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Names, Not Numbers – Bemidbar 5780

When I was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, students would make funny videos for Purim that we would share at the Purim se’udah, the festive daytime Purim meal. One that I will never forget featured a rabbinical student stuck in the beit midrash, the big study hall where students would gather to learn traditional texts together. The doors are locked and he cannot get out, and it’s time to daven minhah (recite the afternoon service). So he gathers together a minyan (prayer quorum) of familiar, well-loved books: the dictionary of rabbinical Hebrew and Aramaic by Rabbi Marcus Jastrow, the book of Talmudic terminology by Rabbi Yitzhak Frank, a volume of Talmud edited by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, and so forth. He stands them up in a circle, as if they are davening with him. These books were so familiar to all of us that we referred to them not by their titles, but by the names of their authors. Rabbi Jastrow, z”l, although he passed away in 1903, was a dear friend to all of us through his dictionary.

Rabbi Marcus Jastrow

Parashat Bemidbar begins with a census. (A particularly hot topic right now, of course, because 2020 is a census year here in America.) Bemidbar is the first Torah reading in the book of the same name, which is called “Numbers” in English. Why Numbers? Because it begins with a whole lot of census data. (Hebrew names of the books and the parashiyyot / weekly Torah readings are derived from the first significant Hebrew word at the beginning of the book or parashah; the English names, mostly Greek, are thematic.)

We, the Jews, have been obsessed with numbers (not the book, but the concept) particularly since the late 19th century, when Jewish historians and demographers in Eastern Europe began the enterprise of studying their people. And yet, as you can see, there is a basis for this obsession in the Torah; this is one of a few passages that counts the Israelites. 

And yet, I am drawn to the fact that immediately after God gives Moshe the imperative to count the people, the Torah then launches into names. “Ve-eleh shemot ha-anashim asher ya’amdu ittekhem.” (Bemidbar / Numbers 1:5) “And these are the names of the people that will stand with you.” And because of this passage, the Torah preserves not only the names of Moshe and Aharon and Miriam, not only the names of the twelve tribes, that is, the twelve sons of Ya’aqov, but also such names as Shelumiel ben Tzurishaddai and Elishama ben Ammihud, two of the tribal chieftains that were identified this morning. And let’s face it: I’m sure Shelumiel and Elishama were great guys, along with Pagi’el ben Okhran and Gamaliel ben Pedahzur, but they are not exactly well-known figures in Jewish life. 

The 16th-century Italian commentator Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, noting the presence of this list of names up front in a passage primarily about numbers, tells us that there is a reason that the names are mentioned here, instead of merely the numbers. Everyone of that generation, he says, was identified individually by a name that expressed his/her personal character. Not all of those names are in the Torah, of course, but Seforno wants us to think of them as individuals, not merely numbers.

Other commentators observe that the census was completed, to use contemporary parlance, with non-anonymized data, i.e. they counted the people by name, not merely by numbers. And why? The 14th-century Provençal commentator Rabbi Levi ben Gershom points to a traditional Jewish superstition about counting people: if they do it by name, rather than number, he suggests, it would not bring a plague upon the Israelites. 

(You may know that there are a few related customs when trying to figure out how many people are in the room to make a minyan, a quorum of ten people, like using a scriptural verse that contains ten words, or the tremendously charming and somewhat confusing, “Not one, not two,” method. My father, the mathematician, really likes that one.)

Indeed, even the commandment from God to count the people suggests the personal nature of the count. The text uses the idiom, “Se’u et rosh kol adat benei Yisrael.” (Bemidbar 1:2) “Lift up the head of each of the Israelites.”

We do not merely count people. We recognize their names; we lift up their heads, as if to see their faces, as if to acknowledge their humanity.

Perhaps some of us have known people with numbers tattooed on their arms. My father-in-law’s number was A-7082; his name was Ervin Hoenig. Part of the Nazi system of dehumanization was to replace names with numbers. 

At this time, when we mourn so many that our nation has lost due to the mishandling of the virus response by our authorities, we might remember that each of the roughly 100,000 dead Americans each had a story, each had people who loved them, each had lives in which they sought meaning and love and companionship.

From the New York Times’ listing of names of 100,000 COVID-19 victims, 5/24/2020

People are kind of hard-wired to count ourselves. The Zoom software that many of us are using now tells us exactly how many devices are connected.

But the value of gathering – for prayer, for learning, for mourning, for celebrating – is not how many people showed up to a service or a program or how many times an online video was streamed.  Rather, it is whether or not lives were touched by the content. Dr. Ron Wolfson, professor of education at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, who has dedicated much of his recent work to helping synagogues improve themselves, points out that it does not matter how many people show up to a class or a program or even a service, but rather, how many relationships were made or strengthened.

