Parshat Nasso: Sacred Service or Mere Avoidance?

People serve God in many ways. And when I say “serve God” I am not talking about isolated people performing arcane rituals or the like. I am talking about  how individuals live their lives, how they do what they do in the world in the service of others outside of themselves, whether those others are people, animals, creation itself, or for lack of a better term, God.

In the beginning of Parshat Nasso, we read that the individual clans of Levitical and Priestly families each have their own avodah, their own work to perform. Some are in charge of packing up and carrying the most sacred items in the Israelite camp: the lamp stand, the showbread table, the incense altar and the Ark of the Covenant. Some are in charge of breaking down and setting the outer structures of the mishkan, and so on. But each type of work is still called avodah, service, and is still part of the larger sacred service that the Levite tribe performs.

Few of us are Kohanim or Levites, and for those of us who are still or trace our families back to those clans and that tribe no longer have those sacred items or sacred structure to be the focus of our service in the world.

How do we serve God today?

Another way to ask the question is this: Which of these two options is better? Is it better to shake off all this-worldly affairs and concerns, to separate completely from all matters of the world, and take no pleasure in the world. Or is it better to immerse oneself in the benefits of this world and to raise them up to a higher level? Which of these two options is preferable? Which one is easier than the other?

From what I know of the Torah and the rabbinic interpretation of it, there is a strain of the monastic or ascetic within the Jewish world that values a more complete separation from the material and the physical. There were the Essenes, who lived near the Dead Sea in the late Second Temple Period. There were some rabbis who fasted regularly and engaged in various types of purification or mortifications of the body, and there sages here and there in the middle ages who practiced asceticism. But by no means were these groups or movements ever considered mainstream or normative Judaism.

For the most part, Jewish life is set firmly in the world, and does not shy away from material pleasure or from satisfying our appetites, but within reason. One often hears that Judaism is a very this-worldly religion, without much focus on the afterlife. The system of Jewish living creates structures, within which one may enjoy many of the pleasures of the world, food, drink, sex, physical activities within limits. Kashrut defines foods that are on or off the menu, and what and when we eat. A clear vision of committed relationships creates boundaries for sexual activity. Concern for one’s physical well-being impose limits on the level of risk one can knowingly engage in.

Then we come across an institution in this week’s Torah portion that seems to fly in the face of this normative approach to Jewish life, the Nazir.

What is a nazir?

In the beginning chapter six of Numbers, we learn the following:

  1. Either an adult man or a woman can, through some kind of speech act such as a verbal declaration, enter into a series of temporary limitations, which are:
    1. they may not drink wine or any other intoxicating drink;
    2. they may not even eat any part of a grape or anything made from grapes;
    3. they may not shave off any hair from their bodies;
    4. they may not have any contact with a corpse, even if it a close member of the family who has died;
    5. the traditional minimum for a nazarite vow was thirty-days, which is the shortest amount of time it takes to grow out one’s hair;
    6. they must bring a complex set of offerings at the end of their nazarite term, including a burnt offering, a well-being offering, and a sin offering;
    7. they must also shave off all of the hair on their head and burn them along with the offerings.

What is going on here? Why would someone undertake this set of extra restrictions?

According to Rashi, someone does this to separate themselves apart from others for the sake of heaven.

For Ramban, it is done to become like a priest, and to serve God more fully for a set period of time.

Don Isaac Abarbanel suggests that the Nazir is even holier than the priests, perhaps because these stringencies take them above and beyond what the priests’ own limits are. A priest can handle a corpse for a member of the family, but not a nazir. A priest can shave their hair, but not a nazir, and so on.

Coming back to the two ways to serve God, the nazir seems to exist in-between the two poles of complete separation and immersion. There is distance from some ordinary pleasures, but not extreme ones. No alcohol. No grape products. No haircuts. No funerals. At the end, get a severe hair cut, and bring a set of offerings. There is no mortification of the body through fasting, flagellation, or other harsh treatments. This is a relatively gentle set of restrictions.

That said, this does take one away from the normative approach to life, which is to fully engage in the delights of the world, but within limits. The nazir does not move completely towards an ascetic, monastic life, but move towards that direction.

Why would someone take on this nazarite state and move towards the ascetic or monastic?

The Netivot Shalom suggests that some might take this one to silence one’s own inner turmoil, a turmoil of an unhealthy kind, or to deal with one’s perceived physical desires. It might be a way to turn one’s back on something that is permitted, but that one has developed an unhealthy relationship with. The structure of the nazarite vow could be a way to take some small steps away from normal society to work on yourself.

