Parsha Thoughts

Only the Good Die Young

  

Parashat Shemini

  

After a long spring training season, it was finally time for the opening day of the baseball season. Unfortunately for my baseball loving sons (and their only partially jaded father) the first game of the season was held on eve of Yom Tov, the seventh day of Passover, when the candles glowed and screens were dark.

  

Driving back home at the end of the chag a few days later we managed to catch the last few innings of the Yankee's second game of the season, and were not too upset that the Red Sox walked home what would prove to be the winning run.

  

It was a wry coincidence that a wild pitch and passed ball by the Yankees a few nights earlier allowed their arch rivals to win the opener in a similar fashion. But, that's the game. Despite all the excitement and fanfare, it usually comes down to the avoidance of the one minute error that can turn joy into tragedy.

  

In this week's parasha, Shemini, we are given box seats to opening day at the mishkan. There had been a seven day spring training, with Moshe directing his team in all sorts of drills, setting up and breaking down the mishkan in anticipation of a long, successful season and hopefully an endless summer.

  

We learn that all was ready and in place for the opening ceremony.

  

"They took that which Moshe commanded, before the Tent of Meeting; and the entire congregation approached and they stood before G-d. Moshe said, This is what G-d commanded you to do: and the glory of G-d will appear to you." (Lev. 9:5-6)

  

The Almighty throws out the first pitch, so to speak, and the season begins!

  

"A fire came forth from before G-d and consumed what was on the altar; the burnt-offering and the fats. All the people saw and they raised their voices in praise, and they fell on their faces". (Lev. 9:24)
You couldn't ask for a more dramatic beginning!

  

Two sons of Aaron, the Kohane Gadol, are so inspired that they present their own offering, and the results are tragic:

  

"Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, took, each of them his fire-pan, placed fire on it and then placed incense upon it and they brought before G-d a strange fire, which He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before G-d and consumed them, and they died in the presence of G-d." (Lev. 10:1-2)

  

For millenia our sages have been discussing exactly what took place. What went wrong, why did the two brothers, enveloped in the passion of the moment, deserve to lose their lives in such a dramatic fashion?

  

The major commentators have learned that this was the result of, among other things, disregarding their teacher Moshe, or possibly entering the mishkan in a drunken state.
But, those are difficult explanations, because right away the the Torah seems to praise them:
"Moshe said to Aaron, 'it is as G-d spoke, saying: 'through those that are near me I shall be sanctified, and in the presence of the entire people I will be glorified'......." (Lev 10:3)

  

What was this strange fire? An unauthorized voluntary offering in the midst of a tightly choreographed sacred proceeding, rehearsed over and over again.

  

The brothers must have acted out of love, swept up in the passion of the moment.

  

Was it inevitable? The name Nadav is the same word as nadava, a non required free will offering. But the divine service is a team activity, with everyone doing their own dedicated part of the sacred work, in conjunction with that of others. Every part is interdependent. Even a nadava, a voluntary offering requires a coordinated group effort.

  

Perhaps they did not understand the power of the position. This was no ordinary fire they were playing with, rather a fire from heaven.
Maybe this was an echo of creation itself?

  

The beginning of the creation of the physical world, as revealed in the Torah, is the creation of ohr, usually translated as light.
When we think of light, our first thought is of the natural light of the sun. But, the sun wasn't created until the fourth day!
Perhaps this ohr was in fact the initial source of energy that set the world into motion.

  

As we know, energy and radiation are incredibly powerful phenomena, with the power to create and destroy.

  

Human beings, with the gift of free will, are given an opportunity as well, to create and destroy. It is not always possible to know the end result of our actions, or the effect they will have on the world. The Torah, with it's clear sense of order, and natural law, offers a guide to keep us on base, so to speak.
Deviating from that path is a risk, and on the cosmic base path we never know the gravity of the most minute action.

  

We all know the story of the batter who was fined by the manager for hitting a home run, when he was in fact given the sign to bunt.

  

When Nadav and Avihu disregarded the play book, the explicit instructions for sacred actions in the mishkan, they paid the ultimate price.
But their motivation was noble, and can continue to inspire us.
May all our prayers be offered and answered, at the right time.

  

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

Def Leper

 

Parashat Tazria/Metzorah

 

 
Although I have traditionally eschewed the mainstream corporate mentality of suit, briefcase and expense account, I am familiar with the culture, as some friends and family have spent substantial time in that world. There is an expected attitude towards moving up the ladder, and an inherent part of the process is the annual (or quarterly) review where employees are given constructive criticism so that they may concentrate on specific areas that need improvement.
 
In the education field substantial time and resources are spent on assessment activities. These activities and tools not only gauge the abilities of students to learn, but also that of teachers to teach.
 
Way back when, in school days of yore, I played woodwinds in the pit for a high school production of "Applause". As the title tune explains, approval from the audience is a major motivating factor in show business. As I became more artistically driven the approval I sought was mostly from other musicians, painters, writers, hipsters, and the occasional well connected critic or reviewer, although paying audience were a good sign that I was on the right track for sustaining a career in the arts. If someone's work was substandard the audience would dwindle, as would the calls from potential collaborators, and the person would get the message-more practicing required!
 
The need for approval from the public spreads into many fields. Ed Koch the mayor of New York City from 1979 to 1989 is renowned for walking around the city and cheerfully asking everyone, "How'm I Doing?
 
The Torah gives us an annual review, called Rosh Hashanah, and we are given an opportunity to perfect our job performance, as well as make amends for any shortcomings in our spiritual growth. Although most of us do our most intense soul searching during the officially sanctioned ten days of repentance, the opportunity for introspection and t'shuva ( returning to the correct path) is available year round.
 
Historically, when the the nation of Israel fells short of its mission they were informed by the usual channels- plagues, draughts, floods,wild beasts, etc. These signs were the catalyst for national behavior modification, and the Torah documents many cases of national t'shuva.
 
In this week's parasha we get a glimpse into a unique and wondrous methodology- the Torah's plan for informing individuals that they are falling short of their spiritual responsibilities by actual physical signs on the their bodies!
 
One of these signs is called tzarat, almost always translated as leprosy, and is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and mistranslated ideas in the Torah.
 
Firstly, tzarat cannot be the famous and now completely treatable bacterial infection (also called Hansen's disease) that caused millions around the world to be sequestered ( even today there are reported to be over 1000 leper colonies in India). The symptoms of tzarat were ignored during national celebrations, weddings, and other festive times when the greatest number of people could potentially be threatened by an infectious disease. Clearly the Torah is not concerned about a public health threat. The symptoms only indicated the potential for diagnosis, and were completely benign to others until the time of "official" declaration by a kohane.
 
Tzarat, as described in the Torah is a SPIRITUAL malady, which leaves the afflicted in a state of tumah, or spiritual impurity, which can spread by contact. The first signs, or nega'im are found on the walls of a person's house. The tumah sets in only when declared by the kohane. The Torah mercifully tells the afflicted to move his possessions outside of his house ahead of the visit from the kohane, lest the tzarat (which does not technically exist prior to the kohane's declaration) affect those articles as well. This is a sign from G-d that the individual is falling short in his relationship with the community by improper use of speech. The house is closed off, and the afflicted is given time for reflection and repentance.  
If this opportunity passes with no change, the nega'im appear next on clothing, and finally on one's skin. The word nega, or mark, also means touch. G-d is touching them to alert them that they are in danger of failing their periodic review, and give them time to work on themselves, in privacy. After a week's time they can rejoin the community after a fascinating but complicated purification ritual.
 
Hurtful or improper use of speech, called Lashon Harah in Hebrew, is singled out here, from among all possible human shortcomings, because it directly contradicts the holiness of our Creator. 
Our world, and all that are contained within are the products of Divine Speech, (whatever that means!) . Every morning we start our communal prayers with "Blessed be the one who spoke, and the world came into being".  
Humans are distinguished from other beings by their ability to use speech. To use speech to hurt or destroy is the antithesis of holiness, and tzarat was a friendly wake up call to get to work and grow in that area.  
One of the many tragedies of the current exile is the loss of prophecy, and with it, the personal, undeniable feedback from G-d. 
In today's challenging spiritual environment it is much more difficult to sense the presence of G-d, and we are not now fortunate enough to receive a divine tap on the shoulder when we err. The voice of G-d now comes mostly from within. By continuously working on refining ourselves, we will be growing spiritually, and when we ask ourselves, "How'm I doing?", we can become more and more sensitive to the "still, small voice".  
Let's pray that it does not fall on deaf ears.
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbi Greg

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Parashat Tzav

  

This week our parasha continues with the details of the korbanot, the offerings to be brought on the altar in the mishkan, and later the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Last week we read about the various offerings that an individual would bring. These offerings were always brought during the day.

  

In Parashat Tzav we get an insight into the domain of the kohanim (priests), whose activities extended into the night. "It is the olah offering that is on the fire all night, until the morning, and the flames of the altar will remain burning" (Lev. 6:2).

  

The night seems to be the stage for acts of elevated holiness, to take place while most of the world is sleeping.

The Talmud (Eruvin 65a) reports an interesting exchange about the different qualities of day and night activities. Rabbi Yehuda says that nights are for sleeping, implying that daytime is the best opportunity for acquiring wisdom, while R' Shimon Ben Lakish says that moonlight was created only for learning. Rav Zeira credited the clarity of his learning to his daytime study. Obviously there is more going on here than meets the eye.

  

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) teaches that for most of the world, the day is the most powerful platform for our activities. The clarity that Rav Zeira mentioned is epitomized by the unique prophecy of Moshe himself, who, unlike any other prophet, did not communicate with G-d in a dream or night vision. "Rather, the Word of G-d that came to Moshe reached the lucid intellect of an aware individual" (R' S.R. Hirsch, Vayikra 6:2). Therefore, it is only natural that the korbanot be offered during the day. No new offerings could be accepted after hours.

  

But, after a day of striving, of accomplishment, of offering our best, and celebrating our very existence, we can rest assured that the processes that went into play by light of day can continue into the night. Rav Hirsch points out a chronological dichotomy. The universal structure of time begins at night, and proceeds into the day. "......And it was evening, and it was morning, one day" (Gen. 1:5). The yearly calendar follows suit. Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of human life, takes place in the fall month of Tishrei. The year begins in the autumn and proceeds into the night of winter, and awakens to spring time, matures into summer, and fades away in a wash of color.

  

Not so the sacred chronology. Here, life begins with the day, where one can toil, and invest in the future, knowing that our physical and spiritual offerings will remain burning deep into the night. Rav Hirsch writes," For the night, which symbolizes the stillness of death, cannot drag down the day down after it; rather, the day, which symbolizes a life of closeness to G-d, raises with it the night".

  

Likewise, the sacred calendar starts with the month of Nissan, the month of Aviv, that is, springtime. Our dedication and hard work make it possible to proceed into the dark of winter knowing that we have done our part, and that G-d will provide the return on our investment.


 As the fires burn on

the altar into the evening, the darkness of night provides the stage for our ultimate redemption. It's no surprise we are days away from the festival of freedom, from Pesach. The Torah tells us the Exodus took place at midnight, and during our seder we will recall the power of the divine illuminated against the dark backdrop, in the song Vayehi bachatzi ha'layla, It Happened at Midnight.


 "Bring quickly, Lord, the day which is not day or night.

The day is yours, G-d, and so is the night.

Set guards about your city day and night,

Give us vision clear by day by night,

And it came to pass, at midnight" 


 The true vision of freedom will be as clear as day.

Next Year in Jerusalem.....


 Shabbat Shalom, and good night,

Rabbi Greg

 

"The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too."  

Eugene O'Neill

Tailgate Party!

Parashat Vayikra
 

Now the half-time air was sweet perfume 

While sergeants played a marching tune 

We all got up to dance 

Oh, but we never got the chance....
 

This week we begin our annual reading of Sefer Vayikra ( Leviticus), the third of the five books in the Chumash, the Five Books of Moses. Unlike the thrilling narrative contained in the earlier two books, Sefer Vayikra is virtually a collection of mitzvot, of commandments concerning the service in the mishkan (tabernacle) and the sacrificial rites. Our sages refer to this book as Torat Kohanim, the laws of priestly service. Many regular synagogue attendees, as well as those following along at home, respond with a yawn, or a rolling of the eyes.
 

Those that actually choose to engage are often challenged by the erstwhile, primitive activities. Sacrifices? Yuck! What kind of religion is this? Is this what we are praying for in every Amidah with the words, "Be favorable Hashem our G-d, toward your people Israel and their prayers, and receive their fire offerings and prayers with love..."?
 

To understand these, and other fascinating questions an inquiring mind should have, means rolling up your proverbial sleeves, and getting into the middle of a nearly thousand year old debate. Why should the Torah require such seemingly senseless slaughter? 
 

The Torah calls the sacrifices korbanot, from the Hebrew root koraiv, to draw close. A korban is an offering, and animals are only one of a variety of offerings. If animals were NOT included it is doubtful that the English translation sacrifices would have the same connotation. Before we proceed we must note that the "sacrifice" does not have the meaning of "waste". The animals offered were, except in a few cases, used for food, to be eaten by either the kohanim (priests), or the person bringing the offering. Even in the case of the korban olah, the burnt offering, the hide of the animal was used for shoes and clothing.
 

Here is what Rav Kook , a strict vegetarian who opposed the needless picking of a blade of grass, said about the morality of animal offerings:
 

Some people object to the idea of sacrifices out of concern for the welfare of animals. However, this objection contains a measure of hypocrisy. Why should compassion for animals only be expressed with regard to humanity's spiritual needs? If our opposition to animal slaughter is based not on weakness of character, but on recognition of the issue's fundamental morality, then our first step should be to outlaw the killing of animals for food, clothing, and other material benefits.
 

In the world's present state, the human race is weak, both physically and morally. The hour to protect animal life has not yet arrived. We still need to slaughter animals for our physical needs, and human morality requires that we maintain clear boundaries to distinguish between the relative value of human and animal life.
 

At this point in time, to advocate the protection of animals in our service of God is disingenuous. Is it moral to permit cruelty towards animals for our physical needs, yet forbid their use for our spiritual service, in sincere recognition and gratitude for God's kindness? If our dedication and love for God can be expressed - at its highest level - with our willingness to surrender our own lives and die "al kiddush Hashem," sanctifying God's name, then certainly we should be willing to forgo the life of animals for this sublime goal. (Olat Re'iyach, vol. I, p. 292)
 

Okay- but how can this type of action bring us closer to G-d?
 

Rabbi Saadia Gaon (882-942) noted that it is natural that people would want to bring an offering to G-d, a matana, or gift. It is something of value that is "sacrificed" to show our appreciation. Although G-d needs nothing from us, the act of offering our best raises us up, and brings us closer.
 

But why animals?
 

The Rambam (Maimonides) wrote in his " Moreh Nevuchim (Guide For the Perplexed) " that this type of offering was a concession for the underlying need for idolatry. Many people either worshipped pagan deities by offering animals, or worshipped animals by refraining from killing them. By channeling this instinct into a legislated ritual the Israelites could be weaned from the innate human tendencies toward illicit worship. By offering these same animals worshipped by other cultures the belief in the sovereignty of G-d was strengthened."
 

