Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.” (Numbers 4:22)

When Hollywood puts out a movie and wants to show a Jewish wedding, there is one scene that is inevitable. There is a scene of wedding guests dancing while lifting the bride and groom up on chairs. To make it even more clear that the wedding is Jewish, the band plays Hava Nagila as they are dancing. A good example is a scene in the 2005 movie Wedding Crashers. In a Jewish wedding, we lift up the bride and groom.
Based on the Hebrew, the scene of lifting the bride and groom makes sense. In a Jewish marriage, the bride and groom raise each other up. The Hebrew word for a marriage ceremony is nisuin, the plural of the word “raising up.” The word echoes the title of this week’s portion naso. Naso is often translated as “take a census.” But the word literally means “lift up.” Moses is to lift up each of the tribes according to their ancestral homes, giving each special consideration. To the Biblical mind, a census was more than counting numbers. It was a symbol of raising up each tribe, showing how each is special. This is particularly true in this portion when Moses counted the tribe of Levi; each family had a role in carrying and setting up the tabernacle.
In a healthy marriage, the bride and groom lift each other up. I often think of the powerful song made famous by the popular singer Josh Groban. “You raise me up, so I can stand on mountains. You raise me up, to walk on stormy seas. I am strong when I am on your shoulders. You raise me up to more than I can be.” When you need a lift, I recommend playing the song, which has become Groban’s signature number.
I recently spoke with a couple who had been married 65 years. That is amazing to me; Evelyn and I have been married a mere 43 years. I asked them how to get to 65. I suppose it starts with both partners staying healthy well into their senior years. But the other part is for each partner to be aware of the needs of their partner and lift them up. Sometimes one partner is more in need of a lift and sometimes the other. Often it flips back and forth. But we learn from the Hebrew the centrality of raising one’s partner up.
On the flip side, on a sadder note, I see too many failed marriages. Too often these were bad marriages to begin with and could not succeed. But when I talk to couples going through a separation or divorce, too often I see people putting their partner down. It is the opposite of raising up. It is knocking down. I am not speaking here of physical abuse, although I sometimes see that. I am talking about people who feel no pride or joy in the person they once promised to love and cherish forever. It is the sad shadow of the joy of lifting up one’s partner.
As a rabbi, I have attended countless weddings. I used to rush in to help lift the bride or groom up on chairs. Then, some time after I turned sixty, I decided that I would leave that job for younger people. I do not need to risk hurting my back. Besides, as the rabbi, I have my opportunity to lift the couple up. I get to speak to the couple during the ceremony. I tell each one to look into the other’s eyes. Then I ask them, what can each of you do to make this person happier, more successful, more fulfilled? What can each of you do to raise one another up? It is my role as the officiant.
I know that couples cannot always focus on what I say at that important moment. That is the joy of video taping a wedding. The couple can watch it later, and eventually show it to their children. I hope they can hear my message. A successful marriage begins when a couple learns to raise one another up.


“Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.”  (Numbers 4:22)

I admit that I am a fan of the HBO comedian and commentator Bill Maher.  Yes, he can be crude, and I disagree with his attacks on religion.  (Still, as a religious Jew, I do believe that sometimes religion deserves attacks.)  But what I like about Maher is how, as a liberal, he is willing to challenge the extreme left.  He has no tolerance for the wokeness, cancel culture, judgmental attitude of those on the extreme left.  Often such leftist pronouncements degenerate into antisemitism.  Why else would people carrying a Jewish star be forbidden from marching in a gay-lesbian parade?   The organizers of the parade claim Jewish stars make people on the left uncomfortable.

I listened to a monologue from Maher about Queen Elizabeth, who just celebrated her Platinum Jubilee.  (A Jubilee is supposed to be 50 years, so a 70-year Platinum Jubilee is an exceptional occasion.)  Maher claimed that if the left was true to its own values, it ought to reject the idea of the monarchy altogether.  The left ought to teach that every human being is equal by the dignity of their birth.  No human being should ever be bowing, or curtsying, to another human being based on higher birth.  (Remember in the book of Esther, Mordecai refusing to bow to Haman.).  And Maher takes particular umbrage to the use of the term “your highness” in referring to the royal family.  Nobody should ever be considered higher than anybody else.

I am less bothered by the British royalty than Maher.  I find it mildly entertaining.  But as an American, living in a country that fought a revolutionary war against King George, I do not understand our fascination with Queen Elizabeth and her often dysfunctional family.  And whenever I see Prince Charles, Elton John’s song from The Lion King pops into my mind, “I just can’t wait to be king.”

Nonetheless, I am intrigued by Maher’s remarks about the phrase “your highness.”  This week’s portion is called Naso, which refers to taking a count of the tribe of Levi.  But the Hebrew word Naso really means “to lift up.”   A closer translation to the original Hebrew would be “lift up the tribe of the Gerhsonites, by their ancestral houses and their clans.”  It raises the question, if all people are equal, who do we lift up?  Who should our highness refer to?

There is a time in Judaism when we do use the Hebrew term naso to refer to lifting people up.  The second part of the Jewish wedding ceremony is called nisuim from the same Hebrew root.   This is the part where the seven blessings are chanted, linking the bride and groom to every other bride and groom in history.  We chant the words, “Soon may we hear in the cities of Judah and the walls of Jerusalem, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride.”  The wedding ceremony is a lifting up.

Who is lifting whom?  Perhaps the bride and the groom are lifting each other up, to a higher holier state.  Or perhaps the community is lifting them up together.  Maybe that is the symbolism behind the almost universal Jewish custom of dancing with the bride and groom up on chairs.  This is a moment of lifting up.  Of course, every bride is a queen on her special day; she is the one who deserves to be called “your highness.”

I write this not to complain about the monarchy.  May the queen continue to live and be well, until 120 as we say in Jewish tradition.  But Hebrew words have hidden meanings.  Who ought we be lifting up?  And who deserves to be lifted up?  That is the true meaning of naso  People are uplifted not by an accident of birth, but because we as a community have chosen to lift them up.


“He shall offer his offering to the Lord, one male lamb of the first year without blemish for a burnt offering, and one ewe lamb of the first year without blemish for a sin offering, and one ram without blemish for peace offerings.”  (Numbers 6:14)

Asceticism is the practice of giving up pleasures in this world for spiritual purposes.  It is common in virtually every classical religion, both in the East and West.  In Christianity, priests and nuns take vows of “poverty, chastity, and obedience.”  Some monastic communities take on even stronger ascetic practices, including vows of silence.  Many religious traditions encourage poverty, celibacy, teetotalism, and vegetarianism as religious practices.  The idea is that by denying the physical one can focus on the spiritual.

Such ascetic practices do exist in Judaism, particularly the tradition of taking on personal fasts for spiritual purposes.  In addition to the set fast days in the Jewish calendar, many pious Jews take on additional fast days.  One Talmudic rabbi, Ben Azai, gave up sex and marriage to dedicate himself to a life of Torah  (Tosefta Yebamot 8:7).  But the classic example of asceticism in Judaism are the laws of the nazir, found in this week’s Torah reading.

The nazir took a special vow to give up certain practices and pleasures.  The nazir could not enter a cemetery or attend a funeral, similar to the kohen or priest.   The nazir was forbidden to cut his or her hair throughout the period of the vow.  And most important for our purposes, all wine and other alcoholic beverages were forbidden.  If “wine gladdens the heart of man” (Psalms 104:15), the nazir must live without that gladness.  Traditionally, the nazir vow was for a limited period of time.   Nonetheless, Samson was subject to a lifelong vow taken by his mother.  That is why he lost his strength when Delilah cut his hair.

When the period of the vow was over, the nazir would bring special offerings to God.  These included a sin offering.  What was the sin?   Jewish tradition teaches that the nazir denied himself or herself pleasures that were permitted.  As the Jerusalem Talmud teaches in a powerful statement, “R. Chizkiyah said in the name of Rav: You will one day give reckoning for everything your eyes saw which, although permissible, you did not enjoy’ (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12).  Jewish tradition teaches that the pleasures of this world are to be enjoyed.  That is why Judaism never fully developed the ascetic practices of Christianity or Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism.

