Oppression Leads to Unnatural Population Expansion
כל הפקדים אשר פקד משה ואהרן ונשיאי ישראל את הלוים למשפחתם
All those that were numbered of the Levites, whom Moses and Aaron and the princes of Israel numbered… (Bamidbar 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” (Shemot 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” (Psalms147:8). 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.
דבר אל בני ישראל ואמרת אלהם איש או אשה כי יפלא לנדר נדר נזיר להזיר להשם
“Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: A man or woman who shall dissociate himself by taking a Nazarite vow of abstinence for the sake of G-d.” (Bamidbar 6:2)
The Torah details here the laws pertaining to a nazir, one who takes a vow to abstain from wine. While the rules regarding what a nazir can or cannot do are straightforward, the Talmud’s perspective of the nazir’s virtue is not as clear. One opinion in the Talmud (Taanit 11a) maintains that a nazir is deemed to be a sinner, while a dissenting opinion considers the nazir a “kadosh,” a holy person. How can the nazir represent such dissimilar ideas?
Rabbi Aharon from Belz (1880-1957) led an ascetic life, subsisting on the bare minimum of food and drink and preoccupying himself with Torah study and intense prayer. As a child, the Rebbe of Belz was attended to by a man who pleaded with and cajoled him to eat more. Much to the attendant’s dismay, the young Aharon routinely refused these overtures. One day, however, Aharon asked the attendant for a large piece of cake and a hot cup of coffee. “Remember,” he said, “to please make sure that the coffee is steaming hot.” The attendant was overjoyed, and eagerly carried out the future Rebbe’s wishes. Much to the attendant’s dismay however, Aharon quickly handed the cake and hot coffee to a man in the synagogue. Aharon explained that earlier that day, he overheard the man pining for a delicious piece of cake and a hot steaming cup of coffee. How can he ignore the plea of a Jew?
In his commentary to the Torah, Rav Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin writes that there is certainly a positive aspect to being a nazir, but that it is not for everyone. Abstaining from the pleasures that G-d intended for us to enjoy is, in a sense, sinful for the average person. A truly holy person however, can handle separating himself from this world while staying connected to his fellow Jews. He may choose to temporarily deprive himself from some of life’s pleasures, but does not detach himself or expect to impose his personal choice on others. On the contrary, a holy person is someone who is truly cognizant of other people’s needs.
The festival of Shavuot commemorates the receiving of the Torah. Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein, author of the classic halachic work Aruch Hashulchan (1829-1908), writes that the festival of Shavuot is referred to in the Torah as “atzeret,” restraint, because the Jewish people were instructed to abstain from physical indulgence prior to receiving the Torah. Surprisingly, the Talmud tells us that one should consume delicacies on Shavuot – the very same holiday whose name represents restraint from physical pleasures!
Our sages tell us that when the Jewish nation stood at Mount Sinai, we were united as one nation with one heart. The message here seems to be the same. As we strive to achieve greater higher spiritual heights, we must always remember our fellow Jews’ need for that piece of cake and hot cup of coffee.
Bribery in the Highest Echelons
יאר… פניו אליך ויחונך
“May G-d show you favor” (Bamidbar, 6:25).
Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing introduced in this week’s Torah reading, is divided into three different blessings. The first blessing pertains to financial success, the second to attaining understanding in Torah and spiritual matters, and the third is that G-d will show favor to the Jewish people and bless them with peace (Sifre commentary, 39-42). Rashi explains that even if the Jewish people transgress, G-d will exhibit special favor by controlling His anger and not punishing them.
The idea that G-d may show favor to the Jewish people seems to be contradicted by another verse: “G-d… does not show favor and does not accept a bribe” (Devarim 10:17). The Talmud (Brachot 20b) actually notes that the ministering angels complained to G-d that, as the verse in the Torah portion this week says, He does favor the Jewish people. G-d answered the angels, “Shall I not show favor to Israel, for I have written in the Torah (Devarim 8:10), ‘And you shall eat, be satisfied, and bless G-d’ [which obligates a Jew to recite Birkat Hamazon (“Grace after Meals”) only after eating enough to be satiated]. Yet they are exacting upon themselves and recite Birkat Hamazon even upon eating a piece of bread as small as a volume of an olive. Just as they favor Me, I too favor them.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Gutmacher asks why this specific stringency is mentioned as the reason why G-d shows favor to the Jewish people. After all, there are many areas in which the Jews go beyond the letter of the law. He quotes the Medrash Tanchuma (Naso 11), which describes the rationale for indicating this specific mitzvah: A person who has to provide for his family and, due to his extreme deprivation, only has a small piece of bread to offer his children could easily become resentful of his circumstances. This could lead him to be angry at G-d or even curse G-d over his situation. A Jew, however, does not react in this manner. Instead, he blesses G-d and thanks Him for what he has provided him with. It is precisely this type of behavior that brings about Heavenly mercy and a desire to deal with us favorably.
