Ancient Rituals, Enduring Values

The rituals described in this week's portion remind us to allow our values and principles to guide us in balancing our physical and emotional imbalances.

Commentary on Parashat Nasso, Numbers 4:21 - 7:89

From a contemporary perspective, the plain reading of Parshat Nasso reveals some of the most controversial and troubling passages in the Torah. Chapter 5 of Bamidbar (Numbers) first commands the Israelites to oust from the camp anyone who has the skin disease of tzaraat or an unclean bodily issue, and anyone who has touched a dead body, so that they will not make unclean their camp “that I am present within.”

God then tells Moses to tell the people that when man or woman commits a trespass or sin, they must make restitution.

The passage continues with a statement that if a man suspects his wife of having sex with another man or is merely jealous, he can take her to the priest, who conducts prescribed rituals and forces her to drink bitter water. If she is innocent, nothing happens. If she is guilty of infidelity, “her belly will swell and her thigh will fall away.”

From a contemporary perspective, this all sounds pretty outrageous. We should remember that the overall message Moses is transmitting, and therefore interpreting, from God is one necessarily colored by his own time and culture. It is intended for a specific time and place and people, not as an eternal law from God.

Understanding Sickness

The messages to us today, in the context of our contemporary understandings of sickness and bodily fluids, and of relationships between men and women, may not be in Moses’ specific interpretation of the word of God, but in the enduring meaning and values that God gives us as a foundation for the ongoing interpretation of law, rule and regulation.

In Kabbalah, the foundation theosophy for Jewish mysticism, our values and principles, ethics and mores are seen as a flow or force we can receive from God, related to the sefirah (or divine emanation) of Netsach. Netsach can be thought of today as the embodiment of our sense of the innate values and derived principles received from God that enable us to live and grow in communities.

This week’s Torah portion, above all, is reminding us to remain in touch with our core values, and our personal and collective missions to repair and restore the world — even at the intimate levels of one’s own body, relationship to community, and familial relationships.

In fact, directly after commanding the Israelites to separate the tameh (spiritually unclean), the Israelites are reminded to make restitution for their guilt after a sin. This ancient way of making things right is a manifestation of the sefirah of Tiferet, the force or flow from the unknowable source connected to the concepts of balance, unity, oneness, ecology. The Torah is telling us: if you sin, you must bring yourself, and anyone who has been affected by your sin, back to into balance.

Protecting the Community

We can imagine that God’s intention in Moses’ command to separate those labeled “tameh” is to protect the community from the unbalancing effect of having the tameh among them. “Tameh” or “spiritually unclean” might today be understood as being in a state wherein we should keep an eye on ourselves.

When we are sick, emotional, or in mourning, we are more at risk for blocking our receptivity to God’s eternal values and moving away from balance and unity. We are more open to the unfettered emotionality that could lead to sin. Our values and principles could become influenced too much by our emotions. (Motivating emotions like love, anger, hate, and jealousy as they flow to us from God are associated with the sefirah of Hod, splendor.)

In the third section of Chapter 5, we are introduced to Moses’ interpretation of God’s message in dealing with a very difficult problem: jealousy between husband and wife. Jealousy is an intense emotion, perhaps essential to our survival and reproduction as some scientists claim, but potentially very destructive and dangerous. Uncontrolled jealousy will lead to sin. Jealousy not tempered and balanced by our principles and values, whether conscious or unconscious, against another individual or another nation, can motivate evil.

While the ancient laws of impurity and the ritual of the suspected adulteress are very disturbing to our contemporary ears, their underlying message is enduring. Deal with the state of emotional or physical imbalance when you experience it. Deal with jealousy in your communities. Let us allow our values, principles and ideals to guide us, to help us prevent evil in ourselves and in our societies.

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