An example of this principle of enjoying the pleasures of this world involves the eating of meat.  I am aware that many argue the value of a vegetarian diet, whether for health or ethical reasons.  Many Orthodox Jews disagree.  They argue that since the Torah explicitly permits the eating of meat, it would be arrogant to refuse to eat what God has permitted to us.  Yesterday was the festival of Shavuot, with a long tradition of eating dairy.  But although many Orthodox Jews ate some dairy, they then sat down to a meat meal for the festival.  They could not imagine enjoying a festival without meat.  A few weeks ago, I was mistaken in a message I wrote.  I said that the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, chief rabbi of what would become the state of Israel, was a vegetarian.  That was true during the week.  But on the Sabbath he ate meat.

Whether or not one chooses a vegetarian diet, there is a profound message in the laws of the nazir.   Life is to be enjoyed in this world.  There is enough that Judaism forbids.  A few years ago, in a restaurant in Maine, the server could not believe that I would refuse to taste the Maine lobster.  I want to enjoy in this world whatever Judaism permits.  Of all the many great religious traditions of both the West and East, Judaism is probably the most this-worldly.  Our job is to transform this world.  And our job is to enjoy the permitted pleasures of this world.  That is why, when we reach the next world, we will be told to give an account of every legitimate pleasure we did not enjoy.



“Command the people of Israel, that they take out of the camp every leper, and every one who has a bodily discharge, and whoever is defiled by the dead.”  (Numbers 5:2)

It is unbelievable that there is news so overwhelming that it has forced the corona virus pandemic off the front page.  In Minnesota, a black man is killed by a white police officer, choked to death under the officer’s knee while other officers stand by.  In Georgia, a black jogger is murdered by two white vigilantes claiming they were protecting the safety of their neighborhood.  In Kentucky, a black woman is killed in her bed by police who break down her door.  In New York, a woman calls the police because she feels threatened by a black man who asks her to put her dog on a leash.  And all these events occurred in the past few weeks.  There is a virus as virulent as corona, and it is called racism.  It is a virus that sometimes lies dormant, but lately has become virulent.

In cities throughout our land, protesters are gathering to speak out against racism.  But sadly, in too many cities including my own, the demonstrations turned violent.  What started as a legitimate cause became an excuse to loot and burn businesses.  And the police reacted as they sometimes need to, trying to clear the streets with riot gear and tear gas.  And now as I write this, my community has a 9 pm curfew.  Restaurants that are finally opening for business are forced to close early.  Protests against racism, which should have shown humanity at its best, degenerated into humanity at its worst.

Even as we are disturbed by the riots and the violence, we must also protest racism of any kind.  It is a virus.  And blacks are not the only victims.  In a strange bit of irony, PBS aired a documentary this week called Virus: Antisemitism in Four Mutations.  It spoke of Jew hatred on the political right, on the political left, in Hungary, and in France.   I also listened to an interview with an Asian woman who was harassed by someone who thought she was responsible for the “Chinese” flu.  Hate seems like a fundamental part of humanity.

There is a hint of this in the portion of the Torah we read this week. We have been reading about a careful numbering of the Israelites by families.  As soon as the numbering is over, certain people are told to leave the camp.  Any person expected of impurity was turned away.  Even in Biblical times, there were the insiders and the outsiders, those in the community and those outside the community.  I have spoken numerous times about how we tend to divide people into our group and “the other.”  That is human nature.  We tend to pre-judge certain people and certain groups; that is the basis of the word “prejudice.”

When I teach this idea of pre-judging people, I often like to share a true story.  (Forgive me if you have heard this.}   I was once walking our dog (when we had a dog.) I turned the corner and heard opera coming from a garage ahead of me.  That was unusual.  I reached the home with the opera and saw a man, covered with tattoos, working on his motorcycle.  Something in my mind did not click.  People who listen to opera are not covered with tattoos and do not work on motorcycles.  And people who are covered with tattoos and work on motorcycles do not listen to opera.  We have a human tendency to put people in boxes, to pre-judge people.  And this person did not fit into any box.  I realized that I must change my own thinking.  I ought not to be judging people according to some pre-existent categories in my mind.  Every human being is unique and worthy of dignity.

It is natural to put people in boxes as black, Hispanic, Asian, Jewish, gay, disabled, old, and multiple other categories.  And when we pre-judge people, racism and antisemitism result.  The Torah teaches over and over that we should “love the stranger for we were strangers in the land of Egypt.”  If prejudice is part of human nature, we must rise above our nature.  That is the message of the painful events of these past weeks.  That is the message the Torah teaches us.  It is a message our nation needs to hear.

“May the Lord bless you and keep you; May the Lord make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you; May the Lord lift up His countenance upon you and give you peace.” (Numbers 6:24 – 26)

Every Friday night I call each of my children, who all live out of state. I bless them with the traditional blessing a parent gives a child on Friday night. And then I end with the beautiful priestly blessing, found in the middle of this week’s portion. I look forward to the day when my grandson will actually get on the phone so I can bless him. The blessing has become central to our liturgy.
I not only bless my own children with these ancient words. Every time I welcome a new baby into the community at a bris or baby naming, I give the baby the priestly blessing. I also bless every bar and bat mitzvah. At a wedding, immediately before the groom breaks the glass, I have the couple bow their heads as I recite the priestly blessing. I say it in both Hebrew and English. At these moments I feel as if I am God’s agent, channeling God’s energy onto the recipient of the blessing.
Some people may believe it is a rabbi’s job to recite this blessing. But the Torah gives the duty to recite it to a limited group of individuals. It is the kohenim, the male descendants of the High Priest Aaron, who has been given this obligation. “The Lord spoke to Aaron and his sons saying, you shall bless the children of Israel” (Numbers 7:22-23). My mother was the daughter of a kohen. My wife is the daughter of a kohen. My cantor is the daughter of a kohen. But as for me, I follow my father, who was a plain Israel, an ordinary Jew. It is not my obligation from the Torah to bless the congregation.
Some rabbis see themselves as priests, even if they do not have the lineage. At the end of services, they hold their hands in the traditional priestly way (see Mr. Spock’s rendition in Star Trek.) But I am a rabbi, a teacher of Judaism, not a priest. In our synagogue we follow the ancient practice of having kohenim, men who can trace their lineage back to Aaron the priest, bless the congregation on each of the Jewish festivals. (I will admit, this is our one non-egalitarian practice in our egalitarian congregation. The Torah gives the obligation of reciting the blessing explicitly to the male kohenim.)
Sometimes, particularly on the High Holidays, I have a large group of men who have been trained to say the blessing. But sometimes, like this past week on Shavuot, I had one man who had to be trained on the spot. The kohen goes outside where a levi washes his hands. He removes his shoes and comes up with a large tallit to cover his head with his back to the congregation. He recites a blessing, “Praised are You Lord our God King of the universe, who sanctified us with the sanctity of Aaron, commanding us to bless his people Israel with love.” He then faces the congregation, raises his hands in the special configuration, and listens as the cantor calls out the priestly blessing word by word. There is a traditional melody the cantor uses that adds to the mystery of the moment.
Traditionally, one should avoid looking at the kohenim as they recite the blessing. This adds to the mystery and power of the moment. Many congregants turn their backs to avoid looking, but I find that unnecessary. I prefer to face forward, look down, and enjoy the mystery of the moment. The ritual is one of my favorite moments in the holiday service.
Some people in my congregation have challenged me. Why do I include such an ancient, strange sounding, and let’s face it, non-egalitarian ritual in my services? What makes the kohenim worthy to bless us? My answer is that our ritual needs something ancient and mysterious, to avoid becoming to sterile. And the kohenim are simply mouthing the ancient words; it is God who is blessing us.
The Torah gives us three beautiful verses that serve as a blessing. I love the moment each Friday night when I bless my children. But equally, I love the moment through the cycle of festivals when the descendants of Aaron the High Priest bless me.

“All the days of the vow of his separation no razor shall come upon his head; until the days are fulfilled during which he separates from the Lord, he shall be holy, and he shall let the locks of his head grow.” (Numbers 6:5)
Do you remember the 1968 Broadway musical Hair? It was the height of the Vietnam War protests, the hippy movement, and free love. The musical contained wonderful music, and famously, gratuitous nudity. And of course, there was the title song, “Gimme a head with hair, long beautiful hair, shining, gleaming, streaming, flaxen, waxen. Give me down to there, shoulder length or longer, here baby, there momma, everywhere daddy daddy, hair.”
If short hair represented the establishment, particularly the military establishment, then long hair worn by men represented rebellion. The great rock stars of that era wore long hair. Not just men but women saw the symbolic meaning of hair. Long flowing hair with flowers and headbands was the hippie norm for women. How a person wore his or her hair sends a message out to the community. That was central in the rebellious 60’s. But its roots go all the way back to the Bible and this week’s Torah portion.
This week speaks about a man or a woman who makes a special vow to become a Nazir. The vow was usually for a limited amount of time. But sometimes the vow can be for a lifetime. A Nazir is not allowed to drink wine or spirits nor go to a cemetery or be near a dead body. Most important for our purposes, a Nazir is not allowed to cut his or her hair or beard. Growing one’s hair long became the symbol of a special religious vow. Long hair took on a serious symbolic value.
The haftarah this week speaks of perhaps the most famous Nazir, Samson, whose mother makes a lifetime vow on his behalf. His long, unkempt hair becomes the source of his superhuman strength. He shares with the woman he loves, Delilah, the source of his strength, and Delilah cuts his hair while he is asleep. The Philistines capture the weakened Samson. Only when his hair regrows does he knock down the Temple of the Philistines, killing not just hundreds of the enemy but himself.
If a man’s hair in ancient times symbolized strength and in modern times symbolized rebellion, a woman’s hair had its own symbolic value. Long flowing hair was considered sexually attractive. The love poetry of Song of Songs says, “Behold, you are beautiful, my love, behold, you are beautiful; your eyes are doves behind your veil, your hair like a flock of goats, sliding down Mt. Gilead” (Song of Songs 4:1). Imagine watching a flock of goats coming down a mountain from a distance; it would probably look beautiful like a waterfall.
Later Judaism would react against the beauty of a woman’s hair as sexually suggestive. Jewish tradition taught that upon marriage, a woman in public must keep her head covered at all times. Orthodox Jewish women reacted in a fascinating way. They would buy wigs to cover their natural hair, wigs that were often more beautiful and appealing than the hair itself. But in Jewish tradition, a woman’s hair is a symbol of sexual attraction.
So, how should I react to all this, having inherited baldness from my maternal grandfather and my father. Without hair on top of my head, I enjoy having a beard. I believe it makes me look rabbinic. But I do not allow my beard to become long and unkempt like many of my Hasidic friends. Besides, today no hair has taken on a new value. Baldness is in. In the movies, Dwayne Johnson, Bruce Willis, Van Diesel, and Jason Statham are bald, all of them action heroes. On the basketball court, from Kareem Abdul-Jabar to Michael Jordan to Charles Barkley, baldness is in. To quote one men’s style magazine, “A shaved head indicates dominance, authority, and being in control.”
From long hair to no hair in fifty years, the symbolism of hair has changed. But from the Nazir to the hippie to the movie action hero, how we wear our hair gives a message to the world. It becomes a symbol of who we are and the kind of person we wish to be. But if like Samson, one’s gets one’s strength from long hair, be careful who you tell. There might be another Delilah out there with a pair of scissors.

“The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Speak to the Israelite people and say to them, if any man’s wife has gone astray and broken faith with him.” (Numbers 5:11 – 12)
There is a line in Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play Raisin in the Sun which has always moved me. It is the story of a poor black family in Chicago who inherits a small amount of money. The son Walter wants to use it to open a liquor store and pull the family out of poverty. The mama is reluctant. Walter asks mama if she trusts him. She says to her son, “I ain’t never stop trusting you. Like I ain’t never stop loving you.” That line seems to summarize the most essential ingredient in any family – trust.
To move from a poor black to a rich white family, or at least a formerly rich white family, I have been watching Robert DeNiro’s portrayal of Bernie Madoff in HBO’s Wizard of Lies. Madoff is now in prison for life for bilking investors out of billions of dollars in history’s largest Ponzi scheme. Madoff came across as a trustworthy Jewish businessman who cheated not only individual investors but organizations like Hadassah and CAJE out of their money. The television show portrays how Madoff not only bilked others, but betrayed the trust of his own family, his brother, his wife, and his two sons. One of his sons tragically committed suicide.
Trust can make or break families. Somebody recently sent me a video of Fred Rogers (Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood) testifying before Congress on the importance of children’s educational television programming. Mr. Rogers said that the most important value young children must learn as they grow up is trust. Today when the government is threatening to cut funding for such programs, I wish that Mr. Rogers was still alive to testify once again.
Trust is the glue that holds families together, almost more than love. When love begins to disappear, it can always be rebuilt. But it is extremely difficult to rebuild trust. Particularly in a marriage, trust is an essential ingredient. I have seen marriages rebuilt after infidelity, but such marriages are always damaged.
This week we read an extremely difficult law in the Torah. It speaks about when the trust breaks down between a husband and wife. Such a wife is called a sotah and the husband can put her through a trial by ordeal to see if she has been faithful. She is forced to drink bitter waters which cause certain physical symptoms to appear. The purpose of the ritual was to try to rebuild trust. Fortunately for Jewish tradition, the Rabbis of the Talmudic period did away with this entire ritual. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said that men who themselves are not faithful cannot become suspicious of their wives. “At the time when the man is free from iniquity, the water proves his wife; but when the man is not free from iniquity, the water does not prove his wife” (Sotah 47b). This is one of the first times in Jewish tradition that men were held to the same standard as women regarding fidelity.
The laws of the sotah have longed disappeared from Jewish life, but the centrality of trust in a marriage and in a family is still important. When I perform a wedding, I spend a good deal of time speaking about making a marriage that works. One of the essential ingredients is an intimate friendship between a husband and a wife. Tradition calls couples reim ahuvim “loving friends. When we think about friendship, we think about opening up to another human being knowing that they are not going to hurt us. Relationships make us vulnerable. To trust another person, particularly our spouse, is essential for a marriage to succeed. That trust goes far beyond marital fidelity. Trust means being honest with another human being. And trust means being vulnerable knowing that the other person will not hurt us.
We live in a culture that worships love. Love is important. But love without trust can never last. That is why I so often teach that trust is the glue that holds families together. A Raisin in the Sun was the first play written by a black woman to be produced on Broadway. It is considered an American classic. Perhaps the power of the play is the theme of trust within an American family.

“The chieftains also brought the dedication offering for the altar upon its being anointed, As the chieftains were presenting their offerings before the altar the Lord said to Moses, let them present their offerings for the dedication of the altar, one chieftain each day.” (Numbers 7:10-11)
Our hearts are heavy with the tragic events in Orlando this past weekend. May God send healing to the wounded and comfort to the bereaved. After this event, it would be easy to speak about gun control or battling terrorism, messages we hear from politicians and public figures. But I believe there is a deeper message that needs to be shared. I call it the lesson of the twelve princes.
In this week’s portion twelve chieftains or princes, representing the twelve tribes of Israel, each bring a dedication offering to the newly erected tabernacle. In one of the most repetitive, some might say boring, portions of the Torah, we read what each prince brought each day. What stands out is that each prince brought the exact same gift of animal offerings, gold, and silver. Twelve times the Torah repeats almost word for word the same thing. Why could the Torah not mention the offerings once, and then simply say “ditto?” In a sense it reminds me of college and high school graduation ceremonies this time of year, where each name is individually read. Why could they not simply say “all graduates” and not bore everyone by reading hundreds, perhaps thousands of names?
The reason is clear. Everybody deserves their individual moment of glory. Each of the princes had their day, the moment when their tribe was honored. Every individual, whether it be twelve princes of ancient Israel or one thousand graduates of a local college, deserves their moment of dignity. We are not part of a mass of people. We are individuals, each created in the image of God. As Ben Azzai said it Pirkei Avot, “The Ethics of the Fathers,” “Despise no man … for there is no man who does not have his hour.” (Avot 4:3)
This important idea has consequences in terms of Jewish weddings and other simchas. Tradition frowns upon double weddings, for example two sisters being married on the same day. Each bride deserves her individual moment to shine. The Talmud says explicitly, “We do not intermingle one joyous occasion with another.” (Moed Katan 8b) Every individual has a dignity and an inherent value, and every individual deserves his or her moment.
That brings me back to Orlando. It was not simply a group of mostly Hispanic gays who were attacked in that nightclub. It was forty-nine individuals, each created by God and endowed with a fundamental dignity. In the same way, it was not simply a group of Israeli Jews who were gunned down a week ago in a Tel Aviv café. It was four precious individuals. And it was not simply a group of Europeans attacked at an airport and subway station in Brussels last March. Each was created in the image of God.
The modern world has seen a number of ideologies arise that deny the value of individuals, but simply see people as groups, some worthy of life and some not worthy of life. The Nazis divided the world into the Aryan race and inferior races; the latter could be exterminated with impunity. Communist leaders like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot divided the world into those who toed the party line and those who did not; the latter were not worthy of life. Both these ideologies were defeated. Today such groups as ISIS and Al Qaeda divide the world into properly religious Moslems and everyone else (including other Moslems), the infidels, who are worthy of death. This is the ideology which must be defeated.
This evil ideology will be defeated by a powerful idea, an idea which is clear from this week’s Torah portion. Every human being has an inner dignity and every human being is infinitely precious. God weeps at the needless loss of every individual human life. We must proclaim this idea with a loud voice, so that the entire world hears it.

