Finding God’s Presence

Naso By :  JTS Alumni Posted On Jun 10, 2006 / 5766 | Torah Commentary

This week’s commentary was written by Rabbi David Greenspoon, Congregation Knesset Israel, Pittsfield, Massachusetts.

The ancient rabbis were close readers of the Bible, and developed a whole lexicon on how texts were read. Contemporary readers of rabbinic midrash frequently note how the exegetical methods of the rabbis so often presaged modern literary theory. For instance, the rabbis suggested that close proximity of biblical texts, samchut parshiyot, lent itself to appreciating a deeper message from the Bible. Modern readers concerned with rhetorical criticism and/or reader–response criticism similarly look at the structure of texts to add layers of meaning to the words of the text themselves. Despite the name of the model we use, an analysis of the structure of Numbers 6 from this week’s parashah provides us the opportunity to draw deeper meaning from the placement of the rules related to the nazir (or ” nazirite”) alongside the words of birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing.

The majority of Numbers 6 (6:1–21) is focused on the laws of the nazir. These rules first stipulate that any Israelite man or woman can enter into the status of nazir. This inclusion of women in the legislation is significant; rarely is the Torah so democratic along gender lines when it comes to spiritual conduct. Verses 3–4 distanced the nazir from “wine and any other intoxicant” (NJPS translation), extending the prohibition to nonalcoholic and even nonliquid (and thereby impossible–to–be–fermented) grape products. This is a restriction that did not apply to the priesthood at all. While a serving priest could not consume wine or hard liquor, the prohibition ceased as soon as the priest left duty. At no times did the Torah categorically deny priests either vinegar or grape.

Returning to the strictures governing the nazir, s/he was to grow her/his hair without interference, and finally s/he was to eschew all contact with a corpse. Jacob Milgrom notes in the JPS Commentary on Numbers that these last two conditions elevated the nazir to a status even more holy than the typical priest. “In regard to corpse contamination the nazirite more closely resembles the High Priest, who was also forbidden to approach the dead… of his own immediate family… Although the priest was forbidden to shave his hair… he was also forbidden to let it grow wild and was expected to trim it regularly.” Milgrom extends this sense with his comment to verses 6–7: “In respect to the prohibition of coming into contact with the dead, the nazirite resembles the High Priest, who is also forbidden to contaminate himself by attending the burial rites of the members of his immediate family.” It seems then that the Torah’s democratic departure was not restricted to gender lines. It allowed any Israelite man or woman to mimic the holiness usually reserved for the priesthood, including the High Priest. We’ll return to this idea later.

While the rules governing the conduct of a nazir are clear, the medieval commentators varied widely and wildly as they sought to understand the rules governing the conclusion of one’s time as a nazir. In particular the commentators diverged when they explored 6:13–14. “This is the ritual for the nazirite: On the day that his term as a nazirite is completed, he shall be brought to the tent of meeting. As his offering to the Lord he shall present … one ewe lamb in its first year, without blemish, for a sin offering” (NJPS). Nahmanides suggested that the reason a sin offering was required is that the nazir was leaving a holy status, that “he had separated himself to be holy to the Lord, and by rights he should forever live in a status of holiness and separation… Now that he returns to defile himself with worldly desires, he requires atonement.” Simply put, nezirut is a good status to be in, and leaving it is bad. Maimonides suggested the polar opposite to Nahmanides. Commenting on a discussion regarding the rejection of permitted pleasures in Ta’anit 11a in his Shemoneh Perakim (Introduction to Pirkei Avot) , he noted: “Our Torah… advocates no mortification. Its intention was that man should follow nature, taking the middle road. He should eat his fill in moderation, drink in moderation… He should not wear wool and hair nor afflict his body. On the contrary, the Torah explicitly warned us regarding the nazirite.” As suggested by Nehamah Leibowitz, “Maimonides regards the very act of becoming a nazirite as a sin, Nahmanides, the act of forsaking the nazirite vow.”

