Beha’alotecha 5778
Rabbi Steinhardt's Sermons

Beha’alotecha 5778

Some of you may know that I’m off to Israel this week.  There, I will be among a group of rabbis: Chabad, Orthodox, Conservative (me) and Reform, receiving with communal leadership from the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County the very first Jerusalem Unity Prize.

The prize was established this year to commemorate and recall an event that brought the Jewish people together in 2014. You may remember that three lovely Jewish boys — Eyal, Gilad, and Naftali — were kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists. For fourteen days Jews throughout the world rallied, gathered in prayer, petitioned the courts of the world … and at the end, the three boys were found brutally murdered. It was a tragic event, but it was an event that brought all Jews together as one family.

Trying to make something good out of that, the families … together with the Gesher organization in Jerusalem and Nir Birkat … created this unity award. We are the first and the only community to receive it.

Why? Well, you should know that your rabbis are in regular conversations that cross denominational lines. We agree on many issues.  We each see ourselves as representing our sub-sections of a larger community. We have created some community-wide programs that bring all Jews together. And we know we have deep differences about many things — all the way from the origins of Torah, to Jewish practices, views on conversions, and certainly Israel and American politics.  And yet, the center holds. We get together. We celebrate Yom HaAtaztmaut, Hanukkah, and Purim together. We share a Torah.  We share a history and we probably have a shared destiny.

In most communities, these conversations have broken down and are not taking place. Here in south Palm Beach County, they do. My conversations are not through the Board of Rabbis — and certainly not through some interfaith clergy group — but rather through Federation. They have a program:  The Debra and Larry Silver Center for Jewish Engagement.  Federation Executive Matt Levin hired a very dynamic young orthodox rabbi, Josh Broide, and now we are rewarded for this.

I have learned that the Orthodox see us differently than the way we see them differently. Let me explain.  I see them as legitimate expressions of a Judaism and Torah that I don’t necessarily agree with. They see us as friends.  Very nice; I’ll accept that. There are unifying principles and understandings. Yet I know I cannot control the way another thinks of me in any situation. I’m also confident in our brand and our approach. Diversity is central to my understanding of all created life in this world.

To bring this idea to another place…. I was at the Islamic Center of Boca Raton this past Wednesday night. They were celebrating their Iftar, a breaking of the fast on a day of Ramadan. They invited their friends and any member of the community to hear their story, to break bread and meet each other.

Before their service, there was a gathering of guests. Those in the room included Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians of every denomination (though of course, no Evangelicals). There were politicians, medical workers, doctors, and nurses.  There were investment bankers, professors, and teachers.

Everyone spoke and there was a common thread. It went like this:

I am a member of this church or this Temple or this organization. I believe in the interfaith dialogue. We share a common humanity. And as Americans, we need to know each other and respect each other’s difference.

I loved that!  It should only be true and represent the evolution of human thought — and certainly an evolution in Christianity — the world will get a little better!  This is the essence of American pluralism. I think it is also an essential piece of Judaism and what the Torah tries to teach.

People are different. Just meet my family. Just look at your own family. The ability to live with difference — and even respect it — is a manifestation of the ability to survive and, yes, even thrive.

Yet, we value unity. And we need to look at what that means, because too often unity has been confused with sameness and similarity. It isn’t that. Similarity may be a part of it, but unity needs to reflect the commitment to respect difference and objection.

I want to walk us over to today’s parshah. I think there are some teachings that really help inform this issue. Three in particular.

The first is in the verse regarding the building of the menorah. Directions for building the menorah were already given earlier in the Torah in Exodus. But here it says:

Ve-ZEH maaseh Hamenorah … “And THIS is how the menorah was made.”

It goes on to say that it was made from beaten or hammered gold. Why? Because it already told us that there are seven branches — different elements as it were —  but they were made by being from ONE PIECE OF BEATEN GOLD!

With all the different interpretations of what these seven represent know this:   They are all of the same substance. No piece, no branch is more important than any other branch. There are distinctions, but there is no hierarchy.

You may be different than other people, but you are no better!

The second teaching is about the breastplate that the kohein wore. There were twelve stones representing the twelve tribes. But there is no stone for the Levites. Each of the other tribes — including Menashe and Ephraim, the sons of Joseph — are counted and has a stone. The Levites function differently but they are not better or worse than the other tribes. No tribe is preferred. We learn elsewhere that is why the Torah wasn’t given in any tribal land — and not even in Jerusalem — but in the wilderness.

And finally, this parshah contains the law of Pesach Sheni. Here, the description of the first anniversary after the liberation from Egyptian bondage provides details and precise times for bringing the Pesach sacrifice.  To avoid or neglect to do it was punishable by being cut off from your people.

But then the Torah does something so beautiful.

It says if one was far away … physically or even spiritually by virtue of having been ritually contaminated  … they can bring the Pesach sacrifice a month later. It’s called Pesach Sheni. It’s the ultimate second chance.

There is a privilege in performing the ritual. There is also a responsibility to perform it; one was not allowed to do Pesach Sheni because one simply didn’t feel like doing it at the right time.  However, if one wanted to and couldn’t, the tradition provided an opportunity and does so as a way of saying:  I want you to be included. I want you to be a part of the whole. I want you to be a part of us … even if at times that is impossible.

This is the Torah’s radical vision of inclusion. It makes the possibility of being a part of the people when conditions may keep you away. It doesn’t say: ‘Too bad for you, you were not there” …. but rather, “Here’s another chance to be a part of us.”

We are — and have always been — a diverse people. I think that in some way our capacity to live as one with diversity may be one of the great teachings we model to show the world.

You and I know that Jews come from all different cultures, practice their Judaism differently, speak different languages and identify in different ways.

But we must find acceptance for each other… know that acceptance can be when we behave with respect and honor, pursue peace and kindness, and stand up to those who hate and destroy. When we choose “for life.”

That is why I loved the experience of being with people of different faiths but who are able to affirm each other’s rights … and can even say: You have a truth.  It is part of you and your narrative. It is not mine. I stand with pride in my faith and my affiliation. But the world is better when we can act honorably and respectfully to each other.

This is no different than the obligation to stand with our brothers and sisters who practice and understand Torah a little differently … but who are part of the same covenant. Those who were born Jewish and those who chose to become Jewish all stood at Sinai together.

And when we built the menorah it was to give our light to God in the sanctuary. We were saying the capacity for each branch to stand uniquely side-by-side exists because of the humility we have to realize that we come from the same source. We know God when we honor difference.

Shabbat Shalom.