“The man shall be clear of guilt, but the woman shall suffer her guilt.” (Numbers 5:31)
There has long been a double standard when it comes to sexual behavior by men and women. As recently as a generation ago, men were expected to be sexually experienced while women were expected to maintain their chastity. Going back to Biblical times, the double standard was even more pronounced. A woman had to commit to one man, while a man was permitted multiple wives and concubines. When the Ten Commandments forbids adultery, it is speaking about a married woman and someone not her husband. There is nothing in the Torah about a married man and someone not his wife.
One can understand the reason for this ancient double standard. It had to do with the paternity of any children the woman might bear. Allowing multiple sexual partners for a woman would raise questions of paternity in days before contemporary paternity testing. Children need to know who their father is. But this double standard has persisted to our very day.
I recall the 2011 scandal in New York City regarding the French head of the International Money Fund Dominique Strauss-Kahn. He was an economist and one of the most powerful Jews in the world, possibly slated to become President of France. Then he was accused of raping a hotel maid at the Sofitel New York Hotel. Charges were dismissed when it came out that he did not rape her; he merely had an affair with her. Many in America with its conservative values were still scandalized, while many in Europe simply dismissed it. “Men will be men.”
The double standard may persist. But the Rabbis of the Talmud, in studying this week’s portion, came up with a ruling that questioned treating men’s behavior differently from women’s behavior. The portion contains a very difficult ancient law known as the law of the Sotah. The Sotah was a woman whose husband accuses her of sexual adultery. He has no proof but strong suspicions. He could put her through a trial by ordeal to show her guilt or her innocence. She was made to drink from what the Torah calls the waters of bitterness. If she was guilty, she showed certain physical symptoms. It is a very hard portion to read and understand for moderns. But it was also difficult for the ancient rabbis to understand.
The Rabbis of the Talmud interpreted the entire procedure out of existence. They noticed how the Torah teaches that only if man is clear of guilt can the woman can be found guilty. Only if the husband has remained pure will this entire ordeal work. If there is any question about the husband’s sexual behavior, he would be a hypocrite to bring charges against his wife. The Mishnah teaches, “When adulterers increased in number, the application of the waters of jealousy ceased, and Rabbi Jochanan ben Zakkai abolished them.” (Sotah 9:9) In days of sexual immorality by both women and men, there was no room for such an ordeal. The Rabbis were saying to the men, keep yourselves pure before you start accusing your wives. When men did not keep themselves pure, the Rabbis abolished the law.
Later Rabbinic law would move in the direction of equal expectations of men and women. Rabbenu Gershon ruled in the Middle Ages, if a woman can only take one husband, then a man can only take one wife. Polygamy disappeared throughout most of the Jewish world. According to Jewish moral teachings, if women were expected to be faithful, then men were also expected to be faithful.
In our own generation it is time to be rid of this double standard once and for all. Judaism seeks holiness in everything, including sexual behavior. This standard of holiness ought to apply equally to men and women. Adultery is wrong whether committed by the wife or the husband. Men need to be held to as high a standard as women. The difficult law of the Sotah contains the first hint that the double standard is wrong.
“Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.”
(Numbers 4:22)
This week we read the portion called Naso, the longest single portions in the Torah. It begins with a continuation of the census of the tribe of Levi. The Hebrew word, translated “take a census,” is naso. The word literally means “lift up.” Perhaps a better translation would be “lift up the Geshonites,” take notice of them and make them special.
This Hebrew word for “lift up” can be found in many contexts throughout the Bible. Later in this portion we read the priestly blessing, which has become a central feature of Jewish as well as Christian liturgy. The middle of the threefold blessing begins with the words, “lift up Your face to us.” Even God is capable of lifting up. Again the true meaning is to notice us and set us apart, to make us special. By lifting His face up to us, God helps lift us up.
Today I want to look at one common usage of this word for “lift up.” The Hebrew word for marriage is nisuim. In particular, nisuim refers to the second part of the Jewish wedding ceremony where the final commitment is made. The adjective which means “married” in Hebrew is nisui. The implication from the Hebrew is that marriage is some kind of lifting up. But who is lifting up whom?
The first answer may be that God is lifting up the bride and groom as a couple, just as we later lift them up on chairs at a Jewish wedding. But that is not clear from the details of the ceremony. To look in more detail, the key moment at a Jewish wedding comes in the first part of the ceremony called erusin. There the groom symbolically lifts up his bride. Or perhaps more properly, he sets apart his bride. He does it by placing a ring on her right index finger and saying a formula, “with this ring you are set aside for me as my wife according to the laws of Moses and the people Israel.” The groom sets his wife apart, lefts her up as someone special to him. A traditional wedding ceremony is a single ring ceremony.
Most non-Orthodox rabbis including myself do a double ring ceremony. The bride hands the groom a ring and says a formula. I usually have her say a verse from Song of Songs, “I am my beloved and my beloved is mine.” (Song of Songs 6:3) This is a modern, non-Orthodox practice. Some Orthodox rabbis teach that doing a double ring ceremony invalidates the marriage. I strongly disagree. I see nothing wrong with adding to the traditional ceremony. But the key point is that when a woman hands a man a ring, there is no implication of his being set apart of lifted up.
The traditional wedding ceremony is a decidedly none egalitarian event. The groom sets the bride apart, lifts her up; the bride does not set the groom apart or lift him up. The reason is simple. Back in the days when these ceremonies developed, a woman could only marry one man, but a man could marry more than one woman. Think of Jacob married to Leah and Rachel, or the countless wives of King David. It took centuries for the Jewish community to outlaw polygamy, and it is still legal in some Jewish communities. A woman is lifted up and committed to one man, but nowhere is a man lifted up and committed to one woman.
In fact, when the Torah says in the Ten Commandments, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exodus 20:13), it is referring to a married woman with a man not her husband. The Ten Commandments says nothing about a married man with a woman not his wife. (Gentleman, this is not permission, Jewish ethics has changed since the Ten Commandments.) Some non-Orthodox rabbis have said that we should re-envision the entire Jewish wedding ceremony to make it more egalitarian. But tradition is a huge attraction for most couples.
Is there any move towards greater equality in marriage? There is a hint from this week’s portion. There is a long passage about a sotah, a ritual ordeal for a woman suspected of adultery. The passage ends with the words “the man shall be free of guilt.” (Numbers 5:31) Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai interpreted this verse to mean that for the ritual to work, the husband himself must be absolutely chaste. For a man to accuse his wife of adultery while he is being unfaithful is absolutely wrong. The Mishnah says that when the adulterers increased, Rabbi Jonanan ben Zakkai abolished the ritual altogether. (Sotah 9:9) If woman are to be lifted up in a marriage, then men must also be lifted up.

