Naso: The Past and Future of Leadership

Topic Details and Replies

    • Tzvi Chulsky 2 months ago

      This week we are treated to a very rich parashah[1]. It begins with the roles of the descendants of Gershon and Merari.

      We are then told to expel every צרוע, every זב, and everyone who has had contact with a corpse from the camp. The appropriate expulsion differs in each case: one who has had contact with a corpse only needs to stay away from the Mishkan, while the זב needs to stay out of the Levi section as well, and the צרוע needs to be completely outside the camp. This is not explicitly discussed here, but the information can be gleaned from elsewhere[2].

      We then read about stealing, particularly from a convert[3], about the sotah, and about the nazir. The three of these can be connected, respectively, to the three “levels” of the camp, though we will leave this to the reader to ponder for now. We then read about birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing, which consists of three parts, which can also respectively be connected to the three “levels” of the camp.

      It is after this that we get to the ostensibly repetitive section about which heads of the tribes bring what to the mishkan—except that they all bring the same gifts, and they are described in detail 12 times. The classic interpretation is that this is to show that each gift was equally meaningful, or that each gift, while physically the same, had a very different and unique meaning to the tribe that was giving it.

      In light of what we discussed last week, we want to focus on these heads of the tribes, each called the Nasi. These are clearly very important people. As we discussed last week, the tribes were absolutely essential to the character of the people, its unity and diversity; these leaders are the heads of their tribes, the primary link that connects each branch to the main trunk.

      But times change, and who is important changes. Once we entered Israel, these positions of Nesiim seem to have vaporized. We entered a “disorganized” era, when leaders emerged only occasionally, and were called Shoftim; then an era of rule by kings[4]. After our exile, the family of the king retained some of its prestige and power in Babylon, but by then Rabbis began to emerge as leaders, eventually eclipsing the royal family completely.

      It is around this time that, due to some unfortunate kohanim gedolim, they ceased to be accepted as the heads of the Sanhedrin, and a new position of Nasi was created for that purpose. This Nasi, of course, did not represent a tribe, and was a very different type of leader from the Nesiim of our parashah. The Romans recognized the position of Nasi, and collected a tax specifically for him; the position became quite powerful politically.

      While the אנשי כנסת הגדולה are arguably the first Rabbis, we only begin to see the title of Rabbi among the Tannaim (Shammai and Hillel came just a bit too early to have that title). In 425 CE (4185), Emperor Theodosius II terminated Roman recognition of the office of Nasi, diverting the Nasi tax to the Roman treasury, and suppressed the Sanhedrin, ending public smicha and fundamentally changing the meaning of a Rabbi.

      Throughout the Middle Ages, the term Nasi was used occasionally and informally, and the use of the term Rabbi also became comparatively informal, simply referring to a scholar. It was only around the 14th century that the term “smicha” began to reappear; it was, of course, not the same and not as formal as the Sanhedrin smicha, but within 100 years, it became a prerequisite for being referred to as a Rabbi.

      In the 17th century in Yemen, the title Nasi appeared again, this time referring to the head of the richest, most noble family of the community. Although many of those Nesiim were knowledgeable in Torah, this was not a requirement. That title lasted into the 20th century. Meanwhile, in Europe, the role of Rabbis was changing. In the Middle Ages, the primary concern of a Rabbi was settling disputes; in the 18th century, this began to shift, and while Rabbis still do sit on a beit din, they are seen much more as teachers.

      Generally, most of us are happy to move forward to new social structures. While we appear to have spent millennia pining for the royal family of David, and while there has always been an undercurrent of hoping that we will find our lost tribes, there is no pining for the Nesiim. We have passed that stage and are not looking back. Many, including Rav A.Y. Kook, say that we are not really pining for the House of David either—what we are looking for is entirely different from anything we have experienced before.

      As we return to the Land of Israel, which we have been doing gradually over the last century or so, and are continuing to do as we speak, new Jewish leaders emerge, both complementing and competing with Rabbis. Israel has a prime minister and a president, for example. Some of us see these as bureaucratic technicalities, while many secular Jews see government officials as the “real” leaders and disregard Rabbis completely. Israel has developed a network of “Chief Rabbis,” but Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews have insisted on Rabbis from their tradition, resulting in parallel positions, with significant confusion and turbulence.

      As we have discussed in previous posts on ירידת הדורות, leadership, throughout Jewish history, has gradually become less and less centralized and consolidated. At the same time, the average orthodox Jew is much more knowledgeable than before—it is no coincidence that as the duties of a Rabbi shifted from adjudicating to teaching, Rabbis became teachers to everybody, not just the élite. We are now looking at a Jewish world with more Rabbis than ever, each, on average, having less power than ever. The attitude towards government in Israel, even among the secular population, is not incredibly respectful, and it will be very interesting to see what ultimately happens with the Israeli government.

