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Valuing Difference

In our Torah reading today, when Moshe Rabeinu was about to relinquish his leadership over the children of Israel, he addressed God in a most unusual way: “Moshe spoke to the Lord, saying, 'Let the Lord, Source of the Breath of All Flesh (E-lohei Haruchot L’chol Basar), appoint someone over the community.'" Haruchot from the same root as Ruach, meaning Spirit or Breath. Now, this is the only place where God is referred to in this manner, so our Sages were inspired to find deeper meaning in this phrase.

But what could “Elohei Haruchot L’chol Basar” possibly mean? One answer became the basis for an unusual blessing. None of us probably would have known this but when one sees a gathering of 600,000 Jews, (the number that tradition tells us was gathered at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah), one is supposed to say: “Blessed are You, Lord our God, who knows all secrets” (Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech HaOlam, Chacham HaRazim). According to our sages, God knows all secrets because God is E-lohei Haruchot L’chol Basar. The sages thus read “ruchot” here to mean “spirits.” And with a little midrashic sleight of hand - spirits means ideas, ideas means secrets - and E-lohei HaRuchot becomes Chacham HaRazim.

When we say this upon seeing 600,000 Jews, we are praising not only God’s capacity to know people’s spirit – their thoughts - their secrets - but also tacitly calling attention to the uniqueness of each individual. He is the Source of the Breath in each and every unique one of us. As Rashi says in his comment on this verse,: "Just as no two faces are alike, so, too, no two people's ideas are alike."

God values the individuality of each and every person.

This is a critical message, not just for the Jewish people today, but for all people, and for us. Not only do we come in all sizes, shapes and colors but more than anything else, we contain a multitude of different opinions. And the sages ask us to thank God for this diversity because it is not a foregone conclusion that we, or any people, could successfully contain such diversity and still be one people, or one nation, or even one synagogue. And so when confronted with 600,000 very different members of a single people, we are called upon to appreciate what a blessing it is.

Reading all of this back into the parashah sheds some light on what Moshe is doing. According to Rashi, he is saying: "Master of the Universe: "You, God, know what everybody thinks, even though no two people think alike. I want you, God, to appoint a leader who will also be able to tolerate the opinions of others." As hard as it had been for him to lead such a stubborn and unruly bunch, Moshe wants God to choose a successor who won’t just seek to suppress dissent.

This radical appreciation of diversity of opinion is essential to rabbinic thinking. Jewish sacred literature, whether it be the Talmud, Midrash and even Halakha (Jewish law) - is replete with debate and argument. Monolithic thought is Jewishly inauthentic. Why? Perhaps, we value the dialectic process of inquiry and argumentation as a means for getting closer to the truth. Or perhaps we recognize the inherent limitations of any single human point of view when considering and describing the divine. Thus the Talmud presents multiple opinions and arguments, but few definitive answers.

What keeps these arguments from breeding hostility - what enables the center to hold - is a shared commitment to the questions themselves and the ultimate purpose of the argument. In Mishnah Avot (5:21) we learn: “Any dispute which is for Heaven’s sake (L’shem Shamayim) will endure; but any which is not for Heaven’s sake will not endure.” In rabbinic Hebrew, “L’Shem Shamayim” means "for the sake of God.” In modern Hebrew, it is understand to mean "for positive reasons" or “for pure motives.”

Our tradition calls upon us to be radically accommodating of those who hold opposing views - even views we think are fundamentally incorrect and even dangerous - if they are sincerely offering their best answers to the great questions of the day. Although the back and forth can be frustrating and painful, and our instincts may be to disengage from the other side, to actively suppress it, or to dismiss it, we are directed to walk in the way of God, and do our best to see the other side’s unique spirit, understand their thoughts, and appreciate their secrets.

Back in March, 1 month BC, before COVID, we began a process of listening to each other talk about our synagogue. What are we doing well? Where are we failing? What are your concerns? What are your ideas for making things better? And how can we grow? While more meetings were intended, we paused after 3 due to COVID and my personal schedule. However, I want you all to know that your “breath” was not wasted and your ideas were not forgotten. I took notes and wrote up summaries of each meeting. The board reviewed my summaries and Rabbi Izi and I poured through your suggestions, thoughts, complaints and concerns. I can say that just through the process of listening to each of you during those meetings, you are all unique and you all have your own lense through which you see our congregation and how it fits into the world. The Source of the Breath of All Flesh, Elohei Haruchot L’chol Basar, says that’s okay. I strongly feel that everyone came and everyone spoke, L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of God, and that everyone wants to make our congregation a thriving Jewish community of Yeshua faith, a model and inspiration for Messianic Jews around the world. How we get there may change course, but that we will get there, I have no doubt.

At our congregational meeting on July 22, I am on the agenda to provide you with an update on actions we’ve already taken or are planning to take based on your suggestions from those first three meetings. Other suggestions and concerns from those meetings are not yet able to be enacted for one reason or another, OR will require major efforts by numerous people, something we’ve not been able to entertain due to COVID, OR require all members to be on the same page as far as the vision and mission of our congregation. Therefore, the Board decided that before we go any further with the townhall meetings we need to pause and revisit the historical vision of CZA, that is who and what we were originally designed to become. So following my update, Rabbi Isaac will present in summary the original vision of the congregation as it was written into our by-laws. We will then discuss it as a body, L’Shem Shamayim, to determine whether it is still who and what we want to be OR if it is time for some fine-tuning of the language, OR if it is time to make some major changes. It is likely that this discussion will need to be continued much further than the 40 minutes allotted to it in our meeting agenda. If that is the case, we will schedule additional follow-up sessions over Zoom until we are ready as a congregation to move forward. Once that's done, we'll get back to having those townhall brainstorms and to working on the ideas brought forth.

We know we have some differences and like Moshe who wanted God to select a new leader who would not suppress dissent, so to do we wish to hear any dissent so that we can discuss L’Shem Shamayim, for the sake of God, and for the health and growth of our congregation. May the Ruach empower our speech, may Messiah Yeshua inspire our thoughts, and may the Lord, Source of the Breath of All Flesh, Elohei Haruchot L’chol Basar, bless us throughout this process.


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