“The Lord bless you and protect you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!” (Numbers 6:24 – 26)
In the center of this long portion we find one of the most beautiful and oft-quoted passages in all of scripture – the Priestly blessing. Traditionally the kohenim are commanded to pronounce this three line blessing to the congregation. We maintain that tradition on all the Jewish festivals throughout the year. In Jerusalem the Priestly blessing is pronounced at every service every day. The blessing has gone beyond synagogue liturgy. I bless every bride and groom with this blessing. I bless new babies. And every Friday night I bless each of my children, now adults, with this threefold blessing. Often clergy use it at public meetings for an invocation or benediction. These words are the most popular way to bring God’s blessing into the world.
The Priestly blessing is exactly three verses long. The first verse contains three words, the second verse five words, and the third verse seven words. It is almost as if the words build up towards a climax. There seems to be a deliberate pattern of the words. God’s blessing leads us towards some divine purpose.
The first line of the blessing, three words, is concerned with our material sustenance and protection. It speaks of God’s blessing us and guarding us. We need to receive whatever we need to survive, and we need to be protected from those who would harm us. Perhaps we can see the first blessing as the wish for physical survival and comfort. Long ago the Rabbis taught, im ein kemach ein Torah “If there is no bread, there is no Torah.” (Avot 3:17) There is the story of the Rebbe who saw his students trying to get the poor Jews of the community to observe more commandments. The Rebbe asked his students what they were doing. “We are trying to save their souls.” The Rebbe responded, “Rather you should worry about your own soul and their bodies.” The first stage of blessing is material blessing.
The second line of the blessing, five words, speaks of God’s light and God’s grace. We ask for the light of God to shine on the people we bless. This is a spiritual blessing. Once a person’s material needs are met, it is time to think of their spiritual needs. For the Torah teaches, “man does not live by bread alone.” (Deuteronomy 8:3) We humans may be physical beings but we are also spiritual beings. We have a body but we also have a soul. Light has always been the symbol of the spiritual dimension of reality. The second blessing is the wish that our soul find spiritual comfort. And yet we are not finished. There is a third level of the blessing.
We ask God to lift us up. But this time the wish is to grant us peace. Peace – shalom – in Jewish tradition is more than a ceasefire. The word shalom comes from a Hebrew phrase meaning “completeness” or “wholeness.” True peace is when we live in a kind of wholeness with others, without tension or jealousy. Perhaps it is worth considering why peace is the third line of the Priestly blessing.
In the first two lines, we have prayed for material blessings and spiritual blessings. But this is not enough. We cannot have true blessing of body and spirit if we live in a world where our neighbor is not so blessed. True peace comes when we move beyond our own needs and create a kind of wholeness with others. The third blessing is the hope that our material and spiritual blessings will be passed on to others, so that we can live at one with them. It is the recognition that we can never be truly at peace when our neighbor is in pain. We are each part of something greater than ourselves. The blessing of our neighbor affects us.
This is the meaning of a threefold blessing. First, we ask for material sustenance. Second, we ask for spiritual sustenance. Finally, we pray that both material and spiritual sustenance can be passed to our neighbor, and then to the stranger, and finally to the entire world. Only with peace will we receive the ultimate blessing.


“The priest shall put these curses down in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness.”
(Numbers 5:23)
Sometimes we can learn profound truths from difficult laws. This portion contains the law of the Sotah – the law of a man who suspects that his wife has committed adultery. It is a ritual of ordeal, where the woman must drink bitter waters into which certain Biblical curses have been dissolved. If she is guilty, she will display certain physical symptoms; if she is innocent, she will be blessed with children. The law is degrading and misogynist. Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai outlawed the rite long ago when the number of adulterers increased. (Sotah 9:9)
What can we learn from such an archaic and difficult law? The Rabbis never saw the law as applying to a woman who was guilty. They preferred to apply it to a woman who may have been innocent, but for whom trust has broken down. As the Rabbis saw it, the real purpose of the law was to rebuild trust between a husband and a wife. As part of the ritual, God’s holy Name was actually dissolved in the bitter waters. The Midrash says, “For the sake of peace between husband and wife, God has ordered the divine Name be blotted out.” (Numbers Rabbah 9:36) Of course the law of the Sotah was based on the possible adultery by the wife. When the husbands began to be unfaithful in marriages, Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai outlawed the ritual altogether.
We can read this as a law about the breakdown of trust between a husband and a wife. Often I ask young people what is the most important ingredient for a successful marriage. Invariably they answer “love.” I disagree. From years of Rabbinic counseling, I believe the most important ingredient in a successful marriage is “trust.” When trust has broken down, it does not matter how much a couple loves one another. Their suspicion and discomfort will prevent them from staying in the marriage.
When I speak about trust in a marriage, I am not merely talking about adultery. Certainly fidelity is a fundamental ingredient of any marriage, and a philandering husband or unfaithful wife will destroy a marriage. But trust is something far deeper. Trust is the ability to open up to one’s partner, knowing that he or she will not hurt you. Trust is the ability to uncover oneself, both physically and emotionally, to be exposed without fear that one is vulnerable. Trust means feeling safe with one’s partner. And when that sense of safety disappears, when one fears that he or she will be hurt by the partner, the marriage is in deep trouble.
The Bible uses a fascinating phrase to refer to a relationship – “to uncover someone’s nakedness.” Until a man and woman really learn to know each other, it is important to keep one’s nakedness covered up. This refers not simply to physical nakedness, but emotional nakedness. One does not risk exposing one’s vulnerability to another until one trusts that person. But as trust is slowly established during dating and courtship, one slowly exposes one’s inner self. By the time one is prepared to marry, there can be no secrets. According to the Bible, Adam and Eve were “naked and not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) This is the ideal in a marriage, being exposed to one’s partner without feel shame, without feeling threatened.
When trust breaks down, one becomes vulnerable. In a marriage, partners often know each other so well that they know exactly how to zing it to the other. Each of us knows what we can say that will truly hurt the other. Part of trust is the knowledge that our partner will not say things that will hurt us. Without this trust, the marriage is in trouble.
Whoever has heard me speak or gone to me for counseling knows that I am a strong advocate of marriage. I believe that is how God wants us to live. But a marriage where trust has broken down is not a healthy marriage for either partner. We must take seriously the idea from this portion that even God’s holy Name can be dissolved to rebuild that essential trust between a husband and a wife.


“The Lord spoke to Moses, Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.” (Numbers 4:21-22)

My wife Evelyn shared a wonderful story with me. She works in the office of a very busy Jewish funeral home. With the festival of Shavuot falling this week, there was a sign on the board – Jewish holiday, No Jewish Services for the first day and the morning of the second day of the festival. One of her co-workers, known for his kindness, asked her, “What Jewish holiday is it?” She started to explain how Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Ten Commandments. He smiled and clearly spoke, “I love your Jewish holidays. We all need a break.” Evelyn said that his words gave her a real lift.
Life can be busy and sometimes difficult. We all need to find ways to lift each other up. When we approached Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments, the Torah speaks about “how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to me.” (Exodus 19:4) Whenever I read that passage I keep thinking of the movie Beaches and Bette Midler singing the wonderful song, “You are the Wind Beneath My Wings.” Just as God lifts us up, we must find ways to lift each other up.
The portion of the Torah we read right after Shavuot is called Naso. It usually is translated “take a census” but that does not give the entire idea. The term “naso” really means “lift up.” Perhaps a more accurate translation would be “lift up the tribe of the Gershonites.” The later Midrash says that the careful numbering of the various tribes and clans in the book of Numbers was like a king carefully counting each of his royal jewels. As he lifts each one and counts it, he realizes how valuable each one is to him. So God counts each individual by lifting them up and realizing their value.
The term lift up occurs frequently throughout the Torah. In the middle of this week’s portion is the tri-part Priestly blessing. The middle part says, “May the Lord lift His face upon you and be gracious to you.” Once again we get that theme of lifting up. When God lifts His face upon us, God also lifts us up. How many rabbis have retold the story of footprints on the sand. A man complains that his life is like footprints on the sand; often there are two sets of footprints, but when life was really difficult he only saw one set of footprints. God answers back, wherever you see one set of footprints, that is where I carried you. God lifts us up, and so to imitate God, we must lift each other up.
Nowhere is this idea more clear than when we speak of marriage. The Hebrew term for marriage is nisuin. The term comes from the same root as naso, lift up. Marriage is a mutual lifting up. In a strong marriage two partners constantly lift each other up. Sometimes one partner needs to be lifted and sometimes the other one. True love is when we see when our partner needs the extra lift, and when our partner sees that we need the lift. That is why I tell every couple standing under the huppah (marriage canopy), “Look at each other. Constantly try to see what the other one needs.”
Shavuot begins tonight. We eat blintzes and other dairy foods, celebrate Confirmation, and some of us stay up all night studying Torah. We read the beautiful book of Ruth about the woman who became a Jew and the great grandmother of King David. And we read how God lifted us up on our way to Mount Sinai.
To be human is to learn to lift up other humans. And the strange and beautiful irony is when we put in the time and energy to lift up someone




“The priest shall put these curses down in writing and rub it off into the water of bitterness.” (Numbers 5:23)

