My Kulanu fellowship in this Eastern India emerging community”, has settled into sort of a routine: 7:00am – 8:00am – introduction to Gemara; 9:00am – Hebrew; 10:30am – Jewish history and Land of Israel. Lunch and short break before another hour and a half of singing and dancing Israeli and Jewish songs, and later on, an evening program: twice a week – for women only, and once a week – for “everybody”. Then there is Shabbat and its learning. In between I insist on at least one hour afternoon walk. I finally – proudly – know how to get myself out to several places nearby, but, getting back through the small, crowded alleys is a whole different story, so one of the students has to accompany me. They ask me about Israel and the US, and tell me a little about “here”. Most conversations and classes are in English; at times, there is a translator. Considering English is not my first or second language, and neither is it theirs, we all speak with “an accent”, and, I think, understand each other quite well. It is actually amazing how few words one needs, and how much we say with intonation, head and body movements, which in itself is a fascinating and thought-provoking experience, about the limitations and power of speech.
This week’s Torah portion, a double one for those outside of Israel, makes me very happy: Diaspora and Israel are finally catching up so when Moses addresses the whole community next week, and later, when the 9th of Av will be commemorated, we will all be together. Is that why it begins with speech?
A whole tractate was written to expound and explain the opening of the idea of Vows (in the opening of Parashat Matot, Numbers 30). Vows are a strange as we are encouraged to enjoy and appreciate the gifts of this world. Talmud already wondered about this: “Is what the Torah forbade on you insufficient that you decide to add more?” (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 89:5.1). To be clear, we cannot change negative commandments through a vow (i.e. one cannot vow to not to keep kosher, steal or murder -) but one can add prohibitions that the Torah did not provide (i.e. not to eat chocolate for a period of time :-).
The power of speech comes up again and again especially in times of transition: leaving Gan Eden; Moses and the Exodus, which results in the Hagadda, a book of telling for a holiday called Pe-Sach (literally can be translated as “speaking mouth”), and now, just before the closing of the Book of Numbers and the entrance to the Land. Initially unclear, it is also a beautiful concept: it means that within the confines of one’s religion, one can add an “elective”, a kind of “personal commandments”; one can be “in the image of G-d”: to create one’s own spiritual path through the power of speech. To be in a (sort of) two-way street with G-d as the commended becomes a commander.
Two tribes approach Moses and ask to stay on the “other”, eastern side of the Jordan. They explain that they “owned cattle in very great numbers” (Numbers 32:1) and behold, the place is a “region suitable for cattle”. At first, Moses is dismayed: how can they even make such a request, not to go into the Land after everything the People have been through? We’ve just survived 40 years of delay in the desert because a group of leaders (the “Spies”) hesitated exactly about this topic. And now, again?? Moses asks bewildered: “Are you brothers to go to war while you stay here…. And now, you – תרבות אנשים חטאים – a breed of sinful men, have replaced your fathers to add still further to Hashem’s wrath against Israel”?
But they calm him saying, “We will build here sheepfolds for our flocks and towns for our children” – and what’s more – “We will hasten as a shock-troops in the van of Israelite until we have established them in their home…. We will not return to our homes until every one of the Israelite is in possession of his portion”…. And with that Moses agrees, but adds two adjustments: even though the tribes said they need pasture for the cattle (first) and homes for the kids (second), Moses tells them to “build towns for your children (first!) and sheepfolds for your flocks (after) and do what you have promised” (32:24). Once he reminds them of the correct priorities, he also adds half of Menashe’s tribe, and not by coincidence: Menashe is Joseph’s son, who describes himself as Ivri (Hebrew) even in dire situation in Egypt, and Menashe himself is the great, great grandfather of Tzlofchad’s daughters, who stand up for their right for property in the Land. With this kind of connection, Moses feels better about the arrangement and allows it.
Reuven and Gad, the two tribes whose first letters make the acronym ger, convert or friendly foreign tribe – form a link between Israel and the nations of the world. The Eastern side of the Jordan was empty which means there could be a physical disconnect between Israel and the world, which this avoided. There is much for us to teach as well as learn. After Shabbat services here, everyone walks around the room purposefully, making sure they wish each and every person a heartfelt Shabbat Shalom, and I wish there was a way to bring back to our synagogues. Every time there is a class of any sort, almost no matter where, students, young and old (young and younger) bring their notepad and pencils to take notes. Every opportunity is a learning opportunity, and I love that too. Per my reading of the Torah, we do not want to disconnect completely; we do not want to approach “the other” through fear and intimidation. There is no meaning to be a “light unto the nations” if neither us nor the nations can see that light.
History class: I give each group of students a Jewish hero from another time and place so slowly we can begin to see a timeline of events and names. One group get David Ben Gurion and chances upon a picture of him standing on his head. “Can you all stand on your head”? I ask. No, no, madam”. One tries softly: “maybe with wall, maybe”… they shake their heads quietly, giggling shyly. I realize: The Land of Yoga’s children learn about Jewish language, history and faith while the Land of Torah children’s go to India to learn yoga and eastern philosophy…
And then, the summary of the journey (Numbers 33), where not just arrival, but each stop has meaning… may it be so.