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Numbers Outside the Camp and In Again

By Rabbi Shira Shazeer `10
Rabbi Shira Shazeer

Parashat Naso Numbers 4:21-7:89

A former student of mine taught me the Hebrew expression, sofrim et ha-omer, v’az sofrim lagomer, we count the omer, and then count down to the end of school. This year, the two come closely intertwined. The intensity of ending the school year mirrors the spiritual intensity of Shavuot, receiving the Torah’s revelation. The yearning for summer and the time to pursue the deferred needs of our souls resonates with Shavuot’s seasonal blessings of summer and its bounty.

Likewise, in this week’s parashah, Naso, the Torah turns from counting the people and organizing them into a camp, a micro-society, and takes up accounting for the physical and spiritual inclusion of individuals who will inevitably encounter moments of estrangement and isolation from the community. After completing the count of the Levites and their jobs, started in last week’s parashah, we read that people experiencing states of ritual impurity, due to illness or contact with the dead, must be removed from the camp. We know from earlier accounts of these impure states, that they are temporary, that each one has a procedure for remedy, a way to heal the afflicted person and return them back to the camp. There is a tendency, both in rabbinic tradition and in human nature to blame the illness or impure state on some mistake or moral failing of the person experiencing it. In the examples that follow, though, and in others that we can imagine, it is clear that this estrangement may also be necessary, accidental, or beyond the individual’s control.

The Torah relates three kinds of instances where people become disconnected from the community around them. The first presented is the simple case of someone who has wronged another person and must admit to their wrongdoing, and make things right with the other person.

The second case is of a husband who is overcome with jealousy, accusing his wife of adultery. The Torah prescribes a harrowing ritual which—if the husband is right—reveals the wife’s wrongdoing, punishing her and vindicating him. But, if the jealousy is unwarranted, the ritual clears the wife’s reputation, returning her to good standing in the community. While the ritual itself and the underlying assumptions would be problematic in today’s society, in the context of its time period, it returns the alienated to the community swiftly and decisively.

The final case, that of the Nazirite, involves a person who voluntarily takes on a life of extra boundaries and strictures. A personal striving for spiritual fulfillment, self-understanding, or greater order drives the Nazirite to a way of life that distances them from the rest of the community. Here too, there is a procedure, not only for the time when the Nazirite vow is in place, but also for ending the experience and returning to a more typical connection with society at large.

In Parashat Naso, the Israelites, having received the Torah and built a camp around the tabernacle, set out on their journey to become a God-infused, moral society. As they do, they must acknowledge, grapple with and address the reality that any organized, structured society must include people who stretch the boundaries of that structure. There will inevitably be people who find themselves outside the camp, marginalized, isolated, and othered. The rest of society, and the leaders, bear an obligation to incorporate these outliers into the fabric of the community.

Unlike the specific delineated cases in the Torah, many of the people on the edges of today’s society find themselves without a set procedure or a clear communal imperative to maintain and reestablish their place in society. In our families and communities, and on their peripheries, how many are cut off from the mainstream due to physical and mental health crises, financial hard times, neurodivergence, outsider identities and an array of choices they make and situations beyond their choosing? What does our society do to support people on the edges, the ones who don’t fit easily into the categories we structure our culture around? What are we doing to make sure that everyone has access both to their basic needs, and to the means to grow, create and thrive?

Our society has become increasingly divided, allowing groups of people to reinforce their shared beliefs and values, while insulating themselves from other points of view. We can easily write off those who disagree with us, those who challenge us politically and culturally, and those whose lived experience is far from our own. What can each of us do to combat the divisive tendency in our culture, to embrace and uplift the marginalized?

Our parashah follows the passage about the Nazirite with instructions for Aaron and his sons to bless the people. As a conduit of God’s blessing to the community, they are given three verses: “May God bless and protect you. May God cause the Divine face to shine on you and be gracious to you. May God lift the Divine face to you and give you peace.”(Numbers 6:24-26) Each of these verses—addressed to the singular “you”—depicts God’s notice and concern for each individual human. The image, then, of a blessed community, is one in which each individual is valued, protected, and whole.

As we strive to follow God’s example, to nudge our society towards the ideals outlined in the Torah, it is imperative that we turn our faces towards those in our circles, and on the peripheries of them, who are isolated and separated. We must see people in their full messy humanity, and treat them with dignity, opening all the doors we can to access what our society has to offer. We need to embrace the wholeness of each human being as an image of God, with the brightness of the divine face reflecting from their own.

This week, as we reach the end of our count up to the revelation of Torah, as for many of us the busy practicality of the year gives way the spiritual high of Shavuot and the warm breezy summer, let us not forget who is outside the camp. Let us take the time to notice those who are missing, who are suffering, who are misunderstood and struggling to connect. Let us see the image of God in their faces, and ask what we can do to make ours a society that embraces, values, and uplifts every variation of the divine image in the world. Let us ask ourselves daily what we are doing to affirm God’s blessing, that each individual among us, regardless of their status or situation, matters.

Rabbi Shira Shazeer received rabbinic ordination from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College in 2010 and a Masters Degree in Jewish Education with a focus on special education in 2022. Previously, she studied Torah in the Scholars Circle at Drisha Institute for Jewish Learning and music at Goucher College. Rabbi Shazeer teaches in the learning center at Gann Academy. She is a Yiddish enthusiast, a singer, accordion player and occasional composer, and parent to three fabulous kids

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