The Pursuit of Peace
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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

Naso hosts a collection of utterly unrelated items. First, it accounts for the tasks of Gershon and Merari, carrying parts of the Mishkan when the Israelites journeyed. Then two brief laws about removing unclean people from the camp and about restitution. Then the strange ordeal of Sotah, the woman suspected by her husband of adultery.

Next comes the law of the Nazirite, who voluntarily accepts special holiness restrictions, avoiding wine and grape products, haircuts, and contact with the dead, followed by one of the oldest prayers in the world that is still in use: the priestly blessings. Then comes the account of the gifts brought by the princes of each tribe at the dedication of the Mishkan, a series of long paragraphs repeated twelve times, since each prince brought an identical offering.

Why does the Torah spend so much time on something that could have been stated far more briefly, and what is the logic of this apparently disconnected series?

The answer lies in the last word of the priestly blessing: shalom, peace. The 15th-century Spanish Jewish commentator Rabbi Isaac Arama explains that shalom means completeness, perfection, and the harmonious working of a complex system. This concept of peace heavily depends on the vision of Bereishit, in which God brings order out of tohu va-vohu, chaos, creating a world in which each object and life form has its place. Peace exists where each element in the system is valued as a vital part of the system and where there is no discord between them. Naso is a key parsha that seeks to bring about peace.

The most obvious case is that of the Sotah, the woman suspected by her husband of adultery. What struck the Sages most about the ritual of the Sotah is that it involved destroying the name of God, something strictly forbidden elsewhere. The Kohen recited a curse, including God’s name, wrote it on a parchment scroll, and dissolved the writing into specially prepared water. The Sages inferred from this that God was willing to renounce His honour, allowing His name to be effaced “to make peace between husband and wife” by clearing an innocent woman’s name. The ordeal was eventually abolished, but the law is still a reminder of how crucial domestic peace is.

The passage relating to the Levitical families signals that they were given a role of honour in transporting items of the Tabernacle during the people’s journeys through the wilderness. They were satisfied with this honour, unlike the family of Kehat, detailed at the end of last week’s parsha, one of whose number, Korach, eventually instigated a rebellion against Moshe and Aharon.

Likewise, the long, repetitive account of the offerings of the princes of the twelve tribes indicates that each was considered important enough to merit its own passage. By giving them and the Levites their share of honour and attention, the Torah is telling us how important it is to preserve the nation’s harmony by honouring all people.

The case of the Nazirite is the most interesting. It opens up the possibility to non-Kohanim of a special sanctity close to, though not precisely identical to, that of the Kohanim themselves. 

If this analysis is correct, then a single theme binds the laws and narrative of this parsha: making special efforts to preserve or restore peace between people. Peace is easily damaged and hard to repair. Much of the rest of the book of Bamidbar is a set of variations on the theme of internal dissension and strife. So has Jewish history been as a whole.

Naso tells us that we must go the extra mile to bring peace between husband and wife, community leaders, and laypeople who aspire to a more-than-usual state of sanctity. It is no accident, therefore, that the priestly blessings end – as do the vast majority of Jewish prayers – with a prayer for peace. Peace, said the rabbis, is one of the names of God himself. Rambam writes that the whole Torah was given to make peace in the world. Naso is a series of practical lessons on how to ensure, as far as possible, that everyone feels recognised and respected, and that suspicion is defused and dissolved.

We have to work for peace as well as pray for it.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. What are some ways you can bring peace and harmony into your own life?
  2. Why might the Torah include a detailed and repetitive account of the offerings brought by the princes of each tribe?
  3. How do you think the laws of Nazir “promote” peace amongst the Israelite community?
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Parsha in Passing

The headcount of the Israelites taken in the Sinai Desert is completed, totalling 8,580 Levite men aged 30 to 50, who are assigned to transport the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

God instructs Moshe on the laws regarding the Sotah, a hypothetical situation of when a wife is suspected of being unfaithful to her husband. 

The rules concerning the Nazir are also provided; this is a person who vows to abstain from wine, allow their hair to grow long, and avoid becoming impure through contact with the dead. 