It’s easy to go through life complaining about tough situations — tight finances, problematic relationships, poor health. We might feel that the root of our problems stems from the fact that G-d has turned His back on us. But He hasn’t. No matter how much we still need, we always have so much to be grateful for — a reliable job, family, a trusted friend. When we recite Birkat Hamazon, we see the good in our lives, and we emphasize how the Jewish people earn Divine favor by being thankful for whatever G-d gives us. This feeling of appreciation enhances our ability to enjoy life to the fullest.
For Discussion Around the Shabbat Table
The Talmud (Sotah 2a) teaches that upon seeing a sotah (a wayward wife as described in Bamidbar 5:11-31) in her degraded state, one should accept upon himself the nazir vow and abstain from wine. As explained by the Medrash, wine triggers the kind of conduct that may have led to the sotah‘s downfall. That being the case, why wouldn’t other alcoholic beverages be likewise forbidden?
A nazarite (nazir) is a person who voluntary vows not to drink wine or eat grapes (or any grape derivative), not to come into contact with a dead body or enter a cemetery, and not to cut his or her hair for a 30-day period. After this period was over, the nazarite would go to the Temple and shave his or her head. People accepted these restrictions on themselves as a means of becoming more pious, more holy.
- Getting drunk can cause a person to lose control, which can lead to many sins; therefore, abstaining from alcohol is a logical means of distancing oneself from sin. Why, then, does the nazarite also need to refrain from non-alcoholic grape juice or grapes themselves?
- Death is a natural part of the life cycle. What connection might there be between staying away from dead bodies and becoming more holy?
- How might growing one’s hair and then subsequently shaving it lead a person towards a higher level of piety?
Rashi writes (Bamidbar 5:10) that a person who fails to give the required tithes from his produce to the Priests will be punished in that ultimately, his fields will only produce ten percent of their original capacity. If this happens, not only will the original owner suffer, but so will the Priests and Levites, as even if the owner chooses to repent and give the required tithes, they will come to only ten percent of what should have otherwise been received. What wrong could the Priests and Levites have done to justify their inclusion in this punishment? (Rabbi Yechezkel Sarna quoted in Peninim MiShulchan Gevoha)
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” (Bamidbar 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? (Darkei HaShleimus by Rabbi Shloma Margolis)
- 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?
“The one who brought his offering on the first day was Nachshon son of Aminadav of the tribe of Judah. His offering was…” (Bamidbar 7:12-17) For the dedication of the Altar, each tribe brought its own gift for the occasion. Nachshon ben Aminadav, who was also the first to enter the Red Sea before it split, was once again the first to present his tribe’s offering. The details of each tribe’s gifts are subsequently itemized in great detail. Oddly, each tribe brought the exact same gift. Our sages teach that this was unplanned and without collusion between the tribes.
1) What connection can there in the fact that the one who first entered the sea before it split was the first to present his offering for the Altar?
2) Ironically, the Torah details each gift of each tribe despite the fact that they were all identical. Why wouldn’t the Torah, which does not include contain any superfluous words, simply say, “And so did this and that tribe offer the same gift”?
3) If the offering of each tribe was different, each might be seen as offering something unique. Why doesn’t the fact that each tribe brought the same gift detract from the gift’s value? What message can we learn from the similarity of each tribe’s dedication?
Q: The Talmud is replete with laws and teachings derived from seemingly superfluous words and even letters used in the Torah, based on the concept that the Torah doesn’t write even a single letter unnecessarily. It is therefore difficult to understand why the Torah repeats at excruciating length the offerings brought by each of the 12 tribal leaders, when they were all identical one to the other. Wouldn’t it have been much more concise to list the offering brought on the first day, and to add that each subsequent leader brought the same offering on the succeeding days?
