“If someone in his presence dies unexpectedly or suddenly, and causes the nazirite head to become defiled, he shall shave off [the hair of] his head on the day of his purification; on the seventh day, he shall shave it off. And on the eighth day, he shall bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons to the kohen, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting.The kohen shall prepare one for a sin offering and one for a burnt offering and atone on his behalf for sinning by coming into contact with the dead, and he shall sanctify his head on that day. He shall consecrate to the Lord the period of his abstinence and bring a lamb in its first year as a guilt offering; the previous days shall be canceled because his naziriteship has been defiled.” (Bamidbar 6:9-12)
In this week’s Parsha we are introduced to the Nazir. This individual vowed to abstain from wine, cutting his hair or coming in contact with the dead. But why? Aren’t there enough biblically (and rabbinically) mandated prohibitions? The Beis Yisroel (Rabbi Yisroel Alter of Gur, 1895-1977) explains that the Torah is conveying to us a deeper message. The Nazir represents a person looking for more out of life. He realizes that he is not living the life he should be living; he is not becoming the person he is capable of being. So, he decides to make dramatic life change. He withdraws to a degree from the world around him in order to create a new world of personalistic holiness. Sometimes, you have to bring life to a grinding halt in an effort to recalibrate and plot a new course for the future. The Nazir found the strength and adopted a new approach (for a limited amount of time). But then he fails. He finds himself in proximity to a corpse and everything ends; he must start all over again. His vow ends in failure. He is tamei (impure) and back to square one. It is in this very moment that God teaches us how to deal with failure. “V’kidash es rosho ba’yom ha’hu, (and he shall sanctify his head on that day)” on the day he finishes his purification process, he gets back up and starts all over again. There is no time for lamenting, there is only time to get up, dust off and begin anew. As King Solomon wrote in Proverbs, “For a righteous man can fall seven times and rise, but the wicked shall stumble upon evi.”l (24:16) Everyone stumbles and falls, the righteous get back up, the wicked stay down.
But there is one more piece. The above-mentioned section ends, “… the previous days shall fall away (be cancelled).” In order to have a meaningful second chance and new beginning, one must let go of the feelings of pain and failure of the past. In the aftermath of failure, we tend to think, “I wasted so much time and resources on this initiative, idea, mission which never materialized.” A person could feel demoralized in the aftermath of failure and that prolonged feeling could prevent a person from trying again and believing that things can be different in the future. Sometimes, you just have to let go in order to move on.
The message of the Nazir is a message for us all. We all fail, and we all fall; this is an inevitable reality of the human condition. What is our response to life failure? Get back up and try again. Clean up your wounds, let go of the past and make another go at it. We may not identify with the restrictions of the Nazir, but his quest for holiness and elevation inspires us all.
This week we failed. Our society failed; our nation failed. We witnessed with shock and horror the death of George Floyd. I did not know Mr. Floyd, the kind of man he was or the life he led. What I do know is that no human being should die under the knee of another. No citizen of this great country should be treated with callous, indifferent, and brutal behavior. The officers responsible for this heinous act should answer for this crime and we must use this as an opportunity for reflection and introspection. But how do we use this tragic and traumatic episode to grow? The first thing we must acknowledge is that racism exists within our society. We like to think it is a thing of the past but many within the African American community must live with this bitter reality each and every day. We must be conscious of how we speak and how we act towards every human being. There are many forms of hatred which plague our nation. Anti-Semitism is on the rise and how tragic it is that the death of an African American man becomes an opportunity to some to target Synagogues and Jewish businesses. Sometimes it feels like everyone hates someone. Some people hate Blacks, others hate Whites. Some people hate Jews, others hate Asians. Some hate gays, democrats hate republicans (and vice-versa) and some just hate everyone who is not like them. But we must remember that the answer to racism and hatred cannot be more hatred. We have to figure out a way to address the ills of society without ripping each other apart even more. Do policing practices need to be re-examined and overhauled? Every system which impacts others and greater society must be constantly evaluated and reevaluated. But I know that there are many men and women across this great nation who don the police officer’s uniform and put themselves in harm’s way for you and me. They are willing to put their lives in peril to protect people they do not even know. Are there bad apples? Or course. Just like there are bad apples in religious and political leadership. There will always be those who exploit power and authority to hurt, suppress and persecute others. There will always be those who will use their pedestal to trample on others and abuse those whom they are charged to protect. And so, when we hear of 3 police officers in New York being stabbed and shot does that advance anyone’s cause? Don’t they have families? Don’t they have parents? And when we hear of innocent people losing their lives in the violence of the protests – is this a justifiable sacrifice? Is the response to George Floyd’s tragic death, more tragic, unnecessary death? I believe that we must try to move beyond #BlackLivesMatter, #WhiteLivesMatter and #BlueLivesMatter. All life is important, Black life, White life, and every shade in between. Unborn life, adolescent life, and elderly life matters. We must become a society of #AllLivesMatter.
