Parashat Naso includes a passage about the sotah, the "errant woman" who is accused of adultery. It's a complex and problematic part of ancient Judaism, says Rabbi Rick Jacobs, so sometimes it's deliberately avoided. In this episode, though, which originally aired in June 2019, we deliberatly dive into figuring out what it means to us today.
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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformedJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less. But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future.
But in the meantime, we're re-airing some of the best episodes of years past. Our greatest hits, if you will. This week, we're going back to May of 2017, when Rabbi Jacobs taught about Parashat Naso, what a blessing is, and why we do it.
[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Naso, second power shy in the Book of Numbers. Here's an interesting factoid-- it's the longest Parashat. But I promise you this podcast will not be the longest podcast of this series. In chapter 6, a Parashat Naso is a very, very famous blessing that many of us not only have heard or have been the recipient of this priestly blessing, but many of us have actually spoken this blessing to family members or maybe to communities.
But I just want to start with the word naso. The opening of the Parashat Naso means to lift up. And the opening of the Parashat talks about counting the leaders of the ancient Israelites. And to do that, you actually have to lift up their-- maybe their heads, is exactly how the text goes.
But it turns out that there's something in that. What do you do when you lift up people's heads? You actually help them to see the world as, not only it is, but when you lift the heads, you can see a wider vista. You can see what might be possible.
And so the word naso ties to one of the words in the priestly blessing, [HEBREW] right? To raise up. So I want to just spend a moment thinking about blessings. I know when someone sneezes, when you're out in the group of people, and somebody sneezes, what do you all say? The same thing I say, bless you.
And on one level, we don't think about that. But how does a person bless another person? Is it literally the words that we speak? Is it a Hebrew formula that we say? Well, let's think about this priestly blessing.
It's called a priestly blessing because in ancient times, and in our day still, those who are the [HEBREW] the ancient priests and the descendents of the ancient priests, recite this blessing as part of the ritual service of our people. And so it's become synonymous with a particular tribe, and a subset of that tribe, blessing others.
The words themselves are remarkable because there is a progression from the first line of the blessing is three words, the second line is five words, and the third is seven words. So it actually has this incredible symmetry and progression.
So the first line [HEBREW] may the holy one bless you and keep you. Second line, [HEBREW] may God cause God's light to shine in you and in your life. And then the word that I mentioned before, [HEBREW]. Third line, [HEBREW]
May the holy one lift up God's countenance and bring peace upon you and upon all of us.
So that's a beautiful blessing. It encompasses a material, a physical, a spiritual, and a communal dimension. But one of the questions I have, because we say this blessing also at Friday night dinner, when we bless our families, is this really the only way to bless others? And I want to really challenge us to think that it's not just the words that we say, but it's so much more.
So there's this great story that's apropos of the holiday of [HEBREW], which comes either this week, ahead of when you're listening to the podcast, or maybe it just occurred, if you're listening to it later that week. It's a story of the great Reb Zusia. And Reb Zusia was going to spend [HEBREW] in the town of the great Maggid of Mezeritch. Because he heard that, to spend [HEBREW] with the Maggid of Mezeritch was the most revelatory, the most unbelievably heart-and-eye-opening experience.
So he set out to journey, to reach Mezeritch. And as he was on the journey, he got a little bit distracted. And he's walking along, and he wanders off the road and wanders into the forest, and sees the trees. And he says to himself, but then opens it to God. Says God, give me for just one hour the power of the ancient priest to bless the people with a threefold benediction.
Just give me the power of the ancient priest to bless those around me. And all of a sudden, as he said that prayer, he could feel the spiritual strength come into his arms, into his body. And he realized he had the power to bless. So then he had to look around to find somebody to bless.
And he looked around. There were no people. So he ran back to the road, but all the pilgrims had already journeyed ahead. And he ran with all of his might-- he just, I've got to find somebody. I've got the power to bless people. It's going to run out.
And he runs, and he looks, and the hour is over. And he can feel the spiritual energy just leave his body. And he's so dejected. He said, Oh, my God, I had that power. But now I don't. And now he didn't even have time to get to Mezeritch.
So he comes to this tavern, and he says, there's a couple, older couple that runs the tavern. And there's nobody else there. He realized he's going to have to spend the holiday of [HEBREW], not in Mezeritch, not with all the pilgrims, not with the great rebi, the Maggid of Mezeritch, but with these two people he doesn't know. And he's just-- he's just so upset.
But then he realizes, as he sees the couple, that they don't know anything about the holiday. They don't Torah. So he says, you know, I'm going to bring the gift of [HEBREW] to this couple. And they make a beautiful table. And he sings and he brings joy and songs. And he gives these beautiful teachings.
And then they study into the night. And the next morning, the same all throughout. And he's saying to himself, as [HEBREW] completes, he says, boy, I didn't have the power to bless. And then it occurs to him, what did I just spend the day of [HEBREW] doing? I brought joy and hope and learning to others.
He discovered what I hope we all can discover. That blessing others is not some function of being part of the ancient priests. It's not about a tribe or part of a tribe. We all have this power. And not for one hour. We have it every moment of our lives if we would use it.
So at this holiday of [HEBREW] that's commemorating the revelation of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, can we be in a sense open to revelation? The revelation that every day, every encounter could potentially be one of blessing another person. Helping someone down the stairs into the subway. Being able to bring some hope to somebody who's facing a very dark time.
There are an infinite number of ways. And sometimes we can do that act, and also offer words of benediction, words of prayer, words of blessing. That's good. But let's also add that there are many, many, many ways in which we can express those beautiful commitments to others.
So naso. [HEBREW]. Naso, it's about counting the leaders. Let's lift up, not just the leaders, let's lift up all of our gaze to see what a world would be where other people routinely, and in some ways, without any prompting, bless others. Can you imagine living in that kind of community?
Wow. Can you imagine being part of a religious community where that's what people do instinctively and regularly? Can you imagine a world where that is natural? That's a world where compassion and kindness and goodness are the-- they're sort of the daily reality.
And in the last line of the priestly blessing, [HEBREW], If we can raise up our gaze and see a world where that is possible, [HEBREW], God will actually bless us. That's how we bring blessing. Not just on Reb Zusia, not just on the people who happen to sit at our tables, maybe on a Shabbat or a holiday. But everyone around us.
Wow. Do we have a gift? Do we have an opportunity? So don't listen anymore to this podcast. Get out there. Bless someone today. Tomorrow. Everyday.
[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand, Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review, or share the podcast with a friend.
For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. 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. And until next week, l'hitroat.