June 10, 2006 – 14 Sivan 5766
Annual: Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 (Etz Hayim, p. 791; Hertz p. 586)
Triennial: Numbers 5:11 – 6:27 (Etz Hayim, p. 796; Hertz p. 589)
Haftarah: Shoftim 13:2 – 25 (Etz Hayim, p. 813; Hertz p. 602)
Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL
Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director
This portion continues the census begun in Parashat Bamidbar with a census of the tribe of Levi by their various clans. The census counted men between the ages of thirty and fifty. The many operational duties in the Tent of Meeting were assigned to various clans. Those in a state of ritual impurity were removed from the encampment. When a person wrongs another, he shall confess the wrong and pay back the principle plus an additional fine of one fifth the value.
The portion continues with the difficult law of the “sotah,” a wife suspected of being unfaithful. If a husband suspects his wife of infidelity, he brings an accusation to the priest. A special drink is prepared – the liquid includes a paper dissolved in it, and some verses are written on the paper. The woman bares her head, brings a meal offering and drinks the drink, the so-called waters of bitterness. If she is guilty, certain physical signs appear. (It should be noted that the rabbis later did away with this ritual of jealousy, partly because men who were promiscuous would accuse their wives of infidelity.)
The Torah next mentions the law of a Nazirite, someone who had made a special vow of holiness to the Lord. The Nazir was forbidden to cut his or her hair, drink wine or any other intoxicant and approach a dead body. When the period of the vow ended, the Nazir would bring special sin and burnt offerings. The chapter ends with the beautiful priestly blessing – “The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!”
The last part of the portion describes the formal consecration of the Tent of Meeting. Over a period of twelve days each of the twelve princes from the twelve tribes would bring gifts and offering to the tabernacle. The portion is extremely repetitive because each prince brought precisely the same gifts. It is customary to read this portion on each day of Hanukah because it deals with the theme of dedication.
Issue #1 - Love or Trust?
“The priest shall write these curses in a scroll, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness” (Numbers 5:23)
- What is more important for a successful marriage, love or trust? There is a hint of the Torah’s choice in the archaic ritual of the sotah, the woman suspected of infidelity. The ritual is degrading; fortunately it long ago disappeared from Jewish life. The rabbis taught that if the man himself had been less than faithful in the marriage, drinking the bitter waters would not work for his wife (Sotah 47b). According to the Talmud, when adultery increased in Israel Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai abolished the ritual altogether (Sotah 9:9). But we moderns can learn even from an archaic ritual.
- The curses that were dissolved in the water included God’s name. As a general rule, once God’s name is written we can never destroy it. That is the reason we bury a Torah and other holy books when they are no longer fit for use. Only this law is an exception. We allow God’s name to be dissolved into the bitter waters, with the hope that the woman who drank it will be found innocent. To rebuild trust between a husband and wife, even God’s name can be destroyed. What can we learn from this? What does the ritual tell us about the seriousness with which the tradition took the need for trust in a couple?
- When trust has broken down in a marriage between a husband and wife, how can it be rebuilt? Is it possible to have a loving relationship without trust?
Issue #2 – God’s Face
“May the Lord lift His face upon you and grant you peace” (Numbers 6:26)
- God’s holy name appears in each of the three stanzas of the Priestly Blessing. Besides the Name (ha-shem is the Hebrew word for “the Name”), the only term repeated in the blessing is the word “face.” (In Hebrew, the word for face is panim. In this blessing, the word is panav, which means “His face.”) We ask God to cause His face to shine upon us, and then to lift up His face to us. But does God have a face?
- Of course, the blessing is based on a metaphor. God does not really have a face. But the word “face” is important. The first insight comes from the Hebrew. The word panim is always in the plural, literally “faces.” Why is that significant?
- Perhaps the reason is that none of us has just one face. We present the world with a certain face when we are happy, another when we are angry, another when we are frightened and yet another when we are sad. We often present one face to the world and another to our family. Perhaps we have one face for business and another for leisure. Each of us has many faces. Therefore, face in Hebrew is always plural.
- However, perhaps there is another reason why face is always plural. Faces always come in pairs because without another person (or a mirror) no one sees our face, we certainly don’t. Two people meet face to face. The word face is about an encounter with another. My face comes into being when it meets another face, when I really stand in the presence and see the other.
- The human face is meant to be encountered. That is why so many muscles control our smile. Scholars say we have eyebrows so people can recognize our expression from a distance. Why is being in the presence of another’s face so important for our human identity? Why do email users have emoticons [;) :-0] which were modeled after faces? Have we lost something when we do most of our communication by phone or email?