Parshat Naso is one which has particular significance to me. In 1961 it was my bar mitzvah portion. In 1988, it was the first parasha for the first d’var Torah that I was invited to write for the Jewish Standard as I was about to assume my position as the rabbi of Temple Sholom of River Edge.
Chapter 6, verses 1-21 are a discussion of the Nazirite vow, which is followed in verses 22-27 by the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction. The Nazir described in chapter 6 takes upon himself a set of specific ritual observances beyond those required of other Israelites. The text demands (verse 13ff) that when the Nazirite vow is completed the Nazir must bring a sin offering, leaving us to speculate: What was the sin of the Nazir?
For the last 52 years, I have remained focused, or as some of my friends and congregants might say, obsessed with the question of the sin of Nazir and how it applies to us in our contemporary world.
With my impending retirement next month, I find myself on this bar mitzvah anniversary reflecting back upon my career as a rabbi and look in the mirror at the challenges and the responsibilities that I continue to face as a responsible Jew, which is the definition of bar mitzvah that I have taught thousands of young people over the past 40 years.
I have come to realize that the sin of the Biblical Nazir was the belief that his responsibility to give of his time and talent to the service of God by serving his community was something from which he could retire.
Like the Nazir of old, ritual observances have always served me as a reminder of who we are and the values, ideals, and dreams for which we stand. Rituals were not and are not magical acts by which we appease God and curry God’s favor. Rather, they are the skeleton of Jewish life which holds up the flesh of Judaism — the ethical, moral, and spiritual truths of Torah.
Parashat Naso is read on either the Sabbath preceding or following Shavuot, the festival upon which we are each to re-experience the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. For Reform Judaism, Shavuot, the time of our receiving of Torah, became the moment of confirmation. At this season when our teenagers are called upon to confirm their commitment to Judaism and the Jewish People through the confirmation ceremony, each and every Jew should take the opportunity to reconfirm our commitments as well. Like the Nazir of ancient days, each of us at this season can choose to take an oath. However, rather than an oath of abstinence, our oath must be a positive affirmation to dedicate ourselves to Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasadim — the study of Torah, the worship of God and to deeds of righteousness; an oath, to be a positive rather than a passive Jew.
I recognize that the Bergen County Jewish community is different demographically than the one I moved to 25 years ago. However, one thing that has remained the same is the real division in Jewish life — not merely between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism but, rather, between Positive Jews and Passive Jews.
I suggest to you that we can equate the vow to be a Positive Jew with the vow of the Nazir of old. Similar to the Nazir described here in Numbers 6, to be a positive Jew at the beginning of the 21st century requires both faith and action. Faith in God and in ourselves. Faith in the vitality of the Jewish people. This faith must be coupled with a willingness to be pro-active in our pursuit of ways to integrate our Jewish values and our Jewish identity into our daily lives.
To be a Nazir today requires us to separate ourselves from the apathy of American society that leads us to shut our eyes to the horrors surrounding us as did the neighbors and police in my native Cleveland earlier this month. To be a Nazir today means we cannot stand idly by while guns and weapons of destruction are openly sold in our local stores and it is easier to get a gun than to get a driver’s license in the United States.
For American Jews, being a Nazir requires us to take a vow to stand in solidarity in deed as well as word with our Israeli sisters and brothers. Our Nazirite vow in 2013 must be to support the State of Israel even when we disagree with one or more of her policies or actions. In our Torah portion, the laws of the Nazirite vow is followed by the three-fold blessing which we call Birkat Cohanim. I suggest to you at this season of revelation and confirmation that if we are willing to take a modern Nazirite vow to commit ourselves to the continual support and transformation of our Temple, to the defense of the State of Israel, and to the pursuit of social and economic justice for all, then and only then will we merit the right to both invoke and to receive the three-fold blessing of the Torah:
May Adonai bless you and protect you;
May Adonai deal kindly with you and be gracious to you;
May Adonai smile upon you and grant you peace.
In the process we will, to paraphrase verse 6:27, link ourselves to the name of God, to the people of Israel, and be blessed by both our people and our God.
