Family is a constant in our world as humans, a fact of life that is at times both a tremendous blessing and a tremendous strain (mine is only ever a blessing, of course). This is true of larger ‘families’ as well — being part of a sports culture includes its highs and lows, as does being a citizen of a given country. Somehow, though, when it comes to Jewish peoplehood, the picture is more complicated.
Often, when the topic of Jewish peoplehood surfaces, the response is either an automatic ‘I am part of the Jewish people, and proud of it’ or ‘Jewish peoplehood, as a concept, makes me uneasy.’ In part, this is true because Jewish peoplehood, unlike our nationalities or our nuclear families (for the most part), is something that many of us today feel that we can choose to belong to or not — a novel concept in the history of Judaism. However, the uneasiness about Jewish peoplehood is grounded, in my experience, in a different rationale. Often it is said that, since we — white, Western Jews of various stripes — are more like other Western people than other Jews (e.g. from the Middle East excluding Israel, or Russia), we do not feel a real sense of Jewish peoplehood.
Since when did being a member of a family construct necessitate having a lot in common with all members of that family? Do you really share a lot in common with all of your cousins, in-laws, aunts and uncles? In speaking of the recent heightening of tensions at the Western Wall, Yossi Klein Halevi points to this trend as drifting from the origins of Zionism:
“At its core, Zionism is the ideology of Jewish peoplehood. The genius of classical Zionism was its ability to include almost every variety of Jewish ideology – from Marxist to capitalist, from anti-clericalist to theocratic – under a shared, basic commitment. As modernity fragmented the Jews into rival camps, Zionism insisted that those identities were mere adjectives, and that the unifying noun was “Jew.””
This strikes me as not only being true, but as being a goal towards which we ought to be striving today, especially in light of the infighting that issues like the Western Wall, a space close to the hearts of so many Jews, bring to the surface. Is there any value, or set of values, that can unite a disparate Jewish family in the 21st century?
While it used to be the case that all Jews shared extensive liturgy, ritual, culture, forms of study, and community organization, is it enough today that we all share at least one of those things with some other Jewish community, or has the web been spun so thin that to speak of one Jewish People is a nonsensical term?
This week’s parsha, between detailing genealogies and lists of sacrifices given at the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), spells out the priestly blessing which is still recited regularly today. The blessing reads: “May Hashem bless you and keep you; may Hashem shine His face upon you, and be gracious to you; may Hashem shine His countenance on you, and give you peace” (6:24-26, translation mine). While my intuition about the first clause of the blessing ties it to health – may Hashem keep you healthy – Sforno sees the blessing as monetary, quoting the famous rabbinic idea “if there is no flour [money] there is no Torah.” With this interpretation, Sforno goes on to say that “keeping you” refers to avoiding theft, as the taking of your wealth would nullify the first blessing. I think that the difference in outlook reflects our different times, as I see it as common knowledge today that no amount of money will be desirous without health in which to enjoy those resources. In contrast, Sforno, and the Israelites in the parsha, did not have the same medical issues that we do today, due in large part to not living as long. Sforno, further, lived in the Middle Ages, where prosperity for Jews was rare, and therefore wealth might have been the blessing most prayed for in the community. As the priestly blessing leaves the specifics unsaid, the blessing stands the test of time by being easily applied to each one of our historical contexts.
A blessing for us
Keeping us from all harms
Seeing God’s grace
As Sefirat HaOmer (The Counting of the Omer) winds down this year, I finally found a kavannah, a lens, through which I could meaningfully connect to the ritual. For fifty days from the start of Pesach, Jews are commanded to count each day, and many Jews connect to this time period by focusing on the spiritual significance of each day.
This has rarely worked for me, and I despaired of connecting to the ritual at all at this point in my life, drawing meaning instead from the two holidays that bookend the Omer. Then I came across a dvar by a Pardes alum that brought the practice to life.
As winter shades into spring (or, in Israel, spring into summer), the Omer offers us an opportunity to re-charge, taking full advantage of each and every day. Without any of the ritual counting, I have been able to accomplish this goal over the last two weeks, while I was on a long-awaited trip to Israel. Each day brought more opportunities to connect and re-connect, to family, friends, and to Jerusalem as a city full of wonderful memories. Each day felt full and productive, maintaining relationships and soaking in the sun and the motivating busy-ness that is Jerusalem.
I hope to take that energy back into my more routine life here, and to remember that sense of purpose as the Omer rolls around next spring. Each day holds both opportunity and finitude. We can each improve ourselves and our relationships to our family, friends, and communities in small, tangible ways. However, even though one can get from Jerusalem to Boston in 24 hours, one day holds only so much potential. The struggle the Omer presents is how to maintain a focus on deriving meaning from each day without burning out. I hope that, in the coming year, we can all find that balance.
This week’s parsha begins the book of Bamidbar / Numbers, with just that – a lot of numbers. Moshe is asked to take a census of the Israelites, along with the head of each tribe. With the verses in the parsha looking quite repetitive – a list of names and numbers – it is easy to glaze over the larger importance of such an activity. Why take a census, in ancient Israel or today? One of the reasons is to ensure that everyone is accounted for – not merely on a ledger, but materially, emotionally and spiritually. If we only concern ourselves with others we see on a regular basis, the rest of the community – who might be less financially stable – will suffer from neglect. Further, by asking questions on a census, as we do today, we can learn more about those with whom we are not naturally in conversation. For instance, religious leaders are concerned now to integrate the growing number of Americans who do not identify with any religious group, a rapidly increasing percentage of the population. It seems obvious that no one person can have their finger on the pulse of a country as large as the US, but even in Bamidbar, Moshe could not possibly have kept track of a burgeoning nation of over 600,000 adult males (often estimated to be about 1.5 million people). Thus, Hashem has Moshe count them – to ensure that no one falls through the cracks, and to continue to be attentive to their changing needs.
We count ourselves
To better understand
This week’s double parsha ends the book of Vayikra / Leviticus, speaking of many themes, including shmittah. The first parsha, Behar, ends with foundational mtizvot (commandments) to be kept, starting with the prohibition of idolatry and keeping the Shabbat. The text then says “revere my sanctuary, I am Hashem” (26:2). The Sforno seeks to maintain the relevance of this third commandment in such an august list, even though no centralized sanctuary (Temple) existed at his time. He wrote: “Revere my sanctuary. [Meaning] the places that are sanctified in exile, and they are: synagogues and houses of study, even though the Temple was destroyed, as it says: “And I will be for them a minor temple” (Yechezkel 11:16), which the Rabbis interpreted to mean “these are the synagogues and houses of study” (Bavli Megillah 29a)” (translation mine). As a fellow Pardesnik wrote in her dvar on this parsha, it is a beautiful thing when the Torah grows up with us. I see this comment of the Sforno’s to be a great example of reading the Torah to be ever-relevant to our present. Yes, Vayikra was talking about the Mishkan, and the Temple which it became. For us, however, it can be speaking about any sanctified space that we use to come together as a community, to be closer to each other and to Hashem.
Keeping the text
Relevant for our times
A timeless task