A: The Ramban explains that although on a superficial level, it appears that their actions were identical, G-d knows the inner thoughts and intentions behind every action and recognized that every leader had a unique intention behind his selection of the items brought in his offering. Because their inner motivations were unique, the Torah wrote out each one separately as if their offerings were completely different. Rav Reuven Leuchter notes that because the Torah is the blueprint of the universe, the expression of any true concept can be located in the Torah. He suggests that the source for the idea of creativity may be found where one would least expect it – in this parsha of the offerings of the leaders! The explanation of the Ramban teaches us that although the Torah may require us to perform specific actions, we are still able to infuse them with our own unique perspectives and intentions and to find in them an expression of our own distinct personalities and experiences. (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Q: In this week’s haftorah, we read the story of the miraculous birth of Samson. After an angel came to inform his father Manoach and his wife that they would finally give birth to a son and to teach them the special status their future son would have, they were in doubt as to whether this had been a person tricking them or had indeed been a Divinely-sent angel. Thehaftorah continues (Shoftim 13:21) to resolve their question by stating that as a result of the fact that the angel no longer appeared to them, Manoach knew conclusively that it had indeed been a Heaven-sent angel and not a human playing a trick on him. In what way does the angel’s disappearance provide a proof regarding its identity?
A: Rabbi Shalom Shwadron answers that human nature is such that when someone happens to inform his friend of good news (e.g. the birth of a child), he subconsciously expects to be thanked for his good deed of delivering such happy tidings. When Manoach realized that the angel who had come with the tremendous news of the birth of his son (who wouldn’t be just any son but a holy nazir who would save and lead the entire Jewish people) didn’t appear to him even once, not even “by accident,” he knew that no human being could restrain himself so, and concluded that it had surely been an angel! (Rabbi Ozer Alport)
Jumping Points for Discussion and Further Study
ASK AND YE SHALL RECEIVE
“And G-d spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying; ‘Take the count of the sons of Kohat…’” Bamidbar 4:1,2
Parshat Naso is the largest of all the portions in the Torah, containing 176 verses. It also features a larger number of merashic interpretations, and discussions in the Zohar than any other parsha.
Chiddushei HaRim (Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Rothenberg-Alter, (1799-1866) explains that this prolific and disproportionate amount of verses and commentary contains a deep symbolism related to this time of year. Parshat Naso is traditionally read in the weeks immediately following the holiday of Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai and a renewal of our commitment to its study and practice. When we accept upon ourselves the monumental task of Torah study, we are in return, granted the gift of inordinate quantities of Torah, far beyond what we would imagine ourselves capable of absorbing. Parshat Naso, with its vast amounts of Torah, is a symbol of that newfound aptitude.
YOU CAN RUN BUT YOU CAN’T HIDE
“And they shall place upon it a cover made of the hides of the Tachash and they shall spread a garment of woven techeilet(blue thread) above (that) and they shall emplace its staves.” Bamidbar 4:6
A cover…hides of Tachash…Techeilet above it – Placing the Tachash under the Techeilet was the reverse of the manner in which all other Holy Utensils were packed for traveling. The Menorah, Table, and Inner Altar, for example, were all first packed in Techeilet, and then Tachash hides were placed above that.
Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin) explains that each of those three symbolized a specific area in which man can interact with the spiritual world and influence it. For example, the Menorah represents the Oral Law which was given to the Jewish people to study and implement in the universe. The Techeilet, made of blue thread, symbolizes the heavens, and ultimately the Heavenly Throne which controls all that occurs in the universe. The Tachash hides were used for a more practical reason: to protect the Holy Utensils from the physical elements, such as rain, and symbolized the physical world. Placing the Tachash covering above the Techeilet covering is appropriate for the other utensils because, although their holiness was rooted in the Heavenly Throne, we were given a certain mastery over them. The Holy Ark, on the other hand, represents Divine Supremacy over the universe and offers no hope for human domination. It was unique among the Holy Utensils in that it bore those who bore it. We couldn’t even carry it. It carried us, instead. Thus, the Tachash was placed beneath the Techeilet so that to all appearances, it was obvious that this was under total Divine domination.
“Instruct the Children of Israel and they shall send forth from the encampment any person afflicted with Tzaraat, any person contaminated with Zav, anyone contaminated by a dead body.” Bamidbar 5:2
Instruct the Children of Israel – Since this was an unpleasant thing to ask of the people, the Torah used the word, “Tzav” [instruct] which connotes acting with haste and conviction to emphasize that there must not be any hesitation in carrying out these orders.
