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Parashat Naso

May 20, 2010

By Rabbi/Cantor Bob Freedman

Naso et rosh, lift up the heads of the Kohatites of the tribe of Levi.” When we are in a state of lowness, of “small mind,” we don’t see the full picture of the community in which we are imbedded. Boundaries, set in place by ourselves or by others, block our perception. Only when we achieve a “higher” consciousness, “large mind,” do we become aware of and participate in the relationships, the continual flow of energy, and the feed-back loops by which G!d continually creates and sustains the world of which we are a part.

Imagine the Levite who has great difficulty seeing meaning in the task to which he was appointed when he became 30 years old. Let’s give him a name: Ovadiah, 6th beam carrier. The beams are heavy on his shoulders as he slogs through the sand, and by themselves they have only negative connotations for him. But when the camp comes to a place of rest, and the sanctuary, with his beams, is assembled, and the holy ark is placed in its midst, he senses the holy glow that suffuses it and the entire camp. Then he knows that only in relationship is his task, and by metaphor his life, meaningful.

One day it might happen to him that small mind engulfs him, and he ceases to see the holy glow. Beset by loneliness and feeling empty, he wanders off into the camp and is swallowed up by the erev rav, mixed multitudes. Weeks later, in a moment of insight, he realizes his loss and tries to return. But a feeling of unworthiness bedevils him, and he cannot reenter his community until a wise priest shows him the ritual that will silence his evil urge. Guided by the priest, the restored Levite brings a hattat, a sin offering, to the altar, and pours out his loneliness, blindness, stubbornness, and pride in the blood of a slain and cooked goat.

The rabbis tell us that taking the vow of becoming a nazir was a desperation measure, resorted to only when other behavior modification strategies had failed. The prescriptions of the vow-disheveled appearance, abstinence from wine and strong drink, and withdrawing from mourning the dead-separated the vow taker from the community, an action almost guaranteed to cause him/her to descend even further into small mind. Accordingly, when the time of the nazirite vow was over, the vow taker was bid to bring a hattat to the altar, to accomplish the “lifting up of the head” that would restore his/her community consciousness.

The Levite and the Nazirite are two examples of the many people who, caught in small mind, cannot fully integrate into the world. Others are those who have committed violations of our ethical and legal codes, for which they are driven out of our midst into isolation and deprivation. Many, many more have suffered trauma, or disappointment, or illness that narrowed their vision to the point that they withdrew themselves into a shell, unhappy and wanting to emerge, but not knowing how. When they return hoping to be embraced and embrace, it is our compassion that can welcome them back. We no longer burden them with a “sin offering.” Rather, by greeting them with an open willingness to include them, by integrating them into the community, we can be like Moses and “lift their heads” back into large mind.


Rabbi/Cantor Bob Freedman is currently the cantor of Society Hill Synagogue in Philadelphia.