S.A.L.T. - Parashat Naso 5780 / 2020

  • Rav David Silverberg
Motzaei Shabbat
            The Torah in Parashat Naso (6:22-27) introduces the mitzva of birkat kohanim, which requires the kohanim to bless the rest of the nation with the specific text presented here by the Torah.  After dictating the text that the kohanim should use when blessing the people, God then proclaims, “They shall place My Name upon the Israelites, and I shall bless them” (6:27).
            Rashi, based on the Sifrei and the Gemara (Sota 38a), explains this to mean that the kohanim should use the “Sheim Ha-meforash,” the actual Name of God, when pronouncing this blessing.  Each of the three verses of the priestly blessing contains the Name of God, and God here clarifies that the kohanim should use the “Sheim Ha-meforash” in proclaiming three verses.
            The Rashbam (6:23) understands this verse differently, explaining that the command of birkat kohanim requires the kohanim to bless the nation in the form of a prayer to God, as opposed to simply expressing their wish.  The command, “They shall place My Name upon the Israelites,” according to the Rashbam, clarifies that the point of birkat kohanim is that the kohanim bless the people in God’s Name, as a prayer, rather than blessing the people in their own name, so-to-speak, as though they have special powers.  God then promises, “I shall bless them” – that He will listen to the kohanim’s heartfelt prayer on the people’s behalf.
            Rav Yaakov Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala, explains this verse to mean that by invoking God as they bless the people, the kohanim enhance the people’s awareness of God as the source of their success and prosperity.  The kohanim “place My Name upon the Israelites” in the sense of making them more keenly cognizant of God’s providence, of the fact that all their blessings come from Him.  Rav Mecklenberg asserts that the word “ve-samu” (“and they shall place”) should be understood as referring to contemplating an idea, as in the command, “ve-samtem  et devarai eileh al levavkhem” – “you shall place these words of mine upon your heart” (Devarim 11:18).  God tells the kohanim that their blessing will have the fact of drawing Benei Yisrael’s attention to “My Name” – to His being the source of their livelihood and their wellbeing.  And thus the purpose of birkat kohanim, according to this explanation, is that we recognize God as the one who gives us all we have, and so that alongside our efforts to support ourselves we also turn to Him for assistance and trust in His beneficence.
            The mitzva of birkat kohanim, which the Torah introduces in Parashat Naso (6:22-27), requires the kohanim to bless the rest of the nation with the specific text presented by the Torah.  The Sefer Ha-chareidim (by Rav Elazar Azkari of Tzefat), in discussing this mitzva (mitzvat asei 4), writes that while the kohanim recite the priestly blessing, the congregation must remain silent and pay close attention to the blessing, because “they, too, are included in the mitzva.”  Many later writers noted the implication of the Sefer Ha-chareidim that just as the kohanim have an obligation to bless the congregation, the congregation has an obligation to receive and listen to the blessing.  This point was made by Rav Pinchas Horowitz (the “Ba’al Hafla’a”), in his Sefer Ha-makneh commentary to Masekhet Ketubot (24b).
            By contrast, the Ritva, in his commentary to Masekhet Sukka (31b), writes explicitly that non-kohanim bear no obligation at all with regard to birkat kohanim.  The context of the Ritva’s discussion is the prohibition of bal tosif – adding onto mitzvot.  The Ritva asserts that this prohibition forbids adding additional features to a mitzva – such as adding a fifth species to the arba minim on Sukkot – but does not forbid repeating a mitzva.  He draws proof from the fact that a kohein who recited birkat kohanim may recite the blessing again later in the day, adding, “And one cannot say that this is done to fulfill the obligation for others” – meaning, for the congregation – “because there is no obligation upon Israel” – meaning, upon non-kohanim.  The Ritva clearly maintained that there is no obligation upon non-kohanim to receive the priestly blessing.
