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Parsha Naso begins in the middle of the description of the duties of the Levites, focusing on the duties of the Gershonites and the Merarites (part of the Levitical clan).

The next two chapters, 5 and 6, interrupt the preparation to march through the wilderness to lay out several laws designed to preserve the ritual purity, and to remove any impurity, from the Israelite camp, thus allowing God to remain in the midst of the people and their camp.

The first instruction is to remove any person with a bodily discharge, or who had been in contact with a corpse and is thus ritually impure. The Torah then lays out the laws for an Asham (guilt offering for one who has made a false oath).

Probably the most intriguing aspect of the Naso parsha is the treatment of the Sotah or the wife suspected of adultery. If a husband suspects his wife of committing adultery, but there is no proof, he may bring her before a priest. The priest makes her drink a mixture of sacred water, dust from the sanctuary and parchment containing a curse that mentions God’s name. If her body becomes distended, then she’s guilty. If not, she’s innocent. In many commentaries – the woman actually dies if she is guilty, but we’ll elaborate on the Sotah in a little while.

Another fascinating aspect in Naso is the Nazirite. In Biblical Israel there was no way for an ordinary person to live a life of full-time religion. The remedy for this was to provide for the Naziritie. The Israelite (man or woman) makes a vow for a finite period of time, to abstain from intoxicants or any grape products, to grow their hair long, and to avoid contact with a corpse. During this Nazirite period, the individual serves in the sanctuary in consecration to God.

And one other very important part of Naso is the Priestly Blessing. One of the duties of the priest is to bless the people of Israel. The Torah here lays out the words of that blessing, the well-known priestly benediction. "May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord let His face shine upon you and be gracious to you. May the Lord look kindly upon you and give you peace." This benediction is still recited by the kohanim in traditional congregations during the Days of Awe and Festivals and often by parents to their children on Friday night as Shabbat candles are kindled.

The interruption now concluded, the finishing touches make the Tabernacle ready for use. The chiefs of the tribes supply gifts (more on that later in a d’var by the Chief Rabbi of England), the menorah is completed and lit, and the Levites are placed in service. At the end of this elaborate preparation, the sanctuary can function at the site where God and humanity meet. “When Moses went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with God, he would hear the voice addressing him from above the cover that was on top of the Ark of the Covenant between the two cherubs. Thus God spoke to him.”

Big Ideas

Purifying The Camp

God directed the Israelites to remove from camp anyone with an eruption or a discharge and anyone defiled by a corpse, so that they would not defile the camp.

God told Moses to direct the Israelites that when one wronged a fellow Israelite, thus breaking faith with God, and realized his guilt, he was to confess the wrong and make restitution to the one wronged in the principal amount plus one-fifth. If the one wronged had no kinsman to whom restitution could be made, the amount repaid was to go to the priest, along with a ram of expiation. Similarly, any gift among the sacred donations that the Israelites offered was to be the priest's to keep.

The wife accused of unfaithfulness - “SOTAH”

Briefly, the problem is this – the husband suspects his wife of adultery and she is brought before the priests and goes through the ordeal of drinking “bitter waters” to prove her innocence.  If she is guilty her belly will distend and her thigh will fall.  If she is innocent she will be fruitful.  

The Torah waffles between describing her as actually guilty and describing her husband as having unreasonable jealousy.  Is the ritual meant to test her, or to satisfy him?  If he’s the one with the problem, why does she have to go through such an ordeal? 

I found myself reacting to some of the commentary because the writers were also ambivalent about who had the problem – the wife or the husband and some simply assume she is guilty. 

The Rabbis say that the practice was abolished at the time of the second Temple but also developed their usual system of making a difficult Torah law  impossible to practice.

Firstly – the bitter waters had to be made with dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle which ceased to exist when the first Temple was destroyed.

Secondly, the woman must first be warned by her husband in front of two witnesses, and must have been seen by two witnesses entering a private place with the man in question.

By this logic, any woman brought for the trial must at least have looked suspicious in a society where women and men are kept apart.  If you are willing to accept this reasoning, then some of the ritual might make sense.

Part of the problem is that it is usually difficult to prove – to have actual witnesses in the days before private eyes, hidden cameras, etc.  So that is one explanation for having trial by ordeal.  It is the only ordeal that is prescribed in Jewish law. 

Another problem is interpreting what it means to say that her belly will swell.  Is she pregnant?  Is she miscarrying, having a prolapse?  Will she die?  What is the curse?

One rabbi I researched suggests that she is pregnant and the point is to reassure her husband that the baby is his. 

