Bar Mitzvah of Steven 5757
This week we read the portion of Naso, as you are well aware, Steven -- since youve been studying it for a number of months. Once again, the book of number does not disappoint, and gives us an accounting of the census of some of the Children of Israel...
Yet, between the lists of names and numbers we find some great teachings well worth learning. Let me draw your attention to one, in chapter four, verse six to eight, "When a man or a woman wrongs another, breaking faith with the Lord, that person incurs guilt and shall confess the sin that has been committed. The person shall make full restitution for the wrong, adding one fifth to it, and giving it to the one who was wronged. If the injured party has no next of kin to whom restitution may be made for the wrong, the restitution for wrong shall go to the Lord for the priest, in addition to the ram of atonement with which atonement is made for the guilty party."
This is a very important lesson, particularly because most people are taught that our Torah teaches, "You shall appoint as a penalty life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise." [Ex.21:23-25] They are not taught the fact that this passage is taught as maximum penalty, not as the only penalty.
Well, Steven, it does teach that, but the interpreters of the Torah explain that you have to understand the Torah with compassion and pity. Therefore, today's passage about making retribution for wrong done teaches us that what the Torah really means is that we shall exact a restitution in kind, a price exacted for the deed -- and the passage concerning eye for eye and tooth for tooth means merely that one may not ask for retribution beyond the value of the offense.
Nowadays you wonder about the wisdom of this passage, with so many people suing anybody and everybody for damages, for mental anguish, physical pain that cannot be proven, for malpractice in medicine, law, even in pastoral counseling in synagogues or churches... The Torah, that great book of wisdom that is our blueprint for a better life, teaches us that the way to behave is with compassion and understanding.
You have spent a great deal of time and effort to prepare for this Shabbat -- it is my hope and prayer that you will keep in mind the lesson of the passage we have here -- to serve you as a guideline in your own life as an adult. May you always live by Torah and be blessed by its wisdom.
Naso -- Graduation, 5758
The portion we read in the Torah this Shabbat eve of your graduation contains the Priestly Benediction, as it is called. I would like to use it to bless you as you move from students to 'young adults' in our community. You all know the text, I'm sure: "May the Lord bless you, and keep you; may the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you: may the Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace." However, I would like you to hear the entire passage for once, because you will note that there is more to the passage than just a priestly blessing: "And the Lord spoke unto Moses , saying, speak unto Aaron and unto his sons , saying , Thus ye shall bless the children of Israel, saying unto them, The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace, And they shall put My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them." [Num. 6:22 - 27]
Now, the first question that we may ask is, "What is the purpose of having the priests speak these benedictions to the people?" Surely it is God Almighty who blesses the people, as we read in the text, "and I will bless them." What is gained or added when the priests bless the people so? Is it really up to them to assist Him?
Actually, some commentators ask if the order addressed to the priests "thus ye shall bless," is not a formula that needs to be followed by the priests so that God will follow suite with the divine statement "And I will bless them" meaning the priests. We have learned regarding the blessing of Israel; but regarding a blessing for the priests themselves we have not learned. The additional phrase in the text, "And I will bless them" will therefore mean: The priests bless Israel and the Holy One blessed be He blesses the priests. However, most of our sages and commentators have not accepted this interpretation. The sages underline the point that it is not the function of the priests which is all - important. They wish to avoid any suggestion of some kind of magical efficacy of the priestly blessing.
"Blessing" is a noun with two or more different meanings. It can "the good emanating from God to His creatures as in "And the Lord blessed Abraham with all" (Genesis 24) and the blessing proceeding from man to God above in the sense of praise, as in "And David blessed the Lord" (I Chronicles 29). Then there is the blessing given by one person to another which is neither to be compared to the abundance of grace emanating from God nor to the praise proceeding from His creatures, but rather constitutes a supplication by the author calling on God to bless the person concerned. Into this category falls the priestly blessing. . . They merely invoke the divine blessing on Israel. Accordingly only the phrase "and I will bless them" and "the Lord bless thee" in the first section come under the category of divine blessing in the sense of an outpouring of His goodness unto man, whilst the "blessing" of human beings is nothing more than a prayer, an invocation and not a real gift. The Torah wished to rule out any hint or suggestion that the priests were endowed with any special power of blessing. This is why the text says, "thus shall ye bless the Children of Israel" -- only thus, and no deviation whatsoever is permitted and when you do, "And I will bless them." After being summoned by the priests by the formula given by God, the congregation was ready to receive the blessing of God.
