Beth Elohim Messianic Synagogue
Parashah #35: Naso (Take) B’midbar 4:21-7:89
Haftarah: Shof’tim (Judges) 13:2-25
B’rit Chadashah: Yochanan (John) 7:53-8:11
The Messianic Jewish calendar lists separate readings from the parashah for those living outside of Israel. However, the readings do not cover the multiple lessons to be learned in the parashah. Therefore, I am listing the readings for us living in the diaspora for your additional learning opportunity: Lev. 23:15-21; Num.28:26-31; Deut. 16:9-12. The associated Haftarah is Hab.3:1-19 and the B’rit Chadashah is Acts 2:1-3. Today I am presenting lessons from Naso.
I am going to focus on the concept of being a nazirite. A person who chose to become a nazirite observed special rules for holiness and abstinence for a self-determined period of time in most cases. Men and women could take the nazirite vow described in B’midbar 6-21. as long as they followed the rules. They did not drink wine, did not cut their hair or defile themselves with the dead. This was an expensive undertaking and often the community supported the individual financially for the cost of the multiple offerings involved in the process. An example of a woman who was chosen by G-d to take a nazirite vow was Samson’s mother. She is not named but the Torah tells us that a divine messenger appeared to her to announce Samson’s birth. The Nazirite injunctions against eating unclean food and drinking wine were placed upon her since Samson was to be a Nazirite “from birth” (13:15).
The Torah describes a Nazirite as “holy to God” (Num. 6: 8). However, when the vow period ends, the Nazirite has to bring a sin offering (Num. 6: 13-14), as if he had done something wrong. This sparked a debate between the rabbis in Mishnaic, Talmudic, and the Middle ages. Rabbi Elazar and Nahmanides saw the Nazirite as one who deserved praise because he had chosen a higher level of holiness. This favored status is also mentioned in Amos 2:11. The reason for the sin offering was to atone for the fact the Nazirite was ending the status of one closer to G-d and returning to ordinary life. Other rabbis maintained that the sin was taking the Nazirite vow, renouncing, at least for a time, some of the good things in life G-d created for our pleasure such as wine and other products made from grapes, including the grapes themselves.
The argument turns out to be one about a life of self- nullification in certain areas where G-d does not mandate such denial. History is replete with religious groups, cults and individuals who believed that total self-withdrawal and even self-flagellation took them to a higher spiritual level. Some lived in monasteries or caves and renounced everything worldly, even to the point some declared worldly pleasures of any type as evil.
In the Middle Ages there were Jews who adopted similar self-denial – among them the Hassidei Ashkenaz, the Pietists of Northern Europe, as well as many Jews in Islamic lands. In retrospect it is hard not to see in these patterns of behavior at least some influence from the non-Jewish environment. The Hassidei Ashkenaz who flourished during the time of the Crusades lived among self-mortifying Christians. Their southern counterparts may have been familiar with Sufism, the mystical movement in Islam.
Why would someone take a Nazirite vow in an effort to become closer to G-d for a time? There are two ways of living a moral life. One is to follow the middle road; moderation in all things permitted and balance. The other is to take an extreme position such as fasting instead of eating in moderation or giving up everything one owns rather than living in moderate comfort. One may take an extreme measure to repent or change a perceived character flaw. Recall that Esther asked the Jews to pray and fast for three days that G-d would protect her before the king and that He would save the Jews from the first attempt at genocide. Indeed, Maimonides mentions these reasons for possibly embracing extremes.
When all is said and done, we will do well to simply follow Yahshua’s example for living and relating to Him and mankind. He followed the middle road, taking the teachings and positions from the two major schools of thought at the time (Shammai and Hillel), and using them as examples as he taught His Torah to the people. He taught the application of G-d’s laws, that is, the spirit of the written laws so that man could understand the “intent” of his thought, speech, and actions beyond the letter of the law. Using Yahshua’s paradigm for living, let’s look at an example of a misguided extreme.