Maimonides also takes this view of the Nazir. He writes that “one who takes a nazarite vow in order to set right their inner qualities and to adjust their deeds, this one is enthusiastic and praiseworthy. All of this is in the service of God.” This vow and the like are fences that help one from going out of control.

The word Nazir is from the same root as “nezer,” which is term for a small crown, not unlike what the Kohen Gadol wears. One could understand that the one who takes on a Nazarite vow  so praiseworthy as to be compared to a crown on God’s head. Everyone is subject to worldly appetites and desires, and those who refrain from them to a larger extent are God’s crown.

But there is one salient characteristic of the offerings that a Nazir brings at the end of their term that could shift one’s view of the whole institution, and that is the sin offering. One only brings a sin offering when there has been some error or mistake.

What is the nature of the Nazir’s sin? Was it something that they did in the before they took on the vow? Something at the beginning of their time? Perhaps it was something at the end their term?

For the Netivot Shalom and many others, the sin is taking on the nazarite vow in the first place. For them, the purpose of Jewish life is to live fully in the world. It means to take the mundane and elevate it to a higher level. This is done through increasing one’s level of intentionality and awareness of God as the source of all things. This is what he refers to a joining the lower world with the upper world. In general, abstention from the world is the easier of those two paths of serving God. It is far easier to avoid engaging in the world, and far more challenging to life fully in the physical world, to see beyond the surface, and to connect what is apparent to the eye to that which often escaped notice or awareness. The Nazir leans towards this easy path, and escapes some of this world’s temptations. From this point of view, the sin is having taken the easy path. The offering of well-being is then a celebration of return to normal life.

For Ramban, it is the opposite. It is not a sin to begin a Nazarite vow. Quite the contrary! To push one’s self to a higher level of holiness is commendable. The limitation of the Nazir are tame compared to what some other group’s ascetic practice might be. For Ramban, the sin lies in the completion of the term. S/he has put themselves on a higher level (a higher level even than the High Priest), and they are serving God in the world in this way, and they should stay there. But instead, they come back down to their lower level and return to a normal life. The sin offering here acknowledges this return to a lower state, and the well-being offering comes here as a celebration of having completed their term as a Nazir.

So which is it? Is it a sin to begin a nazarite vow or to complete a nazarite vow? In classic rabbinic style, I offer the possibility of “well, it depends.”

The Nazarite vow is a tool, as a spiritual technology to help the individual challenge the self, to take one’s self to a higher spiritual level without leaving the world behind completely. I find the Rambam view persuasive when he says that the Nazarite vow is for the person who needs to step away from some aspects of normal life to get their own affairs in order, a form of self-care that can be used as a tool for personal growth and transformation. This is not a selfish act, but rather an act that is looking out for the self in the service of God. If one does not take care of one’s self, then one cannot be there to serve the needs of others. Rambam views sleep and food in much the same way. If one does not take care of the whole person, than one cannot serve God by serving others.

In addition, the Netivot Shalom distinguishes between two kinds of nazir, the holy nazir and the errant nazir. The errant nazir is the one who, in the middle of the crisis, takes on a nazarite vow as an escape, as a last resort when normal attempts at self-control have failed.

The holy nazir is the one who undertakes this state well in advance of the crisis, before it becomes an emergency. This is the proactive decision to take time to work on one’s inner qualities and issues that need attention before the crisis hits. The only differences between the errant nazir and the holy nazir are the level of self-awareness and the timing. The rest of the work is the same.

They also share something else in common, which is the third offering they all make, which is an olah.

The olah is a burnt offering, which all goes up in smoke, offered as a gesture that says even though the time as a nazir has come to an end, the work done during this time will endure beyond this moment. The olah is a gesture of dedication, showing determination to remain on this higher level of holiness even after the nazarite vow is over.

For us today, this is a moot point. We no longer have a Temple in which to make the offerings, so those who make a Nazarite vow would find themselves stuck in it until there is a Third Temple in Jerusalem, and for that, I would not hold my breath too long.

What can we learn from the nazir? My takeaways from the nazir are:

  1. Each of us should identify a thirty-day period of time every year or every couple of years to do some serious personal work. In some sense, this is what the month of Elul before the high holidays could be.
  2. Setting aside a fixed amount of time to do this work is effective. The time frame gives borders to our work. Deadlines are useful things.
  3. Thirty days is the shortest amount of time that one needs to make real changes in how one lives one’s life.
  4. Even when we are working on ourselves, we should never completely absent ourselves from life.
  5. When we come to the end of such a period of time, we should treat that moment as one of reflection, celebration and dedication.