The Ramban (Nachmonides) vehemently disagrees with the Rambam, and states that this not a concession at all, but the divine plan for achieving spiritual unity. 

The Torah states animals should be offered on the altar for a "re'iyach nicho'ach", a pleasing aroma, the smell of roasting meat. If animal sacrifices were initially deviant behavior, why would the Torah document the offerings of Abel, Noah, Abraham, etc? Rather, the reason to offer animals on the altar is as an atonement for our shortcomings, and the animals are there in place of us! He makes a symbolic comparison of the specifics of the offerings to various ways humans fail. Even the continuous communal offerings (korban tamid) are in recognition of the fact that as a people we will continuously falter. He closes with a midrashic aside..."Do you want the truth? I only commanded the offerings so that my will be fulfilled..
 

Most medieval commentators line up on one side or the other of this debate, with various clarifications, side points, and flag waving.
 

If we fast forward 6 centuries we get a creative way of perhaps reconciling the opposing views. The Shadal, Rabbi Shlomo David Luzzato (1800-1865) suggests that the offerings were designed to create community, to create national unity. All offerings had to be made in the Temple, by the kohanim, and to participate one needed to be there, in person. The re'iyach nicho'ach, sweet perfume, would only further contribute to the festivities of travelers from all over ascending to Jerusalem for spiritual growth and good times.
 

Sense of community... fresh barbeque..... 

Tailgate party, anyone?
 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Greg

Just a Hunka,Hunka Burning Love

Parashat  Vayakhel

“Lord Almighty I feel my temp'rature rising, 
Higher and higher it's burning through to my soul”

The Tupelo Rebbe

Our  sidra opens with yet another mention of the mitzvah of Shabbat. It seems that Shabbat is a running sub theme of the entire mishkan  section, woven throughout the text like a design in a flowing tapestry. It is no surprise that the entire methodology of tabernacle  building is what we use to codify the specifics of shabbat observation. 
 The Talmud (Shabbat 49B) teaches that the specific activities involved in building the mishkan are the source of the 39  catagories of creative activity (melachot) that are to be curtailed on the shabbat.

Curiously, the text of our parasha does not present us with a list of these activities, only (after threatening blatant scofflaws) a directive to refrain from building a fire on shabbat.  
Why was fire singled out from among the 39 melachot? Perhaps we can learn something from the nature of fire itself.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (1470-1550)points out that fire can be  destructive   or  constructive. Fire was  a necessary component of  processing mishkan materials, and it was this beneficial use of fire that the Torah prohibits on Shabbat.  It was the intention that turned a potentially destructive act into a creative endeavor.

This concept is discussed at length again in tractate Shabbat (105B), as well as many other places in the Talmud. Melachot done for the wrong reason, or without intention are not considered significant.
 I think we can play with this idea a bit, and apply this approach to all our activities, and the observance of shabbat itself. 
Through sincere intention our activities can turn from a trivial exercise into a significant statement. Mindless ritual, especially of the type that would seem to technically avoid shabbat desecration actually is destructive-it removes us from the “zone” that is shabbat itself.


We have a choice: we can look at the cessation of creative labor as a prison, and a parallel reality emerges. Our activities and rituals can become spiritually destructive, and create a harmful fire inside that prevents us from experiencing our taste of heaven on earth. 

Alternatively, we can choose to perform or refrain from the same activities, with an intention of  immersing ourselves in shabbat and basking in a glimpse of revealed light.  This can actually have the constructive benefit of giving our bodies pleasure, our minds stimulation, and letting our spirits soar.

That same burning fire, while capable of reducing a house to ashes, can heat a home, and warm our hearts.

“You light my morning sky with burning love
With burning love (hunka hunka burning love Ha)”
ibid.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

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Details, Details!

Parashat Ki Tisa

As an artist I am quite used to being in conflict with procedural issues. I don't mind trying to follow directions, but not without first looking at the directive from all possible angles, and trying to find the best way to ensure that the results reflect my personal spin on things. Of course this approach is essential in music, or writing, but what about my practice of traditional Judaism? Is my creative nature forced to be subservient to the details  of living a life informed by Jewish law?

In this week's parasha we are introduced to the master artist Betzalel, who will create and build the mishkan.

And I have filled him with the spirit of G-d, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge, and skill" (Ex 31:3).

Why the need to add a new face to the team? Certainly between Moshe, Aaron, the elders, and tribal leaders, there was quite a brain trust. Couldn't they grasp the details of the building of the mishkan on their own?

It seems that the torah realizes that there needs to be someone who can think out of the box, with great aesthetic instincts,to reflect artistically on the process of fulfilling the divine imperative.  Even King Solomon, the wisest of all human beings, needed to send for Hiram "....and he was filled with wisdom and understanding, and skill..."(1 Kings 7:14). [Note the exact same language was used to describe Bezalel, except for Bezalel's being "...filled with the spirit of  G-d...." That was reserved only for Bezalel, who was selected by G-d directly.]

We all have a part of Bezalel in each of us, and even in quite limited ways our truly creative urges never fail to satisfy. What better way to honor our Creator than our own creativity?

Directly after the appointment of  Bezalel and his assistant Oholiav we get a set of conditional terms, concerning creativity and the sanctity of Shabbat. Creative endeavors are to be subservient to the Shabbat, our efforts to act G-d like during the week are contrasted with our efforts to refrain from creating on Shabbat. 

The Torah does not use the word avodah, meaning menial work, but rather melacha, meaning creative, transformative work. I can use my creative energy, the primal force that causes me to exert my individuality in the world, to help me avoid creating. This is the time to delve deep into the details of Jewish law, and the reward is the added appreciation of the gift of creativity itself.

If we choose to disregard this paradigm then the alternative is an Eigel Masaicha, a Golden Calf- a commercial replacement for spiritual creativity. This is a very powerful and seductive force, but not our true essence. In our narrative the results are catastrophic, causing the divine spirit to retreat. After some impassioned petitioning by Moshe, the people are given another chance,  an opportunity to grow from their flirtation with pagan practice, with shallow creativity.

G-d instructs the Israelites not to make "elohay masaicha", molten gods. It is interesting that in modern Hebrew the word masaicha can also mean "mask". Do not practice an anonymous, inauthentic creativity, take your mask off if you want to truly have a spiritually fulfilling life.

 The very next verse is the commandment to observe the festival of Pesach, to eat only leaven free matza for seven days. Leaven is an enhancement to the natural qualities of our basic food, a creative addition . By abstaining from leaven during Pesach we are removing our masks, re-examining our roles, not as creators, but as create-ees.

The laws of Pesach are very detailed, much more complicated than Shabbat. Here the Torah is giving us a week-long opportunity to realign ourselves, to hone our sensitivity to the power of creation, and truly delight in having been created ourselves. 

This awareness is holiness itself, an immersion in a  mikvah of time. We can look forward to the transitional moment of each week, the "havdalah", or separation we make at the end of Shabbat and holidays, knowing we can forge ahead as creative beings, with G-d's blessing upon us.

Details to follow...Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

 

Parashat Tetzaveh

 

Did you catch the finale of the Grammys a few weeks ago? Grammy night is always a good opportunity to reflect on pop culture’s obsession with ranking artistic and intellectual achievement. While I am thrilled that Adele won yet another 3 awards, and Chance the Rapper  has truly taken the world by storm, many of the “best” will simply fade into the rubble of water cooler debate topics. Remember “Bent Fabric”?

Inevitably the conversation turns to the historical impact of lack thereof of the recently feted.

 

Who was the greatest musician of all time?

What is the greatest recording of all time?

Next...

Who was the greatest athlete?

And then (as this in an election year)..

Who was the greatest president?

Who was the greatest thinker?

What was the most important event in history?

 

Any definitive collection of superlatives is certainly disputable, yet we delight in compiling lists, and making statements that reflect our confidence in ourselves.

It is only natural that sooner or later someone would want to proclaim a certain verse the “most important verse in the Torah”!

 

In his introduction to the classic medieval work, “Ein Yaakov”, Rabbi Yaakov Ibn Haviv quotes a midrash that summarizes a discussion of that very topic.

What is the most important verse in the entire Torah? The midrash quotes three opinions.

 

According to the sage Ben Zoma, it is “"Shema Yisrael, Hashem Elokeinu, Hashem Ekhad- Hear O Israel, the Lord is our G-d, the Lord is One.."

(Deut. 6:4)

 

Ben Nannas (and also Rabbi Akiva) said, "v'Ahavta l'Reakha k'Mokha.- You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18)

 

Ben Pazai said: " Et ha-keves ha-echad ta'aseh

va-BOKER ve-et ha-keves ha-sheini

ta'aseh bein ha-ARBAYIM....And one lamb you shall offer in the morning, and the other in the afternoon" (Ex. 29:39)

 

This last entry, from this week’s parasha, is a bit puzzling...nevertheless, the midrash concludes that Ben Pazai is correct, that this is in fact the most important verse in the Torah.

 

How can the commandment to bring the Korban Tamid, the daily offering, even make it to the top ten?

 

And isn’t this verse, with its reference to sacrificial offerings to be placed on the altar, out of place here in our parasha, with its description of the contents of the mishkan, the holy tabernacle?

 

The Maharal of Prague (Rabbi Yehuda Loew- remember the Golem?) writing about our discussion, says that consistency is the essence of relationship with our creator.

A peek into this week’s reading reinforces that view.

 

The me’ulim (the one time inaugural offerings) described in our parasha are no guarantee that our special relationship can last past the initial infatuation stage. Judaism-whether the biblical version described here, or the rabbinic version we have inherited to sustain us in exile- requires practice. A lot of practice...

 

As a musician, I can relate. It’s no surprise that we use the same term for both disciplines. I practice my saxophone, I practice Judaism, I have a spiritual practice...As the saying goes, art is one percent inspiration, and ninety nine percent perspiration.

 

In addition to the obvious benefits of refinement and technique, the commitment demonstrates a deeper connection. We were taken out of Egypt not to founder in a listless freedom, but rather to accept the loving servitude of our creator. This relationship can only mature through constant attention. And, there is an art to it.

 

Actually, the word “tamid” meaning constant, is used in our parasha to describe two other components of the divine service of the mishkan.

 

The menorah, the first commandment given in our parasha, is to burn continually. We connect to G-d by continually referencing G-d’s first creation described in the Torah- “Let There be light....”, the first of the “ten utterances” that brought the world into being.

 

Likewise the incense (ketoret) described at the end of the parasha is a ketoret tamid- a constant fragrance.

The ketoret, which also means “binding”, is a blend of eleven ingredients, representing a transcendence of the ten stages of creating the physical world. That transcendence is our attachment to G-d.

 

When the minute details of our lives get in the way we may not always grasp the feeling that we are reaching our potential.

We need to reflect on the fact that the continuity of effort WILL sustain us between the fleeting moments of inspiration.

With experience, those moments will be closer and closer together. It just takes a bit of practice...

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 

Home Furnishings

Parashat Terumah

 

Now that the Superbowl has come and gone, now that the Grammys and Oscars have been handed out (who would have thought anything could be more dramatic than the end of this year's Superbowl?), I can focus on the official beginning of my favorite team sport- baseball. Spring training is in full swing! Bring it on..


I've been a baseball fan off and on for most of my life. When my sons started taking more than a passing interest in the game I began going to Yankee Stadium several times a year for some good father/son bonding, a relaxing night out, and occasionally, an exciting game. I've noticed that after the first few innings many people choose to spend more time at the concession stand than in their seats, as the intense, drawn out middle innings require much concentration. Everyone enjoys the fireworks of big home runs, daring base running and acrobatic fielding but the intensity of a pitchers dual and a manager driven plan to manufacture runs is often lost on the casual fan. A well played game is a work of art.

Likewise, the interest in the weekly Torah reading, while strong with such diversions as plagues, sea-splitting, open miracles and ironic plot twists, tends to wane in the middle innings as well. The highly detailed instructions on the building and furnishing of the tabernacle (mishkan), and the specifics of the sacrificial rites often leave the casual fan heading for a 7th aliyah stretch.

But, as in baseball, once you are hip to the subtleties, the game unfolds in a calm beauty, and in each corner and behind every shadow lays a door inside- an illuminated corridor revealing the majesty of  creative energy.

In this hallway things are often not as they first appear. Is this a foreshadowing, a flashback, or are we progressing in an orderly, chronologically accurate fashion?
A careful reading of the text of this week's parasha, Terumah,raises many, many questions, and identifying and grappling with these questions  brings us one level closer to the playing field.

For example, 
Was the commandment to build the mishkan given before or after the tragic events of the Golden Calf? Why is the verse telling us to build it followed immediately by instructions of the Holy Ark (which gets more playing time than any other details of the tabernacle), and why do we need to know all the micro details about intricate measurements, architecture  and textile engineering? Can we really derive meaning from minute grammatical inconsistencies? Is the entire mishkan an allegorical reference to creation itself? 
Instead of offering any pithy insights this week I dare you to poke around for yourself! Take a casual tour of some major commentators like Rashi, Ramban, Abravanel, Kli Yakar, S.R Hirsch, Nechama Leibowitz. No easy access to Jewish books or source material? Ten or fifteen minutes and an internet connection will give you access to many, many ways to turn the mundane into the magical.

Is it any surprise that the commandment to build the mishkan comes at the same time we welcome in the month of Adar, our most joyous month, calendar home to our festival of physicality, Purim? The verse says, " They shall build me a sanctuary, and I will dwell IN THEM"- We can indeed have a physical relationship with G-d! In fact, the name of the month, Adar, can be read as A(aleph, the infinite oneness)dar (dwells). During this auspicious month we should strive to connect with the divine spark that is inside each and every one of use. Put the ball in play by learning a little- don't worry about hitting one out of the park, just get on base. You simply can't lose...

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg
PS
Aren't you glad I didn't start off  this spring training edition of the parasha notes with "In the Big Inning..."

The Eyes Have It

 

 

The Eyes Have It

 

 

Parashat Mishpatim 

 

 

The conclusion of last week's parasha left us stunned and breathless, as the experience of the revelation settled in. The initial experience was about the phenomenon itself, about the sanctity of the spiritual realm- "Anochi Ado/nay Elohecha", I am G-d, YOUR personal god. This personal relationship, the essence of Judaism, carries with it a staggering responsibility. Our covenantal relationship requires the Jewish people to model the results of this spiritual relationship to the world at large.

 

The last mitzvah from last week's parasha was the commandment to make an altar, for various offerings to be detailed later. The Rambam (Maimonedes) writes that the very act of bringing an offering is that of self sacrifice, that we should be offering our very lives to G-d (think of the binding of Isaac), but are blessed to be only bound symbolically to that concept. 

We instead offer up something of value in place of our lives. In the biblical model that would be an animal of value, and our donation would additionally feed and clothe those who sustained the tabernacle and temple. In the rabbinic model, which temporarily replaces the sacrificial system during the period of exile, we offer monetary charitable gifts, and specific offerings of prayer.

In this week's sidra we learn how we are to represent our spiritual ideals in the real world, so to speak. We are presented with a series of mishpatim, of civil laws, which teach us how to interact with others in a holy manner.  

