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Parashat Naso: Unification through Paradox

What Unifies the Different Topics in Each Parashah?

The Pentateuch, the Five Books of Moses, are divided into sections known as parashot; each section is known as a parashah. This division is attributed to the generation that returned from the Babylonian exile and particularly to Ezra the Scribe.[1] On the face of it, every parashah in the Torah is simply named for one of the first words in the first or second verses. However, there is a principle that states that all the topics discussed in each parashah are related in their essence to the word chosen as the name of the parashah.

Let us look at how this principle applies to parashat Naso. But first, we note that parashat Naso is the longest parashah in the Torah, with 176 verses.[2] Moreover, particularly its second half—describing the identical inaugural offerings brought by the princes of the 12 Tribes—it stands out as particularly repetitive. Taking this into account, it may come as even more of a surprise that indeed, all the sections of the parashah are inherently related to its name.

Lifting the Mind to the Heart

Parashat Naso takes its name from its second verse, “Take a census [literally: lift the heads] of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house, and by their clans”[3] (נָשֹׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם הֵם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם). Thus, Naso literally means “lift.” However, this is also the same root used for the Jewish verb for “marriage” (נִשּׂוּאִין). In the same vein, in Jewish philosophy and in Chasidic thought, because marriage is a union of opposites—a man and a woman—this root has also come to signify the, “carrying of opposites” (נְשִׂיאַת הֲפָכִים), i.e., a state in which two opposites co-exist in the same vessel. These opposites can be of varying differences, but one way to think about the state of “carrying opposites” is that it is a paradoxical state.

Thus, the essence of parashat Naso, which can be found as the essential point of each of the topics contained in it, is that of the ability to carry opposites. As a rule, the mind finds it difficult, if not utterly impossible, to entertain two opposites simultaneously. For instance, the mind cannot remain complacent with a statement such as: “This sentence is false.” If we think about it for a moment, if we first assume that the statement is true, then it is telling us that its proposition “this sentence is false” is true. But if that is the case, then we need to return and negate the sentence’s proposition; in other words, it is false. But if it is true then we are back to the start. We can continue this flip-flop indefinitely. This is just one example of how our rational mind cannot hold on to paradoxes.

However, one of the premises of the Torah's inner dimension is that while the mind cannot cope well with paradox, the heart can and does. According to the Torah’s inner dimension, the Torah is meant to elevate all of us to this level.

Armed with this understanding, we can redefine the meaning of the parashah’s second verse. To lift up the heads of the Gershonites means to lift their heads, i.e., their rational minds, which cannot grasp paradox, to a higher level which can. In other words, the instruction here is to lift the head and mind up to the level of the heart, which precedes the strict logical structures of the mind and can contain paradoxes. We tend to think of the heart as lower than the mind (not just anatomically). But the Torah’s inner dimension discovers a higher level of the soul that manifests specifically in the heart unlocking what is known as the “wisdom of the heart” (חָכְמַת לֵב), so named because of the 32 pathways of wisdom[4] that govern the “concealed mind” (מוֹחָא סְתִימָאָה) or “concealed wisdom” (חָכְמָה סְתִימָאָה) that resides in the soul’s makif, or surrounding level. As stated, we are all meant to open our consciousness to this level of our souls.

Amazingly, if we count the number of words based on the 3-letter root נשא in our parashah, we find that there are 32 of them, where 32 is the value of “heart” (לֵב), once again alluding to the essence of the entire parashah as derived from its name: to elevate the mind to the heart’s inner understanding, which can sustain and carry opposites.

The verb to “lift” (Naso, as above) in this context implies both a “counting” (of the number of Levites in the Gershonite family) and their “appointment” to their particular duties. The Gershonites were appointed to carry the Tabernacle’s coverings, which themselves serve as a symbol for the surrounding, makif, level of the soul. The Zohar describes the heart’s ability to sustain opposites with the idiom, “Sorrow is driven into the heart from one of its sides and joy is driven into the heart from its other side” (בְּכִיָּה תְּקִיעָא בְּלִבָּא מִסִּטְרָא דָּא וְחֶדְוָה תְּקִיעָא בְּלִבָּא מִסִּטְרָא דָּא).

The two opposites of sorrow (or bitterness) and joy actually appear at the beginning of parashat Naso. First, the Gershonite Levite family is counted and appointed to its duties and then the Merari Levite family. Gershon means “to vanquish” and suggests the act of doing teshuvah, returning to God, by vanquishing the evil inclination altogether. When a person is able to do teshuvah in this manner, it is certainly a joyful experience.[5] Merari on the other hand stems from the Hebrew word for “bitterness.” Teshuvah that cannot fully get rid of the evil inclination is accompanied by a sense of lowliness and bitterness captured in King David’s heartfelt words, “My sin [i.e., my evil inclination] stands before me, always”[6] (וְחַטָּאתִי נֶגְדִּי תָמִיד). Once again, the heart carries both opposites—the return to God that vanquishes evil and the return that is never fully complete but requires a life-long effort to stand firm and continue to battle the evil in one’s heart.