Think about your year coming up. When do you see a thirty-day or longer period of time where you can set aside some worldly things, temporarily set aside certain responsibilities, and use that freed up time to take care of your self, whether it is your physical, spiritual, emotional, or psychological self, or any other numbers of selves you might have. A period of time for you to reflect on some aspects of your inner landscape, your body, your life, and so on. Spend a set time each day doing that work. And at the end of that time, celebrate with a good meal. Burn something that want to leave behind as you complete that period of time. And dedicate to take all that you have learned in that period of time with you in the future.

This is another dimension of become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation. This is one of the ways in which you can serve God, and become a jewel in the crown of the Creator.

Parshat Naso: We all need more blessings

In Naso, this week’s Torah portion, there is a wide range of topics, and with those topics comes a strange cast of characters, and each member of this case echoes something of our lives today.

First, we meet the Levites, the Holy Schleppers, whose task becomes breaking down the Mishkan and setting it back up again whenever the Israelites’ camp moves to a new location.

Who among us has not schlepped around at some point in their lives?

Next, we find ourselves on the fringe of society in a camp outside the camp, where women and men have been sent out due to a medical or skin condition.

Who among us has not been ill or treated as other and kept outside the social circle at some point?

Then we are taken back into the Mishkan itself, as a jealous husband brings his wife, whom he suspects of adultery, to the Kohanim, Aaron and his descendants, the priests, to determine if she was indeed unfaithful or not through the almost magical potion-based trial of the Sotah, the suspected adulteress.

Who among us has not felt the sting of jealousy?

Nearby in the Mishkan, we see another group of women and men who have come to make offerings in completion of their Narizite vows. Each one of them, for their own reasons, took on an extra level of holiness and existed for a month or even years in a semi-removed state of being.

Who among us has not felt outside the mainstream for making different or unpopular choices?

Finally, we focus again on the Kohanim, who find themselves in the strange position of bestowing God’s three-fold blessing upon the people.

Who among us has given a blessing to another human being?

This task of blessing the people is what I want to focus on this morning.

Regarding the Priestly Blessing, the Torah says:

“And God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and to his son, saying, “Thus you shall bless the people of Israel, saying to them,

‘May God bless you and protect you.

May God shine God’s face towards you and be gracious to you.

May God lift up God’s face towards you and give you peace.’

And they shall put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” ’ ”

This passage, known as the Priestly Blessing or Birkat Kohanim, is familiar to many. One of the more popular Hebrew Bible texts, it is sometimes used in public speeches where someone is asked to give a blessing. It also has a rich history in Jewish liturgy. In the Mishkan, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem, the Kohanim would recite this  blessing over the people as part of the daily service.

Today, in some synagogues on the three Pilgrimage Festivals (Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot), Kohanim recite this blessing from up on the bima during morning services.

In Israel, Kohanim recite it as part of every Shabbat and Festival service, and in Jerusalem, it is part of every morning service. In synagogues without Kohanim, or where this is no longer the custom, the Priestly Blessing is still chanted during the repetition of the Amidah.

Most notably, it is traditional to recite this blessing over one’s children before Shabbat dinner on Friday evenings. Our Shabbat evening custom, which we learned from friends of ours, is to say the Priestly Blessing over each child separately, with our hands of his or her head, and then to share with that child what we are proud of them for in that particular week.

We should distinguish here between “reciting a blessing over an experience” versus “someone blessing someone else.” A well-known adage from the Talmud states that one should recite one hundred blessings every day. The type of blessings meant here are the ones that we find in our daily prayers, and in appreciation to God for the many aspects of Creation that benefit us. When we recite a blessing such as this, for example before eating bread: “Barukh Ata Adonai, Melekh Ha’olam, Hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz”, we address God directly (Bountiful are You, God, Sovereign of the Universe…) and acknowledge God’s role in some aspect of our lives or our world (…Who makes bread come out of the earth). What we are doing through the recitation of these blessings is raising our awareness of God’s role in our physical world, in this particular case in our sustenance.

The type of blessing we read about today is of a different type altogether. This is a human being blessing another human being, which sounds like a beautiful thing for one to do for another. However, this is also a potentially dangerous proposition. So often when people think about reciting a blessing over something, they assume that the one giving the blessing has some kind of power to change some aspect of reality. This would be ascribing magic or even some form of divine power to a mere mortal, which is a problem for me and I am sure many others. If someone thought that they had the power to bless others and change their lives directly through the words of a blessing, how would that affect the person giving the blessing, or the person receiving the blessing? It could lead to a power imbalance, arrogance and abuse of power.

