Shabbat Matot-Masey: We’re In This Together

Shalom Shir Tikvah Learning Community,
On this Shabbat we read a double parashah, both Matot and Masey, and at the end of it we finish the Book BaMidbar, the account of much wandering in geography and in relationships.
And in this specific Torah narrative, part of the second year of the Triennial Cycle of reading, we begin with the story of two brothers who decide that they will better off if they separate from the larger family.
The tribes of Reuven and of Gad were herders, and they saw that the land on the east side of the Jordan river was good grazing land. So they said to Moshe, “this land through which we are traveling is good land for grazing. Rather than cross the Jordan river, we prefer to stay on this side and settle here.”  –BaMidbar 32.1-5, excerpted.
It seems a reasonable statement of intent, not unlike the act of the one who gets to camp first and chooses the best spot available for her tent, or the volunteer who joins the moving crew on behalf of a helpless older person but leaves when it suits him. We’re all part of the group, until the individual in each of us emerges to claim our individual status. And it’s all innocent enough, until the desire to take care of oneself becomes après moi le deluge, as King Louis XIV was supposed to have said: after I get mine, who cares what happens?
In times like ours, fear of personal danger or loss may cause us to feel something similar, to hesitate before joining a group to protest, or putting oneself at the front line of a cause. It’s a natural enough human desire, to stay safe and to keep those one loves safe with one – to circle the wagons against the common threat, but to look for the best and safest place among those wagons for oneself.
And so Moshe confronted the leaders of the tribes of Reuven and of Gad, saying “will you abandon your family now, when you are needed to help protect and defend the group? Will you betray the people of which you are a part because you have found a separate place to which to escape?” – BaMidbar 32.6, more or less.
Moshe’s point echoes that of Mordecai, the Jew in Persia who confronted the Queen his niece at a similar moment:
Do not imagine that you, of all the Jews, will will escape with your life by being in the King’s palace. One the contrary, if you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will come to the Jews from another place, while you and your family’s house wil perish. And who knows, perhaps you have attained your royal position just for this purpose?” – Megillat Esther 4.13-14.
None of us can truly separate ourselves from what is happening all around us. Those people who are homeless are no different from us, and thus all our homes are less secure. Those children who are separated from their parents are our children, and the world of our children is less safe. Those immigrants, people of color, Muslims, trans people, and all other targeted human beings are us, and we are all in this together.
If we have position, privilege, and resources, now is not the time to hoard them, but to hear Mordecai’s question: what have you been given these blessings for? If we would leave the group because there may be a more comfortable reality that presents itself to us, would considering Moshe’s demand change our thoughts? Would you leave your people – your fellow Jews, your companions in Portland citizenry, those who are not your social class but who share your life with you every day?
During the Three Weeks period we are encouraged to reflect upon not our personal faults, as we do on Yom Kippur, but upon our communal failings. What part did each individual play in the fall of the Jerusalem Temple on the 9th day of Av, Tisha B’Av, 2000 years ago? What part does each of us play in the destruction we fear in our own lives?
Neither personal, nor local, nor national borders will protect us from the acts we allow, enable, or fail to stop. This is one of the first lessons of Jewish ethics: that which you do to another affects you as well. But let this also be a reason for hope: when each of us commits to each other, none of us need ever be alone.
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Shabbat Naso: Look Me In The Eye

The word that identifies this week’s Torah text is naso, part of the idiom naso et rosh, is correctly translated “take a census,” or, more simply, “count heads.” The actual Hebrew wording is more beautiful; it literally says “lift up the head.” In other words, for our ancestors, to count someone was to look that person in the eye, and to take account of that specific human being.

This parashah begins innocuously enough with a description of the work assigned to different Levite families: Kehat, Gershon, and Merar. Each family unit had a special job in connection with erecting or dismantling the Mishkan and carrying it as well. Only Levites could come this close, and they had to regularly watch to keep themselves free from tum’ah in order to fulfill this duty.

