Posted by: Subway Conductor | May 21, 2021

A Derasha on Parshat Nasso

Nasso is the second parsha in the Book of Numbers. As the name implies, counting is a central theme of this book. This portion, as well, begins with a command to Moses to “count the sons of Gershon.” The word which is here translated “count” is important for this portion in another sense which we shall discuss.

Nasso means to “lift up.” The full expression which is here translated “count” is literally “lift up the head.” As we know, counting Jews is a very risky business which is why we avoid counting people even to see if there is a minyan present. This expression “lift up the head” is used in another context which will perhaps illustrate the power of counting.

In the Joseph story, when Joseph is imprisoned with Pharoah’s two servants, each of them has a dream that Joseph interprets. In both cases, Joseph uses the expression “Pharaoh will lift up your head.”  In the case of the butler, he intends it to mean “Pharoah will restore you to your post.” But, for the baker the expression means, “Pharoah will hang you.” So, we see that “lifting up the head” can be for the good or the bad. It depends on the individual.

Counting is a way of acknowledging the worth of each individual. Moses takes a census not just to determine the total number of each group within the Israelites, but to teach each person that “they count!” As individuals, they have the power for both good and evil – the choice is theirs.

In addition to nasso, the word nassi also plays a central role in this week’s parshaNassi means “one who is lifted up” and, hence, a tribal leader. In modern Hebrew, nassi is a “president.” It is striking that in this portion called Nasso which has to do with counting, we also have a section (the 5th through 7th aliyahs) that tells how the tribal leaders brought gifts for the dedication of the Mishkan -the Tabernacle. This portion is the one that we read during Hannukah. The dedication of the Mishkan being a prototype for the dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem. And, since Hannukah celebrates the rededication of the Temple during the time of the Hasmoneans, this is an appropriate reading.

What is most striking in the detailed description of the gifts which each leader brought is the fact that each was exactly the same. And yet, the Torah repeats the description for each one, giving all of the details, as if it were something new. Why does the Torah engage in this repetition of the same details over and over? I believe we learn from this repetition the same lesson, the value of each individual. Even though they bring the same gifts, each one is unique. We can all say the same words in davening, yet each of our prayers is special. Each of us comes with our own personalities, our own wants and needs, our own circumstances. So even though we utter the same words, they can carry different meanings. G-d values each of our prayers as a unique offering of our individual selves.

We should also point out that Nasso is the longest Torah portion. It contains one hundred and seventy-six verses. The longest Psalm is 119 which also has 176 verses. The longest tractate in the Talmud is Baba Batra with 176 folio pages. What is the significance of the number 176? I do not know, but it surely means something.

Good Shabbos!!

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