Parshat Naso begins with a continuation of the themes enumerated in the previous parsha, Bamidbar: the role of the tribe of Levi is elaborated, detailing the tasks of the various families that make up the tribe, and the census is continued. The end of the parsha enumerates the offerings brought by the heads of each of the twelve tribes during the consecration of the Mishkan. These themes are organic elements of the general theme which was introduced in the beginning of the Book of Bamidbar, and which continues through the parshiot to come: The departure from Sinai will soon begin - a march that will lead to the Land of Israel. The Mishkan will be transported in a very specific manner on this journey; thus the detailed division of labor among the Levite families. With these instructions, all the elements of the operation and transport of the Mishkan are complete, and now that the Mishkan becomes fully operational, the leaders of the tribes bring their offerings. The fabric of the parsha is of one piece.
And yet, the middle of the parsha seems far less clearly connected to this theme. In what seems to be a digression, a number of laws are introduced - laws which appear to have little or no inherent connection to the narrative of the parsha or to the moment in history at which the text is poised. These laws include the ordeal of the sotah (literally, the 'wayward woman', a wife suspected of infidelity), the laws of the nazir, and laws concerning vows. This "disjointed" section of the parsha ends with the blessing which the kohanim bestow upon the people, to this very day: Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly Blessing. Only then does the text return to matters organically related to the Book of Bamidbar.
While sensitive to the challenges presented by this section of the text, the Talmud and Midrash choose to examine the relationship between these laws themselves while ignoring the larger issue of the context in which they are introduced:
Rabbi says, 'Why does the section of the nazir adjoin that of the suspected woman? To tell you that whoever witnesses a suspected woman in her disgrace should withhold himself from wine. (Sotah 2a)
...You will find the sections concerning the nazir and the sotah side by side. The nazir vows not to drink wine; whereupon God says to him: 'You have made a vow not to drink wine in order to be removed from sin; then do not say: "I will eat grapes and no sin will befall me." Since, however, you have made a vow against wine, I will teach you how not to sin before Me.' ...A woman, too, is called 'vine', for it says: 'Your wife shall be as a fruitful vine.'(Tehilim 128:3) God said: 'Do not say: I know I must not intimately associate with a woman, but I will take hold of her, or embrace or kiss her and still not be led into sin.' For just as the nazir who vowed abstention from wine must abstain from grapes, whether dried or in a liquid state, also from anything soaked with grapes or that comes out of the vine, so also must you abstain from the slightest touch of any woman who is not your wife. This is what Solomon cautioned: Can a man take fire in his bosom, and his clothes not be burned? ...whosoever touches her shall not go unpunished.' (Mishlei 6:27, 29). Hence did God place the section of the nazir next to that of the unfaithful wife, because of their similarity to one another. (Midrash Rabbah - Shmot 16:2)
Another Midrash takes this association even further, tying nazir, sotah and Birkat Kohanim together:
Why is the section dealing with the nazir placed after the one dealing with the sotah, and the Birkat Kohanim put after the section dealing with the nazir? Because the suspect wife would be told: 'My daughter, much harm is caused by wine. It should be a woman's habit to keep away from wine, like a nazir!' They behaved toward her as is stipulated in that Torah portion. If she was chaste and was cleared, she conceived, and gave birth to kohanim who blessed Israel. (Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar 10:25)
Even this Midrashic passage, which goes to great lengths to create an internal cohesion among the various parts of this anomalous section of the parsha, does not address the larger question of this section's context in the parsha and in the narrative of the Book of Bamidbar. We must look elsewhere, and the best place to begin is in the words of the text itself:
The Torah introduces the law of sotah by using the word ma'al, translated as 'trespass' or 'embezzlement.' The lesson which the Torah is teaching is that marriage is sacred, and the individual who takes another man's wife, or the woman whom is intimate with a man other than her husband, is guilty of a trespass.
