Rabbi Rachel Timoner – Shabbat Bamidbar 5781

I had a chance on Thursday to talk to our member Jared Dougall, who’s 18 years old, one of my son Benji’s closest friends (they met at Yachad), and is living and working in Tel Aviv these few months, taking a break from his first year at the University of Michigan. Jared is a really smart, thoughtful intellectual, and he and I have had many conversations over the years about Israel/Palestine, as well as all about American politics.

He’s the kind of kid who’s always well read and able to bring insightful analysis to any situation. I called Jared to see how he was holding up. He told me that when the first rocket attack came he was walking on the street with airpods in his ears and he didn’t hear the sirens. He saw everyone running all around him and tried to understand what was going on. A friend texted him and told him to come to a bar where she was. He ran there. He said the ground was shaking, the glass was shaking. He thought he was going to die. He said he felt like he was going to cry but then he saw that his friends were crying and he needed to comfort them. In the break between rockets he and his friends were able to find a shelter and ran there. They spent the night in the shelter. Now he is staying at his friend’s apartment because there is a shelter in the basement and they can get there in 20 seconds when they hear a siren. He said that most of the rocket attacks happen during the night so that no one can sleep. Every time you fall back asleep you hear a siren, and run for your life to the basement. Wednesday night it was at 2am, 4am, and 5am. He is exhausted and just hoping that it will end soon.

Jared said to me that he felt himself starting to hate, and he never thought he would be someone who felt hate like that. He said he was trying really hard not to hate. He said that when you’re being bombed, it all becomes simple. You just want to live. You just want peace, and you hate anyone who makes war. No one is benefitting from this, he said, except the highest ranks of Hamas and Bibi. Everyone else just wants to live. They just want peace.

He said that it’s really hard to read the social media postings of his friends in the States, who are on their new iPhones in their comfortable and safe homes, posting pictures and talking about the occupation and how Israel is evil. He said this experience is making him into a Zionist. It is making him so much more understanding of what it’s like to be an Israeli and what it’s like to feel so hated in the region and so misunderstood in the world. All we want, after all, is a place on the earth where Jews can live in safety and peace. Why is it so hard for the world to grant us that?

Jared does believe that the occupation of the West Bank is wrong. And he does believe that Palestinians deserve a state and self-determination, and equal rights within Israel for those who are citizens. But he does not want to hear that at this moment from Americans who are sitting in comfort and sleeping safely through the night while rockets are raining down upon his head.

Right now we are witnessing the specter of civil war in Israel, an unprecedented phenomenon, as rioting fills the streets and Jewish mobs attack Arabs and Arab mobs attack Jews. All while Hamas rockets bear down upon Israeli population centers and Israeli air strikes obliterate Gaza neighborhoods. As of this writing, 8 Israelis, including a five year old boy, and more than 100 Gazans including 28 children, have died.

Many Americans, including many congregants, are writing me that there should be no equivalency made between the deaths of Israelis and the deaths of Palestinians. Some are writing with that message, to say that while Israeli airstrikes only kill civilians because Hamas cynically fires rockets from residential areas, Hamas fully intends to kill civilians, and this is terrorism, it is a violation of international law, it must be condemned and it is not equivalent. That is true. It must be condemned and it is not morally equivalent. Others are writing me saying that there should be no moral equivalency because Israel has all the power and therefore a different level of responsibility. Israel has the army and controls the borders. Gaza has no bomb shelters or Iron Dome. More than ten times as many Palestinians have died this week as have Israelis. This is also true.

There are so many places to point for the origins of this current conflagration. The wrongful evictions of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, the incendiary balloons from Hamas in Gaza, Netanyahu’s attempt to stay in power and the Palestinian Authority’s postponement of elections, the cynical incitement by Palestinian Authority of the conflict at Al Aqsa and then the Israeli police raid of that Muslim most holy site during Ramadan, behind it all the relentless expansion of settlements in the West Bank, the murderous and nihilistic regime of Hamas, Bibi’s threats of (and de facto) annexation of the West Bank, racism and ongoing discrimination subjugating Palestinian citizens within Israel, the abysmal corruption of all three governments, 54 years of grinding, humiliating, suffocating occupation, the Israeli government’s ongoing denial of Palestinians right to their homes, the world’s ongoing questioning and denial of the Jewish people’s right to our home, and the repeated and historic trauma of all involved.

