Deuteronomy 16:18 – 21:9
Don’t let the lack of a narrative story or the densely packed compilation of laws and commandments fool you, parashat Shoftim, is all about balance. Balance of power that is.
“Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof … Justice, justice you shall pursue!” declares Moses near the beginning of our portion. [Deut. 16:20] The creation of a just community is one of the core purposes of Torah, and shoftim offers profound clarity on how to succeed – beginning with a separation of powers.
First, we are commanded to establish an impartial justice system, in which judges may not accept bribes. [Deut. 16:19] Second, we are allowed to freely choose our king [executive] with the following limitations in place: the king may not set himself above the people and must look after the needs of the poor, may not amass wealth or power, and is subject to the same laws of Torah as the rest of Israel. [Deut. 17:15-20] Third, the priesthood will remain “in attendance for service in the name of the Eternal for all time.” [Deut. 18:5] In effect, this creates three separate and independent centers of power, which function as checks and balances against each other in the service of creating a just community.
It’s not rocket science, this ancient wisdom, and it is both effective and capable of lasting over the long haul. Perhaps that is why the founding fathers of the United States chose a similar structure for balancing power between the executive, legislative and judicial branches of the federal government. This balance of power has served us well for over two-hundred years. Yet it cannot run on autopilot. In ancient Israel, each of the three branches had to maintain their commitment to their independence from the other branches, to the laws of Torah, and to the people. Today, each of the three American branches must maintain their commitment to their independence from the other branches, to the Constitution (and the same rule of law for all Americans), and to the people.
We are losing our way, but we are not lost. This is the beginning of the Hebrew month of Elul, the month leading to our High Holy Days of Rosh HaShannah and Yom Kippur. This is the season of teshuvah, of learning from our mistakes and changing our ways. Each day of Elul we hear the shofar blast, a reminder that there is still time … and that the clock is ticking.
Deuteronomy 3:23 - 7:11
This week's parasha contains some of the biggest moments of Torah: a recap of the Ten Commandments, the Shema and the V'Ahavta are all here! Usually, rabbis can't stop writing about the various layers of wisdom woven throughout these passages, and I am no exception. However, this year, I found a teaching so powerful, so compelling, simultaneously surprising and obviously true, that I just had to share it. It is from one of my favorite rabbinic teachers, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and is called "The Infinite Game." I hope you find it as meaningful as I.
Deuteronomy 1:1 – 3:22
George Bernard Shaw once quipped: “For those who can’t do, teach.” Since the moment he first uttered these words (if not earlier), many westerners have judged teachers as those who failed to succeed at their chosen professions – as if teaching itself was not a noble and meaningful pursuit.
While the debate rages across our nation about how (or if) to open schools for all ages, Rabbi Noah Farkas reminds us not only to think of the students, but of the teachers. He writes:
“How many successful people can read? A teacher did that. How many wealthy people can calculate balance sheets? A teacher did that. How many well-adjusted individuals know how to modulate between one task and another, sticking to deadlines, and playing well with others? Teachers did all of that. You are who you are because someone somewhere taught you how to be. Teachers do all that.”
“While other cultures might valorize the king, the warrior, or the business tycoon, and while other religions might sanctify prayer and faith, ours is a culture that gives the greatest honor and respect to teachers.”
The very word “Torah” means “teaching” and, as Jews, our lives are bound by Torah. In the first four books of Torah, we learn from the many people described on its pages, but according to tradition God is the author, the master teacher. The book of Deuteronomy, however, which we begin this week, is a series of speeches delivered by Moses in the last months of his life. Moses knew his life was about to end, and on the pages which follow, we read those lessons he most desperately wanted us to learn. He sought to pass on Torah to the next generation so that they would survive, and in turn pass the tradition on to their children. We are part of that continuing chain of learning, with each generation adding its own insights and wisdom to the corpus of Jewish knowledge.