      In 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel, the two Chief Rabbis at the time composed a prayer together for that state, referring to it as ראשית צמיחת גאלתנו. It has remained a sore point ever since. The yeshiva community rejected, and continues to reject, this prayer; the religious zionist community sometimes embraces it, but at the times of the Oslo accords, and later during the disengagement from Gaza, they would either not recite this prayer at all, or modify it to express the deep imperfection of the current leadership.

      Those of us who say this prayer should note how special it is that this prayer is so controversial; it is a sign of our times, and of our relationship, more complex and strained than ever, with leadership and the idea of leadership. We are heading into an exciting new era, where it will take more than ever to earn the respect of the people.

      [1] It is also the longest in terms of verses, but that comes not so much from its richness as from the repetitiveness of the last section.
      [2] To source this fully would be a long treatise that would detract from our main point; but we would start with the fact that a צרוע is מטמא בביאה (Keilim 1:4) whereas a זב is only מטמא משכב ומושב (Vayikra 15:4).
      [3] Again, not explicitly mentioned, but it mentions the aggrieved dying with no heirs, and as those born Jewish will have at least distant relatives to inherit, the conclusion generally drawn is that the reference is to a convert.
      [4] During this time, we see the term Nasi appear in Yechezkel 44:3, and Ezra 1:8 mentions a Nasi of Yehudah, but these seem to hold very different positions from the Nesiim of our parashah.

    • [email protected] 1 month ago

      This week we are treated to a very rich parashah[1]. It begins with the roles of the descendants of Gershon and Merari.

      We are then told to expel every צרוע, every זב, and everyone who has had contact with a corpse from the camp. The appropriate expulsion differs in each case: one who has had contact with a corpse only needs to stay away from the Mishkan, while the זב needs to stay out of the Levi section as well, and the צרוע needs to be completely outside the camp. This is not explicitly discussed here, but the information can be gleaned from elsewhere[2].

      We then read about stealing, particularly from a convert[3], about the sotah, and about the nazir. The three of these can be connected, respectively, to the three “levels” of the camp, though we will leave this to the reader to ponder for now. We then read about birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing, which consists of three parts, which can also respectively be connected to the three “levels” of the camp.

      It is after this that we get to the ostensibly repetitive section about which heads of the tribes bring what to the mishkan—except that they all bring the same gifts, and they are described in detail 12 times. The classic interpretation is that this is to show that each gift was equally meaningful, or that each gift, while physically the same, had a very different and unique meaning to the tribe that was giving it.

      In light of what we discussed last week, we want to focus on these heads of the tribes, each called the Nasi. These are clearly very important people. As we discussed last week, the tribes were absolutely essential to the character of the people, its unity and diversity; these leaders are the heads of their tribes, the primary link that connects each branch to the main trunk.

      But times change, and who is important changes. Once we entered Israel, these positions of Nesiim seem to have vaporized. We entered a “disorganized” era, when leaders emerged only occasionally, and were called Shoftim; then an era of rule by kings[4]. After our exile, the family of the king retained some of its prestige and power in Babylon, but by then Rabbis began to emerge as leaders, eventually eclipsing the royal family completely.

      It is around this time that, due to some unfortunate kohanim gedolim, they ceased to be accepted as the heads of the Sanhedrin, and a new position of Nasi was created for that purpose. This Nasi, of course, did not represent a tribe, and was a very different type of leader from the Nesiim of our parashah. The Romans recognized the position of Nasi, and collected a tax specifically for him; the position became quite powerful politically.

      While the אנשי כנסת הגדולה are arguably the first Rabbis, we only begin to see the title of Rabbi among the Tannaim (Shammai and Hillel came just a bit too early to have that title). In 425 CE (4185), Emperor Theodosius II terminated Roman recognition of the office of Nasi, diverting the Nasi tax to the Roman treasury, and suppressed the Sanhedrin, ending public smicha and fundamentally changing the meaning of a Rabbi.

      Throughout the Middle Ages, the term Nasi was used occasionally and informally, and the use of the term Rabbi also became comparatively informal, simply referring to a scholar. It was only around the 14th century that the term “smicha” began to reappear; it was, of course, not the same and not as formal as the Sanhedrin smicha, but within 100 years, it became a prerequisite for being referred to as a Rabbi.