Speak to the People of Israel, and say to them, 'If any man's wife goes astray, and commits a trespass against him; (Bamidbar 5:12)
When she drinks the water, if she has been defiled, and has trespassed against her husband, the curse-bearing water will enter her body to poison her, causing her belly to swell, and her sexual organs to rupture; the woman will be a curse among her people. (Bamidbar 5:27)
Significantly this is not the first use of the word ma'al in this parsha:
Speak to the People of Israel; If a man or woman sins against his fellow man, thus committing a trespass against God, and if that person is guilty. Then they shall confess their sin which they have done; and make restitution for this trespass in full, and add to it its fifth part, and give it to him against whom he has trespassed. (Bamidbar 5:6-7)
Here the Torah is referring to me'ila, the use of a sacred object for personal gain. The parallel between me'ilah and sotah highlighted by the language of the verses points to a thematic connection between the woman who is guilty of a trespass in relationship to her husband, and the individual who takes something sacred from the Mishkan. The Mishkan is holy precisely because it is a place set aside from all others to foster intimacy between God and mankind. Similarly, marriage is forged by kiddushin. It creates a state of holiness, a unique relationship of intimacy that makes personal growth possible. This parallel explains the seemingly incongruous appearance of the laws of sotah within the laws of the Mishkan: As the Mishkan is completed, the laws concerning me'ila, trespass of the Mishkan's holiness, are taught - and at the same opportunity, another type of trespass of holiness - sotah - is discussed.
However, there may be a deeper connection between these ideas. The very first trespass was perpetrated in the Garden of Eden. Man was permitted to eat from all the trees of the Garden, with the exception of the Tree of Knowledge Good and Evil. Man was guilty of trespass: he took what was not his, violating both the physical boundaries that had been imposed by the rightful "owner" as well as his relationship with God and with the concept of holiness. Interestingly, a number of midrashim paint the Serpent's interest in Eve with strong sexual overtones. According to this approach, the Serpent had a carefully calculated plan to satisfy his desire for Eve, and it involved "eliminating the competition" by bringing about Adam's downfall.(1) Numerous Talmudic and Zoharic passages speak of the Serpent as having known Eve in a carnal manner.
Observe that at the creation of Adam the Holy One, blessed be He, made him male and female together, female behind and male in front. Then He sawed them asunder and gave the woman form and brought her to Adam; and when they were thus brought face to face, love was multiplied in the world and they brought forth offspring, a thing that was not yet before. But when Adam and his wife sinned and the serpent had intercourse with Eve and injected into her his venom, she bore Cain, whose image was in part derived from on high and in part from the venom of the unclean and low side. Hence it was the Serpent who brought death into the world, in that it was his side that was the cause of it. (Zohar Shmot 231a) (2)
The parsha of the Garden of Eden and our present parsha share many other elements. According to many authorities, the forbidden Tree of Knowledge was a vine, and the fruit - grapes.
"And the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil:" What was the tree of which Adam and Eve ate? R. Meir said: 'It was wheat, for when a person lacks knowledge people say, "That man has never eaten bread of wheat." ' ... R. Yehudah b. R. Ila'i said: 'It was grapes, for it says, "Their grapes are grapes of gall, they have clusters of bitterness." (Devarim 32:32) Those clusters brought bitterness [i.e. sorrow] into the world.' R. Abba of Acco said: 'It was the etrog' ... R. Yose said: 'They were figs.' (Midrash Rabbah - Bereishit 15:7)
Rav Yehuda's opinion connects us back to the nazir and the sotah, a connection reflected in other midrashic discussions:
"And I have not the understanding of a man;" (Mishlei 30:2) this refers to Adam; because of the wine he drank the world was cursed on his account. For R. Abin said: Eve poured wine for Adam and he drank; as it says, "And when the woman saw (vateire) that the tree was good to eat," (Bereishit 3:6) and it is written, "Look not (al teire) upon the wine when it is red." (Mishlei 23:31) ... If one wishes to sanctify himself so as not to be tripped up by adultery he should separate himself from wine... For this reason the section about the nazir is written after that about the sotah. (Bamidbar Rabbah 10:4)
The question here arises, why should the nazir, in addition to wine be forbidden also grapes, seeing that the kohen, who is also enjoined to "drink no wine nor strong drink" (Vayikra 10:9), is yet permitted to eat grapes. There is, however, a deep and hidden idea involved in this. It is known that the tree of Adam's transgression was a vine, the fruits of which - wine, strong drink and grapes - are grouped together "to the side of the left" (the side of evil). Hence the nazir must keep away from them altogether. (Zohar Bamidbar 127a)
You shall be as he that lies down in the midst of the sea' (Mishlei 23:34). This applies to Noah who, in the ark, lay twelve months in the midst of the water of the Flood, and because he drank and became inebriated a disqualifying blemish came upon him, for he was emasculated. 'Or as he that lies upon the top of a mast.' (ib.) This applies to the ancient Adam, who was the first of all mankind, and who, through wine, received the penalty of death and caused the pangs of death to be brought upon the world. 'They have struck me, and I did not feel it:' (ib. 35) Woe to the adulterer who does not learn wisdom from what has happened to those who came before him! He saw what had happened to the sotah as a result of wine and did not learn wisdom. "They have beaten me, and I did not know." ’ (ib.) He saw in the Torah what happens to the adulterer through wine, and had no intelligence to understand, but said, 'When shall I awake? I will seek it yet again (ib.)' meaning that whenever he has time to engage in adultery he will pursue it. Hence we learn that wine leads to adultery. The reason why the Holy One, blessed be He, wrote in the Torah the section about the nazir after the section about the sotah was to indicate that a man should not copy the deeds of the adulterer and adulteress who drank wine and disgraced themselves, but that he who is afraid of sin should separate himself from wine. For this reason it says, 'when either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow, the vow of a nazir, etc. (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 10:3)
All of these sources are in agreement that the sin in Eden was brought about by the vine, and that this first sin offers insight into the laws that govern the nazir: in order to protect himself from the destructive forces unleashed by an excess of wine, the nazir is instructed to abstain.
