Tag Archives: nasso

The Priestly Blessing

One of the most famous, beautiful, and ancient passages of the Tanach, the Priestly Blessing, is a simple and poignant poem. You’re supposed to be a Jewish Priest, or Cohen (like Leonard), to give the Blessing, but nowadays it gets used by all kinds of people in all kinds of situations. Some give it to their children every Shabbat, and it was definitely said at my wedding in January. And it’s also one of the oldest pieces of the Tanach we have found in outside sources. Some amulets with an abbreviated version of the blessing were found in an archaeological dig in Israel and have been dated to around 600 BCE.

But so what? On the face of it, this blessing is a pretty normal, platitude-laden selection of poetry. In English, you probably wouldn’t even call it poetry. In Hebrew (which you can hear recited by the foremost priest of our time by clicking the Leonard link above), the rhythm of the lines flows beautifully together. I think that with this blessing, as with most liturgical pieces, it is easy to accept it as sodden, stagnant, and stale ancient work. If we can give the writers of the original blessing, who lived around 3000 years ago or so, the benefit of the doubt, let us accept that they were probably trying to transmit something of value. In fact I find this the most meaningful way to approach the traditions found in Judaism. As a people we have somehow managed to survive beyond the bounds of any great empire or great culture, and although we have clearly changed and grown throughout the millennia we are still Jews. So there must be something worthwhile that our ancestors are trying to pass down through these pieces that have survived for so long.

With each line of the blessing, the perception of the Israelites relationship to God is revealed more concretely. The first line is the most clear. The word “bless” in Hebrew is related to the word for knee. This is often used to explain why, in certain Hebrew prayers, we bend our knees and bow. So the idea that God would take a moment to “bend his knees” before us means for God to take notice of us — to stop for a moment and give us his full attention. Anyone who has read much of the Tanach, though, knows that it isn’t always so good to have God taking notice of you. Sometimes things like this happen. So to clarify what is meant by seeking God’s attention in the first line, the writers wrote “guard you” which is often translated as “keep you,” but means ultimately the same thing. But even this must be clarified in the next line. The blesser asks for God to be gracious upon his reflection about the blessee, letting his “face shine,” which is clearly related to smiling or looking upon someone with favor. Finally, the graciousness is clarified in the third line as meaning bringing the blessee shalom. Shalom is most often translated as peace, but it also means wholeness.

Each line, then, begins with the blesser asking for God to pay attention to the blessee, and each line is concluded with a hope for this attention to be favorable. In this day and age of aggressive atheists and burgeoning scientific materialism, it seems unfathomable to believe that these people’s deepest anxiety, revealed in this revered and ancient blessing, was God’s attention. Similarly, the fact that this blessing reflects a view of God’s face directed at an individual being of great importance makes it easy to discount the blessing as a primitive people’s reaction to the uncertainty of life, in hopes that their huge man in the sky would keep an eye on them.

In some instances this might be true, but I think we can give our ancestors greater honor than that. Look only so far as God’s name in the poem, and Exodus 3:13-14. God’s name, as used here, is related to the verb “to be,” and in Ex. 3:13-14 God explains his nature, or being, as entirely existential. By this I mean that God, even in his own words (or however we want to explain how Moses interacted with God), is that which is constantly becoming. The Hebrew verb in 3:13-14 can be translated it many ways, and the line is most famously translated as “I am that I am.” It’s not that simple, though. The verb is not in a perfect tense, which is to say the “being” act is still unfolding when he is speaking, and I’d argue is still unfolding today. So if God is the unfoldment of everything, as he appears to say in Exodus 3:13-14, what would God “raising his face” to an individual mean?

Everyone knows the deep anxiety of living in time. We all keep an eye on our watches, our youthful marking of the years passing with cakes and candles become less celebrations and more fearful as our age accrues, and the speed of the year seems to accelerate as we move further and further away from our births. This God of the Israelites revealed himself most candidly as time, and his name (יהוה) is repeated over and over again in the blessing is clearly related to the verb “to be” (היה). If we look at this God as being the director of time’s passage, this prayer is asking for something we all want. We want time to be gentle. We want the future to unfold in a way that makes us whole and at peace. And when I think of what the metaphor of the face of time would mean, I think it would mean the cutting edge of the future. It would mean the moment where the unfoldment occurs, when the present becomes the past and we can feel the formless void of the future beginning to coalesce into the present. I think that this blessing in particular has been brought forward to us along this constantly destroying and rebirthing stream of history simply because it charts this anxiety so very well. Who doesn’t want the future to unfold in such a way that guards them, smiles upon them, and brings them wholeness and peace? Who, when they consider our relationship to time like this, doesn’t feel the same anxieties that this blessing is so clearly attempting to ameliorate?

