Jews read sections of the Torah each week, and these sections, known as parshiyot, inspire endless examination year after year. Each week we will bring you regular essays examining these portions from a queer perspective, drawn from the book Torah Queeries: Weekly Commentaries on the Hebrew Bible and the Torah Queeries online collection. This week, Darren Lippman considers the similarities between Nazirites and LGBT Jews – two populations who are “set aside” in important ways.
I first read Parashat Naso during my b’nei mitzvah class in early 2002, long before I discovered either my passion for Judaism or my love of writing. It’s no surprise, then, that after reading the extensive recounting of events in the Israelites’ camp surrounding the dedication of the Mishkan (the Tabernacle), my first thought was that this parasha was long and tedious: it begins with a census, continues with purifying the camp, and ends with dedicating the Mishkan, an event featuring identical offerings from each tribe.
Only twelve at the time, these three things seemed unrelated to each other or to me; even more when I looked at the specific cases therein: Husbands suspicious of their wives? Nazirites with holy hair? What did any of it mean to me? The Nazirites and the twelve offerings held my interest, but in the end, all I could think to say in the d’var Torah I gave at my bar mitzvah was that the identical offerings, each coming from a unique tribe, showed that no matter our differences, we are all equal before God.
Studying Parashat Naso at twenty, I see things differently. Now I see a relationship between the parasha’s three main events. Together they form a cohesive cycle beginning with exclusion (women, the disabled, and boys are excluded from the census, and that which is “impure” in the camp is placed outside of its boundaries) and ending in inclusion (each tribe gives an offering). This is a cycle that I’m journeying through now as I come out to my friends and family. I’m sure every GLBT person who comes out faces a similar cycle of exclusion moving toward inclusion. The Nazirite and the twelve offerings, however, are still what hold my interest the most.
First, the Nazirite: by his or her own choosing, the Nazirite enters into a pact with God to remain exceptionally pure during a year-long term. During this time, he or she abstains from wine, grapes, and vinegar, cuts neither hair nor beard, and doesn’t profane him- or herself by attending to corpses. At the completion of his or her term, the Nazirite’s hair is shaved and given as an offering, and the person, the term of the vow being completed, returns to life as usual. (Numbers 6:1-21) The Hebrew word for Nazirite, nazir, comes from the root nun – zayin – reish, which means “to set apart.” The Nazirite takes it upon him- or herself to be set apart from others, and through this, he or she is consecrated before God.
Similarly, we are each set apart as GLBT Jews; we are each in our own way a Nazirite. Unlike those who have chosen to be set apart, however, we are more like Samson from this week’s Haftorah, the famous Nazirite who was chosen by God to be set apart not for a year, but for life. Like him, most of us didn’t choose to be gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, but were instead given this gift by God.
However, the Nazirite’s vow was almost always temporary and ours is not. We cannot shave our heads and return to “life as usual,” because our lives-as-usual are what set us apart to begin with. However, we need not be set apart forever, nor do we need to be set apart at all. Just as the priests channeled God to bless others (Numbers 6:22) and were blessed themselves (“They shall link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them,” 6:27), so too can we open our hearts to others and they will open their hearts to us.
This leads me to my second fascination with Naso: the twelve offerings.
At the start of chapter seven, the dedication of the Mishkan begins with all of the Israelites giving a single offering, as a whole, to dedicate the Mishkan, which is then followed by each of the twelve tribes giving their individual, and identical, offerings on twelve consecutive days. For a long time it baffled me why this would be: after all, did they not already give an offering together? Why must their individual offerings all be the same, and why must each of them be given in such excruciating detail?
Repetition is a tool through which writers can draw attention to the importance of what’s being repeated. Each repetition, our Sages tell us, indicates a nuance of meaning. Even with all of that repetition and even with seven years of new experiences behind me, I find the same meaning in this repetition today as I did at my bar mitzvah.
When I looked at the individual tribes not as tribes but as individuals, they each became a different facet of the whole for me — the whole that has already given a collective offering before the Mishkan. Every day, the next chieftain in line offers the same as the last, and each day it is as important as the offering before it. Just the same, if we take a step back and see each chieftain as an individual, the identical material offerings become — much like each of us — the same, but different. Instead of gold and silver, we have our hopes and our dreams; instead of choice flour with oil mixed in, we have our wisdom and experiences; instead of goats and bulls, we have our hands and our hearts. Yes, the words are all the same just as before, but now it’s easy to see that what is behind them is as unique and as important to the whole as the individual tribe is to the whole of the people of Israel.
Naso’s true beauty, far beyond my grasp as a child, is clearer to me as I become an adult. Naso is no longer just a bunch of unrelated numbers and repetitions; now it is a story that we all can relate to, one that begins with our being set apart and ends with our being a part of the whole. However, even if we all started this journey in the same place, it doesn’t mean that we’ve all reached the end at the same time. For those of us who have already attained that wholeness, let’s keep opening our hearts wider and sharing ourselves with others. For those of us still waiting for the day when we may give our offerings at the Mishkan, let us hold tight to the gifts we carry in ourselves and never forget the words still spoken not only to the whole, but to those of us still set apart:
“May the Lord bless you and protect you! May the Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! May the Lord bestow his favor upon you and grant you peace!” (Numbers 6:24-26)
Ken y’hi ratzon. May it be God’s will.