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  • Writer's pictureRabbi Max Davis

Responsibility to Engage - Parshat Naso

Shabbat shalom.

What follows are two markedly different reflections written by two volunteers from last week’s Lake Street cleanup.  In this case, the two volunteers happen to have been Rabbi Davis (Alexander) and Rabbi Davis (myself.)  My colleague’s reflection was posted on Facebook and is reprinted here with permission.  My own piece was a vignette jotted down and sent to the local paper and a few others who asked about the day’s events.   

I would normally print my colleague’s remarks first, as Hillel models in the Mishnah.  However, I believe Rabbi Davis (Alexander) captures a greater, if more depressing, truth; one that deserves greater amplification and is better suited to being ‘the last word.’

To Whom this Concerns:

I'm an Orthodox Rabbi from St. Louis Park who went to help with cleanup efforts today.  I was utterly astounded to see the throngs of volunteers who showed up.  Organizers actually referred me from one place to another three times (North Side to Riverside to 33rd/Cedar) before I arrived at a spot that actually needed help. 

Upon arrival, I spent some time re-bagging garbage from the looted and burned Target, noticing with more than a little trepidation the heavy broken glass bottles puncturing holes in some of the bags.  However, this activity did not last long as much of the work had already been done. 

I turned my attention to a cartload of donated cleaning supplies and got hold of a large street sweeping broom.  Now for something to sweep...Found it!  Several peanuts and cheese poofs on the sidewalk in front of the store.   Most everywhere else was spotless. 

Closing in for the sweep, I realized I had no dustpan and not really enough trash for a respectable showing.  A nearby fellow (possibly Minnesota Lutheran) had a similar problem, so we pooled our trash just in time for the arrival of two young dustpan-toting Somali women.  The four of us wrangled those peanuts and poofs into the pan and ultimately into a proper trash bag. 

One small bag for us.  One giant leap for Minnesota-kind.

I realize in retrospect that the "giant leap" was more like a baby step, but it felt great to be part of a multi-ethnic coalition of volunteer street cleaners on a mission of kindness and solidarity.

That night, shortly after I had written this piece, someone forwarded me Rabbi Alexander Davis’s wise and sobering account:

Like thousands of well meaning volunteers, I went to Lake Street with my family today to help with the clean up efforts. I had all the requisite gear- gloves, shovel, mask, even a shirt with a quote from the Torah commanding us to "love our neighbor as yourself." But when it came to actual results, my efforts were meaningless.

I am sure that many others made a difference in their work. In my case, I ended up sweeping a shopping center parking lot that was full of dirt and water (left from putting out the fire). We pushed the dirt here and piled it up there. But the truth is, it was all cosmetic. In the coming weeks, a wrecking crew is going to take down the whole center. Our sweat made us feel like we were doing something. But in the end, we made no difference.

That seems to me to be a metaphor for the very issue. For too long, we have swept racism under the rug but failed to really address it. We have painted over graffiti and replaced windows. But we have failed to uproot the inequalities and injustices that plague our nation. 

So yes, it was heartwarming to see thousands of people of goodwill helping out. And yes it was important to see and to show my kids. But no, I am not patting myself on the back and feeling good for a job well done. There is no mission accomplished here until there is systemic change. And that requires real, sustained work, not just a Sunday afternoon volunteer project.

Oy!  So much for my euphoric trash bagging experience.

Rabbi Alexander Davis is, of course, correct.  It is far easier to plaster a damaged wall than to peel back layers of systemic racism and confront personal implicit bias.  It is one thing to spend a few hours engaged in a Sunday morning cleanup.  It is another matter entirely to spend a few hours – even minutes – engaged in musar, contemplating one’s personality and deepest thoughts, ‘daylighting’ the uglier aspects.  Still more challenging is the work of scaling this up to challenge communal norms.

Then again, someone has to sweep up the trash - as long as the action does not end there - and I believe some of the most important steps towards change begin with encountering 'the other', even if only briefly in a parking lot.

But what to do now?

This question surfaces (implicitly) in Parshat Nasso.  Our parsha, the longest of the year, is ripe with significant topics and passages including laws of the Sota, theNazir, andBirkat Kohanim.  However, the most prominent visual feature of the parsha are the 88-psukim recalling the gifts brought by the nesi’im (tribal leaders) to celebrate the inauguration of the Mishkan. 

