Parshat Naso: The Worship of God; An Individual Demand

The Worship of God; An Individual Demand

Rabbanit Moriah Taasan-Michaeli is a fourth-year fellow in the Susi Bradfield Women’s Institute of Halakhic Leadership (WIHL)

A quick overview of our portion might leave us stunned – the portion contains a long sequence of varied topics, each of which is rich in detail and requires a thorough examination in order to be fully understood: the sacred service in the Mishkan; the count of the families of the sons of Levi; laws pertaining to impure persons or lepers; the steps to be taken should one transgress the word of God and sin; the matter of a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband; the laws of the Nazirite (the religious ascetic); the blessing of the Kohanim, and finally – the sacrifices offered by the heads of the tribes.

Many of the exegetes attempted to find the leitmotif which runs through all these portions and connects them all.  The Ibn Ezra, for example, tries to connect all the portions by, what seems to be, associative reasoning: when a person transgresses the word of God, one is inflicted with leprosy; the section talking of the Nazarite comes in close proximity to the woman who is suspected of infidelity because most misdeeds are the result of wine. 

Rabi Levi ben Gerson (the Ralbag), on the other hand, attempts to find an internal hierarchy in this sequence: Firstly, one is commanded to remove all evil from the camp so as to avoid fights between neighbors within the camp; afterwards one has to remove conflict from within the home – the matter of the allegedly unfaithful woman; subsequently, one must resolve all conflict within oneself – the Nazarite; finally, the blessing given by the Kohanim completes the process and brings about true peace.[1]

In order to better understand additional links between the portions, let us delve a little more deeply into them.  There is a well-known question with regard to the sacrifices brought by the heads of the tribes:  Why does the Torah give a detailed account of each and every sacrifice if all were identical?  Why not give one description for all twelve?

The Ramban offers two explanations for this.  The first – to honor the heads of tribes.  God wished to give honor to each and every one of them by giving a detailed description of the sacrifice brought by each. 

The second answer given by the Ramban is a little more intricate:

“Each individual head-of-tribe thought of bringing an offering for the dedication of the altar, constituting identical amounts.  However, Nachshon [head of the tribe of Yehuda] brought his offering with a specific thought in mind, while another head-of-tribe [who offered the exact same sacrifice] brought his offering with a different intent.[2] 

The “Sabba of Slabodka” (Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel), in reference to the words of the Ramban, says: “A person’s thoughts and intents can change the nature of the deed.”[3]

The Gaon Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broide says something similar:  “We learn from this that an identical act done by two persons who have different intents, can no longer be considered as the same act inasmuch that their intents are different.” 

It follows then, that each of the offerings brought by the different heads of tribes was different from the others and completely unique, since no two heads of tribes had the same intent when offering their sacrifices.”[4]  In other words, it is impossible to give one single description for all twelve offerings brought by the heads of tribes, since the action of each was different by virtue of the different intent of each tribal leader.  All of the above commentaries highlight the notion that a person’s intent when performing any action or fulfilling any mitzvah is of significance.

The power of one’s intent and will is similarly reflected in the portion concerning the Nazirite.  This is the case of one who wishes to get even closer to God and His commandments and therefore makes a vow of asceticism.  There are differences of opinion as to whether such a vow is looked upon favorably by God or not.  In accordance with the words of the Rambam, many of the exegetes explain that the extent to which taking on the vows of the Nazarite is a positive act or not depends on the intent of the vower, or in other words – what initially led the person to commit to becoming a Nazarite.  For now, let us relate to the positive aspects of the Nazirite only, by quoting from the words of the Ramban concerning this matter:

“The portion relating the laws of a Nazirite culminate in the offerings brought by the heads of the tribes.  After the Mishkan was erected and the impure persons set aside, some people were designated as Nazarites, and their task was to stand watch at the entrance to the Tent of the Meeting, worship God and bless His name… Thus, the Nazarite must guard himself from all form of impurity, for he is like a Kohen who worships the Lord.”[5]

Similarly, one can also learn from the words of the prophet Amos that the Nazarite was commended and considered to have obtained a very high spiritual level: “And I raised up of your sons for prophets, and of your young men for Nazirites.”[6]  It appears from these words that the Nazarite is on the same level as the Kohanim and the prophets and is extremely close to God.  Those who view the Nazirite as one who has attained the highest of levels, explain the sin offering brought by the Nazirite upon the completion of the days of his ascetic abstention as marking the return to normal life and letting go, in a sense, of the loftier levels of spirituality. 

Rabbi Sacks challenges us with an interesting notion regarding the Nazirite: Becoming a Nazarite gives the individual the option of attaining high levels of holiness, even if one does not genetically belong to the exclusive family of Kohanim.  This is, once again, an instance of an individual whose personal thoughts and intentions distinguish him from the rest of the congregation and present him with a unique opportunity to worship God in an ascetic manner (albeit extreme and, as such, limited in time) and attain more sublime levels of sanctity.[7] 

It follows then that the worship of God does not take place through a single channel only; rather, there are numerous ways to serve the Lord, each of which becomes valid by virtue of the intent that accompanies it.  The worship of God requires one to engage in profound introspection, which renders the worship of God of each person different and unique.

In a few days we will be celebrating the festival of Shavuot.  In the tractate of Pesachim it is written that Rabi Elazar identifies Shavuot as “the day the Torah was given”.[8]  According to Rabbi Sacks, the festival of Shavuot is the culmination of a very long holiday which begins on Passover and continues over a seven-week “chol ha’moed” period, during which time we count the Omer.  This is what Midrash Psikta Rabati says about the giving of the Torah at Sinai:

“Rabi Yochanan said: Much like an image looked upon by myriads of people, each of whom get a feeling that the image is looking directly at them, God looks upon each and every individual and says – I am the Lord your God.”[9]

In other words, the Torah may be one, but the way we worship God is unique to each and every one of us, much like the way in which every individual perceives the Torah through an exclusive prism.  In keeping with this notion, every head-of-tribe essentially brought the exact same offering, but each fulfilled the mitzvah in a completely different way, depending on his personal intent.  Likewise, the Nazarite can be any Jewish individual that wishes to attain a higher form of spirituality and worship God through an alternative channel of intent, one more sublime perhaps.  In keeping with all of this, all of us look upon the same Torah, and yet we all have different thoughts and intents. 

We must therefore make good use of the days left before Shavuot to purify our thoughts and intents, and immerse ourselves in our unique worship of God so that the time of the giving of the Torah will be a reflection of our noblest intents. 

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!


[1] A detailed version of this idea can be found in Nechama Leibowitz’s book on Parshat Naso.

[2] Ramban on Bemidbar chapter 7.

[3]  Rabbi Nosson Tzvi Finkel, Ohr HaTzafun, part I, the discourse on the obligation to enact safeguards.

[4] Rabbi Simcha Zissel Broide, Sam Derech on Bemidbar, portion of Naso, exegesis section, clause 11.

[5] Ramban on Bemidbar chapter 5.

[6] Amos 2, 11

[7] Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Covenant & Conversation, Parshat Naso, “The Politics of Jealousy”.

[8]  Tractate of Pesachim 68:2.

[9] Psikta Rabati, portion 21 on the words “I am the Lord your God”.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Share this post