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Awakened as a People, Raised Up as Jews

  • Awakened as a People, Raised Up as Jews

    Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89
D'var Torah By: 

If you swim off the beaches of Australia, you need to be on the lookout for “blue bottles,” an Aussie nickname for the Portuguese man of war. A blue bottle is not a jellyfish nor is it a single creature. It’s a siphonophore composed of four different animals: a transparent blue bladder that floats on the surface of the sea; stinging tentacles that hang from this bladder; feeding polyps; and separate male and female reproductive polyps. None of these organs are on the same creature; each is on a distinct creature. Not one of these animals could live apart from the others. The siphonophore is like a community, able to exist only through the coordinated and collective efforts of each member (see The Paradigm of the Beast, John N. Bleibtreu [New York: Macmillan Company, 1968], pp. 252–53).

In last week’s parashah, B’midbar, the Israelites are arranged tribally to guard against enemies and to protect the Mishkan . Parashat Naso resolves the same issue through the organization of the Levite clans to attend to the Mishkan . The priests were instructed to bless the entire people. And the tribal chieftans each brought identical gifts for the Mishkan.

The priestly blessing joined the entire community together. The gifts affirmed the centrality of the Mishkan and the worth of each tribe; no tribe had higher status than another. Like a siphonophore, the Israelite community existed because of the contributions of three separate organisms: every person, every tribe, and the Mishkan .

What was the contribution of the Mishkan? The Mishkan symbolized God’s Presence. “And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8).

The Mishkan became the portable Mount Sinai, forever symbolic of God’s Presence as it had been at Revelation. Our people were awakening as a people . They were awakening to realize that the Mishkan/God would sustain them and that they would sustain God/the Mishkan . Without one, the other would lack meaning and purpose. This was the first actualization of our Sinai covenant.

This explains why, in 1994, after prolonged study and debate, our national Reform leadership rejected the application of a congregation who observed Judaism “with a humanistic perspective,” as follows:

The congregation sees itself as a Jewish group, but its liturgy deletes any and all mention of G-d, either in the Hebrew or in English. . . . Their philosophy doesn't admit of either Covenant or commandments. Rabbi Gunther Plaut, chair of the Responsa committee at the time, wrote: “Persons of varying shadings of belief or unbelief, practice or non-practice, may belong to (URJ) congregations as individuals, and we respect their rights. But it is different when they come as a congregation whose declared principles are at fundamental variance with the historic G-d-orientation of Reform Judaism.” (See www.faqs.org/faqs/judaism/FAQ/10-Reform/section-16.html.)

Belief in God is core to Reform Judaism—even if individual Reform Jews are uncertain. Our watchword of faith, the Sh’ma, declares the unity of God—essentially, that through God all is united. In this sense, rejection of God is rejection of the possibility of oneness, even of wholeness or peace. Tribes who reject this move themselves away from the Mishkan andoutside the Jewish camp. Individuals are not rejected, because by choosing to be present, they choose the overall vision and journey of our people.

In contrast, Naso draws our attention to two situations where pure individualism is damaging: the adulteress (see Numbers 5:11–30) and the Nazirite (see Numbers 6:1–21). Each separates herself or himself from the people in self-centered ways: The adulteress destroys the family. The Nazirite sets herself or himself apart by neither celebrating nor mourning; perhaps this isolationism is why the Nazirite must bring a sin offering at the end of her or his vowed term. Both the adulteress and the Nazirite are self-centered, self-serving.

Our young people becoming b’nei mitzvah are often reminded that what we celebrate are not their talents and abilities; those are primarily genetic, and in that sense, a matter of good fortune. What matters is how they will apply those skills, and that will depend solely on the quality of their character. What spiritual attributes do they have that will steer them toward community service, or in the words of Torah, service of the Mishkan ?

The word naso means “raise up.” Parashat Naso emphasizes that what “raises one up” emerges through community service rather than self-service. The symbiotic relationship between individual, tribe, and Mishkan defined our people then and inspires us now.

Rabbi Elyse Frishman is the spiritual leader of The Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, New Jersey. She is the editor of Mishkan T'filah, A Reform Siddur.

Oy Vey! The Ordeal of the Ordeal
Davar Acher By: 
Marci N. Bellows

As Rabbi Frishman mentions above, Parashat Naso includes a section that discusses the alleged adulteress—a woman who “has gone astray and broken faith with her husband, in that a man has had carnal relations with her unbeknown to her husband, and she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced, and there is no witness against her” (Numbers 5:12–13). The text vividly describes an ancient ritual that seems to help the priest determine whether or not the wife is indeed guilty of adultery: she drinks a mixture of sacral water and earth from the floor of the Tabernacle, and her reaction to the drink allows for the deduction of her guilt or innocence.

I have always been fascinated and horrified by this ordeal. Performed in public, this trial seems incredibly humiliating to both the husband and wife involved. Why would such a ritual be prescribed for a suspected case of adultery? Our tradition is very clear in its condemnation of any act that causes another person shame. Bushah, the Hebrew word for “shame,” is often referred to as the “whitening of one’s face.” Because embarrassing a fellow human being causes the blood to rush from his or her face, embarrassment is likened to killing that person. In fact, the Talmud states, “One who whitens the face of his fellow in public—he has no share in the world to come” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 107a).

We must remember to treat our friends, partners, family members, and neighbors with respect, kindness, and love—just as we would like to be treated. As Rabbi Hillel stated, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. That is the whole Torah” (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a). In discussing the ordeal, Torah’s willingness to subject both husband and wife to such an embarrassing act, particularly given our tradition’s view of shame, seems only to emphasize how careful our treatment of those closest to us must be at all times. Rather than causing bushah in our loved ones, may we always strive to bring our loved ones peace, joy, and contentment.

Rabbi Marci N. Bellows is an assistant rabbi at Temple Shaaray Tefila, New York, New York.

5/25/2009
Topics: 
Reference Materials: 

Naso, Numbers 4:21-7:89
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,043-1,075; Revised Edition, pp. 921-945;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 815-842