Parshat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) lists work assignments for the Levite families. In great detail.
If we are reading the Torah to learn about history, it’s easy to learn from Naso. As the Israelites traveled through the wilderness, setting up camp 42 times, they always set the mishkan (sanctuary tent) up at the center of their camp. How was the mishkan carried from place to place? Levite men, age 30 to 50, took it apart, carried the pieces, and set it up again.
But if we are reading the Torah for lessons about spirituality, how should we approach this section?
Naso reminds us that human spiritual life exists in time and space. If we want a place to pray, someone has to maintain it. And sometimes we metaphorically call the caretakers “Levites.”
Naso opens a door into practical spirituality. The spirituality of scheduling. Of delegating. Of managing volunteers. In today’s North American economy, you can hire spiritual advisors to help with any of them. They, too are Levites — a word which literally means “those who accompany.”
Naso invites Hasidic style interpretation, where the external mishkan becomes a metaphor for the internal mishkan. Life’s journeys push us towards inner change. To change consciously, we need the inner Levite families named in Naso. The Gershonim, who geresh (banish) the old baggage. The Merari, who marar (weep bitterly), allowing us to grieve the old. The Kehati, who are kaha, blunt. Because if we are too discerning, we will never open to new experience.
Spirituality is everywhere in the Torah. To create us, God formed a body from clay and breathed into it a living spirit (Genesis 2). Spirit is motion, thought, feeling, change. It weaves through everything we do.
Can’t see it in a section of Torah? Look harder.
Universal Gifts of Gematriya (5773/2013)
Some readers of Torah take gematriya (numerology) very seriously. Gematriya, they say, articulates messages implicit in the text, helping readers see the Torah’s intention more clearly. Others laugh, saying gematriya is a heavy-handed overlay. Readers can find random numerical associations to any interpretation they choose.
In Parshat Nasso, twelve Israelite tribal chiefs bring twelve identical offerings to the mishkan. Gifts include a ke’arat kesef, silver plate, and a kaf, a golden spoon. Understood as peshat (with simple everyday awareness), the gifts add to the beauty of the mishkan and show each tribe’s equal pledge of financial support.
But through the lens of gematriya, the gifts have cosmic significance. The words “ke’arat kesef” have a gematriya of 930, the same number of years as Adam’s life. The spoon weighs 10 gold pieces, hinting at the 10 commandments given at Mt. Sinai. The gifts bring to mind the physical lineage of all human beings and the shared spiritual lineage of all Abrahamic religions. Perhaps they express hope that the mishkan’s powerful rituals of celebration, purification and atonement could unite all human beings.
From a strictly scholarly perspective, this numerological analysis is a later overlay. The universal appeal of a restored Temple comes to Judaism through prophetic teachings, half a millennium later than Torah. From a spiritual perspective, however, universal unity is a powerful vision. While Torah realistically describes personal and political divisions between human beings, its stories flow from a sense of humanity as a single family. In those stories, family rupture leads to family healing.
Does the gematriya of the gifts bring forward a random association, relevant only to one who knows the prophets? Or does it articulate a deep psychological yearning, common to all humanity?
Shimson’s Shadows (5772/2102)
Haftarat Parshat Naso describes the birth of Tanakh’s most famous nazirite (consecrated layperson), Shimson.
Some crucial piece is missing from Shimson’s spiritual formation. As the text says, “the spirit of God comes upon him,” but each time it moves him only to violence. He kills a lion, kills thirty men, and breaks through ropes to kill a thousand men. Before his death, he prays to God for strength, and kills more people than he has killed in his life so far.
Psychotherapist Janet Dallett writes: “Everyone has to come to terms with the energy and images of divinity that manifest in the human psyche. When we do not, we project divine and demonic images on ordinary human beings. Neurosis, physical illness, and problems of power are created.”
Her words help us understand Shimshon. For him, passion manifests as anger; threats appear as demons that must be eradicated. We easily recognize this dynamic in bizarre crime stories, but Shimshon consciousness appears subtly even in the healthy psyche of a spiritually aware person.
From time to time, we all experience disturbing thoughts and feelings. In our everyday consciousness, we tend to blame other people for causing them. We may imagine our feelings would settle if we simply limited or eliminated these others.
The Ba’al Shem Tov offers an alternative when he reminds us that every aspect of consciousness reflects God’s presence. He invites us to re-imagine every thought or feeling as a communication from God. “Pay attention!” God says. “Notice your response. What do you learn about yourself, about Divine energy, about Presence?” This practice helps us own even our “shadowy” passions, rather than stabbing, as Shimshon did, at shadows all around us.
Snake Courage (5770/2010)
In Parshat Nasso, each Israelite tribal chieftain comes forward to make a gift to the mishkan, the newly-completed sanctuary at the centre of the camp. All twelve gifts are identical: a silver bowl, a silver basin, a golden spoon, four animals for the sanctuary, and seventeen animals to be eaten by the people at a celebratory meal.
The first leader to bring forward his gift is Nachshon ben Aminadav of the tribe of Yehudah. Nachshon is best known to us as the star of a famous midrash (interpretive story) in which the Israelites stand frozen at the edge of the Sea of Reeds, with the Egyptian army closing in behind them. Only Nachshon jumps into the sea. At that moment, the waters part, and the Israelites follow Nachshon across dry land to the other side.
Why was Nachshon chosen as the star of this story of courage? Perhaps to continue the Torah’s teaching about the importance of strong sibling bonds: Nachshon is Aharon’s brother-in-law, and assists Moshe-Miriam-Aharon with their leadership duties. Perhaps to teach that our virtues of character, once developed, serve us well in any situation. Torah tells us that Nachshon was appointed to lead the entire Israelite army in battle; midrash thus teaches that Nachson also led the entire Israelite people to safety.
