My father, originally from a small-town farm in Kansas, converted to Judaism when I was a young child. You can imagine that my seder table looks a lot like many American seder tables. Ours hosts a grand mixture of people — religiously, ethnically, socially and politically diverse. My congregational family at Temple Israel of Hollywood reflects the same. The Jewish communities I occupy are, at their core, wonderfully varied.
And so, as I read anew these words of blessing uttered by the diviner Balaam in this week’s Torah portion, Balak, they struck a chord in me. Looking over their encampment, Balaam says about the Israelites, “As I see them from the mountain tops, Gaze on them from the heights: There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9).
At first glance, I would be hard pressed to find a verse less descriptive of the Jewish communities I have come to know in my lifetime. The Jewish orbits I occupy intentionally intersect with the communities surrounding them and value interfaith, outreach and justice actions that seek to do so in deeper ways. The Jewish world I know is not one set apart or disconnected. And yet, I believe there is a deeper message in this verse that is meant to serve as a call to action for us today.
When I began my work as a congregational Jewish educator seven years ago, I understood the value of relationship to be the primary value informing my work. I saw it as my role and the role of the synagogue to help individuals and families find deeper connections — to connect deeper with their truest selves, with each other, with their tradition, with sacred text and with God. Seven years later, I believe that this focus on relationship requires more attention.
What Balaam once uttered as words of blessing, I read today as a timely call for communal self-reflection: “There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations.” Within our Jewish communities, within our families and among our friends are those who continue to feel outside, set apart and not included. Who stand aside.
Beyond the value of relationship, I now speak of the value of inclusion. It is my mission to help invite inward those who stand on the fringes. We might have diversity within our Jewish communities, yet diversity and difference without the hard work that it takes to bind all of us together misses something crucial.
I believe it is our collective responsibility to notice and respond to those among us who feel apart and outside, and help draw them in. Relationships are the starting point. Inclusion is the end goal.
In 2006, writing in a Christian context, Bishop Carlton Pearson released the controversial work “The Gospel of Inclusion.” In this book and in a series of teachings leading up to its publication, Pearson radically claimed that all people are saved, not just Christians. This belief ran so deeply contrary to his community’s belief that Pearson lost his church and many of his friends and connections. Despite the personal toll, Pearson saw this gospel as something he had to spread.
As I read Pearson’s work, I kept thinking to myself: I never thought of inclusion as being so radical a concept. But, of course it is. Balaam’s words of blessing/warning tell us all we need to know: Among the tents we erect and dwell in today, we have the power to isolate or include. The potential for exclusion lies not just in Jewish communities’ interactions with the larger world, but in our treatment of those within our own communities.
There are too many within our midst who feel these very sentiments today. Those who sit next to us in shul, feeling lost or alone. Those who sense insurmountable hurdles keeping them from Torah or from God. Those who want to come in, but who have not yet figured out how to reach the center. I would guess that we have all known moments of exclusion and know firsthand the power of feeling included.
Indeed, “There is a people that dwells apart, Not reckoned among the nations.” But we are no longer in conflict with the Moabites and we have not just done battle with the Amorites. As we read these words of Torah this week, may we look inward and around our own communities. May we identify those in our lives (and it may very well be ourselves) who are seeking deeper connection, who are looking to be brought in, or who dwell yet outside. May we utter and accept words of invitation.
Inclusion requires very real work: listening and responding, learning and teaching, noticing absences and reaching out, naming barriers and helping to overcome them. The work of inclusion is also deeply rewarding: shared meals and shared stories, tables expanded and hands extended. The work of inclusion is powerful, as it allows us to illuminate ourselves as present and illuminate others within a deeper presence. Even in Los Angeles, we can be neighbors.
Let this be a Shabbat of inclusion. For as we look anew from the mountaintops and gaze once again from the heights, we may yet see a new vision of Israel.
Rabbi Jocee Hudson is rabbi educator at Temple Israel of Hollywood (tioh.org), a Reform congregation.