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Torah Sparks

Parashat Naso
May 18, 2013 – 9 Sivan 5773

Annual: Numbers 4:21-7:89 (Etz Hayim p. 791; Hertz p. 586)
Triennial: Numbers 7:1-7:89 (Etz Hayim p. 805; Hertz p. 596)
Haftarah: Judges 12:2-25 (Etz Hayim p. 813; Hertz p. 602)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

Parashat Naso is the longest portion in the Torah: 176 verses. The census and accounting for the Tribe of Levi continues, with specific treatment of the Gershonite, Kohathite, and Merarite clans. The sacred tasks of each family grouping are assigned. God instructs Moses that the ritual purity of the camp is to be maintained by removal of those who contract impurity, as by a bodily eruption or contact with a corpse. The moral purity of the Israelite camp is also addressed: a process for redressing personal offenses is prescribed, including, variously, confession, restitution and a ritual offering.

The parashah continues with the ritual for the "sotah" – the suspected adulteress. In the absence of actual proof or substantive evidence, a married woman suspected by her husband of adultery is subjected to trial by ordeal, and compelled to drink "bitter waters" – in which dust from the sanctuary floor and scrapings from a parchment on which a series of curses and adjurations, recited by the priest during the ordeal, has been inscribed, are mixed. An "offering of jealousy" consisting of barley flour is presented at the altar. The ritual instructions provide that a woman guilty of unfaithfulness will have dire bodily reactions to the potion, while an innocent wife will be unharmed.

The extensive passage dealing with the sotah – and the unseemly specter of marital faithlessness – is followed immediately by a very different ritual: the vow of the Nazirite – an expression of extraordinary faith and devotion to God. An Israelite man or woman may temporarily undertake a heightened state of personal consecration through a vow of self-denial, refraining from wine, other intoxicants, as well any other grape product. The Nazirite is to avoid ritual impurity contracted through contact with a corpse… even in order to attend to the burial or mourning for a close relative. Finally, the Nazirite's hair is consecrated, and must not be cut. Scripture's ambivalence about the ascetic nature of the Nazirite is reflected in the sin offering which is brought to mark conclusion of the devotee's term of consecration… suggesting that the concomitant self-denial is – though carried out with holy intent – sinful in its own right.

The Priestly Blessing is prescribed as a primary duty of the Kohanim. The Blessing is famous for its beauty as well as for its intricate poetic structure. The three verses address six divine acts of favor: blessing, protection, shining, graciousness, divine attention and the bestowing of peace.

The parashah concludes with a lengthy and repetitive listing of the dedicatory gifts brought by the tribal princes at the consecration of the sanctuary… and by a description of God's ongoing communication with Moses: the divine voice emanating from between the Cherubim atop the cover of the Ark.

Theme #1: "The Joy of Six"

"The chieftains of Israel… drew near and brought their offering before the Lord: six draught carts and twelve oxen, a cart for every two chieftains and an ox for each one." (Numbers 7:2-3)

Derash: Study

"A cart for every two chieftains: as a sign of the brotherhood and amity between them, whereby they became worthy that the Divine Presence should rest among them." (Sforno)

"'Six draught carts.' Six: for the six orders of the Mishnah. Six: for the six Matriarchs – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Zilpah, and Bilhah. Six: for the six Commandments incumbent upon an Israelite king – not to acquire an overabundance of horses, not to marry numerous wives, not to acquire an excess of silver and gold, not to pervert justice, not to show favoritism in the administration of justice, and not to accept bribes. Six: for the six stairs leading to the divine throne. Six: for the six firmaments of heaven (there are, indeed six, not seven!)." (Yalkut Shimoni)

"It is as we join with others, in a way that only human beings can, in shared engagement to a common vision, that we find ourselves in the presence of another presence that is the final source of our hopes and intentions, and that undergirds and sustains them." (Judith Plaskow)

"Whatever life throws at us, our individual responses will be all the stronger for working together and sharing the load." (Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain)

Questions for Discussion

Yalkut Shimoni provides a rich interpretive response to the six ox-carts! (Add to those sixes the six acts of divine favor in the Priestly blessing… and Maimonides' six rules for its recitation!) How does each of Yalkut Shimoni's interpretations apply with special force to the tribal leaders in question? How do the commentaries of Sforno and Judith Plaskow complement each other? How do they differ? Was the amity and cooperation experienced by the tribal partners intended for their own leadership development… or for the spiritual and moral education of their followers?