Nachshon’s name means “snake.” A snake skeleton is a long spine; thus snakes are very flexibile. Snakes are sensitive to vibrations, infrared light, and the chemical composition of air particles around them; thus they notice details that escape most human beings. Nachshon’s ability to lead came from his sensitivity and flexibility…offering us all a lesson in how best to move forwards.
Peace is God’s Face (5768/2008)
“May God bless you and keep you. May God make the divine face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. May God lift the divine face towards you, and give you peace.” (Bamidbar/Numbers 6:24-26)
Almost every verse of Torah consists of two clauses. The second clause restates or elaborates on the first. Given the rhythm of biblical poetry, the priestly blessing teaches that peace is God’s grace and peace is God’s face.
In Parshat Ki Tissa, Moshe asks to know God’s ways. God explains that Moshe cannot see the divine face, but only its aftereffects. Moshe then encounters God’s attributes, which include compassion, graciousness, long-suffering, love, truth, bearing sin, and clearing.
Peace is not named explicitly as one of God’s attributes, but it is essential to the list. For some attributes, such as God’s ability to be “long suffering” and “bear sin,” peace is a prerequisite. These attributes are aftereffects of peace. Peace is the face of God that we don’t see directly.
Peace is thus the highest archetype at which human morality aims. “Love your neighbor as yourself” is possible when we develop peace of the soul. A vision of the world as fully healed is possible when we accept the messianic vision of peace. We realize the reality of peace when we take seriously our sages’ concept of sinat chinam, senseless hatred, and understand that hate is only our inability to be at peace with ourselves.
Adapted from philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)
The Evolving Priestly Blessing (5767/2007)
May the Lord bless you and keep you!
May the Lord shine the Divine Face upon you and favor you!
May the Lord raise the Divine Face towards you, and grant you peace!
— Bamidbar/Numbers 6:24-26
Traditionally, when the kohanim (priests) deliver this blessing to a community, their hands are extended over the people. The fingers on each hand are separated into three groups: pinky and ring finger; middle and index finger; thumb. Some say each hand forms a Hebrew letter shin, for Shaddai, the name of God revealed to our earliest ancestors. Others say that each hand forms the body of a dove, symbol of peace and promise – and that the two hands held together form an image of two doves kissing. Still others say that God peeks through the lattice formed by the hands of the kohanim at the beloved people receiving the divine blessing.
More recently, actor Leonard Nimoy, who was raised in a traditional Jewish home, used the priestly gesture to create the Vulcan salute of greeting for the Stark Trek series. Nimoy explained that while attending Orthodox services as a child, he peeked from under his father’s talit and saw the gesture. For years, it seemed to him a symbol of mystery, peace, and blessing from another world.
Even more recently, the Conservative movement invited daughters of Kohanim to raise their hands and participate in offering the priestly blessing. The reasons? Let this beautiful ritual continue to evolve! Women as well as men are channels for God’s blessings of peace!
Adapted from Wikipedia and Rabbi M. Rabinowitz
Sexism or Shalom Bayit? (5766/2006)
Parshat Nasso describes the trial of the sotah, a woman suspected by her jealous husband of adultery. The ritual involves a “trial by ordeal” – a physical test to determine the woman’s innocence. The husband brings the priest “an offering of remembrance that recalls wrongdoing” (Bamidbar/Numbers 5:15), which is placed in the wife’s hands. The wife then drinks water mixed with dirt and ink, and the priest declares: If you are guilty, “may this water that induces the spell cause your belly to distend (5:22).”
The trial of the sotah does not fit the Torah’s model of an Israelite legal proceeding. Israelite courts insist on strict rules of evidence, presented by credible witnesses. A trial by ordeal would be forbidden by the Torah’s general ban on divination.
The ritual of the sotah does not fit the model of a sacrificial ritual. The husband’s offering does not fit into any known category of sacrifices. It is explicitly described as a simulation of a sin-offering. The priest places the offering not on the altar, but in the wife’s hands.
Some feminist critics see this ritual as an example of the Torah’s sexism, in which women go on trial without the protection of due process. Others see this ritual as an attempt to protect women within a sexist society. For them, the ritual is an opportunity for the husband — albeit at his wife’s expense – to purge himself of unresolved feelings of jealousy that could lead him to abuse or abandon his wife. In other words, this ritual is the priests’ clumsy but well-meaning version of relationship counseling.
Adapted from Ellen Frankel
The Blessing of Presence (5765/2005)
The most ancient words in the Torah may be the priestly blessing:
“May God bless you and keep you. May God make the divine face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you. May God lift the divine face towards you, and give you peace.”
In its original Hebrew form, the priestly blessing is a highly stylized poem. The three Hebrew verses contain 3, 5, and 7 words, respectively. They contain 15, 10, and 25 letters. When the poem is arranged as a pyramid, the center words contain the very heart of the blessing itself: God’s face towards you.
The elegant language of the blessing invokes God’s presence using the metaphors of divine face and divine light. But what are the results when a human being is bathed in the light of God’s presence? What does God’s face look like to ordinary human beings? Rabbinic midrash answers those questions by interpreting the words of the priestly blessing metaphorically.
When God blesses YOU and KEEPS you, God graces you with individual talents, and sustains the wealth you earn from them so you can use it for the highest good. God SHINES upon you with the light of Torah and GRACES you with knowledge. God makes your environment a place of PEACE, so that you may enjoy the fruits of all the other blessings.
Adapted from Rabbi Judith Z. Abrams and Nechama Liebowitz