Naso: Why Most Jews Consider “His Holiness” Holy

[This D’var Torah is dedicated to the blessed and holy memory of my friend and rabbi, Rabbi Haim Asa, z”l, of Bulgaria, Israel, Argentina, and Fullerton, California, who escaped the Shoah, fought in Israel’s War of Independence, was the Senior Rabbi of Orange County, CA, and made a difference in the lives of thousands, including mine. For a eulogy delivered on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives, see http://youtu.be/wjasDB1-3Io]  

I experienced an unnatural quiet in central Jerusalem this past Monday.  For much of the day, several main streets were closed to traffic, with even portions of sidewalks off-limits to pedestrians.  The light rail suspended service. Long rows of city buses, their routes interrupted, sat curbside while – amazingly -- passengers sat aboard quietly.  (See my photo).  Yet, this eerie quiet wasn’t an “unholy” one; just the opposite. It was prompted by tight security imposed for the Pope’s movements around the city.   

Even though hundreds of thousands were inconvenienced, I heard no one complain. G-d forbid that anything should happen to His Holiness anytime, anywhere, but most especially in the Holy City, the very heart of the Jewish world.  But it wasn’t just that.  His obvious political and religious importance aside, most Jews with whom I spoke about it do consider the Pope to be a “Holy” figure, albeit, of course, not exactly in the way Catholics do. I sensed that Jewish Jerusalemites felt glad and honored to have the Pope there.  

Why?  What makes the Pope a “holy” figure, even to Jews?  No doubt the reasons include his commitment to peace and his concern for the poor.  But also, his personal sacrifices, including living modestly and accepting lifetime celibacy.  Yet, although these latter certainly contribute to an aura of holiness, Judaism is distinctly ambivalent about asceticism.  This week’s Torah portion, Naso, discusses laws concerning Nazarite vows (Numbers 6:1-21). Nazarites are to consume no grape products, leave their hair unshorn, have no contact with corpses, and must offer certain sacrificial offerings.    

Why sacrificial offerings?  Ironically, to atone for becoming an ascetic, even temporarily! Analyzing this, “our sages condemn [asceticism] as an antisocial attitude, a relation towards the community that is alien to the spirit of Judaism.  He who separates himself from the benefits of life, who thinks that the mortal’s lot is altogether a bad thing (as would appear from Eccles. 1:13), must needs come to make light of the striving for perfection of the human race.  …  If man will deny himself to provide his own wants, who will take care of the needs of others?” [Unfortunately, although I have this quotation in my files, I don’t know the source].  

Therefore, the Rabbis rejected those who afflict themselves with asceticism because they were convinced that he who is occupied with his ascetic indulgence will have no mind for the needs of his neighbor.  Self-denial can be selfish! 

Obviously, this isn’t the case with Pope Francis.  But it does show that Judaism highly values each Jew’s continuous participation in his community, her concern for the needs of others, and with …. Holiness.  

On the one hand, we fast on Yom Kippur (and several other days) in an effort to focus inward and increase holiness.  But on the other hand, we are discouraged from asceticism. According to the Talmud (Ta’anit 11a-b), “Whosoever fasts [for the sake of self-affliction] is termed a sinner….  And how much more so he who denies himself the enjoyment of ever so many things.”  

As the Pope was making his rounds, I was learning from Rabbi Joel Levy, Director of the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem, to view the account of the Nazarite in this week’s Torah portion as a cautionary tale.  Rabbi Levy taught that, according to Judaism, we both can – and can’t – experience holiness from deprivation of the world’s pleasures.  It’s a delicate balance, and also a reminder that Judaism presents a matrix that allows us to find our individual path to sanctity.

Certainly, Rabbi Asa, z”l, was a shining example of both tradition and toleration, encouraging -- and helping -- each to find a path to sanctity. May his memory be for a blessing. 

Shabbat shalom and Chodesh Tov.    

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3