Friday, May 10, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha

Feel free to download and print this week's Parsha Sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here:  Parshat Bamidbar
This week, when we move from sefer Vayikra to sefer Bamidbar, we are finally moving away from Har Sinai, where Bnei Yisrael have been encamped for almost a year. From the middle of Shemot through the end of Vayikra, they have been encamped at the foot of Har Sinai, having received the Torah, mitzvot and the laws, and then all the laws of the Kohanim, through Kedoshim and Behar Bichukotai. It is only because we lose sight of this that the opening of Behar takes us by surprise: "And the Lord spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai saying..." (Vayikra 25:1). "What," asks Rashi, and perhaps many of us as well, "does Shmitta have to do with Mt. Sinai?" The answer is obvious - because they are still there, they've been there since Matan Torah, and the parasha is reminding us of that, as the narrative comes to wrap up their experience at Har Sinai, and to transition to their moving forward, through the Wilderness, through the book of Bamidbar.
Now, this experience at the foot of Har Sinai can be likened to the period of the chuppah and the sheva b'rakhot.The moment of the giving of the Torah was the moment of marriage (nissuim). The intimacy, intensity, and immediacy of the connection and self-revelation that occurred between God and Bnei Yisrael is like the coming together of chatan and kallah, the consummation of the betrothal (kiddushin). In addition to the intensity of the love , the brit is actualized and the full obligations of the relationship are accepted -the mitzvot and the laws - with the sefer habrit, the book of the covenant that Moshe presents the Children of Israel (see Shemot 24:7), serving as the ketuvah, with all its reciprocal obligations.
Now, however, as we transition to Bamidbar, it is time to move away from the chuppah and to move on with our lives. The question will be - how has our life changed and how will we move forward?  This is the focus of the opening parasha - how to move through the desert without leaving Har Sinai behind.
The first step is arranging the camp and the tribes around the Mishkan.  Wherever we may camp, even when it is not at the foot of Har Sinai, the encampment must always be with the Mishkan in the center. Even when we break camp and move forward, the Mishkan must move in the center. This, indeed, was the point of building theMishkan: "They shall build Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst" (Shemot 25:8). God dwells in our midst when the Mishkan is kept in our midst, at our very center.
When we depart Har Sinai, when we are distant from the immediacy of the Shekhina, we must always encamp around the Mishkan - we must orient our lives towards God and God's presence. All roads may lead to Rome, but all hearts, and all minds, must lead to the Mishkan, must lead to God.  Wherever we are in the camp, whichever tribe we are a member of, God stays at the center.
And when we move - it is in the context of our relationship to God - "by the command of God they encamped, and by the command of God they moved." (Bamidbar 9:23).  Thus, no matter how geographically distant we are from Mount Sinai, we will not lose our way as long as we continue to orient ourselves to God, to orient our selves and our lives, around and in reference to, the Mishkan. The remainder of Bamidbar is the working out of this challenge - can Bnei Yisrael depart from Har Sinai, and continue to keep God in their midst, continue to orient themselves towards God's presence? We know this is not trivial, for when one is physically distant, it is easy to lose one's way and to forget what is central and essential in one's life.
This is also the challenge that presents itself in an actual marriage.  As a couple moves from the chuppah and thesheva b'rakhot and begins to move forward and continue with their life, how will they orient themselves towards one another? Sometimes one spouse will need to travel geographically, or will need to involve him or herself in career, education, or other demands or pursuits. This is a necessary part of life. We must move from Har Sinai. But if we have worked on the relationship, and continue to work on the relationship, then wherever and whenever one travels, the other will always be their center, and all that we pursue will be with the other in mind. John Donne put it best in his "Valediction: Forbidding Mourning":
Dull sublunary lovers' love
(Whose soul is sense) cannot admit
Absence, because it doth remove
Those things which elemented it.
But we, by a love so much refined
That our selves know not what it is,
Inter-assured of the mind,
Care less, eyes, lips, and hands to miss.
Our two souls therefore, which are one,
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to airy thinness beat.
If they be two, they are two so
As stiff twin compasses are two:
Thy soul, the fixed foot, makes no show
To move, but doth, if the other do;
And though it in the center sit,
Yet when the other far doth roam,
It leans, and hearkens after it,
And grows erect, as that comes home.
Such wilt thou be to me, who must,
Like the other foot, obliquely run;
Thy firmness makes my circle just,
And makes me end where I begun.
Sometimes such a relationship come naturally, comes easily.  But often it requires real work.  But when we are able to change our orientation, and to do the work that sustains this orientation, our relationship, and our lives, are transformed.  If we can keep the other, if we can keep our spouse, if we can keep God, at the center, that when we leave the chuppah we will be confident that wherever and however far we doth roam, we will hearken after the other, make our circle just, and end where we had begun.