So what is the meaning and purpose of this blessing that the Kohanim gives to the people every day? What can this model of bestowing a blessing teach us about giving blessings to others?

Let’s look at the actual language of the blessing and the instructions before and after it so get a sense of how this works.

In the JPS Commentary on Bamidbar, Professor Jacob Milgrom notes that the Kohanim are not the ones giving the blessing; they are merely channeling the blessing. The multiple recitation of God’s name in the blessing reminds of this. Every line clearly ascribes all the benefits of this blessing as coming from the One. Through this language, the priests are reminded, as are the people who are being blessed, that they possess no divine powers of their own.

The formula of the Priestly Blessing is simple and powerful.

The first line has three words.

Yeverechecha Adonai veyishmerecha

The second line has five words.

Ya’eir Adonai panav elecha vichuneka

The third line has seven words.

Yisa Adonai panav elecha v’yasem lecha shalom

Each line contains two verbs. The first verb in each line contains a motion from God towards the people, and the second verb in each line contains an action that God does for the people. The language describes God reaching out to the people, and emanating God’s energy towards them. In this way, this blessing connects people to the Creator of the Universe, the Root of Existence itself.

The verbs in the blessing are all in the singular “You”; however, the priests bless the people as a community. Each person is worthy of receiving God’s blessing. To make this point abundantly clear, the Rabbis note that this passage comes right after a passage about the Nazir who brings an offering to complete his or her term as a Nazir. One might understand that these two passages are juxtaposed side by side to teach that only ones who make donations to the Temple would benefit from God’s blessing. The Rabbis are quick to note that this is not the case at all. These two passages are related in that they each talk about people who are holy and their roles, but not side by side to imply that God’s blessing is like something that one could buy in the marketplace. The verse after the blessing itself says that the Kohanim put God’s name on the people, without any qualifications at all. Everyone is worthy of receiving God’s blessing.

So what have we learned about blessings so far?

  1. Human beings do not possess the power of giving someone else a blessing. Blessings come from God.
  2. However, each of us can be a conduit to connect people to God and God’s goodness.
  3. Everyone is worthy of receiving God’s blessing.

So how do we bless someone else?

For that, I turn to a small word in the original Hebrew, koh, which means “thus” in English. “Thus” means “in the manner now being indicated or exemplified.” According to the Rabbis, not only did God teach Aaron the words of this blessing and their role in bestowing it upon the people, but God also demonstrated them the way in which they should bless the people.

We find this passage in the Talmud, from Masekhet Sotah:

Koh Tevarkhu / Thus you shall bless…

with your hands raised

Koh Tevarkhu / Thus you shall bless…

in the holy tongue

Koh Tevarkhu / Thus you shall bless…

while standing

Koh Tevarkhu / Thus you shall bless…


Koh Tevarkhu / Thus you shall bless…

with God’s name

Koh Tevarkhu / Thus you shall bless…

face to face

With your hands raised. For me, this is about intimate physical contact. Forming a physical connection can represent the human-divine connection that we are channeling.

In the Holy Tongue. In the Hebrew. In the ancient Aramaic translations, they do not translate this blessing. Thankfully, the passage is short and available in transliteration so that we can all bestow this blessing as has been done for thousands of years.

While standing. This physical posture is one of service. When we bless someone else, we are serving God by making that connection, as the Kohanim did. Avraham stood as he served the three strangers in his and Sarah’s tent. Aaron and his sons stood as they performed their daily service.

Outloud. Would that we all were mind-readers! The best way for two human beings to make a connection after the physical connection, is a linguistic connection. It is through out hands and sense of touch that our physical bodies connect, but it is through the power of speech that our two minds and inner worlds connect. It is through speech that God created the world, gave us the Torah, and gave us the power of speech to continue to be God’s partner in this way.

With God’s Name. Remember – we are just a conduit, nothing more, nothing less. We are not giving the blessing, and God’s name, repeated in every line, reminds us of this.

Face to Face. For me, this evokes how the Torah describes God and Moses’ relationship as a model of intimacy. When someone blesses another, they are truly addressing the person in a I-Thou relationship, seeing this fellow human being as a You and not an It, and through that encounter, also experiencing a hint of an encounter with the Eternal You, in whose image we are all made.

All You Need is Love

There is one final aspect of blessing another that completes the process and makes it all work.

Rashi, the great French Torah commentator, notes that the word “emor,” meaning “say” is written in full letters, including a vav, which indicates the “o” sound. So what does this “extra vav” come to teach us about blessing someone?

