Behalotecha: The Littlest Book

The morning after the Pittsburgh shooting, the now Governor of California, Gavin Newsom, was at my congregation. His speech was supposed to be about homelessness and housing, areas of work that my community Valley Beth Shalom has organized around for almost a decade. The previous day’s events, the bloodiest antisemitic attack in American history, changed the topic. Before he spoke, we conveyed a private meeting with clergy and Jewish leaders from Los Angeles. As we sat in the conference room, I told him about the ‘talk’ every Jewish parent has with their children, and one that I now needed to have with my own. 

It’s the same talk that African Americans have and that Latinos have. It’s the same talk that Asian Americans have and Persian Americans have. It’s the same that Armenian Americans have, and I have to believe it’s the same talk Palestinian and Arab Americans have with their children. 

It’s the talk about not fitting in and being despised by some and hated by others. It’s the talk about hatred being a seemingly permanent fixture of who we are. It’s the talk none of us should have to have but the one we all have had.

The soon-to-be governor looked at me quizzically and assured me that he’d like to change the narrative. I smiled wryly, knowing that you cannot legislate love or hate, only punish people for their actions, and that something deeper would have to change within our hearts and that there are limits to what politics can do.  

That’s because hatred is a strange thing. It begins with a grievance, either real or imaginary, and this strong feeling wells up inside of us. It feels sour and painful. It feels scary and hot. I have to ask, how can something inside of us feel so strongly about something that happens outside of us? It changes our world in a way no other emotion can, closing off openness and positivity and recasting our worldview as one of darkness and constraint. It’s as if our strong feelings own us instead of the other way around. This is what makes hatred so peculiar, for if you feel hatred toward the world, then the world you see will be filled with hatred. Hatred closes the door on empathy and to feeling what others feel and instead projects what we feel onto the wider canvas. To hate is to look upon another human being, equally stamped with God’s trademark as our own soul, and to see nothing but a stumbling block in our way, nothing but a threat – nothing but an enemy. 

For thousands of years Jews have felt the brunt of hatred. We have been ‘othered’ by every culture in the world. We have been kicked like stones to the curb and burnt like kindling in ovens. Antisemitism is one of the oldest and most innovative hatreds in the world. From the end of our autonomy thousands of years ago, antisemitism has mutated over and over again, leading the global evolution to shape a darker future for humanity. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has said, antisemitism is a measure of the sickness of society. Like all hatreds, the source of the expression of antisemitism does not sit with the Jew. It sits in the strange and infected minds of those who hate and cannot see the Divine spark within us all.

Today, many Jews feel the eldritch monstrosity of antisemitism rise again. Whether it was the murder of friends in Squirrel Hill or the attack on my community in Beverly Grove, Jews are seeing the next evolution of the lurking fear of being a Jew creep into our hearts. Many of us are realizing that the thousands of chapters of research, the thousands of hours of political debate, the hundreds of laws and resolutions that have been passed cannot protect us from hate and cannot keep us from our fear. That’s because you just can’t legislate emotions, research your way into people’s hearts nor adjudicate the whims of the mind. 

Instead, something deeper is needed. And it’s not found in lengthy codes or profound speeches. 

 It’s found in the littlest book.  

In this week’s Torah portion, Naso-Behalotecha, we find  the Israelites in their final preparations as they get ready to travel on the long desert march toward destiny. Just as they leave, the Torah proclaims what would happen to the Ark of the Covenant that stores the Tablets of the Law and represents God’s presence. 

“And when the Ark set out [in front of the nation] Moses would say, ‘Arise, YHVH, may your enemies be scattered, and those who hate You flee from before You.’ And when the Ark came to a rest, [Moses would say,] ‘Return, YHVH, to the thousands of families of Israel.’” (Numbers 10:35-6)  

Today, Jews sing these verses every time we take out the Torah from  the Ark and return it to the Ark. In just just two verses, only eighty-five letters long, Moses prays to God as people prepare to move. These verses are called by the rabbis the “The Littlest Book” of the Torah because they are set off from the rest of the text by two inverted Hebrew letters called nuns. According to the midrash, these verses are considered a book of the Torah unto itself, (Midrash Bereshit Rabba 64:8) and are so revered that they set the measuring rod for holiness of sacred texts. In fact, if a Torah was defaced except for these verses, we are commanded to run into a burning building to try to save it. (Mishna Yadayim 3:5; Talmud Shabbat 115b) Yet, these two verses hold no laws or commandments. Instead, they depict something much more powerful. 

What might look like military pageantry to some appears to me as a spiritual drama. I see a Jew leaving the comfort of Sinai and stepping into the world, filled with all the fear and trepidation that we carry when we look at an uncertain future. Knowing that the Torah itself cannot legislate away the hatred we can all feel at times, Moses turns to the All Seeing Force in his life in prayer. And what does Moses ask of God? To scatter God’s enemies and those that hate “from before you.”  The Hebrew phrase “from before You” literally means “from Your Face.” Meaning away from God’s gaze. Since God’s countenance falls upon the whole earth, the deeper meaning of Moses’ prayer becomes manifest. Moses’s prayer is our own. As the Jew steps from Sinai, she or he asks for God’s help to scatter hatred from every place and from all time. If hatred can change our world by twisting our thoughts and closing our minds, then faith and hope can do the same in reverse. Where hate closes the mind, faith opens it. Where hatred pushes against uncertainty with closed fists, hope steps into uncertainty with outstretched arms. Where hatred pushes us to hate life, hope and faith ask us to love life.  

No policy can expunge hatred. No law can legislate love. Only when we arise in our faith in a better tomorrow will we turn our hearts and scatter the forces of darkness enough to find the divine spark nestled inside every human being. The greatest wisdom, the most powerful prayer, the hope for all humanity is found in the littlest book. 

Shabbat Shalom

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