Starting now, each week’s Torah portion will contain a great number of Moses’ essential teachings. This week, it seems only fitting to highlight the very first one. Moses begins by recounting how our journey began from Mount Sinai into the Wilderness, sharing these words from God to Israel:
“Long enough you have stayed at this mountain. Turn and journey onward …” [Deut. 1:6-7]
We have been stuck in place, literally, for the past several months, struggling with the pandemic, economic woes, and racial injustice. We are worried and facing a difficult journey ahead. However, we can cross over, just as the Israelites did thousands of years ago. There is a better place, a Promised Land which awaits, and if we want to get there, we need first to learn how – and that means listening to our teachers – those who know more than we, taking their lessons to heart, synthesizing what we learn, and caring for their wellbeing as well as our own.
Numbers 30:2 – 36:13
The moment had arrived. Assembled near the Eastern bank of the Jordan river, their forty years of wandering almost complete, our ancestors began preparations to finally enter and settle the Promised Land. What a surprise it must have been for Moses when a delegation from Reuben and Gad, two of the strongest tribes, said that they no longer wanted to settle in the Promised Land, but instead wanted to stay in the fertile lands on the East bank, outside of Israel proper.
Moses refused at first, and rightly so. Such a move would be terribly demoralizing to the other tribes. However, the delegation offered to send all of their fighting men in the vanguard and promised to stay at the forefront of the fight until every enemy had been vanquished, even as their families would stay in fortified cities in their new land on the East bank. Moses agreed with these terms, and the people of Gad and Reuven settled their lands before the rest of Israel crossed over the Jordan.
Fast forward to the end of our parasha, and also by the way, the book of Numbers, for another dispute in Israel. In last week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, Moses granted the daughters of Zelophophad the right to inherit their father’s estate – which represented a dramatic break from patriarchal cultural and legal norms – because their father had no sons. This week the story continues when Moses’ decision is challenged by close male relatives of the daughters (their uncles), who said:
“The Lord charged my lord to give the land to the Israelites in estate by lot, and my lord was charged by the Lord to give the estate of our brother Zelophophad to his daughters. But should they become wives to any of the sons of the [other] Israelite tribes, their estate would be withdrawn from our father’s estate and added to the estate of the tribe to which they would belong …” [Num. 36:1-3]
In other words, each tribe was allotted a specific amount of land, and since land was power, any transfer of land from one tribe to another would also be a transfer of power. Moses heard them out, and then altered the permission to inherit: the daughters could still inherit so long as they chose husbands from among their tribe. However, if they chose husbands from other tribes then they could no longer inherit.
While to our modern eyes, we may see this as deeply problematic and misogynist decision, in reality the issue being discussed is not gender equality, but something altogether different. Indeed, the stories about the tribes of Reuven and Gad, and about the daughters of Zelophophad are about exactly the same thing: how to balance personal interests with the greater good.
If the two tribes simply settled on the East bank but did not help the other tribes conquer the land, they would have caused serious harm to the rest of Israel because of their own self-interests. Similarly, if the balance of power between the tribes became unstable because of the self-interest of Zelophophad’s daughters, that too could cause lasting damage to the cohesion of Israel.
It is no mistake that both of these stories are told before we enter the Land. They are reminders that we are part of something greater than ourselves, and that as such, we need to balance the needs of the few with the needs of the many. Only then, will we truly bring the covenantal promise of Torah to life.
Numbers 25:10 – 30:1
This week’s Torah portion has a lot of anger. That is, as Rabbi Pamela Wax teaches, five different expressions and types of anger are woven into the parasha, and in essence, serve as a unifying theme.
Here are just three:
The portion opens with a murder, or perhaps an execution – depending on your point of view. God is angry with the Israelites (not for the first time) because of growing idolatry in their midst. As a punishment, God sends a terrible plague that kills entire swaths of the population. In order to prevent more Israelite deaths, Pinchas (for whom the portion is named), kills an Israelite man and a Midianite idol worshipper for cohabitating with a single thrust of his spear. This act of violence successfully averts God’s divine wrath. Yet, as Rabbi Wax observes, is the use of violence the best way to remove anger? Pinchas’ actions effectively enabled God’s “acting out” instead of what Moses and Abraham had done in the past, which was to talk God down and plead for the well-being of Israel.
