Naso – A thought for the week by Michael Lewis

The Sedra this week, Naso, is named for the statement נָשׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ

Usually translated as “take a census” it can also be seen as a call to “lift the head” (the word “רֹ֛אשׁ” of the phrase; It could be the origin of the word “headcount”). Traditionally we number as “not one, not two, etcetera; possibly as an archaic, mediaeval means of averting the “evil eye”.

This very long Sedra starts with the duties of the Kohathites, continues with the question of the “wayward wife”, the “Soteh” and goes on to the laws of the ”Nazir” (someone who takes a vow). Those last two segments raise pertinent questions.

The ritual of the Soteh is beyond modern understanding although similar rituals can be found in the history of other cultures. What is missed is why is no similar ritual is offered for a wayward husband?

A “Nazir”, someone who takes on a vow, is plainly described as being either male or female but, in chapter 30 of Bamidbar, we come across some 14 provisions allowing a man to annul such vows made by a woman.

No female Nazirites are specifically mentioned in all of the Tanach, but the Talmud (Nazir 19b) talks about a female Nazir, named Helene of Adiabene (a city in ancient Syria). She was a first century gentile proselyte (a convert to Judaism).

The final part of the Sedra lists the offerings brought by each of the tribes. They are mirror images: we are all equal before God.

It is in today’s reading that we also find the command

Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying: This is how you shall bless the children of Israel

What follows is the familiar priestly blessing.

It is our custom to perform the rite of Duchaning (the recital of the priestly blessing, with Kohanim on the Bimah), on Yom Tovim rather than daily or on every Shabbat. At those times we lower our heads.

For all other times such as the repetition of the Amidah, and especially when a parent blesses his Bar or Bat Mitzvah child, we keep our heads raised. We are all equal before God and truly a priestly nation.

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