Parshat Naso: Sacred and Profane, Separation and Integration

Rabbanit Devorah Evron is the Director of the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL)

Devorah Evron Headshot scaled 2Parashat Naso, the second portion in the Book of Bemidbar and the longest in the Torah, is largely a continuation of the previous portion and is the central link in the three-portion sequence of Bemidbar, Naso, and Beha’alotecha which deal with the consecration of the Tabernacle and the beginning of the services within it. Nonetheless, the portion of Naso includes several other topics unrelated to the Tabernacle’s consecration. Commentators strive to explain why each of these topics is placed here and how they are interconnected. Using one of the expressions in the portion, I would like to propose a conceptual link between the different sections and the Tabernacle.

In chapter 5, verse 6, it is stated: “Speak to the Israelites: Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Lord is guilty.” Commentators understand that this verse addresses the action of theft, and indeed the subsequent verses detail what a person, whether man or woman, who has committed theft should do to make restitution and how much they should pay.

The term “to be unfaithful” (“lim’ol ma’al”) appears again a few verses later, in the section concerning a sotah, a woman suspected of infidelity: “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If a man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him.” Here, it refers to a man who suspects his wife has been unfaithful to him with another man, but lacks witnesses or proof. The continuation of this section outlines the procedures available to the man in such a situation.

The use of the root M.A.L. (מ.ע.ל) is intriguing. The transgression of “unfaithfulness” (“me’ilah”) is familiar to us from the Book of Vayikra in the context of the Temple: “If a person commits a violation and sins unintentionally in regard to any of the Lord’s holy things, they are to bring to the Lord as a penalty a ram from the flock, one without defect and of the proper value in silver, according to the sanctuary shekel, for a guilt-offering.” (Vayikra 5:15)

The transgression of unfaithfulness is discussed extensively in the Oral Torah and in Halacha, usually in the context of using Temple property for unintended purposes. For example, if someone leans on an animal designated for sacrifice, it might be considered an act of unfaithfulness because the animal is meant for sacrifice, not as a support. Similarly, if sacrifices were purchased with money designated for repairs to the building itself, this, too, could be considered an act of unfaithfulness.

So, what is the significance of this term in our portion, in matters of ben adam la’chavero, i.e., interpersonal relations? Targum Yonatan translates “lim’ol ma’al” as meaning “to lie deceitfully”. Sifrei on Bemidbar (portion of Naso) explains: “Lim’ol ma’al, there is no unfaithfulness except falsehood.” Sifrei means that in every instance where the Torah uses the word “ma’al” or “me’ilah,” it should be understood as some form of deception or fraudulence.

It is perfectly understandable that in matters between individuals, unfaithfulness should be equated with deception. A person who steals from another deceives them.  How so?  He takes something that is not theirs, claiming it as their own, which is a falsehood.  In some cases, the embezzler is even willing to swear falsely in the name of God. Such is also the case when a man suspects his wife of secretly being with another man and lying about it.  When she denies her infidelity, her husband takes her to Jerusalem to ascertain the truth. Since Sifrei states that wherever the Torah uses the term “me’ilah,” it means that a “falsehood” has been committed, it follows then that acts of me’ila in the Temple, i.e., those committed “in bad faith”, are also a form of deception.

If this be so, we must try to determine in what sense unfaithfulness in the Temple is deception.  Furthermore, we must ask: What is common to all the seemingly different situations where the word “me’ilah” is used, thus denoting deception?

Me’ilah in the Temple involves using Temple property for purposes other than those for which it was originally consecrated. When a person misuses a sacred object, he implicitly claims that the object is not part of the Temple, nor does it belong to God and the sacred space. The act in itself is one of deceit since it denies the Divine truth by the very fact that it was carried out.  As such, it needs no further spoken falsehood to accompany it, for the deed itself denotes deception.

It is clear that such an action, when done willfully, would be considered an act of unfaithfulness. However, the Torah emphasizes that even when done unintentionally, it is considered an act of unfaithfulness, requiring repentance and correction. The Torah expects us to be aware of our surroundings and to be as connected as possible to reality.  However, it also understands that as humans we are bound to make mistakes.  But even mistakes need rectification.

One might think that, given the high risk of making mistakes in the sacred Temple, the Torah would limit access to the Temple to a very small group of people. However, this is not what the Torah does. The Torah defines the Temple as a holy place where great caution must be exercised, acknowledges that mistakes will happen, and teaches us how to rectify them. The Torah does not ask us to avoid approaching holiness; it expects us to make the necessary distinctions between the sacred and the profane and to maintain this separation.

The act of me’ilah is also related to relationships – between man and God and between individuals. Someone who commits an act of unfaithfulness disrespects the person at which this act is aimed, and undermines their relationship. When a person steals from another, it demonstrates a lack of appreciation and respect for the victim’s ownership. The thief focuses solely on the object, disregarding the person to whom it belongs. Similarly, in the Temple, when someone misuses a sacred object, it expresses his lack of regard for the realm in which the sacred object exists and the reason for its holiness.  Ultimately, this is akin to disrespecting God Himself. The Torah expects us to live our lives with a respectful awareness of others, let alone God. And yet being respectful of our fellow man does not fall short of the respect we must have for God.  This may be the reason the Torah uses the same term when discussing those who fail to uphold this respect, be it God or man that is subject to disrespect.  An act of unfaithfulness, me’ilah, against God and another human being stem from the same source and are equally severe.

The portion of Naso is one of the first portions to describe life with the Mishkan permanently residing in the Israelite camp. In this portion, the tribal leaders bring their offerings to the Mishkan, thus initiating regular and sacred rituals in the Mishkan. The sanctity of the Mishkan resides within Israel, and the Israelites learn how to live alongside this holiness. In addition to verses dealing with the sanctity of the Mishkan, Parashat Naso contains sections that emphasize the sanctity interpersonal relationships. The prohibition against theft highlights the importance of respect within society as a whole, and the section on the Sotah underscores the need for respect within the family circle. Understanding relationships and the bonds of respect helps in maintaining boundaries and distinguishing between sacred and profane spaces.

The section on the Nazirite, which is another portion within Parashat Naso, presents a different approach to the relationship between the sacred and the profane – an approach that involves a certain blurring of the two realms, not without its costs. A Nazirite vows himself to God, introducing restrictions into his life that originate from his vow. A Nazirite, as is described in the Torah, does not withdraw from worldly life but lives as a Nazirite within society and within his family. On the one hand, his life continues as usual, but on the other hand, certain aspects of his life change significantly. For instance, a Jew who has taken a Nazirite vow cannot become impure through contact with a corpse, not even for his own father or mother. Therefore, should his parents pass away, he cannot accompany them to their burial or be involved in their interment. One might say that the Nazirite prioritizes his relationship with God over his relationship with his parents. This might explain the ambivalence of our Sages towards the Nazirite. Indeed, it is not clear from the Torah whether taking a Nazirite vow is desirable, and different Sages held different views on this matter. The Torah, while providing instructions on how to be a Nazirite, leaves the decision of whether to take such a vow to the individual, man or woman, without taking a stance on the decision itself.

Parashat Naso, comprising an array of diverse topics within a single portion, teaches us about the importance of relationships between man and God, and between individuals. It also highlights the boundaries and realms of the sacred and the profane, and the possibility of integrating the two with commitment and mindfulness.

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