The fact that these laws form the basis of the modern legal system is an acknowledgment of the strength of the Torah, which posses a keen awareness to the motivation and behavior of mere humans. Judaism teaches that this system of legal responsibility is in fact universal, binding on Jew and Gentile alike. To imagine, however, that these principles are only reflecting a societal need is inviting a kind of moral relativism that is antithetical to the timelessness of Torah. 

So, when a civil principle seems beyond our initial comprehension we must dig deeper, to uncover the point the Torah is actually making.

"Ayin tachat ayin, shain tachat shain...", an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.. (Ex. 22:24).

This verse is perhaps one of the most misunderstood in the entire bible. A literal understanding would indicate that retribution mirroring the original offense was required, and justified. Of course Jewish law does not actually require a comparable action in cases of bodily injury...that would put too many Jewish lawyers out of work! The oral law, as explained in the Talmud, teaches that it is the monetary value of the injury that is required to make restitution -that, and a heartfelt request to the inured party for forgiveness. Logic and scriptural analysis easily support that concept. 

 

Our sages offer various reasons for the monetization of the injury. The Talmud in Bava Kamma (83B) quotes Rabbi Shimon saying, "an eye for an eye refers to money". The Talmud quotes the verse "You shall have one manner of law..." (Lev 24:22) and points out that a blind person could not receive equal punishment under the law for causing loss of sight in another.

Other sages say it SHOULD be literal; we make financial restitution knowing deep down that we actually deserve a similar loss ourselves.

Rav Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of pre-state Israel teaches this point through a mashal, an allegorical story.

When parents discover their son has committed a very grave offense, how do they react?

The father immediately raises his hand to punish his son. But the mother, full of compassion, rushes to stop his raised arm. "Please, not in anger!" she pleads, and she convinces the father to mete out a lighter punishment.

An onlooker might feel that all this drama and conflict is superfluous. In the end, the child did not receive corporal punishment. Why make a big show of it?

In fact, the scene had great educational value for the errant son. Even though he was only lightly disciplined, the son was made to understand that his actions deserved a much more severe punishment.

Like the Rambam states, no legal consequence can take the place of a spiritual trial we must put ourselves through when we fall short of the Torah's demands on our conduct. We do not absolve ourselves of our ultimate obligations by a mere fine, or a burnt offering. By working to strengthen our sensitivity to the human condition we can get even closer to our personal G-d, and be worthy of our opportunity to be a light among nations.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 

Seeing is Better Than Believing

Parshat Yitro

 

If there is a climactic moment in the Torah, if there is a part of the narrative that defines the emergence of the Jewish people as a spiritual nation, then it is here in this week's reading. The Master Being reveals himself to the Israelites, and they see G-d!

"All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain emitting smoke. The people saw and they trembled, and stood far off." (Ex. 20:15).

They "saw the sounds", they had a spectacular group revelation. According to the Midrash, 'Rabbi Akiva says, they saw what is heard, and heard what is seen." 

Why then, did they tell Moshe, "...You speak to us and we will listen. Let G-d not speak with us lest we die" (Ex 20:16). Our tradition teaches us that after the first two of the ten "commandments" (not really commandments, but that's another story..) G-d's voice was heard by Moshe only.

This is supported in the text by the fact that G-d refers to himself in the first person for the first two utterances (Anochi), and is referred to in the third person in the remaining statements, implying that Moshe is telling them. Was this part of the divine plan?

As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains in his landmark essay, "If You Were G-d", a continuously visible deity would destroy our free will. Who could choose when the judge and jury are constantly holding court. This constant scrutiny could only lead to rebellion.

It is no surprise then, that 40 days later the nation would rebel with the incident of the Golden Calf.

No, it is more advantageous for us to have to struggle with faith to "see" the voice of G-d, elevating ourselves in the process. The moments that define us these days are those when we are able to choose to do the right thing, when more convenient to do otherwise. But, the echoes of the divine shofar at Sinai still reverberate in the very fabric of being of all creation. If only we would stop, look and listen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Regime Change!

Parashat Beshalach

  

'Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds, cannot change anything.' 

George Bernard Shaw

 

One of the most compelling images of the last decade was the toppling of the big statue of Saddam Hussein in Bahgdad (okay-the video we all saw was a re-staging for prime time audiences, but the point was made..). Long after the video clips faded from the broadcast rotation the images remained in our minds' eye and symbolized radical change. Whether this change will be for the benefit of the Iraqi people remains to be seen, only time will tell. But, it was obvious that change did not come easily. Many people wondered, after the emergence of new corruption, random violence, and general unrest, whether or not they would have been better off back where they started, where they at least knew what they were up against.

 

The dramatic exodus from Egypt, replete with divine fireworks, open miracles, and violent upheaval also made an impression that carried far beyond the borders of the land itself. This massive display was a clear, indisputable sign that there was a new world order, and the Israelites would be designated as eternal witnesses to the events. References to our ancestor's liberation fill our daily prayers, and the images of the splitting of the Red Sea and of our pursuers ultimate demise are as notorious as if they were broadcast on CNN.

 

Yet, why is it that the Israelites were drawn back into their captive mentality? " ...It would have been better to remain slaves to Egypt than to die in the desert." (Ex. 14:12).

The Talmud in Pesachim 116b comments, "In every generation one is obligated to regard himself as if he personally had come out from Egypt." 

 

The Hebrew word for Egypt, "Mitzrayim", can be translated as narrowness, or confinement. Release from confinement is a change that brings with it some hard choices. The consideration of freedom of choice is an overwhelming experience. It is much easier to refuse to embrace change, to maintain the status quo, to never consider it at all.

 

This is just as true today as it was during the exodus. Spiritual growth and the evolution of consciousness demand a goal, a target. Without careful reexamination the goal can become obscured, out of focus. Prayer and meditation are tools our tradition provides to bring our targets into focus, and be strengthened in our resolve to change.

It is so easy to fall into an antigrowth holding pattern, or worse, regress and pursue activities that weaken us.

 

Perhaps the Talmud is telling us that change is not so easy to come by, that just as our ancestors struggled with belief, so do we. Just as the Israelites were tested in their resolve to accept change, so are we. "..The Israelites went out [of Egypt] high handedly." (Ex. 14:8) Rashi tells us that "high handedly "means "with daring". The Torah teaches us that we can rise to the level required to stand tall and gain the upper hand in our struggles with our personal Egypt, encounter our own experience of freedom and a trusting relationship with the divine.

 

Can you spare some change? I dare you...

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Chutzpah!

 

Parashat Bo

 

 

The great sage Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki-February 22, 1040 - July 13, 1105) started his magnificent commentary on the Torah by quoting Rabbi Yitzchak,asking, since the Torah is primarily a book of laws, why doesn't it begin with the first commandment given to the Jewish people, the mitzvah of sanctifying the new moon?

 

 Let's suppose the Torah DID start at that point, in the middle of this week's parasha (Ex 12:2). It would have been quite a dramatic beginning. Right after a one line commandment (the aforementioned first national mitzvah) the Torah tells us to slaughter,roast and eat a lamb. Huh? The alternative opening of our primary text, and already the torah knows what we are thinking, "When do we eat?" 

 

But this springtime barbecue is not for the weak of heart. The lamb, or sheep, our tradition teaches us, was a deity for the Egyptians. Note the astrological sign Aries, which was a symbol for the sun god Ramses. And before preparing the feast the people would have to tether their dinner to the door four days ahead of time! What would the neighbors think? And then, roast the lamb over an open fire for all the mutton worshippers to smell, and fuel their anger. What chutzpah! What kind of way is this to open up our most sacred text?

 

Well, of course, the Torah in actuality does not begin with the 12th chapter of the Book of Exodus. Taking on their oppressors by this overt, "in your face" demonstration assumes a basic component , a faith in the power of the Creator to sustain, support, and inspire them, and a finely tuned sensitivity to the human condition. This is the the essence of Jewish faith.

 

In order to understand how to develop this faith it is essential to understand the relationship of G-d and our fore parents, and the prototypical character traits that define our people. Without an Abraham and Sarah we would hHave no model for a compassionate warrior Jew, one who retains the essential qualities of kindness and dignity, not afraid to voice concern at the potential suffering of others. Isaac, Rebecca, Leah, Rachel, Jacob, Joseph- all undergo a transformation and elevation of character based on their relationship with their creator. Witnessing the plagues brought upon the Egyptians must have been difficult for the enslaved Israelites, even though they were oppressed. 

 

One should feel uncomfortable at the misfortune of others. It goes against our very nature to delight in the acts of G-d that brought retribution on our captors. May our constant attention to maintaining the right balance of tough defense and sensitive offense merit the final redemption- a lasting peace, and universal divinely inspired love. 

 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Greg 

Pharaoh Phone Home

Parashat Va'era

 

It is truly a horror of war to see seemingly innocent people injured or worse as result of being in the wrong place, at the wrong time, with the wrong leadership. As the Arab spring turns to summer, we see that a few dictators, unrelenting in their brutal subjugation of their own citizens, respond with wanton brutality, leading to the death of thousands of innocent people. But, we are not surprised. In Syria, Bashar Al-Assad has killed tens of thousands of his own people. The apple does not fall far from the tree. In 1982, his father Hafez Al-Assad killed over 25,000 citizens of the city of Hama, and tens of thousands of other innocent Syrians.

In the midst of this genocidal fever that has been burning in the  Middle East for years, and the attacks against the Jewish homeland by groups that demand its complete destruction, Israel faces a media war, that attempts to equate defensive maneuvers with wanton oppressive violence.

We still remember clearly the Gaza war of 2014, to stop random rocket attacks on Israeli population centers. It was a most challenging situation for the Israeli Defense Forces, as the eyes of the world monitored their every move. Every civilian casualty was headline news, and Israel often came up short in the PR department.

Because the Torah values preservation of life above all, it is incredibly difficult to see people killed by a Jewish army as collateral damage, unintended casualties that divert our attention from the struggle for survival Israel faces every day.

-----------------------------------

In describing the creation of human beings the torah tells us "And G-d created a human being in his image, in the image of G-d was created a human being, male and female he created them" (Gen. 1:27).

Does this strange, awkwardly poetic verse tell us more about man, or rather more about G-d?

Does G-d have an image?

Since the image and essence of G-d is intrinsically unknowable we must observe the effect of G-d in the world to learn G-d's "character", or image.

Last week we learned about the emergence of Moses (Moshe) as the leader who will shepherd the Israelites toward their long awaited redemption. His initial meeting with Pharaoh, delivering the message from G-d demanding freedom of the Israelites, was met with a firm denial of the existence of G-d. " Who is YHVH that I should listen to his voice and let Israel Go? I do not know YHVH?. Furthermore, I will not send out Israel!" (Ex. 5:2)

In this week's parasha we read the unfolding of the massive plagues against Pharaoh and Egypt. G-d speaks to Moshe and tells him that he will make an example of Pharaoh, not only to punish him personally, but to demonstrate to Egypt and the world the power of the Creator.

Before the plagues actually commence G-d tells Moshe "I will harden Pharaoh's heart..." (Ex 7:3). This seems problematic- (See the medieval commentator Ibn Ezra and others for a an explanation of how hardening Pharoah's heart does NOT diminish his free will...)

Will Pharaoh lose his free will to reconsider his actions?

But, after the warning ( Ex 7:13) and subsequent first plague of blood, it is Pharaoh himself (Ex 7:22) who hardens his own heart and goes home, unchanged. The next four plagues, with increasing severity and dire consequences for the Egyptian people, end the same way- with Pharaoh hardening his own heart.

But, after the sixth plague of sh'cheen (boils) we see a break from the precedent. This time it is G-d who hardens Pharaoh' heart, as he said he would do. This clearly looks like Pharaoh has lost his free will to comply with G-d's directive, and as a result the suffering of all the people from the upcoming violent plague of fire filled hailstones would seem to be collateral damage.

This time however, the people themselves are given a warning! "Now shelter your livestock, and every thing else from the fields..." (Ex. 9:19). The suspension of the free will of Pharaoh does NOT remove the free will of the Egyptians, who are free to recognize G-d, and preserve their lives and property. The divine wrath that was thrust upon Pharaoh for the seventh plague was his own doing, and every step was taken to minimize other casualties. This is a major insight into the nature of G-d.

In the Gaza conflict the Hamas fighters would often fire their rockets from schools and crowded apartment buildings, begging retaliation that would place their own people further in harm's way.

The Israeli army would routinely call the residents of the area on their cellphones, and warn them of the pending action, to give them an opportunity to move to safety.

Perhaps this little known procedure was an effort for the soldiers to retain their dignity, by acting, in this instance, "B'tzalem Elokim", in the image of G-d.

 

We know that all wars are cruel and unjust by nature, and tragically many lives are cut short. May we live to see the end of all wars and violence, and the beginning of a global peace that will surely herald our ultimate redemption.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 

Speak Softly and Carry A Big Stick

Parashat Shemot

 

First- an introduction:

This week we start our annual reading of sefer Shemot, the book of Exodus. The initial prophecy of the temporary servitude of Abraham's descendents is being realized. Although Jacob and his sons were welcomed to Egypt by Joseph, honored by Pharaoh, and given a comfortable lifestyle, the tide quickly turns. Egypt is suddenly a hostile environment, and the spiritual infrastructure of the suddenly enslaved people Israel begins to collapse. A death edict is issued to kill the male Hebrew babies by casting them into the Nile. It is the same Nile river that would provide the opportunity for baby Moses (Moshe) to be found and adopted by the daughter of Pharaoh, and the next leader of the Israelites grows up in palatial surroundings and away from his forlorn people. He has a dramatic experience that changes his life, and flees to Midian, starts a family, and has his first prophetic experience, the infamous story of the burning bush.

 

His first dialogue with the creator shows a reluctant hero, who questions the divine directive from the start. After G-d tells him exactly what to say, Moshe responds that the Israelites will not listen; they will not believe him at all!

 

And now for our story:

G-d asks Moshe, "What is that in your hand?", a question similar to the question G-d asks Adam in the Garden of Eden after eating the forbidden fruit, "Ayeka, Where are you?".

Certainly the Creator Of The World knows the answers to these questions.

Moshe answers, "Mateh", a staff or rod, a stick. Note that he doesn't answer my stick, as it only recently came into his possession. 

When the stick is lowered to the ground it becomes a "nachash" (remember the snake from the Garden of Eden?), and when it is grasped and raised it turns back into a stick. This, G-d tells Moshe, will make the Israelites believe him.

 

Obviously something deeper is going on here....

 

The Mishna, in Pirkei Avot chapter 5 mishna 8 tells us ten things that were created on the sixth day of creation, prior to the first Shabbat. One of them was "Ha-Mateh". Our rabbis teach us that this staff, the source of so many miraculous signs, that would turn the Nile into blood, split the Red Sea, and cause water to flow from a rock, predates our history. It is part of the natural order of G-d's creation, and a physical manifestation of the Divine.

 

 

The word "Mateh" comes from the root "Nateh", which means to stretch out. It al

so means to bend. Our reality can be bent by how we act on our experience of G-d.

 

The nachash is the evil energy in the word, and it is found on the ground, when people's expectations are lowered. Moshe's first reaction was to run away from evil. When he engaged, when he grabbed it by the tail, it turned into a mateh once again, a sign that people, in concert with the Almighty, can transform evil and elevate it.

