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NASO 2012

 BLESSINGS OF LOVE


Notice the language of the brachah recited before Birkat Kohanim, the blessing given by the kohanim to the rest of the congregation. It is utterly unique: “וצונו לברך את עמו ישראל באהבה …and He commanded us to bless His people, Israel, with love“. In no other blessing before a mitzvah do we add that we are commanded to do it with love. How are we to understand this? I’d like to share with you the approach of one of my colleagues.

The truth is that a person is expected to do all of G-d’s mitzvot with love. If he or she falls short, however – and fulfills the mitzvah without love – it is still considered done. (Of course, the fulfillment leaves something to be desired.) But with regard to the mitzvah of the Kohanim to bless others, the matter is entirely different. No one wants a half-hearted blessing. The only way for the Kohanim to give a blessing is out of love. If it is not given with love, it does not qualify as a blessing.

A warm blessing can melt even the coldest of hearts. People used to cherish blessings of the ordinary mainly because of the love they invested in it. Indeed, we see this reflected even in English: Good-bye is actually a shortened version of what used to be the blessing “G-d be with you.” People often make the effort and go to great rabbis for a blessing for the sole reason that they will be blessed lovingly out of the rabbis’ true love for every Jew.

As my own rabbi pointed out, one common, severe, parenting mistake is committed in this very area that we are discussing – giving blessings. When fathers bless their children on Friday night, they too often perceive themselves as ordinary people giving an ordinary blessing. Whether they are right or wrong, it would be a shame to waste this opportunity, to simply mouth the words because it is traditional to do so. Even if the father is not particularly special in his own eyes, when he blesses his children out of true love, he bestows on his children much more than he can ever imagine.

Each day, good mothers send their children off to school with the blessing: “Have a great day!” Now, the fact is that even a child feels how much of his mother’s heart and focus are in those words before he faces the world. Let us try to visualize such a child in school a few hours later at break time, noticing that no one wants to play with him. Just then, immersed in his loneliness, he will sense in the deepest parts of his subconscious if at least his mother cares for him. If his mother is prepared in the morning rush to take a moment to gaze at him and say her “Have a great day!” with love, it will make a world of a difference. And that difference may determine whether or not this child feels alone in the world.

If we think about it, we will realize that there are so many moments during the day where we have an opportunity to give a heartfelt blessing. The Torah tells us that one who blesses a Jew, any Jew, will be blessed by G-d ” ואברכה מברכיך” . But let us keep in mind that the way we bless others is the way we ourselves will be blessed by G-d. As the Baal Shem Tov would say on the passuk ה’ צלך (“G-d is your shadow”): G-d shadows or mirrors whatever we do. If we bless others and care for others with our whole heart, G-d will do the same to us.

 

DEFINING HOLINESS

 

כל ימי נזרו קדש לה  As long as he is a nazir, he is holy unto G-d. (BeMidbar 6:8)

Once, while traveling by cab in Jerusaelm, I was listening to a thought-provoking discussion by Rabbi Noach Weinberg zt”l on the importance of defining to ourselves terms that we often misinterpret. One of these terms was holiness. Interested in pursuing this topic with someone, I posed the question to my non-religious cab driver in a way that I hoped would pique his attention.

“Sir, I will bet you 25 shekels that there is something every tourist visiting Jerusalem comes to look for, and you don’t know what it is!” He laughed and replied: “I know every attraction and building in Jerusalem! You’re going to lose your money!” I challenged him: “Everyone comes to Jerusalem searching for holiness. Can you define holiness for me?

The cabbie promptly exclaimed that holiness means the holy sites, such as the Western Wall and the graves of the holy Rabbis. Now, from his non-religious perspective, my driver was not totally off the wall.

I persisted: “Are you sure that this is an adequate definition of holiness? Isn’t it true that the holy places you’ve mentioned sometimes have unholy things going on there as well?”

At that point, the cabbie asked me how I define holiness. If we take a glance at this week’s Torah portion, I think we will all be able to answer this question.

In this week’s Parashah, Naso, the laws of the nazir are spelled out. If one takes on the status of nazir, he or she is strictly forbidden to drink wine , take a haircut, or get close to a dead body. The nazir is labeled holy by the Torah – “holy unto G-d.” According to Rabeinu Bachye, the nazir is even holier than the Kohen Gadol. How can we understand this?

A Kohen Gadol is there to help gain atonement after sin has been committed. After the sin of the Golden Calf, Aharon was to serve in the Mishkan on behalf of the sinners. After the sin of the Tree of Knowledge, Adam HaRishon brought a sacrifice. The Midrash calls him a Kohen Gadol. But the nazir is aiming to avoid sin altogether – not just neutralizing its effects after it has come into his life. If we think about it, we see that the common denominator between the first two nazirite laws is gaining distance from materialistic drives. No haircuts means not being obsessed with one’s appearance. Not drinking wine means no parties. Disengaging and separating himself from worldly pleasures benefits the nazir not only with regard to keeping away from sin, but also in moving towards spiritual perfection. Keeping away from the dead is meant to insure that he does not engage in any form of witchcraft. This is of importance because the holy nazir is a candidate for רוח הקודש – the privilege of receiving the Divine spirit. To keep his name clean of suspicion of witchcraft, he needs to refrain from contact with the dead (Baal HaTurim).

Putting it all together, we see that one who distances himself from sin can reach a level of holiness higher than the one who engages in penitence after a sin has been committed. Holiness is a concept which involves being “beyond and separated.” (See Rashi at the beginning of Parashat Kedoshim.) G-d is referred to by the angels as קדוש קדוש קדוש– the epitome of holiness. The angels try three times to understand G-d and His ways, but He is beyond them. The Holy Temple was separate from the rest of the world – a place where materialism was superseded, and spirituality was tangible. Holy people are separated in a sense from materialistic or worldly desires. One who dedicates himself to a life of spirituality and meaning, strictly limiting materialistic instincts and egoistic impulses, can be classified holy as well.

This definition of holiness can seem, at first glance, a bit overwhelming for a citizen of the 21st Century. But if we think about, we will realize that keeping materialism in check is actually an ideal remedy for today’s major threat to our spiritual growth.

It has been noted that the modern period is an era of ism’s: communism, socialism, fascism… An ism is a belief by people of any given culture in the most effective and beneficial lifestyle or system. As the generations pass, however, it becomes crystal clear that the reigning ism does not really solve humanity’s problems, and a new “ism” develops in its stead. Our time has a major “ism” as well: materialism.

What could be a more fitting way to keep materialism in check than the concept of holiness?

While actually becoming a nazir in our generation is strongly opposed by our Rabbis, we can apply the concept to our own lives. Do we really need the latest cell phones or luxury car? Are the expensive brand name clothes really so necessary for our happiness?… We might find more time for spirituality if we would properly define to ourselves the difference between need and want – and use the concept of holiness and spirituality as our compass.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Shabbat Shalom, Yosef Farhi

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