The second expression of anger involves the five daughters of Zelophophad who petitioned Moses to grant them the right of inheritance from their father, who had no sons to leave his estate to. In the patriarchal culture of ancient Israel this was unheard of. If there were no sons, the inheritance would go to the nearest male relative. The daughter’s anger at this injustice can be seen by in the Hebrew by how they demand the inheritance, rather than ask for it politely. In this case, their anger is rewarded, and their request granted.
The third exploration of anger brings us back to last week’s parashah, to when Moses lashed out in anger at the Israelites for demanding water from him while he was grieving for his sister Miriam. In his anger he put himself in place of God and acted as if he was miraculously causing the water to flow from the rock. His punishment was that after forty years of leading our difficult and cantankerous people through the Wilderness, Moses would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. In this week’s portion, Moses humbly references that moment and accepts his punishment, by asking God to designate his successor. In other words, he has completed his process of teshuvah – of repentance and return to the right path.
Taken together, these three different episodes shed light on how anger can play out in our own lives, how it can be harnessed for good when necessary, and how to move through and past it to find a better place. Then and now.
In today’s world, anger brought us to a rather odd place this week, especially for those who are both Jewish and football fans. You know who you are!
I am referring to Eagles star wide receiver Desean Jackson, who posted some anti-Semitic remarks on Instagram, including a false claim that Hitler said that Black people were “the real Children of Israel” and that white Americans would be terrified to know that they have been “mistreating and discriminating and lynching” them. There was a quick and powerful backlash, after which he took down the post and apologized, only to then turn around and praise Louis Farrakhan, who is himself considered by many, including me, to be an anti-Semite.
Again, there was a strong backlash, and again Desean Jackson apologized and took down his post, and pleaded ignorance.
Before saying anything else, I want to acknowledge that as painful as his comments were and are, thank God that we live in a nation where most people simply will not tolerate such statements. He may be an NFL superstar, but his anti-Semitism was quickly and powerfully repudiated, and for that I am grateful. However, the same is not as true for those who declare that Black Lives don’t Matter.
For this reason, it is not enough to simply say we have to stop anti-Semitism. This story, still unfolding in real time, gives us an opportunity to go deeper. I believe Desean Jackson when he pleads ignorance. I believe that he does not understand the first thing about anti-Semitism and the realities and dangers Jews have faced throughout history and throughout the world. And, I believe he was trying (and failing) to express the same righteous anger as the daughters of Zelophophad – anger against injustice.
It is not news, or at least it shouldn’t be, that the Coronovirus has exposed the racial injustice which exists systemically in our nation against black and brown people. For the first time in a long time, more and more white people are becoming aware of how prevalent and devastating this injustice is. Many of us support the cause of fighting racial injustice, and we are seeking to become anti-racist allies for Black and Brown people.
That cause is just. However, Desean Jackson expressed his anger in way that looked more like Pinchas than the sisters Zelophophad. And while the NFL did not respond directly, some of his fellow players chose to be friends rather than enablers. Steelers offensive tackle Zach Banner, who is also black, shared an emotional video in which he denounced anti-Semitism and referenced the Tree of Life massacre, and then went on to say: “We need to understand that Jewish people deal with the same amount of hate and similar hardships and hard times. I’m not trying to get emotional right now. I want to preach to the black and brown community that we need to uplift [the Jewish community] and put our arms around them just as much when we talk about Black Lives Matter and elevating ourselves. We can’t do that while stepping on the back of other people to elevate ourselves. That’s very important to me and should be important to everyone.”
This is a classy response, and I am grateful to Banner for speaking so powerfully. He epitomized the Jewish value of tochechah, of rebuke when our friends do something wrong – not out of anger, but out of love for them, so that they can learn and grow.
My favorite response, however, came from Julian Edelman, Superbowl MVP and Patriots wide receiver, who also happens to be Jewish. He posted a video in which he spoke deeply and profoundly in solidarity with black and brown people. And then he ended with the following blockbuster statement: “We need to listen. We need to learn. We need to act. We need to have those uncomfortable conversations if we’re going to have real change. Desean, let’s do a deal, how about we go to D.C., and I take you to the Holocaust Museum, and you take me to the Museum of African American History and Culture. Afterward, we grab some burgers, and we have those uncomfortable conversations. This world a little more love, compassion, and empathy.”
