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Good Fences Make Good Neighbors

Our relationships with God, family, and community are inextricably intertwined. The health of one relationship depends on the health of all the others. We truly are a body. Imagine how well the lungs would function if they couldn’t act in concert with the heart or if they couldn’t detect signals from the brain. When one organ refuses to cooperate with others, the whole body suffers and eventually dies.

Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89) describes some of the organs in our body and how they are designed to work together.

Numbers 4:21-49 The Levites and Cohanim are set apart from the rest of the nation for a specific set of functions. Work was further divided among different clans within the Levitical tribe, and no clan was allowed to do the work of another, nor was any other tribe allowed to do the work of the Levites. They were not set apart to do their own thing or to pursue their own interests: “This is the charge of their burden, according to all their service in the tabernacle of the congregation.” Although there were (and are!) many benefits to being a Levite or Cohen, their service is for the benefit of the whole congregation. A good relationship with God required orderly worship and sacrifice and even protection from God. The job of the Levites was to keep that order, to slaughter and present the sacrifices, and to provide a buffer between the people and the raw power of God.

Numbers 5:1-4 As in our own bodies, disease in the community has to be quarantined. Some of the sages have taught that there were varying degrees of separation required for different conditions. Lepers were completely isolated from the rest of the nation, while those with “an issue” were only barred from entering the camp of the Levites, and those defiled by contact with a dead body were not allowed to enter the Tabernacle. Social pathogens (gossipers, sexual deviants, idolaters, drunkards, the violent, etc.) must also be quarantined to varying degrees. God requires that some people be barred from polite company while others are to be separated from life completely. Our relationships with God, with the land, and with each other require an active social immune system.

Numbers 5:5-10 As with almost every passage in Torah, there are layes of meaning here.

  • Sin doesn’t have to mean permanent separation from the rest of the community. God has provided means to bring us back to full health. However, restoration is up to each individual. One cannot be forced to reconcile. Repentance, atonement, restitution, and service are all powerful tools for restoring relationships.
  • We should not usurp the service of another. Although God may delegate authority and service to one person now and to another person tomorrow, that is purely God’s prerogative. Nor can we force another to fulfill their appointment. It is up to each person to give their service or to deny it. “Ever man’s devoted thing shall be his, and whatever any man gives the priest, it shall be his.”

Numbers 5:11-31 A woman is to be set apart by a covenant with her husband. Ideally she would be with one man, and only one man, for her entire life. The repercussions of breaking that covenant go far beyond her own life and even that of her husband. The bonds between her husband, children, community, and God will all suffer for her mistakes. In the trial of the Sotah, the remedy involves being removed from under her husband’s authority and protection and placed directly under the judgment of God. If she is guilty, then she will die, but if she is innocent, then she will be restored to her husband and family.

Numbers 6:1-21 The Nazarite vow is a self-imposed wilderness experience that can serve several purposes. It allows a person to spend extended time in prayer and meditation with God. Or it can be a time of reflection and self evaluation, an attempt to find oneself. Or it can simply help a person feel special by doing something purposeful and different than what everyone else is doing. In every case, however, the Nazarite vow is essentially about the self and not the community. A Nazarite lets his hair go wild, abstains from the very communitarian activity of wine drinking, and cannot even attend to the funeral arrangements of his own family members. When the period of his vow is over, he symbolically anonymizes himself by shaving his head and invites his community together for a feast, as if he has returned from a journey to resume his place among them as one of them without special glory or dispensation.

Numbers 6:22-27 In order for God’s relationship with his people to be complete, the Cohanim are to bless them and “put [his] name upon the children of Israel.” They put God’s name on the people by teaching them Torah, particularly the keeping of God’s Sabbath. In so doing, they cause God’s blessing to be on the people. The implication is that, if they do not teach Torah, if they do not teach the people to keep the Sabbath as God intended, then God’s blessing will be diminished.

Numbers 7:1-3 Being a leader has costs and benefits. More than anything else, it carries responsibility. Leaders are expected to give of themselves and their resources above and beyond what is expected of the rest of the people. “To whom much is given, much will be required.”

Numbers 7:4-88 Each tribe brought identical offerings, indicating that no one tribe was more important to the whole than another. God’s promises to each family and person are just as sure as his promises to every other. No one has a greater claim to anointing than anyone else, even if their particular anointing is different than another’s. Each tribe brought offerings to support the tabernacle (gold, silver, and portions of the animal offerings), to enhance their own relationships with God (the burnt and sin offerings), and to enhance their relationships with their peers (peace offering).

Numbers 7:89 All of Naso is about how sanctification–separation–is a vital part of working together and being in healthy relationships with God and Man. If all of the parts of the body are in working order, then communication with the head is clear and efficient. Notice that if our relationship with God is healthy, then he speaks to us from above the atoning cover (aka mercy seat) and between the cherubim. Imagine a series of lenses through which we see and communicate with God. If any of those lenses are out of alignment, our vision is blurred and communication can be garbled. When all of the lenses are perfectly positioned–each person faithful to their callings and covenants–then we commune with God through the atoning, covering blood of the Messiah and past the gatekeepers of God’s throne room. Our prayers to him and his blessings to us will not be hindered.

Hat tips to Rabbi Meir Schweiger of Pardes Institute of Jerusalem and to Rabbi David Levine of Beth Israel Messianic Synagogue.