Rabbi Dr. Raymond AppleRabbi Dr Raymond Apple AO RFD is Emeritus Rabbi of the Great Synagogue, Sydney. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem, where he publishes OzTorah, a weekly email list and website with Torah insights from an Australian perspective.
The Nazir has an important role in this week’s sidra. A person who opted to be a Nazir had to follow an ascetic lifestyle – no drinking wine, no contact with the dead, no cutting of his hair: “He shall let the hair of his head grow long” (Num. 6:5).
Hair figures in a number of religious contexts and in modern times the way a person’s hair is covered is a major mark of their religiosity, hence all the halachic debates about the size and style of a man’s kippah and the status of a woman’s headscarf or sheitel.
Another hair problem is the subject of the Yiddish saying, “The first grey hair is a summons from the angel of death”.
Since hair can be an indication of vanity, covering it indicates modesty. But letting the Nazirite’s hair grow unchecked? Perhaps it is because unruly hair looks a mess and denotes a person who denies him- or herself the socially admired methods of bodily indulgence.
BLESSING IN LOVE
When the priests utter the Birkat Kohanim (the Priestly Blessing) in synagogue they conclude their benediction, "God...has commanded us to bless His people "in love". We don't say "b'ahavah" ("in love") before any other commandment - so why this one?
Probably because it is easier to be loving when affixing a mezuzah, hearing the shofar, reading the Megillah and so on – but when it comes to looking lovingly toward human beings and wishing them well with all one's heart, it is much more difficult. They have their faults and failings; they also cause offence even if they don't mean it.
Next question – when most of our prayers are in the plural, why is the Priestly Blessing in the singular?
The Chafetz Chayyim offers an answer, which links up with what we have just said about "b'ahavah". No kohen can be selective. He can't say to himself or the community, "I bless my fellow Jews – with the exception of Mr Levy or Mrs Israel". Everyone, every individual, warrants a blessing. They all have their faults, but if God loves them all, so should the kohen.
THE LEVITES AS CHAZANIM
22,000 Levites are enumerated in the sidra. They were the smallest of the tribes of Israel, smaller even than the tribe of Menasheh, which had 32,000 members.
Today, of course, when numbers matter, we might be tempted to say that small groups do not really count. The rabbis said, however, that though the Levites were the smallest in number they were closest to the glory of God (Midrash Tanchuma).
Why did they merit this distinction? There are many possible answers. One with special appeal is that the Levites were the singers. It is they who made up the sanctuary choir. Theirs was the privilege of putting words into song. Their song took wings and reached the heavenly throne, there to join the angelic choir with its "kadosh, kadosh, kadosh" (holy, holy, holy - from Isaiah, 6).
Their example is the model which has always been the inspiration of cantors and synagogue choirs. Not that cantors always reached the ideal, and many were criticised for placing showmanship before devotion. Nor did choristers always understand that their task was not to perform but to give a lead and shape to congregational song. But at times it was said that the best of cantors reached greater spiritual heights with his singing that did rabbis with their exegesis and expositions.
This is not an argument against rabbis, but an expression of the significance of song in the synagogue and in Jewish life.