For many people, one of the most unsettling times of their lives occurs during their college years. For the first 18 years of life, most of us go through a school system in which we are corralled through the same subjects and the same doors of life. But then one gets to college, and there are electives. There is the flexibility of choice. A set of choices that doesn’t stop with one’s classes, but extends to choosing one’s major, one’s profession, and eventually one’s spouse. During these relatively early years of life a number of decisions are placed on us that have a major impact on the trajectory of our lives. For some people, making the transition from being a face in the crowd to being a unique individual can be a frightening process.
In one eye-opening verse in this week’s parasha, God establishes the idea that the purpose of our exodus from Egypt was in order for the Children of Israel to possess the land of Canaan (Israel). It is in the land of Canaan, according to Leviticus 25:38, where God will formally establish God’s relationship with Israel as Israel’s God. This statement actually is a repeat of the same promise that God made to Abraham in Genesis 17:8, where God says, “I will assign the land to you and your offspring to come, all the land of Canaan, as an everlasting holding (achuzat olam); I will be their God.”
My brother, sister, and I just lost our dad. We want to know why we should say Kaddish for him. I say his soul will be immortal no matter what? My siblings insist that we all have to say Kaddish in shul every day for 11 months.
Worried about the next world
I sympathized with the residents of Boston last week as they were told to remain in their homes with their doors locked. Living in Los Angeles in 1992, I too was subject to a curfew that spring. Not that the two situations were identical. While Boston residents had to stay indoors all day last Friday, the curfew imposed upon my neighborhood in West L.A. was only at night. What united the two situations were fear and isolation.
Our tradition has many examples of isolation. Our ancestor Jacob found himself alone on two occasions, both of which transformed his relationship with God in a profound way. In the first he had his famous dream with the ladder and the angels. In the second, he wrestled an angel and received the new name Israel. In both of these cases, I imagine that Jacob began in fear and then through the encounter transitioned to awe and gratitude.
David, in the days before he was established on the throne of Israel, was targeted by his father-in-law King Saul for death. He had to escape into the desert to avoid execution. The Psalms reflect how David confronted his fear with words of faith and assurance.
Each of these examples is one of physical isolation, when a person is removed from most or all of the people he knows. This week’s Torah portion, Emor, hints at something slightly different: a social isolation in which a person is within the community but still feels detached. Often social isolation leads to resentment. In Leviticus Chapter 24, a man who is half Israelite and half Egyptian gets into a fight with an Israelite man. In the course of the fight, he blasphemes God’s name. God decrees that he should be stoned. The Torah leaves out two important pieces of information — what the fight is about and why it is relevant that the blasphemer is half Israelite.
The great commentator Rashi fills in these blanks. We need to know that the blasphemer is half Israelite on his mother’s side, because the locations for encampment are assigned according to father’s house. Without an Israelite father, this man has nowhere to pitch his tent. He has appealed to Moses for redress and been denied. When he finally just picks a place, an argument ensues and he curses God’s name in frustration.
The blasphemer is already socially isolated. Finally a blatant injustice leads him to resentment and rash words for which he deserves the ultimate punishment.
As a Jewish community, there is a lot to learn from this turn of events in Parashat Emor. Sometimes in standing up for principle, we cause our own members to feel disconnected. This isn’t always bad. As a covenantal community we must at times draw boundaries to uphold our core values. But there are probably also times when we stand up for principle in a way that unnecessarily imposes social isolation. In a diverse, multi-faceted society it is no simple task for our institutions and our leaders to draw the lines that reinforce our values. Social isolation is a powerful force whose consequences cannot be predicted.
As the Torah portion shows, people who feel socially isolated sometimes act in a way that undermines the very values that we have striven to uphold. I believe that had Moses known the result of his decision, he would have found a way for the half Israelite man to find a place to pitch his tent. Neither the man nor the community benefited from the outcome.
Physical isolation leads to fear. Social isolation leads to resentment. Our challenge as Jews is to minimize both so as to maximize our connection to God.
I often wonder how an esoteric term like “holy” entered our lexicon. People use terms about holiness like “Holier than Thou,” “Holy Smokes,” or “Holy Cow,” that probably have no real meaning to them other than being a figure of speech. For me, holiness has a spiritual and divine quality, and I ask myself: “Do I recognize the difference between what is holy and what is not? How am I supposed to feel when I encounter a holy moment or a sacred experience right here and now?”
This week’s “Holiness Code” of Leviticus 19:2 and 20:26 invites us to learn about holiness and how to achieve it in our lives;
“The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel, and say to them, you shall be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.”
Three principles are suggested: Each one of us is capable of achieving holiness through right actions; feeling close to God makes us feel holy; and we need to interact ethically with people to feel holy.
“Speak to the entire congregation of the children of Israel” tells us that everyone is capable to achieve holiness. From first read it seems that the message is addressed to the entire community as a whole, but Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin from Volozhin makes an important point — that Moses was actually meant to address each individual separately because he/she has the unique individualized potential for holiness. Regardless of one’s age or gender, talent or ability, everyone should be able to uncover his/ her potential for holiness to the best of his/her own ability.
“You shall be holy” is presented in the plural future tense. It is the prescribed state of holiness of the People of Israel that holiness is not an inherited quality. Rabbi Hayim Ben-Atar, author of “Or Hahayim,” asserts that the future tense alerts us not to think that we are already holy but rather, holiness is a goal for us to achieve. Furthermore, he describes holiness as a metaphor for unlimited gates. As we pass one gate of holiness, there is another gate waiting, and another. Similarly, there are many levels of holiness which are available for us to achieve.
“For I, the Lord, your God, am holy” is presented in the singular present tense and is the ascribed state of holiness of God. God is holy so we too, have the potential to be holy. The Halachic Midrash, Sifrah Kadoshim 1:1, suggests that we become holy by the process of imitating God.
The connecting core for these three principles of holiness is set in the commandments for actions. For example, if we are kind, just, and loving, we can enter into a relationship with God, which in turn will bring holiness to our life. When we greet another person with a smile, when we show sensitivity to the environment, when we help the poor and care for global justice we walk before God, connect with God, and become holy. Thus, we are given all the opportunities to build holiness in our daily lives.
It takes mindfulness to recognize the distinct feeling of holiness. My suggestion would be to create an intention for holiness before doing something — like before putting a dollar in the hat of a homeless person. Ask: How does it feel after performing a good did? If you feel a rush in your veins, a pumping heart and a sense of satisfaction and wholeness, than you know that you achieved holiness. This extraordinary feeling of holiness will also assure you that you are connected to God in the way this week’s portion teaches us.
May we continue to walk on this personal journey of holiness and spiritual purity with the intention to sanctify the mundane, as we pass thru one gate of holiness after another.
“If a person has on the skin of his body… lesions of Tzara’as [a supernatural skin affliction]… He should be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons, the priests [for examination].” Leviticus 13:2.
“Rendering a person unclean or clean can only be through the pronouncement of a Kohen, a priest.” (Rashi).
I recently spent a phenomenal Shabbos with an 88-year-old Holocaust survivor.
She told me of her father, shot dead by the Nazis just two days before liberation because he shared some of his meager rations with a fellow victim in Mauthaussen. She told of her mother from that vanished world, pious and righteous, who sacrificed so much for her daughter. “I miss her every day, still,” she said.
The gas in Auschwitz choked her mother to death.
I asked her if anyone ever prayed in the barracks. “Of course,” she said. “I never missed “Modeh Ani. There was a girl who slept close to me who knew the entire Tehillim, all 150 chapters of Psalms, by heart. She used to say the words as we were lying on those wood shelves they called beds. We would repeat those words after her.”
Can anyone imagine thanking God for returning their soul to hell? We can’t even imagine the hell of Auschwitz, let alone praying and thanking God for it. But that is what this woman did. Every day, never missing one.
At one point she said: “I saw “Nissim” [miracles] in Auschwitz all the time! God was there always. I saw it!”
Not everyone there felt this way. This woman’s sister, whom she nursed throughout their experience, did not want to hear of Judaism after liberation. And I have no doubt that when she arrived before the heavenly throne two years ago, carrying that tattoo as a blazing torch, she and God Almighty patched things up.
Some live their lives seeing it; others do not. Some cannot. And it is not for us to judge.
It reminded me of a beautiful story the midrash relates for this week’s parshah, Tazria.
There was once a Kohen who was an expert at examining Tzara’as, the extinct skin ailment discussed in this week’s Torah portion. This disease was neither painful nor contagious but a result of not behaving properly. Some wrongly translate this disease as leprosy. The Tzara’as disease was diagnosed when the kohen observed the hair in the afflicted area. The Kohen of our story was extremely poor, and decided to leave the Holy Land to seek a livelihood elsewhere.
Before leaving, he said to his wife, “Let me teach you the principles of examining Tzara’as so that you can advise people who will come to our house in my absence. You can tell whether someone is diseased or healthy by examining the grooves under the hair. Each hair is nurtured in its own groove. If you find that the groove under the hair has dried up, it is a symptom of disease.”
The wife wondered at these words. “If God created a source of nourishment for each individual hair, He must, all the more so, have provided for you, a human being and head of a family who has to support his children,” she said. “Don’t leave the Holy Land! Stay here and the Creator will certainly provide for you here, too!”
The Kohen listened to his wife (always a good idea...) and stayed in the Holy Land. Soon he found a good source of livelihood.
It is a matter of perspective. A Kohen must be the one to proclaim the status of the metzora (the person with the Tzara’as malady). The sages describe the Kohen as genetically kind and loving. Through the loving eyes of a Kohen, a fellow person is seen in a different light. Sometimes, though, the same Kohen who is so adept at looking at someone else that way does not look at himself with those eyes!
All Holocaust survivors are very special people. We look at them as heroes. We can learn something positive from all of them.
And from those who managed to see God through the wall of utter evil, we also can learn how to see our way through things like diseases, ailments, problems, terror and difficulties, Heaven forbid. For every hair has its life-giving groove. And every person has one as well.
Sometimes the way the weekly parashiyot fall out align pefectly with the festival cycle. This week, but a few days after concluding Passover, we read parashat Sh’mini with its outline of kashrut, the Jewish dietary code. Leviticus requires that we infuse our eating habits with holiness. We don’t take indiscriminately from the foodstuffs around us. Only certain animals can be eaten. Only certain fish. Only certain birds.
While it seems to add a burden to the normal routines of life, when put in the context of keeping kosher for Passover, the regular dietary restrictions suddenly become much less intrusive! It is almost as if the liturgical calendar is telling us: Now that you ate no bread for eight days, just restrict yourselves as follows.
Diet is often experienced in phases of more to less intensity in the Bible. The first diet given to Adam and Eve was pure vegan fare — only fruits and vegetables that grew in the Garden of Eden. After the expulsion from the Garden, Adam is tasked with tilling the soil to turn grain into bread. Only with Noah is meat introduced as an “authorized” element of the diet.
The pattern toward a restricted diet is clear when we look at Passover, when no leavened bread may be eaten, and Yom Kippur, when nothing may be eaten.
In all of these cases, the more intense the restriction on food, the closer the connection with God. Adam and Eve eat in the Garden, a restricted vegan diet that was, literally, paradise. Only when the expulsion from the Garden creates distance between Adam and God does humanity start to bake bread. Then, only at the time of the Flood, when God regrets the creation of humanity and allows only Noah and his family to survive, is there a begrudging permission to consume meat. Only after the covenant at Sinai are the Israelites given the dietary code we call kashrut. In a sense, that code establishes the special connection with God of this covenanted people. Then, the restrictions are increased at times of special holiness, like Passover and Yom Kippur.
The restrictions at Passover and Yom Kippur offer us a hint at the true meaning of keeping kosher. Inherent in the restricted diets is a striving for purity, and ultimately, holiness.
On Yom Kippur we empty our bodies of all food and drink, taking a true “cleanse” in the spiritual as well as physical sense. By purifying our bodies of foodstuffs, we purify the soul and can present ourselves to God as true penitents at the season of forgiveness.
Similarly, at Passover we cleanse not only our bodies but also our homes of all hametz, leavened grain products. We must remember that at the altar of the ancient Tabernacle and Temple, only unleavened bread was used. We see this continued to this day in Christian tradition with the use of only unleavened wafers for communion. Could you imagine bringing out a moldy loaf for the sacrament? Matzah does not get moldy. It does not acquire “impurity.” If only we could have that quality! So on Passover at least we eat a diet symbolizing imperviousness to impurity that we can only strive for in our real lives.
And so with kashrut throughout the year. We are only to eat “pure” animals. Only “pure” fish; no amphibians or shellfish. The details of the code underlie a symbolism of purity and holiness. Rather than understand kashrut as an ancient diet for better health, we should read it as an ancient diet for higher spirituality. While looking to our physicians for instruction on how to care for the body, we can look to Torah for how to feed the soul.