            Rav Avraham Dov Kahana Shapiro, in his Devar Avraham (1:31), disputes the Sefer Ha-makneh’s understanding of the Sefer Ha-chareidim’s comment, and argues that there is no disagreement between the Sefer Ha-chareidim and the Ritva.  Even according to the Sefer Ha-chareidim, Rav Shapiro explains, the congregation is obligated to pay attention and intend to receive the blessing as it is given, but they have no obligation to put themselves in a position to receive the blessing.  Once they are in the synagogue when the kohanim confer the blessing, they are required to do their part by listening attentively, but this does not mean that they have an obligation to make a point of receiving birkat kohanim the way the kohanim have an obligation to recite birkat kohanim.
            Rav Shapiro challenges the Sefer Ha-makneh’s understanding by noting the example of charity, which is a mitzva cast upon the donor, but not the recipient.  A person with the ability to give has the obligation to offer charity to an individual in need, but the mitzva of charity certainly does not obligate the needy individual to accept it.  By the same token, the fact that the Torah required the kohanim to extend a blessing to the people does not require the people to take advantage of this opportunity and receive the blessing.  (Rav Shapiro notes also the example of ha’anaka – the obligatory gifts which a master must give to his servant when his servant is released after six years of service.  The master is required to grant these gifts, but the servant certainly is under no obligation to accept them.) 
            We might consider explaining the Sefer Ha-makneh’s position in light of the comments of Rav Tzvi Mecklenberg, in his Ha-ketav Ve-ha-kabbala, regarding the significance of birkat kohanim.  As we saw yesterday, Rav Mecklenberg writes that the purpose (or at least one purpose) of birkat kohanim is to direct the people’s attention to the fact that their success and wellbeing is determined by God.  By wishing the people that God should bless them, care for them and grant them happiness and success, the kohanim heighten the people’s awareness of providence, that it is God who protects them and gives them all they have.  Rav Mecklenberg explains on this basis God’s conclusion to the command of birkat kohanim – “They shall place My Name upon the Israelites, and I shall bless them” (6:27).  According to Rav Mecklenberg, “They shall place My Name upon the Israelites” means that the kohanim, through their blessing, will instill within the people greater awareness of His control over the world and over their lives. 
            If so, then we can perhaps understand the view of the Sefer Ha-makneh that the mitzva of birkat kohanim imposes an obligation not only upon the kohanim, but also upon the people.  Unlike the mitzva of charity, which is intended to assist the poor, and it is thus up to a needy person to decide whether or not to avail himself of this assistance, the mitzva of birkat kohanim is intended not only to help the people, but also to reinforce their belief in, and awareness of, God’s providence.  As such, they do not have the option of whether or not to receive this blessing, and are rather required to put themselves in a position to receive birkat kohanim no less than the kohanim are required to pronounce birkat kohanim.
            One of the topics discussed in Parashat Naso is the situation of a sota – a woman whose husband suspected her of infidelity, and warned her not to seclude herself with the man with whom the husband suspected she was having a relationship.  If the woman would then be seen secluding herself with the man in question, she and her husband would be forbidden to engage in marital relations until she went to the Beit Ha-mikdash and underwent a special ritual.  This included drinking special water which the kohein prepared by first writing a certain text – dictated here by the Torah – and then erasing the ink into the water.  If the woman survived after drinking the water, this proved her innocence, thus allowing her and her husband to resume marital relations.
            The Gemara, in several places (e.g. Makkot 11a), notes the significance of the fact that the text which the kohein would erase into the water included the Name of God.  This means, the Gemara comments, that God agreed to have His Name erased – something which is normally forbidden – for the sake of repairing a troubled marriage.  In order to prove the wife’s innocence and thus restore trust in the husband’s eyes, God allowed the erasure of His Name – showing just how important the Torah views peaceful relations between a husband and wife, and among people generally.
