17 Jun 2016

Naso 5776: Physical Spirituality

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Naso: Physical Spirituality

‘Asceticism and celibacy can conceal many incapacities.’  — Mason Cooley

This week I had the honour of being invited to participate in a conversation with the Professor of Pastoral Theology and Spirituality at St Mary’s University, Dr Peter Tyler. In the discussion we addressed issues on which Catholics and Jews have always fundamentally differed. One of these was the question of asceticism, which is the severe self-discipline of avoiding physical pleasures.

Christian doctrine has traditionally seen the ascetic lifestyle to be a praiseworthy and high form of religious observance and divinity. Judaism on the other hand sees it as sinful.

Refraining from eating meat, drinking wine, intimacy, living in a comfortable dwelling and wearing nice clothes is a bad way of living and it is forbidden…one who walks in such a path is called a transgressor.[1] 

The mitsvah of Nazir in perashat Naso is the only instance in Torah that provides an option for someone who wishes to attempt an ascetic trial.

A man or a woman who sets oneself apart, by vowing the vow of a Nazarite to consecrate oneself for G-d, from wine and from intoxicant one is to consecrate oneself; fermentation of wine and fermentation of intoxicant one is not to drink, any liquid of grapes one is not to drink, and grapes, moist or dried, one is not to eat…(6:1-3)

Even this, however, in its limited restriction of wine is seen by our Hakhamim as an unwanted action, and thus, if one engages in it, even the minor abstinence requires atonement.

On the day that one’s days of Nazir are fulfilled, one is to bring-near one’s offering to G-d…as a sin-offering…(6:13-14)

Our Hakhamim said if a Nazir who only refrained from wine requires atonement (through the sin offering), how much more so one who refrains from all things! (Rambam[2])

Such an understanding of the Nazir would be unthinkable in Christian theology. This contrast points to a fundamental difference between Christian and Jewish philosophy regarding our humanity and specifically our physicality. Judaism sees the body as integral and essential to building a relationship with God. Christians see the body as an obstacle which must be overcome and quieted in order to achieve that end.

In the Church, asceticism has historically involved fasting, exposing oneself to heat or cold, sleep deprivation and flagellation. In Judaism these are all prohibited by law.

Therefore the Hakhamim commanded that a person should not deprive oneself of anything other than what the Torah prohibited; nor should one restrict oneself from items that are permitted with vows and swears. Included in this are those who constantly fast…[3]

 Why then, does the Torah open the door to the nazir at all? Training is different than deprivation. Training calibrates drives while severe deprivation deadens them. Torah expects human beings to be fully human in all of their physicality but it also expects human beings to learn balance and judgment in order to bond with G-d. To do so, our physical drives must be disciplined and appropriately aimed. Physicality is not seen by Torah to be wrong or wicked but it does require careful moderation. For this reason, Torah does not expect us to shun our physical pleasures and experiences but rather calibrate them towards the goal of spiritual growth and connection with our Creator. When we accomplish this we are able to truly enjoy the world and discover the multiple joys of G-d’s expression in the very pleasure itself.

In contrast, Christianity sees physicality as something to overcome and therefore, the more it is reduced and diminished, the better. To this our Hakhamim exclaim: ‘Is it not enough what Torah prohibited for you?!’[4]

The full human being must always be comprised of body and soul. It is, after all, how we were made:

And G-d formed the human, of dust from the soil, and He blew into his nostrils the breath of life and the human became a living being. (Gen., 2:7)

The ideal in Torah is to nourish our physical selves along with our spiritual selves. In doing so all of our otherwise mundane physical activities become sacred. We are to bring our physical existence along for the journey of transcendence so that we may stand complete and whole before G-d.

We find, then, that one who walks this path all of his days is constantly serving G-d…and it is based on this path that King Solomon said in his wisdom: ‘Know Him in all your ways’.[5]

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Joseph Dweck


[1] Mishne Torah, De’ot, 3:1

[2] Mishne Torah, ibid.

[3] ibid.

[4] ibid.

