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.
Longest weekly Torah reading (176 verses)
Seven positive Mitzvahs and eleven prohibitions
Duties of descendants of Gershon and Merari (two of Levi’s three sons)
Census of Levites
A tameh (ritually impure after encountering death) needs to be sent outside the encampment
Illegally keeping someone’s (especially a convert’s) property requires confession, offering of a ram, and restitution of principal plus a 20% fine
The ordeal of the Sotah (suspected adulteress)
Nazir (one who sets himself apart)
N’se’em (tribal leaders) donate wagons and oxen
In a show of unity, and not to outdo each other, each tribal leader brings the exact same donation of silver, gold and animals (for offerings) for the dedication of the Altar
God communicates with Moshe in the Ohel Moed from between the two keruvim on the Ark covering (kapores)
The Ordeal of the Sotah [Suspected Adulteress]
It starts when a wife is known to be involved with a specific other man, and her husband expresses his initial concerns in front of two witnesses. Later there are additional witnesses that she secluded herself in a private place with this same man long enough for them to have had relations, but there were no witnesses to an actual sex act. Then the woman is asked to undergo the Sotah ordeal. If she agrees, the husband brings her to the Temple where she undergoes a ritual consisting of her…
• Drinking from an earthen vessel [cheap and coarse] that contains:
Water from the laver located near the outer Altar
Dust from the Temple floor
A rolled-up parchment listing the curses that she will experience if she is found guilty
[Note: the waters are referred to as “may hamorim hameorrarim” meaning either “waters of bitterness that causes the curse” or (according to Shadal) “waters of bitterness that brings the guilt to light”.]
• Bringing an offering of flour made from barley [coarse, indicating her abased condition] without any addition of oil and frankincense [symbols of joy and festivity, inappropriate for this serious ordeal].
• Uncovering her hair (act of public shaming).
• Answering Amen! Amen! [“So be it”; acceptance] to the Priest’s oath that if she is found guilty her belly will swell and her thigh (genitals?) will sag/ fall away.
The focus is on the husband’s suspicions, as suggested by the repetitive use of the word “jealousy” (kin’ah). The entire process starts when he becomes possessed by “a fit of jealousy that comes over him”. Our Sages deduced from the textual wording that “a person does not commit a sin unless he becomes overcome by a spirit of foolishness”. According to the Talmud the Sotah ritual is only effective if the husband himself is totally guiltless of any similar offenses.
The ritual is puzzling. This is the only…
• Explicit example of trial by ordeal in the Torah. No other law is dependent on this divine manifestation.
• Commandment requiring God’s cooperation to work
• Time that the water (which is taken from the kiyor, the Laver) is referred to as “holy water”
• Commandment requiring the erasure of God’s name (on the rolled-up parchment), an action ordinarily forbidden and punishable by the administration of lashes
Robert Alter cites some Biblical scholars who propose that the suspected woman is pregnant, and the husband has grounds for suspicion that he is not the father. If she “passes” the test her pregnancy will continue. But if it turns out she was unfaithful, she will miscarry, and the ordeal becomes an induced abortion.
Trial by ordeal was common in ancient societies. Unlike these ordeals in which a miracle is required to prove innocence, the Sotah ritual starts with the presumption of the wife’s innocence—and requires a miracle for her to be proven guilty!
We don’t know how often this ceremony was performed. After the destruction of the Second Temple [70 C.E.], when “adulterers became numerous,” this ritual was abolished by Rav Yochanan ben Zakkai who refused to punish wives for a crime that their husbands were committing.
No matter how bizarre and incomprehensible, this symbolic ritual represents progress over the prevailing attitude toward and treatment of women. [One need not look further than modern-day position of women in Muslim societies.] Because of the critical nature of marriage in Jewish life it was important to eliminate any doubt of infidelity. The Torah, which encourages marriage--and fidelity in marriage-- wants the wife to have an opportunity to clear her name. Perhaps the public spectacle would serve as a deterrent for others. Some have suggested that the reason that there is no equivalent ritual for a male is because more men than women are jealous and/or suspicious of their partners.
Rav Elchanan Samet of Yeshivat Har Etzion notes the helplessness of the law in dealing with adultery because adultery typically happens in private so there are no witnesses to prove either side in any trial. Assume that both the husband and wife wish to remain together and to repair their relationship. To prevent the poisoning of a couple’s rapport resulting from jealousy and suspicion, the Torah substitutes Divine law for human law. The test can only be performed when both the husband and wife agree; each of them may prevent it if he or she does not want it. Only if she is prepared to undergo this procedure of her own free will is it carried out. A guilty woman would probably not want to go ahead and be exposed as an adulteress or to be punished by God. An innocent woman will be willing to undergo the ordeal to be reunited with her husband and to buttress her relationship with him by having a child together.
The ritual provides a “cooling off “period for the husband lest he, in a jealous rage, harm or even murder his wife. The whole Sotah ceremony can be viewed as the Torah response to--and attempted prevention of-- certain kinds of crimes of passion which were and still are prevalent in certain societies.
…is one who “sets himself aside from society” by taking a vow that requires him to observe three restrictions during the period of his vow (usually 30 days). He must…
• Not cut his hair
• Abstain from any wine-based intoxicants
• Avoid coming into contact with a dead body
The 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. The use and abuse of wine appears early on in Man’s history [Noach, Lot].
It is 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 the cutting of 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 behavior is to be praised or is unwelcome. 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 Eleazer think’s that the Nazir’s sin is in defiling himself by contact with a dead body.
Perhaps the key word 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, living in Society, and NOT leading an ascetic life in the desert and mountains. He considers the act of becoming a Nazir a sin.
• Ramban who thinks the Nazir’s sin is in forsaking the Nazirite vow.
• Solomon Astruc, in Midreshei Hatorah, who 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) who thinks that the holiness for the Nazir is about 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.
Rabbi Steven Pruzansky observes that the Nazir and the Sotah are opposites with one taking on too many restrictions and the other observing too few. But both represent behavioral extremities. Societal amoral, disgraceful behavior (e.g., public figures lying, cheating, committing adultery) may be the exception (since most people do not behave that way) but are not to be trivialized, rationalized and accepted (“everybody is doing it”). We need to remind ourselves of, and adhere to, Torah observance that precludes and protects us from this repugnant, unethical way of life.
The Priestly Blessing
The three pithy and majestic phrases consist of…
• Fifteen words in…
• Three, five and seven-word phrases fanning out, each containing a verb followed by a noun (God’s name) followed by another verb…
• Promising material and spiritual blessings and…
• 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 reference to this public blessing as duchaning. Before approaching the rostrum, the Kohan removes his leather shoes/sandals just as God commanded Moses to “Remove your shoes from your feet, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
When performing the Priestly Blessing, the Kohanim stretch their arms and hands forward. They hold their hands together palms-down. They split their fingers so there are 5 spaces: one space between the thumbs, a space between the thumb and first finger of each hand, and a space between the second and third finger of each hand. The five spaces allude to verses in Song of Songs where God “peeks through the cracks in the wall." i.e., watches over and protects the Jewish people even when He is hidden. Too, the fingers form the letter Shin (שׁ), referring to another Divine Name, Shaddi (He who nourishes and abundantly blesses).
There are diverse 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 a blessing that expresses one’s good feeling toward his fellowman.
It is not the priests who are blessing us. Rather, the words are an invocation to God to bless the Jewish people. The priests’ presence is necessary to prepare the Jewish people to receive blessings. Here is another example of enlisting Man (in this case the Kohanim) to cooperate with God in building a partnership and relationship with Him. The blessings are in the singular; God is talking to each one of us individually!
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. It concludes with what may be an additional blessing, veyishmarecha (“and keep you”) an assurance 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. The ending verb Ve’chunekha (“be gracious to you”) is about the good that will have been created by others noting your Torah study and how you live your life. It may also be another blessing needed to guard against 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—V’yasame L’cha Shalom (“And establish Peace for you”). Rabbi Marc Angel adds that shalom connotes wholeness. It is when an individual feels a sense of completeness and remains secure and unafraid.
