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Parashat 06/01/2011

Parashat Naso

by Robert Rabinoff

The holy things [i.e. gifts to the Kohanim and Levites] that a man gives will be his. (5:10)

Rashi: Since it says “gifts” [lit. that which is given] to the Kohanim and Levites I might think they could go and take them by force.  Scripture therefore says “the holy things that a man gives will be his” to tell you that the “good-will” belongs to the owner.  … And a Midrash Aggadah says that whoever withholds his tithes, those  tithes will be his [and nothing else] – in the end his fields will only produce a tenth of what they used to produce.

The verse itself is a bit ambiguous, as it is not completely clear to whom the pronoun “his” refers – it could be the Kohen or it could be the Israelite who is presenting the gift.  Rashi clarifies, citing first a technical explanation, then a homiletic one.  The “his” refers to the Israelite in both cases.  In one case, the verse is coming to warn us that withholding of tithes from the Kohanim and Levites will lead to Gd’s withholding His bounty from us – instead of our giving 10% of our bumper crops away, the land will only produce 10% of what it used to produce, which we will keep.  Nowadays, the few of us that are farmers replace the 10% tithe that was given away to the spiritual leaders of the community with a monetary tithe from our earnings, which is similarly given away to further the spiritual development of the community, and also to feed the poor and clothe the threadbare.  Supporting institutions that further spiritual development is especially appropriate now as we are about to celebrate the Revelation at Mt. Sinai this coming Wednesday and Thursday.


Another homiletic interpretation of the verse grows out of this one.  The gifts that we give to others are the only material things that are really “ours.”  We have seen many people who hoard their wealth, deathly afraid of loss and want.  Sometimes, however, all their wealth notwithstanding, a reversal of fortune takes place, and they are left impoverished.  Unfortunately since they have given nothing, they have nothing – no money, no friends, no sympathy.  Even if they don’t suffer a reversal of fortune, they will certainly die one day, and all their money cannot buy them another moment of life.  They go to the grave as naked as the poorest pauper, and our tradition tells us that when they come to give an account of themselves before Gd, they are actually much worse off than the pauper.  In contrast to this, one who is generous with his material possessions, even if he loses them all, he has created such good-will in the community and in the cosmos, that he will never feel bereft of possessions.  This good-will is something that cannot ever be taken away from him.  I have found in my own life that the more I give, the more I gain, even materially.  It seems to be a spiritual law of nature, that the tighter you hold on to something, the harder Gd pries it out of your hand.  The more you open your hand to give, the more Gd is there to fill it up again.  I think this is because, ultimately, everything you have belongs to Gd anyway.  It is yours to manage for Gd, like one who manages an estate for the landlord.  Heaven help the administrator who comes to believe he is the owner!


I would like to turn to Rashi’s “technical” explanation of the verse, because I believe that Torah is hinting at something very profound here.  The gifts to the Kohanim and Levites are certainly obligations on the part of the Israelite, but the Israelite is free to choose which Kohen or Levite to give the gifts to.  This is known as the “good-will” value (tovat hana’ah) of the tithe, and, as Rashi states, it belongs to the Israelite.  It actually has a certain monetary value as the following situation indicates.  Suppose my daughter marries a Kohen.  She is then entitled to eat the terumah (the portion of the crop, usually about 2%, that is given to a Kohen, and which may only be eaten by Kohanim and their families).  I am allowed to pay a nominal amount to an Israelite farmer to choose to give his terumah to my son-in-law rather than to some other Kohen; this is called the tovat hana’ah of that farmer.


Thus, even though the “holy things” are completely given over to Gd, in the form of gifts that Gd has assigned to the Kohanim and Levites (in exchange for their dedicating their lives to teaching and uplifting the nation spiritually), there is still a trace of ownership left to the individual.  When we consider our attitude towards mitzvah performance we find a similar kind of dichotomy.  The ultimate in mitzvah performance occurs when we do the mitzvah totally l’shem shamayim – 100% because Gd commanded us to do so, and 0% for our own reasons.  There is a famous story of the Vilna Gaon.  One year it was impossible to find etrogim at Sukkot.  After frantically searching, one of the Gaon’s students found someone who had an etrog, and brought him to the Gaon.  The Gaon offered to pay any price for the etrog, but the man refused money.  He said “You can have the etrog free, if you promise that I will have your heavenly reward for performing the mitzvah of lulav and etrog.”  The Gaon readily agreed and the deal was done.  Afterwards the Gaon told his students that this was the first time he had ever really performed a mitzvah properly, because his individuality was completely nullified – he had given away any reward, any personal benefit, even purely spiritual benefit, and could do the mitzvah solely because he was commanded to do so.


And yet, we know that there is a reward for performing mitzvot, and that reward is a closer relationship with Gd.  Further, our Sages tell us that it is Gd’s desire to give us this reward – in other words Gd desires that we come into ever closer relationship to Him.  The mitzvot certainly allow this to happen in an orderly, safe fashion, so that we are spared the fate of Nadav and Avihu, who came too close, too soon, and were overwhelmed, like a moth coming to close to a flame.  For Gd is completely universal, infinite and unbounded.  We, on the other hand, are finite and individual.  For us to come into a relationship with Gd means that we must expand and become more Gd-like, as Torah tells us: you shall walk in His ways.  On the other hand, as our minds expand and become more unbounded and universal, and as our perception expands more and more to see the universal value in every expression of manifest creation, there is a danger – we may become so universal that there is no individuality left to be in a relationship with Gd.  Just as a mother holds her child at arm’s length sometimes so she can see him, so she can relate to him as someone apart from herself, so Gd has arranged our path of spiritual development to keep us somewhat “at arm’s length,” that is, maintaining some individuality so that the relationship can exist.  Perhaps this is what Torah is hinting at when it says that a person’s holy things are his – there is still some tiny, residual value of individuality that inheres in our “holy things,” in the universal value of life that is our essential nature.  As my mother A”H would say, “this should be your biggest problem in life!”  Indeed, may we all soon have the “problem” that universality pervades our being to such an extent that we must make the effort to maintain a trace of individuality!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 6

Mishnah 3

One who learns from his fellow a chapter, a law, a verse, an expression, or even a single letter, must behave toward that fellow with honor…

Besides our relationship to Gd, our most important relationship is to our spiritual teacher(s).  As we discussed in Parashat Bamidbar, one who teaches another person Torah is accounted as if he had given birth to that person, for in fact, he has given that person real, eternal life, rather than just physical existence.  But there is even more than that.  We have just discussed that as we deepen our relationship to Gd, it is important to maintain even a little bit of individuality, so that we don’t get completely swallowed up by Gd’s infinite greatness.  How are we to do that?  It is a little hard to maintain that individuality vis-à-vis Gd, but if we maintain a relationship with another finite creature, albeit one who embodies the purest values of infinity in thought and perception, then it is a bit easier to keep a spark of finitude alive in ourselves.  As a wise man put it, the awe and respect we have for our spiritual teacher keeps us at a bit of a distance, so that when our perception is expanding to take in the infinite value of all we see, it isn’t allowed to overtake the teacher.  The teacher remains “my” teacher, and it is this little bit of “my” value which allows us to maintain our individuality in a sea of infinity.  This is the ultimate value of the teacher-student relationship!