I suppose that is the essential challenge that we face right now as a community. How do we build or enhance relationships when we are so far apart from each other? Do online minyanim, for example, reinforce personal connections?

Building relationships is an essential part of Jewish community, of course. But the most valuable thing, and the foundation of all relationships, is Torah. That is why our tradition suggests that the depth of commitment to learning Torah is so great. That is why Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilkhot Talmud Torah 3:10-11) teaches us that Torah cannot be acquired if you are well-fed, or during the day, when there are too many distractions. One must be hungry and focused to truly learn Torah.

Rambam, writing in the 12th century, was mostly drawing on early rabbinic literature from a millennium earlier. In the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE, these ancient rabbis turned Judaism from a centralized, hierarchical, sacrificial worship system into a portable, democratic, knowledge-based system that depended on teaching and learning and passing on that knowledge from generation to generation. (If you’re interested in learning more about this, please come to my session via Zoom at the Pittsburgh community’s Tikkun Leil Shavuot on Wednesday evening, 5/27.)

This is what these rabbis said in the 2nd century:

Pirqei Avot 6:4

כַּךְ הִיא דַּרְכָּהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה, פַּת בְּמֶלַח תֹּאכַל, וּמַיִם בִּמְשׂוּרָה תִשְׁתֶּה, וְעַל הָאָרֶץ תִּישַׁן, וְחַיֵּי צַעַר תִּחְיֶה, וּבַתּוֹרָה אַתָּה עָמֵל, אִם אַתָּה עֹשֶׂה כֵן, (תהלים קכח) אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ. אַשְׁרֶיךָ בָּעוֹלָם הַזֶּה וְטוֹב לָךְ לָעוֹלָם הַבָּא

Such is the way [of a life] of Torah: you shall eat bread with salt, and rationed water shall you drink; you shall sleep on the ground, your life will be one of privation, and in Torah shall you labor.

Pirqei Avot 6:5

[This mishnah identifies the forty-eight ways in which Torah is acquired]

בְּתַלְמוּד, בִּשְׁמִיעַת הָאֹזֶן, בַּעֲרִיכַת שְׂפָתַיִם, בְּבִינַת הַלֵּב, בְּשִׂכְלוּת הַלֵּב, בְּאֵימָה, בְּיִרְאָה, בַּעֲנָוָה, בְּשִׂמְחָה, בְּטָהֳרָה, בְּשִׁמּוּשׁ חֲכָמִים, בְּדִקְדּוּק חֲבֵרִים, וּבְפִלְפּוּל הַתַּלְמִידִים, בְּיִשּׁוּב, בַּמִּקְרָא, בַּמִּשְׁנָה, בְּמִעוּט סְחוֹרָה, בְּמִעוּט דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, בְּמִעוּט תַּעֲנוּג, בְּמִעוּט שֵׁינָה, בְּמִעוּט שִׂיחָה, בְּמִעוּט שְׂחוֹק, בְּאֶרֶךְ אַפַּיִם, בְּלֵב טוֹב, בֶּאֱמוּנַת חֲכָמִים, וּבְקַבָּלַת הַיִּסּוּרִין

… by study, attentive listening, proper speech, by an understanding heart, by an intelligent heart, by awe, by fear, by humility, by joy, by attending to the sages, by critical give and take with friends, by fine argumentation with disciples, by clear thinking, by study of Scripture, by study of mishnah, by a minimum of sleep, by a minimum of chatter, by a minimum of pleasure, By a minimum of frivolity, by a minimum of preoccupation with worldly matters, by long-suffering, by generosity, by faith in the sages, by acceptance of suffering…

[…and that’s only 24 of the 48!]

How do we learn Torah and apply it to our lives? Through serious, hard work and dedication, with a minimum of qalut rosh – lightness of the head. And why is this so important? So that we do not become numbers. So that we are names. We are people, with a history, and a past, and a nation, and a homeland, and a whole lot of ancient yearnings.

What is really of value? Not how many of us there are, but rather our stories, our laws, our values, our interpretations, yes, even our holy disagreements. Those are the things that make us human. Those are the things that make us Jewish.

Let the numbers be for the people who are interested in things.

We understand the value of people, of names, of stories, and in telling and re-telling our national saga. Forget the Romans; that is why we, the Jews, are still here. Torah has sustained us until this very moment. Torah gives our names meaning; Torah fills our lives with context and depth.

Numbers? No thanks. As a former engineer, I’ve had my fill of numbers. I’ll take the names instead.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 5/23/2020.)

