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Thursday, May 28, 2009

Parashat Naso - the Hafatar

Parashat Naso - the Haftara
Judges 13:2-25
Reading date: 30th May 2009 – 7th Sivan 5769

Our Highlighted Haftara Text
"Take care not to drink wine or beer, or eat anything unclean, for you shall soon be pregnant, and give birth to a boy. His hair is never to be cut, because from the womb he is YHVH's Nazerite; he will begin to liberate Israel from the hand of the Philistines." Judges 13:4-5

The person who chooses their own destiny has true strength.

Probably one of the most famous figures from the book of Judges is Samson, the hero of the haftara read this week. The haftara tells of his birth and the instructions for him to be a Nazerite from birth. This is the connection to the Torah portion that details the prohibition against drinking intoxicants (as well as grape products including raisins) and not cutting one's hair. (It is not cutting his hair that gives him his super-human strength.)

The Samson narratives read like the Hercules' myth. Samson is the strong (but not particularly bright) tragic hero. The haftara only describes the announcement of his birth (with parallels to other earlier patriarchs). Later in the story, Samson falls in love with Delilah. The names have significance: Samson's Hebrew name ‘Shimshon’ is derived from the word for ‘shemesh’, sun, while the word 'lailah' (night) would have been heard by the biblical listener for his nemesis Delilah. The origins of Delilah are not clear; some suggest that the name comes from ‘dal’ (weak or poor); others relate the word to an Arabic term for prostitute. Notwithstanding baby books explanations that the name means 'delicate, amorous' the name Delilah has become synonymous with a treacherous and cunning woman. To further reinforce the idea of Delilah's power to undo Samson, she is from the valley of Sorek, which refers to a choice grapevine. Delilah is a woman of wine!

Here we have the beginnings of the conflict between Israel and the Philistines. This powerful enemy lived on the coast of Israel. The ancient Israelites (unlike today who mainly populate the coastal regions of the country, except for Jerusalem and a few isolated urban areas) lived mostly in the foothills. The Israelite struggle with the Philistines continued until David vanquished Goliath, the most famous Philistine.

The name Philistine was adopted by the Romans to refer to that strip of land in the Middle East, the origin of the English word: Palestine. The Philistines were a highly advanced urban society: they had iron which gave them weapons and chariots. Compared to them, the Israelites, coming from the desert, were country boys. The name Philistine became synonymous with 'enemy' and German students used the term to refer to non-academics. Ironically, its usage entered the English language to mean any person with no culture or sophistication.

The Torah describes individuals who take a 'vow' to be a Nazir, but the obvious connection to the Haftara (nazir-Samson) also highlights an important difference: Samson does not choose to be a Nazerite. In fact, Samson is the only Nazerite from birth. The Torah's Nazerite is an individual who chooses deliberately to serve YHVH (for a limited period of time).

Today there are those contemplating placing their destiny alongside the Nation of Israel. While people are being prepared for this step, and there is a lot of preparation to be done, they could be known as converts. Once they have completed the learning process and have become fully familiarized with what it means to be a part of the Nation, they are no longer referred to as converts but are a fully fledged member of the Nation. They are 100% Israelite.
I once attended a synagogue where the rabbi, wanting to impress upon the bar mitzvah boy the significance of the day, said that on this day the boy was 'choosing' Judaism. In his remarks, he said that he was a 'Jew by choice.' I remember thinking, 'Wow, I never knew that the Rabbi had converted to Judaism?!' Of course he hadn't. His point was that in today's society, we are all 'Jews by choice.' We all have the choice (unlike our ancestors) to actively live an observant lifestyle or not.

For the most part, today this ability to choose has been a disadvantage. Most people, particularly Jews take their birthright for granted. How many of us would 'choose' to be Jewish, if we weren't born that way? Our parasha (for the second time) records a census: stand up and be counted. Too many Jews today do not choose to be counted. We don't have to choose to be Nazerites, but we should demonstrate that we have chosen Torah.

Yes, Samson had powerful muscles from his birthright, but it is the person who chooses their own destiny that has true strength.

Shabbat Shalom

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