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Torah Commentary
Naso (June 2, 2012)

Robyn Weinstein Cimbol, Senior Director of Development and Philanthropy

IN PARASHAT NASO, the Book of Numbers continues its namesake theme: counting. These chapters are filled with numbers and census taking. It is a parashah punctuated with intrigue (laws of the Sotah) and superheroes (laws of the Nazirite), each deserving mention. And, if this isn’t enough to make the parashah a pleasant read, it also contains one of the most prevalent liturgical motifs: the Priestly Benediction. These three lines of poetry, consisting of three, five and seven words respectively, contain some of the most dramatic, reflective words in our siddur. And yet, I’ve chosen to comment on the archaic cult of sacrificial offerings.

These days, sacrificial offerings seem barbaric and irrelevant, and it has been impossible to practice these rites since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. Sure, some of our prayers even yearn for messianic redemption, a time when the Temple in Jerusalem will be rebuilt. But no one really thinks that’s going to happen! And, even if we believe that such a time will come, the likelihood that we’d reintroduce sacrifices is zero.

The offerings themselves later became a favorite for Rabbinic commentary, and I am partial to the following interpretation of their symbolism:
  • One silver bowl — This represents the Written Law.

  • One silver basin — This represents the Oral Law.

  • Mixture of choice flour mingled with oil (meal offering) — This represents the imperative that knowledge should be accompanied by good deeds.

  • One gold ladle filled with incense — This represents that Torah contains a prescription for living a pleasant life.

  • One young bullock, one ram and one lamb (burnt offering) — This triad of animals represents the three groups: priests, Levites and Israelites.

  • One goat (sin offering) — This reminds us that when Reuben restrained his brothers from killing Joseph but consented to his sale into servitude and conspired in covering Joseph’s coat with blood and implied to their father, Jacob, that his beloved son Joseph had been devoured by a wild animal, they sacrificed a he-goat. (See Genesis 37:26-33.)

  • Two oxen, five rams, five he-goats and five lambs (well-being offering) — This reminds us that Reuben also repented for his sin and that he was in reality responsible for Joseph remaining alive.

I find it particularly enchanting that every one of the twelve tribes brought identical offerings. Their gifts were formulaic and deliberate. Deviating from the proscribed pattern was unthinkable. None wished his gifts to eclipse those of his fellow princes. Their world was characterized by harmony and collaboration.

Today, we use prayer instead of sacrifice to connect us to the divine. But, just as with sacrifices, we offer our prayers in the Sanctuary. It’s a lot less messy than a burnt offering!

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