You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Naso.
From Rav Kook
Naso: Three Priestly Blessings
God commanded Aaron and his descendants, the kohanim, to bless the people with three special blessings:
“Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you must bless the Israelites. Say to them:
•May God bless you and keep watch over you.
•May God make His presence enlighten you, and grant you grace.
•May God lift His face toward you, and grant you peace.” (Num. 6:23-26)
The last blessing, however, is not clear. What does it mean that God should “lift His face toward you”?
The Need for Leniency
While the first blessing refers to our physical welfare, the second blessing is concerned with our spiritual well-being. Spiritual enlightenment, however, brings with it additional responsibilities. As we gain knowledge and enlightenment, the expectations for ethical living, purity of thought, and refinement of character are greater.
If we consider the consequential moral demands, we may become apprehensive and even discouraged. In order to counter this concern, the kohanim bestow a third blessing, “May God lift His face towards you”.
To ‘lift one’s face’ is a Hebrew idiom, meaning to show favor or leniency. The Torah commands a judge, for example, not to ‘lift his face’ towards one of the litigants. The judge must be careful to avoid even the impression that he favors one side of the case, even though he is in reality impartial. The other litigant may feel that the case is already lost, and lose heart.
The kohanim bless us that, despite the ethical expectations that come with spiritual enlightenment, we should not lose heart. God will be lenient, taking into account the material reality in which we live.
We may, however, feel embarrassed or uncomfortable about this Divine leniency. Therefore, the final blessing ends with the gift of peace — peace of mind. “And grant you peace.”
(adapted from Olat Ri’ah vol. I, p.62)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
Naso: The Benefits of the Sotah Waters
The Suspected Adulteress
The integrity of the family unit is of fundamental importance in Judaism. For this unit to function properly, the husband-wife relationship must be one of trust and constancy. But what happens when this trust, so vital for a healthy marriage, is broken?
The Torah discusses the situation of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress. This tragic case occurs when a woman, previously warned by her husband not to be alone with a particular man, violates his warning and is witnessed secluding herself with that man.
The Torah prescribes an unusual ceremony for the potentially explosive situation. The woman is brought to the entrance of the Temple, and she brings a special offering of barley meal. The kohen uncovers her hair, and administers to her a special oath. If the suspected adulteress insists on her innocence, the kohen lets her drink from the Sotah waters. If she was unfaithful to her husband, these waters poison her. But if the wife was in fact innocent, the waters are beneficial. “She will remain unharmed and will become pregnant” (Num. 5:28).
“She will become pregnant”
The sages disagreed on the exact nature of the positive effect of the Sotah waters. Rabbi Yishmael understood the verse literally: if she was barren, she became pregnant. Rabbi Akiva, however, disagreed. If that were the case, all childless women would purposely seclude themselves with another man and drink the Sotah waters, in order to bear children! Rather, Rabbi Akiva explained, the waters would ease the pain of child-birth, or make the babies healthier, or cause multiple births. (Berachot 31a)
Rabbi Akiva had a good point — the law of the Sotah could potentially turn the holy Temple into a fertility clinic. In fact, the Talmud tells us that one famous woman threatened to do just that. Hannah, the barren wife of Elkana, threatened to go through the Sotah process if her prayers for a child went unanswered. (Her prayers were in fact granted, and her son became the famous prophet Samuel.) How could Rabbi Yishmael say that the waters would cause barren women to bear children?
Rav Kook explained that the Temple ritual for suspected adulteresses was so degrading and terrifying, that no woman would willingly submit to it — not even a barren woman desperate for children.
Hannah’s exceptional yearning for a child
Hannah, however, was a special case.
This amazing woman foresaw that her child was destined for spiritual greatness. Hannah’s profound yearning for a child went far beyond the natural desire of a barren woman to have children. She was motivated by spiritual goals greater than her own personal needs and wants. Hannah felt that these spiritual ambitions alone might not be enough, so she was willing to actively demonstrate that her longing for a child surpassed the normal desire of a barren woman. Thus, Hannah was willing to undergo the ordeal of the Sotah ceremony. And by merit of her extraordinary yearning, her prayers were miraculously answered.
Only in this unusual case was the natural deterrent of the ordeal of the Sotah insufficient.
(adapted from Ein Eyah vol. I, p.135)
Copyright © 2006 by Chanan Morrison
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Bread and bitter water (Radical Torah repost)
Here’s the d’var Torah I wrote for this week’s portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah.
This week’s Torah portion, Naso, features one of the most fascinatingly bizarre rulesets in Torah: the ritual to be performed if a husband suspects his wife of adultery.
The sotah ritual is strangely magical. The priest mixes “sacral water” and earth from the floor of the Tabernacle. The woman suspected of adultery must bare her head, and she holds the couple’s meal offering in her hands. (When else do women hold offerings to Adonai?) The priest offers a series of blessings and curses — if the woman is innocent let her be immune to harm; if she is guilty may her belly and thigh sag — and the woman echoes them with an “amen.” And then the curses are written down, the ink dissolved in the water which already holds a smidgen of earth, the offerings offered, and the woman drinks. If she is innocent, the text tells us, she shall bear children; if guilty, the curse will come true, and she will bear her iniquity.
That this is a problematic text for women today hardly needs reiteration. There is no analagous ritual to be performed by a woman who suspects her husband of straying. Female sexuality here is apparently owned by men, both husband and priests, and the text seems to presume feminine guilt. But this passage is not irredeemable, and a variety of thinkers have spun the straw of this text into exegetical gold.
One of these is Blu Greenberg, who writes, in The Law of the Sotah:
On the surface, and to a woman of contemporary sensibilities, this scene is awful; a jealous husband hauling his wife before the authorities, a humiliating public ritual, gory consequences. Some have used these verses to prove how Torah and tradition deprecate women.
But Sotah is much more complex than that. In many ways it is a paradigm for the dialectic regarding women that runs through Torah and Talmud — simultaneously hierarchical and protective, callous and compassionate.
She argues that the text can be read in at least two ways — though it’s possible to see this as an anti-feminist text which presupposes male ownership of female sexuality, it’s also possible to see the Sotah ritual as designed to painlessly prove womens’ innocence. Beyond that, she suggests that in the Talmud’s move to supercede this ritual we can discern a kind of proto-feminist consciousness, an awareness that gender roles and paradigms needed to change.
Reform rabbi Judith Abrams has wise things to say about this passage, too. In Midah K’Neged Midah, Rabbi Abrams explores the sotah ritual through the fourfold lens of PaRDeS, looking at the text’s pshat (simple meaning), remez (symbolic meaning), drash (the stories it tells us), and sod (the metaphors it can unfold for us.)
The sotah ritual, she points out, is strikingly similar to the ritual the Israelites undergo after the sin of the golden calf (which involves grinding the calf into dust, mixing that into water, and drinking the resultant potion.) The passage about the golden calf potion uses the phrase “great sin.” In legal documents of that era, she explains, the term refers to adultery. But when the term appears in Torah, four of its six instances are explicit references not to marital adultery but to the spiritual adultery of idolatry. The Talmud explicitly compares these two passages, implying similarity between these two kinds of covenantal betrayal. Rabbi Abrams expands on that notion, reading the sotah ritual in a way that relates to the covenant between us and God:
If we are interpreting this ritual on a symbolic level as opposed to a practical or historical level, it becomes one of hope and reconciliation rather than judgment and severity. We, Israel, stray from God by worshipping idols or flirting with other faiths. When we do, we have a way of salvaging the relationship and reconfirming the relationship with God…
I like her point that in this passage about brokenness in our relationships with each other, we can find lessons about brokenness in our relationships with our Source — and also, about repair.
For my own part, this year while studying the parasha I noticed something which hadn’t struck me before: the nature of the offering the couple is to bring before God when the situation arises. In the JPS translation, the text says:
If any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her but a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is wrought up about the wife who has defiled herself; or if a fit of jealousy comes over one and he is wrought up about his wife although she has not defiled herself the man shall bring his wife to the priest. And he shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley flour. No oil shall be poured upon it and no frankincense shall be laid on it, for it is a meal offering of jealousy, a meal offering of remembrance which recalls wrongdoing.
I’m fascinated that the barley flour brought as an offering in this instance is not anointed with oil, nor glorified with frankincense, because it is an offering of jealousy. (Everett Fox calls it “a grain-gift of jealousy / grain-gift of reminding that reminds of iniquity.”) There’s a poetic kind of appropriateness to the lack of oil and spice. Jealousy negates what is rich and valuable and beautiful. When jealousy consumes us, we are dulled in a way that obscures the flavor of our relationships, even our relationship with God.
In the ritual outlined by Torah, the woman who stands accused drinks a literal water of bitterness, in which dust and the words of a curse have been suspended. But the way the text describes the jealousy offering suggests to me that in truth, both partners partook of bitterness. When an accusation of sexual misconduct is levied, neither partner can truly access the splendor of thanksgiving or holiness until the fears of betrayal have been laid to rest.
Today the Sotah ritual is long gone. A spouse who suspects infidelity has different resources at her or his disposal. But I think this week’s Torah portion hints at emotional truths that still resonate even so. Maybe the story of the Sotah can help us face jealousy’s capacity to damage our relationships, and can give us insight into the necessary journey (both personal and partnered) between accusation and resolution.
~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys ~
NUMBERS 4:21 – 7:89
This portion gives us the ancient Priestly Blessing. It also describes the ordeal of the woman who is accused of unfaithfulness by her jealous husband.
AT THIS TIME OF NASO we give and receive the great and ancient Priestly Blessing. Our arms are outstretched above the tumult of our lives and our hands imitate cloven hooves, invoking the power of the animals of our shepherding ancestors who bless this world through us.
God commands the priests (and the priest or priestess within each of us) to bless each other with these words:
“May God bless you and guard you.
May God shine his faces upon you and grace you.
May God lift up his face to you and give you peace.”1
May you be filled with the Divine Flow
and may its essence transform you
so that you are protected from your habits of distortion.