It’s as logical a segue as we will ever find that the Torah’s next subject is that of keeping the Israelites’ camp clean. Anyone experiencing tum’ah or capable of transmitting it to someone else was to be sent outside the dwelling area until the tum’ah could be cleared.

What is tum’ah? It’s a subject we come back to again and again in the Torah. We moderns come to it influenced by interpretations that call it a form of impurity (cue the caricature of the person calling “unclean!” while walking through the village). But if we  meet the ancients on their ground the reality is more nuanced.

It seems likely, according to the academic scholarship on the matter, that most Israelites were tam’eh most of the time, and that was no problem since the only time one needed to be tahor (the opposite condition) was in order to take part in ceremonial aspects of Israelite ritual. To be tam’eh, then, has something to do with one’s ability – or, in this case, inability, to participate in community engaged in ritual.

You are tam’eh if you have just buried someone, or if you have just given birth, or if you experience unusual flow from your reproductive organs. You are tam’eh if you have been in the presence of someone else who is tam’eh. And, interestingly, by virtue of juxtaposition, it seems that you are tam’eh if you wrong one of the people with whom who share your community. According to our text,

When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a companion, thus breaking faith with HaShem, 

The next case brought by the Torah – and we are still informed by the principle of juxtaposition, which indicates that this is somehow related to what just came before – this next case describes the situation in which any one of us has wronged another in our community. Note that to do so is much more than simply wronging a fellow human; the Torah insists that to wrong the other in our midst is to ‘מעל בה – literally, to betray HaShem. This is an utterly powerful statement. To wrong another person is to wrong G*d.
It’s interesting to note that here, as in every other case of tum’ah, nothing can be done about it until the state of being – the tum’ah – is recognized. As the verse goes on:
and that person realizes his guilt, that person shall confess the wrong s/he has done. S/he shall make restitution in the principal amount and add one-fifth to it, giving it to the one who has been wronged. (Numbers 5.7)

Healing the situation is straightforward, the law is clear and easy, but it can only happen after a person realizes that a wrong has been committed. Until this is done, the person who committed the wrong is tam’eh, and is unable to take part in the religious activities of the community. The person wronged is unable to fully participate as well, due to the damage done to that person.

What would our communities be like if we were as careful to sweep tum’ah from, as it were, the midst of our camps, by focusing upon, and righting, the wrongs done among us, each to each other?
Would our U.S. community be required to pay reparations – the value plus one-fifth – to all wronged by our government’s policies – African Americans enslaved, Native Americans slaughtered and robbed, the stranger among us persecuted and oppressed?
Would our Portland community be required to readjust budgets and future planning to pave streets in poor neighborhoods, restore the potential of innocents punished as guilty and people of color sidelined, repair the lives of the marginalized people that should have been protected and served?
What would our own community need to do? How can any of us discern whether we have wronged another in our midst, thus driving the Presence of G*d from us? The way our parashah urges us to take is here in the opening verse: look into the eyes of our companions and really see them, in the sense taught to us by the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber: to see the other as a presence, deserving of our respect and attention, not a projection of ourselves who ought to already understand us.
Here is one act: our congregation has endorsed a national Jewish campaign to stand up for Trans people at this time of vulnerability for our Trans sisters and brothers. Take a look at all you can join in learning and doing in support of righting this wrong, and sweeping this tum’ah out of our midst: Kavod Akhshav: Dignity for Trans Youth. May it bring the Presence of G*d closer to us all.

On this Shabbat, in a world in which so many are wronged, where the earth itself is crying out its pain, consider that real caring community starts among us, and begins when we lift up our own heads to meet each other’s eyes, so that each of us can say to the other, here, come in: sit down. Share my bread and wine. Let us walk together. Only then can we begin to let down our protective walls and be seen, and only then can we truly see each other. That’s the clean, safe, happy camp the Israelites were trying to create. May we learn to live so in our own days, and may we understand that it is the first step toward the better world we pray for.

