I delivered this sermon at Beth Israel Congregation on June 18, 2016, Parashat Naso.
Chapter 7 of Bemidbar is the longest chapter in the entire Torah.
It goes on and on and on.
And, to add to that, it is so repetitive. Twelve of the Paragraphs present in detail the gifts brought by each of the tribal chieftains for the dedication of the tabernacle. These lengthy paragraphs are exactly the same except for the name of the chieftain and the tribe.
The chapter is so long and very quickly, we realize that we’ve heard these words already.
It is a challenge to listen to.
You wouldn’t think Torah commentators would have anything to say of interest about this repetitive portion. But, in fact, they do.
Let me share with you two commentaries.
First, from a commentary called otzar hamachshavah, a treasury of thoughts on the Torah from the Hasidic masters, we read the following thought: why is it that the Torah repeats these sacrificial gifts over and over again in all their detail even though they are all the same? After all, says the commentary, and rightly so, we believe that the Torah contains not even a superfluous, unnecessary letter. So, why would the Torah waste 11 paragraphs in such detail when it could have recorded the first gift and then just said the other chieftains brought the same gifts?
Dayenu, it would have been enough.
The commentary’s interesting answer to that question is that each of the chieftains was not looking at what was brought before them in order to know what to bring. Rather, each one brought what their heart told them to bring. Each was a personal gift that just looked the same but really was different because of the spiritual motivation each one felt. And that each was called: “the sacrifice of Nachshon” or “the sacrifice of Nitanel” supports that point. Each one really was a personal gift even though it was the same as the one before and that is why the Torah repeats each one.
Then we have another commentary from the 18th century rabbi Pinchas of Koretz. He notes that the entire list of sacrifices begins with the word Vayihee. “And it came to pass”. As in: “And it came to pass that the first one to bring a sacrifice was Nachshon ben Aminadav”
Rabbi Pinchas notes that there is an ancient rabbinic tradition that the word vayihee at the beginning of a section of the Tanach always means “trouble is coming” as in Vayihee biyamay Ahasveraus. And it came to pass in the days of Ahasveraus, the beginning of the story of the near annihilation of the Jews of Shushan at the hands of Haman.
So, asks Rabbi Pinchas, what is the trouble that is anticipated in this chapter of gifts to the sanctuary?
He says, the trouble is that Nachshon, the first one to make an offering didn’t really feel he was ready to be the first. “Mee Anee u’mah anee”, he says according to legend: “Who am I and what am I that I merit this responsibility”?
But Moses says: “God has chosen you”. We can picture Moses saying: “Your humility will help you. But, you must do your job.”
I had an idea to teach some Torah lishmah, some “Torah for its own sake this morning. There is a verse that is very moving to me regarding the importance and significance of studying Torah but that will have to wait for another year. We can’t just teach Torah for its own sake this morning. We have to learn something to help us through this horribly difficult time.
And so, on this first Shabbat after the terrible attack in Orlando, let us learn from each of these commentaries.
First, and permit me to take a positive commentary and use it to describe a horribly negative situation, we can use the commentary about the repetitive nature of this section to remind ourselves of a critical fact about the violent attacks we have seen all too often in our country.
They may seem the same. But they are not. Even if they appear similar, they are not.
Any attempt to lump all such attacks together is misleading, futile and wrong.
We need to accept the fact that there is no simple answer to stopping attacks that are really different, one from the next. First of all, the targets differ.
This time it was the LGBT community which was the target, a community which, despite significant and positive legal advances in recent years still suffers from bigotry and threats of violence. I only hope and pray that members of the LGBT community know that this and many synagogues and other house of worship are places not just of inclusion but places of safety and sanctuary for you. We recognize the threats and stand by you and with you.
But, on this very weekend last year, it was an African American church in Charleston, South Carolina which was targeted.
No group, it seems, is safe.
And the profiles of the perpetrators differ as well.
Yes, we need to confront the danger that supporters of ISIS or other extremist groups present. That danger is real and significant. But as these attacks are carried out by perpetrators with different horrific agendas, we can’t assume that responding to this particular threat will end violence.
There is, however, one as the Talmud would call it: “tzad hashaveh”, one aspect which links each of these tragic actions and that is, of course, the relatively easy availability of horrendous weapons of mass slaughter.
And, that brings us to the second commentary.
Our hearts are broken. Our pain is so great. We may wonder whether we are truly capable of doing what needs to be done to address this horrible plague in our society.
But, this is our job. We can not let fear get in the way. We can not let our pain paralyze us. We need to pray. We need to speak out. Most importantly, we need to act. And congress must act. And act now to address the access to weapons of mass slaughter in this nation.
This is not the time to be overly humble and to question whether we can make the changes that are necessary. We must.
Yet, some humility is necessary. We must not resort to generalizations and stereotypes, using bellicose words of hatred or suspicion. We need calm, reasoned, united, determined actions to seek sensible ways to prevent such tragedies and protect our citizens.
The problem is huge. The stakes are the highest they could be. Our responsibility is enormous.
Each and every one of us, in our own way, must do our part by raising our voices
And, even as we mourn the victims and pledge ourselves to action, we must do something else as well. We must embrace life, with concern but not fear. We need to show, as we discussed last Saturday evening at our tikkun leil Shavuot, gratitude for the blessings we have in this beautiful world. We need to teach our children who hear of these attacks that life is still a blessing and the world can be a place of beauty and joy.
In the words of a song which we will sing in a few moments, the world may be a narrow bridge but the essential part of life is that we not be afraid.
Let us do our work.
For the chapter before us is too long and we must stop allowing it to repeat itself on and on.
Please rise for a memorial prayer for the victims of the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando and for all who victims of violence.