 

G-d, with his infinite faith in humanity, knew that when Moshe showed this to the Israelites, they would know he was the genuine leader they had been praying for.

 

Because seeing is believing....

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Sea of Love

Parashat Vayechi

 

  

 

As we conclude the first book of the Torah together it is fitting to look back, reflect, and offer some observations on our experience. 

 

It is obvious that the Torah is not a history book. The chronology is funny at times, many seemingly important details are glossed over or omitted.

It is not a science book, we have to find out for ourselves the processes that were utilized in the divine creation.

It has a unique style, incorporating many sophisticated literary devices and techniques. It seems to economize at times, and other times will repeat sections verbatim, with verbiage that seems redundant. It definitely begs for interpretation and explanation. The Torah is not shy at telling us that we need to immerse ourselves within, to meditate, study, and discuss. Luckily for us we have a legacy of commentary offering us a myriad of approaches to getting inside, from a simple surface reading to esoteric exegesis.

 

The creation story in the first chapter of the book of Genesis is one of the most profound narratives in the entire Torah.

The narrative begins with G-d "speaking" (to whom?...) and we have the classic creation utterances, " Let there be light", "Let there be a canopy". G-d takes a break in the creation, so to speak, and on day 5 offers a blessing to his creations as well:

"El-him blessed them saying, "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the waters of the seas...." (Gen. 1:22)

 

The first commandment, the first mitzvah in the torah is to the fish!

 

An identical blessing and commandment is made to the first man and woman:

"El-him blessed them, and El-him said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it, and dominate the fish of the sea...." (Gen. 1:28)

 

This sub theme of "Be fruitful and multiply" runs through the entire book of Genesis, commanded to Noah and his sons, to Jacob (Yaakov), and appears in the beginning of this week's parasha:

"Yaakov said to Yosef, "Almighty Sh-ddai appeared to me in Luz, in the land of Canaan, and He blessed me. He said to me, "Behold, I will make you fruitful and numerous, and I will make you into an assembly of nations..." (Gen. 48:3-4)

Let's dig a bit deeper.... if we examine the prophecy that Yaakov spoke of (Gen 35:11) we see that G-d actually told him " P'rai u'rvai", the singular form of the original command to Adam and Eve. Yet, he retells the exchange to his son Yosef, quoting G-d as saying "I will make you fruitful...." (Gen. 48:4).

 

Why the subtle change? As you know, the foreparents were all initially barren! They could try as best they could, but they did not have the power to fulfill that mitzvah of procreation without divine intervention. The fish, going back to the creation story, had no such challenges, lacking any spiritual obstacles, any negative energy to keep them from fulfilling G-d's commandments. But the forefathers and mothers all had to pray for the gift of life, to engage in a relationship with the creator, to overcome their negative inclination.

 

Going a bit deeper, we can learn from this that Yaakov was acknowledging the the hand of G-d was present in all his accomplishments, that he himself could take no personal credit for his material successes. It is no surprise that Yosef felt the same, telling first Pharoah, and then his brothers that all that was taking place was indeed the divine plan playing out.

 

Yaakov had a very hard, but very satisfying life, and like any parent, he wanted the best for his progeny. He gives a special blessing to his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe, who are the first of the family to be born and raised in Egypt, and challenged with keeping the strong connection to G-d and family in the midst of oceans of idolatry and materialism. His blessing to them? "V'yigdu larov", that they should be fruitful and multiply like the fish! They should not have to suffer, or be tested like their ancestors, rather their inclination should be towards achieving their potential as effortlessly as the the first recipients of G-d's commandments.

  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

  

Dark Side Of The Moon

Parashat Vayigash

 

 

"And if the cloud bursts, thunder in your ear

You shout and no one seems to hear.

And if the band you're in starts playing different tunes

I'll see you on the dark side of the moon "

R. Waters/Pink Floyd

 

When I was a young boy in elementary school in the late 60's I lived for a while right outside of Washington, DC. The father of one of my childhood friends was a scientist for NASA, and supplied us with a lot of colorful memorabilia about the space program.

 

I was soon obsessed with the Apollo program, knowing the names and backgrounds of all the astronauts, and with much of the jargon and space-speak that accompanied these activities. We would follow each mission from start to finish, as the entire proceedings were usually broadcast on television. We saw each blast off, traced the trajectory of the rocket ship, and delighted in the broadcast of communications between heaven and earth.

 

One thing that sticks out is the occasional LOS (Loss of Signal) when the Apollo capsule would pass behind the dark side of the moon, temporarily losing radio contact with Mission Control in Houston, and the 45 minutes the astronauts were incommunicado seemed like an eternity, or maybe like.....210 years?

 

In Parashat Vayigash, after the joy of learning that his son Joseph (Yosef) is alive, well, and ruling an entire country, Jacob (Yaakov) has a revival of spirit, and sets out to go down (leaving the holy land is always going 'down') to Egypt. He makes an offering to "The G-d of his father", referring to Isaac (Yitzchak)who was not allowed to leave the holy land during his lifetime. Yaakov is treated to his last prophetic experience, and this time the dream seems to be taking place during the day, as it is called a "Night Vision".

Yaakov is frightened because he knows that this will be the exile that was revealed to his grandfather Avraham after the Brit Bein ha Bitarim, the "Covenant of the Pieces" (Gen. 15:7-16), and that he and his children would be subject to LOS- an exile without regular contact with Mission Control-the G-d of Israel.

 

Yaakov had already proved his mettle by living without "radio contact" for the 22 years he was separated from Yosef, and after passing that test he was to be reunited with his favored son, and given one more opportunity to reestablish the signal "....and the spirit of their father Yaakov was revived" (Gen. 45:27).

 

This pending exile would serve to condition Yaakov's descendants, by having them experience a life predicated on faith- in the teachings of their foremothers and fathers, in a G-d just outside signal range, and most importantly, in the establishment of a national identity based on these beliefs.

Yaakov earned the name Israel during his struggle against secularism upon returning from his personal exile, after planting the seeds of his extended family. That entire family, now collectively known as Israel, would be together at the end of his life, as they enter the crucible of Egypt, with only the torch of divine destiny to illuminate their dark days in Egypt.

 

"All that is now

All that is gone

All that's to come

And everything under the sun is in tune

But the sun is eclipsed by the moon".

R. Waters/Pink Floyd

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 

Don't Just Stand There!

Parashat Miketz

 

During the darkest part of the year the dream state seems to be readily available to all of us. Whether dreaming about warmer days to come, or decompressing from the sensory overload we all suffer from during the holiday season, we welcome a chance to transport ourselves out of the material world, if only for a few winks..

 

Last weeks Parsha began with a dream, ended with two, and now we begin Parashat Miketz with two dreams from Pharaoh, which we learn are one and the same.

 

The literary flow of this section of the torah is sublime. After the famous story of the ascension of Yosef (Joseph) from prisoner to powerful government minister there is a disolve to 8 years hence, and Yosef's prophetic interpretation of Pharoah's dream has beome reality, and famine spead out past the Egyptian borders, causing a swarm of nations to approach Joseph to buy food.

 

We now cut to Yaakov, in the beginning of chapter 42, and have some dialogue that begs for intrepretation, just as the previous dreams. וַיַּרְא יַעֲקֹב, כִּי יֶשׁ-שֶׁבֶר בְּמִצְרָיִם;וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב לְבָנָיו, לָמָּה תִּתְרָאוּ.

"Jacob saw that there was food in Egypt, and Jacob said unto his sons: Why do you..??"

 

The question marks are there because there doesn't seem to be a clear way to translate תִּתְרָאוּ

(titra'u). It is a plural reflexive verb formation, some are doing something to themselves.

 

Rashi first translates it as "Why do you make yourselves seen?", and the Talmud in tractate Taanit comments that Yaakov's family did in fact have food, but by not going to Egypt to buy more they would attract attention from the families of Ishmael and Esau. (Why they would be hanging around in that neighborhood is another story..). Perhaps there is a larger point here- do not, when in times of hardship, flaunt your own personal success, rather, be sensitive to the greater population, and to the fact that most are suffering. Certainly a good message in these difficult economic times.

 

Rashi then mentions that others translate this as, "Why should you make yourselves lean through hunger?".

 

The RaMBaN (Nachmonedes) does not like that last translation, and offers another, and is supported by the Sforno (a 15th century commentator). They say it means, "Don't look at each other", meaning, don't just stand there, do something!. The Sforno brings a saying from the Talmud (Eruvin 3A), which states, "a pot belonging to partners is neither hot nor cold"- If you assume that someone else will take care of it, nothing will get done.

 

This message seems right in line with the story of Hanukah. The Maccabees were not content to stand there looking at each other, they instead sprung into action, and ultimately prevailed.

 

People of faith, when highly motivated, and proactive, enter into a partnership with the Almighty, and the possibilities are limitless. That's the stuff dreams are made of...

 

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 

Dream On

 

Parashat Vayeishev

 

This week’s parasha continues to present a glimpse of the evolution of spiritual consciousness and prophecy through the dream state. In the book of Numbers (12:6) the Torah tells us that all prophecies except those of Moses will be revealed in dreams. (The dreams of Abimelech and Lavan we read about a few weeks ago were merely explicit warnings, a manifestation of the Divine protection promised to our fore parents).

 

This weeks first reading details two prophetic dreams of Joseph (Yosef), the first regarding sheaves of wheat, and the second: He had another dream and told it to his brothers. He said, "Behold! I dreamed another dream. The sun, the moon, and eleven stars were prostrating themselves to me." (Gen. 37:9)

 

The next verse tells us his family’s response: He told it to his father and to his brothers. His father rebuked him, and said to him, "What is this dream that you dreamed? Shall I, your mother and your brothers come and prostrate themselves on the ground to you?"(Gen. 37:10)

 

Rashi’s comment on this verse reminds us that Yosef’s mother Rachel had already passed away (right after the birth of her second son Benjamin)! 

He goes on to tell us that although some commentators have no problem with this fact (as he was raised by his stepmother) Rashi concludes by telling us that our sages believe that no dream is without meaningless parts. 

 

Yet we know that dreams, whether experienced in a deep sleep, or during a few fleeting moments of our waking hours, are crucial to our very being. But, without a spiritual context for our dreams they can serve to disillusion us. 

In her famous poem “Ve’ulai” the popular pre state Israeli poet Rachel asks if, “perhaps”, the return of Jews to the Galilee, working it’s fields and immersing in it’s waters is only a dream. Centuries of persecution had taken it’s toll on the Jewish dreamer, and all dreams are inherently suspect. Pinch me, am I dreaming?

 

But without taking them seriously, how can any dreams, whether of Joseph, Martin Luther King, or the dream we can barely remember each morning, sustain us, and guide us towards realizing our potential?

 

How much can we rely on our dreams to inform us, and what parts are suspect, and ultimately meaningless?

 

One of the results of living a committed Jewish life is the constant opportunity for self reflection, and a continuous re-aiming towards the spiritual targets we hope to hit during our lives. Ayn Rand, in her Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology writes, “Consciousness is the faculty of awareness— the faculty of perceiving that which exists....It is only in relation to the external world that the various actions of a consciousness can be experienced, grasped, defined or communicated.

 

Any dream that reflects these values is one that is worth pursuing-no matter how outrageous or unconventional. Those of us who choose to live a Jewish life in the midst of a secular world will constantly be challenged to determine what is valuable, and what is merely “noise”. 

 

Wishing you a peaceful Shabbat, and joyous Hanukah,

Rabbi Greg

 

Shooting From the Hip

Parashat Vayishlach

"Faith is not certainty, it is the courage to live with uncertainty"

Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of Great Britain

 

The stories in the Book of Genesis that make up the weekly parshiot of this season are among the most captivating in the Bible, and the conclusion of each week's reading leaves us wanting more, like a good Hollywood cliffhanger. If you've just joined us, we are in the middle of the story of Jacob (Yaakov), the last of our founding fathers.

A brief recap: In Parashat Toldot, Jacob, with the help of his mother Rebecca (Rivka) cleverly obtains the blessing of his father Isaac (Yitzchak), intended for his older twin Esau (Eisav). Eisav was less than enthusiastic, and Rivka tells her younger son that his brother wants to kill him. She says,"Now my son, listen to me. V'kum b'rach l'cha, get up and run away, to my brother Laban (Lavan) in Haran (the family's ancestral home). Remain with him a short while, until your brother's fury has subsided" (Gen. 27:43-44 ).

Last week, in Parasha Vayatzei, we read about the trials and tribulation of Yaakov, as he built his family while tending with the evil schemes and trickery of his father-in-law Lavan. He works 14 years in exchange for the privilege of marrying Lavan's daughters Rachel and Leah. When he completes his term he asks to leave with his wives and children, but is thwarted by his father-in-law, who quotes his own prophetic dream (Gen. 30:27). He then works an additional period in exchange for a share of the livestock business. Jacob, with Divine assistance, is extremely successful, despite the trickery and scheming of Lavan.

 In a prophetic dream Yaakov is told by G-d to return to the Holy Land, and gathering up his wives and children, he again runs away. "Yaakov fooled Lavan, the Aramaean, by not telling him he had run away" (Gen. 31:20). Lavan catches up with Yaakov, chides him for running away and they work out a treaty of sorts. Yaakov is greeted by angels as he journeyed from Lavan's abode towards Israel. He calls this angelic meeting place G-d's camp, Machanayim.

 In this week's parasha, Vayishlach, we find Yaakov preparing for his greatest challenge yet, the inevitable reunion with his brother Eisav. He finds out that his brother is approaching, with a small army. "Yaakov was very frightened, and distressed...." (Gen. 32:8). He was afraid for the safety of his family, and distressed at the possibility of killing others, even in self defense. He sends ahead gifts of consolation, prepares for war, and prays to G-d. After making all possible preparations, Yaakov gives his slower moving entourage a head start.

"He (Yaakov) got up that night........and crossed over the ford of the Yabok." Rashi tells us that Yabok was the name of the river. "Vayivateir Yaakov l'vado, and Yaakov remained alone, vayai'avaik, and a man wrestled, with him until daybreak." (Gen. 32:25)

Yai'avak,Yavok (B and V are the same letter in Hebrew),Yaakov - what incredible use of language! Not only do they sound related, but on a deeper linguistic level they are connected as well. The man, his journey, his trials, all helplessly intertwined.

 Our m'forshim, our classic commentators wrestle themselves with the imagery presented here. Rashi teaches that "a man" is none other than saro shel Eisav, Eisav's guardian angel. Others learn that this was a prophetic vision of the future struggle between Eisav's alter ego Edom (the Roman Empire) and the Jewish people.

 The Rashbam (a grandson of Rashi) has a brilliant read into the proceedings. He draws a parallel to the story of King David fleeing his son Avsholom, noting the middle of the night river crossing, and the association with the place Machanayim. The wrestling match is with none other than G-d, stopping Yaakov from fleeing.

 Yaakov fled from Eisav twenty two years earlier, he fled from Lavan, but could not flee any longer. He would not be able to have faith in G-d until he could have faith in himself. He would battle his inner nature, and transform himself in the process. But, there would be a price, a sacrifice. "He (the man) saw that he could not defeat him (Yaakov), and he struck the the socket of his hip. Yaakov's hip joint was dislocated as he wrestled with him" (Gen. 32:26).