The Mishna also makes this connection when describing the warning recited to the sotah:
They bring her up to the Great Court of Justice in Jerusalem, and [the judges] solemnly charge her in the same way that they charge witnesses in capital cases and say to her. "My daughter, wine does much, frivolity does much, youth does much, bad neighbors do much. Do it for the sake of his great name which is written in holiness so that it may not be obliterated by the water." (Talmud Bavli Sotah 7a)
The Mishna then describes the second stage of the ordeal, dictated by the verses of Parshat Naso:
And the kohen shall stand the woman before God and uncover her hair, and place in her hands the reminder offering, the jealousy offering. In the kohen's hand shall be the curse-bearing bitter water. (Bamidbar 5:18)
The Mishna adds details to the scene painted in the verses:
But if she says, 'I am pure', they bring her up to the east gate which is by the entrance of Nikanor's Gate where they give suspected women the water to drink, purify women after childbirth and purify lepers. A kohen seizes her garments - if they are torn they are torn, and if they become unstitched they are unstitched - until he uncovers her bosom, and he undoes her hair. (Talmud Bavli Sotah 7a)
The uncovering of the woman seems cruel and bizarre, and the image of a woman standing exposed in the gates of the Beit haMikdash seems incongruous, even surreal. And yet, in the context of ths sin of Adam and Eve, this nakedness is not incongruous in the least: in Eden, before man's trespass, nakedness was natural, innocent, normal. The sotah ritual, then, seeks to clarify this suspected woman's status: is she innocent - like Adam and Eve before they ate from the forbidden tree, when sin was strange, unknown, foreign, and the world was innocent and nakedness was unremarkable - or is she as guilty as Adam and Eve after the sin? Is she, like them, guilty of a profound trespass? Will she, too, soon suffer the profound consequences of her rebellion?
It is noteworthy that the word for 'clothing' used here is begged, which also means 'betrayal'; similarly, the word for 'garment' is me'il - comprised of the same letters as the word for 'trespass' that appears in the sotah passage over and over again. Apparently, the words we use to describe various forms of clothing still resonate with the sin of Adam and Eve in Eden.(3)
Upon further reflection, the image of the sotah standing exposed at the gate of the Beit haMikdash may not be as incongruous as we had imagined. There was, in fact, a central element of the Mishkan, and later the Beit haMikdash, with which this image did not necessarily clash: the Keruvim which stood in the Holy of Holies looked like a pair of children who, in profound innocence, stood completely naked.(4) The Word of God would be heard from the precise point at which these two naked images met.
And when Moshe went into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he heard The Voice speaking to him from the covering that was upon the Ark of Testimony, from between the two Keruvim; and He spoke to him. (Bamidbar 7:89)
This is the final verse of Parshat Naso, the closing description of how exactly the Mishkan, which had just been completed and consecrated, actually brought about a meeting between mankind and the Divine: the Word of God rang out from between these naked cherubs. Moshe received revelation from this holy place. The image of the Keruvim, innocent and pure, standing naked at the epicenter of holiness, is the backdrop for the image of the sotah who stood at the gates; is her most intimate o as pure? Has she maintained the sanctity of her marriage? Has she protected the innocence and purity of her relationship with her husband?
