When does a person realize s/he has wronged Another? Naso, Shavuot thoughts

Here in Israel we will are reading parashat Naso this week, and of course we all segue into Shavuot Saturday night. Here are a few thoughts on Naso, whereas my Shavuot thoughts for 5782 can be found as a guest column on the new blog of my friend Zak Witus. Zak is also serving as the Young Leadership and Education Coordinator for the New Israel Fund, although the blog is not affiliated with NIF. He suggested that I write a message for young solidarity activists, and I elected to recall the words of Al Vorspan and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, both of whom  teach us about the sacred covenant between the generations on the road to Sinai.

Naso covers a wide range of subjects, including the distribution of responsibilities among the Levites, the ordeal imposed on a woman suspected of adultery, nazirite vows, and the dedication of the Tabernacle.

What caught my eye this year was verses 5:5-7:

“When a man or a woman commits any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with Adonai, and that person realizes his/her guilt, s/he shall confess the wrong that s/he has done. S/he will make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him/her whom s/he has wronged.”

The fact is that the Hebrew could be translated either “any wrong toward a fellow human being, thus breaking faith with Adonai” or “any wrong that human beings commit, so as to trespass against Adonai.” However, most of the commentators assume that this is specifically dealing with the sin of theft, connecting it back to Leviticus 5:21-22. When a person sins and commits a trespass against Adonai by dealing deceitfully with his/her fellow in the matter or deposit or a pledge or through robbery or by defrauding his/her fellow, or by finding something lost and lying about it.”

Not believing that there are superfluous words in the Torah, it was understood that what is new here is the command to confess. Interestingly, it is therefore derived that if one is convicted without a confession, one only makes restitution. If one confesses, one is seemingly punished further by adding one fifth. (Rashi and others) However, Ibn Ezra reads Leviticus as saying that if there are two witnesses to a crime for which on does not confess, two fifths are added. Because the section goes on to deal with a case in which there is no family member to make restitution to (if the wronged person him/herself is deceased), the assumption of many commentators is that we are talking about theft from a proselyte.

A second key point here is that harming a fellow human being is an offense against God. Rabbi Shimshon Rafael Hirsch writes, “Any sin such as this towards a fellow human being is an “offense against God, a violation of God’s Trust for God is the Guarantor of honesty in business and negotiation between human beings.”

The 1985 JPS translation of the verses in both Leviticus and Numbers is that the person realizes his or her guilt. That is not the only way to translate וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה. It could mean simply “and that person is guilty,” but the JPS translation makes sense because the verse is dealing with the moment that the guilty person confesses.

Clearly there are situations in which somebody knows from the outset that what s/he is doing is wrong, and there are cases in which a person comes to realize that they have wrongly harmed another person. However, there are many cases in which a person truly believes that they were right in harming a fellow human being. When the Housing Ministry director states that he doesn’t believe that the State should build public housing or housing for young couples I am sure that he believes his neo-liberal theories. So many times I try to speak to the hearts of the young settlers who don’t seem to anything wrong with bringing their flocks to devastate Palestinian fields, olive groves and vineyards. They also wonder if and when I will see the light. I wonder how a human being can be so callous to a fellow human being.

The question then is what is our role and responsibility in helping people realize that they are harming fellow human beings? In the case of the suspected adulteress, there is a very problematic ordeal to determine the truth. The Talmud suggests that the problem may actually be the suspicions of the husband, but that doesn’t make the ordeal any easier to read. However, in our verses, there is no guidance as to what might bring about the perpetrator or anybody else to realize the truth. I have written before that when I pray in our morning prayers that a “new light shine upon Zion” I direct this prayer to all those for whom I wish that a Divine light will help them see and honor God’s Image in their fellow human beings.

I don’t have an answer or a formula. I believe in prayer, but prayer doesn’t seem to be sufficient. I do have a conviction that we must find a way.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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