We’re doing something a little different today. I’ve expanded the parasha to be our main message this Shabbat. There is a theme woven throughout this section of the Torah, and I felt it deserved our deeper consideration. First, I’ll give an overview of the parasha, then we’ll address that underlying theme, and draw some applications.
But I’ll begin with a question: what is the name of the government agency in charge of space exploration? NASA, of course, which stands for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. You know, they could have named it any number of ways, but the acronym NASA seems apropos to me, because the Hebrew verb nasa means to lift up or take up or carry away.
The parasha for this first Shabbat after Shavuot is entitled Naso, from that same verb nasa. It covers Numbers 4:21-7:89. Chapter four describes the taking of a census of the levitical families of Gershon, Merari and Kohath. These families were set apart by God to be responsible for the set up and transport of the Tabernacle and all its materials. In other words, they were sanctified schleppers.
As we have learned in weeks past, the tribe of Levi was set apart to serve the Mishkan because they alone stood loyally by Moses and Adonai on the day of the golden calf fiasco. As horrible as that incident was, the tribe of Levi distinguished themselves that day. They were zealous for the Lord, and willing to regard Him above every other consideration; to the extent that they assumed the painful responsibility to put to death the leaders of that rebellion – even if it was a friend or a family member involved.
We get this understanding from Deuteronomy chapter 33, where Moses, blessed the tribe of Levi, saying, “He said of his father and his mother, ‘I did not consider them;’ and he did not acknowledge his brothers, nor did he regard his own sons, for they observed Your word, and kept Your covenant.” This also helps us put in perspective Yeshua’s words, “Anyone who loves his father or mother more than Me is not worthy of me; anyone who loves his son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me” (Matthew 10:37).
Chapter five begins a section on another group of people who were to be set apart, but in a different way, and for a very different reason. This separation was for various types of uncleanness. Included here is the command that lepers must dwell outside the camp; not only to minimize contagion, but more importantly, because an infinite, perfect, holy God dwelt within the camp. For most Israelis diagnosed with leprosy, it was a temporary condition, but imagine the loneliness of that isolation, and all the more if someone had a permanent case of leprosy!
Chapter six describes yet another type of separation – those who willingly set themselves apart through a Nazirite vow. Nazirite comes from the word ryz]n meaning consecrated, either in a religious or ceremonial sense, or set apart for high office. It may also be translated crown or diadem. The Nazirite vow was to be a minimum of 30 days, but it could be potentially much longer; even for a lifetime! During that time, the Nazirite was forbidden to consume wine or strong drink, or even grape juice, grapes or raisins! Anything produced by the vine was prohibited. Scholars suggest it may have been a caution against drunkenness during the vow, or else (and I think this is more likely) it was a renunciation of anything associated with Canaanite (agri)culture and a remembrance of Israel having relied entirely upon God in the wilderness. The Nazirite was also required to let his hair grow until the completion of the vow, at which time it would be cut and then burned on the altar. After the completion of the vow, he would again be permitted to enjoy the fruit of the vine.
Also in this chapter is a description of the unusual priestly test for a woman accused by her husband of adultery. In Jewish tradition, marriage is called kiddushin – from the word kadosh, meaning holy or set apart. At a Jewish wedding the groom will say to the bride, Harei at m’kudeshet lee – “behold, you are set apart to me!” The covenant of marriage mutually excludes the two from every other person on earth and sets them apart for each other only.
This is why throughout history, both Judaism and Christianity have regarded adultery as among the most serious of offenses. What I can appreciate about this unusual type of trial is that the matter is taken out of the hands of a jealous husband, and reserved for God to judge. Furthermore, a public trial such as this served not only to establish guilt or innocence, but also acted as a deterrent. Our sinful nature is kept in check through the threat of severe consequences for sinful actions; and that would be as true for the making of a serious but false accusation, as for adultery.
