Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s ‘Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha – Bamidbar’, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers
Parshat Naso, the largest single parsha in the Torah, is also one of the most fragmented.
Central to the parsha is a section consisting of disparate legal themes, including:
1. The temporary exile of individuals afflicted with specific forms of tuma from various sections of the camp
2. Laws concerning theft and false denial of financial obligation
3. The regulations governing a Sota, a married woman suspected of adultery
4. The laws of a Nazir, an individual who vows to undertake more rigorous religious observance
5. The rules of Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing
What, if any, unifying thread connects the seemingly disparate laws found in Parshat Naso? Why are these regulations specifically commanded now, as the Israelites prepare for their monumental departure from Mount Sinai?
While, at first glance, a global theme uniting all of Parshat Naso’s laws remains elusive, connections between specific sections of the text are suggested by traditional sources.
The Talmud, for example, notes that the laws concerning theft close with an admonition to respect the legal rights of the Kohanim. Immediately thereafter the text records the regulations governing a Sota. Interpreting this textual flow midrashically in “cause and effect” fashion, the rabbis
proclaim that anyone who holds back the portions meant for a Kohen will be punished with family strife and will ultimately require the services of a Kohen at the ritual trial of his suspected wife.
The Talmud likewise explains the positioning of the laws of nezirut immediately following the regulations governing a Sota. The irresponsible, licentious behavior that can be caused by intoxication is starkly highlighted by the spectacle of the Sota. “Anyone who personally witnesses the degradation experienced by a Sota,” the rabbis maintain, “will be moved to separate himself [like a Nazir] from wine.”
Numerous commentaries address the potential link between the textual section concerning nezirut and the section immediately following, delineating the laws of Birkat Kohanim. The Ibn Ezra simply states that after discussing the Nazir, an individual of sanctified status, the Torah turns its attention to another sanctified group, the Kohanim. The Abravanel and, centuries later, the Alshich, maintain that the textual message strikes deeper. The path towards sanctity need not be inherited, as in the case of the kahuna, but can be earned, as in the case of nezirut.
Adding our voice to the mix, a tantalizing additional approach can be suggested to explain the flow between the regulations of nezirut and the laws of Birkat Kohanim. Perhaps the Torah means to highlight the critical overall similarities and distinctions between the categories of nezirut and kahuna.
On the one hand, both the Nazir and the Kohen are bound by strikingly similar rules. Each, to a varying extent, is commanded to refrain from contact with death, and each, again to a varying extent, is governed by regulations concerning the consumption of wine.
On the other hand, these two spiritual categories rise from contrasting origins.
The Nazir is motivated by a desire to separate, to move away from the surrounding society. His religious search is inherently isolating.
The Kohen, in contrast, gains his spiritual power specifically from connection to the community. One cannot, after all, be a priest without constituents, without those who are dependent upon his services as a representative before God. There can be no kehuna in isolation.
More than any other ritual associated with the kahuna, the Priestly Blessing underscores this fundamental connection between priest and community. By commanding the Kohen to bless the nation on God’s behalf multiple times daily, the Torah literally forces each priest to regularly and directly confront the true source of his own sanctity: the people themselves. The Kohen’s kedusha emanates out of his role as a representative of the nation before God. Absent the people, there would simply be no need for the Kohen.
Not by coincidence, therefore, the Torah places the laws of Birkat Kohanim directly after the regulations governing nezirut. In sharp contrast to what many see as the flawed, isolating religious attitude of the Nazir, the Kohen must always recognize that his role rests upon his connection to – and his need for – the people.
Numerous other commentaries struggle to discern additional thematic and even linguistic associations between the various legal passages of Parshat Naso.
As instructive as these and other links may be, however, they fail to answer the two global questions raised at the beginning of our study.
On the level of pshat, is there one unifying thread that somehow connects all of the laws of this section of Parshat Naso? Will the discovery of this unifying thread help us understand why these laws are commanded specifically at this pivotal moment in time, as the preparations for the nation’s momentous journey from Sinai near their end?
An approach to these issues can perhaps be suggested by reflecting on the overall placement of Parshat Naso itself in the text.
Until this point, the narrative of Sefer Bamidbar has focused mainly upon the physical structure of the Israelite encampment in the desert and upon the place of each family and tribe within that camp. Now, however, the Torah turns its attention to the harmony meant to reign within the camp’s boundaries.
Through a series of sharp legal strokes, the text addresses potential sources of spiritual and social disruption, outlining the response to each. While each of the examples cited by the Torah is case specific, they are meant to serve as paradigms as well. The text thus purposely addresses, as the nation’s journey is about to begin, a series of life arenas within which peace and harmony must be continually and assiduously cultivated:
1. Spiritual disruption will be addressed through the temporary expulsion of individuals afflicted with specific forms of tuma from various sections of the camp. Only once these individuals have regained the status of tahara can they return to full functioning within Israelite society.
2. The social fabric of the camp will be preserved through adherence to the laws prohibiting theft and dishonesty.
3. The structure of the family – critical yet at times fragile – will be addressed through the laws of Sota.
4. The potentially divisive desires of those wishing to move beyond the religious norm will be addressed and controlled through the laws of nezirut.
5. Finally, this entire section of text concludes with the laws of Birkat Kohanim, a blessing that culminates in the prayer for God’s most precious gift of shalom, peace.
Through the interplay of law and prayer, the Torah thus communicates that true peace within the Israelite encampment will be dependent both upon the nation’s conscious efforts and upon God’s continuing blessings.