Parashat Naso: Your Camp that I Dwell Within

  • Rav Yair Kahn


I.  A Break in the Narrative


As we noted in last week's shiur, Sefer Bamidbar opens with the establishment of "machane Yisrael" (the Israelite camp) in the wilderness, in preparation for their epic journey towards Eretz Yisrael.  The documentation is comprehensive, describing in minute detail the various aspects of the "machane:" the nation's groups and subgroups and its religious and political leadership. This account is followed by the various acts and preparations which lead up to the actual journey (10:11).


In Parashat Naso, we find a departure from this theme, as the Torah records several halakhic sections.  The first, which deals with the expulsion of the ritually impure from the machane, is thematically consistent, as it deals with the respective sanctity of the various subdivisions within the machane.  Furthermore, it is part of the narrative, as the Torah describes that Yisrael actually implement this law (5:4). However, the location of the subsequent halakhic sections in Parashat Naso, which deal with the laws of kofer be-pikadon (disavowing a monetary obligation), sota (the suspected adulteress), and nazir (the nazirite), is baffling. These "ill-placed" laws seem to fracture the thematic flow of the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar


The problem deepens in light of the fact that Sefer Bamidbar is essentially narrative; there are very few halakhic sections.  The Ramban writes in his introduction to the sefer: "There are no commandments for all generations in this sefer, aside from a few regarding sacrifices which remain from Sefer Vayikra." The Ramban clearly characterizes Sefer Bamidbar in general as narrative.  Even were we to adopt his solution for the existence of uncharacteristic halakhic elements in Bamidbar, we would remain troubled by the specific location within the sefer. This is especially puzzling regarding parashat Naso, where these commandments are thrust so haphazardly into the midst of the preparations preceding the journey.


The location of the other halakhic sections found in Sefer Bamidbar seems obvious.  Following the Korach affair, which included a challenge to the institutions of kehuna (priesthood) and leviya (levite service), the Torah introduces the laws of teruma and ma'aser (priestly gifts and tithes), apparently with the intention of firmly establishing those institutions.  The devastating decree in the wake of the incident of the spies is followed by halakhic material implicitly promising a brighter future when Bnei Yisrael will eventually enter the promised land (see Rashi, Bamidbar 15:2). In general, it appears that halakhic sections are introduced in Sefer Bamidbar as part of the narrative flow. 


Although the narrative message of the halakhic sections is less obvious in our parasha, we will nevertheless employ the same method.  We will try to weave the halakhic segments of Naso (kofer be-pikadon, sota, and nazir) into the narrative fabric of Sefer Bamidbar and attempt to uncover their common theme.


II. The Kohen and Civil Disputes


We will begin with kofer be-pikadon, the laws of one who falsely denies a monetary obligation and subsequently takes an oath of denial. The Torah obligates this person to pay back his debt along with a twenty percent fine.  In addition, he must bring an asham sacrifice in order to attain atonement.  When approaching this section, we are faced with an additional difficulty – the laws of kofer be-pikadon already appear in Sefer Vayikra (5:20-26).  Thus, not only must we explain the location of this segment, but justify its very existence as well. 


A closer examination of the two segments reveals an aspect mentioned in Parashat Naso that was totally ignored in Vayikra. In Naso, there is mention of the specific case of "gezel ha-ger," when no one inherits the deceased creditor and there is therefore no one to claim the outstanding debt. In such a case, the money is given to the kohanim. The continuation of this section (verses 9-10) clearly indicates that the focus is the payment to the kohen and not the preceding section that focuses on denial of debt: 


And every heave-offering of all the holy things of Bnei Yisrael, which they present unto the priest, shall be his.  And every man's hallowed things shall be his: whatsoever any man gives the priest, it shall be his.


In fact, it appears that the case of kofer be-pikadon when there is no inheritor is mentioned in our parasha only because it is a situation in which we award the money to a kohen.


However, considering gezel ha-ger as an example of "matanot kehuna" (priestly gifts) is rather odd. Most matanot kehuna are given due to the item's special or consecrated status (as in the cases of teruma, first-fruits, firstborn animals, portions of the sacrifices, etc.). In this unique case, we are discussing stolen property that, due to lack of a claimant, is given to the kohen by default.  What is the basis for this singular halakha?


