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.