A friend of mine recently started attending spin classes at an Equinox gym. To her surprise, this class featured inter-cycler competitions, where participants were paired together and competed with other pairs in the class to see who could rack up the most points through fast, strong cycling. Terrified of disappointing a stranger by not pulling her own weight, my friend remarked that she didn’t think she ever went as fast or as hard in a spin class as she did when competing alongside a stranger against the rest of the class. Suddenly, my friend realized that her performance mattered, and it motivated her more than ever to push herself harder than she ever had before.
Looking at this week’s Parsha, it might seem as though there are four discrete and disconnected ideas being discussed. First, Hashem asks Moshe to count the Levite families who will be carrying the different parts of the Mishkan as the Jewish people sojourn through the dessert. Then, we take a sharp turn into the territory of adultery, in discussing the fate of the Isha Sotah and the intricate and detailed process of testing and punishing those who commit this grievous sin. Continuing on the roller coaster, we take another sudden drop into the world of Nezirus, and discuss what a Nazir must refrain from doing and how he can go back on his Nazir vow through bringing a sin offering. Finally, the Parsha concludes with detailed descriptions of each of the sacrifices brought by each of the twelve Nesiim, which, incidentally, are identical.
In unpacking these seemingly disparate ideas, we will hopefully also shed light upon a central dialectic in Judaism: that of being just one person while also being an irreplaceable piece of a larger whole, the Jewish people.
Glancing at the beginning of the Parsha, one might be tempted to “check out,” realizing that this counting is a special counting, where God is keeping track of one of his most prized possessions, the holy and exalted tribe of Levi. Levi is tasked with both the service in the Mishkan (via the Kohanim) as well as with caring for the pieces of the Mishkan in travel (the job of the three Levite families counted in this census). If I am not a Levite, one might think, I’m not all that important. Consider the first time you learned about the three main sects of Judaism, that of Kohen, Levi, and Yisrael. Was it only my 1st grade class, or did you also share in that petty, sort of adorable teasing of youngsters who thought themselves suddenly superior because their families were Kohanim or Leviim? It is true that the tribe of Levi is special, and has always been so; and it is also true that every Jew is central and essential to the nation as a whole.
The details of the story of the Isha Sotah are, therefore, a “reality check” of sorts. Just as we Average Joe Yisrael folks have become complacent in our inferior role, we come face to face with an extremely important truism of life: we are all, at the end of the day, human. The story of the Sotah is the story of a woman – and a man – who have themselves come face to face with this painful realization, that being a human inherently means that we are susceptible to sin, regardless of whether we are Kohen, Levi, or Yisrael Jews, and will face temptation.
At the same time, however, notice the detail that the process of uncovering the Sotah entails. Rashi (Bamidbar 5:11-18) expounds on each of the qualifiers necessary to even bring the matter to the attention of the Kohen, the criteria that must be met for there to even be suspicion that adultery has occurred. He then further delineates the meaning behind each element of the Karban that is brought as well as the ingredients in the water that the Isha Sotah drinks to test her innocence. If our humanity, that lowest common denominator of our existence that crosses the boundaries of profession, culture, and age, is so universal, perhaps the instance of a Sotah would be common. The details, however, are critical here: While we are all in fact human, we all also have the capacity to overcome human instinct and temptation. The excruciatingly detailed process of the Sotah teaches us that these occurrences are expected to be the exception, not the rule, in our existence.
Furthermore, the idea of the Sotah is meant as a reminder that one person’s actions are critically important, because we exist within a nation. As with the Equinox spin class, every Jew must pull his or her weight, so to speak, and we must recognize that our actions affect the entire nation. That is why the adultery committed by the Isha Sotah, despite having been a secluded, private matter, is actually a public issue, and warrants such a detailed process. Chazal compare the Jewish people to a body, which requires all of its organs, limbs, tissue, muscles, bones, and cells to function properly in order to stay alive. Our actions, no matter one’s status within the Jewish people, have far-reaching consequences.
Once we internalize this idea, perhaps we are now afraid of the tremendous responsibility of how our actions affect others - perhaps, like my friend, we now want to expend extra effort, to overcompensate, for fear that we will let others down. This is where the Nazir comes in; he is frustrated with being just a human, and worries he will fail to pull his weight, so he abstains from all manner of physical things and tries to achieve a holiness that is on par with a Kohen. Rav Shlomo Wolbe points out that the Nazir cannot come in contact with a dead body, just like a Kohen. Rav Wolbe notes that this teaches us that we all have the capacity to be like a Kohen; at the same time, however, one does not need to go to the opposite extreme, to be holier than or above others in order to “count” in the Jewish sense. This is, perhaps, part of the Nazir’s mistaken perception. In fact, while part of why he brings a Karban Chatas at the end of the Nezirus is to atone for breaking the vow he made, it is also because of the nature of what he did, abstaining from Mitzvos (e.g. Kiddush, escorting the dead, etc.) in order to rise above his feared humanity, rather than embracing and accepting it – and the responsibility it entails.
To really drive this message home, we conclude the Parsha with the detailed accounts of the identical sacrifices brought by each of the twelve Nesiim upon the inauguration of the Mishkan. The commentaries ask, why couldn’t the Torah simply say, ‘each of the twelve leaders brought the same Karban, and this is what it included’? The answer is in order to teach us that no matter one’s status, no matter one’s tribe, even if one is seemingly bringing the same thing to the table as the next person, each of us is, in fact, irreplaceably individual even as we are so humbly human.
Rabbi Yechiel Yacovson notes that every person, just by having internal and eternal merit, deserves Kavod. While each Nasi brought the same Karban, each one brought with it his own unique intentions, and this alone warrants the Torah’s extra, detailed attention. Rebbetzin Silber, a teacher in Neve Yerushalayim, compares this to several guests who are hosted for Shabbos and each brings a bouquet of flowers; even though the gifts are the same, that does not take away from the thought and care that each guest put in to her specific purchase.
Parshas Naso teaches us that one does not need to be a Levite to be important; rather, each individual’s actions affect the nation as a whole. On this tandem bike of Jewish communal existence, our efforts matter. And, while we are all susceptible to human nature, we also do not need to go to extreme lengths because of this. Rather, in just the simple, commonplace, collective areas of our Avodas Hashem, the areas where the sacrifices appear so similar, even identical, your actions still count. Every Karban is given its own attention, in detail, adding tremendous length to the Parsha, to drive home this point.
Sometimes it is difficult to feel that we really matter on this grand stage of Jewish community life, unless there is a spotlight pointed directly at us. Does one man matter in a Minyan of hundreds as much as he matters when he’s the tenth man? Does one more parent on the PTA, one more woman on the Mikvah board, one more Chesed fund or learning initiative or Tefillah for this person truly make a difference? I’m just one person, after all – and I’m no Levi or Nazir! And yet, that is the dialectic of Jewish life. You are just one person. And you are also just one part of a vast machine, a powerful body, that needs every cell, every organ, every vein and artery, to function as well as it can. You are someone’s partner in the great Equinox spin class adventure, and we need you to pull your weight, the way that only you can.