Bridging Vision and Reality

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dreams-realityby Rav Yair Kahn

Sefer Bemidbar opens with the establishment of “machaneh Yisrael” (the Israelite camp) in the wilderness, in preparation for their epic journey towards Eretz Yisrael. The documentation is exhaustive, describing in minute detail the various aspects of the “machaneh:” the nation’s groups and subgroups, and its religious and political leadership. This account is followed by the various performances and preparations which culminate in the beginning of the actual journey (10:11).

In light of the above, the placement of the halakhic section in Naso, which deals 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 fracture the thematic flow of the beginning of Sefer Bemidbar.

The problem deepens in light of the fact that Sefer Bemidbar is essentially narrative. There are very few halakhic sections. The Ramban in his introduction to the sefer remarks: “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 Bemidbar in general as narrative. However, even were we to adopt his solution for the uncharacteristic halakhic elements in Bemidbar, 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 Bemidbar 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 the children of Israel will eventually enter the promised land. (See Rashi, Bemidbar 15:2.)

Although the connections are 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 flow of Sefer Bemidbar, uncovering their common theme.

I. KOFER BE-PIKADON

We will begin with kofer be-pikadon. 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). However, a closer comparison of the two parashot will reveal an aspect mentioned in parashat Naso, which was totally ignored in Vayikra. In Naso, there is mention of the specific case of “gezel ha-ger,” where no one inherits the deceased creditor and therefore there is no one to claim the stolen debt. In this case, the stolen 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 denial of debt. In fact, this case (kofer be-pikadon where there is no inheritor) is mentioned in our parasha only as a case in which we give money to a kohen.

However, considering gezel ha-ger as an example of “matanot kehuna” (priestly gifts) is very odd. Most matanot kehuna are given due to the item’s special or consecrated status (e.g., teruma, first-fruits, firstborn animals, portions of the sacrifices, etc.). In this unique case, we are discussing stolen property, which due to lack of a claimant, is given to the kohen. What is the basis for this singular halakha?

In my opinion, this parasha expresses the role of the kohen vis-a-vis his involvement in civil disputes. The kohen, who personifies the “machaneh Shekhina” (divine camp), should not limit his concerns to the narrow confines of the mishkan. Although the mishkan is his responsibility, his role extends beyond its 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 religious issues, is nevertheless concerned with the mundane affairs of man.

Not only must the “religious representative” involve himself in civil matters, but civil matters are not divorced from religious affairs either. 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 debt must be paid to the kohen.

In more general terms, the unique halakha of gezel ha-ger is an expression of the relationship and interaction between the machaneh Shekhina and machaneh Yisrael. When considered in these terms, this parasha flows naturally and smoothly into the opening of Sefer Bemidbar, which, as we mentioned, deals with the establishment and integration of machaneh Yisrael around the machaneh Shekhina.

II. SOTA

In the parasha of sota, we have a similar expression of the kohen’s involvement in issues pertaining to machaneh Yisrael. While gezel ha-ger dealt 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 verse 16), and God’s name is violated and erased, to accommodate domestic tranquillity.

The issue with which both parashot, gezel ha-ger and sota, is concerned, relates to our approach to man. Judaism 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 that can complicate husband-wife relations. In the civil arena, as well as the domestic one, man is vulnerable to tensions and pressures that are inherent in human nature.

Therefore, the glorious vision of transforming a nation, any nation, into a “goy kadosh” (holy nation) is blurred when we focus on man in his natural state. (I am not referring to natural as opposed to societal.) Nevertheless, according to Judaism, 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 natural 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 vision of becoming a “Goy Kadosh,” without suggesting the negation of the human condition. How is this to be accomplished?

This dilemma is addressed, in my opinion, in Parashat Naso. Machaneh Yisrael is being established, in preparation for the journey from Sinai to Eretz Yisrael. Sinai refers to the ideal of a goy kadosh, while Eretz Yisrael represents the actual application and realization of this vision. As we mentioned, Sefer Bemidbar begins with the establishment of Machaneh Yisrael, which is 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 machaneh is comprised of human beings, who argue, steal and lust. How can this machaneh realize the vision of Sinai?

The answer lies in the complex nature of the machaneh. There is actually a machaneh within a machaneh. At the center we find the divine camp, the machaneh ha-Shekhina, containing the mishkan and the kohanim, which serve as a force of sanctity and purity, influencing and affecting machaneh Yisrael. This allows machaneYisrael to retain its human character – not to negate but to redeem it.

The parashot of gezel ha-ger and sota will occur. Civil and domestic tensions are inherent to any human society. However, the kohen and the mishkan will deal with these issues, educating, influencing and training. They will try to instill a new set of values and change priorities. They will attempt to create and guide a goy kadosh.

III. NAZIR

At this juncture, we appreciate the role of the nazir. While the two previous parashot deal with machaneh Yisrael as a whole, and the paradox inherent in the vision of a goy kadosh, the parasha of nazir deals with an individual response to this tension. The nazir is not satisfied with his role as a member of machaneh Yisrael, vulnerable to the passions and pressures of natural man. He prefers the paradigm of the kohen who resides within machaneh ha-Shekhina, removed from the tensions and strife of machaneh Yisrael. (The points of comparison between the nazir and the kohen gadol are numerous. Compare for instance, Bemidbar 6:6-7 with Vayikra 21:11-12.) Again, we witness a halakhic parasha whose subject is the relationship of the machanot. The Torah sanctions the institution of nazir, but only on an individual basis, and only for a limited period of time.

SUMMARY: Based on the characterization of Sefer Bemidbar as a narrative, we discussed the suitability of the halakhic sections found in it. We showed that it is possible to weave these segments into the narrative flow of the sefer. Regarding the specific question of parashat Naso, we noted that Sefer Bemidbar opens with the establishment of machaneh Yisrael. We proposed that the halakhic segments of gezel ha-ger, sota and nazir all deal with the interaction between machaneh Yisrael and machaneh Shekhina. Thus, these halakhot complement the narrative and together paint a complete picture of machaneh Yisrael, and the vision of a “kingdom of kohanim and a holy nation.”

About Yair Kahn

Rav Yair Kahn has been a Ram at Yeshivat Har Etzion since 1987 and is head of its Overseas Students Program. He has been the coordinator of the Virtual Beit Midrash Gemara Iyun Shiur for several years.

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