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Torah Sparks

May 29, 2004 – 9 Sivan 5764

Annual: Numbers 4:21-7:89 (Etz Hayim, p. 791; Hertz p. 586)
Triennial Cycle: Numbers 7:1 – 7:89 (Etz Hayim, p. 805; Hertz p. 596)
Haftarah: Judges 13:2 – 25 (Etz Hayim, p. 813; Hertz p. 602)

Prepared by Rabbi Howard Buechler
Dix Hills Jewish Center, Dix Hills, NY

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director

Sedra Statistics

The Torah portion of Naso contains 176 verses and is also noteworthy as being the longest single parasha of the Torah reading cycle. Chapter 7 of Naso also has the distinction of being the longest chapter in the Torah with a total of 89 verses.

This portion contains 18 of the 613 mitzvot.

Torah Topics

The theme woven throughout this narrative is the individuals who create the holiness within the sanctuary. The portion commences with a continuation of the census of last week and the obligations of each Levitical tribe as the portable Tabernacle (mishkan) is moved from oasis to oasis in the Wilderness of Sinai. The entire Israelite encampment has the aura of holiness and the Torah reading describes individuals who because of unique circumstances may cause a diminution of that holiness due to ailments or contact with deceased. Additionally, there is a remarkable text concerning an ordeal when infidelity is suspected within marriage - and the stark rituals which are invoked in order to either restore the trust and fidelity in that marriage, or dissolve the union.

Naso continues by detailing the laws of the Nazirite, an individual who voluntarily takes a vow of abstinence from wine and intoxicants, does not cut his hair and avoids all contact with the deceased. The Nazirite enters into this stringent and self-imposed vow in order to further refine him or herself for a limited period of time.

The Torah reading contains one of the most well known formulas in prayer, the Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. These are the words which to this day the Kohanim, or Priests, use to channel the blessings of God to the people of Israel.

The final fashion in which this parasha weaves together the sanctity of individuals within the sacred structure of the Tabernacle is the gifts brought by the twelve tribal chieftains as the sanctuary is dedicated. Interestingly, the gifts brought by each prince on a daily basis (representing each tribe uniquely in this twelve-day ceremony) are identical - the gifts are exactly the same!

Word of the Week

B'racha or blessing is the root word found in the Priestly Blessing:

May the Lord bless (yevarekhaka) and protect you.

May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you.

May the Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace.

The etymology of the word "blessing" is from the Hebrew word for knee - berakh. It is precisely our knees, which propel us forward - similar to the sprinter who before the race kneels on one knee in order to have the momentum to be propelled forward. The role of a b'racha, a blessing, is to frame the moment with words which awaken our awareness to the holiness of our deeds and actions. Each b'racha provides the context in which we both perceive and create the blessings in our lives which propel us forward as partners with God in mending and tending our world.

The Priestly Blessings contain three lines consisting of three, five and seven words, totaling fifteen words and fifteen is a gematria (numerical) equivalent for the Divine Presence. Bahya, an 11th century philosopher and composer of piyuttim (metered synagogue poems) who lived in Spain, stated that this sequencing reminds us of the 3 Patriarchs, the 5 books of the Torah and the 7 days of the week (or seven dimensions of Heaven). The number of letters in each of the three verses of the Priestly Blessing is also structured mathematically in a sequence of 15, 20 and 25 words.

These words of blessings to be recited by the Priests are also the oldest Biblical inscription ever found. Two silver scrolls in the form of an amulet containing the exact 15 words of the Priestly blessing were discovered nearly 20 years ago by Israeli archeologists in Jerusalem (in a cave located close to the King David Hotel, of all places!). These scrolls date to the 7th century BCE and pre-date by centuries the Dead Sea Scrolls and are by far the oldest extant words of a Biblical text.

Sedra Spark #1 - Heroes & the Samson Syndrome

In the Haftarah of this Shabbat, we are introduced to Samson, a Nazirite from birth. The theme of a Nazirite, one abstaining from alcohol, cutting their hair and contact with the dead, is fully described in the Torah reading of Naso. Samson is even by a cursory reading of the book of Judges, an anti-hero as he lives a life filled with violence, has a fatal flaw with women, and in keeping with the adage that loose lips sink ships, divulges the source of his strength to Delilah as she then literally clips his hair and strength. Delilah, the nocturnal seductress (her name is rooted in the word lila, evening) is able to eclipse the brawn and might of Samson (and his name is rooted in the word shemesh, or sun).

