Going Above and Beyond

This week’s portion from Numbers and its companion text in Judges share an interest in the unusual, ancient practice of Naziriteship. Since becoming a Nazarite is something we no longer do, we are inclined to see these strange words as off-putting and irrelevant.

That would be a mistake.

Let’s take a look at Naziriteship and then explore whether this arcane Biblical model has something new and important to teach us.

Essentially, in those days, one who wanted to make a Nazirite’s vow of living for the sake of God would set oneself apart and abstain from certain activities of normal life while undertaking the vow. He or she would refrain from consuming wine, cutting hair, and touching death. Once the vow was complete, the Nazarite would make an offering and experience a ritual of return to ordinary life.

The story in Judges concerns the announcement by an angel to the wife of Manoach that the son she would bear would be a Nazarite, whose God-blessed purpose in life would be to save Israel from domination by the Philistines. That son, as the tale reveals, would be Samson.

So, what are we to make of these notions and tales? Here are my thoughts.

I believe that we find certain opportunities in our lifetimes to remove ourselves from the normal realities that are ordinary, mundane, and self-oriented. In such periods, we can make and fulfill special vows by which we serve God and others.

In order to be focused and wholehearted in the work of these vows, we may find it necessary to refrain from many ordinary pleasures, such as those represented by the symbols here of intoxication and fixation on fashion (or, today, Facebook?). Such devotion would require we be fully oriented to life, and never diverted to death, especially in all the spiritual and psychological forms death can take.

Today, what such vows could we make? We might, for example, choose to engage in deep study and learning for a designated period of time, forswearing and abstaining from the ease and distraction of normal forms of gratification. We might devote ourselves to re-forming and re-orientating ourselves in fundamentally healthier physical and spiritual directions. We might develop and go on missions of service to our fellows, for the sake of God.

While it may not be our way to become monks, aloof and separate generally, we may very well seek greater holiness by a temporary separation and the dedication of ourselves during such time to the fulfillment of extraordinary commitments to God. These periods could become the “above and beyond” chapters of our lives.

It is not by accident that I use words of uplift to characterize the lessons we draw from Nazariteship. Take a look at the Hebrew.

Our Torah portion this week is called Naso. While its first words direct Moses to take a sum of the people, the word, naso, more deeply means to lift or to raise up. And “raising up” is the common theme of the whole portion. We encounter raising the heads of those that are counted, lifting up of the tabernacle, raising the status of the priests, and elevating the status of the tribal leaders to make special offerings.

The word nazir, itself, may derive from nezer, which means crown. As we read in one of these verses describing the Nazirite, “the crown of God is on his head.”

So, by all means, let’s look for those times in our lives when we can separate ourselves and be lifted up, in duty and loyalty, to serve in special ways. Even in modern times, perhaps we, like the Nazirites of old, will find ourselves crowned for the making and fulfilling of vows that help work God’s will in the world.

What Counts the Most

This week we read in Numbers that God asked Moses to “take the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel” through a variety of head counts. In Hosea, we learn that “the children of Israel shall be as the sand of the sea, which shall neither be numbered nor counted.”

How do we move from the requirement of being counted to becoming numberless? And what does that mean?

Here are my thoughts.

As the people approached the wilderness (indeed, as we each approach our own form of wilderness), counting is crucial. Our ancestors numbered men, priests, and money. We count all the physical features and assets that give us the strength to defend ourselves, and the capacity to work a worthy will in the world.

We, also, count and protect our spiritual assets that serve the soul and meet inner needs.

Put another way, and in both senses of the word, we count so that we count, as individuals and community alike, and we are all counted as people with the potential to properly organize our God-given lives.

Coming to live in God’s ways, the prophet seems to say, is what makes people “the Children of the Living God.” This is an especially important insight for people (all of us) who stray from the right path, for it is a return to such living that brings people back together, with each other, and with God.

