Nasso – The Holiness Within

Is holiness (kedusha) something that is separate from our daily lives, a concept so pure that it must remain transcendental and disconnected from the mundane humdrum of our existence? Or is holiness something that is inherent in our daily lives, that we must take into consideration in our daily activities?

The first few chapters of the book of BaMidbar deal with how the tribes of Israel were organized structurally during the 40 years they wandered around in the desert. At the center of the encampment was the Tabernacle (Mishkan), the holiest of places. Around it was the camp of Levi – residence of Moshe, the priests (kohanim) and the Levites. And in the third circle was the camp of Israel, the rest of the tribes.

After the description of this structure, the Torah goes on to deal with four seemingly unrelated Jewish law (halacha) topics:

  1. The law of sending impure people outside the encampment. Three types of impurity dictate such banishment: the leper (metsora), the sexually diseased (zav) and the person who comes into contact with a corpse (tame met).
  2. The law of sacrifice for a person who robbed another person (asham gezelot).
  3. The law of the wayward wife (sotah).
  4. The law of a person who takes a vow of abstinence (nazir).

How are these four laws connected to the seemingly technical description of how the tribes camped in the desert?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (the “Rasher Hirsch”, 19th century Germany) offers the following explanation. The detailed description of the order of encampment in the desert is not purely technical. It emphasises the idea that holiness is not external to our life but rather an integral part of it. The fact that the Mishkan resides at the very centre of the camp is testament to the centrality of holiness in our daily existence. This fact demands that we take holiness into account in all aspects of our lives.

Rashar Hirsch points out the three groups of three in our parasha and ties them together. The three camps (Mishkan, Levites and Israel). The three impure (metsorazav and tame met). And the three laws (asham gezelotsotah and nazir).

  • The law of how to deal with a person who robs another person (gezel) is tied to the law of metsora. This tie highlights the fact that the holiness of God is within us in everything related to the social aspects of our lives.
  • The law of how to deal with a wayward wife (sotah) is tied to the law of zav. This shows that holiness should be present in the family and in the relationship between husband and wife.
  • And the law of abstinence (nazir) is tied to the law of tame met. It highlights the presence of holiness in our private life and how we choose to live it.

Holiness is not an abstract notion. The central idea of this week’s parasha, Nasso, is that holiness has a place within us and that we should be constantly aware of how we embed this holiness in everything we do.

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