May 18, 2010
Forgiving and Blessing: Parashat Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89)
Raising twins is one of the biggest challenges of my life. As my kids grow (they are now 8 1/2), I have watched them develop different character traits and—being a boy and a girl—different personalities. From an early age, I have tried to instill in them two important qualities, both of which appear in this week’s parashah, Naso.
The first quality is that of accepting responsibility for our actions and living a life of forgiveness. Kids, by their nature, are quick to deny culpability and blame others; if that habit is not broken, with kindness and compassion, those kids grow up into adults who deny culpability and blame others. The Torah this week teaches us that our actions affect others and affect our relationship with God.
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the children of Israel: When a man or a woman commits any wrong toward a fellow person, thus breaking faith with God, and that person realizes his/her guilt, and shall confess the wrong that he/she has done…” (Numbers 5:5-7).
Commenting on this verse, Yitzhak Meir Alter of Ger address the question of why wronging another is breaking faith with God: “Every breach of faith is a form of theft, stealing another’s trust under false pretenses, using one’s God-given talents for a purpose other than that intended by God.”
We build relationships with each other by developing trust; when we lie, mislead or don’t admit our mistakes, we breach the trust of those in our lives, thereby breaching a trust with God.
The first step in making amends, however, is articulated in our verses, as it says, “and that person realizes his/her guilt. ...” Maimonides taught long ago that before we can ask forgiveness of others and God, we must take the hardest first step in life: admitting that we made a mistake.
I am teaching my kids that there is no shame in making mistakes, and there are only good things to be gained by admitting our mistakes and owning them. Sadly, we see too many people in our world today, from friends to leaders, clergy to elected officials, who never accept responsibility for their actions and seek to blame others, thereby bringing pain and suffering, unnecessarily, to those around them. This is selfish behavior that is all too common. The Torah teaches us this lesson through its use of the verb hitvadu, or confess. This is in the reflexive conjugation, reminding us that we must “confess to ourselves the wrong we have done, rather than go through the motions of an expiation ritual while privately believing we have done nothing wrong” (Eitz Chayyim Commentary). This is lesson No. 1 to our children, and to us.
Lesson No. 2 is what I like to call the compendium to forgiveness: blessings. Our lives are filled with excess noise these days, from 24/7 news, Facebook, Twitter, billboards, talk-radio chatter and the like. We need more blessings, more opportunities to fill each other’s hearts with joy, appreciation, hope and peace. Once we make ourselves vulnerable through forgiveness, we need to find healing, and that can come through blessing one another. Our parashah this week gives us the quintessential blessing formula in the priestly blessing: “May God bless you and keep you; may God light you up with kindness and grace; may God’s face be upon you and instill in you a heart of peace” (Numbers 6:24-26, my own translation).
Traditionally, these words are said in the repetition of the Amidah (in some shuls by the Cohanim, harkening back to the ancient priests) and are offered each Friday night by parents to their children at Shabbat dinner.
Forgiveness and blessing: these are a resplendent pair for healing our world, lifting us up and creating a healthier and more productive community. May our children learn the lessons of admitting wrong and forgiving, and may they hear words of blessing often. And may those children grow up to be adults who continue to do the same for themselves and their children to come.
Joshua Levine Grater is senior rabbi at Pasadena Jewish Temple and Center (pjtc.net), a Conservative congregation in Pasadena.