A Lesson In Listening


Candlelighting, Readings:
Shabbat candles: 8:13 p.m.
Torah: Num. 25:10-30:1
Haftarah: I Kings 18:46-19:21
Havdalah: 9:22 p.m.

In this week’s portion we come across a striking word usage occurring only twice in Torah, a few chapters apart. The phrase changes slightly — lama nigara, lama yigara — translated as “Why should we/it be lessened/diminished,” and is found in what appears to be two disparate stories. On closer examination, the unique wording reveals powerful themes that the stories have in common. Let’s take a closer look.

The first, lama nigara, is found in Beha’aloscha [Numbers 9:7]. God commands the Israelites to make the Passover offering at an appointed time. Some men, rendered impure by contact with a corpse, are not able to participate in this crucial commandment. They protest to Moses: “Why should we be excluded so as to not make God’s offering at its appointed time among the Children of Israel?”

Their language is raw, insistent. By this point in the wilderness sojourn, Moses’ ear has become finely tuned to B’nai Yisrael’s whines and whimpers and he has expressed his exasperation with the people many times. This time Moses hears sincerity and urgency in their request. He recognizes that their plea is valid, and that, he, Moses, doesn’t know how to solve this dilemma. Moses seeks counsel from God. In response, God validates the contaminated men’s yearning by establishing Pesach Sheni, the “Second Passover,” the unique opportunity in Torah for a do-over.

God goes further, expanding the scope of the original lama nigara request. The Exodus from Egypt must be celebrated by the entire community. Not only will those individuals who missed the first Pesach offering due to impurity have a second chance, so too will people who were too far away to participate in this ritual of profound national identity.

Just a few chapters later, Pinchas (this week’s reading) details the distribution of inheritances that pass exclusively through the line of male descendants as cataloged according to the original Twelve Tribes. The five daughters of Zelophechad come before Moses to protest that their father’s inheritance and name will be lost as he had no sons. The language is terse, unvarnished, brusque: “Why should our father’s name be subtracted from among his family because he didn’t have a son? Give us a possession among our father’s brothers,” lama yegrara, why should his family name be excluded [Num. 27:1-11]?

As in the Beha’aloscha story, Moses hears the sincerity and urgency of the petitioners. He immediately acknowledges the legitimacy of the women’s protest, as well as his own uncertainty about what to do. Moses asks God’s counsel, and once again, God responds to the sincerity of the remarkable petition. As with Pesach Sheni, where God’s solution enlarges the scope of the original request, God not only resolves the inheritance problem of Zelophechad’s daughters but also provides a template for more general inheritance problems in situations where there are no male descendants.

How might this clarion call speak to us today? Lama nigara/lama yigara reminds us to look in two directions, outward to the vast sea of need awaiting our attention; inward towards a cultivation of mind and heart so as to be available to respond as best as we can.

First, looking outward: lama nigara/lama yigara both imply marginalization, whether because of circumstance, as in the contamination case leading to Pesach Sheni, or by gender and social structure, as in the case of Zelophechad’s daughters.

How many Jews feel marginalized today, in the 21st century, because of their particular and poignant life situations or because of more general ignorance and apathy? Knowledgeable Jews struggle with isolation and alienation due to finances, age, gender, sexual orientation, illness or disability, just to name a few. So too, many Jews struggle with connection because they lack basic tools of Jewish literacy and are unable to access our rich and deep tradition. Others feel excluded or dismissed by the religious world because the legitimacy of their Jewish identities has been questioned, or their questions have been dismissed.

Our heritage has responded throughout history, both to difficult external circumstance and to challenging spiritual and psychological struggles, helping individuals and communities find their way back to this path of meaning and sacred purpose.

Second, looking inward: The challenge, “Why should we be left out?” might be applied to our individual allocations of time and effort. There is never enough time to be with family, pray meaningfully, continue one’s Jewish education, work, volunteer in the community, exercise, or just relax alone or with friends. Whatever we chose means that something else will be left out. How do we make decisions of how to spend a precious weekend or evening? Who do we pay attention to; whom do we dismiss?

Unlike Moses, we don’t have a hotline to God. But we can learn from Moses to recognize the seriousness of these matters and to know that we need to listen to others and to ourselves with full hearts and open minds.

Dr. Michelle Friedman teaches pastoral counseling at Yeshivat Chovivei Torah and practices psychiatry in New York City.