Amazingly, Hosea shows us there’s even more. He goes deeper into the concept of right living to teach explicitly what it includes and what difference it makes.

The prophet does so simply by describing the vows that our Partner has made with us: “I will betroth you to Me forever; I will betroth you to Me in righteousness and justice, in loving kindness and compassion. I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness, and you shall know the Eternal.”

These ways – righteousness and justice, loving-kindness and compassion, all on the foundation of faith – are what count the most. Indeed it will be when the people of the whole world practice them that “the children of Israel will be as the sand of the sea,” so purposeful and so plentiful as to be incapable of being numbered.

At that time, in the words of the lovely hymn,

“All the world shall come to serve Thee

And bless Thy glorious Name,

And Thy righteousness triumphant

The islands shall acclaim…

And all their congregations

So loud Thy praise shall sing,

That the uttermost peoples hearing,

Shall hail Thee crowned King.”

Ways to True Happiness

I love that a verse from the Prophets this week closely resembles the first words in the Psalms. There must be an important idea here. Let’s give it a close look and delve into its significance.

“Blessed are those who trust in God. They shall be like a tree planted by the water, sinking its roots in a stream, and will not notice when the heat comes, its leaves green, not anxious in times of drought, never failing to bear fruit.”

Psalm 1 teaches that such blessed persons are happy.

So, the question is: what do the passages before us, from Leviticus and Jeremiah, teach about the path to blessing and ways to happiness?

First, worshipping the work of our hands is incompatible with trust in God. We are, yes, to work hard and enjoy the fruit of our labor. But crossing the line to devote most or all of our being to (i.e., worship) the enterprise of the material is wrong. The discussion of “turning the machine off” for the Sabbath and periods of time associated with the Sabbatical and Jubilee years is all about teaching this important lesson. It seems simple, but we so often forget a fundamental truth about blessing and happiness: It’s hard to be truly contented when we are never contented.

Second, the the text emphasizes that we should do what is honorable. Why? It pays off in the end, perhaps in ways we don’t always understand. And being dishonorable tends to deplete us of another attribute of blessing and happiness – a justified feeling of honor. The Biblical simile is powerful: “Those who gain wealth by unjust means are like a partridge hatching eggs it never laid; in the middle of life, their riches will forsake them, and in the end they will be known to be fools.”

Third, we should not let the destitute fall. There are powerful lessons the sages teach on this. Here are a couple: If we let the destitute fall, it is far less possible for them to get up, and it is far less likely that we will help them up. Also, if loving our neighbor as ourselves is the watchword of living in blessing and happiness, we must remember that we, too, could become destitute, and in need of a helping hand ourselves.

The fourth takeaway from our text involves the care we should show for those who labor for us. We’re ALL made in God’s image. We’ve ALL been liberated to serve God. When we act as gods to others, lording our power over them, we have forsaken “the Foundation of Living Waters,” losing our stake in blessing and true happiness.

Fifth, we must give of ourselves, even sacrifice of ourselves, to others and to God to honor and sustain our blessed life and the principles by which it is blessed. A truly happy life doesn’t just happen. We do have God’s gifts and others’ generosity, but our offerings and contributions are an essential piece of the fabric in making a life of blessing.

Sixth, we are to make vows with a whole heart and show care in honoring them. When we pledge of ourselves to others and to God, we must be accountable and follow through. If we are to trust in others and God, they must be able to trust in us. Surely, such trust is part of the streams that flow through a blessed and happy life.

And, seventh, we bear consequences for our actions. There’s no hiding out. Happiness does not tend to be associated, or at least for long, with wrongdoing. While we all err, though, our straying need not lead to ongoing “drought.” Our faith tradition makes a promise: The road of repair and return is always open. Blessing and happiness lie at the end of that road, too.

To paraphrase the reaffirming verse that closes our reading: Guide me and heal me, O Source of blessing and happiness, save me and I will be saved: for You are the One I trust and praise.

