Archive for Naso

Naso: Seeing Angels

Copyright 2016 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

The angel of the Lord never appeared again to Manoach and his wife. — Manoach then realized that it had been an angel of the Lord. (Judges 13:21)

Good morning!

Last year at this time (on the Torah reading calendar) I wrote about one of the less heroic figures of the Bible, Manoach, the father of Shimson (A.K.A. Samson.) In the haftarah for the portion Naso, Manoach’s unnamed wife is visited by an angel, who announces that she will bear a son and instructs her to raise him as a nazirite. This provides the thematic link to the Torah portion, which relates the relevant laws: one who takes a nazirite vow refrains from alcohol, cutting one’s hair, or any contact with the dead. (I also wrote about the nazirite laws a few years back, see here.)

The structure of the story is somewhat amusing: the angel appears to Manoach’s wife, she tells Manoach everything the angel said, and then Manoach gets excited and asks God to send the angel again. The angel comes back, explains the instructions to Manoach directly, and in reply Manoach offers him dinner, which the divine being refuses, telling Manoach to making an offering to God instead. The angel ascends in the flames of the burnt offering, and that’s when Manoach finally realizes the true significance of his interlocutor.

Seen one way, it’s funny how Manoach comes across as a bit dense when it comes to identifying angels, but read another way, the verse above is rather sad: it is only after further interaction is impossible that Manoach realized the extraordinary nature of his guest. Note the order of our verse: it is only after we learn (and I think Manoach realizes this too) that he will never see the angel again that Manoach is fully conscious of his failure of insight and missed opportunity.

In the arc of the story of Shimshon, Manoach is a comic foil to his much more insightful and worthy wife, who is, after all, the actual subject of the angel’s instructions. Yet in his obtuseness, he is all of us, at one time or another. Who among us has not regretted misapprehending the unique gifts of a friend, teacher, loved one or new acquaintance? Who among us has not said, “this was an angel” about someone who who was, perhaps only briefly, part of one’s life? Some of my deepest regrets are that I only understood someone’s depth and gifts after the opportunity to learn and love had passed.

We are not typically visited by divine messengers with explicit instructions for unusual circumstances, but every day we do have the chance to be more open to the extraordinary qualities of our friends, loved ones and neighbors. For Manoach, realization came too late, as it often does, but this very moment we can choose to see with new eyes the holy souls all around us, and be grateful for the chances to connect that are not yet lost.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

 

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Naso: The Limits of Hearing

Copyright 2015 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

Manoach pleaded with the Lord. “Oh, my Lord!” he said, “please let the man of God that You sent come to us again, and let him instruct us how to act with the child that is to be born.” (Shoftim/ Judges 13:8)

Good evening! This week’s haftarah is the story of the birth of Shimshon (usually called Samson in English), who grows up to be a great, albeit greatly flawed, hero of ancient Israel. The connection with the Torah portion is probably the laws of the nazir, or nazirite, a kind of special religious status that people could choose for various lengths of time. (See more about that here and go here for a light-hearted but insightful theory of why this haftarah was chosen for this portion. )

Among the laws of the nazir are refraining from alcohol and letting the hair grow uncut; these are the instructions that an angel gives to Shimshon’s mother in the opening verses of the haftarah. Manoach’s unnamed wife then repeats these instructions to her husband, who offered up the prayer above- to be instructed on how to raise the child, even though his wife has just told him what the angel said!

Not only that, but when the angel returns, Manoach asks again what his instructions are, even though he’s heard them from his wife, and the angel patiently repeats what he had said earlier. Perhaps there’s a teeny bit of angelic snark when he adds “she must observe all that I commanded her,” (verse 14) thus implicitly reminding Manoach that he’s already given these instructions once before, but nevertheless, the angel repeats the commands for raising their child and doesn’t overtly rebuke Manoach for needing to hear things again.

I’ve usually read this story with the thought that Manoach is not the brightest light on the memorial board, given that he seems not to understand fairly straightforward narratives and instructions. This year, however, I read this story in light of my work at the hospital, where I often encounter smart people unable to grasp simple but shocking statements, usually because they are overwhelmed by the changes and new realities implied by what they are being told. In its most poignant form, I’ve seen families listen to a doctor explain what can or cannot be done for a loved one and then turn to each other in almost blank incomprehension after the doctor leaves. They are not stupid, but rather not ready to hear that their loved one is near the end or that their family will face difficult challenges of caregiving, to give just two common examples.

