E pluribus unum

It strikes me as fitting that this year the Fourth of July falls during the week when we study Sh’lach-L’cha. It doesn’t always work out this way, but it seems particularly apt to me. As we read of the scouts who lit out for the territory to scope out Eretz Yisrael and report back, of the equal expiation rituals for stranger and neighbor alike, and of the courage it took to fight for the land, I hear American echoes and whispers.

It is of particular significance to me that the scouts are one from each tribe, with several verses devoted to the names not only of the scouts but of the tribes and parents from whom they came. This description of provenance, contextualizing each individual scout by family and by tribe, is echoed in our modern-day identification of Senators and Representatives, as in Bernie Sanders, D-Vermont. (You know, just for instance.) That each scout is named individually, yet they were sent on a collective mission, is such a beautiful metaphor for a healthy society: each of us brings individual qualities and histories, yet things work when we work together. E pluribus unum.

The current American climate feels to me ever more divisive, with an undercurrent of anger in even the most mundane of tasks. Waiting in line at the grocery, parking the car, expressing an opinion on social media — all these things and more are rife with contention. Advertisers, political candidates, entertainers (and people who are all three at once!) fan the flames of this contention for their own gain and we easily comply. Sometimes it feels as though we are all pluribus and no unum.

Yet perhaps this has always been part of the American dynamic. The boychiks and I have been on the HAMILTON bandwagon for several months. (No we haven’t seen it, and yes, I’d be glad to take those tickets off your hands.) In several scenes we hear the way the characters argue and fuss, call each other names (“Sit down, John,” has come a long way since Sherman Edwards’s 1776!), their pluribus well in evidence. Their fighting is animated partly by machismo, mostly by mission. They are aflame with the ambition to do something with this new society they are founding. They fight because it matters, and ultimately they unite in their efforts and forge ahead (mostly) together. Ultimately their unum subdues their pluribus, and the world is better for it.

Our parsha gives us more to go on, with respect to appropriate conduct in forming a nation. G-d instructs Moses to tell the Israelite people how to behave when they enter the land. The rules of offerings and expiation are laid out and — twice we are told — citizens and strangers alike are subject to the same standards. In Numbers 15:15b-16 we read, “There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before G-d; the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you.”

In a week that has given us several terrorist attacks, Elie Wiesel’s death and an ever-intensifying xenophobia from some quarters, as well as the unfolding fallout from the Brexit referendum, this quote is a necessary reminder. A civilized society has no business creating different standards for insiders and outsiders. Before G-d, the citizen and the stranger are equal. As John Laurens sings in HAMILTON, “[W]e’ll never be truly free, until those in bondage have the same rights as you and me.” It isn’t that there are no differences among us, but rather that our strength derives from working together and from holding ourselves and each other to the same high ideals.

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