The Priest in Each of Us

This week’s portion from Leviticus and its companion in Ezekiel deal mainly with the conduct of priests in the Temple. Except for those who read these verses solely with the hope that the Temple will one day be re-built, most who confront them will doubt their relevance altogether.

I have thoughts that suggest that they’re utterly relevant. So, stay with me!

We know that God’s mission statement for our people of faith is principally that we become “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

One could surely understand this mission narrowly and conclude that such a kingdom includes just a few priests and a multitude of followers, and that it applies only when the physical Temple is standing.

Or, one could read it more fundamentally to understand that the Text regarding priests was not just literally applicable in the ancient past or an unknown future, but it also serves a continuing purpose. To hold this view, one may think, at all times, that each of us has an “inner priest” of sorts – a force of conscience or perhaps a “headmaster” of our soul – who helps move our whole being toward a life in tune with our mission.

Without such a view, frankly, we must come to the difficult conclusion that we have been left for two millennia with the grandest of goals and no way of achieving it. On the other hand, if we hold to the view, the Bible remains powerfully alive for us in offering specific ways on how to fulfill the glorious mission we have been given.

Put another way, the Bible’s concepts of holiness have an ongoing vitality through teaching our “inner priest” how to live. Further, they shine a light on these ways of holy conduct, helping extend God’s sovereignty in the world.

Now, friends, I acknowledge I’m engaging here in God-speak. For those made uncomfortable with that, be patient with me. This is the talk of the Bible. But, whatever the language, happily, these ideas lead to lessons that are valuable to all.

With that understanding in place, I want to devote the remainder of the space of this blog to a contemporary reading of the Ezekiel verses that teaches our “inner priest” – in our time – how to help us fulfill God’s expectations.

Basically, the prophet is showing us what it means to live in the Divine presence. In that nearness, our “inner priest,” just like the ancient priest, has the responsibility to help us serve God’s purposes by living in a manner that is supportive of it.

Crucially, this service calls upon the “inner priest” to exercise judgment in ways that lead us to be dutiful to God. Thus, the two great duties – love of God and love of neighbor – come centrally into play, as do related requirements of righteousness, justice, and loving-kindness.

According to Ezekiel, the priest must be fully devoted to life and careful to avoid mixing in all of our dramas and demands in such a way that living in God’s ways is disturbed or otherwise weakened.

As the ancients supported their priests, we must make a hospitable home for our “inner priest,” who guides us in making offerings to God and others. In these ways, we, like our ancestors, express our gratitude, readiness to serve, and obligation to repair and return to God’s path when we stray.

Rabbi Schneerson taught of our inner “high priest” as the innermost aspect and core of our soul, which is permanently bound to God. Seeing the Text’s language on priests in this context, we find deeper, fresher, and relevant truths.

Getting Back on the Right Path

Too often these days, I fear, many of us feel holier-than-Thou in so many unhealthy ways. We’re right, and the other fellow is wrong. Our side is blessed, and the other side is cursed. Thus, coming together with the other to get it really right is never on our minds and seldom on our calendar. We would rather prosper alone, and, even better, at the other’s expense. And, truth be told, we often commit and hide wrongdoing, if it betters our position and that of our side, and hurts the other.

This cocky self-righteousness and its sometimes-attendant misbehavior are at the center of the Bible’s concern in this week’s passages.

Let’s take a look.

As much as we tend to think of holiness as something ethereal, perhaps of the ceremonial world of special priests, the Hebrew Bible introduces another perspective. Right at the center of the verses now before us is the more fundamental idea that to be holy is to live lovingly and righteously in the here and now.

Indeed it is here – right in the middle of Leviticus – that we find the Golden Rule: Love your neighbor as yourself.

