Can our community tolerate fringes? How do we related to those who live at the margins of society? The answer we seem to get from chapter 5 is harsh — you expel them. There’s no room in the camp for the leper, or for the defiled. Not in our back yard.
But chapter 6 begins to paint a more nuanced picture. The nazirite, too, is a fringe character, a person who has decided that he can’t partake of the pleasures of this world like everyone around him does. He (or she) acts differently, and looks different. There’s something about this separatism that the Torah does not completely endorse. The nazir brings a sin offering, not only in the case that he prematurely defiles his holy state, but also whenever he finishes his period of being a nazir.
But if the Torah doesn’t wholeheartedly endorse it, why allow it all? Apparently, there is a recognition that for some people, in some circumstances, it’s necessary to spend some time on the fringes, to be a little different, and the Torah makes space for this.
But it doesn’t stop there. There’s an interesting commonality between the nazir, on the fringe, and the categories mentioned in last chapter who are beyond the boundaries of the community. In all these cases, there is an intensive involvement on the part of the kohen in order to bring them back into the fold.
The fringes will always exist, in every society, and so will those people who cross the line, who contaminate society, and who need a time-out. All that is inevitable, and in some cases, even necessary and desirable, although not ideal.
So, the question is not how to prevent people from reaching the margins, or crossing the lines. The really important question is what pathways exist for them to return home at the right times. We might bemoan the proliferation of those who are ‘chozer beshe’ela’, of the ‘datlashim’. But what ways are offered them to return? In Bamidbar, this is precisely the job of the most elite of spiritual figures, the kohen.
The chapter mysteriously ends with the priestly blessing, and now we can understand why. The responsibility of the kohen, the blessing he brings to the people, especially by tending to the fringes, and facilitating their return to the center, is the blessing of peace, and the blessing of harmony.
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