Heritage Florida Jewish News - Central Florida's Independent Jewish Voice

The power of the covered wagons

 


Some of you might have seen the piece I wrote for The Washington Post describing our visit as a congregation to The Fireplace on Monday night. (See page 1 of the Heritage).

I received an enormous amount of feedback about our story--emails and messages of support from all over the world. Clearly the visit resonated with people. When we announced that we were doing it, we thought it was going to be a small local thing just to connect on a human level with some members of the gay community in DC. But it grew and grew. Just to show you the impact the piece had, for a while it became the number one “most read” on the Washington Post website. It went viral and I heard from hundreds of people who took the time to write to me and tell me how much this action of our congregation meant to them. The impact was far, far beyond what I could have imagined.

I would like to discuss that visit within the context of our Torah portion and a life lesson to focus us all.

There are two distinct models of spiritual leadership discussed in our portion.

One model is the religious figure who is both pure and conducts his or her life with supererogatory behavior. 

This is the spiritual leadership of the Nazir. A man or a woman who becomes a Nazir embraces religious stringencies in order to achieve a spiritual high and strongly desires to live a religious that clearly distinguishes him or her from the community.

The Nazir is identified by three major requirements:

1) S/he cannot drink wine or eat grape products.

2) S/he must grow long hair.

3) S/he cannot come into contact with a dead body.

The leadership of the Nazir requires removal from society. These three requirements are all anti-social activities.

One who cannot come into contact with a dead body cannot be around other people for fear that they might die or be tamei. A Nazir can’t drink wine, and therefore cannot attend festive occasions. If a Nazir grows his hair long he is not practicing basic hygiene. The long-haired Nazir reminds us of the Metzorah (the leper) who also has long hair and goes around declaring, “Stay away from me I am tamei, tamei tamei yikra!” The long-haired Nazir also reminds us of a mourner who grows long hair and for the first few days must sit there silently like Job, entirely removed from society.

The Nazir’s approach to spirituality is to isolate himself from his community and society.

This is indeed the reason why a person becomes a Nazir—they don’t like what they see in the world, so they remove themselves from society.

What a waste—a highly talented spiritual person who seeks to serve God by removing himself from the world! 

In contrast to the extreme piety and isolationist practices of the Nazir, we see another model of leadership in our portion.

Our portion, Nasoh, is the longest stand-alone portion of the Torah. The reason for this is because there is so much repetition of the offerings of the Neseim, the Princes of each tribe. The Nasi of each tribe brought dedication offerings to the Temple. Even though their offerings were all exactly the same—one silver bowl, one gold bowl, some animals—nevertheless the full description is repeated again and again, word for word, each time by the Torah.

The Nasi is a communal leader—a prince of a tribe. He dedicates his life to service of the community and for this he deserves an entire paragraph in the Torah. For all of eternity our Torah has recorded for us the names and generous acts of these princes.

Before the Neseim offered their individual offerings the Neseim came forward on their own and brought a joint offering. This offering consisted of shesh eglot tzav, six covered wagons and twelve oxen. The wagons were to be used by the Levites as part of their service.

The Neseim were not actually commanded to bring this joint offering. They did it on their own and because it was an unsolicited gift, Moshe hesitated to accept it. It was only when Hashem said to Moshe specifically, “kach meitam, accept it from them,” that Moshe accepted it (7:5). 

Why did the Neseim give an unsolicited gift?

Rashi explains that the Neseim had missed the boat the first time around when there was a collection for the Mishkan (7:3). They had said, “Let everyone else give first. We will give what is left over.” However, nothing was left over. Just the opposite, too much was given (Exodus, 36). So this time, the Neseim said we want to be out in front. We want to give first.

The leadership of the Neseim is praised here. It is a leadership of communal involvement and service. It is a leadership that rushes to give first. It is a leadership that identifies a need even before the community notices it.

The contrast between the Nazir and the Neseim is the major point of our portion. By the sheer length of space that the Torah gives to the Neseim it is clear that the model of the Neseim is more praiseworthy than the Nazir. The Nazir is a super holy person. He adopts a multitude of stringencies. But it is the Nasi who is praised. The Nasi is a communal leader. Sure he drinks wine and cuts his hair and he becomes tamei and he doesn’t act in as pious a fashion, but he is involved in the community. He is leading by example. When he sees a problem he rushes to be part of the solution. More than that, even before he sees a problem he anticipates a need for the community. That is why the Nasi gave the unsolicited gift of covered wagons.

Religion today too often focuses on trying to turn us into a community of Nazirites, when instead the goal of religion should be to turn us into a community of Neseim!

Our goal as a community should be to be a community of Neseim. When we see a problem in the world, we must rush to be a force of good. 

This is the power and strength of a spiritual community. A spiritual community when it functions properly will rush to serve and to embrace both its members and the larger world. A religious community has the potential to be a force of good. A religious community can be a community of Neseim.

It means to anticipate how we can be of assistance; it means to always be thinking about how we can help others; it means we rush to be the first to give, and when it is all already given, that we look for additional ways to make a difference. 

When we see pain around us, our first question always has to be, how can we make a difference.

I am also not pretending that here in our shul we have the perfect path forward for gay people in an Orthodox Jewish community. The intersection between the gay community and Orthodox Judaism is obviously a work in progress. But we didn’t go to recruit members that night or to express any new theological ideas. 

Our goal was simply to try and connect and build bridges and heal a little and be with a community in pain. I view our visit as similar to a shiva visit. When someone makes a shiva visit the power is in just being there. Even more important than saying something is just showing up and saying that we are in this together.

 

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