Torah from around the world #67

by Rabbi Gary M. Bretton-Granatoor, Vice President, World Union for Progressive Judaism

So we find ourselves back in the Exodus narrative, having lived through a long commercial break for the Priesthood, known as Leviticus. Parashat Naso is the second portion in the book of Numbers, which seems to follow seamlessly the events of the Book of Exodus.  However, our portion begins with a return to the duties and nature of the priesthood (though in this book, they don’t seem to have the elevated status that they had when an entire book focused on them).

After a brief interlude on the issue of ritual purity, we now focus on two situations in which a person has broken faith with another and with God.  Many are familiar with the midrash of the debate between God and the angels prior to the creation of the world over the kind of justice that will prevail in this world.  The end of the midrash found in Bereshit Rabba (12:15) leads to the conclusion that God created our world with equal measures of

Midat HaDin

(the Rule of Law) and

Midat HaRachamim

(the Rule of Mercy – for lack of a better term). Even the Zohar records, “The world in conducted by two spinning wheels: one that spins justice (

Midat HaDin

) and the other that spins mercy (

Midat HaRachamim

)” (Zohar iv, 259b).

These countervailing principles need a bit of exploration.

Midat HaDin

, certainly as the rabbis understood it, derives from Greek thought, that the height of moral law is found in immutable and unbending law.  Like Plato’s theory of “forms”(


) – this law must be perfect – always true and always definitive.  On the other hand, we have

Midat HaRachamim

.  The word


derives from the root



– or womb.  We translate this into English as “mercy” but I prefer to translate it as “mother’s love” – the kind of inexplicable and inexpressible love that that a mother has for the fruit of her womb.  Dr. Carol Gilligan, a great scholar of woman’s studies, ethics and psychology, and author of

In a Different Voice

, points out that woman think differently about justice than most men.  Women seek to govern moral decisions based upon how that decision affects and impacts human relationships.  Women’s justice, she suggests, is often situational and relative.

With these two principles we now approach a deeply troubling situation, and while the text seems to offer an even more troubling solution, here is an instance in which the principles at stake still have something to teach us. As Progressive/Reform Jews, it is easy to dismiss this story as the vestiges of ancient superstitions, but as always, Torah demands our attention.  Here we meet the Sotah – the woman accused of being disloyal to her husband.  Seeking to rid himself of the jealousy and mistrust, the husband brings the wife before a priest. She declares her innocence and is made to drink a concoction of “bitter water” – water mixed with dust from the floor of the Tabernacle and charcoal and ash from a piece of wood upon which God’s name has been written, as well as the curse that should she not tell the truth, the bitter waters will do her terrible harm – the wood with the curse having been burned.

We moderns know that drinking dirty water, contaminated with dust and ash, will do little harm.  So why this ordeal?  Why would the text allow God’s name to be written and then destroyed (that is never permissible in any other case)?  The answer is clear: simply, to bring peace between these two people, and to bring peace to the community.  The blessing of Shalom – bringing peace between people –  is paramount.  The priest acts as the arbiter, and God’s desire for peace is made clear.  And now we understand that Shalom means more than simply “peace.”  From this incident, it becomes evident that Shalom is about the restoration of wholeness and balance – in relationships, in relation to God and to the community.

After another interlude, this time to focus on the vows taken by the nazirite, our parasha ends with the fifteen word, three-fold, priestly blessing which Aaron and his sons (the priests) use to bless the people.  The last part of this tripartite blessing concludes, “

Yeesa Adonai panav aylecha, v’yasaym lecha shalom

” May God look upon you and grant you Shalom.  The ultimate blessing is the blessing of peace.  And viewed in the reflection of the Sotah story, peace comes about when

Midat HaDin


Midat HaRachamim

are in balance – when justice and mercy meet, and people can be restored to wholeness.  As in the bitter waters, in which God’s name, reduced to ash, is internalized, the very last line of our parasha reads, “Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”  God is both the ultimate source of peace, and peace is what God demands of us if we are to live in faith.


(1) Plato’s Theory of Forms posits that in the heavens there is a “perfect” version of everything that is on earth.  In heaven, there is a “perfect” chair – the chair upon which I currently sit is merely a poor replica of that “perfect” form


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