Chapter six concludes with the Aaronic benediction – the marvelous blessing God gave Aaron and his descendants, the priests, to pronounce over the sons of Israel. To this day it is chanted in synagogues around the world, but only by a Kohayn (someone descended from the family line of Aaron). This is further evidence that God always had our people approach Him through a mediator. It also shows us that Israel as a nation was set apart by Adonai. Of all the nations in the world, He made a covenant with just one. This is why He could say to the Jewish people, “You are to be holy to Me, because I, the Lord, am holy, and I have set you apart from the nations to be My own” (Leviticus 20:26).
Chapter seven describes, in great detail, 12 days’ worth of lavish offerings presented to the Lord at the Tabernacle by the leading families of Israel (presumably representing the tribes). These families set apart a portion of their wealth and consecrated it to the Lord. Are you as intentional about the way in which you give back to Adonai from your wealth?
Hopefully, we’ve identified the common thread. Woven throughout parasha Naso is the theme of God-ordained separation, and that is what holiness is about; being set apart by the will of God.
To those of you who are believers in Messiah Yeshua, on that day you surrendered your will to His, transferred your loyalty to His kingdom, and committed yourself to obey His teachings, you became holy. In Messiah you and I are set apart. And now that we are His disciples, God has also made us Messiah’s ambassadors. In John chapter 15 Yeshua said, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are My friends if you do what I command you…You did not choose Me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:13-16).
Yeshua reiterated this in what has come to be known as The Great Commission, when He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Me; therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:18-20). Thus,
We are set apart by God as representatives of Messiah Yeshua.
Unfortunately, but predictably, that makes us very unpopular with our own people. Fact is, long before the present, worldwide increase in anti-Semitic activity, long before the Holocaust, long before the pogroms and mandated Jewish ghettos in Europe, long before the Forced Disputations in Spain, long before the Crusades, long before the usual litany of historical justifications Jewish people use as a rationale for rejecting Yeshua, the matter had been decided by our own leaders. There was collusion! The Pharisees, chief priests and Torah experts assembled and, fearing the loss of their power and influence over the people, decided that something had to be done about this upstart rabbi from Nazareth. Henceforth, any discussion on whether or not Yeshua might be the Messiah was shut down and forbidden. Evidence suppressed. Witnesses intimidated. Case closed.
And if you dared question the wisdom of the rabbis, you would find yourself ‘set-apart’ – ostracized from the Jewish community, even from your own family and friends; and branded a meshumed (‘apostate’) and a traitor.
Do you remember in John chapter 9 how the Pharisees treated the man who had been blind all his life and was wondrously healed by Yeshua? First, they interrogated him, then they attempted to deny outright that this miracle even happened, then they attempted to pressure him to deny Yeshua by bringing in his parents and putting him on the spot, and eventually, when he answered them back, speaking the truth, they put him out of the synagogue!
And the suppression of the truth continued…
Before encountering the risen and glorified Messiah Yeshua on the road to Damascus, Saul of Tarsus, whom we now know affectionately as Apostle Paul (or Rabbi Paul around here) was just such an anti-Yeshua zealot. But once he let it be known that he, too, had become a follower of Messiah Yeshua, he became public enemy #1, and remains to this day the second most hated Jew among Jewish people.
As early as the late 1st and early 2nd Centuries AD, followers of Messiah Yeshua were being ferreted out by synagogue leaders and hunted down from city to city. At the Council of Yavneh, a 19th benediction was added to the Shmoneh Esreh (18 benedictions). It is called Birchat HaMinim a curse on the minim, a generic word for ‘heretic’ but applied specifically in this context to the Nazarene sect – Jewish followers of Jesus. The rabbis began implementing cherem (shunning and excommunication) systematically against Messianic Jews.
So, as I said, we Jews have been pressured by our own leaders since almost the very beginning, to reject Messiah Yeshua, and discouraged from even considering the evidence or, heaven forbid, reading the Gospel for ourselves. And if a Jewish person should be discovered to be investigating Yeshua, or having believed in Him, they will be ridiculed, labeled and marginalized.