The exact formula for the benediction is laid down in the Torah and is not left to the priests to adapt or change by their inclination. If we think of it as "Birkat Kohanim," which is to say, one blessing of the priests, then we find that the blessing is divided into three parts, each one containing two verbs and the name of God in the middle. In the Hebrew we read:
Yevarekhekha Adonay veyishmerekha
Yaer Adonay Panav elekha vikhunekha
Yisa Adonay panav elekha veyasem lekha shalom
""May the Lord bless thee"- implies the blessing appropriate to each person; to the student of Torah success in his studies; the businessman - in his business, to the farmer, a good crop, etc. ""And keep thee" - The Holy One blessed be does not bless and run, He gives blessing and stands guard.
""May the Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee." This is the light of Torah and the light of His presence, Shekhina, that He should enlighten your eyes and heart in Torah and grant you continuity which is to say children learned in Torah this second section of the benediction refers to spiritual blessing and we may take the phrase "be gracious unto thee" to imply the good will and respect inspired by the one who engages in the study of Torah.
"The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." Beyond the blessing of success in endeavor, Gods protection, and spirituality, which is spoken of in the first two blessings, this third blessing guarantees a normal human life God will lift up his countenance not to be overbearing upon man, and at the same time grant that most valued aspect of human need peace. Peace in the home and peace in the marketplace, peace in relation to family and friends, peace in relationship to God Himself.
the three sections of the priestly benedictions illustrate an ascending order, starting with a blessing concerned with mans material needs and then dealing with his spiritual wants, and finally reaching a climax combining both these factors together, crowning them with the blessing of peace. This ascending order and increasing surge of blessing is reflected in the language and rhythm. The first phrase consists of three words, the second of five, and the third of seven. All these numbers have a special place in Judaism: Three is the parts of the Jewish people Cohen, Levi and Israel. Three are the Patriarchs, Abraham, Yitzkhak and Yaakov, and three are the parts of our Scriptures, Torah Neviim and Ketuvim. Five are the books of the Torah. Seven are the days of the week, the seventh of which is Shabbat. The architecture of the Priestly benediction is thus a lesson of its purpose -- it is a bima, a high place, to which we ascend on three steps. May we always endeavor to scale the steps of blessing on our path to loftier living.
The portion we read in the Torah this Shabbat eve is called Naso, and, among other things contains what is called the "Priestly Benediction." Last year I spoke about this text and mentioned the fact that there is a physical "texture" to it. It is built row upon row, as a mound or a pyramid. This is obvious in the Hebrew and in the English:
Yevarekhekha Adonay veyishmerekha
Yaer Adonay Panav elekha vikhunekha
Yisa Adonay panav elekha veyasem lekha shalom
The Lord bless you, and keep you:
The Lord shine His face upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace
[Num. 6:24 - 26]
A couple of years ago they found, in an archeological dig in Jerusalem, not far from the railroad station, a small silver sheet rolled as a "mezuzah" scroll -- and on it was this priestly benediction -- birkat Kohanim. My beloved hometown, Yerushalayim shel Zahav, Jerusalem of Gold, of the words of countless poet -- living and dead, immortal one and all, some inspired and some prophetic. Across the ages the speak the praise of the city in the hills, the metropolis of Kings and the Chosen of God. There, it is so fitting that we have found this relic!
This Shabbat we read a haftara that tells us a great story. In the hills near Jerusalem there lived a man named Mano'akh and his wife who could not have children, a condition not unknown in ancient times, as evidenced by the many stories, of Sarah and Rakhel, of Khanah the mother of Sh'muel and Mikhal, the daughter of Sha'ul. Like Sarah, Rakhel and Khanah, so also this wife of Mano'akh was a righteous woman that God wished to reward by allowing her to have the child she desired, and he also wished to make her son unique and special to the people Israel. He sent an angel to inform her that she would have a special child, who must abstain from wine and liquor and must not cut his hair. We read this story of the birth of this special son in this week's haftarah, the prophetic complement to our Torah reading, from Judges 13, verses 2 to 25. "Then the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman, and said to her, "Behold now, you are barren and have borne no children, but you shall conceive and give birth to a son. "Now therefore, be careful not to drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing. "For behold, you shall conceive and give birth to a son, and no razor shall come upon his head, for the boy shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to deliver Israel from the hands of the Philistines."" [Judg. 13:3-5]
The husband wanted to share in his wife's vision, and he prayed, "O Lord, please let the man of God whom Thou hast sent come to us again that he may teach us what to do for the boy who is to be born." God listened to Manoakh, sent the angel again, and Manoakh asked, "Now when your words come to pass, what shall be the boy's mode of life and his vocation?" The angel said to Manoah, "Let the woman pay attention to all that I said.