What is the most important ingredient for a successful marriage? Ask the average person this question and the answer you will receive is – love. Yet love is exceedingly complex and difficult to pin down. In my latest book The Kabbalah of Love, I explore four completely different ways of looking at love, based on the four worlds of kabbalah. As I tell every bride and groom, in spite of the popular Captain and Tennille song, love will not keep us together.
So what is the most important ingredient for a successful marriage? There is a hint in this week’s portion. We read the difficult, and in all honesty archaic laws of the sotah, a wife suspected by her husband of adultery. He has no proof, just deep suspicions. There is a trial by ordeal (fortunately removed from Jewish practice almost two millennia ago.) But as part of that ordeal, certain curses including the name of God were written on a scroll and dissolved into water, which the wife then drank. If she showed certain physical symptoms, she was guilty.
According to many authorities, the purpose of the ritual was to rebuild trust between husband and wife. Usually when we write God’s name, we are not allowed to destroy the document. (That is why we Jews bury rather than throw away Torah scrolls and holy books). But this is an exception. To rebuild trust between a husband and wife, we actually blot out God’s name. As the Midrash explained it, “For the sake of peace between husband and wife, God has ordered that the divine name be blotted out.” (Numbers Rabbah 9:36)
Trust is the most essential ingredient in any marriage. And trust means far more than marital fidelity. Trust is that overall secure feeling each of us must have that we are safe with our significant partner. Our partner may know how to hurt us, may know exactly the words to give us a “zing.” But we are safe, knowing that our partner will never use that knowledge. Our partner is not keeping any secrets that can undermine us nor destroy our relationship. The essentials are out in the open. Or as I like to interpret the verse in the Garden of Eden story, Adam and Eve were “naked and not ashamed.” We are not talking about physical but rather an emotional nakedness. Two marriage partners were open and upfront in their relationship; nothing was hidden.
Human beings have the power to hurt us. And the closer these human beings are to us, the easier it is to cause us pain. This is true for our spouses and significant others in our lives. It is also true for parents, siblings, and other important family members. When a significant family member hurts a person, a wall goes up protecting that person from future hurts. The wall serves as an emotional barrier, preventing not only trust but also affection and intimacy. Marriages and other relationships are destroyed. Children who have raised such protective walls after being abandoned by parents often suffer from what some have called “failure to thrive.” Adults who have been badly hurt protect themselves by avoiding ever opening up into another relationship.
Trust is at the center of all successful relationships. This is true between a husband and wife or a parent and child. It is also true within friendships and even within the business world. Many people are aware that much of the international diamond trade is in the hands of very Orthodox Jews. Often these Jews do business on a mere handshake; trust has been built into the very fabric of their business relationships. Unfortunately, Jews have also seen the ugly side of trust broken down. Thousands trusted their life savings into the hands of a nice Jewish man named Bernard Madoff, who turned out to be a crook.
Perhaps it is time for someone to write a new hit pop song – “trust will keep us together.”



“The Lord spoke to Moses, take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.” (Numbers 4:21-22)

I truly believe Judaism loses something valuable in translation. Take the name of this portion naso. The new Jewish Publication Society Bible translates it “take a census.” I have seen it translated “count” or “number.” All of these lose the essence of the word. The word naso actually means “lift up.” A translation true to the Hebrew would probably say “Lift up the Gershonites.” By lifting someone up, we make him or her special. (Think of a father lifting a child on his shoulders. Here God is lifting up this group of people.)
When we Jews say the mourners kaddish, we use a number of different words to “lift up God.” The whole purpose of kaddish is to stand in the midst of a community and reaffirm our faith in God, that life is not a random event but has a purpose. (That is why we need a minyan of ten Jews to say kaddish; the minyan represents the community.) One of the terms we use to signify God in this prayer is yetnaseh, lifted up. The Aramaic words of this prayer literally seek to lift up God.
The term naso is used in many contexts in Judaism. For example, the classical Hebrew phrase for conducting business in the marketplace is naso v’natan literally “lift up and take.” One of the classical forms of acquisition in Jewish commercial law is lifting up and carrying an item. Similarly, when the kohenim bless the congregation on festivals (in Israel every day), they do nesiat kapayim literally “lift up their hands.” The act of lifting up makes something special; by lifting their hands the kohenim are acting as God’s agents to bless the congregation.
One of the most important usages of the word naso is at the wedding ceremony. The technical name for a wedding in Judaism, at least the second part of the wedding where the seven blessings are chanted and the couple can live together as husband and wife, is nesuim (sometimes pronounced nesuin). The formalities of the marriage ceremony are now complete. The husband and the wife have lifted one another up to a special status. It is as if they stand higher now then before, certainly in each other’s eyes. One of my goals is to reestablish that sense of holiness, of being lifted up, that was classically part of the state we call marriage.
Let me share one more usage of the term naso – the nasi or “one who is lifted up.” When Rabbi Judah put together the Mishnah, the collection of Oral Laws which became the heart of the Talmud, he received the title Yehudah HaNasi, usually translated Judah the Prince. Perhaps we should call him Judah the lifted one. The title shows the respect he received from the people Israel for his scholarship and wisdom.
Today we use the word nasi to mean president. Whether the president of a local club or the President of the United States, the Hebrew term is nasi. Of course, the word means lifted up, the community has chosen to lift up this person to a position of prestige, power, and respect. He or she has attained this moment only by virtue of being lifted up by the community. It is so easy for presidents to become arrogant. That is why it is vital for any person with the title nasi to remember who placed them there.
As I write these words, it looks like the long race for the Democratic nominee for President is over. The Republican race has been over for several months. It looks as if either McCain or Obama will become the next nasi. Several members of our synagogue have asked me how I intend to vote. I will not endorse a candidate nor will I publicly announce whom I will vote for. That is not my role as a rabbi.
My role as a rabbi is to teach that to be president is to be lifted up by the community who elects him or her. It is incumbent on anybody who holds that title never to forget how he or she arrived there. May both candidates for President of the United States prove worthy of being “lifted up.”



“Remove male and female alike, put them outside the camp so that they do not defile the camp of those in whose midst I dwell.” (Numbers 5:3)

The Israelites were about to begin their journey through the Sinai desert. But first everybody who was impure had to be removed from the camp. The Torah was speaking of ritual impurity, but the question has broader implications. How does a community keep itself pure? Who is in and who is out?
In the United States this question has been at the center of the news this past week. How should we as a nation deal with illegal immigrants? Do we open the door and grant a general amnesty to those who are here? Or do we try to shut the door and crack down on those who entered this country illegally? If a community is too open, there is a danger of changing the very nature of the community as well as the economic challenges of too many immigrants. If a community is too closed, there is a danger of cruelty, of separating families who have been in this country for decades. The solution to the immigration question lies somewhere in the middle between opening the borders and cracking down. Where in the middle?
The same question has divided the Jewish community from Biblical times until the present. How open should we be in welcoming new Jews into our midst? Today there are two extremes. On one hand there are particular ethnic communities such as the Syrians who outlaw conversions altogether. There are the very Orthodox who make it extremely difficult to convert. In Israel today, where Jewishness is in the hands of Orthodox parties, conversion is a long and frustrating process. Immigrants must bring proof of their Jewishness such as their parents’ ketuba (marriage document) to demonstrate that they are Jewish. Many Russian immigrants of questionable Jewish status face severe difficulties if they want to marry or if they plan to be buried in a Jewish cemetery. Then there are non-Orthodox rabbis, myself included, who insist on proper conversion if the mother is not Jewish.
On the other extreme are many in the liberal camp who have made it extremely easy to be part of the Jewish community. Reform rabbis will consider children Jewish if either the mother or father is Jewish and require no conversion of adopted children. Standards of conversions vary from rabbi to rabbi. And today many liberal synagogues welcome all individuals with no difference in the participation of non-Jews in the ritual. Many people not born Jewish have informally joined the Jewish community without any formal conversion.
What is the proper stand? On Shavuot we read the book of Ruth, which tells a moving story about a young Moabite woman who cast her fate with the Jewish people. “Your people shall be my people, your God shall be my God” (Ruth 1:16). Modern religious authorities can argue whether Ruth went through a formal conversion (being questioned by three rabbis and going to the mikvah or ritual bath), or whether Ruth informally cast her fate with the people without conversion. What is challenging is that the acceptance of Ruth seems to fly in the face of the Torah prohibition against accepting Moabites as converts. (See Deuteronomy23:4)
I am convinced that the entire book of Ruth is a polemic against those who would take a hard line on welcoming new Jews. Ezra who led the Israelites from the first Babylonian exile back to the Promised Land forced the Israelites to turn away their gentile wives and children. Conversion was never offered as an option. Perhaps the acceptance of Ruth is a reaction to the closed attitudes of Ezra. It is worthy to note that King David was a direct descendent of Ruth.
Today, the Jewish community is arguing about Who is a Jew? America is arguing about immigration. The issues are not easy. But perhaps it is worthy to remember the words of the poet Edwin Markham,
“He drew a circle that shut me out,
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had will to win,
We drew a circle that took him in.”



“Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.”
(Numbers 4:21)

At the beginning of this portion, the term naso is translated “take a census.” The intent of God was to have a careful count of the tribe of Levi when He commanded Moses to count them according to their clans. But the meaning of the word is something more powerful – naso literally means “lift up.” By giving members of the tribe of Levi special roles in transporting the Holy Ark, Moses is literally lifting them up.
The word is used in other contexts in Jewish tradition. For example, the traditional term for a Jewish wedding ceremony is nisuim, the plural of the term naso. For a wedding to grow into a successful marriage, two people must literally lift each other up. A bride lifts up her groom by making him a better man, and a groom lifts up his bride by making her a better woman.
Recently television showed the season finale of the very successful family drama Seventh Heaven. The show is about a minister, his wife, and their seven children, so I can relate. The theme of the final show was whether one of the sons would go ahead with his wedding or not. His father gave him a test – “Do you make each other better?” In other words, do you lift each other up? If a bride and groom do not lift each other up, they do not belong as husband and wife.
Our popular culture seems to realize the profound truth that people need to lift one another up. In An Officer and a Gentleman they played the Joe Crocker song “Love lift us up where we belong.” In Beachesthey played the Bette Midler song “You are the wind beneath my wings.” Countless songs, movies, television shows share the theme of one human being lifting another human being to a higher place. The insight is that when we lift others up, we also lift ourselves up. Just as a high tide lifts all the boats in the harbor, acts of love create a spiritual high tide that lifts all of us up.
Unfortunately not everybody has learned this valuable lesson. There are people who rather than lifting up their fellow human beings, prefer to put them down. Often they are people of low self-esteem. The easiest way to raise their own selves is to put down others. The rise is only temporary. We can float on other people’s misfortune for a while, but eventually that attitude brings us all down. To use the same metaphor, negativity towards others is like a low tide that lowers all boats.
If you have ever spent time around negative people who enjoy putting down others, you know how negative it can be. People that cause others to be lowered drain the energy out of everybody. There is enough negativity in the world without adding more. That is why it is so important to teach the value of lifting up.
There is a wonderful image from kabbala. God created the world by giving forth light. Much of that light became trapped in husks, becoming hidden sparks which need to be uncovered. The job of humanity is to raise up all of those holy sparks. Let us imagine that every human being contains a number of those holy sparks. One of the most important tasks we humans can do is lift up the holy sparks in every person we meet. Ultimately every person we meet was put on this earth for a purpose, and was created in the image of God. Therefore, every person we meet deserves to be lifted up. The miracle is that as we uncover the holy sparks in others, we find ourselves being lifted up as well.



“May the Lord lift His face upon you and grant you peace.”
(Numbers 6:26)

The most famous, and perhaps the most beautiful passage in the book of Numbers is the Priestly blessing, which falls in the middle of this portion:
“May the Lord bless you and guard you.
May the Lord cause His face to shine upon you and be gracious to you.
May the Lord lift His face upon you and grant you peace.” (Numbers 6:24-26)

God’s holy name appears in each of the three stanzas. Besides this, the only term repeated in the blessing is the word “face.” (In Hebrew, the word for face is panim. In this blessing, the word is panav which means “His face.”) We ask God to cause His face to shine upon us, and then to lift up His face to us. But does God have a face?
Of course this is a metaphor. God has no body, no outstretched arm nor mighty hand, no nose to smell nor voice to speak, and certainly no face, at least in a physical sense. When the Bible uses such terms, it is anthropomorphizing aspects of God’s reality, using physical terms to describe the unphysical. So, what do we mean by a face, whether God’s or ours?
The first insight comes from the Hebrew. The word panim is always in the plural, literally “faces.” You cannot have a single face; there must always be more than one. Perhaps the reason is that none of us has just one face. We present the world with a certain face when we are happy, another when we are angry, another when we are frightened, and another when we are sad. We often present one face to the world and another to our family. Perhaps we have one face for business and another for pleasure. Each of us has many faces. Therefore, face in Hebrew is always plural.
However, perhaps there is another reason why face is always plural. Faces always come in pairs. Two people meet face to face. The word face is about an encounter with another. My face comes into being when it meets another face, when I really stand in the presence and see the other. To quote the old hit song, “It takes two baby, it takes two, me and you.” My face exists to encounter the face of my fellow.
Humans need other humans, and need to be fully present. We must be able to see the other, to be open while confronting the other. Our very being is defined in relationship to others, and by being in the presence of others.
I use this idea in many areas of counseling. First, as many of you know, I have spoken throughout the country on sexual ethics. One point I often make is that, unlike the animal kingdom, we humans usually have sex face to face. We see the other during our most intimate encounter, and therefore the other becomes more than a mere body. That is why the Bible uses the verb “know” when speaking about human sexuality – “Now the man knew his wife, and she conceived.” (Genesis 4:1) When our sexual partners become mere bodies, we have lowered ourselves to the animal level. To be human is to see the other.
Similarly, being face to face is vital for our relationships. Husbands and wives need and deserves time with one another, face to face without distraction. Children have a vital need for their parents’ ongoing presence. Even in business settings, there is nothing more frustrating than talking to someone who is preoccupied by papers on the desk, phone interruptions, and other distractions. People deserve our presence and full attention.
So it is with God. God does not have a face in any literal sense. But God has a presence. There are moments in our lives when we feel we are living in the very presence of our Creator, when God’s presence is shining upon us, when God lifts up that presence and brings us peace. The Priestly Blessing invokes such a sense of God’s presence. As humans we need God. And perhaps equally important, God needs us. Only Moses saw God “face to face.” But each of us can feel the reality of God’s presence.



“The Lord said to Moses, Let a chief for each day, a chief for each day bring their offering for the dedication of the altar.”
(Numbers 7:10)

This week my daughter graduates from High School. It is an exciting moment for our family for which she worked very hard. She certainly deserves her moment of glory when she walks across the stage and receives her diploma.
Unlike my oldest son who went to a small, private high school, my daughter went to a large public high school. There are over 700 students receiving diplomas. Each name will be called and each will walk across the stage. I expect the entire process to take several hours. Why can’t they simply call my daughter’s name, let her walk, and then announce, “For everybody else, ditto.” It would make the evening shorter, and more enjoyable for us.
Obviously, the answer is that every student deserves his or her moment of glory. Every parent deserves a little naches watching their youngster receive the diploma. Every student is equally valuable, has worked hard, and deserves a moment of glory. None of us are mere dittos, et ceteras, we are each humans with our own uniqueness. Long graduations are part of the price we all pay for recognizing the humanity of each every student.
The same idea underlies part of this week=s Torah portion. Twelve princes, one for each of the twelve tribes, over the course of twelve days, bring dedication offerings. The Torah describes each of the twelve offerings at length B one silver bowl weighing 130 shekels, one silver basin weighing 70 shekels, both filled with choice flour and oil, one gold ladle weighing 10 shekels filled with incense, one bull, one ram, one lamb, one goat, and a variety of other animals. Each of the offerings is precisely the same. The Torah repeats all twelve princes with the offerings, making the reading extremely repetitive. Would it not have been easier to mention the first prince, the first day, and then say regarding the other days, ditto.
The Torah was repetitive because each of the twelve princes deserves their moment of glory. Each deserves to be the center of attention for one day. No one wants to be a mere ditto, an et cetera, an afterthought. Each deserves to stand up there and shine for their particular moment. Like the individual families as their children walk across the graduation stage, each tribe deserves to kvell (a good Yiddish word meaning to be proud) as their leader brings his daily gift.
This portion shows the unique value of every human being. Perhaps the gifts of each tribe were the same. But for that individual tribe, it was a unique moment, unlike any other. So too, perhaps each high school diploma is the same. But for that graduating senior, it is their unique moment, unlike any other.
If we begin to become bored during such repetitious moments, perhaps it is worthy to remember that every individual is God’s child. God kvells for each individual during his or her moment of glory. If God had hands, God would applaud for every person who walks on that stage. The Talmud teaches that God stamps every human being with the same stamp, and yet no human being is exactly like any other. Every human being is unique, and everyone deserves to celebrate his or her uniqueness.
This idea is true many times in life. Some of you come to synagogue each and every week, and see a different young person become bar or bat mitzvah. It may seem repetitious. You might wish I would say to the bar or bat mitzvah, “Whatever I said in the past to previous bar and bat mitzvah students, ditto.” But you know I will not do that. Every bar and bat mitzvah deserves their unique moment, and even when we have a double b’nai mitzvah, I try to find moments in the service when each can individually shine. Like my daughter, each of us deserves moments of glory in life.



