Bamidbar 5781

Bamidbar 5781

This week, we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. In Hebrew, bamidbar means wilderness or desert. In English, the title Numbers derives from the multiple censuses taken throughout the book. Bamidbar is a much more apt title for the journey that we will be taking these next many weeks, as we enter the liminal space and state of being that the Jewish people are inhabiting as they continue to negotiate their relationships to themselves and one another. We also read this Torah portion most years on the Shabbat before Shavuot, as is the case this year. Shavuot is the holiday on which tradition teaches that we received Torah collectively on Mt. Sinai. Our journeying these past seven weeks of counting the Omer parallels in some respects the journeys that the book of Bamidbar will guide us through over the next few months. Just as on Pesach/Passover we move from narrowness to expansiveness, from slavery to freedom, so, too, as we move through these weeks of counting the Omer, we are moving, day by day, towards the ultimate revelation of Torah in all of its fullness, challenge, complexity and joy.

Parshat Bamidbar introduces us to the messiness that is Sefer Bamidbar first in its opening census. Only men from the ages of 20-60 are counted, tribe by tribe. It is from this and other similar censuses in the Torah that the Jewish people have developed traditions and ideas about how to count, and who counts. We have a longstanding custom not to count people directly, as counting people is a means of commodification, of flattening their humanity. When we count, we tend to obscure the unique and irreplaceable individuality of those whom we count. Think of the statistics we encounter every day, how it is far easier for the human mind to grasp numbers than to grasp the enormity and often the tragedy and heartbreak those numbers contain. Traditionally, when a minyan for prayer is being assembled, we recite a verse from the Tanakh that contains ten words, understanding a minyan has been gathered once the final word rings out. Each of those ten individuals forming that sacred community and container are infinitely needed. So, too, are each one of us. In a world in which the enormity of human suffering and violence are too hard to bear, it is essential, now more than ever, never to forget that those numbers we encounter represent human beings, universes unto themselves, all of whom are infinitely precious, to G-d if not, G-d-forbid, to us.

The census that opens Parashat Bamidbar is quite dry and to the point, listing men of military age according to their tribal affiliation. When we liturgically read that census, are we nodding off or asking questions about the individuals whose names ring out year after year? Who are they? What were their lives like? Who loved them? Who cradled them in their arms at times of trial and at times of joy? What was their journey out of Egypt like? What stories do they carry with them? And what about the lives of those whose names we will never know, whose stories we have lost? How can we use the sacred gift of storytelling to unearth, with humility, that which is not found in the pshat, or simple/straightforward read of the Torah’s text?

Let us use our capacity for curiosity and wonder in a world so desperately lacking both, so that we may never forget, in our times of assumed knowing all that we do not know, all we must learn.

Bahaalotekha 5780

Our parsha or Torah portion this week is parashat Bahaalotekha, the third parsha in Sefer Bamidbar or the book of Numbers. We are introduced to Pesach Sheni or Second Passover in this parsha, which was instituted upon request of some Israelites who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at its official or fixed time—on the 14th of Nisan at twilight. The stated reason was on account of them being what is called Tumaat Meit in Hebrew or imperfectly translated, ritually impure due to recent contact with a corpse. Their ritual status made it impossible for them to offer the Passover sacrifice in Nisan, but all was not lost. A month later, on the 14th of Iyyar, they were able to offer the Passover sacrifice. Today, when we no longer offer sacrifices, Pesach Sheni has been understood in a variety of ways.

In some Chasidic thought, Pesach Sheni has come to represent the idea of spiritual second chances. Teshuvah, or turning and returning is a practice that is available to us all year long, not only on the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Pesach Sheni is another opportunity for us to right what has been wrong, to return to a better path, to have an opportunity to make up something we may have missed. It has become customary in some communities to hold a model seder on Pesach Sheni—indeed, I had the joy of participating in one myself this year—following the structure but of course omitting all of the elements that are only applicable on Pesach itself. Some folks also will eat a bit of matza. Because Pesach Sheni falls during the Omer period, which traditionally is a period of semi-mourning, it also allows for a bit of a celebratory respite.

The Torah states that those who may offer the Passover sacrifice on Pesach Sheni also include those who were on a long journey in Nisan and unable to make the sacrifice. This notion of being on a long journey has also been transformed and made into something of a metaphor.

