Adding Godliness To Our Lives
Discovering The Themes Linking Numbers And Leviticus
In Parshat Naso, we are introduced to what seems like a hodgepodge of miscellaneous laws. Why is the Torah bringing these up together? Join us as we explore something very subtle going on in this parsha.
Welcome to Parshat Naso. This week, we are introduced to what seems like a hodgepodge of miscellaneous laws.
What Do the Laws in the Book of Numbers Mean?We are taught about people who have some sort of tumah, ritual impurity. We learn the laws of a thief, and how he must repay the victim he stole from. We learn about a sotah, a woman accused by her husband of marital infidelity. And we learn about the nazir, one who must abstain from certain things when he pledges himself to God.
Tumah, stealing, sotah, and nazir...these are so random. I mean, don't they seem completely unrelated to one another? Why is the Torah bringing these up together?
We think these laws aren't random – that there's meaning to their being grouped together. Join us this week, as we explore something very subtle going on in this parsha. This week on, the Parsha Experiment.
Hi, I'm David Block, and welcome to the Parsha Experiment. You might notice that I'm recording alone. Well, if you recall, a few months ago, I missed recording, because I'd just had a baby. Well, Imu and his wife just had a baby as well. Mazal tov, Imu, from your whole family at Aleph Beta.
So, let's look through the seemingly-miscellaneous laws in Parshat Naso, and see if we find anything interesting.
Connecting Themes Between the Book of Numbers and LeviticusLet's start with the laws of tumah, ritual impurity. God says: וִישַׁלְּחוּ מִן-הַמַּחֲנֶה, כָּל-צָרוּעַ וְכָל-זָב; וְכֹל, טָמֵא לָנָפֶשׁ, send out of the camp any metzorah – spiritual leper, zav – one who has bodily discharge, and anyone who becomes impure from a corpse. Why? וְלֹא יְטַמְּאוּ אֶת-מַחֲנֵיהֶם, אֲשֶׁר אֲנִי שֹׁכֵן בְּתוֹכָם, so that they don't make their camp – in which I, God, live – tamei, impure.
Wait...we've seen this before! Back in Leviticus, God said to Moses: וְהִזַּרְתֶּם אֶת-בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִטֻּמְאָתָם – Israel should be careful of their tumah, וְלֹא יָמֻתוּ בְּטֻמְאָתָם, בְּטַמְּאָם אֶת-מִשְׁכָּנִי אֲשֶׁר בְּתוֹכָם, so that they don't perish by making my mishkan – which is among you – tamei. That's so odd, that we're given the same law, again.
And the same thing seems to happen with the next law. God tells Moses what happens if one sins by stealing or dealing falsely with someone, וְהֵשִׁיב אֶת-אֲשָׁמוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ, וַחֲמִישִׁתוֹ יֹסֵף עָלָיו, he must pay back the same amount he stole plus 1/5th, וְנָתַן, לַאֲשֶׁר אָשַׁם לוֹ, and he gives it to the person he wronged. And if he can't find the person he harmed, הָאָשָׁם הַמּוּשָׁב לַיהוָה, לַכֹּהֵן, then the restitution should be given to God for the priest, מִלְּבַד, אֵיל הַכִּפֻּרִים, and that's aside from an additional ram offering he must give. And look at that, we've also seen this before also!
Look back at Leviticus – וְשִׁלַּם אֹתוֹ בְּרֹאשׁוֹ, וַחֲמִשִׁתָיו יֹסֵף עָלָיו: לַאֲשֶׁר הוּא לוֹ יִתְּנֶנּוּ, he'll pay back the same amount, plus a fifth, to the person he wronged. And in addition to paying, וְאֶת-אֲשָׁמוֹ יָבִיא, לַיהוָה – he shall also bring a guilt offering to God. What should he bring? אַיִל תָּמִים מִן-הַצֹּאן בְּעֶרְכְּךָ לְאָשָׁם, אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן, an unblemished ram of the same value as his guilt, to the priest. Again, the repetition from Leviticus to Numbers is very clear.