Rashi comments that:

The word is spelled out fully, to teach us that you must not bless them hurriedly or absentmindedly, but with kavanah / intention and with a whole heart.

Another way this is seen is through Gematria, Hebrew numerology. The word EMOR in Gematria equals 247, which is one short of 248, which for the Rabbis is the number of parts of the human body. So which part of the human body is missing? The heart.

Any blessing given without intention and love is no blessing. And not just love, but a love of the whole person, head to toe, accepting the good with the flaws.

This was true of the Kohanim as well. Any Kohen who is about the recite the Priestly Blessing recites a blessing(!) first [which makes them aware of their role as a conduit for the blessing], which goes like this:

Bountiful are You, God, Sovereign of the Universe, who makes us holy with Aaron’s holiness and commands us to bless God’s people with love.

If a Kohen could not get up there and say this blessing and mean every word of it, they were not allowed to perform this service.

So my hope is that we will begin to see ourselves in a priestly light. Few of us descend from Aaron and his sons and have that ancestral holiness in our families, but we all share a common holiness that is far more powerful. We are made in God’s Image, and we can become conduits for God’s love in the world.

And we should do just that

  • with our hands reaching out
  • with words of holiness
  • while standing in service of others
  • outloud
  • invoking the of the One
  • face to face
  • and with love.

Shabbat Shalom

A Guided Meditation for a Congregation’s Annual Meeting

[Note:  This is a modified version of a guided meditation that I did for the 2015 Annual Meeting. I invite you to try it out as a tool to close one year and begin another year in the life of our congregation.]

I invite you to move your focus to yourself for a few minutes. Close your eyes. Take at look at the interior landscape of your life. Take a deep breath. Slowly release it. Place your chest, neck and head in a straight line, your feet flat on the floor, and let your arms and hands fall loosely onto your lap. Let your breathing take its natural course.

Become aware of areas of tension in your body. Become aware of the feeling rumbling around inside of them. You don’t need to do anything with those feelings, just note that they are there, and may affect how you feel during the day.

Become aware of how you feel about yourself in this moment. There is nothing to do or change about yourself in this moment. Simply become aware of how you see yourself.

Pay attention to any baggage you might have brought with you into this moment, concerns that weigh heavily on the heart, or responsibilities left uncompleted. Since we can do nothing about these concerns in this moment, I invite you to put them in a package and send them away, send them to God, or just let them go. Take a few seconds to allow yourself to do this.

Once those are gone, I invite you to give yourselves the gift of being totally present for this moment and to be open to those around you and to what ever this moment brings you.

Now, I invite you see yourself through the eyes of God, with eyes of compassion and love. Regardless of what feelings you have rumbling around inside you or your self-image, at this very moment God delights in your being, in your being made in God’s Image. You are unique in this universe, and God’s love flows through the universe to care for you and support you.

Who you are is God’s gift to you. Who you become is your gift to God.

Through your involvement in this holy congregation, you are connected to Eternity. There is nothing that can separate you from this great love. Just sit for a few moments and enjoy this peaceful moment.

Become aware of your place in this holy congregation, the roles you play, the ways in which you connect.

Think back to one year ago. What has changed in your relationship to the congregation since last year? What do you want your relationship to this congregation to be like in one year from today?

All of the work that goes into the life of this holy congregation is also holy. No matter how great or how small, how obviously sacred or how seemingly mundane, each task is holy. All those who perform those tasks bring holiness upon themselves.

“And let all among you who are skilled come and make all that the Eternal has commanded.”

What is the skill, the gift that you come with to the work of this holy congregation?

“And everyone who excelled in ability and everyone whose spirit moved him came, bringing to the Eternal their offering for the work of the Tent of Meeting and for all its service and for the sacral vestments. Men and women, all whose hearts moved them, all who would make an elevation offering…”

What role do you play in this holy congregation’s work?

“Thus the Israelites, all the men and women whose hearts moved them to bring anything for the work that the Eternal, through Moses, had commanded to be done, brought it as a freewill offering to the Eternal.”

What moves your heart to act freely, and without any expectation of recompense?

“Moses then called Bezalel and Oholiab, and every skilled person whom the Eternal had endowed with skill, everyone who excelled in ability, to undertake the task and carry it out.”

What tasks have your undertaken in the past year? How have you carried it out?

“Just as the Eternal had commanded Moses, so the Israelites had done all the work. And when Moses saw that they had performed all the tasks — as the Eternal had commanded, so they had done — Moses blessed them.”

Think back on all that you have seen happen in this congregation, and for all that you have done for this congregation in the past year.

