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Naso – 5773
Oppression Leads to Unnatural Population Expansion
By Rabbi Leiby Burnham
…כל הפקודים אשר פקד משה ואהרן ונשיאי ישראל את הלוים
All those that were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the princes of Israel numbered… (Numbers 4:46)
Last week’s Torah portion describes the census taken of the tribe of Levi, starting with those one month of age and older. This week’s Torah portion continues with another census of the tribe of Levi, this one comprised of males between the ages of 30 and 50. In both countings, we find a surprisingly low number: 22,273 last week and 8,580 this week respectively—far fewer than any other tribe.
What makes this even stranger is the fact that Levi was the only tribe that was not forced into labor in Egypt. The Medrash records that the slave labor began with a massive public works campaign in which Pharaoh himself participated. But soon afterwards, the Egyptians slipped away while the Jews were forced to remain. The tribe of Levi, who were preoccupied with Torah study, never joined the labor and were thus never forced to remain. One would think, therefore, that they would be the largest tribe.
Nachmonides explains that it was precisely because they were not subjugated that their population remained small. G-d gave a special blessing to the Jewish people that “the more they oppressed them, the more they multiplied, and so did they gain strength” (Exodus 1:12). So the tribes that were oppressed grew with prodigious blessing, while the tribe of Levi only grew at a normal rate, and consequently had comparatively lower numbers. Oppression, though something few would welcome, can sometimes be the harbinger of special blessing.
This message is reinforced by a verse in Psalms: “He covers the heavens with clouds, He prepares rain for the land” (Psalms 147:8). Rav Tzadok Hakohen explains that we often go through difficult times—times in which the horizon appears dark and cloudy—but really G-d is preparing for an outpouring of rain and blessing. We likewise see this in the germination of seeds, the process that allows for all life on earth. At first, the seed disintegrates, seemingly beaten to nothingness—until a new life sprouts forth. G-d’s miraculous nature has a way of showing us the light when all we can see is darkness.
Growing up, Steven* had two classmates who were stepbrothers. The mother of one was a divorcee who married a successful attorney with two children of his own. The woman indulged her child, took care of all his expenses, provided him with a nice car, and required nothing from him. The father, who achieved his success through great effort, made his children work hard for everything they received. That classmate constantly worked odd jobs, earning low wages in order to buy things he wanted.
Today, the mother’s indulged son is a baggage handler in a local airport. The father’s son is a world-renowned psychiatrist who has published dozens of articles, written two books, and is frequently featured on CNN. The hard work, stress, and difficulty he suffered as a teen certainly paid off. Likewise, people with physical handicaps or those who have undergone a serious illness tend to score much higher than others on tests that measure happiness.
Today’s economic climate is often a cloud of frustration. The counting of the tribe of Levi helps us see the silver lining that that may come in the form of bountiful rain about to be fall, or in the form of our developing a deeper appreciation for our family, our health, or other aspects of our lives.
Word of the Week
By Rabbi Mordechai Becher
“And they shall והתודו—vehitvadu their sins… “ (Numbers 5:7) Vehitvadu is universally translated as “they shall confess,” and is the source of the commandment to recite ודוי—vidui—confession of sins on Yom Kippur and indeed whenever one needs to repent. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Etymological Dictionary) maintains that the root is ידה—yadeh which means to “cast away” or “throw,” and hence confession is part of the process of rejection, or casting away sin. Rabbi David Kimchi (Sefer Hashorashim) connects the root to יודה—yodeh which means to admit or concede, and hence is directly related to confession.
Hey, I Never Knew That
By Rabbi Mordechai Becher
“[A]ll who come to do the work of service and the work of carrying…” (Numbers 4:47). Rashi understands that the “work of service” refers to playing musical instruments in the Temple, which is described as a “service for another service.” In other words, the musical aspect of the Temple service was something essential for the performance of the other services in the Temple, the sacrifices. The Levite orchestra is described in the book of Chronicles (II:29:25-30) and consisted of cymbals, lyres, and harps, in addition to the trumpets and shofars of the Temple. There was also a choir of Levites for vocals, and the Mishnah adds bronze and reed flutes as well (Arachin 2:3) There is a tradition that music was played expressing the meaning of the different sacrifices and also enhanced their effect on the participants in the service (Avraham Yehoshua Heschel of Apt).
The Priestly Blessings are found in the Torah portion this week. “May G-d bless you and protect you. May He shine His face upon you and be gracious to you. May He lift up His face upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24).
- These blessings are recited only in the presence of a minyan—a quorum of ten men. Why, then, are they worded in the singular and not in the plural?
- The first part of the blessing, “May G-d bless you and protect you,” is considered a blessing for material possessions and a prayer for safekeeping of those possessions. The blessings in the following verses, however, are more spiritual in nature. While material possessions do play a significant role in our service of G-d, why might the material blessing come first? Isn’t that giving the wrong message about priorities?
A Question for the Rabbis
By: Rabbi Mordechai Becher
The Torah portion this week tells of the princes of the tribes of Israel dedicating the Tabernacle. Rabbi Ovadiah Yosef was asked if it is appropriate to make the blessing of Shehecheyanu (Blessed are You….Who has given us life and existence and brought us to this moment) on the dedication of a new synagogue. He responded that even though one would make such a blessing on building a new house, a synagogue is different for a number of reasons. A house is privately owned and therefore the owner makes the blessing; a synagogue, however, is built using communal funds and hence no one individual would be able to make the blessing, and the blessing was never enacted as a communal obligation. In addition, the synagogue is a place dedicated to prayer and study of Torah, neither of which is considered a personal, physical pleasure or benefit. The blessing of Shehecheyanu, however, is only recited when one receives a personal, physical benefit (Responsa Yabia Omer 9:18).
G-d commanded a census of the sons of Gershon and designated them to prepare the parts of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and to carry all its tapestries. Moses then took a census of the sons of Merari, who were singled out to carry the beams. Moses and Aaron counted the three families of the tribe of Levi.
G-d commanded that those who were ritually impure would be expelled from the camp.
He then discussed the mitzvah of repentance. One who sinned must confess his sin, offer sacrifices, and make restitution to the victim (or his heirs).
The parsha continues with the laws of the sotah, a woman suspected of having sinned with a man whom her husband had warned her to avoid. She must bring specific offerings and drink bitter water specially prepared by the kohen. She must take an oath that she has not sinned. If she is innocent, the waters will bring her blessing. If she is guilty, she and the adulterer will die.
The Torah then explains the laws of the nazir, a person who takes upon himself additional prohibitions in an effort to achieve a greater level of holiness. He may not drink wine or anything else prepared with grapes. He may not cut his hair during his period of abstinence, nor may he become impure by coming into close proximity of any corpse – including those of his closest relatives. If the nazir accidentally becomes impure during his period of abstinence, he must immediately shave his head, offer sacrifices as atonement, and begin the period of abstinence again. At the completion of the period of abstinence, he brings offerings and shaves his head; he is then permitted to drink wine.
G-d revealed to Moses the special blessing with which the kohanim bless the Jewish people.
When Moses finished erecting the Mishkan, the leaders of the tribes brought offerings before G-d. Following G-d’s commandment, Moses distributed the hard work among the Levites according to their individual capabilities. The parsha details the dedication offerings of the leaders of the tribes.
Whenever G-d communicated with Moses, His voice came from between the k’ruvim (angelic images) on the Ark, and Moses heard it from his position in front of the partition curtain of the Tent of Meeting.