            The Rama, in a startling and controversial responsum (11), extends this point even further, asserting that the permission granted by the Torah to erase God’s Name in the sota ritual establishes a precedent allowing the suspension of grave prohibitions for the sake of promoting peace.  So much so, the Rama writes, that it is permissible even to slander somebody when necessary to end a conflict.  Though the Rama does not give the particular details of the situation he addresses, he indicates that a bitter conflict threatened to tear apart a community, and it was felt that the only way to end the conflict was to spread false, damning information about a certain individual.  The Rama argues that this was allowed for the sake of restoring peace in the community.  He reasons that if the Torah requires erasing God’s Name to restore peace to one married couple, then a fortiori it permits violating a prohibition for the sake of restoring peace to an entire community.
            A number of later writers argued with the Rama’s unconventional ruling, and at least one posek – Rav Yisrael Zev Mintzberg, in She’eirit Yisrael (O.C. 13) – raised questions as to whether this responsum was actually authored by the Rama.  Rav Mintzberg writes that this ruling is built upon “shaky foundations,” and proceeds to challenge the line of reasoning followed in the Rama’s responsum.  He notes the explicit ruling of Rav Hai Gaon, cited by the Rosh (Nedarim 3:2), that the erasure of God’s Name in the sota ritual does not provide a precedent for suspending Torah law for the sake of peace.  Rav Hai Gaon thus maintained that if a husband became angry at his wife and rashly took an oath that he would divorce her, his oath cannot be annulled if he later regrets it. 
            Moreover, as Rav Mintzberg cites, the Rama himself – ironically enough – in a different responsum (110:10), comments that the erasure of God’s Name in the sota ritual does not mark the suspension of the prohibition against erasing God’s Name.  Rather, the Rama explains, this prohibition to begin with forbids erasing God’s Name as an expression of blasphemy or disrespect, whereas in the case of the sota, it is done constructively, for the vitally important purpose of conforming the wife’s innocence and thus repairing her marriage.  Therefore, the erasure of God’s Name does not constitute the suspension of a Torah law.  Certainly, then, it cannot serve as a basis for violating other laws – including the uniquely severe prohibition of slander – for the sake of peace.
            Indeed, the Chafetz Chaim, in the work for which he received that name (Chafetz Chaim, 8:8), clearly rules otherwise.  Without citing the Rama’s responsum, the Chafetz Chaim notes that the Talmud Yerushalmi (Pei’a 1:1) permits speaking lashon ha-ra – truthful negative information – about people instigating a conflict.  The Chafetz Chaim comments (in Be’er Mayim Chayim, 16) that several Rishonim (the Rif, the Rambam and the Rosh) appear to disagree with this position, and he adds that even according to the Yerushalmi’s view, this leniency is subject to several conditions: 1) one must have firsthand knowledge that the person about whom he speaks is indeed guilty of instigating a conflict; 2) one’s intentions are sincere, and he does not speak negatively about the person out of spite or resentment; 3) one is convinced that speaking negatively about this individual is the only means of ending the conflict.  The first condition – requiring that the speaker have firsthand knowledge about the person’s guilt – clearly indicates that only truthful negative information may be spoken for the sake of ending a conflict.  And, this applies even according to the lenient view of the Yerushalmi, which is not accepted by all opinions.  Certainly, then, the Chafetz Chaim would not permit spreading false information about somebody for the sake of ending a conflict.
            Yesterday, we discussed the controversial responsum of the Rama (11) addressing the unfortunate situation of a community torn apart by conflict, to which the only solution was to slander one of the people involved.  The Rama maintained that just as God’s Name would be erased as part of the sota ritual, for the sake of restoring peace between a husband and wife, it is likewise permissible to slander a person for the sake of restoring peace to a community plagued by strife.  As we saw, later authorities disagreed, and some even questioned whether this baffling responsum was even written by the Rama.