14 "She should not eat anything that comes from the vine nor drink wine or strong drink, nor eat any unclean thing; let her observe all that I commanded." Manoah asked the angel, "What is your name, so that when your words come to pass, we may honor you?" He did not understand that this was an angel. The angel suggested that Mano'akh make an offering to God, and he ascended in the flame of the altar. When Manoah and his wife saw this, they realized who he was, and fell on their faces to the ground. Manoah said to his wife, "We shall surely die, for we have seen God." But his wife said to him, "If the LORD had desired to kill us, He would not have accepted a burnt offering and a grain offering from our hands, nor would He have shown us all these things, nor would He have let us hear things like this at this time." In time the woman gave birth to a son and named him Samson; and the child grew up and the Lord blessed him.
What do we learn from this story? Personally, I always thought that the main lesson is: Every person born has a destiny to fulfill. Many are given a choice -- some are given a task.
I have been led to believe that I have been given such a task. That is why I have gone so far from the vistas of my hometown of Jerusalem. I came to this country to speak of Israel and of the principles and ideas and ideals of Judaism -- of the Torah's teachings, whose words I always believed were ancient, as the scroll of silver containing the Benedictions proves beyond a doubt. I made my home in Lakeland a "bar-mitzvah" of years ago, and I began to lay the brickwork of Torah level after level, building a wall of knowledge of young and maturing children, of parents and grandparents who came to services and learned to know the Shabbat, the melodies of theservice, the harmonies and the intricate lacework of Jewish living. I connected with each and everyone in the congregation and in the community. Some of you received more, and others may feel that they received less -- I only know that I gave freely and openly and without any consideration of age or social position. I have spoken to you and tried to impart to you the joy of Torah and of Jerusalem, the spirit of the God of Jerusalem and the teachings of the seers and prophets that walked its street. I have become a part of you -- and you have become a part of me. As my tenure in this town comes to an end, I must confess to you that I shall miss all of you! Allow me to close with the words of Birkat haKohanim:
Yevarekhekha Adonay veyishmerekha
Yaer Adonay Panav elekha vikhunekha
Yisa Adonay panav elekha veyasem lekha shalom
The Lord bless you, and keep you:
The Lord shine His face upon you, and be gracious unto you:
The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace
Amen v'amen! Ken Yehi Ratzon -- so may it be His Will!
This week's Torah portion is from the book of Bamidbar, Numbers, from 4:21 to the end of chapter seven. Most of the portion deals with the census of the Israelites in the desert, and is not greatly exciting, as you can well imagine. It does contain a few little pearls that we should note, such as the "Priestly Blessing or benediction." We are all familiar with the text, " The Lord bless thee, and keep thee: The Lord make His face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee: The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." I like to take a different view of the "teaching of the Shabbat," because we are celebrating Fathers' day this coming Sunday. The Haftarah for this Shabbat is from Judges, 13:2-25. It is the story of the origin of a great hero of the struggle of Israel to attain autonomy in their land after arriving there from Egypt with Joshua. The hero's name is Samson. A smile comes to your faces at the mention of that name... Yes, Samson is the archetype super hero. He is a brute, a
womanizer, single-handedly fighting the battle of his oppressed people against an enemy that is strong and unyielding, spreading fear among them and embarrassing them to the point where they turn to subterfuge to bring him down. The pressure his lover, Delilah, to betray him and place him in their hands.
But I am getting ahead of this week's reading. This week's Haftarah tells us the story of his origin, which is a legend, too. There was a Dannite man from Tzor'a, in the foot-hills of the Hills of Judea, whose name was Mano'akh, whose wife was barren. There seems to be a pattern in the history of the seed of Abraham that women who are barren, beginning with the matriarch Sarah, end up giving birth through the intervention of God, to give birth to significant sons. Sarah bore Yitz'khak, and Mano'akh's wife bore Shimshon Hagibor, Samson the strong man whose life was special from before conception - as we read, ". For, behold, you shall conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head; for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb; and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines." [Judges 13:5] The commentators speak of the opening of our reading and say that the wife was a woman of deep religious spirit worthy to be the mother of a deliverer of Israel. The fact that she was barren is not counted against her, but is a sign that the child she will be blessed with at the right time by the grace of God will be a special gift to the parents and the people, a boy marked out for a special mission.