Shabbat Bereshit: Till It and Tend It

This Shabbat we return to our regularly-scheduled Torah, as it were, after the excitement on Simkhat Torah of reading the very end and the very beginning of the scroll. Moshe Rabbenu, Moses our teacher, dies, and is bewailed, and then the people move on – and we find ourselves, following them, suddenly in a Garden of pristine, unsullied, wondrous potential. Everything is new again. Our tradition, when we trust it and follow it, offers us this promise from the beginning of Elul, now seven weeks ago.
In this week’s parashah we find ourselves once again reading of the Garden of Eden, that symbol for the uncomplicated “before” that we look for, and long for. (I’m attaching a sweet poem about the first humans and the power of speech that I couldn’t find room for during the High Holy Days that I hope you will enjoy.) We read that we were created to live in beauty and peace with each other, our fellow creatures, and our surroundings, and that our only responsibility was to care for and respect the earth and all upon it.

ז
  וַיִּיצֶר ה אֱלֹקים אֶת-הָאָדָם, עָפָר מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו,
נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים; וַיְהִי הָאָדָם, לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה.
HaShem G*d formed humans of the dust of the ground
and breathed into their nostrils the breath of life; and humans became alive
ח  וַיִּטַּע ה אֱלֹקים, גַּן-בְּעֵדֶן–מִקֶּדֶם; וַיָּשֶׂם שָׁם,
אֶת-הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר יָצָר.
And HaShem G*d planted a garden in the east, in Eden
and there placed the humans whom G*d had formed.
ט  וַיַּצְמַח ה אֱלֹקים, מִן-הָאֲדָמָה, כָּל-עֵץ נֶחְמָד לְמַרְאֶה,
וְטוֹב לְמַאֲכָל- וְעֵץ הַחַיִּים, בְּתוֹךְ הַגָּן, וְעֵץ, הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע.
Out of the ground HaShem caused to grow every
tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life
also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil

….

טו  וַיִּקַּח ה אֱלֹקים, אֶת-הָאָדָם; וַיַּנִּחֵהוּ בְגַן-עֵדֶן, לְעָבְדָהּ וּלְשָׁמְרָהּ. HaShem G*d took the humans, and put them into the garden of Eden
to till it and to tend it. (Bereshit 2.7-8,15)
Life seems so much more complicated than that – but this is the promise as our Jewish tradition puts it: it can be a garden if we were all to care for it and for each other.
Although we turn the pages and roll the scroll, we can’t really go back to the beginning. Even if we all agreed to do so, the challenges and the problems we face are as old as existence, and have reached their current tangled state after many generations of the worst as well as the best of human behavior.
All we can do is try to bring what we’ve learned from the holy days with us. There is forgiveness, there is the possibility of hope, there is inexhaustible supply of love in the world – and we need to help each other to learn to connect to it. Our earliest ancestors found water welling up from the ground; we can find those same eternal wellsprings, although we have to help each other dig.
We have to help each other; our theme this year for much of our learning and exploration together will be this: kol yisrael arevim zeh bazeh, “all Israel are responsible for each other.” Our community is as strong for us as each of us feels within us, and this year I will seek to strengthen, deepen, and explore the beauty in all the ways in which all of us connect.
Once more, dear friends, back to the world, its heartbreak and its beauty. May Shir Tikvah’s community support you as you support others in our common struggle to remember the garden and believe in its promise, even now.

Shabbat Mishpatim / Shabbat Shekalim: Community – The Difficulty Is In the Details

Every year we study once again the account of the moment when our people stood at the foot of Mt Sinai, witnessed a revelation, and became a community. Literally a “peak moment,” our commentators teach that this was the only time in all the history of our People of Israel when we were of one mind.

That’s a warning. This week’s reading, parashat Mishpatim, continues with that revelation, now with the details of the ancient code of law meant to guide us in ethical paths. It’s the proverbial “morning after” and upon looking at the fine print of the covenant we’ve just concluded, we’re feeling some ambivalence. We look at each other and sometimes wonder – are these the people with whom I’m meant to hold hands, that we might go out into the world together?

