Friday, May 25, 2007

Naso: A Benediction in Transition

Y'varech'cha Adonai v'yishm'recha
Ya'eir Adonai panav eleicha vi'huneka
Yisa Adonai panav elecha v'yaseim l'cha shalom

May the Lord bless you and keep you.
May the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you.
May the Lord lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.

(Num. 6:24-26)

When I look back at my childhood, I have two distinct memories of the Priestly Benediction, the prayer given by God to Moses and Aaron in this week’s Parsha, Naso. The first such memory isn’t a specific instant, but a collective memory of being blessed by my parents every Friday night at the Shabbat dinner table prior to our meal. As the weekly ritual of my parents fighting over who would get the honor of blessing either my sister or I unfolded, I would watch in awe - I realized how seriously my parents took this blessing. As I grew older I realized its importance. It wasn’t just any blessing or prayer; it was an inheritance.

By my pubescence, the power and meaning of the Priestly Benediction became clear. It was the act of passing God and God’s teachings unto the next generation. Allowing our children to be engulfed and protected by God’s will, which brings me to a second memory: my Bar Mitzvah. I had watched each week as my classmates were called to the Torah to become B’nei Mitzvot, each being blessed with the Priestly Benediction by our Rabbi, which seemed common place at the time. Just another part of the Bar Mitzvah service, on par with the gift-giving arms of the synagogue family trudging up to the bima for their weekly 15 seconds or 15 minutes of fame, depending upon who was bestowing the gift that week.

Sept. 13, 1997 was my turn to shine. I was becoming a man. My family and friends had gathered, and I was a nervous wreck. As I woke on that Saturday morning, I felt all the knowledge of my Bar Mitzvah studies trying to escape from my subconscious. But once I got to the synagogue, it was game time, and I had my game face on. This was surely an intimidating sight, coming from a slightly overweight 13-year-old boy with a bowl haircut. The service ran smoothly, and I could see the pride gleaming in my parents’ eyes. Then it was time for the Priestly Benediction.

The Rabbi placed his hand over my head, hovering six inches above. There was a perceived power due to his differing hand placement from that of my parents, who had firmly and lovingly placed their hands on my head each week at the Shabbat dinner table. I felt as if electricity ran through my Rabbi’s hand, through the air and into my head. I knew at that moment that the Priestly Benediction was not only an inheritance from parent to child, but also one from the entire Jewish people to its newest full member. I felt the weight of 6,000 years of tradition bearing down on me vicariously through my Rabbi's outstretched hand. At that moment, I accepted the responsibility of carrying on that tradition by accepting the blessing.

Fast-forwarding to the present, almost a decade since my Bar Mitzvah, the priestly benediction has a different application in my life. Although I feel the power of God it prescribes every day, I no longer hear it said - and definitely not toward me - on a regular basis. I no longer have weekly Friday night dinner with my immediate family. My adopted DC family of 20-somethings is a suitable replacement, but no blessing for children is recited. I no longer attend regular Saturday morning services; a consistent hangover has replaced a few hours of Shabbat prayer. The opportunity to see a Rabbi greet a Bar Mitzvah into Jewish adulthood with the Benediction is a distant memory, but also approaches beyond the horizon. As I live through the transition from childhood to parenthood, the Priestly Benediction conjures great memories of my youth, and hopefully will do the same for my children.

Wayward Wives, Benedictions and Animal Offerings (Naso)

The Parsha of Naso, like many other excerpts of our holy book, is fraught with scandal. On its surface, Naso seems like a serene (READ: boring) account of the preparations required to construct the Tabernacle. But buried beneath all the details, we have adulteresses, ascetics, and the ever-present animal sacrifice.

The Parsha starts off hum-drum enough, with Hashem asking Moshe to count all of the members of the tribe of Levi who will be helping to transport the Ohel Mo’ed (the portable tabernacle) across the desert. The count, mind you, only included males between 30 and 50 years old. As with so many of our Parshiot, the Torah has no qulam with leaving females, children, and the elderly unmentioned. We’ll leave that discussion for another time – there's a lot of ground to cover.

Without warning, but purportedly linked to the preparations for building the tabernacle, the Torah then decrees that Moshe should “send out of the camp all who are afflicted with tzaraat, who are contaminated by bodily discharge, and those contaminated by contact with the dead” (Num. 5:2) until they are cleansed of their ritual impurity. Ok, great - now that we’ve gotten rid of the oozers and the necrophiliacs, we can get down to business.

But then, oh but then - and also without transition - the Torah goes on to define the “Wayward Wife” and how to deal with her. The sotah is a woman accused of adultery. The Torah is generally fair about giving accused criminals a fair trial (remember that it takes three eye witnesses in order for the Beit Din, a Jewish court of law, to convict someone of first-degree murder). In this case, the woman must be publicly accused by her suspicious husband (a wonderful experience, I’m sure), and then must be seen cavorting with the other man by a third party.

What follows, however, can only be described as a witch-hunt, desert-style. The poor schmuck whose wife might have been around the block a few times (hey, we’re not making judgments …yet) has to take her to the Cohen with a meal offering of plain barley (after all, even Cohens have to eat). The Cohen then takes a clay jug full of holy water and shakes it up with a handful of dirt off the Temple floor. The accused woman signs an oath, with Hashem as her witness, that says if no man has lain with her, she will be able to drink this bitter concoction with no physical repercussions. On the other hand, if she has been a little loose, she swears that after she drinks the water, her belly will swell and her thighs will - get this - rupture. The signed parchment is added to the jug and swirled around a couple of times so that the ink dissolves.

