Sunday, May 31, 2015

Parashat Naso: My drasha for Leah and Benyamin

When I first looked at the reading this afternoon, the first subsection of Parashat Naso, my ‎first thought was, “Couldn't I have picked a better week?” Naso is not only the longest ‎single Torah reading in the cycle but also one of the most detailed and repetitive. It also ‎contains the only instance in which the written Torah devotes more than a single verse the ‎institution of marriage. Unfortunately that section, the ordeal of the wayward wife (Num. ‎‎5:11-31), is precisely what I don't want to talk about today. There is one glimmer of light and ‎we'll get back to it in a moment. Yet, when I stepped back, so to speak, and looked at the ‎forest rather than the trees, I realized that the portion in its entirety can be seen as a ‎reflection of married life of the whole. We hope and pray for it to be long but know that ‎most of its days, weeks and months are filled with repetitive, practical details that challenge ‎us to remember why we chose to be here at all. There are also truly lousy moments when all ‎we can do is grasp at straws and hope to come out together on the other side. Occasionally, ‎there are beautiful times, emotional highlights that provide the strength and love to keep ‎on going. The highlight in our portion is a threefold, priestly blessing: ‎
The Eternal bless thee, and keep thee; ‎
The Eternal make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; ‎
The Eternal lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. (Numbers 6:23-26)‎
As befits its poetic nature, reams of commentary have been written on this blessing. Don't ‎worry I'm not planning a comprehensive review, not even of the interpretations I like, just a ‎few that seem fitting for Leah and Benyamin to take with them on their way.‎
Many commentators ask why “keep you” is necessary after “bless you?” If a person is ‎blessed by God, what more does he or she need? Isn’t the additional protection superfluous. ‎No, it is not. In the words of Rabbi Naphtali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893, Russia and ‎Poland), “Everyone receives the blessing appropriate to their circumstances, knowledge to ‎the student or success in commerce to the businessperson, etc. and everyone needs ‎protection so that the blessing does not become an obstacle, leading to excessive pride or ‎improper use.” ‎
There are many interpretations of the word translated here as “be gracious unto thee.” One ‎opinion in Numbers Rabbah (date of compilation disputed, 9th-12th century) connects it to ‎the fourth paragraph in the weekday Amida prayer where the same root appears in “You ‎graciously grant humans knowledge and teach understanding to mortals” making the ‎blessing a prayer for knowledge and understanding while another comprehends the word as ‎a mutual form and specifies the content of that knowledge, “Give them the knowledge to be ‎gracious unto each other.” According to this interpretation the blessing is more prescriptive ‎than promissory. Perhaps the verse as a whole means that God’s face will shine on those ‎who are gracious to each other. ‎
In his commentary on the third verse, Rabbi Isaac Arama (c. 1420-1494, Spain)  stresses that ‎‎“peace” is not merely the absence of argument and contention but “the essential, common ‎good that joins people together.” ‎
Taken together, we have the elements that combine to form the good times that are the ‎backbone of a healthy marriage: appropriate blessings and the wisdom to use them ‎properly, mutual respect and peace that is more than the absence of argument but rather ‎extends to an all-encompassing, common good. ‎
Leah and Benyamin, may you have many years together and may you learn to draw strength ‎and blessing from each other and from the peak experiences you share so you can traverse ‎the other stuff in peace.‎

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