In my opinion, this parasha is an expression of an important idea concerning the role of the kohen and his involvement in civil disputes.  The kohen, who personifies the "machane Shekhina" (divine camp), should not limit his concerns to the narrow confines of worship in the Mishkan.  Although the Mishkan is his responsibility, his role extends beyond its geographical and spiritual borders. The kohen, as the representative of an ideal state of sanctity and purity, must also be involved in, and thereby influence, the ordinary affairs of the common man. There is no dichotomy in Judaism between civil matters and religious concerns. Therefore, the kohen, despite his involvement with lofty religious issues, must nevertheless be concerned with the mundane affairs of society.


Not only must the "spiritual representative" involve himself in civil matters, but civil matters should not be divorced from religious affairs.  Thus, the debt owed the ger is not perceived only in monetary categories and does not dissolve if there is no claimant.  With the death of the ger, the ethical debt must still be paid, and according to the Torah, the check should be made out to a kohen.


In more general terms, the unique halakha of gezel ha-ger is an expression of the relationship and interaction between the machane Shekhina and machane Yisrael.  When considered in these terms, this parasha flows naturally and smoothly from the opening of Sefer Bamidbar, which, as we mentioned, deals with the establishment of machane Yisrael and its various subdivisions.  The Torah explicitly demands a separate census for the Levi’im, and it is clear that the Kohanim are also detached from the rest of the nation. This halakhic section outlines a more subtle and complex relationship between the Kohanim and the rest of the people. 


III.  Domestic Relations


In the parasha of sota, we have a similar expression of the kohen's involvement in issues pertaining to machane Yisrael.  While gezel ha-ger deals with civil disputes, sota deals with domestic problems.  Furthermore, not only is the kohen involved on an individual level, but the dispute is resolved in the Mishkan itself (see pasuk 16). Even Hashem's name is defiled and erased to accommodate domestic tranquility:  "Great is tranquility between husband and wife, for the Torah has stated: The name of Hakadosh Barukh Hu that is written in sanctity should be erased into the water” (Chullin 141a).


The issue with which both sections, gezel ha-ger and sota, is concerned, relates to our approach to man. The Torah recognizes the human condition with all its frailties and limitations.  There is an acute awareness of the human economic struggle, which can drive man to desperate acts.  There is an understanding of societal and psychological pressures, which can lead to argument and violence. There is an appreciation of the passions and jealousies that can complicate husband-wife relations. In the civil arena, as well as the domestic one, man is vulnerable to the tensions and pressures inherent in human nature.


The glorious vision of transforming a nation, any nation, into a "goy kadosh" (holy nation) is blurred when we focus on man in his elementary state. Nevertheless, this vision is not attained by denying the human condition, but rather by redeeming it.  Judaism rejected the institution of the monastery, which separates the holy few from society and removes them from the vulnerable state of unredeemed man. The Rambam (Hilkhot Teshuva 3:6,11) lists one who removes himself from involvement in society as one who has no portion in the World to Come.  Paradoxically, Judaism clings to the aspiration of "Goy Kadosh," without separation from society or denying the human condition.  How can this be accomplished?


This dilemma is addressed, in my opinion, in Parashat NasoMachane Yisrael is being established in preparation for the journey from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael.  Becoming a "goy kadosh” means to aspire to the Sinaitic ideal, as it says:


In the third month after the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai … And Moshe went up unto God, and Hashem called unto him out of the mountain, saying: “Thus shall you say to the house of Yaakov, and tell the children of Israel … and you shall be unto Me a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation.  These are the words which you shall speak unto the children of Israel. (Shemot 19:1-6). 


Eretz Yisrael, on the other hand, represents the actual application and realization of this vision. As we mentioned, Sefer Bamidbar begins with the establishment of machane Yisrael, the context within which Bnei Yisrael will attempt this monumental journey.  After the basic structure is set up and the details are treated, one crucial issue remains. The machane is comprised of human beings, who argue, steal and lust.  How can this machane realize the vision of Sinai?


