From the Pulpit: Different – and the same

By Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton, Or Haneshamah

This coming Shabbat has at least two dates: May 30th on the Gregorian calendar, and the 7th of Sivan on the Hebrew calendar. What else comes in twos this last Shabbat in May, the first Shabbat following the Omer period? It also has two Torah portions.

This is a distinction that is different from the “double-parshah” scenario that applies to seven different pairs of Torah portions. A year has 52 weeks, the Torah has 54 portions. Add in the times the festivals fall on a Saturday, and you can see why the sages came up with a doubling-up scheme to keep our Torah reading experiences able to stay on course for its year-length cycle of readings.

Not so fast, however, with the in sync-ness. This Shabbat features two completely discrete Torah readings in the global Jewish community. In Israel, and in communities that observe just one day of yontif for the festival of Shavuot that begins on Thursday evening, parshat Nasso will be read. It’s the second portion in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, and, well, it’s chockfull of numbers. The enumeration of the Israelites by tribe and ancestry continues from the previous chapters, and the portion concludes with a listing of the offerings brought by the 12 tribal leaders for the dedication of the mishkan.

However, most communities around the world will be reading from a section in parshat Re’eh, in the book of Deuteronomy, corresponding with the assigned Torah reading for the second day of festival Shavuot, which begins Thursday night May 28, or the 6th of Sivan. There is a further Jewish world distinction reflected in the Haftarah reading, though of a much smaller proportion; Ashkenazim world-wide read Habakkuk chapter 3, while Sephardim will begin their prophetic reading with the last verse from chapter 2.

Nu? So, what, you may reflect, and regard all this as just another of the many picayune issues mainly relevant to baa’ley koreh (Torah readers), gabbays (those who guide the ritual choreography of the Torah service) and dover (sermon-giver). You share in the certainty that we all rejoin as am echad, finishing and starting the Torah again in the fall at the same point – in the beginning/at Breishit, global Jewish unity restored.

In a historical moment when some have observed that we – denoting here all human beings on the planet – are all engaged in the very same story, that of grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, why point out such a discrepancy? While it is true, truer than any one of us can fully grasp, that this is a worldwide, world-deep crisis, it is also true that it is being experienced in vastly different ways. Death rates vary wildly from country to country; testing protocols are inconsistent within countries; a city or region may be experiencing a drop in cases while long-term care facilities in that very region are still besieged by the illness; people of colour in America, people in refugee settings across the globe, and other chronically-disadvantaged groups are experiencing dramatically higher rates of infection, and death.

These prevalent distinctions depend upon so many critical factors that it seems at best incongruous to lump them together. Commentators rightly highlight the massively unifying factor in this – that we are all, every human being on the planet, connected with each other through this pandemic, dependent upon each other for our very well-being, writing the same story together.

Lehavdil, as we say – to make a distinction: this is not the same as the Jewish people reading two different sections of the Torah on the same day of the year. But it can, as Torah does so well, shed some light and create some meaning for us right now, in these times.

Unity is not about using the same words, having the same life experiences, performing the same religious practices, supporting the same political leaders. Unity is about the profound truth of the sameness of our organic, cosmic essence, breathing the same air, carrying the spark of the eternal Divine within. Let us celebrate that unity, honouring each other fully as we care for our loved ones, our communities, our city, our country, and for kol yoshvey tevel – all who dwell on earth.

Rabbi Elizabeth Bolton serves Or Haneshamah: Ottawa’s Reconstructionist Community, and is a Chaplain at Queensway-Carleton Hospital.