Following are some of the ideas, insights and interpretations that emerge from our weekly Chumash learning group at the Young Israel of Oceanside, Long Island. We cite sources when possible. Some of our interpretations derive from ideas we may have seen elsewhere, possibly without attribution. Or we may simply have forgotten the source. For this we apologize. We invite your comments, observations and participation.
Duties of descendants of Gershon and Merari (two of Aaron’s three sons)…Census of Levites…Those who are Tameh (ritually impure for having come into contact with Death) need to be sent outside the encampment…laws of Sotah (suspected adulteress)...Laws of Nazir…Priestly blessing…Nesseem (tribal leaders) donate wagons and oxen…Nesseem’s donations to the dedication of the Altar…Hashem’s communication with Moshe in the Ohel Moed.
If a husband suspects his wife of clandestine adultery, he has the right to bring her to the Temple where she undergoes a ritual consisting of drinking water mixed with earth from the Temple floor; bringing an offering of barley flour without oil and frankincense; undoing her hair (act of public shaming)and swearing her innocence. If she is guilty her genitals swell and she is shamed publicly. If innocent, no injuries result and she will conceive.
The ritual is puzzling. This is the only explicit example of trial by ordeal in the Torah. This is the only time that the water (which is taken from the kiyor, the Laver) is referred to as “holy water”. The husband has the right to make his wife undergo this embarrassing ceremony even if there is no concrete evidence, only his suspicions! We don’t know how often this ceremony was performed. After the destruction of the Second Temple, this Ordeal of Jealousy was abolished by Rav Jochanan ben Zakkai.
Why might such an ordeal have been instituted by the Torah? Some think that because of the critical nature of marriage in Jewish life it was important to eliminate any doubt of infidelity. The Torah, which encourages marriage, wants the wife to have an opportunity to clear her name. Perhaps the public spectacle will serve as a deterrent for others. It is also possible that the ceremony provides a “cooling off “period for the husband lest he, in a jealous rage, harm or even murder his wife.
…is one who takes a vow that requires him to observe three things during the period of his vow (usually 30 days): his hair must not be cut; he must abstain from any wine-based intoxicants; and he must avoid coming into contact with a dead body. His reason for becoming a Nazir may be(unconsciously) to seek expiation for deep-seated guilt over something he has done; or as thanksgiving for recovery from illness or birth of a child. Public appearance with long hair is often a sign of holiness in many cultures. Alcohol (also called “spirits”) originally may have been believed to contain supernatural powers.
It is only during the era of the Judges that we encounter the only two people that were consecrated to be a Nazir, Samson and Shmuel the Prophet. At the completion of the vow, the Nazir needs to perform various rituals including the bringing of a sin-offering and cutting his hair in the sanctuary and placing it on the fire that is burning the peace offering he also must bring.
Rabbi B.S. Jacobson notes that the first time in the Torah that the word Nazir appears is when Yaakov blesses his son Yosef (“n’zir” echav) where it means “separate from his brothers.” The Torah introduces the Nazir with the statement: “Ish oh Esha ki yaflee lindor neder nazir” .The word yaflee can mean set apart/ distinguish( Baruch Levine) or doing an extraordinary act (Ibn Ezra).The translation is then “Man or woman who shall act exceptionally (or “set themselves apart”) to make a Nazarite vow…”
The Torah is unclear as to whether this is positive or undesirable behavior. Twice the text describes the Nazir as being holy, yet at the completion of the vow he must bring an offering for having sinned! In the Talmud we find opposing views. Rabbi Eliezer Hakappar reasons that his sin is for denying himself the pleasure of wine. Rabbi Elazar focuses on the Nazir’s being called holy. Perhaps the key is yaflee, in that the person considers himself separate and aloof--more religious than or better than his fellow Jew.
Nechama Leibowitz cites:
• Rambam who encourages a “middle of the road” approach to enjoying life and living amidst Society, and NOT leading an ascetic life in the desert and mountains.
