28 Tamuz 5777
15 July 2017
Three years ago this week I sat on the phone, as I often do, with a classmate of mine, who like me is a rabbi of a smaller congregation and also began her tenure that week. But unlike Rodfei Zedek, her synagogue in suburban New York is viewed as a transit stop, a stepping-stone shul for those fresh out of rabbinical school. You put in a few years, and then you move on to the next size synagogue that the Rabbinical Assembly allows for you to accept. And despite this not being a good institutional-trend-turned-norm, this community has not invested in tinkering with the recipe that would ameliorate this trend. It is a place like far too many in the synagogue world: a place that asks its rabbi to fit into a mold, living in once upon time, a time of renowned rabbis. Despite that era being long gone, that is the identity they are trying to recapture. As we began our rabbinic expedition, that was the background noise; these were the issues that painted our conversation and informed the torah we were hoping to share. Yet here that noise was muted, or at least not made known to me.
My classmate and dear friend is a great rabbi; she is smart and wise, as well as being emotionally intuitive—she is the rabbi you want. But this shul is unclear on what they want and need because they do not know who they are. They see larger synagogues and communities as successful, as doing it right, as the ones that have cracked the code, possessing the secret ingredient that every barbecue master locks away in a vault. My friend’s synagogue lacks the wherewithal to recognize that the secret ingredient, whether it is cooking or building community, is always basic, always something we have or should have in abundance. Coffee, cinnamon, inclusivity, warmth.
I asked my friend, so what are you going to talk about for this Shabbat? After all, this is a rich parasha; search committees are wise to have new rabbis begin in Numbers and not Leviticus. She told me that she was thinking about talking about leadership, about the paradigmatic leader, Moses, passing the baton to future leader, Joshua. Based upon conversations she had already had with members of the community, she felt they wanted or needed to hear about transitions, about a smooth transition from the leader they had loved but who had left, to this new, young, and female rabbi. That made sense; but as I sat down to write my dvar Torah, those words missed the mark. That was not what I needed to say, it was not what I wanted to be heard—that Torah did not match the tenor of the conversations I had had.
One of the things I have learned, and it feels cliché, is that torah is precious and needs to be treated as such. To study Torah and live in the world of Torah is a luxury—but to walk the journey of the five books with other people and then start that again, and then again, is really an act of sanctifying the tradition. We become more whole within the tradition, and, in large part, because it is a passage of time marked less through words and wisdom but through love and relationships. What makes Talmud study meaningful is not the law or lessons learned, it is that you are doing this in partnership with someone else, that the tradition is being sustained and furthered through the love and joy that is being shared with your study partner (hevruta). And, like all relationships, at first it could be awkward, you might be used to learning at different speeds or might not know the best technique to articulate your needs for this relationship because you do not really know your hevruta yet—you might know the person but not the learner. Your skills have not developed within the framework of your values yet.
And this, not knowing my hevruta, my partners in Torah, became clear to me with each deleted sentence and wise point of torah I wanted to impart to all of you but could not. Now I have a sense of who I am as a rabbi. I have an understanding of who Rodfei Zedek was, a pretty clear sense of who Rodfei Zedek is now, and an emerging picture of who we are to become. And who we are to become is, perhaps, best informed not by the skills and legacy of Moses nor by the ruach/the spirit that was within Joshua that allowed for him to become Israel’s future leader. Searching within their character bio to find a shiny insight into the trajectory of our future is akin to attempting to recreate someone else’s secret sauce—wisdom is not found when looking outward.
What spoke to me three years ago on my first Shabbat at Rodfei Zedek, during a week that saw the beginning of a war in Israel? It was the Torah’s insistence, for good or bad, to name the Israelite and Midianite who Pinchas had killed. That was not, or at least not so much, a political stand but a moral affirmation of the Torah’s place in our lives today and the direction I thought I would be and am taking as a rabbi. It was an affirmation that the torah, when lived seriously—which is defined differently for us all—and read closely, is eternally relevant. That has not changed and will not change—rabbis and communities go astray when they are guided by things other than Torah and Judaism.
As I prepared for Shabbat three years ago, it was informed by someone else’s community. I did not yet know how to write a dvar Torah that was based upon who I was and who I thought we were. And that was in some respect appropriate because it would have been wrong to speak to or for a community I had been a part of for a minute and half. Thanks to all of you, that is no longer the case; and like many of the things I have said, it is a continuum and will hopefully only get better, more comfortable, more connected. But as I speak, I am no longer sweating—nor am I looking to find a spot on the back wall to focus on in order to ground myself.
What spoke to me this week was the census. The first two portions of the book of Numbers deal with a census of the Israelite community and then of the priestly class. And now, here towards end of the book, we get another census, with numbers and demographics that have not changed all that much. What purpose does this census serve?
Some commentators note that a census is often a prelude to war, which we have seen in other places in the Torah. Robert Alter affirms this in part by pointing out that the first census was for militaristic reasons but notes that here in Parashat Pinchas it is accounting for tribal divisions and their required land allotment. Bible scholar Adriane Leveen differs from many commentaries that preceded her by positing that the two censuses are connected and must be read as such. She says that they both mark turning points—the first one (Numbers 1:1) introduces a section that will be characterized by rebellion, and here in Pinchas the census introduces the approaching redemption. But what Rashi said about our first census is what I found to be most compelling. He said that the Israelites were precious to God and so God counted them—God did this as they left Egypt; after they sinned with Golden Calf, God counted them; as they wandered the desert, God counted them.
And today as we are here to count, to mark time, what does this repetition of communal numbers teach us? This census provides the framework to think about community—not only how we exist within it but also how we craft it and, perhaps of greater significance, how we maintain it. We know what preceded the census here in Pinchas, but what immediately followed it is what really hammers home this point: the Daughters of Zelophehad. Zelophehad died without any sons, and his daughters are left with nothing. They approach Moses demanding they get their father’s land and that this system is unjust, which forces Moses to ask God for a ruling since he does not know how to properly respond. God tells Moses to grant them their father’s land. When we count, as one midrash about the daughters points out, women can emerge to correct the shortcomings of men. This very well may be true but we ought to broaden it, expand and extend this communal act of devotion. When we count, when we make an on‑going effort to assess who we are and where we are in the context of thinking of who we want to be and where we would like to go, we recognize not only our strengths but also the errors of our ways.
A thoughtful practice of measuring of who we are will, inevitably, yield a recognition of where we need to be more inclusive; we will see how to give voice to expressions of practice that may be different from what we are comfortable with yet make the community richer. And we do this not by counting households, dollars raised, or the number of empty seats, but by carving out the difficult path towards building a sincere awareness of who those people are who are filling the seats and who are the individuals who have left their seats empty, and why. This can only be done when we count those in our building as individuals, as people who are also looking for community, and also able to give to this community. Yes, this is a building for prayer, for schools, for meetings; but above all else it is a building for community.
The hidush, the creative reinterpretation or innovation, I see in the census—which later allows for the daughters of Zelophehad to claim their land, forever altering Jewish law, and later the fixing of holidays on the calendar—comes from the awareness that our path, goals, and needs change. As a community, rather than double-down on a historical notion of who we were or adopt a wholly new mission, we need to count our community, reflect on what that means, and get to know and challenge this collection of diverse individuals. We are doing that, and I am honored and continually humbled that I get to be a part of this journey of assessing who we are while finding where the promise of community will take us.
Rabbi David Minkus