Rabbi David Walk, Education Director

Congregation Agudath Sholom | 301 Strawberry Hill Ave | Stamford, CT 06902 (203)-358-2200 www.agudathsholom.org

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Walk Article-Nasso



Rabbi David Walk


            The reading of the Torah on a weekly basis is not ordained by the Torah itself.  Rather it was a rabbinic innovation.  So, it was the rabbis who developed the scheme we use for our public readings.  The system apparently went through a number of permutations until we arrived at the present order of readings.  Since the Torah readings are Rabbinic enactments we should try to figure out their motivations for the way they were divided up.  Therefore, when we see a Torah reading such as Nasso we must ask:  What were they thinking?  It's the longest single reading of the year (at 176 verses, it beats number two by 17 verses), and much of the material doesn't seem to hang together at all.  We begin with Levitical work assignments, then we have the expulsion of lepers from the camp, followed by the accused wife (sotah), next is the nazir, after that we have the Priestly Blessings, and the final 89 interminable verses are the tribal princes' gifts at the inauguration of the Mishkan.   Why would our Sages put together such a long reading made up of such disparate sections?  The other long readings (Bamidbar, Breishit, Noach and Miketz) have topical unity.  So, what gives with the potpourri of subjects, which we call Nasso?

            Obviously, I think that I can resolve this conundrum. After all I do choose my topics, and only pick those that I think I can handle.  I believe that a close look at the first four issues discussed in our parsha uncovers an important common denominator. All are the result of strife, either internecine or interpersonal.  The Levites  only received the role of Temple servants because of the Sin of the Golden Calf, when the historical position of the bechorim or first born was conferred on the loyal Levites.  Lepers or those suffering from tzara'at are the result of communal dissonance usually in the form of lashon hara or gossip.  Let's assume that suspicion of adultery is self explanatory.  But what about the Nazir?  Why does an individual choose to become a Nazir?  Sefer HaChinuch (# 374) portrays the nazirite vow as a tool that the Torah provides for people to undertake when they feel the need to withdraw from society and  the pleasures of the world and. thereby. blunt their physical desires and focus on their service to God.  Generally, a nazir is someone suffering from internal strife.  On the other hand, the long (and boring) list of the tribal gifts to the Mishkan show a unique level of unity and fellowship in the Jewish community.  Many commentaries explain that the repetition of the same gift over and over again was to show their sense of equality and egalitarianism.  And what separates these two sections?  Why the Priestly Blessing, of course.

            Somehow, the priestly blessings represent the remedy for the dysfunctional situations presented earlier in the parsha and bring us to the short lived mental health displayed by the tribal chieftains at the end of our Torah reading.  How do these blessings achieve this great accomplishment?  First let's be reminded of the content of these three blessings.  The initial blessing appears very straightforward:  may God bless you and protect you.  The second is a bit more complicated:  may God shine the Divine countenance upon you, grant you grace.  The third is quite complex:  may God lift this Divine countenance towards you and bestow upon you peace.  The first blessings appear to give physical bounty.  The second confers 'grace' upon the receiver.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains that this means:  'May God leave a visible trace of His being on the face you show to others.'  In other words grace contains a certain aspect of Godliness which can be discerned upon or within the recipient.  The final blessing confers peace upon the other.  But this peace isn't the negative concept we talk about on news broadcasts, which is merely the absence of overt violence.  No, indeed.  This peace is a positive reality clearly observable to others.

            Where does this peace come from?  I believe that peace or serenity is the result of the first two blessings.  In the first blessing we are endowed with our physical needs.  Not only do we receive all the accouterments needed for life, but we also receive a blessing of protection.  This protection can come in the form of security for the physical material of the blessing, or it can mean a protection for the recipient from the smugness and occasional selfishness of having adequate means.  Once the recipient has this physical security he/she is granted spiritual bounty.  This individual feels Divine presence and this phenomenon results in a visible 'glow' observable by others and called chen or 'grace'.

            These benefits lead to the tranquility of spirit we describe as 'peace'.  This peace comes from harmony between a person's physical needs and spiritual attainments.  We often see material wealth without spiritual attainment or spiritual merit with poverty.  Our perfect scenario is a blending of affluence and spirit.  This is what the tribal chiefs displayed in their abundant gifts to the Mishkan.

            What is the power of these blessings?  We could say it's miraculous, but that doesn't explain much.  We could say it derives from the role of the Cohen as an educator, as in: "For the lips of the cohen shall keep knowledge, and they shall seek instruction from his mouth" (Malakhi 2:7).   However, I prefer to think their power derives from our belief in them.  The experience of receiving a blessing can move the recipient to acknowledge that these gifts come from God. This acknowledgment causes further Divine influence or abundance to descend into the world.

            These blessings made all the difference in changing our Torah reading's direction from one of strife to tranquility and inner peace.  They can do the same for us if we believe in their efficacy, and use them to make ever stronger our connection to the Source of all bounty, beneficence and blessings.