Are you here to serve or to be served?

The word Naso means to be lifted up or to be counted.  I’d like to continue the idea from my last week’s message: “Are we being counted?” The last count was where God was organizing and counting the Levites. He had already counted the twelve tribes and built Israel’s army; now he was building an army for Himself, an inner army to SERVE the people of Israel and be responsible for all aspects regarding building and maintenance of the Tent of Meeting, the Ochel Moed.

I have repeated that the Bible is not chronological but gives us principles. See if you can find the thread that connects the subjects presented in this parashah. Remember, Biblical Judaism is the opposite of Western Civilization. The Hebrew language is written from right to left unlike Western languages and speaks through pictures, not concepts. Biblical Judaism teaches us that each of us is special; we are made in His likeness and image. It is so important to understand that we are all counted. Most religions teach that we need to practice self-denial, but that comes from Greek or Hindu religions. Biblical Judaism again is the opposite – He has given us life to LIVE.  God is not impressed with sacrifices.  Religion teaches us that the holier we appear to be, the better we are.  True holiness means that we have been “separated” for a special role, not that we are better than others.

The Levites had been divided into families; from Kehat would come Aaron’s descendants and the priesthood, the cohanim. Kehat, Gershon and Merari would each have their line of duty. Each tribe would know what was expected of them. It is important to see that there is structure and order. The camp was formed with the Ochel Moed in the center. Around it were Aaron and his family on the East; Gershon on the west, on the South, Kehat and on the North were Merari.  Each with his purpose. Kehat had to move the ark and care for the sacred furnishings. Gershon took care of the woven materials. Merari took care of the wood items.  It seems that it was easier for the Levites than the rest of the tribes since they knew exactly what they had to do. However, later on, we will see that the other tribes would become cattle herders, farmers, fishermen, sea merchants etc., depending upon their geographical situations.  All are called to do something within and for the community.  Little by little, we all come to understand our calling.

Being created in His likeness and image has nothing to do with physical characteristics, rather it has to do with possessing God’s ethereal qualities since He does not have form. Idolaters, however, need a figure human or animal to worship.  Our spiritual aspect gives us the ability to know, to understand, to communicate, to reason, and to think.  With these qualities, we have the ability to live and work together to build community and society. By getting lost in the material world, one of our greatest challenges is our constant struggle to balance the material and the spiritual.

When the Creator formed us male and female, He assigned to each of us our roles and our raison-d’être.  When these roles are confused, our society is led down the road to destruction. This is happening in the world today.  When God breathed His Ruach, His divine Presence within us, we were endowed with integrity and morality. We have slowly been losing our integrity as we conform to the values of the world. We are shifting our values from being moral to immoral. The immoral person knows what good values are but doesn’t do them. However, there is still hope because he has the capability of knowing right from wrong even if he chooses to ignore it. The worst thing that can happen to a human being is becoming amoral where the person is no longer able to differentiate between right and wrong and more than that, he imposes his amoral judgements upon the rest. If you study the fall of various civilizations throughout history, you will see that they fell when they became amoral. This leads to our self-destruction.

What does all this have to do with Naso?  After the census, the first thing that the Creator would do is show them how to keep the camp clean, “tahor”.  Because we are so materialistic we miss the point about clean and unclean. I would like to challenge you to see it from a spiritual perspective.  The Creator is telling us that if someone has something physically wrong for example, it could have a spiritual aspect. For example, tzaraat, a skin disease or leprosy was not a physical illness, rather it stemmed from lashon harah  –  הרעהלשון, the evil tongue or gossip. The physical destruction of humanity is the result but it begins with the spiritual being as we start losing the concept of right and wrong.

The Creator advised us to separate the spiritually contaminated from within the camp, then to instruct them in the right way of living and bring them back once they are ready to return. In my many years as a counselor with people who were addicted to chemical substances, I found that the only way they could be helped was if they were “willing” to change. You cannot force anyone to go for treatment. Many of us are addicted to spiritual substances and we need to be willing to say, “I need help”. When a person can no longer differentiate between right and wrong, that’s where the trouble lies.  We have been given free will and every human has the freedom to behave the way he or she wants to, but when they don’t think that what they are doing is wrong, that’s when there is a problem for society. That’s the reason we needed to keep the camp clean, otherwise the whole camp would become infected. Today we have become infected.  Many of us, even right here in this room, do not have a clear understanding of right from wrong. The Torah speaks to us, but we keep making excuses for people.