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The Nexus of Politics and Judaism – Shabbat Nahamu 5779

I have recently received a few comments that my sermons have been “too political.” So I just wanted to clarify something as a kind of prologue: I try to speak to contemporary issues, issues that are in the air all around us. I cannot speak about abstractions, about things that we are not necessarily thinking about. And the clergy-person that does not address what’s on people’s minds is irrelevant. I am trying my best not to be irrelevant. My job is to teach how our texts guide us in our daily interactions with the world, with both the mundane and the existential.

At the same time, my goal is not to inflame. I do not label any public figures with unfair or inaccurate descriptors. I do not use hyperbolic or inflammatory language. I do try to avoid calling out specific people, where possible, or God forbid, mentioning political parties. It is not my goal to get everybody heated up and arguing at kiddush. On the contrary, I hope to elevate the dialogue by emphasizing what Jewish tradition teaches about the issues in play.

As you know, I think it is essential for us to remember that learning the words and concepts of the Jewish bookshelf improves our lives and our society, and I can tell you this: if the principles of compassion, of derekh eretz / respect, of justice, of acknowledging the kedushah / holiness in each of us and in our relationships with each other were kept in front of us at all times, the world would be a much better place, and perhaps far less polarized.

***

On this day, Shabbat Nahamu, the Shabbat of comfort, my hope is to bring us some comfort in Jewish text. The first Shabbat after Tish’ah BeAv, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, is so titled because it is the opening salvo of the First Haftarah of Consolation which we read this morning, from the prophet Isaiah. As we count off the seven weeks from Tish’ah BeAv until Rosh Hashanah, we should feel ourselves recovering from the desolation of Tish’ah BeAv, moving from mourning the tragedies of our history to seeing ourselves as elevated in the glory of God’s sovereignty.

Relief from the Arch of Titus in Rome, depicting Roman soldiers carrying away the implements of the Second Temple following the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE

And the challenge facing us at this time is, how do we find comfort when the nation is still reeling from the needless deaths of 31 people two weekends ago? When we in Pittsburgh are still in mourning for the 11 members of our community who were so brutally taken from us nearly 10 months ago?

How do we find comfort when the issues surrounding who is allowed to come into this country, and who is allowed to stay, continue to roil our national conversation?

How can we find comfort when our government is proposing to favor immigrants who are not poor? I’ll tell you this, folks: if such a principle existed when my family members came here in the late 19th and early 20th century, I wouldn’t be standing before you, and most of you would not be here either.

How do we find comfort when our elected officials, many of whom are themselves descended from poor immigrants, continue to support policies that separate families at our borders?

How do we find comfort when we know that foreign actors are continuing to try to disrupt our democratic processes?

How do we find comfort when virtually every day brings some new revelation regarding our ongoing abuse of God’s Creation? This week it was the plastic content in Arctic ice.

At the program on Saturday evening, as our 25-hour fast began, we heard from speakers who addressed our grief. Our member Danielle Kranjec, Senior Jewish Educator at Hillel-Jewish University Center, spoke about how she and her students experienced the 18th of Heshvan. Richard Carrington, who works in the poor neighborhoods of Pittsburgh trying to free children from the cycle of gang violence, spoke about the 203 funerals that he has attended for the kids he has worked with, children he could not save. Representatives of Casa San Jose spoke of the gratitude they had for the haven this country has offered them from dysfunctional Latin American governments and the violent, failed societies from which they came.

How can we indeed feel comforted?

Some might argue that we, the Jews, have to look out for ourselves. And that is certainly true, to some extent. “Im ein ani li mi li?” said our sage Hillel, 2000 years ago (Pirqei Avot 1:14): “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me.” But then Hillel goes on: “Ukhshe’ani le’atzmi, mah ani?” “And when I am ONLY for myself, what am I?”

Ve’im lo akhshav, eimatai?” “And if not now, when?”

Indeed.

Many of you know another mishnah from earlier in the same chapter of Pirqei Avot (1:2), one that was a kind of Jewish pop song a few decades back:

שִׁמְעוֹן הַצַּדִּיק הָיָה מִשְּׁיָרֵי כְנֶסֶת הַגְּדוֹלָה. הוּא הָיָה אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַתּוֹרָה וְעַל הָעֲבוֹדָה וְעַל גְּמִילוּת חֲסָדִים

Shim’on the Righteous was one of the last of the Great Assembly. He said: The world rests on three things: on the Torah, and on service [to God], and on acts of lovingkindness.