      In the 17th century in Yemen, the title Nasi appeared again, this time referring to the head of the richest, most noble family of the community. Although many of those Nesiim were knowledgeable in Torah, this was not a requirement. That title lasted into the 20th century. Meanwhile, in Europe, the role of Rabbis was changing. In the Middle Ages, the primary concern of a Rabbi was settling disputes; in the 18th century, this began to shift, and while Rabbis still do sit on a beit din, they are seen much more as teachers.

      Generally, most of us are happy to move forward to new social structures. While we appear to have spent millennia pining for the royal family of David, and while there has always been an undercurrent of hoping that we will find our lost tribes, there is no pining for the Nesiim. We have passed that stage and are not looking back. Many, including Rav A.Y. Kook, say that we are not really pining for the House of David either—what we are looking for is entirely different from anything we have experienced before.

      As we return to the Land of Israel, which we have been doing gradually over the last century or so, and are continuing to do as we speak, new Jewish leaders emerge, both complementing and competing with Rabbis. Israel has a prime minister and a president, for example. Some of us see these as bureaucratic technicalities, while many secular Jews see government officials as the “real” leaders and disregard Rabbis completely. Israel has developed a network of “Chief Rabbis,” but Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews have insisted on Rabbis from their tradition, resulting in parallel positions, with significant confusion and turbulence.

      As we have discussed in previous posts on ירידת הדורות, leadership, throughout Jewish history, has gradually become less and less centralized and consolidated. At the same time, the average orthodox Jew is much more knowledgeable than before—it is no coincidence that as the duties of a Rabbi shifted from adjudicating to teaching, Rabbis became teachers to everybody, not just the élite. We are now looking at a Jewish world with more Rabbis than ever, each, on average, having less power than ever. The attitude towards government in Israel, even among the secular population, is not incredibly respectful, and it will be very interesting to see what ultimately happens with the Israeli government.

      In 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel, the two Chief Rabbis at the time composed a prayer together for that state, referring to it as ראשית צמיחת גאלתנו. It has remained a sore point ever since. The yeshiva community rejected, and continues to reject, this prayer; the religious zionist community sometimes embraces it, but at the times of the Oslo accords, and later during the disengagement from Gaza, they would either not recite this prayer at all, or modify it to express the deep imperfection of the current leadership.

      Those of us who say this prayer should note how special it is that this prayer is so controversial; it is a sign of our times, and of our relationship, more complex and strained than ever, with leadership and the idea of leadership. We are heading into an exciting new era, where it will take more than ever to earn the respect of the people.

      [1] It is also the longest in terms of verses, but that comes not so much from its richness as from the repetitiveness of the last section.
      [2] To source this fully would be a long treatise that would detract from our main point; but we would start with the fact that a צרוע is מטמא בביאה (Keilim 1:4) whereas a זב is only מטמא משכב ומושב (Vayikra 15:4).
      [3] Again, not explicitly mentioned, but it mentions the aggrieved dying with no heirs, and as those born Jewish will have at least distant relatives to inherit, the conclusion generally drawn is that the reference is to a convert.
      [4] During this time, we see the term Nasi appear in Yechezkel 44:3, and Ezra 1:8 mentions a Nasi of Yehudah, but these seem to hold very different positions from the Nesiim of our parashah.

    • Ricky 1 month ago

      This week we are treated to a very rich parashah[1]. It begins with the roles of the descendants of Gershon and Merari.

      We are then told to expel every צרוע, every זב, and everyone who has had contact with a corpse from the camp. The appropriate expulsion differs in each case: one who has had contact with a corpse only needs to stay away from the Mishkan, while the זב needs to stay out of the Levi section as well, and the צרוע needs to be completely outside the camp. This is not explicitly discussed here, but the information can be gleaned from elsewhere[2].

      We then read about stealing, particularly from a convert[3], about the sotah, and about the nazir. The three of these can be connected, respectively, to the three “levels” of the camp, though we will leave this to the reader to ponder for now. We then read about birkat kohanim, the priestly blessing, which consists of three parts, which can also respectively be connected to the three “levels” of the camp.

      It is after this that we get to the ostensibly repetitive section about which heads of the tribes bring what to the mishkan—except that they all bring the same gifts, and they are described in detail 12 times. The classic interpretation is that this is to show that each gift was equally meaningful, or that each gift, while physically the same, had a very different and unique meaning to the tribe that was giving it.

      In light of what we discussed last week, we want to focus on these heads of the tribes, each called the Nasi. These are clearly very important people. As we discussed last week, the tribes were absolutely essential to the character of the people, its unity and diversity; these leaders are the heads of their tribes, the primary link that connects each branch to the main trunk.