In the verses surrounding this central guidance, we see more detailed ways of living true to it. We’re not to steal or to oppress our neighbor. We’re not to put a stumbling block before the blind or to judge others with bias. We’re not to gossip or seek revenge or bear a grudge. We’re not to engage in sexual misconduct. Rather we’re to love others and share with the poor and stranger. We’re to judge with righteousness (including those on the other side or in the other party). We’re to be loyal to God and Divine expectations.

The first verses, though, seem to recognize that human beings are not perfect creatures; rather, it is in our nature to stray and err. So, the sacred time of Yom Kippur is created, literally, a time of “at-one-ment.” While these verses speak of a holy day, they, more profoundly, encourage us at all times when we realize that we’ve fallen short, to turn back in the right direction, repair the wrong we’ve done, and resume loving and righteous behavior.

In our readings this week from the Prophets, Amos sees a people who have strayed from right living and appear oblivious to the fact that they’ve done wrong and indeed contemptuous of the idea that they should turn back and change their ways.

Hypocritically, they seem to be singing “songs of the Temple.” And, at the same time, they “swallow up the needy” and “cut off the poor.” They look for every advantage to cheat in commerce, even in sacred time, and take advantage of the other to get the extra edge.

Amos makes clear that people who act in such awful ways yet believe they are treasured because they’re “religious” or “well placed” are no more favored than any other group. Indeed, while the prideful ones may appear to live in splendor in the now, their world will one day be shaken, their day darkened, and their future made perilous.

Yet, even in the midst of this gloom that will confront those who choose never to return, God is always hopeful of our return. The promise of Yom Kippur (and all the mini-Yom Kippurs) is ever-present, always calling us to be “at-one” with our Creator.

Return to the path of love and righteousness, the Text seems to cry out. And the truly rich blessings of living in God’s ways will forever be ours.

There will be a day when “the one who plows the field will meet the one who reaps it, and the one who treads the grapes will meet the one who carries the seed, when the mountains will drip sweet wine, and all the hills will overflow.”

May this day come for us, too.

The God-Who-Welcomes-Us-Back

This week’s verses from Leviticus relate to the very mysterious condition known as tzara’at. Most Bibles translate this as leprosy, which is very unfortunate because it is not leprosy. If not leprosy, what is it? How is it diagnosed and treated? What are its consequences? And, mostly, why does it matter?

I know this is already sounding like mumbo jumbo to many of you. But I plead with you to stay with me. At least metaphorically, this is very cool stuff and invaluable in helping us lead a good life.

My first gift is to spare you the analysis I’ve done on these portions. For the curious, here’s a link. http://www.thirdwell.org/Tazria-Metzora-Notes-Lesson-26.html.

For the rest, I will just tell you the main idea. Tzara’at is the manifestation (perhaps experienced more spiritually than bodily) of having acted in wrong and sinful ways. The Bible illustrates it.

Miriam is afflicted with tzara’at after she gossips about Moses. King Uzziah is afflicted after usurping the priest’s role in the Temple. Naaman is afflicted for acting arrogantly. And Gehazi is afflicted after wrongly extorting a payment from Naaman after Elisha cured him of tzara’at.

The details about the diagnosis and treatment of this dis-ease are fascinating, but we don’t have time here to explore them fully. I do want, however, to make one point. They encourage us to look within ourselves for those impulses that lead us astray so that we can control them before they erupt into harmful behavior.

What happens if we stray and “tzara’at comes on?” Essentially, first, we must acknowledge it, perhaps while getting appropriate help. And, second, we must be isolated in a way that can lead to a change of heart, a turning back in the right direction, and a readiness to become whole with others and a return to the community.

The companion verses in II Kings tell a compelling story that helps us understand this process beautifully.

On the outskirts of town we find four men stricken with tzara’at. Tradition has it that these are Gehazi and his sons. There was a famine in the land, so they decided to scout the enemy Aramean camp in search of food. When they did, they found no one there. The Arameans, we learn, thought God had sent an army dispatched by Israel, and so they fled.