Edelman moves from rebuke to teshuvah just as Moses did, and he recognizes that there is ignorance among Jews about black and brown racial injustice, just as Desean Jackson demonstrated and acted out of ignorance of anti-Semitism. I really hope they get together and tour the museums and have a heart to heart over burgers.
The goal for all of us is not to get into a contest to see who has suffered more, or even to try to compare our different pains, but to acknowledge that we all have something to learn, and that right now, black and brown people are suffering and that healing can only come through the uncomfortable process of teshuvah – of opening ourselves up to the realities which we prefer to ignore, of doing the serious soul searching that leads to lasting change, and then determining to act on what we have learned. In this way, anger becomes love, fear becomes understanding, weakness becomes strength.
 Rabbi Pamela Wax, “Pinchas – Kaas: An Anger Banquet,” in Block, Rabbi Barry H. ed. The Mussar Torah Commentary: A Spiritual Path to Living a Meaningful and Ethical Life, New York: Central Conference of American Rabbis, 2020, p. 253-57
 Zach Banner, Instagram post, July 8, 2020
 Julian Edelman, Instagram post, July 9, 2020
(for our new and departed Beth Ami board members)
Numbers 19:1 – 25:9
Let’s talk about miracles.
When we think about miracles, we tend to think of God, but in Chukkat, it is Moses who performs the miracle.
Here is the story: Miriam (Moses’ sister) was a water diviner, and for close to forty years found water for the Israelites throughout their journey through the Wilderness. This week, the Torah records her death, and immediately the Israelites become thirsty and gather against Moses and Aaron to demand water. Moses turns to God, who directs Moses to speak to a rock in God’s name, in order for God to perform a miracle and cause water to flow out from the rock.
Moses, however, still grieving for his sister and deeply frustrated with the Israelite demands, does not follow the plan. Instead, he goes to the rock and then yells to the Israelites: “Listen you rebels! Shall we bring forth water for you from this rock?” [Num. 20:10] Moses then smacks the rock with his staff twice and enough water for all of Israel and their flocks came forth.
In the eyes of Israel, the miracle maker was Moses, not God. For that reason, Moses was not permitted to enter the Promised Land, lest Israel began to worship him instead of God. Yet, there is a larger story at play here. Rabbi Neil Schuman, quoting Professor Richard Elliot Friedman notes:
“This is an all-important step in a gradual shift in the balance of control of miraculous phenomena in the Bible. Adam, Noah, Abraham, and Isaac perform no miracles.” God brings about miracles in Egypt and by the Red Sea, but now Moses changes a miracle. “This shift will continue in the biblical books that follow the Torah, and it is one of the central developments of the Bible: Joshua will call for the sun to stand still in the skies. By calling for a miracle on his own, without direction from God, he goes even further than Moses. Later, Samson has powers implanted in him at birth, so that he is free to use them as he wishes all his life. Later still, Elijah and Elisha use miracles for a variety of personal purposes. It appears that, starting with Moses, God is entrusting humans with ever more responsibility and control of their destiny.”
For the entirety of my rabbinate, I have considered Torah to be (at least in part) a description of God our parent and our early childhood as Israel. Babies need their parents for everything. As toddlers, we are still completely reliant on our parents, except we begin to walk on our own. As children we slowly take on more responsibility for ourselves until eventually, we have the maturity and the strength to enter adulthood, still with our parent’s help. So, in a sense, I see the forty years of wandering between Egypt and the Promised Land as the collective bar/bat mitzvah of the Jewish people. We are not done growing, but we are taking more and more responsibility for ourselves.
It is not that miracles disappear completely with the end of the Jewish Bible. Rabbi Schuman reminds us of Honi the Circle Maker who forced God to bring rain in the midst of a drought, and Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa – a miracle worker from the first generation of rabbis following the destruction of the Temple. He also speaks of other miraculous deeds recorded in Talmud, such as Rabbi Zeira using prayer to restore a life he had accidentally taken. Then there are the Chassidic traditions, which record miracles performed by their rebbes and saints.
