Shabbat candles: 8:01 p.m.
Torah: Numbers 4:21-7:89
Haftarah: Judges 13:2-25
Havdalah: 9:09 p.m.
“The essential is invisible to the eyes.”
— Antoine St Exupery, “The Little Prince”
Though the word pakad (counting) appears often in this parsha and in the previous week’s, it is actually the unquantifiable and even invisible that is of real significance in these chapters. This week’s parsha, Naso, detours quickly from the specific and concrete command to undertake a census of the men of Gershom into the realm of the abstract and unseen — feelings of jealousy in marriage and how to respond to them.
One example of the powers of unseen forces is with the Priestly Blessing [Numbers 6:24-26], given its first iteration here. Originally recited by Aaron, the protective force of these words is still spoken as the blessing from parents to children, every Shabbat and holiday eve, as it has been through millennia. When priests in synagogue publically bless the congregation they append a blessing prior to their recitation, saying, “who has commanded us to bless the nation of Israel with love.”
Oddly, the word “love” does not appear anywhere in the Priestly Blessing itself (or in the Book of Numbers at all). Perhaps, the text assumes, it does not need to be spoken explicitly. After all, isn’t every blessing given out of love?
Yet, love can be a dangerous thing. A glance at my concordance yields the love of Samson for Delilah [Judges 16:4]; the love of Shechem for Dina [Genesis 34:3]; and that of Yitzhak for Esau [Genesis 25:28]. All of these loves produce the complicated emotions of jealousy or revenge, in different fashion. Is love possible without jealousy or possessiveness?
God, too, is not immune [Deuteronomy 32:21]: “They have made me jealous with non-gods, provoked me to anger with their vanities; I will make them jealous with a non-nation (barbarians).” Ouch! Clearly, God knows this emotion and can give it back to the unfaithful.
Naso has a remedy for jealousy. The Sotah ritual, one sided though it is, offers a remedy only to husbands suspicious of their wives and not vice versa. To be fair, in the days before DNA testing, a jealous husband had more at stake (the possibility of raising another man’s child), than a woman who can be more certain of the paternal identity of her offspring. The ritual summons Divine power as much as the love inherent in the Priestly Blessing.
The Sotah ritual, the Torah’s only ritual by ordeal, has a number of facets but I want to focus on the invisible, which I believe to be the essential. The central aspect of the ritual, beyond the loosening of the woman’s hair and the placing of the meal-offering of jealousy in her hands, is having her drink the bitter water. The Midrash says that what is written down on the paper dissolved in the bitter water is God’s name, that to create peace between husband and wife God is willing to become invisible, to have God’s name blotted out.
There is a place in the Torah where the opposite happens, where God disappears but it is God’s words that remain. In Exodus, Moses asks to see God and is permitted to, but only from behind, when God is in the act of disappearing (Ex. 33:22). Yet, the words of God, including His Thirteen Attributes [Ex. 34: 6-7], endure for Moses and our people. It is not the physical revelation, the sight of God, that will help Moses with his understanding. It is actually the revelation in language, in words, that reveals so much more about the nature of God.
In Naso it is the invisible, the name of God blotted out on the paper stirred into the bitter waters, drunk by a spouse to protect her spouse from jealousy, as well as the language of love in the Priestly Blessing, expressed by priests themselves though never explicitly in the text, that provide the essentials of our understanding.
Beth Kissileff is editor of a forthcoming anthology of academic writing on Genesis. She has taught Jewish studies and Hebrew Bible at Carleton College, the University of Minnesota, Smith College and Mount Holyoke College.