            In this responsum, the Rama (assuming he was, indeed, the author) addresses several objections that could be raised against his line of reasoning.  One objection, he writes, is that perhaps one cannot compare an offense against God – such as erasing His Name – and a grave interpersonal offense, like slander.  The fact that God instructed erasing His Name for the sake of repairing a strained marriage – even assuming that this command establishes a precedent for suspending Torah prohibitions for the sake of peace – does not necessarily mean that we may cause harm to another person for the sake of peace.  To refute this argument, the Rama notes the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Sota (7b) that the kohein would try to convince the sota to confess her adulteress act, and as part of this process the kohein would remind her that there were great people who sinned and then confessed.  One of the examples mentioned by the kohein, the Gemara says, is Reuven, who committed a sin with one of his father’s wives, Bilha.  The Rambam (Hilkhot Sota 3:2) writes that the woman would be told the story of Reuven “ki-pshuto” – “according to its plain meaning,” which implies that Reuven actually slept with Bilha.  Although the Gemara elsewhere (Shabbat 55b) explains that Reuven did not actually sleep with Bilha, and was guilty instead of a different offense (moving his father’s bed out of Bilha’s tent), the sota would be told that Reuven actually committed an incestuous act.  The Rama infers from here that for the sake of peace – as in the case of the sota – it is permissible to publicize false, negative information about somebody.
            This inference can be refuted on several levels.  Most obviously, perhaps, a clear distinction exists between slandering a deceased person and slandering somebody who is alive.  Rav Moshe Teitelbaum of Ujhel, in his Yismach Moshe (Parashat Mishpatim), notes the Gemara’s teaching in Masekhet Berakhot (19a) that the souls of the deceased are not troubled by what is said about them here in this world.  The Gemara says that if one maligns a Torah scholar after his passing, then God will punish that individual for disrespecting the memory of a righteous person, but the deceased himself suffers no shame.  Hence, the Yismach Moshe writes, dishonoring Reuven is not an interpersonal offense, and thus “slandering” him to the sota does not provide a basis for slandering a living individual for the sake of peace.
            This point is made also by Rav Yisrael Zev Mintzberg, in She’eirit Yisrael (O.C. 13), who adds that while it is accepted not to speak slanderously about the deceased, doing so does not violate a Torah prohibition.  This is in contrast to slandering a living person, which transgresses a number of severe Biblical commands.
            Rav Mintzberg further notes that the kohen recalls this incident (and others) to the sota to show her examples of people who committed grievous sins which they then confessed, thereby earning forgiveness.  Therefore, the “slander” spoke against Reuven is, in a sense, actually an expression of praise for Reuven, publicizing his having repented for his sin and having earned God’s forgiveness.
            Additionally, Rav Mintzberg points to the Rama’s ruling (O.C. 610:1) that although generally it is proper for a victim to forgive the one who wronged him after he requests forgiveness, one is not required to forgive somebody who slandered him.  One reason given for this ruling, as mentioned by the Bach, is that the slander tarnishes the family’s reputation, even for the offspring, and one does not have the authority to forgive the dishonor caused to his family and to future generations.  It is difficult to imagine, Rav Mintzberg writes, that we would permit something so grievous – an act which one is not expected or required to forgive, no matter how many times the perpetrator asks for forgiveness – even for the lofty purpose of bringing peace.
            In conclusion, it must be emphasized that the Rama’s startling ruling should not be understood as belittling in any way the gravity of the prohibition of slander.  The Rama’s surprising position reflects not an underestimation of this prohibition, but rather the great importance of peace in a community, which in the Rama’s view, supersedes even one of the most grievous Biblical prohibitions.  Although later poskim disagreed with the Rama’s ruling, it is nevertheless significant in that it underscores, in an especially dramatic way, the importance of maintaining peace and harmony in a community and how far we must go to avoid conflict.
            The final section of Parashat Naso tells of the special gifts and sacrifices brought by the nesi’im – the leaders of the twelve tribes – in honor of the inauguration of the Mishkan.  The nesi’im first brought a joint gift – six wagons harnessed to oxen, for the Leviyim to use when transporting the Mishkan – and then each leader brought a large series of offerings.  One leader’s offerings were brought each day for twelve consecutive days.
