The contrast between joyous Shavuot (when we receive, along with the rest of the Torah, the commandment “Thou shall not kill”) and the horrific events in Orlando and Tel Aviv is jarring and nauseating. Today I offer a departure from my usual lighthearted parenting lessons as I grapple with what it means to give and receive blessing in this world my daughter will inherit. But perhaps this struggle too is Torah.
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.
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.