Parashat Aharei Mot-Kedoshim: Family matters

So how do we "instruct" our errant Jewish siblings to remain within - or return to - Jewish peoplehood?

Judaism teaches that every Israelite is a co-signer for his/her fellow Jew. Aside from the State of Israel - where the Jewish population has grown from 600,000 in 1948 to 5.5 million today - Jews in the rest of the world suffer from internal hemorrhaging, with half of the six million identifying American Jews in 1940 moving toward extinction by the end of the 21st century. So how do we "instruct" our errant Jewish siblings to remain within - or return to - Jewish peoplehood? I believe that the very nature of the Hebrew calendar points to a solution. We recently celebrated Pessah, and are currently "counting" each day toward the festival of Shavuot. As we pointed out last week, the Hebrew term for the counting is sefira, a word whose root is sappir (samech, peh, resh), the dazzling blue-white sapphire diamond, its ethereal hues the colors of the heavens. Immediately following the electrifying Revelation at Sinai, the Bible records: "Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the 70 elders of Israel then went up. And they saw the God of Israel, beneath whose 'feet' was something akin to the creation of a sapphire stone, like the essence of the heavens as to its purity" (Exodus 24:9,10). From this perspective, the days of our counting must be seen as a period of spiritual growth. It begins with Pessah, the first real encounter that God has with His nation. And the Hebrew sefira (count, sapphire) is also based on the noun sippur, a tale, a re-counting that's the very essence of the Seder experience: "And you shall tell (haggada, telling a story) your child on that day saying..." (Ex. 13:8); "And Moses recounted to (vayesaper) his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to Egypt because of the Israelites..." (Exodus 18:8); "It is a positive commandment of the Bible to recount (lesaper) the miracles and wonders done for our forefathers in Egypt" (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Hametz and Matza 7,1). We must remember that the Israelites came into Egypt as a family, the 70 descendants of our grandfather Jacob/Israel. Hence, the story of our enslavement and eventual redemption is iterated and reiterated as a recounting of family history. And, as in any family, there are familial memories of origins, and a heightened sense of shared destiny. Pessah is our familial festival, at the very beginning of our calendar, during the early steps toward our sefira march, celebrated even before we received the Torah and before we entered the Promised Land. God, Torah, Land of Israel, Jerusalem, Holy Temple had to wait for Shavuot. The Pessah Sacrifice (Exodus 12) - the source for our Seder - represents the celebration of our being part of a special family even before we become a religion at Sinai. It emphasizes our willingness to sacrifice the lamb, a defiant act of rebellion against the bull-god of Egyptian society, an act that attests to our uncompromising belief in human freedom and redemption - a belief that arose from our history of pain and enslavement, and from the murder of our children in the Nile. Hence, freedom for every individual became a familial passion. And in order to feel truly free, every person must feel that he/she counts (sefira); but that is how it is in families, where each member is called by his/her personal name and is known by his/her unique traits. It is for this reason that our Pessah sacrifice must be subdivided into smaller - and more manageable - units, "a lamb for each household" or several households together. Special foods, special stories and special songs define and punctuate the familial nature of the event. And the only ticket of admission is that you consider yourself a member of the family; this on its own entitles you to an unconditional embrace. Theological belief and practices of religious observance are irrelevant; the only rasha (wicked child) is the one who excludes himself - and even he/she is invited and sought after! One of the rousing songs of the earlier part of the Seder is "Dayenu" ("It would have been enough"). "Had God only taken us out of Egypt, it would have been enough; had God merely brought us to Sinai and not given us the Torah, it would have been enough." Our Sages teach that when the Israelites stood at Sinai they were one people with one heart. The song "Dayenu" teaches that even a Jew who feels only a sense of familial oneness - even without the 613 commandments - would be extremely positive if not sufficient in itself. How do we engage our Jews so they do not fall away? We must embrace them as part of our family. For some, it may be the first step toward their march to Torah and the Land of Israel on Shavuot; for others, it might be all they are interested in. And that too must be considered good enough, Dayenu! After all, the very first covenant God made with Abraham was the covenant of family and nation. A personal postscript: My paternal grandfather was an idealistic Communist who wrote a weekly column for the Yiddish newspaper Freiheit. On his kitchen wall were two pictures, one of Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the other of Joseph Stalin. He ate on Yom Kippur and truly believed that religion was "the opiate of the masses." Nevertheless, he conducted a Seder each year - which I attended as a young child - with matza, maror, haroset, and after the first part of the Haggada, he would add passages from the Prophets, the Talmud and Shalom Aleichem that dealt with consideration for the poor and underprivileged. Later he would check to make sure I could space my fingers properly for the priestly benediction, cautioning me to understand that the blessing was for world peace. I couldn't understand why my grandfather bothered with a Seder at all, and why he was so proud of our being kohanim if he felt so far removed from the Jewish religion. Then one day I was riding on a subway with him, and nearby sat two elderly ultra-Orthodox Jews. Two young toughs walked into our compartment and began taunting the hassidim. At the next stop my grandfather - who was fairly tall and strong - lunged forward, grabbed the toughs, and literally threw them out the open door. When he returned to his seat, I asked, "But grandpa, you're not religious!" He looked at me in dismay. "What difference does that make? They are part of our family, and I am part of their family!" Then I understood.... The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.