B’ha’alotcha – Responding to Antisemitism

Last week, in Skokie, IL, a window was broken in the building of the Persian Hebrew Congregation – one of the synagogues in the community […]

Last week, in Skokie, IL, a window was broken in the building of the Persian Hebrew Congregation – one of the synagogues in the community where I grew up.

No one was hurt.  The window was broken on Sunday afternoon, when the building was sure to be empty.  But the people who did it left behind a Palestinian flag, to leave no doubt that this was intentional vandalism.

It hits differently when it’s your space, or a space that you have had a personal connection to.

I’d like to unpack with you the central story of this week’s Torah portion, in light of events these past two weeks.  We will walk through the verses together, guided by the commentary of the great medieval Torah scholar, Rashi.  The story is actually two stories, back-to-back.  The first one is very short, just three verses.

וַיְהִ֤י הָעָם֙ כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים רַ֖ע בְּאָזְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וַיִּשְׁמַ֤ע יְהוָה֙ וַיִּ֣חַר אַפּ֔וֹ וַתִּבְעַר־בָּם֙ אֵ֣שׁ יְהוָ֔ה וַתֹּ֖אכַל בִּקְצֵ֥ה הַֽמַּחֲנֶֽה׃

 The nations was like bad whisperers in Adonai’s ears. Adonai heard and was incensed: a fire of Adonai broke out against them, ravaging the edge of the camp.

וַיִּצְעַ֥ק הָעָ֖ם אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֑ה וַיִּתְפַּלֵּ֤ל מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־יְהוָ֔ה וַתִּשְׁקַ֖ע הָאֵֽשׁ׃ 

The people cried out to Moses. Moses prayed to Adonai, and the fire died down.

וַיִּקְרָ֛א שֵֽׁם־הַמָּק֥וֹם הַה֖וּא תַּבְעֵרָ֑ה כִּֽי־בָעֲרָ֥ה בָ֖ם אֵ֥שׁ יְהוָֽה׃ 

That place was named Taberah (it will burn), because a fire of Adonai had burned (ba’arah) against them.

Let’s unpack, beginning with the first half of the first verse:

וַיְהִ֤י הָעָם֙ כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים רַ֖ע בְּאָזְנֵ֣י יְהוָ֑ה

The people were like bad whisperers in God’s ears.

It wasn’t a mob.  It wasn’t violent thugs, or an armed uprising.  It was whisperers.  Posts on Facebook.  Nasty emails.  Graffiti and broken windows when no one is around to see it.

  כְּמִתְאֹ֣נְנִ֔ים רַ֖ע, the verse says. They are bad whispers.  These whispers make us feel vulnerable. aware that whispers may grow into shouts and then into punches – and in a few places these past weeks, they did.  In New York last Shabbat, a man was punched in the face because he was wearing a Jewish star.  And two days earlier, another Jewish man was beaten in Times Square.

Rashi says on our verse:

אֵין הָעָם אֶלָּא רְשָׁעִים…אֵין מִתְאוֹנְנִים אֶלָּא לְשׁוֹן עֲלִילָה — מְבַקְּשִׁים עֲלִילָה הֵיאַךְ לִפְרֹשׁ מֵאַחֲרֵי הַמָּקוֹם

The “nation” is just the wicked people…Whispering is the language of scheming. They were looking for a scheme to separate from God.

Do you see what Rashi is doing?  He is opening up the word “whisper”.  The whispers are not just words, they are a scheme.  They aim to effect change, and they can lead to much worse damage.

The scheming made God angry.  He made a fire burn against them, ravaging the edge of the camp.

But why the edge of the camp?  

Rashi gives us two answers to this question.  For his first answer, Rashi notices that the Hebrew word for extremist –  מֻּקְצִין is related to the word in the verse קְצֵ֥ה ,meaning edge. He says the fire didn’t burn the edge of the physical camp, but the edge of the people.  God’s fire targeted the extremists. 

