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A colleague of mine describes this week’s parasha as being “very religious”. Parashat Naso contains very little narrative. Primarily it deals with regulations in relation to ritual and religious matters. It is true that much of the books of Exodus and Leviticus as well as sections of the other books of the Torah all deal with ritual commandments. What sets Naso apart is that the religious issues presented here relate more to matters of individual and family religious engagement rather than the collective ritual obligations of the people of Israel as a whole.

Naso begins with the assignment of families from the Tribe of Levi to specific responsibilities for the Tabernacle. The Kohatites, the Gershonites and Merarites were not included in the general census of the Israelite nation. Theirs was not to be a military function. While they would not be receiving a share of the Promised Land, the Levitical families were given an elevated religious function. They were singled out for holy service and they would be responsible for maintaining the dwelling place of the Divine Presence among the people. Each family was given a specific and distinct task, but each responsibility was essential for the functioning of the Tabernacle. From this we learn that each of us has an obligation of service to our God, our places of worship and our community. But we also learn that each of us must find our own way to serve. In the synagogue some serve through regular attendance at services and some serve by regular participation in study. Others serve by providing leadership on committees and boards and others through volunteerism and activism. All these tasks are essential and all these tasks are forms of holy service. Our faith community provides many opportunities for engagement and all are in service to God and community. You just need to find the place that is right for you.

Parashat Naso also introduces a new concept: the Nazirite vow. A Nazir is a person who takes a discretionary vow to dedicate one’s self to service to God. The period of this vow can be for a set period of time or for a lifetime, as is the case with the Judges Sampson and Samuel. There is no situation where one is obligated to become a Nazir. However, at times, in an effort to lead a more pure and holy life – a life dedicated to service to God – one might choose this kind of path. During the term of the vow, a Nazir is to abstain from alcohol and cutting of the hair (hence Sampson’s long locks) and refrain from any act that might render them ritually impure. Certainly, the path of Nazir is an extreme one and not for everybody. However, while the Torah specifically designates the Tribe of Levi for active service to God, this is not an exclusive status. The Nazirite vow makes service to God much more democratic; anyone who is inspired to make this type of commitment to divine service is welcome to do so. You don’t need to be born into the “right” family to lead a religiously devoted life.

Immediately following the details of the Nazirite vow we find the words of the oldest known biblical text and the most ancient of prayers: the Birkat Cohanim or the Priestly Benediction. We are told that this formula, found in Numbers 6:24–26, was ordained by God and transmitted to the priests by Moses for the blessing of Israel. These fifteen concise words convey the very essence of what it means to have a positive spiritual connection with our God:

May God bless you and keep you.

May God cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you.

May God turn toward you, and grant you peace.

As the Priests raise their hands to bless the people with these words, our tradition seems to be telling us that there are, indeed, rewards that come with living a spiritual and morally upstanding life. We hear a message stating that those who link themselves with God – and the people of Israel – will be blessed. It is interesting to note that the “you” in this prayer is singular, not plural. It is directed to each individual, not the community as a whole. Each of us has the capacity to merit God’s blessings. Each of us is worthy.

As Jews, we live our life in community and we worship our God as part of a minyan. You cannot live a Jewish life in isolation. However, to engage in a meaningful spiritual life, each of us must find our own distinct place in our community, and our own personal relationship with God. Each of us is unique and special. We each have our own blessings to contribute. Otherwise, it would not have been necessary for God to create us.

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. In English the book is called Numbers, because it begins with a census. In Hebrew, the book is called Bamidbar: in the desert. In our tradition, we name the book of the Torah by a word which is significant from the first few sentences. In the case of Bamidbar, our ancestors clearly felt that the desert was far more significant than the counting. So, why is that?

The rabbis answer that the giving of the Torah and the Israelites’ wanderings were central to the story of our people and formative in shaping who we were to become, and that the fact that both of these events happened in the desert was extremely significant.