May the fierce and loving light of God shine
through all illusions of self, dissolving the walls
that seem to keep out the miracle of grace.
May the face of God that is hidden in everything
remove its mask and reveal the truth
of our inter-connectedness.
And may the love that shines through
the face-of-all-things give you peace.
The Divine command concludes: “So shall they put my name upon the Israelites and I will bless them.”2
Through this blessing, God’s name – the Divine Essence – rests upon us.
The privilege of carrying the Name/Essence of God into the world is the greatest blessing we can bear. It is giving and receiving at once. It is the pure state of becoming and being a blessing. When I carry that essence consciously, every moment begins to sparkle with meaning – even moments of suffering, moments of terror, even the moment of my death….
Each moment is received by a heart that is as vast as the sea and alive with compassion. Carrying that Divine Essence is like being a drop that knows the ocean within it. The Divine Name/Essence makes us infinitely large, certainly big enough to absorb and endure the events of our lives.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
NASO DESCRIBES A SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE that all of us must at some point endure. This challenge is symbolized by a woman who is accused of adultery by her jealous husband. She undergoes a test to determine if she has indeed been unfaithful.
That woman is each of us, married to the Divine Essential Mystery. Our relationship to that mystery is dynamic and complex: dynamic, because we are always moving in and out of connection – remembering, forgetting and remembering again; complex, because the ego is oftentimes engaged in a subtle (or not-so-subtle) practice of deception.
In the ordeal that Naso describes, we ask the truth to make itself known, even if it will make us uncomfortable. We ask to cut through the web of self-deception in order to discover if we have truly “gone astray.”
WHEN I WAS A CHILD I had frequent stomach-aches. I was outwardly very shy, but had an active inner life. As a teenager, I began to notice a pattern to my stomach-aches. Whenever I had something to say and didn’t say it, the unsaid words would immediately go to my stomach. My body would not let me withhold my truth without paying the price. My body became a strict teacher, and I listened to its signals in order to find my voice. I was the woman who had gone astray, set back on my path through the power of a fierce love.
When the woman who is tested in Naso proves her innocence, her loyalty to Truth, she is made fruitful; failing the test, she is left barren.
So too, our creative lives depend on the unwavering commitment to our essential wholeness and integrity, and we betray that integrity at our peril.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE of Naso is to receive the ordeals of our own lives as agents of Truth. Through them we are tested, humbled and refined. Our defenses are stripped away. We are distilled to our essence. In response to this challenge, I vow to use everything in my life, in service to the Truth – to let life’s bitter waters dissolve the web of self-deception that I weave. If I have been led astray by my fears or delusions, I ask that the flow of my life lead me back to the Truth.
This is no small request. Making such a request of life requires that we pay close attention and be prepared to receive the response in the language in which life speaks to us: that of everyday circumstances.
I HAVE LEARNED that this perspective on life must be limited to the personal. I do not have permission to see someone else’s life this way or to interpret their hardship as a gift. Compassion is the correct response to the suffering of others. The perception of my own ordeal, however, may be transformed into a force of healing and truth.
1 Numbers 6:24-26
2 Numbers 6:27
For Guidelines for Practice please click link to website.
This is the law of the nazir on the day that the days of his abstention are completed… (6:13)
Once, in the early days of Chassidism, a learned Jew happened upon a farbrengen (a Chassidic gathering). Taking in the sight of half-empty vodka bottles on the table, of Jews singing and dancing instead of studying Torah, he cried: “Jews! The Holy Temple is in ruins, Israel is in exile, and you dance and drink?!”
Present at the farbrengen was Rabbi Dovid Ferkus, a senior disciple of the Baal Shem Tov. “I have a question for you,” said Rabbi Dovid to the visitor. “In one place, Rashi writes that a nazir’s vow to abstain from wine is an appropriate reaction for one who witnesses human susceptibility to corruption by physical appetites. But only a few verses later, Rashi quotes the Talmudic opinion which regards the nazir’s abstinence as a sin. Which is it? Is drinking wine a positive or a negative thing to do?
“Ill tell you the difference between the two cases,” continued Rabbi Dovid. “The first statement by Rashi is addressed to one who ‘sees a sotah’s ruin.’ A person who is capable of seeing the negative in a fellow Jew, had better not drink wine. Wine will agitate his heart, and he’ll probably be roused to discover more failings and deficiencies in his fellows. But someone who is blessed with the ability to see only the good in his fellow, for him to avoid getting together with other Jews for a lechaim! is nothing less than sinful. An infusion of wine into his heart will stimulate it to uncover the hidden good in the hearts of his fellows.”
The one who offered his offering on the first day was Nachshon the son of Aminadav, of the tribe of Judah. And his offering was: One silver dish, weighing 130 shekels. One silver bowl of 70 shekels… On the second day offered Nethanel the son of Tzuar, of the tribe of Issachar. And his offering was: One silver dish, weighing 130 shekels. One silver bowl of 70 shekels… (7:12-23)
The Torah is very mincing with words: many a complex chapter of Torah law is derived from a choice of context, a turn of language, even an extra letter. Yet in our Parshah, the Torah seemingly “squanders” dozens of verses by itemizing the gifts brought by the leaders of the twelve tribes of Israel on the occasion of the inauguration of the Sanctuary. Each tribe brought its offering on a different day, but the gifts they each brought were identical in every respect, down to the weight of the silver plate and the age of the five lambs. Nevertheless, the Torah recounts each tribe’s gift separately, repeating the 35-item list twelve times in succession.
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 13 & 14) implies that while the twelve tribes made identical offerings, each experienced the event in a different manner. Each of the 35 items in the offering symbolized something–a personality or event in Jewish history, or a concept in Jewish faith or practice–but to each tribe, they symbolized different things, relating to that tribe’s role. For the twelve tribes represent the various vocations amongst the people of Israel–Judah produced Israel’s kings, leaders and legislators; Issachar its scholars; Zebulun its seafarers and merchants, and so on. All conform to the same Divinely ordained guidelines, all order their lives by the same Torah; yet each flavors the very same deeds with his individual nature and approach.
Often, we tend to see a tension between conformity and creativity, between tradition and innovation. On the one hand, we recognize the bedrock of absolutes upon which a meaningful existence must rest, the time-tested truths which transcend cultures and generations; on the other, we are faced with the powerful drive to create, to personalize, to grow and soar with our individualized talents and tools.
Our daily prayers, for example, follow the basic text instituted by the prophets and sages of the Great Assembly more than 2,400 years ago; as such, their content and wording optimally express the manner in which man relates to G-d. Yet how is the individual in man to be satisfied with a common formula for every person?
Is monotony the price we must pay for perfection? Does creativity compromise truth? Not so, say the 72 “repetitious” verses in our Parshah. An entire nation, including individuals of every conceivable character and calling, can do the very same deed, down to every last detail, and still imbue them with their uniquely personal input. Even as they relate to the ultimate common denominator of their bond with G-d, they each bring to the experience the richness of their own creative souls.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe)
And when Moses would enter the Sanctuary to speak with [G-d], he would hear the voice speaking to him from above the cover of the Ark of Testimony… and it spoke to him (7:89)
A basic tenet of the Jewish faith is that man has been granted the freedom to choose between good and evil, between adherence to his divinely ordained mission in life and rebellion against, or even denial of, his Creator. As Maimonides writes, “Were G-d to decree that a person be righteous or wicked, of if there were to exist something in the essence of a person’s nature which would compel him toward a specific path, a specific conviction, a specific character trait or a specific deed…how could G-d command us through the prophets ‘do this’ and ‘do not do this’…? What place would the entire Torah have? And by what measure of justice would G-d punish the wicked and reward the righteous…?”
This is the deeper significance of the “short stop” made by the divine voice at the doorway of the Sanctuary. At Sinai, the words “I Am G-d your G-d” resounded throughout the universe, permeating every creature and creation. At that moment, there was no possibility of doubt in G-d’s reality or of nonconformity to His will. But then the world fell silent, and the voice retreated to hover over the “Ark of Testimony” that contains G-d’s Torah and to confine itself to the four walls of the Sanctuary that houses it.
The volume was not lowered—the voice is no less infinite and omnipotent than it was at Sinai. One who enters the Sanctuary hears a voice that penetrates and permeates all, a voice that knows no bounds or equivocations. But one can choose to remain outside of the domain of Torah, to deny himself the knowledge and the way of life in which G-d makes Himself heard. One can choose to remain outside, in the field of G-d’s self-imposed silence.
It is this choice that creates the challenge of life, making our every moral victory a true and significant achievement.
(The Lubavitcher Rebbe
From Academy For Jewish Religion/CA
Torah Reading for Week of May 16 – May 22, 2010
“The Blessings We Desire”
by Yolande Bloomstein, PhD, LCSW
AJR, CA Professor of Chaplaincy Studies
“Thus shall you bless the children of Israel. Say unto them: May the Lord bless you and protect you. May the Lord cause His Presence to illuminate you and be gracious unto you. May the Lord raise up His Presence before you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6: 23 -25).
This is probably the best known blessing in the Western world, invoked regularly in synagogues and churches. Because of its rich cadences and power, interpretations on its three parts abound. I should like to offer a synthesis of many of these great commentaries.
‘May the Lord bless you” with material sustenance to free you to pursue your personal and spiritual growth. “And protect you’ from your material blessings. The danger of material success and the accumulation of wealth and material goods is that these may become ends in themselves, easily corrupting us and encouraging selfishness, greed, and corruption. Therefore, while we pray that the Lord will bless us with abundance, we pray too that we will be protected from the terrible things that abundance can do to us.