Living a spiritually rich existence requires an atmosphere of sanctity. This could not be achieved in a community that is polluted by a lack of respect for human life, interpersonal relationships, or sexual purity. Each of these three symbolizes a moral deficiency in one of these areas and greatly pollutes the environment. However distasteful it may have been to expel the offenders, there was no alternative if we were to achieve even a minimal standard of being an “Am Kadosh” – a nation of holiness.
They shall send forth from the encampment– The entire mobile community was divided into three distinct camps.
- Within the outer curtains of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) was considered “Machaneh Shechinah,” the holiest section.
- The section reserved for the Levites surrounding the Mishkan was known as “Machaneh Leviah” and was endowed with an intermediate level of holiness.
- From the edge of Machanah Leviah throughout the entire expanse of the general populace in all four directions, was called, “Machaneh Yisrael” and represented the third and lowest level of sanctity.
The Metzora was expelled from all three camps, the Zav from the first two, and one contaminated by a corpse was only expelled from the highest level, that of Machaneh Shechinah. – Rashi
NO BLOATING ALLOWED
“Instruct the Children of Israel and they shall send forth from the encampment any person afflicted with Tzaraat, any person contaminated with Zav, anyone contaminated by a dead body.” Bamidbar 5:2
Any Person Afflicted With Tzaraas…Contaminated With Zav – Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai taught: When the Children of Israel stood at the foot of Mt. Sinai and declared their allegiance to G-d and His word, they were healed of every illness and blemish and there stood not among them a Metzora (someone afflicted with tzaraat) or Zav. It was only once they sinned that there was among them Metzoraim, and Zavim etc. What sin caused these illnesses to surface once again?
- They spoke negatively toward their leaders and accused them of criminal behavior.
- They cast aspersions upon the Holy Ark and claimed that it was lethal to those who serviced it.
- The sin of the Golden Calf caused an outbreak of tzaraat – Medrash Rabbah, Vayikra 18
Yet another Medrash [Devarim 7:4] maintains that the sin that brought these terrible illnesses upon them was their disrespectful and ungrateful attitude toward the Manna which sustained them. In order to ease their plight in the unsanitary conditions in the desert, G-d sent down Manna that was fully absorbed in the body and produced no waste matter. Ordinarily, this would be recognized as a tremendous blessing and kindness to a people stranded in the desert with inadequate facilities. Instead, the people grumbled incessantly about how dangerous it was, and how they feared that they’d perish from bloating. For failing to appreciate this munificent gift, they were visited with true illnesses that isolated them from the masses and lessened their potential to damage the morale of the nation.
“The Kohen shall inscribe these curses on a scroll and dissolve it in the bitter waters.” Bamidbar 5:23
Dissolve it in the bitter waters – Although it is generally prohibited to do so, in order to preserve the peace between a husband and wife, the Torah permits erasing a Torah portion that is written in sanctity and contains G-d’s Name. – Sifri
In truth, another Divine name is Shalom [peace]. By erasing the Divine Name written on the scroll in order to promote shalom, it is as if another Divine Name is being composed to replace it. – Maharal
Sifri derives another interesting lesson from the Torah’s willingness to erase G-d’s Name for the sake of promoting peace. Just as we must do all in our power, even erasing the Divine Name, in order to promote peace, similarly, we must do all in our power to remove from our midst any books or other mediums that promote disunity among mankind. Possessing material that explicitly or subtly promotes divisiveness is akin to erasing the Name of the Divine.
BOUNTY IS BEST
“The Kohen shall make one [dove] as a sin-offering and one [dove] as an elevation-offering, and he shall provide him atonement for having sinned regarding the person; and he shall sanctify his head on that day.” Bamidbar 6:11
His sin with a soul – This chapter speaks about one who took a vow to be a nazir, mandating that he refrain from indulging in earthly pleasures such as wine, meat, shaving his hair, and contaminating himself to the dead. This verse refers to an instance in which he allowed himself to become defiled by coming into contact with a dead person. Atonement is required because he was negligent about coming into contact with the dead and becoming defiled. Alternatively, Rabbi Elazar HaKapar explains that his sin was that he inflicted suffering upon himself by vowing to abstain from wine. – Talmud, Tractate Nedarim 10a
In a similar vein, the Talmud states that one who fasts excessively is called a sinner, because he adopts a path that is contrary to what the Torah asks of us. We are not bidden to abstain from earthly pleasures altogether, for they were placed here to enhance our earthly existence and to utilize in the service of the Almighty. Rather, our mandate is to limit our intake of these pleasures and not to allow them to take control of us. So long as one is careful not to allow himself to indulge without regard for his physical and spiritual health, there is no reason to refrain from appreciating the bounty with which G-d has showered us. One who abstains from it altogether has confused asceticism with piety.
