Naso: The Most Elusive Thing
This past weekend (which feels like eons ago) I experienced the most incredible spiritual whiplash. We celebrated Shavuot, a holiday dedicated to the giving of Torah, of revelation, of the covenant. But when the Holiday came to an end, I turned on my phone to see my city in flames, riots in the streets, and fear everywhere. I look up and see the mountain and I look out upon the city and find a wilderness.
I spent Saturday night and most of Sunday on the phone, frantically calling my friends in various neighborhoods across Los Angeles making sure they were safe, and making sure that my allies in the black community knew I was with them. The fear, the confusion, the anger, the rage, spread faster than any virus. When speaking on the phone to a friend who is a pastor to the African American community, I asked him to help me see through his eyes. He shared some real wisdom, including the immortal words of the activist, Fannie Lou Hammer. He said, “Look, Noah, I condemn the looting. It’s not right and it’s illegal, but you must understand that my community feels looted. Through slavery and Jim Crow, through racism and poverty and criminalization. As Fannie once said, ‘I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.’”
I nodded and breathed deep. Revelation doesn’t just come from mountaintops after all.
What are we to make of this moment of burning cities, of militarized police, of men and women who are lynched and murdered? What are we to make of the shop owner who has lost everything? Our souls cry. Our souls rage. We created a world out of that rage. With bitterness we enslaved each other, with anger we committed violence and war. It was rage that pushed Cain to pick up the rock to slay his brother. It’s the rage of Abel’s blood that cries up from the ground for eternity. We know of the sorrow and the anger. The world given to us by the past and now unfolding in the riveting present explodes with it. Yet in all places and in almost all times, there is an enduring prayer for peace. Peace is the one thing that everyone in the world has always wanted but we have never found. What are we to make of this moment?
Peace is something we want but cannot achieve it on our own. Thousands of years of history have shown us that power to make peace always leaves some people out. Even the most peaceful of nations have raped, enslaved some for the sake of others. The rabbis knew that each of us made of flesh and blood are bad vessels for peace. “The power of peace is too heavy for them,” the angels said, “because they can hate, and return rage with rage.” (Deut. Rabba 5:15)
We have captured fire and lighting. We have built bridges and towers. We have moved rivers and oceans. We changed the world with great feats of wonder, but we have not found the most wondrous of treasures – peace. We have put men and women in rockets and have them cross the threshold into space but we can’t walk them across the threshold to their own homes. We can put the power of the world in their pockets, but fail to empower those who have nothing in their pockets. We can see each other’s faces across the globe in real time, but we refuse to see the face of God being crushed under the knee or under the jackboot.
Why does peace seem so elusive?
When peace seems so far away, The Book of Numbers gives us a nudge. The author of Numbers knows this dark part of us. It’s not the Book of Genesis, which draws the map of paradise; it’s not Exodus that shows us the road to freedom. It’s not Leviticus that shows us how to be free from guilt and shame. Numbers teaches us about a different world, one with sand in our teeth, one infused with compulsion, infidelity, exhaustion, and fits of jealousy. (Num. 5:30). Compared to Numbers, the other books seem pollyannaish, maybe even a bit naive. And yet, it is in this week’s Torah portion, Naso, that our most important blessing is found:
May God Bless you and Keep you.
May God’s face shine light and grace upon you.
May God’s face be lifted upon you and place upon you peace. (Num. 6:24-26)
This is the blessing we give to each other every Friday night. This is the blessing we give to children as they rise to meet the Torah. This is the blessing that we give to couples under their wedding canopy. This is the blessing that we recite at the height of our most sacred services. This three-fold blessing — words of protection, grace, and peace, is here in the dark book of Numbers – why?
I’d like to believe that it is this moment that the Torah speaks the loudest and the deepest. This is the moment we need to hear this blessing and teaching more than any other. That’s because beneath the words of the blessing sprouts the the radical notion of prophetic imagination. The blessings concludes with the words, “May God’s face be lifted upon you and place upon you peace.” God alone in the Book of Numbers is the Blesser, the Light-Giver and the Peace Placer. Neither king nor army has ever or will ever bring us true peace. No scientist or philosopher has created peace. No tool ever invented nor political system ever devised has brought us peace. Whether you believe in God or not, believing in the very possibility of peace means imagining a world that we have never known.
To seek peace is to use our imaginations to look beyond our collective experience and history and to dream of a different reality. It means to imagine a place beyond the horizon of life and run for it with all your heart, all your might and all your soul. That place beyond what we can see and know is the closest thing I know to God. For as the Midrash teaches, “God’s name is peace.” (Lev. Rabba 9:9)
It is into the darkest of books that the greatest blessing is given — perhaps because it is needed the most. While the dream is God’s to share with us, it is our responsibility to act on God’s behalf. To see our cities burn, to see the continued violence against the poor and people of color, to see a world where rage rules; it is in this very moment where we must reach beyond this world and grasp for another. To use the blessings we do have to make this world into that world.
Revelation after all doesn’t just come from mountaintops.
Stay safe, stay healthy, stay loving.