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SALT | Naso 5784 - 2024



         Yesterday, we discussed a problematic passage in the commentary of Ibn Ezra to Parashat Bemidbar (3:45).  There we find a debate between people referred to by Ibn Ezra as "makchishin" and Ibn Ezra himself as to the source of the five-shekel amount required for the mitzva of pidyon ha-ben (the symbolic "redemption" of a firstborn son by a kohen).  According to the "makchishin," we derive this amount from the event described in Parashat Bemidbar, where the Levi'im are formally assigned in place of the bekhorim to serve in the Mishkan.  Since the number of firstborn exceeded that of Levi'im, the "extra" bekhorim had no substitutes to take their place.  Instead, God instructed them to pay five shekels to the kohen, and, in the view of the "makchishin," this is the source of the five-shekel amount for pidyon ha-ben.  Ibn Ezra, however, argues that this incident has nothing to do with the standard mitzva of pidyon ha-ben, and the five-shekel amount has been taught to us through oral tradition alone.

         As we saw, this entire discussion, astonishingly enough, appears to overlook an explicit verse in the Torah, in Parashat Korach (Bemidbar 18:16), that prescribes five shekels as the amount with which a firstborn child is redeemed from the kohen.  Why do the "makchishin" and Ibn Ezra struggle to find a source for the five-shekel amount, if it appears explicitly in the Torah?

         One might suggest the following explanation. The mitzva of pidyon ha-ben contains two aspects.  First, a father has a mitzva to redeem his month-old firstborn, just as he has an obligation to circumcise his week-old son, to eat matza on the night of the fifteenth of Nissan, and sound/hear the shofar on the first of Tishrei.  In addition, a father bears an obligation to the kohanim to pay them five shekels upon the birth of his bekhor.  Just as a farmer must give a kohen teruma and bikkurim, and a rancher must give a kohen the first shearing of his sheep, and so on, the father of a bekhor owes the kohanim five shekels.  We may formulate this distinction as follows: the father of a bekhor has a mitzva to God to redeem the child, and he has a debt, so-to-speak, of five shekels to the kohanim.

         The verse in Parashat Korach, which mentions the five-shekel amount, appears as part of the Torah's discussion of the "matenot kehuna," all the various obligations the people have towards the kohanim, the parts of the korbanot, the percentages of their crop, and so on, that they must give to the kohanim.  Thus, this verse establishes that the father's "debt" to the kohanim amounts to five shekels.  This does not, however, inform us as to the amount required by virtue of the objective mitzva, the father's obligation to God.  Is this obligation, too, a full five shekels?  Perhaps to satisfy this requirement one needs to pay only a minimal, symbolic amount (such as a "shevei peruta")? 

         It is this question, perhaps, that Ibn Ezra and the commentators he cites seek to resolve.  They search for a source indicating that the objective mitzva of pidyon ha-ben, just like the obligation to the kohanim, requires a payment of five shekels.  The "makchishin" derive this amount from the verses in Parashat Bemidbar, whereas Ibn Ezra resorts to oral tradition for this halakha.

         This approach, however, must explain the practical difference between these two aspects of the mitzva.  Meaning, once the Torah in Parashat Korach prescribes an amount of five shekels as the debt owed by the father to the kohanim, what difference does it make if the second aspect of this mitzva, the obligation to God, requires less?  One must still pay five shekels to the kohen!  Why, then, do we need a separate source to teach that this second aspect, too, requires five shekels?

         The practical difference will arise in a case where the father of a bekhor simply does not have five shekels to the pay the kohen thirty days after the child's birth, when the obligation takes effect. If the five-shekel amount is required only by virtue of the father's debt to the kohen, then we would, presumably, instruct the father after one month to pay a minimal, symbolic amount to the kohen to fulfill the objective mitzva of pidyon ha-ben.  The rest of the five shekels will be owed to the kohen as a debt, like all other debts, but at least the mitzva to God, as it were, has been fulfilled.  Ostensibly, if this were the case, the father would even recite a berakha over the mitzva of pidyon ha-ben when giving the kohen the small amount, since he thereby fulfills the objective mitzva.  Ibn Ezra therefore requires a separate source to teach that the objective mitzva, too, requires a full five shekels, and thus if the father does not have that sum available after thirty days, he cannot perform the mitzva at all.


