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In parashat Bamidbar, the Torah tells us just how to construct a community that has God and Torah at its center. God’s command, “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” (Shemot 25:8) – is now given true shape as the Children of Israel depart from the Mount Sinai and begin to move and settle as a camp, as a community. The Sanctuary, God’s presence, lives in the center of the camp, and the tribes are arranged, each with its distinct position, each with its banner, around the Sanctuary.
What we learn, first of all, is that even when we depart Mount Sinai, when we engage in the wide range of activities that is our encounter with the world, we must always remain oriented towards God and God’s presence in our midst. Whether encamped or marching, whether our lives are stable or in transition, we must always strive to direct our actions towards serving God. We must realize that to describe where we are in life, where we are encamped, is to describe where we are in relationship to the goals of kedusha and in relationship to God. But we also learn that to have God in our midst, we do not need to ever enter the Temple, it is the orientation that is critical. Some people will seek to enter the Temple on a regular basis, others may only enter in once a year, or perhaps never, but each one of these people can have God in his or her midst.
We further learn that to be one people is not to be a homogenous mass; that unity is not to be confused with uniformity. True unity, creating a bonded, cohesive community, comes from respecting differences – “each person on his banner,” each tribe with its own uniqueness, its own distinctiveness preserved. Some are on the left, some on the right, some North, some South. What held them together was a shared commitment to respect each other’s boundaries, to value their distinctive banners, their diversity, and to exist together as one people with a shared orientation towards God’s presence in their midst.
The final lesson is one of accessibility. True, a small number of impure people were temporarily excluded from the Sanctuary during their period of impurity, and the Levites comprised the innermost ring around the Sanctuary. Nevertheless, any person had the ability to enter the Levite camp and to even enter the Sanctuary itself. All the people participated in the making of the Sanctuary and all the people had access to it and a part in it.
Not only was the Sanctuary accessible, but the leadership was as well. Moses’ tent was no longer outside of the camp, but in the very center of it, open to all who would come. Only in such a camp, where every individual understood that he and she counted, that they had a right to engage and a right to be heard, could those who were impure say to Moshe, “Why should we be excluded from bringing God’s sacrifice in its appointed time?” (Bamidbar 9:7). Only in such a camp could the daughters of Tzelafchad approach Moshe and say, “Why should our father’s name be excluded from his family, because he has no son? Give us a portion together with the brothers of our father!” (Bamidbar 27:4). Only in such a camp could inclusion be assumed, and could exclusion be rightfully seen as a profound affront. And only in a camp led by a true leader such as Moshe would the response be not condemnation and silencing, but a humble bringing of these just concerns before God.
This is the model of a camp with God at its center. This must be our model of a Jewish community. To build such a community we need a laity that embraces these values. To build such a community we need leaders who embody these values.
A leadership that embodies these values is an accessible leadership. It is a leadership that believes in unity through diversity, not through sameness. It is a leadership that is committed to ensuring that all are included, that no one is rejected or left outside the camp.
Sadly, there are those in positions of rabbinic leadership today who do not share this vision. There are those who believe that the only Jews who count are those who act within a narrow definition, a definition that is getting narrower each day. Such is a leadership that is fearful of diversity, which believes that unity can come only if all Jews act and believe in exactly the same way – their way.
The leadership that should be our standard is of a different sort. It is a leadership spreads God’s Torah and its teachings in a way that teaches respect for all Jews. It is a leadership that teaches that even Jews who never enter the Sanctuary can have God in their midst, can orient their lives in the camp towards God in ways that are less obvious and less ritualistic. It is a leadership that values and respects difference and diversity, and believes that we are enriched by it. In a world where small-mindedness and intolerance is rife, in a world where Jewish identity and shared values are elusive concepts, it is no small matter for a community to embrace this alternate vision. And to ask a leader, a rabbi, to help shape and create such a community may seem like asking the impossible. But in the striving to achieve this vision, we will do much to transform the Jewish community and our respect for one another.
Building on the foundation of diversity and respect, we will create welcoming and accessible communities – communities that build bridges rather than walls, communities that reach out to those who are marginalized and those who have been excluded. It will be a community that believes that any Jew- regardless of denomination, background, observance, sexual orientation, color of their skin, whether sighted or blind, mobile or wheelchair bound, neurotypical or with special needs – that any and every Jew has a fundamental right to be included, to find his or her place in our camp. It will be a community that is exquisitely attuned to the verbalized and non-verbalized cry of “why should I be excluded?!” and that will remove any obstacle and create any accommodation to ensure that every one is present, that everyone is valued.
And it is a community whose leadership is accessible, humble, and responsive. At a time when rabbinic leadership is, as a whole, becoming more authoritarian and unbending, the leadership that we most desperately need is one that has pride for the Torah and the tradition that it represents, but that is also humble and accessible, one that seeks participation and collaboration. What is needed is leaders who can admit their mistakes, and who can learn from them. And such leaders, in the end, are loved and respected all the more.
It is this type of camp, this type of community, and the leadership that is required to create it that will truly fulfill God’s command: “They shall make for Me a Sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.”
Reprinted from 2011