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Parashat Naso 5773 — 05/15/2013

Parashat Naso 5773 — 05/15/2013

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

Charity saves from death.  (Shabbat 156b)

If you live from the work of your hands, happy are you and it is good for you (Psalm 128:2)

Our quotes this week are all over the place!  What is the common thread?

We have discussed in previous years the idea that a person’s “holy things” (i.e. in Temple days, his tithes, and in our day what we donate to charity) are his.  They are all that is really lasting for us in the material world, because they are material goods that we have used to create a new spiritual reality – that is, a new structure on the finer levels of creation.  If we use our material goods solely to create effects on the material level, all we are left with is more materiality.  We may have created a positive effect, and we may have created a negative effect, if not locally, then perhaps globally.  The history of spreading technology is rife with unintended consequences, from multiple-resistant staph infections from the indiscriminate use of antibiotics to nuclear reactor accidents.

Perhaps most important, when we operate solely from the material level, we don’t advance our own spiritual standing.  We are, spiritually speaking, just spinning our wheels, and, in the words of a well-known contemporary poet, He not busy being born is busy dying.  Perhaps this is a deeper meaning behind Charity saves from death.  The Talmud gives several examples of people who acted charitably and were saved from an imminent danger of which they were unaware, but it then goes on to say that in fact, charity does not just save one from unusual deaths (such as snakebite in some of the examples given).  The commentators ask the obvious question – we see that even charitable people die.  I’m not even sure that charitable giving and long life are necessarily correlated, although some recent studies have indicated that when one gives charity certain chemicals associated with good feelings are produced in the brain.  More to the point, when we give of our resources, be they financial or resources of time and energy, we are telling ourselves that we are not defined by our attached to, the material world.  Since the material world is the world of decay and death (Second Law of Thermodynamics!), by detaching ourselves from this world we are literally saved from death – a kind of death of the soul, crusted over with a spiritual numbness that is alien to its essential nature.

We can actually extend this line of thinking.  Any time we do a mitzvah for its own sake, simply because we’ve been commanded to do it, we are detaching ourselves from the material and attaching ourselves to the spiritual.  For example, when we say a blessing over food we are about to eat, we are giving up ownership of that food to Gd, and recognize that we are to use that food only for the purposes for which Gd intended it – to strengthen our bodies to be able to interact properly with the material world.  In acknowledging Gd, we also acknowledge ourselves as spiritual beings primarily, with a mission to infuse that spirituality into the material creation.  (A purely material being cannot do this because it has no conscious connection with the infinite.  A purely spiritual being cannot do this either, because its interaction with the material world is severely limited.  Only human beings, who are souls inhabiting, or clothed in, bodies, and who have a consciousness developed enough to sustain self-awareness, are capable of carrying out this mission.)

I saw a fascinating insight into this phenomenon in the internet newsletter HaMa’ayan (published by, a site well worth visiting, with a wealth of insights into each parashah from a wide variety of perspectives) [vol 14, No 35, 14 Sivan 5760 – 17 June 2000]:

   R’ Yehuda Sobel (Rumania; 1940’s) explains: The Zohar teaches that the reason that souls come to this world is so that they can earn Hashem’s closeness instead of receiving it as a gift (which would be the case if the soul was never born and remained in Heaven). Yet, even a soul that toils in this world is doing so using Hashem’s gifts! Can one put up a mezuzah if Hashem has not given him a house? Can one wear tzitzit if Hashem has not given him clothes? If so, what has been accomplished?

   R’ Sobel answers: The Sages teach, “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except fear of Heaven.” Whether or not a person fears Hashem is the one thing over which Hashem has no control. Therefore, if one performs mitzvot in the spirit of fear of Heaven, he is given credit for doing the mitzvah on his own. This is the meaning of the verses in Tehilim. When is one praiseworthy? When he fears Hashem, for then he is truly eating the labor of his hands. And, the midrash tells us by connecting those verses to our verse, it is only in such circumstances that a man’s holies, i.e., his accomplishments, are his. (Perach Ha’geffen)

The word for “fear” (yira’) in this context is related to the word for vision (r’iyah).  What the Zohar is teaching us, I believe, is that the real “work of our hands” that we do in this world is to bring ourselves to a level of awareness where we literally “see” Gd as it were in every bit of creation.  It is the work of our hands because it is the one area that Gd has left free for us to operate in – the area of moral choice.  How do we reach this level of awareness?  We use the “training manual” Gd has given us and do the “exercises” in the manual!  Each of these exercises gives us the opportunity to surrender our individual, limited intellect and will to Gd’s infinite intelligence and His Will.  They are, if you will, practice at stretching the limits of our perception until those limits recede to infinity permanently.

In Pirke Avot (6:4) the Sages comment on the verse from Psalms: Happy are you – in this world; And it is good for you – in the World to Come.  Once we have used our free will to surrender our free will to Gd, we experience the bliss of fully expanded perception (this world) and our soul is eternally bound up with its infinite Source in Gd (the World to Come).  Is there anything else worth working for?!


Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 9

Shimon ben Shetach said:

Examine the witnesses at length, and be careful of your words, lest they infer from them how to lie.

Even today, when one testifies in court, one swears an oath to tell the truth.  It used to be that one put his hand on a Bible and, inter alia, said, “… so help me Gd.”  This practice of swearing on Gd’s Name or on a sacred object goes back to Biblical times, and was not just a method of putting the “fear of Gd” into the witness.  It was a way of forcing the witness to associate his speech with Gd’s speech and his veracity with the ultimate Truth of Gd’s existence.  Thus, giving false testimony became tantamount to denying the existence of Gd!  How careful we have to be with our power of speech!  When Gd made the first human a “living soul” it was by “blowing into his nostrils the breath of life.”  Our life is intimately bound up with Gd’s life; if we deny the latter, we deny the former as well.  And of course, this applies to everything we say or do, whether in court or not, whether formally under oath or not.  As our Sages tell us, the seal of the Holy One is Truth.