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Torah Sparks

June 2, 2012 – 12 Sivan 5772

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 Joseph Prouser

Parashat Naso is the longest Torah 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 removing people who contract impurity, as by a bodily discharge or contact with a corpse. The moral purity of the Israelite camp is also addressed and a process for redressing personal offenses is prescribed, including 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 whom her husband suspects 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, have been inscribed is dissolved. The ritual instructions provide that a woman guilty of infidelity will become desperately ill in reaction to the potion, while an innocent wife will be unharmed.

The extensive passage dealing with the sotah is followed immediately by a very different ritual, the vow of the nazirite. An Israelite man or woman may elect to undertake a temporarily heightened state of personal consecration through a vow of self-denial, refraining from intoxicants and grape products. 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 (parent, sibling, etc.). Finally, the nazirite’s hair is consecrated and must not be cut. Scripture’s (and later Jewish tradition’s) ambivalence about the nazirite’s asceticism is reflected in the sin offering that is brought to mark the conclusion of the devotee’s term of consecration, which suggests that although the self-denial is carried out with holy intent it is 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: verses of 3, then 5, then 7 words, consisting of 15, then 20, then 25 consonants. The three verses address six divine acts of favor, blessing, protection, shining, graciousness, divine attention (lifting of God’s face), and bestowing 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 with a description of God’s ongoing communication with Moses in the form of the divine voice emanating from between the cherubim atop the cover of the Ark.

Theme #1: “Sin Qua Non”

“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.” (Numbers 5:5-7)

Derash: Study

“Any breach of faith toward another is an offense against God, who commands justice and whose image is found in every human being. Why is the principle of expiation associated here with a case of misappropriation of property? Every breach of faith is a form of theft, stealing another’s trust under false pretenses, using one’s God-given talents for a purpose other than that which God intended.” (Chumash Etz Hayim, attributed to Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter of Ger)

“Rashi notes that ‘breaking faith with the Lord’ refers to the sin of robbing a convert to Judaism. This crime is considered a trespass against God because he who robs a proselyte who has come to seek shelter beneath the wing of Judaism causes a grave desecration of the Name of God, and therefore is guilty of a trespass against the Holy One.” (Sforno)

“Breaking-faith: In Lev. 5:15ff. the term refers to sacrilege against holy objects in the sanctuary. Here it encompasses wrongdoing against persons, which is seen as rebellion against God.” (Everett Fox, The Five Books of Moses)

“It is possible to sin against God without sinning against man, but all sins against man are also sins against God.” (George Buchanan Gray)

Questions for Discussion

How – and to whom – does Jewish tradition teach us to “confess” our sins? How does this distinguish Judaism from other faiths? What happens when the aggrieved party is resistant to restitution or repentance? What happens when renewed contact with the wronged party is so painful as to compound the original offense? How do we make restitution when our offenses cannot be quantified (as in sins of deception, slander, emotional neglect, etc.)?

Is recognition of guilt, confession, and restitution always sufficient? Does this process remove all moral burdens from the wrongdoer and provide a clean slate?

What crimes and offenses are unforgiveable and unredeemable, even if they are recognized and confessed, and even if restitution is made or attempted –?

Why is the term for trespass against Sanctuary property (see Everett Fox) here applied to a wide range of interpersonal offenses? Why do Rashi and Sforno specifically apply this terminology to sins against converts to Judaism?

Is it possible for sins committed against God to cause harm to fellow human beings as well? When does neglect of our obligations to God have an adverse impact on our neighbors as well? When (if ever), therefore, do the religious shortcomings of others become our legitimate concern?

