Nasso 2016 - 5776 - The Priest and the Nazir
Post date: Jun 16, 2016 3:55:01 PM
As the horror of the Pulse nightclub unfolded, it became for me and for many in our country, a week of anguish and despair, fear and depression, frustration, anger, and rage. But amid that horror, one story stands out, the heroism of former Marine and Afghanistan veteran Imran Yousuf. Taking quick and decisive action, he brought nearly 70 people to safety, undoubtedly saving dozens of lives that night.
After attending one of the hundreds of vigils for the victims, Professor Amy Fried, a political scientist at University of Maine, wrote of how moving it was, but that mere words of solidarity with the victims are insufficient. Memorializing the victims must be accompanied by national action on the issues exposed.
Unsurprisingly, we derive a similar message of action from this week’s parshat Nasso. It contains the laws and regulations for the Nazarites, which connects directly to the Haftarah, the story of Manoah and his wife – initially barren – as they conceive and bear a son, Samson, one of the most well known Nazarites in our canonical texts. His heroic service, his seduction and deception by Delilah, his capture and torture by the Philistines, and his self-sacrifice in order to inflict one last harm upon the enemies of Israel, make this the archetypal story of a flawed hero seeking ultimate redemption.
The Nazarites are described as people who have consecrated their lives to God, by making a vow (a Nezer) and behaving in several, proscribed manners. For example, Nazarites are not permitted to cut their hair, consume any form of grape (alcoholic or otherwise), or come into contact with a dead body.
Included at the end of the chapter discussing the rules and regulations of the Nazarites is the priestly blessing – given by God to Aaron and his sons, and by Aaron and his sons to the Israelite people. It is a blessing given in congregations around the world, by kohanim to their fellow Jews and by rabbis and hazanim to their congregants. Why is this blessing placed here, at the end of a chapter detailing the rituals, laws, and sacrifices of the Nazarites?
I would like to look for a moment at the blessing itself, which reads:
(image taken from athoughtforshabbat.wordpress.com)
Whoever utters this blessing is asking God for quite a lot – to bless, to guard or watch over, to show favor toward, and to grant peace. These are beautiful wishes to bestow upon a community. So why do these incredible words appear in this particular place in the Torah?
Perhaps we can draw a connection between the Nazarites and the kohanim, between those who dedicate their lives to God, and those whom we view as our spiritual leaders. Certainly the connection between the groups makes sense – both lived and served in the Temple, and both lived lives consumed by faith.
Today, in this country, we most often hear the priestly blessing spoken not by kohanim or rabbis or hazanim, but rather by parents to their children. For us, this is often not a blessing given by leaders, hoping for good favor to come to their communities and fellow Jews. Instead, today, this is an intensely personal blessing – given with love greater than words can describe to those whom they hope to protect and strengthen.
As Jews living in the United States, raising another generation of strong young people is only one of the many tasks facing our community. As in the past, we must not only look inward at our children and our futures, but we must also look around ourselves and see what our larger community – our country – is facing.
In a week filled with unprecedented hate and destruction of innocent human life, it is not enough for us to daven (pray) and read from Torah. Here, in our sacred texts, we find inspiration, purpose, meaning, and comfort. We must take these and recognize that they, too, are insufficient without accompanying action. We spend countless hours trying to make our communities reflect our values and be safe, welcoming spaces. We are reminded, horrifically, this week, that while our Jewish community may be a safe space for us today, not all communities are permitted this same privilege.
With a legacy and heritage of oppression, we as Jews understand all too well what it means to live in a society without power, and without access to those who have power. We understand what it means, and we must understand that we now are in a place of strength. We can have a strong, clear voice to stand with those who are victims of hatred and senseless violence. We do not need to co-opt their oppression with our own – we only need to fall in behind and be present, be strong, and be of service.
This is the connection between the Nazarites and the kohanim in our parsha – to be of service. To be of service means to give over our own comforts and preferences in order to stand with those who are marginalized, hated, and murdered without reason. To be of service is to stand without fear, to listen without judgment, and to honor without condition.
The Nazarites knew this all too well. Not permitted to attend funerals, even of their closest relatives, Nazarites chose a life of service, subordinating their own needs, in spite of the challenges it brought. It is not easy, at times, to be of service to others. It is only natural to seek recognition for our efforts, for our openness and acceptance. But these are not deeds to be praised and touted – to be of service is also to be humble. This is the selfless heroism Imran Yousuf exemplified last Sunday morning.
In this time of mourning and grief, we have the opportunity to act as a Nazarite. We must humbly ask how we can be of service. We must listen without judgment. We must recognize that we have the privilege to stand with those who lack power. We must ask for a great deal – from God, from ourselves, and from our country. From God, we ask for blessing, for safety, for favor, and for peace. From ourselves, we require humility, patience, and strength. And from our country, we ask for respect, honor, and dignity for all people – not dependent on their skin color, their faith, who they are, or who they love.
May God help us to bring respect, honor, and dignity to our nation, and may we all be of service to this purpose.
Yvonne Asher, Samuel Asher