‘Wi-Fi Kiddush Cup’ Parashat Naso / Bemidbar – Shavuot 5779

For the six weeks, Jews in Israel and Jews in the Diaspora have been reading two different Torah readings. This Shabbat, Israelis will be reading Parashat Naso while in the Diaspora they will be reading Parashat Bemidbar. The discord was caused by the seventh day of Pesach, which this year fell on a Friday. In Israel, the next day was just another Shabbat and so we read Parashat Acharei Mot. In the Diaspora, however, Shabbat was also the eighth day of Pesach and so the regular Torah reading was pre-empted by the reading for the eighth day of Pesach. As a result, the Diaspora fell one parasha behind Israel. Shouldn’t be a problem: Acharei Mot and Kedoshim are often read together. An obvious solution would be to read the two parshiot together in the Diaspora while reading only Parashat Kedoshim in Israel, and presto, Jews around the world would be reading the same parasha. This was not to be. In the Diaspora, only Parashat Acharei Mot was read. The next available double-parasha was Behar-Bechukotai but the Diaspora didn’t catch up then, either. They will catch up only on August 3, when they combine the parshiot of Mattot and Masaei, while the Israelis read only the parasha of Masaei. Why does the Diaspora lag behind for so long?

Rabbi Joseph de Trani, known as the Maharit, who lived about five hundred years ago in Greece, asks this very question. He answers by pointing us to the Talmud in Tractate Megilla [31b], which defines a number of “anchors” that connect certain weekly Torah readings to certain holidays. Two of these anchors concern the “tochecha” – rebuke – a set of curses that await us should we stray from the Torah. One tochecha is found in Parashat Bechukotai, read before Shavuot, and the other tochecha is found in Parashat Ki Tavo, read before Rosh HaShanah. The Talmud explains that we must read the tochecha before the New Year so as to begin the year on a good note and to leave last year’s curses behind[1]. Rav Mordechai Yoffe, known as the Levush, who lived in Prague and Bohemia in the seventeenth century, rules [OHC 428:4] that one parasha must serve as a buffer between the tochecha and the New Year. Hence, the tochecha in Parashat Bechukotai is read two weeks before Shavuot, such that the next parasha, Parashat Bemidbar, is read the Shabbat before Shavuot. Similarly, the tochecha in Parashat Ki Tavo is read two weeks before Rosh HaShanah, such that the next parasha, Parashat Nitzavim, is read the Shabbat before Rosh HaShanah. This year is slightly different: Shavuot falls on a Sunday and so in Israel an additional parasha, Parashat Naso, is read before Shavuot, forming a two-parasha buffer between the tochecha and the New Year, diluting the connection between the two. If the Diaspora were to catch up with Israel before Shavuot, they would join Israel in a suboptimal situation in which the tochecha is separated from the New Year by more than one week. In order to keep only one week between the tochecha and Shavuot, the Diaspora delays catching up until after Shavuot. Lest the astute reader ask why the Diaspora does not merge Parshiot Chukat and Balak, which would mean catching up two weeks earlier, it turns out that that there are some Syrian communities that do precisely that.

We Israelis seem to lose out. While it is possible to read two parshiot in one week, it is impossible to read one parasha over two weeks, meaning that there is no way out of the sad fact that in Israel, we will not be reading Parashat Bemidbar right before Shavuot. More than two weeks will have gone by between the reading of the tochecha and the holiday of Shavuot. By the time Shavuot rolls around, the sobering effect of the tochecha will be long gone. Is there any way for us Israelis to make lemonade out of our lemons? That is to say, is there something that we can learn from the proximity of Parashat Naso to Shavuot?

One of the topics discussed in Parashat Naso is the Nazir, or Nazirite. A Nazirite is forbidden to drink wine, to cut his hair, and to come into contact with a human corpse. A person becomes a Nazirite by taking a vow and he remains a Nazirite for as long as he specifies in his vow. The Talmud in Tractate Nazir [5a] explores how long a person must remain a Nazirite if he does not a priori specify the length of the period[2]. The Talmud concludes that such a person must remain a Nazirite for thirty days. The source for this rule is a verse describing a person who  becomes a Nazirite as [Bemidbar 6:5] “kadosh yih’yeh” – “will be holy”. The numerical value – gematriya – of the word “yih’yeh” is thirty[3], corresponding to the thirty days of an unspecified period of Naziriteship[4]. Excuse me? Are we really determining the normative halacha based on gematriya? The last Mishna in the third chapter of Pirkei Avot teaches that gematriya is merely an “appetizer” accompanying the main sources of wisdom – the accepted hermeneutical principles for deriving halacha from the verses of the Torah. Since when does gematriya teach us halacha?[5]

Here’s how: I have always loved gadgets. Give me something with a touchscreen and I’m in heaven. If it has Bluetooth, even better. My children joke that my Kiddush cup has built-in Wi-Fi. And so getting me a birthday present is always pretty easy. My wife, on the other hand, is another story. To her, the simpler the better. Not that she doesn’t like technology, it just doesn’t excite her like it does me. If someone were to gift her a new Amazon Show 5, equipped with Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and full Alexa integration, she would be disinterested.

The Midrash tells the story of how before G-d gave the Torah to the Jewish People, He interviewed other potential recipients. He went to one nation[6] and they asked Him what was written in the Torah. He told them that it said that it was forbidden to indiscriminately fire rockets at heavily populated urban areas. They politely refused. He went to another nation and they, too, asked what was written in the Torah. G-d told them that it was forbidden to reverse engineer electronic devices and then to sell them at a quarter of the price. They politely refused, as well. Only then did G-d approach the Jewish People with His offer and their immediate response was [Shemot 24:7] “We will do and we will listen”. No questions asked. The reason that the Jewish people asked no questions is because the Torah was designed with the Jewish People in mind. The Talmud in Tractate Yevamot [78a] teaches that the Jewish People are humble, merciful, and kind. So is the Torah [Psalms 19:9]: “The orders of G-d are upright, causing the heart to rejoice; the commandments of G-d are clear, enlightening the eyes”. Giving the Jewish People the Torah is like giving me an Apple watch: Of course we wanted it. We were created for it. It was created for us.

I suggest that the Talmud uses gematriya because it has a problem with the word “yih’yeh”. When the Torah teaches that the Nazirite will be holy, it can be deduced that until now, our Nazirite was not holy and only by becoming a Nazirite does he attain holiness. Nothing could be further from the truth. The Jewish People do not need to swear off wine in order to become holy – we were born with an innate holiness, destined to be a [Shemot 19:6] “a kingdom of princes and a holy nation”. Holiness is not a status we strive for – it is in our national DNA. The verse simply cannot be interpreted to its simple meaning. The word “yih’yeh” must be teaching us something else – the days of the unspecified Nazirite.

When we in Israel read Parashat Naso one day before we commemorate receiving the Torah at Sinai, we remember that the gift that we received was chosen with us in mind. It is our Wi-Fi, it is our Bluetooth, it is our destiny.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] While the Talmud does not mention this explicitly, on Shavuot, we are judged for the produce of the upcoming year, so it can also be considered a “New Year”.

[2] The Talmud refers to this as “stam nezirut”.

[3] Yod = 10 and heh = 5, such that yod + heh + yod + heh = 30.

[4] This word actually exists in the Oxford Dictionary.

[5] The Rambam in his explanation of the Mishnah [Nazir 1:3] argues that we know the standard duration of Naziriteship from a received tradition (Halacha l’Moshe mi’Sinai) and the numerical derivation is merely an “asmachta”, a mnemonic device to enable easy recall.

[6] Names have been withheld in the interests of political correctness.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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