Naso 5773/2013: "Personal Status and Jewish Leadership"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor
Given the enormous length of Parashat Naso, there are so many possible directions for exploration that it's hard to choose just one! Naso is the longest Torah Portion, with 176 verses. (Interesting to note that the longest chapter in the entire Hebrew Bible (Psalm 119) has 176 verses, and the longest tractate of the Talmud (Bava Batra) has 176 pages!)
Let's begin with an aerial view. The typical topics for discussing Parashat Naso are the Sotah, the Priestly Blessing, and the Nazir. The Sotah is a woman suspected of adultery by her husband and who undergoes the trial of "bitter water" (Num. 5:11-31). The Priestly blessing (Num.6:22-26) is offered by the children of Aaron to the Israelite people. The Nazir is a Jew who takes a temporary ascetic vow aspiring to a higher level of holiness (Num. 6:1-21).
Here are the thematic distinctions: whereas the Priest is born into his elite status, the Nazir takes a formal vow to change his status, and the Sotah acquires her status by the accusation of another.
The similarities of the Kohen and the Nazir have been noted: both cannot consume alcohol during their sacred moments, both are described as "holy to God," neither can expose themselves to the remains of the dead, and in both instances, the head is the focus of sanctity – the Nazir's hair may not be cut and the Kohen's head is adorned with special headgear.
The similarities of the Nazir and the Sotah begin with their immediate proximity in the Torah. The Gemara (Sotah 2a) suggests that that the Torah is subtly conveying a suggestion to the witnesses of the Sotah ordeal: that one who witnesses the disgrace of the Sotah should accept upon himself the heightened spiritual responsibility of being a Nazir, refraining from the consumption of wine for a thirty-day period. Realizing that alcohol can contribute to sin, the Torah recommends that the observers take steps to protect themselves from making the same mistake. Additionally, the Nazir vows not to cut his hair in a show of faith, and the Sotah's hair is exposed in a show of disgrace.
But the similarities run deeper than that - Choosing to be a Nazir isn't seen by all as a virtue, and the Sotah isn't seen by all as bearing guilt.
Shimon HaTzadik (himself a High Priest) refused to eat a Nazir's sacrificial offerings because he felt they were part of a person's excessive guilt or enthusiasm and were not proper gifts (Num. Rabbah 10:7). Rabbi Matt Berkowitz points out that the Nazir's vow is a distancing agent from the community even as it sanctifies the self to God.
Rabbi Elazar portrays the biblical heroine Channah as having threatened to use the Sotah technique as a means for taking control of her own destiny and have a child. If God wouldn't address her infertility, she would seclude herself with another man in front of her husband Elkanah. And when she would seclude herself, they would give her to drink the Sotah water. Rabbi Elazar has Channah say to God: "And You will not belie Your Torah, for it is stated [with regard to an innocent woman who drinks the sotah waters]: then she shall be proven innocent and she shall bear seed (Num. 5:28)" [Berachot 31b].
And so the Nazir isn't clearly 'good' and the Sotah isn't clearly 'bad' – both are changes in status that can happen for myriad reasons.
But what of the Kohen? The role is inherited. Kohanim stand where they do because of their parents and their grandparents. And this entitles them to bless the community. The phrases of Birkat Kohanim demonstrate the holiness of the priestly role in a uniquely powerful formula, translated and retranslated and ultimately untranslatable. One such inadequate offering is:
"May God bless you and protect you!
May God shine God's face upon you and be gracious to you!
May God lift up God's face to you and grant you peace! (Num. 6:22-27)"
The first line actually contains two blessings: "yevarechecha" – blessing – and "veyishmerecha" – guarding.
The Netziv (Rav Naphtali Tzvi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893) understood "bracha/blessing" to include the blessing appropriate for each individual. According to what God has already given you (i.e., according to your current station in life), shall you be further blessed. If God has helped you become a skilled locksmith, may you have blessing in that pursuit. In other words, in this Priestly Blessing for the general community, the first clause speaks to each individual.