“All the tasks” The word “all” comes to include even the work that fell short, whether it was you or someone else. At times, there is a feeling of disconnect, frustration, disappointment.

Looking forward into the coming year, what can you do for yourself about those moments of falling short? What can you do for someone else who is had a falling short experience?

This is the close of the year. All the tasks from this year are now done.

Imagine in this moment, that Moses comes to you, and offers you a blessing, both for the work done this past year, and for the work yet to be done in the year to come. What blessing does Moses offer you?

Take a deep breath as you take in the words of the blessing. Slowly release the breath.

Begin to move your feet, and legs, and arms, and hands. When you are ready open your eyes, and know that you and your fellow congregants are engaged in this holy work together.

May God bless you and give you protection.

May God’s face shone upon you and show you grace.

May God lift up God’s face to you and grant you peace.

Top Eleven Highlights of the CBSCS 2015 Year

In this spirit of David Letterman’s final show on the same evening as our annual meeting, I offered this Top Eleven highlight list of the past year.

  1. A great Back To Shul BBQ thanks to our Youth and Education Committee and Membership Committee.
  2. Restructuring our religious school for Sunday mornings to be focused on three core areas of Jewish living and learning: Torah, Avodah (Song and Prayer), and Gemilut Chasadim (Acts of Lovingkindness).
  3. A year of wonderful festival celebrations, including powerful High Holidays, a semi-potluck in the Sukkah, a Hanukkah celebration with a map to help everyone find everything, a stellar Purim celebration from a galaxy far far away, and ending this year with the Unscrolled Bet Cafe this Shavuot, which owes a high debt to Ora Jezer, who took this vision and made it a reality.
  4. A powerful and moving and highly relevant Sisterhood Symposium with Dr. Carla Brangman about Caring for Aging Parents.
  5. A great scholar in residence weekend with Rabbi Ira Stone, that will have an influence in future adult learning opportunities at CBS-CS.
  6. The Big Chair Debate of 2015. Sorry Steffi, but hopefully in the not too distant future.
  7. Realizing that every shiva minyan had more than enough people, every time.
  8. Looking back at how much we learned at so many events and classes over the course of the year, with so many Hazak events, Hebrew classes, Sisterhood Thursday morning courses, a Bring Your Own God year-long course, lunch and learns, Gesher speakers, and more.
  9. Looking around the table at our Board of Directors at every meeting and feeling the good vibes, even during challenging and serious discussions.
  10. Hearing how our religious school faculty and madrichim/teachers aides reflected on their personal growth and their growth as Jewish educators over the course of the year, all under Julie’s leadership.
  11. And last but not least, when Joan took off a day of work (still only rumored.)

What is the meaning of being in Bamidbar?

And God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai, in the Tent of Meeting, on the first day of the second month in the second year of their exodus tom the land of Egypt, saying:

Lift up the head(s) of all of the congregation of B’nai Yisrael, after their families, after the house of their fathers, with the number of the names, every male by their polls.

If we were to choose the Torah portion each week based on the most scintillating narratives and action packed stories, I highly doubt that we would have voluntarily chosen to read this morning’s Torah portion. I am glad that we have a system of Torah reading that demands that we read the entire thing out loud in public with translations.

We read the entire Five Books of Moses over the course three years, and I would not have it any other way.

When we come to a passage that, if it were a show on television or a movies playing at the Shoppingtown Mall, I worry that it would have a small box office and modest ratings. But when we are confronted with a piece of Torah that eludes immediate excitement, one can always ask the say: ok, I read it, but what is really going on here? What is hinted at and lurking just beneath the surface?

Glad you asked.

This week’s Torah portion is not just the beginning of the fourth book of the Five Books of Moses. Each book in the Five Books of Moses has its own major themes.

  • Genesis is all about Beginnings, both of the world and of the Jewish people.
  • Exodus is all about Freedom and beginning a life of purpose and service.
  • Leviticus is a detailed description of how to make all aspects of life sacred.

So what is the book of Numbers all about? Thankfully, it is not all about numbers and counting things, although, as Talia taught us earlier this morning, counting is important. According to Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, a 19th Century German rabbi, wrote that:

“This fourth book comes back to stark reality and shows us the actual relationship between the actual nation and this ideal of their calling shown in the third book.”

Hirsch reminds us that for the past several weeks, as we have been reading the book of Leviticus, we have been exploring in details the ideal, the goals that God and Moses have set out for us to achieve, in living a life of holiness, where holiness is found in the integration of the ritual, ethical and moral. There is almost no narrative in Leviticus, and is comprised almost exclusively of a rich body of law that acts as a lure in guiding us to a life of holiness and purpose.

