Torah from Around the World #273

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By: Paul Golomb, Rabbi of Vassar Temple, Poughkeepsie, New York, World Union’s North American Board member, Editor-in-Chief of the Reform Jewish Quarterly (CCAR Journal).

Kol Yisrael ‘Aravim Zeh l’Zeh

. [All of the people Israel are dependent upon each other].

When I was a younger rabbi, this assertion served as the slogan for many Jewish Federation fund-raising campaigns. I do not know if it was effective, but it was apt. The slogan suggested two closely related ideas. First, and most obviously, every Jew had a connection to every other Jew, and with that connection came an implied obligation to provide assistance. The second idea was less overt, and rather was a concession to brute reality: Jews are quite different from each other, culturally, spiritually, philosophically, and even ethnically. The differences are sufficiently pronounced that we have to be reminded that there is something that binds us all together. What is that something? I will get to that later.


, the initial chapters of the Book of Numbers seems to be straight-forward enough. We are given an enumeration of the Israelites (specifically the men over the age of twenty) as they prepare to decamp from the base of Mt. Sinai in order to continue their journey to the land God had promised Abraham. A new factor, however, is brought into the narrative. The counting is not done of the Israelites as a whole, but rather tribe by tribe. Although there are scattered references to be found in the Book of Exodus, it is not until the beginning of the fourth book of Torah that we are introduced to a people divided by clans.

The tribal divisions, as introduced, appear to be instrumental rather than existential. First (in chapter 1, verses 5-18), designation by tribes creates a more decentralized system for effecting the census. Then, beginning with chapter 2, the tribes, organized in groups of three, are formed as battalions protecting the entire people on all four sides as they march through the wilderness. As the balance of Torah and then the rest of Scripture progresses, the divisions represented by the tribes becomes more fraught.

Toward the end of Numbers (Chap. 26) when the Israelites have completed their forty-year sojourn through the wilderness, a second census is taken. This time the purpose is for allocation of the Land they will soon occupy. The tribes are sufficiently distinct one from the other that they require their own parcels of territory. The Book of Judges carries the narrative further. Tribal division becomes a source of dissention and conflict. By the end of that book, internecine warfare has broken out. The Books of Samuel suggest that Saul and then David were able to pull the tribes together into a single kingdom. Solomon managed to maintain the unity of the kingdom and to build a central Temple, but already signs of a fragility in the union were showing. By the time of Solomon’s successor, the kingdom had broken in two with the division taking place along tribal borders.

Scripture itself looks back at this history with pain and regret. “A voice is heard in Ramah, Rachel is weeping for her children…” (Jeremiah 31). Who, after all, would not prefer unity and peace? This wish, however, begs the question: why the division into tribal units in the first place? Throughout Exodus and Leviticus, tribal distinctions count for virtually nothing. Yet, here they are at the beginning of the organized trek from Sinai to the Jordan River.

I believe it could not be otherwise. It is a fundamental element of human nature to categorize and delineate. Israel managed to stand together as one people at the base of Sinai, and yet they were drawn irresistibly into separate affinity groups. Our


suggests it was merely family clans. The balance of Scripture suggests the differences were more pronounced than simply who was one’s grandparent.

So it is today. The Jewish people are a tiny sliver of the world’s population, yet they are divided geographically, politically, philosophically, culturally and spiritually. And yet,

Kol Yisrael ‘aravim zeh l’zeh

. What is the connection between Jews in France and Argentina; among Ashkenazi and Sephardi; secular kibbutzniks and Satmer Hasidim; the members of WUPJ congregations and the remaining Jews in Yemen?

By way of an answer, let us turn to the Haftarah. The prophet Hosea declares:

The number of the people of Israel shall be like the sands of the sea, not to be measured or counted

. Is not the


precisely the opposite: a description of the people being counted? Hosea was active in the mid-to-late eighth century B.C.E., when the northern kingdom of Israel was about to be overrun by the Assyrians. While he devoutly prayed that this would not be Israel’s fate, he also claimed with perfect faith that Israel would not disappear. Sure, the number of Jews can be counted at any given moment. But the people Israel have an unlimited future. There is no last Jew, no end to the counting.

What holds all Israel together are all the components that make Israel what it is: God, Torah, history, land, language, Shabbat and Jewish practice. It is all of them, clearly drawn together with different weights of significance. None, I believe, can be fully eliminated, and none can claim absolute priority over the others.

The seminal Jewish thinker, Franz Rosenzweig, argued: All recipes, whether Zionist, orthodox or liberal, produce caricatures of [people]… There is one recipe alone that can make a person Jewish and hence…a full human being: that recipe is to have no recipe… Our [sages] had a beautiful word for it that says everything: confidence.

The seminal Jewish thinker, Franz Rosenzweig, argued: All recipes, whether Zionist, orthodox or liberal, produce caricatures of [people]… There is one recipe alone that can make a person Jewish and hence…a full human being: that recipe is to have no recipe… Our [sages] had a beautiful word for it that says everything: confidence.

A disparate collection of ex-slaves – not all of them descendants of Jacob – leave Egypt and slowly formed a single community by the time they arrived at Sinai. Then, for the balance of the journey, and the balance of our history, they divided up again. When we are confident in ourselves, comfortable being in the skin of a Jew, we overcome the inevitable divisions, and continue to carry that moment at Sinai within us.

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