Wednesday, May 28, 2014
Moving From Counting Others to Making Others Count©
By Rabbi David Baum
I had an opportunity to sit with a colleague who I had not yet had the pleasure of getting to know last week at the Rabbinical Assembly convention. We had to do a delicate dance as the conversation pivoted to our work lives. Let me begin by stating a pet peeve I have with rabbis. What do you think the first question two pulpit rabbis ask each other after, what’s your name? How BIG is your congregation, or how many members is usually the first question. And yet, I have realized that it’s a necessary question. So I tried to ask a ton of other questions relating to programming, to other issues, but trying to avoid numbers became an impossible task. Finally, I relented, and was brutally honest, “Richard, I have to ask this question, but I hate having to do it: how many family units are in your congregation?” He said, “David, I know, I wish there was a better metric to get to know a group of people than numbers.”
We all know that censuses are vital for a society. It helps us figure out where we need to make certain investments; it helps governments figure out how much revenue they will bring in, and how much they will spend. They are vital, so why am I so hesitant to ‘count’ our people?
Because, even though we have so many censuses in the Torah, it’s still not something that we have looked so kindly upon.
There is even discussion as to whether counting someone for a minyan, by number, is a sin or not! The Talmud, in Pesachim 64b states, “God only sends His blessing to something hidden, not to something counted or weighed.” And of course, there are more reasons, but my reasons do not only come from our tradition, but from human nature.
What happens when we assign a number to someone? We dehumanize them. I learned this lesson when I was quite young as I looked at the numbers tattooed on my grandparents’ arms, both survivors of Auschwitz.
I suppose I should get used to counting, because we begin a new book today - BaMidbar, with a census – a counting of people, which is why this book can be summed up in one word – Numbers, or as the rabbis called it, Sefer HaP’kudim – The book of the Census.
Numbers 1:2 Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head.
The question that begs to be answered is, why? Why yet another census. We just had one, one month before this moment! (Exodus 30:11-16 and Exodus 28:25-26).
Rather than look at the counting here as a negative, the commentators look at it as a positive. Rashi’s answer: They were counted "Because they 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 (divine presence) 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."
Ramban mentions these two reasons and adds that, this census was different because when each person was counted, they actually had to say their names out loud, and Moses and Aaron would record them.
Rashi is telling us – each person is assigned a number, and even though we might use a census it to dehumanize one another, God uses the number as a way to make each one of us more special. Midrash Numbers Rabbah – compares God to a person who had collection of precious jewels – he counts them one by one in order to take pleasure of in their beauty and make sure they are safe.
Ramban adds to this – when each person was counted, they say their name – saying their name has an effect on them and their leaders as it highlights their individuality.
Here we see the power, worth, and dignity that each person is assigned.
The Mishnah (Sanhedrin 4:5) famously says that each if you destroy one soul, you lose an entire world, and if you save one soul, than you save the entire world, and the same mishnah goes on to say that Holy One, blessed be God, for one stamps out many coins with one mold, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.
Can you imagine if we lived our lives with this in mind?
This year, the Jewish world was captivated by the Pew Report, a survey of American Jewish life. Every conference I have attended has quoted the report as if was the Torah itself! At the Rabbinical Assembly convention, many of our leaders thought they had to defend our movement, because, according to the report, only 18% of Jews in the U.S. consider themselves Conservative Jews.
I know the report is needed, but there is a danger to it: We lose the humanity of the people we count. They become coins, rather than God’s unique and beautiful jewels.
On Monday, I went to two britot milah – one in person, one virtually, so I got to hear the messages twice. One important message that I picked up on was the Kisei Shel Eliyahu – Elijah’s chair. Elijah is the only prophet whose death is never recorded, in fact, God brings him to God’s realm and that is the last we see of him, so his return to earth is thought to be the beginning of the coming of the messiah. Why do we place a child on the kisei shel eliyahu?
Because each child has the potential of becoming the messiah.
Is there anything more fitting for a Jewish parent to begin their child’s lives? Not only do I expect you to be a doctor or a lawyer, but I expect you to be the messiah!
Each parent gave speeches telling the story of their child’s name, and the story of who they were named after. From that moment on, that child is no longer a number, like our ancestors in the wilderness during that census, they are called before God, Moses, and Aaron, and their name is said out loud.
And as you see this child, placed on this special chair, it gives everyone in the room a sense of hope – this child can change the world, and if this child, who is just 8 days old can change the world, why not me?
And when I saw these children, I thought about our own children, our teens, as they sat in a room with one of the most special people I’ve ever met, Scott Fried. One child asked him, why do you think you are still alive? He gave four reasons, but I’ll just focus on a couple. He said, this is difficult to say, but I felt I needed to live. It’s not that my friends who died didn’t, but it has helped me.
And finally, because I needed to speak to each one of you.
Scott ends each session by looking at the each person in the eyes – making this deep connection. With his eyes, he is telling you what he tells so many others – You Are Enough. You are special, you are unique, you can change the world, because I have changed the world. Scott’s life could have ended years ago, but 26 years after becoming HIV positive, he’s still here – educating, inspiring, and connecting.
Can you imagine if you looked at everyone like Scott looked at you? Can you imagine if you looked at everyone the way you look at the baby boy on the Elijah’s chair? Can you imagine if you looked at yourself in the mirror the way that God looks at you everyday? Can you imagine how different the world would be?
Let’s challenge ourselves to see others and ourselves differently – not as a number, but as a name. Not as a dust and ashes, but as precious jewels reflecting the divine sparks just waiting to light up the world.
Let’s live life not by counting others, but letting every person know that they count.
Friday, May 9, 2014
Does it matter if Donald Sterling is Jewish?(c)
Rabbi David Baum, Parashat Emor, 2014/5774
This week, the news of Donald Sterling gripped the nation. For those of you do not know, Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers, was secretly taped by his mistress making racist comments. Basketball justice was swift – just days after the recordings went public, Adam Silver, the new commissioner of basketball, gave Mr. Sterling the worst possible punishment he could: a lifetime ban from the Clippers and the NBA, and a 2.5 million dollar fine, the highest fine that can be assessed.
Let me ask you something – when you first heard about this story, did you wonder, is Donald Sterling Jewish? Turns out, he is, but his birth name is Donald Tokowitz. Then I learned his parents were immigrants to this country, his father a vegetable peddler. Then, it was confirmed, Donald Tokowitz is Jewish.
Donald Sterling – how did you feel when you found that he was Jewish?
I asked that question to our teens who said that the first thing their parents said was: I hope he’s not Jewish.
The teens didn’t understand. What does it matter if he’s Jewish or not? Why does he represent us?
There is a clear trend amongst American Jews – they don’t feel as much ethnically connected to other Jews as they used to, and therefore, what they say doesn’t represent all of Jewry.
But this is not the case for how most Jews over 30 'feel'.
Who in here remembers the 2001 elections, where Joe Lieberman ran for VP. Yes, there was pride, but many also hoped he would lose, not because they were Republicans, but because what if he fails? What if he is unpopular? Will they blame us if he fails?
Is this fair? It’s an interesting issue to discuss – and it is part of a very important mitzvah in our
לב וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל: אֲנִי יְקוָק, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם
“Do not desecrate My holy name. I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the Lord, who made you holy and who brought you out of Egypt to be your God. I am the Lord.’ (Leviticus 22: 32)”
From this one commandment, we see two very important commandments: a prohibition against desecrating God's name, Chillul Hashem, and a positive commandment, of sanctifying God's name, Kiddush Hashem.
Rashi interprets Chillul Hashem as when one deliberately transgresses God's word. The question is, to whom does this mitzvah apply to exactly?
Ibn Ezra says that this law only applies to the priests, the spiritual leaders of the people.
In many ways, this makes sense. When a leader sins in public, it affects the entire people. But what about the regular people? Should they not be held to this high standard?
Who in here has ever been the only Jew in the room? It might have been at college, or on a trip. What if you were on a cruise ship? I know, it seems almost impossible for there to be only one Jew on a cruise ship, but Rabbi Norman Lamm tells an amusing story of Mendel the waiter who was on a cruise ship in 1976, which was at sea at the same time as the Israeli raid on Entebbe.
When the news came through to a cruise liner about the daring Israeli raid, the passengers wanted to pay tribute, in some way, to Israel and the Jewish people. A search was made to see if there was a Jewish member of the crew. Only one could be found: Mendel the waiter. So, at a solemn ceremony, the captain on behalf of the passengers offered his congratulations to Mendel who suddenly found himself elected de facto as the ambassador of the Jewish people.
