The Common Sense of Pluralism

“The Eternal spoke to Moses: ‘Speak at Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: The Eternal bless you and protect you! The Eternal deal kindly and gradiously with you! The Eternal bestow Divine Favor upon you and grant you peace!’ Thus shall they link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.” (Numbers 6:22-27)

So that happened, as they like to say.

Somewhere out in the desert, a long time ago, our ancestors were traversing the wilderness, on a forty year journey between slavery and freedom. According to the Talmud, this trip ordinarily would have taken a few weeks, but the forty years was necessary in order to allow time for the generation born into slavery to pass away. And not just forty years, but even the first few weeks after the Exodus (Passover) and before receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai (Shavuot) required rehabilitation. “Rabbi Isaac said that Israel were worthy of receiving the Torah immediately upon leaving Egypt. But the Holy One said, “Because of their servitude in clay and bricks, My children’s look of good health has not yet come back, and therefore they cannot receive the Torah at once. Let My children be indulged for two or three months—with the manna, with the waters of the well, with the quail—then I will give them the Torah” (Ecclesiastes and Songs Rabbah).

A very Jewish God, don’t you agree? First feed them. Ess, mein kind! And then restore their souls with learning. This aligns well with a story we like to tell children as they become bat or bar mitzvah. The one about how in the Middle Ages, some Jewish communities would begin the school year for the little ones by walking them to the house of study in a kind of celebratory parade with garlands of flowers as crowns atop their heads and when arrived in the classroom, the Hebrew alef-bet would be written in honey on a board. The students would learn their letters through taste, licking the letters from the board and encoding in themselves the association between learning and sweetness.

Variations of this tradition abide. At a kiddush lunch following a morning bat mitzvah, the community shares a meal so that learning, the transition into teenage years, Torah, and Shabbat can all be honored as one expression. And don’t roll your eyes but it’s why we give children gifts of money on such occasions as well: to honor their duty and responsibility as they take the crucial steps into adulthood. You can’t finish the Passover Seder without finishing the afikoman, hidden at the start of the meal. The tradition of “finding it” and rewarding a child with money for doing so plays a similar role. Cleverness, intuition, persistence and negotiation are all rewarded. And why not? They clearly aid survival in an often tough and brutal world.

The odious anti-Semitic trope that “Jews are good with money” derives in part from the notion that we have traditionally valued it as an essential resource for living life, providing for ourselves and those we love, as well as performing acts of tzedakah, generosity and loving-kindness. The first century rabbis had a great phrase on this score: “If there is no flour there is no Torah and if there is no Torah there is no flour.” Material well-being relies upon a system of values rooted in goodness, justice and peace. It is not “either/or” but rather “both/and.” It is the two-fold system of one and the other that makes a whole.

And it is not just happy occasions where food works. Jewish mourning practice requires a meal of consolation and food for visitors at shiva, the seven-day mourning period. Food eases the way into social connection, conversation, openness to authentic interaction.

I thought of this last week at a shiva call, watching guests gather around a table, schmear up a bagel, and merge into the lane of talking to one another. Or when, on Shavuot, we served ice cream to little ones in our space on Duane Street to celebrate the sweetness of Torah. It is not a redundancy to say that food creates community. It is axiomatic and speaks to an inherent materiality of Jewish culture. I do not mean materialism (a challenge in its own right) but materiality. The reality of the material world and the ways in which we as Jews understand the intersection of the spiritual and the material inside of the values matrix of Torah. Simply put: we live in a world of matter and so the question for us is how we use it and to what end?

At the beginning of the Torah, God is quite clear. We are assigned the task of being God’s partners, stewards of Creation. But when our relationship to matter becomes excessive, there are cataclysmic consequences. A sinful Earth merits the flood; the violent and inhospitable behavior of the residents of Sodom and Gomorrah forces God to wipe out the towns. And later, once Jews are settled in the land of Israel, the Mishnah delineates very clear guidelines and laws for sharing the yield of the field with the poor, establishing charity funds and food banks, and ensuring that no one is enslaved to debt and a life of irreversible poverty.

We can be interested in this two-fold moment in Torah: while the Israelites are gaining strength with sustenance (the manna, the water, the quail) they pause to be blessed by Aaron with the most intense of all blessings the Torah has to offer. “The Eternal bless you and protect you! The Eternal deal kindly and gradiously with you! The Eternal bestow Divine Favor upon you and grant you peace!” We share this at birth and brises and baby namings; at bat & bar mitzvahs and weddings; and around the Shabbat and holiday meal table. It is suffused with meaning for protection and grace and peace, decidedly non-material categories of their own accord but when combined with the Torah’s commandments to live lives of justice and peace as a responsibility to matter of the matter around us, it roils and boils into the perfect recipe for the perfect storm for a perfect world.

June 14 being Flag Day, these ideas roll into what it means to be a Jew in America and those wonderfully peculiar Latin phrases, written on our currency: E Pluribus Unum, From Many, One; Annuit Coeptis, Favors our Undertakings; and Novus Ordo Seclorum, New Order of the Ages. The Founders, though deeply flawed in their understanding of racial and gender equality, not to mention their inexcusable tolerance of slavery, were also brilliantly imaginative and aspirational about what America could eventually be.

In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote that the “cause of America is in great measure the cause of all mankind.” Like the Hebrew prophets of the Bible, Paine was able to articulate an attachment to both peculiar and universal ideals. America would not be a place for one but for all. Not one into many but from many, one.

These Latin phrases appear on what we call in American civic life, “the Great Seal.” And while America to the Founders was decidedly not a monarchy, the newly developed seal of the republic would encode in its design the notions of pluralism, shared destiny and the ongoing discovery of a world in constant renewal and improvement toward an ideal perfection.

So as Jews on this Flag Day, let us kick off the summer season not only with the sustenance of hot dogs and apple pie but the values that have sustained us—love for our neighbors; generosity toward those in need; and protection of the refugee, the homeless, our “wretched refuse,” as we continue to build a city and nation and world of peace worthy of God’s blessing.

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