But let’s face it: three is an excellent literary device if you’d like to make a point. So the rabbis did not limit themselves to only one statement of the things upon which the world stands. So at the end of chapter 1 of Pirqei Avot, there is another take:

רַבָּן שִׁמְעוֹן בֶּן גַּמְלִיאֵל אוֹמֵר, עַל שְׁלשָׁה דְבָרִים הָעוֹלָם עוֹמֵד, עַל הַדִּין וְעַל הָאֱמֶת וְעַל הַשָּׁלוֹם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר (זכריה ח) אֱמֶת וּמִשְׁפַּט שָׁלוֹם שִׁפְטוּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶם

Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel used to say: on three things does the world stand: On justice, on truth and on peace, as it is said: “execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates” (Zechariah 8:16).

Whenever this sort of thing happens in traditional texts, you know some rabbi is going to eventually come along to ask the question: why do we need these two statements? Wouldn’t one have been enough? Does the world stand on three things, or six?

Sure enough, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Ta’anit 4:2), there is a passage that addresses this:

תמן תנינן שמעון הצדיק היה משירי כנסת הגדולה הוא היה אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על התורה ועל העבודה ועל גמילות חסדים ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (ישעיהו נא) ואשים דברי בפיך זו תורה ובצל ידי כסיתיך זו גמילות חסדים ללמדך שכל מי שהוא עוסק בתורה ובגמילות חסדים זכה לישב בצילו של הקב”ה

There they taught: Shimon the Righteous was of the remnants of the Men of the Great Assembly. He used to say ‘the world rests on three things – on the Torah on the Service and on Acts of Loving-kindness.’ The three of them are found in one verse (Isaiah 51:16):

וָאָשִׂ֤ים דְּבָרַי֙ בְּפִ֔יךָ וּבְצֵ֥ל יָדִ֖י כִּסִּיתִ֑יךָ לִנְטֹ֤עַ שָׁמַ֙יִם֙ וְלִיסֹ֣ד אָ֔רֶץ וְלֵאמֹ֥ר לְצִיּ֖וֹן עַמִּי־אָֽתָּה׃

[God said] I have put My words in your mouth and sheltered you with My hand; I, who planted the skies and made firm the earth, have said to Zion: You are My people!

“I have put My words in your mouth…” refers to Torah, “…and sheltered you with My hand…” refers to acts of lovingkindness, to teach you that anyone who is occupied with Torah and acts of lovingkindness merits to sit in the shadow of the Holy One.

So the Gemara here is explaining that the first statement of three comes from Isaiah, an affirmation that we are God’s people. Shim’on the Righteous is interpreting this to say that by living Torah, by learning and teaching it and applying it by performing acts of lovingkindness, deeds that reinforce the qedushah between people, we will merit God’s presence in our lives. We will earn a coveted spot in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu

But I must say, I need a little more than that. I can “sit in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu” all day while the rest of the world crumbles around me. Rather, I need something else. Hence the need for the other statement of three. The Gemara goes on:

תמן תנינן רבן שמעון בן גמליאל אומר על שלשה דברים העולם עומד על הדין ועל האמת והשלום ושלשתן דבר אחד הן נעשה הדין נעשה אמת נעשה שלום א”ר מנא ושלשתן בפסוק אחד (זכריה ח׳:ט״ז) אמת ומשפט שלום שפטו בשעריכם

There, Rabban Shim’on ben Gamliel said: The world stands on three things: on truth, on justice, and on peace, as is said, “Execute truth, justice, and peace within your gates” (Zech. 8:16). These three are interlinked: when justice is done, truth is achieved, and peace is established (Pirqei Avot 1:18).

So this one, says the Gemara, is an entirely different way of viewing the world. Not about the specificities of Torah or service to God, but rather about essential values. We have to seek justice, says the prophet Zechariah. We have to speak truth. That is when peace will come. And Zechariah is even more explicit in the following verse:

וְאִ֣ישׁ ׀ אֶת־רָעַ֣ת רֵעֵ֗הוּ אַֽל־תַּחְשְׁבוּ֙ בִּלְבַבְכֶ֔ם וּשְׁבֻ֥עַת שֶׁ֖קֶר אַֽל־תֶּאֱהָ֑בוּ כִּ֧י אֶת־כָּל־אֵ֛לֶּה אֲשֶׁ֥ר שָׂנֵ֖אתִי נְאֻם־ה׃

And do not contrive evil against one another, and do not love perjury, because all those are things that I hate—declares the LORD.

We have to dedicate ourselves to justice and truth and avoid purposefully reviling one another. And not just justice for us, for the Jews, but for the whole world. That’s what the world stands on. Only then will peace come.

