Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–Bamidbar

You know the phrase from Einstein, “Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous.” Well, “coincidently,” this weekend American Jews have consecutive days of holidays which seemingly have nothing to do with each other, but have everything to do with each other. We commemorate Memorial Day, honoring all American Veterans who passed away having risked/given their lives for our nation. As soon as one holiday ends, we embark on the next. Shavuot (Christianity knows this as the “Pentecost”) begins Tuesday evening. Shavuot is both the early summer harvest festival and the day that we acknowledge receiving Torah at Sinai. In honor of this holiday, we celebrate the Religious School graduation (Confirmation) of our teenagers. Every year, during the Shabbat before Shavuot, we begin a new Book in Torah: the book of Bamidbar (Numbers). In English, it is called Numbers because it revolves around counting people.

The confluence of these two holidays is a double edged sword. Unpacking all of the symbolism wrapped up in my head is best done in bullet points:

1. The Torah portion calls on Moses to take a census, counting every male of military age. The resultant number will exclude boys too young, men too old, and all women. The goal is not to draw a distinction between those who matter and those who do not. The ultimate goal of this census is to make sure we know the extent of our military strength and reserves, as we travel the wilderness towards freedom (the “Promised Land”).

2. We celebrate the receipt of Torah (while part of the Exodus story) every year as we finish the initial count of our soldiers.

3. This year, we celebrate receiving Torah immediately after counting our soldiers, immediately after remembering all who died defending our country.

4. We complete this cycle, and then send our young adults out into the world, armed with Torah and tradition.

I don’t know. Especially, in today’s climate, this is all too real and screams to be examined. So, I know what fundamentalism does with these coincidences. If one follows the bouncing ball from point 1 through point 4 wearing blinders blocking anything from sight to the right or the left, it is hardly possible to see anything other than a call to arms and an aggrandizement of war. The purpose of scripture, these folks would argue, is to prepare one for battle. I see this nightmare play out in the fundamentalisms of every religious, philosophic, and economic group in the world.

On the other hand, Torah was never intended to be a static document. It is the “Tree of Life,” not the tree of conquest, domination, oppression, or death. As if anticipating the abuse of text, the text itself reminds us that if we ever approach a city with the intent of waging war, we must first work hard to facilitate peace (Deuteronomy 20:10).

Another way (and I believe our tradition’s intended way) of seeing this order is on a much higher ethical plain. True, the soldiers we create are soldiers of Torah, taking its message of peace and decency to the world. The weapon with which we arm them is the Torah, the source of enlightenment, love, and ultimately peace. We honor the deceased soldiers, we do not celebrate their death and certainly not their need to have served us in battle. While it is true that Memorial Day is a day of huge sales in the market, it is a day of great mourning that we have to continue adding names to the list of those who died in service.

Even while we acknowledge the equality of women in the “troops” today, Torah sends us a most urgent message. Mothers give birth to children; they do not seek to bury them. Perhaps this year, these days are more sacred than any other, and our message to these young adults must be made clear. One cannot claim that the intention of religion is to destroy life. In our new and enlightened world, our job during these days is to teach a very different lesson than the ones playing out on the international, national, and local stages. Our job is to use our faith as a conduit for understanding each other, appreciating each other, and for lovingly protecting each other … all of the each others. Shabbat Shalom.