“May the Lord cause His Presence to illuminate”. Many of our Sages have associated this part of the blessing with our prayer for the illumination of insight and understanding. Not only does this follow from the first part of the blessing, but it captures the Jewish ideal of the pursuit of Torah enlightenment. Before we recite the Shema each morning we ask: “Illuminate our eyes with your Torah”. “And grant you grace.” One of the major aspects of the therapeutic relationship is the insight and understanding it gives simultaneously to client and to therapist in the process of healing and growth. Unfortunately, like wealth, Knowledge, too, can be corrupting. It can lead to arrogance, hubris, and the exploitation of the gullible. It is for this reason that we pray that the wisdom that G-d grants us will be used with grace, to benefit others rather than ourselves alone. “May the Lord raise up His Presence before you”. The commentators associate this part of the priestly blessing with our prayer that the Lord be palpably present in our lives protecting us and guiding us with divine providence. The Torah imagines nothing worse than the absence of the Divine from our lives-hester panim, the hiddeness of the Presence. Ultimately it is only when we are conscious of the protecting love of the divine Presence can we be assured of the fulfillment of the final clause of the blessing, “And grant you peace.
From Melissa Carpenter
Let Down Your Hair
Torah Monologues News Blog Excerpts Programs And the priest will station the woman before God, and he will unbind the head of the woman … (Numbers 5:18; Nasso)
All the days of his vow of dedication-to-separateness, no razor will pass over his head; until the fulfillment of the days that he will dedicate-to-separateness, his big, unbound, bristling hair will be holy to God. (Numbers 6:5; Nasso)
para = he will unbind, unbraid, let loose, remove restraint from
pera = unbound, unbraided, loose, disarranged, wild and out of control
nizro = his dedication-to-separateness, his being a nazir, his being set apart; his crown
What do the ritual instructions for the sotah (the wife suspected of adultery) and the nazir (the man who sets himself apart for holiness by abstaining from certain actions) have in common, besides that they appear in the same Torah portion, Nasso?
One answer is: unbound hair.
The ritual to establish the guilt or innocence of a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery begins with the priest unbinding the wife’s hair. According to Rashi, this verse is the source for the teaching of the Sages, centuries later, that it is shameful for married Jewish women to expose their hair in public. The Torah does not say whether married women before the time of the Second Temple bound their hair in cloth, or merely put up their hair in braids or pins. But either way, a woman was humiliated if a priest let down her hair in public.
There seems to be no humiliation involved when a man becomes a nazir, someone who vows to set himself apart for a period of time, dedicate himself to separateness—not by leaving the community, but by letting his hair grow untrimmed and wild, abstaining from all grape products, and avoiding contact with corpses—even if a member of his own family dies. His unbound, untrimmed, unbraided, “bristling” head of hair is considered holy rather than shameful.
Most commentary says the nazir’s unconventional hair distances him from normal social intercourse, just as he is distanced by avoiding not only wine, but even grape juice (which might substitute for wine when his friends are drinking). This social distance marks the nazir as holy, dedicated to God.
When the period of his vow ends, the nazir shaves his head and puts his hair on the altar fire, under the peace-offering, thus making his wild mane an offering to God. According to Rabbi R.S. Hirsch, this indicates that the purpose of spending time as a nazir is self-improvement, so the nazir will rejoin society as a better member of the community—less vain about his hair, perhaps, or wiser because of the extra time for self-reflection.
But why isn’t a nazir allowed to mourn, even if a member of his family dies? Elsewhere the Torah says that loosening your hair and letting it grow untrimmed is an essential part of mourning. In Leviticus 10:6, after Nadav and Avihu are consumed by holy fire, the three remaining priests (their father Aaron and their brothers Elazar and Itamar) are told: “Don’t let the hair hang loose on your heads, and don’t tear up your clothes”, because they are not allowed to mourn.
Unbound hair seems to be a sign of shame for a married woman in public, a sign of holiness for a nazir, and a sign of mourning for everyone else. Why?
I see the answer in my mirror every morning when I’m getting ready to leave the house. One thing I always do is “fix” my hair.
Even today, an acceptable appearance in public includes hair that looks trimmed, combed, and arranged (sometimes in a carefully tousled style). When someone appears in public with loose, tangled, unkempt hair, it means something: either a loss of self-respect, or a disregard for social norms because something bigger commands all of the person’s attention.
The sotah (the wife suspected of adultery) is shamed, stripped of her self-respect, when the priest unbinds her hair. The nazir indicates with his wild hair that his attention is on spiritual communion rather than social intercourse. And the mourner’s long, loose hair signals that he or she is too overwhelmed by the death in the family to engage in normal society.
Hair is a more important symbol than I realized before I wrote this blog. The hippies of my youth were onto something.
Wendy’s Comment: I enjoy Reb Melissa’s commentary on the symbolism of hair. What is
also interesting to me is that both men and women could take the vow of the Nazir so that women’s unbound hair could also be a sign of holiness in this case.
Reb Sholom Brodt transcription of Reb Shlomo teaching.
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Naso
Rav DovBer Pinson
Between Routine and Passion
This week’s Torah reading begins with the words “Hashem spoke to Moshe…take a census…”(4;21-22)
This is a continuation of the census that began in last week’s reading. This week’s census focuses on the Levites and the Kohanim/Priests and the unique services and rituals that was their duty to perform in the Temple.
Later in the reading, the Torah speaks of the laws of the Nazir/Nazirite. The Nazir is a person who chooses to separate himself or herself from the norms of society, and live a life detached from earthliness.
Some of the practices of the Nazir are similar to the laws of conduct of the Kohen, such as the law of ensuring that one does not become defiled, or tameh.
While there are similarities between the Kohen and the Nazir there is also a marked distinction between the two. The priesthood is a birthright. You must be born a Kohen, and a non-Kohen can never become a Kohen, whereas the Nazir is a personal choice, anyone at any time can choose to live as a Nazir.
A reflection of this dynamic is also mirrored in the Nazir and the Kohen’s relationship with hair.
The Kohen needed to shave his head (8:7), his hair needed to be orderly; the high priest would cut his hair once a week and the other priests would cut their hair once a month (Tannis 17b), whereas for the Nazir it is written, “No razor shall pass over his head…it shall be sacred, and he shall allow the growth of the hair of his head to grow wild.” (6:5)
The Kohen represents the orderly and routine, the day-in-day-out service of the Temple, and thus serves with short and tamed hair. In direct contrast, the Nazir goes with long untamed hair that suggests the non-orderly and the rebellious, a breaking of the status quo.
Historically, in fact, many Nezirim/ Nazirites in Temple times were young, single and infused with passion. In their personal dedication they would vow to be a Nazir, most often for a temporary period of time, thirty days or so, and live for that period detached and removed from society.
The Kohen represents the one who upholds the order of the system, maintaining the organization which is impersonal. The Kohen serves in the Temple as the representative of the community, with the same routine each day, whereas the Nazir represents the non ordinary and more personal expression and passionate service.
Everything in life has both a context, which is it’s structure, and a content, which is how the structure is filled.
We need both.
To survive and flourish as both a human and a spiritual being we need both the structure/routine and the content/passion, the priest and the prophet as it were.
We need the day to day routines in life to give our lives structure, but we must also have our personal moments when we feel connected.
In a relationship, such as marriage, there is the underlying context – the structure and formality of the marriage agreement, yet within that structure there must also be passion, a non-order within the order, as it were.
Prayer is yet another example of this within our lives. We pray everyday, and we pray a set prayer within a set time. Yet, within the structure of prayer there needs to be our personal involvement, manifested in our Kavanah/intention and focus.
There is always the delicate balance between maintaining routine, which is preserving the underlying structure and simultaneously ensuring that the routine does not become stale. We need to be passionate and personally invested and engaged on all levels of our being in all that we do, and still be be supported by a strong and unshakeable structure of routine and ritual.
The Torah reading this week juxtaposes both these spiritual ways of being, the Kohen and the Nazir, to teach and inspire us to live within both of these frameworks. Keeping the structure and the passion, the order and beyond order and in this way upholding the system and infusing it with life and vitality.
THE WEEK’S ENERGY
Between Routine and Passion
This week’s Torah reading imbues us with the strength to maintain the balance between the required structure and orderliness of our lives and the passion and personal energy that we bring to it.
Review the structures of your life, be it relationships, lifestyle choices, livelihood related or spiritual context, and ensure that the structure is well supported and has firm grounding.
Look deeper into those structures and be sure that they are continuously infused with your own personal vitality and passion.
Ensure that all your passion and excitement is within a safe and grounded framework of order, and that this order is always infused with passion.
From Melissa Carpenter
Naso (and Bemidbar): Four Duties, Four Directions
Out of all the twelve tribes of Israel, only men from the tribe of Levi take care of the portable sanctuary (the inner Tent of Meeting, and the outer courtyard) and conduct the religious cult there. The original Levi is the third son of Jacob, a.k.a. Israel, in the book of Genesis/ Bereishit. He has three sons of his own: Geirshon, Kohat (or Kehat), and Merari. The descendants of these three sons are the three clans of Levites in the book of Numbers (called Bemidbar, “In the Wilderness”, in Hebrew).
Whenever the Israelites break camp and make another journey through the wilderness, someone has to dismantle the sanctuary, carry the pieces, and reassemble it at the next camp. Last week’s Torah portion assigns the priests (Aaron and his sons Elazar and Itamar, who happen to be descendants of Kohat) the job of wrapping up the most holy objects. These objects are they carried by the non-priests in the Kohat clan of Levites.
This week’s portion, Naso (“He Lifted”), begins with a description of what the other two clans of Levites carry.
Geirshonites: They shall carry the curtains of the santuary and of the Tent of Meeting; its roof-covering and the covering of the leather that is on top of it, and the covering of the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. This is the duty of the families of the sons of Geirshon in the Tent of Meeting; and their custody is in the hand of Itamar, son of Aaron the priest. (Numbers/ Bemidbar 4:25, 4:28)
Merarites: And this is their custody and their burden for all their duty in the Tent of Meeting: the planks of the sanctuary, and its cross-pieces and its uprights and its sockets. And the uprights of the courtyard all around, and their sockets and their pegs and their tent-ropes, including all of their tools for all of their duty; and you shall assign, by name, the tools for their custody and their burden. This is the duty of the families of the sons of Merari; all their duty in the Tent of Meeting is in the hand of Itamar, son of Aaron the priest. (Numbers 4:31-33)
avodah: = duty, labor, service; work done not for oneself, but for another person or for God
In the Torah, the priests rank the highest in the hierarchy, and get the “holiest” duties. When the sanctuary is dismantled, carried to the next camping-place, and reassembled, the priests’ duties include wrapping up the most sacred objects in various coverings, and supervising the other Levite men and assigning them their individual jobs.
The Kohatites carry the most sacred objects after they are wrapped: the ark itself, the lampstand, the table for the twelve loaves of bread, and the incense altar.
The Geirshonites carry the walls of the sanctuary, which are all woven fabric, and the two layers of roofing over the inner Tent of Meeting, a large panel of woven goat-hair and another of waterproof leather.
The Merarites carry all the pieces of framework that hold up the inner Tent of Meeting and the outer courtyard wall.
Thus the four groups (the priests and the three Levite clans) have four different duties when the people journey. And when the camp is set up again, these four groups pitch their personal family tents close to four different sides of the sanctuary.
Moses and the priests camp to the east, in front of the entrance to the sanctuary’s outer courtyard. (The entrances to the Tent of Meeting and the innermost Holy of Holies also face east.) The Kohatites camp on the south side of the sanctuary, the Gershonites on the west side, and the Merarites on the north side.
The words used in this part of the book of Numbers for east, south, west, and north all have another meaning:
keidmah = toward the east; toward the front, the origin, the ancient time
teymanah = toward the south; from the root word yamin = right hand (the hand of favor and power)
yamah = toward the west; toward the sea
tzafonah = toward the north; toward the hidden
The priests have the most perilous duty; they must touch the most holy objects in order to wrap them for transport. They are also responsible for what the Levites do. Their place is in the east, toward the ancient time, the origin of the human race. (In Genesis, as soon as God has created a human being, God puts the adam in the garden of Eden, which is in the “east”.)
Today, if we take on religious leadership, we need to remember that some people look up to us, and look to us for guidance. Whatever we model, as well as teach, will have a deep effect on other human beings. This is indeed a perilous duty.
The Kohatites get the next most dangerous job, carrying the holy objects on their shoulders without touching or seeing them directly. Their place is in the south, at the favored right hand of the priests.
Today, when we choose to follow a religious leader, to serve at their right hand, we receive the gift of everything we learn from them. But we are also responsible for carrying and passing on their teachings in a way that continues their good work—and does not degenerate into the idol-worship of mere objects and appearances.
The Geirshonites are responsible for walls and roofs. Their place is to the west, toward the sea.
We often assume that if we put up psychological walls, we can actually keep the good stuff in and the bad stuff out. If we put up a mental roof, we can operate in the mundane world without worrying about any inscrutable mysteries, anything that might be called God. But we need to remember that walls and roofs are not as permanent as they might seem. Something that looks solid may turn out to be flimsy fabric, as fluid as the sea. Like the wall of water when the Israelites crossed the Reed Sea, a psychological wall might protect us, or might crash down and drown us.
The Merarites are responsible for the supporting framework of the sanctuary. Their place is to the north, the place where things are hidden.
Many treasures are hidden from us, including knowledge and insight. We don’t even know ourselves. The only way we can find any hidden insights is by periodically dismantling the structure of our beliefs, carrying the pieces to a new place we have not been before, and erecting a new framework of supporting beliefs and theories.
Sometimes we can linger in one place in our lives, enjoying its blessings. Then something changes; the presence of God rises and moves on, so to speak, and our blessings disappear. That’s when we have to dismantle our lives, our own sanctuaries, and journey to a new place.
When we sense that we’ve arrived at the next place where God wants us, we have to rebuild our lives. First we do the work of the Merarites, erecting a new framework, a new set of theories about life to support us and allow us to continue uncovering hidden insights. Next we do the work of the Gershonites, hanging walls and draping roofs, separating our interior space from the exterior world while recognizing that the barriers are fluid. Then we do the work of the Kohatites, setting down the holy objects, our most sacred convictions, in their proper places so that they are no longer burdens. And finally we do the work of the priests, unwrapping the holy objects, revealing the golden treasures of our souls just enough so we can do the holy work of influencing the world for the good.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Bless you Earth-ling 2011
Gobble up the three-fold blessings
the priests our Kohanic ancestors
with their really great clothes
that hat mitznefet
summer breastplate with aeration
winter breastplate to keep the heart line
in a dry climate linen is fabulous
when it’s humid
it’s like wearing a wet towel.
deep crimson the color of a squashed worm
the mysterious blue
[the blue comes up once every seventy years]
nowadays the blue is not hidden
and the purple –
Is it on the reddish tint or the bluish tint
they’re so different
let’s mix up some imagined purple
and then invent another name for it.
O holy G*d of the tri-partite blessing
as brought down by the Sefas Emes
pores to spread out means to choose a partial
opening onto the whole
the individual as it opens onto the universal
the universal always sheleimut
l’sem lekha shalom
to bring the blessing from the individual instance
to the universal application
the conduit from the one to the many –
wild ride that.
The Sefas Emes connects blessing with wholeness with individuality
with blessing the power of the upper root descends
descends on the lower root on the individual on the instance
the upper root the anchoring above
roots above, so to speak.
The inner point of truth
this is shleimut shalom
the inner is experienced in the universal
wherever God dwells
there is blessing
wherever there is blessing
there is shalom
can you dig that?
I love the partial the broken individual incomplete
the fragment the wounded
I love the separate because it integrates
and even if not –
it is whole.
The many crystalled net
each facet reflecting the whole
the crazy skate from the one
to the Universal
the universal grasp of HaKol
the wild ride from here to There –
Dr. Lehman — I hear you dripping syllables
HaKol Pleroma the All
about which you can say too much –
From Rabbi Laura Duhan Kaplan
Snake Courage (5770/2010)
In Parshat Nasso, each Israelite tribal chieftain comes forward to make a gift to the mishkan, the newly-completed sanctuary at the centre of the camp. All twelve gifts are identical: a silver bowl, a silver basin, a golden spoon, four animals for the sanctuary, and seventeen animals to be eaten by the people at a celebratory meal.
The first leader to bring forward his gift is Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Yehudah. Nachshon is best known to us as the star of a famous midrash (interpretive story) in which the Israelites stand frozen at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army closing in behind them. Only Nachshon jumps into the sea. At that moment, the waters part, and the Israelites follow Nachshon across dry land to the other side.
Why was Nachshon chosen as the star of this story of courage? Perhaps to continue the Torah’s teaching about the importance of strong sibling bonds: Nachshon is Aharon’s brother-in-law, and assists Moshe-Miriam-Aharon with their leadership duties. Perhaps to teach that our virtues of character, once developed, serve us well in any situation. Torah tells us that Nachshon was appointed to lead the entire Israelite army in battle; midrash thus teaches that Nachson also led the entire Israelite people to safety.
Nachshon’s name means “snake.” A snake skeleton is a long spine; thus snakes are very flexibile. Snakes are sensitive to vibrations, infrared light, and the chemical composition of air particles around them; thus they notice details that escape most human beings. Nachshon’s ability to lead came from his sensitivity and flexibility…offering us all a lesson in how best to move forwards.
From American Jewish World Service
5772 > Naso
The Law and Lore of the Wayward Woman
Torah—with its rich narratives and poetry, glimpses of the Divine and profound wisdom—is a text we turn to for inspiration, intellectual stimulation and meaning. Yet there are moments in the Bible when culturally located prejudices come to the fore and the reader is left struggling with the tension between timeless writing and context-bound oppression. One such moment is the law of the sotah—or wayward woman—found in Parshat Naso.
The law reads as follows: If a man has suspicions (also translated as “jealousy” or “zealous indignation”1) that his wife has had an affair, he brings her before the kohen (priest), who makes her drink a mixture of holy waters and earth. He removes her head covering (which implies shaming2) and warns her that if she has indeed been with a man other than her husband, the ingested waters will cause her thigh to collapse and her stomach to distend. The sages are divided on whether this refers to miscarriage or the explosion of her uterus and genitals.3 Either way, the gruesome punishment seems to be a direct response to the alleged crime: sexual ‘waywardness’ is followed by sexual shaming and maiming. Alternatively, if the woman is revealed to have not been with another man, she returns home with her husband to bear a child—an uncomfortable consolation prize for one who has just been publicly defamed.
Having heard the kohen’s warning and just before drinking the water, the woman must answer “Amen, Amen.”4 In this context, we realize that ‘Amen,’ despite its benign, comforting associations today, actually means to submit to God’s will. ‘Amen’ is sinister here, as the woman is forced to surrender her fate to forces beyond her control.
It’s ironic that in this rare instance when a woman is given the opportunity to speak in a biblical ritual, she is simultaneously restricted in what she can say; these robotic and depersonalized words silence any defense she might have offered of her guilt or innocence. The subservient quality of ‘Amen’ also contrasts with her alleged waywardness. If she has been wayward, ‘Amen’ signifies the beginning of her return to compliance. If not, it is her forced acceptance that this shaming ordeal is God’s will despite her innocence.
In contrast to the passivity of the woman’s ‘Amen,’ the text places all of the agency and power among men. Her husband brings her to the male kohen, who administers the ritual. And the rite itself carries out the will of a Deity who is characterized as masculine in a biblical context. In this web of husband, priest and God controlling her fate, the woman’s story is absent.
In fact, it could be argued that the patriarchal nature of the ritual depends on the absence of her authentic voice and story. Her story—with all of its intricate details of how she got married, the nuanced unfolding of her relationship with her husband and her private desires and hopes—would identify the woman as an individual. In expressing her individual, lived experience, the woman’s complex story could pose a challenge to the unequal power dynamics and absolutes that the law attempts to enforce.
If the suppression of the woman’s story enables the oppression of women in the sotah ritual, it makes me think that the telling of women’s stories in their own voices can be a powerful antidote to oppression. Women’s stories are, in their own way, forms of “waywardness”—positive, powerful rejections of the status quo. By telling stories, we can challenge sexual norms, question the entire patriarchal system and develop women’s agency over their lives. Stories can serve as activist tools to help women in all cultures move beyond ‘Amen Amen’—and into empowerment.
