Parsha Phil: Naso

Levites, Nazarites, funders and grantees

In Short

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat  Naso, we encounter two models of committed service: the three clans within the tribe of Levi, who by birth were responsible for packing and moving the Tabernacle; and the Nazarites, who opted into devoted service and commitment that came along with various behavioral practices.

Relationships take work. And ending relationships well can seem like an impossible task, even when one or more parties know that it’s time for something to end. Think back to your own experiences – what was the approach you or someone else used to end that commitment? How did you navigate those complicated waters? 

In the philanthropic world, one of the most challenging and rewarding relationships is between grantee and funder. Many foundations and philanthropists aim to create a bi-directional relationship with grantees. Nevertheless, the relationship can often be experienced as a top-down due to the inherent structure of one party having funds in abundance, funneling that to grantees, who seek funding to support their operation, growth or expansion. Another challenge in the relationship is that at some point, that relationship is going to end which can potentially create a sense of instability or anxiety within both parties. 

Over the course of my Jewish professional life, I’ve served in both capacities, as funder and grantee — witnessing the dynamics of exiting a funding commitment. Some endings happened with grace and ease, others with discomfort and disappointment. And although we know that relationships and priorities run their course over time, navigating separation is still a challenge. What, if anything, can we learn from the ancients? 

In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat  Naso, we encounter two models of committed service: the three clans within the tribe of Levi, who by birth were responsible for packing and moving the Tabernacle; and the Nazarites, who opted into devoted service and commitment that came along with various behavioral practices.

The scene opens with a census and description of Levite clan duties (Numbers 4: 22-28): for instance, the Gershonites’ commitment isto pack, lift and carry the curtains, covers and screens and accompanying hardware of the mishkan and ohel moed/tent of meeting. The expectations are spelled out, the roles are clear — Ithamar, Aaron’s son will supervise — and the duration of this commitment is finite—from age 30 to 50. 

In essence, one could compare this to an oath of service each one of these men have taken on, duration of relationship and responsibilities are clear. Exit strategy from the get-go. A time-bound, duration-defined, non-renewable grant.

Skip two scenes ahead to chapter 6, where the ancients explore another type of sacred commitment or service. This one is a vow for the every person — not just men — to take a vow of holiness for an undefined timeframe as a Nazir or in other words, this is the vow of the Nazarite. Duration: Self-determined, complete with practices that include dietary restrictions, proximity to death restrictions, couture and aesthetics restrictions…all for the cause of elevating oneself to holy work, with an impact on everyone around them. Out of office hashtag: #ItsComplicated. 

Unrestricted donor funds with no grant duration specified. 

While not a direct translation to the example of service in the times of the mishkan/mobile community, this week’s Torah installment presents some interesting ideas that we can apply in thinking about the relationships between funders and grantees. 

On the surface (let’s call that pshat, the simple translation) we experience multiple paths to sacred service in Jewish community and multiple ways to designate that commitment or relationship obligation. Digging deeper, we reveal important questions: How do you build a healthy funding relationship, determining the duration of that vowing sacred service time to each other? How long should that relationship be? What would a clean, healthy, transparent, clear ending of the sacred mutual service feel like? Another #ItsComplicated?? 

Anne MacKinnon and Jan Jaffee from GrantCraft, a service of the Foundation Center, address some of these questions in their guide called “The Effective Exit,” imploring funders to understand that saying goodbye to a grantee is an inherent part of the process; they dedicate an entire guide to creating a transparent, compassionate and generative process of separation. Even reading and practicing  a fraction of the concepts mentioned in the book’s section headings —”Exiting is Normal,” “Strengthening Grantees’ Organizational Capacity,” “Helping Grantees Find New Funding,” etc.— would benefit funding relationships on both sides of the power dynamic. It also acknowledges that people can be united in their purpose and supportive of one another, even if their operations at some point continue on separate paths.

Writers on Bridgespan, a global nonprofit providing consulting, articles and resources to nonprofits and philanthropists, also encourage grantee relationships or grantmaking programs to plan ahead for any future complicated dynamics, be it advice, referring grantees to new funding sources, a gradient sunsetting process, involving bridge funding to ease the chasm between one ending and the start of another funding relationship beginning for the grantee. 

If we look carefully, the ancients offer a ritual gift for marking the transition. Now, I don’t necessarily recommend having your grantee shave their head, and offer their hair up in a fire offering as the Nazirites did (Numbers 6: 19-21) but I can imagine an earnest, honest, appreciative and affirming ritually-marked celebration of the learnings and growth both funder and grantee experience in this intensive relational time. 

Immediately following the vows of the Nazirite, the Torah mentions the three-fold Priestly Blessing: “From Above and Below, from Within and Beyond: Be Blessed, be Protected. May You Grow and Glow in the Grace of Eternal Radiance, Lit Up with Love. Face to Face with Divine Mystery, Be Ever Present, and Be Blessed with Peace.” (Translation by Lab/Shul Ritual Team)

What an opportunity our ancestors grant us to earnestly, spiritually, gracefully encounter a meaningful moment of passage through offering this blessing to each other: a blessing of protection, Divine radiance shining through each person’s hand and heart work, and that they should experience peace. 

May we approach the endings of funding relationships not as a cutting off, but as a reframing of the relationship to elevate how we still might champion what each party has to offer the world. Ken yehi ratzon. May it be so. 

Naomi Less is a spiritual music ritual leader, educator and composer in sacred service to the Jewish community. She serves as co-founder, ritual leader and associate director at Lab/Shul in NYC and as artist-in-residence in Jewish communities worldwide. You can access her music on YouTube, Spotify or Jewish Rock Radio. Naomi shares this Torah learning in memory of her beloved dad, Bob Less (z’l) whose yahrtzeit is 11 Sivan.