Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – B’midbar

Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook cautioned regarding the moral and spiritual dangers inherent in political life:

“We must not allow the tendency toward factionalism, which threatens most strongly at the inception of a political movement, to deter us from seeking justice and truth, from loving all of humanity, both the collective and the individual, from love for the Jewish people, and from the holy obligations that are unique to Israel. We are commanded not only to be holy individuals, but also, and especially, to be ‘a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’”

Of course, he was speaking to a Jewish audience, but this teaching resonates and transcends long past the parameters of one tradition to the broader human culture. We were born to disagree. The standard joke about Jewish conversations is that if you speak to five Jews, you get twelve opinions. Blessed to experience time with a variety of cultures, I learned that this phenomenon is not unique to Jews. It is kind of like food at religious events. We may have been first, but I can’t imagine any religious event (except fasting holidays) where people get sent away hungry. There is no one way to see tradition, ritual, or even God. We do not agree over a lot of things. Still, though, we find ourselves in each other’s company, camaraderie, worship, celebration, and commiseration.

Torah holds a great deal of power in ways that its framers may not have even intended. Perhaps part of its magic is that it evolves in every generation even past the limited horizons of the editors. This week’s portion concentrates on the census. We find ourselves in the wilderness, and Moses wants to make sure who he can count on for the battles the people will face along their journeys. The census does not include males too old or young to fight or women. In theory, though, the text intends to be inclusive.

In no piece of the census do we find a separation or designation on who matters more than others (except for the above-referenced military available age). The census of who we count upon does not distinguish between the rich or the poor, the priest or the layperson; nor does it offer any assessments on a person’s worth based on whether he is gay or straight; his race; scholarship; behavioral attitude; criminal record; or tribal status. Each counts equally as a human being. I do not know whether or not the sages expected this conversation, but it screams off the pages to me today.

Each human spark is unique and valuable, as each of us forms in the image of the same source of creation. Each of us has divinity racing through our veins. So, when God calls for a census, it is no different than when we get up each morning and take stock of our body’s ability to face the day. We are the cells, arms, legs, heart, and lungs that make up the divine. Each of us performs this checklist every day, so it becomes unfathomable how we can demean and dismiss another person who shares equally in being part of the organism of God. Each of us represents a mutually dependent cell/organ of the divine. We can better divorce ourselves from each other’s dignity than we could be okay chopping off a limb from our body. If one wants to ask why evil exists in the world, one need only look at the way people treat each other. If we changed our behaviors, we would change the world.

The first step in this world change has to come from within each of us. Each of us holds prejudices and irrational feelings towards others. These feelings root in our insecurity. Fear happens because we feel unable to face someone or something different. The number of people who hate Muslims and yet, know nothing about Islam is tragic. The hypocrisy of hate that allows one to say whatever he/she wants, but then chastise another for saying the very same thing destroys the community.

“Ani v’atah neshaneh et ha-olam. You and I, we can change the world.” If we don’t, who will? It takes listening and breathing. It takes trying. It takes trying to get together even (and maybe especially) with people who think differently. It is about holding people accountable civilly and celebrating each other where we can. We choose, but if the Torah speaks to us – there is no other viable or ethical choice than “Human First.” Shabbat Shalom.