 This injury would be a badge of honor, a small price to pay for the realization that Yaakov no longer needs to flee.

The South African writer Alan Paton, in his novel "Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful" tells of a white headmaster, Robert Mansfield who takes action against apartheid, long before the political and social tides turned in that direction. He is visited by a friend, Emmanuel Nene, who offers support, and acknowledges the severe toll the battle of principles must be taking on his friend. He says, "I don't worry about the wounds. When I go up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will say to me, 'Where are your wounds?' and if I say I haven't any, he will say, 'Was there nothing to fight for?' I couldn't face that question."

 Yaakov emerges victorious, slightly wounded, but completely transformed. His opponent begs to be released from Yaakov's control. Yaakov replies, ".... I will not let you go until you bless me. [The man} said to him, 'What is your name?' And he replied, 'Yaakov'. And the man said,'No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Yisrael , ki sarita, for you have wrestled, with G-d, and people, and have prevailed' ". (Gen. 32:27-29).

Israel, the man, is now ready to be the father of Israel, the nation. Later on in our reading G-d confirms his new status, "Elo-him said to him, your name is Yaakov. No longer will your name be Yaakov, but Israel will be your name, and he named him Israel."

In our morning prayers, we recite, in the pesukei d'zimrah (verses of praise) section, a few verses from the first Book of Chronicles, recalling the covenantal relationship of the forefathers:

"Remember his covenant forever, the Word he commanded for a thousand generations; that he made with Abraham, that he swore to Isaac. Then, He established it as a chok with Yaakov, to Israel as an everlasting covenant." (1 Divrai Yamim 16:8-9, also Psalms 105:8-9).

The word chok is used in Torah to describe a law or statute beyond our comprehension, like the Red Heifer, or Shatnez, the interweaving of wool and linen. Perhaps Yaakov was not at the level to be a partner with G-d, only as Israel could he participate as a "signatory" to the covenant.

Back to our parasha:

"Elo-him said to him, 'I am El-Shaddai, Be fruitful and multiply, a nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will come out of your loins"

Many of our commentators have stated that Yaakov's 'hip" was a symbol for his creative and reproductive power. His mortality would become his strength, his vulnerability, the very root of his courage.

May our detractors be humbled before the True Judge, and may our faith be the faith of Israel.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

If the statistics are right, the Jews constitute but one quarter of one percent of the human race.  It suggests a nebulous puff of star dust lost in the blaze of the Milky Way.  Properly, the Jew ought hardly to be heard of, but he is heard of, has always been heard of.  He is as prominent on the planet as any other people, and his importance is extravagantly out of proportion to the smallness of his bulk.

 His contributions to the world's list of great names in literature, science, art, music, finance, medicine and abstruse learning are also very out of proportion to the weakness of his numbers.  He has made a marvelous fight in this world in all ages; and has done it with his hands tied behind him. He could be vain of himself and be excused for it.  

 The Egyptians, the Babylonians and the Persians rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greeks and Romans followed and made a vast noise, and they were gone; other people have sprung up and held their torch high for a time but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, and have vanished.

The Jew saw them all, survived them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities, of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert but aggressive mind.  All things are mortal but the Jews; all other forces pass, but he remains.  What is the secret of his immortality?

-Mark Twain, September 1897

 

Theres No Place Like Home

 

Parasha Vayeitze

 Having grown up in the days just before the information revolution, I remember living life according to the calendar of the three television networks. A movie like "The Wizard of Oz" was only available during the time of the year the network holding the rights chose to air it, and the annual prime-time broadcast was a major event in my house.

As I got older, and more familiar with the film (although nowhere nearly as familiar as my own children who have watched it on video hundreds of times!), and after my father finally broke down and bought a color TV, I noticed that the Land of Oz is in living color, in contrast with the sepia toned Kansas scenes.

 In this week's sidra , Jacob (Yaakov) has a technicolor encounter with the divine. Unlike the rather cut and dry prophetic moments of his father and grandfather (although no less powerful!) Yaakov needs to be in a dream state to process the vivid imagery about the ladder reaching into the next world, and the swirling energies simultaneously ascending and descending.

 Yaakov had to be lying down for this, because G-d's promise to increase his offspring like the dust of the earth does not reference the seemingly unreachable stars of the heavens, but to the very ground he is sleeping on. Yaakov is charged with bringing down the lofty spiritual ideas of his father and grandfather to the physical world he is part of, as well as elevating the physical world upward towards the spiritual.

The result is a transcendental moment, a merging of the upper and lower worlds, and the result is the experience of HaMakom -The Place, a point where G-d is experienced in the physical world. This establishment of The Place becomes a node or access point to the divine. It is no surprise the Yaakov calls this Place, the physical house of G-d the "Shaar HaShamayim", the gate of heaven.

 By integrating traditional ritual into our day to day life we constantly have the opportunity to experience HaMakom.

Nowhere is this more evident than in our own homes on Shabbat (and here at Beit Chaverim, your "Home Away From Home"-ed.) and our Shabbat table becomes our "Shaar Shamayim", and this becomes, for a fleeting moment, the holiest spot on earth. We spend the rest of our weekdays trying to recapture it but it is futile. Only Shabbat can give us that feeling.

 Now just click your heels three times and say, "There's no place like home....."

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 

Flying on a Wing and a Prayer

 

Parasha Toldot

 

In this week's parasha G-d promises Isaac, "I will make your descendants [as numerous] as the stars of the heavens..." (Gen 26:4).

Sound familiar? The same promise was made to Abraham previously, and later G-d will promise Jacob,  "Your descendants shall be as the dust of the earth...."( Gen 28:14), implying many,many descendants.

But their partners: Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, (and later Channa, mother of the famous prophet Samuel) were all "akarot"-barren women.

Why?

Perhaps a return to the story of creation can shed some light on the matter..

"This is the history of the heavens and the earth when they were created, on the day when G-d made earth and heaven. All the plants of the field were not yet on the earth, and all the herbal vegetation of the field had not yet sprouted, for G-d had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was [yet] no man to work the soil." (Gen 2:6-7)

The talmud quotes Rav Asi as saying the grass was just below the surface, and only when man was created to pray for rain did the grass and vegetation emerge . This teaches that G-d desires prayer (Chulin 60b)

Our foreparents were all challenged in the reproductive arena, and our tradition teaches us that it was the relationship with G-d through prayer which brought about the fulfillment of G-d's promise of a legacy. This is the divine plan, a partnership between heaven and earth.

In this week's parasha, Toldot, we find that Rebecca) is barren, and Isaac prays for her,"Vayetar Yitzchak L'Hashem l'nokhach ishto..., Isaac prayed to G-d on behalf ( lit. corresponding to..) of his wife..." (Gen 25:21). The Talmud (Yevamot 64a) says that the literal meaning of nokhach teaches that actually both of them were sterile. That may explain why he didn't attempt to father children through another wife. Vayetar means to pray, to entreat with increasing intensity.

R' Aharon, the 2nd  Karliner rebbe noted that Jacob held off for 10 years because praying was so difficult.  The verse continues, "Vayai'ater lo Hashem vatahar Rivka ishto, G-d granted his prayer, and his wife Rebbeca conceived." It is interesting that the words Vayai'ater, which is translated as "accepted his prayer" is spelled in the Torah (without vowels) as vov-yud-ayin-tov-reish, the same word describing Isaac praying to G-d. It could also be read as if G-d is praying, too! Could it be that G-d is entreating Jacob as well, to embrace and encourage the utter human dependence on divine intervention? G-d seems to be modeling, as it were,  the two way relationship between the petitioner and the Creator.

If G-d wants our prayers, and our prayers are essential for the divine plan, why is prayer so difficult for us? I am constantly amazed at the large percentage of synagogue attendees who are unable to pray, or feel so alienated by the process. Yet, this is a basic necessity for having our spiritual needs met.

With a little preparation and some practice a meaningful prayer experience is within reach for everyone. It is not necessary to pray in Hebrew. It is better in most cases to pray in a language you know well until you can understand the meaning of the prayers. Choose quality over quantity... Learn the structure of the service...find a siddur (prayerbook) that feels "right" for you.

We have several different Hebrew/English siddurim available at the synagogue, in addition to the standard ArtScroll siddur, with Hebrew text and English translation on opposite pages. Here are a few of my favorites:

First, check out the Metsudah Siddur. It is a linear translation, with a short phrase (sometimes one or two words) of Hebrew on the same line as a very modern, readable translation.

It can also function as a Hebrew only, or English only siddur, by reading only one side of the page.

 

 

Several years ago ArtScroll came out with a new, interlinear translation that may be of use to many petitioners. The translation is under each word, and this is the best single method to completely understand every word you are saying.We have 30 of these siddurim at shul, thanks to a generous donation by Andrea and jason Ross.

 

 It's a bit slower in the beginning, as it doesn't read well as an English-only siddur, but anyone using this will dramatically increase their comprehension in a very short time.

 

 

Seem like a daunting task? It's not - anyone can learn to have a meaningful prayer experience.

Simply acquire your own  copy of the siddur that "speaks" to you; take the time to go over the prayers at home for a few minutes, realize just what it is we are praying for.

Give it a try, even if you are a synagogue veteran... We can all benefit from a leisurely, in depth look into the prayers, and forge our own one to one conversational relationship with our creator.

 

May all our prayers be answered....

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Looking For Love in All the Wrong Places

Parashat Chayei Sarah

I was looking for love in all the wrong places,
Looking for love in too many faces,
Searching your eyes, looking for traces
Of what.. I'm dreaming of...
 Johnny Lee 

 

Of all the commandments in the Torah, the love of our creator is arguably the most abstract.
"V'ahavta et Ad-nai Elokecha, .... And you shall Love Ad-nai, your G-d......" (Deut. 6:5).
These words, recited daily as part of the Shma, are certainly familiar to most of us. Unfortunately, the words are often glossed over, without much thought to their connotation.
How can we be commanded to love, to have a certain emotion? And, further more, how can we love something that we cannot see, hear, or touch? These questions have been explored for millennia, and still deserve our intellectual attention.
Tradition teaches us that human loving relationships are the paradigm for learning to conceive of Divine love. As we will soon see, it is possible that this attribute takes some time to develop.

The Torah, in its first chapter, tells us that human life was created with male and female joined as one:
"And thus El-him created man in His form. In the form of El-him, He created him, male and female, He created them." (Gen. 1:27)
Adam and Eve did not need the emotion of love, as they had been formed together.

The Zohar explains:
When G-d creates the human soul, He creates the male and female as one. But as the soul descends into this world, it divides into two - male and female. The complete soul is the combination of male and female. This is why the masculine and feminine are so attracted to one another. Zohar Lech Lecha 204
The very act of conception was one of realizing their intrinsic connection, "And Adam knew Chava, his wife..."
The Torah mentions love for the first time in G-d's instruction to Avraham, which we read in last week's sidra (see my previous post, This is Only A Test):
"Please take your son, your only one, who you love-Yitzchak- and go to the land of Moriah....." (Gen. 22:2)

Avraham's love for his son was the result of anguish from the childless decades he and Sarah had spent, and wanting to experience fulfillment of G-d's promise of descendants to inherit their legacy. This love was for something, for someone, that was literally a part of them.
In our parasha, Chayai Sarah, Avraham wishes to find a wife for his beloved son and he sends his emissary far away, to their ancestral homeland, to bring back a suitable mate, the young Rivka.

The Torah describes their first meeting as attraction ( Rivka's reaction, when seeing Yitzchak , Vatipol mayal hagamal, can be translated , "She fell off of her camel......"!), but love did not come until later. In fact, Rivka, upon finding out she had just laid eyes on Yitzchak, responding by veiling herself, making sure she presented herself modestly.
"He married Rivka, and she became his wife, and he loved her..." (Gen. 24:67).

Rav Hirsch wrote that many people look for love in the wrong places:
" Most...marriages are made on the basis of  what they call 'love'. But we need only glance at novelistic depictions taken from life, and we immediately see the vast gulf....between the 'love' of the partners before marriage, and what happens afterward; how dull and empty everything seems after marriage, how different from what the two partners had imagined beforehand. This sort of love is blind, each step into the future brings new disillusionment.
Not so is Jewish marriage, of which it says, 'He married Rivka, and she became his wife, and he loved her...'. Here the wedding is not the culmination, but the beginning of true love.

It was only after their marriage that the love of Rivka and Itzchak was able to really take hold, and develop, and mature, as they truly knew each other. At that point their souls, separated after formation, could reunite.

So too with our relationship with our creator. Our love of G-d must come from a deliberate, modest relationship. We can get to 'know" G-d by studying the world G-d created, and by studying our sacred texts.
Maimonides in his Sefer Hamitzvot writes,"Behold, we have made clear to you that through study and contemplation you will attain knowledge, and you will then attain the delight and enjoyment and the love will necessarily follow."

Like Adam and Eve, we were once joined together with our creator. The cold exile has frosted over our relationship, and set us adrift. Through this slow, deliberate process of acquiring sacred knowledge, we can get to "know" G-d, and a powerful, true, love is bound to follow...

...if we can only look in the right places.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

"But the highest of all loves is the love of G-d, which is love in its fullest maturing. This love is not intended for derivative ends; when it fills the human heart, this itself spells man's greatest happiness."
Rav Kook, Midot Harayah (The Moral Principles)

This is Only a Test

 

Parashat Vayera

 

This week's parasha concludes with one of the most well know stories in the Bible- the binding of Isaac, know as Akaidat Yitzchak. Abraham (Avraham) was instructed to slaughter his son, and blindly follows G-d's command, and is interrupted at the last minute, the knife in his hand, and is told, This Is Only a Test...

But wait..

There's got to be more to it than that, right?

Why does G-d need to test Avraham? The creator of the world must certainly know the capabilities and limitations of his creations. But did Avraham know?

 

A careful examination of the text shows us that G-d did not actually tell Avraham to slaughter his son, merely to "וְהַעֲלֵהוּ שָׁם לְעֹלָה", to "bring him up as an offering".

Shortly afterwards Avraham tells his attendants, stay here, WE will return to you.

So, on some level, Avraham knew that he would NOT sacrifice his son.

 

What then, was his test?

Perhaps an answer can be found by exploring an alternative method of reading the text.

It says, On the the third day, Avraham raised his eyes and "יַּרְא אֶת הַמָּקוֹם מֵרָחֹק",

"he saw THE PLACE (HaMakom) from afar." (Gen. 22:4).

 We know that HaMakom is a name for G-d, and we associate it with a situation that distances us from a clear understanding of our relationship with the divine. When one goes to comfort someone during the period of sitting shiva, one says, " HaMakom y'nachaim etchem b'toch shaar aveilim b'Tzion v'Yerushalayim..... May G-d comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem". At this saddest of times G-d seems distant to a mourner.

 

Prior to this last test Avraham had an incredibly close prophetic relationship with

G-d, pleading, bargaining face to face, on a first name basis. After the command to

" Bring up your son as an offering", Avraham is now asked to operate in the world without the "visual" reassurance of G-d's presence, and rely on faith.

 

It is no surprise that his next contact (and all subsequent contact) with the divine is through "Malach HaShem", an angel of G-d.  What is a malach, an angel?