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Samson, the Impious Demigod

The section of Parshat Nasso focused on the restrictions of being a Nazirite are pretty cut and dry: Don’t consume any grape products, don’t cut your hair, and don’t be near any corpses. This is all, apparently, so that these individuals can cut their hair as an offering to God. There is no clear rationale for why anyone would want to do this, what other roles Nazirites might have played in ancient Israelite society, or where the category came from in the first place. The only clarification we have is oblique and from much later: the haftarah portion of Nasso, Judges 13:2-25.

This portion of the book of Judges is the opening of the most widely famous story from the book: the story of Samson. The book of Judges is one that often goes unread. It is full of strange, disturbing, and violent stories, many of which seem to have little to no moral or ethical value. One of my professors at JTS convinced me that the book of Judges is a satire. The stories are lampooning differences between the ancient Israelites, and using over the top imagery and behavior as the vehicle for these often humorous criticisms.

So, Samson is no exception to this case. The satirization of his story, though, is twofold. One piece, and the one that is much less obvious, is in this haftarah portion. Without going into the details of Hebrew grammar and deep comparison of Biblical stories, the basic gist of the Hebrew of this story makes it, at the very least, unclear of who Samson’s biological father is. The messenger of God, or man of God, who comes to visit Samson’s mother multiple times has a pretty questionable relationship with her, and some of the verbs used to describe their interactions describe people gettin’ down elsewhere in the Bible. Similarly, it is never said that Manoah (Samson’s assumed human father) ever got down with his wife.

This puts Samson in the company of Chuchulain,  Hercules, and Gilgamesh – part human, part divine. Along with this, Samson is pledged by his mother to be a Nazirite, to follow the laws laid out in this week’s portion of Numbers. Now, when most people think of Samson they think of his long hair, his great strength, and his betrayal by Delilah. The rest of the story is usually forgotten. The rest of the story, though, is about Samson summarily disregarding his Nazirite status by breaking all of the restrictions, betraying his parents, and destroying most everything he comes in contact with. He was then tricked into allowing his hair to be cut by Delilah. According to the story, his great power resided in his hair, which clearly relates to the Nazirite restriction on cutting hair.

The story of Samson can be read as a diatribe against both the piety of Nazirites, and the idea of demigods so prevalent in the Bible’s age. According to this reading of the story not only was it ridiculous that a man could be part deity, part human, but also that an individual with this kind of power isn’t therefore inherently more holy, or to be regarded with great respect. Instead it is a warning tale: a demigod isn’t to be trusted with their power, and a being born a Nazirite doesn’t make you holy. In a way, these two things are extraordinarily similar. Your birth and the intentions of your parents do not necessarily directly inform who you are.

Now, Samson’s end came at his own hands, and in fact, he killed more Philistines through his suicide attack on their Temple than he did throughout the rest of his life. Which is again a warning. This man’s great power, and all of his parents’ pious intentions, led to a life full of destruction and drunkenness, and a tortured suicide-attack of a death.

Like many of the characters in the Tanach, Samson is fraught with a human spirit of being torn between the good and the bad, the selfish and the altruistic, and the sacred and the profane. Having this haftarah portion matched up with the portion laying out the laws of the Nazirite brings this into greater clarity. Pious ritual without the proper intention, or to put it more Jewishly a lack of kavanah, can be much more destructive than having not attempted the piety in the first place. Especially if you’re a super strong demigod.

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Jealousy and Control

This week I was given the opportunity to lead an adult Torah study class. This class meets weekly to go over the Torah portion of the week, and is usually led by a rabbi in the congregation, but every so often I’m asked to stand in for him. The group is made up predominantly of senior women, a few senior men, and a few middle-aged men and women. The rareness of my interaction with the senior crowd makes it pretty uncomfortable for me to lead the class sometimes, though, as it seems both impudent and imprudent to attempt to correct or guide people so obviously my superiors in age. It takes a certain finesse and a very light touch to reign conversations in or to focus the discussion back onto the text when it appears that the strand of discussion isn’t leading anywhere fruitful. This wasn’t needed at all when we got into the sotah ritual.

