Making sense of the sedra: Naso

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Making sense of the sedra: Naso

Finding meaning in our traditions

There is a great story about Albert Einstein and his teaching assistant at Princeton University. Einstein was administering a second-year exam when his teaching assistant, in a state of anxiety, informed him that he had administered a paper the group had completed the previous year. Einstein showed little concern for his blunder. “Why would you do that?” asked the teaching assistant. “Because”, Einstein replied, “the answers have changed!”

Einstein’s perspective will help us understand an apparent dichotomy in parshat Naso.

It contains the longest and most repetitive section in the whole of the Torah. Following the completion of the construction of the Tabernacle, the princes of Israel brought offerings to inaugurate the altar. For twelve consecutive days, each prince, representing his tribe, brought his offering and the text describes, in monotonous detail, each of the offerings of each of the princes. And they are completely identical!

Compare that with the mysteriously unique law of the Nazirite found earlier in the same parsha. What is so remarkable about this piece of legislation is that at the completion of this period of self-imposed abstention, a sin offering has to be brought as atonement, which suggests it is a practice that is somehow deviant and disapproved.

The contrast between the two is stark and almost forces us to conclude that conformity is celebrated whilst individuality is punished. The princes’ slavish contributions are deemed worthy of detailed note but the Nazir’s attempt at originality is dismissed. We are left questioning whether the Torah discourages us from expressing our religious and spiritual feelings in a personal and distinct way. Do we really prefer uniformity and homogeny?

The key to the answer is understanding the error of the Nazir’s methodology. Their intentions are noble, they seek spiritual uplift and to be holy, but Judaism is not a ‘pick and mix’ sweet stand; it does not lend itself to arbitrary selection. In fact, the unity of our people depends on it having shared practices and our communities are founded on a commonality of tradition. Just as the Nazir is misguided in thinking that abstinence from that which is permitted is the answer to finding holiness, so too it is a mistake to think that we can choose convenience over dedication or that we should adopt new customs because they just appeal to us and discard old systems because they feel somewhat outdated.

Nachmanides (12th century Spanish commentator) explains that the offerings in the Tabernacle were not identical, rather each one was infused with the individual enthusiasm of the prince who brought it. Each one was permeated with the unique personality of its owner, their own personal devotion, their own spiritual striving.

Judaism does not disincline self-expression – on the contrary, it challenges us to find significance, symbolism and meaning in everything we do so that, even though we may do the same, the experience for everyone is different and fulfilling, both individually as well as collectively.



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