Perhaps that’s always true; perhaps the natural reaction to the step forward into commitment is to step back. It’s often true in relationships and in jobs. Having made common cause with another, we circle back to be sure of our own parameters. Torah comes to warn us to be careful: the community to which you’re committed does not exist unless you find your common cause with it. Jews sigh: amkha, we call ourselves, literally meaning “Your people” (that capital Y is deliberate). 

Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em may be true, but we often try to have it both ways. In the accounts, both Torah and the midrash which fills out the teachings regarding the time our people spent at Sinai, our ancestors splinter into groups, making choices: these are the people I include in my community, those I don’t. 

When the prophets condemn ancient Israelite society this is where they begin: the abandonment of widow and orphan. Sure, it goes on: our prophetic tradition also singles out corrupt business practices and fraudulent politics – but it begins with a denunciation of the way we turn away from each other, and the half-asleep way in which we do it.

According to Jewish tradition, we can learn Torah from nearly anything in the world, when we see how our learning casts illumination onto our sense of Jewish identity and meaning. With this in mind, I invite you to consider a modern sort of midrashic insight offered us by computer word processing. When we create a document, we can opt for “widow and orphan protection” to keep a single line of a paragraph from ending up alone on a page due to the effects of automatic formatting.

When we step back from the complete commitment to that community of which we are a part – that utter immersion we sometimes feel, in a moment of emotion or spiritual intensity – we are stepping back from people. We are creating widows and orphans. 

Jewish community is a funny thing; it’s neither your family, nor is it only your book group, or even your mah jongg group. It’s something not well defined by our liberal American individuality, for it is a place in which we are meant to care for each other regardless of whether we share in each other’s individual interests or tastes. We Jews who live in the United States, many of us have been conditioned out of the ability to find our place in this communal mode, and it’s difficult to learn. 

But in these days when we are feeling under siege, when we need safe spaces and feel keenly that we cannot carry our burdens alone, Jewish community is a lucky inheritance for us to have. It takes time, yes – and it redeems time:

You yourself must begin. Existence will remain meaningless for you if you yourself do not penetrate into it with active love and if you do not in this way discover its meaning for yourself. Everything is waiting to be hallowed by you; it is waiting to be disclosed in its meaning and to be realized in it by you.  – Martin Buber (Meaning and Community: Implications of Martin Buber’s Dialogue, by Ronald C Arnett)

Shabbat Yitro: Community comes from Sinai

On this Shabbat Yitro our parashat hashavua describes the moment of standing at Sinai, that moment that made us a community.

Close readers of the Torah such as our ancient and modern commentators and interpreters have long noted that the Torah speaks of those who came out of Egypt as an erev-rav, a “mixed multitude,” and yet, interestingly enough, the description of those who stood at Sinai at the moment of commitment are all described as Israelites. Something about that moment made our ancestors, and us, into the Jewish community to which we all belong.

Belonging is a difficult thing. “I’m not a joiner,” some of us might say. The sociologist Robert Putnam noted in the 1990s that more and more people were going bowling, but less and less were joining leagues. In his study Bowling Alone he found that Americans were losing the social linkages that create and maintain meaningful community in our neighborhoods, in our schools, and in our work places. We are more likely now to sue a neighbor then meet at the back fence to talk over issues we may have.

It’s more complex for Jews and Jewish community. It’s a common truth among Jews that you can walk with the community, or walk away from the community, but as a Jew you are never really without the community. Ironically, it’s often the non-Jewish world that reminds Jews of that, by assuming and assigning us as part of a group that we individually may not feel close to, or may have attempted to disown completely.

The days we are living through now reinforce this communal aspect of our singular identities. Some of us are attacked because we are Jews, not because of something we’ve individually done or said, even as some of us are threatened because of other aspects of our selves – we are Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer, we are People of Color, we are Immigrants and Refugees. Not because of something we’ve said or done, but because we belong to a certain group.

Belonging, then, is a two-sided coin. All of us seek out belonging somewhere. We need each other, but many of us never learned the skills we need to connect socially. And at the same time we are inevitably assigned to group belonging regardless of our choice of where we might choose to belong. 

