Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Naso
The first time I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau it was snowing. The scholar I was traveling with instructed us, “When you get off this bus, let your imagination go wild. You will never be able to fathom the horrors that happened here.” As I got off the bus, snowflakes touched my face. I like a little bit of snow, but immediately chills went up my spine. The truth that each snowflake is unique filled my head. As I imagined the ashes billowing out of the crematorium chimney, each ash represented a unique person. The transfiguration of snowflake into ash chilled my bones and my soul.
We speak about those who perished in numbers. I believe it was Simon Wiesenthal who came up with the number 6 Million Jews and 11 million total annihilations. He intended to quantify the unquantifiable. NAZI Germany kept copious records of who they exterminated, except where they didn’t. There are no records of the names of those filling mass graves in the forests, those murdered in the streets of Europe, those who perished from illness or starvation because of the abuse they suffered in the ghettos, perhaps saving themselves from the even worse nightmare of deportation to a death camp (where someone would have tattooed and counted them). There is no mention of all those who died in Russia or on the battlefield.
Deniers claim Wiesenthal exaggerated the numbers of Jews and non-Jews. Students, however, know that the Shoah (Holocaust) claimed millions of more lives and impacted millions more still. Survivors and perpetrators are still victims of the machine of hate, and human failure that all but consumed Europe. For all of the nightmare, though, we do not speak of the people who perished; we talk about the numbers.
Whatever one’s politics, my current nightmare is that this same personal dismissiveness has re-infected our current conversations about people in our midst. We speak about groups of people as if each person amongst the “group” is only the sum of the stereotype that others impose on the group entire. At an international conference rooted in the themes of Jewish-Muslim relations and also the rise in anti-Semitism, speakers blamed Islamists for the surge in European anti-Semitism. When I pointed out that they were offending every Muslim with this language, people didn’t get it. I replied that Jews are Jewish, and Muslims are Islamists. Most Jews and Muslims unqualifiedly reject the terroristic behaviors of radical people bearing and blaspheming our religious labels. One cannot simply lump people into a convenient lot or group, especially when half the conference is supposed to be dedicated to undoing the very stereotype the speakers were perpetuating – in front of invited Imams.
In our communities, we speak about Republicans and Democrats as lemmings in lockstep with each other. We categorize racial minorities, immigrants, age differentials, genders, sexual orientations (and most often in the most negative of contexts), forgetting that the people who we dehumanize are our family members, our neighbors, our co-workers, and our friends. The number of Anti-gay/trans rights activists who immediately changed their minds upon learning their son or daughter was gay or transgender is mind-numbing. People seem not to matter until he/she becomes an individual face again.
The beginning of this week’s Torah portion calls on us to lift up (Naso) the tribe of Gershon. In an immediate context, the text speaks of us designating the tribe as the family of Priests. They are a subset of the Tribe of Levy and hold a unique place in the Biblical ritual status. They have their role at the altar, but then have no right to property ownership. Throughout the Biblical text, we read regular reminders of the differentiated tribes within the people and of the diverse people within each of the tribes. Everyone has his/her place in society, and even as we hold membership in the broader societal context.
Even as we acknowledge their status, the end of the portion requires each tribal leader to bring an offering to the altar. Each tribe brings identical offerings – there is no variation. We live in one encampment. Each of our obligations to society holds the same level of importance, and yet, each of us is unique. We wear many labels as we play out our respective commitments to society, but in our core, each of us is that individual snowflake. Each of us is unique. Losing one of us is a loss, a very personal loss, even as our absence impacts the whole community. We must never get so lost in the labeling that we lose sight of the person. Where we see people only as labels, humanity loses all sense of value. Naso: we must lift up each person beyond the labels he/she wears and certainly beyond the stereotypes we impose on those labels.