Everyone Counts

We have now reached the series of Torah portions that is a mathematician’s dream. After all, this section of the Torah is called Numbers! In Parshat B’midbar, a census is taken of the Israelite men of military age who would later conquer the Land of Canaan. The total count of these men numbers 603,550. However, each tribe was listed individually. Why did the Torah choose to enumerate the exact number of men in each tribe when it could have just as easily given the total?

One interpretation is that listing by tribe indicates the military prowess present in each tribe, demonstrating how many men it could contribute to battle. Another is that it demonstrates the specificity with which the census was done. Just listing a total number of Israelites, especially one of over 600,000 males could imply that people were missed, as opposed to showing how many were in each tribe. The interpretation that I prefer is that the listing of the tribes indicates that each one contributed to the development of the Israelite nation. What was important was not the total sum but rather the contributions of each of the individuals who comprised that total. While B’midbar only speaks about men, every man represented so many other people: the elders who could not fight and the wives and children who supported him. The tribe with the most men, Judah, did not count for any more than the tribe with the fewest men, Manasseh. Rather, each tribe was viewed as necessary and was valued for its contributions to the conquest and settlement of Canaan.

There is a valuable lesson here: just as each tribe was individually valued, so too is each individual valued for what he or she contributes to our community. Rather than just looking at the final outcome, we can take a step back and pride ourselves on the work that it took to reach that point. This is a precious lesson for us to recognize now when we are on the cusp of Shavuot, the holiday on which we renew our receipt of the Torah each and every year. Each evening for seven entire weeks we have been counting up to this moment, reliving our ancestors’ journey out of Egyptian slavery and to Mount Sinai. Now we are finally reaching the moment where the counting is complete.

At the Jericho Jewish Center we recognize that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, that we are worth far more as a congregation than the number of members we have. Everyone here is valued as an individual, rather than as a number, and each of us has a role to play in the strengthening of our congregation. We each should receive recognition for who we are and for all that we do in making our congregation the warm, welcoming place that it is. This year I have seen so much resiliency and strength in leading services, planning programs and welcoming members. Let me especially thank Martha and Diane, our outgoing Presidents, the entire Executive Board and Board of Trustees, everyone who attends minyan and Shabbat services and all our program and committee chairs for all you do for our congregation. You are leading by example and showing that we are a congregation where everyone counts and at which everyone is valued.

Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom and a Hag Matan Torateinu Sameach.

Showing Respect for G-d’s Name

Under which circumstances do you most often hear G-d’s name mentioned? What emotions go along with the person saying G-d’s name?  What do you think of when you hear G-d’s name mentioned in that setting?

Most think of sanctifications of G-d’s name (קדוש ה). At the end of today’s Torah portion, however, there is a negative usage of G-d’s name (חלול ה).  A story is told of a fight between a man who was half-Israelite, half-Egyptian with a man who was fully Israelite.  The man who was half-Israelite cursed his fellow with G-d’s name, and G-d told Moses to have the Israelites take him outside their camp and stone him.  This became the source for killing someone who blasphemes, violating the 3rd commandment by taking G-d’s name in vain.

This story is peculiar to me for several reasons.  Why is the man not given a name?  We are told his mother’s name is Shelomit, that she is daughter of Dibri and that they are of the tribe of Dan, but we are not told this man’s name.  As the Bible is a book that loves genealogy, often telling us people’s names in list form without elaborating on them, it is unusual that we have an example of an unnamed individual.  Also, why does it make a difference that this man is half-Israelite, half-Egyptian?  One could argue that he was of lesser status, since his mother was an Israelite and father was an Egyptian, and in biblical times patrilineal descent was the standard of one’s ethnicity, yet I still see it as strange for the text to mention this man’s parentage twice without giving him a name.[1]

The commentators have a field day posing answers to these questions.  Rashi states that the man’s Egyptian father was the Egyptian who Moses killed because he was oppressing an Israelite.  He says that he converted to Judaism, as the text says that he was “within the children of Israel.”  He also asserts that the man’s mother, Shelomit, was a harlot, which alludes to earlier in the Torah portion, where it says “You shall not marry a woman defiled by harlotry.”  Furthermore, he states that Shelomit was a chatterer, seen by her being the daughter of Dibri, as the word Daber means to speak.  Shelomit’s excess chatter led to her ruin, as we see through her son’s behavior and eventual stoning.  This follows a common pattern of Rashi using Midrash to both recycle biblical characters (the father of this man is the Egyptian that Moses killed) and to make sinners into people with bad lineage.

Ibn Ezra, instead of focusing on this man’s genealogy, centers on the word for curse, yikov.  This is not the common word for curse in the Bible, and Ibn Ezra, who was a grammarian, points out that this word can also mean “to pronounce,” which he believes is its correct use here.  This would mean that the man’s sin is not to curse in G-d’s name but saying G-d’s name, specifically the Tetragrammaton.[2]

Ibn Ezra’s interpretation of the word yikov as “pronounce” rather than “curse” is probably more accurate, as that is how it is used more times in the Torah.  Nevertheless, the implications of this are frightening: simply saying G-d’s name could be grounds for death.  It is also problematic, albeit less so, to say that one is liable for death if he/she curses in the name of G-d, as in a fit of anger it is easy to say “G-d d— it” even though one generally does not mean that G-d should curse.  The rabbis of the Talmud were also bothered by this, and in the 7th chapter of Sanhedrin they sought to limit the applicability of one being killed for cursing in G-d’s name.  They said that one needs to be witnessed by two witnesses and that he/she has to say a specific formula: “May G-d smite G-d.”  Such a formula is not likely to be said (as it is much more likely to say “May G-d smite you”) and may have been used to combat Gnostics, who believed in multiple parts of G-d that could be in opposition to one another.  Talmudic rabbis often limit cases, like this one of blaspheming, in order to minimize situations where one would need to be punished.

