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.

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.

Behar 5780

This week marks the tenth Shabbat since I have been in shul, davening with a minyan. Each Shabbat morning as I arise, put on my tallit and prepare to pray the morning or Shacharit service, I cannot but feel the absence of friends, the silence without melodious harmonization, and the void left without a physical community to be amongst. This is the second Shabbat out of those ten Shabbatot during which we liturgically complete the reading of one of the five books of the Torah. This week, we read the two final parshiyot in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, Behar and Bechukotai. Ordinarily, when the Torah is read with a minyan of ten adult Jews present, at the conclusion of a book of the Torah, the entire congregation rises if able to do so and proclaims together, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another”. We know that in the fullness of time, a year will elapse, and we will return once more to Leviticus, and we wish each other and ourselves well on our continuing journey through Torah and life itself.

The Jewish tradition is one deeply bound to time, but not in a Western, linear fashion. Instead, ours is a tradition of cycles. Seven is a key number for us in organizing these temporal cycles. The 25th chapter of Leviticus, which is the vast majority of Parashat Behar, the first of our two Torah portions this week is a prime example of our Torah’s concern. We learn first about the Shmita or sabbatical year. Every seven years, land is to lie fallow, uncultivated, unharvested. The prior six years the land is worked as it typically would be and, knowing that the Shmita year was coming, it is expected that society is organized in such a manner that no one is left behind in the seventh year. Animals and human beings are able to sustain themselves and enjoy the rest afforded to them by this time.

The fiftieth year, after seven cycles of seven years, is known as the Yovel or Jubilee year, in which all debts are forgiven, and land is returned to its original occupants. It ought to be mentioned here that even as such land returns to its original inhabitants, G-d makes clear to human beings that land is, in fact, not ours at all—we are merely tenants upon it. All land ultimately belongs to G-d.

As we are reading about the forty-nine years leading to the Yovel, we are simultaneously in the midst of counting the Omer, a practice that we do daily during the seven weeks between Pesach and Shavuot.  On the fiftieth day after the first day of Pesach, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, we would bring our first fruits, the first results of our post-Pesach wheat harvest. We rest on this day out of abundant gratitude for our produce, and with each day’s counting of the Omer leading us to this time, we are deeply conscious of where we are in this cycle, we pray will have an abundant end.

So, too, we count the years until the Yovel, marking the Shmita year with each cycle as we go, praying for years of bounty and plenty. The Torah instructs that when we are resting, we are to ensure that all members of society can engage in this rest. And, so too, when the Torah describes the three pilgrimage festivals, of which Shavuot is one of them, their rest and joy is meant to be felt by and available to all.

And so, I return to my Shabbatot in this time. I think often as I engage in my own Shabbat practice of the privileges inherent in being able to remain sheltered in place, with access to plenty of wholesome, nourishing food, a spacious yard to enjoy, and enough space so as not to feel too cooped up. With each passing Shabbat, I mark the time since I was with in-person community. I grieve that loss, and yet, I know deeply how truly lucky I am. The relative stability and security I presently feel should be available to all.

The Torah this week reminds me starkly yet again that the social safety net it envisions, a system of laws and practices rooted in the idea that all human beings are created B’Tzelem Elokim—in the image of The Divine is, at best, profoundly broken in our own society. We express gratitude for essential workers and first responders, calling them heroes. Many are showing the very best of humanity through how they are relating to those of us who are engaged day in and day out doing tasks which we would be hard-pressed to function without—and, if we’re honest with ourselves—hard-pressed to do ourselves. Yet, too many express nothing more than surface-level gratitude and are angry when a delivery is delayed. I want my package and I want it now. Workers going without essential PPE? Too many of us are more concerned with expediency than with protecting the health and safety of those delivering our longed-for quarantine goods.

In a society steeped in instant gratification, the notion of interdependence, that we are each ultimately responsible for and bound up with one another is foreign, anathema.

Let us heed our parsha’s radical calls for social responsibility and restructuring as we imagine and, G-d willing, co-create a more abundant world post-COVID. Just as our Torah instructs us to ensure that the needs of all are met before the Shmita year, let us work to reimagine a society that considers meeting basic human needs as a given and not an inconvenience. Just as we honor the cycles of time, experiencing periods of rest and labor, let us work ceaselessly to ensure that the rest our Torah calls us to engage in is something that all can enjoy and not merely a privileged few.

Our Covenant Includes All: Thoughts on Deuteronomy 29

Our chapter is largely concerned with HaShem telling the Children of Israel what will befall them if they stray from the covenant which, it is emphasized, includes everyone, those who are there on that day and those who are not. If the Children of Israel uphold our covenant with HaShem and perform the mitzvot in accordance with it, all will be well—we will prosper and be blessed. However, if we fail to do so, much tragedy will befall us.
I am particularly drawn to the emphasis placed on the brit including everyone—those who are there on that day and those who are not. This tends to be understood is affirming that our covenant was collectively received across generations—all future generations being bound by it. Many who enter beneath the wings of the Shechinah—convert to Judaism—point to this idea as an affirmation that their neshamot, too, were at Sinai. That deep longing and spiritual yearning which compels so many people to choose Judaism is rooted there.
Blessedly, we live in a time in which klal Yisrael comprises individuals who come from a variety of backgrounds, life experiences and perspectives. Finding a way for all to feel a sense of spiritual home in our communities can be a daunting, sometimes uncomfortable endeavor. When we expand our minds, hearts and souls to experiences and perspectives we might not have considered, we are being given the incredible opportunity to deepen and enrich our thinking. When we take the lead and warmly embrace Jews from all backgrounds into our communities, the Torah we find within them is that much deeper, more resonant and spiritually alive. Baruch HaShem, I believe we are living in a time in which we are receiving a plethora of new chiddushim from voices and perspectives that have historically been marginalized, including women, Jews with disabilities, Jews of color and members of the lgbtqia community. In my own life and experience, I find myself feeling such hakarat hatov—tremendous gratitude—for the Torah I am learning from the teachers I most admire, many of whose voices have historically not been heard.

After all, the brit we all entered into included those who stood there on that day and all of those, across time, space and generation, who did not. May we never cease striving to build communities and spaces in which the Torah from all can find a home and be heard.