The Torah describes that when a Nazirite completes his vows, he is to bring a sin-offering (Numbers 6:13-14). What is the transgression and sin of the Nazirite? Rabbi Shmeul responds in the Talmudic tractate of Ta'anit (11a) "whoever indulges in fasting is referred to as a transgressor." Maimonides, the great Rabbinic scholar and physician born in Spain who rose to extraordinary leadership in Egypt penned, “If a man should debate: since envy, passion and pride are evil, I shall divorce myself from them, and I shall eat no meat, nor drink any wine, nor marry, nor wear fine clothes… this is also an evil path and it is forbidden to walk therein as in the case of the Nazirite. Therefore our Sages commanded man to deny himself ONLY the things denied to him in the Torah. He should NOT inflict on himself vows of abstinence from things permitted to him."

Judaism is a faith not of asceticism, but one in which God teaches us to use, not abuse the gifts in this world. We are encouraged to enjoy the permitted pleasures in this world with gratitude to God. At the same time, Judaism discourages 'other-worldly' views of those who seek to reject the blessings in life. The sin offering of the Nazirite is a reminder that the Nazir has transgressed precisely by not enjoying the blessings, which God has permitted.

Who are the heroes in our communities and in Jewish life and history? Samson can be compared to the classic Samsonite luggage commercials, strong on the outside, but hollow on the inside. What core internal values does a hero need to possess. How do loyalty, charisma, strength of character and vision fit the criteria of a hero? Is a hero defined by physical prowess or in other fashions?

Sedra Spark #2 - Our Prized Possessions

As noted before, the Priestly blessing found in Numbers chapter 6:24-26 is a pivotal Biblical phrase. To this day, parents bless their children and grandchildren each Friday night including these profoundly uplifting words. In many synagogues, the Kohanim ascend the bimah to channel these Divine words to the community on the Holy Days with hands uplifted and the tallit over their heads. What precisely do the words "May the Lord bless and protect/preserve/ keep you" mean?

Don Isaac Abravanel was born in Portugal in 1437 and eventually served as finance minister to Kings in Spain and Italty and is renowned for his Torah commentaries. He stated that "bless you" refers to God blessing us with material possessions -- that we may be blessed richly with material wealth and economic prosperity so that we can maintain economic security and provide a future for our families. "Keep you" is the prayerful hope that God will protect us from the inherent dangers of wealth and prosperity. All too often, when we are blessed with riches, we loose sight of our values. The blessings of possessions should keep them from possessing us. If our goal is simply to accumulate a portfolio of wealth without a vision of how our assets can be used to assist others through deeds of tzedakah, compassionate giving, then our values are tarnished. The Jewish wisdom is to give until it feels good.

“May the Lord bless and protect us” -- becomes an anthem and hymn of praise for us to be grateful for the gifts in life that enable us to share and in doing so, keep blessing others. Spend some time this Shabbat and discuss with family and friends how and why we give to philanthropic causes. Speak eloquently at your Shabbat tables about the organizations we support and how the values of those organizations are in consonance with our values as Conservative Jews. “May the Lord bless us and protect us” is the watchword of God blessing us and in turn sharing those blessings with institutions and organizations which protect our values and cherished beliefs.

Torah Q & A

  1. What is the final word of the Priestly blessing and why?
  2. Which tribal prince brings the first offering to the Tabernacle dedication service and why?

(1. The final word is shalom as all great blessings conclude with shalom, peace 2. Nahshon, the son of Amminadav, who is credited with being the first one to enter the Sea of Reeds and due to his faith in God as he waded into the waters, the Sea then parted which enabled the Israelites to escape from the pursuing Egyptians, and Nahshon is thus accorded the great merit of bringing the first offerings).

Torah Table Talk

  1. Every holy day and each Shabbat is an opportunity to give to tzedakah? What choices of sharing and caring have we made?
  2. What does it mean to create blessings for others? If we could gift this world, or our family or community with a blessing, what blessing would it be?
  3. Samson attempted to act in heroic fashions yet his moral foundation was as quicksand. Who are our Jewish heroes today? What Jewish values are the predicates of living a moral and heroic life?
  4. What gifts do we bring to our sanctuaries? Reflect upon the gift of our presence, prayers and participation in synagogue life? How would we respond if we received identical gifts as the 12 princes brought identical gifts to the Sanctuary? Focus upon the intent of each gift and the spirit of the gift-giver?

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