Bemidbar 7:1-5    On the day that Moshe finished setting up the Mishkan, he anointed and consecrated it and all its furnishings, as well as the altar and its utensils.  When he had anointed and consecrated them, the nesi’im of Israel, the heads of ancestral houses, namely, the nesi’im of the tribes, those who were in charge of enrollment, drew near and brought their offering before Hashem: Six draught carts and twelve oxen, a cart for every two nesi’im and an ox for each one. When they had brought them before the Mishkan, Hashem said to Moshe:  Accept these from them for use in the service of the Tent of Meeting, and give them to the Levi’im according to their respective services.

וַיְהִ֡י בְּיוֹם֩ כַּלּ֨וֹת מֹשֶׁ֜ה לְהָקִ֣ים אֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֗ן וַיִּמְשַׁ֨ח אֹת֜וֹ וַיְקַדֵּ֤שׁ אֹתוֹ֙ וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָ֔יו וְאֶת־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ וְאֶת־כָּל־כֵּלָ֑יו וַיִּמְשָׁחֵ֖ם וַיְקַדֵּ֥שׁ אֹתָֽם׃

וַיַּקְרִ֙יבוּ֙ נְשִׂיאֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל רָאשֵׁ֖י בֵּ֣ית אֲבֹתָ֑ם הֵ֚ם נְשִׂיאֵ֣י הַמַּטֹּ֔ת הֵ֥ם הָעֹמְדִ֖ים עַל־הַפְּקֻדִֽים׃

וַיָּבִ֨יאוּ אֶת־קָרְבָּנָ֜ם לִפְנֵ֣י ה" שֵׁשׁ־עֶגְלֹ֥ת צָב֙ וּשְׁנֵ֣י עָשָׂ֣ר בָּקָ֔ר עֲגָלָ֛ה עַל־שְׁנֵ֥י הַנְּשִׂאִ֖ים וְשׁ֣וֹר לְאֶחָ֑ד וַיַּקְרִ֥יבוּ אוֹתָ֖ם לִפְנֵ֥י הַמִּשְׁכָּֽן׃

וַיֹּ֥אמֶר ה" אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

קַ֚ח מֵֽאִתָּ֔ם וְהָי֕וּ לַעֲבֹ֕ד אֶת־עֲבֹדַ֖ת אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְנָתַתָּ֤ה אוֹתָם֙ אֶל־הַלְוִיִּ֔ם אִ֖ישׁ כְּפִ֥י עֲבֹדָתֽוֹ׃

This is the introductory passage to the gifts of the nesi'im. Despite a fairly staid appearance, it presents a wealth of questions and is pregnant with meaning, according to the Izhbitzer Rebbe (R. Mordechei Yosef Leiner, 1801-1854).   

In his Mei HaShiloach, the Izhbitzer observes that the nesi’im apparently act without having received a command from Hashem or instruction from Moshe.  He notes, however, that Hashem does command Moshe to take the gifts: Kach me'itam...Accept from them.

Additionally, the Izhbitzer observes that the Torah goes to great repetitive pains to detail the gifts of each nasi.  These gifts are identical.  There is no sharing or pooling of resources.  Yet in the passage above, we find “Six draught cars and twelve oxen, a cart for every two nesi’im and an ox for each one.” Clearly, the nesi’im shared carts, and the Torah emphasizes the matter further through explicit accounting:  ‘Six carts...a cart for every two nesi’im.’[1]

Furthermore, the Izhbitzer notes implicitly that the Torah had outlined the roles of theLevi’im at the beginning of our parsha.  One of the roles assigned to the descendants of Gershon was to do the heavy lifting, carrying the various components of the Mishkan.  The burden of transporting the newly acquired gifts would literally fall on their shoulders. 

On the other hand, it was the great privilege of this family to transport the Mishkan.  Imagine what an honor it would be nowadays to lift just one beam, one curtain, one socket of the sacred Mishkan!  This was the honor of the Gershonim and so, notes the Izhbitzer, thenesi’im faced a complex question:  What to do?

Their gift was unsolicited, yet they felt compelled todo something in the euphoric moment of the inauguration of the Mishkan.  However, bringing gifts onto the ‘turf’ of the community of Gershon risked placing a great burden on their shoulders – or was it an honor, an opportunity, a beracha?

What to do!

Answers the Ishbitzer:

ע"כ ראוי שיביאו שני הנשיאים עגלה כי שנים שיעשו דבר יסכים הש"י עמם, כמ"ש (משלי י"א,ט) "ובדעת צדיקים יחלצו", היינו כאשר יסכימו שני תלמידי חכמים לדעת אחת.

They therefore saw fit to have two nesi’im bring one cart, for Hashem is in agreement with two people taking action together, as is written in Mishlei 11:9 Through their knowledge, the righteous are rescued.  Meaning that (Hashem supports) two scholars arriving at one mindset.