A saint may give all his money away to the poor. But what about the members of the saint’s own family? A saint may refuse to fight in battle. But what about the saint’s own country? A saint may forgive all crimes committed against him. But what about the rule of law, and justice? Saints are supremely virtuous people, considered as individuals. Yet you cannot build a society out of saints alone. Ultimately, saints are not really interested in society. Their concern is the salvation of the soul.
This deep insight is what led Maimonides to his seemingly contradictory evaluations of the nazirite. The nazirite has chosen, at least for a period, to adopt a life of extreme self-denial. He is a saint, a hassid. He has adopted the path of personal perfection. That is noble, commendable and exemplary. This is the extremist.
But it is not the way of the sage. The sage is not an extremist, because he or she realizes that there are other people involved. It is not all about “them.” There are the members of one’s own family; a community, a country, and a world. The sage knows he or she cannot leave all these commitments behind to pursue a life of solitary virtue to the exclusion of glorifying and serving G-d among the nations. For we are called on by G-d to live in the world, not to run from it and isolate ourselves. We are to live in a society and not on a secluded mountaintop. We need to continually strive for balance in our lives and not focus on our wants versus our needs. So, while from a personal perspective the Nazirite may be considered a saint, from social perspective he/she is a sinner in a manner of speaking and must bring an atonement offering.
The three prohibitions for the nazir present an interesting point for further exploration. Why is it that G-d forbids grape products, including vinegar, shaving the head, or becoming defiled by touching a dead body? Grape products represented fertility. Grapes represented fertility, hair represented sympathetic magic, and corpse contamination represented the cult of the dead in pagan societies, all forbidden by G-d. Indeed, wine or grape products are associated with immoral sexual behavior and lewdness (Gen.9; Hosea 4:11; Hosea 2:14). Perhaps the purpose is to alienate the nazirite from the pagan cults as much as possible by prohibiting these three pillars of the fertility cults of the surrounding nations. Whatever the reason, it should be enough for us to accept and obey His laws.
In rabbinic Judaism, if one takes a nazirite vow today, they must keep it forever because there is no temple to take the sin sacrifice to at the end of the vow period, usually 30 days unless the participant chooses a different time frame. The nazirite vow laws are only observed in Israel, so if someone outside Israel takes the vow, they must move to Israel in order to keep it. The sages go s step further regarding alcohol in one way yet seem to circumvent G-d’s intent on alcohol/wine in another. The nazirite cannot go near a vineyard or sit among drinkers, yet alcoholic beverages from other substances are permitted. The nazirite is not allowed to use any type of brush that may remove even one hair from their head, but they are allowed to scratch their heads. If the majority of the hair was removed, the nazirite must wait until the hair grows back (30 days) and then observe the remainder of the vow term.
As we can see, the intent of the nazirite vow is lost, at least to some degree, with rabbinic interpretation and subsequent law. Indeed, we cannot make any physical sacrifices at this time because we do not have a physical temple. This does not stop the faithful from sinning, repenting, or making peace offerings using means other than animal sacrifices. If G-d’s intent for forbidding anything from the grapevine to be consumed due to a concern for drunkenness, then no alcoholic beverages should be allowed. Finally, G-d does not say that the hair cannot be brushed once it grows back. Not brushing hair that would grown out to some degree in 30 days would need some kind of grooming to prevent a slovenly appearance which would bring more rebuke or disdain on an individual than losing one hair from a brush. We must always search out the intent of what YHVH/Yahshua meant when He provided the commands, laws, and statutes and that is what Yahshua provides through His earthly ministry. The letter of the law is only half the equation. The other half is the spirit of the law. We must have both to rightly divide the Word of G-d.
