Parshat Naso is one which has particular significance to me. In 1961 it was my bar mitzvah portion. In 1988, it was the first parasha for the first d’var Torah that I was invited to write for the Jewish Standard as I was about to assume my position as the rabbi of Temple Sholom of River Edge.
Chapter 6, verses 1-21 are a discussion of the Nazirite vow, which is followed in verses 22-27 by the Birkat Kohanim, the priestly benediction. The Nazir described in chapter 6 takes upon himself a set of specific ritual observances beyond those required of other Israelites. The text demands (verse 13ff) that when the Nazirite vow is completed the Nazir must bring a sin offering, leaving us to speculate: What was the sin of the Nazir?
For the last 52 years, I have remained focused, or as some of my friends and congregants might say, obsessed with the question of the sin of Nazir and how it applies to us in our contemporary world.
With my impending retirement next month, I find myself on this bar mitzvah anniversary reflecting back upon my career as a rabbi and look in the mirror at the challenges and the responsibilities that I continue to face as a responsible Jew, which is the definition of bar mitzvah that I have taught thousands of young people over the past 40 years.
I have come to realize that the sin of the Biblical Nazir was the belief that his responsibility to give of his time and talent to the service of God by serving his community was something from which he could retire.
Like the Nazir of old, ritual observances have always served me as a reminder of who we are and the values, ideals, and dreams for which we stand. Rituals were not and are not magical acts by which we appease God and curry God’s favor. Rather, they are the skeleton of Jewish life which holds up the flesh of Judaism – the ethical, moral, and spiritual truths of Torah.
Parashat Naso is read on either the Sabbath preceding or following Shavuot, the festival upon which we are each to re-experience the revelation of Torah at Mount Sinai. For Reform Judaism, Shavuot, the time of our receiving of Torah, became the moment of confirmation. At this season when our teenagers are called upon to confirm their commitment to Judaism and the Jewish People through the confirmation ceremony, each and every Jew should take the opportunity to reconfirm our commitments as well. Like the Nazir of ancient days, each of us at this season can choose to take an oath. However, rather than an oath of abstinence, our oath must be a positive affirmation to dedicate ourselves to Torah, avodah, and g’milut chasadim – the study of Torah, the worship of God and to deeds of righteousness; an oath, to be a positive rather than a passive Jew.
I recognize that the Bergen County Jewish community is different demographically than the one I moved to 25 years ago. However, one thing that has remained the same is the real division in Jewish life – not merely between Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist Judaism but, rather, between Positive Jews and Passive Jews.
I suggest to you that we can equate the vow to be a Positive Jew with the vow of the Nazir of old. Similar to the Nazir described here in Numbers 6, to be a positive Jew at the beginning of the 21st century requires both faith and action. Faith in God and in ourselves. Faith in the vitality of the Jewish people. This faith must be coupled with a willingness to be pro-active in our pursuit of ways to integrate our Jewish values and our Jewish identity into our daily lives.
To be a Nazir today requires us to separate ourselves from the apathy of American society that leads us to shut our eyes to the horrors surrounding us as did the neighbors and police in my native Cleveland earlier this month. To be a Nazir today means we cannot stand idly by while guns and weapons of destruction are openly sold in our local stores and it is easier to get a gun than to get a driver’s license in the United States.
For American Jews, being a Nazir requires us to take a vow to stand in solidarity in deed as well as word with our Israeli sisters and brothers. Our Nazirite vow in 2013 must be to support the State of Israel even when we disagree with one or more of her policies or actions. In our Torah portion, the laws of the Nazirite vow is followed by the three-fold blessing which we call Birkat Cohanim. I suggest to you at this season of revelation and confirmation that if we are willing to take a modern Nazirite vow to commit ourselves to the continual support and transformation of our Temple, to the defense of the State of Israel, and to the pursuit of social and economic justice for all, then and only then will we merit the right to both invoke and to receive the three-fold blessing of the Torah:
May Adonai bless you and protect you;
May Adonai deal kindly with you and be gracious to you;
May Adonai smile upon you and grant you peace.
In the process we will, to paraphrase verse 6:27, link ourselves to the name of God, to the people of Israel, and be blessed by both our people and our God.