The Priestly Blessing Also May Be Viewed as a Guide for Parents
An intriguing theory proposed by Rabbi David Fohrman is that the way we ask to be treated by God (in receiving His blessings) represents a blueprint for how we should treat our children. Each of the Blessings represents distinct aspects of parenting, each building on the previous one. Each is a different phase in the child’s life and each requires a different, appropriate style of parenting.
“Yevarechacha …veyishmarecha”. The root of the Hebrew word yevarechacha in this first Blessing is bracha, or blessing. According to Rav Chaim of Volozhin, a student of the Vilna Gaon, yevarechacha specifically means increase in or growth of the item being blessed. The root of the word veyishmarecha means to protect from external and internal harm. Nurturing of a child’s growth and protecting him/her from harm begins in the womb. Parents are responsible for aiding the child’s physical and mental development and preparing him/her to become a responsible adult. Their responsibility for veyishmarecha includes limit setting and discipline; assuring their safety and guarding them from harm.The absence of the word Paanim in the first of the Priestly Blessings supports the hypothesis that it refers to pre-natal period of development. Paanim means to exist, to have an identity, which occurs once the child is born. The following two Blessings which include the Paanim word refer to stages of one's life.
Ya’ayr means “the break of day”. Vechunecha means “to cover, to surround”. The Ya’ayr Blessing could mean that during the child’s early years the parent is obligated to open the child's eyes to the wonders of the world, to instill curiosity (based on Sforno commentary) and to surround the child with both these types of experiences. The child needs to be enveloped with the feeling that he/she is favored/loved (chayn); all the child's needs and desires are fulfilled (with limits). The word aylecha (done to or at) points to the direct parent-child relationship.
The Yisah Blessing may be about lifting up/elevating—the time of life when a young adult copes with higher matters of ethics, morality and religion. Again, it’s about the parent-child relationship. It’s about creating a calm, peaceful home environment (V’yasame L’cha Shalom) in which the child can work his/her way through the questions, issues, uncertainties and conflicts that are part of the maturing process. V’yasame L’cha means preparing and placing before (in front of) the child this tranquil surrounding so that he/she can continue his/her journey to adulthood.
Seemingly 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.”
The moral teaching is if one is intoxicated, his or her chance to be involved in illicit sex is much greater.
Robert Alter views the repetition of the phrase “to betray his trust” as the link. Also, the “defiled” Sotah links to the defilement of the campsite by contact with death or disease that was discussed earlier.
Bible scholar Professor Umberto Cassuto (1883-1951) observed that Near Eastern literature is often organized by linguistic association, by the repetition of the same word or root, or through a word-play. Part of the Sotah ritual requires the Kohan 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 Kohan can turn his attention to the Jewish people and recite the Priestly Blessing.
We think that one common denominator in these laws is that in each there is an isolation of an individual and in each it is the Kohan’s responsibility as teacher/leader/social worker/psychologist to facilitate the individual’s return to Society. They are the ones who utter the ritual words of both powerful blessings and curses. Every-day life events sometimes require priestly intervention:
A person stricken with tzara’as must remain in isolation outside the camp until the Kohan examines him and declares his permissibility to return to his home.
The Sotah, who stands accused of a major crime of adultery, is 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 Kohan assures each of us that we are all recipients of God’s goodness and blessing. The modern-day custom of reciting a prayer during the Priestly Blessing after having a troubling dream underscores the Kohan’s additional role as therapist/counselor.
An ideal life occurs when we march together, surrounding the Mishkan and adhering to the Halacha. But, notes Rabbi Jonathan Muskat, the reality is that there exist individuals who do not live up to this ideal. They are isolated and “outside the camp” either because they are tameh (one with tzara’as) or because of their behavior (Sotah) or by choice (Nazir). The Kohan is called upon to deal with and embrace these individuals.
Rav Hirsch considers the Priestly Blessing part of the Avodah. The Torah recognizes there will be individual and communal failures and that there will be different approaches to deal with these failures. But “omnia vincit amor” (love conquers all). If conflicts are dealt b’ahavah --with love, compassion and sincerity--amicable resolutions can be reached.
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 his countenance). He has the potential to attain the position of a Jewish leader (Nasi).