Parashat Naso — 5771 — Seek My Face

26/06/2011 at 07:00 Leave a comment

“Seek My Face”

 

Parashat Naso

Neil F. Blumofe

4 June 2011

 

Just after the Torah describes in expansive detail the procedures of taking on the vows of the Nazirite, the Priestly blessings are found, in their succinctness and their simplicity.  We may have the opportunity to hear the Priestly blessings regularly – whether at home or in the synagogue – these words may sound familiar to us – may the haShem bless you and keep you; may the haShem’s face shine on you and be gracious to you; may the haShem’s face shine on you and grant you peace.

 

The Priestly Blessing or Birkat Kohanim, in Hebrew, is a comforting blessing that stitches us together, in our practice, through each generation.  Somehow, we may be reassured that there is a regular blessing that comes through our laws or our leaders – in the case of the Torah, the kohanim – on which we can depend – this Priestly blessing becomes part of our spiritual currency, in which we exchange hopes and aspirations for our loved ones and our community – and too, we know that ultimately there is no one who can mediate our relationships for us – we build our lives acquiring, networking, hopefully pursuing teachers who may give us solid instruction, and if we are blessed, we may be able to teach a bit of what we know, as well – and at the end of our days, it is we alone who stand face to face with our deeds and our choices in this world.

 

As we study and reflect on the significance of the Birkat Kohanim, just before Shavuot, I suggest that we put this specific blessing into context – the Birkat Kohanim comes at the end of a long description of the Nazirite, or one, who voluntarily takes on particular vows in service to God – above and beyond what may be derived in service based on Torah.  The Nazrite vows are rooted in three categories – (i) not to eat or drink grapes or grape products; (ii) not to cut hair; (iii) and not to come in contact with a dead body.  Our Torah suggests these three alterations of personal behavior in order to promote a more comprehensive holiness for an individual.  Beyond the group or the community, one could become a Nazir for a period of time, to focus on explicit qualities within one’s character.

 

The precise links between these three Nazirite categories and consequently promoting fuller attention to one’s nature is a conversation for another time – however, as you perhaps anticipate, in the Torah the status of the Nazirite comes within a larger context, as well.  Just before the description of the Nazir is the situation of the Sotah – or the procedure of gaining fuller information when a relationship between a husband and wife is deemed to be suspect.  Regarding this, the Torah’s perspective is obviously male – describing the husband’s point of view in determining his wife’s innocence or guilt within their relationship – again, a conversation for another time.

 

In our case, linking the Birkat Kohanim to the Nazir – and the Nazir to the Sotah – and all of this to our preparations for Shavuot, is instructive.  In the rabbinic imagination, if one sees spiritual degradation or is confronted by illicit behavior within the community, as personified by the Sotah, the adulterous wife, this prompts a safeguard – the Nazir’s vows – to forestall any temptation.  For a specified period of time, the Nazir puts up boundaries in his life – perhaps to limit exposure to things that might appeal to a baser nature and thus, bring the person towards making a mistake out of temporary passion and thus, causing ruin.

 

And too, the Birkat Kohanim is not limited – rather, all within the community have the chance for finding shleimut – wholeness – perhaps not over the arc of one’s life – for every life has peaks and valleys – high points and dark times – rather, every person, regardless of previous or even future actions has the opportunity to find God’s face in an individual and simple, redemptive act.

 

Thus, before giving all of us the same opportunity to encounter God’s face, the Torah presents extremes – anticipating natural human action.  When faced with evil, or uncertainty, many of us overcompensate, as we try to find safety and comfort within our life – with danger, we are reminded that our lives are uncertain and fragile and we try mightily to find some semblance of control for ourselves.  If faced with a stale bond between former lovers, or the expiration of a longtime relationship – or the breakdown of our place or status in community, there is a tendency to try and go to the furthest extreme from that place of hazard – to lose ourselves in projects or activity that will get us away from pain.

 

In gentle wisdom, our Torah anticipates this and reminds us that at any moment and regardless of how we feel or what mistakes we have done, we always have the opportunity to lift our face to God – and in doing so, our tradition teaches that in return, God will lift up God’s face to us, appreciating the inner goodness and joy that is the point of origin for any deed.

 

And this is the splendor of Shavuot – on this Festival – the pinnacle of our physical and spiritual development, we are presented with the Torah – in fact we are given sifrei Torah – both the Oral and the Written, as inseparable from our life.  Rather than thinking of this gift as overwhelming – like receiving the totality of our tradition as if it were the gushing water out of a fire hose, we immerse ourselves gently everyday, discovering mitzvot, noticing sacred connections and immersing ourselves in expeditions of study and prayer as steady and dependable facets of our life – as fun as Tikkun Leil Shavuot is, it too is an extreme – a tikkun for another extreme behavior – as our midrash teaches, that the Israelites almost missed the revelation at Sinai, because they were sleeping late.  It is slow and steady that our tradition teaches – a little bit everyday — for our mystics teach, this is the meaning of shleimut – this is shalom – which is the inner point of truth.  A spark within us that contains everything – and when we can possess joy and equanimity in perilous situations, we know too that God is present – and even if all we have is a small gleam of hope, or a little bit of trust, or the capacity to forgive or even to do something positive after harboring suspicions or after profound disappointment, then we will be blessed, and consequently, all of us will be blessed. This is the power of the very last line of the Birkat Kohanim, one that we typically do not say out loud — as we turn our faces to one another – God’s presence grows and within all of our messiness, incompleteness, unrealized good intentions, and failure – and let us say now — v’samu et sh’mi al b’nei yisrael va’ani a’var’cheim – let them place My name upon them as the children of Israel – let them consider me as a possibility, past their frustrations and overcompensations — and then, I shall bless them. 

 

Shabbat Shalom.

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Parashat baMidbar — 5771 — ” A Room of One’s Own” Parashat Behalotecha — 5771 — Riding in the Carriage

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