         The latter part of Parashat Naso tells of the gifts brought by the nesi'im, the twelve tribal leaders of Israel, in honor of the dedication of the Mishkan. The first gift brought by the tribal leaders included carriages, which they donated for use in transporting the Mishkan.  Moshe distributed the carriages among the Levite families of Gershon and Merari, to assist them in transporting the parts of the Mishkan assigned to them.  The third Levite family, Kehat, did not receive any wagons.  The verse explains, "For they are charged with the work [= transport] of the sacred items – they carry it on their shoulder" (7:9).  Since the Levi'im of Kehat carried the most sacred items of the Mishkan, they were not given any wagons to assist them; as a show of respect to these objects, they were carried only on the Levi'im's shoulders, without the help of carriages.

         The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (35a) records that this law was forgotten many years later by King David, with tragic consequences. A famous narrative in Sefer Shemuel II (chapter 6) tells of the long-awaited return of the ark to the Mishkan in Jerusalem.  King David conducted a lavish celebration in honor of the event, but his joy was suddenly shaken by the death of Uza, one of the Levi'im transporting the aron.  Uza wrongfully touched the ark as it rode on a wagon, fearing that it would fall, and God killed Uza for his disrespectful handling of the aron.  The Gemara comments that King David erred in having the aron shipped to Jerusalem by wagon, rather than having the Levi'im physically carry it, as prescribed by our verse.  This error, the Gemara explains, which involved a verse that every schoolchild knows (at least in those days), served as a punishment for David for something he wrote in Sefer Tehillim (119:54): "Your laws are songs for me wherever I may dwell."  David was punished for disrespectfully referring to the Torah as "songs" by forgetting this explicit law in the Torah, an oversight that resulted in the tragic death of Uza.

         What, precisely, was David's sin in referring to the Torah's laws as "song"?  Should we not find Torah learning and practice as pleasing and enjoyable as music?  And why did God punish him by having him forget specifically this verse, that the sacred items of the Mishkan may not be transported by wagon?

         Several writers (Avnei Azel, Yalkut Yehuda) explain that indeed, it is for the same reason why one should not view Torah as "song" that the sacred objects must be transported on one's shoulder. Although we pray every day that we should find Torah study pleasant ("Ve-ha'arev na… et divrei Toratekha be-finu"), we must nevertheless remain committed to the pursuit of Torah even when it is not pleasant.  Torah learning, when done properly, is often a grueling and even frustrating endeavor. The issues are complex, technical, intricate, and broad.  The study of Torah demands maximum patience, diligence and discipline.  This aspect of Torah study is lost by someone who talks about it as "song."  Chazal viewed this reference to Torah study as reflecting a deficiency in King David's commitment to "kill himself" over Torah, to exert maximum effort and push himself to his outer limits.

         As a punishment, he forgot the prohibition against transporting the ark by carriage.  Torah study is not the time or context for convenience.  When it comes to the "ark," to the Torah, we must not search for ways to make the pursuit easy, to lighten our burden, to make ourselves more comfortable.  This Gemara teaches us that one who looks to Torah learning as "song," as only a source of delight and enjoyment, will soon forget the prohibition against using wagons, the obligation to exert maximum effort and discipline in the grueling pursuit of Torah knowledge.


         Yesterday, we saw the Gemara's comment in Masekhet Sota (35a) concerning King David, who, when bringing the ark to Jerusalem, forgot an explicit verse in Parashat Naso (7:9) forbidding the transportation of the sacred vessels on wagons.  The Torah requires that the ark and other sacred objects be carried directly on the shoulder, rather than through the use of carriages and the like.  According to the Gemara, David's forgetfulness served as a punishment for his having referred to Torah as "songs" – "Your laws are songs for me wherever I may dwell" (Tehillim 119:54). God punished David for this infringement on the Torah's honor by having him forget the requirement that the ark be transported on the shoulder.  Today we will look at an additional interpretation of this Midrash.