We shouldn’t be surprised by any of this, and we mustn’t let ourselves be deterred by it. Yeshua Himself told us, “A student is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for the student to be like his teacher, and the servant like his master. If the head of the house has been called Beelzebub, how much more the members of his household!” (Matthew 10:24-25)
He went on to warn us that, precisely because we are identified with Him, we will be hated by all nations, beginning with and including our own. We are accounted as losers to be ridiculed and like lepers to be avoided.
We are set apart by men as rejects because of our loyalty to Messiah Yeshua.
But don’t let it get you down. Sometimes the hero or heroes of the story are thought to be ‘losers’ by everyone else. Let me remind you of the unlikely heroes of the city of Samaria in the days of King Joram.
Samaria had been under siege by Aram (Syria) for so long, that the people were starving to death. They actually began resorting to cannibalism! And in 2 Kings 7 we read about four lepers sitting outside the gate of the city. As lepers, they weren’t welcome in the city, but there was no food in the city, anyway, so that wasn’t an option. And they reasoned that if they just sat there, they would die. It left them just one course of action: go surrender themselves to the Syrian army. At least the Syrians had food.
But when they got to the Syrian camp, it was abandoned. There was food, money, clothes, and treasures galore, but the camp itself was abandoned. We find out that God had put a panic in the hearts of the soldiers, thinking they heard the sound of an enormous invading army, so that they ran for their lives! And the lepers went from tent to tent, eating, drinking and collecting gold and silver.
But then their consciences troubled them. Their countrymen were dying of starvation inside the city. They’ve discovered a vast supply of food and water and treasure; how could they keep that good news to themselves? Sure, their own people disdained them as lepers; but they had a responsibility to announce deliverance. And that they did. They’ll always be lepers in the eyes of the community, but they are the unlikely heroes of 2 Kings chapter 7.
Let’s understand this historical event to also serve as a metaphor for the Gospel. The starvation of the inhabitants of Samaria stands for the desperate need of our Jewish people, who are dying spiritually every day. The Aramean armies of Ben Hadad, who besieged the city, can represent Satan and his forces, who would prevent our people from obtaining what we need to live: the Gospel.
And the lepers? They’re you and me. We’re not exactly the elite of society. In fact, as far as the Jewish community is concerned, Jewish believers are outcasts. Like those lepers we are thought to have no credibility. Meanwhile, we are like those who in the midst of a famine have found food and drink and clean clothing and great riches – the Gospel. And for a short while we revel in our discovery, but quickly come to understand that we need to tell this Good News, because our people are dying for the lack of it.
But like lepers, most of the time we’re not believed. Yet the time is coming when the Jewish people – my people, will come to faith in Messiah Yeshua and discover unimaginable blessings, just like we did. And we’ll be vindicated. But that’s then. This is now. And right now, we are supposed to call out to the ‘gates of the city’ as it were, and let people know where there’s spiritual food and drink, regardless if anyone listens to us or not, so that no one else needs to perish!
So, we are set apart with honor by God as Messiah’s representatives and, sadly, we are often set apart with disgrace by men as rejects. But the good news is that we get to be set apart – together! Yeshua said that we should count ourselves blessed when people insult us, persecute us and falsely say all kinds of evil against us because of Him. He said that we should rejoice and be glad, for our reward in heaven will be great; because that’s how the righteous prophets were treated.
So, let’s embrace both ideas of what it means to be a people set apart; set apart for disgrace, and set apart for honor. Disgrace for the moment, but honor in eternity, and in the eyes of the only One whose opinion really matters. Let us fulfill God’s calling on our lives, get outside these walls and make a genuine effort to share the Good News with unbelievers.
Each day brings opportunities that you may have misinterpreted as interruptions. Start thinking differently about the people you encounter. Stop thinking about ministry as something you go somewhere to do at a set time, and start viewing yourself as always being on the alert for the people God is sending your way. And, yes, sign up and participate when Shema goes out on evangelistic forays.
And choose to live lives set apart – all to the glory of Messiah Yeshua, and for the expansion of His Kingdom.