In Manoach’s case, perhaps he had a certain dream for his child, a dream wildly interrupted by the angel proclaiming that his son will be a nazir who will save Israel from the Philistines, or perhaps after years of infertility he had given up on his hope for children and can’t quite believe that his quiet life will be turned upside down by parenthood after all. The important point for us is to see in Manoach someone who is taking in only as much as he can, under circumstances which might otherwise completely overwhelm his natural resilience. We’ve all been there, and all of us will someday have a chance to be a patient angel to another person when they need help in slowly awakening to a new and disorienting reality. Manoach isn’t just the father of a great hero, he’s also everyone who has desperately wanted the world to slow down when it’s moving too fast. This calls for great mercy and compassion, which may be easy for angels but requires thought, love and dedication from the rest of us.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

The views expressed are my own and do not reflect that of Vassar Brothers Medical Center or Health-Quest.

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Nasso: Gifts and Hope

Copyright 2013  Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Nasso

On the day that Moses finished setting up the Tabernacle . .  the chieftains of Israel, the heads of ancestral houses, namely, the chieftains of the tribes, those who were in charge of enrollment, drew near and brought their offering before the Lord . . . .(Bamidbar/ Numbers 7:1-3)

Good morning! I hope everybody who just celebrated Shavuot had a lovely holiday with good Torah learning and the appropriate dairy treats. Ironically, we turn immediately to the Torah portion Nasso, which includes among its various laws the rules of the Nazir, who chose a more ascetic life. . . but we’ll deal with that another day. Today I’m more interested in a little detail at the beginning of Chapter 7, which is one of more unusual chapters of the Torah, in that it repeats the same story 12 times. Each of the tribes of Israel sends a nobleman to offer gifts for the dedication of the Mishkan (portable sanctuary), and as it turns out, each set of gifts was exactly the same, listed identically in the text.

That’s interesting, but even more interesting is a rabbinic understanding of who these 12 princes were, and for that, we need to go back to the book of Exodus, when the Israelites were still enslaved in Egypt. You might remember that the Egyptians set the Israelites a certain quota of bricks, and held the captains of the people responsible when the people didn’t produce the required amounts:

And the foremen of the Israelites, whom Pharaoh’s taskmasters had set over them, were beaten. “Why,” they were asked, “did you not complete the prescribed amount of bricks, either yesterday or today, as you did before?” (Exodus 5:14)

This interpretation, cited in early works of midrash, involves a bit of Hebrew wordplay, the details of which are less important than the narrative idea: that these men, who suffered greatly at the hands of their oppressors, and who were caught between the Egyptians and the Israelites in a morally impossible position, could nevertheless bring notable gifts to the Mishkan. Granted, there is some controversy as to why they brought their gifts last rather than first – that is, back in Exodus when they were first collecting materials for the Mishkan–  but to me, what stands out in this reading is faith in human resilience. After the princes were beaten by the Egyptians, they turned bitterly to Moshe and Aharon, accusing them of stirring up trouble, but here they are, standing together with them to create a Sanctuary in the midst of the people.

There are those who suffer, and withdraw from the world, and there are those who suffer, and learn from that suffering to live life at even higher levels of compassion and generosity. To put it more plainly, what the ancient rabbis seem to be saying is this: the princes of the people had been beaten and morally tormented, and nevertheless had gifts to offer. That is a message of profound hope to all those who have experienced pain, injustice or darkness: do not think that you are broken and shamed, for you too have gifts to offer, gifts which bring the Presence of the Holy One into this world, gifts which are the equal of that which anyone else might offer. Do not despair- you have gifts to offer, and the world needs you.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Naso: Living Fully In The World

 Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.  As his offering to the Lord he shall present: one male lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a burnt offering; one ewe lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a sin offering. . . . “ (Bamidbar / Numbers 6:13:-14)

Good morning!

In this week’s portion, we learn the laws of the nazir– a person who had taken a vow of dedication to God who then had to leave his hair untrimmed, avoid any and all intoxicating beverages, and not go near the dead. (More here and here.) There’s lots of commentaries explaining how those three prohibitions go together to fulfill the purpose of the nazirite vow, but for now let’s just go with the common understanding that wine and other intoxicating beverages are symbolic of sensory pleasure, while leaving the hair uncut is a rejection of vanity and outward appearances.

So far, so good- the nazirite wanted to enter into an ascetic state for a temporary period, and refrained from celebrating the pleasures or appearance of the body for that time. I can easily understand why someone would want to do that: for reflection, for introspection, for discipline, for spiritual commitment and rejuvenation.

Notice, however, that when the term of the nazirite vow is over, before he cuts his hair, thenazir brings a sin offering. Some commentaries interpret this to imply that rejecting sensory pleasures and social norms (e.g., looking totally untrimmed and ungroomed set one apart) isn’t actually desirable, over the long run. There is a balance between body and soul, and one who chooses to remove him or herself from the world we live in may tip the scales too far in one direction- even if his goal is spiritual dedication and growth.

