I Forgive Me – Parshat Naso 5775

I Forgive Me

When it comes to the art of asking for forgiveness, there’s nothing worse than a canned apology. You know the kind I’m talking about. A politician reading a few lines of carefully scripted empathy off a teleprompter or a business owner covering up for something that was “taken out of context.” The real problem with a fake “I’m sorry” is that even if it appeases those who were wronged, it carries no weight for the person apologizing. You see, when you’re to blame, the first person you must ask forgiveness from is yourself. Only then can you accept the feelings of guilt that help you to change.

As we read parshat Naso this week, we read about the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and the establishment of a successful community.  The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God.

Chapter 5, verse 7 focuses in on the notion of confession.  “He shall confess the wrong that he has done.”  While this sounds straightforward enough, the “confession” is loaded with ritual and with meaning. The Hebrew word used for confession is “hitvadu.”  This is in the reflexive form, which suggests that we must confess to ourselves the wrong that we have done.  Confessing to ourselves, and even forgiving ourselves, is essential in moving forward and growing as humans.

Too often as parents, children, siblings, and teachers, we only halfway apologize for our mistakes. We publicly ask for forgiveness, but we never truly move forward by personally taking ownership of those wrongdoings.  We give lip service to our wrongs, but don’t learn anything from them.  The text this week reminds us that in order to properly confess, and to properly forgive, we must forgive and believe it first ourselves.

One of the essential tools of the rabbinical trade is a thick skin.  This isn’t just because of the pastoral duties, which require a specific temperament. It’s also because as someone who must choose words carefully, I tend to be hardest on myself when my words fall short. Maybe I wasn’t able to respond to a question fast enough or I wasn’t able to be there physically when you needed me. I take these moments to heart and often hold onto them  longer than I should. You may have even forgiven me before I have forgiven myself.

Here’s my promise to you: I will work on forgiving myself if you promise to work on forgiving yourself too. After all, that’s precisely the point of including the concept of hitvadu in this community-building portion of the Torah. Confession is just one building block of a fruitful relationship, and it’s our relationships that create the society we want.

[photo credit: Sorry in Sydney, Australia -sky writing, National Apology Day , National Sorry Day 2015 “such unthinkable theft” via photopin (license)]

I Am What I Am – Parshat Naso 5773

In a letter to me on my 18th birthday, my father wrote: “Much of who you are is sealed in genetics, you are who you are because of the DNA that went into making you.  But, you are also who you are because of the choices you have made and will make.  Make wise choices that reflect the best in you and those around you.”  These words often echo in my head as I look at the choices I’ve made and continue to make in my life.  The fact is we are predisposed to certain traits because of the inner make up of our bodies, but we also make choices along the path of our adventure through life.  Some things, like height or genetic predisposition for diseases, cannot be changed, while other aspects of our lives, like a career or how we interact with others, are conscious decisions.

 

As the Israelites inch closer to entering the land of Israel and the new society they have formed, the Torah gives us insight into both the predetermined status and the choices of individuals in that society.  In parshat Naso, this week’s parshah, we read about the special designations for each of the different tribes.  We also learn about a system of punishments for a suspected liar and various gifts brought by the heads of the cities in honor of the dedication of the Tabernacle.  But the primary focus of this text is on the specific roles that people play in society, namely the kohanim (priests) and the Nazirites.

The priest has a status inherited at birth based on the family line.  Because it’s passed down by blood, the role of the kohanim is considered an immutable characteristic of these people, and only in special circumstances are exemptions allowed.  For example, a priest is normally not allowed to be near a dead body, but is exempt from this rule for parents because the status is inherited from them.

 

On the other hand, the Nazirite is a self-chosen status, but full of its own prohibitions in behaviors such as cutting hair, drinking wine, or approaching a dead body.  According to the text this week, Nazirites may choose their position like they would an occupation, and because of this, even when it is their own family member who has died, they are unable to attend the burial proceedings because that restriction was self-imposed as part of the Nazirite designation.

 

The rabbis read these sections with compassion and concern.  After all, it is never easy to have to remind someone that their own choices have prohibited them from involvement in the world around them.  More telling, however, is that the rabbis viewed the choice to become a Nazirite, one who is hidden and separated from general society, as a choice to turn their attention more toward God instead of to others.  In fact, the Hebrew word nazircan mean both “consecrated” and “separated.”

 

It’s not difficult to see the advantages of either position.  For kohanim, acceptance of the rules comes without choice, which in a sense makes abiding by them easier, or at least clearer.  However, being a Nazirite is not an innate part of who someone is, so having that option implies more freedom, but choosing that path ultimately segregates a person from the community.

As modern Jews, we really must have a sense of both aspects – the inherent and the selected – to be fully connected to our religion.  That means we need to feel that Judaism is part of our makeup, either by birth or conversion, and we need to make Judaism a conscious choice every day in our thoughts and actions.

THIS TOO IS TORAH: Did you know that the Nazirite tradition had significant influence on the Rastafari movement?  Their interpretation of the nazarite vow includes the familiar prohibitions against cutting hair and drinking alcohol as well as dietary restrictions that resemble kashrut.

