Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

Parashat Naso 5775 – The Nazir as the Hero of Morality

 

The Law of the Nazir, as it appears in the sixth chapter of Sefer Bamidbar, presents an interesting dilemma. The law is introduced in verse 2, “When a man or woman wants to make a special vow, a vow of separation to the Lord as a Nazir,” and then goes straight into the various details of the law without ever mentioning what might motivate a person to make such a vow. It is even unclear if this is a vow that everyone ought to make at some point in their life, or if it’s just meant for extreme individuals.

Ibn Ezra takes a clear stance regarding these questions in his comment on Bamidbar 6:2.

Yafli – He will separate, or will do wondrous (PL”A) things, for most of the world follows after their physical desires. Neder Nazir – a vow to be a “nazir“, which is a title. And this is from the same root[1] as “Vayinazru” (Vayikra 22:2), “they shall separate themselves”, meaning that he will distance himself from physical desires. He does this for the service of God, for wine destroys conscientiousness and the service of God.

Ibn Ezra is suggesting that while it is not mandatory for everyone to take the vow of a nazir, it is certainly the ideal, as the alternative is to give up on being a conscientious servant of God. Moreover, the nazir may head to one extreme, but this is only because everyone else is heading to the other. The nazir is motivated to serve God in the only way really possible. Given the choice between a life of constantly chasing after lust and desire or a life of godly asceticism, presumably everyone should choose the latter.

Rashi, however, brings a midrash with a very different approach. “Ki Yafli – he will separate. Why was the passage of the Nazir juxtaposed with the passage of the Sotah, the suspected wife? To teach you the anyone who sees the punishment of the Sotah should separate himself from wine, for wine brings a person to adultery.” According to the midrash, only a specific person under a specific set of circumstances should take the vow of the nazir. Specifically, someone who has seen the ultimate consequences of physical indulgence, someone so struck by their experience that they feel the only option is to stay away from all physical pleasure. Everyone else, however, should continue with life as normal, which presumably involves a normal amount of physical pleasure.

William James, in his “The Varieties of Religious Experience”, discusses the religious phenomenon of asceticism, which he relates to what he calls “the sick soul.”

For in its spiritual meaning asceticism stands for nothing less than for the essence of the twice-born philosophy. It symbolizes, lamely enough no doubt, but sincerely, the belief that there is an element of real wrongness in this world, which is neither to be ignored nor evaded, but which must be squarely met and overcome by an appeal to the soul’s heroic resources, and neutralized and cleansed away by suffering.

This is an approach to the world that sees it as inherently broken and evil. The sick soul’s only response is to flee from the world, to stand up against evil. The ascetic is thus a heroic figure, fighting for good by abstaining from that which is inherently evil.

As against this view, the ultra-optimistic form of the once-born philosophy thinks we may treat evil by the method of ignoring. Let a man who, by fortunate health and circumstances, escapes the suffering of any great amount of evil in his own person, also close his eyes to it as it exists in the wider universe outside his private experience, and he will be quit of it altogether, and can sail through life happily on a healthy-minded basis.

This approach sees the world as inherently good, despite the fact that there is some evil in it, and thus a person need only avoid the evil, rather than fight against it.

The nazir of the midrash is James’ ascetic. He has seen that there is evil in the world, that indulgence reigns and that it leads to great suffering, and his only response is to push the world away as forcefully as he can. He struggles on, his life a heroic fight against the flaws of the world he lives in. Everyone else, however, remains blissfully unaware that such a struggle might be necessary, and they can live their lives according to the rest of the laws of the Torah.

What makes the nazir of the midrash different from James’ is what they see as evil, what has led them to separate from worldly experiences. James’ “sick soul” has discovered that there is evil in the world due to its very nature as a physical realm. The nazir of the midrash has seen the moral consequences of physical indulgence. He has seen that over-indulgence has led to the destruction of the bond between individuals, to the humiliation of a person subjected to a ritualistic examination. All of these could be avoided if a person is willing to forgo their physical nature, to assume a more spiritual life. The ascetic flees the world into the welcoming arms of suffering; the nazir steps away from the world and toward its inhabitants, toward a more moral life. While the vow of the nazir is almost unheard of in our day and age, the drive of the nazir should not be. While we won’t decide to abstain from wine and cutting our hair, the passage of the nazir should give us pause to consider our excesses, and the way these excesses affect not only ourselves and our relationship with ‘א, but also the people around us.