The Israelites found themselves in the wilderness (the “midbar”) after their escape from slavery. They were struggling to become free — to remove the shackles of their oppression in Egypt and become a community and a nation. The years in the wilderness were a time of healing. It was a time when a people who had suffered so much, learned what it meant to be masters of their own destiny. And to do that they needed to be in the midbar. The desert nurtured and protected them. It sheltered them from the storms of the city life, its pressures and its intensity. It provided them with a new outlook, and taught them important lessons which we would do well to learn.

The desert is not what it first seems — it takes time to know and understand. There is life teeming in the wilderness. There is food and water; but you have to take time to feel the silence, to hear the whispers of the wind, to find the true desert. It is the same with life and relationships. There is goodness and beauty in people, but sometimes we do not take the time to know them and see the beauty within. Sometimes we judge without looking beneath the surface. The wilderness taught the Israelites, and it teaches us, to take the time to look, to see and to feel.

The wilderness also teaches the importance of community — of being together and working as one towards a common goal. There, everyone was equal. The Israelites had to rely on one another. They had to work together to recognize each other’s strengths and abilities in order to harness them for the community. The desert taught us to be more than ourselves; it showed us the strength and beauty of community.

But more than anything else, the wilderness gave us time. Time to escape the noise and frenetic pace of life in Egypt. Time to think, to rest and to just be. Many of us are working at an unsustainable pace. We go from one activity to another without finding time for leisure, for family, for fun. We are overworked, stressed and unhappy. We have forgotten the lessons of the wilderness; we do not stop long enough to hear the silence. The Israelites heard the voice of God in the desert — it was only when they were able to stop that they could really hear. It is no accident that the letters in the word “midbar” are the same as the word “medaber”, to speak. It is in the expanse of the wilderness that we are able to hear the voice of God, and each other. The children of Israel found holiness, even in what seems to be one of the most desolate of places on earth, because they learned to look closely and see what is beneath the surface. They took the time to listen, hear and feel; and they learned the importance of caring for themselves and others. May we too learn the lessons of the midbar.

I attended the rabbinical school in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Whenever we walked around the city, we were impressed by the city’s embrace of its own history. Many Americans and tourists from all over would make this pilgrimage to the first capital of the United States. Of course, the longest queues wound through Independence National Historical Park, as people from all over the world would line up to see the Liberty Bell, one of the most iconic symbols of American identity and the premise of freedom on which the nation was founded.

Famously emblazoned across the Liberty Bell are the words, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the Land unto all the inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10), which comes from our double parashah this week. Following the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, formally ending slavery in the United States, these words and this bell have come to serve as a message of hope for all the oppressed throughout the world.

Yet the parashah that contains these words also reflects a darker message — one that actually endorses slavery. In this same chapter of Leviticus we read that non-Israelite residents of the land may be acquired as permanent slaves, and may be kept “as a possession for your children after you, for them to inherit as property for all time” (Leviticus 25:46).

What are we to make of this contradiction in our parashah? Why does the Torah view slavery as anathema for Israelites but acceptable for their neighbors? We might expect to find a rationale based on the assertion of some notion of superiority. But no of such concept is found in Leviticus.

Rather, our portion offers a more theological explanation: Israelites may not become permanent slaves to other people because they are already slaves to another master—to the God who redeemed them from Egypt. As expressed here in Leviticus, the story of the exodus from Egypt is not about the rejection of slavery as a moral outrage, but rather about God’s exclusive ownership of the people of Israel. The chapter emphasizes this point in its final verse: “For it is to Me that the Israelites are servants: they are My servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt, I the Eternal your God” (Leviticus 25:54).

Throughout history, Jews have always been active in liberating kidnapped and enslaved Jews. The concept of Pidyon Shvuyim – the redemption of captives – stresses our responsibility to bring about the release of a fellow Jew who is held in slavery, kidnapped, taken as a prisoner of war or imprisoned unjustly by authorities. We see this value today exemplified by Israel’s willingness to participate in grossly uneven prisoner swaps in order to bring home a captive Israeli soldier.