THE SILVER LINING
“May G-d turn His face toward you and grant you peace.” Bamidbar 6:26
And grant you peace – To conclude all of these beautiful blessings, the Kohanim request that G-d grant us peace, the receptacle in which all of these blessings will be held. – Ibn Ezra, Chizkuni
The time that was spent in the desert was remarkable in numerous ways. They survived on the heavenly manna, enjoyed the conditioned air of the Clouds of Glory, drank from the traveling well, and so much more. Perhaps however, one of the most outstanding aspects of their existence there was their clear-headed understanding of their roles. Each tribe represented something unique in the framework of Judaism, and they steadfastly adhered to their designated roles. The time they spent in the desert was intended to inculcate them with their mission, and thus it was essential that they travel and live together as a unit. In all their years in the desert, no one tried to escape or exchange his position for that of another tribe. This was a truly remarkable accomplishment in light of human nature.
NO OX TO GRIND
“Moses took the wagons and the oxen and gave them to the Levites…He did not give any to the sons of Kehot because the sacred work was [incumbent] upon them, which they had to carry on their shoulders.” Bamidbar 7:6-9
Because The Sacred Work Was On Them – The carrying of sacred objects – the ark, table, etc. Therefore, “they had to carry them on their shoulders.” – Rashi
Rav Menachem Mendel of Kotzk explained that in matters of kedushah [sanctity], one cannot delegate, or utilize shortcuts. To employ the help of oxen in carrying the less sacred items of the Tabernacle was entirely appropriate. Their status did not demand more than that. For carrying the Ark, however, which symbolized the Holy Torah itself, and the other exceedingly sacred vessels, one could not expect assistance to lighten the load. This lesson here is that one who wishes to ascend in matters of holiness and carry the banner of purity, must be prepared to do all the heavy lifting himself. In these areas of life, nothing ever comes easy. Torah is acquired only by one who gives his very last breath for it. Shortcuts and time-saving tricks are inexpedient means of developing our spiritual selves.
CLEAR CHANNEL COMMUNICATION
“When Moses arrived at the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard the Voice [of G-d] speaking to him from atop the cover that was upon the Ark of the Testimony, from between the two cherubim, and He spoke to him.” Bamidbar 7:89
And He spoke to him – These words appear to be redundant, since it already says that he heard the Voice of G-d speaking to him. Why the need to repeat this fact? Rather, the speaker in this case was Moses, not G-d. When G-d spoke to Moses, he remained fully conscious and capable of responding, unlike all other prophets who grew weak and collapsed when experiencing a Divine revelation. Moses reached the highest level possible for man and perceived all that G-d communicated in the clearest fashion imaginable. – Rabbeinu Bachya
He heard the Voice – Only he, Moses, heard the Voice of G-d, but no one else did. Even Aaron, who was sometimes there with him in the Tent of Meeting, did not merit this level of clarity in his communications with G-d. – Ibn Ezra
Although the Tabernacle was not nearly as majestic or artistically impressive as the First or Second Temples, nevertheless, in this regard it exceeded those two edifices in that the prophet of that time could go there and experience immediate Divine revelation. No prophet who lived and operated in the times of either Temple had that level of accessibility to the Almighty, although those structures were far more imposing and inspiring. Sometimes, it’s not the size of the building that counts, but the size of the people who inhabit it or the circumstances under which it was built.
Hey, I Never Knew That
“[A]ll who come to do the work of service and the work of carrying…” (Bamidbar 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).
“They shall confess their sin…” (Bamidbar 5:7). An integral part of repentance is confession of sins to G-d. In Maimonides’s introduction to the laws of repentance (Mishneh Torah, Repentance 1:1) he writes, “If one transgressed any [mitzvah]… when he repents and returns from his sin, he must confess in front of G-d…” It appears that the mitzvah is confession, not repentance in and of itself. He also does not list “repentance” in his Book of the Commandments (mitzvah 73); he lists only “confession” (Minchat Chinuch 364). Rabbi Meir Simchah (Meshech Chochmah, Devarim 31:17) explains Maimonides’s position. The fact that a person has transgressed does not diminish his prior obligation to desist from sin or to fulfill mitzvot. “The first prohibition that prevented him from sin before he sinned, prevents him from sinning even after he sinned.” Hence the obligation to rectify one’s ways is intrinsic to every mitzvah. What does the process of repentance add? He answers that even if one has ceased sinning and mended his ways, the Torah requires that he confess his sin before G-d. Thus, the obligation to confess is unique and novel, prompting Maimonides to count “confession” as a mitzvah and not repentance.
