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Parashat Naso 5777 — 06/03/2017

Parashat Naso 5777 — 06/03/2017

In honor of my father A”H, Alvin Rabinoff, on what would have been his 99th birthday.

Bamidbar  4:21-7:89

Our parashah contains the passage about the nazir, someone who takes a special vow to abstain from all products of the grapevine (principally wine, but in order to distance the nazir from transgressing, all products of the vine are forbidden), from coming into contact with the dead (even the 7 closest relatives that a kohen is allowed to come into contact with in death) and from cutting or grooming the hair.  All three of these restrictions serve to isolate the vower from normal social interactions, and certainly from certain physical pleasures.  They also raise the vower to a higher level of holiness; often one would make a nazirite vow if he feels that his spiritual level is slipping – our Sages tell us that the passage of the nazir is placed right after the passage of the sotah (woman suspected of infidelity) because one should refrain from wine after seeing the sotah in her disgrace (which may have been caused by overindulgence in wine).

Ramchal writes:

The Torah chooses this verb [l’hafli‘ which means “to separate,” although in context it also means “to utter clearly”] because by taking this vow a person becomes separated from the mundane – the fact that physical man is able to subdue his physical inclinations in order to draw himself closer to Hashem is in fact a wonder.  On a deeper level the choice of this word indicates the nazir having risen to the highest spheres of kedusha referred to as nifla’ot [from the same root as l’hafli].  The word nazir also is from the word neizer which means a crown – by taking this vow upon himself a person attains the highest levels of kedusha – keter (crown) in the spiritual realms [RAR: Keter is the highest of the sefirot, emanations of divine energy and intelligence, and is sometimes associated with Gd’s Will].

I would like to take a look at the concept of separateness, because it can have some very different connotations.  On the surface level, as we discussed last week, we all seem to be separate individuals.  We interact with one another of course, but as individuals, rather than as connected entities.  I might add that in the history of physics, whenever we have found two supposedly separate entities that interact, we have eventually discovered that they are actually two aspects of an underlying unity.  So the idea that individuals are absolutely separate is a kind of illusion, something that takes us away from reality, and not something we should strive for.

There is another kind of separation; one that I think is more closely connected to kedusha and to the nazir.  When we perceive an object, there are three aspects to this perception.  There is the perceiver, the subject, that is, us.  There is the object of perception, the “that.”  And uniting the two is the process of perception.  The assumption is that the perceiver and the object are separate, as we mentioned in the previous paragraph.

Now suppose we begin to perceive the object at finer and finer levels.  If we are perceiving a sound, it might get fainter.  If we are perceiving a visual object, it might get more transparent.  We still have the separation between the subject and the object, but now the object is losing its rigid boundaries.  Taking this process to its logical conclusion, now imagine that the object has been completely refined away.  Now we are left with the subject, but no object of awareness.  This is a completely different state of consciousness than what we are normally used to.  It is characterized by lack of boundaries, because there are no objects of perception.  Yet it is not deep sleep, because the perceiver has remained awake during the entire process.  The perceiver is aware, but is not aware of any specific thing.  Since there are no boundaries in this state of awareness, it is beyond space, time and change.  It is completely transcendental to the entire cosmos.

This transcendence is another level of separation, and I think it is more in line with what Ramchal is talking about.  The transcendent is absolutely separate from the created world, the world of boundaries.  The infinite is absolutely different from anything finite.  The unchanging has nothing whatever to do with the changing.  The nazir makes a vow to embody this separation during the period of his vow by “subdu[ing] his physical inclinations in order to draw himself closer to Hashem.”  In other words, by reflecting Gd’s transcendental nature in his own experience, the nazir is able to fulfill the command “you shall walk in His ways” and thereby come closer to Gd.

We know, however, that Gd is intimately involved with the workings of His creation.  We believe that even though Gd is separate from Creation, He interacts with it – it is not on autopilot.  How can this be?  Let’s take our original model of perception a little further.  We know that in virtually any form of human endeavor, the way to stabilize any gains we have made is through repetition.  If we want to memorize the lines to our part in the play, we repeat them over and over.  If we want to stabilize gains in our musculature, we repeat the same exercises over and over.  In the same way, if we want to stabilize the experience of transcendence, we need to repeat this experience many times.  When we do, the transcendence coexists in our awareness along with the awareness of boundaries – in fact, we associate ourselves with the transcendence, rather than with the boundaries of our body, or mind, or personality, as we normally do absent this experience.  Thus we remain transcendent and unchanging, while at the same time acting in the world.  We become even closer to Gd – separate but involved in the world.

I believe there is another level yet.  Torah tells us that Gd is all that actually exists – ayn od milvado (Deut. 4:35).  This means that the separation between Gd and creation is actually only a reality from the level of creation; from the level of Gd no separation ever existed.  In terms of human perception, I think there is an analogy to this.  At first, when transcendence is established on the level of the mind, our perceptions remain as they were before.  The subject, the “I” that we identify with, is unbounded, but the objects of perception are still just different boundaries.  As time goes by, we can begin to perceive subtler and subtler levels of the objects of perception, in much the same process of refinement that led to our mind’s becoming associated with the transcendent.  In this state, both the subject and the object have attained infinite status, and there is almost a continuum of the same transcendent reality that encompasses both subjective and objective values of life.

I say “almost a continuum” because, in the final analysis, we are of course not Gd.  Gd is the ultimate reality; we get a glimpse of this ultimate reality when both we and the objects of our perception are evaluated as unbounded.  There is, however, some separation, however slight, between the perceiver and the perceived, in order for us to be able to experience this ultimate reality within our finite body.

Just like, at first glance, Gd is perceived as separate from creation, but is later seen to be pervading all creation, so as our level of perception increases, our separation from creation as a finite individual is gradually dissolved into a unity of all creation, subjective and objective.  The initial separation of the nazir from some objects of sensory desire matures into an almost total separation of the individuality from any boundaries whatsoever, but an integration of all boundaries into one overarching unity.  I think this is the highest level of kedusha that one can strive for.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat Naso

“Shavuot” means “weeks”: it is seven times seven days, a week of weeks, after Passover. It gets across the idea of Deep Rest, the Rest of Rests; the day after this, the 50th day, sums up the seven weeks and is thus a very appropriate day on which the Children of Israel were ready to hear the 10 Sayings/Descriptions.

These are commonly called The Ten Commandments but that is not what Torah or rabbinical tradition call them: In Torah, they are called “Aseret Ha D’Varim” and in the rabbinical tradition, they are called “Aseret Ha-Dibrot.”  Both phrases mean “The Ten Sayings” or “The Ten Matters”

Although we celebrate this Gift on Shavout, Torah does not specify a date for Giving. What Torah prescribes for this date is the Festival of First Fruits; it began with waving a sheaf of barley “at the time the sickle is first put to the grain.”

It is rabbinical tradition that intuited, researched and declared that the 50th day after Passover is the day of Giving the Torah.

There were two factions in ancient Israel: the priestly, who saw Shavuout the way it is specified in Torah, as a Festival of First Fruits, and the rabbinical, who wanted the Giving of Torah to be celebrated in every generation so everyone could stand at Sinai and celebrate the completion of the liberation that began with the first day of Pesach, the completion that comes when liberation rises to the experience of hearing Gd’s Voice, meeting Gd face to face, and discovering Gd’s Face in ours and ours in Gd’s.

Parshat Naso, “Lift Up”, falls in this week: what could be a greater Lifting Up than hearing the Ten Sayings, which are in tradition thought of as main categories to organize all the 613 Mitzvoh.

Baruch HaShem