Parashat Naso

Numbers 4:21–7:89

May 22, 2010 / 9 Sivan 5770

This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Marc Wolf, vice chancellor and chief development officer, JTS.

I guess I set myself up for the question.

You see, I believe Judaism has something to add to how we live our lives, secular and religious. There is a depth to Jewish thought, practice, and literature that, if we welcome it, can color our existence with a hue of holiness that can help us see even the most trivial of actions and thoughts in a different, divine light. I consider this one of the greatest gifts of Jewish tradition. It is a relevant and meaningful tradition because it adds meaning and relevance to each step of our day.

When I posit this thought, however, there are people who question my boldness. Sure, Judaism has lots to say about family and life, but does it really reach that far? So, it should not have come as a surprise that one recent evening, while I was watching baseball, someone (with more than a hint of sarcasm in his voice) challenged my premise and asked what Judaism would have to say about the Designated Hitter Rule (DHR).

What with me being an American League fan, you would think that I support the DHR, but would Judaism be in favor of it? The Designated Hitter Rule was instituted by the American League in 1973 in an effort to bring more fans into the stands by sending more home runs there. The fans wanted action during a game, and watching a pitcher swat away at pitches he could deliver but not hit himself was just not exciting. The DHR allows for a heavy hitter to stand in for a pitcher in the batting rotation in order to add some action to the game.

So, would Judaism back a designated hitter? Is there support for a "stand-in?"

This week, as we read the myriad of functions the priests performed in the Tabernacle, we can understand the priests as our designated hitters. They stood in the breach between God and humanity. They functioned as the designated hitter for not only the people—offering sacrifices and making expiation—but for God as well. In Parashat Naso, this is most notably seen in their responsibility for blessing the people, serving as the conduit between God and humanity. The text is well known and appears in ritual to this very day:

The LORD spoke to Moses: Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: 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! Thus they shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them. (Num. 6:22–27)

By blessing the people for God, the Kohanim themselves receive blessing. But it is they who are offering the blessing, not God directly. Granted, they serve as a conduit of God's blessing, and in re-creating the ritual of the Temple today when the priestly blessing is recited with Kohanim in synagogues, whoever is leading the repetition of the 'Amidah feeds the blessing in an undertone, word-for-word, to the Kohanim (to make it even clearer that they are conduits and not blessing us directly). But this is more of a modern addition to the above blessing, and it is we who put ourselves in the hands of the priests to receive God's blessing.

I wouldn't imagine that God would have a problem hitting it out of the park, so why must we rely on the human stand-in?

Indeed, the idea of an intermediary is integral to Judaism. In the first steps of the Exodus, the people did not want direct experience with God; here it was Moses who served as the designated hitter. We also saw the roles that the priest played and, in the developing nation of Israel, it was the prophet who stood in the breach between king and God. We can understand the fear and trepidation that goes along with encountering the divine and, through this long history just reported, it is either the priest or prophet who bears the burden of the relationship. However, in today's vision of Judaism, would the designated hitter rule still apply?

Rabbi David Hartman, in his book A Heart of Many Rooms, opens our eyes to the central role of the individual actively participating in Jewish life:

How . . . do you convince people that being Jewish is being part of an interpretive discussion? How do you introduce the idea that Judaism is not only a religion in the ordinary sense—a faith system, a body of beliefs and practices—but also (and, today, most important) an ongoing discussion of a committed interpretive community.

For Hartman, personalization of revelation is key. Our voices—each and every individual voice—are essential to the continuity of tradition. While there is a canon, what makes Judaism vibrant is that it is a canon that remains open to our voices and our interpretation. Rooted in the generations of midrash and Aggadah that are our inheritance, Hartman encourages us to take our place in the interpretive community.

Writing in God in Search of Man, Abraham Joshua Heschel put the same idea in terms that are fitting for these moments before Shavu'ot this year:

Revelation does not happen when God is alone. The two classical terms for the moment at Sinai are mattan torah and kabbalat torah, "the giving of the Torah" and "the acceptance of the Torah." It was both an event in the life of God and an event in the life of Man. (260)

While Judaism has had a long history of designated hitters—be they priests, prophets, or most recently rabbis, cantors, and Jewish educators—the time for each of us to step into the batter's box has come. As Heschel states, revelation can only happen with an active partnership. This Shavu'ot, make this revelation one that is not only an event in the life of God—but yours as well.

The publication and distribution of the JTS commentary are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z"l) Hassenfeld.