So it may be easy to say that, but how do we get there?

The essence of politics, ladies and gentlemen, is agreement and disagreement. We all agree that there are problems to be solved, and we have multiple paths forward, different ways to approach these challenges. We can agree with each other or disagree, and not only on the solutions, but on the problems themselves.

But we have to do it truthfully, and we have to agree that justice is the abiding principle. And I would like to suggest something that we can all consider, yet another value expressed in Pirqei Avot, and that is “kaf zekhut” – giving somebody with whom you disagree the benefit of the doubt.

Before you dismiss outright what somebody else firmly believes, consider their position, and see if you can even make their argument for them. There is always another side. The only way we can gain true comfort, justice, truth, and peace, is to be able to listen to and seek to understand the other with a fair, even-handed ear, to seek common ground, and to find the political means to bring people together rather than drive them apart.

Only then will we find comfort; only then will we truly sit together in the shadow of the Qadosh Barukh Hu.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson
(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 8/17/2019.)

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Democracy and Judaism – Qorah 5779

Parashat Qorah raises particularly resonant questions regarding leadership: Who leads? Who appoints them? From where does the true mandate for leadership come? What happens when a troublesome vocal minority challenges that leadership? Consider these sources for discussion.


Zechariah 8:16(16) These are the things you are to do: Speak the truth to one another, render true and perfect justice in your gates.
זכריה ח׳:ט״ז(טז) אֵ֥לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֖ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר תַּֽעֲשׂ֑וּ דַּבְּר֤וּ אֱמֶת֙ אִ֣ישׁ אֶת־רֵעֵ֔הוּ אֱמֶת֙ וּמִשְׁפַּ֣ט שָׁל֔וֹם שִׁפְט֖וּ בְּשַׁעֲרֵיכֶֽם׃

Deuteronomy 17:16-18(16) Moreover, he shall not keep many horses or send people back to Egypt to add to his horses, since the LORD has warned you, “You must not go back that way again.” (17) And he shall not have many wives, lest his heart go astray; nor shall he amass silver and gold to excess. (18) When he is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests.דברים י״ז:ט״ז-י״ח(טז) רַק֮ לֹא־יַרְבֶּה־לּ֣וֹ סוּסִים֒ וְלֹֽא־יָשִׁ֤יב אֶת־הָעָם֙ מִצְרַ֔יְמָה לְמַ֖עַן הַרְבּ֣וֹת ס֑וּס וַֽה֙’ אָמַ֣ר לָכֶ֔ם לֹ֣א תֹסִפ֗וּן לָשׁ֛וּב בַּדֶּ֥רֶךְ הַזֶּ֖ה עֽוֹד׃ (יז) וְלֹ֤א יַרְבֶּה־לּוֹ֙ נָשִׁ֔ים וְלֹ֥א יָס֖וּר לְבָב֑וֹ וְכֶ֣סֶף וְזָהָ֔ב לֹ֥א יַרְבֶּה־לּ֖וֹ מְאֹֽד׃ (יח) וְהָיָ֣ה כְשִׁבְתּ֔וֹ עַ֖ל כִּסֵּ֣א מַמְלַכְתּ֑וֹ וְכָ֨תַב ל֜וֹ אֶת־מִשְׁנֵ֨ה הַתּוֹרָ֤ה הַזֹּאת֙ עַל־סֵ֔פֶר מִלִּפְנֵ֥י הַכֹּהֲנִ֖ים הַלְוִיִּֽם׃