With the beginning of Numbers, we are now out of the theoretical, and squarely back in the wilderness, which is the English translation for the Hebrew name for Numbers, which is Bamidbar. Rabbi Hirsch points out that it is very fitting to have a census at this point in the Torah’s narrative, a counting of all of individual members of the nation. And in the way that this census counts the individuals the concept of a nation, what has been the mere idea of a congregation, now becomes a reality. And this is the exact purpose for which the people are now counted.

There could be no other purpose! They are in the wilderness, between here and there, essentially nowhere, and it is almost as if they were in another dimension of time and space. This counting was not for political reasons, nor for economic reasons, and not even for a military purpose. This counting is for the purpose of taking the abstract concept of B’nai Yisrael, a people who live in service of the Torah and of God, makes it real. Here they are!

Yet, we began as a small family, back in our early beginnings, with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, aka Israel, and we were literally B’nai Yisrael, Israel’s children. And we then became a numerous people in Egypt, who left all together, forging the beginnings of peoplehood, and then we stood together at Mount Sinai, and entered into an eternal covenant and life of service.

Now, at this moment, when all is said and done, it is in this counting that we actualize the idea of who we are: a congregation, which in the Hebrew is an edah. In the Torah, we often assume that no word is chosen without care, and that this specific word is charged with a whole new reality. Rabbi Hirsch, who knows his Hebrew roots well, knows that this word is related to the words “ya’ad” and “yachad” which mean togetherness, signifying a people joined together for a common calling and held together by the centrality of that calling: a congregation. What is expressed here is the idea that the whole nation, comprised of hundreds of thousands of individuals, forms an edah, a congregation. In turn, Adat B’nai Yisrael, the Congregation of B’nai Yisrael, are those in whom we can “count upon” to uphold our common purpose.

But lest you think that the individual members form the nation or congregation directly, the Torah comes to teach us otherwise. The verse about counting the people includes the phrases “after their families, after the houses of their fathers…” So there stands the individual as one member of the congregation, but there are two concentric circles around them before we reach the level of the entire congregation: they are the circles of family, and tribe. The congregation is comprised of tribes, and each tribe is comprised of families. Here again, the Hebrew terms shed light on the deeper meaning of these terms. The word for tribe is mateh, which means branch, reminding us that all twelve tribes stem from one ancestor, Israel, just as all the branches of a tree stem from the same trunk. The term for family, mishpachah, comes from a Hebrew root meaning to “join together” and “to influence,” reminds that it is these close sacred relationships that form the core of our identity.

At the very center of the congregation stands the individual. The Torah relates that each person was counted by name, “b’mispar shemot,” reminding us that each individual, and all that they are, is part of the whole, and that each individual should be conscious of their importance to the entire congregation.

We begin with the edah, the congregation.

Which is comprised of matot, tribes, twelve in all.

Which are each comprised on mishpachot, families, with numerous families in each tribe.

And final each family comprised of its many individuals, each with their own unique name, their shemot.

Yet, there is a tension in all of these concentric circles of belonging. One might think that the essential relationship might be to the tribe, or the family, or even solely to the self, that there is no real unity among the congregation. Rabbi Hirsch makes the point that:

“[The House of Israel] must always and at all times make itself thought of in the essential real universal calling of its members, who by a common inner factor are one, and each one of them must feel him [or her]self to be, and to present him [or her]self as a concrete and important part of the unity. Even when the descendants of the one Jew Israel, had grown to six hundred thousand men [which implies at least two million people total], they were still all members of “one house”, children of “one man,” stamped in spirit and heart with the same stamp, bearing one mission, one destiny as their heritage through the ages.”

Does this essential one-ness erase individuality? Do we get lost in the masses, all thinking and doing in lock stop? For me, and thankfully for Hirsch, far from it. He continues:

“In the midst of this fundamental sameness and unity and under its influence, the greatest diversity of tribal and family specialties of traits and dispositions was carefully nurtured….”

This is to be “a model for the whole human race.”

Rabbi Hirsch expands our particular reading of this “counting” of each person, family, and tribe in B’nai Yisrael, and reminds us that this unity is part of an even greater unity, the entire human family, and that, like within B’nai Yisrael, we are must celebrate the even greater level of diversity found within the entire human family, every character, tendency, profession or position in life; every specialty and every peculiarity, because each human being is made in the image of God. It is this inner divine dimension of humanity that unites us all, and begs us to look beyond the surface and to see the spark of the divine in everyone that creates one human family, one tribe, one congregation, one human people.

