On Healing After Betrayal

Naso, Numbers 4:21−7:89

D'Var Torah By: Rabbi Alex Kress

The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was one of my favorite shows growing up. Though much of the racial commentary flew over my adolescent head, I was impressed by the casts camaraderie. They danced and laughed and loved in a way that felt genuine, which is why the swapping out of actress Janet Hubert, who played the original Aunt Viv, felt like a betrayal. I was too young to read the gossip, and there was no Google to reference. Still, it struck me as odd that a family show with such palpable chemistry would unceremoniously replace their beloved matriarch. Until recently, I didnt know the story of pain and betrayal left unresolved for nearly 30 years. What transpired when cast members finally confronted each other met to talk about the breakup sheds light on the subject of this weeks Torah portion.

In Parshat Naso, we read about betrayal as a crime the Torah calls maal: "Should man or woman commit any wrong toward a fellow person, that betrays the trust (limol maal) of Adonai, that person shall bear guilt. And they shall confess their offenses which they committed. They shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to whom they wronged” (Numbers 5:6-7). As noted in Torah: A Women's Commentary, the term maal has the "legal meaning of [theft] as well as a broader idiomatic meaning of betrayal.” The Torah is clear: When we wrong each other, we betray God. The only way we can rectify our betrayal of God is by making amends with those we've harmed.

The rabbis teach that "Yom Kippur brings atonement for wrongs between people and God, but it can only bring atonement...if the person offended has first been reconciled" (Mishnah Toma 8:9). Yet, most of us enter the day without taking the necessary action to truly repent to God. We confess to the harm we have caused through our careless speech, deceit, gossip, hostile impulses, and arrogant behavior. Yet rarely do we acknowledge these shortcomings to those at whom they are directed.

And, if we are honest, these are not once-a-year transgressions; these are behaviors we are faced with every day and often ignore. We might use Yom Kippur as the once-a-year catchall for our faults, but in the eyes of God and our tradition, confessions are meaningless unless we continuously strive to make it right with the people we have hurt. Parshat Naso teaches that our admissions are meaningless unless we go a step further and make restitution.

In the 30th anniversary special of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, we witness such restitution. Amidst a chummy reunion with the cast that finished the show, it cuts to Will reuniting with Janet Hubert. She asks, in an exceedingly human moment, I just want to know one thing: Why? Why so far? You guys went so far. I lost so much. How do we heal? You look good, by the way.” As is so often the case in grudges and wrongdoings, Will admits simply, "I don't know your story."

In the third season of the show, Janet Hubert was pregnant, surviving an abusive marriage, and offered an unfair contract extension. Will was a jealous 21-year-old with skyrocketing fame, fearful of the world, and coping with childhood traumas through comedy. As they sit together, for the first time in 27 years, they air their pains and admit their wrongs. "I had been banished, and they said it was you who banished me," Janet unloads. "It's weird. We've said such hateful things about each other, and I'm sorry," she says. "I'm sorry," he replies. They hug, genuinely, triggering a memory that reminded me what made the show so special.

Though wisdom accumulates with time - such that two people who have held grudges for 27 years might gain enough insight to eventually seek reconciliation - our tradition attempts to normalize this behavior. Parshat Naso reminds us of the regularity with which we betray God by treating each other poorly, and we are rebuked for our apathy. It demands we not wait 27 years to make amends. It demands we confess now and regularly and go above and beyond to make it right.

At the end of the segment, Will says, "I go out in the world and talk about understanding and human relationships and then have someone that I haven't spoken to in 27 years. I'm just so happy that we were able to make that reconciliation, and I hope other people can take something from it." This, too, is the hope of Parshat Naso - to make guideposts and find inspiration from narrative. Only we can hold ourselves accountable to heal the relationships in which we have erred. Then, and only then, can we make right by God. It's up to us.