I like that interpretation.  The people who do these things – break synagogue windows, assault diners in a kosher restaurant, knock an old woman to the ground because she’s Asian, drive a truck through the front yard fence of a mosque – they are the extremes of society.  And it sure feels like they deserve to burn. 

But Rashi’s second answer is more disturbing.  There are two ways to be on the edge of the crowd. One is as an outsider, an extremist.  The other is as a leader – set apart and above.  And in fact, the Hebrew word for captain קְּצִין, is also related to the word קְצֵ֥ה, edge.  For his second interpretation, Rashi suggests that those evil whisperers were actually leaders of the community, and it was them that God’s fire targeted.

We are in trouble when leaders act in hateful ways, when extreme ideas influence leaders, or when extremists become leaders.  This week, a Republican congresswoman compared Covid-19 restrictions to persecution of Jews during the Holocaust.  At the same time, 500 Democratic staffers signed a letter accusing Israel of ethnic-cleansing. They were mostly low level staff, but when there are 500 people signing, that can no longer be called the extremes.

Part of us wants to respond with fire. Burn away the madness. The problem is, that kind of burning anger doesn’t work. One crop of extremists is burnt away, but they become martyrs, and a new group of extremists quickly fill their place. In our Torah portion,  immediately, in the very next verse, another rebellion breaks out.  

This time, it’s not God, but Moses who loses it.  When confronted with injustice, with hate, with unfairness – sometimes we lash out in anger, as God did, and sometimes we collapse with sorrow or a sense of futility.  That’s what Moses did.  Neither approach is helpful.

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶל־יְהוָ֗ה לָמָ֤ה הֲרֵעֹ֙תָ֙ לְעַבְדֶּ֔ךָ וְלָ֛מָּה לֹא־מָצָ֥תִי חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ לָשׂ֗וּם אֶת־מַשָּׂ֛א כָּל־הָעָ֥ם הַזֶּ֖ה עָלָֽי׃

 And Moses said to Adonai “Why have You treated Your servant badly? … Why have you laid the burden of this nation upon me?

הֶאָנֹכִ֣י הָרִ֗יתִי אֵ֚ת כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֔ה אִם־אָנֹכִ֖י יְלִדְתִּ֑יהוּ כִּֽי־תֹאמַ֨ר אֵלַ֜י שָׂאֵ֣הוּ בְחֵיקֶ֗ךָ כַּאֲשֶׁ֨ר יִשָּׂ֤א הָאֹמֵן֙ אֶת־הַיֹּנֵ֔ק עַ֚ל הָֽאֲדָמָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר נִשְׁבַּ֖עְתָּ לַאֲבֹתָֽיו׃

 Did I conceive this nation, did I birth them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant,’ to the land that You have promised to their fathers?

The language is shocking. Moses is so overwhelmed by the people’s neediness, he feels as if he is physically nursing them. This is Moses we’re talking about – the leader who always stood up for the Israelites, defended them to the Egyptians, to Pharaoh and to God.  And now he is so tormented by them, he just wants to toss them out.  I’m not their mother, he says.

  He goes on: 

לֹֽא־אוּכַ֤ל אָנֹכִי֙ לְבַדִּ֔י לָשֵׂ֖את אֶת־כָּל־הָעָ֣ם הַזֶּ֑ה כִּ֥י כָבֵ֖ד מִמֶּֽנִּי׃ 

I cannot carry this nation myself. It is too heavy for me.

וְאִם־כָּ֣כָה ׀ אַתְּ־עֹ֣שֶׂה לִּ֗י הָרְגֵ֤נִי נָא֙ הָרֹ֔ג אִם־מָצָ֥אתִי חֵ֖ן בְּעֵינֶ֑יךָ וְאַל־אֶרְאֶ֖ה בְּרָעָתִֽי׃ (פ) 

If  this is what You do to me, please just kill me, I beg of you, let me see no more of my wretchedness!”

