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07/17/2020 11:45:12 AM


Rabbi Barry Gelman

Our Dual Burden

07/17/2020 10:02:53 AM

Rabbi Barry Gelman

This week, I had an interesting conversation with some colleagues on a question that seems to be on the minds of many people. I have been asked the same question by congregants. 

Basically, the question goes like this. How can Jews support efforts to bring justice to communities of color even as some members of that community have expressed anti-semetic and anti-Israel views? This question took on greater urgency this week as we heard about celebrities and athletes making anti-semetic comments and others supporting them. 

This is a very important question and I will get back to it.

First a question on Parshat Masei.

The beginning of Parshat Massei lists the encampments of Bnei Yisrael while they were travelling from Egypt to the Land of Israel.  Many commentators on the Torah ask why this list is necessary. Are there any lasting messages or lessons to be gleaned from the travel itinerary?

Rashi quotes Rabbi Moshe HaDarshan who says that the list reminds us of God’s mercy as based on the details of the list, that for 38 years of the trek, Bnei Yisrael only moved twelve times. The point being that the decree to wander in the wilderness for forty years did not amount to continuous movements (the average stay in each place was two years).

Rambam (Guide For The Perplexed 3:50)  offers a different approach, once focused on how the Torah will be understood years after the events record actually took place.  In explaining parts of the Torah that seemingly have no purpose, he writes: 

“Of this kind is the enumeration of the stations [of the Israelites in the wilderness] (Num. xxxiii.). At first sight it appears to be entirely useless; but in order to obviate such a notion Scripture says, "And Moses wrote their goings out according to their journeys by the commandment of the Lord" (ibid. ver. 2). It was indeed most necessary that these should be written. For miracles are only convincing to those who witnessed them; whilst coming generations, who know them only from the account given by others, may consider them as untrue... In order to remove all these doubts and to firmly establish the accuracy of the account of these miracles, Scripture enumerates all the stations, so that coming generations may see them, and learn the greatness of the miracle which enabled human beings to live in those places forty years.”

The specific details of the list, according to Rambam, make it easier to claim that the Torah is an accurate account of the events that transpired.  The list will also serve to inspire folks to greater faith. 

Another approach that has intrigued me, and that helps address the question we began with, is that of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (among others). He writes: “A whole list of events and experiences could have been connected with these journeys and resting places in the wilderness the remembrance of which would have value for families and relations and descendants of those to whom they occurred…”

Rabbi Hirsch is making a very important point and that is that  each stop along the way from Egypt to the Land of Israel left an impression on Bnei Yisrael. The Torah lists each stop to teach us that they were all significant. Bnei Yisrael did not simply leave Egypt and arrive in the Land of Israel. The stops in between left a mark.

Rabbi Chaim Sabbato puts it this way.

עם ישראל עבר במדבר אירועים רבים, וכל אירוע כזה תרם לאמונה, להבנת ההשגחה, להבנת החטא ועוד דברים רבים. בין אם צברנו דברים חיוביים או שליליים, הם משאירים חותם. רבותינו אומרים שבכל דור ודור יש משהו מחטא העגל - האירוע לא נמחק, משהו ממנו תמיד נשאר 


“The people of Israel went through many events in the wilderness, and every event contributed to their understanding of providence, their understanding of sin and many other things. Whether we have accumulated positive or negative things, they leave a mark. Our Rabbis say that in every generation there is something of the sin of the calf - the event is not erased, something of it always remains.”

Beyond the message that each location imparted to Bnei Yisrael, the point of each stop continues to live on long after they happened.

Rabbi Sabtto goes on to say that just as there is an element of the sin of the Golden calf in every generation, there is also an aspect of Matan Torah - receiving the Torah is every generation. 

רגליו של כל אדם עמדו למרגלות הר סיני. זה נכון גם במובן החינוכי - שהו א אירוע שלא נעלם. מעמד הר סיני הוא הווה מתמשך במשך אלפי שנים.

“Every person stood at the foot of Mount Sinai. This is also true in the educational sense -  that it is an event that has not disappeared. Mount Sinai has been continuously present for thousands of years. 

In addressing the question of anti-semitims within the ranks of communities that many feel moved to work with, I have tried to consider the many many stops along the road of Jewish history that the Jewish people have made. And like the teachings of Rabbi Hirsch and Rabbi Sabatto, I wish to view those stops along the way as relevant to my life. 

So, here is what I have been thinking about. 

One is that we must remain vigilant. One of the encampments listed in the itinerary is Refidim. That is where Amalek attacked Bnei Yisrael. That attack results in the requirement to remember what Amalek did.  Without over stating it, there is still antisemitism (some of it born of ignorance) out there and we must call it out - always.  

This leads me to the first major point of why it is important to engage the cause of racial justice even if some of the people involved have anti-semetic views. If we are not in the “room” to call it out and to educate, then antisemitism will fester. We need to combat ignorance and bias from within. 

Of course, the first station listed in the itinerary is Egypt (Ramses).  It is the Egypt experience that has left the most lasting and profound mark on Bnei Yisrael, perhaps most notably, using the memory of our suffering as a stimulant of sympathy. More specifically, we are charged to love the stranger specifically because we know what it feels like to be disempowered and to be the targets of racism.

כְּאֶזְרָח מִכֶּם יִהְיֶה לָכֶם הַגֵּר הַגָּר אִתְּכֶם וְאָהַבְתָּ לוֹ כָּמוֹךָ כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם אֲנִי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם.

The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the LORD am your God. (Lev. 19:34)

וַאֲהַבְתֶּם אֶת הַגֵּר כִּי גֵרִים הֱיִיתֶם בְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם 

You too must love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Deut. 10:19)

Our national suffering is never meant to be an excuse for callousness and cruelty. On the contrary, it is meant to be a catalyst for kindness. 

I have suggested the following image that may be helpful.  If there is a burning building and people are trapped inside, even though some of the rescuers are anti-semetic, I am still going to join them to save the victims. 

This is our dual burden. We must be able to remember what Amalek did (and to fairly evaluate the nature and danger of specific anti-semetic acts) and, at the same time, practice kindness and sympathy for those in need - for those who feel that they are the stranger, that they are disempowered.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook interpreted this verse in Isaiah (60:8) in a way that offers inspiration in this regard. 

מִי־אֵ֖לֶּה כָּעָ֣ב תְּעוּפֶ֑ינָה וְכַיּוֹנִ֖ים אֶל־אֲרֻבֹּתֵיהֶֽם׃

Who are these that float like a cloud, Like doves to their cotes?

Rabbi Kook explained this verse is talking about two different types of people -  cloud-like people and dov-like people. Cloud-like people are driven by the wind - they are not in control. Dov-like people, on the other hand, fly where they wish to fly. 

Our challenge is not to allow ourselves to be carried away by the hatred of others.  Rather, we must use the wings of our tradition to elevate us to a higher calling.

The question we must ask ourselves is what impression has the itinerary of our people left on us. For many, the overwhelming message is one of distrust and fear. During this period of the three weeks, we focus on the most negative events in Jewish history. Even so, we can use this time of focusing on the tragic aspects of our history to ask ourselves what we can do to make sure that what was visited upon us is never done to others.  Also, it is important to remember that our requirement to recall our suffering is confined to this specific time ( as well as Pesach and another time right before Purim).  For the rest of the year, we are beckoned to bring kindness and compassion to the world - to not dwell on hate, but rather, to love the stranger - because we, perhaps more than others, know the horrors of helplessness.

May this be a shabbat (and a week) of kindness, love and care.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tue, May 18 2021 7 Sivan 5781