Parashat Hashavua for Beha'alotcha 2020

Parashat Hashavua for Beha'alotcha 

Cantor Michel Laloum
Temple Beth Israel

If we applied the mitzvah of blowing the shofar as an alarm in a time of war, shofars would surely be sounding around the world.  This week the Orthodox diaspora read parashat Nasso, while Israel and the Progressive movement read from parashat Beha’alotecha – (this is due to the second day of Shavuot being on Shabbat for the Orthodox; we’re back in sync in early July). 

In Beha’alotecha, Moshe is dealing with complaints from the Israelites whom Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsh believes were bored and Rashi suggested were exhausted. As their leader, Moshe turned to his line manager and referred their complaints to God, who in turn suggested a panel of 70 experienced people to share the burden of leadership.  Even within this section, there is relevance to our situation today: while we’ve all become amateur epidemiologists in the past few months, as the world creeps up on a staggering 400,000 deaths from COVID-19, we see the countries that have fared the best are the ones who followed the science and listened to the medical professionals, acting above politics in many cases, damaging their own economies to save every life that could be saved. 

Our complaints and boredom might have increased over the weeks of isolation but we know that we are truly a lucky country this week. Moshe was not threatened by Eldad and Medad prophesising in the camp and encouraged the Israelites to listen. True leaders are not threatened nor diminished by the leadership and successes of others but harness their skills to the benefit of those they are entrusted to govern.  

This week, we have seen in action, the modern-day equivalent of when in this parasha, Miriam speaks ill of Moshe – this is the quintessential ‘lashon hara’.  Jewish tradition could not be clearer about its abhorrence of this practice: speaking evil is equated to murder, or ‘backstabbing’, regardless of whether what is being said is true. Even listening to this type of commentary is forbidden because it enables the speaker, and Jews are instructed to either speak out against it or extricate themselves from the situation. 

Speaking ill causes harm and in the 400 years since slavery in the U.S., lashon hara has done immeasurable harm.  Last week, Parashat Nasso completed the headcount of each of the children of Israel taken in the Sinai desert. Within the tradition of every life being a sacred expression of God’s image, originally, the Constitution of the U.S. only added “three-fifths” of “all other Persons” to the total number of “free Persons”.  Not to say that a country that only acknowledge the right to vote for our traditional owners in 1967 doesn’t have its own racist baggage, but as we focused on Reconciliation Week in Australia, it has been difficult to watch the events in the U.S. unfold, especially as someone who lived so many years in America. Incitement to violence is simply an escalation of Miriam’s lashon hara. When for years lashon hara has excused violence, welcomed racist speech and actions and normalized prejudice against certain groups within the community, the outcome is likely to be violence.   

George Floyd’s murder is an example which has a face and a name. But his murder is just one in a long series of brutal acts reflecting disregard and even contempt for black lives. There are too many stories of black children being harassed for holding a lemonade stand, a black man accosted for bird watching, another followed, chased and murdered while jogging in his own neighbourhood.  Moshe himself married an ‘Isha kushit’, a black woman, and yet racism seems to be endemic throughout history, and a constant in the arsenal of those who wish to divide in order to oppress.

There is no irony, but rather very real tragedy in the biblical idea life being sacred, coinciding with the week that America passed 100,000 deaths and more people were killed and injured protesting the murder of another. Each was someone’s son, daughter, brother, sister, husband, wife, mother or father. Even more tragic is the fact that a disease that disproportionately impacts people of colour will likely surge over the coming weeks, partly spurred by the close contact of people expressing their grief, outrage and despair.

Racism is not bound by national borders. In France, sympathetic protests are also being forcefully suppressed as the French remember Adama Traore, a French black man who died in police custody. Despite a four-year investigation, the verdict in the investigation into his death failed to hold the police responsible. 

Today as we count our dead, we also must do some fundamental soul searching. How can we continue to allow this cancer of the soul to continue in what we want to claim as an enlightened society? How can we allow our leaders to manipulate and distort truth, creating a culture where facts can be questioned, and lives expended as if they have no value, while attempting to legislate constraints on the videoing of law enforcement’s misbehaviour? 

While the Constitution may no longer value a black life at three-fifths the value of a “free person”, the reality is that the disadvantages faced by black Americans continue and are real. If we take on the fundamental of Parashat Nasso, that each life is a sacred gift, then how can we allow one human being to be counted as of greater value than another?

If we take on the teachings of Lashon Hara, that not only are we forbidden from saying bad things but that we are also prohibited from listening to them without speaking out, what is our role in changing the narrative and the way forward? 

Moshe was instructed to respond to complaints by turning to a large group of experienced people.  Yet many leaders seem to wilfully ignore and undermine opposing voices regardless of their experience, expertise or right to be heard, shifting the responsibility for injustice on to those who document it, and to those who are the victims of it.

There have been moments of hope: some police marching or kneeling in solidarity with the protesters – “no one hates a bad cop more than a good cop does”; an army of residents turning up with brooms to clean up after protests in Minnesota. But the deliberate targeting of journalists after years of them being referred to as enemies; the targeting of peaceful demonstrators with pepper spray, shields, batons and physical violence; and commentary that ignores the genuine grievances of the protesters in favour of political speak that aims to promote further discord and inflame a particular element within the community, frays the fundamentals of a democratic society. Lashon hara is the equivalent in Judaism to a murder. 

Today, similarly to Parashat Nasso, we live like the biblical Nazir (Judaism’s monastic tradition), with social distancing and isolation.  Yet it is up to each of us to stand up and be counted.  To work toward a society where such injustices cannot be tolerated.  As the meditation in Mishkan Tefillah immediately prior to our Amidah says:

“Pray as if everything depends on God,
Act as if everything depends on you!”

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