In this parashah, the Israelites are in the wilderness— both a physical journey and a metaphor for a spiritual journey. As their journey unfolds through the book of Numbers, they seem far away from the vision of the holy community set out in Leviticus. Immersed in the reality of life, they struggle to preserve some version of communal cohesion and sanctity as they grapple with the challenges they face. As this book continues, there will be challenges to Moses’ leadership, loss of trust and faith and their resurgence, much complaining, fear of the unknown and an often-expressed wish to return to the known, and now idealised, mitzrayim.
With its opening census, its discussion of the sotah ritual, its setting out of the rules for the temporary nazir and its listing of the gifts brought for the dedication of the altar, one could wonder what parashat Naso offers to warrant our attention today.
The common link among at least some of these disparate subjects is the maintenance of the sanctity of community. In chapter 5 we encounter methods to protect the community from physical and spiritual impurities which pose threats to its sanctity. Those who have become physically impure via discharges, eruptions, or contact with a corpse, and those who transgress must be prevented from contaminating the rest of community. In contrast, chapter 6 devotes itself to the role played by people in enhancing the community’s sanctity. Here we find the discussion of the nazir, a lay person who devotes him/herself to God’s service for a period of time.1
In chapter 5 we have the description of the sotah ritual, the trial by ordeal faced by the wife accused by her husband of straying. This ritual can appear quite abhorrent to modern minds and it is hard to find much to be gained from reading about it, though it is useful to occasionally remind ourselves that there are troubling sections in our own Scriptures which we must confront. In this section we seem to have a classic picture of women as a potential source of communal contamination. Yet in chapter 6 we also find the potential for a woman to take a nazirite vow and thus became a model of devotion in her community. Naso offers us at least a glimpse of a breadth of roles for women in ancient Israelite society.
It is also in Chapter 6 that we find the “Priestly Benediction”, perhaps the most familiar words in the Book of Numbers:
יברכך יהוה וישמרך:
יאר יהוה פניו אליך ויחנך:
ישא יהוה פניו אליך וישם לך שלום:
“The Eternal bless you and protect you. The Eternal deal kindly and graciously with you. The Eternal bestow [divine] favour upon you and grant you peace” (Num. 6:24–26).
It is these words which commentators through the years have suggested were the ones uttered by Aaron in blessing the people (Lev. 9:22). They have found their way into our liturgy in various places. Sometimes this blessing has served as a remembrance of the function of the priesthood, as the kohanim of a community rose, lifted their hands and recited it. In most Progressive communities, this practice later moved from the hereditary priesthood to the rabbi. I have never been comfortable with the idea that rabbis are somehow modern-day equivalents of these ancient Temple functionaries, but these words do have a special resonance.
What have traditional commentators made of this verse? Rashi suggests that the first clause of the blessing is a prayer for people’s property to be increased and for them to be protected from physical danger: from thieves who might come and steal their property. Rabbi Dr. J.H. Hertz offers the following: “May God bless thee, with possessions and keep thee, from these possessions possessing thee.”2 This appears to be based on Numbers Rabbah 11.5 and notes the spiritual danger riches can pose to those with them. In contrast to this cautionary note, Sforno offers the possibilities opened to us by material wealth, by noting that it allows us to more easily live a life devoted to good deeds and study.
Like the ancient Israelites, we also grapple with the challenges that the reality of our lives poses for the cohesion and holiness of our communities. To be a kehillah kedoshah requires a lot more than a blessing from a priest or a rabbi. It requires the conscious effort of all its members to use the means with which we are blessed to live lives devoted to building the communities in which we live.
Rabbi Janet Darley
South London Liberal Synagogue
1 The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. Dr. Tamara Cohen Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss eds. (New York: URJ Press, 2008)
2 The Pentateuch and Haftorahs. Second Edition, Dr. J. H. Hertz ed. (London: The Soncino Press, 1973) p. 595
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.