Who’s on First? – Parshat Naso 5772

In the famous Abbott and Costello routine, hysterics ensue when the name of the first baseman is “Who,” confusing the question word with a proper noun.  Similarly, it can sound like a comedy routine the first time we learn that in Hebrew, me means who, hu means he, and he means she.  Without knowing the specifics of the context, it’s difficult to understand what is going on.  Just as in speech, we will often use context cues to understand a situation in our texts.
This week we read parshat Naso, the second portion in sefer Bamidbar.  The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God.  Among these laws is the notion of connection to a community, to God, and to the greater “people.” 
The text begins with God speaking to Moshe, telling him to take another counting of the people.  Chapter 4, verse 22 reads, “Take also a census of the sons of Gershon, throughout the houses of their fathers, by their families.”  The English translation seems easily understood, but the Hebrew leaves an opening for interpretation.  It begins with the word נשא, which can mean to lift, take, carry, marry, forgive, or suffer.  Given the context – and perhaps even knowledge of grammatical rules – the reader is easily able to intuit which meaning of the root is intended. 
Especially with a root like this, you have to pay careful attention to the use in order to understand a text, and, at the same time, we can see how each meaning of this root must be related.  Reading this verse, we understand that the census which is taken so often is intended to announce how many people are a part of each tribe and thus the nation. 
We also have the responsibility to lift up one another in our relationships and as members of our communities.  As a part of the Levine Academy community this year, we have raised each other up with our learning, our friendships, and our commitment or “marriage” to the notion that we must say Hineini, I am here.  Students said Hineini when they recognized the suffering of others and worked towards supporting one another with the Berry Family bracelet initiative and Dollars for Denim.  Over 75 families participated in our Kindle the Spark learning community and Daven and Donuts, lifting up our voices in prayer and our souls with learning.  We have stood up and been counted as we helped transform our school into “No Place for Hate” and helped to lift the burden of hunger during our Rosh Hodesh food drives. 
This week, the final week of school during the 2011-12 school year, we read parshat Naso, and we are reminded that as a community we can look back not only on our fabulous programs, but on how we’ve lifted each other up, carried each other through good times and bad, and found ourselves fulfilled and blessed to be a part of our special place.  While words can sometimes have more than one meaning, our actions and learning this year have moved us deeper into our relationship with one another and lifted up our school to a holy community.  May we move forward from strength to strength and come together again to learn and grow.

May We Be Blessed – Parshat Naso 5771


I’ve always been intrigued by the notion of blessing.  I always wanted to be the one who said the magic formula over the bread which suddenly meant we were allowed to eat it, and I always got excited about being chosen at services to hold the Havdallah candle on Saturday nights.  Growing up, I knew that we always blessed inanimate things, and our blessing them somehow turned them from mundane into something extraordinary.  But I never really understood how or why we could bless people.  And I’m not talking about the “bless you” after a sneeze, an old custom which dates back to when serious illness without modern medicine was usually terminal.  What does it really mean for me to bless you or for you to bless me?

This week we read parshat Naso, the second portion in sefer Bamidbar.  It deals with another census of the people, laws about purities within and outside the camp, a biblical lie detector test for a woman suspected of engaging in adultery, and explanations of what it might mean to be a nazir, a special person with deep self control.  In the middle of all of these case studies lies Birkat Kohanim, the Priestly blessing, which is perhaps one of the best known sections of our text.  This is the blessing that God instructs Moshe to tell his brother Aaron to use when the priests bless the people.

Chapter 6 verses 24-26:
24: May God bless you and guard you.
כד יְבָרֶכְךָ  ה וְיִשְׁמְרֶך
25: May God shine God’s face upon you and show you graciousness.
כה יָאֵר  ה ׀ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּך
26:  May God lift God’s face upon you and place upon you peace.
כו יִשָּׂא  ה ׀ פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם:

The first question that the commentators ask is about this notion of people blessing people.  We’ve seen throughout the Torah that fathers have “blessed” their children with the blessing of the first born, but never have we seen this explicit blessing from God for the priests to use on the people.  The Rashbam, a medieval commentator from the line of Rashi, understands this section of text not as the priests giving a direct blessing to the people, but rather as the priests invoking God to bless the people and God responding by giving this blessing.  Rashbam implies that blessing is something that we are deserving of, and in the right moment and at the right time, blessing is something that can bring us a moment of unique peace. 
Over time this blessing has taken on various meanings.  It is said most often on Friday evenings as Shabbat comes in and parents bless their children, but it is also used during a wedding, brit milah, and Bar or Bat Mitzvah, as the rabbi or clergy person blesses the celebrant(s) on their new journey.   These moments denote a sacred moment in time and sometimes a significant change in life.
If you’ve come to our school Shabbat celebrations, you know that at the end of the blessing of the children when we say Birkat Kohanim, I encourage everyone to bless not only the children but also the parents, grandparents, teachers, and friends.  Just as ordinary candles become a divider of time, the wine becomes sacred, and the challah becomes edible, so too when we bless another person, it takes our relationship to another level by including a hint of the divine.  This blessing between human beings creates a moment in which God’s creations are sharing love, peace, and light between one another.  May we be blessed with a lifetime of those moments.
Family Discussion
1. Bamidbar literally means “in the wilderness,” but the root is also the same root as the word for speech, daled-bet-reish.  How can speech or blessing lift us up out of the wilderness and into a new phase in time?
2. Two parts of Birkat Kohanim mention God’s “face.” How do you interpret God’s face?