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B’Midbar: Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

“E Pluribus Unum”


It is no big secret that the Jewish home is a divided one. The events of this week in Israel and Palestine have been, among other things, an additional blow to the lost unity of our people. We are at great odds. We are not just at odds politically or in our views on Israel, we also sharply criticize each other’s Judaism. Those in the liberal camp are accused of being accomplices to the growing number of intermarriages—raising the specter of Jewish disappearance—while those in the orthodox camp are decried as being anachronistically patriarchal and stuck in an irrelevant isolationist past—raising the same specter. The list of grievances goes on from all sides of the divide. Ultimately, everyone believes that their way of practicing Judaism is the right, relevant and authentic way.

Where might this divisiveness lead us? The Talmud offers us one particularly dark possibility: “Why… was the second Temple—wherein the society was involved in Torah, Commandments and acts of kindness—destroyed? Because gratuitous hatred was rampant in society.” [Yoma 9b] We have certainly not reached this level of contention between us.  The House of Jacob is not on the brink of collapse. We might be displeased or uncomfortable with the ways others choose to practice Judaism, but that is a far cry from hatred.  Perhaps in our generation we have the opportunity to offer an alternate ending to that of the Talmud’s; we can seed a different vision for the unfolding of the Jewish story, based on the profound teaching of this week’s Torah portion: B’midbar.

B’midbar Sinai, in the wilderness of Sinai, “the Eternal spoke to Moses… in the Tent of Meeting, saying: ‘Take a census of the whole Israelite community…’” [Num. 1:1-2] There, through the census, every tribe is accounted for, each one given a place in the composition of the community as it is about to march through the wilderness. The metaphor of the wilderness, itself, is most telling. Here is a space welcoming of all and belonging to no one. In many ways, the marching tribes of our ancestors could represent, in our days, both the multiple denominations of modern Judaism, and those of us non-denominational Jews; all wandering through the midbar together. If we are to heed what this week’s Torah portion may be telling us, not only do all of us, affiliated or not, need to be counted as part of the “Israelite community,” but all of us need the unique space we take in the arrangement of the tribes—in the breadth of Judaism—to be recognized and affirmed by all others, as we march through the midbar as one people.

Trouble begins when we believe that we own The Truth. No one does. Rather, each of our denominations expresses a whole but partial truth. By “whole” I mean that, deeply grounded in our convictions, steeped in our unique form of practices and worldview, we hold an absolutely valid and necessary form of Jewish expression, a whole truth. But our truth is also part of a greater whole, the whole we call Judaism. And therefore, it is a partial truth on the spectrum of truths which make up Judaism. This is why I believe all the denominations are needed.

In our Torah portion, the Hebrew words usually translated as “take a census,” literally mean: “lift the head.” By accounting for the entire range of denominations, by counting us all as integral whole-parts of the modern Israelite community, we restore the sense of belonging of all Jews, and allow all to hold their heads up high. As we wander through the wilderness, each other’s presence enhances the remarkable experience of being Jewish. May we be able to find within our hearts the gratuitous love which will unite our people in the essential acceptance of our differences, here in America, and most critically in our time, in the land of Israel.