How do our most important and loving human connections prepare us more readily to "find ourselves in the presence of another" Divine "presence"? That is, how does profound commitment to another human being enhance our commitment to God?

Queen Elizabeth's statement about "sharing the load" seems to apply to our verse with particular aptness. How is this principle given expression in Jewish life and sacred literature? How have you grown "all the stronger for working together" with others? How might principled sharing in the conveyance of sacred offerings guide our congregations… and relationships with other congregations? With other movements? With other faiths?

Theme #2: "My True Love Gave to Me"

"As the chieftains were presenting their offerings before the altar, the Lord said to Moses: Let them present their offerings for the dedication of the altar, one chieftain each day." (Numbers 7:10-11)

Derash: Study

"'One chieftain each day' – In order to prolong the celebration." (Chizkuni)

"'Let them present their offerings' – The verb here is in the plural form, but ought to be singular, as it refers to a single prince each day. The plural formulation is meant to teach that each prince made his offering on his assigned day on behalf of all his fellow princes, as if they all brought offerings each of the twelve days." (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, Ha'amek Davar)

"The sincerity of each offering was in no way diminished by the fact that another chieftain had brought an identical offering one day earlier. For that reason, the Torah describes each offering in detail. Similarly, although people recite the same prayers, each worshiper's experience of those prayers is unique and personal." (Chumash Etz Hayim)

"God's Mishkan was inaugurated with consistency. The hallmark of the service within it was measured regularity. We may not be able to face every day with the fresh enthusiasm, the sheer joy, of the new and exciting. However, we can try to face every day as a Prince – burdened, yet privileged." (Rabbi Steven Ettinger)

"Day after day, He cares for His beings; the Great Giver watches over all." (Sri Guru Granth Sahib)

Questions for Discussion

What intention might we ascribe to God's instruction that the princely offerings be presented over the course of twelve days, "one chieftain each day"? Extension of the process so as to amplify its significance, emotional impact and drama (Chizkuni)? To provide each prince/chieftain with an opportunity to lead and to act in behalf of his "colleagues" and the nation at large (Netziv)? To validate the individual if less than original acts of piety by each person approaching God's altar (Etz Hayim, Ettinger)? To provide a model, an homage, to God's daily care – God's watchful generosity (Sri Guru Granth Sahib is the sacred scripture of Sikhism)?

Are there dangers – practical or political, moral or spiritual – that might have arisen if the dedication had taken a different form… say, all on a single day… or over two or six days? Might this not have enhanced the partnership expressed through the sharing of the carts (see above)?

Besides equal time, how else is equality among the tribes and their princely leaders given expression in the 12-day dedication process?

Is the statement in Chumash Etz Hayim that "each offering was in no way diminished" an egregious understatement? Don't our rituals and prayers take on far greater significance – do they not have far greater impact and far more compelling claim on our fealty – specifically because others have "brought an identical offering" before us?

Historic Note

Parashat Naso, read on May 18, 2013, includes the "Priestly Blessing," which concludes with the prayer that God "grant you peace." On May 18, 1977, Menachem Begin – who would receive the Nobel Peace Prize together with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978 – became Prime Minister of Israel.

Halachah L'Maaseh

Scripture introduces the Priestly Blessing in Numbers 6:23ff with the directive: "Thus shall you bless the people of Israel." Maimonides records six separate traditions associated with this instruction: "Thus shall you bless: The blessing is to be recited standing, with raised hands, only in Hebrew, with the Kohanim and congregation facing each other, in a loud voice, and invoking God's explicit name (the Tetragrammaton)." The final provision, regarding articulation of God's name, applied only in the Temple precincts (See Hilchot Tefillah u-Virkat Kohanim 14:11). We no longer pronounce the Tetragrammaton – to which we refer, accordingly, as the "ineffable" name of God. Maimonides explains: "After Shimon Ha-Tzaddik died, the priests ceased reciting the blessing using God's explicit name even in the Temple, lest it be learned by a person lacking proper stature and moral conduct. The Sages of the early generations would teach the name only once in seven years, and only to their students and sons who had proven their character" (Ibid., 14:10).

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