May 21, 2021/10 Sivan 5781
There is much to write about in Parashat Naso. The parasha describes the Nazir, the ordinary person yearning to feel closer to the Divine. The Torah directs him or her, in response to a binding speech-act, to refrain from worldly pleasures for a limited period of time. The Torah also obligates the Nazir, at the end of their period of abstinence, to bring a chatat, a cleansing of sin offering. The parasha also describes the ordeal of the Sotah, a woman who must undergo the public humiliation of drinking a potion of water, soil from the Mishkan, and a piece of dissolved parchment inscribed with Hashem’s name with ink. She must uncover her hair. If she were indeed an adulterer, the potion rendered her barren. If her husband’s jealousy was misplaced, then the potion had no effect. The Kohen proclaimed these outcomes, to which the Sotah must respond, “Amen v’Amen” before drinking. Indeed, this ritual was so upsetting that by the time of the second Mikdash, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai discontinued it. It is doubtful if the ritual ever took place at all. The parasha also describes the dedication of the Mishkan through its initiation ceremony. A leader from each tribe brings a set of dedicatory gifts and offerings, enabling the Kohanim to start their service, maintaining God’s presence at the center of Israel’s camp.
If I step back and look at these three seemingly unrelated topics, I notice that they are all profoundly relational. The Nazir is an individual yearning for closeness to God. The Sotah represents a marriage between two people whose bond requires implicit trust. That marriage is broken, rent asunder by the suspicion of disloyalty, of kinah, followed by uncontrollable rage. The dedication of the Mishkan tries to redress these extremes–the extremism of the Nazir, of an other-worldly yearning, and the extremism of the Sotah, the rage that erupts when trust is broken.
I prefer to read the episode of the Sotah completely as a metaphor. Perhaps we are all the Sotah. Building a relationship with another human being is so tenuous, so fragile. A misunderstood word, a slight glance, a misreading of a mood, can call into question the other’s loyalty. We are currently living through a horrifically escalating war in Israel, the result of decades of indignities, fear, and terror. Rather than leaders facilitating processes through which Palestinians and Israeli Jews would have opened their hearts and listened to each other’s humanity, they squandered those opportunities in the name of military power, or religious ideology, or facts on the ground, or unabashed hatreds. I fear the relationship can almost no longer be repaired; it might not have any future. In the language of the Sotah, the potion that Jews and Palestinians are now drinking is causing cultural, ethnic, and existential infertility.
There is another moment in the Torah when the Jewish people must drink the same potion, a combination of earth and water, together with the obliteration of God’s name. That is in response to the golden calf. There, loyalty was broken with God. God’s name flies off the tablets of stone. Moshe hurls the burden of stone onto the ground, smashing the tablets. He then mixes the water and soil from Mt. Sinai into a potion and forces Benei Yisrael to drink. There, the entire nation had become a nation of adulterers–except for the tribe of Levi. That is why in this parasha, the tribe of Levi is distinguished with the sacred task of caring for God’s home, the Mishkan.
Extremism characterizes so much of our social media, political discourse, and violence. People shout slogans at each other rather than listen with open hearts. Extremism, as our people are now painfully experiencing in Israel, has led to violence inflicting untold wounds, pain, suffering, anguish, and despair. The Nazir and the Sotah are examples of extremisms, and in the imagery of the Sotah, extremism led to broken relationships almost completely beyond repair. In the parasha, the Torah’s antidote to such a desperate state of affairs is the dedication of the Mishkan through the work of the tribe of Levi.
The Mishkan, God’s sanctuary in the center of the camp of Israel, could only be constructed in a world that God would want to inhabit. If there is impurity, such as extremism that leads to the destruction of human life, the sanctuary becomes defiled and God’s presence retreats. Parashat Naso describes the dedication of that sanctuary. The Levites were tasked with the responsibility to disassemble and carry the parts of the Mishkan. Essentially, they were holy schleppers. Why would such simple, manual labor be holy? The Ramban, 14th century Spain, explained why carrying the individual parts of the Mishkan was such a sacred task. He described a way of thinking about the relationship between the object, the activity and the person. He wrote:
Itamar the Kohen will appoint each person with the responsibility for the item to be carried. He will assign each person individually. He will instruct them, “So-and-so, you will carry such and such number of beams, and so-and-so, you will carry such and such number of bars or pillars.” He will not simply command the sons of Merari as one to carry all the beams, sockets and pillars….The Torah specifies this procedure specifically related relating to the sons of Merari because of the weight of their load, so that no one would lighten his load by passing it on to someone else. (Bemidbar 4:32)
The Ramban’s explanation leads to his final comment: “so that no one would lighten his load by passing it on to someone else.” The Mishkan, God’s house, is only as strong, is only as stable, as those willing to carry it. And every one of the carriers must shoulder their responsibility fully. Carrying the house of God is a sacred task. And that task is hard, and heavy. It is weighty. It bears down on each individual, but is made possible through the willingness of the collective to participate in keeping that house stable and strong. Every tribe dedicated that house. They all made the same offerings. Every individual in the families of the Leviim were called by name. Every task was named. Every stanchion was marked for its place and function. The most delicate, sacred items were carried by hand, on shoulders and not in wagons.
This image of carrying God’s house is an image of the world we are living in today. If elected officials, military leaders, parents, teachers, business leaders, social media correspondents, newscasters, people in daily interactions, do not cultivate a sense of collective responsibility, do not develop a habit of active listening, and do not carry part of the weight that belongs to everyone to make this planet a sacred place, we risk the terrors and tragedy of living in a Godless world. Jewish educators all over the world, I sincerely hope, teach the Jewish values of preserving and protecting human life at all costs, dignifying the cultural and identity of all people, and bring all of their love, compassion, and skill to this task in a world beleaguered by nativistic hatred, including within sectors of our own people. I pray that as we approach this Shabbat, we will approach a time of greater peace, as reflected by the priestly blessing of the parasha: May God lift up God’s divine face towards humanity, and inspire us to cleave to ways of peace, dignity and empathic humanity.