Parashah Ponderings

Different Perspectives. One People. One God.

Parashat Bamidbar 5781 / פרשת בְּמִדְבַּר
Torah Portion: Numbers 1:1-4:20

This has been a trying week in Israel, to say the least. Rockets flying from Gaza and, earlier today, from Syria are a direct threat to the civilians whom they are targeting not just in the border towns with Gaza but in Jerusalem, Haifa and Tel Aviv. Today I checked in with members of our CAA community who have family in Israel. Thank God all their family members are safe, but with frequent explosions and sirens splitting the air around them, they are forced to stay close to safe rooms and bomb shelters and many are fearful and stressed. Meanwhile, Israel’s response has been swift and decisive. Though the IDF has been literally laser focused on military and operational targets in Gaza and it continues its practice of announcing strikes on large buildings, its airstrikes have tragically and yet unavoidably resulted in the loss of civilian lives.

Those of us familiar with Israel’s modern history should not be surprised by this turn of events. After all, we are all too familiar with the cycle by which Israel is attacked by rockets from Gaza, Israel responds by demolishing Hamas’s military infrastructure, and then we all wait several years while Iran resupplies Hamas, at which time a fresh round of fighting begins, just with even more lethal technology than before. What is different this time around, though, is that the cities and neighborhoods that have always represented the ideal of Jewish and Arab coexistence in Israel are now being rocked by clashes fueled by extremists on both sides. Earlier today an Arab rioter torched a theater in the northern coastal town of Acco, a theater run by Arabs and Jews who consider themselves one family.

Back here, my inbox has been flooded with messages from every imaginable Jewish organization promoting their point of view and appealing for my support. It has just been crazy! As I’ve tried to find learn about the situation, I’ve been overwhelmed by all these often-contradictory voices. Even with my rabbinical association listserv my Reconstructionist colleagues debate how to approach this week’s conflict. But you know what they say: two Jews, three opinions.

What are we to think about what is happening? How are we to feel? How do we balance hesed and gevurah – lovingkindness and mercy with justice and might? Are we allowed to criticize Israel for its decisions or feel empathy for any of the families in Gaza who’ve lost loved ones, whether they are combatants or not? Do we side with Jewish settlers or with the Palestinians in the village of Sheikh Jarrah in their dispute over who has the stronger legal claim to the properties in which many hundreds of Palestinians have been living for decades?

The answer to these questions is that we must allow there to be space for all views. The Jewish camp is expansive, after all, and encompasses many perspectives. We see this exemplified beautifully in this week’s Torah portion, Bemidbar

This week we begin reading a new book of the Torah, Bamidbar or Numbers. Bamidbar comes from the first verse of the book where we read, “God spoke to Moses in the wilderness.” It is called Numbers because it opens with God telling Moses to take a census of all the men from all the tribes who are eligible for military service. In essence, we read of the military preparations of the Israelites as they embark on their then 38-year journey toward the very land making headlines this week.

What strikes me about Parashat Bemidbar is not so much the census as the placement of each of the tribes around the Ark of the Covenant. Each tribe inhabits a space to the north, south, east or west of the ark to protect it and themselves from would be aggressors. Implicit in the placement of each tribe is that each tribe would be responsible for either warding off aggressors who might attack its domain or back up the other tribes in their struggles. At the same time, all the tribes would also be oriented toward that which bound them together, the Torah.

In the Eytz Hayim chumash (p. 774) we read: “A tradition has it that the tribe of Judah, situated at the eastern edge of the camp, marched backward when the Israelites broke camp and traveled eastward, to avoid turning their backs on the Ark.” Even though Judah had its job to do, it remained focus on Israel’s covenant with God and with the community.

I know Israel can be a divisive topic and that we won’t all hear or respond to this week’s news the same way. We will have our differences. We will all bring our own perspective to the reality before us, just as each tribe would view the Ark from whichever vantage point it occupied on the march through the wilderness.

My hope is that wherever we stand, we will listen to all the voices around us and engage in civil debate but that we will follow the example of Judah and always orient ourselves toward one another, remembering our shared history, our shared values, and our One God.

May we all pray for the welfare of the State of Israel and those charged with defending it. May we pray for the safety of our loved ones and all innocents in the region. And may we live to see the day when all humanity will awaken to its common destiny, when all warfare and bloodshed will cease, when Peace will reign over all the earth and God’s name will truly be One.

Parashah Ponderings

Dwelling in the Sukkah of Peace begins with Smashing the Idols that Block our Way

Sukkot Shabbat Chol ha-Moed – סוכות שבת חול המועד
Torah Portion: Exodus 33:12 – 34:26

On this, Shabbat Chol ha-Moed Sukkot, the intermediate Shabbat of Sukkot, the joy we are commanded to feel is tempered. How can we fully rejoice on Z’man Simchateinu – the time of our Rejoicing – knowing that only 130 miles from the synagogue I serve in Oregon nine lives have been snuffed out by a madman with a gun? How can we dwell in the sukkat shalom – the tabernacle of peace – knowing that in Israel a settler couple was shot dead in front of their young children? Where are the angels of peace bringing Israelis and Palestinians together? Where are the voices of reason who understand that common-sense legislation controlling the sale, ownership and use of guns in our country doesn’t mean denying responsible, law-abiding, people of sound mind the right to sell, own or use a gun? Is our Constitution so fragile that it can’t withstand limitations in the interest of safety?

How ironic, though, to be embroiled in old debates on this very Shabbat. After all, Sukkot is the great equalizing holiday. The Torah commands the sacrifice of 70 bulls during Sukkot, more than on any other festival. The bulls are a thanksgiving offering to God for all the nations of the world, which our ancestors imagined were 70 in number. This is the festival that celebrates God’s bounty, which is there for all humanity if only we would use our resources wisely. This is the festival that celebrates that period of Israel’s history when no one person was greater than another. No-one owned land. We were all nomads. We were all Children of God wandering through the wilderness. It is on this, the most universal of all Jewish festivals, that we should be celebrating that which unites all of us, Jew and gentile. Instead, gun shots have drowned out the sounds of rejoicing around the world and stopped us in our tracks.

In the Torah reading this week, we find these words: You must tear down their altars, smash their pillars, and cut down their sacred posts; for you must not worship any other god, because the Lord, whose name is Impassioned, is an impassioned God (Exodus 34:13-14). It seems to me that it’s about time we face up to those things in our society that we worship as our “sacred posts,” see them as the idols they are, and tear them down. Life is too precious to give ourselves over to greed and possessiveness. There are Rights and there are rights. No right entitles anyone to deny the innocent of their most essential Rights – the Right live with dignity — whether we’re talking guns or land or power. These are among the sacred posts here, in the Holy Land, and just about everywhere.

God is an Impassioned God. To be a Jew means to see ourselves as created in God’s image, to “walk in God’s ways.” We do this when we become as impassioned as we imagine God would be for what matters most in our world: human life and dignity. I pray for the day when our passion for our children outweighs our passion the idols whose worship imperils our very existence. On that day we will sit together in the sukkat shalom and take in the sounds of rejoicing. May it be so!

Wishing for peace and happiness this Shabbat,
Rabbi Dan