SERMON: Parashat Matot-Masei, July 13, 2018
On the drive into work this today, there was a show on NPR about gentrification, and the hosts asked how one of the guests felt about these young ‘yuppies’ that move into inner city neighborhoods because they are central and affordable, and completely change the social fabric there.
The guest responded, “I don’t think anyone moves into one of our neighborhoods thinking, 'I will destroy the social fabric here,' but nonetheless, as more and more people make that move with good intentions, the result is nonetheless that they do destroy it.”
With the best intentions, a large number of individual choices, perhaps all for good reasons, can still have a tremendous destructive impact on our communities and social systems. In other words, good people can have good intentions and make good choices that still have destructive effects on the world around them.
We see this unintentional effect being challenged in this week’s double Torah portion, Matot-Masei, in which two scenes really stuck out to me because of what seems to me like a tearing of our social fabric in the US.
The first episode concerns the tribe of Reuben and Gad approaching Moses and saying:
the land that the LORD has conquered for the community of Israel is cattle country, and your servants have cattle. It would be a favor to us,” they continued, “if this land were given to your servants as a holding; do not move us across the Jordan.”
That seemed reasonable enough, so it is Moses’ response that surprised:
Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here? Why will you turn the minds of the Israelites from crossing into the land that the LORD has given them?
But the Tribes of Reuben and Gilead immediately understand, and say that they will serve as infantry, or ‘shock troops’ in the invasion of Canaan, and only after Israel is secure will they return to their families and herds. Moses makes a few additions, but accepts this, making sure the entire leadership heard their promise and will hold them accountable.
The second scene is a ‘bookend’ from last week, and again concerns the Daughters of Zelophechad, those five fierce women that speak up for justice for themselves and their children. Last week, God says, “The women speak justly” “Ken b’not Tzlophchad dovrot. Women should inherit.
But this week, the tribe to which the daughters belonged, Menashe, push back. The men go to Moses and say that if the women inherit, and they are allowed to marry anyone they want, the land they possess will leave the tribe if they marry into another tribe. That’s not fair since there is not way to regain that territory. Moses takes this to God and in the exact same words, God says, “ Ken Mateh B’nei Yosef Dovrim”
כֵּ֛ן מַטֵּ֥ה בְנֵֽי־יוֹסֵ֖ף דֹּבְרִֽים
This seems at first like a ‘bait and switch’ for the women, something women through the ages are quite familiar with, but on closer inspection, both of these passages seem to be saying something else.
They are saying that while the needs of an individual or small group matter and are just, that need can’t cancel out the obligations of those individuals desires on the larger community.
That is, we are responsible for speaking up for our own needs, but we are also responsible for maintaining the community as a whole, the social fabric. Individual free choice is crucial, but so is living in a community. In Judaism, we must balance our individuality with the greater need.
אִם אֵין אֲנִי לִי, מִי לִי. וּכְשֶׁאֲנִי לְעַצְמִי, מָה אֲנִי. וְאִם לֹא עַכְשָׁיו, אֵימָתָי:
Im ein ani li mi li, uchsheani l’atzmi mah ani, v’im lo achshav ehmatai? Hillel
This is hard for us as Americans sometimes. We have been so indoctrinated to the gospel of individualism and taking care of our own needs that we often don’t even think of the larger impact of our choices. Our Therapy culture has taught us to ‘get over the guilt’ and make choices that are good for our well-being – and this is good and ethical and right – but if it is not balanced with an awareness of and a sense of duty toward the larger community, our individualism can become very lonely and even community and self- destructive.
The late philosopher Phillipa Foote argued that just like orchids, human beings need certain conditions to flourish. We might survive in lonely, stressed out, consumerist lives, but that is not the same as flourishing. Indeed, being comfortable in those lives doesn’t mean, according to Foote, that we are flourishing. As Neil Young wrote, “the hotel of lost companions waits with heated pool and bar.”
Instead, Foote, in her book NATURAL GOODNESS argues that human beings need relationships, love, intimate friendships, laughter, music, a sense of purpose to flourish. And we need community. We are, by nature, groupish, so I view with great concernthe current trends toward atomization and separation.
For example, America, and especially young Americans, are no longer ‘joiners’. “Joiners” are seen as ‘lemmings’ that follow the crowd.
We see this in the most absurd ways on television commercials. So many of the most successful commercials convince us that we need to be ourselves, UBU, do our own things, and in order to do this, we need to buy the same product all our friends are buying.
Be yourself! Buy these Nike shoes.
Be yourself! Think Different! Buy Apple.
This is the great paradox of American life: in order to convince us to do what everyone else is doing, you have to tell us it is individualistic and will make us different from all those other conformists. We are obsessed with individuality even as we are obsessed with being on trend.
And we can say Vermont is different, until you go hiking and you see that the parking lot full of Subarus (guilty), the stream of Patagonia and North Face togs coming at you,and then there is the parade of black and chocolate labs.
Tim and I used to dress up once a year in silk jackets and ascots, have our Standard Poodle groomed like a show dog with all the look puffs and pom-poms, , and then go hiking on the Long Trail. That will teach you that Vermont is not nearly as individualistic as we like to think.