[1] Note that this not the only possible etymology. Nazir could also come from the word “nezer”, meaning “crown.” That would explain the odd phrasing of Bamidbar 2:7 and explain the connection between 2:8 and Shemot 28:37 & 39:30. Based on this connection, it might be correct to consider the Nazir as a kohen gadol whose focus is on morality (see the end of this essay)  as opposed to the kohen gadol whose focus is on ritual.

Parashat Naso – Dedications of the Mishkan

זֹאת חֲנֻכַּת הַמִּזְבֵּחַ בְּיוֹם הִמָּשַׁח אֹתוֹ מֵאֵת נְשִׂיאֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל

Parashat Naso, one of the largest parshiyot in the Torah, is largely composed of Bamidbar 7, some 89 verses long. Chapter 7 consists almost entirely of 6 verses repeated 12 times with very little variation, namely the sacrifices of the leaders of the Tribes. This long passage is capped off by a verse that seems unwarranted: “And when Moses went into the tent of meeting that He might speak with him, then he heard the Voice speaking to him from above the cover that was upon the Aron of the testimony, from between the two keruvim; and He spoke to him,” (Bamidbar 7:89). Initialy, this verse appears to be entirely unrelated to the preceding 88 verses, which deal with the inaugural sacrifices of the Mishkan. However, this seeming discrepancy is mitigated when viewed in the larger context of the Inauguration of the Mishkan.

The Inauguration of the Mishkan is described in two other places in the Torah: Shemot 40:17-38 and Vayikra chapter 9. The passage in Shemot describes Moshe constructing the Mishkan, and then ‘א’s Presence and the associated Cloud filling it. Vayikra 9 depicts Aharon fulfilling the first services of the Mishkan, followed by a divine fire consuming the sacrifices on the altar. In both cases, an intensive, detailed, procedure is followed by the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence in the Mishkan. If we look at the passage in Bamidbar with this structure in mind, the similarity is striking. In place of building the Mishkan or initiating the sacrifices we have the Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, bringing donations. Additionally,  instead of ‘א manifesting His Presence in the Cloud or the Fire, the manifestation is in the revelation in the Aron, the heart of the Mishkan. Bamidbar 7 is one of three passages describing the Inauguration of the Mishkan, and as such, verse 89 can be explained similarly, as part of the necessary structure of the Inauguration passage.

What is important about this passage, is not how it is similar to the others, but how it differs from them. There are three main differences in all of the passages:

  1. The action performed in step one of the inauguration process
  2. The leader performing the action
  3. The resulting manifestation of ‘א’s Presence

In Shemot, the leader is Moshe, and the action performed is the physical construction of the Mishkan, which the Cloud then fills. Moshe is the leader appointed to take the nation out of Egypt and to the land of Israel. He is responsible for the physical guidance of the people, and so he builds the physical structure of the Mishkan. ‘א then manifests His Presence in the Cloud, which guides Bnei Yisrael through the Wilderness.

In Vayikra, the focus is on the priestly activities of the Mishkan. Aharon, in charge of the sacrifices and other rituals of the Mishkan, performs the inaugural sacrificial service, and ‘א manifests His Presence in the fire that consumes the sacrifices.

In Bamidbar, the tribal leaders bring animals and donations for the Mishkan, and the manifestation is in the revelation to Moshe from above the Aron.

While the passage in Shemot emphasizes Moshe’s leadership, and the passage in Vayikra focuses on the Mishkan, the inauguration in Bamidbar emphasizes the Nation of Israel.

Bamidbar is a book about the birth and formation of the Nation of Israel. Thus it makes sense that the depiction of the Inauguration in the Mishkan would focus on the leaders of the Nation. The Nesi’im, the tribal leaders, are the permanent leadership of Bnei Yisrael. They are the leaders that takes over when the nation settles in the land of Israel. More than either Aharon or Moshe, they are the leaders of the nation. That’s why in Sefer Bamidbar, where the focus is on the nation, they are the leaders in the Inauguration.