Women across all cultures are working to author their own stories. Whether it is the sharing among Jewish women in a Rosh Chodesh circle or the oral narratives of women travelers in sub-Saharan Africa, stories are being used to make room for today’s wayward women’s voices to be heard.
Consider the story of Mukhtaran Bibi, a courageous warrior woman in Pakistan. After a tribal council determined that she should be gang raped to redress a family honor crime, Mukhtaran did not shrivel up in despair or commit suicide. Instead, she chose to step forward and, at great risk to herself and her family, she told her story. It created ripples, which turned into waves, and generated such interest that she became an activist, building schools and establishing networks to empower women further. She prosecuted her rapists and her courage gave strength to other women in similar situations to speak out and tell their stories.5 Individual stories are so powerful that they can inform and inspire activism and even bring about policy change.
It is worth contemplating how women’s waywardness is still punished in overt and subtle ways in the 21st century. The law of sotah in Parshat Naso invites us to consider how women’s stories have been suppressed and controlled by patriarchal conventions—and how unlocking them can lead to change in our own time. Storytelling, with its complex portrayals of humanity, helps shift women from the subservience of ‘Amen’ to the power of having a voice. Only then do they have the freedom to author their own lives.
1 Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses: A New Translation with Introductions, Commentary and Notes (New York: Schocken Books, 1995) 680.
Robert Alter, The Five Books of Moses: A Translation with Commentary (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004) 705.
2 Alter 707.
3 Ibid. 708.
4 Numbers, 5:22
5 “It’s not just a woman who has been raped, but a nation,” The Guardian, 14 March 2005. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2005/mar/14/gender.pakistan. See also Nicholas D. Kristof, “Mother of a Nation,” The New York Times, 2 April 2006. http://select.nytimes.com/2006/04/02/opinion/02kristof.html?ref=mukhtarmai
From Rabbi Simon Jacobson
Are You Unique ?
Sound file from Rabbi David Ingber:
We’ve Got to Go Through It
From Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Personal Status and Jewish Leadership
Rituals, spiritual fidelity, and turning toward God (Naso)
Posted: 25 May 2014
In this week’s Torah portion (Naso) is the strange ritual of the Sotah, which on its face concerns an allegedly unfaithful wife, a jealous husband, and a magic brew of water and dust. When our sages say of Torah, “Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it,” I believe they invited us to turn this Sotah passage so it reveals not only old-paradigm patriarchy and heterocentrism, but also deep wisdom for today. Before we can turn it, though, we need to look with open eyes at what it is we’re turning.
Here is the p’shat (the simple surface meaning) of the Sotah ritual. If a husband suspects his wife of infidelity, he should bring her to the priest with an unseasoned grain offering. The priest will dissolve dust from the temple floor in a vessel of sacred water; write the words of a magic spell on a piece of parchment; dissolve those words in the water; and make the woman drink it. The spell indicates that if she was unfaithful, her thigh will sag and her belly will distend. (Some commentators read these words to imply miscarriage; others see them as describing an immediately visible physical response to drinking these “waters of bitterness.”) If the woman has not been unfaithful, then nothing will happen and/or she will remain able to conceive. Either way, that’s the end of the strange Sotah story.
Almost everything about the Sotah ritual challenges our the modern sensibility. First, the gender inequality: a man could accuse his wife of adultery, but there’s no parallel ritual for a woman suspecting her husband of infidelity. While a woman’s sexuality is “owned” by her father or husband, a man’s sexuality is his own and untestable. Second, the Sotah assumes heterosexuality: there’s no ritual for a same-sex couple. Third, there’s the uncomfortable suggestion that an unfaithful woman will inevitably miscarry or become infertile, implying that anyone who miscarries or is infertile may be suspect. I have a sense for how emotionally and spiritually devastating miscarriage and infertility can be in the modern world, and I have no doubt that these experiences were equally powerful for our female ancestors. To link the pain of infertility with this kind of moral judgment adds insult to injury. For these reasons and others, we cannot read the Sotah to guide difficulties among intimate partners in today’s world. We need to turn it around to make it meaningful.
What if we read the Sotah, instead, as a psychological drama in which its actors represent different parts of the self? Through that lens, the verses about the Sotah tell an entirely different story: here’s what to do if I come to feel that some part of me has betrayed the greater unity to which I aspire. First, I must bring my whole self to a holy place, a place of prayer and connection with divinity. Body, heart, mind, and soul: all of me must present in order to move forward. In that holy place, I meet with a spiritual facilitator, someone who has a deep connection with God (symbolized by the Sotah ritual of appearing before a priest). With that person’s help, I articulate where I fear that I went wrong.
Then there’s a ritual of washing-away my misdeed. We write the words down and then let them dissolve. I drink from the living waters in which my misdeeds have dissolved — a way of internalizing, literally taking-into-myself, how my mistakes have been forgiven and washed away (symbolized by the physical drinking of the Sotah potion). If my teshuvah process is incomplete and I haven’t wholly integrated forgiveness, this process may make me feel worse (symbolized by the physical effects of drinking the Sotah potion when one is “guilty”). But if I’m able to release myself from my own misdeeds, then I come away with a clean slate, ready to begin again (symbolized by the Sotah promise of fertility).
Seen in this way, the ritual of the Sotah becomes a kind of spiritual direction session, an opportunity to work with a trained facilitator to fully effect the transformation of teshuvah, repentance and return.
In the writings of the Prophets, physical infidelity often is a metaphor for spiritual infidelity. Hosea in particular works with this theme at length. God is the “husband” whose “wife” – the people Israel – strays to other gods. (The patriarchal / heterocentrist language is Hosea’s; we might reframe his words as a teaching that the Holy Blessed One, a unity beyond all gender and division, enters into covenant with us and, in our human understanding, feels “hurt” when we stray.) Although God responds to this with furious anger for a time, God’s ultimate response is one of love. God is always ready to take us back.
Hosea teaches that teshuvah is endlessly possible, and that no matter what our transgressions might be, our covenant with the Holy Blessed One is reparable and will endure. Hosea too can be troubling if read as a prescription for contemporary marital counseling. But what I find most remarkable in Hosea is not his bitterness, but the turn he makes from anguish to reconciliation. Teshuvah, he argues passionately, is always possible and necessary. No matter how deeply we have betrayed our Beloved, we can and must make the shift of turning ourselves back in the right direction. And if we can make that leap of teshuvah — at once the most impossibly difficult, and profoundly simple, act in our lexicon — we will be received with open arms.
On June 3, just a few short days from now, we’ll reach the festival of Shavuot, our early-summer festival of first fruits and revelation, the day we symbolically re-receive Torah at Mount Sinai. Many of us may associate teshuvah, turning-toward or returning-to God, with Elul and the Days of Awe — a season still many months away. What does Shavuot have to do with teshuvah?
The Days of Awe come at the end of an intense period of reflection, introspection, and the inner soul-work of teshuvah. According to one way of thinking, that period begins with Tisha b’Av, the low point in our festival year when we recall the destruction of both Temples and mourn the brokenness of creation. After Tisha b’Av we count 49 days — seven weeks — until Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the Days of Awe. Seven weeks for teshuvah and soul-work culminate in one of our year’s biggest opportunities for transformation and connection with God. (I learned this from Reb Zalman, who heard it from Cantor Michael Esformes.)
Shavuot too comes at the end of a seven-week period of reflection, introspection, and inner soul-work: the period of counting Omer, which links Pesach with Shavuot, liberation with revelation. The Omer period now finishing is our spring season of teshuvah; the months of Av and Elul before Rosh Hashanah are our fall season of teshuvah.
Teshuvah also is a monthly, weekly, and even daily practice — but our tradition gives us two corridors of the year to focus deeply on this work together. And when we do this work of teshuvah, and release ourselves from our misdeeds and our old baggage, we become able to stand wholly at Sinai and receive the new Torah which God will reveal this year.
Shavuot is seen in rabbinic tradition as the marriage between God and Israel. In the rabbinic imagination, God is the groom; Israel, the bride; the Torah, our ketubah outlining our and God’s mutual promises and responsibilities. (Here, too, we can shift the traditional gender categories as needed in order to make the metaphor resonant in today’s language.) There’s another midrash which suggests that God held Mount Sinai over us like an inverted barrel, threatening that if we didn’t accept the Torah, God would drop the mountain and bury us there; but the marriage midrash recasts it, arguing instead that Sinai suspended over our heads was in fact our beautiful chuppah or marriage canopy!
In reading about the Sotah a few days before our “wedding anniversary,” we remind ourselves that in any relationship there will be ebbs and flows of connection. And in any relationship, a leap of faith is necessary. One doesn’t enter into a marriage saying “tell me everything that might go wrong in the coming decades and then I’ll decide whether to commit.” We join with one another, and with God, in perpetual hope. And when we inevitably feel pulled astray, we trust that repair is possible. We trust that we can return to each other, that we can return to our deepest selves, that we can return to the Holy One of Blessing — and be received in love.
Keyn yehi ratzon: may it be so
From the Maqam Project
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Naso
May 30, 2015 / 12 Sivan 5775
Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Torah Reading: Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
Haftarah Reading: Judges 13:2-25
We don’t talk much about grace in Judaism—it’s a word that we long ago handed over to our daughter religion, Christianity. We defined ourselves as a religion of justice, of holiness, of tikkun olam—and grace became “goyish.” And yet, apparently unaware that it is fallen out of fashion, grace persists throughout our sacred literature and plays a central role in this week’s parasha.
The Hebrew word for grace is chen, as in the name Chanah. It is an integral part of God’s self-description to Moses in Exodus 33, when God is revealed as “El chanun v’rachum”— God of Grace and Compassion. And, it stands at the very center of one of the most famous passages of the Torah, Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing which is part of Parshat Naso. Recall the words:
Y’varechecha Adonai v’yishmarecha
Y’air Adonai panav eliecha v’yichunekha
Yisa Adanai pavav eliecha v’yasem l’kha shalom.
