Jewish importance of ideological moderation: Parshat Bamidbar

Liberals and conservatives disagree about so much in our polarized society, yet there is one thing the extremists on both sides seem to agree on, and that is hatred of Jews and Israel. Who could have imagined that we would see the day when, in a blink of an eye following October 7th, progressive students cried out in solidarity with the Iranian proxy Hamas? There are few countries more fascist, more authoritarian, more limiting of the social freedoms of human beings than Iran. And yet, ideological opposites unite in the mosh pit of university demonstrations, waving the same flag, calling for the destruction of the same people, and chanting the same slogans.

Our congregant, Deborah Lipstadt, has coined this antisemitic phenomenon “the horseshoe.” Antisemitism is the area in which extremists of opposite polls meet full-circle in a magnetic pull. Of course, neither liberalism nor conservatism is fundamentally antisemitic, but extremisms of either kind lead down a predictable, well-worn path against the Jews.

Not only have we not fought against extremism, but often we have joined it. The liberals among us are cursing the conservatives and the conservatives among us are cursing the liberals. I have heard polarized accusations from friends and congregants alike, seeing only the other at fault, blind to our own ideologies shortcomings. Are we as a society and as a world perhaps harvesting what we have sown?

We are now in the midst of a Biblical commandment to count the Omer. Biblically, the Omer count is entirely agricultural—a counting from one grain offering on the holiday of Passover to another grain offering on the holiday of Shavuot 50 days later; yet there is also a strong Kabbalistic tradition that this ritual is about something else: the balancing out of extremes. When the Omer is counted each day of these 49 days from Passover to Shavuot, each day is labeled with a nuanced combination of midot, of Divine (and therefore human) characteristics, orientations, and outlooks.

These Divine characteristics, the midot, which we count each day of sefirah, are divided up into seven categories. The first is chesed, mercy or kindness, the second is its opposite, gevurah, judgment or boundary-setting, and the third is tiferet, sometimes called splendor or truth. This one serves as a balance between its two opposing predecessors. Within each midah, each characteristic, is also every other midah. Day one is labeled mercy within mercy, day two is labeled judgment within mercy, etc. Seven times seven is 49, thus progressing through each characteristic and its various combinations, completing the omer count after seven weeks and experiencing every possible combination of all seven characteristics, making for a complex, nuanced 49-day experience, each day seeing life and the world through a new set of lenses.

The message of sefirah is clear: If we want to imitate God, a God which does justice and mercy, truth and kindness, and every combination in between, we must take seriously the lesson of the sefirah and its midot-achieving balance, and protest against extremism of all kinds. This is the sefirah’s path to a safer, more peaceful world.

About the Author
Rabbi Hyim Shafner, MSW, MA, LCSW, is the Rabbi of Kesher Israel in Washington, D.C. He is a founder of the blog, the author of the Everything Jewish Wedding Book (2008), and a periodic contributor to Conversations: The Journal of Jewish Ideas and Ideals and The Washington Jewish Week. He holds a Certificate in Advanced Psychodynamic Psychotherapy from the St. Louis Psychoanalytic Institute.
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