Deserved Help

And the man shall be free of sin and the woman will bear the consequence of her sin. (BeMidbar 5:31)

[1] Parshat Naso describes the fascinating law of the Sotah. A Sotah is a woman suspected, by her husband, of adultery. Although legal grounds exist for the suspicion, there is no proof of actual adultery. The Torah describes a test that is performed to determine the innocence or guilt of the wife and the suspected adulterer. The wife is taken by her husband to the Kohen. She must agree to subject herself to the trial. The essential component of the test is accomplished through a mixture prepared by the Kohen. The woman drinks the mixture. If she is guilty, both she and the adulterer die. If she is innocent, she is rewarded with offspring.

This entire trial is based upon a miracle. Nachmanides observes that this is the only element of the Torah’s judicial system in which justice is dependent upon a miracle.[2] The Talmud explains that this miracle was a blessing from the Almighty. However, Hashem only performed this miracle during the period in which the prohibitions against adultery and sexual promiscuity were scrupulously observed. Once the nation became lax regarding these laws, the Almighty no longer performed this miracle.[3]

At first glance, this statement from the Talmud seems difficult to understand. When the people are devoted to the law, the test of the Sotah is less necessary. If there is general observance, what harm is there to society in the failure to detect an occasional deviation? In contrast, if the law is generally disregarded, every opportunity and tool is needed to assure enforcement of the prohibitions.

The Talmud is teaching us an important concept regarding our responsibilities for enforcement of the law. The Almighty will not perform our duties for us. We are responsible for enforcement of the Torah’s mitzvot. We cannot expect Hashem to assume this responsibility, in our place. However, if we demonstrate devotion to the Torah, through careful observance, then the Almighty will help us fulfill our desire to enforce the law.

With this principle, we can understand the comments of the Talmud. At the time that the people were devoted to observance of the mitzvot, Hashem assisted the people in enforcing the law. Hashem helped resolve the innocence or guilt of the Sotah and the suspected adulterer. A Sotah was not able to escape justice. When the people were not devoted to observance, this miracle could no longer be expected. If the people did not care about adultery, they could not turn to Hashem to assume responsibility for enforcement of this prohibition. 

Burning with Sincerity[4]

And the Nazir shall shave his crown of hair from his head. And he shall take the hair of his crown and place it upon the fire that is under the Shelamim sacrifice. (BeMidbar 6:18) 

The Nazir is an individual who takes a vow to separate oneself from the material world. The Nazir may not drink wine, cut his hair or associate with a dead body. The purpose of this removal from material affairs is to encourage greater devotion to Hashem and the Torah.

Upon completion of the period of the vow, the Nazir performs a series of activities in the Temple. These include bringing various sacrifices. The Nazir shaves his head and throws the hair upon the fire under the Shelamim sacrifice.

It is possible for a person to undertake the vow of the Nazir for various reasons. A person may wish to demonstrate religious superiority over others. This is a misuse of the institution of Nazir. The only acceptable motivation is to improve one’s devotion to Hashem. This concept is demonstrated through the throwing of the Nazir’s hair under the sacrifice. The hair represents the Nazir’s vow and subsequent abstention from the material world. The sacrifice represents service to Hashem. If the Nazir has undertaken the vow in order to “fuel” service to Hashem, then the vow was proper. However, if the vow was merely an expression of religious elitism, then it did not serve its true purpose.

Speaking Peace[5]

Speak to Aharon and his sons saying: This is how you should bless Bnai Yisrael. Say to them…. (BeMidbar 6:23) 

This passage introduces the Torah’s discussion of Birkat Kohanim – the Priestly blessing. The blessing is composed of three separate blessings. These blessings are recited by the Kohanim. Through their recital of the Birkat Kohanim, they express their desire that the Almighty bestow His blessings upon Bnai Yisrael.

The Birkat Kohanim has been incorporated into the chazan’s repetition of the Amidah. There are various practices regarding which days the Birkat Kohanim is recited. The dominant practice in the Land of Israel is to recite the blessings every day. Outside of the Land of Israel customs differ.

The format for the recitation of the blessings is very simple. The Kohanim begin by reciting a benediction prior to the performance of the mitzvah. This benediction acknowledges that the Kohanim have been commanded to lovingly bless Bnai Yisrael. Then, the chazan leads the Kohanim in the recitation of the Birkat Kohanim.

There is an interesting dispute in halachah concerning Birkat Kohanim. To understand this dispute, a brief introduction is needed. There is a general principle in halachah of shomea ke’oneh – one who listens is treated as the one pronouncing. The principle allows a person to fulfill an obligation to recite a given formula or text by listening to the recitation of another individual. An example will illustrate the application of this principle. We are obligated to recite Kiddush on the night of Shabbat and festivals. However, in most families the head of the household recites the Kiddush on behalf of all those present. How does the recitation of this one individual discharge the obligation of the others present to recite Kiddush? The answer is that the principle of shomea ke’oneh is applied. The head of the household recites the Kiddush and others present fulfill their obligation through attentively listening.

Can the principle of shomea ke’oneh be applied to Birkat Kohanim? In other words, can one Kohen recite these blessings on behalf of all the Kohanim present? Can the other Kohanim present fulfill their obligation through listening attentively to the one Kohen reciting the blessings?

This issue is disputed by the authorities. Some argue that Birkat Kohanim is not different from KiddushShomea ke’oneh is effective. Others offer various reasons for differentiating between the two recitations. Rav Meshulam David Soloveitchik offers a very interesting reason for differentiating. He explains that the benediction recited by the Kohanim states that they are commanded to bless the nation with love. He explains that shomea ke’oneh is effective in relating the recital of the blessings to the listening Kohen. However, shomea ke’oneh cannot transmit this element of love to the listener. The love must come from the Kohen himself. He cannot express his love through the feelings of the Kohen reciting the blessing. In short, through listening, the Kohen has not blessed the nation in love![6]

The requirement for the Kohen to bless the nation in love can be understood in two ways. Midrash Rabbah explains that the Kohanim cannot recite the blessings in a rote manner. The blessings must be expressed wholeheartedly.[7] The blessings are an expression of the Kohanim’s love for the nation. This means that a Kohen does not fulfill his obligation through merely reciting the blessings. The blessings must express the inner feelings of the KohenShomea ke’oneh can relate the recital of one Kohen to another who is listening attentively. However, shomea ke’oneh cannot render these blessings into a personal expression of the inner feeling of the listening Kohen. Therefore, shomea ke’oneh is ineffective in this case.

There is a second way to understand the Midrash Rabbah and the requirement to bless the people in love. Perhaps, Birkat Kohanim is more than the recital of a formula. Instead, it can be understood as a relationship between the Kohanim and the people. With the recital of their blessing, the Kohanim enter into a relationship with the people. The Kohanim are the petitioners and the people are the beneficiaries of their petition. This is the reason for requiring the wholehearted expression of the Kohanim. The relationship between the Kohanim and the people only exists when the blessings are recited with sincerity.  As we explained above, shomea ke’oneh can only relate the recital of one Kohen to another who is listening attentively.  Shomea ke’oneh cannot create a relationship between the listening Kohen and the people. Therefore, in this case shomea ke’oneh is ineffective.

[1] Reprinted from Thoughts 5761

[2] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer BMidbar 5:20.

[3] Mesechet Sotah 47a.

[4] Reprinted from Thoughts 5761

[5] Reprinted from Thoughts 5762

[6]  Rav Shimon Yosef Miller, Shai LaTorah (Jerusalem 5751), volume 1, pp. 183-184.

[7]  Midrash Rabba, Sefer BeMidbar 11:4.