What does the Jewish group – the Jewish community that began at Sinai – mean for Jews and the people who love them? 

First: Jewish community is that in which all Jews and their families belong, rather as in the famous line from the Robert Frost poem: “Home is, when you go there, they have to take you in.” It’s family in the most profound sense. Even though we don’t all know (or like!) each other, we are all MOT (“members of the tribe”) to each other.

Second: Jewish community is demanding: it is there for us at all levels, and it needs us at all levels. In times of simkha or mourning, there is no place a Jew can go that the Jewish community cannot gather in support. The Jewish community exists on profoundly necessary levels for spiritual growth and deep human development. Ironically, one often encounters that truth precisely in the discomfort we “individuals” feel when we sense that this group is more than a voluntary connection, and while it promises more to us, it also expects more from us. 

Finally, consider the “all” part of that phrase, “all of us.” All of us stood at Sinai. Each one of us is part of the All, but to experience that requires us to relinquish some part of our “I.” In return it promises us that none of us will ever be alone.

The joy and the pain of it is this: it is not enough to find a comfortable place in community if that community does not challenge us to become more whole in ourselves, pushing us past our current judgment of ourselves and toward compassion, humility, and the willingness to grow. 

At Sinai we learned: Community is powerful. All of us standing together can face what must be faced.

Shabbat Miketz: All of a Sudden, Change

You know where you stand, you know your path forward, you’ve spent time deciding what your future is going to look like. And then something happens, all of a sudden, and your plans….they get eaten up like the seven fat cows of Pharaoh’s dream.

Every year we read parashat Miketz on a Shabbat that coincides with Hanukkah. Every year Joseph is suddenly snatched from a dungeon and hurried before the Egyptian throne. Whatever he had imagined for his future disappeared suddenly, and a new reality confronted him. He was alone, surrounded by strangers, without resources.

Except for one very important resource. As the text tells us, when he is asked to show what he’s capable of, Joseph says clearly that his strength and his vision are not his, but the inspiration and blessing of his G*d.

What does he mean, and how can we relate?

Each of us is alone in our skin and in our dreams, as in our hopes and our fears. In the days and weeks since the U. S. presidential election, a growing sense of vulnerability has begun to eclipse the fairer aspects of the autonomy – the individuality – of our lives. While we may cherish our time alone, no one wants to be lonely. More, to be alone is to be isolated in ways that may be dangerous.

We know it: the only thing you can count on in life is that change happens. As the Yiddish folk saying goes, man tracht und Gott lakht, “we make plans and G*d laughs.” We can attempt to deny it and keep going in the path in which we’ve already invested our time and our dreams, but day by day we will only become more out of touch, and more pathetic.

I once officiated at the burial of a woman who lived alone. It was two weeks before they found her. Long walks by yourself in the woods or on the beach are one thing, but there is nothing uplifting about that kind of solitude that leaves you without support when you need it most.

I worked with the Jewish community of Kiev during the collapse of the Soviet Union, and saw Soviet citizens at a loss for a sense of identity and belonging in the post-Soviet era they were entering, very much against their will. Jews were among the minority groups who had an ironic advantage; the Jewishness that had been held against them in the Soviet system gave them a fallback – although they didn’t know much about it, their Jewish identity was there for the exploring. Jewish communities formed with great rapidity and passion in those days.

Like Joseph, those Jews were vulnerable and without resources – except for one. The memory of where they came from and its teachings was still there for them, and as they sought it out, it strengthened them. Through the communities they formed and the support they gave each other, they experienced inspiration and blessing. As the Jewish mystics would say, they evoked G*d’s presence in their midst, and thus they knew strength and support and hope.

The same thing happened to the Maccabees in the Hanukkah story. The same thing can happen to us. Change happens, uproots our expectations, upends our lives. And when in response a small group of individuals comes together, supports each other, in so doing they create something holy.

All of a sudden. May it happen to us.

Hazak v’nit’hazek, be strong and let us strengthen each other