Word of the Week
“And they shall והתודו—vehitvadu their sins… “ (Bamidbar 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.
The laws of a נזיר — nazirite, someone who vows to abstain from wine, haircuts, and contact with impurity for a period of time, are found in the Torah portion this week. Rashi (Bamidbar 6:2) explains that נזיר means “to separate.” Rabbi Hirsch (Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew) relates it to והזרתם — “you shall warn,” since a warning exists to cause one to separate or refrain from something. Rabbi David Kimchi (Sefer Hashorashim) explains that since the nazirite grows his hair, נזר is also used to refer to long hair. Related to this meaning is the understanding of נזר as a crown or adornment.
BROTHERLY BLESSINGS – Rabbi Leiby Burnham
Recently, my wife and I joined my co-worker for a traditional Shabbat meal, which was quite beautiful. Toward the beginning of the meal, our host and hostess called over each of their children, place their hands on the children’s heads, and blessed them. The boys were blessed “to be like Ephraim and Menashe”, and the girls like the matriarchs. I was very moved by this and would like to do the same when we have Shabbat dinner with our family, but frankly feel I need to understand this blessing before I say it myself. What is it about Ephraim & Menashe that we invoke their names in blessing our children?
Thanks for your astute observation and excellent question. Rabbi Zalman Sorotzkin (1881-1966, Lithuania – Israel) explains that the reason we bless our children that they be like Ephraim and Menashe is based on the upbringing they had, which differed from the other tribes. The other eleven tribes grew up with our great forefather, Jacob, living in a small community of pious people. The people surrounding them, who would influence them most, were noble and upright, thus they were not challenged by an environment hostile to Jewish values. If anything, they were brought up in an area that stressed spirituality and a connection with G-d.
Ephraim and Menashe, on the other hand, grew up in Egypt, a country which the Sages describe as being “awash with immorality.” Not only that, but they were brought up as royalty, and had the time and resources to indulge in any pursuit they desired. They must have struggled mightily to maintain their purity, their G-dliness, and their sense of purpose in a world where everything beckoned them to abandon their values and indulge in the societal norms.
When Jacob saw that Ephraim and Menashe had been able to maintain their traditions, despite the temptations surrounding them, he determined that they should be the role models by which we bless our children. Jacob knew that there would be many generations in which we would be in challenging exiles, in places where the societal mores would often conflict with Jewish values. He therefore ensured that every week we would be reminded of the exemplars of holding steady in a difficult environment.
Another explanation suggested by the author of Mikdash Mordechai is that until Ephraim and Menashe, every other set of brothers in the Biblical narrative had difficulties with each other. Cain and Abel, Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau. Joseph and the other tribes, all fought each other or displayed jealousy and hatred for one another. Ephraim and Menashe finally broke this chain, as we find no record of any discord between them.
This would have been a big accomplishment in its own right, but it was even more unique in light of what transpired between these brothers in front of Jacob, moments before he blessed them. When Jacob asked Joseph to bring his sons over for a blessing, Joseph positioned them so that Menashe, the older brother, would be in front of Jacob’s right hand, the favored hand. But Jacob crossed his hands and put his right hand on Ephraim, the younger brother, and his left on Menashe. Menashe could have felt slighted or jealous, and lodged a complaint or said something, but he remained silent. He was happy with what he received and happy to see his brother being elevated, even if it meant that he would get blessed with what is considered the inferior hand. Upon seeing brothers who not only got along well, but were happy with each other’s success, Jacob said that we should bless our children by them for all of eternity.
Ephraim and Menashe set the bar high in two areas: in living righteous lives amidst immoral people, and in having the strongest of brotherly love. Let’s hope that the children we bless with their names walk in their paths, and continue to push that bar!