Our sages teach us that an angel is the manifestation of divine thought, in the real world.  Avraham is being tested to navigate in the real world, without an automatic connection, a world where a human being has to make an effort to see and feel the presence of our creator.

 

It is our mission as human beings to seek out the presence of G-d. We cannot today "see" any image, or "hear" any distinct voice but we can certainly see and hear the effect of G-d in the world, if we only take the time to look and listen. Our lives can be so much richer for it, and we need not sacrifice anything at all.

 

Shabbat Shalom,

 

Rabbi Greg

 

More Than Enough

Parashat Lech L’cha

My regular readers have noticed that I employ a plethora of designations, euphemisms and code words in referring to the supernal power: The Creator, The Divine, The Merciful One, The Supreme Being, Master of the World, The Holy One (blessed be He), along with their Hebrew counterparts, and yes, even Hashem, “the name”.

I have been more comfortable using the three letter English equivalent of late, refusing to kowtow to those who live in fear of the “G word”, and feeling better about it all the time. G-d help me!

In this week’s parasha, Lech L’cha,  we learn of Avram’s (Abraham’s) relationship with G-d as he enters into the sacred covenant, and of several different divine names. First, some background…

The Ramban (Nachmanides), the classic medieval commentator, in his introduction to his masterful commentary on the Torah, quotes the Kabalistic text the Zohar (Yitro 87a): “The whole Torah is the Name of the Holy One….”, based on the teaching that there are many secret and mystical names of G-d appearing in the Torah, if we were to bypass the traditional parsing of words and verses.

These mystical names are beyond the scope of this dvar but the names we find in the traditional text are worth examining.

The first name we find in the Torah, in the very first verse, is “Elohim”. We find this name used exclusively through the first chapter, detailing the creation of the universe, cosmos, the planet, mineral, plant and animal life, and finally, initial human life. Elohim, a plural form, is the Hebrew name representing the  divine quality of judgment.

It is by this name that G-d relates to Noah, before and after the flood. Interestingly, after the flood G-d speaks to himself with a second name, “…Vayomer Y-H-V-H el libo, and G-d said to himself, never again will I curse the ground because of man, nor will I again destroy every living thing as I have done” (Gen. 8:21).  Noah’s covenant is with Elohim.

The second name we find, initially in tandem with Elohim, is written in Hebrew  with the four letters “Yud” “Hay” “Vav” “Hay”. Y-H-V-H is a complex grammatical construction of  future, present, and past tenses of the Hebrew verb ‘to be’, and is never vocalized as written, but pronounced “Adonai” in a formal setting, and “Hashem” in an informal setting. This name traditionally refers to G-d’s quality of divine mercy.

It is this name Y-H-V-H we find in most of the story of Avram (Abraham) in Lech L’cha. Avram is approached by G-d, seemingly out of nowhere, and given the promise of a nation, a land, and a legacy. He follows the voice and moves his family to the land Y-H-V-H has chosen.  Once in the land, he is treated to a multimedia prophecy, as he has a visual and sonic encounter with his creator, “ Vayera Y-H-V-H  et Avram, vayomer…. G-d appeared to Avram and spoke….” (Gen. 12:7).  and the Torah describes him “building an altar, and calling out in the name of Y-H-V-H ” (Gen 12:8).  Next, “ Vayisa Avram….Avram journeyed..” (Gen. 12:9). Avram and his wife Sarai can now begin their spiritual trek, having passed a major test, and can travel to Egypt, and the world beyond,confident in their relationship with Y-H-V-H , G-d as Master of Mercy.

After a military victory over some warring kings, who had kidnapped his nephew Lot, Avram is approached by the friendly King of Salem, Malki-Tzedek. King Malki-Tzedek is also a priest of G-d, here called by the divine name El Elyon, G-d the Most High. This name is related to the primal divine name, ElohimMalki-Tzedek knew G-d only as the “owner” of heaven and earth, the force to which all creation must submit.

Tradition teaches us that Malki-Tzedek was none other than Shem, the son of Noah, who only knew G-d by the name Elohim. But, Malki-Tzedek was not spiritually evolved to the level granted Avram. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch writes that “ Avram realized in practice what Malki-Tzedek taught in theory….”.

It is with Y-H-V-H that Avram makes his first covenant, the brit bein habatarim. This was a complicated procedure involving animal offerings that introduced the concept of ritual, a physical participation in spiritual matters that transcends human understanding, bringing the tactile into the spiritual realm.

The covenant, despite the fact that Sarai had been unable to conceive, promised a legacy in the land of Canaan to their descendants, after a long period of servitude.  Exasperated, Sarai allows Avram to father a child with her maidservant Hagar.

Hagar is seemingly unaware of the relationship Sarai and Avram have with G-d, and when she quarrels with Sarai, and flees into the wilderness to be alone, she is “found” by an angel of G-d (Gen. 16:14).

The angel tells her that her son’s name will be Yishma-el, meaning G-d who hears.

She addresses G-d directly as El Ra’ie, the G-d Who Sees, as she realized she, and mankind, could not remain unseen. This episode ends with the naming of a well, Be’er Lachai Ro’ie, Well of the Living One Who Sees Me (Gen. 16:7).

Rav Hirsch adds that the addition of The Living One represents the combination of  Hagar AND AvramHagar perceived that G-d is absolute in space, and Avram added that G-d is absolute in time as well.  El Ra’ie, Rav Hirsch teaches, means that G-d sees all.Ro’ie means that there exists the concept of hasgacha pratit, an ongoing direct supervision and direction by the Creator.

Finally, The Torah tells us about a second visual revelation to Avram:

When Avram was ninety-nine years old, Vayera Y-H-V-H , G-d appeared to Avram and said to him, “I am El-Shaddai, go before me and be complete. I wish to set My Covenant between Me and you, and to multiply you greatly” (Gen 17:1-2).

Avram is then told of further terms of the covenant, which grants permanent inheritance of the land, with the condition of circumcision (milah) of all male descendants, now and forever.  God will add a letter to his name (the Hebrew letter “hay” from the divine name of Mercy”, and his name will now be AvraHam (Abraham), the father of a multitude of nations. Sarai also received the letter “Hay”, in place of the ‘Yud”, and would be called SaraH.

The name El-Shaddai is perplexing. It is often loosely translated as “G-d Almighty” but the tradition suggests otherwise. Rashi teaches that it means, “I am the One Whose G-dliness suffices for every creature“, based on the Hebrew root Dai, meaning enough, or sufficient. Just like our Passover song “Dayenu”, enough for us, G-d is enough for us.

Another explanation is proposed by the Ibn Ezra, who says that it is based on the Hebrew word “Shodded”,  disruptor of nature.

The Midrash expounds that it is an acronym for Shomer D’latot Yisrael, Guardian of the gates of Israel, and the word Shaddai is written on the outside of the mezuzot protecting our doors.

If we look further in scripture we see that the name El-Shaddai is used in the context of the blessings for fertility and numerous offspring from Isaac to Jacob (Gen. 28:3) , and from  G-d to Jacob (Gen. 935:11). Even more compelling is a portion of the final blessing Jacob bestows upon Joseph: “This was from the G-d of your father, Who will continue to help you. You will remain with El-Shaddai, Who will continue to bless you, with blessings of heaven from above, with blessings of the deep lying below, with blessing of SHADAYIM (breasts) and womb” (Gen 49:25).

Finally, R’ Saadia Gaon taught that Shaddai means enough, as in the sense that G-d created the world up to a certain point, and stopped and said “enough!”. Man must finish the job….

God created Avraham but not completely. Avraham must circumcise himself, partnering with G-d in creation. “Go before me and be complete”.

The eighth day is proscribed for the brit milah, the circumcision of a Jewish baby boy, as the number eight signifies transcendence, still higher than the sum of G-d’s six days of creation and one day of rest.

Starting with milah, we must continue to partner with G-d in completing the world, giving food to the hungry, shelter to the homeless, clothing to those in need, passing on knowledge and light, and striving to fulfill the mitzvoth, the commandments.

In this way, we renew the covenant of Abraham and Sarah every day.

May we continue to merit the rewards of our covenant, and may we live to see the day that we can dwell in peace and prosperity in our land, with the entire world receiving abundant blessings.

There are more than enough to go around…

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Senses Taker

Parashat Noach

 

Parashat Noah

With another go around of the opening reading of the Torah under our belts, and our heads well scratched, we plunge right into the wild waters of the chapters of Noah.

 Noah is a study in contrasts, and the debate on his merits or lack there of has been going on for millenia. Even the qualifying statement introducing Noah to the readers of the bible could go in several directions.

…Ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav.. a completely righteous man in his generation…” (Gen. 6:9)

 Rashi explains there are several ways to understand this- perhaps in his own, corrupt generation he could be called a tzadik, but compared to an Abraham, he was no tzadik; or, he was righteous especially in light of the corrupt influences of his surroundings.

 Either way, the rabbis bring him to task for not taking the opportunity to influence his neighbors, for quietly building his ark, knowing full well that the world was about to be destroyed.

 The Torah tells us that the earth had become corrupt, because human beings had become corrupt. Initially human beings were created with five gates of wisdom, the five unique senses. The corruption started, of course, with the eating of the forbidden fruit, and involved an almost total sensual compromise.

 Chava (Eve) erred by listening to the temptations of the serpent with her ears, seeing the beautiful fruit with her eyes, taking it from the tree with her hands, eating from it with her mouth, and convincing Adam to eat from it as well using her speech. Only the sense of smell was not involved in the transgression, as the sense of smell is more connected to spirituality and the serpent had no sway over it. The word for smell, rei’ach, is connected to the word for spirit, ruach. Only the spiritual potential remained intact as the ground was cursed, and humanity compromised.

 When Noah left the ark and saw the desolation of the postdeluvial earth he had a spiritual reawakening of sorts.

Noach built an altar to Ad-noy, and took of every ritually clean (kosher) animal and of every ritually clean bird, and brought up burnt-offerings on the altar.”

 The Zohar writes:

When Noah came out of the ark he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said ‘Master of the world! If You destroyed Your world because of human sin or human fools, then why did You create them’ One or the other You should do: either do not create the human being or do not destroy the world!’ He offered up offerings and began to pray before Him and the aroma ascended before the Blessed Holy One and was sweet.”

Rabi continued “A triple aroma ascended to God: the aroma of Noah’s offering, the aroma of his prayer, and the aroma of his actions. No aroma in the whole world was as pleasing to Him. Therefore He commanded: ‘Be observant and present to Me in due season My pleasing aroma’ (Num. 28:2) This means: ‘Be observant: Present to me the aroma that Noah presented to Me: the aroma of offering prayer and right action.”

 It was now evident why G-d had ordered seven pairs of the “pure”, kosher animals to supplement the initial guest list entering the ark, every species two by two.

 “Ad-noy smelled the pleasing fragrance, and Ad-noy said in His heart, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from the time of his youth. I will never again smite every living thing as I have done. So long as the earth exists, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never be suspended” (Gen 8:21-22).

 All future korbanot, fire offerings, would have a connection to Noah.

 Now we can appreciate story of the naming of Noah by his father, Lemech “He named his son Noach, saying, “This one will bring us rest from our work and the anguish of our hands, from the soil which Ad-noy has cursed.” (Gen 5:29)

Noah (who, by the way, gets credit for inventing the plow) in a spiritual sense, merits the return of fertility to the earth and ends up smelling like a rose (at least until he toasts his success..but that’s another story…).

 May all of your endeavors leave you smelling as sweet..

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

PS..Enjoy this video of a new take on Noah's Ark:

 

Love, Rain, or Me….Parashat Breishit

Love, Rain, Or Me..

At four times the world is judged:
On Pesach, for the crops.
On Shavuot, for the fruits of the tree.
On Rosh Hashanah, all the world passes before Him like sheep, as it says,
"He that forms the hearts of them all, that considers all their doings." (Psalms 33:15)
And on Sukkot, they are judged for the water.

Mishna Rosh Hashanah 1:2

 

We just concluded the last of our seasonal holidays, and on Simchat Torah (in the diaspora observed on the second day of Shemini Atzeret) we rolled the Torah back to the beginning, and started a brand new cycle. Shemini Atzeret is marked by a communal prayer for Geshem, for rain. The congregation prays for rain after attesting the the belief in the power and effacy of prayer during the Hoshana Rabba ceremonies, prior to the start of Shemini Atzeret. The beating of the aravot, the willows (one of the most unique and mysterious of all Jewish customs.), perhaps symbolizes the connection between the prayer our lips and the response of our creator.

In Parashat Breishit we are given two versions of the creation story. As Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik describes in his classic work, " The Lonely Man of Faith", there are two versions of the story to underscore the duality of human existence.

And G-d said, "Let us make man in our image, after our likeness, and they shall rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the heaven and over the animals and over all the earth and over all the creeping things that creep upon the earth. And G-d created man in His image; in the image of G-d He created him; male and female He created them. And G-d blessed them, and G-d said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the fowl of the sky and over all the beasts that tread upon the earth. (Gen. 1:26-28)

In the first version, in chapter 1, G-d, called  Elo-him, the name recalling the divine nature of judgement and justice, creates man and woman at the same time (or as a hermaphrodite, as suggested in the Talmud Eruvin 18), in the image of G-d. R' Soloveitchik explains this is the imago Dei, creative inclination of humanity, the potential for using (and misusing!) technology to dominate the earth.

In the  second version, in chapter 2, the Torah (this time using the tetragrammaton, the 4 letter name of G-d, pronounced Ado-nai,  recalling G-d's loving and merciful attributes ) describes the process of human creation as a combination of earth and divine breath, a spiritual being but grounded in earthly matter.

"These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created, on the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven. Now no tree of the field was yet on the earth, neither did any herb of the field yet grow, because the Lord God had not brought rain upon the earth, and there was no man to work the soil. 

Note that the Torah explains that no plant life could grow without the creation of Man to "work the soil". Rashi explains that rain would be a partnership, with the prayers of man a crucial component.

And a mist ascended from the earth and watered the entire surface of the ground. And the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and He breathed into his nostrils the soul of life, and man became a living soul." (Gen. 2:4-7)    

A living soul, an asexual spiritual being , with the power to partner with G-d by engaging in prayer.
R' Soloveitchik writes, "The biblical metaphor referring to G-d breathing life into Adam alludes to the actual preoccupation of the latter with G-d, to his genuine living experience of G-d, rather than to some divine potential or endowment in Adam symbolized by imago Dei.

As we complete last year, and start living this year, may we harness the power, majesty and humanity afforded to us by our dual nature, confident in our strengths and humbled by our weaknesses, and as we struggle to come to grips with our relationship with the divine, come even closer with our relationship with ourselves, and our unique ability to leave the world a better place than that  into which we were born.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

Just Stop

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
This Sunday night we usher in the conclusion of our festival of Sukkot, the conclusion of our annual cycle of reading our Torah, and the conclusion of our tshuva, our return to G-d. 

 

 
 This festival is called Shemini Atzeret, the Festival of The Eight Day. 
 
