Archive for Mai de 2013

Parashah Naso

Saint or Sinner


In our parasha this week we read the curious ritual of the Nazir, or the Nazarite vow. Any person in the Israelite community could choose to make this vow and they would specify the length of time during which they would become a Nazarite. During that period, they vowed not to come into contact with the dead (not even their own parents should they die), not to cut their hair and not to drink wine or eat any grape or grape products. At the end of their term as a Nazarite, the person brought an offering to the Temple, their hair was cut and burned and they returned to normal life. The Nazarite vow is such an unusual tradition and its meaning and purpose is mired in controversy.


There are rabbis who suggest that the Nazarite is to be admired and that their vow is an act of piety. Within the Israelite community the Cohenim, the priests and the Levites had outlets for their spirituality and connection to God. They had duties and roles where they could express their religious fervor. But the regular Israelites had not such channel of expression so the rites of the Nazarite provided them with the means by which they could demonstrate a desire to draw closer to God in a very public way. So the Nazarite was to be applauded and admired for their devotion to God and their self denial in order to achieve that goal. According to this perspective, the reason the Nazarite was required to bring a sin offering at the end of their term was because they were stopping their special behavior and returning to the mundane of normal life, no longer pursuing the holy path.


On the other hand, there are those who look upon the Nazarite vow as coming from a different place. They suggest that a person only takes this path to curb their excesses, usually in the area of alcohol consumption. It is argued that the Nazarite requires a structure around them to avoid temptation and to place their lives back on track. There are others who look upon the Nazarite with distain and argue that the Nazarite is a religious zealot and should be set apart from the community rather than be applauded for their behavior.


One priest went so far as to refuse to accept offerings from Nazarites because he saw them as sinners. They were, in his mind, people who deliberately denied themselves the good bounty of the earth in order to publicly show their false piety. He argued that the reason for bringing a sin offering at the end of their term as a Nazarite was because they had sinned by taking the vow and they were required to repent for their wrongdoing.


So which is it? Is the Nazarite a saint or a sinner? Perhaps they are a little of both. It is admirable to work to change behavior and curb excesses which may lead a person to harm themselves or those around them, and in that case a period of abstinence can be beneficial to turn them back to the right path again. But providing a vehicle for religious excess and zealotry is never a good path to take. If the Nazarite is so behaving to display publicly their piety in order to attract attention and accolades that is antithetical to the humility and religiosity required by the Torah. So the lesson of the Nazarite is to take the path of moderation, enjoying the bounty of the earth which God has provided for us, and continuing in whatever way possible to connect with our spiritual essence. 


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In this week’s parashah, Moses is commanded to take a detailed census of each of these tribes. However, there was to be one exception – the Levites (B’midbar 2:49). Counting them was prohibited. Rather, the Levites were instructed to take care of the the tabernacle housing the tablets that Moses brought down from Sinai. It was their duty to break down the mishkan and to and to re-erect it during their journey. The Levites were to work on behalf of the community, preserving the communal relationship with God.


Also in this week’s parashah, God instructs the Levites to take the place of the first born of Israel: “I have taken the Levites from among the Israelites in place of the first male offspring of every Israelite woman. The Levites are to be Mine” (B’midbar 3:11-13). When we investigate the status of the first-born son, we find the identical sentiment: “Sanctify to Me all the first-born males. The first offspring of every womb belongs to Me “. (Shemot 13:13-14). Why does God choose to claim one of each of our offspring as God’s own? Why did the Levites take their place?“At the time that I smote every first born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first born in Israel… to be Mine”. We left Egypt only after the first-born son of the Egyptians was killed. The cost of our freedom was another family’s trauma. We remain eternally in debt. For this reason, God demands our first born to oversee God’s service on behalf of all the people Israel. We are never allowed to forget the price of our freedom.


However, after the unanimous acceptance of Torah at Sinai, this burden moved from each of the households of Israel to only the Levites. When Moses returned from the mount and witnessed the dancing around the golden calf, he provided an ultimatum: “Whoever is for God, come here”. (Shemot 32:26). Moses’ fellow Levites came to his side. From this time forward the Levites accepted the mantle of representing the entire people with their commitment to live with kedushah, holiness, service to God.


Just as the Levites were to motivate the rest of the Israelites in service to God, the Israelites have been called to be a “Kingdom of Priests and a holy nation (Vayikra 19:6)” and thereby become “a light unto the nations”. As the Levites are the smallest of the tribes, so we are among the smallest of peoples.


As their rituals and rights were distinct from all the other tribes, so our rites, rituals, and memories ensure that we are distinct. Just as the Levites were to take responsibility for the condition of the entire people, so our role is to accept responsibility for the entire world.


Being a Jew means living with this responsibility. We either live according to this responsibility, or do not. The loss of the Egyptian firstborn so that we could experience freedom forces each and every one of us to value our own lives and the lives of our children even more. The Levites were witnesses to us, as we are called to witness to the world that to live is a privilege, to serve an obligation.

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Land rights

Land Rights


We Jews are often described as “the people of the book” but as much, if not more than that, we can be described as “the people of the land,” for our connection with the land of Israel is thousands of years strong. For much of that time we have been without the land, we have yearned, prayed and longed for her soil, we have dreamed of the day when we could once again return and touch the land, kiss her ground and connect once again with the soil and soul of our people. Like the Indigenous Australians who have a deep and visceral link to land, we too have an unbroken tie to the land of Israel. In our parasha this Shabbat, we read that we are to “redeem the land.” What does it mean to redeem land? At its face, the Torah is speaking about the shmita year, the one year in every seven when we are to allow the land to lie fallow, to eat only the produce which is given forth naturally from the soil. We are not to cultivate or sow, but rather we allow the earth to breathe, we give it the space to rest, rejuvenate and exhale. But perhaps there is more to redeeming land that just allowing it to lie fallow every seven years. Perhaps we are to constantly redeem the land by recognizing it as its own living, breathing organism which needs to be protected and nurtured.


Recently I was discussing a relatively new area of law with a friend of mine. She said that there are a number of people who are advocating for land rights, but not in the way we might imagine the term. They suggest that just as humans have rights and require protection, so too should the land. Just as we should not enslave one another, so too we should not enslave the land, for it also has the right to be free. I profess to know very little about the legal arguments but I find the concept as I have understood it, to be fascinating; viewing the land and the earth as an entity with rights. And if we do that, what flows is a responsibility upon us to respect and care for that entity.


Too often we approach the land as a tool which should provide us with all that we desire, caring little for its welfare or long term well being. But if we shift our thinking to imagine the land as more than soil, we also automatically adjust our approach to its care.


The Torah calls upon us to “liberate the land,” to afford it the freedoms we would wish for ourselves and others and to care for and protect its welfare.

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