Thought for Shabbat – July 21, 2017
In this week’s Torah portion of Matot-Masei the Israelites look back at all the different places they have been on their journey since they left Egypt. Among several other things, this is important information for them to have before they enter the Promised Land. Many of those receiving this information were not alive at the time that the original Exodus occurred. With the recording of the names of these place, the Israelites are developing a common history, an important aspect of the building of a people/community.
While a community does not need every member to have the exact same mindset, there still needs to be a commonality of some sort of values and history. The need for diversity in the community is important to keep thought and development alive. Of course, sometimes that diversity can cause large schisms in communities and even whole countries. These schisms develop when significant differences arise within the community over a set of issues or even over one issue.
When the United States was formed, the major commonality of interest was a desire to be freed of the yoke of British rule. But it was only a little over 80 years later that the country was so sharply divided that the North and South went to war against each other and did not end the war until over 600,000 soldiers had died. The wounds and remnants of that war remain with our society today and have led to other schisms as well.
In part, the schisms in much of the world exist and will continue to do so because so much time is spent focusing on the differences between us. Politicians of all nations long ago learned that they can amass power by playing on the differences. This works well if you are trying to get power. It does not work well for building a community or nation in the long run once the power is achieved. This seems to be the playbook for many of the world’s politicians and leaders, as they are generally only concerned with the short run of their own political careers.
When Moses reviews and records the history of the Exodus from place to place, he is reminding everyone of their common history, values, successes and mistakes. Amazingly, thousands of years later, we are still talking about that same history. And that history set forth in the Torah is what has kept us together. The common values and calendar, even if the observances are not always common, strengthen our ability to survive as a people. If we can continue to recognize the importance of highlighting our commonalities, of our common history of interaction with God, we will succeed. Moses knew this many years ago, and we need to remember it now.
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer