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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Naso

Updated: Jun 13, 2020

Parashat Naso

Sivan 14, 5780 – June 6, 2020

Torah Reading: Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Naso, which is Hebrew for “lift up.” For those of you that have been tuning in over the past few months, or so, I’d just like to say thank you and express my gratitude for your participation. This audio series is a work in progress, and this year is the first iteration of the project. Thank you so much for the support, and – if you ever feel inclined – please feel free to comment or reach out to me regarding the content; I welcome anything you have to say. I apologize for being a bit late this week (and some other weeks as well) but I’m really doing my best to keep pace with the annual cycle. At the moment, I’m taking a Talmud intensive with JTS (The Jewish Theological Seminary of America), which has been occupying much of my time and my head space – so, the Dvar Torah that I’m going to share this week will be a bit briefer than usual. With most education, at the moment, taking place through zoom or other online platforms, it feels difficult spending so much time on the computer writing and recording essays – even though my enthusiasm for Torah study is as alive as ever! Naso, and much of the Torah for the Earth commentary this year, has come at a time of great concern. The world has been struck with a global pandemic, our collective way of life has been greatly affected, and many social and political injustices have been coming to light. In the transition from the Book of Leviticus to the Book of Numbers, the focus has shifted from the ritual purity of the kohanim – and their responsibilities in the Mishkan – to the welfare of the entire Israelite community. In a similar respect, the world-at-large is also on a journey through the desert, working to defend and uphold the structures of our society that stand for peace, justice, and equality. Not only are we learning to navigate the wilderness as a unified whole, but we are also in need of a “lifting up” – an advancement of our mentality to a place where we participate in, and can transform appropriately, the suffering of this world.

Between Parashat Bamidbar and Parashat Naso, we have also celebrated Shavuot – the holiday that honors the giving of the Torah at Sinai. Historically, Shavuot was one of the Three Pilgrimage Festivals (In Hebrew, known as Shalosh Regalim – quite literally, the “Three Legs” or “Three Pillars”) that are commanded in the Torah. In English, Shavuot is referred to as the “Festival of Weeks” – it comes after the seven-week period of Sefirat HaOmer, whereby we are continuously meditating on the integrity of our character, and the soundness of our relationship with G-d. Because Parashat Naso introduces the concept of a sotah (literally: “a woman who strayed”[1] or a “wayward wife” – in essence – a woman who is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband), which may invoke a sense of inequality, I would like to point out that the Torah was actually given to women first. In Exodus 19:3 we read: “Moses ascended to G-d, and Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying: ‘So shall you say to the House of Jacob and relate to the Children of Israel.’” In the Mechilta, we are told that the “House of Jacob” refers to women, and “Children of Israel” refers to men,[2] and as we read in this verse, the “House of Jacob” is mentioned before the “Children of Israel.” Torah for the Earthpremises itself upon the notion that the Torah is inherently ecological, and if women are the ones who are to “inculcate love of Torah in their children,”[3] logic then permits us to believe that the loving nature of women carries with it an ecological consciousness. When read within an eco-feminist perspective, and in conjunction with Parashat Naso, I certainly find the “Ordeal of Bitter Waters” intriguing. This is the trial that a “sotah” must go through to prove her innocence and her purity; it is, in fact, the “only halachic procedure in the Torah that depends on a supernatural intervention.”[4] There are, of course, reasons for this, but the procedure was conducted as follows: a woman suspected of adultery is brought before a Kohen, sacred water is drawn from the Temple Laver and is mixed with dirt from the floor of the Temple. In the wilderness, the floor of the Mishkan was sand, but later – once the Temple was built – a section of the marble stone floor was left loose so it could be lifted to retrieve the holy earth beneath the stone, which can then be used in this ritual (Sotah 15b). The earth is mixed with the water and the woman is told to drink the mixture – if she’s innocent, she’ll be fine (and actually her fertility will increase), and if she’s guilty, well…it doesn’t go well. The notion here though, that a woman’s purity and fertility correlates to her capacity to ingest two sacred elementals, is certainly ecologically intriguing. There is, as one might imagine, a debate about whether this ritual protected women, or placed them in a vulnerable situation. But what I’d like to highlight is the connection between the earth and the deliverance of justice, and the partnership between women and the revelation of divinity. These are important associations for us to keep in mind as we are learning to seek justice for the earth and hold space for the voices of women that have been oppressed and marginalized for centuries.

There are two more parts to this parashah that I’d like to address – the law of the nazir, which follows the descriptions of the sotah, and the Priestly Blessings. A nazir takes a vow to abstain from wine, not cut their hair, and not come into contact with a dead person. As an aside, some well-known Nazirites that you may be familiar with are Samson and Samuel. In the Talmud (Sotah 2a) we read about why the laws of the Nazirite immediately follow descriptions of the sotah. We are told that the Sages derived that “one who sees a sotah…should [under]take [the] Nazirite vow. This sheds light on the underlying purpose of the Nazirite status and what would prompt one to adopt it.”[5] In short, a sotah is someone who is believed to neglect their responsibility to G-d by allowing sensual pleasure to be the driving force in their life. Through temptation and rationalization, someone can actually convince themselves that adultery – one of the three cardinal sins – is an option. For someone who witnesses a sotah, we read that “one should abstain from wine and stimulate one’s spiritual impulses in order to escape the loose lifestyle that symbolizes the behavior symbolized by the sotah.”[6] When placed within the context of an ecological hermeneutic, when we witness the dark side of the human imagination, the spiritual integrity of the individual (and the entire world) depends upon an adjustment of behavior. The Nazirite is a type of ascetic, but the fundamental precept is that when we witness human behavior swinging in a direction, we must enact a spiritual principle to inspire a balance. Much of the world, and categories of behavior, are driven by sensual desires and material comforts that are destroying the earth. I think it’s fair to say that there are paradigms being driven by the Evil Inclination, and when we are witness to these forms of behavior, the Torah is asking us to consider the Nazirite vow. I’m not suggesting you abstain from wine or let your hair grow. But I am asking you to inquire within yourself about a model of behavior that you can integrate into your life that can close the door to negative inclinations, and swing the pendulum of creation towards sustainability and peace.

The Priestly Blessings that are given in 6:22-27, which are also known as Nesi’at Kapayim (lit. the “lifting of the hands”) are a beautiful sequence of rhythmic poetry that invokes material blessings, grace, and unity. They immediately precede the tribal offerings for the inauguration of the altar, which were each brought on different days, but were all the same. The Priestly Blessings reminds us about the power of our hands to heal, and how the identity of our offering to the world is not dependent upon what we bring to the world – but, rather, how we bring it. Don’t worry so much about a thing you can bring for change. Lift up your sleeves, use your hands, and don’t be afraid to receive a blessing! The whole world is in need of one right now.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: “Lifting up” the world, the Ordeal of Bitter Waters, and the eco-feminism of Torah


Eskenazi, Tamara Cohn, and Rabbi Andrea L. Weiss, eds. The Torah: a women's commentary. CCAR Press, 2017.

Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Eskenazi, The Torah: a women's commentary, p.815 [2] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.401 [3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.401 [4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.755 [5] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.759 [6] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.759

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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