      But times change, and who is important changes. Once we entered Israel, these positions of Nesiim seem to have vaporized. We entered a “disorganized” era, when leaders emerged only occasionally, and were called Shoftim; then an era of rule by kings[4]. After our exile, the family of the king retained some of its prestige and power in Babylon, but by then Rabbis began to emerge as leaders, eventually eclipsing the royal family completely.

      It is around this time that, due to some unfortunate kohanim gedolim, they ceased to be accepted as the heads of the Sanhedrin, and a new position of Nasi was created for that purpose. This Nasi, of course, did not represent a tribe, and was a very different type of leader from the Nesiim of our parashah. The Romans recognized the position of Nasi, and collected a tax specifically for him; the position became quite powerful politically.

      While the אנשי כנסת הגדולה are arguably the first Rabbis, we only begin to see the title of Rabbi among the Tannaim (Shammai and Hillel came just a bit too early to have that title). In 425 CE (4185), Emperor Theodosius II terminated Roman recognition of the office of Nasi, diverting the Nasi tax to the Roman treasury, and suppressed the Sanhedrin, ending public smicha and fundamentally changing the meaning of a Rabbi.

      Throughout the Middle Ages, the term Nasi was used occasionally and informally, and the use of the term Rabbi also became comparatively informal, simply referring to a scholar. It was only around the 14th century that the term “smicha” began to reappear; it was, of course, not the same and not as formal as the Sanhedrin smicha, but within 100 years, it became a prerequisite for being referred to as a Rabbi.

      In the 17th century in Yemen, the title Nasi appeared again, this time referring to the head of the richest, most noble family of the community. Although many of those Nesiim were knowledgeable in Torah, this was not a requirement. That title lasted into the 20th century. Meanwhile, in Europe, the role of Rabbis was changing. In the Middle Ages, the primary concern of a Rabbi was settling disputes; in the 18th century, this began to shift, and while Rabbis still do sit on a beit din, they are seen much more as teachers.

      Generally, most of us are happy to move forward to new social structures. While we appear to have spent millennia pining for the royal family of David, and while there has always been an undercurrent of hoping that we will find our lost tribes, there is no pining for the Nesiim. We have passed that stage and are not looking back. Many, including Rav A.Y. Kook, say that we are not really pining for the House of David either—what we are looking for is entirely different from anything we have experienced before.

      As we return to the Land of Israel, which we have been doing gradually over the last century or so, and are continuing to do as we speak, new Jewish leaders emerge, both complementing and competing with Rabbis. Israel has a prime minister and a president, for example. Some of us see these as bureaucratic technicalities, while many secular Jews see government officials as the “real” leaders and disregard Rabbis completely. Israel has developed a network of “Chief Rabbis,” but Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews have insisted on Rabbis from their tradition, resulting in parallel positions, with significant confusion and turbulence.

      As we have discussed in previous posts on ירידת הדורות, leadership, throughout Jewish history, has gradually become less and less centralized and consolidated. At the same time, the average orthodox Jew is much more knowledgeable than before—it is no coincidence that as the duties of a Rabbi shifted from adjudicating to teaching, Rabbis became teachers to everybody, not just the élite. We are now looking at a Jewish world with more Rabbis than ever, each, on average, having less power than ever. The attitude towards government in Israel, even among the secular population, is not incredibly respectful, and it will be very interesting to see what ultimately happens with the Israeli government.

      In 1948, with the founding of the State of Israel, the two Chief Rabbis at the time composed a prayer together for that state, referring to it as ראשית צמיחת גאלתנו. It has remained a sore point ever since. The yeshiva community rejected, and continues to reject, this prayer; the religious zionist community sometimes embraces it, but at the times of the Oslo accords, and later during the disengagement from Gaza, they would either not recite this prayer at all, or modify it to express the deep imperfection of the current leadership.

      Those of us who say this prayer should note how special it is that this prayer is so controversial; it is a sign of our times, and of our relationship, more complex and strained than ever, with leadership and the idea of leadership. We are heading into an exciting new era, where it will take more than ever to earn the respect of the people.

      [1] It is also the longest in terms of verses, but that comes not so much from its richness as from the repetitiveness of the last section.
      [2] To source this fully would be a long treatise that would detract from our main point; but we would start with the fact that a צרוע is מטמא בביאה (Keilim 1:4) whereas a זב is only מטמא משכב ומושב (Vayikra 15:4).
      [3] Again, not explicitly mentioned, but it mentions the aggrieved dying with no heirs, and as those born Jewish will have at least distant relatives to inherit, the conclusion generally drawn is that the reference is to a convert.
      [4] During this time, we see the term Nasi appear in Yechezkel 44:3, and Ezra 1:8 mentions a Nasi of Yehudah, but these seem to hold very different positions from the Nesiim of our parashah.

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