Shaya Cohen -


Maintaining Who You Are

We are all influenced by our surroundings, by our environment. And it is certainly a challenge for those of us who work with people who come from very different backgrounds and have made very different choices than we have. It is not uncommon, for example, for modern workplaces to include immodest dress, routine use of obscenities, informal conversations about topics that would be politely described as “not kosher,” and casual acceptance of the popular culture.

Orthodox Jews, who are almost always working in a non-Jewish environment, face this challenge all the time: we do not want the language and culture we are immersed in at work to corrupt who we are, and who we seek to become. We are always trying to find a balance, a way to interact without assimilating. In my case, I “present” to my industry as not Jewish at all. I quietly remain true to my behavioral norms, and always have a ready excuse for not eating, but not as a visible Jew.

But I always keep a touchstone, the part of my life that grounds and recenters me: my home, my marriage, my children, my synagogue and my community all make that work.

To my surprise, the Torah very cleverly identifies something that seems quite similar. Here is the passage:

Instruct the Israelite people to assign, out of the holdings apportioned to them, towns for the Levites to dwell in; you shall also assign to the Levites pasture land around their towns. The towns shall be theirs to dwell in, and the pasture shall be for the cattle they own and all their other beasts. The town pasture that you are to assign to the Levites shall extend a thousand cubits outside the town wall all around. You shall measure off two thousand cubits outside the town on the east side, two thousand on the south side, two thousand on the west side, and two thousand on the north side, with the town in the center. That shall be the pasture for their towns. (Numbers 35)

It all sounds straightforward and free of any deeper symbolic value. But there are a few red flags with this translation that change this passage entirely.

The first is the word that is translated as “pasture” does not mean “pasture” anywhere else in the Torah. Instead, it refers to expulsion, the removal of people from a place or relationship: Adam and Eve from Eden, Cain from the land, Hagar and Ishmael from Sarah’s house, the Jews from Egypt, the previous inhabitants from Canaan, and a divorced woman. The phrase suggests that a key purpose of this land is to be free of people, like a no-mans’s land, complete with its open space on all sides.

The second red flag is that the word for “dwell” is not one of the more common words found in the Torah: “gur, schakan, shev.” The word is instead “Shavet,” the same letters comprising “Sabbath” (in the Torah scroll, the vowels are not shown, so the same root letters can have different vowels).

The third red flag are the precise dimensions: why 2,000 amos in each direction? Curiously, this is the same limitation for the distance a person is allowed to walk outside of a city on the Sabbath.

Which leads to one simple conclusion: on the Sabbath, Levites could not leave their walled city. Everyone else was expelled for 2,000 cubits all around, so the city was designed specifically as a place for the Sabbath itself. I suggest, then, that these boundaries served to create the environment in which Levites separated from the rest of the people for one day a week to rest and reconnect. It was also an inducement for Levites to marry other Levites, since the day of rest was not an opportunity to mingle with those from other tribes. The Levites were the scholar-priest class, tasked with uplifting the other people throughout the land. But it seems they, too, needed regular time away.

In which case, the Torah is giving us all a suggestion for how to not stray too far from who we need to be: take a day a week to recenter, a day in which exterior interactions are limited, and in which we reconnect with our closest family.

[an @iwe and @susanquinn work]

Comments are welcome!

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