Naso: A Renaissance of Observance

Rabbi Lizz is with IfNotNow DC.

This week we celebrated the holiday of Shavuot, a joyous and delightful holiday in which it is customary to stay up all night eating dairy delectables and studying Jewish texts to celebrate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. However, in spite of how fun this holiday is, and despite the fact that it’s one of the three major festivals of Jewish tradition, in which ancient Israelites were commanded to bring sacrifices to the Temple in Jerusalem, modern observance of this holiday seems to have dwindled to the point where many young unaffiliated Jews are only now rediscovering it. In podcasts and social media posts, and in conversations around planning IfNotNow meetings for this week, it became clear that many of my peers had never celebrated Shavuot before and are now overjoyed to experience it.

This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Naso, details the rules for the Nazirite. A Nazirite is portrayed as someone who wishes to come closer to God by taking on observances beyond those which are expected of regular Jews. Progressive Jewish communities are seeing a renaissance of observances previously cast aside, being our own Nazirites in a way (though maybe without the abstinence from alcohol). We see it in the ways the Reform Movement continues to re-embrace ritual and Halakha in places where it once was more lax, and we see it in the emerging communities like IfNotNow. All those “nones” — the millennials of Jewish heritage who responded to the 2013 Pew Study saying that they had no affiliation with any Jewish community and did not feel connected to any part of Judaism — are finding that it wasn’t really Judaism itself that didn’t speak to them. Rather, they felt disconnected to the Jewish communities in which they were raised, the Jewish communities that promoted themselves as the beacons of leadership for all American Jews, the ones who silenced their questions and judged their relationships. They, like so many Israelites stationed around the Mishkan without special roles to serve it, felt lost wandering in the wilderness, unsure why they follow a leadership that does not always seem to represent them. So many of us, like the Nazirites, have vowed to observe rules that previously didn’t seem to apply to us. We learned traditions that our unaffiliated parents never even taught us, like the celebration of Shavuot. We built the religious communities we didn’t think we could have, and hosted our own Shavuot study sessions where our spirituality and our political/moral values could be equally honored.

Communities like IfNotNow allow for so many of us to constantly receive Torah anew. Every meeting, every action can feel like another Shavuot, another opportunity to learn and sing and be in community. May we continue to reach out to bring in any others who still feel lost in the wilderness, unsure of their role or their leadership, so that they know they can choose their own roles to serve as leaders with us as we accept a Torah that stands for freedom and dignity for all.

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