I know it is easy to write words. Honestly, I do not even know where to start. Perhaps, someone will read these words and will have an idea as to how we can begin to make peace. I would welcome the opportunity to work with members of every community, elected officials, and police to make a better community and a better life for us all.
As a Jew, I am tired of being hated. As a human being, I am tired of seeing racism and living in a world which feels so steeped in hate. I am ready to work with other communal partners and help to start make a difference.
We have failed but like the Nazir, it is time to get back up, dust ourselves off and try again.
This week’s Parsha, continues with the theme of counting the tribal families and enumerating their responsibilities and tasks. The Torah begins with what appears to be a simple phrase, “Naso Es Rosh Bnai Gershon (Count the sons of Gershon).” (Bamidbar 4:22) It is interesting that this mirrors the verbiage found in last week’s Parsha, “Se’u Es Rosh Kol Adas Bnai Yisroel (Count all the congregation of the Children of Israel).” (Bamidbar 1:2) In each of these instances, the Torah uses the word Rosh (head). TheShelah HaKadosh (Rav Yishaya Horowitz, 1565-1630) explains that in the eyes of God we are each considered a Rosh, a head, someone exceptionally significant. Society has many metrics by which it measures the success, value and worth of an individual. Some may measure the quality of a person based on their level of education, earning ability or material possessions. Others may measure individual greatness through the prism of pedigree and yichus. The Torah is teaching us that in the eyes of God, we each possess personal greatness; each of us is a Rosh. This personal greatness is inherent and innate.
But how do we activate this personal greatness? The answer to this question can be found in Pirkei Avos, Ethics of our Fathers. The great sage Yehuda ben Teyma states, “Be bold as a leopard, light as an eagle, swift as a deer, strong as a lion to carry out the will of your Father in Heaven.” (5:23) The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Rav Shlomo Ganzfried, 1804-1886) explains: “Be bold as a leopard” – Don’t be afraid to perform the mitzvos (commandments) even if others will mock you. Doing what is right is often difficult and can raise the ire of those around you. Stand up for your ideals and don’t compromise on the fundamental tenants of your faith. Be bold in doing what needs to be done. “Light as an eagle” – The eagle flies high and directs its sights to the heavens above. The eagle can’t spend its time constantly looking downward or it will fail to reach its intended destination. In life there are many things which hold us down. Failure, broken relationships and shattered dreams tether us to our current reality and prevent us from achieving growth. If you are always looking down, you can’t move forward. Set your sights high, dream new dreams, create new goals, forge new relationships and learn to soar. Identify that which is holding you back and devise the strategy to transcend and soar above it. “Swift as a deer” – One should always run to do good. Grab the opportunities to accomplish something great. Don’t wait for the perfect moment, make the current moment perfect. Take advantage of beautiful life opportunities while they are still yours for the taking. “Strong like a lion” – Be committed in your service of God. Develop the strength to honor your obligations towards God and your fellow man on an ongoing basis. There may be times when you aren’t feeling inspired. In those moments find your lion-like strength to fulfill your responsibilities. Consistency and continuity are the cornerstones of religious identity.
It is here in this seemingly simple statement that Yehuda ben Teyma gives us the key to activating our personal greatness. Stand up for what you believe in, even if the world mocks you. Focus on upward growth and don’t get mired in downward negativity. Run to seize your life opportunities. Live a life of committed and continuous service to your God and your people.
Yehuda ben Teyma looks to the animal kingdom for examples of character traits that we are to emulate. The comparison to the leopard, eagle and lion are clear. But why the deer? The fastest animal is not the deer – it is the cheetah. If Yehuda ben Teyma wanted to convey the need for speed in our performance of mitzvos and in the seizing of life opportunities why doesn’t he instruct us to be “swift like the cheetah?”
Rabbi Nachman of Breslov (1772-1810) explains that the deer is unique within the animal kingdom. Whenever the deer takes leaps forward towards a new destination – it always looks back. It checks to see if the herd is safe. It looks back to make sure its fellow deer are settled and secure. No matter how long the journey forward, it continues to look back.
Yehuda ben Teyma intentionally chose the deer to teach us an important lesson. As we strive for self-actualization and try to become bold, committed and soar to the heavens, we must always remember to look back. We must remember our responsibility to our people. We cannot focus on self-growth to the exclusion of our national responsibilities. If we are growing but not keeping an eye as to what is happening with our brothers and sisters, our growth is deficient. If we move forward but don’t look back and figure out how to help the rest of the herd, then we are not serving God, we are serving ourselves. We must learn to grow as individuals while simultaneously doing what we can to help the other and care for our nation.
We are each a Rosh, we are each important and significant. We have so much to offer, so much we can become, and so much we can accomplish. But we can only be aRosh, if we maintain the connection to Kol Adas Bnai Yisroel, (the nation of the Children of Israel). We must grow as individuals – but we must always remember to look back.
Weekly class delivered at Women’s Institute of Torah.