Making Sanctity Count

May 24, 2020

4 min read


Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89 )

Written texts are generally supposed to be well structured, with a clear and logical flow of thoughts, and a distinct beginning, middle and end. Yet in Parashat Naso, various topics are addressed in succession, which ostensibly lack any connection to one another.

The book of Numbers begins with the Jewish people in the wilderness prior to entering the Promised Land, and describes their housing, hierarchy and censuses. It then branches out into a variety of seemingly disparate concepts: The sin of treachery against God through theft (Num. 5:6); the sota – the wife who is suspected of acting unfaithfully (5:11-31); the nazir (Nazarite) who, in order to sanctify himself, abstains from drinking wine, cutting his hair and coming into contact with dead bodies (6:2-21); and the priestly benedictions (6:22-27).

If this were any other literary work, we might accept at face value the fact that the sections are somewhat randomly placed. However, when it comes to Torah, there is no such thing as ‘random’.

Immediately prior to these verses, the Torah describes in detail the national census – the counting of each individual in the nation. The significance of counting is even highlighted in the title of this book, ‘Numbers’.

The Hebrew word for a number is mispar, and for counting is lispor, at the root of which are the three letters S-F-R. Not coincidentally, another Hebrew word that shares the exact same root is the verb for telling, lesaper. In other words, through counting something, one is telling its story and ascribing a level of significance to it, according it its own unique identity.

The census highlights the importance of paying attention to each individual in the nation. The subsequent sections relate to different aspects of the human psyche and represent three distinct levels of the relationships that those aforementioned individuals experience: The relationship between a person and God, between a person and others, and between a person and himself or herself.

The Torah describes the consequences of stealing, and the treacherous nature of this sin. God is the ultimate source of objective morality. Any act against morality represents an act against God Himself, and as such denotes a fracture in the relationship between man and his Maker.

The Torah then draws our attention to the relationship between man and his wife. Through the discussion of the sota, the Torah hones in on the marital relationship, which by definition is founded on trust. As the family unit forms the bedrock of society, its breakdown can have catastrophic societal consequences.

The Torah proceeds to describe the nazir, a lifestyle choice that represents sanctity, the opposite of what we saw with regard to the sota. The nazir chooses to enter a lifestyle of abstinence in direct response to the previously described breakdowns in society (Tractate Sota 2a). He overcomes his desires by abstaining from physical pleasures.

On the one hand, the nazir is called ‘holy to God’ (Num. 6:8) for removing potential stumbling blocks and elevating himself. On the other hand, his choice of personal separation from the material world comes at the expense of enjoying the God-given pleasures of life. He is therefore commanded to bring a sin offering upon completion of this period of abstinence (Num. 6:13-14; Tractate Taanit 11a, Nedarim 10a). While abstinence from things that are permitted is a legitimate decision, such a personal choice must be temporary, and is inherently flawed. This dialectic (Mishneh Torah, Laws of Personal Development 3:1, Laws of Naziriteship 10:14) forms the third sphere of human relationships – that of a person’s relationship with himself or herself.

The Torah goes on to describe the priestly blessings, which actually represent the common thread running through the seemingly disparate topics mentioned above. In each case, the priest – Kohen – plays an integral role, through ritual actions and words, in preserving sanctity and redressing the balance and harmony for the nation in the different levels of their relationships.

The sacred role of the priest reminds us that we have tools and community resources available to us, and that ultimately we are all able to control our actions, to elevate our behaviour, to choose a lifestyle that builds rather than destroys, to sanctify our souls and to preserve our relationship with God, with our partners and with ourselves. If we are able to live in such a way, we will make our lives ‘count’, we will imbue them with purpose, and we will ensure that we are a worthy receptacle of the priestly blessing stated in the Torah: that Hashem should bless us, guard us, shed light upon us, be gracious to us and grant us peace.

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