         What, in Chazal's eyes, did King David mean when he spoke of Torah as "songs"?  A melody sung and repeated is relatively easy to commit to memory.  A person can, generally, memorize a tune far easier than he can memorize concrete material, and one remembers a melody far longer than he recalls that which he reads. Perhaps King David here prides himself over his having achieved mastery of Torah knowledge, that his scholarship reached the point where the material was as readily accessible as a simple melody. "Wherever I may dwell," even without written resources available, King David proudly declares, he carried with him his vast knowledge and scholarship, which he had successfully embedded into his memory like song.

         As punishment, the Gemara writes, King David forgot a simple verse in the Torah, which, the Torah emphasizes, "every schoolchild knows."  Perhaps we need not search for any specific connection between this particular verse and David's attitude towards Torah; the punishment lay merely in the fact that he forgot a straightforward, well-known verse in the Torah.  Whereas the king had proclaimed with such confidence his mastery over Torah knowledge, it turned out that he managed to overlook a straightforward, clear-cut halakha stated explicitly in the text.

         This is an appropriate point to consider this week, as we prepare to celebrate the festival of Shavuot, the day that commemorates Matan Torah and marks the anniversary of the passing of King David. We are bidden every year to once again undergo the process of "kabbalat ha-Torah," to commit ourselves to the study and practice of Torah.  The clear message conveyed is that whatever we have accomplished heretofore simply does not suffice; we must recommit ourselves to Torah because we must do more and achieve more.  Shavuot helps prevent us from claiming total mastery and comprehensive knowledge over Torah, as it obligates us to take upon ourselves the next stage in the process of learning, to make a concerted effort to continue growing, learning, and developing.


         Parashat Naso includes the mitzva of birkat kohanim, the blessing with which the kohanim are to bless Benei Yisrael (6:22-27). The Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 43) poses a somewhat surprising question regarding this mitzva: "Where did Yisrael earn the merit of birkat kohanim?"  On what basis, the Midrash asks, did Benei Yisrael earn this privilege of receiving the blessing of the kohanim?  The Midrash proceeds to cite three views as to whether this merit originated from Avraham, Yitzchak or Yaakov.  At some point in the context of each of the three patriarchs, the Midrash notes, the Torah employs the word "ko," the same word with which God introduces in our parasha the mitzva of birkat kohanim ("Ko tevarkhu et Benei Yisrael").  In theory, then, we may attribute the source of the merit of birkat kohanim to either of the three, and indeed there is one position attributing birkat kohanim to each patriarch.

         We will focus our discussion primarily on the Midrash's question.  Why does such a question arise in the first place?  Birkat kohanim constitutes one of the Torah's six hundred and thirteen mitzvot; why must we search for the basis of our privilege in receiving this specific mitzva?  Why do Chazal assume that we need some special source of merit for birkat kohanim?

         A beautiful explanation of this Midrash is suggested by Rabbi Yitzchak Stollman in his "Minchat Yitzchak."  The Midrash questions not the particular mitzva of birkat kohanim, but rather the general phenomenon that the kohanim, the religious officiates of the nation, yield berakha, that they bestow blessing upon the rest of the people.  In so many other cultures, the religious leadership was a source of corruption, extortion, and oppression.  By what merit, then, did Am Yisrael develop a system by which – when implemented properly – the religious establishment enriches the lives of its constituency, and leads them towards a life of happiness and prosperity?  What is the secret to the kehuna, the spiritual leadership that brings blessing to the entire nation?  Why is it that among Benei Yisrael the "priests" bless the people, rather than abuse them?

         The Midrash responds that the answer is found at our nation's very core and origin, the patriarchs.  Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaakov already showed that religious stature necessarily entails responsibility and obligation, that a religious official is indebted to the commoners, not vice-versa.

         Rabbi Stollman adds that we see the practical expression of this quality of the kehuna in the two chapters preceding the mitzva of birkat kohanim, which discuss the laws of sota and nazir.  In both these contexts, we find the kohen closely involved with the commoner on a most personal level.  He is to resolve the troubled marriage in the case of a sota, and he works directly with the nazir who seeks a higher spiritual standard. In this parasha we find the kohen working with the people, rather than working with only sacrifices and altars. This is the secret of birkat kohanim – the sense of responsibility that comes with religious leadership, which enables the kohen to truly serve as a source of blessing for all Am Yisrael.


