By Joy Scott, Am Haskalah Congregant
This week’s Torah parsha, Naso, begins with a continuation of last week’s parsha, Bamidbar, completing the census of the Children of Israel and assigning the intricate details of the tasks to be performed by each individual tribe in the transporting of the Tabernacle.
With 176 verses, Naso is both the longest portion of the Torah and the most controversial, with conflicting interpretations by both our ancient sages, as well as our more modern Torah scholars. After the counting and the allocation of jobs, the parsha abruptly shifts from the tedious and mundane, to completely unrelated and bizarre rituals:
“If a wife has gone astray and broken faith with her husband, in that another man has had carnal relations with her; she keeps secret the fact that she has defiled herself without being forced; and there is no witness against her – – but a fit of jealousy overcomes her husband, or if the husband is jealous of the wife, although she has not defiled herself, the husband shall bring his wife to the High Priest, and she will be labeled a SOTAH” (1).
The High Priest will place curse-bearing waters on her hands before the Lord. She will then be told to drink these curse waters. The Kohen then says: “For these curse waters shall cause your belly to swell and your thigh to rupture”(2). If the SOTAH does not experience any side-effects from ingesting this potion, she is absolved; otherwise she will bear the iniquity of the sin and be an outcast of society.
This ancient practice may have been commonplace in biblical times, however it is not only horrifying but also contradicts the Judaic tradition of condemnation of any act which causes another person shame. ‘Bushehr,’ the Hebrew word for shame is often referred to as the ‘whitening of one’s face,’ because embarrassing a fellow human being typically causes the blood to rush from his or her face. The Talmud states: “One who whitens the face of another – – he has no share in the world to come”(3).
Immediately following the grotesque issue of the SOTAH are the rules for the ‘NAZIR’: someone who voluntarily isolates themselves from society and refrains from any worldly pleasures. Individuals who choose to become a ‘NAZIR’ must say “a Nazarite vow to set them apart from the Eternal”(4). The restrictions imposed upon the ‘NAZIR’ include abstaining from wine or any other alcoholic beverage, refraining from cutting their hair and remaining at a distance from a burial plot. For thousands of years, contradictory theories have been proposed pertaining to this unusual ritual. The essential questions relate to whether becoming a ‘NAZIR’ is a deed worthy of praise for an individual who is motivated to seek enhanced piety via abstinence(5), a ‘sin’ for not partaking of the gifts granted to us by God(6) or a mitzvah for those who may be in mourning, experiencing hardships, or difficulties in their lives and are fearful that their sense of despair might dampen the emotions of their friends and relatives(7).
In an ironic turn of events, after the laws of the ‘NAZIR,’ God spoke to Moses, saying: “Speak to the Children of Israel and tell them that the Lord will cause his countenance to shine on all and to grant them peace”(8). The juxtaposition of God’s blessing, immediately following the issues of the SOTAH and the ‘NAZIR’ elicits even more questions relative to the interpretation of this week’s parsha.
(1) NUMBERS (5:12-15)
(2) NUMBERS (5:22)
(3) Babylon Talmud (107a)
(4) NUMBERS (6:2)
(5) Rabbi Eleazar ben Azarich (1st Century) Jerusalem, Israel
(6) Rabbi Eleazar ha-Kappar (fifth generation Mishnaic Period, 10-220) Jerusalem, Israel
(7) Maimonides, “Life and Thought”
(8) NUMBERS (7:25-26)