Theme #2: “Faith Lift”

“Moses took the carts and the oxen and gave them to the Levites. Two carts and four oxen he gave to the Gershonites, as required for their service, and four carts and eight oxen he gave to the Merarites, as required for their service – under the direction of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest. But to the Kohathites he did not give any; since theirs was the service of the most sacred objects, their porterage was by shoulder.” (Numbers 7:6-9)

Derash: Study

“When it comes to the very heart of religion, we must not try to find – and cannot really find – a substitute for our own shoulders. We cannot transfer to anybody else, or to anything else, the obligations that rest exclusively upon ourselves. There are things that others cannot do for us. The Bene Kehat – the ‘family that carried the ark’ – had a challenging responsibility. They had to carry it upon their own bodies; they had to feel its weight; they could not seek means to make the burden easier. Religion, too, is a burden, and it is also a discipline. Anyone who seeks to carry a faith easily, shouldering no special tasks, making no distinctive sacrifices, will have a religion that is neither true nor helpful.” (Rabbi Morris Adler)

“By shoulder: One does not acquire the least spark of holiness without effort.” (Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk)

“O, do not pray for easy life. Pray to be stronger men. Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks. (Philip Brooks, Episcopal Bishop)

“God gives burdens; also shoulders.” (Yiddish proverb; widely reported to have been whispered to Albino Luciani by a fellow cardinal as it became clear he was about to be elected Pope John Paul I)

Questions for Discussion

Is Rabbi Adler’s description of religion as a burden disparaging? Surprising? Accurate? Counterproductive? What other burdens do we bear willingly and joyfully? What is the difference between a burden and a discipline?

Rabbi Adler criticizes “anyone who seeks to carry a faith easily.” Can the Jewish community and its leaders simultaneously make Jewish piety more appealing, accessible, and manageable – “easing the burden” – while still affirming the gravity and inestimable worth of the spiritual enterprise?

When have you achieved tasks or goals you originally thought beyond your ability? What role does (or could) prayer play when you find yourself in such challenging circumstances?

What worthy goals or perceived burdens have you abandoned as overwhelming or unattainable, which you might now reconsider?

What steps can we take to train our children to embrace hard work and effort in achieving daunting goals? How does this principle apply specifically to their development as Jews, and to the quest for “a spark of holiness”?

Historic Note

Parashat Naso, read on June 2, 2012, includes a prohibition against the consumption of wine or other intoxicants by those who undertake the Nazirite vow. On June 2, 1851, the state of Maine enacted the first law in the United States banning alcohol, paving the way for the short-lived and oft-violated Eighteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, familiarly known as prohibition.

Halachah L’Maaseh

Parashat Naso prescribes both the priestly blessing (birkat kohanim) and the ritual roles assigned to the various families within the tribe of Levi. These two themes intersect in the contemporary practice of Levi’im -- washing the hands of kohanim before they bless the congregation. While the Talmud says that kohanim should not recite the blessing without first washing their hands (See Sotah 39), it does not specify who should carry out this process of purification. The Shulchan Aruch (Orach Chaim 128:6) assigns this task to the levi’im, based on the teaching of the Zohar. Maharash Ha-Levi (#9) goes so far as to say: “Perhaps this is the means by which the Divine Presence comes to rest on the hands of the kohanim, and that God will agree to the blessing, because their hands are sanctified by the Levi.” Should Levi’im outnumber kohanim, several Levi’im may share in the handwashing procedure, even for a single kohen, by, for example, holding on to the washing cup together (See Leket Kemach Chadash 128:45). There is a debate as to whether a Levi who is a Torah scholar should wash the hands of an ordinary (or ignorant) kohen! Magen Avraham 128:7 and Maharash Ha-Levi discourage the practice, while Peri Chadash declares it absolutely forbidden, as an affront to the honor of the Torah. Be’er Hetev (128:8, citing Knesset Ha-Gedolah) rules that the scholarly Levi should wash the hands even of an ignorant kohen in the interests of peace and amity (See also Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav 128:11). Rabbi Louis Finkelstein, the late chancellor emeritus of the Jewish Theological Seminary – himself a Levi as well as a world-renowned scholar – customarily washed the hands even of newly arrived undergraduate students among the kohanim in the seminary synagogue.

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