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Parashat Naso 5775 — 05/27/2015

Parashat Naso 5775 — 05/27/2015

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89 (Naso is the longest single Parashah by number of verses. Of its 176 verses, the 89 verses of chapter 7 describe the offerings of the tribal princes, including a series of 6 verses that are repeated 12 times virtually verbatim, once for each tribe.)

May Gd bless you and keep watch over you.

May Gd make His Presence enlighten you and grant you grace.

May Gd direct His Providence toward you and grant you peace. (6:24-6) (Tr. Aryeh Kaplan)

The third of the Priestly blessings, generally translated “May Gd lift up His countenance to you,” is a blessing that Gd should show us special favor. This would be through Gd’s Attribute of Mercy (Midat haRachamim). Gd also has an Attribute of Strict Justice (Midat haDin) which would seem to forbid showing special consideration to anyone. After all, right is right and wrong is wrong, and the consequences of right action should be different than the consequences of wrong action.

Rav Kook quotes a Talmudic passage (Berachot 20b) that makes this very point:

The ministering angels asked the Holy One, “Master of the Universe, it is written in Your Torah (Deut 10:17) that You ‘do not show favor or take bribes.’ And yet, You show Israel special consideration, as it is written, ‘May Gd life His countenance to you’!”

Gd replied to them, “How can I not favor Israel? For I commanded them, “When you eat and are satisfied, you must bless the Lord, your Gd’ (Deut 8:10), and they are stringent [to say grace] over [even] an olive-sized piece of bread [even though they are not satiated].”

So we have the problem of reconciling justice and mercy, absolute truth and relative existence. This is obviously a problem of long standing, and many great sages have offered opinions and explanations. In the tradition of “fools rush in,” I have offered the suggestion that this apparent conflict is rooted in the very nature of creation itself. There is a correspondance between the Midat haDin and the laws of nature. The Midat haDin is associated in our tradition with the Divine Name Elokim, which has the numerical value of 86, the same as haTeva’, Nature. (haTeva’ has an ayin at the end for those keeping score.) This is not hard to understand – if we walk off a cliff we will fall. No quarter given. Now if all Gd wanted was automata, this would work just fine. Everything would work according to the laws of nature.

However Gd does not want automata – he wants human beings who choose the proper path, the path of acknowledgment of Gd’s existence and sovereignty over the creation. Giving human beings free will, however, means giving them the possibility to sin. And sin has consequences – since getting off the proper path means creating a disruption in the smooth functioning of creation, creation reacts in a way so as to redress the balance, and we experience this reaction as some kind of suffering. In order to keep the suffering from crushing us completely, the Midat haRachamim comes into play. This Divine Attribute can mitigate or delay the reaction of fnature to our sin, in order to give us time to make corrections on our own. This process of self-correction is t’shuvah, Repentance, and involves our return to the correct path of behavior. More important, it involves our return to our own essential nature, which is the same unbounded, infinite basis of the whole creation. This is the ultimate correction, because with our awareness stationed at the level from which all creation emerges, our thoughts and actions are automatically aligned with the process of creation, and we become as incapable of acting in a negative way as we are of putting our hand into a fire.

Rav Kook analyzes our Talmudic passage along these lines. He notes that:

We are punished for wrongdoings, not out of divine retribution or revenge, but in order to direct us to the proper path. Even if an individual is bursting with merits and good deeds, he will not gain from a reprieve, even for the slightest of errors. Without the appropriate measure of divine justice, we do not learn to mend our ways and strive towards ever-greater perfection.

There are some individuals, however, who constantly do t’shuvah, whose whole lives are spent in seeking perfection. Such individuals do not actually need the stick to move forward – the carrot of closeness to Gd is quite sufficient. Rav Kook goes on to say that the characteristic of such people is that they have a highly developed sense of gratitude to Gd for all the blessings He has showered on us. Since they understand that whatever Gd, Who is infinite, gives us, who are finite creatures, is a pure, undeserved blessing, they attempt to “repay” Gd by perfecting themselves to the greatest extent possible.

Thus, when the angels complain that the aspect of Justice is being slighted, Gd explains to them that in this situation the aspect of Justice is not needed. The Israelites have already demonstrated that they have the requisite level of gratitude, and are willing to go above and beyond the letter of the law to acknowledge Gd’s greatness. Our Sages tell us that Gd originally wanted to create using only the Midat haDin, but He “figured out” that it wouldn’t work. With t’shuvah we have the opportunity to make the Midat haDin obsolete, as it were. We’d all do well to seize the opportunity!

Pirke Avot, Chapter 1

Mishnah 2

Shimon the Righteous was among the last of the Men of the Great Assembly. He would say: On three things the world stands: On Torah, on the Divine Service and on the practice of lovingkindness.

Nowadays we have no Divine Service in the Temple. Even the Torah we have is filtered through the dusty, smoky air of contemporary society. How does the world survive? Torah of course, in its essence doesn’t change, and on its own level is never obscured. And we certainly can, and should, practice lovingkindness. What about Divine Service? A verse from Hoshea (14:2) tells us: Let our lips substitute for bulls. In other words, nowadays our Divine Service is through prayer. With our lips we have to make up for all the animals, the wine libations, the meal-offerings. It’s a tall order, and it requires focus and dedication. But without the Temple, it’s our only way to connect with the Divine, and if the world loses its connection with the Divine, then it surely cannot stand! So besides its being very personally satisfying, praying can rectify all the sins of the world, a little at a time. It’s both our duty and our privilege – and our pleasure – to fulfill this responsibility!