The days are as long as they get right now, yet we need light desperately: the light of hope, the light of healing, the light of happiness, all obscured in the horror of realizing that our own Federal government is operating concentration camps full of children and adults who are innocent of any crime.
For us Jews with our community history, this particular transgression of the current administration is the most traumatic of all the long list of the sins it commits. Our help will come from the same place: our history, our culture, and our community. We know more than anyone that when the world becomes a chaotic and frightening place, individuals who hold on to their integrity and continue to do the right thing are the shining lights that save our sanity and inspire us to hold on.
Shabbat BeHa’alot’kha begins with light, that of the menorah in the Mishkan, the sacred space at the center of the Israelite wilderness encampment.
וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר֖ ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר
HaShem spoke to Moses, saying
דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃
Tell Aaron: “When you set up the light, let the seven lamps shed their light at the front of the menorah.”
– BaMidbar 8.1-2
This simple instruction seems obvious – set up the light so it best illuminates the room – yet it must be stated. Our ancestors read such mitzvot carefully, looking for the deeper symbolic meaning that would justify an otherwise simplistic and easy to overlook command. What they found is a metaphor for our Jewish community.
The menorah symbolizes the Jewish people. It has seven branches, symbolizing different paths to G*d, but is made of a single gold piece. The various differences and qualities do not detract from the unity. This means that diversity need not lead to division Each individual talent should lead to a synthesis of different views and behavior. – Rabbi Menakhem Mendel Schneerson
Throughout our history, community is central to Jewish survival. Yet Jewish community does not move in lockstep, but in as many directions as there are menorah branches, if not more:
- different spiritual practices: some love Torah study, some love prayer, some love service to others.
- different expressions of belonging: some give money, some in-kind, some make a visit or volunteer to fill a community need.
- different personal needs
- different perspectives and ways of knowing
- different expressions of self
- different Jewish backgrounds
- different feelings about Israel
It is obvious that there are many differences among us, and that these differences are part of what make us so special as a religious community.
What is not so obvious is how to fulfill the mitzvah of making sure that each of our lights is carefully centered toward the front of the space we share.
Are we patient enough to hear out someone who thinks differently? are we respectful of other’s sense of self and need? Most of all, do we remember to give each other the benefit of our doubt before judging?
During the summer our Talmud class studies Pirke Avot, a selection of ancient rabbinical ethical “sound bites.” Among them we find this:
Be of the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.
I am proud that our congregation is not only a member of the Community of Welcoming Congregations, we are 25% LGBTQIA+ identified. During this month when we are offered the opportunity to consider more deeply what it is like to be queer (Pride month), or what it is like to be a person of color (June 19th was Juneteenth), the real significance of the mitzvah of the menorah seems to be this:
Be like Aaron, noting how each member of our beloved community shines their light. Do what you can to make sure each light shines clear and bright.
If you are extroverted and passionate, this means being quiet and assuming that the quiet person will say something that you need to hear.
If you are a cis person, it means graciously offering your personal pronouns so that a trans person won’t feel awkward in their need to do so.
If you are a man, it means thinking carefully about whether you let women be people.
If you are smart, it means remembering that according to Jewish tradition, the truly wise are those who learn from others.
If you are white, it means remembering that not every Jew is.
If you are a born Jew, it means never asking anyone whether they converted.
We cannot heal the world, but while we do what we can, our history, our culture and our religious tradition demonstrate the power of acting according to our ethics anyway. Especially under stress, it matters so very much that we still are able to hold hands and face the world together, compassionate and gentle with each other.
Let your light shine! and look carefully to help others shine as happily as possible. In all this darkness, we need more light.