionally ambiguous when it doesn’t refer to the leaders here with the typical specificity (e.g. Leaders of Israel) but rather uses the general term nessiim to allude to the miraculous way they obtained the stones in the first place
The double meaning of the word nesiim may allude to the theological idea of Divine Providence. Although the donation of the tribal leaders made it seem like the gem stones arrived in the hands of the craftsmen via natural means, the Torah nevertheless alludes to the role of supernatural means. The people, experiences, and challenges that we encounter throughout our lives always appear natural, random, or at best coincidental. The Torah’s lesson is that these are all actually brought upon us by “the clouds” – sent by Heaven as some type of opportunity, reward, or challenge.