Seen this way (but this isn’t the only way to see it), the nazir’s vow of abstention from pleasure and withdrawal from normal society is not an unalloyed good- to which I would add the thought that a spirituality which can only be practiced in asceticism and solitude is not a viable spirituality for the long path of life. Sometimes going on retreat is absolutely necessary, to place bodily pleasure and social conventions in their proper perspective. For example, consider  how we refrain from bodily pleasure and adorning ourselves on Yom Kippur.

The example of the nazir reminds us that there are more important things in life than nice meals and a stylish appearance; I’d go so far as to say those things are fairly far down the list of things to which we might dedicate our lives. Yet life is a blessing, to be enjoyed when possible, and Judaism also reminds us to rejoice with wine and dress l’kavod Shabbat [in honor of the Sabbath] weekly.

Perhaps the nazir brings the sin-offering only because it’s hard to get the balance of life just right: in withdrawing from the world, just a bit, the nazir also denies the beauty and blessing of embodied existence. To be dedicated to God is a beautiful thing; to live fully in God’s beautiful world is also part of an integrated spirituality. The sin-offering of the nazir remind us not to trade one for the other.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Naso: Enlightenment

Copyright 2010 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso.

Naso finishes the story of the census in the wilderness, and continues with various laws covering suspicions of adultery; special vows of Divine service; and priestly duties. The portion concludes with the princes of the tribes bringing gifts to the Sanctuary.

Dear Friends:

Ah well, I didn’t keep up the “get-the-drasha-out-early-in-the-week” trend going for very long, but we did have a holiday this week. . . well, on to Naso.

Among the most famous verses in the Torah is the “priestly blessing,” a three (or six, depending on how you count) part blessing that is commanded to Aharon and his sons as the way they will bless the Israelites:

“The Lord spoke to Moses: ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:

The Lord bless you and protect you!
The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you!
The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!’
Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”

(Bamidbar/Numbers 6:22-27)

This ancient prayer is almost the paradigmatic blessing of one person for another, and is found in the daily liturgy as a reminder of the ancient priestly service as well as many life-cycle events and happy occasions. Yet the precise meaning of these verses has been the subject of much interpretation; for example, what is rendered as “deal kindly” above is literally “shine God’s face upon you” [ya’er panav], or, as one line of interpretation goes, “may God enlighten you.” This works with our English understanding “enlighten”- that is, may you reach a higher level of wisdom, knowledge, depth and discernment. Hirsch says “enlighten” is a reference to Torah- again, a prayer that someone should grow spiritually.

What is rendered as “graciously” in the second line probably has the simple meaning of “may God be generous with you,” but it can also be understood as: may God grant you the gift of grace- that is, in your own being. May God “grace” you- fill you with generosity, empathy, and kindness. Seen this way, the priestly blessing is not so much about Divine providence in the realm of the material world but a wish that we should be transformed into exemplars of Divine qualities.

This is not the only way these verses can be understood, and we’ll save a discussion of lines 1 and 3 for another day. For now, let’s merely note that we can understand our most ancient prayer for each other as expressing the Jewish idea that what is most precious is also priceless- for it is something that can’t be bought. Opening up one’s heart to spiritual enlightenment arises out of prayer, out of relationship, out of willingness to change- this is the grace we hope for ourselves and others.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Naso: Great Things From Unexpected Places

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

The good news is, we’re back, and this week’s haftarah is one the most
interesting of the year. The haftarah is from the book of Shoftim, or Judges,
chapter 13, and tells the story of the birth of Shimon, or Samson, the first
Biblical “superhero,” who has a miraculous birth and a life of amazing deeds of
strength, bravery, and some really puzzling decisions (which we’ll discuss
another day.) Our haftarah tells us that Shimshon’s birth was announced to his
parents by an angel, who gave them clear instructions that he was to be raised
as a “nazir,” that is, one who took a special oath of sacred dedication and
refrained from cutting his hair or drinking any sort of intoxicating beverage.
The status of nazir is a bit more complicated than I’m discussing here, but it’s
the clear link between our Torah portion, Naso, and our haftarah; the rules for
the nazirite are given in Bamidbar/Numbers 6, read this week.

The story of Shimshon and his parents is both funny and poignant, and told with great attention to detail. One such detail comes right at the beginning of the story:

“There was a certain man from Zorah, of the stock of Dan, whose name was Manoah
. . ” [Shoftim/ Judges 13:2]

The Bible often tells us about a character’s origins, both geographical and
genealogically; in this case, we learn that Manoach, Shimson’s father, is from a
small place of no particular distinction. In fact, what’s interesting about
Zorah is that the Bible itself tells us that it was first given to the tribe of
Judah (near the modern Israeli city of Beit Shemesh), but then the tribe of Dan
settled there- i.e, Judah apparently didn’t fight over it! Eventually Dan lost
some of its territories, including Zorah, in war and moved north, to the edges
of the kingdom. (I’ll post a map and some references below.) In other words,
Shimson, the great hero, is born in a marginal town to an undistinguished family
of one of the smallest and weakest tribes of Israel.

