TORAH MINUTE - NASO MAY, 1994
The portion of NASO consists of a series of vignettes concerning the obligations of the Levites and the other tribes as they marched through the Sinai. At first glance, it is difficult to find much about the portion that has impact on our lives today. True, the portion introduces the BERKAT KOHANIM (Priestly Blessing) and, were I a Rabbi, would certainly spawn a discussion of the laws concerning it's administration. However, the commentaries do afford some interesting insights on two rather arcane duties of the KOHANIM found in NASO and these will form the core of my comments today.
We learn in NASO that a jealous husband could bring his wife before the KOHEN who, after repeated attempts to cajole her into confessing her infidelity, would administer a prescribed amount of water which was made bitter by the addition of earth from the Temple Mount and other herbal ingredients. If the woman was unfaithful, the "Bitter Water" would cause her immediate and horrible death and that of her paramour, but if she were innocent, she would become pregnant and all her husband's jealousy would be expunged. The TORAH, at least in the portion of NASO, does not provide any recourse for a jealous wife, which leads to the conclusion that the ancient Hebrew man was unwavering in his fidelity, never giving his wife cause to be suspicious. During the time of the Second Temple, some two thousand years before the advent of feminism, the Sanhedrin began to question the heretofore unshakable virtue of the Jewish male, and abolished the ordeal of the "Bitter Water", substituting a more politically correct system of divorce and property settlement which would deprive the unfaithful spouse of much of the family's assets.
This ancient episode of Divorce Court is immediately followed by the laws of the NAZIR. In order to atone for a major sin or thank HASHEM for a blessing of good fortune, a person could pledge a period (six months at a minimum) of service to HASHEM. During this time the NAZIR (ascetic) would refrain from the consumption of wine or other alcoholic drink, from cutting his or her hair, and from becomming ritually impure though contact with a deceased person. The law of the NAZIR does affect us today because it clearly led to the emergence of the Essene sect of monastic Jews. Teachings of members of the Essene sect have formed the foundation of the second of the three major religions and we are all aware of the effect that has had on world Jewry.
The most important lesson of the "Bitter Water" and the NAZIR however, arises not from their content but from the order by which they are presented in the TORAH. Our sages give two reasons why these concepts follow each other as they do. One reason is that after enduring the ordeal of the "Bitter Water", a vindicated wife would often take the pledge of asceticism to thank HASHEM for saving her life and her marriage. Secondly, the sages point to the total abstinence from wine required of the NAZIR to remind us of how often alcohol plays a role in marital infidelity and many other moral indiscretions.
It is always interesting to make note of the TORAH's teachings on the subject of alcohol. Nearly all of our rituals involve the consumption of wine, it is considered HASHEM's greatest gift to humankind. It symbolizes the pleasure we derive from the fruit of the earth and from life itself. A moderate amount of alcohol can enrich both the ritual and social lives of responsible people and unlike many other religions, Judaism does not discourage such non-ritual consumption. This is because we believe that HASHEM has imbued all individuals with the power of choice. Certainly, the TORAH, and our own experiences, are replete with examples of people who choose to misuse this gift, but it is their choice. HASHEM, through the TORAH and our Prophets, has shown us the appropriate use for alcohol, humankind will chose for itself whether HASHEM's gift of wine will bring happiness or misery.
The dichotomy of the gift of wine is closely paralleled by religion itself. All major religions lay a righteous path for their followers and enjoin them to do good. We Jews however, bear bitter witness to the evil inclination of individuals who turn the loving words of their Creator into instruments of destruction. We have also witnessed our own religion so perverted. Speaking on VAYECHI last fall, I expressed a fear that a single act of Jewish terrorism would do more harm to Israel than generations of Arab attacks. That act occurred last Purim in Hebron and the response of the world press was predictable. Widespread Jewish condemnation of the crime was ignored as were 75 years of Arab intransigence and unrepentant terrorism. The cry went out for a "proper" peace settlement whose sole purpose is to protect "beleaguered" West Bank Arabs against marauding hoards of heavily armed Jewish settlers - so much for the myth of Jewish control of the press. My worst fear may yet take place as the Jewish State through this massacre finds itself propelled towards a hastily conceived agreement with Syria which will serve only as a prelude to the next and most destructive Mideast war. Religious fanaticism, on either side, will not solve the problems of the Middle East - it is the problem.
The culmination of the Blessing of the KOHANIM found in the portion of NASO is HASHEM's promise of peace. Individually, we often see this promise fulfilled in the warmth and satisfaction we feel after performing some good deed. It is possible that humankind may finally know peace when we begin to use religion only as a positive force for personal happiness and goodwill towards others. One person able to do just that, as I've learned from anecdotes related to me by my mother, was my grandfather, Morris B. Horowitz, of blessed memory, whose name I bear. His YAHRTZEIT will begin at sundown tonight and to his memory, and the memory of my mother, whom we all knew so well, and whose YAHRTZEIT will occur in two weeks, I dedicate this talk. May their memory, and the memories of all our parents departed, inspire us to the true essence of our religion, to accomplish deeds of kindness and charity which will merit HASHEM's ultimate blessing of peace in our lifetime.