And now, let's look at the next case in Naso – that of the Sotah, the potentially adulterous woman. The verses open with: אִישׁ אִישׁ כִּי-תִשְׂטֶה אִשְׁתּוֹ, וּמָעֲלָה בוֹ מָעַל, if one's wife has gone astray and has betrayed him, and it continues with a long system of laws and rituals in the mishkan, where the couple goes to resolve their case. Okay, this law is completely new, we've never seen this anywhere in Leviticus, right? Well….kinda.
We've never seen this law of Sotah, but take a closer look at that word – מעל – we've seen that word before. In Leviticus, that word is used in a few places, to describe something very specific – when people sin by misusing objects that had been designated to God or the mishkan. So look at that – another Leviticus connection.
And now we move to the last law in Naso, that of the Nazir, one who chooses to pledge himself to God, by following special restrictions. Again, this is a new law, so we don't have to worry about any sort of repetition. But...let's look more closely, at two particular laws the Nazir abides by.
First, מִיַּיִן וְשֵׁכָר יַזִּיר, a Nazir must abstain from alcohol. And second, עַל-נֶפֶשׁ מֵת, לֹא יָבֹא, he may not become tamei met, impure to a corpse, לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ, לְאָחִיו וּלְאַחֹתוֹ–לֹא-יִטַּמָּא לָהֶם, בְּמֹתָם, not even to his parents or siblings! Have we seen laws like these before – abstention from alcohol and a prohibition on becoming tamei, even to one's family? We have – in Leviticus!
God charges the kohanim: יַיִן וְשֵׁכָר אַל-תֵּשְׁתְּ, do not drink any alcohol. And later, God tells the kohen gadol, the High Priest: וְעַל כָּל-נַפְשֹׁת מֵת, לֹא יָבֹא, do not become tamei meit to anyone, לְאָבִיו וּלְאִמּוֹ, לֹא יִטַּמָּא, not even to your own parents. A Nazir and Kohen Gadol are the only two people in the Torah who cannot become tamei meit to their own parents.
So, so let's put this all together.
We've realized that our initial assumption is not exactly right – these laws aren't miscellaneous, they're all tied together by their connections to Leviticus. But if anything, our new question is even stranger – why do all of these laws hark back to Leviticus? What could this mean?
What Do These Repetitious Themes in Numbers Mean?We think the key to putting this all together is through the last example. Let's think more deeply about the nazir, and the interesting comparison to the priests of Leviticus, and once we understand that, maybe we'll be able to understand all of these repetitions, much more clearly.
Who is the nazir? The nazir is one of us, a regular person, who chooses to separate and dedicate himself to God. Why? Why would one do such a thing, not allow himself to be a part of normal activities, like drink wine, or bury his parents? Because the nazir is making a choice – he looks at the priests, and particularly the high priest, sees the connection they have with God, and he wants that too. And the Torah tells him: you can have it! By giving the Nazir almost the same laws as He gave to the priests in Leviticus, God is telling us that a nazir can have that priest-like closeness with God. The nazir is a sort of priest, but he's one of us. He is the camp version, so to speak, of the priests, the God-people, from the book of Leviticus.
And that makes sense, because what is Leviticus? Leviticus is a God book. We focused on God-place, the mishkan, where God lives. We focused on God-people, the priests, God's representatives. And talked about how to become pure and holy, through sacrifices, holidays, laws, rituals, and more, so that we can connect and relate to God.
But now...we're in Bamidbar. Bamidbar...is a people book. We're going to talk about how the people interact with each other, how they interact with Moses. We're going to talk about the people-place, the camp, where the nation lives. And how does the Book of People see laws? We're going to see those same cases that we had seen through a God lens, but now, in Bamidbar, we are looking at it through a people lens.
So the Nazir, in Naso, is a people version of the priest, in Leviticus. And the Sotah, a woman accused by her husband of being adulterous? We noted the common use of the word meila – well, what does meila really mean? The laws of meila deal with something that has been designated for God, and a human deciding to use it for his own needs. For example, if I dedicated my broom to the mishkan, and then I decided to use it to sweep my own floor. And when I do that, the Torah says, I'm blurring the lines between me and God, I'm violating our relationship. And, fundamentally, isn't the sotah about the same thing? What misusing things dedicated to mishkan is, in the Godly realm, marital infidelity is in the human relationship realm. Again, from God-focus in Leviticus, to people-focus in Numbers.
