This week we have yet another opportunity to start anew. We Jews know how important it is to set, evaluate, and reset our intentions- and so have created numerous opportunities to do so. We don’t need to wait for Rosh HaShanah to roll around, we only need to wait for a new month or a new book of Torah. As we begin the book of Numbers (Bamidbar) this Shabbat we take another account of who we are.
Our portion this week is an “oldie but goodie,” a favorite by many commentators and interpreters in part because it details the practice of census taking. As the ancient Israelites were counted, we learn of how each individual was valued and equal in the value. From the lowest to the highest on the social ladder each paid their half shekel, no more and no less, as a tax and as a contribution to the numerical statistics of the community.
At least, that’s what we interpret this portion to mean.
A plain reading of the text doesn’t actually say that everyone was counted. It says that every male of military age was counted and were segregated from one another by tribe. The Torah reinforces the establishment of a tribal, patriarchal, militaristic society. Not exactly the torah that we want to adopt today, is it?
It is not unusual in our Saturday morning Torah study to come across sections of the Torah like this. Sections that just don’t connect to our modern lifestyles and sensibilities. Sections like Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of Isaac, God’s inclination towards deadly vengeance after the Golden Calf incident, or the Israelites’ bloody military campaigns against neighboring communities. There is so much in our Torah to struggle with, but we read it anyway. It makes the practice of Torah study quite difficult.
It would be easy for us to skip over the parts of Torah that make us uncomfortable, but in my opinion that wouldn’t be doing justice to the Torah and its wisdom. Which leads me to the question, if we struggle with the Torah and read it anyway, why would we do any less with our current Jewish community? Why would we take the parts of difficult, but no less real, Jewish life and shove it away, ignore its existence, and deny it legitimacy?
Many of you read Rabbi Cohen’s message last week detailing some of the controversy happening in our Reform Jewish institutions right now. Allegations not just of sexual misconduct but attempts to hide the investigations from the public eye (if there were any investigations in the first place). Unsurprisingly, this is a common topic of conversation among my friends and colleagues, often in some way including the questions “are you surprised?” Usually, my answer is some form of “No. I am incredibly disappointed, but I am not surprised.”
I don’t say this to share my own experiences of discomfort in the “old boys club” of our various institutions, where my stories would echo countless others. I say this because we seem to have an expectation of Jewish perfection, that the troubles of the world are “theirs” and not “ours.” Even in this week’s Torah portion, we see the sexism and ablism that our community is built upon. We’ve come a long way from Bamidbar, but obviously not far enough.
I love our community, and I love being Jewish. And it would be naive of me to pretend that the problems of the world only exist outside of our community. Jews, Jewish institutions, and the Jewish people are not perfect – and yet we’ve become pretty good at pretending they are. Even in our acts of Tikkun Olam, we have been incredibly focused at healing the outside world of racism, nationalism, sexism, and so many other -isms, that perhaps we have overlooked that Justice needs to be pursued at home as well.
Just look at the Torah, the textual foundation of our community. It is uncomfortable discussing death, sex, multicultural communities, and human subjugation. It condones animal sacrifice, tribalism, sexism, capital punishment, classism, and more. Those things are a part of who we are, and through selective reading or creative interpretation, we’ve done a lot to avoid the friction that they cause. Our intentional ignorance, however, is starting to come back and bite us in the tush.
We cannot be selective about Torah or about the real, lived, Jewish experience. Too many people in our communities have had their voices silenced, perspectives warped, and narratives erased. We must, absolutely, welcome, celebrate, and publicize each and every Jewish experience, especially if it might be difficult for another to hear. For if we don’t, we invalidate our Jewish identity as a whole.
We often describe the Torah as an account of the Israelites journey through the wilderness, implying that when the Torah ends so too does the journey. Yet, again, a plain reading of the text leaves the Israelite on the other side of the Jordan river, never having achieved the Promise given to our ancestors when we reach the end of the scroll.
For the Israelites, and for us, the journey towards potential is never over. They and we have not yet reached our promise or our potential. It is always there, just over the horizon, but we still have many challenges to face before reaching it.
Our tradition speaks of that process as “making aliyah,” of slowly and painstakingly rising up to our potential with our eyes eternally set on Jerusalem as the end of that journey. But this aliyah and Jerusalem are not the ones we think of today with the modern State of Israel. There is a metaphor made between Yerushalim shel ma’alah (Jerusalem of above) and Yerushalim shel matah (Jerusalem of below), the Potential Jerusalem and Reality Jerusalem. Israelites then and us today are eternally on the path to Jerusalem – the Potential Jerusalem, the one where only our better angels act. Our desire for Yerushalim shel ma’alah is so strong that we might pretend that we have achieved it. But they and we still live in the Reality Jerusalem. Yerushalim shel matah doesn’t disappear if we deny it, the imperfections at its core only become more ingrained.
Progress along the journey happens when we accept the challenges before us, and even seek them out. Just as much a we embrace our imperfect Torah, we must embrace the imperfections in our community.