This week-end we celebrate Fathers' day. Judaism gives plenty of honor to our fathers, from Avinu Shebashama'yim - our Father who created us, our Father, our King - to "avoteinu" - our fathers Avraham Yitzkhak v'Ya'akov. Yet, somehow you get the idea that they were titular heads of the clan, and the power was wielded by Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah. The Gmara says that a man should not follow a woman, even if she is his own wife. Abraham was sore upset when his wife asked him to
remove Hagar and Yishma'el from his habitation, and was only consoled when God instructed him to do as Sarah said. Rebecca resorted to subterfuge to contradict her husband's plan to bless his son Esav, and Ya'akov had no control what so ever over his wives, their maids and his many children.
On Rosh Hashanah we read the Haftarah from First Samuel about the origin of the great seer Samuel, which begins like our portion this Shabbat with a barren woman and her husband, with pleading with God for a miracle, and with a special birth of a gift-child from God who becomes a man with a mission. In this story we are told that the woman, Khannah, spoke to God in Shiloh, and God chose to grace her with a child, "And they rose up in the morning early, and worshiped before the Lord, and returned, and came to their house to Ramah; and Elkanah knew Hanna his wife; and the Lord remembered her. And it came to pass, in due course, that Hanna conceived and bore a son, and called his name Samuel, saying, Because I have asked him from the Lord." [Sam. 1:19,20] Commentary says that Elkanah, Khannah's husband, was a prophet, and that therefore the Gmara rule about not following the woman did not apply to him. The same is true with our patriarchs - they were all blessed with a direct knowledge of the Lord. Our sages say that the same applies to Mano'akh, Samson's father, to whom God's angel did not appear directly, and who did not quite understand what to make of it when he was told about the miracle that was about to take place in his life. Man originates from the dust and he is destined to return to the dust, so the Torah teaches us. Between the beginning and the end, his life is full of trials and travail. Man labors hard and brings home his daily bread by the sweat of his brow. If he is lucky, he sees a reward for his labor in the family that he establishes. He is blessed with a woman who loves him and is willing to share his life. He is blessed and blistered, pleased and pressured by children whose needs can never be completely satisfied. The father, by the nature of his being, spends much of his time away from home and hearth. All too often he is a stranger to his children - and yet he is their provider and protector.
The mother influences the children and gives them her faith - but the father sets the example for their fidelity. From Av harakhamim, the Father of mercy, to av u'moreh, the father and teacher that the Talmud obliged Jewish men to be, the male progenitor of Jewish children has always been a source of strength and comfort, safety and love. We bless Him, and rejoice in them. We live in their shadow and seek to acquire their attributes. May we have the wisdom to live by their example, to impart to our own children the prophetic qualities that they taught us, to be a blessing and an inspiration.
This weeks portion in the Torah is the second portion in the book of Bmidbar - Numbers. You are aware that this whole book deals mostly with the census - the counting of the People of Israel. But here and there in the text we read another important lesson - as in this weeks case with the Nazirite. The text tells us, "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to the people of Israel, and say to them, When either man or woman shall separate themselves to vow a vow of a Nazirite, to separate themselves for the Lord; He shall separate himself from wine and strong drink, and shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, nor shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat moist grapes, or dried. All the days of his separation shall he eat nothing that is produced from the grape vine, from the seeds to the grape skin. All the days of the vow of his separation no razor shall come upon his head; until the days are fulfilled, during which he separates himself for the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the locks of the hair of his head grow. All the days that he separates himself for the Lord he shall not come near a dead body. He shall not make himself unclean for his father, or for his mother, for his brother, or for his sister, when they die; because the consecration of his God is upon his head." [Num. 6:1-7] What is this ""Nazirite?" A person who makes a vow to dedicate his life to God and the People Israel. It is something like a monk in Christianity, except that we dont have monks in Judaism, and the "Nazirite way" was not very accepted or common in Judaism. But neither was it unknown. In fact, Samuel was one such "" - and so was the "famous strong man," Samson. When a person makes a vow, which Judaism teaches us not to do, one is obligated to live up to the vow, anyhow. The reason for this is that our words should be as good as our deeds - or in other words, we need to measure what we say before we say it, and not after. We cant have respect if we dont stand behind our words. Our word should be the same as a most solemn vow. If we choose poorly, and make a commitment to do something, or behave in some way, then we need to be as good as our word. God is that way, faithful to His word, and we should be, too. That is what it means to be faithful to God.