People who focus less on the literal questions about the procedure wax philosophical on the importance of keeping peace between a man and woman because this is so much more important than anything else.  The point is made that the husband could ask for a divorce, or the wife could, rather than go through this procedure.  The fact that he or they would do this means he/they want to save the marriage.  Or does he want to keep his property and not have to pay for a divorce?

The Peaceniks say that continuity of the Jewish people depends on the cohesiveness of the larger Jewish family and the larger community depends on the strength of the individual families within it.

A jealous husband might not be convinced if a mere human court found his wife innocent. 

Those with a mind for allegory or mysticism relate the test to the relationship between Israel and God, or even to the unity of the male and female sides of God – the sefira of glory and the sefira of kingship.   

There is a lot of discussion of the fact that God’s name is erased when the parchment is soaked in the water.  Some say this serious step is taken to try to shake up the husband, others to intimidate the wife.   Some say that erasing God’s name reinforces the fact that the husband is destroying his wife’s name.  Whoever shames another person, it is as if he has spilled blood.  God is crying that the husband would do this to his wife.

One commentary says that if God is even willing to have his name erased to save the marriage, how much more must we be willing to help others even if it is embarrassing or costly.  

Another example of turning this troublesome law on its head led to even more peculiar conclusions.  The Mishnah states that if the accused woman “has merit”, that merit causes the water to suspend its effect on her.  Ben Assai concluded from this that a man is obligated to teach his daughter Torah, her learning will protect her if she has to go through this ordeal.  But Rabbi Eliezer said No – teaching her Torah, teaches her lewdness.  The girl might feel she doesn’t have to worry as she will feel protected.

The ones we would call sensible say the proper conclusion is that Torah study should not be done as insurance but only to enhance our morality and relationship to God.

None of the commentaries I have mentioned so far have too much to satisfy modern, liberal minds.  They do not address the questions we ask about the burden of guilt being put on the woman for the jealousy of the man.  The text itself has trouble with this issue:

It first says if a woman has gone astray and then speaks of her husband’s jealousy.  The offering is described as an offering of jealousy.

One commentary I enjoyed says that Rabbi Elazar in Berachot 31b  tells of Hannah turning the test on its head and using it to solve her problem of barrenness.  She says she will deliberately cause her husband to become jealous, by appearing to have committed adultery, so that she will pass the test and be rewarded with offspring.

The laws of Sotah are like many of the Torah laws that we find at best puzzling, if not actually repulsive.  We can attempt to rationalize them, find hidden meanings in them,

And express gratitude that we are no longer required to follow them. 

Rabbi Toba Spitzer says that the ritual though seemingly unfair, at least provides a social mechanism which protects women from more violent actions on the part of their husbands.  The jealous husband is not given license to kill his wife, but merely to humiliate her. 

Rabbi Sara Levine is not satisfied with this as she still sees this as a solution that inscribes itself on the body of the victim.  We know that women today are still beaten or killed by husbands who think that they have the right to control their wives, even in a society which no longer legally defines women or children as property.  Many of these men keep their women isolated, are jealous, and often hurt women for the first time when they are pregnant.  So perhaps the idea of a ritual does make sense. We know that the Jewish community is not guilt free and that there are Jewish women’s shelters in every community with a sizeable Jewish population.  In smaller communities there are educational programs for the non-denominational shelters to help them understand Jewish women’s special issues.  One problem that has been uncovered is that Jewish women often stay in abusive relationships years longer than non-Jewish women because there is so much shame involved in admitting there is a problem.

Rabbi Sterne asks by what means  can we resolve this very real problem which costs women’s lives to this very day?  And concludes It is only when we can see each other and treat each other as full human beings will the name of God cease to be erased from the parchment.

The Nazirite

God told Moses to instruct the Israelites about the vows of a Nazirite (Nazir), should one wish to set himself or herself apart for God. The Nazirite was to abstain from wine, intoxicants, vinegar, grapes, raisins, or anything obtained from the grapevine. No razor was to touch the Nazirite’s head until the completion of the Nazirite term.) And the Nazirite was not to go near a dead person, even a father, mother, brother, or sister.

If a person died suddenly near a Nazirite, the Nazirite was to shave his or her head on the seventh day. On the eighth day, the Nazirite was to bring two turtledoves or two pigeons to the priest, who was to offer one as a sin offering and the other as a burnt offering. That same day, the Nazirite was to reconsecrate his or her head, rededicate the Nazirite term, and bring a lamb in its first year as a penalty offering.