I know Arthur Miller’s witches weren’t real, even though they floated. But come on; dirt, parchment, and dissolved ink (origin unknown) would make my belly swell for sure.

Now we can get going with building the Tabernacle, right? Wrong.

First, the Torah teaches us about Nazirs. Nazirs are people who, out of a desire to be closer to Hashem, take a vow of nezirut (abstinence) from fun stuff like drinking alcohol, touching dead bodies, and cutting their hair. Nazirs can abstain for a specific amount of time or their whole lives. At the end of the period of nezirut, they are instructed to make a triple animal sacrifice – a male lamb, a female lamb, and a ram. Lucky day for those Cohens.

The Parsha ends on a high note, with Hashem teaching the Cohens the Priestly Blessing. We still use the Priestly Blessing today in the Amidah (basic building block of any synagogue service), on Yom Kippur, and on Erev Shabbat. It’s a beautiful little ditty:
“May Hashem bless you and keep you. May Hashem’s face shine upon you and give you grace. May Hashem lift up his face to you and give you peace.” (Num. 6:24-26)
Finally, the Torah recounts each tribal gift to the building of the Tabernacle (the world’s first Capital Campaign!). While each gift is identical, the Torah itemizes each one in entirety to give all twelve tribes their due. The gifts are so generous that it is worth mentioning here. Go ahead, be proud.
“This was the dedication of the altar, in the day when it was anointed, by the princes of Israel: 12 dishes of silver, 12 silver bowls, 12 spoons of gold ... All the silver vessels weighed 2,400 shekels ... All the gold of the spoons was a 120 shekels. All the oxen for the burnt offerings were twelve bullocks, the rams twelve, the yearling lambs 12, with their meal offering. The kids of the goats for sin offerings 12. And all the oxen for the sacrifice of the peace offerings were 24 bullocks, the rams 60, the he-goats 60, the yearling lambs 60.” (Num. 7:84-87)
And now, for the moment we’ve all been waiting for:
"And when Moses would go into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, then he heard the voice speaking to him from off the covering that was upon the Ark of Testimony, from between the two cherubim; and it spoke to him." (Num. 7:89)
After all that, without a doubt, one of the greatest moments in Jewish history. If it weren’t for the guidance Moshe received in that Tabernacle, we wouldn’t be here today to tell the story.
Chag Shavuot Sameach.

Prayer Mosaic (Naso)

Welcome to The Watering Hole's official launch. Glad to have you with us. We intended to start at the beginning of Numbers, but someone (me) dropped the ball, and we're kicking things off with the book's second portion, Naso. My poem (below) focuses on the identical offerings given by the 12 chieftans of Israel prior to the first use of the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Num 7:1-89). Today's other commentaries will explore the priestly blessing (Num 6:22-27, Tar Heeb) and provide a broad overview of the Torah's longest portion (Num 4:21-7:89, Casseopia). Enjoy it, kids.

I face East, and pray;
6,000 years of tradition
escaping on autopilot
but uttered anew every time
as these fumbled phrases
are finding fresh pauses
and the focus is fading
from coordinated community baselines
to the syncopated search for harmonies
that my mind strives to wind
into a heartsong

that I've been unable to express.

We'll stand and sit together
united by every letter
identical measures masking individual aims;
no matching prayer the same -
passing through the vessel they change
until they couldn't be uttered
by any other wonder that God made.

Just like in Naso,
before the Hebrews could go
any further they needed to show
respect to the Tabernacle.
First, from Nahshon,
the incense would crackle:
10-shekel gold ladle burnt
bull, ram and lamb;
200 shekel silver
oil and flour rep land;
purfication goat;
then five more and five lambs,
two oxen, five rams
for well-being was planned;
11 chieftans followed,
offering it over and over and over again
'til God descended from heaven
and the portion comes to an end.

So I'm lost in my head
as I face east and pray,
traveling back to each of the days
when words wouldn't say
anything of substance
or just get in the way
at camp, at college,
at home or at shul;
those summer nights
by lake or by pool;
Subway Series, snow days
or kissed lips so cool.

And I find 6,000 years
always stays new.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Steve Nash = Moses?

So a soft launch it is: Great post today by Sam Rubenstein over at basketball magazine SLAM. He compares the cases of Steve Nash (never got to the NBA Finals) to Moses (never got to that other "Promised Land"). Here's a highlight:
Steve Nash was drafted by the Phoenix Suns but didn’t play much there. He was sent to Dallas, where he became an NBA star, learning under the leadership of Mark Cuban. Cuban exhibits many traits of a Pharaoh, such as an obsession with material wealth, power, tyrannical habits, megalomania, and more. Dallas and many parts of Texas have a credo that “Bigger is better.” They might as well have pyramids and a Sphinx or two down there. I guess they do have that in Memphis, but that’s a city named after the city from the ancient world where… okay, going too far.
While that kind of synchronicity is rare, this is one kind of thing you might see here. We're going to strive to be anything but dry. You'll encounter a wide variety of voices, styles and concepts, from spoken word to prose to anything anyone can come up with. Get hype.

Four days.