Saturday, May 30, 2015

#TinyTorahBits expanded: Parshat Nasso

Parshat Nasso - We might all bring similar gifts, it's what we do with them that makes them unique


This week’s Torah portion is Nasso, the second chapter in the book of Numbers.  There is one particular part of this portion that I love.  It discusses how the leaders of each of the 12 tribes were to bring a dedication offering to God for the inauguration of the mishkan.  The gifts are all identical, each leader of each tribe brings the exact same thing as an offering. But ... each offering is brought on a different day (12 days in a row) and is described individually each time although they are the exact same (Numbers Chapter 7:12-84).

Yes, this is rather tedious to read, but to me, it provides a wonderful message for us today. Each individual offering that we give out to the universe – be it material, spiritual, emotional – is special and unique, even if it is the exact same thing that the others have done before us and will do after us.  The key is that we are all created in God’s image and it is the job of all of us to better the world. Sometimes that takes an action or gift that is one-of-a-kind, but oftentimes it takes many of us doing the exact same things – but each in our own ways. We all matter, we all count, and all of us make a difference.

Kol Tuv,
Rabbah Arlene

NOTE: You can find #TinyTorahBits on Twitter - @arlimb

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Maybe a friend, maybe a stranger, or maybe both?

TORAH PARSHIOT ACHAREI MOT (Leviticus 16:1-18:30)  AND EMOR  (Leviticus 21:1-24:23)

Maybe a friend, maybe a stranger, maybe both?

         We are in the middle of a section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code (Lev. 17-26), so-called because the word holy in its many forms is repeated with great frequency.  These chapters delineate in often excruciating detail codes of behavior, for the Israelite, for the priests, and for the community as a whole. The behavior encompasses not only how we physically act but also our speech and thought patterns.
         There are two verses, however, that I would like to highlight. The first is from last week’s parsha Leviticus 19:18b. V’ahavta et re’acha kamocha, ani Adonai.   ...but you shall love your neighbor as yourself; I am Adonai.
         The second is from this week’s parsha, Emor Lev 24:22: Mishpat echad yihiyeh lachem, ka-ger ka-ezrach yihiyeh. Ki, Ani Adonai Elohehem
You shall have one law for the stranger or native alike. I am the Lord your G-d.
         Together they provide a framework to guide our days, our behaviors and even our thoughts. Who is this “re’acha” mentioned in Lev 19:18? According to the Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, Re’ah (the root resh-ayin) is defined as friend, companion, or fellow. The friend can be either an intimate friend or another person with whom one stands in reciprocal relations. Many meanings for a simple two-letter word! But it is exactly these contradictory meanings that give our verse so much depth. Loving  your re’ah as yourself is a very easy directive to understand if we hold that re’ah means someone who is close to us. But what if we interpret re’ah differently? Are we to love someone who, in the grand scheme of things, really doesn’t mean anything to us in a deep emotional way?
         That’s where the verse in Emor comes in. There is only one law for the stranger and native alike, there is no differentiation. The principle of fair and equal treatment of the stranger (ger) is mentioned over 36 times in the Torah, more than keeping Shabbat! Today’s news as well as ancient history provide ample examples of the chaos and disorder that occurs when one group of people is discriminated against in any given society.
         So who is our re’ah and who is our ger? If we are to love our re’ah as ourselves and, at the same time, treat the stranger and citizen alike – how do we define our terms?, How do we know who is our friend and who is to be considered a stranger?     Some define stranger as the other, but for many, the word stranger means someone who looks or acts differently than ourselves.
         The beautiful thing about our ability to interpret Torah anew in each and every generation is that the Torah stays alive with any individual who reads it. We refresh and renew the Torah each time we grapple with its words and apply them to our daily lives.
         Today, I choose to interpret the word Re’ah as both intimate and casual friend, as both a fellow-citizen with whom one has a cordial relationship and as the stranger who lives among us.  Why? The answer is in the end to both verses – Ani Adonai, I am Adonai. I am your God. 
         Then our first verse, and the verse from Emor admonishing us to have one law for stranger and native alike, both end by reminding us that we are doing this because Adonai is our God. To me this reminds us that we are all   friend, native, stranger – created in God’s image and therefore all are alike. It doesn’t matter what color we are, where we are from or if we speak with an accent. We are all created equally and viewed equally by God. Therefore, how we treat each other matters. How we judge each other matters. How we conduct the business of living in community matters a great deal. We are all God’s children and must act accordingly.

Torah Talk: 
1. The full verse in Lev. 19 reads: “Do not judge and do not hold onto a grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love [your] “re’acha” as yourself.” How do you interpret the first part of this verse in relation to the second?
2. Can you think of examples in your daily life to which this verse as well as the one from Emor “You shall have one law for the stranger or native alike. I am the Lord your G-d,” apply to your daily life?

A similar version of this post was originally published in The Washington Jewish Week, May 7, 2015.