The answer lies in the complex nature of the machane. There is actually a machane within a machane.  At the center we find the divine camp, the machane ha-Shekhina, containing the Mishkan and the Kohanim, which serve as a force of sanctity and purity.  Although this camp enjoys a certain amount of separation and distance to nurture a spiritual idea, it must not be totally cut off from the rest of the nation.  The Kohanim are charged with influencing and affecting machane Yisrael.  This allows machane Yisrael to achieve its goal while retaining and redeeming its human character – not by negating it.


Situations of gezel ha-ger and sota will occur; civil and domestic tensions are inherent to any human society. However, the Kohanim and the Mishkan will deal with these issues by educating, influencing and training.  They will try to instill a new set of values and re-adjust priorities. They will attempt to nurture and inspire a “goy kadosh.


IV.  The Nazir Section


The juxtaposition of the nazir section immediately following the sota segment was explained by our Sages:


Rebbi says: Why was the parasha of nazir placed adjacent to the parasha of sota? In order to tell you that whoever sees a sota in her humiliation should abstain from wine.


On the surface level, it seems that nazir really does not belong in Bamibar at all; it was placed there only to be alongside sota


However, based on our explanation of the location of the segments of gezel ha-ger and sota, we might argue that there is an inherent connection between nazir and the establishment of machane Yisrael.  We suggested that segments of gezel ha-ger and sota deal with machane Yisrael as a whole and the role of the kohen in educating and influencing its members.  Perhaps the nazir section deals with the opposite phenomenon.  After all, Rebbi claimed that nazir is a result of seeing the humiliation of a sota.  Might the nazir be a member of machane Yisrael who feels vulnerable when exposed to the passions and pressures of normal society? Wasn't it this vulnerability that motivated the famous nazir who came before Shimon the Righteous?


Shimon the Righteous said: In all my life, I never ate of the guilt-offering of a nazir except in one instance. There was a man who came to me from the South.  He had beautiful eyes and handsome features with his locks heaped into curls.  I asked him, “Why, my son, did you resolve to destroy this beautiful hair?" He answered, "In my native town, I was my father's shepherd, and, upon going down to draw water from the well, I saw my reflection.  My urge leaped within me and my evil inclination assailed me, seeking to cause my ruin, and so I said to it: 'Empty one! Why are you proud over a world that is not your own? For your end is but worms and maggots. I swear that I shall shear these locks to the glory of Heaven!’” Then I rose and kissed him upon his head and said to him, "May there be many nazirites such as you in Yisrael!  Of one such as yourself does the pasuk say, 'A man or a woman who shall pronounce a special vow of a nazir, to consecrate themselves to Hashem.'"(Nedarim 9b). 


The nazir is uncomfortable with his position as a member of machane Yisrael, where he is exposed to passions and pressures typical of normal society. He decides to consecrate himself to Hashem, choosing a path that is similar to that of a kohen gadol. Just like a kohen gadol cannot become tamei even if his father or mother passes away (see Vayikra 21: 11-12), the same is true of a nazir:


All the days that he consecrates himself unto Hashem he shall not come near to a dead body.  He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die. (Bamidbar 6:6-7).


Regarding both the nazir and the kohen gadol, the Torah refers to a “nezer” (crown).  Apparently, the nazir prefers the paradigm of the kohen gadol, who resides within machane ha-Shekhina, removed from the tensions and strife of machane Yisrael


Again, we witness a halakhic parasha whose subject is the relationship of the machanot. Due to certain pressures, the nazir tries to cross the boundaries separating the various camps.  The Torah sanctions the institution of nazir, but only on an individual basis, and only for a limited period of time. 


In summary, the subdivisions that exist within machane Yisrael are not meant to separate, but to elevate. Therefore, interaction between these various sub-camps is essential. The three halakhic segments that we discussed, gezel ha-ger, sota and nazir, all describe various aspects of the interaction between the Kohanim and the machane Yisrael. The section concludes with birkhat Kohanim, in which the Kohanim are commanded to bless the people: “And you shall place My name on Bnei Yisrael and I will bless them.”