Social Media makes this even more confusing, because we are connecting with others while being more along than ever. Professor Sherry Turkle at MIT wrote a fascinating book about this called “Alone Together” about how instead of relying on one another, we have come to rely on technology that makes us feel like we are in community even though we are alone. And of course, Neil Postman’s seminal book, “Bowling Alone” was way ahead of the curve in noticing what was happening in our culture.
I have seen young adults have panic attacks when they find themselves without wifi, or their phones die, and they can’t be in constant contact with friends, even though they are there with friends while they are panicking. I have felt a bit that way myself, if I am honest.
And this is certainly happening in the Jewish world. I’ve been asked to do lots of online bar and batmitzvah tutoring because families don’t belong to a syngagogue. I’ve gotten a bunch of emails since I’ve been here asking to do a bar mitzvah without having to join a synagogue. They don’t want to join a synagogue, and should the Jewish world just provide that for us as an app or something so we don’t have to actually go and participate in the community?
As one young rabbi put it: “Our generation doesn’t view Judaism as an obligation.” It’s something that has to compete in the marketplace with everything else we have in our lives. “
Of course, in rebelling against our Jewish upbrinings that can feel constricting or stifling, Jews join other groups with abandon. 1/3 of American Buddhists, for example, are Jews and I would guess that number is true for Jewitchs, HinJews, UJews, and other belief systems that package themselves as spiritual instead of religious, though there is not really a difference except ‘spiritual’ sounds more individualistic and American, while ‘religious’ sounds old fashioned and even a bit reactionary.
The result is all over this country, civic and public organizations and institutions are shrinking and dying. We all know that synagogues are struggling, but so are churches, and Elks clubs and Moose lodges and Kiwanis clubs. And yet, people assume that the synagogue will just be there for them when they need one from time to time, when they feel like it, but they should have to actually be involved or support it.
The last tractate of the Talmud is a little book of sayings called “Pirkei Avot” of “Ethics of the Ancestors.” It contains many pithy aphorisms, But one of the most famous sayings there, and one that many modern Jews wrestle with is Hillel’s saying”
הִלֵּל אוֹמֵר, אַל תִּפְרֹשׁ מִן הַצִּבּוּר
Al Tifrosh Min HaTzibbur – Do Not Separate Yourself from the Community.
So since one of the big rules of sermons is not to yell at the people who aren’t the problem, so first let me say:
THANK YOU to all of you who have worked so hard, given so much, put up with so much, to support this or other synagogues and organizations, that sit on boards, that deal with long irritating meetings, that give up your weekends to keep this place going so that others will have it when they need it.
Jews, lovable and smart, irreverent and endearing as we are, can also be really really challenging. We argue. We don’t let go of our ideas easily. That is perhaps how we have managed to survive everything we’ve been through. So thank you to those who have ‘leaned in,’ and stuck with it.
But I also want to say, let us commit, even when we disagree, even when things get tough and frustrated, irksome and infuriating, to stay connected. It is so easy to get mad, to either storm out, or just disappear without really ever saying why, but when a bunch of people do that, as has happened here over the years, and at every synagogue and house of worship I know, it harms the social fabric. It diminishes the community. Even though every person might do so for very good reasons, reasons any of us would understand, and want to suggest that sometimes, the spiritual challenge in the situation is not self-care by separating, but self-care by leaning in, by sticking with it, by finding a way to be both yourself, and in community. It helps you and it helps us flourish in ways we never expected.
There is a great passage in the Talmud, in Yevamot 14, where it reminds us of the terrible knock-down drag-out fights between the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai. They disagreed about almost everything; they were opposites. The Channukah candles should start with 8 and go down to 1 said Shammai. Hillel said the opposite. I could go on, and their fighting did go on for around 300 years!
But here is what the Talmud also reminds us:
Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying women from Beit Shammai. This serves to teach you that they practiced affection and camaraderie between them, to fulfill that which is stated: “Love truth and peace”
So if Beit Hillel and Shammai could stay in community, if the Reubenites were willing to be infantry in order to show they supported the community needs even as they advocated for their own, if the Daughters of Zelophechad could accept having to marry in their tribe so that their freedom, while circumscribed, did not harm their tribe, surely, even when someone is working our very last nerve, we can find ways of coming together, of loving and caring for one another across our divides.
We can learn not only to speak, but to listen.
We need to remember that we are all human beings, all trying our best to be good, and fumbling awkwardly as we do. We can learn how to love one another especially when we don’t agree.
Isn’t that what our nation and the world needs so badly right now? Let’s us be the change we want to see.
So I will end on the full quote from Hillel, because in it is so much wisdom our synagogue, and our nation, and our world could use right now:
Hillel Taught: Do not separate yourself from the community; Do not be sure of yourself until the day you die; Do not judge other people until you stand in his situation; Do not say “It is not possible to understand this” for eventually it will be understood; Do not say “When I have free time I will study”, for you may never have free time.
Wisdom of our ancestors speaking in our ears. Shabbat shalom.