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Kedusha in the Wilderness

Author: Esther Ehrman, Sivan 5772/June 2012

Parashat Naso with comments by Ramban, studied at one of the Etta Kossowsky Study Groups.

The camp of the Israelites in the wilderness is strictly organised. The beginning of the Book of Numbers tells us how the tribes with their standards were arranged around the Tabernacle. Moses and the Princes of the tribes take a census, which accounts for everyone except the tribe of Levi. That tribe is counted separately. Unlike the other tribes, who are counted for military purposes, the tribe of Levi is allocated the task of serving the Mishkan (Tabernacle) when it moves with the Israelites from one place to the next. This count of Levites begins in the section Bamidbar, perhaps because it completes the picture of the Israelite camp, singling out the family of Kehath that is in charge of the main components of the Mishkan.

Parashat Naso finishes the census of the tribe of Levi according to their tasks in transporting the Mishkan. The Israelites had been promised that the Lord would communicate with them from above the Ark, between the Cherubim. It is therefore essential that not only the Tabernacle itself, but the entire camp within which it is situated, be not defiled. Ensuring its kedusha is the first concern of the Torah section known as Naso (Numbers 4,21 – 7,89), since 'I shall dwell among them' (Num.5,3) Ramban comments: 'that their camp shall be 'kadosh'.fit for the 'Shechina' ( the Divine Presence), a commandment that applies now (in the wilderness) and in future generations'.

We next learn about the sanctity of all things that are 'kadosh'. Having benefit from anything that is holy is termed meila. Since it is seen as stealing from the Lord, it is treated as stealing. Its value must be restored and a fifth added. If the person to whom the restitution is to be made has died, it is given to the next kinsman. If there is no kinsman, the Torah states, that which was stolen is to be given to the Cohen. Ramban explains that the Israelite who has no kinsman is the convert and that meila is committed by the thief who takes an oath, using the Name of the Lord, that he has not committed the theft, although he has. His lie is the meila; he is trying to benefit from, as it were, a fraudulous use of the Lord's Name.

After a section on what belongs to the Cohen and what is due to him, we learn about the sotah (Num.5,11-31), a woman whose husband suspects her of being unfaithful. Her husband will bring an offering of plain oats on her behalf and she is made to drink special bitter waters; if she is guilty, the curse of the bitter water takes effect, 'her stomach shall distend and her thigh will collapse'; is she is innocent, she will bear children. Ramban interestingly associates the placing of the Sotah here as related to the census that has just been taken, since the Israelites need to be warned who among them might be a mamzer, a child of a forbidden marriage. The people need to assure their Kedusha. Ramban also explains that the offering that is brought is callled 'a meal offering of jealousies' in the plural, the jealousy of the husband and the jealousy of the Lord, who will, the husband hopes, be jealous on his behalf and reveal the truth of the matter through the miracle of the bitter water. Ramban emphasizes the unique quality of this miracle; it applies only at a time when the Israelites obey the Law. Once husbands are themselves given to immorality, the miracle ceases and the procedure is discontinued.

The Torah text follows the account of the Sotah with that of a Nazir. This is someone who vows to take upon him or herself not to partake of any produce from the grape, not to cut his or her hair and to avoid all contact with the dead, even those who are close relatives. Ramban explains that this section is juxtaposed to the Sotah because the Nazirite woman is the opposite of a Sotah, the latter is frivolous, the former pious. Moreover, says Ramban, anyone who sees the dishevelled Sotah and her disgrace will want to abstain from anything that leads to levity. Ramban has his own understanding of the sin-offering, the chataat, one of the sacrifices that the Nazir brings upon completing the period of his being a Nazir. Rashi explains that a chataat is due because the Nazir is denying himself the blessings that the Lord grants us. Ramban states that he is guilty because he decides to stop being in a state of sanctity; 'he is abandoning his kedusha and his service to the Lord'. The kedusha of the Nazir is a kedusha assumed by an ordinary Israelite; he is placed, Ramban tells us, next to the prophet.

The kedusha of the commandment that follows is self-evident. 'Thus shall you bless the Children of Israel: May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord shine His countenance upon you and be gracious unto you; may the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and grant you peace. Let them place My Name upon the Children of Israel and I shall bless them'. (Num.6, 23-27). The priestly blessing conveys the kedusha of the Lord to the Israelites. Ramban makes the point that Aaron had previously blessed the people, 'raising his hand towards them', a reference to Lev.9.22-24, The text of the blessing had not been given on that occasion. Aaron may or may not have known it. The wording is given here, explains Ramban, as the text that is to be used in all generations. Ramban adds the information that, in the Temple, the full Name of the Lord was used, while in the provinces that was not the case; moreover, the text was recited as one blessing in the Temple, outside of it as three sections.

The Torah section of Naso now reverts to the ceremony of the Dedication of the Tabernacle . The twelve Princes who had assisted Moses in the census now bring their individual offerings. The twelve are all identical; each Prince is given a separate day and the text repeats the list of the gifts of each Prince every time. After the twelve repetitions, the text gives the total of each of the items. Every commentary notes the impression of equality that this account conveys. Ramban notes the miraculous tally of the individual gifts and the total, saying that if the gold of the individual items were to be melted down and then reconstituted, one might well have arrived at a different total, something would probably have been lost in the process; but here it was important that the identical share of each would be reflected in the accurate total. He adds that a separate day was perhaps allocated to each Prince, since each may have had his individual motive for his gift; thus, the silver bowl of one might be intended to symbolise the world, the silver bowl of another may have been intended to represent the seas.

The kedusha of the dedication is completed with these offerings. Now Moses enters the Mishkan 'he hears the voice speaking to him from above the cover of the ark, from between the two Cherubim and He spoke to him' (Num. 7,69). The Divine promise was being fulfilled.