Once we understand the meaning of making a commitment and sticking to it, the Torah teaches us of Gods commitment to Israel. God instructs Moshe to teach Aharon and his sons, the priests of the Lord God of the Universe, how to invoke His blessing upon the people Israel. This is what the text says, "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Speak to Aaron and to his sons, saying, On this wise you shall bless the people of Israel, saying to them, The Lord bless you, and keep you; The Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you; The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace. And they shall put my name upon the people of Israel; and I will bless them." [Num. 6:22-27] The preists, who are Nazirites, dedicated to God, will make a commitment that is very specific and prescribed for them. They will not bless the people in any old way that they may wish - they will recite the words, " The Lord bless you, and keep you," words that raise the sensitivity - " The Lord make his face shine upon you," it is a sensitivity of the people toward their God. They will increase and elevate the awareness of the people, " The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace" - and make them ready for the revelation of the spirit of God, "they shall put my name upon the people of Israel," and it is then, in this raised state of religious awareness that "I will bless them" God Himself will make them aware of His love and guidance, of His way and His care, by which they will be blessed.
The Torah text for this week is the second portion in
the book of Bmidbar - Numbers. You are aware, I hope, that this whole book deals
mostly with the census - the counting of the People of Israel. This week's Torah
portion describes the continuation of the counting of the tribes with emphasis
is on the tribe of Levi. Then various laws are introduced, including the consequences
of embezzlement from the Temple, the laws of sotah, a woman suspected of adultery,
and the laws of the nazir, a man who decides to live by certain severe strictures.
But the major subject of Parshat Naso is the offerings brought by the heads of the various tribes, when Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting or the Tabernacle was consecrated and inaugurated as our first sanctuary - the first place we dedicated specifically to the worship of God Almighty. Immediately preceding the list of the offerings is this particular passage: "And God spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and his children saying, "Thus bless the children of Israel, say to them: May God bless you and guard you. May God's face shine on you, and may He find favor in you. May God lift His face toward you and give you peace.'" They shall put My name on the children of Israel and I shall bless them.'" [Numbers 6:22-27]
This section is known as "Birkat Kohanim" - the "Priestly Benediction." Since it is the last injunction given prior to the completion of the consecration of the Tabernacle, obviously it must have some kind of an intrinsic relationship with the section that follows. The priests bless the people who come to the Place of Worship. However, the text contains a seeming contradiction, "They shall put My name on the children of Israel and I shall bless them.'" Who is blessing the people? Is it the Kohanim, as it says, "Thus bless ?" Or is God, as it says, "and I shall bless ."
And maybe a more fundamental question yet arises: What is the purpose of the Priestly Blessing? If God wishes to bless the people then why doesn't He do it Himself? Nachmanides alludes to this issue when he states in his commentary: "The true understanding (which means the mystical, Kabbalistic teaching) is, the blessing comes from above." (Ramban Commentary to 6:24)
Rashi suggest that there is a blessing by the Kohanim, and there is a blessing from God. The blessing that the Kohanim are called upon to give is that God control his anger in His relationship with us. The idea of God's face being directed toward us, is the opposite of "hester panim," which is the "concealed face," when God hides His face from us as an expression of anger. According to Rashi, then, the meaning of the Priestly Blessing is that we are praying for God to control His anger toward us.
Examining the text in Hebrew, I find a number of interesting sidelines that throw a new light on the questions I paused here. First, the Hebrew for ""say to them: " is "Amor lahem." In all our Scriptures it appears like that three times, once here, and the other two times the word is part of a two word "reinforced verb" - "amor amarti, I have indeed said," and "omrim amor, indded they say." So the form is used in affirmation - except here. Since we do not have another word for the verb "to say" here, it cannot be the same meaning of the word. An examination of the root letters, Aleph, Mem and Resh, reveals that there are quite a few (and different) meanings that are could apply:  say;  think;  namely;  proclaim;  consecrate;  to strike;  to conspire;  to dispute; and finally, as a noun, "amir" -  the top of a tree - and by inference "to elevate to the heights."
So, I asked myself, what if the verse actually says, "Thus bless the children of Israel, elevating them in this way..." And what way is that? How can we elevate the people to a loftier plane? We can rise to meet God on "His level" - there is no "may" in the Hebrew text of the Birkat Kohanim. It merely and simply says, "God will bless you and guard you." The blessing of God is guaranteed and promised to all who wish to avail themselves of it. It comes with "no strings." You don't have to pay a fee or pass a test. Just avail yourself of it - it is there for the asking.
The second part of the blessing, "May God's face shine on you, and may He find favor in you" is totally different in Hebrew. "Ya'er Adona'y panav elekha vikhuneka" means "God will Shine His face toward you, and grace you." The last word is pivotal: "vikhuneka" comes from the same root as "Khanukkah" - the name of the Festival of rededication. Another word from the same root is "khinukh"- education. Thus, by the "light of God's face" which is the enlightenment of the mind and the spirit of man, those who are elevated by the Kohanim will be dedicated and educated to the qualities of God which they will emulate in their own being - becoming a beacon for others to follow, filling the word with grace and love.
