Sunday, July 31, 2011

Emily's Devar Torah at Netivot Shalom, Baltimore

D’var Torah: Parashat Massei 2011

I don’t understand spectator sports.  Well, I do and I don’t.  Perhaps I understand them a little better in light of this week’s parasha and my preparations for this dvar Torah....

When I was a kid, I didn’t know the first thing about football.  But if you would have asked me who my favorite team was, I was a die-hard Eagles fan.  And a Phillies fan.  And a Flyers fan.  If they were in Philadelphia, they were my team.  On the few occasions I attended sporting events with my family, I screamed and cheered for the home team, and stomped and booed whenever our opponents did something good.  I cheered for our teams like we had some kind of connection or something in common because we all were from Philly.  Except WE were from South Jersey-- Philly was just the closest city with sports teams.  And come to think of it, the players weren’t from Philly either.  They were recruited and traded by the coaches.  They could be from anywhere.  

I wasn’t personally so invested in sports, but when we moved to Boston when I was a kid, my two brothers had intense, heated debates about whether they were supposed to remain Phillies fans or whether now they had to support the Boston Red Sox.  They both acted like their decisions were based on the merits of the actual teams and how well they played, but no one was suggesting they root for the Chicago Bears or the Baltimore Orioles.  It was clearly an issue of identity, and they were trying to figure out where their allegiances belonged. 

My mother had a more global approach to spectator sports.  She didn’t have team loyalties.  She always rooted for the underdog.  When she would come to watch our little league games, she would root for the underdogs even if they were playing against us.  She would stand next to the other moms from our team, and loudly cheer against us in favor of a particularly short and scrawny opponent who would come up to bat.  

My most exciting spectator sport experience ever was when Ross and I first moved to Vancouver in 1996.  The Houston Rockets had won the playoffs the last three years in a row.  This was a big deal for Ross, since he grew up in Houston, and he was a big fan.  Ross’ friend from High School who works for the Rockets got us tickets to see them play against the brand new Vancouver team-- the Grizzlies.  It was the Grizzlies’ first year in the league.  They were definitely the underdogs.  The game was during Ramadan, and Sharif Abdu Rahim, one of their star players, was playing while fasting, and he was amazing.  Ross was torn about who to root for, but when the little David Vancouver Grizzlies beat the big Goliath Houston Rockets, no one in the stadium could contain their excitement.  I felt so proud of our little team that could.  Proud of what, I don’t know.  Did I teach them how to play?  Did I help them train?  Did I bring them gatorade?  We hadn’t even purchased our own tickets!!  But it felt great to be a part of it.  

Was my excitement because now that I lived in Vancouver I considered myself a Vancouverite?  Was it because of my religious sympathies for Sharif Abdu Rahim?  Was it my mother’s propensity to root for the underdog?

While I felt such a part of the excitement that day, I can not understand the fervor that led to massive riots in that same city just a month and a half ago, when spectators overturned cars, looted stores, and set fires throughout the city, injuring dozens of people.  Why?  Because their beloved hockey team, the Vancouver Canucks, made it to the seventh game of the Stanley Cup, and lost.  What were they protesting? Who were they angry at?  Their team played great.  They made it to the 7th game of the Stanley Cup!  The other team just played a little better.  But somehow for these rioters, a piece of their identity was wrapped up in the success of their team, their city-- their people.  Even if their main contribution was to sit in the stands and drink beer and yell, they wanted to be a part of the winning team.  This seems to be a part of human nature.

In this week’s parasha, Bnei Yisrael are planning their entrance into the land of Israel.  The land will be divided up fairly-- larger portions for larger families and smaller portions for smaller ones.  And each  tribe will have their own region.  

The parasha concludes with the sequel to the story of Bnot Tzelofchad.  Two weeks ago in parashat Pinchas, Tzlofchad’s daughters accomplished a major legal coup when they appealed to Moshe in front of the whole people and asked for permission to inherit their father’s land.  Why did they do it?

In Parashat Pinchas, the young women ask:  

לָמָּה יִגָּרַע שֵׁם-אָבִינוּ מִתּוֹךְ מִשְׁפַּחְתּוֹ, כִּי אֵין לוֹ בֵּן; תְּנָה-לָּנוּ אֲחֻזָּה, בְּתוֹ אֲחֵי אָבִינוּ.

Why should our father’s name be lost to his clan, just because he he had no son?  Give us a portion among our father’s kinsmen!

It seems that their intentions had to do with preserving their father’s legacy.  Moshe, after consulting with Hashem, honors their plea and gives them their father’s inheritance.  

In this week’s parasha, leaders from their tribe complain to Moshe that this decision may impact negatively on their tribal land.  If these women inherit the land and then marry into other tribes, the land will go to those tribes..   Considering this point, Moshe devises a solution.  He rules that the women must marry only within their own tribe.  This solves both the family and tribal issues.  It seems to appease the daughters, who follow the new law without complaint.  Not exactly a 21st century solution, but it seems to make everyone happy.  

Leaving the feminist question for another time, what I want to know is, what is the big deal about protecting the integrity of the tribe?!  Aren’t we a nation?  Aren’t we a people?  Didn’t we just suffer together generations of slavery in Egypt, followed by the bonding experience of 40 years of communal survival in the desert, so we could inherit the land of our forefathers and live united under our one G-d?  Everyone’s got all the land they need.  As they intermarry, they can share lands between the new families.  This should only strengthen our peoplehood, no?  

Well, maybe not.  

The entire story of the Torah has been a process of people learning to live with each other.  In the very beginning, the first two brothers, Cane and Abel, couldn’t even manage to share the whole world between the two of them.  It was only with Jacob and his 12 sons that our ancestral family developed any sense of mutual responsibility, and only after some serious sibling rivalry issues.  

At the end of the book of Bereishit, Jacob blesses each of his sons individually, imparting to each the qualities and gifts that will define his tribe's distinct role within the people of Israel; Moshe does the same when blessing the twelve tribes at the end of the book of Devarim, on the eve of the people's entry into the Holy Land. He highlights the distinct qualities each has to offer the Jewish people.  They are all part of the whole, but with unique, individual identities.  In their travels through the desert, each tribe maintains its own leader or "prince," its own encampment in its designated place around the Tabernacle, and its own color and flag.  It would not be easy for people to see beyond these deep tribal allegiances.  Like earlier in the Torah, change would be a process.

According to the Talmud, in Baba Batra 121a, the ruling given to the daughters of Tzelofchad, that women who inherit land could only marry within their tribe, was only in effect for the first generation in the land.  Apparently, once the last of that generation were gone and the Israelites were well established, they were indeed permitted, and perhaps even encouraged, to mingle and intermarry.  Rabbi Yehuda said in the name of Rav that when the ban was first lifted, it was Tu B’Av.  It was the day when, according to the Mishna in Taanit, young women would go out to the fields and dance in white dresses to attract suitors.  The girls would exchange dresses so that each was wearing one that didn’t belong to her.  This ensured that no one would know who was rich and who was poor.  It also, perhaps, disguised their tribe of origin, thus encouraging the assimilation of the Jewish people with each other.  It was like a big premarital draft pick.

Despite the supposed mingling of the people, tribal warfare continued within Israel, and it was only going to get much worse.  While there may have been some intermarrying, some switching teams, there was still a strong sense of tribal loyalty.  

Things got really bad at the end of Sefer Shofetim, when the tribe of Benjamin  fell out of favor with the others due to their Sodom-like mistreatment of a visitor’s concubine.  While their behavior was indeed appalling, the response of the other tribes was a bit over the top.  They vowed to never marry their daughters into the tribe of Benjamin.  They then proceeded to wage war against the entire tribe of Benjamin, and to slaughter all the Benjaminite women and children.  

The other tribes subsequently regretted their harsh response.  They were sorry that because of their vow and their violent reaction, the tribe of Benjamin would soon cease to exist.  There were only men remaining, and no women who were permitted to marry them.  

In an attempt to remedy the problem they had created, the Israelites found a loophole that would enable them to save the tribe of Benjamin.  Their plan is described in Sefer Shofetim, Chapter 21.  They were not allowed to marry off their daughters to the tribe of Benjamin, but they figured that if their daughters were taken without their direct involvement, they would not be guilty of marrying them off.  

They recalled that there is a חַג-יְהוָה בְּשִׁלוֹ מִיָּמִים יָמִימָה

... a yearly festival of the Lord.  The Talmud in Baba Batra suggests that this festival was again Tu B’Av-- apparently the day of tribal mingling and reconciliation.  On that day, the Israelites instruct the Benjaminites:

וְהִנֵּה אִם-יֵצְאוּ בְנוֹת-שִׁילוֹ לָחוּל בַּמְּחֹלוֹת, וִיצָאתֶם מִן-הַכְּרָמִים, וַחֲטַפְתֶּם לָכֶם אִישׁ אִשְׁתּוֹ מִבְּנוֹת שִׁילוֹ; וַהֲלַכְתֶּם, אֶרֶץ בִּנְיָמִן.

They tell them to hide out in the vineyards near Shiloh, and when they see girls coming out to dance, they should grab them for wives and bring them back to the land of Benjamin.  

While this story highlights divisions between the tribes, we see in the end a sort of national loyalty.  It is a story of tribal warfare, but one where in the end, the nation did not want to see one tribe totally disappear. 

The daughters of Tzlofchad were originally looking out for the honor of their father.  They were then willing to compromise regarding who they were allowed to marry for the sake of their tribe.  Ultimately, the law that was designed to protect the tribal estate gave way to a custom meant to encourage national unity.  Why is the family and community loyalty so important?  Who cares on what land everyone would live, as long as they were provided for?  Why couldn’t they just see themselves as part of Am Yisrael?  

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks addresses this question by recalling the universalistic philosophy of the Enlightenment.  He explains that philosophers believed, as many still do today, that the more universal we are, the more advanced we are.  We demonstrate our progress and our sophistication through our universal attachments to humanity.  

Rabbi Sacks highlights the absurdity of this simplistic view by quoting the famous Enlightenment philosopher Montesquieu, who said:

"I would be wrong if I preferred my children to the citizens of my town. I would be wrong if I preferred my fellow citizens of the town to the citizens of France, and I would be wrong if I preferred my fellow citizens of France to my fellow citizens of the universe."

Rabbi Sacks recalls the story of the Tower of Babel.  He argues that when G-d sees the people with a common language and  a common goal building their tower, G-d rejects this notion of the universal human civilisation.  God says "No". That is not human. That is ultimately inhuman. At that point, God comes in, intercedes, takes away their language and, from that moment, humanity is divided into a multiplicity of languages, faiths, cultures, civilizations. Diversity.  It what Rabbi Sacks refers to as the Dignity of Difference, and it’s a good thing.  

When the Jewish people began to intermingle and intermarry among the tribes, this was progress.  Today, when we see Jews from different cultures, Ashkenazim and Sephardim, Ethiopians, Russians, Americans and Israelis, choosing to marry each other, we see this as progress. At the same time, we acknowledge the tremendous value of the preservation of all of these different cultures within our people.  

As we approach Tisha B’Av, when we will mourn the loss of the unity of our people over baseless hatred, let us reflect on how we can honor and celebrate each other’s differences.  

And when we approach Tu B’Av, let us celebrate together all we have in common.  Let us celebrate our diversity together as one people.

1 comment:

  1. Yasher koach! Beautiful.

    "It was like a big premarital draft pick."

    I expect sports analogies from Rabbi Rosenblatt; I NEVER would have anticipated one from you, Em! :)