Shabbat Naso: G-d is in the Annoying Details Too

This week the parashat hashavua (“text of the week”) is called Naso, a word related to the Hebrew idiom for counting. It literally means “lift up the head”, and underscores the importance of truly seeing each person whom one is counting. This is different from the Western idea of “counting heads”, which only tells you how many bodies are in the room; to lift up the head is to look in the face, to take account of (“a count of”) each person in their personhood. It’s an interesting counter (sorry) to the prevailing communal idea: here we note each precious, unique and irreplaceable individual who makes up our community.

That is the catch: a community is, after all, made up of individuals. There’s an old joke: “I love the Jewish people, it’s just Jews I can’t stand.” More accurately, for all of us the ideal of community is ideal, but the individual human beings with whom we share it may be annoying, from time to time. It’s worth recalling the old Hasidic admonition: when your attention is directed outward at others who bother you, remember that the world is made up of reflections, and you, in your turn, are no doubt just as much a bother to others.

This week we get into the specific, annoying details of life with others. This week’s parashah includes the Sotah ritual, much critiqued by feminists who see this as a misogynistic horror. One case in point is that of “any man whose wife may stray and betray his trust” (Numbers 5.12). Any husband who suspects that his wife has been intimate with another man is commanded to bring her to the priest, who puts her through a curious ritual. Drink this, swear that – and if you are guilty, you’ll get sick. If you are not, you’ll be fine. It seems quite shocking until one realizes that, for the time, it may well have been a woman’s salvation. There are cultures where, to this day, a woman whose husband is jealous of her might very well kill her, with or without the help of his male relatives, and without fear of government intervention or punishment. In this case the man may not lay a hand on his wife, no matter what his provocation: he must bring her to the priest.

It is interesting to further note that the Rabbis of the Talmud abolished the sotah ritual because it could only be conducted in a case where the husband had never committed adultery or any other sexual violation; i.e. a woman could not be accused of something that her accuser was doing. “When the adulterers increased in number, the rite of bitter waters was stopped; Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai stopped it.” (Talmud Bavli, Sotah 9.9).

Some of us tend to accuse the Torah of not being timeless. In truth it is far more amazing to consider how progressive it was when it was codified, two millennia ago. It’s worth keeping in mind the old Rabbinic saying, “the Torah speaks in the language of human beings”. What they meant, I believe, is that while the words of Torah are written down by human beings who are doing their best to record what they believe they have heard G-d saying, they do not hear clearly. Just as G-d spoke to the prophets, we are told, by dreams and riddles, so also we who try to understand the truth of our lives and the world we live in are squinting through a lens smudged by our preconceptions, our desire to find what we want to see, and our inability to see what we cannot conceive.

The theological word for perceiving truth is “revelation”. Sinai, when we received Torah, is called a revelatory moment. We are about to remember and re-celebrate it next week with our Shavuot observance. It seems fantastically appropriate, as our Festival of the Giving of the Torah falls this year during Portland’s Rose Festival, to note that according to our tradition’s teachings, Torah’s revelation unfolds like a rose; each generation sees more and more, as the many-petalled rose blooms over the generations of Jewish study that have kept it fed, and watered, and fertilized. “Even the innovation of a future student, wise in the ways of the teachers, is already included in the revelation at Sinai.” (Talmud Yerushalmi, Peah 6).

Torah is not timeless, and individuals are not perfect. It’s the community’s dance with Torah over time that puts the curious bits, and the irritating people, into the context of kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel is responsible, one for another”, and keeps the word of G-d startlingly relevant, when you least expect it, but stay open to the chance.

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