The sotah ritual is a strange, archaic and seemingly magic-based practice that is alien to the Torah. To boil it down into a sentence, if a husband is jealous and suspects his wife of cheating he can take his wife to the priests who will publicly shame her and make her drink a mixture of water and dirt from the Tabernacle floor as a trial by ordeal. According to the text if the woman is guilty she will become barren or possibly miscarry, and if she is innocent she will be made more fertile. I expected this topic to be wildly uncomfortable for me to discuss with a room of something like 20 women and two other men (the other men were conspicuously silent throughout), but instead it was just extremely interesting.

In particular, there was a dialogue going on between two of the women, one who must be in her 80s, and one who looked to be in her late 30s or early 40s. The woman in her 80s, a firebrand that always speaks very passionately about equality, individual rights and empowerment, and is always deeply concerned with empathy and morality, spoke about the nature of adultery. I’m still not quite certain that I fully understand what she was saying, but her point of view seemed to circle around the idea that individuals have a certain level of unrestrainable impulse that leads them to do things such as cheat, accuse each other of cheating, and punish each other for cheating. She appeared to be saying that humanity must accept these as realities, and deal with them as inevitable.

In a way, the middle-aged woman was agreeing with her. She described the ritual as being a sort of sublimation of male rage and desire to exert power over women. Although she was careful to say that the sotah was clearly not a positive practice (and the practice was done away with by the leadership of the Temple during the Second Temple Period) she believed that, similar to the older woman, there are certain men who cannot restrain their impulses, and that this ritual gave them an outlet to exercise their “power” rather than being openly violent towards their wives.

One of the other women pointed out that it seemed pretty insane that these ancient Israelite men would be so deeply concerned with such an issue when they were faced with so many other problems, like wandering in the desert without any kind of real stability.  This apparent irony led us to one of the greatest points that can be drawn from this awful ritual. It is entirely clear why this would be such a popular issue in the community, and I believe it is for the same reason that domestic violence happens so often in socioeconomic areas where people have the least control over their lives.

To spin all of the reflections and reactions these women had to the ritual into one thread, the act of men exerting power over women has been a consistent outlet for anxieties related to individual disempowerment throughout human history. When people feel deeply that have little to no control over their lives, but do not recognize it for what it is, they tend to clamp down on whatever it is that they do have control over. Tyrannical bosses, abusive partners or parents, anyone with a modicum of power over others can be seen to exhibit these tendencies. As the older woman in the class pointed out, this is an almost universal tendency in humanity: passions cause us to act irrationally, and often cruelly, when we are put into tenuous and difficult situations. As the younger woman in the class pointed out as well, this ritual may very well have been an attempt at a pressure release valve for men who had the tendency to sublimate their power and control issues into something more devastating than causing the public humiliation of having to drink water and dirt.

I think the authors, priests, or whoever decided to include this ritual in the Torah included it for this reason. It shows that a person inflamed by jealousy is bound to do some kind of damage. In fact, jealousy is often used in the Torah and the Tanach to explain God’s angry reaction to the Israelites, which often led to violence against the Israelites. We all know that we have done regrettable things based on false assumptions and deep-seated control issues. I honestly believe most neuroses stem from a perceived or very real lack of control over our lives, and the incredibly anxiety caused by the lack. The sotah as a construct for ritual release of these powerful forces has been, and surely should have been, done away with. Regardless, the basis for it is still important to remember. There is a great lesson we can take from such an archaic and unsettling practice: As a moment of reflection, the next time you feel the need to knock someone else down a peg through any means, including but not limited to public humiliation as seen in the sotah, consider what is driving your desire. Is it jealousy? Or is it a need to exert what little control you have? Either way, I doubt that the mixture of dirty water you are attempting to force someone else to drink will have any real effect at all.

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Parashat Nasso

This week’s parshah is Nasso (Numbers 4,21-7,89), the second in the book of Numbers. The book of Numbers is one that gets overlooked pretty often, I think, because it starts out with a really, really boring census of the Israelites. This second parshah, though, has some interesting pieces to it. I’m going to break this post up into three different segments, as there’s just too much in here to write as one post. The first segment will be about a strange, archaic, and abusive ritual that is described in Numbers 5:12-31, called the sotah, or “unfaithfulness” ritual. The second segment will be about the nazirites (Numbers 6:1-21) and the haftarah portion of the week, which is Samson’s birth (Judges 13:2-25). The third segment will be about one of the best known, oldest, and most beautiful passage in the Torah – the priestly blessing which is found in Numbers 6:22-27.

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