We have been given some painful reminders this year. Values we cherish, priorities we thought ordered correctly, rights and freedoms we took for granted have been placed at risk or taken from us altogether.
The first months of 2020 alone have seen lives lost, livelihoods depleted and dramatic changes to our day-to-day. We live now (albeit perhaps temporarily) in a less physically interconnected world – now harder to explore and to share.
In the United States, in the still fresh footsteps of a deathly corona emergency, we see a society rattled again as the battle over values, rights and responsibilities, equality and equal opportunity have boiled to the surface again. The cruel death of George Floyd has sent many cities into a state of mayhem, uncertainty and insecurity.
Red lines have been drawn over decades. This was a red line brutally crossed and erased. The days since have seen rage and deepest fear flood communities around America. We have seen that rage cross once-reasonable boundaries too.
These are days of pain.
This Shabbat people in Israel will read a different Torah portion (Beha’alotcha) than Jewish people living elsewhere (Naso). It happens sometimes and the lack of coordination lasts several weeks after the second day of a Jewish holiday (this time Shavuot) falls on a Shabbat.
As we come to expect, both Torah portions speak to the disruption we are feeling right now and to those very real worries and uncertainty we are feeling at our core.
Outside Israel we will read a rather long and surprisingly repetitive description of the continuing dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert. Instructs God to Moses quite intentionally at Numbers 7:11: “One leader each day, one leader each day shall they bring their offering to the dedication of the Alter”.
Not a typo. The words are repeated twice. For emphasis. The Torah does not waste words.
Every tribe of Israel was given its own day, its moment to shine, its moment to lead in the dedication of the Tabernacle. One leader from each tribe represented a whole community, families and individuals.
Across no less than seventy-two sentences in the Torah, each tribe has their day but brings the exact same offering as each and every other tribe. Identical but accompanied by each tribe’s unique spiritual essence. Comments Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, each leader brought the spiritual striving of himself and his tribe and shared them with the nation.
Only when each tribe has had their day of celebration, their moments to express themselves and be represented in the dedication of something so central to the life of a nation, does the Torah take another four lines to provide a summary account of all the gifts and offerings brought over the previous twelve days – each and every part represented by the number twelve. Every one of the tribes of Israel has had their moment to contribute.
Only once everyone has been given equal opportunity, equal access, when roles were shared across a whole nation and each tribe has fulfilled these roles responsibly and as reasonably expected, did Moses arrive to the Tent of Meeting and then God speak to him.
Not a moment sooner.
Inclusion. Unity. Community. Full participation.
When Jews in Israel listen to the Torah portion of Beha’alotcha this Shabbat, they could well be struck as I was by a reminder of what the Torah says about fairness, about equal opportunity and giving folks a second chance. Unable to bring their Passover offering (Korban Pesach) when all others did so (because they had been contaminated through carrying out the noble task of burying the dead), a group of people appeal to Moses to have the opportunity to bring their own offering once they are again eligible to do so.
God accepts their plea, recognizing their very strong desire to be elevated, to be involved in a most spiritual endeavor. Like others in the nation. Through these people the Jewish people received an additional (one day) Pesach that even till today is marked exactly one month after the start of the Passover we all celebrate.
That Festival of Freedom.
The Torah is a living document and no more so than in these times when we are called on to look deeply into ourselves, into our families, our communities and our nations. In the two Torah portions that Jewish people will read this Shabbat we see a crystal clear policy that can guide us and perhaps unify us, our countries and citizenry after major upheavals that have hit us like nothing less than society-wide shock waves.
We can proudly recognize that we are all different but at the same time advocate strongly for each and every one of our communities – the beautiful pieces that make us one completed puzzle – to be included in the most central and rewarding moments in the life of our countries. That we not count the whole until everyone is there to be counted and represented.
And when a people feels aggrieved, unfairly judged, overlooked, forgotten or sense that an opportunity was not given to them as it was to others, that we open our ears, our eyes, our hearts, our imaginations and give of ourselves toward leveling that playing field as best we can so that everyone gets their second chance at Passover and their chance for freedom and healing.