         Yesterday, we saw the puzzling question posed by the Midrash (Bereishit Rabba 43:8), from where Benei Yisrael earned the merit of birkat kohanim, the blessing of the kohanim introduced in Parashat Naso.  The Midrash cites three views as to whether this merit comes to us from Avraham, Yitzchak or Yaakov.  Today we present a different approach to understanding the Midrash's question and answer, one suggested by Rav Aharon Lewin in his "Ha-derash Ve-ha'iyun."

         Rav Lewin suggests that the Midrash refers here not to birkat kohanim per se, but rather to the primary component of this blessing, with which it concludes: "He shall grant you peace."  In what merit, the Midrash asks, does Am Yisrael earn the invaluable blessing of peace, of social harmony and unity? People are so different from one another, each individual has his own personal interests and concerns that conflict with the needs of those around him; how do Benei Yisrael earn the unique privilege of genuine peace?

         The Midrash answers that this special blessing results from the unique qualities of the three patriarchs, as they emerge from the narrative in Sefer Bereishit.  The three views in this Midrash do not argue with one another, but rather emphasize the three qualities that are indispensable towards the attainment of social harmony.  The first is the quality of Avraham Avinu, which is generally identified as chesed, kindness.  The first step towards achieving peace in a community or society requires its members to reverse their instinctive, selfish tendencies.  If people focus exclusively on their own needs and wishes, showing no concern for the welfare of others, then peace is clearly impossible. Chesed, the willingness to sensitize oneself to the needs of those around him, is naturally a prerequisite for the blessing of peace. 

         Secondly, people must accustom themselves to forgive and forego.  Yitzchak was driven from the city of Gerar, only to be courted again, as a result of his continued success, by the city's leadership who sought a pact with him. Yitzchak harbored no ill will towards the people of Gerar and agreed to sign a treaty.  This, Rav Lewin writes, is the second prerequisite towards the attainment of social harmony: a willingness to bend, to forego, to excuse people's shortcomings and moral lapses.  As people are by nature imperfect, members of society must learn to accept the occasional wrongs committed by their friends and neighbors.

         Finally, a society can achieve peace only if people speak truthfully to one another – the attribute of "emet" often associated with Yaakov Avinu.  Social harmony requires mutual trust, and mutual trust results only from a commitment on the part of both parties to truth. 

         It emerges, then, that through the recitation of birkat kohanim, the kohanim do not simply turn to God and ask him to supernaturally bestow the blessing of peace upon the Jewish people.  Rather, they ask the Almighty to grant Am Yisrael the wisdom and strength to draw upon the qualities embedded within us since our nation's inception, and thereby achieve the type of peaceful society that God's nation is expected to build.


         Virtually every year, the festival of Shavuot occurs during the week following Shabbat Parashat Bemidbar.  Tosefot in Masekhet Megila (31b) explain that this phenomenon is not coincidental. Chazal specifically arranged this schedule, not due to any inherent connection between the festival of Shavuot and Parashat Bemidbar, but rather to ensure a disruption of at least a single Shabbat Torah reading between the reading of the previous parasha, Bechukotai, and Shavuot.  Parashat Bechukotai contains the frightening tokhecha, the description of curses with which God threatens to punish Benei Yisrael should they disregard His commandments. Now on the festival of Shavuot, God judges us with regard to the quality of the fruits for the coming year (Rosh Hashanah 16a).  (This is one of the reasons given for the common practice of adorning the synagogues and homes with branches on Shavuot.)  So as to dissociate this day of judgment from the curses of Parashat Bechukotai, Chazal instituted that Shavuot will never fall during the week immediately following Shabbat Parashat Bechukotai, but rather following Shabbat Parashat Bemidbar.

         Rav Moshe Feinstein, however, in his "Derash Moshe," suggests a thematic relationship between Parashat Bemidbar and Shavuot.  The dominant theme of Parashat Bemidbar is clearly counting, as it describes the census taken of the entire nation.  In issuing the command to conduct this census, God employs the term, "se'u," which evolves from the Hebrew word for elevation or rising.  Rav Moshe suggests that this choice of terminology was meant as a subtle allusion to an important feature of the census – the absolute equality drawn between all members of the nation.  Each person, no matter how distinguished, wealthy or prominent, is counted only once; and no one, even the most destitute, downtrodden, and even criminal, is counted as less than one person in the census.  This equality serves as a source of elevation, of encouragement, as it demonstrates that everyone has equal value in God's eyes and possesses the potential for greatness. 

