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Toward Shabbat: Bemidbar

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi (3rd century) taught that when Moses went up to heaven to receive the Torah from God, the ministering angels became jealous that he, a mere human being, and not they, would merit such a privilege.

God told Moses to respond to them. Addressing God, Moses asked:

“Master of the Universe, the Torah that You are giving me, what is written in it?”

“I am Adonai, your God, who took you out of Egypt…” 

Moses turned to the angels: “Did you go down to Egypt? Were you slaves to Pharaoh? Why do you need the Torah?”

He then continued with all Ten Commandments:

“Do you live among the heathen nations that you need to be warned to not have other deities? Do you do any work that you need to cease and rest on the Sabbath? Do you have parents that you need to honor?” And so on.

The Torah we will receive this year anew, as Shavuot begins tomorrow night, was not designed for angels but for human beings living in the real world, with all its chaos, its trials, its demands and struggles.

The Hebrew Bible has penetrated the consciousness of most of humanity with its call to moral awakening and its claim for human dignity and for justice. The very first thing we learn about us humans in the opening chapter of Genesis is that every person is made in the image of God. That means that each individual is endowed with holiness and that we are all equal and of infinite value.

It has been a long, sinuous, tortuous, and bloody road from Sinai till present times in the struggle for human dignity. The Torah and the mitzvot, the rabbis teach, were given “letzraref bahen et haberiot—to refine humanity.” Humanity has no doubt made significant progress. But just as we thought that we were becoming more morally refined and, here at home, a more perfect union, we are being confronted with the barbarism in our own midst. As a country, we have tolerated the proliferation of lies, a violent insurrection, ongoing racism, misogyny, and more. Over and over again, periodic mass shootings remind us that we live in a violent society, where guns, power, and money are more precious than human life.

The Torah tells us that God spoke to the assembled people at Sinai “kol gadol velo yasaf—with a mighty voice that did not cease” (Deuteronomy 5:19). God will never cease to remind us of the Torah’s radical and revolutionary demand: that we uphold the sanctity of life and the dignity of every human being. It will take a large dose of moral grandeur and spiritual audacity, to use Abraham Joshua Heschel’s words, to confront the barbarism in our midst. And more than that, it will take determined action, even when we are tired, frustrated, and in despair.

I believe that there is no more important and sacred action at this time, for the sake of human dignity in our country, than to spare no effort in rescuing and repairing our democracy and our democratic culture, and establishing the will of the majority. In voting; in enabling others to vote; in combating voter suppression; in fighting for one person, one vote.

And this concerns not just presidential elections, as Dahlia Lithwick, lawyer and senior editor at Slate, told us in a recent presentation at BJ. Voting at every opportunity and all levels—city, state, and federal—is more crucial than ever before. As a community, we will put ourselves to work; we will be following up soon to organize and mobilize on behalf of our democracy.

I grew up under a military dictatorship in Argentina. Political activity was strictly forbidden; political parties were proscribed; there was no voting, no congress, no tolerance for dissenting opinions. When democracy was reestablished there and elections were held in October 1983, I was already living in New York City so I was not able to vote. I became a U.S. citizen in 2005 and entered a voting booth for the first time in my life in 2006, at age 50. My hands were shaking when I pulled the lever. I cried and said sheheheyanu. That’s why this issue is so close to my heart.

We are moving towards a precipice that we risk falling off of, and the time to change course is running out.

Kol gadol velo yasaf—God’s voice will never cease to call from Sinai. Will we accept or reject the Torah’s mandate to uphold the sanctity of life and dignity of all human beings?

J. Rolando Matalon

Written By J. Rolando Matalon

José Rolando Matalon, B’nai Jeshurun’s senior rabbi and rosh kehilah (head of congregation), was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and was educated in Buenos Aires, Montreal, Jerusalem, and New York...

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