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Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Getting Along

A video I saw on another webiste, this week's Torah portion and an ongoing discussion on Jason's blog have all seemed to converge on one theme, finding a way to get along while remaining true to who one is, true to one's purpose in existing.

Jason has been reading through a book, "You Don't Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right" by Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, a title that says it all as far as what the book is about. I read the book myself and found it quite intriguing, the idea that there are ways people from different religions can interact and even inspire each other without their religions turning into a pile of mushy nothing.

This week's Torah portion, Bamidbar, the beginning of Numbers is about a census and the assignment of location and tasks to the various tribes and families within tribes. There was a census taken in Exodus, but only of the people as a whole. In Numbers another census was taken only this time people were counted according to their tribe. The question of why the difference was taken up by Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky:

“Until it was established that the central motif in Jewish life is the Sanctuary, there was a danger that one’s identification with his own tribe would lead to “nationalism” and factionalism. Once it was established, however, that all the tribes looked to the Tabernacle as their primary unifying force, the establishment of separate tribal identities would be healthy. Then, each tribe would realize that its individual abilities should be developed for the service of Israel’s national goal of Heavenly service. Then, the tribes would be separate only in terms of the unique roles they were to play in realizing the national destiny.” (The Stone Edition Artscroll Chumash p. 727)

Surely this image can also be projected onto the world of religions, that if we realize we share the common center, we can each focus on using our unique abilities, our religion's unique abilities, in service of that center and the world around us.

In this Torah reading we also note that the tribes were spaced around the Tabernacle in a certain order, There was a reason they were located where they were. For example Judah, the tribe of kings, was directly in front of the entrance to the Tabernacle. Immediately behind Judah was Issachar, which according to Jewish tradition was the tribe of scholars and right behind Issachar was Zebulon, which tradition says was a tribe of merchants. It was best for the king to be closest to God on the one side and to scholars on the other, while remaining somewhat separated from wealth. Yet wealth was needed close at hand to support the scholars and the king. I will not go into the details for every other tribe but suffice it to say, they, too, were grouped together for good reason and placed around the Tabernacle in a manner that would take advantage of their unique talents.

For me this is a beautiful picture, that we are in our unique places for a reason, that our places and talents aren't the same, nor should they be. Yet all of who we are and what we do relates to that same center, the Tabernacle, the place of God's dwelling so that even though we may be very different, that's not a bad thing but is instead the very way that the world was designed to function.

Another lesson from the Torah reading was that we are not allowed to take on the roles assigned to another. "But let not [the Kohathites] go inside and witness the dismantling of the sanctuary, lest they die (Numbers 4:20)." In another post I briefly touched on some interpretations of this verse, but here I would point out that perhaps our death is due to lose of uniqueness. 'They' here could be ambiguous, it could be those whose job is to dismantle the sanctuary as well as those who encroached on another's sacred task. Surely when people lose a sense of the specialness of being who they are supposed to be, they are as one dead to the world? Especially when their demeanor is compared to the life and vitality displayed by one who has that sense of unique purpose, that sense of mattering?

The final piece for me this week was a youtube video of a Rabbi talking about plurality within Judaism. He brings up a wonderful teaching from Kabbalah about how God once filled the whole universe, but then contracted in order for there to be room for us as well. If God can do this for us, surely we in our different religions can do the same for each other? Rather than having to have all space be for us and ours, for us to instead be willing to contract, to leave a space for the 'other' and thus emulate God and God's concern for us.

It is a very tough thing to interact meaningfully across religious boundaries. Most of the time I give up on it as a waste of time and energy, yet perhaps, just perhaps, I have missed seeing the big picture of Bamidbar projected onto our lives today. It's something to think about.