Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
A story from Rabbi Craig Ezring:
During the Corona Virus Lockdown, many parents wound up working from home via their computers. They also had to make sure that their children were doing their schoolwork. One Mother, who happens to be an Accountant came up with a great idea. She knew her little one enjoyed doing the same things she was doing. When they went to the market, Mamma got a big cart and her daughter got a little one. When Mamma was busy cooking in the kitchen, her daughter loved to play with the pots and pans and a play oven.
“I needed to count on you.”
This is what it means to be in a family, in a friendship, in a community. This is how we get through the joys and the challenges of our lives. This is how we get to the Promised Land. We count on each other.
Parashat Bemidbar not only begins a new book of the Torah (Numbers) but a new stage in our journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. The entire portion is a census of Israel (and the census is so long that it continues into next week’s parasha). As each and every Israelite is counted, their dignity is elevated from that of a slave to that of a free person, for the first Israelite census taught all of Israel that they count – and can be counted on
The same is true for us today. Now more than ever, we need to count on each other. We need to ask for help when we need it and give support when we are able. Now more than ever the skills, intention, and blessings we have to offer make a difference – they truly count. And, now more than ever we need to make sure to participate in the national census and register to vote, because each one of us counts.
This is the Torah for finding our way from the Wilderness to the Promise … then and now.
Count on it.
Leviticus 25:1 – 27:34
What’s in a word?
The answer depends on this word, and this week we encounter an especially important one. This week’s double portion, Behar/B’Chukotai, begins with the commandments for a sabbatical year, a year of rest for the land, and those who work it every seven years and the Jubilee year, a complete reset every 50 years for the land and for people. While these commandments may seem a little strange to the contemporary reader, they are rich with meaning and wisdom.
This year, Rabbi David Greenspan inspired me to look at only one word among many:
“And the land shall not be sold irreversibly, for Mind is the land, for you are sojourning settlers with Me.” [Lev. 25:23]
This verse is about the Jubilee year, where all land sold between the last Jubilee and this one are returned to the original owners. The key word is the last one in Hebrew: imadi (translated as “with Me”). Imadi is an unusual expression in bible, and as such, carries a unique import. Immi and itti are the two most common ways to say “with me.” Imadi, in contrast, only rarely occurs. Perhaps its most famous use is in the Psalms:
“Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for You are with me (imadi).” [Psalm 23:4]
The Psalmist chose imadi over the other options for a reason: unlike itti and imi, the word imadi shares a root with the verb omeid (ayin, mem, dalet), which means “to stand.” Imadi means more than just “with me,” it means “stand with me.” In the Psalm, David overcomes his fear by recognizing that God stands with him, even in times of desperate danger. In this week’s parasha, we find the opposite side of the same coin: we are commanded to stand with God.
Without the word imadi, the commandment for the Jubilee seems to be focused on maintaining the balance of power between the tribes of Israel (because land equaled power). However, when God connects the reason behind the commandment with imadi, a new layer of meaning is revealed. Let’s take another look at the verse from Torah, this time with a less poetic but more literal translation:
“And the land shall not be sold irreversibly, for Mind is the land, for you are sojourning settlers - stand with Me.” [Lev. 25:23]
It seems to me that the inclusion of imadi changes the focus from the balance of power through control of land to the recognition that land is not, in actuality, equivalent to power. The strength and security which comes from our relationship with the land stems from our relationship with God. The land changes. We change. God remains constant. God, even more than the land, is the source of our strength. Additionally, the Hebrew can be read to mean that God says imadi, because we are all wanderers together – even God. Theologically, the concept is enormous, because it suggests that just as we need God, God needs us.
We may be vulnerable, afraid, in danger, but when we say to each other the word imadi, we are expressing our mutual commitment: we stand with each other. In other words, imadi is the very definition of faith.
The general arc of our tradition is one of hope and realistic optimism. The faith of imadi both with God and with each other is one of the historical sources of our collective resilience. Today we carry our fears and anxieties about the many dangers we face – physical health, mental health, economic health, and spiritual health. This week let us seek the faith of imadi.
While the phrase “we are all in this together” has become so ubiquitous as to have been rendered almost meaningless, let us turn to each other and to God with the faith of imadi. Let us stand not against each other motivated by our fears, but with each other sustained by our faith.
Just remember, that for now we should stand together … … six feet apart.
Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23
Torah is not easy.
Nor is spirituality just about finding those warm and fuzzy feelings.
Both require work; work which is more than worth the effort.
Yet there are times, like with this week’s Torah portion, when that work seems especially challenging. In many ways the book of Leviticus can seem foreign and distant to the contemporary reader, especially because of its laser focus on the rites and rituals of the ancient Israelite priesthood. One of the most difficult passages is in Emor, where a whole section of chapter 21 is devoted to the various defects and deformities which would prohibit a priest from entering the sanctuary and performing his duties. The list is long:
“For no man in whom there is a defect shall come forward, no blind man nor lame nor disfigured nor malformed, nor a man who has a broken leg or a broken arm, nor a hunchback nor a midget nor one with a cataract in his eye nor scab nor skin flake nor crushed testicle. No man from the seed of Aaron the priest in whom there is a defect shall draw near to bring forward the fire offerings of the Lord. There is a defect in him. He shall not draw near to bring forward his God’s bread. From the holy of holies and from the holy, he may eat God’s bread. But he shall not come in by the curtain nor shall he draw near to the altar, for there is a defect in him, and he shall not profane My sanctuaries …” [Lev. 21:18-23]
How do we even begin to understand this passage today? How can we reconcile this with our tradition’s emphasis that we are all made in the divine image, regardless of any of the “defects” mentioned in this week’s parasha?