            The Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 8:3) comments, “The offering of the nesi’im was cherished by the Almighty like the song which the Israelites sang at the sea.”  The basis for this connection drawn between the nesi’im’s offerings and the Shirat Ha-yam – the song of praise sung by Benei Yisrael after the splitting of the sea – is the word “zeh” (“this”) which appears in both contexts.  Benei Yisrael proclaimed in their song, “Zeh Keili ve-anveihu” (“This is my God, and I shall glorify Him” – Shemot 15:2), and the Torah’s account of each tribal leader’s offering concludes with the phrase, “zeh korban…” (“This was the offering of…”).  Based on the common word “zeh,” the Midrash teaches that the nesi’im’s offerings were as dear to God as Benei Yisrael’s exuberant song of praise after the miracle of the sea.
            How might we explain this connection?  Why did Chazal equate the nesi’im’s offerings with Shirat Ha-yam?
            One of the differences between these two events is that Shirat Ha-yam was sung by the entire nation together, in unison, whereas the nesi’im’s offerings were brought by each tribe separately.  Moreover, commenting on the exclamation, “Zeh Keli ve-anveihu,” which implies that Benei Yisrael actually beheld a revelation of God, Rashi famously cites the Midrash as teaching, “A maidservant saw at the sea that which the prophets never saw.”  At the time of the miracle of the sea, all members of Benei Yisrael beheld a prophetic vision of sorts.  This event marked a moment of complete equality, where the entire nation shared the precise same experience to which they responded with the exact same song of praise, which they sang together.  By contrast, the offerings of the nesi’im were brought by one tribe at a time.  Whereas Shirat Ha-yam signifies the unique power of the entire nation joining together into a single entity, the offerings of the nesi’im reflect the value of allowing each group within the nation the opportunity to achieve in its unique, individual way.  The Midrash’s remark, “The offering of the nesi’im was cherished by the Almighty like the song which the Israelites sang at the sea” thus teaches that both elements are important and valuable.  We can accomplish a great deal when the many different groups of Am Yisrael join forces and work together harmoniously, as one unit, but it is also important for each “tribe” to develop its unique character and make its unique contribution.  God cherishes both “Shirat Ha-yam” – the beautiful “music” we create when the many different bands within our nation merge to work and “sing” together – and the “offerings of the nesi’im” – the distinct achievements of each group as it follows its unique path and produces a unique piece to be woven into the multicolored fabric of Am Yisrael.
            The Torah in Parashat Naso presents the laws relevant to a nazir – one who takes the nazirite vow committing himself for a period of time to several restrictions, including haircutting – “a razor shall not pass over his head” (6:5).
            Rav Mordechai Yosef Leiner of Izhbitz, in his Mei Ha-shiloach (Parashat Behaalotekha), notes the contrast between this restriction observed by the nazir, and the process of the induction of the Leviyim, which included the removal of all their hair, as we read later (8:7).  Whereas a nazir is forbidden to cut any of his hair, the Leviyim were formally inducted into their role as servants in the Mishkan by removing all their hair.  The Mei Ha-shiloach explains this contrast based on the Zohar’s teaching that hair represents anger.  The Leviyim were required to remove their hair as a symbol of their eliminating their negative character traits to be worthy of ministering before God in the Mishkan.  The nazir, the Mei Ha-shiloach writes, lets his hair grow representing the triggering of a certain form of anger.  A sincerely driven nazir takes his vow, which includes refraining from wine, in order to combat his sinful impulses.  This is indicated by the famous statement of Shimon Ha’tzadik (Nedarim 9b) who said that, as a kohein gadol, he never partook of the sacrifices of nezirim because he felt they were all insincere, except in the case of one particular nazir, who had taken his vow to combat his desires.  The Mei Ha-shiloach writes, in an enigmatic passage, “A strategy against desire is that a person brings himself to anger.”  Anger is an effective means of combatting sinful desire, and therefore the nazir, who commits himself to subdue his negative impulses, grows his hair as a symbol of the “anger” he should muster as part of this effort.
            How might we understand the Zohar’s comment that hair symbolizes anger, and how does this relate to the nazir’s struggle to overcome his natural vices?
