The Power of the Covered Wagons
Some of you might have seen the piece I wrote for The Washington Post describing our visit as a congregation to The Fireplace on Monday night. The Fireplace is a gay predominantly African-American bar near Dupont Circle. In the aftermath of the unbelievably horrific attack at The Pulse a dozen members of our congregation went as a show of solidarity to the bar in solidarity with the gay community.
I received an enormous amount of feedback about our story--emails and messages of support from all over the world. Clearly the visit resonated with people. When we announced that we were doing it, we thought it was going to be a small local thing just to connect on a human level with some members of the gay community in DC. But it grew and grew. Just to show you the impact the piece had, for a while it became the number one “most read” on the Washington Post website. It went viral and I heard from hundreds of people who took the time to write to me and tell me how much this action of our congregation meant to them. The impact was far, far beyond what I could have imagined.
I would like to discuss that visit within the context of our Torah portion and a life lesson to focus us all.
There are two distinct models of spiritual leadership discussed in our portion.
One model is the religious figure who is both pure and conducts his or her life with supererogatory behavior.
This is the spiritual leadership of the Nazir. A man or a woman who becomes a Nazir embraces religious stringencies in order to achieve a spiritual high and strongly desires to live a religious that clearly distinguishes him or her from the community.
The Nazir is identified by three major requirements:
1) S/he cannot drink wine or eat grape products. As the verse states: Kol yemei nizro mikol asher yeaseh migefen hayayin meichartzanim ad zag lo yeiachel (6:4).
2) S/he must grow long hair -- gadel perah seiar rosho (6:5).
3) S/he cannot come into contact with a dead body -- al nefesh met lo yavo (6:6).
The leadership of the Nazir requires removal from society. These three requirements are all anti-social activities.
One who cannot come into contact with a dead body cannot be around other people for fear that they might die or be tamei. A Nazir can’t drink wine, and therefore cannot attend festive occasions. If a Nazir grows his hair long he is not practicing basic hygiene. The long haired Nazir reminds us of the Metzorah (the leper) who also has long hair and goes around declaring, “Stay away from me I am tamei, tamei tamei yikra!” The long haired Nazir also reminds us of a mourner who grows long hair and for the first few days must sit there silently like Job, entirely removed from society.
The Nazir’s approach to spirituality is to isolate himself from his community and society.
This is indeed the reason why a person becomes a Nazir – they don’t like what they see in the world, so they remove themselves from society.
The very first page of tractate Sotah teaches us this. The Talmud asks why tractate Sotah is placed next to Nazir (Sotah, 2a). Rebbe answers that whoever sees a Sotah woman –i.e. a woman accused of adultery—in her state of distress as she undergoes the biblical ordeal of a Sotah, should separate himself from wine, yazir atzmo min hayayin.
The Nazir has seen the Sotah woman humiliated and punished for her sinful behavior. S/he blames this on the fact that the Sotah was drunk when she committed adultery. For this reason Rebbe says the Nazir should not drink wine so as not to sin like a Sotah.
In short: the Nazir thinks that the best way to serve God is by removing himself from society and adding extra stringencies. While his intentions are pure, the result is that he is removed from the world and unable to inspire others. He has lost the ability to have an impact.
Even though the Nazir is a spiritual person intent on serving God with all of his heart, he has gone to an extreme and removed himself from society. For this action, Maimonides deems him a sinner (Rambam, Hilchot Deot, 3:1).
What a waste -- a highly talented spiritual person who seeks to serve God by removing himself from the world!!!
It is an oxymoron and seems to contradict everything we know about our faith. It is an interesting part of religious history that unlike other religions, Halakhic Judaism doesn’t have a history of monasticism. Halakhic Judaism teaches that separation from the world is problematic.
In contrast to the extreme piety and isolationist practices of the Nazir, we see another model of leadership in our portion.
Our portion, Nasoh, is the longest stand-alone portion of the Torah. The reason for this is because there is so much repetition of the offerings of the Neseim, the Princes of each tribe. The Nasi of each tribe brought dedication offerings to the Temple. Even though their offerings were all exactly the same—one silver bowl, one gold bowl, some animals—nevertheless the full description is repeated again and again, word for word, each time by the Torah.
It seems unnecessary. The Torah could have just limited it all to a single paragraph.
Yet, the Torah goes to such lengths to repeat each of the offerings of the Nasi. Of course each Nasi deserves a full paragraph; on his own he did an amazing thing.
The Nasi is a communal leader – a prince of a tribe. He dedicates his life to service of the community and for this he deserves an entire paragraph in the Torah. For all of eternity our Torah has recorded for us the names and generous acts of these princes.