V’yichunekha is traditionally rendered as: “May God deal graciously with you.” Our teacher, the Rector of American Jewish University, Rabbi Elliot Dorff, translates it differently. He says: “May God grant you more than you deserve.” Grace, he teaches, is blessing that goes beyond what we strictly merit for our actions.
It is true, most of the good things that we experience in life have a direct correlation to the amount of effort that we invest into them. A loving relationship is sustained by hard work, open communication, and mutual respect. A child turns out well because of parents who made them a central priority in their lives; they are truly the product of their parents’ blood, sweat and tears. Maintaining our health, succeeding in our chosen profession, making a meaningful contribution to the world — there are no shortcuts to achieving the important things in life. We are blessed with them, because we worked hard to earn them.
And yet, that is never the whole picture. Each of our great successes: a happy child, an established practice, a loving marriage, a meaningful life, is the product both of our own hard work and of elements that we must admit are quite out of our hands: We met the right person, we were in the right place at the right time, we took the risk and it paid off. On top of all of our diligent hard work, it turns out we also need to get quite lucky. To claim no credit at all would be disingenuously humble, to claim all of the credit would be stunningly unrealistic. Our fortunes are governed by a partnership between the work of our hands and God’s grace.
Our response to those blessings that we earn is pride, and in Judaism a little bit of naches in our legitimate accomplishments is certainly no sin. Our response to grace, however, is deeper and purer — simple gratitude. It is the morning Modeh Ani, which invites us to start the day with thanksgiving for the gift of having woken up to new possibility and new life. It is the evening Sh’ma, that asks us to count our blessings before closing our eyes and surrendering to sleep. It is the pinnacle moment of the High Holy Days, when we get down on the ground and hold our palms up to the sky and say to God that we can’t do it by ourselves. To be a Jew is to pause 100 times a day in gratitude, recognizing that so much in our life is simply the product of God’s grace.
May we be blessed with more than we deserve. And may we be wise enough to recognize it.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Two Versions of the Moral Life
The Blessing of Love
From Brian Yosef Schachter- Brooks
Why Did I Wake Up Lonely? Parshat Nasso
One night we were woken up around 1:00 AM when our two-year old daughter wandered into our bedroom and cried, “Why did I wake up lonely?”
I think she meant to ask why she woke up alone, not lonely. But, I realized, this can be a concern for many people on the Path- “If I wake up spiritually, will I be lonely?”
Put another way- “If I awaken to a new level of consciousness, will I still be able to relate to people? Will I feel all alone if I let go of all the games and dramas that I am used to playing out with people?”
It’s true, there is an aspect of waking up that requires aloneness, but not necessarily loneliness.
On the inner level, there has to be a willingness to let go of your addiction to thinking. As long as the mind is constantly generating a stream of thought, the world will appear as a projection of your thought. Let go of your stream of thinking, and you open to the Divine Presence that is your own awareness, seeing Its own glory and unity in everything.
This happens when your consciousness fully stands alone, not seduced by the compulsive narratives of the mind.
This week’s reading, Parshat Nasso, is the finale for describing the construction of the Mishkan- the sanctuary of the Divine Presence. In preparation for the Mishkan becoming activated, the Israelites are told to expel anyone who is a tzaru’a, a zav, or who is tamei lanafesh.
All three of these terms have to do with bodily things that many people would consider to be kind of gross. Metaphorically, they are related to ways that our thoughts, speech and actions can keep us unconscious and in “exile” from the Presence.
“Tzaru’a” means someone with a particular skin affliction, and is associated with the sin of lashon hara- gossip and slander. Since the skin is the boundary of a person but also the place of intimate connection with others, this mythic disease is an expression of relationships getting tarnished through destructive speech.
“Zav” means some kind of bodily emission and is associated with sexuality. Metaphorically, the outward emission represents the way thoughts of sexuality can be a kind of “reaching” or “grasping” for gratification, a loss of vital energy and presence.
These two represent the polarity of unconsciousness-
“Tzaru’a” is negativity, and “Zav” is wanting, grasping, neediness. Both of these lead to an absence of Presence in the body, which brings us to the third one: “Tamei Lanefesh” means spiritually contaminated by a corpse.
To the degree that you become seduced by the energies of “I hate” and “I want,” your body is temporarily dead to the Presence that is not separate from your own Being. In order for your body to become a sanctuary again, these forces and the thoughts they produce must be “expelled from the camp” in a sense.
You must stand alone from them- let go of your resistance, and you will come to know your inner Wholeness. Once you know your inner Wholeness, you can let go of your wanting as well. It’s enough to be with what is.
Rabbi David Novaodok would say-
“Why is it that people don’t have what they want? It’s because they don’t want what they have. If they wanted only what they have, they would have what they want!”
On this Shabbat Nasso, the Sabbath of Carrying, may we constantly carry with us the knowledge of letting go, so that we cease to carry the burdens of resistance and wanting. And in so doing, may the Presence that we are reveal Itself ever more deeply, making our bodies into temples of the Presence.
From Maggid Jhos Singer
A dizzying array of rituals, censuses, sacrifices and job descriptions fill this week’s Torah portion, Nasso (Numbers 4:21-7:89). And smack in the middle of the hurly burly is one whopper of a blessing:
May God bless you and protect you
May God’s face illuminate and be gracious to you,
May God’s face be lifted to you and place peace in you
These are among the most famous, oft repeated and ecumenical words in the Hebrew Bible, and rightly so. They capture exactly what most of us crave spiritually, physically, psychologically and emotionally— to be cared for, to be safe, to be seen, and to be comforted.
Aptly they occur almost randomly in the midst of a flurry of human activity—tasks needing our attention, cases to hear, numbers to crunch and wrongs to right. The preoccupation with keeping the spiritual scales balanced through the temple rites fills page after page with arcane rules regarding priestly power, the feral nature of public tribunals, and the establishment of a cosmic social order delineating who is who and what is what. And there wedged between all of that formality are words of blessing, to be bestowed from human to human, as if to remember what all the fuss is about.
Like us, our ancient forebears lived busy, difficult lives. They suffered bouts of jealous rage, they lifted and carried, and they struggled into and out of sociological pigeonholes. They erred and dared, doing whatever was necessary to ensure their survival while also discovering their purpose, their destiny, their legacy. And like us, right in the middle of their train wrecks and triumphs, they needed blessings to stay the course.
Modern culture is woefully lacking in this simple practice—perhaps this week’s Torah portion is a reminder that even amidst the blaring activity gets and unpaid bills, even when wrongs have yet to be righted, what really counts, what we remember and return to most, what sustains and inspires us, are our blessings.
As this Shabbat arrives, with its invitation to let go of the week’s clattering business long enough to enter into the rarified time of spiritual liberation, take a moment to review your blessings. Step in even deeper; wrap these words around yourself, those you love, and even those you don’t: May you be cared for and safe, may you be filled with light and grace, and may every twist and turn in the path ahead bring you closer to fullness and peace. Amen. Amen.
Blessin’s, for real—Jhos
I See You
God’s face shining toward you: see it over there?
You can pick up the shining a long way away.
You can appreciate it from across the room or
Across the Universe.
God’s face lifted up toward you
God’s face right there
I see it moving lifting up and
That’s peace baby.
Also what is it about a face in Hebrew that English
Does not signify.
Panim. B’fanim. Bif-nim.
Face and within
The face in Hebrew has some transparency
Hey. Look at that face.
There’s a soul in there. I see it.
What did I learn this week.
Our beloveds are like mirrors for us
They reflect our souls.
Our beloveds say: look at me.
I am seeing you.
Here is the gift I am giving you
This is who you are
As I see you.
Numbers 6:24 ff.
“Lessons of the Midbar”
By Rabbi Diane Elliot, ’06
We Jews have often been called “people of the book,” but perhaps a better appellation would be “people of words.” A people forged in the wilderness, the midbar—a Hebrew word whose root, l’daber, means “to speak,”—a people defined by Aseret ha-Dibrot, The Ten Speakings of an invisible and awesome Divine mouth, our Torah unfolds as a saga of the spoken word: “va-yidaber YHVH el moshe leymor…,” “and the Infinite spoke to/through Moses, saying…,” “va-yidaber moshe el b’nai yisrael…,” “and Moses spoke to the children of Israel….”
In my rare and precious times in desert wilderness—in Ein Gedi near the Dead Sea, in the high desert of New Mexico, in the Anza-Borrego desert east of San Diego, in the Panamint Valley just outside of Death Valley—what’s been palpable and deeply healing for me has been the silence. A rich, thick silence that lies upon the land like a cloak, in which any minute sound seems to echo for miles; a silence shattered at times by the wailing of wind and storm, inchoate, like wild beasts rampaging through the valleys and dry river beds.
So how, in our tradition, does midbar, this wild place of palpable silence and nature’s unpredictable blasts, become transmuted into m’daber, a mishkan built from the sayings, speakings, pronouncements of Divine Presence, channeled through the throat of Moses? And how, over the course of the Israelites’ wilderness sojourn, does this pristine space fill to overflowing with so many words of confusion, doubt, complaint, conflict, pleading, punishment, forgiveness, and threat of further punishment?
In her recent book, Moses, A Human Life, the great contemporary darshan, Dr. Avivah Zornberg, presents the voice of Moses—that great transmitter of God’s words, whose own speech was deficient, impaired in some way—as a harking back to “tehom,” “the murmuring deep,” the rumbling, inchoate flood of sound that precedes Creation, a buzzing, vibrating ocean of sound that contains all possible human vocalizations. Inarticulate, at times requiring translation by his brother Aaron, the voice of Moses, holds the full, raw range of pre-verbal feeling. And it is precisely this voice, the voice beneath words, beyond even silence, that God needs to convey Godself to this ragtag bunch of erstwhile slaves, these descendants of Jacob the trickster, of Yisrael, the angel-wrestler.
For, in the human mouth, well-formed words are often not trustworthy. Some blockage, some distortion often intervenes between the true intent and its expression, between the raw emotion, the deep intuition, and its verbal shaping. We see this in the current travesty of our public discourse. Misunderstanding blossoms, explodes into anger and hurt, and freezes into intransigent opposition.
