Nasso - Bias and legacy

Tonight, let’s examine Parashat Nasso. I’m sure many of you know this, but I don’t speak Hebrew - although I signed up for the intro class in June - and I didn’t look up the meaning of the word Nasso until I already knew what topic I wanted to focus on. Nasso can mean “take a census” and it can also mean “lift up” or “elevate.” I’m amazed at how this captures the dichotomy we see in this section of Torah, from Numbers 4:21 to 7:89.

If you don’t have time to speed-read, here’s a summary: A long portion is spent discussing a census of the men ages 30 to 50 who could work at the Tent of Meeting, with the names and numbers of each clan. We receive a couple of short guidelines about who is clean, who isn’t, and who’s responsible for paying restitution fees. Then we get a ritual called the Sotah - the unfaithful woman.

The Sotah may not ever have actually been practiced, but what’s written is visceral and graphic. The ritual describes how, if any man suspects his wife of adultery without proof, she can be put on a mystical trial in public where a priest gives her a special mixture. If she was faithful, great--she doesn’t get hurt and she can have children just fine. If not, God will curse her by making her torso sag and distend. The text is very clear that the woman will suffer and be an outcast for life. If he was wrong, by the way, the husband has no consequences for accusing his wife and forcing her into humiliation.

Afterwards, we get the requirements for becoming a nazarite - a special vow to dedicate yourself to God, available for men and women. We receive a blessing. And we get a chapter of the names and donations given by several men to the Tent of Meeting.

That’s… a lot. Let me veer off from the Torah portion and tell you a couple of stories. I promise, they’re related. One comes from the Haftarah in Judges; one is a Talmudic opinion on a person from I Samuel.

In Judges we get the story of the parents of Samson, the famous nazarite who got superpowers from following the law so well. Samson’s future mother - we don’t learn her name - wasn’t able to have children. And suddenly - no other context - an angel appears to her to say, “You can’t have kids, but you’re about to have a son. Don’t go out and party, because this kid needs to be a nazarite. No liquor, don’t cut his hair, and he’ll save Israel.”

The woman immediately goes to her husband Manoah to say, “Hey” - I’m paraphrasing - “Hey, I met this strange guy who looked and talked and acted like an angel who gave me this cool prophecy and some very clear instructions.”

Manoah doesn’t get excited. He doesn’t question this cool sudden pregnancy. Instead, he turns to God and says, “God! What are you doing? I don’t know how to be a father! Whoever this strange very-human man was that my wife met, please send him back to us to tell us what to do!”

God answers by sending the angel to the woman again, specifically when Manoah wasn’t nearby. To be fair, he doesn’t seem like a great listener. The woman is nice enough to run and get her husband, who heads out to talk to the angel and ask, “So, what is this whole child-rearing thing about?”

The angel repeats what the woman said to Manoah earlier and then vanishes in a fireball. Manoah goes: “Oh! Hey! Honey! I think that was an angel!”

His wife says: “Yes, dear.”

Manoah says: “Angels are scary. We’re gonna die!”

His wife says: “No hon. He seemed nice. I think we’ll be okay as long as I have this son and don’t drink wine or cut his hair.” And she was right.

And that’s our Haftarah! One more story, but it’s eerily similar - a woman named Hannah who can’t have children. She doesn’t get an angel delivered to her doorstep, so she goes to the temple and promises that, if God gives her a child, she’ll make sure he’s a nazarite. God gives her a child, the great prophet Samuel. This all sounds very upright and nice, but the Talmud gives us insight into Hannah’s possible elaborate scheme. What Hannah actually prayed was this: “I will find some man right in front of my husband, hide in a room with him and pretend to get intimate. Then my husband will make me go through the Sotah ritual. Obviously, I didn’t actually commit adultery, so I’ll be found innocent. But the Torah specifically says that a woman found innocent through this ritual can have children! So unless God wants to be a liar, I’ll be able to have kids!” So in this story, Hannah lawyered God into giving her a child!

So, two great stories. Two sort-of-contrasting moral lessons, both equally memorable. Both are about exactly the people that the Sotah ritual was created to oppress. They both willingly agreed to dedicate their sons to be nazarites, taking on an optional obligation to laws that didn’t need to apply to them. In the Torah itself, it says that men and women both have this power of individual choice which seems to transcend their societal status.

After this section, the Torah moves onto this blessing given by the priests: “The LORD bless you and protect you! The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you! The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!” A section that doesn’t seem to connect with the others in this parasha, except that it gives the priesthood the power to bless the people of Israel.

But why this blessing? It focuses on protection, on being dealt with grace, on peace. These prayers are not written by someone in power, for others in power. They are written for people without power, praying for stability. They need protection - other people deal with them cruelly and they have no recourse - they experience fighting and war and pay the costs personally.

There’s something else the Torah wants us to know - here's a list.

Nashon son of Amminadab. Nethanel son of Zuar. Eliab son of Helon. Elizur son of Shedeur. Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai. Eliasaph son of Deuel. Elishama son of Ammihud. Gamaliel son of Pedahzur. Abidan son of Gideoni. Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai. Pagiel son of Ochran. Ahira son of Enan. The total amount received by God was 2520 shekels and 204 animals.

Why is that all important? Those are the male leaders of Israel who were born to good ancestral families. An entire chapter of the Torah is devoted to their names and the financial value of their stuff, as dedicated to God. All the silver and gold and herds that were way, way more valuable than a single barren woman abstaining from wine. From a “numbers” perspective, these men gave so much more than Hannah or Manoah’s wife ever could. That’s why they deserve to have their names preserved in our holy text that transcends time and space.

Does that... sit right with everyone?

I mentioned dichotomy earlier - two ideas that seem to totally contradict each other but stand side-by-side. I hope you see what I mean.

Some of the Torah fights tooth and nail in favor of the oppressed. But then, in the same breath, it glorifies the concept of power. Our heroes are all the youngest child scheming to get ahead, or childless women in an age where fertility was a woman’s value, or slaves escaping the people who owned them. But our laws are about how the established social order is morally and religiously unquestionable, how the only people who can be holy are the members of a certain tribe, and how one nation can ethically attack all the people around them for the crime of existing. We acknowledge the power of remembering a name, but for some heroes, they are only known as “mother” or “wife” or “daughter” of the men whose names we know.

The Torah takes painstaking care to preserve the names of men whose financial contributions to the temple were recorded down to the minute detail. Were these great men? Did they do amazing things? No, the Torah tells us: they had money and power and influence and so we honor them thousands of years later.
But when we study Torah, do we remember these men? Do we honor them in our prayer and tell their stories over and over? Is that what connects with us, the lesson that if you’re lucky enough to have money, you deserve to be remembered for eternity?

Or - do we remember the gut-wrenching, gruesome details of the process of putting a woman on trial without proof, the ways her body can get mutilated by a divine act? Do we get excited about the names and stories of the women who fought this system and won? Do we memorize the comforting words of a holy prayer of protection and peace?

The Torah has both of these things inside it. Look at the people comfortable in their power, remembered for their lineage and wealth. And look at the people without any who are remembered for what they did.

Which of these holy words in tonight’s Torah portion makes us feel protected? Who do we think of when we talk about grace? Which of these people, named or unnamed, really brought peace to Israel? In these stories, who do we really remember?

Thank you.