Parshat Emor – I’ve got rhythm. Who could ask for anything more?

Do you remember being on the school playground when you were young, and riding on the metal merry-go-ground? It has several metal bars to hold onto, and someone, usually me, spun the merry-go-round faster and faster. If you grabbed on and stayed on the outside, it was hard to stay on, but if you moved toward the center, it was easier to find your balance and stay on and enjoy the ride.

Jewish life is like this ride. It can be a challenge to get on, but once you do get on, and move to the center, it is the ride of a lifetime.

The most important part of this week’s Torah portion, Emor, is the section we began to read during the final few aliyot of the Torah reading, which begins with:

“God spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: There are my fixed times, God’s fixed times, which you shall program as sacred convocations.” (Vayikra 23:1-2)

These two verses introduce one of the most important aspects of Jewish life, which is Sacred Time, namely, the Jewish Festival calendar. God tells Moses and the people (again) about Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot. Most of these sacred moments are set in the context of offerings and sacrifices brought to the Temple in Jerusalem. Back then, it was unimaginable to celebrate a festival without making an offering of grain, wine, oil or a roasted animal.

So how do we experience these moments now?

We have mostly replaced sacrifices with prayer. Indeed our liturgy has special words, songs and rituals for every sacred day on the Jewish calendar, which help us focus on the themes and the meanings of each day. Nevertheless, two things have remained the constant from ancient times until today: these sacred days are still occasions for family gatherings and they revolve around food. Even if they are not offerings being made in a Temple, those family meals are still sacred. By partaking in these sacred moments and sacred meals, one connects to their family, and by extension the larger Jewish community. Moreover, not only would they connect themselves to their living larger community at that moment, but they would also connect themselves to the entire Jewish community, past, present and future.

So what does Jewish time look like? It looks like a spiral.

For example, When someone attends a Pesach Seder, they connect themselves to the entire Jewish world – at that moment – on that night, and connect themselves to every generation that celebrated Pesach back to the first night back in Egypt, and to every future generation that will ever celebrate a Pesach Seder.

The same holds true for every Jewish festival. Every shofar blast on Rosh Hashanah is an echo of years past. Every Yom Kippur fast links us to the feelings of awe of our ancestors. Every Sukkot connects us back to the generation who lived in the Wilderness for forty years. Every Shavuot, we see ourselves as if we receive the Torah again ,and so on…

By taking part in these festivals, you sync yourself with the larger Jewish community, past, present and future, into the rhythm that guides Jewish life, and all of Jewish society.

But the big challenge is getting into that rhythm.

This rhythms of Jewish time are the pulse of the Jewish people. It is what makes us a distinct community. We all live our lives according to several calendars that compete for every slice of our time: school calendars, work schedules, sports calendars, family events, and on and on. Perhaps this is why the Jewish holidays are always early or late – they never seem to be on time!

Nevertheless, while the Jewish holidays are among the main markers of Jewish time, they do not stand alone. There are many other indicators of Jewish time.

For someone who is immersed in Jewish time, the weekly Torah reading cycle provides a narrative backbone to the entire year. Each week, from the beginning of Creation to the Death of Moses, we take one step forward in the saga of the journey of the Jewish people, and in the end, circle back to the beginning, which transforms this annual narrative into a spiral as well. Today’s Parshat Emor links back to every Shabbat when Parshat Emor has been read back to ancient days.

Among the other indicators in Jewish time are the lifecycle moments – birth, the coming of age Bat or Bat Mitzvah celebration, hopefully marriage, and ultimately death.

Again, we return to the question of how do we to provide access to this Jewish rhythm, especially for those on the edges of the Jewish community or to those who want to become part of the Jewish community? How do we helpe people jump on to the merry-go-round that is Jewish life without getting flung off again?

What are the entry points for those who are potential newcomers to Jewish life?

The answers, conveniently, are contained alongside the questions in this Torah portion: “These are My fixed times, the fixed times of God, which you shall proclaim as sacred convocations.”

In other words, the festivals God has provided give us some of the best access points for people to enter Jewish life and the Jewish the community, to demonstrate how inclusive is the Jewish community, and to underscore their own sacredness in the midst of a less than sacred world. Sharing a Shabbat meal together, experiencing the rest and joy of Shabbat. Being a guest in the sukkah, feeling welcomed in and cared for. Friends and neighbors around the Seder table, discussing the meaning of freedom. Contained in these festivals, these sacred opportunities for gathering, when shared properly, are the values which draw people towards the community, and into the never ending spiral of Jewish time.