Behar/Behukkotai - Mark Diamond

Power in Numbers?

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond
Executive Vice President
The Board of Rabbis of Southern California

Torah Portion: Behar/Behukkotai (“The Eternal One spoke
to Moses at Mount Sinai…”), Leviticus 25:1-27:34

Haftarah Portion: Jeremiah 16:19-17:14

May 12, 2007 / 24 Iyar 5767

"I will grant peace to the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone; I will give the land respite from vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land. You shall give chase to your enemies, and they shall fall before you by the sword. Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword." (Lev. 26:6-8)
This week and next, high school seniors across the nation endure the venerable rite of passage known as Advanced Placement (AP) examinations. As the proud parent of one such student, I am learning a great deal about the challenging AP Calculus and AP Physics exams. Fortunately, students of Torah do not need to pass these rigorous tests in order to grasp the mathematical puzzle of the verses cited above.

The Torah portion promises that five of your soldiers will defeat 100 enemy combatants, a ratio of 1/20, while 100 of your troops will overcome 10,000 enemy soldiers, a ratio of 1/100. How do we explain this mathematical discrepancy? The rabbis of the Midrash answer that we cannot equate the power and strength of a large group that fulfills the precepts of the Torah to the strength and power of a small group that does likewise. Put another way, there is a disproportionate increase in the potential of a group of dedicated individuals working together for a common cause. As the size of the collectivity increases, the group's ability to work wonders increases dramatically. Five people working together can accomplish a great deal. One hundred individuals working together can achieve miracles.
The lesson of the Midrash has special meaning this week as the Board of Rabbis celebrated the siyyum (conclusion) of our One People, One Book learning series. On Wednesday, more than 250 people gathered at Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel for Moses’ Last Breath. It was a memorable evening of interactive “Storahtelling” with creative artist Amichai Lau-Lavie, beautiful music with cantorial soloist Cindy Shapiro, lively small-group text study, and inspiring divray Torah ("words of Torah") and tefillah (prayer) shared by our rabbis.
There was a “buzz” in the social hall, and it was truly a joyful noise. The buzz was the sights and sounds of people from different congregations, institutions, movements and ideologies studying Torah and experiencing Amichai’s unique blend of traditional and contemporary themes and modalities. Rabbis and members of twenty-six participating congregations were present—Ashkenazim and Sephardim; Conservative, Orthodox, Reconstructionist, Reform, renewal and traditional Jews. The room was filled with affiliated and unaffiliated Jews; teens, adults and senior adults; people who go to synagogue daily or weekly and people who never expected to find themselves in a synagogue on a weeknight.

What emerged on Wednesday evening was a colorful, multi-faceted community of Torah learners and storytellers. For me, Moses’ Last Breath was a poignant reminder of our shared commitment to k'lal Yisrael, the essential unity of our people and community. And it reinforced a key lesson of the Torah portion—there is awesome strength and power when we work together. We must continue to create richer and deeper opportunities to study, pray, dialogue, debate, listen and learn together. If we do so, surely we will breathe new meaning into the words we chant this Shabbat when we conclude the public reading of the Book of Leviticus:
Hazak, hazak, ve-nit-hazek. Let us be strong, and let us strengthen one another.