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Friday, June 6, 2008

D'var Torah/Commentary on Parashat Naso 5768/2008

This week's parashah is Naso (Be'midbar/Numbers 4:21-7:89). The portion contains within it the Birkat Kohanim/Priestly Blessings, which are the oldest blessings in the Jewish tradition.

In the parashah, God commands Aaron and his sons to bless the people with the
words that have become so familiar to us, "May God Bless you and keep you; May
God's face shine upon you and be gracious unto you; May God lift up the Divine
face towards you and grant you Shalom/Peace."

Until this day, in more traditional communities, the Kohanim - those believed to
be descended from Aaron - stand in front of the congregation and offer this
blessing in the same way we believe the ancient Kohanim did. They spread their
hands out in front of them, palms facing down, and their fingers separated in
the special manner reserved for the priests (though more familiar to many of us
as Spock's "live long and prosper" sign on Star Trek, which Leonard Nimoy
borrowed from his Jewish heritage). Then they recite the blessing for all the
"non-Kohanim" present.

This ceremony has been viewed throughout the centuries as mysterious and
awe-inspiring. However, it is also clearly hierarchical. The priests are
"above" the people, literally and figuratively, and act as conduits for blessing
between God and the people.

In his commentary on the priestly blessings, R. Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev cites
a short drash, or homily, attributed to the Baal Shem Tov, 18th century founder
of Hasidism. The B'esht (acronym for Baal Shem Tov) cites Psalm 121:5, "The
Eternal is your shadow." He then states, "Just as a shadow does everything that
a person does, so the Creator, blessed be God, does, so to speak, everything
that a person does." Levi Yitzhak then adds to this the reminder that we should
always act in such a way that God would be proud of us. In other words, God
should not be embarrassed to be our "shadow." Then, in commenting on the way in
which the blessing is given, Levi Yitzhak continues, "...when one prays only for
oneself, one is only a receptacle; that is, one's hands are spread out with the
palms up and the back of the hands down. But, when one prays only to give God
pleasure, then one is as one who pours blessing; that is, one's hands are spread
out with the palms down and the back of the hand up (see description above)."
In his modern commentary on this interpretation, R. David Blumenthal writes that
Levi Yitzhak's three main points are, "...that true blessing is a pouring-forth
of an energy we receive, a channeling of divine power; that this type of
blessing gives God pleasure, it makes God proud; and that such an act evokes a
shadow movement by God, a parallel response of poured-forth blessing from God."
("God at the Center," Harper and Row, 1988; p. 110).

How awesome - and how frightening - that human beings can be part of this
channeling process. Through our own actions, we cannot merely receive blessings
from God, but we can bring God's blessing to others. Beyond that, if we
believe, as do the mystics, that our actions actually effect God in this
divine-human "shadow play" what an awesome responsibility each of us is given.

Yet, in the text the blessing is being offered only by, and through, the
Kohanim. However, if we are to be a nation of Kohanim, as the Torah teaches,
then I believe the lesson for the Kohanim found in this week's parashah also
applies to each one of us. Keeping that thought, and the previous commentaries,
in mind I would like to offer you my own interpretation of this passage as a
blessing for all of us on this eve of Shabbat and the festival of Shavuot, when
we celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai (which begins at sundown on

Shadowplay and Blessings

Stand here
Arms and hands outstretched
Uttering ancient words

Feel the blessing
Divine energy
Flow through me
To you
To me
To God
To me
To you
To God

A Circuit
A cycle

As it flows
Through me
I hear
The voice
In my soul

Constant energy
Long after my arms are down
I feel
Source of life
Source of Action
Source of Love

It does not pull
Does not push
Does not force

It animates

I struggle

I do not want
To follow
The voice
I do not want
To do
As it says

I know
I have power
I know
What I do
God must do
Shadow puppeteer
Like Peter Pan
But my shadow
Cannot be lost
Cannot be separated
God is always a part of me
I am always a part of God

Such power
Am I worthy
Is anyone

Cannot move
Cannot act
Cannot risk
Making the wrong move
Pulling the wrong strings