This is not to say that two people taking action are automatically in Hashem’s good graces.  (The Ishbitzer was well aware of the tragedy of Nadav and Avihu.) Nonetheless, there is strength in unity and sanctity in action l’shem shamayim.  The Nesi’im expressed their unity and purity of purpose by sharing the carts.  What is more, they signaled to the Levi’im their rachmanut– mercy, to use the Ishbitzer’s word.  They  were transparent in their desire to take action but to tread cautiously around issues of over-burdening their brethren while not disrespecting their position.

(This may resonate with those of us who visited Lake Street last week.)

That begins to explain the six wagons, but what of the twelve oxen pulling the wagons?  

The Ishbitzer notes the Torah’s emphasis onone ox per nasi, and he invokes the principle of tafasta mu’at, tafasta. Essentially, one who has achieved something small has indeed achieved it.  One need not, should not, bite off more than one can chew. One ox per nasi was sufficient to convey intent, and the nesi’im glancing around derived a sense of validation from one another.

וכאשר ראה שחבירו הסכים לזה אז הבינו כי מה' הוא.

When each saw that his fellow was in agreement with this (gesture of the single ox,) they then understood that this was from (approved by) Hashem.

Twelve oxen, six wagons, one delicately balanced, value-laden package for the Mishkan.  Surely, the intentions underlying this gift were the most valuable assets of all.  And Hashem’s response: Kach me’itam! Take it.

We, as individuals and as members of community (multiple communities, really) are in a delicate position as far as our next steps are concerned.  To reiterate the words of the Rav cited last week, we are not at liberty to ignore these matters.  We Jews share a responsibility to engage. 

What to do?

The Nesi’im teach us that there is strength and kedushah in numbers, so let’s get together.  Communication and coordination are key.  Our Darchei Noam social action committee has already gotten started, but I have heard from numerous other individuals a desire to do something as well.   

Within our own Darchei community, one person is working on a food collection project and, by soliciting just her block, she gathered and donated twenty bags of groceries in a matter of hours.  Another couple astounded me by inquiring about donating their government stimulus check to tzedakah.  'We have sufficient for our needs and others need it more,' they said.  Earlier today, a young man shared with me a truly visionary plan for using the imagery of the shofar to unite Jewish community for change.

So let’s get together.  By strength of resolve, communication, and coordination as the nesi’im did, may we merit to determine an appropriate way forward in the delicate field of social action so that our encounters are more meaningful than periodic parking lot clean ups.  May our deeds be a blessing for society and an enduring Kiddush Hashem.

Shabbat Shalom.

Complete comment of the Mei HaShiloach below.

ויביאו את קרבנם לפני ה' שש עגלת צב ושני עשר בקר עגלה על שני הנשאים ושור לאחד ויקריבו אותם לפני המשכן. כי באמת היה להם גודל רחמנות על הלוים הנושאים שישאו משא כבידה, ולכן לא היו יודעים מה לעשות, כי לא היה עפ"י הדבור למשה, ויראו פן נצרכו הלוים לעמל את גופם בעבודת המשא בכדי שיזדכך לבם, כי נמצא לפעמים שלא יוכל האדם להזדכך לבו עד שיעבוד את הש"י בגופו, ואולי אין הרחמנות הזה מה' רק ממה שנמצא במזג לבם ובמקום שאין הש"י חפץ נקרא רחמי רשעים אכזרי, ע"כ ראוי שיביאו שני הנשיאים עגלה כי שנים שיעשו דבר יסכים הש"י עמם, כמ"ש (משלי י"א,ט') ובדעת צדיקים יחלצו, היינו כאשר יסכימו שני תלמידי חכמים לדעת אחת. ושור לאחד כי תפסת מועט תפסת, כי לא רצה לסמוך על דעתו וכאשר ראה שחבירו הסכים לזה אז הבינו כי מה' הוא כמ"ש בירמיה [ל"ב,ח'] כאשר בא חנמאל ויאמר לו קנה לך אז אמר ואדע כי דבר ה' הוא, כמו שמבואר בפסוק ואלהי מסכה וכו' [לעיל פ' קדושים], וכאשר ראה משרע"ה השתומם מאוד, וסבר שנגלה עליהם הדבור בלא ידיעתו, עד שאמר לו הש"י קח מאתם, היינו שלא היה רק מדעת עצמם ועכ"ז קח מאתם שכיוונו לאמיתת רצוני, כי כן היה רצוני שיתנדבו שור לאחד ועגלה על שני הנשיאים.

[1] Why not simply write “six carts”?  Perhaps one might imagine that some of the nesi’im did not share, for example, five nesi’im brought personal carts and the other seven split one cart.  No!  Every Nasi had a partner.

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