Naso and Shavuot: Celebrating Teachers

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” –Benjamin Franklin

Shavuot and parshat Naso contain wisdom on the role of teachers and leaders in Judaism and on the importance of engaging with students in learning.

Birkat Kohanim, which is in this week’s parsha, is one of the oldest recorded sections of Jewish prayer. The biblical verses contain a seeming contradiction. One verse suggests that the kohanim have the power to bless the people: “This is how you are to bless Bnei Yisrael…” However, it also states: “put My (God’s) name on Bnei Yisrael, and I (God) will bless them.” Rashbam explains that God is the source of blessings and the Kohanim only offer up prayer. Rav Hirsch teaches that the kohanim are an instrument through which the brachot are given. Sefer Hachinuch however, explains that the Kohanim are the vehicle through which the bracha is transferred from God to the people. Moreover, the people have a role as well – to desire the brachot. According to this, while God ultimately bestows the brachot, everyone has a role to play in causing the brachot to flow. 

There is a similar discussion around the giving of the aseret ha-dibrot, which we celebrate on Shavuot. The Torah states that God said “all these words” to Israel. However, the Talmud notes that only the first two are in first person, indicating only they were said directly to Israel by God, the other eight were said through Moshe. Furthermore, Rambam lists as one of the thirteen principles of faith that the Torah is from heaven and was given through Moshe. Finally, Rabbi Akiva emphasizes that the people said “yes, yes,” as affirmation of acceptance of each commandment. Moshe and the people were involved in giving/receiving the Torah.

The ambiguity, in both cases, hints at what makes an extraordinary educator and leader. Moshe and the kohanim provide a model of balancing teaching and inspiring students while empowering each individual to find personal connection to Torah and God’s brachot. Chag Sameach and Shabbat Shalom –Karen Miller Jackson

Wavin’ (the Israeli) Flag

Flags are on the news and on our minds this week. Flags also play a prominent role in Bamidbar. Parshat Naso continues to describe the layout of the camp of Israel, where the people were situated according to their  standard (דגלו), under the signs (אתת) of their ancestral house. What is the significance of the emphasis on the flags?

Biblical interpreters differ on whether there were twelve flags or whether the tribes were united under four flags. Rashi suggests that each tribe had a different color flag which corresponded to the breastplate of the kohen, and the different colors highlighted the diversity of the nation of Israel. Other commentaries view the flags as an expression of military pride and prowess. Abarbanel – who understood politics and diplomacy well – explains that the tribes were placed next to each other and traveled together in four groups. Judah’s group (whose symbol was a lion) was placed at the head and Dan’s (whose symbol was an eagle) was in the rear, because they were the strongest and would deter the enemy from attacking. 

The layout of the flags also surrounded the mishkan, drawing on the holiness of the Shechinah. This is reinforced by a midrash brought by Dr. Avivah Zornberg, which teaches that the flags originated at Matan Torah. When God descended on Har Sinai the people saw myriads of angels with different banners. They too longed to have their own flags as a symbol of God’s love for them, hence, they were arranged by flags in the desert.  

Flags should symbolize national pride alongside holiness and devotion, not hate and destruction. May we continue to fly our Israeli flag from a place of pride, strength and love rather than from hatred. May we not have to see flags of hate here. Finally, may we experience the love of the banner of Torah this Shavuot, just as Israel experienced at Har Sinai. Shabbat Shalom & Chag Sameach – Karen Miller Jackson