The Middle Path

It would seem that the notion of sustaining opposites contradicts Maimonides’ ruling in his chapters on behavioral psychology, known as Hilchot De’ot. He writes,

Each and every man possesses many character traits…. Between each trait and the [contrasting] trait at the other extreme, there are intermediate points, each distant from the other…. The two extremes of each trait, which are at a distance from one another, do not reflect a proper path. It is not fitting that a man should behave in accordance with these extremes or teach them to himself….

If he finds that his nature leans towards one of the extremes or adapts itself easily to it, or, if he has learned one of the extremes and acts accordingly, he should bring himself back to what is proper and walk in the path of the good [men]. This is the straight path. The straight path is the midpoint temperament of each and every trait that man possesses…. The trait that is equidistant from either of the extremes, without being close to either of them.[7]

Thus, we should seek the middle path in most of our behavior (there are some exceptions that Maimonides treats later).

But things are not as simple as they sound. As it turns out, Maimonides writes that it is not always possible to aim directly for the midpoint between two traits. For example, one should aim to not be overly stingy nor overly careless with one’s money. Yet, the individual who is miserly cannot directly aim for the midpoint because from the inception, his behavior is extreme. The extreme cannot find the middle. Therefore, Maimonides writes,

those who are morally ill desire and love bad traits, hate the good path and are lazy to follow it. Depending on how sick they are, they find it exceedingly burdensome….

What is the remedy for the morally ill? They should go to the wise, for they are the healers of souls. They will heal them by teaching them how to acquire proper traits, until they bring them back to the good path.

How are they to be healed? We tell the wrathful man to train himself to feel no reaction even if he is beaten or cursed. He should follow this course of behavior for a long time, until the anger is uprooted from his heart.

The man who is full of pride should cause himself to experience much disgrace. He should sit in the lowliest of places, dress in tattered rags that shame the wearer, and the like, until the arrogance is uprooted from his heart, and he returns to the middle path, which is the proper path. When he returns to this middle path, he should walk in it for the rest of his life.

One should take a similar course with each of the other traits. A person who swayed in the direction of one of the extremes should move in the direction of the opposite extreme, and accustom himself to that for a long time, until he has returned to the proper path, which is the midpoint for each and every temperament.

When one’s character is hardened into one of the extremes, the only way to reach the middle is by pursuing the opposite extreme. Thus, the sages, the healers of individuals and of society in general understand the value of the two extremes. The middle can only be arrived at by in a sense combining the two extremes.

The Kotzker Rebbe was once asked why he conducts himself so radically and does not follow Maimonides’ rule of the middle path. With his usual sharp-witted nature, he replied with an illustration. He asked: on the street of a busy city, where do the people walk? They walk on the two extremes of the street, on the sidewalks. It is only (in his day) horses that traverse the middle of the street.

The Trial by Bitter Waters and the Nazarite

Two additional topics covered in parashat Naso are the trial by bitter waters used to test the woman suspected of adultery and the Nazarite—the individual who has taken a vow of ascetic behavior and is prohibited from consuming wine. Both the trial by bitter waters and the vow of the Nazarite are extreme forms of behavior.

These two topics are adjacent, both in the order of the verses in our parashah and in the order of the tractates that treat them in the Mishnah, and the rabbis already pondered the reason for their contiguity. Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi[8] says this comes, “to tell you that anyone who sees a sotah [suspected adulteress] in her disgrace [as she undergoes the rite of the bitter water] should renounce wine,” because wine is one of the causes of sexual transgression, as it loosens inhibitions.

Using our principle of reaching the middle path for those who have already hardened into one of the extremes, Rabbi Yehudah’s statement is even better understood. The individual who feels that he has been adversely affected by the ordeal of the bitter waters—perhaps because he finds in himself that he too could have been the center of a similar sexual transgression—should seek the middle path by leaning towards the opposite extreme by becoming a Nazarite who takes a vow of asceticism.

The Kingly Offerings

As mentioned above, the largest corpus of verses in parashat Naso describes the offerings brought by the Nessi’im or “kings” of the 12 Tribes in honor of the Tabernacles inauguration. Each of the kings brought an identical tribute:

One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels, and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling lambs.

Despite the fact that all 12 dedication offerings were identical, the Torah duplicates the description 12 times. Why would the Torah, which is known for its terseness and concise wording, seemingly waste so many words?