• Rambam considers the act of becoming a Nazir a sin; Ramban thinks the sin is in forsaking the Nazirite vow.
• Solomon Astruc, in Midreshei Hatorah views the Nazir’s vow as a necessary, but extreme, remedy to deal with one’s inability to control one’s desires within the Torah framework. The sin is this inability to discipline oneself that gave rise to the need to become a Nazir.
• Rabbi Moses Isserlis (cited by Rav Jacobson) thinks that the holiness for the Nazir is in his future. After he has gone to the extreme of self-denial to counter his extreme worldly indulgences, he arrives at the golden mean for living the rest of his life.
The Priestly Blessing
Three short, majestic and pity phrases consisting of fifteen words in a three, five and seven phrase crescendo containing material and spiritual blessings culminating in the gift of peace. In the Temple the blessing was chanted by the Kohanim on a special rostrum called a Duchan, thus giving rise to the current day referral to the blessing as duchaning.
There are different types of blessings. In one, we bless God in thanks or in preparation to perform a Mitzvah. Other blessings emanate from God to the world at large and to the individual. A third type is one that expresses one’s good feeling toward his fellowman and wishes him only good. It is not the priests who are blessing us. Rather, their function is to invoke God to bless the Jewish people. Their presence is necessary to prepare the Jewish people to receive blessings. Here is another example of enlisting man to cooperate with God in order to build partnership and relationship with Him.
Nechama Leibowitz describes the structure of the blessing as three verses , each containing two verbs and the name of God in the middle:
• Yevarechacha is the blessing for material wants, which requires the ending verb, veyishmarecha ( “and keep you”) to assure that you will not be robbed (Rashi) and that you will not use your resources for wrong purposes (Ha’amek Davar) and that you will not let the wealth go to your head.
• Ya’ayr (“make His Face shine upon you”) is about God’s friendship ( the opposite of hester panim) and about knowledge and moral insight. Ve’chunecha(“be gracious to you”) is about the good will of your fellow men from observing your Torah study and how you live your life. It may also mean guarding one from the hubris of religiosity.
• Yeesah (“lift His countenance”) is the climax, the achievement of material and physical blessings and crowning them with an aura of world peace and peace of mind.
Linkage of disparate topics
The explanation for proximity of Nazir and Sotah, according to Rashi, is that “whoever sees a faithless wife in her degradation shall separate himself from wine which brings one to adultery.”
Robert Alter views the repetition of the phrase “to betray his trust” as the link between the Sotah and the immediately preceding topic. Also the “defiled” Sotah links to the defilement of the campsite by contact with death or disease that was discussed earlier.
Part of the Sotah ritual requires the Kohen to “pharah es rosh h’aesha” (let the women’s hair go loose).The same root- word pharah recurs in the Nazir, who is required to do the exact opposite and let his locks of hair grow long(“gadayl perah s’ar rosho").Once the Nazir’s purification ritual is complete, the Kohen can turn his attention to the Jewish people and bless them.
We think a common denominator in these laws is the isolation of an individual and the Kohen’s role as the teacher and facilitator who helps one re-join Society.The Sotah, who stands accused of a major crime of adultery, is no doubt the object of derision, suspicion and gossip, which isolate her from friends and acquaintances. The Nazir has separated himself by taking upon himself certain restrictions. During the inclusive Priestly Blessing, the Kohen assures each of us that we are all recipients of God’s goodness and blessing. The custom of reciting a prayer in the congregation for having a troubling dream during the Priestly blessing underscores the Kohen’s additional role as therapist/counselor.
My father, Rabbi Moshe Berenholz, A”H, noted the recurrence of the root-word Naso in the Parsha. If one is stuck in the “desert” of life, one needs to do whatever it takes to lift oneself up (naso), “keep his shoulder to the wheel”, and then seek guidance and help from the Priestly blessing of Yisah Hashem (God lifting up his countenance). Ultimately, he can develop his potential to attain the position of a Jewish leader (Nasi).