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.
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.
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.
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,
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.
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)