Much ink has been spilled regarding this challenging and difficult time on a local, national and global scale. Many of us feel as though we have been on a journey whose beginning we barely remember and whose end we cannot imagine. The raw, visceral, unavoidable and inescapable truths of the foundation of America which black, indigenous folks and other people of color have known intimately for centuries are finally, or so it seems, being seen by more white folks than ever before. Many are cautiously optimistic, noting that something about this moment is different but worried that this will not last, as far too many past experiences have amply demonstrated.  We are collectively journeying but importantly, we are each also on an intensely individual journey. In this time of national and global reckoning, it is our responsibility to continue on our inward journeys because without an honest and often times difficult soul-accounting, we cannot show up as our full and authentic selves in the work externally which urgently needs doing and needs all of us. We each have an important role to play. This is a long haul, a marathon and not a sprint. We may feel shame in this moment, realizing that we in fact have had many chances to choose to do and act differently and we did not avail ourselves of those opportunities.

Pesach Sheni was instituted so that those who were far away could make the sacrifice. Our Torah understands that even with one’s best efforts to get it done on time, some folks are not able to. There is something important also about this opportunity for a do-over only for Pesach, not for any other holiday. Pesach is a foundational event for the Jewish people, as we journeyed out of slavery and into freedom or, as the Haggadah also describes, from degradation to praise. Sefer Shemot/the book of Exodus notes that we cried out because of our oppression. Our cries were finally heard, but after many centuries of enslavement, degradation and loss of dignity and autonomy.

And in our own day, our siblings cry out for justice, for life, for breath after too many centuries of injustice. We have had many opportunities. Many of us have been close, proximate and others have not been. Hashem knows our innermost thoughts, yearnings and feelings of shame. It is never too late to do important work, our parsha is teaching us. If not now, as Hillel taught, when? May our journeys guide us to committing to make this world a true dwelling place for the Divine Presence/Shechinah. May we co-create a world of beauty and abundance, where all may thrive and feel utterly at home in their bodies.

Bamidbar 5780

Parashat Bamidbar, which Jews the world over just completed, is chiefly concerned with an extensive census of military-aged men and a meticulous description of the manners by which each tribe camped and traveled. The parsha opens the fourth book of the Torah, known in English as Numbers owing to the opening census and in Hebrew as Bamidbar, or in the wilderness. Indeed, Bamidbar is not the only book of Torah whose name in Hebrew differs markedly from how later English translators named and understood it. Jewish tradition has focused a great deal on the literal and spiritual significance of being in the wilderness, which I feel is more relevant this year than perhaps it has ever been in our lifetime.

When the Jewish calendrical cycle was calculated, it was determined that Parshat Bamidbar would be read most years on the Shabbat before the holiday of Shavuot, as is the case this year. We are in the home stretch of counting the Omer, preparing for zman matan Torateinu—the time of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai, and we are, simultaneously, journeying in the wilderness, just as the Children of Israel are as our parsha opens. For those of us who have been counting the Omer, we are reminded, daily, of our eventual destination—revelation—and though the counting might give us some semblance of structure in a world in which time seems endless, without differentiation, we also must grapple with the uncertainty that being in the wilderness inevitably carries with it. Indeed, as we are later reminded in the book of Devarim/Deuteronomy, the Torah is not in heaven, but in our mouths to do it. Or, stated beautifully in a famous midrash describing Hashem’s revelation of Torah on Mt. Sinai, though revelation was a collective event—all souls were at Sinai, as one, to receive Torah—we all received Torah in a manner that we could understand. In other words, Matan Torah was a singular, national event and still, because Hashem understands humanity and the Jewish people to be each unique and irreplaceable, we each received the collective revelation in a manner that would allow us to understand and live it out in our individual lives and through how we show up in the world at large.

As we are reminded beautifully in the Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, just as no two coins are alike, neither are two human beings. Being created in the image of G-d, the Jewish tradition teaches, is not about physical appearance at all. Rather, this revolutionary teaching about human dignity commands us to view ourselves as partners and co-creators with G-d in creating the world each day anew. Indeed, our dynamic relationship with Hashem is borne out each morning when we say the Yotzer Or bracha, the opening passages of the daily morning liturgy.

Our actions matter deeply. Hashem has entrusted us with a spark of divinity within. The Torah is not in heaven, but in our mouths to do it. We choose, multiple times a day how we are going to actualize or conceal that holiness with which we’ve been gifted. Jewish tradition also places a premium on human responsibility and the need for teshuvah for mistakes large and small. In a world in which it is far easier to cast blame upon our adversaries, engaging in tremendous acts of mental and emotional manipulation and gymnastics to do so, Jewish tradition demands of us radical soul accounting, leading to physically making amends with those we have harmed.

