The Individual and the Community
-Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Altshuler-
In Parashat Naso, the Torah continues its description of the composition and deployment of the Israelite camp in the desert. The deployment process begins with an individual census and continues with the designation of the people into tribal units. A nasi (prince) is appointed for each tribe and the tribes are divided into four divisions of three tribes each, with the nasi of the lead tribe receiving command of the entire division. The divisions are then strategically placed so that they create an outer ring around the Tabernacle, with an inner ring comprised of the houses of the tribe of Levi.
A simple analysis of this formation indicates that each individual derives his personal significance and status from his placement within the various groupings mentioned above: family, tribe and division, and everyone together draw strength and meaning from the epicenter of the camp, the Tabernacle that is home to the divine providence. In this way, the Israelite camp perpetuates the unity achieved at the revelation at Mount Sinai, during which all of the people of Israel camped around the mountain that graced by the divine presence. Moreover, the element of holiness, inherent to the Mount Sinai experience, is installed in the camp formation in the form of the exclusion of the ritually unclean to the outskirts of the camp. Ostensibly, the camp formation reflects an ideal system in which each person is guaranteed a specific place, with such placement providing personal insight and spiritual enlightenment stemming from a deeper understanding of the individual’s placement within the whole that is the nation and vis-à-vis the divine presence focused in the Tabernacle.
However, it seems that Parashat Naso attempts to present an additional element that is apparently lacking in this ideal system. In order to identify this missing piece, we must turn our attention to two chapters that on the surface appear to deviate from the overarching theme of the parasha.
The chapters of Sotah (the adulterous wife) and Nazir (nazirite), which are placed in the middle of Parashat Naso, do not constitute a direct continuation of the description of the camp formation, thus raising the question of the significance of their insertion in that particular place in the text. Moreover, they are associatively much more connected to the mitzvoth of the book of Vayikra (Leviticus) than they are to the descriptions at the beginning of Bamidbar (Numbers).
It is possible that the placement of these chapters here, in the middle of the description of the camp, was done in order to provide the missing piece in the ideal system mentioned above. This system ignores the individual. Although the individual is given significance when qualified vis-à-vis the community (family, tribe, nation, etc.), his importance as an individual measured vis-à-vis himself is missing. The question is whether the individual must be measured against anything at all beyond his membership in the various circles comprising the whole? Is it possible for the individual to have a direct relationship with the Tabernacle, without the need for any intermediary, or must he necessarily be cordoned off and separated by the “security detail” surrounding the Tabernacle?
It seems that the Torah answers both questions in the affirmative. A study of the two chapters shows that, as opposed to the clear focus on the “whole” up to this point, these two chapters place a direct emphasis on the individual. The chapter of Sotah considers the marital crisis of a husband and wife, and the chapter of Nazir describes a spiritual transformation that an individual Jew aspires to undergo.
In both instances, the Torah creates a direct connection between the individual and the Tabernacle. The married couple requires the bitter water, found only in the Tabernacle, in order to regain the mutual trust lost between them. This trust cannot be restored without divine intervention in the form of Hashem foregoing his personal pride, so to speak, by allowing his name to be dissolved in the water in order to restore familial peace in the broken home.
The chapter of Nazir describes a condition in which any person, man or woman, may, for their own personal reasons, transform themselves for a limited time into a pseudo High Priest, thus transforming their home into a pseudo Tabernacle.
It appears that the obvious message from the Torah’s focus on the individual in the chapters of Sotah and Nazir, presented in the midst of the extensive description of the Tabernacle-centered Israelite camp in the desert, is a warning that we must not get caught up in a trend that is all too easily fallen in to. The interests of the community as a whole cannot come at the expense of those of the individual. The individual’s connection to the Tabernacle and the Temple must also find expression in the general communal format, but these cannot stifle the voice of the individual. A communal format must not become a trap for the individual. The Israelite camp, with all its layers and ranks, cannot completely replace the individual’s yearning to elevate himself through his own personal channels as a nazirite and as a family striving to repair broken relationships through a direct connection with the holiness of the Tabernacle and the Temple.
Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Altshuler is a Tzohar rabbi, a teacher at the Institute for Higher Torah Study at Bar Ilan University and a lecturer in history at Orot Israel College