After this comes the idea of the Vidui, the confession. GOD tells us first we need to be counted, then we need to be clean and if we are infected, we need to separate ourselves from the rest, we need to be cleansed, then instructed, and finally the Vidui.  If we have done something wrong to someone, we need to make it right. We speak of making restitution for physical damages that we caused, which is usually to give back 20% more than what we took. But I challenge you to go beyond the material to see the spiritual aspect of confession and restitution. If you have done lashon harah, gossip against someone, you have destroyed the image of the person who has been made in the image of God.   This is the Ninth Commandment.

Immediately after this, we read about the “Sota”, the problem of the jealous husband. It’s told with a sense of humour. If the husband suspects that the wife has been unfaithful, he takes her to the cohen who makes a holy water concoction of the ashes from the Tent of Meeting which the wife has to drink. The cohen tells her that if she is guilty her thighs would sag and her belly would explode.  Of course, she would immediately confess if she was guilty. If she was innocent, nothing would happen and it was a way of protecting her from her husband’s jealousy.

Continuing after the separation from the camp and the adulterous woman comes the teaching about the Nazirite vow. According to our sages, this was the only way for a regular Israelite to have a little experience about being a cohen. At the end of chapter 6 is a beautiful prayer by the cohen, for the people to be prosperous, well and close to God.

The last chapter of this parashah is the longest in the Torah, 89 verses.  It seems quite boring as we have to read the identical offerings that the twelve chieftains would each bring to the Creator.  Why would this be repeated twelve times? This emphasizes that each of us “counts”, that our calling and our roles are significant, and that our existence is important.  It implies that we need to participate and be available.

We are here to serve, not to be served. The world teaches the opposite…that others exist to serve us. We are responsible for our actions and participation.  Many who attend our congregation without taking responsibility week after week, I call “freeloaders”. They receive like gluttons but give very little of themselves in return. Those people are not counted anywhere. They remain visitors but are not part of the community.

The Creator assigned very clear responsibilities to the people of Israel. The greatest gift He gave to us was “free will”.  We are no one’s slaves. Being free means that we are responsible.  Religions teach that someone else will pay for our faults and that all we have to do is believe. This is easy believism! The Creator does not function like that.  He created you and gave you a purpose. If you don’t do it, you are missing the point.

I have been looking at several government systems. The one I see growing in this country is the welfare system that robs us of our human dignity.  I have no problem with those who need it since the Torah tells us to care for the widow, the orphan, and the foreigner but it doesn’t mean that we need to sustain them forever, rather it should be used to help them get back on their feet. While they are on it, they can help someone in need or volunteer for public service. There is always a way to give of ourselves in the community in which we live. The welfare system teaches people how to be freeloaders, to live off others and this destroys them and society.

When we have morality, we can choose to do what is right.

I have been thinking of things that we can ask ourselves: Am I being counted in my community? Do they trust me?  Am I reliable?  Am I present with them? Am I part of this community; can they count on me? Am I simply trying to show how spiritual I am or am I being myself?  Self-denial is not what the Creator is asking of us. We are called to be light to the world.  I am sad to see that we are losing the capacity to distinguish right from wrong.

When the Creator separated the Levites from the twelve tribes, He was making them a servant of the others. Being a Levite is placing them in the highest position; it was not to lord themselves over others but rather to serve them. Today it is quite the opposite; the more important you are, the more people you have to serve you. The greatest joy in life comes from being useful to others.  Today we are living in a give-me society.  People have come to our congregation and asked me what we have to offer them so that they would stay here.  I tell them that this is not the place for them; we are not here to be served but to serve. Without commitment, there is no growth, either on a personal or communal level.  If we have been called to the community in which we live, wherever it is,  it is so we can grow in our relationship with one another, with the Creator and to spread light to those around us.

Shabbat Shalom