The tension of thesis/antithesis between these two medieval scholars is moderated by the synthesis of a third, Solomon Astruc (fourteenth century, Montpellier). He postulated in his work Midrashei Hatorahthat the sin offering is necessary “for the fact that his passions got the better of him, till he was driven to abstain from wine to subdue his material desires and bodily wants and deny himself the legitimate enjoyment of wine.” As Nehama Leibowitz noted, “The sin is not in becoming a nazirite or in ceasing to be one… Previous inability to control and discipline his desires, within the bounds imposed by the Torah, made it necessary for the person concerned to restrict himself even further and vow himself to abstinence. The nazirite vow was thus a necessary but extreme medicine for spiritual ills.” Robert Alter’s observation in his translation and commentary, The Five Books of Moses, sums up what he feels to be the consensus of medieval and modern commentariessuccinctly: “This ‘acting exceptionally’ to set oneself apart for holiness, renouncing the pleasures of wine and letting one’s hair grow long, expresses a kind of presumption, an aspiration to spiritual superiority, and thus is an offense.”

With this in mind, let’s turn to the final verses of Numbers 6, 6:22–27. At the core of these seven verses is the birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessings. Modern commentators seem to have great difficulty in their placement here. Milgrom’s heading in the JPS Commentary implies the issue, “Appendix: The Priestly Blessings (vv.22–27).” But are they really just an appendix? Everett Fox admits this uncertainty much more explicitly in his commentary and introduction to this section in The Five Books of Moses. He writes, “The Priestly Blessing… with which the chapter ends is striking and sufficiently beloved by Jews to have survived to this day in the synagogue liturgy. But why is it here? [Italics mine–DG] Perhaps the blessing of the people is yet another example of the priestly function that has not been preserved in Leviticus, since it relates neither to sacrifice nor to purification.” More midrashic is Yehiel Tzvi Moskowitz’s suggestion in the Da’at Mikra commentary. He cites the nineteenth–century German scholar Rabbi David Tzvi Hoffman’s commentary to Leviticus, suggesting that the fifteen words of birkat kohanim correlate to the fifteen times the refrain “I am the Lord” or “I am the Lord your God” appears in Leviticus 19. I’d like to offer another possible solution based on the overall structure of Numbers 6: the appearance of birkat kohanim is first a corrective measure against the emphasis on “rejection” that undergirds nezirut, and secondly against the popularization by the common Israelite of prerogatives and practices usually reserved for the Priesthood.

The first corrective function of promoting the “acceptance” of God’s blessings, instead of the nazirite’s “rejection” of permitted pleasures, can be inferred from the very words of the blessings. Rabbi Obadiah Seforno, who lived during the Italian Renaissance, cites Avot 3:15 when he proposed that the first blessing is for material wealth and property, “for with no flour there is no Torah.” He perceived the next blessing to be more spiritual in nature, that one may be able “to see the wonders of God’s Torah and God’s deeds, after one has filled one’s [physical] needs from God’s blessings.” The final blessing and its wish for peace (shalom) most vividly captures the fullness (shlemut!) of this acceptance, as notes Milgrom, “But in its broadest scope it [shalom–DG] encompasses the positive blessings of prosperity, good health, friendship, and general well being.” We can say definitively that birkat kohanim offers a model of experiencing God that focuses on our acceptance of God’s blessings, not the rejection of them. The Priestly Blessings secondly serve as a corrective by reclaiming the priestly prerogative to super–holiness. While an individual might aspire to a status of super–holiness akin to the High Priest, the power and impact of that status was nonetheless limited to him or herself. Only the priests could serve as medium for God’s communal blessing.

The combined wisdom of the medieval and modern scholars makes a compelling case that birkat kohanim is about a spirituality wherein we open ourselves up to receive God’s blessings. What does this mean for us, contemporary readers of Torah, who live in a time lacking a formal priesthood, and the institution of nezirut?

Perhaps it means that we should appreciate that despite the apparent values of contemporary society, service to and relationship with God is not found in a spirituality that favors what Soren Kierkegaard called “the radical individual.” Service to God is not found exclusively, or even predominantly, within a spiritual asceticism divorced from a larger community. Service to and relationship with God happens in relationship with other people, in this world, and in this lifetime. Perhaps most importantly it means that our task is to cultivate our religious sensitivity by finding God’s presence in the mundane. God is not to be found by relegating our access to The Holy Blessed One to periods of peak spiritual fervor. God is to be found precisely when and where we are willing to seek and see God’s presence, when we are open to recognizing the blessings in our lives, and the countless mundane and regular miracles that daily attend us. Ultimately, our blessings are realized when we attain a shlemut with God by integrating our spiritual concerns into the wholeness of our everyday lives. May our Shabbat rest, study, and prayer lead us to a deeper ability to accept the blessings in our lives.

The publication and distribution of the JTS Commentary are made possible by a generous grant by Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.