Before the Neseim, offered their individual offerings the Neseim came forward on their own and brought a joint offering. This offering consisted of shesh eglot tzav, six covered wagons and twelve oxen. The wagons were to be used by the Levites as part of their service.
The Neseim were not actually commanded to bring this joint offering. They did it on their own and because it was an unsolicited gift, Moshe hesitated to accept it. It was only when Hashem said to Moshe specifically, “kach meitam, accept it from them,” that Moshe accepted it (7:5).
Why did the Neseim give an unsolicited gift?
Rashi explains that the Neseim had missed the boat the first time around when there was a collection for the Mishkan (7:3). They had said, “Let everyone else give first. We will give what is left over.” However, nothing was left over. Just the opposite, too much was given (Exodus, 36). So this time, the Neseim said we want to be out in front. We want to give first.
The leadership of the Neseim is praised here. It is a leadership of communal involvement and service. It is a leadership that rushes to give first. It is a leadership that identifies a need even before the community notices it.
The contrast between the Nazir and the Neseim is the major point of our portion. By the sheer length of space that the Torah gives to the Neseim it is clear that the model of the Neseim is more praiseworthy than the Nazir. The Nazir is a super holy person. He adopts a multitude of stringencies. But it is the Nasi who is praised. The Nasi is a communal leader. Sure he drinks wine and cuts his hair and he becomes tamei and he doesn’t act in as pious a fashion, but he is involved in the community. He is leading by example. When he sees a problem he rushes to be part of the solution. More than that, even before he sees a problem he anticipates a need for the community. That is why the Nasi gave the unsolicited gift of covered wagons.
Religion today too often focuses on trying to turn us into a community of Nazirites, when instead the goal of religion should be to turn us into a community of Neseim!
Our goal as a community should be to be a community of Neseim. When we see a problem in the world, we must rush to be a force of good.
This is the power and strength of a spiritual community. A spiritual community when it functions properly will rush to serve and to embrace–both its members and the larger world. A religious community has the potential to be a force of good. A religious community can be a community of Neseim.
Recently when a person in our community was suffering with the passing of his mother, people in our community made sure that he wasn’t alone. They flew across the country to be with him. As a rabbi I saw up close what it meant to this mourner to be comforted by his spiritual community. That is what it means to be a community of Neseim; it means to anticipate how we can be of assistance; it means to always be thinking about how we can help others; it means we rush to be the first to give, and when it is all already given, that we look for additional ways to make a difference.
And this is exactly why our congregation went to the gay bar this past Monday night. Our country was in tremendous pain—is still in tremendous pain. We wanted to try and connect and offer words of support.
When we see pain around us, our first question always has to be, how can we make a difference.
By going to the bar—The Fireplace—we had no illusions that we would take away everyone’s pain or solve the problems that faces our world, and specifically the problems of gay people in our own community.
I am also not pretending that here in our shul we have the perfect path forward for gay people in an Orthodox Jewish community. The intersection between the gay community and Orthodox Judaism is obviously a work in progress. But we didn’t go to recruit members that night or to express any new theological ideas.
Our goal was simply to try and connect and build bridges and heal a little and be with a community in pain. I view our visit as similar to a shiva visit. When someone makes a shiva visit the power is in just being there. Even more important than saying something is just showing up and saying that we are in this together.
I know that for myself by being in that bar that night I felt both the pain and the reassurance in the room.
I felt pain when I stood in that bar--pain that I wouldn’t have been able to comprehend without being there. When there is such pain in the world it is important sensitize our selves to it and sensitize others to it as well.
And I felt reassurance that we were doing the right thing. When we stood outside on the street corner unsure of what to do, a man named Seihei embraced us and said, “please come in. Everyone inside would love to meet you.” We walked inside and just by standing there with our kippot I felt that we were building a bridge and reaching out and embracing a community that was looking for an embrace.
There is obviously much more to do in this area and we have just touched the tip of the iceberg. I have called up the Orlando Regional Medical Center and offered my services in case people need support and spiritual counseling. But that is outreach to a community in Orlando. The most important thing is inreach to people within our own community.
Especially as an Orthodox community we need to communicate a message of unconditional love and unconditional safety and protection to all of our children from as young an age as possible. We need to communicate a message that actively challenges homophobia and transphobia – and to actively assert that such harmful messages will not be tolerated. For some children this can be a matter of life and death.
For this reason I would like to conclude my devar torah now and ask Steve to share some words with us. Steve accompanied us on our visit to the Fireplace on Monday night. And I asked him to tell us all about what that visit meant to him as a gay Orthodox Jew who is a member of our shul.
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