Sermons and Parsha'iot                        Parshat Naso: Numbers 4:21-7:89

Summary

Naso means to "lift up," and in this week's parasha the word is understood as "to take a count" or a "census." If one were to lift up an object, one is able to single it out in order to identify or count it. In much the same way Moses is to lift up - identify and count - each member of the Gershonite and Merarite families. (In last week's parasha the census of the Kohathites, the third of the three families of Levi was taken.) The purpose of these counts was to determine those who were both subject to and eligible for service in the Tent of Meeting. The census counts only males age thirty to fifty. The text gives a detailed description of each family's duties regarding the carrying of items from the Tent of Meeting, when it needed to be moved, as the Israelites continued their journey through the desert.

The Torah then describes a test for a woman accused by her husband of being unfaithful. She was to be made to drink water mixed with earth from the floor of the mishkan and ink from a scroll of curses. The kohainwould then pronounce a formula over her: If she was guilty, the drink would cause her belly to swell; if she was innocent nothing would happen.

Chapter 6 describes the nazir. The nazir was a person who chose to dedicate himself to God and vowed, for a specific period of time, to do more than the required laws. Accordingly, the nazir took a vow to abstain from partaking of grapes (or any of its by-products such as wine), cutting his hair, and coming into contact with a dead body (even his father or mother). At the completion of that time, the nazir had to bring a burnt offering, a sin offering, a full offering, and a grain offering. The nazir then shaved his/her consecrated head and could again drink wine. The Torah tells us that any person, male or female, could freely choose to become a nazir.

In Chapter 6 God also instructs Moses to teach Aaron a special three part blessing which Aaron and the priests are to use to bless the people of Israel. The blessing is found in Numbers 6:24-26:

    May Adonai bless you and keep you!
    May Adonai deal kindly and graciously with you!
    May Adonai bestow favor upon you and grant you peace!

Many of us recognize this as the bracha with which parents bless their children every Shabbat

Commentary:

  • Jewish scholars through the ages have studied and interpreted the Birkat Kohanim. In the 19th centurycommentary Ha'amek Davar, the phrase "May Adonai bless you" is interpreted as indicating a blessing appropriate to each person. For the student of Torah, the blessing would be success in his or her studies. For the business person, the blessing might be success in business. Nehama Leibowitz, a 20th century Torah scholar, explained that the three sections of this blessing illustrate an ascending order. The lowest level is the blessing for an individual's material needs. The next "rung" deals with spiritual wants. This is followed by a blessing combining both these factors and, finally and ultimately, there is a blessing for peace. Leibowitz based her comment that peace was the most important blessing on the Sifra, a midrashic collection on the book of Leviticus, which states: Perhaps you will say (commenting on the blessing in Leviticus 26:3-6: "And you shall eat your bread to the full . and I will give peace in the land") food and drink is all well and good, but without peace they are worth nothing! The Torah therefore states "and I will give peace in the land" - for peace outweighs all else.

  • Although the Torah explains the laws related to becoming a nazir, it doesn't offer any explanation as to why one might choose to become one.Rashi explains that the word nazir comes from the root meaning "to separate oneself" and refers to those students of Torah who "keep themselves separate from the ways of the common people." Bachya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, author of "Duties of the Heart," written in the 11thcentury, praised nazirite practice and discipline. He argued that such behavior was necessary to combat the daily temptations and desires that tend to lead people down self-destructive paths. Other commentators disagreed and insisted that the life of the nazirite was sinful. Rabbi Eleazar Ha-Kappar, who lived during the second century, said that, by abstaining from wine and denying themselves the enjoyments of life, nazirites neglected the commandments of Torah and were "sinners" (Ta'anit 11a). The great philosopher and commentator Moses Maimonides (Rambam) argued that our tradition forbids us from denying to ourselves any of the joys permitted by Torah. He suggested that the Torah used the example of the nazir as a warning against extreme behavior of withdrawal or self-denial that separates people from the community. Maimonides was a proponent of moderation or "middle-of-the-road" behavior. 

Some Thoughts and Questions:

  1. Although we are not subject to the same duties and tasks as were assigned to the families of the Levites, what tasks has God given us as Jews? Do you see the responsibilities that God gave us as a burden, a discipline, or as a gift? Can a responsibility or task be a burden and a gift at the same time? Explain. 

  2. Jewish tradition remains deeply divided over whether to praise or condemn the nazir. After reading the opinions of the commentators, what do you think? 

  3. One commentary tells us that an individual takes a nazirite vow because of a "holy resolve to escape temptation and sin." Think about some of the problems that exist in our society. Drug abuse and alcoholism are two examples. Imagine how difficult some people find it to resist such temptations. What lesson can we learn about these challenges from the nazir

  4. In addition to abstaining from wine and from contact with the dead, the nazir also had to let his hair grow in order to fulfill his vow. His long hair, therefore, was a constant reminder, both to him and to those around him, of his special status as a nazir. Why do you think it was important for there to be a distinguishing sign on the nazir which everyone could recognize? 

  5. The commentary Ha'amek Davar explained that each person would be blessed with the appropriate blessing. What would be appropriate blessings for members of your family? 

  6. In Birkat Kohanim the blessing for peace is considered to be the most important. Imagine a world at peace, what would it be like? If the world was at peace do you think the other blessings of Birkat Kohanimwould be fulfilled? In what ways? What role and responsibility do we have in fulfilling this blessing? In what ways can you contribute to the blessing of peace in your family, in your school, in your community? Sometimes we are overwhelmed with media descriptions of violence. With your family, examine a newspaper and find examples of the blessing of peace. Can you find instances where there was strife and people are working to replace it with peace? 

  7. The Torah's description of the ordeal for the woman suspected of cheating on her husband seems to be very one-sided. For his part, Maimonides explained that whatever happened to her would also happen to the man she was suspected of cheating with. Why do you think that the Torah perscribed a ritual only for the woman? What does Maimonides' explanation reveal about how society changed from biblical times to his own times (i.e., the 12th century CE)?