Today, our most excellent older daughter Paris (known in Hebrew mommy speak as “HaG’dolah – the Big One) has become a Bat Mitzvah, a daughter of the Law. She has learned to lead Jewish prayer, chant Torah, do Tikkun Olam, and serve as a role model for Jewish kids everywhere. She has accepted the responsibilities of an all grown up Jewish adult while still just an American teenager. She spent hundreds of hard working hours getting here, demonstrating her extraordinary dedication.
Paris’ Torah portion spoke of another way of expressing ones dedication to God and the Jewish people. This is the path of the Nazir, a person who makes an oath or promise to God that they will not drink any wine of the vine, go near a dead person, or, and most famously, never cut or let anyone else cut their hair.
Paris’ reading from the prophets or Halftorah tells the story of the birth of the most famous nazir of all. Hannah, a very pious young woman who would like to have a baby, prays that God to allow her this wonderful gift. Hannah is the first woman that the Torah records as having God speak directly to her. She must be extra special. God in fact tells her she will give birth to a boy and he will be a nazir, dedicated especially to God, not drinking wine or cutting his hair. This special child’s name will Samson and he will be a judge of Israel, leading his people through decades of war with the Philistines.
Actually, Samson turns out to be what a Yiddishah mama might call a Vilda Hyyel. He is supposed to protect Israel against their mortal enemies the Philistines; instead, he consorts with the infamous female Philistine, Delilah, who seduces him into revealing that the source of his massive strength is his long, long hair, which has never been cut since birth. But no, I have said it all wrong. The source of his strength was his special connection to God, demonstrated through his commitment to never cut his hair, no matter what everyone else is doing with theirs.
Samson’s story is just the beginning of shimmering web of narrative and devotion that connects Israel and Africa, the Caribbean, Europe and America. To travel this maze, we need to move the historical frame up a couple of centuries, from the time of Samson and the judges, to King Solomon, son of King David and the glorious monarch of a splendiferous Israel at the very apex of her fame, wealth, and glory.
During the time of Solomon, ancient Israel was famous among the nations of the Middle East. While Jerusalem was known for her luscious hanging gardens and her splendid temple, Solomon was just as famous for two things: his wisdom and, just like his father and in fact Samson before him, his weakness for beautiful women, most of whom were not, shall we say, exactly members of the Tribe. Men came to Solomon from every country to test his intellect. Women were sent to him by sovereigns and wealthy merchants to gain favor and make treaties with the king of the hour.
The Torah tells us that one woman came of her own design, caring only to meet the man of such legendary wisdom. It was the Queen of Sheba, regal and chaste, whom her people lovingly Maketa. Stories abound of their meeting and the many riddles she poised to test his wisdom. Less known outside of Africa is the story told in the holy book of East Africa called the Kebra Negast. It seems that Solomon was smitten by Queen Makeda’s beauty. According to the African text, our great Solomon behaved badly, manipulating and coercing Queen Maketa into his bed.
Afterwards, The Queen of Sheba fled home to her sovereign realm in Africa. Separating out the stories and teachings of Judaism, which she found compelling, from the actions of the inappropriate king, she brought these teaching to add to those of her already pious people. A few months later, 9, to be exact, she bore a son, like Hannah in our Haftorah. This one would also be specially dedicated to God but in a radically different way. Menelek as he was called, grew up as handsome and wise as both his parents. He was raised in the faith of both his father and mother.
At a certain age, Menelek desired to meet his father, and so traveled with some friends to Israel where he was welcomed as a true son of King Solomon. Menelek saw an Israel beginning to fall from grace due to Solomon’s excesses. According to the Kebra Negast, he decided this country was no longer worthy of being the chosen land of God. He and his entourage stole the Ark of the Covenant, and the Arch Angel Michael flew them all back to Africa, where the Ethiopians still believe the Holy Ark resides. They considered their land the New Zion—which, by the way, is what the Mormons call America– and, as the teachings of Judaism spread, more and more African peoples heard and integrated them into their self-understanding, to the extent that so many Africans today, whether actively worshiping as Catholic or Coptic, Evangelical or even Muslim, will confide that their ancestors, if not they themselves are really of Jewish heritage. They point to similar festivals and rules around food, firstborns and livestock. And some tell of singular practices regarding the growing and not cutting of the hair.
Fast forward, now, several hundreds of years. Millions of Africans are kidnapped and transported to the newly developed Americas where they live work and die as slaves just like the Israelites in Egypt. Generations pass and there is emancipation without full liberation. A visionary leader arises named Marcus Garvey who prophesizes of a great African leader who will be the Black Messiah.
A great leader does arise, forcing the European colonialists ….. To flee East Africa. – Time Magazine shows photographs of his glory and these circulate the African diasporic community and he is indeed hailed as the African messiah. His name to Europeans is Halle Salasi, but to Africans he is a descendant of the mighty family of Tafari, his title is king or Ras. His worshipers world round become known as the followers of RasTafari.
Their holy book is the Kebra Negast, which tells the story from the very beginning of Adam and Abraham, Samson, Solomon, Queen Maketa and her son Menelik.
The followers of Ras Tafari consecrate themselves like the nazirites to His Kingship. Struggling in a hostile world, they pray and fast for the strength and courage of Samson. As suggested by their holy scriptures and ours, they do not cut their hair. Rather, to control the ever increasing length, they roll their hair in dreads, and when those dreads have been rolled enough times, they are locked and therefor become dreadlocks.
Among Hasidic Jews there is strikingly a similar custom. Following the law against cutting the corners (peyote) of the field, male Hasids do not cut the front corners of their hair (called payahs). To manage that ever increasing length, they roll them into pretty long ringlets which they twirl endlessly while arguing, for example, whether or not their recently departed rebbe wasn’t really the Messiah.
Like the nazir in the Torah portion, Samson in the haftorah portion, the Rastaferians and Hasidim, our girls, Paris and Toni have never cut their dreadlocks. Paris, being the incredibly honest child that she is, will protest that she did get her hair cut when she was very young, and her mommies will repeat for her again that her hair was cut prior to being in dreadlocks but never again once in dreadlocks—and what we say is that ‘she has never cut her dreadlocks.’ Thus we as a family demonstrate that ancient truth that just as both mommies are always right, so is the teenager always right. Everyone has their own truth, and it is kind of different and kind of the same as everybody else’s.
Whether of Israel or Africa, the Caribbean, Europe or America, there are aspects of truth which separately define us, and other aspects of truth which bind us together. Similarly, there are stories told here, that intersect and echo of stories told there. If we have but the grace and patience and we can trace their holy wonderings. Through differences of names and geography and colors of the skin, many themes remain the same: themes of slavery and liberation, struggle and redemption, weakness and strength, fear and courage.
As a rabbi, I trace the Sinanitic laws of the nazir through Israeli and African and then world history here to Lowell and my daughter’s bat mitzvah—her acceptance of the commandments given at Sinai—and I observe
conclude that everything begins and ends with the Torah.
Stated differently, to Bat Mitzvah (and yes, Charlotte, it has become a verb) to bring under the shelter of the commandments, one daughter, is to Bat Mitzvah—to bring under the shelter of the commandments—an entire world.