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Message from our Clergy | Naso 5780 

06/05/2020 04:34:35 PM


June 5, 2020


Dear Ohev Community,

Please see below for a Dvar Torah from Rabbi Herzfeld.

Parashat Naso opens with the instructions to conduct a census of all of Israel. The word used in the Torah to refer to counting people, for which our parsha is named, is "לשאת," or "to lift up." Rashi suggests that one of the reasons that God commands us to count ourselves is because it is an opportunity for God to express love for each and every member of the community. Therefore, the census is not merely an opportunity to count people, but rather an opportunity to lift up each individual for a moment and remind us of the love that God has for each of us.

Tragically, the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police officers reminds us of the racism that prevents every American citizen from being valued equally in our society. I believe that it is our responsibility to speak out against racism and demonstrate our loves for all of God's people. Please join Rabbi Herzfeld and me for a neighborhood vigil against racism at 5pm today on 16th Street. If you are able to safely join in person, I will be on 16th Street in front of Ohev Sholom. You can also join Rabbi Herzfeld for his broadcast of the vigil from the 19th Street Baptist Church, where he will be joining Reverend Roberts via Zoom at or via phone at 646-558-8656, 3127816941#. Social distancing will be observed and all participants must wear masks.  

Shabbat shalom,

Maharat Friedman


This week I went with Maharat Friedman to recite prayers outside St. John’s Church on 16th and H.  The Church had been desecrated this week and we felt the need to stand in solidarity with clergy of all faiths and backgrounds in speaking out against its desecration.  It was a powerful spiritual experience.  As we gathered in prayer, I was inspired by the inclusive warmth extended to me at the site by many African-American clergy there who I have worked closely with in the past.  I was also inspired by the generous hospitality of the clergy of St. John’s Church, Reverend Robert Fisher and Reverend Will Morris.

We didn’t just go because the Church was desecrated.  We went because we felt the religious imperative to speak out against the horrific killing of George Floyd.  When someone dies in the manner of George Floyd we are obligated to cry out in pain and seek justice.

Our Torah portion this week speaks directly to this subject.

The Torah portion discusses a Nazir.  The Nazir is a person who takes a vow not to drink or eat any wine or grape products, not to cut one’s hair, and not to come into contact with a dead body.

According to the Talmud, the Nazir takes these oaths because of his or her disgust with the world (Sotah, 2a).  The Nazir has seen terrible behavior of the world and no longer wants to be a part of it.  All of the prohibitions that the Nazir voluntarily accepts can be seen as anti-social behavior.  The Nazir is not going to be attending any parties where presumably wine will be drunk; nor will the Nazir be well groomed.  With hair running wild, the Nazir resembles the metzorah, who is an outcast from society and forced to live outside the camp.  Finally, the Nazir is not allowed to come into contact with a dead body.  Significantly, the Nazir cannot even attend to the dead bodies of close relatives:  
“Even if his father or mother, or his brother or sister should die, he must not defile himself for them, since hair set apart for his God is upon his head” (6:7).

This is notably even more strict than a kohen, who is allowed and even required to tend to the dead bodies of close relatives.  

When the Nazir finishes the Nazirite vows the Nazir must bring a sin offering (6:11).  Ramban suggests that the reason for this is because the Nazir had reached a high level of holiness as a result of the Nazirite vows.  Now that the Nazir is reentering society the Nazirite is descending in holiness and thus is commiting a sin for “ideally the Nazir should have remained a Nazir forever.”  For this reason the Nazir marks the occasion with a sin-offering (Ramban, 6:11).

Rambam takes the opposite position and argues that the Nazir sinned in becomng a Nazir in the first place.  In Mishneh Torah, Rambam writes:
“If man will say: Seeing that envy, desire and vainglory and like tendencies are evil tendencies and remove man from life, I will separate myself from them exceedingly and reach their remotest extreme. Until he will eat no meat, drink no wine, marry no woman, dwell in no comfortable quarters, dress in no proper clothes but in a sack and coarse wool, and the like, as for instance the idolatrous priests do. Even such is an evil way, and it is forbidden to follow it. He who follows this way is called a sinner, for it is said of a Nazarite: "And make an atonement for him, because he hath sinned against the soul Num. 6.11)” (De’ot 3:1). In other words the great sin of the Nazir is in removing oneself from this world.  Rambam is referring specifically to the Nazir’s refusal to partake in the pleasures that Hashem created for this world:
“Therefore did the sages command, saying: A man shall not deprive himself of ought save the things which the Torah itself deprived him of.”

One way in which the Nazir sinned is by not engaging in the world’s physical pleasures.  But there is another way in which a Nazir has sinned.  By removing oneself from the world and separating from society the Nazir has abandoned his or her responsiblities to serve the world.

By taking a vow against coming into contact with a dead body, the Nazir is consequently not allowed to properly attend the funerals of close relatives.  Does taking such a vow make a person holy?  On the contrary, the Nazir has abandoned fundamental resposibities to the larger world.  Such behavior is sinful as we are commanded to care for the dead, and especially dead relatives (see the position of Rabbi Akiva, Sotah 3a).    
Instead of being holy, the Nazir has sinned by not engaging with the world.

This obligation to mourn for the dead does not only apply to dead relatives.  The Talmud says that if anyone is present at the moment a soul leaves the earth (yetziat neshama) then one must rend one’s garments: “And if one is standing close to the deceased when the soul leaves the body, he is obligated to rend his garment, as it was taught in a baraita: Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar says: One who is standing over the deceased at the time of the departure of the soul is obligated to rend his garment. To what is this similar? It is similar to a Torah scroll that was burned” (Shabbat, 105b). 

Being present at a moment of death—even if we have no connection whatsoever to the person--is similar to a Torah scroll being burned and requires intense mourning.

How much more so must we mourn and cry out when a person doesn’t die but is murdered! How much more so must we mourn and cry out when the person’s death comes as a result of a societal racism.

The killing of George Floyd is a moment where our entire country was present for the “yetziat neshama,” and thus it is a moment where our entire country must mourn.  It is a moment of introspection for all of us.  We must all cry out in pain and ask ourselves every single day what are we going to do to prevent such a heinous act from occurring again.  

The sinful behavior of the Nazir reminds us that it is a great sin to remove oneself from society.  Our job is to engage in society and cry out against the murder and mistreatment of the innocent.  Our job as religious Jews is to work day and night for racial justice.

Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld


Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783