Drash on Parashat Naso 2023

Drash on Parashat Naso    
Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi
Beit Shalom Synagogue Adelaide and
Birmingham Progressive Synagogue

This week’s sidra begins with a curious phrase: ‘Naso et rosh’, literally ‘lift up the head.’ It relates to the counting of heads, particularly the number of Gershonites, a division of the Levites, to see how many men were available for their priestly duties.  However, the phrase suggests it was special kind of counting.  The word naso means to elevate.  In counting the Gershonite men, each was treated with respect and each was elevated to their role. It was a privilege for them to be called to serve in the Sanctuary and each person who was included mattered.

Judaism has tended to discourage counting people. When King David wished to take a census of the people, he was warned not to do so.  When people are counted, they are reduced to numbers. Their individuality got lost. To take an extreme example, when the Nazis gave prisoners numbers, it was with the aim of obliterating their identities. In our modern society, there are times when we have to count numbers: in order to plan services such as education and health; or to track patterns of disease, as we did during the Covid epidemic.  But as a society, we should never lose sight of the fact that people are individuals

Judaism emphasises the uniqueness of each person.  The Mishnah teaches:‘Therefore, a single human being was created, to teach that if anyone destroys a single human soul, it is as if they had destroyed an entire world and if anyone sustains a single human soul, it is as if they had sustained an entire world.’  And it goes on to say, ‘ And this serves to tell of the greatness of the Holy One, who is to be blessed, as when a person stamps several coins with one seal, they are all the same. But the supreme Ruler, the Holy One, stamped all people with the seal of Adam the first human, and not one of them is similar to another.’

The great cellist and humanitarian Pablo Casals expressed a similar sentiment: ‘Each second we live is a new and unique moment of the universe, a moment that will never be again And what do we teach our children? We teach them that two and two make four, and that Paris is the capital of France. When will we also teach them what they are? We should say to each of them: Do you know what you are? You are a marvel. You are unique. In all the years that have passed, there has never been another child like you. Your legs, your arms, your clever fingers, the way you move. You may become a Shakespeare, a Michaelangelo, a Beethoven. You have the capacity for anything. Yes, you are a marvel. And when you grow up, can you then harm another who is, like you, a marvel? You must work, we must all work, to make the world worthy of its children.’

Pablo Casals expressed his belief in the uniqueness of the individual but he also expressed his yearning for a time when no human being would harm another.  The climax of Sidra Naso is the Priestly blessing, which concludes with the greatest of all blessings, the ‘May the Eternal One turn to you and give you peace.’ The blessing is in the singular, addressed to each person as an individual rather than as part of a collective whole.  It is only in recognising and valuing each individual person that we can be granted peace.  For there to be true peace, shalom and shlemut, completeness, instead of counting every person, we must make every person count.  Only if people feel valued, listened to and respected will there be peace.

We can work to make this so in our congregations.  Whether members are at the heart of the activities in the shul or prefer to remain on the periphery; whether what they do is visible or more hidden, even just by being a member of the Synagogue a person makes a difference and so we need to let them know they are valued. And in our wider society, we have to learn to value different voices and ensure they are respected and heard.

As a visitor here from Britain, I have been privileged to learn about Australia and New Zealand.  They are different from each other and different from Britain, but all share challenges in listening to different voices, whether it is the debate about The Voice in Australia, to give the aboriginal people representation; recognising the Maori heritage and language in New Zealand or acknowledging the long history of racism and the legacy of empire in Britain. 

As we read our sidra this week, and as we say the Priestly blessing at our services, may we be mindful of our obligation to respect and value each person we encounter and so may we contribute to bringing nearer a world where every person may be blessed with peace.

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