Friday, May 17, 2013

Divrei Rav Josh- Parshat Naso: Qualities that Shine

This year, I had the pleasure of teaching a course in the high school entitled "Facing History," a national curriculum on Holocaust Education that teaches students how we can use learning as a means to increase justice in the world. I opened our class with a reading by Haim Ginott, a gifted psychologist who was once a prisoner in a concentration camp. He writes:
Dear Teacher, 
I am a survivor of a concentration camp.  My eyes saw what no man should witness: Gas chambers built by learned engineers.  Children poisoned by educated physicians.  Infants killed by trained nurses.  Women and babies shot and burned by high school and college graduates.   So I am suspicious of education.  My request is: Help your students become human.  Your efforts must never produce learned monsters, skilled psychopaths, educated Eichmanns.   Reading, writing, and arithmetic are important only if they serve to make our children more human. 
(Haim Ginott, Teacher and Child). 
In this passage, Ginott raises the distributing truth that while we assume that education is a value of paramount importance, we know of too many examples where education also enables people to commit horrific acts of violence. As a result, Ginott challenges each teacher to see learning as a process of increasing good in the world, so that we might engage each child in a unique way, while also maximizing the potential for good that can come when a person acquires knowledge, a vision that is echoed in this week's parasha.

Parshat Naso contains one of the most famous liturgical passages in the Torah, the priestly blessing, which we now recite either in synagogue as a part of Birkat Kohanim, or on Friday evenings when we bless our children. The passage from the Torah states:

"And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, "Speak unto Aaron and unto his sons, saying, 'You shall bless the children of Israel, saying to them: 'May the Lord bless you, and keep you; May the Lord make His face shine upon you, and be gracious unto You; May the Lord life up His countenance upon You, and give You peace...'" (Bemidbar 6:22-27).   
The blessing is beautiful, yet vague, and we turn to our rabbinic commentators to understand how each line of the blessing achieves a specific divine objective. For this week's Dvar Torah, I thought I wanted one commentary on the first line of this blessing, and how it relates to Ginott's message.

To examine the first line of the blessing, which asks that God bless and keep the people Israel, we return to the commentary of Rabbi Naftali Tzi Yehuda Berlin, otherwise known as the Netziv, in his Torah commentary, Ha-Emek Davar. This commentary notes that the first line of the blessing is connected to God's desire to wish a unique kind of success for each member of the Israelite nation:
"May the Lord bless you"- "This implies the blessing appropriate to each person; to the student of Torah success in his studies; the businessman- in his business, etc." (Ha-Emek Davar on Bemidbar 6:23).
The Netziv is forced to explain why how "May the Lord bless you" might apply to each individual Israelite, since God commands the priests to bless everyone in the preceding verse. In response, this commentary notes that the priestly blessing should begin by blessing each person in a manner unique to their needs. The commentary then goes on to explain the meaning of the second half of the verse:
"And keep you"- "A blessing requires guardianship so that it should not, God forbid, be turned to a wrong purpose.  The Torah scholar requires guardianship to save him from pride and bringing the name of the Lord into disrepute, and the like.   The businessman requires guardianship against his wealth becoming a stumbling block to him as in the case of Korah and Naboth, and in its literal sense, against theft and loss" (Ha-Emek Davar on Bemidbar 6:23). 
According to the Netziv, while the first half of this line establishes that God's grace will be uniquely reflected in each person, the second half of the verse promises that God will help a person use their best qualities only to increase good in the world, and not to allow that those qualities to stain that's person's name. For example, while God would want someone blessed with high intelligence to maximize their intellectual potential, God would not want that person's intelligence to be a source of arrogance for that person, for when a person's intelligence becomes a source of arrogance, intelligence itself becomes de-valued, since people associate the value with the worst qualities of humanity.  As a result, when our parasha states, "May the Lord bless you and keep you," our commentators see this blessing as a dual-promise. First, God will help each of shine in a way that is unique to us. Second, God will help us use our qualities in the right way, maximizing the good inherent in each of best qualities so that we might make a positive impact the world.

In Rabbi Solomon Bruer's Hokhmo U'Mussar, he writes that every quality, no matter how seemingly positive, has the potential for good and bad:

“Generally, one divides between good and bad inclinations, good and bad qualities. Actually, such a division does not exist. We have often had the occasion to point out that there is not a single human inclination which is bad and therefore objectionable in itself, as little as there is a single inclination which is good and therefore wholesome in itself. It all depends on the proper usage of these inclinations” (Rabbi Solomon Bruer, Hokhmo U'Mussar, Parshat Toledot).
In this commentary, we see the echoes of Ginott's reading and the commentary of the Netziv on Parshat Naso. Any quality can become a person's greatest asset, or greatest liability, depending on how that quality is used in our everyday engagement with the world. However, in Parshat Naso, God promises to the play the role of educator, helping each Israelite cultivate their unique strengths in a way that brings blessing into the world, a challenge that we all face with our children, and in our community. May we cause our children's best qualities to shine through, letting them be a source of blessing to themselves and one another.

Shabbat Shalom!

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