Dear Friends

Good Hodesh!  I hope you are all well and are getting ready for the upcoming Chag.  As we know, Shavuot, from the Rabbinic perspective, celebrates the day of the Giving of the Torah.  Interestingly, while the simple sense of the verses indicate that it was the men, and not the women, who were being addressed in the lead up to Matan Torah ("Prepare yourselves for the third day - do not draw close to a woman"), Hazal underscore that women were equal participants in standing at Har Sinai and receiving the Torah ("'So you shall say to the house of Jacob, beit Yaakov' - these are the women." - Mechilta of R. Yishmael).  They even understood that the purpose of the three-day wait was to ensure that the women would be ritually pure and able to participate.
I was thinking about this ethos, and how it contrasts with what has been happening to the Women of the Wall when they come to pray at the Kotel.  Today, on Rosh Hodesh, thousands of Haredim came to protest letting these women have access to the Kotel to hold their prayers.  Luckily, no one was hurt.  But this ongoing opposition is fueled by a belief that only certain people, acting in only very narrowly defined ways, can be part of this contact with the Holy, with the Divine.
This week's parasha gives a very different model than this exclusivist approach.  The camp is arranged around the Mishkan, separated by each tribe.  It is an arrangement of unity, not uniformity. True unity, creating a bonded, cohesive community, comes from respecting differences - ish al diglo - each tribe with its own uniqueness, its own distinctiveness preserved. Some are on the left, some on the right, some North, some South. What held them together was a shared commitment to respect each other's boundaries, to value their degalim, their distinct flags, their diversity, and to exist together as one people with a shared orientation towards God's presence in their midst.

A few years ago, I was in Israel at a conference of rabbis, and the topic for that afternoon was women's participation in the community and the shul. A rabbi spoke on the topic of women saying kaddish. He shared that he wanted to do what was best for the community, and he was prepared to allow a woman to say kaddish in his shul, but this created an enormous amount of conflict. So, for the sake of peace, he reversed his position and asked that women not say kaddish in his shul. While this is an occurrence that happens regularly - in one manifestation or another - in shuls everywhere, I was particularly disturbed by this story. Here was a rabbi who was not motivated ideologically, and who in principle was prepared to allow this practice, but who backed off to preserve the peace in his community. Even setting aside the ethical issue of preserving the peace of the majority at the expense of the rights of the individual, what is deeply disturbing is that there was another way to address the communal issue.
The rabbi need not have bought into the cause of the conflict - the belief that many of his community had, that one person's actions defined their identity - that this woman's saying kaddish, this "feminist" act, as it were (here is not the time to detail how this was a widely accepted practice in Lithuania and elsewhere), defined them as "feminist" or "radical" as well. Here was an opportunity to educate the community on the lesson of diversity. That to allow such behavior is not to say that I identify with the position, it is to say that I respect the principle of elu vi'elu, that I want a community that welcomes a wide diversity of people, a halakhic community that respects the range of halakhic practices. Why not do the hard work to create shalom by working to create a community that is a truemachaneh Yisrael. Let each person have his or her degel. It need not be your degel, but make sure that they are part of the camp, that they, like you, can access the Mikdash, and can stand at the foot of Har Sinai.