Reflections on B'midbar and Pride month
This week we begin reading from the book of B’midbar or Numbers. The word B’midbar means wilderness, but it is called Numbers in English because the book begins with an accounting of the tribes of Israel. This is not the first census-not by a long shot. Rashi, the great medieval commentator writes , "because they [the children of Israel]were dear to God, God counts them all the time - when they went out of Egypt, God counted them; when many of them fell for having worshipped the golden calf, God counted them to ascertain how many were left, when the Shechina was about to dwell among them, God again took their census, for on the first day of Nisan the Tabernacle was erected, and shortly afterward, on the first day of Iyar, God counted them."
Because of our dearness to God, we are offered a most magnificent gift. This Saturday evening begins the holiday of Shavout where we commemorate Matan Torah, the gift of the Torah. The five books serve as a roadmap and a code for living. By utilizing mitzvot as a north star, life should manifest in bountiful blessing, at least that is what Torah asserts.
Many times, however, the Torah serves a critique of our people’s missteps during their wanderings. And the punishment and pain are bountiful as well.
As I worked with a student recently discussing her parasha, she asked something interesting. I had been explaining that the Judaism we practiced was no longer the cultic ritual of the Torah, but instead Rabbinic Judaism which came out of the necessity to reform after the destruction of the Temple.
“Geez, Cantor Shelly, what did we do so bad?”
So what is the great sin which our ancestors perpetrated that caused a tidal wave of upheaval and pain and the destruction of not one but two Temples? The Talmudic commentators are clear. It isn’t the lack of study or observance. It isn’t a Golden calf or a desert mutiny. It is due to Sinat Chinam, baseless hatred (BT Yoma 9b:8). Such hatred is without provocation and sense. It is a distain for what we don’t understand or reject out of hand. It is fueled by the inability to see the other as little less than divine-as a product of God’s image. And it plays out in ways that is both overt and subtle.
Our LGBTQI+ brothers and sisters have borne the brunt of cruel judgement based on sinat chinam--and quite frankly sheer ignorance. In people’s ignorance, they claim incorrectly, that the bible forbids homosexuality. According to Dr. Jay Michaelson, who holds a Ph.D. in Jewish Thought from Hebrew University, “What the Bible does forbid is contained in one sentence, found in two different places in Leviticus.” He continues, “and at a man you shall not lie the lyings of woman (v’et zachar lo tishkav mishkevei ishah.)” Perhaps this admonition is directed at the fact that such acts don’t allow for procreation, which would be a challenge for an ancient people trying to survive. That is what the the medieval book Sefer haHinuch asserts, as it compares homosexual sex to marrying a barren woman. But perhaps it is a message of authenticity, that when one is lying with a man, one must embrace his truth despite the worry of disapproval. So much easier said than done, as so many use the bible as a weapon, misquoting its words to support painful and bigoted positions.
It is egregious to justify disdain for another using a sacred text one doesn't understand. If we use the Torah to bolster our flawed beliefs and attribute those beliefs to God—we don’t understand the nature of God at all. To suggest that God is not loving or somehow holds certain people in less regard because of how God made them is without common sense.
So if one is to believe that the Temple was destroyed out of failure to recognize the divine spark shared by all, is it not time to rebuild it metaphorically with a foundation of mutual respect and sanctity for the holiness inherent in us? Imagine what we could build if we built each other up!
Rav Kook, the chief rabbi of Jerusalem put it so beautifully: “If we were destroyed, and the world with us, due to baseless hatred, then we shall rebuild ourselves, and the world with us, with baseless love — ahavat chinam.” (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 324).
- Ken Yi’hi Ratzon.