Friday, May 25, 2007

Wayward Wives, Benedictions and Animal Offerings (Naso)

The Parsha of Naso, like many other excerpts of our holy book, is fraught with scandal. On its surface, Naso seems like a serene (READ: boring) account of the preparations required to construct the Tabernacle. But buried beneath all the details, we have adulteresses, ascetics, and the ever-present animal sacrifice.

The Parsha starts off hum-drum enough, with Hashem asking Moshe to count all of the members of the tribe of Levi who will be helping to transport the Ohel Mo’ed (the portable tabernacle) across the desert. The count, mind you, only included males between 30 and 50 years old. As with so many of our Parshiot, the Torah has no qulam with leaving females, children, and the elderly unmentioned. We’ll leave that discussion for another time – there's a lot of ground to cover.

Without warning, but purportedly linked to the preparations for building the tabernacle, the Torah then decrees that Moshe should “send out of the camp all who are afflicted with tzaraat, who are contaminated by bodily discharge, and those contaminated by contact with the dead” (Num. 5:2) until they are cleansed of their ritual impurity. Ok, great - now that we’ve gotten rid of the oozers and the necrophiliacs, we can get down to business.

But then, oh but then - and also without transition - the Torah goes on to define the “Wayward Wife” and how to deal with her. The sotah is a woman accused of adultery. The Torah is generally fair about giving accused criminals a fair trial (remember that it takes three eye witnesses in order for the Beit Din, a Jewish court of law, to convict someone of first-degree murder). In this case, the woman must be publicly accused by her suspicious husband (a wonderful experience, I’m sure), and then must be seen cavorting with the other man by a third party.

What follows, however, can only be described as a witch-hunt, desert-style. The poor schmuck whose wife might have been around the block a few times (hey, we’re not making judgments …yet) has to take her to the Cohen with a meal offering of plain barley (after all, even Cohens have to eat). The Cohen then takes a clay jug full of holy water and shakes it up with a handful of dirt off the Temple floor. The accused woman signs an oath, with Hashem as her witness, that says if no man has lain with her, she will be able to drink this bitter concoction with no physical repercussions. On the other hand, if she has been a little loose, she swears that after she drinks the water, her belly will swell and her thighs will - get this - rupture. The signed parchment is added to the jug and swirled around a couple of times so that the ink dissolves.

I know Arthur Miller’s witches weren’t real, even though they floated. But come on; dirt, parchment, and dissolved ink (origin unknown) would make my belly swell for sure.

Now we can get going with building the Tabernacle, right? Wrong.

First, the Torah teaches us about Nazirs. Nazirs are people who, out of a desire to be closer to Hashem, take a vow of nezirut (abstinence) from fun stuff like drinking alcohol, touching dead bodies, and cutting their hair. Nazirs can abstain for a specific amount of time or their whole lives. At the end of the period of nezirut, they are instructed to make a triple animal sacrifice – a male lamb, a female lamb, and a ram. Lucky day for those Cohens.

The Parsha ends on a high note, with Hashem teaching the Cohens the Priestly Blessing. We still use the Priestly Blessing today in the Amidah (basic building block of any synagogue service), on Yom Kippur, and on Erev Shabbat. It’s a beautiful little ditty:
“May Hashem bless you and keep you. May Hashem’s face shine upon you and give you grace. May Hashem lift up his face to you and give you peace.” (Num. 6:24-26)
Finally, the Torah recounts each tribal gift to the building of the Tabernacle (the world’s first Capital Campaign!). While each gift is identical, the Torah itemizes each one in entirety to give all twelve tribes their due. The gifts are so generous that it is worth mentioning here. Go ahead, be proud.
“This was the dedication of the altar, in the day when it was anointed, by the princes of Israel: 12 dishes of silver, 12 silver bowls, 12 spoons of gold ... All the silver vessels weighed 2,400 shekels ... All the gold of the spoons was a 120 shekels. All the oxen for the burnt offerings were twelve bullocks, the rams twelve, the yearling lambs 12, with their meal offering. The kids of the goats for sin offerings 12. And all the oxen for the sacrifice of the peace offerings were 24 bullocks, the rams 60, the he-goats 60, the yearling lambs 60.” (Num. 7:84-87)
And now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for:
"And when Moses would go into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, then he heard the voice speaking to him from off the covering that was upon the Ark of Testimony, from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him." (Num. 7:89)
After all that, without a doubt, one of the greatest moments in Jewish history. If it weren’t for the guidance Moshe received in that Tabernacle, we wouldn’t be here today to tell the story.
Chag Shavuot Sameach.

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