Rather, Chukkat is the turning point. It is the moment the arc of our story begins to shift from outward reliance towards communal and self-reliance. God is still with us, the love of our parent never leaves us, but we are invested with the knowledge that we have agency, that through our acts we can change even that which seems unchangeable. And, more often than not, it does not require a miracle – but rather initiative and good leadership.
To our departing lay leaders: thank you for the strength, courage, compassion and love you have demonstrated through your leadership to our congregation and the Jewish people. To our incoming and continuing board members: you’ve got this. You are all blessings, you are all a little miraculous, and we are blessed because of you.
 Schuman, Neil, “The Miracle Worker,” online Torah commentary, date unknown, quoting Friedman, Richard Elliott. Commentary on the Torah (Kindle Locations 29017-29032). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
Numbers 16:1 – 18:32
Torah teaches us to speak truth to power, to challenge authority for the sake of a greater good. Contrary to so many other ancient traditions, which equated disagreement with disloyalty, and often punished it with death, both Abraham and Moses are able to successfully challenge God. Even more, they survived!
Enter Korach (cue scary music).
Korach challenged Moses for the leadership of Israel. He used language surprisingly reminiscent of democracy (an idea that would not exist for several thousand years). His words seem just on the surface, and Moses responds with humility, inviting Korach and his followers into dialogue. However, they refuse.
In the showdown which follows, God demonstrates divine support for Moses with spectacular drama, destroying Korach and his followers in a terrible and precise earthquake which miraculously leaves Moses and the rest of Israel untouched.
The classical rabbinic commentators condemn Korach, not because he challenged authority, but because he challenged authority for the wrong reason. He did not seek to replace Moses for the sake of Israel, or as the rabbis would put it, ‘for the sake of heaven.’ Instead he was motivated by greed and ego. Moses, in stark contrast, was consistently described as humble and a leader who understood his role as one of service, not self-aggrandizement.
The Korach story is among the most important in Torah, because it teaches us to refine our understanding of how to pursue justice. Leadership is a sacred responsibility and trust, and when that trust is violated, we must challenge our leaders. However, even in the Israelite community, where God visibly dwelled in the midst of the camp as a pillar of fire by night and smoke by day, were those who sought leadership with cynicism and malice, those who only cared for themselves and not for the community. If this could happen there, in the presence of God, then how much the more so for us.
Yet we can model ourselves on Moses and not Korach. Let us refute lies with truth, ego with humility, hate with love, and indifference with compassion as we continue to seek our way out of the wilderness and into the Promised Land.
That is the path of Torah.
Numbers 13:1 – 15:41
In Shelach Lecha God tells Moses to send twelve scouts to the Promised Land, so that they can bring back a report. The scouts return and say that the land is rich with “milk and honey,” but ten of the twelve go on to say that it is heavily fortified by “giants” and that there is no hope for the Israelites. Joshua and Caleb are the only scouts to speak against this fear, but their urgent pleas fall on deaf ears. As a result, panic spreads through the camp and the Israelites lash out at Moses and God. In the end, God decides that the Israelites are not ready, and decrees that they shall wander in the Wilderness for forty years. All of the adults over the age of 20 (except Joshua and Caleb) will live and die in the Wilderness. Only the next generation will be able to enter the land.
Traditionally, we understand this story as being about Israel’s loss of faith. Only Joshua and Caleb were able to keep the faith, so only they ultimately merited a home in the Promised Land. However, this year, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks offered a wholly different approach. He notes that all twelve of the spies witnessed the plagues in Egypt, they saw parting of the Sea, and they heard the Revelation at Sinai. All twelve experienced God’s presence in the midst of the camp as a pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. They could not possibly have questioned their belief in God, or their experience of God’s power.
What then is the story about? Rabbi Sacks teaches that the problem is not faith but narrative, by which he means, the scouts did not understand the narrative they were part of – meaning the reality of the world around them. He noticed that while we often talk about the twelve as spies, the Torah does not call them spies at all. There are two Hebrew verbs for spying: lachpor and leragel. Neither of these terms are used in our Torah portion. Rather, the verb used to command their work is latur – and it is used twelve different times. Latur is rarely used in Biblical Hebrew. In modern Hebrew it has come to mean “to tour” – as in being a tourist. Spies and tourists are not at all similar. Tourists look for the good in the lands they visit, spies look for weaknesses.
Rabbi Sacks, in noticing this difference, understands that the problem with ten of the spies wasn’t faith, but that they did not listen! They were commanded latur, to tour, but instead they spied – and we have been calling them spies ever since. In other words, they completely misunderstood their mission, because they completely misunderstood the narrative. Their mission was to tour the land and bring back the good they found, and they did bring back a good report. But then they added the bad, acting as spies rather than as tourists, and in so doing undermined the whole purpose behind why they were sent in the first place – with catastrophic result.
Understanding the narrative around us is important at all times, but especially in times of crisis. Our ability to find our way through successfully depends to a great extent on our ability to learn and understand the narratives which surround us, not just the ones we want to believe.
For example, I want to believe the words in the Pledge of Allegiance which describe the United States as “one nation, under God.” I wish it were true, but it is not. I cannot remember a time when we were more polarized and divided than we are now. We face a health crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of racial injustice – and our political dysfunction is so deeply entrenched that what should be basic common sense is in and of itself politicized and polarized in ways that further divide us. We will never find our way through unless we learn to pay attention our narratives, which if they are based in reality, must include the narratives of the people around us. In other words, we must learn from the would-be spies of the Torah; we must learn to listen.
We can still make it to the Promised Land.
We will make mistakes along the way.
Please, God, may it take less than forty years.
Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
This is the week everything changes. The first ten chapters of the book of Numbers are about the pageantry and grand preparations for our great national journey of uplift. No longer will we be on the path from oppression in Egypt. No, midway through chapter ten we start on the road to the Promised Land. We are finally on our way! We are no longer fleeing but moving with direction and purpose towards a brighter future!
One might imagine that the Israelites were joyful at this moment, that they anticipated the freedom which beckoned just over the horizon.
Nope. Not at all.
The careful planning and ceremonious ordering fell apart even as the journey began. The Israelites did not rejoice – they complained! They wanted better food. They remembered the fresh food which they ate in Egypt, while conveniently forgetting their enslavement, and they worked themselves into a frenzy. Moses bore the brunt of their anger and fell into the deepest despair of his career. He was ready to throw in the towel. Rabbi Noah Farkas writes: “After the greatest liberation in history and the greatest revelation in history, it is lunch that brings Moses to the breaking point.”
God, of course, helps Moses, but that is for a different drash.
Instead, let’s consider why Torah takes ten full chapters to set the stage for an orderly and triumphant journey, and then chronicles how those plans unravel. Indeed, the entire rest of the book is about just that – everything that went wrong along the way.
The journey should have been straightforward, a few weeks or months, if only life didn’t get in the way. Perhaps that is the message. No matter how carefully we plan, we cannot control the world around us. Nor can we control the people around us. Indeed, sometimes we even struggle to control ourselves. The plan was great in theory. It’s just that the people were not ready. So, over the course of the book of Numbers, God will develop a new plan, a slower and more painful plan, which will eventually get us through the Wilderness.
Today, COVID 19 has upended all of our plans. It has infected millions, killing over 400,000 people worldwide and overwhelming our health care systems. It has wrecked our economies and infrastructures and caused additional pain and trauma through the imposed isolation of social distancing. And, in the United States, is has also shed new light on the devasting and systemic racism which stands in stark contrast to the central values of our republic. If the goal of our founding fathers was to truly create a nation of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all of our citizens, then the plan has failed for entire swaths of our population. We are in the Wilderness and the plan isn’t working.
Despair is one reaction. Another is to do as God instructed Moses: don’t go it alone, get help.
Today we are in the separate yet connected wildernesses of COVID and of racism. Yet, amidst all of the pain and suffering, fear and rage, are signs of hope. More people have worked together to protect the health of others through social distancing and medical research than ever before in human history. Protests and sustained political pressure following the murder of George Floyd have created never before seen momentum for new interracial partnerships and the kind of national soul-searching that can lead to real change.