What is less obvious is why the manifestation of ‘א’s Presence here is through the revelation to Moshe above the Aron. This becomes clearer after a survey of several of the the narratives of Sefer Bamidbar. In chapter 11, the people complain and 70 elders are made prophets. In chapter 12, Aharon and Miriam are punished for their statements regarding Moshe. The narrative of the spies and the nation’s punishment fills Bamidbar 13 & 14. Korah’s rebellion is recorded in Bamibar 16 & 17. These, and the rest of the narratives of Bamidbar, are unified through consistant conversation of Moshe and ‘א in the Mishkan. Sefer Bamidbar demonstrates the amazing fact that Moshe could go to the Mishkan and ‘א would respond to him. Sefer Bamidbar is the story of birth of the Nation of Israel, and with the birth comes birth-pangs. Bnei Yisrael get off to a rough start, with a lot of unforeseen difficulties. Through all of these ups and downs, ‘א is there to guide Bnei Yisrael, and to answer Moshe when he needs help. This ensures the growth of the nation, and establishes the relationship of ‘א to Bnei Yisrael for all time. He is actively involved in our growth and development. More importantly, he responds to our development. He did not simply set us on a path and let us walk down it on our own. ‘א is with us every step of the way.

Parashat Masei – Towards an Ethics of Responsibility

וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת-הָאָרֶץ

Parashat Masei concludes Sefer Bamidbar by discussing the division of the Land of Israel into twelve sections for the 12[1] tribes of Israel. Additionally, it contains a few extra passages related to the division of the land, such as the designating of 48 cities for the Levi’im, six as cities of refuge, and the command to the Daughters of Tselophehad not to marry outside their tribe, in order to keep their inherited lands within the tribe. In addition, there is a passage discussing the laws of killing, both intentional and accidental. As an unintentional murderer is able to flee for his life to a city of refuge, the placement of this passage seems a fitting extension of the designation of the cities of the Levi’im. However, the law of the city of refuge is mentioned briefly in Shemot 21:13, and discussed at length in Devarim 19, and thus, its insertion here seems a little odd. If this passage had been inserted by Shemot 21:13, no one would have batted an eye, and then when the text described the designation of cities for the Levi’im, it would simply have had to mention that six of their cities would be cities of refuge, and that would be that. Instead, this lengthy passage is inserted at the end of Bamidbar, and its placement requires explanation. This explanation can be found by comparing this passage with the parallel passage from Devarim 19, and the end of Vayikra 18.

As opposed to Shemot 21:13, Devarim 19 contains a discussion of cities of refuge as lengthy as the one found in Bamidbar 35[2] . However, the structure and content of the two passages vary greatly. The passage in Bamidbar is essentially a discussion of the laws of killing in general, and thus it also includes the laws of an unintentional killer by default. The first mention of the purpose of the cities of refuge doesn’t even mention that the killing is unintentional. “And the cities shall be for you as a refuge from the avenger, that the killer not die, until he stand before the congregation for judgment.” (Bamidbar 35:12) It’s only a few verses later that the intent of the verse is clarified: “For the children of Israel, and for the stranger and for the settler among them, shall these six cities be a refuge, that every one that kills any person through error may flee there.” (35:15). By contrast, the passage in Devarim 19 is dedicated to the unintentional killer and the cities of refuge, and only mentions intentional killing in context of the possibility of an intentional killer hiding in the city of refuge. “But if any man hates his neighbor, and lies in wait for him, and rises up against him, and smites him mortally that he die; and he flees into one of these cities; then the elders of his city shall send and fetch him from there, and deliver him into the hand of the avenger of blood, that he may die” (Devarim 19:11-12). Thus the passage in Bamidbar seems to equate the two modes of killing somewhat, whereas the passage in Devarim does not. This is reinforced by the fact that Devarim simply mentions the city of refuge as protecting him from the threat of death by the avenger, while Bamidbar depicts the killer being taken there for judgement:

Then the congregation shall judge between the killer and the avenger of blood according to these ordinances; and the congregation shall deliver the killer out of the hand of the avenger of blood, and the congregation shall restore him to his city of refuge where he had fled; and he shall dwell there until the death of the high priest, who was anointed with the holy oil. (Bamidbar 35:25)

Further, while in Sefer Devarim the city of refuge is a privilege and a gift of safety for this unintentional killer, in Sefer Bamidbar the killer is actually forced to stay in the city (35:25), making it as much a punishment as a reprieve. It is clear from the passage at Sefer Bamidbar that while the unintentional killer should certainly be able to avail himself of the city of refuge, he is not totally guiltless.

While this explains what makes this passage unique it fails to explain its placement. Finding this explanation requires contrasting this passage with verses from Vayikra 18:

And the land was defiled (וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ), therefore I did visit the iniquity upon it, and the land vomited out her inhabitants. Therefore you shall keep My statutes and My ordinances, and shall not do any of these abominations; neither the citizen, nor the stranger that settles among you—for all these abominations have the men of the land done, that were before you, and the land is defiled (וַתִּטְמָא הָאָרֶץ)—that the land vomit not you out also, when you defile it (בְּטַמַּאֲכֶם אֹתָהּ), as it vomited out the nation that was before you. (Vayikra 18:25-28)[3]

These verses, describing the transgressions of the previous residents of the Land of Israel that caused their ownership of the land to be forfeit, are clearly referenced in the passage in Bamidbar 35.

So you shall not pollute the land that you are in; for blood, it pollutes the land; and no atonement can be made for the land for the blood that is shed in it, except by the blood of him that shed it[4]. And thou shalt not defile the land (וְלֹא תְטַמֵּא אֶת-הָאָרֶץ) which ye inhabit, in the midst of which I dwell; for I the LORD dwell in the midst of the children of Israel. (Bamidbar 35:33-34)

The passages even use the exact same wording, highlighting their innate connection. Moreover, both of these passages explain certain commands in terms of the effect trespassing them has on the land that the Nation of Israel will dwell in. The Land of Israel will not tolerate such intense trespasses. Even unintentionally, the killing of another person is such a severe crime as to have serious repercussions not just on the person[5] but on their surroundings as well, and, much like the sins of the nations that previously dwelled in the land, it costs them their ability to remain in the land[6]. Thus, the reason that the passage regarding the laws of a killer are placed at the end of Sefer Bamidbar, right in the middle of a discussion about the Division of the Land, is that they are a condition for, and a feature of, dwelling in the land.

The narrative and subsections of the Division of the Land are the final section of Sefer Bamidbar. They are the final necessary preparations before the people enter the land, and into this section is inserted laws emphasizing not just the conditions of living in the land, but the responsibility of the people who live in it. Even the unintentional killer must stand trial and endure exile (Bamidbar 35:24-25). Even the Kohen HaGadol, responsible for the religious and spiritual life of the nation, must bear the responsibility for this tragedy (Ibid). Upon entering the land, ‘א’s active and overt interaction in the life of the people begins to decrease. ‘א helps the people conquer in Sefer Yehoshua[7], but in Sefer Shoftim[8] the mark of a good leader is the lack of active involvement by ‘א. As ‘א becomes less involved, the people are expected to step in and take up more responsibility. In a world where we do not ever see open miracles, this responsibility is paramount. We cannot expect ‘א to simply take care of things, and assume that absolves us of our responsibilities. We have to stand tall and take responsibility, even for accidents[9] and mistakes, even for those things done by the people in our charge rather than by ourselves. There is a marked difference between conscious transgression and unavoidable misconduct, but there is never a reason to shirk responsibility.

[1] The Tribe of Levi does not get a portion, as they are split up into 48 cities throughout the other tribes, but the Tribe of Yosef is split into two separate tribes, Ephraim and Menashe, so the number of tribes remains twelve. This trade-off between the tribe of Levi and the splitting of Yosef’s tribe can be found throughout the torah. The only place Levi is listed alongside both Ephraim and Menashe is at the end of Sefer Devarim in Moshe’s farewell blessings, where Shimon is not mentioned, and so the number twelve is preserved.