Finally we come to the last segment, which challenges us with a contradiction of its own. We are taught that God is just and equanimous, and does not favor any of His creations. Indeed, we read in the Torah "For the Lord your God is God of gods, and Lord of lords, a great God, mighty and awesome, [asher lo yisa panim] which favors no person, nor takes bribes;" [Deu. 10:17] So, obviously, "lifting the face" is not a quality that God possesses. Yet the text here says, "May God lift His face toward you and give you peace." And the Talmud commenting on the Priestly Blessing poses the following question: The angels said to Holy One blessed be He, "Master of the Universe, You are a God who does not favor anyone nor takes a bribe. Yet, you favor Israel as it says "May God turn His face toward you and grant you peace." God answered them and said, "I shouldn't favor Israel? I wrote in my Torah You shall eat and become satiated, then bless your Lord God (Deut. 8). Yet they are careful to bless Me even on the smallest morsel." [Talmud Brachot 20b] In other words, For God to favor one over another would be wrong - but to favor all who do His will and Live by His teaching is Godly.
We see the same idea being expressed about the Priestly Blessing the blessing which God gives us from above, is directly related to the behavior of man below on earth. There is in human behavior a "lifting of the face" which is showing favor for ulterior motives. God does not do this. God will bless the House of Israel because they will deserve it. Israel will come to His dwelling place, mkom haShekhina - and His presence, Shekhina, will fill their whole being. And when this happens, as the verse concludes, "They shall put My name on the children of Israel and I shall bless them." May His blessing be upon us always, and may He prosper the labor of our hands for His glory. Amen.
This week we read
in the Torah the portion of Naso, the second portion in the book of Bamidbar,
or Numbers. Once again, the book of number does not disappoint, and gives us
an accounting of the census of some of the Children of Israel, as it begins
with the words, "And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, Take also a census
of the sons of Gershon, throughout the houses of their fathers, by their families;"
[Num. 4:21,22]. And, of course, we don't REALLY want to discuss the names and
numbers of our ancestors. So, let's look at something entirely different...
This shabbat is a perfect example of what is wrong with us - the Jewish people - here in Ponte Vedra, in Florida, in America, and in the world. How is that? You ask I will tell you. If you chanced to spend this Shabbat in Jerusalem - do you think that you would hear the same verses recited? Well, you would NOT! No, indeed! In Israel they read Naso last Shabbat! Today they read the portion we shall read next week. Why is that? Because we are all Jews, but we are not united by a Judaism: not the religion, not the politics, not statecraft.
There are those who wish to see the State of Israel go down the drain. Yes, the want to see that, and in the name of the "True Faith," no less! They join our enemies and work to defeat us in the court of public opinion. There are those, and according to the latest demographic study in our own community they constitute 40% of all the Jews in the area, who do not wish to affiliate with our congregation or any other congregation, don't want to play with Jews in an athletic club or join a Jewish service organization. Forty percent that's almost half on all the Jews around. This does not count intermarried couples, or unaffiliated families and/or individuals. It means that if there are five million Jews in America, for all practical (and impractical) reasons - we are only three millions...
Now, wait a minute, I was not going to start counting why, its like going back to our Torah text, in the book of Bamidbar. Our portion is called Naso... "Take also a census of the sons of Gershon"... "This is the service of the families of the Gershonites, to serve, and to carry; And they shall carry the curtains of the tabernacle, and the Tent of Meeting, its covering, and the covering of the goats' skins that is above upon it, and the screen for the door of the Tent of Meeting, And the hangings of the court, and the screen for the door of the gate of the court, which is by the tabernacle and around the altar, and their cords, and all the instruments of their service, and all that is made for them; so shall they serve." [Ibid 4:24-26]
Keeping track of our fellow Jews is not a pure science, please understand that. We are not a nation of certified public accountants or mathematics fanatics. No, we have a practical side - which is why, I guess, Jewish mothers raise their sons to become doctors or lawyers before they choose accounting... However, even in accounting, we Jews excel - because we know that counting is not an end unto itself. You count for a reason: the Gershonites were counted "to serve, and to carry" and not just to be stevedores, no, indeed. They were to be partners in the service of God.
