Over the next several weeks, we will transition from the Book of Bamidbar to the Book of Devarim. Bamidbar means “in the wilderness” and Devarim means “words.” In Bamidbar, the Torah takes us from Egypt to Canaan and describes life in the wilderness, which was full of trials, tribulations, conflict and complaining. Devarim, by contrast, is a book of calm where Moses speaks the words of what HaShem expects of the Israelites, and the Israelites actually listen.
What is the model that we want for our communities today? Bamidbar or Devarim, fighting and rebelling in the wilderness, or listening to what is expected of us, finding common ground and truly coming to understand the value system that the Torah provides us? The former is destroying us; the latter will guide us to being a community according to the values of the Torah.
Like many others, I am involved in our community through our Federation system because of my strong belief in Jewish values. To me, Jewish values are not one particular teaching or one particular passage, but the entire value system given to us through the Torah — the system that requires us to care for one another, not to engage in lashon harah (gossip) and to find common ground so we can truly repair the world and finish HaShem’s work. Only then can we truly be a community. A couple of weeks ago in Parashat Beha’alotcha, Moses’ sister, Miriam, engages Aaron in lashon harah about Moses and his wife, Zipporah. HaShem punishes Miriam by inflicting her with leprosy, demonstrating the seriousness of the sin of lashon harah.
I am very concerned that today, more than at any time I can remember, we are in deep trouble. We are being ripped apart — the young from the old, the right from the left and the secular from the more observant. We are attacking one another publicly as well as privately, joining the rest of society by engaging in lashon harah about anyone we disagree with.
Federations must stand for a belief in the unity of the Jewish people — our communities are calling out to us to teach one another how to listen and how to practice a standard of decency, or as Hillel describes the Torah: “What is hateful to you do not do to your neighbor; that is the whole lesson of the Torah; the rest is all commentary; go study it.”
The community is more important than being right. Building community is sacred work. We must elevate the conversation.
Hillel did not just talk about Torah, he lived it. He did not just talk the talk, but he also walked the walk. We keep talking the talk of civil discourse and common tradition and Jewish values. It is time for the leadership of our community to lead the way of walking the walk of respect, learning and listening.
When we hear a position we disagree with, can’t we find common ground? We can do that only if we stop waving our personal flags of self-righteousness. It has become more important in our communities to prove that we are right and that those who disagree with us are wrong than it is to work together to find solutions or at least a better understanding of complex problems. None of us possesses perfect knowledge nor all the answers. As writer Lincoln Steffens once said, “It is our knowledge — the things that we are sure of — that makes the world go wrong and keeps us from seeing and learning.”
We are in this together. The community is more important than being right. Building community is sacred work. We must elevate the conversation.
In doing so, we must welcome different points of view, and do more listening than talking.
It is our responsibility to move our communities from the wilderness to the Promised Land, and when I say communities, I mean our whole community, not just those we agree with, just as the greatest leader and teacher of our people, Moshe Rabbenu, took our ancestors from Bamidbar to Devarim, from the wilderness to the most important word in Devarim: Shema, which means listen.
Let’s work together to move our communities from conflict to consensus, from division to common purpose, from lashon horah to Shema. Without an ethic of listening, we are no longer a community. If we are going to repair the world, let’s start with ourselves and our communities — and let’s start now.
Richard Sandler is the chair of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America and past chair of the board of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.