Sara Schatz just graduated from Yeshiva University, where she majored in Jewish Studies with concentration in Bible and Talmud. Next year, she will bez’’H continue her Talmud Torah at Yeshiva University’s Graduate Program For Advanced Talmudic Studies (GPATS), and will be starting her master’s in education.
(This d’var torah is dedicated in memory of my grandfathers, Elazar ben Yisrael Tzvi and Binyamin Moshe ben Yosef (ע”ה), two of my greatest role models who unfortunately both passed away very recently. יהיו זכרם ושמם ברוכים.)
2020 has been a year full of crises — natural, organizational, financial… the list goes on. Perhaps the most prominent emotion people have elicited towards this crisis is grief, and rightfully so.
What is the proper antidote for grief? Perhaps we can find a solution simply by glancing through the text of this week’s sidra, Parshat Naso.
Parshat Naso is filled with a wide range of topics, from laws of stealing from a convert (במדבר 5:5-10); laws of Sotah, an adulteress (5:11-31); and the laws of a Nazir, a man who isolates himself, generally in order to atone for a specific sin (6:1-21). Many commentaries discuss at great length what the underlying juxtapositions are between the themes. However, perhaps the Ralbag, one of the greatest Medieval French Jewish philosophers, integrates the message of our parshathe most astutely. Though he does this throughout his commentary on the Parsha, here is a small sampling of how he explains the purpose of the Nazir:
“והנה סמך זאת הפרשה לפרשת סוטה שעניינה להסיר הקטטה וההפסד מהבית ולפי שזאת הפרשה הוא להשקיט הריב והפסד מהאד’ בעצמו מצד תשוקתו הגופית אשר יביאהו לחטא ושקטת זה הריב הוא ממה שיקדם בסדר בענין שלום הבית ושלום המדינה ולזה שמתהו התורה אחרון בסדר ועניין זאת הפרשה הוא לרפואת מי שיצרו גובר עליו כי הוא צריך שיזיר עצמו מן היין כי היין הוא סבת חזקה להגביר היצר הרע…”
“This parsha [of Nazir] is placed next to the parsha of Sotah because the concept is to remove quarrel and strife in the household, and because this parsha is meant to quiet fight and strife from a person from his physical desires that bring him to sin. Already in the parsha, these fights have been quieted through means of shalom habayit (peace in the home), and shalom hamidina (national peace). Therefore, the Torah places nazirut at the very end, because this concept heals someone whose desires have overtaken him, because he needs to separate himself from wine, which is a primary way the evil inclination can overtake a person…” (Numbers 6:2)
According to the Ralbag, these three seemingly random topics are part-in-parcel to solidifying shalom, peace, in three different circumstances: through community, family, and the individual. Indeed, this is spelled out at the very end of the parsha, in Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. There, we exuberantly proclaim to G-d: “יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם” – “G-d should bestow His favor upon you and place peace onto you.”
Yet surprisingly, the interpretations elucidated by the Ralbag do not exactly match with the interpretation of our Tannaim, the rabbinic sages of the Mishnah. In the Sifrei, (the work of midrash halakhah on Sefer Bamidbar) Rabbi Chanina Segan ha-Kohanim and Rabbi Natan have a major dispute regarding what the “peace” in Birkat Kohanim is referring to. Rabbi Chanina Segan ha-Kohanim says, “שלום בביתך”, “peace in your homes”, implying the importance of familial peace. Rabbi Natan, on the other hand, says, “שלום מלכות בית דוד”, “peace in the house of David,” connoting political peace (פיסקא מב). This machloket is tough to decipher. Didn’t we just learn from the Ralbagthat we need to have a focus on political and familial peace equally? Why can’t we simply establish that? And doesn’t our parsha add another formulation of peace: peace within ourselves?
Perhaps the answer can be found in the words of the great Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm (z”l), who passed away this past Sunday. In his sermon on Parshat Naso following the Six-Day-War, he notes a major difference between the generation of the 1967 and the generation Parshat Naso:
“In the Biblical era, it appears that our people had to fight every forty years for its survival; nowadays, apparently, the cycle comes every ten years. But this is not our choice. […] our ambition is always shalom.”
Rabbi Lamm means that each generation faces a unique crisis. Some are more familial, while others are more socio-political. Some home in more on repairing “peace in our homes”, while others focus on “peace in the house of David”. Nevertheless, what remains a consistent ambition? Shalom.
However, shalom doesn’t stem from a national lens, nor a familial lens. It stems from our own personal senses of self. Above all, we must not neglect the third form of peace – the peace of the nazir, the peace within ourselves. Peace must come from the bottom-up, not from the top-down. As Hillel HaTzadik famously expressed in Masechet Avot (1:14), אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי?, “If I am not for myself, who is for me?” The Rambam, in his commentary on Avot, cleverly adds, “As I have no one to stimulate me from outside.”
In a world full of crises, we can choose to implement our grief in a myriad of ways. We can hastily bring out our anger and anxieties, let out our emotions onto our families and communities. Or we can take a step back, deal with our emotions, find our own inner peace, and react with deliberation.
The next time we have the opportunity to hear the words of Birkat Kohanim b’tzibbur, quickly in our days, we should no longer think to ourselves that this is merely a vision. Rather, it is an active calling. And as we have learned from the underlying purpose of Parshat Naso, it is perhaps the most important calling we could ever receive.
I am grateful for the פרשת נשא sermons of Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, z”l from June 1967 and 1976, both of which inspired the thoughts behind this d’var torah.