And, and… at the roots of all of it are the lesson you both brought us today, Isaac and Avery. First, the problem of human hierarchy. The fundamentally unjust hierarchy of the Kohanim over the other Levites over the other Israelites is just one version of human ranking, that you taught us Isaac, is not unlike the caste system or systemic racism in the United States or in any country that ranks some citizens or residents above others. And you pointed out that even within the Kohanim, those with disabilities or what the Torah unartfully and inaccurately calls defects—because this is just actually another form of human diversity—are ranked below the others, nevermind women who of course are half of that population, who are automatically disqualified from service. And then Avery, your point dovetails so nicely with Isaac’s, as you consider what it means to count people, whether that’s in the Biblical census or our own, and the ways that counting can be a process of devaluing, as people get missed from the count, and those who are counted become a number and are not truly seen.

This is it, this is the Torah we need right now. In Israel, in Palestine, in Brooklyn, in the United States, everywhere. This is it. Surely, it must be possible for our species to learn how to see and value one another even in our differences, ideally even more so because of our differences. It is, at one level, so simple.

I have been hearing from so many Israeli and Palestinian friends and colleagues who are arm in arm with one another right now marching for peace and helping each other through this time. From Hadas Ron, “I just feel so worried and so full of pain, and on the other hand I have no choice but holding the hope for life together with our neighbors in peace and friendship in this bleeding country.” Dotan Arieli, “I feel that there is a mist all over Israel that it is hard to see clearly what is going on. There are many attempts to calm the flames but the media hardly talks about it. Many Jews and Arabs are reaching out and helping each other. It’s almost like a civil help force.”

Tomorrow night is Shavuot, when we re-enact our people’s experience in the Sinai Wilderness, at the foot of the mountain. Bamidbar, in the wilderness, we see that our people, counted as they are by tribe, are arranged in physical space around the mishkan, the Tabernacle, and at the very center of the Tabernacle is the Holy of Holies, and at the very center of the Holy of Holies are two cherubim, two angels facing one another, and between their faces descends the Shekhina, God’s indwelling presence, and from there the Voice resounds.

Ohr HaChayim notes that the first verse of the parasha has a strange inconsistency. It starts by being specific and then being general, and ends by being general and then specific. It says, “On the first day of the second month of the second year.” Day, month, year: specific to general. Then it says that God spoke to Moses “In the wilderness of Sinai, in the tent of meeting.” Wilderness, tent: general, specific. Ah, but not so, Ohr HaChayim teaches. The Tent of Meeting, the place where Oneness dwells, is the encompassing measure. No wilderness—no matter how vast or how daunting—is bigger than the Oneness that holds it all.

Yes, they are readying themselves in this portion to fight potential enemies, and yes, they are separated into tribes, and yes, there is hierarchy among them, and yes, they have just been counted excluding some and devaluing others. Yes, all of the flaws and imperfections in human society are visible right here in the parasha. But also, right in the middle is the source of all of their lives, a source that is universal, El, Alla, the Merciful One, the Holy One of Blessing. The One God of the Universe.

Raba Tamar Elad and Sheikha Ibtisam Machmid wrote a joint prayer in Hebrew and Arabic. I’ll close with this:

God of Life,
Who heals the broken hearted and binds up their wounds,
May it be your will to hear the prayer of mothers
For you did not create us to kill each other
Nor to live in fear, anger, or hatred in your world.
But rather you have created us so we can grant permission to one another to sanctify
Your name of Life, your name of Peace in this world.

For these things I weep, my eye, my eye runs down with water
For our children crying at nights
For parents holding their children with despair and darkness in their hearts
For a gate that is closing and who will open it while day has not yet dawned.

And with tears and prayers which I pray
And with the tears of all women who deeply feel the pain of these difficult days
I raise my hands to you please God have mercy on us
Hear our voice that we shall not despair
That we shall see life in each other.
That we shall have mercy for each other
That we shall have pity on each other
That we shall hope for each other.

And we shall write our lives in the Book of Life
For your sake God of Life
Let us choose Life

For you are Peace
Your world is Peace
And all that is yours is Peace
And so shall be your will and let us say