[2] Much of the analysis in this paragraph is derived from this article by Rav Yonatan Grossman: http://www.vbm-torah.org/parsha.59/42mm.htm.

[3] This is foreshadowed in Bereishit 15:16, when ‘א explains the delay in the Bnei Yisrael’s inheriting the land by saying,“for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.”

[4] For those in whose eyes this seems barbaric, it is more than worth taking a look at Moshe Greenberg’s “The Biblical Grounding of Human Value”, https://drive.google.com/open?id=0BzQYdQcngakScnRLVmdDZGRMZ0U&authuser=0

[5] For more on this effect, see the sources and theoretical discussion found in this essay: http://pinkasot.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/the-moral-price-of-a-justified-war-a-clarification-of-my-position/.

[6] This explains the punishment of the unintentional killer in Sefer Bamidbar, where he is confined to the city of refuge. Much as the sins of Vayikra 18 merit exile, so does unintentional murder. Thus the city of refuge is not just a safe place, it’s also a form of exile, a little piece of “not the Land of Israel” inside the Land of Israel that the killer is stuck in.

[7] See the conquest of Yeriho in Yehoshua 6, for example.

[8] See the narratives of Otniel Ben-Kenaz (Shoftim 3:7-10) and Ehud Ben-Gerah (3:12-30), for example.

[9] “The difference between an accident and a tragedy is that an accident is preventable” ~ Yehuda Chaim Rothner

Parashat BeHa’alotkha 5774 – Moshe’s Leadership

וּמִי יִתֵּן כָּל-עַם יְ-הוָה נְבִיאִים

Parashat BeHa’alotkha bridges the end of Bnei Yisrael’s stay at Har Sinai to the beginning of their journey to the Plains of Moab and the land of Israel. Trouble begins immediately, as Moshe faces challenges to his leadership on all levels, from “each person at the entrance to their tent” (Bamidbar 11:10), to his own family (Bamidbar 12). These challenges are part of a larger string of narratives in Sefer Bamidbar dealing with issues of Equality and Leadership. The stories found at the end of Parashat BeHa’alotkha, in Bamidbar 11 & 12, discuss these issues in context of Moshe’s Leadership specifically, and in doing so, highlight the very foundation of biblical social structure, and the very nature of prophecy.

Bamidbar 11 opens with the complaints of the people, and Moshe’s reaction to the people. Moshe goes to the people and professes his inability to bear their weight (11:10-15). ‘א responds by validating Moshe’s concerns. Moshe says that he cannot lead alone (11:14), and ‘א responds by appointing 70 elders to lead alongside him (11:16). These 70 elders are gathered with Moshe to the Mishkan and ‘א overflows Moshe’s Spirit on to them, and they prophesy (11:17).[1] The problem that this raises is that if they are sharing in the prophetic spirit of Moshe, then Moshe’s hitherto unquestioned status as Leader of the Nation, not to mention Greatest of the Prophets, suddenly becomes shaky. The obvious solution for this dilemma, that Moshe is the one in charge of the bestowal of Prophecy on the Elders, and therefore he remains in charge, is made problematic by the existence of Eldad and Medad. Eldad and Medad decide not to come to the Mishkan, and yet despite this, they prophesy anyway, in the camp (11:26). These two prophets are outside the framework established by Moshe, and thus represent a direct challenge to his leadership.

This problem is addressed by Yehoshua, who calls upon Moshe to silence Medad and Eldad (11:28). Moshe’s response is somewhat astounding. “And Moses said to him: ‘Are thou jealous for my sake? Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!”[2] (11:29). With this simple response, Moshe tells Yehoshua that he should not be concerned for Moshe’s sake. In Moshe’s eyes, the ideal would be that all of Bnei Yisrael would be prophets, if not for the fact that ‘א had clearly chosen only him to be the prophetic leader of the nation. Moshe doesn’t see himself as inherently special. Rather, anyone could receive this level of prophecy and leadership, if only ‘א would bestow it upon them.

