Numbers 4:21 – 7:8
Days after the worst mass murder in American history, this week’s parasha provides some much needed perspective. In Naso we read, “Speak to the Israelites: When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord …” (Num. 5:6) Maimonides, in his Laws of Repentence, taught the meaning of this verse: if we sin against one another we sin against God.
Murder is an abomination, it is a profound breaking of faith with God. The murder of forty-nine human beings, and the attempted murder of more than fifty more is 100 times an abomination. This act, committed by a man who claimed to be a devout Muslim was not religious act, but purely evil. All religions, ultimately, are about love. The murderer was motivated not by love, but by violent hatred: homophobic hatred, racial hatred, extremist hatred. He killed during the month of Ramadan – holy to the religion he claimed as his own; and he killed during our Jewish observance of Shavuot, our celebration of God’s Revelation, the giving of Torah at Sinai. His massacre defiled both observances.
Torah stands as repudiation against such acts: when we sin against each other, we sin against God. Jews, Christians and Muslims have joined together to condemn the massacre in vigils and rallies all over the country. These are acts of love, of real religion. However, if they are not followed by action, they will ultimately be no more than symbolic gestures. If we truly love God, then we must learn to truly love each other. We must learn to overcome our suspicion and distrust and begin to see our common humanity. We must learn to recognize the image of God in every person, and to nurture the divine spark within us all.
This is the torah Maimonides teaches, a true lesson of Naso
Numbers 1:1 – 4:20
This week we look forward not only to Shabbat, and the beginning of a new book of Torah, but also to Shavuot and confirmation. The book of Numbers describes thirty-eight years of our wanderings through the wilderness on our way to the Promised Land. Shavuot is our celebration of the moment we became a covenanted people at Sinai, a new beginning for all of the children of Israel. At confirmation, our wonderful high school students will confirm their place within our covenanted community, and their commitment to transmit Torah to future generations.
The opening verse of our portion contains a hidden gem of wisdom that brings all of this together: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses in the Wilderness of Sinai …” (Num. 1:1)
Sinai, the place where we encounter God, is in the wilderness – far removed from the bustle of familiar daily life. The Wilderness was the only place where we could receive Torah because there we were completely at the mercy of our surroundings, and our God. When we are comfortable, when we think we are in control, then we forget to room for Torah or God. Rabbi Menachem Mendl of Kotzk taught that we should consider ourselves just as bare as the Wilderness of Sinai, just as exposed and vulnerable, and thereby open ourselves to the true light of Torah.
Today we have the mixed blessing of being the most comfortable generation in the history of our people. There is nothing wrong with this, and in the covenant itself God promises abundance as a reward for faithfulness. However, given our material success we should also exercise spiritual caution. We should consciously cultivate humility, so as not to become so filled with our own selves that there is no room left for God.
Leviticus 26:3 – 27:34
“If you follow My statutes and observe My commandments …” (Lev. 26:3).
Torah describes two levels of Jewish spirituality, two levels of our covenantal relationships and obligations as Jews. The opening verse of Bechukotai describes the first: “If you [plural form] follow My statutes and observe My commandments …” (Lev. 26:3). We have a communal kedushah, a common call to holiness, which we inherit just by being born into this people. That is the focus of this week’s parasha. The second level is found in Deuteronomy (Ki Tavo), which uses the singular rather than the plural to describe our personal responsibilities as part of this covenantal people.
We live in an age that exalts our individualism. However, when we collectively lose sight of what it means to be part of a community, when we only think about our own personal agendas, the fabric of our society begins to unravel. We may be seeing an alarming expression of this process today in the lack of civility within the U.S. presidential primaries.
It is no coincidence that we read Bechukotai a week before we celebrate Shavuot. Shavuot recalls the revelation at Sinai – the moment we became a covenantal people. In a Reform setting, we celebrate Confirmation on Shavuot because it connects our young people to our communal covenant.
The optic in our secular society teaches that the world owes us whatever we want. Thank God, Torah teaches that the world we all want is possible – we just need to do our part.
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