B’HA’ALOTKHA

FRIDAY, June 1st

This week we read two verses that we say every time we read from the Torah.  Bemidbar 10:35-26.  When we remove the Sefer Torah from the ark we recite “Vayehi Binsoa` Ha’aron…When the Ark set out, Moshe would say ‘Arise Lord! May your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee before you.’”  And after the Torah reading when we return the Torah to the ark, we read “Uvenucho yomar…When the ark came to rest, he would say ‘Return, Lord, the thousands of myriads of Israel.”

Thus, there’s a certain parallel symmetry—we pray for God’s enemies to be dispersed, scattered, and we ask God return to us as a single people of thousands of myriads, gathered together.

The Hebrew root Asaph אספ, meaning to gather together, is a motif in the parsha, appearing a number of times.  We read about the people gathering quail, the gathering of 70 elders, the mysterious group of people called the Asaphsuph, Miriam being gathered back into the people after having been cloistered while she suffered from Tzoraat.  Throughout the parsha, there are gatherings for good and gatherings for evil.

When people gather together in a group, our power to do good increases exponentially–a community is greater than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, that’s also true when a people gather together to do evil.  This is why we plead with God to disperse His enemies.  A single wicked person is much less dangerous than an army of wicked people.  At the same time, this is also why we form congregations- because when we gather together to serve God, that power to do good is also amplified.  Prayer in a community, we are told, is preferable to prayer as an individual.

It’s also true that we are influenced by the people around us.  Any behavior I see in the people around me becomes normalized for me, so if the people around me are in the habit of speakingLashon Hara, even though I know it’s wrong to gossip, I’ll wind up joining in, and I won’t even see it as that bad.  On the other hand, if I surround myself with people who engage in positive behaviors, engaging in hospitality to the stranger, praying together as a community, these behaviors that I might not have been inclined to engage in on my own, will begin to become my new normal.

This, I think is the root of the idea at the root of Moshe’s plea with God, which has become a part of our liturgy.  We ask God to disperse the wicked and to return to the myriads of Israel.  When we say “Kumah Hashem v’yafutzu oyvekha–Arise Hashem and scatter Your enemies” we are asking God to please disperse those who would do evil so that they may not gather together and create a culture that normalizes wickedness. And when we say Shuva Hashem Riv’vot Alphei Yisrael, we are asking God to be present in our gatherings, that they may be gatherings that promote goodness and God-consciousness.

May the bonds of our community, this holy gathering of Jews be strong, may God’s presence rest upon us, and may our gathering be one of holiness and humility, kindness and justice.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein