June 17th: Naso
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
This week, we read about the Nazir (Nazirite), a curious role that some Jews chose to take back in Biblical times. We do not know what they did, but it had something to do with dedicating oneself to a special level of holiness. A Nazir could be either male or female, and he/she got to choose the length of Naziriteship. (An exception was Samson—whose mother dedicated his whole life to being a Nazir.) We do not know what they did, but we do know what they did not do: (1) cut their hair, (2) drink wine or any grape products—not even vinegar, and (3) approach or tend to the dead. Otherwise, we just figure that they set aside a period of time to devote themselves to holiness, and the above requirements were signs of their special temporary status.
Perhaps some of them felt a special urge to develop their spirituality. Perhaps some of them wanted to repay God for special blessings. Perhaps some of them sought to make up for sinfulness and find some purity. The reasons for choosing this practice and the details of the practice itself are part of the fabric of ancient Jewish life that has just not been passed down through the generations. All we have are the rituals for initiating the status and the ritual for concluding it.
I wonder if deciding to be a Nazirite is like the decision that many modern Jews make to immerse themselves in Jewish organizational life or spiritual life. Many people are very dedicated to their Judaism, but, busy with the million other concerns of modern life, they are not particularly active in congregational or charitable activities. There are times, however, when they wish to draw closer and to take a more active role. They may start attending services more frequently. They may join a committee or the synagogue board. They may adjust their lives so that they can devote themselves to God and Jewish life in a more intense way, and they engage in this holy service for a while. Some volunteer for a program or event. Others stay active in the synagogue for a few years—or for many decades. Whatever their declared period of modern Naziriteship, they all deserve our appreciation and grateful thanks. Their presence and efforts make a world of difference in our Jewish community.
The most famous part of the Torah portion comes immediately after the rules for the conclusion of a Nazirite’s commitment. It is the Priestly Benediction—or, in Hebrew, Hab’rachah Ham’shuleshet, The Three Part Blessing. Here is the whole paragraph from Numbers 6.22-27:
“The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak unto Aaron and his sons:
This is how you shall bless the people of Israel. Say to them:
May the Lord bless you and protect you.
May the Lord shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May the Lord smile upon you and bless you with peace.
Thus shall the priests put My Name on the people of Israel, and I will bless them all.”
This idea of God “putting the Divine Name on the people of Israel” is both interesting and important, but I shall not address it here. Our Bar Mitzvah this week, Oliver Paulson, will discuss this, and I’ll just say Amen to his teaching.
My interest is in the process of the blessing: that the Torah sees it as something the kohanim (priests) must say in order for the blessing to be dispensed. Of course, God can bless anyone God wishes to bless, but this system seems to require human transmission. And, it’s not just that the kohanim who are part of the process: they are functionaries in a communal structure in which everyone has a role. The priests officiate at the sacrificial meals; the Levites support the holy work, and the Israelites participate both in prayer and by bringing the foodstuff for the sacrifices. In other words, it is only through a functioning society where everyone plays a part that the blessing of God comes.
We often focus on the special status of leaders, but, as any leader knows, real leadership does not take place without the support of the community. As much as we live individual lives, we are also part of groups, and many of the blessings we receive flow because of the communities in which we are a part.
Let us give thanks that we have a Jewish community. Let us give thanks that various members—at various times in their lives—devote themselves to communal service, doing God’s work and Judaism’s work. And let us give thanks that our synagogue community can be the conduit through which we communally as well as individually approach God and live in holy relationship.
Rabbi Ostrich's Weekly Torah Commentary will be on vacation for the Summer,
but look for new teachings in August.