[5] ibid., 3

Law and Lore

Sepher Torah

One should take great care never to touch the parchment of the Sefer Torah directly without a cloth. The Hakhamim were quite stringent about this[1].  For this reason there is custom among Oriental Sephardim to keep a scarf tied to the hard case of the Sepher Torah which is used when the scroll must be adjusted. Many Western Sepharadim who use cloth covers for the Sepher which are completely removed for reading, wrap the entire back of the section of parchment that is in use with a cloth so that it is not exposed. This is the custom of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews.

Parasha Perspectives

II  Naso

24a              Gershon: Men, 30-50, carry the hangings,
coverings and court. Aharon’s son Itamar in
charge  (4:21-28)
24b              Merari: Men, 30-50, carry rigid parts of Mishkan.
Aharon’s son Itamar in charge. 2750 Qehat  (4:29-37)
24c              Totals of Levi’im census: 2630 Gershon, 3200
Merari. Total: 8580 men, 30-50  (4:38-49)
25                Removal of unclean persons from the camp  (5:1-4)
Three reasons: Has tzora’at, had an issue, had contact
with the dead.
26                Stealing and swearing falsely about it  (5:5-10)
Same as Vayikra 5:21-26 plus: (a) Voluntary admission
alone obligates payment of the fine and the Asham
(b) Property stolen from a ‘ger’, who subsequently died,
is to be given to the Kohanim
27                 Exposure of adultery through Law of Sotah  (5:11-31)
Husband suspects his wife of unfaithfulness: Woman:
loosen hair, holds special mincha.
Kohen makes her swear over bitter waters. She drinks
waters with blotted curses.
Innocent → conceive. Guilty → death
28                 Laws of Nazir   (6:1-21)
Consecrated to God with three vows: no haircuts,
alcohol or contact with the dead  (6:1-12)
At end of period bring Olah, Chatat, Shelamim and
                    Mincha. Shaves, can drink.  (6:13-21)
29a              Instructions for Kohanim’s blessing   (6:22-23)
29b              “God bless you and watch over you”  (6:24)
29c               “God make God’s face to shine on you
                    and be gracious to you”  (6:25)
29d              “God lift up God’s face to you and 
                    and give you peace”  (6:26)
29e              Say God’s name when blessing  (6:27)
29f               Introduction to the offerings of the princes  (7:1-11)
Princes bring six covered wagons and twelve oxen.
God tells Moshe to give to Levi’im.
He gave two wagons and four oxen to Gershon, four
wagons and eight oxen to Merari and nothing to Qehat
29g              Yehuda. Day 1: Nachshon ben Aminadav brought:
One silver dish and one silver basin, both filled with
flour mingled with oil for a Mincha. One golden pan full
of incense. Olah: one bull, one ram and one lamb. Chatat:
one goat. Shelamim: 2 oxen, 5 rams, 5 goats and 5 lambs
30               Yisachar. Day 2: Netanel ben Tzuar same  (7:18-23)
31                 Zevulun. Day 3: Eliav ben Chelon same  (7:24-29)
32                 Reuven.  Day 4: Elitzur ben Shedeur same (7:30-35)
33                 Shimon. Day 5: Shelumiel ben Tzurshdai same (7:36-41)
34                 Gad.     Day 6: Eliyasaf  ben Deuel same  (7:42-47)
35                 Efrayim. Day 7: Elishama ben Amihud same (7:48-53)
36                 Menashe. Day 8: Gamliel ben Pedatzur same (7:54-59)
37                 Binyamin. Day 9: Avidan ben Gidoni same  (7:60-65)
38                 Dan. Day 10: Achiezer ben Amishadai same  (7:66-71)
39                 Asher.     Day 11: Pagiel ben Ochran same  (7:72-77)
40                 Naftali.    Day 12: Achira ben Enan same  (7:78-83)
41                 Total donation. The Mishkan is dedicated  (7:84-89)

Taken from, ‘Torah for Everyone’ by Rabbi Dr Raphael Zarum, Dean of LSJS