Counting and telling: embracing Jews estranged from Jewish life [Parshat Emor]
Since Judaism teaches that all Jews are responsible for each other, the hemorrhaging of the number of Diaspora Jews actively involved in Jewish life — or even identifying as Jews — is a source of grave concern. How might we inspire our Jewish siblings to remain within, or return to, Jewish tradition?
I believe that the very nature of the Hebrew calendar contains the direction toward the solution. Each year after the start of the Passover festival, we count each day toward the festival of Shavuot, a count that begins with our freedom from Egypt and culminates with the revelation at Sinai. The days of our counting, a period of spiritual growth and development, begin with Passover, the first real encounter that God has with His nation Israel and its very conception. Our sefira (Hebrew root: s-p-r) count begins with a sippur (Hebrew root: s-p-r), a tale, a story, a re-counting; the very essence of the Passover seder evening experience.
We must remember that the Israelites came into Egypt as a family, the seventy descendants of our grandfather Jacob-Israel. Hence, the recounting of the story of our enslavement and eventual redemption is transmitted by parents to their children as a familial recounting of family history because the Jewish nation is essentially an extended family. And, as in any family, there are familial memories of origins, of beginnings; in a family, there will always be a commonality, a togetherness that results from the good that flows through the veins of the family members.
Passover is our familial, communal festival, at the very beginning of our calendar, at the very outset of our unique history, at the early steps toward our sefira march, celebrated even before we received our Torah from God and before we entered the Promised Land.
The Passover Sacrifice, the source for our Passover seder, represents the celebration of our being part of a special, historic family even before we became a religion at Sinai. It emphasizes our willingness to sacrifice the lamb, a defiant act of rebellion against the bull-god of Egyptian slave-society, an act that attests to our uncompromising belief in human freedom and redemption – a belief that arose from the familial history of the pain of our enslavement and the murder of our children in the Nile River. Hence freedom for every individual became a familial passion for us and even an obsession.
In order to feel truly free, every person must feel that he/she counts (sefira); but that is how it is in families, where each member is called by his/her personal name and is known by his/her unique traits (both positively and negatively). It is for this reason that our Passover sacrificial meal must be subdivided into smaller – and more manageable – familial and extra-familial units, “a lamb for each household” or several households together. Special foods, special stories and special songs define and punctuate the familial nature of the event.
And the only ticket of admission is that you consider yourself a member of the family and wish to be counted in; this alone entitles you to an unconditional embrace of love and acceptance, to inclusion in the family of Israel. The rasha (wicked son) is the one who himself excludes himself from the family – and even he/she is to be invited and sought after!
One of the rousing songs of the seder is Dayenu (“It would have been enough”). One line reads: “Had God merely brought us to Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have been enough.” Our Sages teach that when the Israelites stood at Sinai they were one people with one heart, a united and communal family. The song teaches that even if a Jew feels only a sense of familial oneness – even without the 613 commandments – it would be extremely positive, if not sufficient in itself.
How might we engage Jews estranged from Jewish life? We must embrace them as part of our family, love them because we are part of them and they are part of us, regale them with the stories, songs and special foods which are expressed in our people’s literature and that emerged from our fate and our unique destiny, share with them our vision and dreams of human freedom and peace, and accept them wholeheartedly, no matter what.
For some of them it may be the first step on their march to Torah and the Land of Israel on Shavuot; for others, it might be all they are interested in. And that, too, must be considered good enough, Dayenu! After all, the very first covenant God made with Abraham was the covenant of family and nation.
[WATCH] RABBI RISKIN’S VIDEO COMMENTARY TO PARSHAT EMOR: “The Holiness of Humans — The Sanctity of Space, Time and Life”
A leading voice in the Modern Orthodox world, Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is an educator, social activist and author who serves as Founder and Chancellor of the Ohr Torah Stone network of pioneering men’s and women’s institutions. He is also Chief Rabbi of Efrat, Israel, and the founding rabbi of Lincoln Square Synagogue in New York City. He earned semicha from Rabbi Soloveitchik at Yeshiva University, and a PhD from NYU.