Saturday, May 19, 2007

Parshat Nasso

Take a census of the sons of Gershon, as well, ..." (verse 22). Many commentators have asked about the seeming redundancy of the words "as well". Rav Moshe Feinstein explains that family of Gershon were charged with carrying the curtains and covers of the Mishkan, the external protective items. This is in contrast to their younger brothers, the family of Kehat, who were responsible for the actual utensils of the Mishkan. The Torah adds in the words "as well" to teach us that though their tasks are different from each other, and one seems more prestigious, both families and their respective functions are equally important.
The portion ends with the sacrifices of the twelve princes in the dedication service for the Mishkan. The Torah, which is normally so concise with words, repeats the details of the sacrifices for each tribe, though they are identical. Rabbeinu Bachaya (7; 84) explains that though each offering appears to us to be the same as the others, each of the leaders had totally different intentions in their gift. For example Yehuda, who was the tribe of kings, brought a silver plate, which symbolises the entire world over which Kings David and Solomon would rule. The tribe of Yissachar brought an identical plate, but to symbolise Torah, which was their domain, and which is likened to bread (Proverbs 9; 5). Zevulun, a tribe known for their seafaring trade, brought an identical plate to show their sphere of influence. And similarly for all the other tribes. We see from here that though each tribe had different abilities and skills, and though they were given individual tasks within the nation, they all brought the same sacrifice because they are all equally important.
One other main section of this portion is the laws of a Nazir. A person may decide, for various reasons, to take on a higher level of holiness in their lives. In order to do this the Torah forbids a Nazir from drinking wine, cutting his or her hair, and coming into contact with a corpse. The spiritual elevation of becoming a Nazir is incompatible with these activities. However, at the end of the duration of Nazirut (usually thirty days), the Nazir must bring a sin offering to the Temple. On the one hand, the Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 10; 28) says: "Since this person forbids himself from drinking wine and causes anguish to himself in order to keep away from sin [it is as if] G-d says, 'He is considered before me as a Cohen Gadol'". Contrasting this the Talmud (Nedarim 10a) says: "This person has only forbidden himself from wine [etc.] and is called a sinner (because he must bring a sin offering at the end of his time as a Nazir)". Though the Nazir strives for holiness, and in one aspect reaches the level of the high priest, because one's own personal task, which was to partake of the good things that G-d has put in the world, has not been fulfilled, that person is considered a sinner.
Following the laws of the Nazir, G-d commands Moshe to instruct the Cohanim with the text of the Priestly Blessing (verses 22-27). The Cohanim are to act as the conduits for G-d's blessing, both in the Temple and in the Synagogue. The ending of the blessings is 'Shalom', 'Peace', as the Sifra says, without peace any other blessings are worthless. The blessings are in the singular, showing that the path to peace is for each individual to play their role in the nation, and in so doing to bring out their own personal strengths. The ideal is not for everybody to be identical, but for everyone to fulfil their own unique potential within the nation.
The prerequisite for a person to be able to fulfil their role as part of the Jewish people is to recognise their importance as an individual. Without self-esteem a person will lack the strength and ability to play their part. This is the literal meaning of the name of the Parsha, Naso. In context it means to take a census, but it can also be translated as "elevate the head". Through defining the task of each person within the nation, a result of the census, each person gains self esteem and importance. Though their task may not be as prestigious as that of another, each individual plays an equally vital role in the well-being of the nation.

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