         Herein, Rav Moshe suggests, lies the relationship between Parashat Bemidbar, the census of Am Yisrael, and the festival of Shavuot, the commemoration of Matan Torah.  The Torah is given to everyone, to those on every level of understanding and intellectual achievement.  One cannot excuse himself from investing effort in the pursuit of Torah knowledge on the grounds that he does not foresee any success or achievement in this endeavor.  As the census demonstrates, God affords each and every individual equal value and worth, and thus casts responsibility upon each of us to exert maximum effort and actualize his personal potential to the fullest.

         Chazal famously describe how Benei Yisrael arrived at Mount Sinai "as one person with one heart."  In light of what we have seen, this description might refer to more than just the absence of strife and friction, and a unity of purpose and mission.  It perhaps speaks of this equality between all members of the nation with respect to Matan Torah, the fact that the Torah was not charged upon some members of the nation more than upon others.  We may identify an extreme expression of this notion in the controversial comment of the Rambam, in is Moreh Nevukhim, that all of Benei Yisrael understood the first two of the Ten Commandments ("I am the Lord your God"; "You shall have no other gods besides Me") on the precisely same level. Even the lowest elements of the people achieved the same level of understanding of these two precepts as did Moshe Rabbenu himself.  This perhaps underscores the equality that characterized Benei Yisrael at Matan Torah, the sense that each of them bore equal responsibility with regard to the study and practice of Torah.


         The Torah describes in Parashat Yitro the powerful shofar blast sounded from atop Mount Sinai when God descended upon the mountain to give Benei Yisrael the Torah.  As the Torah emphasizes, this shofar sound was unique in that it grew progressively louder (Shemot 19:19).  Normally, as Rashi notes, the sound produced by a shofar (or any instrument) begins to wane as the individual gradually loses his breath.  This sound, however, intensified with time.  What is the meaning behind this shofar sound, and what is so significant about its ongoing intensification that warrants such emphasis in the Torah's description?

         The Netziv, in his "Herchev Davar" on this verse, develops the symbolic meaning behind this shofar sound during Ma'amad Har Sinai.  He claims that the shofar sound emerged specifically out of the thick cloud that had enveloped the mountain.  The dark cloud cover, often the symbol of confusion, chaos, and crisis, represented at Matan Torah the exile to which Benei Yisrael would be subjected many centuries later.  The shofar blast, which emanated from the cloud, symbolizes the Torah, specifically the Torah she-be'al peh, the oral tradition which grew stronger and flourished specifically during the dark periods of exile.  As the Netziv observes, the study of Torah she-be'al peh was not very widespread during the time of the First Temple.  He claims that it was only towards the end of the First Commonwealth, when King Yoshiyahu foresaw the destruction and ensuing exile, when the study of the oral law began growing and increasing.  And it was only after the destruction of the Second Temple when the Talmud was written, laying the groundwork for the accelerated development of the oral law which continues to intensify to this very day.  Already at Matan Torah, God foresaw the flourishing of Torah learning – which would intensify specifically "from the cloud," from the dark periods of national homelessness and oppression.

         One of the hallmarks of Torah, as opposed to virtually any other field of study, is its independence of time and place.  Some claim that for this very reason God presented the Torah to Benei Yisrael specifically in the wilderness, and in a place whose location has remained a mystery ever since, to emphasize the relevance of Torah in every setting and location.  According to the Netziv, the Torah was given initially with the knowledge that it would, ironically enough, flourish during the nation's darkest hours.

         This notion perhaps adds a meaningful dimension to our celebration of Shavuot.  We celebrate not only the event of Matan Torah at Sinai, but our ability to continue recommitting ourselves to Torah so many centuries later, despite all that we have endured.  Shavuot is the celebration of the great miracle of Torah's survival, and, moreover, its ongoing development despite the many crises and tragedies that have threatened to destroy it throughout Jewish history.


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