This week’s parshah, Naso, which unfolds fairly close to the beginning of what, yet unbeknownst to them, will become the Israelites’ forty-year sojourn bamidbar, in the wilderness, includes the extremely troubling description of a “trial by water” imposed upon a wife suspected by her husband of infidelity, the sotah. The scenario described here is clearly one of broken communication, something sensed but not spoken, for, without concrete evidence, the jealousy of the husband is aroused against his mate: “…a man could have lain with her carnally, but it was hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she became secluded and could have been defiled, but there was no witness against her, and she had not been forced, and a spirit of jealousy had passed over him…” (Numbers 5:13-14, my italics).
The unlucky woman is to be brought to the Tabernacle and made to stand, her head uncovered, before the High Priest and before God. A “meal offering of jealousies” (minkhat k’na’ot) is brought by her husband, and she is made to drink from a vessel of holy water, mixed with earth from the floor of the Tabernacle and seasoned with curses, inscribed on a scroll and then scraped into the water. If, upon drinking the cursed water, her “belly distends and thigh collapses,” she is proven guilty and cursed; if not she is exonerated.
Of course, being forced to submit to this low-tech lie detector test would’ve been extremely humiliating for any woman. And though the “bitter waters” contained only a little earth and ink, the destructive power of her husband’s mistrust, or of her own guilt, if she had, in fact, slept with another, intensified by the pressure of this very public shaming, might well have caused the woman so accused to physically collapse, to become, in Torah’s words, “a curse amid her people.”
As disturbing as this description of the sotah is, can we not in some way see foreshadowed here, in microcosm, the distortions, the hiddennesses, the half-truths, untruths, and unkept promises—the repeated failures of words—that will plague the Israelite people throughout their desert sojourn, evinced both in the evolving relationship between HaShem, the Divine husband, and Israel, his reluctant, often terrified bride, and also in the people’s relationships with Moses, their leader, and with one another?
Perhaps the truth of any relationship rests not in the multitudes of words that will inevitably be shared, but in the attentive stratum of silence underlying those words, and in the tehom—the murmuring, groaning, cooing, crying, burbling resonance of shared souls—beneath the silence. Perhaps the word “midbar” points us not to a place of everyday speech, but to all that underlies and surrounds our speaking—to the great, cosmic hum that births Creation and to the matrix of silence out of which words arise. As Avivah Zornberg so eloquently puts it, “In our deepest aloneness, we listen for the elemental in each other’s voice—which, strangely, is also the particular sound of the other. He is unknown to me, it is her unknownness that I draw on, to help me be at home in the alien elements of my own world.” (Moses, A Human Life; p. 55)
As rabbis, cantors, chaplains, spiritual directors, and spiritual friends to one another, we are charged with the challenging task of conveying wisdom, comfort, remembrance, and sometimes challenge and rebuke through the tricky medium of words. How essential then that we steep ourselves in the matrix of silence and the unformed sounds of the human heart that prefigure language—that we privilege listening and the expectant space between breaths, not jumping reflexively to speech, which can so polarize, so alienate. Truth, ever elusive in our speaking, sometimes shines through most radiantly in our silences, in the simple loving act of our listening.
From Rabbi David Kasher
THE GARDEN OF EARTHLY DELIGHTS – Parshat Naso
This post originally appears at Kevah.org.
Asceticism – the idea that physical pleasure stands in the way of spiritual enlightenment – has a long and storied history in the annals of religious thought. All the great religious traditions have some expression of it, including such practices as: fasting, celibacy, sleep-deprivation, wearing simple clothing, poverty, and even – in the most extreme cases – the active pursuit of pain.
But Judaism has always had an uncomfortable relationship with the uncomfortable life. While it is always impossible to define a single, official Jewish theology, it seems fair to say that most modern Jews have inherited a basic assumption that Jewish tradition – from the Garden of Eden on – regards the physical world as a fundamentally good place, full of things that are meant to be enjoyed by human beings.
In rabbinic literature, perhaps the most explicit celebration of physical pleasure is this statement from the Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12:
Rabbi Hizkiah the Cohen, in the name of Rav, said, “A person will have to give a justification and accounting for any delight he saw but did not consume.”
רבי חזקיה ר’ כהן בשם רב עתיד אדם ליתן דין וחשבון על כל שראת עינו ולא אכל
But then, on the other end of the spectrum, we can find more ascetic rabbinic voices, like this one from Pirkei Avot 6:4:
This is the Way of Torah: Eat bread with salt, drink small amounts of water, and sleep on the ground; live a life of deprivation and toil in the Torah.
כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל
So which is it? What is the Jewish ideal – pain or pleasure? Well, these rabbis can debate it all they want, but what does it say in the Torah itself?
Many have claimed that the ascetic tradition in Judaism finds its roots in this week’s parsha, with the laws of the “Nazir.” We have already come across the institution of vows (nedarim – נדרים), whereby someone can verbally pledge something she owns to God. But the Nazirite vow is a particularly intense version of this practice, in that the Nazir essentially pledges herself to God for a temporary period.
There are three prominent manifestations of this commitment:
1. No wine or any other grape product.
2. No cutting of hair.
3. No contact with the dead (even one’s own parents).
The prohibition on hair-cutting may remind us of the most famous Nazir in the Bible – Samson (though he was a bit of an unusual case, because he had been pledged from birth). But it is the first rule – abstinence from wine – that most strongly suggests asceticism. Sobriety as a religious commitment is one of the classic forms of self-denial, and we find a prohibition on intoxicants in many spiritual traditions, from Islam to Buddhism.
Judaism does not ban wine, as a general rule. Quite the opposite – wine is used prominently for sacred purposes. So if this Nazirite practice is an authentic expression of Jewish asceticism, it seems to distinctly frame this kind of religious expression as the exception, rather than the rule. You can take on these extreme practices, but it is not expected, or even encouraged.
However, even this small a nod to the value of asceticism gets vehement pushback from a parade of Jewish thinkers throughout history:
First, in the Talmud (Taanit 11a), Rabbi Eliezer HaKappar, understands the Nazir not merely as an extremist, but in fact, a sinner:
His sin refers to his denying himself the enjoyment of wine. If then, the one who merely denied himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, how much more so does that apply to the person who denies himself the enjoyment of the other pleasures of life!
וכי באיזה נפש חטא זה אלא שציער עצמו מן היין והלא דברים קל וחומר ומה זה שלא ציער עצמו אלא מן היין נקרא חוטא המצער עצמו מכל דבר ודבר על אחת כמה וכמה
Then, in the medieval period, Maimonides, who famously revived Aristotle’s concept of “the golden mean,” or “middle path,” wrote the following about the Nazirite vow:
If a person should say… He will not eat meat or drink wine, or get married, or live in a nice house, or wear fine clothes, but only wool and sackcloth, like the heathen priests – this is an evil path, and it is forbidden to walk down it.
Therefore the sages commanded that a person should not deny himself anything beyond what the Torah itself prohibits, and should not take on vows of abstinence on things permitted to him. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Deot, 3:1,3)
שמא יאמר אדם… שלא יאכל בשר ולא ישתה יין ולא יישא אישה ולא יישב בדירה נאה ולא ילבוש מלבוש נאה אלא השק והצמר הקשה וכיוצא בהן, כגון כומרי אדום–גם זו דרך רעה היא, ואסור לילך בה.
לפיכך ציוו חכמים שלא ימנע אדם עצמו אלא מדברים שמנעה התורה בלבד, ולא יהיה אוסר עצמו בנדרים ובשבועות על דברים המותרים.
And finally, when we come to the modern Hassidic movement, we find that one of the key features of their theology was a strong affirmation of engagement with the physical world, not just as a form of pleasure, but as a means of unlocking spiritual potencies. So Rabbi Shalom Noach Berezovsky, in Netivot Shalom, writes this about the Nazirite vow:
The purpose of Creation and the purpose of divine service is for the Jew to immerse in all the physical things, and then to elevate them all in the name of God, for then he joins the lower with the upper. The path of separating from the things of this world is an easier path. But the higher level is to raise all the things of this world to the Holy One, Blessed be He. And that is the desired purpose.
תכלית הבריאה ותכלית עבודת ה׳ היא שיהודי יעסוק בכל הענינים הגשמיים וירים את הכל לשם ה׳, שאז הריהו מחבר תחתונים בעליונים. אמנם הדרך לפרוש להתנער מעניני עוה׳׳ז היא דרך יותר קלה, אבל המדרגה היותר גבוהה היא להעלות את כל עניני עוה׳׳ז להשי׳׳ת שזוהי התכלית הנרצית.
Here the Nazirite path is not a problematic form of extremism. Just the opposite – it’s total a cop-out! The real work of the world is to be immersed in its physicality, and then to lift it up, merging the material with the spiritual. The Nazir takes the “easier path,” just letting go of the world entirely. Sure, he has found a more direct way to a spiritual experience. But he has also forsaken his true divine purpose.
But wait a minute. Before we allow these voices to write the Nazir out of the Torah altogether, we ought to wonder what he’s doing there in the first place. Is it really plausible that the Torah would go out of its way to create this elaborate ritual if it were totally undesirable – even sinful – to carry it out?!
And after all, the Torah itself describes the Nazir with what seems to be quite lofty language:
All the days of his being a Nazir, he is holy unto the Lord. (Numbers 6:8)
כֹּל, יְמֵי נִזְרוֹ, קָדֹשׁ הוּא, לַה
“Holy unto the Lord” sounds pretty good! Surely there is something deeply valuable in this practice.
In that spirit, one of the most celebratory approaches to the Nazir comes from the commentary of the Ibn Ezra, who – in his typical fashion – first focuses on linguistic nuances:
Some say that Nazir comes from the term nezer, meaning crown. Which is why it refers to the Nazirite hair “for God, upon his head.” And this seems likely.
And know that all people are slaves to their worldly desires, and the true king, the one with the Nazirite crown upon his head, is the one who is free from these desires.
