Yom Shabbat, 15 AdarI 5781
Shushan Purim Saturday, 27 February 2021
Parashat Naso 2013

Parashat Naso
Cantor Gershon Silins

17 May 2013

The internet is full of animals: on FaceBook, everyone seems to be sharing photos of their unbelievably cute dogs and cats, there are an amazing number of animal rescue videos, and there are calls for boycotts and petitions about cruelty to animals – apparently this is one topic no one seems to tire of sharing or reading about. I’m a sucker for these postings myself, and one animal rescue video after another will leave me in tears. I’ve posted my share of cute Chihuahua photos (she’s irresistible) and when I do, I usually get approving responses. Interestingly, baby photos don’t seem to generate the same level of enthusiasm. I’m not exactly sure what this means. It isn’t the case that I, or anyone I know, values animals more highly than actual children. But a cute kitten will get more views than a cute baby, and a photo of an abandoned puppy can garner at least as many signatures on a petition as a photo of an unfortunate human child.

This is an irony of modern life, and yet I think it says something arguably good about society, that creatures to whom we owe nothing and from whom we get nothing that is easily definable, nonetheless command our ethical attention and our moral instincts. But do our moral instincts ever change for the better? Is there hope that they might?

Steven Pinker’s book The Better Angels of Our Nature, has generated comment and controversy for suggesting that over the centuries, and in particular during the last century and a half, violence has significantly decreased in human society, principally in Western Europe, and most particularly in England, though North America has seen a similar phenomenon during the same period. Although a student of the history of the twentieth century will be struck by the enormous loss of life represented by two world wars, the Holocaust, Darfur, the Belgian genocide in the Congo, the Rwandan genocide, and myriad incidents in recent decades, Pinker makes a persuasive case that the frequency of murderous violence is tending to decrease, however intermittently and unreliably it may do so, and by some measures, it is quite dramatic. Pinker does not associate this trend with religion, but rather with the rise of the nation state, and a change in the world outlook which began with the Enlightenment in the 18th Century, and developments that followed it, such as an increase in literacy, the empowerment of women, and the awareness of a wide variety of people that came as a result of the exploration of the world. Pinker compares the modern nation state with Hobbes’ Leviathan, an entity which, because of its power and impartiality, can undermine the practical need for each individual to be prepared to preemptively attack his or her neighbour. The state, however brutally it might have done so, civilised its citizens and persuaded them to surrender the satisfactions of vengeance to impartial law.

Liberal Judaism, and its progressive counterparts such as the Reform movements in the UK and North America, are as much products of literacy and rationality as they are of tradition; indeed, it may be that as much as Maimonides sought to square the revelations of Torah with Aristotelian philosophy, the task of Progressive Judaism has been to square Jewish peoplehood with Enlightenment and humanistic values. So I think we can take justifiable pride in being part of this progress. But the traditions we inherit are part of it, too.

In this week’s portion, Naso, we see both in the laws it sets forth and in the interpretation of them by our earliest sages, a sign that Judaism, even its pre-Enlightenment period, is part of the progress towards a world of increasing concern for the stranger and a concomitant reduction in violence. In Numbers 5:5 and following, God commands Moses to tell the people that “when a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man, thus breaking faith with the Lord, and that person realizes his guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done. He shall make restitution in the principal amount, and add one fifth to it, giving it to him whom he has wronged. If the man has no kinsman to whom restitution can be made, the amount repaid shall go to the Lord for the priest.” The word “kinsman” here is a translation of the Hebrew “go’el,” or redeemer, in accordance with the laws of redemption set forth in Leviticus 25:48-49; the relative of a person who, if that person has fallen into debt and is in danger of servitude to the one to whom he owes the money, is obligated to redeem him.

The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah) describes this passage as honouring the proselyte by protecting him or her from injustice, while punishing injustice by the native born. It is comforting to find this ethical stance toward the proselyte in some of our earliest commentaries.· But where in this passage is there mention of a proselyte? Rashi says that the case described here is that of a plaintiff who is due the recompense ordered in this passage, but who has died before he could receive it. But, he continues, is there anyone among the people of Israel who has no go’el, no next of kin – not a brother, nephew, or distant relation? Such a person must be a proselyte, even though the passage does not so describe him. The Midrash enlarges the degree of God’s concern for the proselyte: the reason that God loves the righteous is precisely because there is no family or hereditary title associated with righteousness. One cannot become a priest or Levite unless one’s father is one. But if one wants to be righteous, a gentile is as capable of doing this as any priest or Levite, as there is no family monopoly on it. In the case of proselytes, they are what they are not by virtue of family title, but because they have come to be a part of our people to serve justice; this is what it means to love God. The Midrash offers a parable to illustrate this: A king kept a flock of sheep that grazed in the fields. Once a stag joined the flock, grazing with them and coming home with them. The king gave orders that it should have special treatment. When asked why, he replied, my flock graze and return because they have no choice, but stags usually sleep in the desert and do not approach human habitation. Should we not be grateful that this stag forsakes the wide-open spaces and comes to live with us?

There’s something particularly moving about this Midrash, something that strikes deeper than just the comparison it is intended to draw. There is a sensitivity here to a world beyond our own immediate concerns, one that includes strangers of all kinds; other people, outsiders who become, or might become, insiders to our tradition, yes, but it also beautifully recognizes the nobility and fragility of the animal world.

When we welcome strangers into our midst, we recognize what they have given up to become a part of our people – connections to their families and the familiar, taken for granted traditions of their past, the wide open space of the world. But they bring to us something priceless as well: they remind us that there is no one whom we may take for granted. The world is not simply Us or Them; our tradition tells us that strangers, whether proselytes or not, are of as great consequence as those closest to us.

Interestingly, the point of the Midrash is that once someone has elected to join the Jewish people, they take on a status that is no lower, and arguably higher, than the native born. But a closer look at the parable adds something else: the stag never becomes a sheep – it always is what it is, something fabulously “other” that nonetheless chooses to associate with us. The tradition here defines a proselyte as someone with no kinsman. This opens us up to all people with whom our connection is simply that they are, like us, human. There is something wonderful about the possibility of transcendence, of meeting the other and finding a point of contact.

The Midrash teaches us this lesson through the example of the stag, and it is true that our association with animals offers us an encounter that is surprising and wonderful. It serves to remind us that we can find something akin to that wonder in our encounters with all manner of creatures. That may also be what makes those cute cat photos so powerful – as they should be.