May 29, 2004
NASO (Numbers IV, 21 - VII)
Herz p 586. Etz Hayim p 791
By Ellen Caplan
Naso is the name of the 2nd parsha of the book of Numbers, or in Hebrew, Ba-minbar.
Ba-Midbar, the parsha read last week, covered two main topics - the first census of the nation, and the tasks of the Levites, to set up and take down the Mishkan or tabernacle when the camp moved, and to protect and care for it.
Today’s parsha completes the census of the Levites, and their tasks as priests. Chapter 5 and 6 deals with the laws concerning the purification of the camp, including Lepers and those defiled by a corpse, who were to be removed from the camp, and those who have committed any wrong toward another, who are to confess their guilt and make restitution to the person they wronged.
Next comes the Ordeal of Jealousy, which deals with the wife who has wronged her husband through marital unfaithfulness, and then the vow of the Nazirite. Chapter 6. Verses 22-27 covers the Priestly Blessing. And the parsha ends with chapter 7, which is a long chapter of 89 verses, and the only section that we read today, as part of the triennial reading.
To begin at the end, Chapter 7 describes the presentation by the princes of each of the 12 tribes of identical gifts on the occasion of the dedication of the alter, on 12 consecutive days. The princes each bring one silver bowl and one silver basin, each one filled with choice flour and oil for cereal offerings, one gold ladle filled with incense and the same number and kind of sacrificial animals. One might wonder why the Torah repeats the details of each gift, for 76 verses. One answer given by the commentators was that this was to underscore the rare instance of national unity, consensus and cohesion. Perhaps as you listen to this unusual repetitive reading, other reasons will come to mind.
In stark contrast to this description of unity is the Ordeal of Jealousy, described in chapter 5. The ordeal is like black magic, with the priest in the role of casting a spell, rather than one of seeking true justice. When you think about it, it is interesting that a suspected breach of the marital partnership called for the intervention of no less than the High Priest who would officiate in the Holy Temple to resolve the matter. Herz suggests that this is so important because infidelity is destructive of the very foundation of social order. Fascinating that both the scriptures and the rabbis get involved in such matters. Brings to mind Trudeau’s famous quip, discussing divorce reform, that "the state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation."
And as one might expect from a social history of that time, this law only applies when a man is jealous or suspicious of his wife, and not the reverse. The last verse of this section, ch 5 v31 says “The man shall be clear of guilt; but that woman shall suffer for her guilt.” Herz interprets this as meaning that the husband is free of punishment, for having cast suspicion on his wife, should she turn out to be innocent, but the wife, if she is proven guilty, shall suffer. But another opinion is voiced in a commentary in Etz Hayim which puts a different tilt on this verse. It suggests that this means that only if the man is himself innocent of infidelity can he impose this ordeal on this wife. What is good for th goose is good for the gander.
The text goes into great detail about the Ordeal of Jealousy. If there are no witnesses, the accused woman must take an oath of denial. The oath is written down, along with the curse that if she is guilty, her thigh should fall away and her belly swell. The priest concocts a potion of holy water, earth from the temple floor, and the ink dissolved from the written oath and curse, which is called the water of bitterness, which the woman must drink. If she is guilty, the drink will physically affect her. If she is innocent, God will show her favour and she will bear a child.
One commentator, troubled by this disturbing ordeal of sotah imposed on women, tells the story from a midrash in which a woman uses the sotah ritual as a means for taking control of her own destiny. In this midrash, the biblical Hannah, who prayed fervently for a child in the book of Samuel, is imagined using this ritual as a tool for obtaining her goal:
Said Rabbi Elazar: Hannah said before the Holy One, "Master of the Universe, if You take note of my suffering and grant me a child, great. But if not, then You will see! I will go and seclude myself with another man in front of my husband Elkanah. And when I seclude myself, they will give me to drink the water of the sotah. And You will not belie Your Torah, for it is stated [with regard to an innocent woman who drinks the sotah waters]: then she shall be proven innocent and she shall bear seed" (Num. 5:28)
So Hannah forces God's hand though a clever application of God's own words. She has found a fail-safe plan. If a woman suspected but innocent of adultery will become pregnant upon drinking the bitter waters, she will arouse jealousy in her husband by secluding herself with another man, but will not actually commit adultery. She will then be subject to the sotah ordeal and the outcome, predetermined by God's own laws, is that she will become pregnant. How clever of the rabbi, and how egalitarian in their thinking, that they would come up with such a story.
Chapter 6 tells of the vow of the Nazirite, which is the opportunity for an individual, man or woman, to express their devotion and dedication to God by following specific austere regulations. The Nazarite, as such a person was called, was to abstain from 3 things -- from wine and strong drink, from having a hair cut, and from coming near a dead body, even if the deceased was the Nazirite’s mother, father, sister or brother, for a period of time that he or she determined, but not less then 30 days, and sometimes for years. These vows were to be taken very seriously - not like our New Year’s resolutions, and apparently were relatively commonly taken in those times. At the end of the specified period, the Nazarite was to perform specific rites related to sacrifices, to the shaving the head, and to the drinking of wine, to mark the end of the period covered by the vow.
Now for a Social Action “side bar” that I could not resist:
The text notes (ch 5, v 9 + 10) in the section relating to restitution for a wrong done against another person, that if the person wronged had no kinsman, the payment should be given to the priests.
Herz: “And every offering . . . which they present unto the priest shall be his; whatsoever any man giveth the priest, it shall be his.” Now, who is being referred to as “his”, and what is this sentence about? Herz interprets the “his” as being the priest, and explains that it was an individual’s right to choose which priest he or she gave the offering to, and it was the priest’s to keep - he did not have to share it with the other priests.
Etz Hayim has the same interpretation. “. . . any gift . . .shall be the priest’s. . .And each shall retain his sacred donations: each priest shall keep what is given to him.”
But a very interesting note Etz Hayim, at the bottom of the page (p 793), which tends to be Midrashic commentary, takes the text “what a man gives to the priest shall be his, and notes that “his” refers to the donor, and not to the priest. The interpretation is as follows:
What we keep for ourselves may ultimately be taken from us. Only when we give something away does the gift, and the good deed it represents, become permanently ours.
And last, but certainly not least, and my personal favourite section of today’s parsha, is the Priestly Blessing, or Baruchot h’Cohunim, which is tucked in to two unrelated passages, in chapter VI, verses 24 to 26. Brief but, as Herz says, simple and beautiful. The rhythm of the poetry is tremendous. Three short lines of just 3, 5 and 7 words respectively (in the original Hebrew).
(read the Hebrew, p. 595, v 24 in Herz)
The Lord bless thee, and keep thee
The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.
or paraphrased from the various translations that I found -
May God bless you and protect you
May God enlighten you with knowledge and deal kindly with you
May God look upon you, and grant you peace.