ויש אומרים כי מלת נזיר מנזרת נזר והעד כי נזר אלהיו על ראשו ואיננו רחוק ודע כי כל בני אדם עבדי תאות העולם והמלך באמת שיש לו נזר ועטרת מלכות בראשו כל מי שהוא חפשי מן התאות
So back and forth, back and forth – the rabbis keep debating. Is it good to become a Nazir or not? Is it good to cut oneself off from the pleasures of the world, or is it contrary to the very purpose of creation?
But there is something that we have been ignoring all along, the great 19th-century German commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch points out. And that is – these Nazirite practices do not really constitute such a rigorous program of asceticism.
No wine, no haircuts, and no dead bodies? That’s it?! What about fasting and sleeping on the ground? What about wearing sackcloth or going celibate?
In fact, the Nazir can still enjoy all kinds of physical pleasure. If the point of the Nazirite vow was to free the vower from all worldly desire, it really didn’t take us too far down the list of desires.
Instead, Rabbi Hirsch understands the function of the Nazirite vow quite differently:
The basic meaning of nezer is quite definitely: to keep aloof, to keep separate…. So that just as nezer means a royal diadem which marks the person whose head it surrounds as being set apart and inaccessible, so here nezer designates a regime of living and striving that raises the person who vows of his own free will to undertake it, out of and about the midst of people amongst whom he lives and sets him the task to be completely “holy to God,” to belong with the whole of his being and will exclusively to his God. He wishes to draw a circle round about himself in which only God is to be present.
The obstacle to spiritual enlightenment, according to this model, is not physical pleasure, but social pleasure. It is not temptations of the flesh that that will keep me away from God, but the bonds of friendly and familial obligation. How can I cultivate a deep relationship to the Divine, if I am balancing it with all my other relationships? I need space to myself. I need time alone with my God.
And yet, Jewish life does not offer too much alone time. The laws that make up Jewish practice presume a community of practitioners. This is not a religion for individuals; it is the religion of a people. These people need me, and I need them. We cannot escape from one another.
But then, how does one ever find God, in the midst of all these people? How does one hear the still, small voice of God calling above the buzzing noise of human society? Religion takes place in the congregation, but sometimes God can only be found alone.
Rabbi Hirsch acknowledges this tension as he finishes his comments, and offers us a strange solution:
One who does so isolate himself [with and for God] is called a Nazir. But this is no hermit-like isolation, no shutting oneself up in the wilderness. It is an isolation of one’s mind and spirit with God in the midst of the most active ordinary life.
I will not run away – the Nazir is saying – far from the madding crowd. I will find a way to be alone with God right here, amongst you all. I will live in society, and I will give to it – but I will have a place of retreat, in my mind.
How will I do this? I will not drink wine, for then I will lose myself in the joy of celebrating, and drift away into the crowd of revelers. I will not cut my hair, so that I begin to appear strange, and others keep their distance from me. And for a time, I will not go to funerals, for in sorrow I am always bonded to my people.
For now I must be alone. I am searching for something, and I have to find it by myself.
But this period of isolation will come to an end. And then I will return to you. For I belong here, in this world, with all its wonders and pleasures. And of all those earthly delights, you are chief among them.
“And from the ground the Lord God caused every tree to grow that was pleasurable to the sight and good for consumption…
… and the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for a person to be alone.”
– Genesis 2:9,18
Going to the Head of the Prayer Line
BY Rabbi JOEL ALTER,
Sharp elbows at shul extend beyond the kiddush table line and back into the sanctuary. Prayer—or giving honor to God—can be a competitive business. There are lots of reasons why this is so, and some of them even have to do with loving God. But showing off how we love God can get us into trouble. Against this background, let’s consider Numbers, chapter 7, the concluding chapter of Parashat Naso.
At 89 verses, chapter 7 is a wall of words, built mostly from 12 near-identical blocks. Each block records the same gift brought by each of the 12 nesi’im—chieftains of the 12 Tribes of Israel—on 12 successive days to join in dedicating the Mishkan (Tabernacle) upon the inauguration of its service. On the first day, Nahshon ben Aminadav, nasi chieftain of the Tribe of Judah, brings a bowl, a basin, and a ladle, and a specific array of 21 animals for the Levites’ sheepfold and pens. On the second day, Netanel ben Tzu’ar, nasi of the Tribe of Issachar, brings the same, as does Eliav ben Helon of Zevulun on the third day. While my increasingly terse telling about each day’s gift is efficient and still clear, the Torah chooses to recount each gift with elaborate, repetitive precision.
The dignified procession of nesi’im, each stepping forward in turn to present their dedicatory offerings on their appointed days, seems the very model of serene, noncompetitive equality. Robert Alter (no relation) writes,
This passage is . . . a kind of epic inventory. Each of the tribes, here accorded absolutely equal status before the sanctuary without political hierarchy, brings exactly the same offering. One can readily imagine that the members of each tribe in the ancient audience of this text would be expected to relish the sumptuousness of its own tribal offering exactly equal to all the others, as it hears the passage read. (The Five Books of Moses, 716–717)
No sharp elbows here. Why else would the Torah tell of it thus, rather than in shorthand? The Torah does not quite answer this question, but it gives us clues. The Rabbis, characteristically, leap upon them.
First, while the nesi’im assemble their gifts on their own initiative (Num. 7:10), it is God who instructs Moshe to have them offered on 12 successive days. If God wants the presentation so evenly arranged, then the Torah rightly records it in discrete portions. But there are other hints. Of the 12 nesi’im involved, Nahshon, the giver on the first day, is the only one not recognized as a nasi in our passage. We know he is a nasi from last week’s Parashat Bemidbar (1:16, 2:3), yet here he is named without his title (7:12). The commentator Hezekiah ben Manoah, known as the Hizkuni, points out: “Nahshon is not called nasi here so that his being first to offer the sacred gift would not go to his head, while all the others are called nesi’im because they humbled themselves in offering their gifts after his.” Hizkuni recognizes that the nesi’im are dignified men deserving of (and possibly accustomed to) tribute, and that the opportunity to publicly honor God might play on their pride. So the Torah manages the chieftains’ prestige with careful application of their honorifics.
While Netanel ben Tzu’ar’s gift on the second day is the same as Nahshon’s on the first, the Rabbis pick up on a variation in the telling. Everett Fox’s distinct translation best conveys the redundancy in the Hebrew: “On the second day, Netanel son of Tzu’ar, leader [nasi] of Yissakhar, brought-(it)-near; he brought-near [my italics] his near-offering.” Fox is indicating that the Torah employs the verb hikriv (“offered” or “brought near”) twice with Netanel, when for all the other nesi’im, it uses it but once. Remember, this passage is all about what Alter calls “verbatim repetition.” Midrash Rabbah 13:15 asks,
Why is hikriv used in connection with Netanel? Because Reuven lodged a complaint when he saw that the tribe of Issachar was to make the second offering and not him: “It’s enough that Judah [Nahshon’s tribe] already precedes me in the marching order. But I should be able to make my offering according to birth order!”
A little explanatory context: in last week’s parashah, we learned how the tribes were encamped around the Mishkan, and that the Tribe of Judah was placed by God in the vanguard. In our midrash, we see that Reuven has no choice but to accept Judah’s priority position in that context, but he expects that his status as firstborn among Jacob’s sons/tribes will be recognized in the dedication ceremony for the Mishkan. Note that, while we might expect the nasi of Reuven to advocate for his own honor, the midrash places the complaint in the mouth of Reuven himself. This cannot mean what it says, though, as Reuven, the man, is long dead. Reuven, here, must be the personification of the tribe, probably in the person of its nasi, Elitzur ben Shedei’ur. The pride of the entire tribe is carried by its nasi.
But the appeal fails. In the midrash, Moshe rebukes “Reuven,” explaining that the order of the offerings is dictated by God, no less than the arrangement of the camp. The offerings are made by Judah, then Issachar, then Zevulun, and only then firstborn Reuven. So much for pride of place. It goes further, taking a different tack. It’s not an unassailable divine decree that puts Issachar before Reuven. Rather, Issachar demonstrates a piety that Reuven did not. He earns his place near the front of the line. How? We learn in the midrash that it is Issachar’s nasi who has the idea to organize all of the nesi’im to offer a group gift in the first place. He prompts them to give. (In the first verses of our chapter, the nesi’im give gifts collectively before they bring the offerings on behalf of their respective tribes.)
The “absolutely equal status” of the respective tribes and their nesi’im in this inauguration ceremony,then, barely contains the resentments and rivalries among them behind the scenes. Over what do the nesi’im contend? Is it their honor? God’s honor? The honor of honoring God? Yes.
Our passage calls to mind the disaster of Cain and Abel in Genesis 4. No one told Cain to make an offering to God. He did so spontaneously out of love and gratitude. Abel was inspired by Cain. Did he intend to one-up his brother with a more lavish offering? Cain thought so. (Troublingly,) God favored Abel’s offering over Cain’s. For Cain, the demotion and rejection were intolerable.
Honoring God—in the Torah, often through material gifts, in our experience, often in prayer—is a high-stakes matter. Earlier in Midrash Rabbah (13:6), we learn in a gorgeous passage that God’s existential loneliness spurred God to create the world, and that, since Creation, God craved intimacy with humanity—a craving fully answered only with the establishment of the Mishkan. The procession of gifts from the nesi’im is like the procession of the bridal party at a wedding, weighted with love and longing. Those who perceive God’s yearning love, of course, want to reciprocate and proclaim their love for the world to see. That urge to proclaim can sometimes yield preening displays and, other times, motivate ugliness, even violence. Rising above the quibbling heard in the midrash, Numbers 7 portrays a community of individuals united in their love for God, generously claiming no monopoly on it, and humble in disregarding human hierarchies as they stand equally before God.
Without diminishing the vitality and beauty of spontaneous prayer, the dedication of the Mishkan points to a benefit and a challenge in the imposed uniformity inherent in communal worship. When we observe another recite the same words in prayer we’ve said countless times before, may we strive to say appreciatively, “I hope to offer something just as lovely when my turn comes.”
The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.
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