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Torah Sparks

June 6, 2009 – 14 Sivan 5769

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: Judges 13:2 – 25 (Etz Hayim, p. 813; Hertz p. 602)

Prepared by Rabbi Joyce Newmark
Teaneck, New Jersey

Torah Portion Summary

God instructs Moses to take a census of the remaining Levitical houses, the Gershonites and the Merarites. The numbers of all the Levitical houses are reported and the duties of the latter two are described.

People who have contracted ritual impurity from specific sources must be placed outside the camp. A person who has wronged another by theft must confess his or her sin, make restitution and add a 20 percent fine, and bring an offering to complete his atonement.

When a man suspects his wife of adultery but has no evidence, he may bring her to a priest; he is also to bring a grain offering. The priest will then have the woman drink the “water of bitterness.” If the woman is guilty, she will experience unpleasant physical effects when she drinks the water, but if she is innocent she will pass this trial unharmed.

God tells Moses that a person may make a vow to become a nazir, abstaining from wine and grape products, from cutting his hair, and from any contact with the dead. If a nazir is accidentally contaminated by a person suddenly dying near him, he must undergo the seven-day purification ritual, bring a penalty offering, and begin counting his term as a nazir again from the beginning. At the conclusion of the term of the nazir’s vow, he or she undergoes a completion ritual.

God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons about the performance of the Priestly Blessing.

On the day that Moses completes setting up the Tabernacle and anointing and consecrating it and its furnishings, the chiefs of the tribes bring their offerings. Although they brought identical offerings, one each day for 12 days, the gift of each chief is described individually.

1. Holier Than Thou?

On the eighth day he shall bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. The priest shall offer one as a purification offering [hattat – traditionally, sin offering] and the other as a burnt offering, and make expiation on his behalf for the guilt that he incurred through the corpse [al ha-nefesh – on account of the soul]. That same day he shall reconsecrate his head. (Numbers 6:10-11)

  1. Samuel said: Whoever indulges in fasting is called a sinner. This is in accordance with the view of Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar Berebi, who said: What is the implication of the phrase, “And make expiation on his behalf for the guilt that he incurred on account of the soul.” By which soul then did he sin? It refers to his denying himself the enjoyment of wine. If, then, he who merely denied himself the enjoyment of wine is called a sinner, all the more so does this apply to the person who denies himself the enjoyment of the other pleasures of life. (Talmud Taanit 11a)
  2. If a man should argue: since envy, passion, and pride are evil... then I shall divorce and separate myself utterly from them until I eat no meat nor drink wine, nor marry, nor reside in a comfortable dwelling nor wear fine clothes but only wool and sackcloth after the manner of the heathen priests – this is also an evil path and it is forbidden to walk therein as is stated in the case of the Nazirite. Therefore our Sages commanded a person to deny himself only the things denied him by the Torah. He should not inflict on himself vows of abstinence on things permitted to him. As our Sages said (Jerusalem Talmud Nedarim 9:1), “Is it not enough what the Torah has forbidden you, but you wish to forbid yourself more things?” (Rambam (Rabbi Moses ben Maimon), 1135-1209, Spain and Egypt) Mishneh Torah, Hilchot De’ot 3:1)
  3. In the World to Come, a person will have to give an accounting for every good thing his eyes saw, but of which he did not eat. (Jerusalem Talmud Kiddushin 4:12)
  4. This man sins against his soul on this day of the completion of his Naziritehood; for until now he was separated in sanctity and the service of God, and he should therefore have remained separated forever, continuing all his life consecrated and sanctified to his God... Thus he requires atonement, since he goes back to be defiled by worldly desires. (Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman), 1194-1270, Spain)

Sparks for Discussion

The Torah tells us how a person becomes a nazir, but it says nothing about why a person might choose to do so. What reasons can you think of? What avenues are available to contemporary Jews who might want to express similar feelings and impulses?

Most of our commentators (but not all – see Ramban) disapprove of the nazir’s choice to forgo permitted pleasures, going so far as to call it sinful. Why do you think this is the case? How do you think these rabbis would have reacted to the tendency in some parts of the contemporary Jewish world to keep adopting additional stringencies in observance and increasing prohibitions against many foods or activities that until then had been permitted? Do you think adopting such stringencies is simply a matter of personal choice, or is it a problem for the larger Jewish community? Is there a kind of peer pressure to see who can become the most observant?

2. God Bless You

Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: The Lord bless you and protect you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace! Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Numbers 6:23-27)

  1. Said the House of Israel to the Holy Blessed One: Lord of the universe, You order the priests to bless us? We need only Your blessing. Look down from Your holy habitation and bless Your people. The Holy Blessed One replied to them: Though I ordered the priests to bless you, I stand together with them and bless you. (Tanhuma Naso 2:15)
  2. The priestly blessing is recited in the singular, because the most important blessing the Jewish people can have is unity. This was attained at Mount Sinai, where our Sages tell us on this verse, “Israel encamped there in front of the mountain” – and the word for “encamped” is in the singular – “they were as one person and one heart.” (Rabbi Simhah Leib of Lanchna, cited in Itturei Torah, Rabbi Aharon Yaakov Greenberg)
  3. Despite the fact that the priestly blessing was recited before the entire congregation, it was phrased in the singular. One explanation is that it is not always possible, or wise, to give everyone the same blessing. For example, rain may be a blessing for a farmer but a hindrance for a traveler. Only God knows precisely what blessing is appropriate for each of us. He therefore tells the Kohanim to bless the people in the singular; each person should receive the form of blessing that is most appropriate for him/her. (Rabbi Dovid Goldwasser, Something to Say)
  4. “Thus shall you bless... The Lord bless you” Isn’t there a redundancy in the two phrases quoted? The answer is that “The Lord bless you” is part of the blessing, because a mortal does not know with what to bless another, for what he thinks may be good for another person may in reality be bad for him and vice versa. Rather, may God, who knows what is good for you, bless you. (Ketav Sofer (Rabbi Abraham Samuel Benjamin Schreiber), 1815-1875, Hungary)
  5. “The Lord bless you and protect [guard] you!” This implies the blessing appropriate to each person; to the student of Torah success in his studies; to the businessman – in his business, etc... A blessing requires guardianship so that it should not, God forbid, be turned to a wrong purpose. The Torah scholar requires guardianship to save him from pride and bringing the name of the Lord into disrepute, and the like. The businessman requires guardianship against his wealth becoming a stumbling block to him as in the case of Korah and Naboth, and in its literal sense, against theft and loss. (Ha’amek Davar (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin), 1817-1893, Lithuania)

Sparks for Discussion

Our commentators point out that the priestly blessing [birkat kohanim] is said in the singular (as are the Ten Commandments). Why? The Ketav Sofer says that a person cannot know what blessing is truly appropriate for someone else. Might we extend this to say that no individual really knows what blessing is truly appropriate for himor herself? Think of the stories about lottery winners who wind up broke and alone or athletes and entertainers who cannot handle fame and riches. On the other hand, there are people for whom a calamity – a serious illness, a job loss, a divorce – is seen in hindsight as a source of blessing. What blessings do you wish for yourself? Do you think God would agree?

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