Working for God

June 14th: Naso
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

Our portion this week deals with the very curious institution of the Nazirite. We do not know much about this status other than it is chosen voluntarily by an individual, that the status is for a limited amount of time (declared at the beginning), and that a Nazirite does not cut his/her hair, drink wine, or come in contact with the dead. As to why someone would choose to be a Nazir or what he/she does is simply not included in the Torah. All the text tells us are the above rules and the rituals for the conclusion. These rules make up the bulk of Numbers 6.  

As one can imagine, the concluding ritual involves sacrifices and prayers, but the most interesting aspect is the shaving of the “sacred hair”—that is, the hair that is not cut during the Nazirite’s term, and burning it under the Zevach Hash’lamim, the Sacrifice of Well-being. One wonders if the foul odor of the burning hair is part of the ambience of the ritual—or if the aroma of the barbequing ram covers it up.

Immediately following these ritual instructions, we have the famous and very holy Priestly Benediction, known in Tradition as B’rachah Ham’shuleshet, the Threefold Benediction. Here is the way it appears in the Torah: “The Lord spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: May the Lord bless you and protect you!  May the Lord deal kindly with you and be gracious to you! May the Lord smile upon you and bless you with peace! Thus shall they place My Name on the Children of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6.22-27)

Though the Torah does not directly link the Threefold Benediction to the Nazirite completion ritual, the fact that they are presented together must mean something. Here’s a possibility: Since the purpose of B’rachah Ham’shuleshet is to “place God’s Name on the Children of Israel,” could the decision to serve as a Nazir represent an individual’s desire to place a sense of godliness on him/herself and his/her life? 

Many who feel the Presence of God desire to show it in some manner. Some choose particular ritual observances and may even add observances for certain periods or for certain holy times. Others may embark on a period of study, deepening their understanding of our religion and tradition. Others may devote themselves to some kind of holy work—serving the congregation or some other charitable institution. These are all ways of dedicating ourselves to God.

When we do respond to this call from On High, we can feel very inspired, very holy, very much an agent of God, and this is wonderful. Perhaps these good feelings are God’s instrument for guiding us into good works.

However, we must also beware self-righteousness—those feelings telling us that, because we are doing God’s work, everything we do is good and holy. Though we may attempt to be clear channels for godliness, we are imperfect beings, and our egos and prejudices and misjudgments can often interfere with the purity of our aspirations. This is a subtle balance, a delicate tension, as we seek to do the bidding of our God with confidence and faith and yet proceed carefully and cautiously. We may think that caution indicates a lack of faith, but the opposite is true. If we truly want to be like God, then we should be enlightened by our Tradition’s reflections on God’s deliberations—on God’s wrestling between competing goals. Here are some examples from the Midrash.

When Moses is at the Burning Bush, and God is explaining the whole plan for the Exodus, Moses interrupts God and asks, “This plan of Yours is going to take a year. Why cannot You just free the Children of Israel now?” At this impudence, God’s Right Hand of Justice lashes out to destroy Moses, but God’s Left Hand of Mercy catches the Right Hand and stops it. God realizes that Moses is only concerned with the extra year of suffering the Israelites will have to endure—and the fact that some might not survive until the Exodus.

When The Children of Israel are caught on the shore of the Red Sea, God splits the sea for them and drowns the Egyptians. Though God has other options, the decision is made to destroy the Egyptian army—a decision God does not find pleasing. Thus, when the angels in heaven start singing “Hallelujah,” God shushes them with, “My children are floating dead in the sea!”

In another Midrash, the Rabbis are discussing imitatio deo, the ways that humans can be like God. Since we are supposed to pray, someone asks whether God prays—and for what and to whom. The answer is that God prays to Himself, praying that the Divine Attribute of Justice will always be overwhelmed by the Divine Attribute of Mercy. Both are Divine, and God has to adjudicate the struggle between them.

In other words, just as we are often caught between competing principles—both of which are good, so is our God. Ultimate goodness means meeting more than one ultimate goal—different ideals not always being aligned with one another. God must think and deliberate and agonize in order to make decisions that combine justice and mercy—with hopefully a little extra mercy.

One other point: Notice the way the Threefold Benediction works. The priests say the words, but God blesses the people: “Thus they place My Name on the Children of Israel, and I will bless them.”  The priests are not God but rather just the conduits for God’s energy. This is a point on which the Rabbis of the Talmud insist. Even when we do God’s work, we are not God. We are servants of the Almighty and the deliberative process which occupies God all the time.

When we dedicate ourselves to God—as did the ancient Nazirites, let us place on ourselves the attribute of the Most High that strives earnestly to reach all good aspirations—especially those that involve blessing, protection, kindness, grace, smiling, and peace.