Before we answer this question let us focus for a moment on the title given to princes of the Tribes: Nasi (נָשִׂיא). This word stems from the same root as the name of our parashah, Naso (נָשֹׂא). It is also one of the 13 Hebrew connotations for a “leader.”[9] Of all the connotations, Nasi stresses that a true leader must be capable of not canceling the extreme, marginal elements in society—the hallmark of what is normally considered good leadership. Rather, the true leader can speak, guide, and include not only the majority of the people who usually make up the central part of the political spectrum, but also those individuals who inhabit the political extremes. Quite often, these individuals feel like outcasts and the natural tendency is to ostracize them and their views. However, since we are instructed to have faith in every Jew, as every individual Jew mirrors a particular aspect of the Congregation of Israel, the true Jewish leader seeks to find an inroad to the hearts of all. Moreover, as noted, the true leader, who is also a sage,[10] has intimate knowledge of the extremes, which he uses to balance out society, leading it ultimately to the true middle path. As explained elsewhere, the leader’s ability to include the extremes derives from his personal sense of lowliness (שִׁפְלוּת), allowing him to approach all members of society with a sense of humility and respect.

Now returning to question of the loquacious description of the 12 identical offerings, based on the midrash’s treatment of these verses, we discover that though all the kings of the Tribes brought an identical offering, each had different intentions in mind.[11] This brings to light[12] the sustaining of opposites between the performance of a mitzvah and the intention[13] behind it as well as the sustaining of opposites between the individual and the community. In principle, whenever a mitzvah is performed, it is performed identically (or nearly identically) by everyone. The laws pertaining to the act are one. However, the intent every individual has behind the actions taken are unique. And thus, in effect, the different intentions can even contradict one another—and yet they are all alluded to by the same action, the same mitzvah.

The Ba’al Shem Tov[14] taught this essential ingredient of modern service of God based on the verse in Psalms, “He who has a wise heart will take commandments”[15] (חֲכַם לֵב יִקַּח מִצְוֺת). This is the same idiom we began our excursion into the world of Torah paradox earlier: “wisdom of the heart” (חָכְמַת לֵב). The Ba’al Shem Tov explains that in every commandment there are actually two commandments: the actual performance of the commandment and the intent behind the performance. The individual who has learned the secret of sustaining opposites, who has elevated from the mind to the “wisdom of the heart” carries them both and in fact, is able to encourage others to discover their own personal understanding of the same universal and eternal commandments that constitute Divine service.


[1]. As opposed to the division of each book, or Chumash, into chapters, which was carried out by a non-Jewish cleric in the Middle Ages.

[2]. 176 is the value of “trial” (נִסָּיוֹן), which also means to elevate in Hebrew, as in a banner (נֵס).  Pure wisdom is elevated through “trial and error” (as in reasoning) leading the sages to coin the phrase, “There is none as wise as he who has had trials [lit., experience]” (אֵין חָכָם כְּבַעַל נִסָּיוֹן). Towards the end of the article, we will return to this point.

[3]. Numbers 4:22.

[4]. Sefer Yetzirah 1:1.

[5]. The opposite is also true: when teshuvah is done out of joy, the result may very likely be the complete vanquishing of the aspect of one’s evil inclination that is the cause for the original transgression.

[6]. Psalms 51:5.

[7]. Hilchot De’ot 1:1-4.

[8]. Sotah 2a. Note that the title given to Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi, whose academy compiled the Mishnah, Hanassi (הַנָּשִׂיא) stems from the same root as Naso (נָשֹׂא) and literally means “the prince” or “the king.” The longest section of our parashah is dedicated to the offerings brought by the kings of the 12 Tribes for the inauguration of the Tabernacle and its altar.

[9]. These are: מָשִׁיחַ, נָשִׂיא, רֹאשׁ, עוֹצֵר, נָסִיךְ, רוֹעֶה, אָדוֹן, שַׁלִּיט, אַדִּיר, רוֹדֶה, מוֹשֵׁל, נָגִיד, מֶלֶךְ. See the article “Shemot HaMelech” in Malchut Yisrael vol. 2, p. 61ff for a more complete treatment of this topic.

[10]. See Hilchot Melachim 1:7. The “fear of Heaven” required from a righteous king can be measured by his sensitivity to each and every member of his people, particularly those who make up the extreme margins of society. The king’s wisdom can be measured by his inclusive approach towards the extreme opinions and attitudes held by those same individuals.

[11]. See Midrash Rabbah 13 and on.

[12]. See also Lubavitcher Rebbe’s discourse on this topic in Likkutei Sichot vol. 18, 5th discourse for parashat Naso.

[13]. See also HaRav Ginsburgh’s class from the 11th of Nissan 5764.

[14]. Keter Shem Tov (Kehot: 2004) 9a.

[15]. Proverbs 10:8.

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