The Torah simply says about this day, Atzeret Hi. Stop. Pause. Wrap it up. The word has a few meanings, and as usual, we can use these meanings to get a deeper understanding of the significance of this most understood of holidays. We know it is not Sukkot, we don't shake a lulav, and those who eat a meal or make kiddush in the Sukka on the first day do not (my custom is to make the first night time kiddush in the sukka, and eat the meal inside the house) make the beracha of Laishai B'Sukka, of dwelling in the sukka.
 
 
The great medieval sage Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, 1040- 1105) tells the story of a king who invited his children to a feast for a certain number of days, and when the time came for them to leave, he said: “My children, please, stay with me one more day, it is difficult for me to part with you.” Most of us know this feeling (at least with our own children). Perhaps even Moses himself knew this feeling coming down the mountain from his meetings with God. Is it possible to hang on to the Shechinah and still live in the real world? Take the opportunity to extend your stay in the domain of the Divine.
 
Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch explains that Atzeret means "to hold on", to prevent from getting lost. The closeness to G-d and Judaism that we have developed over the holidays needs to be captured in a freeze frame of time. Shemini Atzeret is a chance for us to hold on to the vision of ourselves we have uncovered through the process of tshuva. Take the opportunity to prevent the real you from getting lost as the world creeps back into our lives.
 
In contrast to the universal message of Sukkot, where the Jewish people pray for the entire world, symbolized by the many  offerings of cattle  each day brought in the Temple, on Shemini Atzeret we symbolically offer only one, for ourselves. Our sages teach us by means of a parable: Someone is granted an audience with the king, and pleads for mercy on behalf of all the inhabitants of the land. As he gets up to leave he is reminded to put in his own personal requests as well. Shemini Atzeret is a personal time, and nothing is asked from us at all, except that we experience just a little more joy. Our joy is tempered by the fact that many of our loved ones are no longer with us, but our Yizkor on the first day of Shemini Atzeret feels different than the Yizkor of Yom Kippur, we remember our relatives with the confidence of the living, and rejoice in the fact that we can give tzeddaka and perform mitzvot in their memory, strengthening our eternal bond with the souls of our loved ones.
 
We have been given the most precious gift possible for one alive, the gift of time. As our Creator begs us, stay one more day (and for those of us outside of the Holy land, two more!) and feel the joy that only a Jewish Yom Tov can give. You will be so much richer for it.
Wishing you a Chag Sameach, and a Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg
 
 

Rav Herzog on the Comparison of the Torah to a Song

 
 
Yitzhak HaLevi Herzog  also known as Isaac Herzog, was the first Chief Rabbi of Ireland, his term lasting from 1921 to 1936. 
From 1936 until his death in 1959, he wasAshkenazi Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate of Palestine and of Israel after its independence in 1948.
 
The verse from which we learn the mitzvah to write a Sefer Torah says "And now write for yourselves this song..." [Devorim 31:19]. The Torah refers to itself as a "Song" (Shirah). Why is Torah called Shirah?
Rav Herzog once gave the following explanation: In virtually all fields of study, a person who is uninitiated in that discipline does not derive any pleasure from hearing a theory or an insight concerning that field of study. Take physics, for example: A physicist will derive great pleasure from hearing a "chiddush" [novel interpretation or insight] in his field of expertise. However someone who has never studied and never been interested in physics will be totally unmoved by the very same insight. The same applies to many, many other disciplines.
 
However, this is not the case with music. When Beethoven's Fifth Symphony is played -- regardless of whether one is a concertmaster or a plain simple person -- there is something one can get out of it. Music is something that everyone on his or her own level can enjoy. Everyone can relate to music.
 
Rav Herzog says that this is why the Torah is called "Shirah". On one hand, someone can be a great Talmid Chochom [Torah Scholar] and learn "Bereishis Barah Elokim..." [the first three words of the Torah] and see great wisdom therein. On the other hand, one can be a five-year-old child, just beginning to read, and learn "Bereishis Barah Elokim..." and also gain something from it. Every person, on his own level can have an appreciation for Torah. Therefore, the pasuk aptly refers to Torah when it says "And now, write for yourselves this 'song'..."
 

 

Yom Kippur Guest Post

 

By Harav Avraham Yitchak HaKohane Kook ZT'L

 
Yom Kippur: Healing the Universe
 

The Sages made a surprising claim about the power of teshuvah:

"Great is repentance, for it brings healing to the world... When an individual repents, he is forgiven, and the entire world with him." (Yoma 86b)

 

We understand that one who repents should be forgiven — but why should the entire world also be forgiven? In what way does teshuvah bring healing to the world?

Responsibility for the World

There are deep, powerful ties that connect each individual soul to the rest of the universe. Not only are we influenced by the world, we also influence it. InOrot HaKodesh (vol. II p. 351), Rav Kook described this connection as a 'powerful underlying influence.' This is not merely mankind's industrial and technological impact on the world, as we utilize fire, water, electricity, and other forces of nature to do our bidding.

"That is only a partial and superficial aspect of our impact on the world. The Kabbalists taught that the world's essence, in all of its wholeness and scope, is bound to us with ties of subordination, accepting our influence. This understanding indicates that there is a fundamental integration between the nishmatiut[soul-quality] that operates in the world and our own nishmatiut." 

 

This inner connection and influence on the rest of the universe implies a heavy moral responsibility:

"How wonderful is the moral perspective that arises from this great responsibility — a responsibility for all of existence, for all worlds. We have the power to bring favor and light, life, joy, and honor in these worlds. This occurs when we follow the straight path, when we strengthen and gird ourselves with a pure fortitude and conquer paths of life that are good and admired, when we advance and go from strength to strength.

 

"Yet it is also in our power to bring pain to every good portion, when we debase our souls and corrupt our ways, when we darken our spiritual light and suspend our moral purity." (Orot HaKodesh vol. III, p. 63)

 

Given our great responsibility for our actions, the Talmudic statement becomes clearer. Those who correct their ways repair not only the flaws in their own souls but also those aspects of the universe that they damaged. Their teshuvah truly 'brings healing to the world.'

The Ne'ilah Prayer

This dual responsibility — for the purity of our souls as well as the spiritual state of the entire universe — is hinted at in the final prayer of Yom Kippur. The Ne'ilahprayer, recited as Yom Kippur's gates of forgiveness are closed, concludes with a special passage, "Atah notein yad laposhim," ('You extend Your hand to transgressors'). In this prayer we confess that

"There is no end to the fire-offerings required of us, and countless are our guilt-offerings." 

 

What is the difference between these two phrases — 'the fire- offerings required of us' (ishei-chovoteinu) and 'our guilt- offerings' (nichochei-ashmateinu)?

Restoring the Soul's Purity

Our moral defects and lapses have a detrimental effect on the soul, sullying it with the imprints of failure and sin. We seek to cleanse these stains and restore the soul to its previous state of purity.

To repair the damage we have caused to our own soul, we offer an olah offering before God. It is for this reason that the Torah commands us to bring an offering even if we have sinned unintentionally.

[So explained the Ramban in his commentary to Lev. 4:2: 'The reason that one who sinned unintentionally brings an offering (korban) is because all transgressions bring disgrace to the soul, tainting it.... Therefore a soul that erred brings an offering, so that it may merit to become close (le-korvah) to its Creator.']

This Ne'ilah prayer refers to these offerings asnichochei ashmateinu, 'guilt-offerings.' This term indicates that our actions have tarnished the soul, as it says, "And the soul that was guilty ("ashmah")" (Num. 5:6). These offerings arenichochim since they produce a 'pleasing fragrance' as they cleanse the soul and enable it to once again draw close to God.

Repairing the World

There is, however, a second aspect to our spiritual failures. In addition to defiling the soul, our sins also debase and pollute the universe. Even private failings have a negative impact on the moral and spiritual state of the universe. For this reason the Sages categorized the wicked as those 'who destroy the world' (Avot 5:1).

The universe demands that we repair that which we have damaged. This repair is accomplished throughteshuvah and offering a chatat offering. The Ne'ilahprayer refers to these offerings as ishei chovoteinu, 'our required fire-offerings,' since they reflect our duty and obligation to correct that which we have damaged in the universe.

(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Olat Re'iyah vol. II, p. 364)

All the World's a Stage

Parashat Ki Tavo

“All true language is incomprehensible, like the chatter of a beggar’s teeth.”
-Antonin Artaud

This week’s reading, Ki Tavo,  describes the pilgrimage to Jerusalem to offer bikkurim, the  first fruits of the season, starting on the Festival of Shavuot.  The Mishna (Bikkurim 3:3) teaches that people would come from far and wide, accompanied by a marching band of musicians. The pageantry would increase as the procession arrived in Jerusalem with the dignitaries coming out to meet them, to the cries of  “Brothers, Shalom!”. The mitzvah of  bikkurim consists of two parts; the bringing of the fruits themselves, and a verbal declaration.
First, the pilgrims stretch out their baskets and announce their arrival:
And you shall come to the kohen who will be serving] in those days, and say to him, ” Higad’ti, I declare  this day to the Lord, your G-d, that I have come to the land which the Lord swore to our forefathers to give us.”
 (Deut. 26:3)

The word higad’ti is from the same root word as haggadah, the classic wine stained manual for Passover fun. In fact, the commandment to tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt states, “v’higad’ta l’vincha….and you shall tell your son…” (Ex. 13:8)

The kohen takes the offering, and the owner begins to speak.

But, not just any declaration…. the Torah actually provides a script!
And you shall call out and say before the Lord, your God, “An Aramean sought to destroy my forefather, and he went down to Egypt and sojourned there with a small number of people, and there, he became a great, mighty, and numerous nation. And the Egyptians treated us cruelly and afflicted us, and they imposed hard labor upon us. So we cried out to the Lord, G-d of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.    And the Lord brought us out from Egypt with a strong hand and with an outstretched arm, with great awe, and with signs and wonders. And He brought us to this place, and He gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, O Lord, have given to me….. (Deut. 26:5-10)

Sound familiar? This is the main content of the Maggid section of the Passover Haggadah! This same speech informs both roles.

Why the theatrical presentation? Why do we need a script to do this mitzvah?

Our sages were well aware of the power of theater to enhance our most basic identity, that we represent a nation redeemed from servitude by G-d. That idea permeates our prayer, and is highlighted during passover. Since bikkurim and the seder share the samehigad’ti/higad’ta/haggadah connection, we can extend our  understanding of bikkurimbased on how our tradition views the seder.

The Rambam reveals his hand by a subtle one letter change in his version of the haggadah. Instead of the traditional language, “In every generation one should see himself— l’re’ot et atzmo—as if he had been liberated from Egypt”, the Rambam gives us, “one should show himself—l’har’ot et atzmo”, implying some action is required. (Hilkhot Chametz u-Matzah 7:6).

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in his annotations to the haggadah, wrote:
L’re’ot means to experience, to feel, to re-experience the slavery and the Exodus. It should not be an ancient event, lying at the dawn of our history and having no relevance for us. I am to re-experience it. Memory, in Judaism, means not just to remember technically, but also to relive the event. L’har’ot adds another dimension: the re-experiencing should be so dynamic and so intense that it breaks through and somehow expresses itself in action. If we are overpowered by an emotion, we cannot suppress it; we cannot control ourselves. We will sing and dance; we will cry and shout; we will shed tears and embrace people. The experience of Yezi’at Mizrayim on the night of Pesach should be so overpowering, so overwhelming, that we should act it out.”
Other esteemed rabbis have written about parading around the room, uprooting the table, pouring water on the floor, and other unusual behaviors to create a sense of drama out of ritual.

“The theater, which is in no thing, but makes use of everything — gestures, sounds, words, screams, light, darkness — rediscovers itself at precisely the point where the mind requires a language to express its manifestations. To break through language in order to touch life is to create or recreate the theatre.”
-Antonin Artaud

The first fruits are the symbols of potential. Unlike the harvest, where we celebrate the  bounty G-d has bestowed upon us, the bikkurim hint at what is to come. They represent the potential of G-d’s gifts.  But what if our first fruits are not so inspiring? What if our faith is hindered by the stress of day to day living? Like the bikkurim, we are works in progress. We need help to keep our relationship with our significant other (yes, the OTHER significant other!) on track.

The Torah recognizes the power of words, of theater, of emotion, of pageantry, to help us rekindle our relationship with our creator, with jubilation. By taking on the role, and embracing the script, we gain the awareness that we are living proof of our forefathers’ covenant  with G-d, and we will come to feel the joy promised us in our parasha:
“Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household you, the Levite, and the stranger who is among you.” (Deut 26:11)

The Midrash Tanchuma on our parasha cites  the 6th verse from Psalm 95, “Let us come and prostrate ourselves and bow, and let us kneel before G-d, our maker.” The midrash asks,  “why does the verse have three words that mean almost the same thing: prostrate, bow, kneel? The midrash answers that Moshe prophetically saw the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, and the forfeiture of the opportunity to bringbikkurim. So, says the midrash, Moshe instituted the three daily prayer offerings, because prayer is cherished by our creator even more than mitzvot and sacrificial offerings.

Our sages have established a script for our daily prayers as well, to help us focus our minds to our spiritual goals. Although an individual could express his or herself in their own words, the power of group prayer is a formidable experience. Like the chorus in classical theater, the sound and energy of group response can create an excitement that can overcome any momentary lack of confidence in the power of prayer.  This is the theater of the heart, the magic of words. Humans are the only creatures to have received this gift of words, the very power that created yesh m’ayin, something from nothing. As we say every morning in the opening words of our prayers,  “Blessed is He who spoke, and the world came into being”

Writes the French philosopher and mathematician Pascal, of the power of theater, “….it creates a representation so natural and so subtle of human passions that it excites and engenders them in our heart.

Although communal prayer is a group production, the most dramatic moments are perhaps when we are alone with our thoughts, hearkening back to the bikkurim. The mishna (Bikkurim 2:2) tells us that the bikkurim must be accompanied by a vidui, a confession . We saw the script earlier, “And now, behold, I have brought the first of the fruit of the ground which you, O Lord, have given to me….” (Deut 26:10)
What are we confessing? That no matter how much we think of ourselves and our accomplishments, it is only by the will of G-d that  seeds turn into our sustenance, that potential turns into fulfillment.

In a short while we will begin our recitation of  S’lichot, the penitential supplications framing the 13 attributes of G-d that are key to our spiritual cleansing, the theme of the days of awe, and again we will offer our vidui.  The work must start now, as we dig deep, to filter out impediments to growth.
May our potential be realized, and may we emerge from Yom Kippur ready to revel in the spiritual harvest that awaits, as we celebrate our bounty on Sukkot.
Then, you shall rejoice with all the good that the Lord, your God, has granted you and your household…

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

The Accidental Tourist

Parashat Ki Tetze

One of the joys of youth is the opportunity to redefine the human experience, through introducing new styles and genres, especially in pop culture. Anybody who can or will not keep up is doomed to feel older in a hurry. One of the ways of carving out space by the emerging generation is through language. Words may acquire a new meaning, and the subtleties may be elusive to the older guard. I know that this thesis is totally random–oops, I slipped into the new usage of the word many of us still believe means “relating to, having, or being elements or events with definite and /or equal probability of occurrence.

