In his commentary on this week’s Torah portion, Simon Federbush explained the Torah’s limitation taking vows of abstinence as described in the Nazirite vow. (Num. 6:1-8) One could take such vows, but only for a limited time and separating oneself from society in very limited ways. Federbush wrote: “…they rejected those who afflict themselves with asceticism because they were convinced that he who is occupied with ascetic indulgence will have no mind for the needs of his neighbor.” Our forebears, said Federbush, realized that antisocial behavior is alien to the spirit of Judaism. (URJ Plaut Torah Commentary, p. 943) In the wake of this week’s tragedy in Orlando, it is difficult to discern what might have been in the mind of the shooter. But, one thing is clear, which is often true in the case of mass murders: The perpetrator kept to himself. Even at his mosque during Ramadan, a time of much communal support, he sat alone in a corner, to the consternation of his fellow Muslims. Our wise forebears sensed the danger of cutting oneself off from society. They may not have imagined a result such as the tragedy of Orlando, but they knew asceticism was unhealthy for the individual and society.
Torah Portion Bemidbar, the first parasha in the Book of Numbers, begins with a census. Hence the English name of the book. The Torah portion raises up the importance of being counted. We all want to be counted, that is, recognized and considered important in our communities and in our nation. As this season of the political primaries for President comes to a close, we can reflect on the primary process and its goal of making certain that every American in every State gets a chance to be counted. We may or may not like the outcome of the process in a given cycle, but it is a chance to be counted, to have our voices heard. Some wish that the candidates who don’t have the votes to win at a convention would drop out before the primary process is over, but if that happens, the voters in the last state primaries will not be counted. The message of Bemidbar is that every person counts.
The first words of this week’s parasha are: “Im bechutokai teileichu,” literally, “If you will walk in my laws….” (Lev 26:3) Some of you may know that the Hebrew word for Jewish law is halakhah, which is related semantically to the word teileichu (you will walk) in this verse. It comes from the Hebrew root --hey-lamed-chaf--, which means to walk or go. So to follow the mitzvot, the commandments of Judaism, is really to “walk” in the right path or to “go” the right way. In other words, following Jewish law will lead you on a path of a good and righteous life. In Reform Judaism, we do not consider ourselves bound to traditional Jewish law or halakhah in a strict sense, but we use those laws as guidance for our lives, helping us to define for ourselves what laws and practices help us “walk” a meaningful and holy life..