I want to be
The puppet
Not the puppeteer
I want to be
The shadow
Not it's source

I breathe
I sit
I wait

Afraid now
If I act
I may be wrong
Then God must still follow
But the chain
Of blessing
May be broken
All my fault

I breathe
I sit
I wait
I pray

I listen

The voice
Within around
Guiding me

I feel the power

But now
I realize
I know
In my soul
It is not mine
It is not I

I am still
I must act
The alternative
to stagnate
to die
to block the flow
Of Divine blessing

Before I act
I pray
Allow the blessing
The energy
To flow through me
May I
May we
Be worthy
May I bring Your blessing
To all
May I bring their blessing
To You
May they bring the blessing
To me
To you
As well
May we bring
To God
To all
Through our actions

As I pray
I hear
The voice of Sinai
In my heart
I feel
The power of Sinai
In my soul
I see
The shadow of Sinai
Brightly hovering over me
I know
The One of Sinai
Is here
Us all
Moving with us
Guiding us
Protecting us
Reminding us
We are never separate
We are
Always together
Always complete
Always whole
Always One

Saturday, May 24, 2008

My first blog post (and the last portion in Vayikra/Leviticus)

Well, I'm beginning my life as a new blogger with an old Torah commentary that I wrote a couple years ago on Parshat Behukotai, which is the last portion in the book of Vayikra/Leviticus.

I'm sort of using this as a test posting and I hope to start in earnest next week with the beginning of Bemidbar/Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah. I hope you enjoy these divrei torah (Torah commentaries) and any further discussions and commentaries that may arise from them!

Shabbat Shalom,


This week's parashah is Behukotai (Vayikra/Leviticus 26:3-27:34). It is the
final parashah in the book of Vayikra. In this parashah, God tells Moses to
inform the people if they "walk with my statutes and observe my
mitzvot/commandments," all will go well for them. However, if they do not, the
heavens will dry up tragedy will befall them. The parashah then describes in
detail what will happen if the people continue to ignore God's will.

Though I don't take this type of "reward and punishment theology" literally, I
believe that there is an important spiritual lesson to be found in this
parashah. At the start of the parashah, Moses is told that if the people walk
with God, hithalkhti b'toch'chem, "I (God) will walk about in your midst." The
word b'tokh can mean in the midst of the people, but the rabbis often interpret
it as meaning 'within each individual.' In other words, if the people walk in
God's statutes then God will be within each of them wherever they go.

Later in the parashah, God begins to warn the people of the consequences if they
choose not to walk in God's ways. However, the phrasing, "if you walk with me
in opposition, then I will walk with you in opposition" (Everett Fox
translation), is curious. Furthermore, this is mentioned three times in the
parashah. Each time God accuses the people of walking "in opposition with" God
the threatened punishments will be more severe. Nevertheless, the Torah never
states that either the people or God is abandoning one another, for they are
always walking with one another -- even if in opposition. It is almost as if
God is saying, "no matter how much you may seem to reject me you can never
really get rid of me." But beyond that it is also saying that no matter how
much we might go against "God's will" or walk in ways other than those which are
prescribed for us God is still with us -- even if in opposition. However, the
key difference is that God is with us, but not b'tokh/within us.

When we choose not to walk in God's ways God is merely walking next to us. It
is almost as if God becomes a shadow, or even an adversary, who is prepared at
any moment to become our support and comfort. It is our actions, our
opposition, which prevent God from being within us. Our actions are also what
will allow God to be within us once again. As the great Hassidic rebbe Menahem
Mendel of Kotzk said, "God dwells where we let God in." In this parashah, it
seems that God is simply waiting for us to let God in.

For each of us "letting God in," means something different. To some it has a
more anthropomorphic sense; to others it is more mystical. To others, such as
myself, it can have the sense of allowing the Power that brings peace and
goodness into the world to enter and flow through us. Each of us needs to
determine for ourselves what "letting God in" means to us (at least for that
moment) and what we do that prevents God from dwelling within us. In this way,
we can make our lives and our world better by walking with God within us and
infusing all that we do with the oneness of the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom.

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