Bamidbar 2021: Truth Shall Spring from the Earth

What does our tradition say about the role of 20 year olds in our world? And how can we see this playing out today? Turn your eyes to social media, and those young people who are fighting for justice, and the Torah is reflected there.

When we talk about Jewish lifecycle, we’re usually referring to a few stops along the way in our lifetime - baby naming, bar or bat mitzvah, perhaps confirmation,  maybe marriage, and finally death. But our tradition has some other sources for stopping points along the road of life. Our Torah portion this week recounts an ancient one - at 20, ancient Israelites began being counted in the census for the military. Why 20?

A passage from Pirkei Avot, an 1800 year old book of Jewish wisdom, provides pithy axioms about ages in our lifecycle from 5 to 100, but the one that sticks out to me this week reads: “בֶּן עֶשְׂרִים לִרְדֹּף; At the age of twenty, (lirdof) to pursue." Pursue what? In our portion this week, we see 20 year olds counted as full members of their tribes for a military census, but how can we parse this to make “pursuit” at 20 make sense?

Commentaries on Pirkei Avot interpret the line as referring to pursuing a livelihood in the world, the Mishnah uses the term “rodef,” the noun “pursuer” from the same verb “pursuit”, as someone who is pursuing heinous crimes that must be stopped. But what sticks out to me is one of the foremost quoted mitzvot today: tzedek, tzedek tirdof, “Justice, justice you shall pursue,” it is the same verb in command form - telling us what we must pursue, which is tzedek, justice.

So if we put all of these modes of pursuit together, what do they have in common? Each is about focused determination. Soldiers must maintain focus on a battlefield; those who commit the most heinous crimes often have an unbreakable focus on their targets; those in the beginning of their career must have focus and determination to work their way up from the bottom; and those who live a life of pursuit of justice must maintain a focus on the ultimate goal, not getting lost in their personal and individual struggles. 

The strength and determination of people entering into true adulthood, that is, around the age of 20, is well known. Youthful exuberance is a cliche for a reason! In our day, there is a new field on which this exuberance is playing out, which is social media. Anyone who did not grow up with the internet as a given may find social media alienating, intimidating, or even frivolous, but we are seeing today, as a generation comes of age with social media integral to their lives, how powerful it can truly be, for good, and for ill.

Today we’ve seen a sea change in how the media is covering conflict. Issues that would have once been swept under the rug are now lifted up to full sight of anyone who can see. The George Floyd murder was captured on a cell phone by a teenager, Darnella Frazer, only 17. That video was seen over and over again around the world, igniting protests and uprisings against racism globally. 

The protests in our own city were widely led by young, Black people - in their late teens and early twenties, like Chelsea Miller, Yahshiyah Vines, and Ashanti Clarke. These young leaders organized and broadcast the protests to the world through social media- pursuing justice, equality, and a better future.

This past week video recordings by young people in Sheikh Jarrah and the Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, showing the plight of Palestinian families being evicted from their homes during Ramadan, and the violent response to protests against these evictions, have emerged. Young Israeli-Palestinians like Muhammad El Kurd, who has broken through into mainstream media sources like CNN and MSNBC via his social media presence, Muna Kurd, and Tarek Bakri have been at the forefront of these protests, broadcasting the first-hand experiences of their families and neighbors.

These posts have mostly been overshadowed in the mainstream media by the larger movements in Israel and Palestine. More traditional media outlets tend to focus on the devastating loss of life from the IDF’s bombings of Gaza, and the terror waged on Israeli civilians huddling in bomb shelters as Hamas and Islamic Jihad  shoot hundreds of rockets into Israel - but on social media, these young people are still leading and pursuing justice from a more personal angle, and risking their lives and livelihoods to do so. 

Both those who organized the Black Lives Matter protests, and those who are broadcasting from Sheikh Jarrah, have put themselves under scrutiny from powers far beyond them, and in fact challenged these powers directly. Little is more dangerous, and youthful exuberance, “pursuit”, explains their willingness to do so. 

While we can marvel at the wonders of our capacity to connect face to face around the world, and even see events unfold live from the perspective of those there, we must also focus on education for media literacy. Many of the young people referred to above are broadcasting first hand accounts with video evidence. Others, though, abuse the fast and effective mode of dispersing information to misinform and undermine truth. Sometimes people do this purposefully, sometimes they are merely recycling misinformation and disinformation they’ve seen elsewhere. I need not list off the many horrific ramifications of this misinformation over the past few years, both via social AND mainstream media sources, but media viruses such as these can be inoculated against. 

Fact checking, watching the sources, and searching with deep interest always allows for the truth to spring up from the ground. Bringing a critical mind and a critical ear to everything, and digging for alternate sources to fill out the picture, whether you hear it on Instagram or from this very pulpit, even right now, is a cornerstone of Jewish thought. As Rabbi Yochanan tells us in the Talmud, Whoever is exacting with themselves by striving to act righteously in every way on earth below is judged in an exact manner in Heaven above, in order to improve them further still, as it is stated in Psalm 85: “Truth springs out of the earth, and tzedek (justice) has looked down from heaven” (Psalms 85:12). If our tradition tells us that the role of a 20 year old is lirdof, to pursue, AND we find these young people pursuing tzedek, justice, it is our obligation to listen - truth from the earth will bring down tzedek. We must consider and take seriously the causes they pursue, and search for the truth within in order to bring tzedek from on high. 

It may seem unconventional, or even counter to the expected mode of finding reliable resources, but whether or not we end up accepting everything, or anything, they say, we must listen. For this is the future, and these young people are pursuing it. They are seeing that no matter where they are, no matter what is happening to them, they are not alone. When they have something to share, something of great import, others are there to see, to witness, and to pass it along. No matter how lost they are, they will always be found. May we, too, be those who see, witness, and pass along. May we make sure that they are always, always found.