It is sad to note however that, throughout history, Jews have at times participated in or at least tolerated the enslavement of non-Jews. During certain historical periods, Jews have owned slaves. If the slaves were released, it was not in compliance with Torah law, but in compliance with local civil law.

The State of Israel today is the Jewish State, but it is not a religious state. In its 1948 Declaration of independence and, more explicitly, in its 1992 Basic Law of Human Liberty and Dignity, it makes the following statement: “Fundamental human rights in Israel are founded upon recognition of the value of the human being, the sanctity of human life, and the principle that all persons are free.” This is a powerful moral and legal statement of which we Jews should be particularly proud — but it does not come from the Torah.

Despite these bold statements, slavery has not disappeared — not in 1863, not in 1948, not in 1992, nor even today. Various forms of slavery continue to be practiced, as documented by Benjamin Skinner in his recent book, A Crime So Monstrous: Face to Face with Modern Slavery. Skinner follows the modern slave trade on five continents, from sex trafficking to the sale of children into forced labor to the suburban exploitation of domestic workers. Skinner claims that there are more people living in slavery today than at any other time of history.

This moral outrage exists nearly everywhere, including Israel. Migrant workers live in a perilous legal state and are vulnerable to predatory behaviors by employers who withhold pay and freedom of movement. Recently, in Israel the abuses in the foreign worker visa program have reached the front pages, but what we don’t hear much about are the serious continued abuses of human trafficking victims and undocumented workers. The Israeli Supreme Court recently issued a ruling to protect such workers but much more needs to be done.

Israel’s Basic Law of Human Dignity and Liberty gives the Jewish people an opportunity to exercise a collective moral action, including correcting what might be seen as a moral lapse in our Torah. No prior Jewish source has said as clearly what this law says: that slavery is forbidden across-the-board for all people. Of this we should be proud. But more is demanded of us. Such sentiment must be translated into a reality in which the enslavement and subjugation of any human being becomes impossible. After all, as the Torah suggests, it is not only the Jewish people who are “owned” by God. As the book of Psalms says, “The earth is God’s and all that it holds, the world and all its inhabitants” (24:1). Any person, of any faith, who participates in the subjugation of another human being, must be reminded that this is an outrage not only to humanity but also to God. For it is up to each and everyone us to “proclaim liberty throughout all the land”

Parashat Emor commences with a pronouncement that the Kohanim (Priests) are not to allow themselves to become tamei (ritually impure) through contact with a corpse. In ancient times, this was a pretty common type of impurity. However, the priests are specifically warned against coming into contact with a corpse under any circumstances.

There is, however, one important exception: priests can and, in fact, are obligated to, tend to their immediate blood relatives when they have died: parents, children and siblings (spouses were added to this list by the later sages). While tending to the dead is an important obligation for everyone, it does render one impure, and therefore unable to participate in the ritual life of the community. This may not be a huge issue for most Israelites, especially when confronted with the passing of a loved one. But for a priest this is very serious; this means they are not able to fulfill their primary role as the facilitators of worship.

One of my favorite modern commentators, the late Rabbi Pinchas Peli, reminds us that back in Egypt, death was big business. All of life in ancient Egypt, especially for the aristocracy, revolved around building one’s “house of eternity.” This house of eternity referred to both one’s legacy in this world and one’s place in the world to come. For many Egyptian and other pagan priests, the preparation of tombs and the rituals of the dead were their main preoccupation. Egyptian priests focused much more on the dead than the living.

But not so for the Israelite priest. The Kohen’s duty was to serve the living — to serve as a teacher and model of holiness for the people. By prohibiting a priest from coming into contact with the dead – preventing him from becoming impure – he is preserved to be able to fulfill his priestly responsibilities to the living.

Impurity” is not transmitted from the corpse. The Torah is not telling us that there is anything intrinsically dirty or evil about a dead person. Death is, so to speak, a part of life. To emphasize this point, the exemption is stated to allow the Kohen to take care of the preparation and burial of those closest to him. This is the obligation of every Jew and no one, even a Kohen, is precluded.

This mitzvah, the obligation of Livayat ha-met, the accompanying of the dead to their final burial place, is considered one of the most important of all the mitzvot. Why? Because it is considered to be the only truly selfless act. Helping to prepare another for burial is the only “favor” you can do for another without any expectation or possibility of the favor being returned. Helping another in their transition from this world to the next is the supreme human act of compassion. Death will happen to us all, yet no one truly understands how this transition takes place. We can only speculate, and try our best to help ease the process.

So important is this act that no one, including the high priest, can shirk this responsibility toward close relatives, or even towards the lonely or poor who have no one else to bury them.

It is not death that defiles the priest and renders him incapable of tending to his duties. Rather, it is the shifting of the focus of his duties from the living to the dead that distracts the priest from his obligation to the holiness of life.

We respect and mourn our dead, but Judaism is primarily about life. As it says in the Psalms, “The dead cannot praise the Eternal” (Psalm 115:17). Death is, indeed, a part of life. It is because of this respect for life that taking care of our dead is considered such an important duty. We don’t abdicate the responsibility to priests or professional undertakers. We take care of it ourselves. This principle is why the Chevra Kadisha (literally “holy fellowship” — the traditional Jewish burial society) exists, to help us meet this need. We bring holiness into our lives through our respect for life. Even after death, we continue to honor the relationships of our life.

Our double Torah portion this week contains a section of Torah known as the holiness code. In it are a diverse range of laws governing every aspect of our lives, guiding us to live with compassion and care for ourselves and those walking the path alongside us. And there, embedded in the code is the famous passage “love your neighbor as yourself.” This commandment has generated a large amount of commentary grappling with who the neighbor might be and what, if any, our connection should be in order to classify a person as our neighbor. Usually we read this commandment as referring to neighbors who are physically and emotionally close to us, those with whom we share a relationship. But “love your neighbor as yourself” could be read in a different way: to “love your neighbor who is LIKE you” the one who is “as yourself.” If that is so, the command is simple, it is quite easy to love those who are like us, those who share the same outlook, values and approach. When we find places of commonality it is easy to connect, to like and even love one another.

One of our rabbinic commentators though suggests a different reading of “Love your neighbor who is like you.” He suggests that we should not read it narrowly as one who shares tastes, opinions, occupation or lifestyle, but rather one who is like you because they too are created in the image of God. According to this interpretation, every other human being is our neighbor because we share a common humanity. We are then challenged to love them because of that connection. To love their differences and their similarities, to find a place where we can reach out and connect with all people. The challenge then is to like, care for and find the beauty in those who are different from us. And this is far more difficult. Interfaith dialogue, for example, is easy when we talk about he ways in which we are similar but is far more challenging when we try to tackle the more contentious issues. But unless we do, we are not loving the fullness of the other, we are loving only the parts of ourselves we see reflected within them. It is the same in our lives, our communities, our country. We must challenge ourselves to love our neighbors, not only those who are the same or similar to us. And if we do so, we will create a more harmonious, beautiful whole which, as we try to do in our community, celebrates diversity and commonality.

This week we have commemorated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Survivors came out from hiding, from the forests where they had been fighting in the resistance and from the camps of horror from which they had been liberated. While finally free, they were not fully safe – thousands were murdered upon return to their homes. Liberation led them to discover the losses they had suffered, often the only ones left alive from hundreds of members of their families. To this day, we struggle how to process this tragedy, this affront to humanity.

With this background, we read Parasha Sh’mini, telling of events just months after the Exodus from Egypt. After liberation from slavery, our people have also stood at Sinai, experiencing the presence of God and the learning of Torah, and have erected the Tabernacle exactly according to the instructions given to Moses. The book of Exodus ends on a glorious and harmonious note echoing the beauty and order of the story of creation with which the book of Genesis opens. Leviticus, the third book of the Torah opens with a discussion of the service of the priests in the Tabernacle. Parashat Sh’mini opens with the ordination of the priests and the dramatic dedication ceremony of the Tabernacle. This is the pinnacle of our people’s experience since the time our ancestors have been promised to be a great nation in the holy land. It is the moment where “the glory of God” will appear to them.

Just at the height of the ceremony, being conducted by Aaron’s four sons, two of them, Nadav and Abihu, die suddenly. The community is in shock. Some try to blame, some try to explain. In fact, for thousands of years there has been much rabbinic commentary analysing the event. Some blame Nadav and Avihu for doing something wrong, from being transgressors who have been punished with death. And others speak of them as being so holy that at this exquisite moment they leave their bodies behind, their souls ascending directly to God. Aaron remains silent.

Silence is sometimes the best and most authentic response. After the Shoah, as with the death of Nadav and Abihu, there were also many who jumped in to offer their explanations of the event. There were rabbis who said punishment occurred because of the sins of the people; there were others who said “God was dead”. Perhaps more than an explanation of “why” it is important to remember the book by Harold Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. When tragedies occur, it is better not to explain with words, but to respond with deeds.

At this time, when recall the horror of the Shoah and bear witness to this day of the horrific deeds continually perpetrated by humanity, we should recall our obligations: to comfort those who are bereaved and to protect with justice those who are still persecuted. There is a time to speak with deeds, not words.

In 1846, a group of rabbis convened in Breslau to debate various reforms to Judaism. Among the numerous issues under discussion was the length of Pesach and the other festivals. Why was this an issue? Regarding Pesach, the Book of Exodus states:

This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to God throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread… You shall celebrate a sacred occasion on the first day and a sacred occasion on the seventh day; no work at all should be done on them.”

(Exodus 12:14–16)

It seems pretty clear that Pesach was to be observed for seven days.

However, with time, as with all the chagim, Pesach became extended. Our early sages decided that this was necessary as Jews began to spread out through the diaspora. In ancient times each new month of our lunar calendar was determined by observation. Witnesses would testify that they had seen the new moon to judges in Jerusalem. Once the judges verified the correct phase of the moon, a pronouncement about the start of the month was sent out to communities throughout the Land of Israel. However, it would take far too much time for the information to reach communities of Jews outside of Israel. Therefore an extra day was added to the observance of Passover and the other festivals for Jews living outside of Israel in order to prevent people from accidentally beginning or ending too soon.

Today, and throughout history, everyone in Israel observes Pesach for seven days. However, outside of Israel, the eight-day custom of observance has remained, even after the switch was made to a calculated calendar in the fourth century. The Babylonian Talmud (Beitzah 4b) advises Diaspora Jews to maintain the “the custom of your ancestors” and continue the practice of extended festivals, just in case the knowledge of how to calculate the calendar is somehow forgotten.

Which brings us back to our rabbis in 1846. At the Breslau conference the reformers, reflecting on the technological advancements that allowed for a clearly fixed universal calendar, concluded that “The second days of the holidays… have no longer any significance for our time according to our religious sources… Therefore, if any congregations abolish some or all of these second days, they… are thoroughly justified in their act.” With this determination, a return to the biblical seven days of Pesach became standard practice within Progressive and Liberal communities throughout the diaspora, while traditional diaspora communities maintained the rabbinic eight days of the festival.

Ultimately, each of us decides what is right and meaningful for our families and ourselves. But, in this case, we have two options which each maintain the full authenticity of our tradition, both biblical and rabbinic. So, for how long will you be eating matzah?

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