Friday, May 25, 2007

Holy Conformity!

Our world is plagued by terrible outbreak of cheating. Students, politicians, executives and athletes have all been caught fudging their numbers. Even our parsha is in on the action.

The official number for Naso is 176 verses. It’s a terrific number – a Torah record and the dread of every Bar Mitzvah boy through the ages. But it is a number that needs an audit. Truth be told, Naso has only 121 verses. It claims 176 by repeating five verses eleven times! How did Naso get away with that? Here’s the story:

When the dedication ceremonies were over and the Mishkan opened for business, the first to bring offerings were the leaders of the twelve tribes. On successive days, the prince of each tribe arrived with a medley of voluntary offerings. Interestingly, they all chose to bring identical offerings. Instead of simply stating that the princes all brought the same offerings, the Torah reiterates the list of offerings for each prince.

The one to bring his offering on the first day was Nachshon son of Aminadav of the tribe of Judah. His offering was as follows: One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver sacrificial basin weighing 70 shekels both filled with wheat flour kneaded with olive oil for a meal offering. One gold incense bowl… One young bull, one ram…
On the second day, Nethanel son of Tzuar, prince of Issachar, brought his offering. The offering that he brought was one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver sacrificial basin weighing 70 shekels… One gold incense bowl… One young bull, one ram…
On the third day, it was the prince of Zevulun’s descendants, Eliav son of Chelon. His offering was one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels…
On the fourth day…

Bamidbar 7:12-30

Why is the Torah doing this? Think of the added expense in parchment and ink, not to mention the additional hours of scribe labor. Besides, the Torah has a long established tradition of being terse and concise. Why, when it comes to these offerings, does the Torah deem it necessary to write the same thing over and over again when all we need is one little verse to tell us that they all brought the same thing? (The Steipler Gaon once commented that the Torah must be a divine document with mystical secrets. No human author would waste his time writing like this!)

The sages taught: “Even though their offerings were identical, they all had great things [in mind] and each [prince] had his own intent…”

Midrash Rabba, Bamidbar 13:14

The Midrash tells us that despite the fact that the princes all brought the same offerings, each prince had a different kavanah – an intent that was unique, personal and relevant to the history and mission of their tribe. The Midrash recounts the thoughts of each prince at great length; twelve interpretations of the same offerings, each with different meanings, references and symbolisms.

Intent is no less an ingredient than flour or cattle. Each offering was a personal expression of the prince who brought it and, in the mind of the prince and in the eyes of G-d, was perfectly unique. The Torah had to write out the offerings of each prince separately, for although it may appear as if they were all doing the same thing, in fact, no two offerings were alike. Each offering warrants it own verse no less than if the prince had presented a different animal altogether.

It turns out that the repetitive verses of our parsha actually have something very important to say about Jewish practice and mitzvah observance. To the human observer, religious Jews are a group of people who perform rituals like a bunch of automatons. But the truth is, my mitzvot have little in common with the mitzvot of the next guy. Whether it is prayer, Shabbat or even eating Matzah, no two mitzvot are ever the same. Not because the external act is different, but because the intent is different. While a mitzvah done mindlessly is still a mitzvah, intent elevates and personalizes the act.

This idea runs against convention thinking, especially among teens. In our society, when someone wants to express his or her individuality, it often involves acting out counter-culturally. Tattoos, body piercing, hair dying and radical clothes are some of the ways to be different today. For those of us who are a little more “mature” it might be a yellow corvette or a cosmetic makeover. But our parsha tells us not to fear conformity. Conforming to social norms does not make you boring; it forces your individuality to express itself in the realm of thought. And that makes you far more different than a new hairstyle ever will.

Earlier in our parsha we find the fascinating mitzvah of the Nazirite vow. A man or a woman can take a special vow that forbids wine, haircuts and contact with the dead. This combination of abstinence seems to generate an elevated state of spirituality. “As long as he is a Nazirite, he is holy to G-d” (Bamidbar 6:8). The problem is that when this period ends, a sin-offering is brought. “This is the law of what the Nazirite must do when the term of his Nazirite vow is complete… and one unblemished yearling female sheep for a sin-offering…” (6:14). If becoming a Nazirite is a “holy” thing to do, why must a sin-offering be brought? Where’s the sin?

The commentator’s have different answers to this question. Some suggest that being a Nazir is so great, ending it is a sin (Nachmanidies) while others (R. Solomon Astruc) believe that this guy must have sinned big time - why else would he suddenly take an oath to abstain from wine?! However, the second half of our parsha would suggest a simpler explanation. As holy as he is, the sin of the Nazir is his failure to conform.

What the Torah would really like to see is a holy conformity. Not a conformity that surrenders individuality, but a conformity that writes new verses that match the old. When we find a way to express our private kavanah within the system of mitzvot shared by all Jews, that is when we discover true holiness and the path of the princes of Israel.


  1. Splendid, elegant, and holy! Thank you Rabbi..

  2. Concerning a Nazir

    A nazir is an extreme position and thus, by Judaic law is not desirable, in general. Jews should seek the middle way and avoid the extremes.

    There has to be an extreme condition to induce the desire to be a nazir. The naziroot condition should be temporary and end with the knowledge that this period was exceptional and deviant from ordinary physical existence, but was mandatory for the individual for that period.

    The condition for Samson was imposed upon him by his parents for the exceptional way in which he was created. He was faced with the mitzvah of honoring his parents and also acknowledging the spiritual creation beyond the physical. Thus, he was a nazir for his entire life.

  3. Concerning a Nazir

    Rabbi Gordon said that the sin was failure to conform. That is to say, a failure to do some action within the bounds of conformity.

    Perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the sin was for the action of doing something which was extreme and questionable in becoming a nazir.

  4. Miha-

    Thanks for the positive feedback. Glad you liked it.


    What you suggest as "more appropriate to say" is, in fact, the position of Maimonides. See Yad HaChazakah, De'ot 3:1 where he quotes the critique of the sages, "It is not enough for you what the Torah has forbidden..." in connection with the Nazir.
    I am suggesting something different. It is not so easy to condemn the Nazir for extremism, after all, the Torah does give license to this behavior. However, we can certainly say that it would have been preferable for him to express his religious fervor within the standard framework of mitzvot. All he had to do was imbue the mitzvot with his own intense kavanah.