Have a Good Shabbos,
Rabbi Leiby Burnham
by RABBI REUVEN DRUCKER
My partner asked a question on the Torah portion (Naso) that I wasn’t sure how to answer. We read how each of Levi’s sons had a different responsibility with the transport of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). When the sons of Kehas were given the privilege of carrying the Ark, did this (or why didn’t this) arouse the jealousy of other Levites, thinking their job wasn’t as important?
Your help would be appreciated,
Mrs. Miriam G.
Dear Mrs. G:
Ironically, the only jealous Levite that we know about was the one who was indeed privileged to carry the Ark, but felt slighted that he wasn’t accorded an even higher honor. We’ll read more about him in a couple of weeks in the Torah portion of Korach.
It certainly is human nature to be jealous of another who appears to be more endowed with wealth, health, intelligence, etc. However, the Torah perspective neutralizes what is truly a pernicious tendency that we have to compare ourselves with others’ fortune. We are taught that the hand we have been dealt in life by the great Dealer is not random, but rather tailor-made to who we are and what we need to accomplish in this world. We are judged on how we handle the specific hand we have been dealt, not by the importance of a particular hand we have been given. There are so many different types of people in this world: some have been born into the Priestly caste (Kohein), others Levites, and still other plain Israelites and, of course, as you point out, even within these groups there are differences, such as those among the Levites who were exalted in status to carry the Ark. These distinctions merely give us the space within which to maneuver and exercise our free-will. We are defined, not by our category, but by the choices we make.
This point is graphically illustrated in a later passage in last week’s portion. The Torah tells us about the Nazirite, an individual who forswears drinking wine and cutting his hair for a minimum of 30 days. He is motivated to forego the pleasure of wine in order to enhance his personal state of holiness, for when one refrains from indulging in bodily pleasure, he adds to his level of sanctity. One of the consequences of becoming a Nazirite is that in the event a parent passes away (or other close relative), he is not permitted to come within close proximity of the deceased body, because his enhanced state of sanctity is inimical to the spiritual defilement which is associated with a corpse. Typically, there is a mitzvah to be involved with the burial of one’s deceased parent. In fact, this rule applies even to a Kohein, although under normal circumstances, he may not come in contact with a dead body of a non-relative. Why, then, does the Torah treat a Nazir to a higher standard than a Kohein? One of the commentators (Avnei Neizer) suggests that the exception for a Kohein to involve himself with his deceased parent makes sense—had it not been for his parents, he would not have been attained the sanctity of a Kohein (which is transferred through the father). Therefore, in deference to his parents, he is to involve himself with their burial, despite the fact that this compromises his priestly sanctity. However, a Nazir’s sanctity comes as result of his personal choice and spiritual accomplishment. Such sanctity did not derive from his ancestors, but from himself, and as such, cannot be compromised by the death of his parents. We find a similar exception with the High Priest (Kohein Gadol). In order to achieve his high status, he certainly needed to be born as a Kohein. However, he rose through his personal efforts to become the greatest of the priests – efforts of his own making, not his ancestry. Therefore, when the High Priest’s parents pass away, he, too, may not compromise his personal sanctity.
Through the laws of the Nazir, the Torah teaches us that the spiritual heights we attain by our own efforts are the true measure of who we are. The category within which the Creator has placed us is only the stage upon which we are to perform.
When we truly understand this concept, we can see that there is really no place for jealousy— neither among the Levites who did not carry the Holy Ark, nor for any thinking Jew. In light of the above, comparisons that some make between themselves and others are absolutely irrelevant. The only comparisons that are meaningful are the ones we make about ourselves – between what we accomplished and what we could have accomplished.
Rabbi Reuven Drucker
The Torah commands the kohanim (priests, descendants of Aaron) to bless the Jewish people (Bamidbar 6:22-27). Maimonides rules that this is a daily obligation (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Prayer, Introduction and Ch. 14), and this is indeed the practice in Israel and among most Sephardim (Middle Eastern and North African Jews). Rabbi Moses Isserles in his glosses to the Code of Jewish Law, (Orach Chaim 128:44) cites the ancient practice of the Ashkenazim (European Jews) that the kohanim only bless the congregation on festivals and not at other times. What is the justification for this leniency? Rabbi Isserles writes that since the kohanim must be in a state of joy when giving the blessing, and in the Diaspora people are preoccupied with issues of income and distracted by the difficulties of work, we can only be sure that the kohanim are in a state of joy appropriate to the blessing on festivals.
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).
Parsha at a Glance
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 parshadetails 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.