Professor Ze’ev Maghen, chairperson of the Department of Middle Eastern Studies at Bar-Ilan University, in his book: John Lennon and the Jews (2011) imagines a scene of two lovers about to be engaged.
“Down I go on one knee. I look dreamily into your eyes. . . . I take your two hands in mine, and, gently caressing them, I coo: “My darling, I love you. I love you soooooo much. I love you as much as I love. . .as much as I love. . .as much as I love that other woman, the one walking down the street over there. See her? Oh, and that one, too. . . . I love you as much as I love everybody else on this planet…”
Professor Maghen goes on to explain that such a proposal is not likely to end well. You see, what this little tale illustrates is the quintessentially particular nature of our love. Love is not something we give freely or equally to everyone around us. To love is to choose, to prefer; and ultimately, that is what makes love matter at all.
Of course, the flip side of the particular nature of love is the persistence of the feeling that to ‘not be chosen’ means that we are not loved, not preferred, not as valued as the one who ‘is chosen’, and thus the very understandable desire in our modern culture to avoid statements of broad particularism, or even to give awards to ‘winners’, lest we offend those who were not chosen, or who did not win, and risk labeling them as ‘less-than’, or ‘losers.’
Such a moment of choice, and the inherent complications of that choice, is highlighted in this week’s parasha, Parashat T’tzaveh. In Chapter 28 we learn of the design of Aaron the High Priest’s breastplate of decision, or the Hoshen HaMishpat. There are to be four rows of precious stones, framed in gold, and on each stone, the names of the sons of Israel, the tribes, shall be engraved. Aaron, we are told in verse 29, “Shall carry the names of the children of Israel on the breastplate of decision, over his heart. . .”
The Hasidic commentator, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev (1740-1809), asks an important question about this verse: Why were the names of the tribes worn close to Aaron’s heart? Why weren’t there other names there, for example, the names of our forefathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, whom our liturgy is constantly referencing as a way of transferring God’s affinity for them (z’chut avot), to the Jewish people as a whole? In other words, by choosing the twelve tribes, are we therefore leaving other important ancestors out?
Furthermore, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak points out: “And of course, Aaron himself is singled out by God, as it states: “For he was chosen from among the Children of Israel.” (Deuteronomy 18:5) And lest we think that Aaron’s being chosen was a sign of God’s supreme preference for one Jew over his fellows, we are therefore taught: “Aaron shall carry the names of the children of Israel . . . over his heart. . .” to show us that God also desired them, and that God also loved them!” (Kedushat Levi: T’tzaveh)
In thinking about JDAIM (Jewish Disabilities Awareness and Inclusion Month), I think that the lesson of God, Aaron, and the Hoshen HaMishpat are illustrative of our responsibilities as leaders of our community. Firstly, when we choose to support a certain cause, such as Jewish Inclusion, it is not a statement about our lack of interest in any other worthy endeavor, but rather it is a statement of particularism; that this specific cause is near and dear to our hearts and deserving of our time, resources and attention. Secondly, when I hazard to imagine Aaron’s kavanah, his spiritual intention, in these moments of indecision as a leader, I picture his fingers slowly rolling over each and every precious stone of the breastplate; remembering the sanctity of every single individual member of Reuven, Shimon, Levi etc.; and in so doing, finding a moment of clarity that indeed his duty is to serve, to think about, to love, and to care for the entirety of the Jewish people.
And ultimately, this is the intention of our consistent march towards inclusion as a Jewish people: to remember that our Jewish world is comprised of individual human beings; each one a precious stone, with a name engraved upon it, for us to serve, to think about, to love, and to care for. Only when we think of every person in our community (and their unique abilities!) will we be able to make the correct decisions as to how to move forward in our ever-changing world.
Rabbi Joel Seltzer is the Executive Director of Camp Ramah in the Poconos, an organization that serves over 800 campers each summer at their overnight, Day Camp, and Tikvah Family Camp for families with children who have special needs. This summer, the overnight camp will open the doors of its new Tikvah Residential Program, a program designed for children ages 12-17 with a wide-range of disabilities. Rabbi Joel lives in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania with his wife Eliana and their three daughters.