Wednesday, 08 Jun 2016

Written by Zahavit Shalev


At first glance, Naso seems to be a rich mix of quite random things. That is emphatically not the case – but you need to know how to read the Bible to see it’s hidden structure!

The portion opens with a census of the Israelites, and then a set of instructions as to which tribes are to carry what when the camp is dismantled for travel. The verb nasa features – it is used both in connection with the census taking, and the porterage.

Towards the end of the portion, the same verb returns, featuring prominently in the Priestly blessing and in the person of the nasi (tribal leader) each of who’s identical gifts were brought at the dedication of the Tabernacle.

A theme is emerging – all of these elements deal with collective Israelite behaviour and identity.

But between these two sections are three elements that do not conform to this verbal or thematic unity. First there is a prescription for the asham  – a kind of guilt offering. Next a description of the ritual a sotah – a woman whose husband suspects her of adultery – would be subjected to. And finally, the laws of the nazir – a person who has undertaken a religious vow to avoid wine, contamination with death, and hair cutting.

Readers have long puzzled over why the descriptions of the sotah and the nazir appear next to one another.

One obvious answer is that the rituals mandated for both the trial of the sotah and for the nazir to conclude his or her period of abstinence require the presence and active participation of the priest.

Another reason comes from the Babylonian Talmud: “To teach you that anyone who sees a sotah in her disgrace should renounce wine.” (Berachot 63a and Sotah 2a). The assumption being that illicit sexual behaviour is caused by wine, and that a person observing a sotah would appreciate this and might then resolve to abstain from wine as a nazir.

Both the sotah and the nazir have deviated from collective norms. The sotah has not behaved as a wife is expected to behave. And the nazir has taken on strictures that a normal person is not required to observe.

A brilliant essay by Professor Stephen A. Geller of the Jewish Theological Seminary explores a much more profound relationship between, the sotah and the nazir  and even offers an explanation as to what the asham might be doing here.

Geller observes a linguistic link between the sotah and the nazir. Both passages feature the verb para which refers to loosening one’s hair. In Numbers 5:18 the priest “shall loosen the hair of the woman’s head” and in Numbers 6:5 the nazirite shall “let the locks of his head grow long”. The same verb is used twice at the incident of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:25) where the Israelites are out of control, behaving with wild abandon.

Hair is a literal extension of personality. Our hair grows out of our bodies and the way in which we wear it broadcasts what we feel about ourselves. Women’s hair, in particular, is regarded as a potent moral symbol. Covered hair indicates chastity. Tied-up hair suggests restraint. Loose hair is considered wanton. The sotah may or may not be guilty of adultery, the very fact that she did anything to arouse suspicion already puts her in the wrong. She has not behaved as a women ought to behave. In the sotah ritual as depicted in the Mishnah, the accused woman is humiliated – her clothes are ripped from her, and her hair is loosened to illustrate her brazenness.

But for men too, hair is a marker of potency and virility. During the period of nazirut the nazir would leave his hair uncut, probably entirely untended. Certainly the nazir’s physical appearance would testify to his (or her) special status. But what exactly do the loose locks of the nazir signify?

The Torah doesn’t tell us why a person might undertake to become a nazir, although as we saw earlier, the rabbis of the Talmud offer a suggestion. But that undertaking nezirut is not necessarily to be commended is indicated by the fact that after the period of nezirut is over, the former nazir has to bring a great number of sacrifices – including an asham – and also cut off his hair and burn it as part of the sacrifices.

Geller suggests that for a person to come to be a sotah or a nazir, they have probably experienced extreme and uncontainable emotion. Hence the association with the asham guilt offering. Geller explains

 From the point of view of the priestly tradition, which valued regularity and order, both unbridled jealousy and the perfervid emotions that might lead one to make an oath precipitously, were dangers that had to be controlled and fit into the ritual system. The quasi-magical ordeal might still a husband’s suspicions and the list of required sacrifices might prevent a nazirite’s hasty oath.

Our portion then is beautifully structured after all! There is a sold outer core dealing with the benefits of community, the stately ballet of people moving about in concord, co-operating with one another, and then collectively receiving Divine approval and bounty.

And in the middle, is a warning about what not to do – deviate. However, if someone does deviate, there – safely ritualized and contained – are mechanisms for dealing with emotional turbulence and non-conformity. Sanctions that the community can apply, and precautions and responses that the individual can use. We may not like what’s on offer, but we can certainly now admire the elegant inner unity of this portion.

Student rabbi Zahavit Shalev

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