Just kill me.  The world is too dark and full of hate, and I am too alone.  Moses says.  And not just Moses.  Many of us have felt that way. And the more we read the news, the more we feel it

When God burned in fury, it was Moses who calmed him down.  And now, when Moses is in despair, God comforts him.

God tells Moses to gather 70 elders, to share the burden of leadership.  But he phrases the plan in an odd way.  He tells him that once those 70 elders are with Moses in the tent…

וְיָרַדְתִּ֗י וְדִבַּרְתִּ֣י עִמְּךָ֮ שָׁם֒ וְאָצַלְתִּ֗י מִן־הָר֛וּחַ אֲשֶׁ֥ר עָלֶ֖יךָ וְשַׂמְתִּ֣י עֲלֵיהֶ֑ם וְנָשְׂא֤וּ אִתְּךָ֙ בְּמַשָּׂ֣א הָעָ֔ם וְלֹא־תִשָּׂ֥א אַתָּ֖ה לְבַדֶּֽךָ׃

… I will draw from the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; and they will share the burden of the people with you, and you will not bear it alone.

In other words, God offers to help Moses not just transfer away some of his responsibilities, but to share his understanding.  To help others see what he sees.  To disentangle some of the conflict, to let the light through.

Rashi says on this verse:

לְמָה מֹשֶׁה דוֹמֶה בְאוֹתָהּ שָׁעָה? לְנֵר שֶׁמּוּנַח עַל גַּבֵּי מְנוֹרָה וְהַכֹּל מַדְלִיקִין הֵימֶנּוּ וְאֵין אוֹרוֹ חָסֵר כְּלוּם 

What was Moses like at that moment? A candle resting in a menorah. All the others are lit from him, and his light is not diminished at all.

And that happened this week, too. 23,000 people joined a Zoom call to speak out against Antisemitism. And many of the “elders” of our land were there to lend their voices: The speaker and minority leader of the house. The majority leader and minority leader of the Senate. And representatives of Black, Latino, Chinese, Indian, Muslim and Catholic communities all spoke. Like Moses when the 70 elders showed up for him, many of us Jews were comforted to realize we were not alone.

But while Moses and the 70 were together in the tent communing with God, a boy bursts in on them with shocking news. Out in the camp, two men, Eldad and Medad, felt the spirit of God rest upon them, and they were out there prophesizing.  It wasn’t supposed to be that way!  Only the 70 Moses had chosen were supposed to be offering prophecy. Joshua, Moses’s loyal disciple, is furious.  “Moses, my master, destroy them!” he cries out.

Moses feels neither anger nor dismay.  The presence of the 70 elders has bolstered him, his inner balance is restored. He does not need to feel threatened by alternative prophecies out in the camp.  He tells Joshua there’s no need to get upset. He wishes every Israelite could prophecy.

When we feel secure in our position, when we feel safe and balanced, then we can make room for the outsider to prophesize differently than we do.

Criticism of Israel is not inherently Antisemitism.  When the news shows footage of apartments buildings crumbling under Israeli fire, of Palestinian parents mourning for children killed, people will be upset. Express anguish and even anger is legitimate. Eldad and Medad – they expressed themselves differently than Moses did.  Some of us will focus on the 1000s of rockets Chamas fired on Israel, on Chamas’s history of using civilians as human shields, on mobs burning synagogues within Israel itself, on Abbas’s decision to cancel elections for fear that Chamas would win the West Bank too.  And some will focus on Jewish mobs attacking Arabs within Israel, on the pervasive misery within Gaza, and on Israel’s inability to elect a functioning government.  This is a horribly complex situation, and each of these perspectives have something important to teach us.

But when, through a mix of ignorance and prejudice, Israel is accused with extreme words like ethnic-cleansing and genocide – that’s not criticism.  That’s an attack. And an attack on the Jewish state is an attack on Jews.  We cannot let that kind of language become mainstream. Because the extremists who break windows, spray-paint swastikas, harass and assault – they draw energy from that.

So we must call out the attacks.  And we must call for an end to all hate.

And when we do, we do not stand alone.