Saturday, May 31, 2008

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.

Nasso summary

Moshe is instructed to take a tally of all the family of Gershon (one of the families of Levites) between the ages of 30 and 50, who are able to work in the Mishkan. Their task in the desert is to carry all of the tapestries and hangings that cover and surround the Mishkan. The males between 30 and 50 of the family of Merari (another Levitical family) are to be counted. Their task in the desert is to carry all of the beams and pillars, along with the pegs and bases with which they fit together.
G-d instructs Moshe to send anyone who is impure out of the inner camp of the Mishkan. The Torah then lists the procedure for the Asham (guilt sacrifice) which is brought for a false oath about a deposit left for safekeeping.

The Torah lists the laws of the Sotah (suspected adulteress). She and her husband who accuses her must come to the Temple bringing a sacrifice. She is to drink specially prepared water. If she has committed adultery she will die within the year, but if she is innocent she will be rewarded by becoming pregnant within the year.

The laws of the Nazir are listed. When a man or woman chooses to become a Nazir they are prohibited to drink any grape products, cut their hair, or to come into contact with the dead. This is for the duration of their Nazirut (usually 30 days). Upon completion of their Nazirut they must shave off all their hair, and offer it on the altar along with a sacrifice.

G-d told Moshe to speak to Aaron and instruct him how to give the Priestly blessing. The Cohanim shall be a conduit through which G-d's blessings will rest upon the people.

When the Mishkan was erected the Princes of each tribe brought sacrifices, one each day for the first twelve days. They also donated the silver and gold containers in which they brought their flour and oil offerings.

From this point onwards, G-d would communicate with Moshe from between the two cherubs on the cover of the Ark of the Covenant.

Bamidbar summary

The book of Bamidbar opens with a census of all the males over twenty, the age when they are able to serve in the army. The total, excluding the tribe of Levi who were not counted, was 603,550. The Levi'im are placed in charge of carrying the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and all of its fittings throughout the journeys in the desert. G-d designates each tribe's place surrounding the Mishkan in which they will remain during their time in the desert. Yehuda, Yissachar and Zevulun shall be to the East; Reuven, Shimon and Gad are placed in the south; Ephraim, Menashe and Binyamin to the West; and Dan, Asher and Naftali in the North.
The Torah lists Aaron's genealogy. The Levi'im are instructed to safeguard the Mishkan, and to serve the Cohanim. The tribe of Levi is given the honour of looking after the Mishkan in lieu of the firstborn who were originally intended for the position. The Levi'im are subdivided into three family groupings and a census of their numbers taken, from the age of one month upward. Their total number is 22,000. The tally of firstborn males is 22,273. The firstborn are exchanged for Levi'im, and the remaining 273 firstborn have to redeem themselves for five shekels each. This money is given to the Cohanim.
Special instructions and precautions are given to the family of Kehat who are the ones who have to carry the vessels of the Mishkan. First the Cohanim must enter the Mishkan and cover all of the furnishings with special covers; only when they have completed this may the Kahatites come to carry them. Because they are in contact with the most holy parts of the Mishkan, they are most at risk of being killed if they don't perform their task properly.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Behar Summary

G-d instructs Moshe about the Shemita (Sabbatical year) for the land. For six years we may work the land, but in the seventh we must leave it to lie fallow. Anything that grows during this year may be eaten by anyone who wants it, or is left to the animals. We must also count a cycle of seven Sabbatical years and on the 50th year proclaim a Yovel (Jubilee year). This is also a year of rest for the fields and is a time when all slaves must be set free and all land returned to its original ancestral owners. The selling price of any land must reflect the fact that it will return to the original owners in the Jubilee year. G-d promises that in the sixth year the land will provide enough crops to last for Shemita and in the 48th year, also for the Yovel that follows. No land may be sold in perpetuity.

If a person becomes impoverished and is forced to sell their hereditary land, they or their relatives should redeem it as soon as they are able. The redemption price shall be calculated based on the sale price and the remaining years until the Yovel. Houses in walled cities may only be redeemed up until one year after they have been sold. If they are not redeemed by that time they shall become the permanent property of the purchaser. Houses in Levitical cities may always be redeemed, and if they are not redeemed they revert back to the Levites in the Jubilee year.

We are commanded to help our brethren who become impoverished with interest free loans. If a Jew becomes so impoverished that he is forced to sell himself as a slave, his master must not work him unnecessarily hard. The master must also provide food and accommodation for the slave's wife and children, and must set him free in the Jubilee year. Non-Jewish slaves however become hereditary property and should not be set free.

If a Jew is sold to a non-Jew as a slave he must be redeemed as soon as possible. We are obligated in all of these laws because G-d brought us out of bondage from the land of Egypt. We are commanded not to build idols or altars to false gods.

Parshat Behar


This week’s Torah reading contains the commandment of Sh’mita, allowing the land to lie fallow in the seventh year. The Midrash (Yalkut Tehillim 103) says about this mitzvah, “Bless the L-rd, you angels of His, you mighty ones who perform His bidding, hearkening to the voice of His word” (Tehillim 103; 20). Rav Yitzchak Nafcha says that this refers to those who observe the Sh’mita laws. The normal course of the world is for a person to perform a mitzvah for a day, or a week, or even a month; is it possible to keep something for a whole year? Yet these farmers watch their fields become destroyed, and their vineyards ruined, and they remain silent.

A person can refrain from something for a single day, with extra strength of character they can continue for a week or a month, but to remain observant of this law of Sh’mitafor an entire year, slowly watching years of hard work falling into ruin and seeing other people come in and treat the field as ownerless, is almost beyond the capability of a normal person. All of a person’s resolve and determination to observe this law is worn down day by day. Therefore the Midrash refers to such people as “angels, the mighty ones”.

The Talmud (Shabbat 88a) learns out from the same verse in Tehillim the greatness of the Jewish nation as they received the Torah. “At the moment that the Jews said ‘We will do’ before ‘We will understand’ a voice came out of heaven saying ‘Who revealed to My children this secret that the angels use, as the verse says, “… You mighty ones who perform His bidding, hearkening to the voice of His word”. First they obey, and then they understand. This ability to accept G-d’s will unquestioningly, and only afterwards to attempt to understand it, is the secret of the Jews’ strength as a nation. It is the phrase that they used at Mount Sinai, the phrase that the angels use, and it is also the only way that the nation can observe the commandment of Sh’mita. The people don’t ask how they will be able to eat in the seventh year; they first observe the commandment, and then have faith and trust that G-d will provide for them.

We see that this commandment is almost beyond human capability to perform, being in the realm of the angelic. However, in the second of today’s readings the Torah describes a severe punishment for not keeping the mitzvah of Sh’mita. “Then the land will be appeased for its Sh’mitot during all the years of its desolation, while you are the land of your enemies. Then the land will rest, and it will appease for all its Sh’mitot” (Leviticus XXVI; 34). The Talmud derives from here that exile results from Israel’s failure to observe Sh’mita. Because of the seventy Sh’mitot that they had violated prior to and during the First Temple period, the Babylonian exile lasted for seventy years, during which time the land made up for the rest of which it had been deprived.

This shows the tremendous spiritual level of which the Jewish nation is capable of achieving. G-d demands that we achieve the status of angels, otherwise we are severely punished with exile and suffering. Being a nation like all other nations is not an option for the Jews; there is no middle ground. Either we reach almost inhuman spiritual heights, and receive the blessings detailed in Bechokosai, or we fail and incur the punishments and curses listed there.