I Samuel 8:11-19(11) He said, “This will be the practice of the king who will rule over you: He will take your sons and appoint them as his charioteers and horsemen, and they will serve as outrunners for his chariots. (12) He will appoint them as his chiefs of thousands and of fifties; or they will have to plow his fields, reap his harvest, and make his weapons and the equipment for his chariots. (13) He will take your daughters as perfumers, cooks, and bakers. (14) He will seize your choice fields, vineyards, and olive groves, and give them to his courtiers. (15) He will take a tenth part of your grain and vintage and give it to his eunuchs and courtiers. (16) He will take your male and female slaves, your choice young men, and your asses, and put them to work for him. (17) He will take a tenth part of your flocks, and you shall become his slaves. (18) The day will come when you cry out because of the king whom you yourselves have chosen; and the LORD will not answer you on that day.” (19) But the people would not listen to Samuel’s warning. “No,” they said. “We must have a king over us…”שמואל א ח׳:י״א-י״ט(יא) וַיֹּ֕אמֶר זֶ֗ה יִֽהְיֶה֙ מִשְׁפַּ֣ט הַמֶּ֔לֶךְ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יִמְלֹ֖ךְ עֲלֵיכֶ֑ם אֶת־בְּנֵיכֶ֣ם יִקָּ֗ח וְשָׂ֥ם לוֹ֙ בְּמֶרְכַּבְתּ֣וֹ וּבְפָרָשָׁ֔יו וְרָצ֖וּ לִפְנֵ֥י מֶרְכַּבְתּֽוֹ׃ (יב) וְלָשׂ֣וּם ל֔וֹ שָׂרֵ֥י אֲלָפִ֖ים וְשָׂרֵ֣י חֲמִשִּׁ֑ים וְלַחֲרֹ֤שׁ חֲרִישׁוֹ֙ וְלִקְצֹ֣ר קְצִיר֔וֹ וְלַעֲשׂ֥וֹת כְּלֵֽי־מִלְחַמְתּ֖וֹ וּכְלֵ֥י רִכְבּֽוֹ׃ (יג) וְאֶת־בְּנוֹתֵיכֶ֖ם יִקָּ֑ח לְרַקָּח֥וֹת וּלְטַבָּח֖וֹת וּלְאֹפֽוֹת׃ (יד) וְאֶת־שְׂ֠דֽוֹתֵיכֶם וְאֶת־כַּרְמֵיכֶ֧ם וְזֵיתֵיכֶ֛ם הַטּוֹבִ֖ים יִקָּ֑ח וְנָתַ֖ן לַעֲבָדָֽיו׃ (טו) וְזַרְעֵיכֶ֥ם וְכַרְמֵיכֶ֖ם יַעְשֹׂ֑ר וְנָתַ֥ן לְסָרִיסָ֖יו וְלַעֲבָדָֽיו׃ (טז) וְאֶת־עַבְדֵיכֶם֩ וְֽאֶת־שִׁפְח֨וֹתֵיכֶ֜ם וְאֶת־בַּחוּרֵיכֶ֧ם הַטּוֹבִ֛ים וְאֶת־חֲמוֹרֵיכֶ֖ם יִקָּ֑ח וְעָשָׂ֖ה לִמְלַאכְתּֽוֹ׃ (יז) צֹאנְכֶ֖ם יַעְשֹׂ֑ר וְאַתֶּ֖ם תִּֽהְיוּ־ל֥וֹ לַעֲבָדִֽים׃ (יח) וּזְעַקְתֶּם֙ בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֔וּא מִלִּפְנֵ֣י מַלְכְּכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁ֥ר בְּחַרְתֶּ֖ם לָכֶ֑ם וְלֹֽא־יַעֲנֶ֧ה יְהוָ֛ה אֶתְכֶ֖ם בַּיּ֥וֹם הַהֽוּא׃ (יט) וַיְמָאֲנ֣וּ הָעָ֔ם לִשְׁמֹ֖עַ בְּק֣וֹל שְׁמוּאֵ֑ל וַיֹּאמְר֣וּ לֹּ֔א כִּ֥י אִם־מֶ֖לֶךְ יִֽהְיֶ֥ה עָלֵֽינוּ׃

Berakhot 55a:11With regard to Bezalel’s appointment, Rabbi Yitzḥak said: One may only appoint a leader over a community if he consults with the community and they agree to the appointment, 

as it is stated: “And Moses said unto the children of Israel: See, the Lord has called by name Betzalel, son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah” (Exodus 35:30). The Lord said to Moses: Moses, is Betzalel a suitable appointment in your eyes? Moses said to Him: Master of the universe, if he is a suitable appointment in Your eyes, then all the more so in my eyes. The Holy One, Blessed be He, said to him: Nevertheless, go and tell Israel and ask their opinion. Moses went and said to Israel: Is Bezalel suitable in your eyes? They said to him: If he is suitable in the eyes of the Holy One, Blessed be He, and in your eyes, all the more so he is suitable in our eyes.
ברכות נ״ה א:י״אאמר רבי יצחק אין מעמידין פרנס על הצבור אלא אם כן נמלכים בצבור 

שנאמר ראו קרא ה׳ בשם בצלאל אמר לו הקדוש ברוך הוא למשה משה הגון עליך בצלאל אמר לו רבונו של עולם אם לפניך הגון לפני לא כל שכן אמר לו אף על פי כן לך אמור להם הלך ואמר להם לישראל הגון עליכם בצלאל אמרו לו אם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא ולפניך הוא הגון לפנינו לא כל שכן

