A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 5.14.21

May 14, 2021

There has been so much cause for grief and sadness lately. It feels a bit like the world is convulsing, like we’re living through Tolkein, a shadow growing longer and darker. Maybe it’s the ongoing trauma of COVID-19; maybe it’s the bulging of hatred and division around the globe; it’s certainly the conflagration of many complex forces.

I could barely contain my own grief this week after receiving my nearly-daily email from Assembly Member Rodneyse Bichotte, which announced the death of Romy Vilsaint. Romy was a 12-year-old Haitian American boy, the son of immigrants. He complained about being bullied at school. NBCNewYork reported, “The family said Romy was beaten by two boys on Wednesday as school was letting out. They also said a second attack occurred at the school on Thursday when a boy was allegedly dared $1 to punch Romy in the back of the head.” He died this past Friday after complaining of severe headaches and vomiting. . 

My younger son will be 12 in less than 2 weeks. My older son is 17, the same age as Devonte Lewis, who was killed shortly after dismissal from Urban Dove Charter School two weeks ago. These events leave me raw, groping for answers where there are none. Or perhaps I should say, they leave me groping for answers where the “conflagration of many complex forces” makes the answers so opaque as to be imperceptible.

And now, we have a new inyana d’yoma – a new “matter of the day.” The Land of Israel, too, convulses, with its own set of shadows, and if the country is not officially at war (or maybe even two wars), it’s as close as you can get. The experts tell us that this is not “just another flare-up” of tensions between Palestinians and Jewish Israelis, that this is “new territory,” and we should be as concerned as we feel. Just about everyone is trying to chart what exactly happened to bring us to this point. Maybe it’s the coincidence of Ramadan and Yom Yerushalayim! Maybe it’s Hamas, always looking for some opportunity to disrupt, to attack, to kill Israelis! Maybe it’s rabid Israeli nationalists, ever seeking to provoke the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs! Maybe it’s the fanatical religious right, with their dreams of restoring us to Biblical times, attempting to establish a ring of Jewish settlements around Jerusalem, displacing Palestinians from their homes en masse! Maybe it’s Prime Minister Netanyahu, cynically taking advantage of the unrest to weaken his political opponents in an attempt to stay in power and out of prison!  Maybe it’s a hundred other things.

Talk about a conflagration of many complex forces! Anyone who thinks they know what’s going on here is kidding themselves. What this current situation does share in common with ones in the past, however, is that you can “choose your own adventure.” If you are inclined to the right, to support Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox and Israeli nationalists and assert Israeli hegemony over the “entire” land, then you can pick the events you like and paint a story that works for you. If you’re on the left and you believe Israeli policy over the past couple of decades has been a consistent attempt to disembowel the Palestinians and achieve a de facto annexation of the West Bank, then you too can cherry-pick your story-line. All the pieces are there for either side. 

So what’s left to do? Do we throw our hands up in despair, climb down into our Left or Right bunkers, and lob statistics and narratives at one another?  That’s what we’ve been doing for a generation, at least. It hasn’t worked. Israelis deserve better. Palestinians deserve better.  Israeli Arabs deserve better. We all need to climb out of our bunkers and try something different. 

Our guide, as ever, is Torah. This Shabbat, we read the first parasha in Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. The sedra opens with God commanding a census of all males, age 20 and up. Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head (Numbers 1:2).

What is the purpose of this census, the commentators ask, and why the emphasis on naming every male? Various reasons are offered, ranging from God counting the people “out of God’s love for them” (Rashi) to the mustering of military troops (Rashbam). But the Ramban, Nachmanides, offers a very beautiful explanation that takes the emphasis on “naming every male” into account: 

“Listing the names… head by head.”  The Holy Blessed One told Moses to count them each with respect and [to treat] each one of them with [the honor due to] greatness. [Thus God said]: You shall not say to the head of the family: ‘How many people are there in your family? How many sons do you have?’ but they are each to pass before you with awe and in respect, and you shall count them. (commentary on 1:45).

The great 20th century Bible teacher Nechama Leibovitz writes “Nachmanides emphasizes that the census was personal and individual, “head by head,” impressing on us the value and sterling worth of each and every soul which is a unique specimen of divine creativity and a world of its own.”

This has to be the bottom line. If we are truly to stand up, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, and preach that each of us is an image of God, that each life is precious beyond measure, then we must find the fortitude to forge a new way forward. Let’s move beyond making excuses for why children are dying; let’s not rationalize violence and bloodshed; let’s not “philosophize disgrace,” as Bob Dylan put it. We, the members of EMJC, can’t change the course of events in Israel, but we can take a principled stand that enough is enough, on both sides, and demand better from our leaders here in the US and from the governments of Israel and the Palestinian people. The bunker isn’t working.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees the census in Numbers through the lens of the census in Exodus, where each Israelite had to contribute a half-shekel for the upkeep of the tabernacle. “Through this contribution, we learn that a Jew is only ‘counted’ as belonging to the people by doing something for the sanctuary” (Rabbi Harvey Fields). Doing something. What will we do? The same sense of outrage at the injustice of Romy’s death, of Devonte’s death, should motivate us here. There’s no way not to sound melodramatic: children are dying. What will we do?

We can start by praying for our family and friends in Israel. We can and should pray for the safety of all people, Jewish, Muslim, Arab, Israeli, Palestinian, Druze, Christian. And after we remove our tallitot and put away our siddurim, we should ask ourselves, how will we lend our voices to put an end to this senseless, bloody conflict. We need a new way forward.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine