Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Written by Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

From the Past to the Present:

As first century sage, ‘Ben Bag-Bag’, is reputed to have said of the Torah (Pirkey Avot 5:22): ‘Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.’ At first glance, Naso, the second portion of the Book of B’midbar/Numbers, fits Ben Bag-Bag’s notion that ‘everything is in it’ rather well. To use a contemporary Hebrew idiom, usually associated with grocery stores, it is a veritable kol-bo (‘everything is in it’).

Commencing at Numbers 4, verse 21, Naso continues the theme of the census from the previous parashah, going on to the Gershonites, Meraites and Kohathites (4:21-45). The text then mentions the removal from the camp of those who experience an eruption, discharge, or defilement by a corpse (Num. 5:1-4). The next theme concerns making restitution and adding one fifth (5:5-10).

At the heart of the parashah is the ordeal of jealousy for a woman accused of committing adultery (5:11-31), and the regulations concerning the nazir, the individual who chooses to make a special vow to God (6:1-22). The portion then turns to the priestly blessing (6:22-27), the erection and consecration of the mishkan, the Tabernacle, and the offerings of the tribal chieftains (7:11-88), and concludes with a verse about the location of ‘the Voice’ that would address Moses in the Tent of Meeting (7:89).

There is no need to comment on it all, of course – or to try to make sense of what appears to be disparate elements. But there is a thread running through that interests me as a Jewish woman reading Naso. B’midbar opens with the census taken kol-adat b’ney Yisrael – ‘… of the whole Israelite community’ (1:2), ‘on the first day of the second month in the second year following the Exodus from the land of Egypt’ (1:1). The expression, kol-adat b’ney Yisra’el, requires a more precise translation: ‘all the congregation of the sons of Israel’ – given that the text goes on to say, ’according to their families, the house of their fathers, by the number of their names, every male, head by head’ (1:2). A census of male Israelites then – but not every male: ‘… from the age of 20 years upwards, all those in Israel who are able to bear arms. / With you there should be a man from each tribe; a man who is the head of the house of his father’ (1:3-4). The census actually involved the organisation of the camp into military divisions.

So, what’s new? The authors of the Torah were male; the text of the Torah is written from a male perspective and is preoccupied with what men do. And men do all manner of things, including, as Naso shows, going to war, making the laws, building the mishkan – and controlling their daughters and wives, who are the property of fathers and husbands. It is in this context that it makes complete sense that the ordeal of ‘bitter waters’ for those accused of committing adultery was only imposed on wives, and was the means of appeasing jealous husbands.

So far, so thoroughly unsurprising. But then, the parashah turns to the theme of the nazir, the individual, who chose to undertake a special vow, consecrating themselves to God (Numbers 6:1-22). The word, nazir, comes from the Hebrew root, Nun Zayin Reish, meaning to dedicate or consecrate. We learn that the individual concerned could be male or female, and the rules applied equally to both. In addition to being voluntary and open to males and females alike, the nazirite vow had to be undertaken within a specific time-frame, and involved abstaining from wine, any fermented drink, and even grape juice, grape seeds and skins. During the period of their vow, the nazir was also not permitted to cut their hair, nor have any contact with the dead – even the dead of their own family. At the conclusion of the period of the vow, the nazir presented a sacrifice (6:13-17), and had their hair cut and put on the altar, with the priest completing the sacred proceedings.

Interestingly, while the parashah presents naziriteship as an individual matter, elsewhere in the TaNaKh, two people were entered into naziriteship by their parents: Samuel (1 Samuel 2:8-28) and Samson (Judges 13: 1-5). More significantly, in parashat Mattot, it is stated in Numbers 30 that while both males and females may not break their vows to God, a female may break her vow, while in her father’s house, on the day her father finds out about it, if he is against it. Similarly, a married woman may break her vow, if her husband objects to it on the day that he finds out. In these special ‘allowances’, we can see the clash between recognition of the spiritual autonomy of every individual, regardless of gender, and the subjected status of females in relation to fathers and husbands.

So, how did those individual women respond, when their fathers or husbands forced them to break their vows? The Torah doesn’t tell us. But the conclusion of the next parashah, B’ha’a lot’cha (Numbers 12), offers a clue. There, Miriam – and to a lesser extent, Aaron – rebelled against their younger brother. We read (12:1):
Va-t’dabbeir Miryam – v’Aharon – b’Moshe – ‘Miriam spoke – and Aaron – against Moses.’
Note: the verb, Va-t’dabbeir, is in the feminine singular. Miriam, no longer a girl in her father’s house and unmarried, was the instigator and had the greatest grievance. Identified as a ‘prophet’ (Exodus 15:20), and the eldest of the three sibling leaders, it had been her initiative that ensured the survival of the baby Moses (Exodus 2). And yet she was marginalised – and this chapter records for posterity how she felt about it.

As we read the Torah, and so link ourselves into the chain of tradition from generation to generation, each one of us is challenged by Naso, both, to acknowledge its assumptions about male domination and female subjugation, and to resolve to make a vow committing ourselves to the building of a new mishkan, a new community that includes all genders on equal terms.

Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah

Ordained Leo Baeck College 1989

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.