Thursday, May 20, 2010

Naso

This week’s Torah portion is Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89).  It details a number of items: a census of the Levites, the tribe assigned to priestly duties; the sotah ritual for determining the guilt of an adulterer (although I remain skeptical that drinking a water and earth mixture can actually determine guilt and so I believe the ritual was instead intended to assuage jealousy and anger); the Nazarite vow, pledging those adherents to God and setting them apart from the people by insisting that they abstain from drinking alcohol (rather un-Jewish if you asked me) and by refraining from cutting their hair (hence the most well known Nazarite is Samson); and finally in chapter seven, the last bit of preparations for the tabernacle’s use.

At the conclusion of chapter six about the Nazarite’s vow occurs one of the most familiar blessings in the entire Torah, the priestly blessing: “May the Lord bless you and keep you; may the light of the Lord’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you; may you always find God’s presence in your life and be blessed with shalom, with peace.”

It is these words that I recite when blessing brides and grooms, babies and of course b’nai mitzvah students.  It is these words that are known as the birkat cohanim, the priestly blessing recited at holiday services, most especially the High Holidays.  I call forward those tracing their lineage to the ancient priests.  At this service the cohanim stand and bless their fellow congregants.  It also these words that comprise the traditional blessing for children recited by parents at the Shabbat dinner table.

I have always found it interesting that people prefer that I offer this blessing at momentous times in their lives, rather than parents or other family members.  People seem to feel that somehow my blessing, offered at a simcha, is more important or perhaps even better than a parent’s.  I don’t want to write myself out of job, but why do people feel that the rabbi is required to recite a blessing?

We belong to a democratic tradition.  I hold no special connection to God; I have no special power to offer God’s blessings that is not available to everyone.  A rabbi is first and foremost a teacher.  Blessings can be offered by everyone and anyone.  Each of us can find our own connection to God.  I do not serve as an intermediary.  Praying to God does not travel through the rabbi.  Many of our prayers do require others, do require the community.  We pray best when standing with our congregation.  But each of us has our own direct line to God.  Our blessings and prayers, while aided by the community, travel through no one but ourselves.

All of us can offer blessings.  This is perhaps more obvious when it comes to giving thanks for food or when reciting the kiddush over wine.  One does not, for example, need the rabbi to come to one’s house to recite the kiddush at the seder table.  Why then when it comes to blessing other people are we uncomfortable doing this ourselves?  Why do we defer reciting the priestly blessing to a spiritual authority?  Why not bless our children ourselves, each and every Friday night?

Imagine this.  Every Shabbat we hold our children close, perhaps only for the one minute that they allow us, and we say not only “I love you,” but also, “May the Lord bless you and keep you…”  I am so very thankful for the trust you place in me by asking me to offer this priestly benediction at the special occasions in your lives, but children also require the blessing of parents.  Husbands and wives need blessings from each other.  Perhaps we should not wait until the milestones in our lives to hear these words.  We should hear this blessing roll off our tongues each and every week.  Each of us can bring blessings to our lives.  Each of us can bring blessings to our family’s lives!  Offering weekly blessings can sustain us.  And that sustenance is within the power of each of us! 

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