            Just as hair naturally grows from a person’s body, anger naturally grows and accumulates within us over time.  The complexities and challenges of daily life can make us feel dissatisfied and frustrated, which can easily lead to anger.  Just as one must cut and groom his hair to maintain a respectable appearance, similarly, we must “cut” and control our negative feelings in order to function properly in society. 
            However, the Mei Ha-shiloach here teaches that allowing anger to grow is appropriate in one specific context – when these feelings are directed towards ourselves, towards our own faults and vices.  Harboring anger towards other people is destructive, but harboring anger towards our own shortcomings could spur us to grow and improve.  And thus while we are generally encouraged to follow the example of the Leviyim, who removed all their hair as a symbol of the elimination of anger, the nazir refrains from haircutting as a symbol of his anger at his own faults, a form of anger which will help motivate him to change.
            Significantly, the Torah requires the nazir to cut his hair upon completing his term of nezirut (6:18).  His period of “anger” is useful as a temporary, short-term measure to focus his attention on combatting his sinful instincts, but is not encouraged as a permanent condition.  Even anger directed toward ourselves should be minimized.  Although we should constantly strive to improve, we must be careful to still respect ourselves, to admire our positive qualities and our accomplishments, and to avoid feeling angry at ourselves just as we must avoid feeling angry at others.  We should want to be better in the future without disliking who we are in the present.  The nazir’s “anger” is legitimate and admirable as a temporary measure, but is not a model that should be followed on a long-term basis.
            Parashat Naso concludes by telling of the special gifts and sacrifices brought by the nesi’im – the leaders of the twelve tribes – to mark the inauguration of the Mishkan.  The Torah refers to the nesi’im here as “nesi’ei ha-matot” (“leaders of the tribes” – 7:2), and the Sifrei, cited by Rashi, associates this expression with the other meaning of the word “matot” – rods.  Rashi writes that these men were among the foremen who, as the Torah tells in Sefer Shemot (5:14), were appointed by the Egyptians to supervise the slaves and ensure they completed their labor.  The Torah relates that after Pharaoh’s decree to force the slaves to fetch straw with which to produce bricks, making it exceedingly difficult for the slaves to meet their daily quota of bricks, the foremen were beaten by the Egyptian taskmasters.  The foremen had compassion on the overworked slaves and refused to whip them and force them to meet their quotas, preferring to suffer beatings themselves rather than inflict pain on their fellow Israelites.  These men were later named to leadership positions, and the Sifrei comments that the twelve nesi’im were among this group of selfless individuals.  They are thus called “nesi’ei ha-matot,” alluding to the “rods” with which they were beaten in Egypt in order to alleviate their brethren’s suffering.
            It has been noted that this background becomes especially pertinent, and meaningful, when we consider the gift presented by the nesi’im on the occasion of the Mishkan’s inauguration.  In addition to the sacrifices offered by each nasi, they all collectively donated six wagons, each harnessed to two oxen, to be used by the Leviyim in transporting the Mishkan during travel.  As the Torah tells (7:5-8), the wagons were given to the Levite families of Gershon and Merari, who used them for carrying the portions of the Mishkan assigned to them.  The third family – Kehat – did not receive wagons, because they were assigned the sacred articles (the ark, the menorah, the shulchan, and the two altars), which needed to be transported by hand, with poles. 
            Significantly, these nesi’im, who displayed extraordinary self-sacrifice for the sake of the people, donated to the Mishkan wagons to ease the burden of the Leviyim.  Although the nesi’im held themselves to an especially strict standard of mesirut nefesh (self-sacrifice), they did not demand that this standard be followed by others.  Rather than expect the Leviyim to endure the hardship of carrying the materials of the Mishkan on their backs and shoulders, the nesi’im volunteered to help make the Leviyim’s job easier by donating wagons.  They showed that although we must all strive for the highest standards of mesirut nefesh, and be prepared to work very hard and invest immense effort in performing mitzvot, when it comes to others we should be seeking ways to help ease their burden as much as possible, rather than demand of others the high standards to which we should be seek to adhere.