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“Breaking Faith,” Rabbi Zecher’s Shabbat Awakenings

June 10, 2022 | 11 Sivan 5782

Welcome to Shabbat Awakenings as we reflect on the tragedy this week on our way toward Shabbat. You can listen to it as a podcast here.

I am fascinated by this verse in our weekly portion:

Speak to the Children of Israel: דַּבֵּר֮ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵל֒

A man or a woman — אִ֣ישׁ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֗ה

when they commit any wrong toward a fellow human being כִּ֤י יַעֲשׂוּ֙ מִכׇּל־חַטֹּ֣את הָֽאָדָ֔ם

by breaking-faith with the Eternal, לִמְעֹ֥ל מַ֖עַל בַּיהֹוָ֑ה

and that person realizes his guilt: וְאָֽשְׁמָ֖ה הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ הַהִֽוא

(Numbers 5:6)

This second portion of the book of Numbers turns its focus on a census on all those who will be responsible for the service of the Tent of Meeting. Their duties involve dealing with that which is sacred or close to it. Misappropriation or trespassing on that which is holy would be a cause for expiation. It is viewed as a sacrilege against holy objects in the sanctuary, a misuse or abuse. The Talmud has a specific tractate dedicated to such behaviors.

Yet this verse draws our attention to a deeper transgression.

The Eternal directs Moses to speak to the community. Everyone is included, shown by specifying both man and woman. The situation is not conditional because of the use of the word, “when” rather than “if.”  The assumption is that a wrongdoing will occur. Yet, this next phrase doesn’t continue using “man” or “woman” but rather “human, ha’adam הָֽאָדָ֔ם.” This change in word usage speaks a basic truth that humans are imperfect with the expectation of transgression.

Yet, it is the next part I find intriguing.

The wrongdoing also causes a breach with the Eternal. The specific Hebrew limol ma’al ba’Adonai  לִמְעֹ֥ל מַ֖עַל בַּיהֹוָ֑ה appears 44 times in the TaNacH and is translated in various ways such as trespass, breaking faith, violate, treachery, and err.  Jewish tradition has many words for transgressions and sin. The Yom Kippur experience delineates them all, but here another idea is lifted up and emphasized. The wrongdoing causes a rupture with God as well. Therefore, God too is harmed. Human behavior affects the divine just as much as it has consequence for another person. When we are harmed by another, our faith, our trust, is broken.

Perhaps we might dismiss this directive since it has to do with the holy space and objects in ancient time. I don’t think it is the only way to regard the text. Each time we transgress against one another, against humanity, against people, there is a rupture, too, to the greater whole. The universe feels the pain. It is the “Butterfly Effect” of transgression. One act can send a ripple out into the cosmos that touches us all. The ancients understood that greater force as the Divine. The ancients also understood that our behavior matters to God just as much as our actions must matter to each of us.

We hold both the power to commit a wrongdoing and to correct it and thus, create goodness. The verse ends in midsentence with yet another word for a person, hanefesh הַנֶּ֥פֶשׁ. The use here of the same word that means “soul” seems intentional. And that person realizes their guilt…. One’s whole being from the inside out must decide the next action. What will it be? How do we reconnect with the divine, repairing the breach, just as much as we must repair with another person? Then and today, the future of the whole world may depend on what happens next.

Shabbat Shalom.

Connect with me here. I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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Shabbat Shalom!