“We are all, like it or not, ambassadors of the Jewish people, and how we live, behave and treat others reflects not only on us as individuals but on Jewry as a whole, and thus on Judaism and the God of Israel.” - Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Not everyone agrees with Ibn Ezra's interpretation of this law only being applicable to priests – the Ramban, noting that this commandment first appeared in verse 2, and now appears again, writes: “Just as Aaron and his sons were instructed to be scrupulous “less they profane My holy name” in verse 2, so too must “you”, the Israelites, 'not profane My holy name.”
It may not be fair, but it is a reality -
Midrash Vayikra Rabbah states: "Why is Israel compared to a sheep? Just as if you strike a sheep on its head, or on one of its limbs, all its limbs feel it, so if one Jew sins, all Jews feel it."
But I don't want to be all doom and gloom here – because we can also sanctify God with our actions. What is kiddush hashem?
The Rambam gives one interpretation in his law code, the Mishneh Torah:
“If a person has been scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow creatures, affable in manner when receiving, not retorting even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain, conducting his business affairs with integrity … And doing more than his duty in all things, while avoiding extremes and exaggerations – such a person has sanctified God.”
If a person can sanctify God, and raise his people up, than all the more so can a country. As we approach Yom Ha'atzmaut, we can look at some of our country's great accomplishments.
Of course, I have hundreds to choose from, but one important accomplishment is the ingathering of the exiles, no matter their skin color.
It turns out that Donald Sterling had more to say than just complaining about his mistresses picture with Magic Johnson, but he actually brought in the state of Israel, stating that, “You go to Israel, the blacks are just treated like dogs.” Well, rumor has it that Donald Sperling isn't much a shul goer, and has little, if any connections, to the Jewish community. So let me quote some people who have actually been to Israel, who aren't Jewish about how Israel 'treats' it's black Jews which I learned about when I attended the AIPAC PC this year:
1. Reverend DeeDee Coleman – a Christian pastor who went to Israel to welcome the final airlift of Jews from Ethiopia, this was the final mission that began in 1985, Operation Moses and Solomon, as former Senator Rudy Boschwitz, these operations were the only times in history when black Africans in large numbers were taken from the African continent for love and a better life, not slavery. She cried as she saw Ethiopian Jews kiss the ground of their homeland – finally free.
During my years at Ramah Darom, I saw first hand how an Ethiopian, a black Jew, was welcomed as an equal citizen. She once spoke about her family's struggles in Ethiopia, and how Israel embraced them. The Ethiopian Jews do not have the same race baggage as African Americans, but she felt it in America. Her and her Israeli friends went to a popular ice cream store in North Georgia on their day off. They waited and waited to be served. They saw people who came in after them receive service, but still, no one came to their table. One of the Israelis went to the counter and asked, “can we have a server?” They pointed to her and said a line that many African Americans have heard throughout their history in the South: “We don't serve her kind here.”
There are some issues with race in Israel, and to ignore it would be disingenuous, but she had never experienced anything like that before. Rather than growing up under oppression because of her Jewish identity in Ethiopia, she grew up as a free woman, able to do whatever she wants to do, in the modern state of Israel.
Chillul Hashem and Kiddush Hashem – they are both in our hands – each one of us is responsible for each other, each one of us has an impact upon each other. How much the more so when it comes to the Jewish state?
This is why the modern state of Israel, and what she does, is so important. It represents us, it’s the Jewish homeland. The stakes are high – if you think Israel doesn’t affect you, then you are living in a fantasy world. Your destiny and Israel’s destiny are tied together, because our people are tied together.
When Israel is criticized, and when sometimes, she falls short, I often hear Jews so, why is Israel judged by a different standard than any other nation? It might not be fair, but it's the reality, and in many ways, it's an opportunity to strive for a holiness we might not have strived for if we did not have this challenge.
As we approach Israel's 66th birthday, let us look her history as a way to bring kiddush hashem, the sanctification of God's name, to the rest of the world, whether through embracing different skin colors and nationalities, or through the innovation that she has brought to this world that will be showcased this Sunday at the Imagine Israel celebration from our Federation.
Let's fight against Chillul Hashem, just as the Jewish commissioner of basketball, Adam Silver, did when he gave Donald Sterling the stiffest penalties he could. Let's raise the holy sparks up with the actions we take – let's live holy lives, together, for our sake, and the sake of Israel.