Pirkei Avot 2:3(3) Be careful [in your dealings] with the ruling authorities for they do not befriend a person except for their own needs; they seem like friends when it is to their own interest, but they do not stand by a man in the hour of his distress.משנה אבות ב׳:ג׳(ג) הֱווּ זְהִירִין בָּרָשׁוּת, שֶׁאֵין מְקָרְבִין לוֹ לָאָדָם אֶלָּא לְצֹרֶךְ עַצְמָן. נִרְאִין כְּאוֹהֲבִין בִּשְׁעַת הֲנָאָתָן, וְאֵין עוֹמְדִין לוֹ לָאָדָם בִּשְׁעַת דָּחְקוֹ: 

Rabbi Eliyahu Mizrahi, ca. 1445-1525, Chief Rabbi of Constantinople

And according to our holy Torah’s decree at Exodus 23:2, “Incline after the majority,” we follow the will of the majority. Indeed, one who disputes with the majority is called a sinner. And it makes no difference whether that majority is made up of rich people or poor, sages or laypeople, since the entire community is called a court for communal matters.

Exodus 23:2(2) You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong—you shall not give perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty—שמות כ״ג:ב׳(ב) לֹֽא־תִהְיֶ֥ה אַחֲרֵֽי־רַבִּ֖ים לְרָעֹ֑ת וְלֹא־תַעֲנֶ֣ה עַל־רִ֗ב לִנְטֹ֛ת אַחֲרֵ֥י רַבִּ֖ים לְהַטֹּֽת׃

Rabbi Francis Nataf (contemporary), Redeeming Relevance; Numbers, Ch. 3 Korach and the Limits of Popular Government

Moreover, ordinary Jews are supposed to have access to their leaders and be represented by them on the political playing field. If the Korach story doesn’t warn against political activity per se, it does warn of the dangers that exist in allowing those easily swayed by personal charisma too much power in choosing their leaders. In that case, direct democracy – where all decisions are decided by the general public – may well be a recipe for disaster.

Questions for further discussion:

  1. How can we learn from the Qorah story regarding the various challenges that democracy has?
  2. What does this imply for our particular political moment? Particularly regarding the current tendency to the extremes?
Categories
Sermons

Lifting Up God’s Face – Naso 5779

Last Shabbat I mentioned the panel discussion at Rodef Shalom’s annual congregational meeting about the future of synagogues, and one of the items that I identified at this discussion regarding the future of American Judaism is our knowledge of Hebrew. Yes, we live in a time in which readily-available online translations of ancient Jewish text have made the learning of our collected wisdom so much more accessible. That is a good thing; many of you know that we are currently in a kind of renaissance of Jewish learning, aided and abetted by Sefaria and other such platforms.

Nonetheless, there is no question that the Hebrew language, the language of the Jews, is the key to engaging with Jewish life. I learned most of my Hebrew as an adult, and I must say that, even though I learned to “decode” (i.e. read without understanding) when I was quite young, I had no idea what I was missing.

In 1845, at the conference of Reform rabbis in Frankfurt, Germany, a line was drawn in the sand over the Hebrew language. Some Reform rabbis of the time, including Rabbi Abraham Geiger, the “founding father” of Reform, advocated for dispensing with Hebrew in Jewish worship in favor of the vernacular. German, Rabbi Geiger argued, was the “language of the soul,” of philosophy, of civilization; for Geiger, prayer in German struck “a deeper chord.” The Jews of the time did not understand Hebrew, and if the purpose of tefillah / prayer is for our words to connect with our hearts, then tefillah should be in a language we understand.

Rabbi Zecharias Frankel, one of the leading lights of the Positive-Historical School, which ultimately became the Conservative movement, argued that Hebrew is the language of the Jews, the language of the Torah, the language of God. How could we jettison such an essential piece of what it means to be Jewish?

Our sensitivity to language is borne of the historical Jewish need to code-switch. Since the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians, nearly 2600 years ago, Jews have lived in places where they had to speak another language and manage another culture to get along. The Babylonians imposed the Aramaic language on their entire empire, mostly because they had wiped out the Arameans, and so speaking that language implied no political agenda. And from that time forward, Hebrew became the second language for the Jews, taking a back seat to Aramaic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Arabic, Spanish, French, German, and the Jewish dialects of all of those, some of which survived the centuries to be spoken today as Yiddish, Ladino, Judeo-Arabic, Judeo-Persian, Judeo-Provencal, and so forth. We are experts at translation of language and culture, because we have been doing it for so long.