On the day that a Nazirite completed his or her term, the Nazirite was to be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting and present a male lamb in its first year for a burnt offering, a ewe lamb in its first year for a sin offering, a ram for an offering of well-being, a basket of unleavened cakes, unleavened wafers spread with oil, and meal offerings. The priest was to present the offerings, and the Nazirite was to shave his or her consecrated hair and put the hair on the fire under the sacrifice of well-being.

I did a little research into the idea of women being allowed to become Nazarites. From the Jewish Encyclopedia: Women and slaves, who did not have full rights before the religious law, could take the Nazarite vow, but only with the consent of their husbands or owners.

As expected, research leads to more questions – here’s one process of asking about women Nazarites:

Typically, most people associate the "Vow Of Nazarite" with men only; but the scriptures say man or woman. Numbers 6:2 Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazarite, to separate themselves unto the LORD: Would the Israelite woman be limited to keeping this vow before her time of separation for uncleanliness (menstruation)? Would she be required to shave her head if she were accidentally defiled during the time of her consecration? Numbers 6:9 And if any man die very suddenly by him, and he hath defiled the head of his consecration; then he shall shave his head in the day of his cleansing, on the seventh day shall he shave it. Wouldn't the woman's head here still be her husband? Would the husband then have to shave his head? Could her husband disallow this vow becoming being the head of the Household like her father could? Numbers 30:5 But if her father disallow her in the day that he heareth; not any of her vows, or of her bonds wherewith she hath bound her soul, shall stand: and the LORD shall forgive her, because her father disallowed her. Wouldn't she probably have to discuss it with her husband first; to ask for his permission ?

Without question the whole subject of the nazarite invites questions more than answers!

In fact all of Parsha Naso stimulates questions – the Sotah, the purification process – even the identical gifts given to God by the tribal leaders upon the dedication of a new alter in the Temple.

Here is an interesting D’var Torah from the office of the Chief Rabbi in London – Ephraim Mirvis who took over when Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sachs retired.

Rabbi Mirvis wrote this in 2017.

Upon the dedication of a new altar in the Temple, why do the Nesiim (tribal leaders) make identical, rather than individual offerings to Hashem? An interesting lesson emerges from the Torah’s longest parasha, teaches the Chief Rabbi.

Nearly every single year, the Parasha of Naso is read on the Shabbat immediately following the festival of Shavuot. You will notice in Shul this Shabbat that Naso is clearly the longest of all our parshiot. And it is important. Immediately after the anniversary of the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, we want to show that no amount of Torah is too long for us to listen to, to pay attention to, and to internalize the messages therefrom.

But actually if there is a Bar Mitzvah this Shabbat, you don’t have to feel too sorry for the Bar Mitzvah boy, because three out of the seven columns of the parasha are pure repetition. Why is that the case?

‘We want to show that no amount of Torah is too long for us to listen to, to pay attention to’

In that section we read about the bringing of the korbanot, the sacrifices, by the Nesiim, the heads of the tribes, immediately following the dedication of the altar. And each one brought the identical offering, hence the repetition.

The Midrash tells us that it was actually the Nasi on the second day of the sacrificial order – he was Natanel, the son of Tzuar, of the Tribe of Yissakhar, who was the hero of this passage. Why is that the case?

On the first day Nachshon, the son of Aminadav of the Tribe of Yehuda brought his offering. On the second day all eyes were on Netanel. What was he going to bring? How would he bring something more spectacular, even better than the first day’s offering?

Netanel realised that if he would do something in that vein, then on the third day the Nasi would try to even better what he had done and so on. Consequently he decided that he would bring the identical sacrifice, and therefore we read all twelve paragraphs, and they are exactly the same.

‘We read all twelve paragraphs, and they are exactly the same’

There is a powerful message that emerges from this text. So often we find – for example when it comes to personal events, family simchas – we are looking all around to think ‘What do others think about our private event?’

As a result, so many families engage in totally unnecessary expenditure because they are trying to do better than others. From the Parasha of Naso we learn that it’s crucially important that we do what is right, and indeed when it comes to communal affairs, one upmanship should have absolutely no place in our midst.

Connections to our lives

  1. Purification – we no longer go through the rituals of purification – except for the practice of Nidah (marital laws) and of Mikvah. Today we ask for forgiveness and make restitution when we have wronged someone

  2. Our own guilty conscience has replaced the bitter waters of the sotah. Why be a moral person? What’s in it for us? Why not be an adulterer? A thief? What keeps us on the straight and narrow?

  3. How can one bring religion into his or her life without a total commitment to it?

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