The final story of Parashat BeHa’alotkha is one of the more difficult stories to deal with in the Torah. Miriam and Aharon, Moshe’s siblings, challenge both his spousal choice (12:1), and his right to lead (12:2).  “And they said: ‘Has the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Has He not also spoken with us?” If ‘א spoke equally to all of them, then by what right could Moshe claim to lead? It would certainly be possible to answer that Moshe was simply better, naturally more fit to lead, but instead ‘א answers that their premise was wrong. While they saw their prophecy was being equal to Moshe’s, in fact it was not.

“And He said: ‘Hear now My words: if there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make Myself known to him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream. My servant Moses is not so; he is trusted in all My house; with him I speak mouth to mouth, even manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and he beholds the depiction of the Lord; Therefore why are you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses?” (12:6-8)

Moshe’s leadership is not a function of a greater innate stature than others, but rather of superior prophecy. Moreover, it’s not what moshe can do that makes him the leader, but the manner in which ‘א comes to him that does so.

Sefer Bamidbar has to confront the issues inherent in the growth of a nation. After receiving the majority of their laws at the foot of Har Sinai, Bnei Yisrael begin to travel toward the land of Israel. In Israel, they will face all of the challenges involved in the running of a society, and the roots of those issues are here in Sefer Bamidbar. The primary issue of the first few books of Nevi’im is that of Leadership: who is fit to lead, how do they relate to those being led, etc. In Sefer Bamidbar, the leader in question is Moshe. How does he relate to the rest of Bnei Yisrael? Is he a part of them, or separate? Both? These questions get raised forcefully and directly, and the answer comes in kind. Moshe isn’t inherently better or different than the people, he has simply been chosen by ‘א for a specific purpose. Anyone could be chosen. In fact, Moshe seems to like the idea of everyone being chosen, as he is. That, however, is not his choice to make. What makes Israelite prophecy unique is the fact that the prophets of Tanakh are messengers sent by ‘א for a specific purpose.[3] Our purpose is not for us to decide, it comes from ‘א. It was ‘א who chose Moshe to be a prophet and the leader of the nation. It is ‘א who chooses the purpose of each person. It’s our job to remember that. We should not take an apparently superior purpose as a sign that we are inherently better than anyone else, but rather we should take time to recall, as Moshe did, that all peoples are great, and each person is imbued with divine purpose.

[1] Prophesy as an indicator of appointment to Civil Office is not unheard of in Tanakh. See Shemuel Alef 10:9-13.

[2] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org

[3] Y. Kaufmann, The Religion of Israel.

Parashat Bamidbar – Census and Separation

וְהַזָּר הַקָּרֵב יוּמָת

 

Sefer Bamidbar begins with a listing of all of the tribes of Bnei Yisrael and their count, followed immediately by the formation of the camp, which includes all of the counts all over again. In both these lists the absence of the Tribe of Levi is glaring. The reason for this is simple: the Levi’im do not go to war, so they get only a quick mention in each list. Thus, in these first two lists of Bnei Yisrael, the Tribe of Levi gets sidelined. After the listing of the war-camps however, the Torah returns to the Tribe of Levi in order to describe all of its families, along with their jobs and counts. In all of these lists, one element is strikingly out of place. The beginning of the listing of the Levi’im starts out with the Kohanim, Aharon and his sons, and it not only mentions Nadav and Avihu, but also their crime.

And Nadav and Avihu died before the LORD, when they offered strange fire before the Lord, in the wilderness of Sinai, and they had no children; and Eleazar and Ithamar ministered in the priest’s office in the presence of Aaron their father (Bamidbar 3:4).[1]

In a list of all the Levi’im, it makes sense to include Nadav and Avihu, and to say that they died with no children to succeed them, but it is odd to include a mention of the crime for which they died. It seems a little out of place, and it certainly would not be missed if it was absent. However, looking at this line in the broader context of the first few chapters of Sefer Bamidar points out a theme not only in these chapters, but in Sefer Bamidbar as a whole.

