Thursday, June 9, 2011

Naso Sermon

My sermon from Friday, June 3, follows.

This week’s Torah portion is Naso.  It is the longest of all the weekly portions.  It details a number of items.  There is the census of the Levites, the tribe assigned to priestly duties.  There is 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 (oops).  Hence the most well known Nazarite is Samson who when he is seduced into cutting his hair loses all his strength.

At the conclusion of this chapter 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.”  The final chapter then offers the last bit of preparations for the tabernacle’s use.

I would like to focus on the opening chapter.  To my mind the theme of this chapter is keeping the community whole.  It discusses several different circumstances when one’s place in the community is called into question.  It opens with what situations make someone ritually impure.  Then it discusses the strange sotah ritual which was the subject of this week’s email.  This is the ritual for determining the guilt of an adulterer.  The suspected wife was made to drink a mixture of bitter water and earth.  If her belly grew and her thigh sagged then she had sinned.  (I know a bizarre ritual.)  I don’t believe this ritual ever worked to prove or disprove adultery.

But I do believe it worked to keep the relationship intact.  It managed to assuage a husband’s jealousy and anger.  It allowed a husband and wife to return home together.  It kept the relationship whole.  This appears to be the overriding concern of this chapter: how to keep the community whole; how to keep relationships intact.

Unlike the contemporary ethos of truth will set you free, or the truth at all costs, truth was not the Torah’s primary concern.  Take another example from this same chapter.  “When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done.  He shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged.”

Think about this law.  All of us would agree that some wrongs require more payment than others.  Which requires more payment: an insult or theft of property, an injury or damaged reputation?  Whether or not someone is wronged is a subjective evaluation.  Our chapter does not detail what the wrong is.  It says instead, “When someone commits any wrong…”  To make it right you have to do two things: confess and make restitution plus 20%.

If this was about truth and about rebalancing the scales then you would pay back an equal amount.  But the Torah wants to make the community whole.  The Torah recognizes that in order to create shalom, peace in relationships you have to go farther, you have to add 20%.  You have to make an effort to correct hurt feelings.

It is not just about fairness.  It is not about you lost $1,000 so you must get back $1,000. The Torah appears to recognize that it has to go beyond full payment.  It is not even about the truth of who was right and who was wrong.  It leaves that question aside.  This truth can be sacrificed for the sake of peace, for the sake of shalom.

Take these two examples together. The sotah and the confession of wrong and you have a whole community.  In the sotah ritual, the tradition is bent so that the relationship can be made whole.  A ritual is invented so that a relationship can be repaired.  In the confession of wrong, the individual bends to repair the mistake and the relationship.  The overriding concern is that we must go to great lengths to keep our community whole.  Much can be sacrificed to keep us together.  That has always been the most pressing Jewish concern.

Who is right and who is wrong is not what is most important.  It is instead that we sit together.  Rabbi Hillel said, “Al tifrosh min ha-tzibbur—don’t separate yourself from the community.”  We must never separate ourselves from the community.  We must never separate ourselves from each other.

The community, relationships, always takes precedence.  Peace is always worth an additional 20%. 

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