Many have tried.
Some look to history and say we no longer do these things. And they are correct. Kohanim (priests) still have a role in many synagogues today. They are given the first Aliyah in Torah services and they offer a special blessing to the congregation on Yom Kippur, and none of the Toraitic disqualifications are even considered. Yet, that approach does not satisfy because it allows us to negate any bit of Torah we find uncomfortable by simply allowing us to say, ‘that was then, this is now.’
Some look to history and say that while this may disturb us today, it was progressive for its time. Greek culture and philosophy, for example, characterized people with disabilities as “not human” and, in some cases, would suggest death as the only humane response. Compared to their views our Torah portion is generous! Yet, while it may be comforting to know that we have a progressive history, that does not soften our struggle with the text and how to apply it in our lives today.
Some rationalize these laws on practical terms, suggesting that these disabilities would make it difficult for the priest to perform his duties. But as Rabbi Jack Reimer points out, that approach does not cover every disability mentioned, and makes no attempt to address the end of the passage, which declares that their very presence is a desecration.
Finally, some create new interpretations out of whole cloth. Interpretations which resonate with us today, but which have only loose connections to the actual (con)text.
I do not pretend to have the answer, but I would like to share a teaching from Rabbi Judith Abrams (by way of Jack Reimer) which has changed the way I look at this. But first, one more Midrash from the Jerusalem Talmud, another little gift from Rabbi Reimer:
“Rabbi Yochanan said: each of the forty days that Moses was on Mount Sinai, God taught him the entire Torah. And each night he forgot what he had learned. Finally, God gave it to him as a gift. If so, why did God not give it to him as a gift on the first day? In order to encourage the teachers of slow learners.”
Just think about this. It means that Moses, the greatest of all of our teachers, had a learning disability in addition his already well documented speech impediment. Even God required patience to keep on going until Moses was finally able to reach his potential. And Moses wasn’t the only one. Isaac was blind in his old age, and Jacob suffered from a permanent limp. We are descended from people who have had disabilities, which is to say that disabilities are in our very blood. We all have them. None of us is perfect. Not even the priests who are technically allowed to enter the sanctuary.
I find this to be an effective counter-narrative to the priestly restrictions in Emor, but when combined with the deep wisdom of Rabbi Judith Abrams, a whole new perspective opens before us. She saw a direct connection between Emor and a well-known midrash:
“Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said to Elijah (who had miraculously appeared before him): ‘When will the Messiah come?’ Elijah said to him, ‘Go ask him.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked: ‘And where is he sitting?’ Elijah said to him, ‘At the entrance of the city of Rome.’ Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi asked him, ‘And what is his identifying sign by means of which I can recognize him?’ Elijah answered, ‘He sits among the poor who suffer from illness. And all of them untie their bandages and tie them all at once, but the Messiah unties one bandage and ties one at a time. He says, Perhaps I will be needed to serve to bring about the redemption. Therefore, I will never tie more than one bandage, so that I will not be delayed.’” [Talmud Bavli, Sanhedrin, 98a]
Rabbi Abrams saw this passage as the polar opposite of the priestly disability restrictions. The priest cannot serve if he has the disabilities listed in Emor because those disabilities make him ritually impure. The messiah chooses to be ritually impure by living with the lepers and infirm at the gates of Rome in order to serve.
Why is this insight so breathtaking?
The role of the priest is to facilitate our connection with God. The role of the messiah is to bring redemption to the world. Redemption comes not from the sanctuary and the priesthood, but from the messiah. The messiah could easily stay in the Temple precincts among the pure and the wealthy, where he would be welcomed with open arms. However, instead, he endows cosmic dignity on the sick and disabled by living among them as one of them, and thereby supporting them in community.
If we want a role in bringing about the redemption, then we should first look to how we treat each other, and especially, the most vulnerable among us. Only then will our worship and the offerings of our hearts be acceptable before God. For, as an anonymous preacher once quipped, “Any church that ain’t no good on Monday, ain’t no good on Sunday.”
So as we read this week’s parasha, let us hold fast to what Rabbi Reimer and Rabbi Abrams teach, “Let us judge ourselves before we judge the Torah.”
Beth Ami has proudly been and continues to be an inclusive holy community. Yet, there is still more we can do. May we learn from our missteps and omissions along the way and grow in our commitment, as we strive to become the synagogue of our dreams, and in our own way, to help bring a little more redemption to our world.
 I was not able to locate the source, but it is similar to another Midrash in the name of Rabbi Abihu [Exodus Rabbah 41.6] which is exactly the same except it omits the last line about teaching slow learners.
Leviticus 16:1 – 20:27
This week’s double Torah portion is simultaneously challenging to read and rich with deep meaning. I have written extensively on it, but this week encountered a commentary so beautiful, I just had to share it with you. It is written by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, whose writings I read ‘religiously,’ and it spoke to me in a powerful way. I hope you find his words as meaningful as I. The link is below. For those who do not want to read the entire piece, here is the conclusion (but, even knowing the end, reading how he builds the case is worth taking a few minutes to consider):
“I believe that there is something unique and contemporary about the ethic of holiness. It tells us that morality and ecology are closely related. They are both about creation: about the world as God’s work and humanity as God’s image. The integrity of humanity and the natural environment go together. The natural universe and humanity were both created by God, and we are charged to protect the first and love the second.” – Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras