Week of different Parshat, but one People

This week’s Torah portion is…well…actually that’s not an easy thing to determine, because the true answer is: it depends. It depends on where you live and what branch of Judaism you belong to.
In Israel and in the Reform Movement, Pesach is observed for seven days. Outside of Israel, other than the Reform Movement, Pesach is observed for eight days, because of second day Yom Tov in the Diaspora. What does all that have to do with the Torah Portion? Well, if you observe seven days of Pesach, the Torah Portion is Shemini, but if you observe eight days, then the Torah Portion is for the last day of Pesach. This makes the Diaspora out of sync with Israel until Parashat Bamidbar, when the two communities once again align. If you were wondering, they do this in Israel by spreading the double portion Behar/Bechukotai over two weeks instead of one week, as in the Diaspora.
But wait. There’s more. There always is. Many in the Reform Movement don’t like being out of sync with the rest of the Diaspora and so they split the baby, or the portion in this case, and do the first half of Shemini this week and the second half of Shemini the following week. Within a week, they are back to the same Diaspora schedule as everyone else, though still out of sync with Israel. My own congregation observes the Israeli calendar, so for me, the portion is Shemini.
This is a problem. And it is more of a problem than simply which part of Torah should I write about for my column this week. It is a problem of the divisions we create between ourselves. We are in the middle of Pesach right now, putting aside whether Pesach ends on Friday night or Saturday night, and one huge division we create among ourselves is on the subject of kitniyot.
There are five grains biblically forbidden during Pesach, except in the form of matzoh: wheat, barley, spelt, oats and rye. Rice, millet and legumes are nowhere on that list, yet they became similarly forbidden in the category of kitniyot because they can be used like a forbidden grain, or a forbidden grain might be accidentally mixed in during storage. But only for Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews are allowed to eat rice and other kitniyot during Pesach.
Which leads to my being gobsmacked when I went grocery shopping during Pesach when I lived in Israel. Above the rice was a sign that said: “For sale only to Sephardim.” “How would they know?” I thought to myself. Do people carry Sephardi Identity Cards? Yet the division exists.
You want to know what’s not important? It’s not important which part of the Torah we read this Shabbat. What is important is that all of us stood together at Sinai to receive Torah as one Jewish People. It isn’t important to focus on the differences in food customs we observe during Pesach, but rather to acknowledge that we are all observing Pesach together. It is too easy to focus on the myriad ways we can think of how to divide and separate us from each other. What we need to do, what can sometimes be harder, is to focus on what unites us as one Jewish People.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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