As R. Hirsch puts it, this fact “could not be without significance.” As I see
it, just as the Torah portion, in teaching us the laws of the nazir, reminds us
that extraordinary spiritual dedication is not reserved for the hereditary
classes of priests and Levites, the haftarah reminds us that extraordinary
individuals can come from the most humble of circumstances. This, in turn, has
two powerful implications:

1) Great things can come from ordinary people who live in undistinguished
places. Therefore, treat everybody as if they were capable of extraordinary
deeds !

2) Great things can come from ordinary people who live in undistinguished
places. Therefore, there’s no excuse for not doing extraordinary deeds !

Not everybody will win great battles over the Philistines (even in the
contemporary sense) but the story of Shimshon reminds us that history is not the
exclusive domain of the elite. Encounters with the Divine can transform us
anywhere, any time, setting us on a new course, no matter where we were born or
how well-connected our parents were. You just never know where an angel might
show up to tell you something important!

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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Naso: Seventy Nations, One God

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Naso

This weekend we read the portion Naso, which concludes with Moshe setting up the Mishkan [portable
Sanctuary] and all the leaders of the tribes bringing offerings as
gifts for its dedication. Each leader brought a similar offering of
silver, gold, flour, and animals:

“On the second day, Nethanel son of Zuar, chieftain of Issachar, made
his offering. He presented as his offering: one silver bowl weighing
130 shekels and one silver basin of 70 shekels by the sanctuary
weight, both filled with choice flour with oil mixed in, for a meal
offering; one gold ladle of 10 shekels, filled with incense; one bull
of the herd, one ram, and one lamb in its first year, for a burnt
offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for his sacrifice of
well-being: two oxen, five rams, five he-goats, and five yearling
lambs. That was the offering of Nethanel son of Zuar.” (Bamidbar/
Numbers 7:18-23)

One thing that is striking about this passage (which is repeated to
describe the offering of each tribal leader) is its detail of weights,
measures, and numbers: the bowl weights 130 shekels, the basin weighs
70, the ladle weighs 10 shekels, one bull, one ram, one lamb, for the
burnt offering, and so on. Our friend Rashi sees the gifts as
symbolic, sometimes finding the numbers to allude to other verses in
the Torah and sometimes using a technique called gematria- adding up
the numerical value of the letters- to link each gift to another idea
or verse.

Without getting into the specifics- which you can check out in the
links below, which give you Rashi’s entire commentary in English- it’s
interesting to me that Rashi sees the first gift – the silver bowl- as
alluding to Adam, and the second gift, the basin, as alluding to
Noach, who is really the “father” of all humankind after the flood.
Rashi makes this point clear by connecting the 70 shekel weight of the
basin to the “70 nations” of the world who emerged from the line of
Noach- in other words, all of humankind.

Rashi connects the gold ladle to the Torah, and its weight of ten gold
shekels is for him an allusion to the Ten Commandments. The animal
offerings, for Rashi, are allusions to the Israelite patriarchs and
leaders: Avraham, Yitzhak, Yaakov, Yosef, Moshe, Aharon. Each gift,
and even part of a description of a gift, is connected to another
verse in the Torah by connections of words and numbers, but it’s not
the methodology that I find most compelling.

What I find striking about Rashi’s symbolic interpretation of the
chieftain’s gifts is how he sees these gifts as alluding to both our
universal humanity and the particulars of Jewish history and
peoplehood. To put it another way, if the gold ladle alludes to the 70
nations of the earth – i.e., the diversity of humankind- then
precisely in the most specifically “Jewish” place- the Mishkan- we are
reminded of our link with all other peoples. It’s not surprising to me
that he would find hints of Avraham, Yitzhak, and Yaakov in these
gifts- after all, in their lives begins the covenant which is
expressed most dramatically by the Mishkan itself.

On the other hand, when Rashi says that the gold and silver bowls and
basins are reminders of Adam and Noach, he’s reminding us that
spiritual practices are always done in the context of a particular
tradition, but they lead us to transcend the particulars of tribe,
community, denomination, or nationality. In this way, religion is a
like a language; for example, love is experienced among all peoples,
but love poems can only be written in a particular language, whether
English or Persian or Chinese. This, to me, is the significance of
Rashi’s interpretation of the gifts of the Mishkan: it’s precisely by
doing our particular practices well that we come to deeply understand
that all people are made in the Divine Image, which has been given to
all people, in all seventy nations, across the world.

Shabbat Shalom,

RNJL

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