In 1820, when Missouri applied to join the union as a slave state,
Thomas Jefferson described the ensuing dispute like a fire bell in the
night. It was a situation that aroused a vexing tension, just waiting to
Jefferson sensed that he was living on the cusp of change. In our own
days, we are living in historic times. An armed, white police officer was
recorded in a harrowing video, kneeling on the neck of a black man in
broad daylight for nearly nine minutes.
Shockingly, three cops looked on without the courage to stop it. The fact
that such a thing could happen in the streets of America is nothing less
than a prophetic moment.
Would such an evil have been committed if Floyd had been white? This
act took place in a context of a racism that plagues our society. Times
such as this give us pause for introspection.
In the opening chapter of Isaiah, the prophet writes:
Learn to do good, seek justice, vindicate the victim, render justiceIsaiah, 1
to the orphan, take up the grievance of the widow.
These words teach us that when people are vulnerable, they rely upon
the justice and the goodness of society. Our obligation as Jews is to
When we see this kind of tragedy, it raises deep questions: How do we
end racism in our society? Today, we are at a moment that we must
roundly condemn racism and white supremacy. 150 years after the Civil
War, there are still many people who are infected with the doctrine of
While so many peacefully protest, others have taken to violence, rioting,
pillaging and anarchy. Many Jewish businesses have been targeted and destroyed, both locally as well as in Los Angeles and many other places around the country.
These illegal acts of rioting and violence subvert the cause of justice and
they must be stopped.
But we are also witnessing hundreds of thousands of protesters who
peacefully call for an end to racism and violence. And here is a deep
issue to look at. As observant Jews, we may tend to be focused on our
Yet, we represent important solutions to these problems. The Jewish
people embody the fundamental truth that all human beings are created
equal and endowed by G-d with certain unalienable rights. How can we
advance that message?
It is G-d’s providence that allowed that bitter moment of Floyd’s death
to be recorded. People across the country have raised their voice in
protest, not only blacks but many whites and many Orthodox Jews who
have attended peaceful protests.
We are thus in a time where it feels like positive change could take
place. Are we on verge of a time of change? Or perhaps these difficult events will simply fade over time and the status quo will continue? What
is our role in all of this as Jews as we advance the cause of justice?
In these challenging times, our Parsha brings us to the verses of Birkat
Kohanim, the blessing of Shalom. In this Bracha, the Kohanim Daven
for HaShem to place His countenance and His name upon the Jewish
people. True Shalom comes solely from the presence of G-d.
But why is the Bracha of Shalom listed at precisely this moment? This passage of the Birkat Kohanim follows immediately after the Mitzvah of the Nazir, who vowed to desist from wine or anything remotely related to it. The Gemara highlights this sequence:
Why does the Parsha of the Kohen follow the Parsha of the Nazir? To teach you, that just as the Nazir is forbidden in wine, so too an intoxicated Kohen cannot lift their hands to bless the people.Taanit, 26
This is an interesting insight; what is the deeper message of this connection? Let’s get a better appreciation of the Nazir. Why would a person become a Nazir? As we explore this, we’ll consider two Nazir moments.
When G-d Gives You a Message
The first moment, recorded in our Haftara, took place in the days of the Shoftim when Israel was wracked by civil war. Suddenly, a Malach (angel) appears to the wife of Manoach. She is informed that she will conceive of a child—Shimshon—who will begin to save the Jewish people.
Shimshon will be dedicated as a “Nazir” for all the days of his life. Even his mother is to begin acting as a Nazir during her pregnancy. Then the angel appeared yet a second time, instructing the couple again that the mother of Shimshon should act like a Nazir.
But Manoach was unsure if this Malach is a human or an angel. He brings an offering unto HaShem. The offering is accepted and the angel ascends unto the heavens in the flame of the alter. The “man” ceased to appear, and Manoach and his wife fall upon their face. Now it is clear that this is an angel and not a man.
But now Manoach is afraid. Does the vision of an angel indicate that he is about to die and ascend unto the heavens? His wife assures him: if G- d has sent us this messenger and this great message, we are NOT about to die! We have been given a message that we need to carry forward. The wife of Manoach teaches us a deep insight. If G-d gives us a message, it must be that he wants us to live.
The Nazir is a person who responds to the realization of a great prophetic moment, be it in their own life or the life of the people. When there is a prophetic moment, take heed. We are not about to die. When we get a great message, difficult as the message may be, we know that we have life before us.
The Nazir and Sobriety
There is a second Nazir moment from the days of Rebbi Shimon HaTzaddik in the Second Temple. A young Nazir showed up to the Beit HaMikdash with his offering at the conclusion of his Nazir period. Rebbi Shimon asked, what motivated a guy like you to take this vow and shave your head?
The young Nazir, a shepherd, relayed that he had previously been at a brook and saw his own beautiful reflection in the water. He became filled with lustful pride, losing control in his battle with his evil inclination. In this moment of temptation, the young shepherd took the vow of a Nazir to abstain from wine.
Who is the Nazir? The Nazir is an individual who in a moment of personal realization takes upon themselves a vow to behave with a great sobriety. G-d showed Himself to this young shepherd through a trial. It was not a cause for despair or death, but rather to live in a new way.
And our rabbis teach: this passage of the Nazir precedes the Birkat Kohanim. Only with the discipline and sobriety of the Nazir can there be a message of Shalom of the Kohen. Just as the Nazir could not drink wine, so too the intoxicated cannot bless the people with Shalom. Anyone’s blood can boil over injustice. It takes measured discipline to be the harbinger of Shalom.
Words of Justice and Shalom
A profound example of this is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. His words stirred and inspired a generation; they were were poetic and prophetic. He was eloquent, but he also had a measured and disciplined message.
His words demonstrated an incredible balance: he openly confronted the terrible injustices such as segregation that marred American society. At the same time, he never lost sight of the true vision of what America could be and its promise.
How was King able to bring a message of justice and unity? He was not a president, or a governor or a senator. He was a pastor with an authentic moral voice. His words were stirring, but they were also studied and disciplined.
He foresaw the day when black and white would “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” He confronted the ugly realities. But he also saw the good essence of what made America what it is. He never said, “I hate America”.
In our own times, we face a vacuum of moral leadership. We need sober, compassionate leaders. We pray for our leaders and we Daven that people will emerge who can articulate the messages of justice and Shalom.
We are the Solution
As Orthodox Jews, we can also take a lesson in leadership from Martin Luther King. We wonder if the goodness of this moment can be carried forward. Think about those three cops looking on as Floyd was killed.
There are so many good cops out there in the US, and a number of evil ones and a whole bunch in between. What do the in between people do? At the heart of it, we cannot be silent.
As a Jewish community, its vital that we stand up to racism when we confront it, because sadly, it is in our community. We need to be part of the solution. Racism is antithetical to our Jewish values and it must be vigorously protested. As Jews, we are uniquely positioned to advance the cause of unity, justice and Shalom. The language of the prophets enlightens our path.
And the blessings of the Kohen, those ancient words, reverberate today. We are all the children of HaShem, every human being a vehicle for G- d’s light. May HaShem lift his face unto us, and may he give us Shalom.