We are in the wilderness, and the wilderness within which we find ourselves is both a collective experience and a deeply individual one. Only this time, the individual wilderness is not so that we might uniquely understand this period of profound rupture. Rather, our individual wilderness is intimately related to our personal circumstances—our health status, our economic position, our employment prospects, our class, our racial and ethnic background, our ability status. And in this moment, when many wish to proclaim the collectivity of the moment—we are in this together and we’ll get through it together—a desperate act of grasping for comfort—we are obscuring the many ways in which no, we are not in this together. Yes, we have all experienced a prolonged period of isolation. For some of us, prolonged periods of isolation are normal, not an aberration. Yes, we are collectively experiencing instability. For many of us, instability is indeed the only thing that remains consistent. Truly, instability and radical uncertainty are always thrumming in the background of our lives but for those of us who have lived with relative privilege and thus relatively sheltered lives, this may have been the first time we have had to grapple with our impermanence. We strive for uniformity as a means of deep human solidarity, as a means of trying to make order out of chaos. Human beings are nothing if not creatures who yearn for meaning, to connect to something or someone much larger than ourselves. This moment has been for many a profoundly transcendent one. We are recognizing the limits of individuality and the importance of human community, even at a distance.

Yet, we must strive, always, to decenter ourselves. Put another way, we tend to imagine ourselves as the normal, the typical and all others as deviating from that. This sense of ourselves too often during this time has manifested in the ways we speak about others experiencing this moment. The wilderness is not a uniform experience. Too often, we conflate the notions of uniformity—all acting and being the same—with unity—showing up on behalf of one another, not obscuring our individuality but deeply committed to honoring each of our individual journeys. Chasidic thought speaks often about achdut—spiritual unity. Indeed, each of our chagim—pilgrimage festivals, of which Shavuot is one—is about unity in the deepest sense. Unity is not uniformity. We received the Torah as one, but we did not each receive a carbon copy of revelation. The revelation we received was given to us in a manner that would penetrate our inner most essence.

Though the wilderness in which we presently find ourselves is vastly different, our individual and collective responses, I believe, must be guided by the paradox I have been describing. We are uniformly going through a moment of great rupture, but we are each uniquely experiencing it. If we are to truly act as partners and co-creators with Hashem in re-creating a more abundant future for us all, all of us irreplaceable, all of us inherently valuable, we must do so in a manner that honors our individuality and does not shy away from or explain inequities and disparities which we know have been present for generations. Rather, boldly and humbly, we must live out the radical implications of being created in the Image of Hashem through the choices we make each and every day towards the creation of a more abundant society for us all, which places kavod habriot, human dignity at its center, along with valuing the lives of all living beings who call our holy planet home. May it be so.

Baalotecha 5779

Our parsha this week is Behaalotecha, the third parsha in the Book of Numbers. We are introduced this week to the second Passover or Pesach Sheni which falls on the 14th of Iyyar, exactly one month after Passover. Pesach Sheni allowed those who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time the chance to do so. Much has been made of this second chance holiday, which is still observed today in some circles. Why maintain this holiday at all without a Temple? How do we turn something that was all about making up for a very important missed sacrifice into something relevant to our lives?
Much has been made of the spiritual significance of second chances. Just as Pesach Sheni was instituted to allow those who were unable to offer the Passover sacrifice at the appointed time—the 14th of Nisan—the chance to do so, we, too, often find ourselves wishing we had a second chance at any number of things. How many of us spend precious time, energy and brain space ruminating about events in our past, replaying sequences of events in our heads, as if by doing so, a different outcome will emerge? So many of us yearn to change the past, to do things differently, all of those would-haves and should-haves consuming so much of our daily energy and drive. We know, intuitively and subconsciously, that we cannot change the past, and that the present moment is all we have and yet, we continue our fruitless quest. Pesach Sheni offers us a container within which we can reflect upon those opportunities we missed; those things we wish we’d done differently. Our tradition understands Pesach Sheni to have been instituted on behalf of those on a journey and unable to offer the Passover sacrifice as well as those in a state of ritual impurity. Just as those states are temporal and not definite, so, too, do our lives and circumstances constantly change and shift. This is indeed reminiscent of the famous Buddhist teaching of impermanence and non-attachment. Change is itself permanent, stasis is, often leading to a state of spiritual and emotional stuckness is to be avoided. May we utilize the spiritual container offered to us through Pesach sheni as an opportunity for reflection. In those moments of stuckness, may we remember that second chances are not as fleeting as we tend to think.