As we read Parshat Emor, let us think about the situations in which we say G-d’s name, or a variation of it, like “gosh.”  Do we generally say G-d’s name when we are happy, “Thank you G-d!” when we are surprised, “Oh my G-d” or when we are angry “G-d d— it!”  How can we ensure that we use G-d’s name in positive contexts rather than for a negative outburst or a curse?  G-d represents what is special and sacred about the world, and I therefore want to be sure to use G-d’s name to highlight the awe and reverence that I have.  At the same time, it is important to acknowledge that we are human and will likely use G-d’s name in an outburst of anger.  Doing so is not the same as the man who cursed in the Bible, as he specifically used G-d’s sacred name, the Tetragrammaton, which we no longer know how to pronounce.  It is also paramount to recognize that at times we might not see G-d in a positive light, or we might question G-d’s existence, both of which are different from using G-d’s name for a negative or destructive purpose.  May these days leading up to Shavuot be times of thinking about how we view G-d’s name in whatever form we conceptualize G-d: Adonai (lord), Elohim (judge), Shadai (almighty), Shechinah (the feminine presence of G-d which dwells amongst us) or simply as G-d, and may our contemplation of G-d bring us closer to the divine.

[1] After this man blasphemes he is brought before Moses, but Moses waits for G-d to give him the man’s verdict.  There are only a few times in the Bible where Moses does not directly tell the Israelites what to do, others being when the daughters of Zelopehad come before him to ask for land and when the man who violates Shabbat by carrying sticks is caught.

[2] Jews had such a great fear of the wrong person pronouncing the Tetragrammaton and angering G-d that it became only pronounced by the High Priest at the Temple.  After the Temple’s destruction, that name became forgotten and was replaced by Adonai, meaning “the LORD.”  Over time Adonai, the term substituted for the Tetragrammaton, became a sacred name in and of itself, which is why some Jews today will not refer to G-d as Adonai but as Hashem, “the name.”


The Disease of Tzaraat Contrasted to Loving Your Neighbor as Yourself

Many of the laws about tzaraat, or “scale disease,” deal with the isolation of an individual who has contracted it. Why would such a person need to be separated from the community? Was there something contagious about the disease? It appears from the text that the contagion was not physical but rather spiritual.

In looking at the Torah portion, we see that one who has contracted tzaraat (כל אשר הנגע בו) becomes impure (טמא יטמא) and must isolate himself from the entire Israelite community (בדד ישב מחוץ למחנה מושבו). [1] The rabbis teach that מצורע is a shorthand for מוציא שם רע, evil speech. The individual thus needs to be isolated because the gossip which he spread is contagious. However, why isolate him not only from the Israelite community but also from anyone else who is impure? Rashi points out that evil speech begins on a one-on-one level, בין איש לאשתו, בין איש לרעהו.[2] Therefore the offender must be isolated so that s/he does not continue to perpetuate the sin of evil speech.

Professor Nehama Leibowitz takes note of this in her book Studies in VaYikra where she comments that “the plague teaches us that society should take notice of the first sign of misconduct, however small. Just the same as a disease begins with hardly noticeable symptoms and can be stopped if detected in time, so a moral disease in society can be prevented from spreading if immediate steps are taken. Otherwise it will spread throughout the community.”[3] One piece of gossip can tear a community apart, whereas one act of kindness can build bridges unforeseen before.

Let us relate this to next week’s maxim, “ואהבת לרעך כמוך,” which translates to “And you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”[4] Rabbi Akiva asserted זה כלל גדול בתורה, this is the great maxim in the Torah. What makes this so great, and how is it even feasible to do this? Rabbi Shalom Noach Borozovsky wrote in his book Netivot Shalom, כך אמר להם הקב”ה לישראל, בני אהובי, כלום חסרתי דבר שאבקש מכם, ומה אני אבקש מכם, אלא שתהיו אובהין זה את זה ותהיו מכבדין זה את זה, “G-d said to Israel, ‘the only thing I request from you is that you love one another and honor each other.”[5]  Loving your neighbor builds community-gossiping about him/her tears it apart.

Our task is further reflected in Ramban (Nahmanides)’s statement on this verse. He asserts that the Torah commands us to love our fellow in all matters by wanting only good things to happen to him/her, like we want only good things to happen for ourselves.   We should strive to want the best for those around us.[6] Often gossip emanates from jealousy or personal insecurity, whereas confidence and security in oneself can lead to wanting only good for others as well.

When we have the temptation to gossip or to deman others, let us instead turn away from this temptation, as once we engage it is all the more difficult to turn back. Similarly, when we hear the words ואהבת כמוך לרעך in next week’s Torah reading, let us reflect on what we can do to advocate for those around us and to show them genuine affection. Let us also strive to be happy for what they have, even when they have something that we wish we had.  By embracing those in our community and in our congregation with warmth and love and genuinely being happy for them with all of their successes, we will affirm our קהילה קדושה, our holy community, and we will steer clear of gossip and resentment and truly fulfill the commandment to love our neighbors as ourselves.

[1] Leviticus 13:46

[2] Rashi on Leviticus 13:44 ד”ה בדד ישב

[3] Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in VaYikra p. 137-18.

[4] Leviticus 19:18

[5] Netivot Shalom, Tazria, page 61.

[6] Ramban on Leviticus 19:18