We are deep in the wilderness, but there is a Promised Land. Perhaps now we are finally on the path from slavery to the promise. We will need a new plan, flexible enough to change along the way. It will take longer that we wish. It will not be easy. Yet I have every faith, that one day, together, we will arrive.
Numbers 4:21 – 7:89
For as long as I can remember, we Jews have spoken about the importance of Tikkun Olam, of repairing the world. When we began to look at how broken the world is and worried that it was too much to handle, we (quoted the rabbis and) said, “We are not required to complete the task, but neither are we free to desist from it.” [Pirke Avot 2:16] And while historically, we have more often than not been among the most at-risk humans on the planet, recently we have enjoyed relative comfort and stability. This, in turn, has led some of us, perhaps many of us, to a place of disconnect, of not being sensitive to the brokenness around us and God’s call for us to be agents of healing, of repair.
Then COVID struck – and suddenly everyone was at risk together.
Except we weren’t. People of color were far more at risk than white people, because of the inequalities baked into our society.
Then the economy tanked – and everyone was at risk together. Except we weren’t.
Then George Floyd was murdered by officers who are supposed to serve and protect, and it was caught on video, and the nation saw, and the protests erupted, and the fires were lit, and our national leaders poured more violence into the mix, increasing the fissures of brokenness rather than finding paths towards healing.
And the pain, and the suffering, and the outrage, and the fear became unbearable, overwhelming. Our great nation is so broken, and we feel so helpless.
Yet we are not helpless, nor are we, by ourselves, the solution.
As I always do, when I need guidance and direction, I turn to Torah. This week’s portion, Naso, contains two separate teachings written for this moment. In the opening verse of the parasha, the Israelite census from the last portion is continued. However, the Hebrew for how we count is important – indeed, it is how this portion got its name:
“Naso et rosh – lift up the heads of the people of the Gershonites, too …” [Ex. 4:21-22]
Each time a tribe or clan of Israel was counted in the census, the phrase naso et rosh – lift up their heads, is invoked. Torah calls to us, despite everything, to lift up our heads, to know that we count, that even if we cannot fix all that is broken, we can still be agents of repair.
This is where the second teaching comes in:
“Should a man or a woman commit any of the human offenses (chatot ha’adam), to betray the trust of God, that person shall bear guilt. And they shall confess their offenses which they committed …” [Ex. 5:5-7]
The first step to lifting our heads and becoming agents of repair, is to look within, and to recognize our part, conscious or unconscious, large or small, active or passive, in supporting the status quo of brokenness. Even more, if we pay attention to the grammar in Torah, we can see that while the teaching starts in the singular, it moves to the plural “they.” From this the rabbis understood that creating a just society is not merely a matter of individual agency, but a collective responsibility. We are our brother’s keepers. The entire Torah exists to teach this lesson. When we ignore each other’s pain, or worse, intensify the suffering, we “betray the trust of God.”
In the June edition of the Atlantic, George Parker wrote:
“When the virus came here, it found a country with serious underlying conditions, and it exploited them ruthlessly. Chronic ills – a corrupt political class, a sclerotic bureaucracy, a heartless economy, a divided and distracted public – had gone untreated for years. We had learned to live, uncomfortably, with the symptoms. It took the scale and intimacy of a pandemic to expose their severity—to shock Americans with the recognition that we are in the high-risk category.”
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat, in responding to Parker’s statement, teaches:
“Indeed, we must confess the pre-existing conditions which have plagued humanity for centuries and threaten our democracy today – racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, transphobia, and ableism. These ills all boil down to thinking some lives matter more than others. We must rid our world of these toxins to prevail against Coronavirus and whatever other threats come our way.”
Let us look deeply within ourselves. Let us listen with humility and attention to those around us. Let us acknowledge our place in the world as it was before Coronavirus and let us choose how we will live in the world as is should be.
Then we can lift up our heads and know that our lives count.
 Parker, George. The Atlantic, “We are Living in a Failed State,” June 2020.
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