Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Hebrew Insights into Parashat Nasso: Bamidbar (Numbers) 4:21 – Ch. 7

"Subject matter in the Bible is often arranged and linked together by a process of thought and, in particular, word association, probably originally designed as an aid to memory."1   This principle is well illustrated in Parashat Nasso. There is no need to look far and wide in the Parasha's three and a half chapters for a unifying theme. It is apparent.  In spite of the assortment of different and seemingly unrelated subjects that are dealt with here, the root of "nasso" pops up in a number of places and in different connotations.

Bamidbar 4:22 says: "Lift the heads of the sons of Gershon…" (Literal translation). "Lift" here is "nasso," of the root n.s.a (noon, sin, alef), which we have already encountered in previous portions2. Although the English translations use the imperative form (be it "take" or "lift"), in actual fact it is not what the Hebrew text says. The form “nasso” which is used here as a charge, is more like the English present progressive, rendering “nasso” almost as "lifting up."  This unusual usage in an address form (cf. 3:40 in last week's Parasha, where the usual imperative form "sa" was used) serves to call attention to this verb and lends it the character of a noun.

Let us follow "nasso" throughout our Parasha and examine its usages within the contexts of the different topics presented.  The reason for the census as it applies to the Gershonite priests is given as: "This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, in serving and in bearing burdens ["masa"]… they shall bear ["venas'ou"] the curtains of the tabernacle, and the tent of meeting, its covering, and the covering of sealskin that is above upon it, and the screen for the door of the tent of meeting… At the commandment of Aaron and his sons shall be all the service of the sons of the Gershonites, in all their burden ["masa'am"], and in all their service; and you shall appoint unto them in charge of all their burden ["masa'am"]” (4:24,25,27 italics added). "Lifting" and "bearing a burden" are both of the root n.s.a, which describes the essence of the Gershonites' service in the Mishkan. The Meraris' census, on the other hand, is not qualified by the verb n.s.a, but rather by “pakod,” which is translated "number" but basically means to “attend or visit". Yet the latter’s work is also described as "a charge of their burden" (v. 31), which is, once again, "masa." Altogether the essence of the Levites and their work may therefore be described as: "All those that were numbered of the Levites… every one that entered in to do the work of service, and the work of bearing burdens ["masa"] in the tent of meeting… every one that entered in to do his work of service, and the work of his burden ["masa'o"] in the tent of meeting" (4: 46, 47,49, italics added). The ultimate purpose of "bearing" these "burdens" (literally “carrying” or “lifting”), was in order to "lift high” the One to Whom the Levites were rendering this service. However, the root n.s.a accompanies us all the way to the end of the Parasha, where the twelve leaders of the tribes were making their respective offerings for the inauguration of the Mishkan (chapter 7). Each of those “leaders” is called “nassi”  - “one who is elevated.” Because of the specific conjugation that is used for this noun, its literal translation would be “one who is elevate-able.” In other words, the leaders were not only merely the heads of their tribes by virtue of birth; in order to be in their lofty positions they had to be equal to these positions - proving their faithfulness and leadership abilities.   

The next section where the root n.s.a makes an appearance is at the very end of the "law of jealousy" (5:11-31), as it is called (or “Sota” – ‘sinning woman’), which is the inspection of possible adultery on the part of a married woman. If and when proven that the wife has transgressed in such a manner, and after having gone through the various rites enumerated, she was to "bear ["tisa"] her iniquity" (v. 31, italics added). Whereas the priests’ duties in "bearing the burdens" of the Mishkan were of the more 'uplifting' kind, here "nasso" connotes 'carrying' a heavy burden of guilt.

The issue of "lifting" comes up again in the famous priestly blessing which seals chapter 6. Toward the end of the blessing we read: "YHVH lift up ["yisa"] His face upon you and give you peace" (v. 26, italics added), which is an altogether different application of the root n.s.a, touching Elohim and His relationship with His People. Notice that the whole benediction is written in second person singular, implying that each individual within the Nation is being addressed. "Yisa YHVH panav," the lifting of YHVH's face, or countenance "toward you" or "upon you" indicates favor, acceptance, and a turning toward (as we have already seen in the past, regarding the meaning of "face" - "panim"), and contributes toward sowing hope in one’s heart.

Finally, chapter 7 is dedicated in its entirety to the offerings brought for the dedication of the Mishkan (or "Ohel Mo'ed") by the "princes" or "leaders," the "nesi'im" that is, those who are "lifted up" (verses 2,3). “Nesi’im” is also plural for “cloud.” In Proverbs we find this word used metaphorically: “Whoever falsely boasts of giving is like clouds and wind without rain” (Proverbs 25:14, italics added). In Jude the same imagery is used (verse 12), regarding “ungodly men who creep unnoticed” among YHVH’s own, and “who turn the grace of our Elohim into lewdness and deny the only Lord YHVH and our Master Yeshua Messiah” (Jude,4). No doubt, what is coming up, below, about trespasses that are in the form of a deceptive cover-up, applies to such individuals who are truly “clouds without rain.”

Let us return now to Umberto Cassuto, who makes the following point: "The book of Bamidbar is arranged chiefly after such a fashion… with various items being included because of a similarity of thought, or phrases recurring in the chapters concerned…"4, as, indeed, is the case of the root n.s.a. Cassuto incorporates other examples from our Parasha: "The laws applying to the suspected adulteress (5:11-31) succeed by those treating  the Nazirite (6:1-21), after which is appended the formula for the priestly blessing (6:22-27)."  Preceding the law of the suspected adulteress, which focuses on a "man's wife [who] trespasses a trespass [“uma'ala bo ma'al”]," are the laws of the guilt offering, where we encounter the phrase "to do a trespass ["li'm'ol ma'al"] against YHVH" (5:6 italics added).  Before we continue to follow our ‘chain,’ let us pause to look at the verb “ma’al.” A common noun that stems from the same root is “m’eel,” which simply means a “robe.” Thus we infer that “trespass” is a form of deception, as it is rooted an attempt to cover up one’s actions. By contrast, we read in Yishayahu (Isaiah) 61:10: “…For He [YHVH] has clothed me with the garments of salvation, He has covered me with the robe – m’eel - of righteousness…”

Back to Bamidbar 5:18, where it says about the adulteress: "And the priest shall set the woman before YHVH, and let the hair of the woman's head go loose - u'fara" (italics added). In 6:5 it says concerning the Nazirite: "He shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow long - "pera." Both u'fara and pera share the root p/f.r.a (pey/fey, resh, ayin). According to the above-mentioned principle, the similarities shared by the Nazarite and the high priest, both of whom are not to touch the dead (cf. 6:6 Lev. 21:11), are the reason why the Priestly Blessing is appended to this chapter which deals with the Nazirite's laws.

Within the specifications of the laws of guilt offering and compensation, mentioned in 5:5-10, the topic of confession - "viduy" - comes up (v. 6). This is not the first time we encounter this topic. In fact, we have already examined the term in Parashat Vayikra (Lev. 1-5, e.g. 5:5). Sefer Ha-hinukh sheds further light on this issue: "The verbal confession of guilt provides an indication that the sinner truly believes that all his deeds are revealed and known to the Lord, blessed be He, and he will not deny the omnipresence of the All-seeing. Again, by verbally specifying the sin and regretting it, he will be more careful in the future not to stumble thereon. After he has said with his mouth… he will as a result, become reconciled with His maker. The good God who desires the welfare of His creatures guided them in this path through which they would gain merit."5 Similarly, we read in 1st John: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1:9). Hirsh notes that the form of the Hebrew verb "to confess," "hitvadeh," conjugated as it is (in the "hitpa'el" form) “…indicates that the confession consists of man speaking to himself, admonishing his [own] conscience."6

Let us conclude by reviewing once again the case of the jealous husband from another angle. When Yeshua came up out of the grave on the first of the week (see John 20:1) He was acting as the fulfillment of the first of the Omer, which was “waved for our acceptance” (see Lev. 23:11).  An omer of barley (i.e. one tenth of an ephah,  see Ex. 16:35), was also to be used as an offering by the husband who was overcome by a spirit of jealousy, and so we read in 5:15 “… the man shall bring his wife to the priest. He shall bring the offering required for her, one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal…” (emphasis added). The priest was then to make the woman drink bitter water in order to determine whether she was innocent or not (ref. 5:17,18, 22-24, 27), with the effect of the drink on her body being such that it would disclose her true state. When on the stake Yeshua was also given a bitter drink (gall mixed with wine), which although He did not actually drink did touch his lips (see Matt. 27:34). Thus, Yeshua as the jealous husband (see Deut. 6:12-16), whose wife Israel has gone astray (e.g. Jer. 3:6) has also become the very offering for her sin, the Priest who makes the offering (e.g. Heb. 5:10), and the One who takes upon Himself the transgression partaking, in her place, of the bitter drink.


1 Umberto Cassuto in New Studies in Bamidbar, Nechama Leibowitz, trans.
 Aryeh Newman. Eliner Library, Department for Torah Education and Culture in the    
 Diaspora. Hemed Books Inc., Brooklyn, N.Y.

2 For more on the root n.s.a, look up Hebrew Insights into Parashat B’resheet   (Genesis - with special reference to 3: 13; 4:7, 13).

3 Although "nasso" in reference to the Kohathites is found in last week’s  Parashat Bamidbar (Numbers) 4:2.

4 Umberto Cassuto in New Studies in Bamidbar, Leibowitz

5 Ibid.

6 Ibid.