That is what we are all about we, the Jews of the world, the remnants of the people who marched from Sinai into the hearts and minds of all enlightened people, all who benefitted from the spiritual heritage of Israel. We have left an indelible mark on the sands of time we have been the pathfinders, the scouts ahead of the camp, the pace setters and the catalysts for change and advancement, for development and improvement. We never asked what the price might be, and we never looked behinds us and complained that the road is too difficult or too long.
However, before we become too self confident and self absorbed, thinking that we are so wonderful and deserving of praise, remember what I said a little while ago... We don't read the same page world-wide. We are reading Naso, while in Israel they read beha'alotkha... We are seen to be united - but we are not. We are seen to be caring for one another - but we are not. We have the credentials: our Torah has taught the concept of tzedakah of righteous giving but few actually practice what the Torah teaches. Tithing is not only not undertaken most don't even understand the concept. Imagine our congregation if every Jew at the beach gave a tenth of his income only every other year... Would we need a mortgage to built the kind of Jewish community building that would satisfy all the needs of our coreligionists for years to come.
No, we are not on the same page. Some of us want to see the Gershonites carry the entire Tabernacle on their shoulders. As if that could happen they don't realize that it takes the efforts of all the Levites, the teachers and leaders and money collectors and public servants, to carry the tent of meeting intact. Did they argue with Moshe and Aharon? Did they ask what would happen when the going got rough? Did they try to figure how much torque would be required to climb the mountains of Moab on the way to the Jordan, or how they would cross over the raging river and climb the Judean hills to the ridge that runs a third of the length of the promised land?
Yes, they did. And they got clobbered! They suffered because of their lack of faith, and they suffered because of their lack of unity. Above all they suffered because they lacked faith and they lacked knowledge. What use is the great Torah of Moshe when the people are ignorant of its content? In every age we have had teachers, seers, prophets, rabbis, story tellers and others who tried to teach us the message of Torah: "Vihyitem kedoshim ki kadosh ani and you shall be holy for I am Holy..." [Lev. 11:44] Now this is NOT a call to become a nation of snobs and holier-that-thou bores. It is a call to service, a challenge to raise oneself to a loftier height, to a new pinnacle of giving and achieving and evolving.
The Talmud discusses a passage in Torah and says, "shekol yisrael arevim ze baze that all Israel are responsible for one another." [Talmud Bavli, Shavu'ot 39:1] Will we stay apart? Not for long. We are coming on a portion that will be split in Israel and combined abroad, and we shall once again be on the same page in Torah. Will we also be on the same page in our local, national and international agendas and concerns? Can we do anything less? For the sake of my brothers and my friends, surely, I mus never keep silent, I must never spare my effort, my God given treasures and pleasures. I must, we all must speak peace, speak brotherhood, speak love. Let those of you who hear my voice, who understand my message carry it to all our brothers: give us the tools, and we shall finish the Job. We shall bring about the day for which we yearn, the time of equality and mutual respect, the day when the Word of God shall issue forth as a fountainhead, and all shall drink and thirst no more for all shall know the blessing of the Almighty, and peace shall be in every heart, and in the spirit of all nations.
Dear God, how we wish to count down to that day!
This week's Torah portion is from the fourth book of
the Torah, Bamidbar or Numbers, from 4:21 to the end of chapter seven. Our portion
contains the laws about the person who takes on a vow for life - a Nazirite.
This was a person who committed himself to God – something like monks
in some other religions. The most famous Nazirite in Judaism was the son of
Mano’akh of the tribe of Dan. You would certainly recognize him by his
first name – Samson. In fact, we read about him in the haftara for our
portion this week. An angel appeared to Mano’akh’s wife and informed
her, “For, behold, you shall conceive, and bear a son; and no razor
shall come on his head; for the child shall be a Nazirite to God from the womb;
and he shall begin to save Israel from the hand of the Philistines.” [Judges
It is interesting how things turn around again and again and yet remain the same. “The Israelites” of ages gone by have been replaced by the “Israelis” or our times – and the Philistines of old by the Palestinians of more recent times.
Which brings me to my theme for this week: last Monday was the 37th anniversary of the reunification of Jerusalem. I have always loved the Book of Psalms, but back in June of 1967, when the walls came tumbling down and Jews and Arabs mingled peacefully in the streets and alleyways of Jerusalem, there was one text that kept repeating in my mind and in my heart:
“A Song of Maalot of David. I was glad when they said to me, Let us go into the house of the Lord.
“Our feet shall stand inside your gates, O Jerusalem.
“Jerusalem is built as a city which is bound firmly together;
“There the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, as was decreed for Israel, to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
“For thrones of judgment were set there, the thrones of the house of David.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; those who love you shall prosper.
“Peace be within your walls, and prosperity within your palaces.
“For my brothers and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace be within you.
“Because of the house of the Lord our God I will seek your good.” [Psalm 122]
Jerusalem was not foremost on the mind of all the Zionists who came back to recapture and rebuild the ancient Jewish homeland. Some, however, like my grandfather of blessed memory, connected the concept of the Land of the Promise – from the very beginning, with the City of David. To them, “Zionism” was nothing without Zion, the mountain that together with Moriah, and Tzofim – which is Scopus, and a number of other hills, make up the land area of Jerusalem, from antiquity to modern time.
If you think about it, if you research it, you come to realize how very appropriate it is to give Jerusalem this honor and this weight. The land of promise, from the tip of the Red Sea to the tops of the mountains in north Galilee, bordering on Lebanon, were given to the Israelites by tribes and clans and families. They were forever the property of those families and tribes. Only Jerusalem was not given as an inheritance to anyone. Jerusalem, a small and rather insignificant townlet atop some hills on the edge of the Judean wilderness, was deemed unworthy of spilling the blood of Israelites in the days of the conquest. Thus it remained a Jebusite enclave in the midst of the land of the son of Jacob.
It was only in the days of transition from the rule of the House of Saul – Israel’s first king – to the rule of the house of David, that the young king realized the need to unify the nation around a capital city that would be a national town, unconnected to any tribe more than to any other. This District of the Capital would recognize all Israelites while favoring none above any other. The idea was such a good one that eventually, when the nation broke apart to create two states, and later when the nations fell – they still “had” Jerusalem to turn back to and love.
Jerusalem was the dream of a united people and a Golden Age. It was sovereignty and it was sanctity. It was the place of David, king of Israel, all Israel, alive and well though the millennia. We sang, “David, melekh Yisrael, khy, khy, veka’yam...” We prayed to God, Lord of our fathers, to “bring us to Zion, Your City, joyously.” And to die – which was not something anyone wanted to face too soon – to die was an end worthy of a Jew, if it took place in Jerusalem. For only in Jerusalem was one assured to be among the first to awaken in the days of Messiah and the resurrection of the dead.
I had the privilege of being born in Jerusalem. No matter how far I stray, no matter how long I stay away from my homeland and the habitation of my fathers, I am forever a child of Jerusalem, one whose eyes were blessed to learn to see its vistas, whose nose learned the fragrances of its flora and fauna, one whose ears were trained to appreciate music from the sounds of its bells, the rhythm of its street noise, the whistle of the wind in its pine and spruce trees, the song of it birds and the sad muffled cry of its dogs and hyenas tearing the dark of night. Paris, London, Moscow and New York may have more to offer the occasional tourist, but only in Jerusalem do your feet tread the same ground traversed so long ago by prophets and conquerors, holy men and knaves. Only in Jerusalem can you contact God on a “local call...”
And here is the strangest thing about Jerusalem: Only Jews make it special. It was not special to the Jebusites, and it was not special to the Babylonians; it was not significant to the Greeks, nor did it hold a special allure to the Romans. The Moslems conquered it on the road to Damascus, and the Crusaders wanted it only because the Moslems held it. The Ottomans allowed it to sink into insignificance in five centuries of control over its destiny. At the beginning of the Zionist activity, only we yearned for it, pined for it, prayed for it – and came to mourn its desolation and be buried in its holy ground after breathing our last. In 1882 there were more Jews than Moslems and Christians together in little old Jerusalem.
The returning pioneers were more interested in clearing swamps and reclaiming sand dunes. It was not easy, but it was easier than reclaiming the bare mountain tops, bereft of topsoil in generations of defoliation. The backbone of the country, the hills of Hebron, the hills of Judea, the hills of Samariah, and the hills of lower and upper Galilee, were not the young returnees first priority. So they settles the flat sea shore, took root in the sharon and the valley of Jesrael, and around the Bay of Haifa. It was good land to grow crops – but years later proved the most difficult to defend. It is hard to hold the valley when the enemy holds the hills above. That is how, in 1948, Jerusalem came close to being captured by the Arabs. If it didn’t fall, I firmly believe, it was because of Divine protection – and the devotion of those precious few men and women who were too stubborn to admit that they could not continue to hold their positions. And, in the end, the old city did fall, to be “exiled” from its Jews until June of 1967.
The Philistines are still at the gates, and Jerusalem is not totally secure. We still need to work for the peace of Jerusalem. But we are there, and it is our eternal capital, and no force on earth is ever going to dislodge us from there. I know this is so – I read it every day in my Siddur, in my Tanakh, and in the eyes of my fellow Jerusalemites.
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