But regarding "shmirah/guarding": every blessing, says the Netziv, requires guarding, protecting, so that it will not turn into a stumbling block. If on is a student of Torah, she needs guarding from arrogance and from forgetting her learning. If one is wealthy, he needs guarding from developing an unhealthy, even evil, attitude towards his money and guarding from theft or loss. And if one is a Kohen, they must not become proud and lord their status over someone else.
The Netziv points out that every blessing needs careful guarding.
We are who we are, after all. We are born to parents who serve, among other things, as diving boards into the world. I, myself, would not have been so comfortable in the world of Jewish music and spirituality if my parents hadn't created such a conducive world for me. I entered my rabbinic studies at JTS as "Rabbi Creditor's son." My father's deepest blessing to me was to allow me to be my own person, eventually my own rabbi.
A similar message needs to be shared regarding acquired status. Once we achieve our own name, our own resume, we need to remain humble and careful. The words we share when occupying leadership roles can have serious impacts upon the lives of others.
As the Netziv's father, Rabbi Chayim of Volozhin writes in his masterpiece the Nefesh HaCHayim, "Despite two people committing the same sin, their punishments are not the same. Perhaps one is gifted with a superior understanding of the world due to the root of their soul (what we might call 'innate abilities'), and that one's punishment is in accordance with the damage they can cause. The harm a person can cause reaches as far as the Source of their soul. (NH 1:14)"
So what of the Sotah, the Nazir, and the Kohen?
From the outside, the Sotah is vulnerable, the Nazir is righteous, and the Kohen is an inherent vessel of God. But a deeper glimpse reveals that things aren't always as they seem.
While we no longer employ the Sotah ritual, and while we actively dissuade anyone from becoming a Nazir, we do continue some of the priestly traditions.
The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Yechiel Michel, 1809-1879) explained the model of the Kohen's blessing in the following way: "at times the recipients of God's abundance are not capable of absorbing this abundance in terms of their degree of spirituality, and therefore God chose to transmit the Shefa, or Divine Abundance, by means of Godly people who are servants of God, so that they open the channels of blessing through their deeds, prayers and benedictions, bringing this blessing upon the people. (Malbim on Num. 6:22)"
This is a high order to fill, and traditional commentators consistently challenged the Priests in their community to live up to a spiritual and ethical ideal in order to deserve their honored status. We see this clearly in the blessing Priests still recite in advance of the duchening, the priestly blessing, whose concluding words are: "God who commanded us to bless God's people Israel with love. (Sotah 39a)" A commanded love, not of God, or of self, but of every last member of the Priest's community.
As our sages Stan Lee and Steve Ditko taught us through their created character Uncle Ben, father of a familiar spider-bitten hero, "With great power comes great responsibility."
The Kohen is perhaps the last semblance of an inherited Jewish communal status, a "yichus" from days of old. But the mantle is a heavy one. Where Kohanim stands to offer Birkat Kohanim, the words that must be coursing through their mind, heart, and soul must be "God has commanded me to bless my sisters and brothers with love." And where Kahanim no longer stand, the task falls to us all to make those intentions felt around us.
Even inherited status has qualifications. If a Kohen does not embody this ideal, he does not successfully open the channels of blessing. The blessing works only when its birthright is earned, not when its significance is exerted. Priests do not have a monopoly on holiness. Nor do modern Jewish leaders. The privileges of Jewish leadership are many - the right to lead, to teach, to organize the community, and to spend unquantifiable (and unrecorded) moments in the service of God and the Jewish people.
As Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has taught us: "Proud heirs of the prophets and sages, Jews are members of a people in covenant with God. That covenant was not made merely with Moses and Aaron, but with every Jew, past and present. Each one of us is summoned to a unique relationship with God, one that can become as all-embracing as we allow it to be."
The Sotah's status happened to her. The Nazir opted for his. A Kohen is born into a burdened blessing.
May we all learn from these models, and choose the obligation to bless each other – in love.