Aharon and his descendants - the Kohanim - receive instructions on how to bless the people of Israel, and the bracha they are taught is still used by Kohanim all around the world, to this day.

The leaders of the twelve tribes each bring offerings for the dedication of the altar. Although their gifts are the same, each is presented on a different day and is detailed individually in the Torah.

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Parsha People

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The Nazir: No wine, no trim, a holy hymn. These vows are as strong as my hair is long.

The Leviim: Carrying the load on the holy road. With strength and grace, we hold the sacred space.

The Sotah: The husband’s mistrust starts to burn, but when her name is cleared a peace returns. 

Tribal Leaders: Each tribe’s gift, on its own day, is the same in kind but unique in display.

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Parsha Practical

There are many halachot and practical (and hypothetical) laws uncovered in parshat Naso. One deeper practical takeaway explored by Rabbi Sacks in this week’s essay is the importance of fostering respect and recognition within our own families and communities to maintain peace and harmony. 

Just as the Torah emphasises honouring each tribe’s contributions and resolving suspicions in marriages, we should value each person’s role and make an effort to address all conflicts with care and respect. 

Approaching conflicts with curiosity, for instance asking, “I wonder what is happening here,” allows space for everyone to share their unique experiences. This approach promotes understanding and coherence within the community, creating a more harmonious environment for everyone.

  • How do you like to be “spoken to” during conflicts with other people?
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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play Naso Charades! With so many different characters and contributions in this week’s parsha, this is a fun way to represent the many facets of the Israelite community.  Think of various characters from parshat Naso, like “The Nazir,” “Moshe,” or “Tribe Leaders.” 

Players each take turns acting out the theme without speaking. The rest of the players must guess what is being acted out.

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Parsha Philosophy

In parshat Naso, Rabbi Sacks teaches that peace, or shalom, is a central value in Judaism, representing completeness, harmony, and order. Parshat Naso may seem like a collection of unrelated laws and stories, but they all connect to maintaining and restoring peace in various aspects of life. Peace isn’t just the absence of conflict but a state where everything is in its rightful place, functioning together smoothly. 

The rituals and laws in Naso, such as the Sotah, the Nazir, and the offerings of the tribal leaders, all serve to prevent discord and promote respect and harmony within the community. These stories show that every person and every action is essential, and recognising this helps maintain peace. Ultimately, peace requires active effort and intentionality. This is one of the reasons that the concept is so prevalent throughout the Torah!

  • Can you think of a time when you felt complete peace?
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Parsha Parable

Unbroken Song

On 18 November 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the world-famous violinist, was getting ready to perform at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. Just getting onto the stage was challenging for Perlman because as a child he had suffered with an illness called polio, and ever since then he wore braces on his legs, and he needed crutches to walk. With bated breath the audience watched him slowly make his way across the stage, step by step, as they eagerly awaited the music.

They sat in complete silence as Perlman took out his violin and raised it to his chin as usual. But then something unexpected happened. As he started to play the opening notes - twang! - one of his violin strings broke! What could he do? Surely he would have to cancel or at least pause the concert to replace the string or find another violin. 

But Itzhak Perlman didn’t stop. Instead, he closed his eyes for just a moment, and then signalled the conductor and they began again.

With only three strings left on his violin, Perlman played with even more passion and beauty than ever before. He adapted the music, making it sound as if nothing was missing. When he finished, there was a moment of stunned silence, followed by an enormous cheer from the audience.

Perlman smiled, wiped the sweat from his forehead, and said quietly, “Sometimes it is the artist’s task to find out how much music you can still make with what you have left.”

This musical message teaches us that limits can inspire greatness, and even when things don’t go as planned, we can still create something harmonious with what we have. It reminds us that we can always find ways to make the best of any situation, just as Perlman did on that memorable night.

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Parsha Puzzle

Question

How many people are listed in Tanach as Nazirites?

This Week's Parsha Puzzle Answer:

There are three people mentioned in Tanach as having accepted the Nazir’s Oath: Shimshon, Shmuel, and Avshalom. However, Shimshon is the only one identified specifically as a Nazir.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.


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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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