Completing the Machane

  • Rav Ezra Bick


In Honor of Faye & Hartley Koschitzsky from Uncle Harold & Aunt Lori


Parashat Naso completes the construction of the machane, the encampment of the Jewish people around the mishkan.  These two elements, the machane Yisrael and the mishkan, are interwoven, since the encampment of the Jews is by definition "around the mishkan," and therefore the settlement of the Levites, around the mishkan and on the inside of the machane Yisrael, is part and parcel of the construction of the machane as a whole.  And so, after setting up the four sections of the camp and placing the Levites in the center in parashat Bamidbar, the Torah continues in our parasha to exactly count the Levites of working age (between thirty and sixty) and assign them their appointed tasks.  When everyone is in his assigned place, both Israel and the tribe of Levi, the mishkan, in the widest sense as the inhabitation of God within the people ("hashokhen itam, veshakhanti betokham"), will be complete.  Hence, at the end of our parasha, we find the dedication ceremony of the mishkan, introduced with the words, "And on the day that Moshe completed the erection of the mishkan, and he anointed it and sanctified it…." The day that the mishkan was complete follows the construction of the machane.


However, between the completion of the appointment of the Levites, and the dedication of the mshkan appear four halakhic sections.  Today I wish to try and understand what their place is in the order of the parasha.


The four parashot are:


1.  Sending out the temei'im from the machane (5,1-4)

2.  Asham meilot (5,5-10)

3.  Sota (5,11-31)

4.  Nazir (6,1-21)


1.  Shiluach Teme'im.  This one is easy.  Although we tend to view this parasha as a halakhic one, as the law of expelling teme'im from the sacred precincts is a permanent part of Halakha, and applies to the Temple in Jerusalem as well, in context this parasha is part of the narrative.  Moshe has set up the machane, and, as a final step, is commanded to expel the teme'im from it.  This purification of the machane is part of its creation, which is perfectly understandable if we remember that the machane Yisrael is the outer receptacle of the mishkan; in other words, of the Divine presence.  So, this parasha is actually the last step in the construction of the machane, and is in exactly the right place. 


2.  Asham meilot.  This section is both seemingly completely out of place, and also difficult to understand in its own right.  Chazal and Rashi explain that it is referring to the asham sacrifice described in Vayikra 5, and is here mentioned only to introduce two new details of its law; one that the obligation to bring the asham is dependent on confession rather than on testimony, and secondly that if the intended recipient of the fine levied with the asham (the "fifth") is dead and has no heirs (in other words, he is a convert to Judaism), the money goes to the kohanim.  Why this is the place to fill in these two gaps left over from the parasha in Vayikra is truly a mystery, and we shall leave this for the meanwhile. 


3.  Sota and nazir.  The first deals with the procedure to test a married woman whose husband suspects her of infidelity, the second with the laws governing the practice of asceticism known as nezirut, whereby one abstains from wine, avoids contact with the tum'a of a corpse, and does not cut one's hair.  These are very important and interesting halakhic subjects – in fact, each one merits an entire masekhet in the Talmud – but the connection to the narrative of the setting up of the machane and the mishkan is quite unclear.


The Sages questioned the placement of these two parashot, not in relation to the surrounding narrative but to each other.


Why is the parasha of nazir next to the parasha of sota? To tell you that anyone who witnesses a sota in her mortification should separate himself from wine, which leads to fornication.  (Rashi 6,2, quoting the gemara in Sota 2)


Now, while this is itself a drush about the connection between sensual indulgence and sin, and is therefore not directly relevant to the pshat, I think it gives us a clue to understanding the connection of these parashot to the larger narrative theme of our parasha.  For what the Sages are identifying here is a common theme in these two parashot, and that is hedonism.  Indeed, neither parasha is about sin per se.  The parasha of nazir is not telling us that it is a sin to drink wine (and of course the Torah does not in fact think so).  Similarly, the parasha of sota is not about the prohibition of adultery (even though there surely is such a prohibition), but about the social ramifications of betrayal and mistrust within the family.  In fact, the sota is not an adulteress, but only suspected of adultery, and there may not have been any sin committed, at least not in the technical sense.  And so, while each of these two parashot is important in its own right, their placement here should be understood in their social context.  The Torah is contrasting the setting up of the machane, the camp, which is not merely an arrangement of living quarters but is the expression of Jewish society, centered around the dwelling of God and at the same time supporting it, with a social phenomenon which places the pursuit of pleasure as the goal of human existence. 


These parashot, I contend, should be understood, in context, as continuations of the expulsion of the teme'im from the machane.  In that case, after setting up the physical plan of the machane, God instructs Moshe to establish a spiritual level for the inhabitants.  Tum'a, ritual impurity, is contradictory to the indwelling of the spirit of God, which is the purpose of the machane.  This opposition between tum'a and shekhina, while not self-evident to us, is nonetheless attested to continually in Sefer Vayikra, which repeatedly warns against contaminating the machane in which God dwells.  The most direct and striking example of this is in the purification ritual of Yom Kippur.  Aharon the priest is instructed to "atone for the holy (place) from the defilements (tum'ot) of the Israelites, and from their transgressions and sins, and so also shall he do for the tent of gathering, which dwells with them in their tum'ot (Vayikra 16,16)." It is in fact impossible to ensure that there will be no tum'a in the machane, and the mishkan continues to remain and dwell in their midst – which is why an extraordinary precess of purification must be performed once a year on Yom Kippur. 


