Parasha Nasso Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

This week’s reading begins with a continuation of the account of the
final encampment at Sinai. In last week’s parasha a census of all men
over the age of 20 was conducted. There also was a separate census of
the Levites, counting all males over a month old. Now we read of a
second Levite count.

The first count included current and potential and retired members of
the Levite class. This one counts only those available for service
connected to the mishkan right now: Levites between the ages of 30
and 50. The tribe of Levi is divided into three clans: the
Kohathites, the Merarites, and the Gershonites. Each clan has its own
specific acts of service to perform. The total number of Levite men
of service age comes to 8580.

The mishkan is a portable tabernacle that they will take with them on
their wanderings. How many could be working on the tasks of service
(carrying the cloths, the planks, etc) at any one time? It’s not
likely that more than 50 or so, even given shift work, could be in
active service. Did they take turns or were there lots of extra
Levites hanging around waiting until someone in active service was
incapacitated? The text does not say.

The parasha continues with a commandment to remove people who’ve been
ritually contaminated to maintain the purity of the camp, followed by
instructions for the guilt offering by which Israelites can atone for
wrongs they’ve done to others. It then segues into the trial by ordeal
known as Sotah, or bitter waters. If a man believes his wife has
committed adultery, she is subjected to the Sotah ordeal. The priest
makes a potion of bitter water and the woman is forced to drink it.
If she is guilty of adultery, the water will curse her and cause her
belly to swell and her thigh to sag. According to the Rambam, whose
medical training informed his commentary, this meant that she died of
a ruptured uterus.

If she is innocent, no harm will come to her and she will conceive.
Therefore, the innocent woman gets to go home with the man who decided
she should be forced to undergo this ordeal. She also gets to bear
his child. The text specifically states that the husband who
wrongfully accused his wife is to be considered blameless.

Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai abolished the practice of Sotah during the
First Century CE, arguing that adultery and illicit sexual acts had
become so commonplace that a trial based on a miracle – a method
intended for a rare event – was no longer appropriate.

The text then concerns itself with the vows of the Nazirite, a
voluntary ascetic class. A Nazirite vow is temporary, for a specified
period of time. During the time the vow is active, the Nazirite
drinks no wine and consumes no grape products (no grapes, raisins,
balsamic vinegar, or grape Koolaid for you, Nazirite!) Nazirites also
don’t shave or cut their hair and they cannot be near a dead body,
even to attend the funeral of a close relative. At the end of their
term as Nazarites, they offer a sacrifice, a sin offering.

The Nazirite is an unusual feature in what is generally an anti-
ascetic Jewish tradition. Why the exception? Why the sin offering?
The sages disagreed on what the sin offering represented. Rambam,
looking for moderation in all things, said the asceticism itself was
the sin the Nazarite is atoning for. Ramban, by contrast, sees the
sin as being in the cancellation of the vows. Nehama Leibowitz
mentions a third possibility – that the sin was what preceded and
motivated the vow in the first place. “Previous inability to control
and discipline his desires, within the bounds imposed by the Torah,”
she says, “had made it necessary for the person concerned to restrict
himself further and vow himself to abstinence. The Nazirite vow was
thus a necessary but extreme medicine for spiritual life.”

Chapter 6 ends with the beautiful Priestly Blessing. It remains an
enduring feature of Jewish liturgy.

The very long (89 verses) Chapter 7 picks up with the completion of
the mishkan, the portable worship space, and describes the gifts the
chieftains of the Israelite tribes bring to it. We are told that
Moses finished setting up the mishkan, sanctified it, and anointed
both the mishkan and the altar within. Rashi considers the question
of why Moses is said to have set up the mishkan, when we know
elsewhere that Bezalel was the foreman of the project and there were
many workmen. Rashi says that it is because of Moses’ great devotion
to the mishkan project that he is credited with its erection.
Interestingly, in Exodus when the building of the mishkan is
described, Bezalel is given credit for its building as if he had done
it all himself. Rashi’s explanation there is similar – that because
of his devotion to the project it is as if he had built it all by
himself.

The list of gifts given by heads of the tribes comprises the rest of
the parasha. The first to bring gifts is Nachshon ben Aminadav of the
tribe of Judah. Nachshon is described in the Torah as a descendant of
Judah and brother-in-law of Aaron. In the book of Ruth, which we just
read on Shavuot, we’re told that he is also an ancestor of King David.
In midrash he is identified as the first to walk into the Sea of
Reeds, having faith that the waters would part.

Haftarah Reading Judges 13: 2-25

The haftarah reading tells of the miraculous birth of Shimshon
(Samson). Samson is better known for his death, using divinely given
strength to bring down the temple of the Philistines and die killing
them.

The haftarah begins by introducing a childless couple, Manoach and his
unnamed wife. The wife receives a visitation from an angel who tells
her that she will no longer be barren, that she will conceive a son
who will deliver the Israelites from the Philistines. She is given
very specific instructions for her pregnancy (no wine, grape products,
or intoxicants) and for the child’s upbringing (no haircuts). The
child will be a lifelong Nazarite.

Nazarites were described in this week’s parasha as people who
voluntarily took a temporary vow of asceticism, abstaining from
cutting their hair, wine, and contact with the dead. The connection
to the haftarah is obvious. Still, Samson’s situation is different in
key respects. First of all, he does not choose to be a Nazirite.
It’s a condition foisted on him even before he is born. Secondly,
it’s not temporary. Only here in Judges do we encounter the concept
of a lifelong Nazarite.

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