The pasuk says that Nadav and Avihu died because they “offered strange fire before the Lord.” The word used here for “strange” is “זרה”. This word recalls to the reader the other times this word is used in this context:

“And when the tabernacle sets forward, the Levites shall take it down; and when the tabernacle is to be pitched, the Levites shall set it up; and the common man (זר) that draws near shall be put to death.” (Bamidbar 1:51).

“And you shall appoint Aaron and his sons, that they may keep their priesthood; and the common man (זר) that draws near shall be put to death.” (3:10).

“And those that were to pitch [their tents] before the tabernacle eastward, before the tent of meeting toward the sunrise, were Moses, and Aaron and his sons, keeping the charge of the sanctuary, even the charge for the children of Israel; and the common man (זר) that drew near was to be put to death.” (3:38).

Beyond the connection in terms of word-choice, the parallel here is obvious. Just as Nadav and Avihu died because they came improperly before ‘א, so too if a commoner comes improperly before ‘א they shall die.

To the modern ear, the distinction between the Levi’im and the common Israelites seems at best arbitrary, at worst immoral. The idea of castes and classes seems like a problem in need of solving, the kind of thing civilized man left in the long-forgotten past. However, much of Sefer Bamidbar is a discussion of these kinds of issues. Is it really true that all men are created equal? And if that is true, does that mean that all people are meant to do exactly the same thing, or do some people perhaps have different jobs? What is the relationship between the function and value of an individual person or group? These are the kind of questions tackled by the various narratives of Sefer Bamidbar.

Perhaps the best example of this can be found by continuing to trace the appearances of the word “זר” to it’s appearances in Bamidbar 17 & 18. These chapters come on the heels of the rebellion of Korah, a Levi who decided that the nation shouldn’t be ruled by any one or two individuals. Korah’s perspective strikes a chord with modern democratic sensibilities, especially in his bold statement, “all the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them,” (16:3). However, he and his followers are rejected, and Moshe berates them for thinking that importance is determined by hierarchy (16:9). In the wake of this rebellion, not only are the laws of the Kohanim reiterated and the prohibition for a common Israelite to come improperly before ‘א reinforced (18:4, 7), but they take the consecration fire-pans of Korah’s rebellion and make them into a covering for the alter “to be a memorial unto the children of Israel, to the end that no common man, that is not of the seed of Aaron, draw near to burn incense before the LORD; that he fare not as Korah, and as his company; as the LORD spoke unto him by the hand of Moses,” (17:5). In the wake of the rebellion of Korah, not only do the laws differentiating between the various groups of Israelites need to be reiterated, the nation needs a permanent memorial to remind them of this eternally.

A more in depth analysis of each of the issues mentioned above is beyond the scope of this paper, but perhaps a simple explanation of the issue of the classes can be found in looking back to the sin of Nadav and Avihu, not in it’s brief mention in Bamidbar, but in its original version in Sefer Vayikra. Vayikra 10:1 reads, “And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them.” While this is very similar to the quotation from Bamidbar 3:4, it adds one important detail: that ‘א had not commanded their offering. With this in mind, it is clear that what makes something “זר” is not some innate quality, but the word of ‘א. The differentiations between the Israelites, the Levi’im, and the Kohanim are not a function of innate differences between the groups, but rather of ‘א’s decision. And as can be seen from Moshe’s response to Korah (16:9), this differentiation is a matter of function only. It doesn’t make any one group better or more important than any other, and thinking that it does is a rejection of ‘א’s distinctions. It is this purpose, not an external signifier like serving in the Mishkan, that makes a person or group important. Perhaps this is why Sefer Bamidbar starts not with the census of the Levi’im, but with that of the rest of Bnei Yisrael. The census counted each individual person and family and tribe, for each of them had its own unique purpose, and was just as important as every other.[2] This is what is highlighted by the mentioning of the sin of Nadav and Avihu in Bamidbar 3:4, that the issue of the זר who approaches the Mishkan isn’t classes or castes, it’s about the unique purpose ‘א designates for each and every individual.

[1] Translations from www.mechon-mamre.org, with minor emendations for clarity.

[2] Ramban, Bamidbar 1:45