Sota and nazir continue this chain of thought unto the social field.  The machane is a spiritual entity, which must remain not only pure but also focused on its purpose, which is to be the foundation for the presence of God within the Jewish people.  The fabric of society is disturbed not only by ritual impurity, but by certain actions as well.  The first is exemplified by sota, not so much because of the particular sin involved in her actions, but because of the effect her behavior has the building block of Jewish society.  Let us not forget that from the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, the machane was based on the census of the Jews, individually ("count the heads of the Israelites"), to the houses of their fathers.  Family structure was integral to the setting up of the machane.  Adultery rends the fabric of Jewish society.  What is more, even suspected adultery, arousing jealousy and suspicion, rends the fabric of Jewish society, and must be dealt with in order to preserve the machane. 


Nazir itself is not about the machane.  The insight of the sages quoted by Rashi is the key.  The parasha is not about the dangers to society but the correction.  It is not about tum'a, but about the expulsion of the teme'im.  It is not about adultery, but about the process of examination and purification.  Nazir, within the context of our parasha, is not about wine but about a method of preserving the machane.  Under certain circumstances, abstinence and asceticism is a necessary facet of the machane.  The reason is that hedonism, the common ground identified by the Sages as underlying the actions of the adulterous wife and the reaction of the nazir, is the true enemy of the integrity of the machane.  This is not merely a pious drush.  The machane exists only because it is centered on God, on the mishkan, and, by inference, on the service of God.  There is no need to stress here that idolatry should not be found in the machane, even though it is obviously the most mortal enemy of the indwelling of God.  The people have accepted God as their king, and therefore the construction of the machane does not require the uprooting of idolatry.  Sin per se is not the problem here, as the people have accepted to worship God and follow His commands.  Hedonism however is a human trait, which lurks in the hearts of all men.  It cannot be simply expelled by fiat, by a decision and an acceptance of God's rule.  Like tum'a, which is not a sin but arises from natural occurrences within the flow of life (and death), the pursuit of pleasure arises from within a normal society, and does not attack from outside.  But the Torah apparently believes that it carries within it the seeds of the dissolution of the holy machane as the basis of the throne of God in the world. 


And so, these two parashot are not about eliminating sin, or sinners, from the machane, in the way we were told to eliminate teme'im.  They are about controlling hedonism, the pleasure principle, from the life of the machane, in one case by catching it after seeing how it already began to rend the social fabric, and, in the other case, by presenting an admittedly extreme response to protect the individual who has been exposed to its power. 


This is followed by the short section of the priestly blessing (6,22-27).  This too is a halakha that is in force in the future, but again, in context, it should be understood as God's response to the erection of the holy machane, after applying the safeguards we have delineated.  "And they shall place My name on the Israelites, and I shall bless them (6,27)."


What about the section that I skipped, the asham? This remains a mystery, but perhaps, in light of what we have identified as the inner theme of sota and nazir, I can offer a suggestion.  The person bringing the asham has committed the offense described in Vayikra 5, 20-26. 


God spoke to Moshe, saying.

A soul who shall sin, and commit a trespass against God (maala maal baShem),

And he denied his fellow concerning a keep (pikadon), or a surety, or thievery, or violence against his fellow;

Or if he found a lost object and denied it, and swore falsely concerning one of these that a man does, sinning therein;

 And when he sins and is guilty, he shall return the theft which he stole, or the violence which he took, or the keep placed in his hands, or the lost object which he found;

Or all that he swore falsely about, and he shall pay it in the principle, and add a fifth to it, and give it to him to which it belong, on the day of his asham.

And he shall bring his asham to God….  (Vayikra 5, 20-26)


Notice that although the parasha describes monetary offenses between man, it is described as a ma'al, which I have translated as "trespass." In fact, that is the word that connects the section in our parasha to Vayikra 5, since in Naso the nature of the sin is not explained at all, other than to describe it as "lim'ol ma'al baShem".  Now me'ila is usually used to describe a trespass against God, as one who takes something sanctified for himself (and that is the halakhic meaning of the word).  Calling theft me'ila is unusual.  Perhaps – as read in the context of our parasha – the Torah is reacting to social injury as an attack on the integrity of the machane as the basis of the Divine indwelling in Israel.  It is not so much the particular sin against one's fellow that is the focus, but the effect on society as a whole, which is, once again, an attack on the machane as the seat of God.  This interpretation is strengthened by looking at the two novel details of law added in this parasha.  The first requires confession as the reason for the asham.  While anyone who steals will have to compensate his victim if he is caught, the social upheaval, especially from the spiritual angle, requires that he mend his heart and attitude rather then merely his fellow's bank account.  The danger to the machane is not the loss of money to some individuals but the social attitude of exploitation.  Secondly, if there is no victim to recompense, one must still pay – and the money goes to the priests.  In other words, one pays it to society, and specifically to the guardians of the sanctity of society.  This makes it clear that the parasha is not about justice, which is not the concern of parashat Naso, but social integrity in the context of the machane Yisrael and the mishkan.


There are three dangers described; tum'a, exploitation, and hedonism.  The complete machane is one that has the mechanisms to protect itself from all three.