The closing verse of Parshat Naso contains another aspect that is compelling: The precise point from which the Voice of God emanated is described as "upon the Ark" or "above the Ark." The Hebrew word is mei'al, spelled mem - ayin - lamed, the same three letters that spell the word ma'al - trespass. We may say that the concept of 'trespass', me'ila, implies misuse of something "owned" by heaven, something that belongs to the higher realm. Thus, when Adam and Eve sinned, they trespassed the boundaries that demarcated these two realms. As a result, the boundaries were sharpened, necessarily brought into much more harsh focus than would have been necessary had the original boundaries been respected. A chasm was created between heaven and earth, an unnatural gulf between the two realms.
The vine and her grapes and wine, are objects which should have not been needed in this world. The Midrash teaches that the purpose of wine was to reward the wicked and comfort the mourner:
"Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish, and wine unto the bitter in soul." (Mishlei 31:6) R. Hanan said: Wine was created in the world solely for the purpose of paying the wicked their reward in this world, for they are lost to the next world, and for comforting mourners; hence it is written, 'and wine unto the bitter in soul.' From this the Sages derived the rule that all those who were about to be executed by the court should be given to drink wine in its undiluted state, so that the criminal's mind should become confused, in fulfillment of what it says, "Give strong drink unto him that is ready to perish." "Let him drink, and forget his poverty." (ib. 7). This is said of the condemned man who is about to perish, namely that he shall forget death, which is his grief. "And his misery" (ib.) is said of him who is bitter in soul, namely whose sons and daughters have died and who is bitter in soul; the wine would make his heart glad so he would not remember his grief any more. (Midrash Rabbah - Bamidbar 10:4)
The fruit of that tree had been declared "off-limits"; it was not intended to be part of human experience. Had Adam and Eve not eaten from that tree, its fruits would not have been necessary, for there would have been no death or sorrow in the world. Mankind would have remained in the Garden; the Spirit of God would have remained accessible to us, manifest in this world. Sin would have been a possibility, not a reality.(5) The Voice of God would not have come exclusively to Moshe from that infinitely small place in the midst of the embrace of the Keruvim; it would have been available to us all.
And they heard the Voice of Almighty God moving about in the Garden in the cool of the day (literally, with the wind of the day); and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of Almighty God among the trees of the Garden. (Bereishit 3:8)
Man without sin would not have hidden himself from God; he would have basked in His Glory. There would have been no need to station celestial guards - Keruvim - to block man's path back to the Garden, nor would there have been any need, generations later, to place Keruvim in the Holy of Holies in order for God's voice to be heard by mankind.
Before the Mishkan is consecrated, before the offerings of the heads of the tribes are presented, some unfinished business from time immemorial must be tended to: Man must finally learn what is his and what is not, what is within the boundaries and what is considered a trespass. The Mishkan gives us an opportunity to correct this first trespass by carefully respecting the boundaries between holy and mundane, just as the boundaries created by a marriage allow mankind to correct the trespass perpetrated in Eden. We are instructed to use the very same vehicle to create this holiness in our lives: the fruit of the vine, which is now so much a part of human experience, may be elevated and used in sacraments in the Temple, to sanctify God's name and bear witness to our covenant with the Creator - even to sanctify marriage between a man and a woman. When the once-forbidden fruit is used in these ways, it becomes a vehicle for holiness, and is itself sanctified. We cannot ignore the destructive potential of the vine; we must not forget the tragic effects that wine can have on us. But we are given an opportunity to elevate these destructive forces, to bend them and transform them into vehicles of sanctity in our personal spiritual lives. With the consecration of the Mishkan, we are called upon to go beyond the failings of our collective past, to respect the boundaries of holiness that we disregarded at the dawn of history. For if we are guilty of me'ila, if we trespass the sanctity with which we have been entrusted, we will be unworthy to hear the Word of God from mei'al, from that heavenly realm to which we aspire.
1. This idea is explored in greater depth in my book, Echoes of Eden (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishers).
2. See Shabbat 146a, Yevamot 103b Avoda Zara 22b.
3. See Malbim Vayikra 5:15. Also see Echoes of Eden, Parshiot Bereishit, Chayei Sara, and Vayeshev.
4. For more on the keruvim see Explorations (Jerusalem: Targum/Feldheim, 2001), Parshat Terumah.
5. In a sense all sin is an act of trespass; see Mahaze Avraham (Abraham David ben Asher Anshel Wahrman (1770-1840) Parshat Vayikra.