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Naso (elevate!)

Numbers 4:21 to 7:89, Judges 13:2-25


One lesson of the census is that the Israelites are meant to bear the glory of God, and to be positioned around it as a holy community.

Note "by name" in verse 4:32 and "by his task" in verse 4:49. Duties were specific and not sharable.

So far the book of Numbers has arranged the ancient Israelites: who was far from the tabernacle (and where), who was near it (the Levites), who worked within it (the priests). Now chapter 5 begins by speaking of those who, due to impurity, must move farther away then previously stated.

The nazir must do a sin offering at the end of the time of his or her vow. Even someone set apart as holy must face a final judgment (or use a sin offering).

Notice that when God's power was with the ancient Israelites the ceremony of the sotah would work, and an innocently accused woman would wind up blessed (with a child). Once the days happened when God's power left the ancient Israelites then the ceremony would do no harm and always declare the woman innocent (and if she was guilty ensure a baby would be welcome in the home no matter who the real father was). Compare this to other "trial by ordeals" which by default punished the accused (i.e., "when tied up, witches float and innocent women sink").

There is a fundamental and easily overlooked truth about the nazir: we are able to do things to raise our level of holiness! (In Hebrew "holy" means "set aside [for God]".) Similarly, the description of the sotah teaches that other people cannot use false accusations to make us less holy.

The ceremony of the sotah involved an "oath of alah" (verse 5:21) that threatened to make the woman "an alah in the midst of her people" (verse 5:27). The word alah is often translated as "curse", but is better understood as "threat", as can be seen in its frequent use in Deuteronomy 29:12-21. The wife does not die if guilty, but becomes an living example that shows the threat of punishment for unfaithfulness. (The word arar in verse 5:27, describing the water, is the actual Hebrew word for "curse".)

In scripture God often speaks of Israel as his bride or wife. When Israel is unfaithful, they suffer like the sotah. The people are not killed off, but become bloated and crippled. The people are not divorced by God, but live in shame. The faithful remnant among Israel experiences the punishment but instead of becoming withered becomes fruitful. Thus the description of the sotah in Numbers 5:11-31 is much like the description of the True Vine in John 15:1-11. When separate from God we wither; when faithful to God we are fruitful.

Traditional Jewish Commentary

Verse 4:23 says "to work the work in the tent." Tradition teaches this refers to work done for other work: for example, singers and musicians bringing happiness to those performing ritual duties.

The children of Kehas (the holiest) were counted first, and counted by Moshe, Aharon, and the princes of the congregation. The children of Gershon (the eldest) were called "heads". The children of Merari are not given any such distinction.

Tradition links the sotah (woman accused of going astray) and the nazir (nazarite) with the interesting assumption that women who are inclined to be unfaithful will only actually act out their adultery when wine is involved. A nazir is in that sense the opposite of a sotah: someone for whom wine is a weakness, but who choses a vow of holiness instead of falling into temptation.

Rebbe Nachman extends this link still further by claiming that the Aaronic Benediction at the end of chapter 6 should be recited before studying Torah as a plea to have inappropriate sexual desires weakened, since he believed those would inhibit absorbing scriptural truth during study.

The ceremony of the sotah is visibly ridiculous and even somewhat blasphemous. In Judaism the commandment about "do not take God's name in vain" is interpreted to include never erasing any written name of God. But during the ceremony of the sotah God's name is erased, and a silly ceremony is performed. Tradition claims this is to discourage allegations of adultery. If the way to resolve the allegation is ridiculous and has a hint of impropriety, how much more is the allegation itself!

Verse 6:20 says "and after [this process] the nazir can drink wine." This is problematic, since at that time the person is no longer a nazir! What should we learn from this—from the fact that someone set aside in holiness can (in God's eyes) retain that status even after a return from the holy state?

Even further, a viable translation reads "the nazir will drink wine." This translation is sometimes used as an example of the virtue of obeying God's commandments simply because they are God's commandments. The nazir must drink wine when once again permitted to do so, to show that the avoiding of wine was not because wine was disliked by personal preference.

Why would the nazir need to avoid all grape products, and not only wine? Rabbinical tradition offers various theories, but none are conclusive. A modern interpretation from Ya'acov Farber is that grape products are blood thinners, and becauce "the life of the flesh is in the blood" (Leviticus 17:11,14) grape products can thus be seen as dilluting how spiritually alive we are.

The Aaronic Benediction is sandwiched between two potentially conflicting phrases. The blessing is introduced as a way in which the priests bless the people. But then the blessing is said to be a means by which God blesses the people. Tradition resolves this by saying that after the priests bless the people with provision, protection, and favor, then the people will have time for God to bless them with intimacy with his word.

The tribe of Judah went first with their sacrifices. But verse 7:12 has two oddities. The verse starts with the vav-conjuntion as if it was a continuation of action and not the start of something new. Tradition says this was to help Nashon, leader of Judah, be humble by seeing his sacrifice not as the first but as part of the bigger picture. Also, Nashon is the only leader of a tribe not called "prince" (sar). Again, tradition says this was to help him remain humble.

The tribe of Yissachar went second with their sacrifices, which is not by birth order. The word used for "sacrificed" is different, and can mean "sacrificed" but literally means "brought closer". Tradition says Yissachar did more studying of Torah, and thus God now honored them by bringing them earlier (closer).

The ritual of the sotah is usually taught along with a lesson about the husband's responsibility. Here is an example:

A couple once approached Horav Chaim Mordechai Katz, zl, and asked him to guide them through some marital "issues." Apparently, one source of tension stemmed from the husband's refusal to take out the garbage on his way to yeshivah. He claimed that as a ben Torah it did not "poss," it was beneath his dignity to perform such a degrading and menial task. Early the next morning, the Rosh Hayeshivah appeared at the couple's doorstep and asked, "Perhaps you have some garbage that needs to be thrown out. I am not a ben Torah, and it does not bother me to do such work." reference