And hence the interest we have in parsing our ancient texts; we are constantly moving from our second language to our first and back again. Most of you have heard me say that it is the continual wrestling with the Torah and Talmud and midrash and poetry and halakhic works that has continued to sustain us to this day. That is one reason we are still here, because, as Pirqei Avot (5:22) suggests,

בּן בַּג בַּג אוֹמֵר, הֲפֹךְ בָּהּ וַהֲפֹךְ בָּהּ, דְּכֹלָּא בָהּ

Ben Bag Bag says, “Turn it over and over, because everything is in it.”

Our ancient words are a lens that help us contextualize our world, to determine what is right, to improve our lives and our communities.

And of course we continue to wrestle.

In that light, we might consider an unusual Hebrew verb, one which has flown by us several times this morning already, and in particular appears, arguably, as what scholars call a leitwort (thematic word) for today’s parashah, Parashat Naso. The verb is the shoresh / root נ-ש-א, from which the very word “naso” is derived. It usually means, “to lift up, elevate.” But its appearances in the Torah are usually idiomatic. Consider the following, the second verse of Naso, and the line from which the name of the parashah derives (Numbers 4:22):

נָשֹׂ֗א אֶת־רֹ֛אשׁ בְּנֵ֥י גֵרְשׁ֖וֹן גַּם־הֵ֑ם לְבֵ֥ית אֲבֹתָ֖ם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָֽם׃

Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans.

Now the idiom, “Naso et rosh …” might be literally translated as, “Lift up the head of…” But here it means, “count.” That is, take a census.

And then it appears multiple times in the subsequent verses, which one way that we determine a leitwort. In particular, it appears near the end of the parashah in the passage that we generally know as birkat kohanim, the Priestly Blessing (Numbers 6:24-26).

יְבָרֶכְךָ֥ ה’ וְיִשְׁמְרֶֽךָ׃
יָאֵ֨ר ה’ ׀ פָּנָ֛יו אֵלֶ֖יךָ וִֽיחֻנֶּֽךָּ׃
יִשָּׂ֨א ה’ ׀ פָּנָיו֙ אֵלֶ֔יךָ וְיָשֵׂ֥ם לְךָ֖ שָׁלֽוֹם׃

The LORD bless you and protect you!
The LORD deal kindly and graciously with you!
The LORD bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!

We also use these words to bless our children on Friday evening. (By the way, we sang this at the ELC graduation on Thursday, as we wrapped our 4-year-olds in a sefer Torah, encircling them with the ancient words of our tradition.)

Did you notice the occurrence of our leitwort? It’s the first word of the third verse: yissa. (If you wondered why there is no letter nun there, there is a reason: the nun is assimilated into the sin; that’s why there is a daggesh hazzaq in the sin, suggesting a “doubling” or “gemination” of the letter.)

But what does it mean here? Again we’ve come against an idiom. Yissa Adonai panav elekha is translated as something like, “May God bestow favor upon you.” But what it literally means is, “May God lift up God’s face to you.”

OK, so now there is something strange in this idiom. Most of us conceive of God as being above us, or all around us, or perhaps as some indeterminate, de-localized force within nature. And many of us conceive of God as not having a particular face. At the beginning of the Amidah, we refer to God as El Elyon – God on high; by comparison, we are lowly and Earthbound.

But whatever your understanding of God, how is it that God might be lifting up God’s face to us? Should it not be exactly the opposite? Should we not turn our faces up to God, for inspiration, for guidance, for knowledge of right and wrong? The second half of the verse, “May God grant you peace,” seems totally reasonable within our range of understanding God; so too the preceding statements. So what gives?

When we pray or study words of Torah, we lift our faces to God. When we pursue outward actions that better our relations with others, God’s face lifts up to us.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the greatest contemporary figures in Jewish thought and one of the most essential thinkers on the totality of the Jewish bookshelf, taught that the reason the Torah forbids images of God is NOT that God has NO image, but rather that God has just ONE image: that of every living, breathing human being. That is, we humans create the image of God with our lives – by doing mitzvot, by sanctifying time, by highlighting the holiness in all other beings and in all of God’s Creation.

It is when you fashion yourself in the Divine image that “Yissa Adonai panav elekha,” God lifts up God’s face to you.

When we as Jews take our Judaism outside of our homes and synagogues into our work and social lives, God looks up to us.

When we give generously and anonymously to those in need, God looks up to us.

When we act in compassion on behalf of those who are mistreated by governments and other organizations, God looks up to us.

When we support our cousins in Israel with our time and energy, God looks up to us.

When we take seriously the obligation to treat all of the people around us with derekh eretz, with respect, God looks up to us.

And, not insignificantly, when we parse the words of our living texts in our ancient language to inspire us to do these works, God’s face lifts up, and God will grant us peace.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Shabbat morning, 6/15/2019.)