Union for Reform Judaism Member Congregation


Our Torah portion this week is Naso. In the context of this episode, Moses and Aaron are told to take a census in the wilderness. The census of last week’s portion was for the purpose of counting up the male Israelites of age 20 or older who were able to bear arms. The census in this chapter, however, is to count up specifically the members of the tribe of Levi between the ages of 30 and 50, for the purpose of serving the sacred tasks of worship within the Tabernacle, to assist the Kohanim (priests).

The term “naso” is an interesting one in this context. While the meaning here is for counting, the more common meaning of the root is “to lift up.” One of the Hebrew terms for marriage is “nissuin,” because of the elevation in status of the woman as she becomes a wife, as it was viewed in the Talmudic period. In another form, the word becomes “nasi,” which means “prince,” or in modern vocabulary, “president.” The head of the Sanhedrin of the early Rabbinic period was the “Nasi.” The redactor of the Mishnah was Yehuda HaNasi, commonly translated as “Judah the Prince.” This great rabbinic leader wasn’t a royal prince, but rather, the rabbinic head of the Sanhedrin—President of the Sanhedrin, if you will. The Nasi of the State of Israel now is Reuven Rivlin. In Israeli government, he is less powerful than the Prime Minister, now Benjamin Netanyahu. But he is a head of government nonetheless, and often serves as the visible representative of Israel on the world stage.

This past week I have thought a great deal about this word “nasi,” as it pertains to our own country. Since the word comes from the root “to lift up,” the President of the United States holds the most elevated political status in our nation. While we do not assign royal or religious status to our presidents, we do ascribe to them an extra measure of respect and admiration—or at least that is our aspiration. Optimally, our president is an individual with superior intelligence and wisdom, whose obligation it is to protect and promote our interests, at home and around the world. I recall the words of the Union Prayer Book, which are rooted in many of our memories to this day. They were read just before the Torah was returned to the Ark:

Fervently we invoke Thy blessing upon our country and our nation. Guard them, O God, from calamity and injury; suffer not their adversaries to triumph over them, but let the glories of a just, righteous, and God-fearing people increase from age to age. Enlighten with Thy wisdom and sustain with Thy power those whom the people have set in authority, the President, his counselors and advisers, the judges, law-givers and executives, and all who are entrusted with our safety and with the guardianship of our rights and our liberties. (Union Prayer Book, p.148)

This past Memorial Day was a doubly auspicious observance, as we noted that it was the 100th anniversary of the birth of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, z”l.In his private life, as is now well known, of course, he was beset by physical and emotional frailties. Nevertheless, he had a brilliant mind and an expansive intellect. He had a profound appreciation and respect for history, and a deep understanding of how history needed to inform our decisions as a society. He understood the political process, and had significant personal experience within that process, as a Congressman and a Senator. He was a war hero, yet he demonstrated extraordinary restraint as he and his cabinet tried to keep us out of the potential nuclear conflagration that threatened the world during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He stood strong against the economic and political totalitarianism that the Soviet Union sought to impose upon the world. He and Jacqueline were patrons of the arts, and promoted the spark of human creativity in all areas of the arts. He had a vision for human progress. No, he was not a perfect person. Such a person does not exist. But as Americans, we were justified in looking up to him for those attributes that he did possess which were benevolent and admirable. We trusted him with our very lives, and his ability to grow was demonstrated even in the all too short time that he spent in the White House.

We now are witnessing a travesty that is being wrought upon our nation by the individual who currently holds this revered title, and it grows worse by the day. Our will as Americans to accord to the President respect, admiration, and even exaltation, has been completely dashed and pummeled. What an irony, that Russia once again looms so large in our national consciousness. No, it is no longer the Soviet Union. But its government rules with an iron fist, and its behavior on the world stage has been opportunistic and brutal. We have a “nasi” in our country who has promised to “make America great again.” Instead, the German chancellor, their “nasi,” has proclaimed in the wake of Trump’s recent visit, “Europe can no longer completely depend upon America.” Now our commitment to cleaning up and protecting our environment has been suspended. Mr. Trump has literally taken our lives, and the lives of future generations, into his hands, with reckless abandon and complete disregard of the reality that is staring us all in the face. While many of us look to 2018 to gain the upper hand in Congress, we can’t wait until then. There is much work to be done. One immediate step is to support a new alliance, formed as of today, by Governor Cuomo of New York, Governor Edmund Brown of California, and Governor Jay Inslee of Washington State. This is the United States Climate Alliance, to take aggressive action on climate change. If you would like to sign on as a supporter, you may do so here. Sign the petition now.

Our tradition teaches us to lift up our leaders, and accord them respect of their positions. But our leaders must earn and merit that respect. The office of President is a sacred trust between the one who holds it and American people. I have no faith in the will or ability of this “nasi” to uphold that trust. Now the welfare of our nation is in our hands. Our “nasi” is dragging us down. We must lift ourselves up, and not relent.