Today we read from the Parasha Bamidbar, in the wilderness. This Parasha begins the book of Numbers, a book filled with loving - and sometimes excessive - descriptions of the next 38 years that the Israelites spent wandering in the desert.
Growing up, I remember stories about these ungrateful Israelites who quickly forgot the G-d who freed them from Egyptian slavery and created a false idol in HaShem’s stead, a golden calf. HaShem was so angry, that G-d punishes the naive Israelites a lifetime of being lost in the desert, never able to set foot upon a land promised to the next generation.
Focusing on G-d’s disappointment, the awful quality of the Israelites, and their subsequent punishment is a common theme within the commentary and the text itself. Yet, the lost generation - and here I use lost to speak literally of the Israelites’ wanderings, and figuratively of how we often consider these 40 years wasted - this lost generation is really a generation of teachers. They are our holy ancestors who built the fabric of Judaism so it could be sustained generation to generation until it reached our generation, until our parents could teach us the story of the Exodus as if they themselves have experienced it. This lost generation taught their children the glory of G-d, the miracle of Mount Sinai, and - most importantly - the ability to live in a budding new community held together by the holy moments of a history the children can not remember. This lost generation was a holy generation, a necessary generation of teachers, and a generation that we often recall as wicked or disillusioned or maybe simply naive.
We begin today’s Parasha with G-d instructing Moshe to take a census of the Israelites, managed by their families and tribes. Such as is common for almost all Jewish questions, there are many explanations for why G-d commands the census. Some of the reasons are practical - the Israelites will see military campaigns during their time in the desert and they must know how many people are within their ranks - and other reasons have a more spiritual basis. Ramban wrote that HaShem had gifted the Israelites with miraculous growth, and wanted to show G-d’s love for the people by counting them, for every Jew is important
The G-d I believe in is less proprietary and more communal than the G-d that Ramban is describing. While this sermon is not a meditation on my beliefs on G-d - I’ll sum it up to say that we all are holy and we all hold a piece of G-d within. I feel blessed to share holy moments with Jews, Christians, Muslims, atheists, and Pagans, and I know that it’s not just Jews that our communal G-d cares for. Ramban is from a different time than I am, and I translate what I believe he is trying to as this: in this time of uncertainty and need, G-d wanted to bless the Israelites with special attention so they may feel the love of one another and of a source greater than themselves. By standing up before G-d, they felt important, humbled, counted, and ready to be counted upon.
This is a view shared in part by Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. He wrote that the census was conducted by each tribe and family so that every individual Israelite could realize his unique role in Israel’s national destiny. In short, every single one of the Israelites has a role to play in creating the community, finding holiness in the desert, and teaching their children to find meaning in the holiness that has already been experienced at Mount Sinai.
This is the crux of the idea of l’dor v’dor - from generation to generation. Now a common Jewish saying, during the time of this generation it literally defined the fate of Judaism. If these parents did not relay their holy experiences, life lessons, and values to their children, the wonder of Mount Sinai, the foolishness of the golden calf, and the reverence for G-d that can only be developed by 40 years of wandering - all of this would be lost forever. We depend on the next generation. My parents have depended on me, and I will one day depend on my children to relay the lessons that we have learned. Some of these lessons I will never be able to fully grasp, including the concentration camps of World War II, McCarthyism damaging the freedom of speech, homophobia terrorizing your ability to live, or even personal battles that have been waged - and sometimes won - by my parents, grandparents, great grandparents and farther back still. But these experiences, now stories upon my ears, shape how I live my life and the choices I make for myself. It’s what we teach our children - what we ourselves have been taught - that helps develop the community that we shape for the next generation.
The Israelites spent 40 years creating a community as they ate, slept, foraged, and sat in wonder - and likely frustration - in front of a wandering Tabernacle that was helping to lead them in circles. It was these daily rituals that imbued this generation with holiness, and maybe that’s why it’s so easy to discount their contribution. It’s easy to ignore the holiness of daily repeated moments. Many say blessings before and after eating, when they wake up in the morning, and before they go to bed. Maybe this is not true for you, but for me, I find it hard to place myself in the blessing, to remind myself that I am a co-creator of holiness. I do not say motzi simply because I am thankful for the bread’s creation. I say motzi because I am a player in this holy ritual, because I eat the bread. It takes my action, as well as gratitude for the bounty which I am blessed to enjoy, to create the fullness in a blessing.
But it’s easy to feel ordinary in our every day moments. By definition, they are ordinary - they happen every day. But its in these moments we find our life’s satisfactions, feel connected to one another, and enjoy the peace, or anger, or gratitude we invite into our daily existence. It was also in these ordinary moments the Israelites became teachers, explaining to their children the overpowering and glorious wonder before Mount Sinai as they practiced a daily walking meditation in search of a promised land.
Tomorrow I get to marry a wonderful woman, the woman of my dreams, if my dreams had been able to conjure up someone as wonderful as my wife-to-be. I have been anxiously anticipating this day for a year now. But what I look forward to most is our married life together, which begins the day after the wedding. It’s cliched, but true, it’s the marriage - not the wedding - that’s important. It’s the daily alarm clock, the Shabbat dinners, the cooking and the dishes. It’s these daily experiences that create our lives and make them full. It’s every single b’nai mitzvah kid making me cry because of the sweetness of the love that emanates from them and their parents. It’s this congregation joining me on the High Holy Days as we rose in defiance of the words found in Leviticus chapter 18, verse 22: "Do not lie with a male as one lies with a woman; it is abomination."
We all make daily choices that affect others in extraordinary ways. And I hate to come up to the bimah to talk about the gayness of my wedding tomorrow, especially because I’m not gay, I’m a big old bisexual, and because there’s nothing extra special about my big fat traditional Jewish gay wedding than anyone else’s extra special wedding - because weddings are extra special - but here I go: If you were there during our Yom Kippur Mincha service this year, you might have heard Menachem speak always-so-thoughtfully before the Torah service. He said, it is our place to struggle with the Torah, but we need not take troublesome passages sitting down. He invited all of those who were similarly troubled by this Leviticus passage to join him in heeding Rabbi Greenberg’s teaching. In defiance of how this passage has been traditionally translated, Menachem invited the congregation to stand during its reading.
When the third passage came, I expected to be one of a dozen, may 20 people. I was just over there in the front row, and I stood up and slowly turned around. And I cried. Just like I cry at every B’nai Mitzvah, when love engulfs the congregation, tears rolled down my cheeks as I saw a congregation standing with me.
And then, many of you have been almost as excited about my big gay wedding as I have. And there has been an obvious absence of condescending and thoughtless comments. I have yet to hear something naively hurtful, like “Oh, good for you!” as if I just told them I was going to run a marathon or “It’s not legal, right? Why don’t you just wait until it is?” as if love could go on hold until the government can decide the legality of my relationship. All I have ever felt from this congregation, and the people in this room, is love. From the bottom of my heart, I want to say thank you for supporting and loving me as I engage with my Judaism and the life I want to realize. In those daily interactions, you have helped create a community that welcomes both our neighbor and stranger alike, and builds a kind and thoughtful way of life. Just like the Israelites practiced a daily walking meditation that added up to holy teachings, this congregation is creating holy space as we struggle with what it means to be observant, welcoming, and thoughtful Jews. Thank you for being both my teacher and my comrade, as we continue to build a welcoming, participatory and egalitarian sacred community that is a daily meditation on holiness.