On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Naso

Do we do things because they bring us meaning, or do things have meaning because we do them?  Can your morning yoga class or walk through the park serve as a source of spiritual inspiration? Our personal choices, such as exercising,  wearing jewelry with Jewish symbols and writings, or leading creative pursuits, can lead to a more meaningful life full of significant journeys and spiritual commitment.  This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discusses the Torah portion Naso (read on 6/18/16), and teaches about the Nazarite oath.

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Welcome to episode 21 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. As we like to tell you, each week we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. We always want to hear what you think, so please talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism wonders, what rituals do you do that bring meaning to your daily life?

This week we focus our attention on the second parashah, the second portion of the Book of Numbers, Parashat Naso. Naso has so many different elements. It reminds us that sacred work includes physical work.

It's not just ethereal because the ancient priests and Levites, they had real work to do. It also reminds us that blessing others is not only the words that we say, but very often the actions, the deeds that we perform that bring blessing to other people. We have the most famous blessing in all the Jewish tradition, the Birkat Kohanim, the blessing of ancient priests, which now becomes the blessing really for all of us to offer on Shabbat with our families, to our children, and certainly at holy moments, at b’nai mitzvah, at weddings.

But I want to focus on the sixth chapter, which is often overlooked, because there's so much good stuff to focus on here in Parashat Naso. So there's a description of an ancient category called the Nazarites, and the Nazarites were people who took upon themselves additional responsibilities. It might have been they did it for a very short period of time as a way of saying thank you-- thank you to God. Thank you for a blessing that came to them in their lives. And in some cases there are individuals who are made Nazarites for life, as in the case of Sampson where the blessing of his parents leads them to commit their child to a life of these obligations.

The two most distinctive obligations of the Nazarite are that they didn't cut their hair and they didn't drink fruit of the vine-- fermented alcohol. So I remember when I was growing up in the late 60s, early 70s, there was a big thing about having long hair. And I didn't have long hair. I had big hair. My hair just kind of like just took over a room, and I remember fighting with my parents over and over again.

And finally my dad would just say, “Just cut the hair,” and I said, “Do you want me to follow the Torah, dad?” My father said, “Of course, of course.” And I said, “Well, I happen to be a Nazarite.”

And my dad not missing a beat said, “Oh that's fine. You should be a Nazarite with all of your heart and soul, but you do know that as a Nazarite that you'll be consuming no alcohol?” And I just think there's a good teaching in there that sometimes parents are a lot smarter than we think, and a lot of times we have to take the Torah in its entirety.

One of the things I'm always amazed at the Nazarite, and I think of today what are those practices that we take upon ourselves that may not be the mainstream normative things that all other Jewish people are doing, but we do them because they bring us meaning and they make a statement to us oftentimes to the outside world? So think of the Nazarite. The Nazarite actually wore his or her commitment outside, right? If you had that long hair you walk into a community they are going to have a sense-- oh, I bet you so-and-so is a Nazarite. And then they would help you keep your vow.

So I remember traveling with a friend who would wear a kippah all the time. He was a Reform Jew, very proud. And we were on a long journey and we went into a restaurant to get something to drink and to eat, and he was wearing his kippah, his yarmulke. And everyone working in this restaurant went crazy.

They said, “I'm sorry, you can't come in here.” And he said, “Well why is that?” Well they said, “Well you are an Orthodox person.” He said, “Well actually I'm not.” They said, “Well you're wearing a yarmulke.” He said, “Well many of us wear those yarmulkes.”

So everyone in the restaurant—non-Jews, Jews everybody jumped in because they thought he was making a public statement with his wearing of that yarmulke. Some people wear a Jewish star or chai, something that says I am a person in the Jewish community. I carry a set of commitments. And sometimes we actually adapt and interpret those commitments. And that's a powerful, powerful thing.

We're living in a time of extraordinary creativity. There are people who go to yoga class and actually bring the intention, the kavanah, of maybe a Jewish spiritual teaching. And the expression of yoga is another way to experience and express their spiritual commitment.

So we're at a time where there's a lot of creativity, a lot of personal choices. And the question is at what point did the Nazarite also feel a part of that wider community because his or her commitments were not only idiosyncratic. There are also things that really connected to others, so I hope in this time when we're doing so much creativity and it's wonderful to see that spiritual practice very often can be a morning meditation. It could be a morning walk with a verse from Torah or a chant that's in our heads. There's so many different ways for us to make real and to make personal this ancient Jewish tradition, and the Nazarite is just one more expression that we had more latitude and we had more obligation to find what was really going to be our bedrock Jewish commitment and Jewish practice going into the world.

So I hope that we're not necessarily in this podcast hoping that we're going to create a bunch of modern day Nazarites. But let's figure out how we also want to express our gratitude if something extraordinarily wonderful happens in our life besides saying thank you. It might be a moment of prayer. It might be reciting a blessing.

It might also be that we choose to observe something in appreciation of our good fortune in life, and it may be that we're able to wear public symbols that say to the world around us, “I'm proud.” I'm proud to be part of the Jewish people. But don't make all the assumptions about all the things that go with being a Jewish person. I may not take all of those into my own life, but I'm proud to be part of this people that continues a spiritual journey of discovery, a spiritual journey of commitment, and a spiritual journey of blessing others.

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you like what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudiasm.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l'hitraot