Light from the Sidra

Nasso (‘Take a Census’). 31 May 2014. 2 Sivan 5774

Torah: Numbers 4:21–7:89. Haftarah: Judges 13:2–252

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

You can run but you can’t hide

My friend John once had a meal with an Orthodox Jewish friend who held a prominent position in his synagogue. They both ordered steaks but, to John’s dismay, when the meal was served, each of the steaks was topped with a rasher of bacon. Out of respect for his Orthodox friend, John put his rasher to one side of the plate. After a few minutes the synagogue officer asked if John was going to eat the bacon, and when John replied that he was going to give it a miss, the man transferred the bacon to his own and tucked into it. John expressed surprise that he was eating forbidden meat but his friend responded that there was no one in the restaurant to see him. When John suggested that God could see, his friend blithely responded that he was an atheist!

This week’s Parasha deals in large part with secret sins and makes it clear that although we can try to run from God but we can’t hide from him.

Israel was God’s people and, as such, they were to be holy. Israel’s holy God lived among them in the Tabernacle at the heart of the camp and therefore physical and moral defects had to be dealt with. Certain defects were so serious that the sufferers had to be excluded from the camp of the holy people until such a time as the abnormalities had been eliminated. Israelites who touched dead bodies or who suffered from particular skin diseases that resembled the flesh of the dead were excluded from the camp. Discharges of bodily fluids such as blood or semen – presumably because those fluids are associated with life wasted – resulted in exclusion from the camp in which the living God resided.

When Israel sinned against HASHEM’s commandments, those sins had to be atoned for by sacrifice offered at the tabernacle. In that way it was possible for the holy God to remain in the midst of them. But what of those in the community who were guilty of sins about which none but they knew? What if someone who had purloined their neighbour's goods (5:5-10) but began to feel guilty for their crime? What about a woman who had cheated on her husband (5:11-31) but had managed to keep the fact hidden?

God sees and he has ways of bringing hidden matters to light, either through speaking to a person’s conscience or through what might appear to us to be ritual magic (it isn’t magic but, to those of us living in an ‘enlightened’ age, it appears that way).

If a man obeyed the voice of conscience and admitted damaging or stealing the property of a fellow Israelite, he had to offer a sacrifice and restore the value of what he had stolen plus 20%. We could do a lot worse than apply a similar principle to our own legal system!

If a husband became suspicious that his wife had been unfaithful to him, he could arrange with the priest for her to undergo a ritual that would expose her unfaithfulness (if she had indeed been unfaithful) that involved her drinking water with some of the holy ground from the tabernacle mixed with it. However bizarre the ceremony might appear to us, it is connected to the holiness of the tabernacle, the camp and the people. Israel is to be a holy people and, should someone wish to devote themselves to a particularly holy life for a period of time, they could take a Nazarite vow under which they would forego some of the luxuries of life such as wine in order to devote themselves to God. Samson and Samuel were lifelong Nazarites.

Jesus has traditionally been depicted in western art with long hair, no doubt because artists understood him to have been a Nazarite on the basis of a misreading of Matthew 2:23: ‘And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled: “He shall be called a Nazarene,”’

‘Nazarene’ is most likely a play on words. According to Isaiah 11:1, the Messiah was to be ha Netzer, ‘the Branch’, and it was appropriate, therefore, that he should live in a town with a similar sounding name.

However, as the Messiah, Jesus was the Holy One of God, the one who lived a totally sanctified life devoted to doing the will of his Father. And this is good news for Israel. All approaches to God have to be through holy, sanctified, God-ordained channels. Before the fall of the second temple, the tabernacle, the priests and the sacrifices were God’s ordained means for approaching him. But all those institutions turned out to be flawed. They never delivered what they were supposed to do.

As God’s totally Holy One, Jesus superseded all Israel’s institutions, so much so that he could say he ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life; no one comes to the Father except through me.’ God sees our faults, our failures and our sins, both blatant and secret, but he loves us and offers forgiveness for them all if we will trust his Messiah.

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