So let's keep going. If we're right about our theory, the laws of theft in Naso should again reflect the people, or the camp, while the similar laws in Leviticus focus will be about God, mishkan, or priests. Does that happen?
In describing the laws of the priests, Naso is different from Leviticus. Naso focuses on payment: if I, the thief, can't find the victim to pay him back, instead, I must pay that money to the kohen. In Parshat Naso, there's also a mention of the offering, but it's an afterthought; we don't get any details about it. But, in the Leviticus version, we get a lot of details about that same sacrifice. וְאֶת-אֲשָׁמוֹ יָבִיא, לַיהוָה – he shall also bring a guilt offering to God. אַיִל תָּמִים מִן-הַצֹּאן בְּעֶרְכְּךָ לְאָשָׁם, אֶל-הַכֹּהֵן – of an umblemished ram in the value of his guilt to the priest. And that fits our paradigm.
In Leviticus, which is about the mishkan and the kohanim, we get all the details of the sacrifices. But in Numbers, which is all about the people, we don't get those details. But there's one more difference. In Naso, we get an extra law. If I, the thief, can't find the thief to pay him back, I must pay the money to the kohen. But...doesn't it seem odd that Naso talks about priests? Shouldn't that be in Leviticus? After all, priests are God-representatives. And furthermore, Naso adds an additional law about priests, one that has nothing to do with the thief at all!
God tells Moses, וְכָל-תְּרוּמָה לְכָל-קָדְשֵׁי בְנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, אֲשֶׁר-יַקְרִיבוּ לַכֹּהֵן–לוֹ יִהְיֶה – all gifts among the sacred donations of the Israelites shall be the priests'. This is so odd; God just says, by the way, while I'm on the topic of priests, you also have to support priests! This seems completely different than what we would have expected in Numbers, doesn't it? I mean, this is all very Leviticus territory! So does our theory break down? Can we still argue that the laws in Naso are showing a focus on the people?
But maybe it makes sense after all. When we see "priests," it's easy for us to go straight to Leviticus. But what's REALLY the focus of this law? Look carefully at the language. Even though Naso's new law is about the priests, God tells Moses, the people must be careful to take care of the priests. They must give to them. The law is...about us, the people! The focus is that we give, more than that the priests receive.
And that defines for us what the section is really about. God is telling us, the kohanim will do the mishkan service, but by supporting the kohanim, you, the people, are doing your part in the mishkan service. And suddenly, it all clicks into place. Leviticus focused on the priests in the mishkan – giving details of the sacrificial offering. But in Naso, when talking about the priests, sacrifices, and mishkan, they're just the lens through which the text focuses on the people of Israel.
And now, we finally come back to the first law – that of tumah, ritual impurity. We saw tumah in Leviticus, and we see tumah again. But are there any differences? In Leviticus, God tells Moses that the people need to be careful about tumah, but for what reason? Because if they aren't, He says, the mishkan, the house of God, will be defiled. But here in Naso, God never mentions the mishkan. Instead, the people are warned not to be mitamei...the camp. And it goes further! In Leviticus, God doesn't just say, don't defile "the Mishkan." He says "משכני – My mishkan." And look at Naso – God doesn't say "the camp." He says "מחניהם – their camp."
This epitomizes the entire framework we've built! In Leviticus, we were still at Sinai, the paragon of God-place, and framing everything in terms of God! We were talking about the mishkan, His portable Sinai, as God-place. Priests, God's representatives to Israel, are God-people. And now that we're in Numbers, about to move around human-space, we have to be careful not to defile our space, our camp! Look at that! The people, and their place, are the focus now!
The Message Behind the Laws in the Book of NumbersSometimes it's easy for us to see laws as technical requirements. Chase away a mother bird before you take her eggs, check! Keep the holiday of Passover, check! But it's very easy to forget that laws are meant to teach us values. Why do we chase the mother bird? What does Passover teach us about how to live our lives, on all days?
And if laws are practical expressions of values, that value can be seen in multiple ways. In Naso, we get to see exactly that, through the people-lens of the laws that had previously been shown in the God-lens. When God gives laws in multiple realms, like he does here, God seems to be giving us a clue, for how to tease out those Godly values, and how to incorporate them into all aspects of our lives.
Join us next week, as we dive into the stories of Bamidbar, on the Parsha Experiment.