Sunday, June 26, 2011

Size Doesn't Matter (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:1-4:20, Naso / Numbers 4:21-7:89)

The Text

Bemidbar (Num 1:1-4:20)

The fourth book of the Torah is called Numbers in English, and the first parasha indicates why this name is appropriate. The meat of Bemidbar entails the counting of various segments of the male Jewish population as commanded by G-d. First the adult (age 20+) members of all tribes except for Levi are counted (603,550), then the Levites (22,000 over one month old), and finally all first-born males over one month old not including the Levites (22,273). Two things are accomplished in the parasha. First, the members of various tribes are told where to camp in relation to the Tabernacle. Second, G-d announces the honor that will come to the tribe of Levi.
Bring forth the tribe of Levi, and present it to Aaron the priest, so that [its members] shall serve him. They shall safeguard My trust and the trust of the entire community involving the Communion Tent, performing any necessary service in the Tabernacle. They shall guard all the Communion Tent's furniture, along with [everything else] that the Israelites have entrusted for the Tabernacle's service. Give special instructions to Aaron and his descendants. They are his gift from the Israelites… This is because every first-born became Mine on the day I killed all the first-born in Egypt. I then sanctified to Myself every first-born in Israel, man and beast alike, [and] they shall remain Mine. I am G-d. Num 3:9-13
Naso (Num 4:21-7:89)

Naso begins with additional counting of Levites to be associated with the moving of the Tabernacle. G-d then specifies that the tzaraath should be cast out of the community. This is followed by a discussion of several laws which seem oddly positioned in this chapter. First is the compensating due for sins against fellow man. Next is the punishment for women suspected of committing adultery. (They must appear before the priest and drink special water, and if they are guilty their sex organs will explode and belly will rupture.) Finally, there are the rules for nazirite practice by which one attempts greater purification by avoiding wine, not cutting hair and avoiding the dead. In the middle of this chapter G-d explains to Aaron how he must bless the people. This is the Priestly Blessing (or Blessing of the Kohanim) as we know it:
'May God bless you and keep watch over you.
'May God make His presence enlighten you and grant you grace.
'May God direct His providence toward you and grant you peace'. Num 6:24-26
The parasha concludes with a retelling of the gifts brought by each of the Twelve Tribes on the day the Communion Tent was finished and anointed. Each brought:
One silver bowl weighing 130 shekels and one silver sacrificial basin weighing 70 shekels by the sanctuary standard, both filled with wheat meal kneaded with oil for a grain offering; one incense bowl weighing 10 [shekels] filled with incense; one young bull, one ram and one yearling sheep for a burnt offering; one goat for a sin offering; and for the peace sacrifice, two oxen, five rams, five male goats, and five yearling sheep.

After a couple weeks away on various trips I came back to synagogue on Shabbat Naso. It was a lay-led service, which happens occasionally in our community when our Rabbi either ministers to the other part of the congregation centered in Saint-Germain-en-Laye or has a Bar or Bat Mitzvah that calls him away. The service was competently and enthusiastically led by the daughter of one of the members. Then we got to the part of the service — after the Amidah but before the Aleynu —where, on a lay-led Erev Shabbat, it is the custom for someone to give a drash, a brief explanation and commentary on the week’s Torah portion.

As is usually the case, there was some looking around the room. Shabbat attendees are a pretty participative bunch at Kehilat Gesher and it was a good bet that there would be someone present capable of delivering a relevant statement on the week’s parasha. One of the Friday night regulars, a French woman, started to speak. Hesitantly at first, she started to talk about how she had been struck by the very important and well-known blessing in the parasha that she had come across as she had been reading Torah in preparation for Shavuot. She couldn’t remember the name of the blessing though. We all took up our Chumashim and began looking. I found it: it was the Priestly Blessing. She walked up to the “bima” (the flat table at the front of the small room where we have our services, where the Rabbi usually stands), and explained in her own words — in French — how this blessing was an inspiration to her. She felt it gave rise to a feeling of purity and how she felt closer to G-d simply by reading it. The regular congregants, myself included, were genuinely moved by her statement. A translation was offered to our visitors that evening as these, like most all our guests, spoke no French. They too were appreciative. Having crowd-sourced the weekly drash, our baalah t’filah continued on to the weekly announcements.

I really like my synagogue, and this is one of the reasons. On a night in which a service might have been understandably “off the boil,” ours was full of real meaning and participation. This wouldn’t have happened in my synagogue in the US. Though we were somewhat active members back home, Friday night services never really turned me on. In my experience (and I accept the egregiousness of the following generalization) services I have attended in the US tend to be rather stolid affairs. The congregation participates only timidly. The songs, sometimes unfamiliar to me, seem to be sung almost by rote. There is a mechanical following of the tune, and the noise that is made is generally bereft of passion. Yet in our little room — even on nights when the Rabbi is away and we barely clear a minyan — we sing with a joy and a noise of a Reform congregation ten times the size. When the Rabbi is around and we fill our room, the fifty odd people make shabbat. I had forgotten how much I liked this.

As we enter what is likely our last year (at least in this stint of living aboard) in Paris, we’ve started to naturally think about the things we would miss. At the top of my list is my synagogue. From the Rabbi to the congregants, I feel very much at home in this community. The last time I felt this way I was about thirteen years old. And as I heard my fellow congregant, whose name I really don’t know, talk about her experience, I felt G-d’s countenance shining down on me as well.
Birkat Kohanim by Luba Bar Menachem (paper cut)

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