The remainder of the parashah describes the offerings for the dedication of the altar on the day of its anointing. One may ask why did G-d find it necessary to have the offerings of each tribe described even though the offerings were the same for each tribe? Why not just describe the offerings once and say that this was repeated until each tribe presented them? The simple answer is that this was an auspicious occasion for each tribal head and the entire tribe. The repetition rendered in the Torah serves as a reminder that every tribe making the same offering in the same amount showed that each were under the same obligation, each rendered an equal tribute. Each was the same in quantity and quality but a separate day was appointed for the presentation so that each would be honored equally, with no tribe appearing to be overlooked or ignored. Because the sacred books were frequently read in public, in each successive age, posterity would feel an invested interest in the national worship of one King, from the permanent recognition of the offerings made by the ancestral tribal head. Although the offerings were mainly made as a fitting tribute to G-d, they were also a way to distinguish the Israelites as a holy people, dedicated to G-d.
Another question may arise about why this “work” was allowed to continue on a Shabbat (the seventh day)? The answer is because this was mandated by G-d and was of a purely religious character. Therefore, it was perfectly aligned with the design of such a holy day as Shabbat.
Haftarah: Shof’tim (Judges) 13:2-25
This is the story of G-d’s rescue of the people of Israel after a 40-year rule under the Philistines. Of course, this was not a straight-forward rescue. G-d works in mysterious ways. Man could never had predicted the use of Shimshon (Samson) in the way he was blessed and used by G-d, allowed to fall from grace with Delilah, and then redeemed through Samson’s self-nullification and repentance with his final mitzvoth being the destruction of more Philistines than he’d killed in his life. One lesson of many in this passage is that we must learn to trust G-d for our every need. Situations that may seem hopeless in our lives are in reality situations orchestrated or allowed by G-d to demonstrate His power and be glorified as the One True G-d. This is the whole point. We recite the Akdamus during Shavu’ot, which contains several verses addressing this very point. Ezekiel 39:7 speaks against Magog in the context of the Gog/Magog war waged against Israel. We read in this passage, “I will also send fire against Magog and against those living securely in the coast lands; then they will know that I am Adonai. I will make my holy name known among my people Israel; I will not allow my holy name to be profaned any longer. Then the Goyim will know that I am Adonai, the Holy One of Israel. Yes, this is coming, and it will be done,’ says Adonai Elohim; ‘this is the day about which I have spoken.’”
B’rit Chadashah: Yochanan (John) 7:53-8:11
This passage takes us back to the issue of a woman who becomes impure by lying with another man. But before we address this, we must understand that the Torah teachers and the Pharisees were trying to trap Yahshua. Under Roman rule it was illegal for Jewish courts to enforce a death sentence, but that did not always succeed in preventing them (Acts 7:58-9). Furthermore, the Torah states in Lev. 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, that is, with the wife of a fellow countryman, both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death.” However, there is a difference in what happened in this account and that of our parashah. In John 8:3 the woman was caught in the act of lying with a man. Just what happened to the man we are not told. Regardless, in the parashah, G-d established the test of purity for a woman whose husband was suspicious of her but had no proof that she was unfaithful. Num. 5:13 states “ if another man goes to bed with her without her husband’s knowledge, so that she becomes impure secretly, and there is no witness against her, and she was not caught in the act;…”In John, the accusers make her stand in the middle of the group (John 8:3). In Num. 5:15 the woman was to be taken to the Kohen with an offering for the husband’s jealousy. The woman was then taken to stand alone before Adonai. The Torah teachers and the Pharisees unknowingly placed the woman before YHVH/Yahshua, yet there was no husband present to condemn her of adultery. With no husband to condemn her, there was no reason to judge her (John 8:10-11). In verse 5 Moshe is cited as is the Torah for the prescribed punishment. Yahshua’s response showed four things: He was not against the Torah, He was merciful toward the woman, He opposed her sin (Ex. 20:14), and He could silence hecklers and put them to shame (compare Mt. 22:46). YHVH/Yahshua knows our motives before we ever act. We must examine ourselves carefully and often.
Rabbi Tamah Davis-Hart