“And these are the laws of the Nazir when the days of his consecration are fulfilled – he shall present before the Lord a year old lamb without blemish as a sin offering.”
(Numbers 6:13-14)

There is a Hasidic tale of a young student who seeks out a rebbe to train him in the spiritual disciplines of Hasidism. “Master”,says the student. “I will do whatever it takes to remove myself from the pleasures of the flesh in order to answer a higher spiritual calling. I am prepared to live on nothing but oats and water. I am prepared to roll in the snow naked if that is what is necessary to serve a higher purpose.”
The rebbe took the young student to the window and told him, “See that horse standing out there. That horse lives on nothing but oats and water. That horse rolls in the snow naked. You are telling me that you want to be like that horse. But you are not a horse. To give up the ways of the flesh is not the path to God.”
There is an idea that in life we choose between the pleasures of the flesh and the joy of the spirit. There is an idea that the holy life is one removed from the joys of food and wine, music and sexual pleasure. Many religious traditions see asceticism as the only true path to God.
In this week’s portion we read about the Nazir, a man or a woman who made a special vow of holiness unto God. During the time that the Nazir was under the vow, he or she was forbidden to cut hair or shave, go near a dead body, and drink wine or any other spirits. Perhaps the Nazir was someone who found it difficult to control his or her appetites, and felt the need to take on an extra vow for greater self discipline. (We have all had moments when we believe our appetites are out of control.) Certainly through these restrictions the Nazir felt closer to God.
When the period of the vow was over, the former Nazir had to bring special offerings. In particular, he or she had to bring a sin offering. What was the sin? The Talmud teaches, The Nazir is a sinner because he afflicted himself through the abstention from wine. If one who afflicted himself only in respect of wine is called a sinner, how much more so one who ascetically refrains from all pleasures. (Nedarim 10a)
God made a material world full of pleasures for us to enjoy. There is food (without over indulgence), wine (drunk responsibly), sexual relations (with the right partner in the right context), nice clothing (worn modestly), and all the other pleasures of the flesh. In the book of Ecclesiastes, King Solomon searches for the meaning of life. In the end he writes, “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy and drink thy wine with a merry heart, for God has already accepted thy works. Let they garments be always white and let thy head lack no oil. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love all the days of the life of your vanity.” (Ecclesiastes 9:7-9)
The religious path is not to remove ourselves from the joy of life in this world. On the contrary, the religious path is to enjoy this material world which God made for us. The Rabbis taught that in the World to Come we will be called to account for every legitimate pleasure in this world that we failed to enjoy. (Jerusalem Talmud, Kiddushin 4:12)
It is through the enjoyment of life that we serve God. Good wine, good food, loving sexual relations, nice clothes, joyous moments with friends not only gives pleasure to the body but can become paths to Godliness.



“Speak to Aaron and his sons saying, thus shall you bless the people of Israel.”
(Numbers 6:22)

The woman who came to see me was deeply depressed. She did not like the direction her life had gone. She felt unworthy in God=s eyes. After listening to her story and giving her some advice, I invited her to our Sabbath services.
“Rabbi, I can’t do that. I am uncomfortable in services. I don’t believe God would want me there. I don’t deserve God’s blessings.”
How can I convince her that everybody deserves God’s blessings? In this week’s portion, we find the priestly blessing, perhaps the most famous blessing in the world. The kohenim (priests or descendants of Aaron) were given responsibility for pronouncing the words. But the blessing itself comes from God.
“May the Lord bless you and guard you. May the Lord lift His countenance onto you and be gracious to you. May the Lord shine His face upon you and grant you peace.” Three lines of three words, five words, and seven words. The first deals with our physical well-being, the second with our emotional well-being, the third with our spiritual well-being.
The Torah teaches that Aaron and his sons shall bless the entire community, not just the most worthy, the most ethical, the most spiritual. Every human being can partake in God’s blessing.
In our synagogue, we have returned to the old tradition of having the kohenim pronounce this blessing on each of the festivals through the year. I always explain that they are simply acting as God’s agents, pronouncing the words. It is God Who is actually doing the blessing.
In many more liberal synagogues, the rabbi plays the role of priest, pronouncing the words and blessing the congregation. I do not usually bless my congregation, but I do say the blessing at a bris or baby naming. I bless the children at our monthly family service. I also bless every new bride and groom under the huppah.
Perhaps most important, I bless my own children at home every Friday night immediately after we light Shabbat candles. I began this tradition when they were mere infants and have continued as we go through the challenging teen years. Sometimes my children and I have fought bitterly and there was a palpable tension as we lit candles, but never once have any of my children refused to be blessed. In fact, I call my oldest son every Friday afternoon in his college dorm to see how his week was, wish him “Shabbat Shalom,” and bless him. He is studying philosophy and remains a religious skeptic, but he never turns down the blessing.
Erich Fromm, in his book The Art of Loving speaks of two kinds of love which he calls fatherly love and motherly love. (These are tendencies or archtypes – every father and every mother loves with both types of love.) Next week I will have more to say about fatherly love. The receiving of God=s blessing involves motherly love.
Motherly love is unconditional love. It is a love that says, no matter what we do or whether or not we are worthy, we will receive this love. It is not love we have to earn, but love that flows to us by our very existence. We all need motherly love. That is why, whether we believe we deserve it or not, we should feel the warmth of God’s blessing.



“The Priest shall write these curses in a scroll, and he shall blot them out into the water of bitterness.”
(Numbers 5:23)

What is the most important ingredient in a successful marriage? Ask the average person, and they will probably say “love.” Afterall, that is the message of our popular culture. As the songs teach “love will keep us together,” “love makes the world go round,” “all you need is love.”
I see countless marriages break down, with a divorce rate rising. Each couple who comes to my study contemplating divorce stood under the marriage canopy deeply in love. Obviously, love alone does not keep us together.
What is the most important ingredient in a successful marriage? There is a hint in this week’s Torah reading. Sometimes we can learn the most modern, relevant teaching from the most ancient, archaic law. This is true of the ordeal of jealousy, a ritual prominent in this portion.
The ordeal speaks of a husband who suspected his wife of committing adultery. He had no proof, but the trust had broken down. There was a degrading ritual, where certain curses were written and dissolved into bitter waters. The woman drank the waters, and if she were guilty, certain physical symptoms appeared.
Fortunately, this archaic ritual has long ago disappeared from Jewish life. The rabbis taught that if the man himself had been less than faithful in the marriage, drinking the bitter waters would not work for his wife. (Sotah 47b) According to the Talmud, when adultery in increased in Israel, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai abolished the ritual altogether. (Sotah 9:9)
Is there anything we can learn from this ritual? The curses that were dissolved in the water included God’s name. As a general rule, once God’s name is written we can never destroy it. That is the reason we bury a Torah and other holy books when they are no longer fit for use. We never want to destroy God’s holy name.
Only this law is an exception. We allow God’s name to be dissolved into the bitter waters, with the hope that the woman who drank it will be found innocent. To rebuild trust between a husband and wife once again, even God’s name can be destroyed. For a marriage to succeed, the most important ingredient is trust.
When I counsel couples, I can often tell when the marriage is irretrievably broken. It is when one partner tells me, “I don’t trust him.” “I don’t trust her.” Trust is not simply about adultery. Trust is about not keeping secrets from one’s partner. Trust is not making decisions that will affect the marriage without consulting one’s partner. Trust is the intimate knowledge of what will cause our partner pain, and doing nothing to hurt the one we love.
There is an image of marriage in the Torah. “The man and woman were naked and not ashamed.” (Genesis 2:25) This is not simply about a physical nakedness. It is about uncovering oneself to another human being, with all our vulnerabilities and weaknesses, and having the trust that our partner will not hurt us.
We no longer make someone suspected of adultery drink bitter waters. Even as the ancient ritual has disappeared, the modern lesson still remains. How can we build the trust between a husband and wife that will allow their marriage to flourish? For as no popular song teaches, but perhaps one should: “Trust will keep us together.”