The four came into the camp, ate, and took some riches, just for themselves. But, upon taking and hiding the booty, one told another, “We are not doing right. This day is a day of good news, yet we are keeping quiet. If we wait until daybreak, we will incur guilt. Now, let us…relate this in the king’s palace.”

They rushed home and told the gatekeepers who relayed the news to the king. After deliberations and some scouting, the people of their town came to the camp and benefited richly.

Why is this story so important to us?

Let’s assume the one who spoke in the group was indeed Gehazi. Recall he had earlier experienced the desire of riches inappropriately and just for himself. He gave in to these selfish urges in his larcenous actions with Naaman. Now he confronts the same temptations, but this time he overcomes them. This is “not doing right,” he says. Instead, now, he opens up to, and shares with, others.

Turning away from the sinful inclination to which one had previously succumbed and refusing to commit that self-same sin is the classic turning that the God-Who-Welcomes-Us-Back seeks.

Is Gehazi welcomed back into the community? Has he averted Elisha’s forever curse of tzara’at for himself and his descendants? The answer is unclear in the text. I would make the case for a plot in which his transformation leads to his return. Wouldn’t you?

How Should We Act?

This week the portion from Leviticus and its companion in II Samuel ask a very powerful question: how should we act?

Let me be more precise. We know that being holy in our tradition involves respecting what we normally associate with the sacred; but, importantly, it also involves living in accord with God’s direction to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So, the question posed is really: as a holy people, how are we to act in the significant matters of life?

We get several stories this week that raise the question and suggest answers. The challenge is these accounts are ancient and largely mysterious. This is further complicated by the fact that the great sages over the centuries disagree greatly on the their meaning.

For all of you who, turned off by what’s ancient or uncertain, might stop reading, I APPEAL TO YOU TO STAY. I’ll make it short, and I promise that the message at the end will be worth your while.

Let me begin by giving a brief account of the stories. (I hope purists give me a little license in the simplification.)

First, in the portion, Aaron and Moses duly bring the first offerings in the newly dedicated Tabernacle, bless the people, and experience the nearness and glory of God.

Second, Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, perhaps inebriated or spiritually ecstatic, bring strange (and uncalled for) fire to make an offering to God, and they are themselves consumed.

Third, though in obvious pain, Aaron responds to all this in silence. Then, clearly out of duty, he resists Moses’ charge to eat of the offerings because of the impropriety of doing so in the midst of that day’s tragic events. Moses is pleased with Aaron, as clearly was God. God now involves Aaron for the first time in matters of leadership, along with Moses.

In II Samuel, we read of King David’s returning the ark to the land. The ark is loaded on a cart instead of, as prescribed, being carried by priests. A fellow inappropriately grabs the ark and is struck by God. Things having gone wrong, David stops and places the ark in a safe place for months. Then, certain of God’s blessing, David leads the ark’s procession to Jerusalem.

Finally, in the celebration of the ark’s return, David, though criticized for it, “dances with all his might before the Lord” in the clothes of a simple person.

I know. I know. These stories are, in many ways confounding. Indeed some may be unexplainable.

Yet, I think there’s a hugely important message here. Let’s try to find its thread.

Perhaps when we we approach the important things in life, we should be mindful of God’s expectations and act with fidelity to them, as we are taught: “Be mindful of My mitzvot, and do them, so shall you consecrate yourselves to your God.”

Whatever good or bad confronts us in life, we should be attentive and mindful of our duties. Indeed, in each moment of life, we ought to orient our whole being to doing what we should do. Aaron teaches profoundly that sometimes this requires that we wait and be silent. Often we don’t know and can’t explain what’s happened around or to us. We do, however, know our duty, and we should principally be devoted to living true to that duty.

Finally in this week’s text, as David teaches, we should place joy front and center in living the life that God has given us.

The Shulchan Aruch captures the whole idea: “Pray with lowered eyes and a soaring heart.”