These days “random” is the fill-in-the-blank descriptor for anything used by those in the know, (or, as a frustrated online wordsmith quipped, it is a sophisticated new acronym for Rarely Adding New Dimension Or Meaning…)

Hello? Hel-LO? Sorry–that’s what I get from hanging out with my kids……

In this weeks parasha of Ki Tetze the Torah gives us a long list of  seemingly “random” mitzvot–the hated wife, the wayward son, returning lost objects, relieving animals of their burden, prohibitions against interest, adultery, withholding pay from workers, cross dressing, mixing seeds, animals and fibers, oath taking; commandments concerning  the treatment of captives, leaving the corners of the fields for the poor, levirate marriage, championing the causes of widows and orphans. Seventy four in all, more than any other parasha, covering  mitzvot bein adam l’chavero (between a person and others ), where the results of our actions are readily apparent, and mitzvot bein adam l’makom(between a person and G-d), where the results are not revealed in this world.

Many commentators have written about one of the most interesting mitzvot in our parasha, sh’luach hakain (sending away the mother bird from the nest) and its plainly stated reward:
שַׁלֵּחַ תְּשַׁלַּח אֶת הָאֵם וְאֶת הַבָּנִים תִּקַּח
לָךְ לְמַעַן יִיטַב לָךְ וְהַאֲרַכְתָּ יָמִים:
You shall send away the mother, and [then] you may take the young for yourself, in order that it should be good for you, and you will lengthen your days. (Deut. 22:7)

According to the Rambam(Maimonades) this teaches us to have compassion for other creatures, just like the commandment  to not slaughter mother animal and her young  on the same day. The Torah clearly spells out the benefit for following this commandment.  V’ha’arachta yamim, a life extension, is the reward promised for fulfillment of  sh’luach hakain, and Rashi points out this is an easy mitzvah with no cost. Ironically, the only other mitzvah in the Torah with a stated reward is kibud av v’aim, honoring ones parents. Here too, the reward is lengthening of days, a long life. And this mitzvah is perhaps the most difficult of all of G-d’s commandments!

Sh’luach hakain is introduced with the words,

כִּי יִקָּרֵא קַן צִפּוֹר לְפָנֶיךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ …….
Ki Y’karei kan tzippor l’fanecha baderech…
If you should happen upon a bird’s nest on your journey…
 (Deut. 22:6)

Y’karei-happenstance, totally random.
Are we prepared to fulfill even the easiest of our creator’s directives when we least expect it?
Can we think and act like loyal subjects of our King outside of synagogue, our homes, in the wilderness, when we are alone with our thoughts? Are we spiritually honest?

Our parasha closes with the mitzvah to remember Amalek, which we read again each year on Shabbat Zachor ,the shabbat before Purim:
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה לְךָ עֲמָלֵק בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם:
אֲשֶׁר קָרְךָ בַּדֶּרֶךְ וַיְזַנֵּב בְּךָ כָּל הַנֶּחֱשָׁלִים אַחֲרֶיךָ וְאַתָּה עָיֵף וְיָגֵעַ וְלֹא יָרֵא אֱ־לֹהִים:

Remember what Amalek did to you on the way, when you were going out of Egypt. When they happened upon you on your journey, and hit you from behind, all the weak stragglers, and you were exhausted and wearied, and he had no fear of G-d.
(Deut. 25:17-18)

Asher karcha baderech…When they happened upon you on your journey….
Although the word kerech usually means ice, Rashi teaches us that here it means by chance.
Totally random…

The exact opposite of the mitzvah of sh’luach hakain, a random act of kindness.
This was terrorism- unprovoked violence against the unprotected.
Just as the Israelites were basking in their liberation from decades of oppression, their resolve was tested at random, and the collateral damage in loss of faith was severe. That generation did not live to see the promised land.

We are constantly being tested on our journeys, seemingly by complete happenstance. No matter how tough or trivial the trial,  our test is to stay on course, knowing that our gift of the revealed Torah is not by chance. Our covenant with our Creator is a guarantee that our lives will be lengthened by our performance of the mitzvot, our spiritual and physical accomplishments, our honesty, and our faith . Not so random….
Hello?

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

Blind Justice

 

Parashat Shoftim

Years ago I used to live in a certain county in northern New Jersey known for it’s colorful political tradition. Well… actually for its corrupt political tradition. In fact, one year a mayor, convicted for graft and corruption ran for re-election from his jail cell- and would have been re-elected had the courts not ruled that an incarcerated felon could not participate in a public election!

This is not an isolated case- many unscrupulous pols, after narrowly escaping prosecution on some technicality are re-elected each year. And many voters do not seem to care; as long as their own personal needs are being met, they will continue to pull the lever along party lines. Citizens throughout the world continue to be abused by elected or self imposed leaders, and many have suffered a moral weakening, and have resigned themselves to the status quo. I often think about the classic line delivered by Joseph Welch at the infamous McCarthy hearings, when he turned to Senator Joseph McCarthy and exclaimed, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

 

As one astute political commentator writes, ” When I considered all this, the more closely I studied the politicians and the laws and customs of the day, and the older I grew, the more difficult it seemed to me to govern rightly……. At the same time law and morality were deteriorating at an alarming rate…… I was forced, in fact, to the belief that the only hope of finding justice for society or for the individual lay in true philosophy, and that mankind will have no respite from trouble until either real philosophers gain political power or politicians become by some miracle true philosophers”. Plato, The Republic

In this weeks parasha, Shoftim, the Torah offers a vision of a society where rulers would govern by a philosophy of  divine truth, starting with a judicial system:

You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your gates that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. (Deut. 16:18).

The community is addressed in the second person singular, as this must be a unified commitment to submit to an independent judicial body. This system must be free of any societal baggage:

You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. (Deut. 16:19).

We already learned of the Torah’s mandate of equal justice in Parashat Kedoshim (Lev. 19:15), as addressed to individuals. Here we learn that that the judicial system must follow the same dictates.

Finally, an enigmatic instruction that highlights the responsibility of a Torah based society:

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ:

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you. (Deut. 16:20)

As you can imagine, the double language is puzzling. There are many explanations given by the classic  and contemporary commentators. Rabbi Yissocher Frand quotes Rav Elya Meir Bloch (of the famous Telze Yeshiva) as teaching, “”the pursuit of righteousness must also be pursued with righteousness”. We are not merely being taught to run after justice. We are told to run after justice with justice.

Perhaps the double language is telling us we need to think outside of the box, to stretch ourselves in the application of justice. There is a classic midrash that illustrates a creative approach to solving a legal dispute.

Alexander the Great once visited the community of Afriki and wished to observe its judicial system. Two men came before the king for justice. The first said, “I purchased a plot of land from this man, and when I dug to lay the foundation of a home, I found a treasure buried there. I only bought the land, not the treasure, therefore it is not mine.” The seller said, “I too am fearful of the biblical prohibition of ‘lo tigzo”- do not steal’ and I too do not want it back unless it is definitely mine.” The king (judge) asked the buyer if he had a son, he answered “yes”. The seller answered positively to having a daughter. “Wonderful,” said the king, “let them marry and share the treasure.”

A wonderfully creative solution that leaves both litigants as partners in a just conclusion. By the way, the midrash concludes with a comparison to the legal system of the Greek Empire.

Alexander looked at this scene with amazement. The king asked him, “What are you so amazed at? Did I not judge well?” Alexander replied, “Yes, you did.” “And if the same case came before a court in your land what would you have done?” asked the king. Alexander replied, “We would have beheaded both of them and the treasure would have fallen to the royal treasury.” (Vayikra Rabba 27:1)

The Torah’s legal system is a partnership between G-d and society , and at the end of the day, all litigants must accept the outcome as divine mandate.

And you shall do according to the word they tell you, from the place the Lord will choose, and you shall observe to do according to all they instruct you. According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left. (Deut.. 17:10-11)

The findings of a Torah based court ARE Torah, the people must accept the judgement, knowing that the will of G-d has been fulfilled.

The previous verse is the source for the concept of Rabbinic law that permeates jewish life. The blessing we make on lighting Hanukah menorot, or before reading the Megillah on Purim, contain the words, “  Blessed are you, ……..asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu, with your commandments…”, yet these mitzvoth are rabbinic in origin. By accepting  rabbinic law as the will of G-d we are following a torah commandment. Many mistakenly assume that since certain mitzvoth are of of rabbinic origin (m’d'rabbanan) that they may be treated as optional. Nothing could be further from the truth. (The rabbis, however, did legislate that in matters of human dignity certain rabbinic laws could be suspended as discussed in Talmud Berachot 17b).  As such, the Torah teaches that rabbinic rulings were to be followed explicitly.

I once saw New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter smile after taking a pitch for strike three. The replay showed that the umpire had made a bad call. Jeter, a consummate professional smiled because he knew that the system had to work with an ultimate authority, and even though there may be occasional human error, the rules depended on a communal adherence to the process.

The Sanhedrin, the Torah based court during the times the Temple stood, could occasionally err as well.

The great  medieval  Ramban (Nachmanides)  writes that even if you think in your heart that they are mistaken, you must still do as they command you. He writes, “[ even if the decision is disturbing] …you are to say,’ The Lord who instituted the commandments commanded that I perform all the mitzvoth in a way that they( the rabbis) teach me to do. He gave me the Torah as taught by them, even if they were to err.”

The buck stops here.

Next the Torah introduces the concept of  Jewish political power, as exemplified by the King. The King and the Jewish courts are given an indisputable philosophical truth, the Torah itself. But the extended exile of the Jewish people has seen a loss of a unified Jewish legal presence, and every year seems to bring a wider divide in the various approaches for interpreting  and implementing Jewish law. We are awash in a sea ofshitot (interpretations of Jewish law) and p’sakim (directives).

We continue to pray thrice daily, in our weekday Amidah prayer, ” Hashivainu shoftainu k’rishona, restore our judges as in  previous years“, for a time when the Jewish people will again be able to serve their creator in the singular, as one people.

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the period of introspection leading up to Rosh Hashanah and  Yom Kippur, where we are privileged to appear before the real ultimate authority, that of the Supreme Heavenly Court. May we approach our days of judgment confident in knowing that the philosophy governing our spiritual lives is the ultimate source of truth, free from any political interference  or corruption, and that we will never strike out in a true heart to heart encounter with our creator.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Second Honeymoon

Parashat Re’eh

Many years ago, shortly after my wife and I were married, we were taken to lunch by the father of a close friend, a financial planner. He offered up some wisdom of achieving success in marriage-PYF, pay yourself first. By paying yourself a set amount immediately you were sure to have the resources to accomplish your goals, and strengthen the relationship.
The Torah suggests this same method of strengthening our relationship with G-d, the mitzvah of taking ma’aser, a 10% tithe, taken directly ‘”off the top”. We learned about ma’aser rishon, the “first tithe”, back in Parashat Bechukotai (Lev. 27:30), and again in Parashat Korach (Num. 18:21), a 10% “tax” on the Israelites agricultural gains that would support the Levites materially, and in the administration of their sacred responsibilities. The Levites would in turn tithe 10% of their receipts to the kohanim(priests) for their support. This immediate support of the divine enterprise would bring us closer to the Almighty, by using our resources (b’chol mi’odecha…) in service to G-d.

In this week’s parsha, Re’eh, we learn of an intriguing mitzvah, that of ma’aser sheni, the “second tithe”.

Ma’aser Sheni is a commandment to PYF, pay yourself first, except this time you were to go on vacation and spend the money on yourself, your spouse, your family:
You shall tithe all the seed crop that the field gives forth, year by year. And you shall eat before the Lord, your G-d, in the place He chooses to establish His Name therein, the tithes of your grain, your wine, and your oil, and the firstborn of your cattle and of your sheep, so that you may learn to fear the Lord, your G-d, all the days. And if the way be too long for you, that you are unable to carry it, for the place which the Lord, your G-d, will choose to establish His Name therein, is too far from you, for the Lord, your G-d, will bless you. Then you shall turn it into money, and bind up the money in your hand, and you shall go to the place the Lord, your G-d, will choose. And you shall turn that money into whatever your soul desires; cattle, sheep, wine or whiskey, or whatever your soul desires, and you shall eat there before the Lord, your G-d, and you shall rejoice, you and your household. (Deut. 14:22-26)

What a beautiful idea! Pay yourself first, save up some of your earnings, and during the first, second, fourth and fifth year of the seven year agricultural cycle take a vacation in Jerusalem, and treat yourself well. It’s a mitzvah!

Rav Hirsch points out that the juxtaposition of all subject matter in the book of Devarim(Deuteronomy) is highly meaningful. Our mitzvah of ma’aser sheni is preceeded by an exposition of the laws of kashrut, the complex kosher laws, dealing with which animals and fish could be eaten, the prohibition of eating blood, and mixtures of milk and meat.
Rav Hirsch explains that this sensitivity is a tool to elevate our own animal tendencies into the dominion of the moral freedom of spiritual humanity. We must elevate these aspects of our nature to the level of human morality, in the service of G-d.

The mitzvah of ma’aser sheni transforms the physical and sensual act of eating into a holy act of fulfilling a divine commandment, and thereby strengthening our relationship with G-d.

This is a unique facet of Judaism, the ability to use our base urges of sensuality and sexuality as tools to achieve holiness.

Today, as we live in exile, we are unable to fulfill this particular mitzvah, until our prayers are answered, and the Temple is rebuilt in Jerusalem. But, we can learn much about the nature of close relationships. They need nurturing, and regular allocation of resources to remain vital.
Too busy or too cash strapped to take some time off with your main squeeze? Pay yourself first, and save up for some special time to bask in the glow of your primary relationship. This is no time to skimp, rather to go all out, and indulge yourself. After all, we are practicing for the time that we will be able to do just that, in the name of the mitzvah of ma’aser sheni. May it be speedily and in our days.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

 

Let Them Eat Cake


Parashat Eikev
 

 
In our parasha Moshe reminds the Israelites that they are partners in a brit, a covenant with G-d that grants rights and privileges, but also bestows considerable obligations among the covenantees. What are these obligations?
Moshe asks the tough question:
“V’atah Yisrael, Mah Ad-noy Elokekha sho’ail may’imach?
And now, Jewish People, just what is Ad-noy your G-d asking of you?….” (Deut. 10:12)
 
 
That is an essential Jewish question, one that we would all do well to ask ourselves each and every day. Just what should we be doing? And is it ever enough?
Moshe immediately gives us an answer:
“Merely to fear Ad-noy your G-d, and to follow all his ways, and to love him, and serve Ad-noy your G-d wholeheartedly and with total spiritual commitment.” (Deut. 10:12)
 
Yirat Hashem, an awesome respect for G-d, an utter amazement and trepidation that informs our being, and colors every action. We explored this idea briefly previously, and concluded that a fear-only based relationship, without a love component, was detrimental. Here Moshe is reminding us that yirah is essential, as the building block to a relationship, the first step in a sequential process leading to an active love of G-d.
 
By the way, in Hebrew, the word for physical fear that the Torah did not use here is pachad. The Torah is not telling us that the goal is to be physically afraid of G-d, of the cliche of lightning striking us down, or the giant hand coming from the heavens to knock us senseless, although this base fear needs to be acknowledged. Yirah is the epitome of reverent respect, an awesome awareness of the chasm separating our puny human intellect and divine truth.
Our tradition explains that Yirat Shamayim, an awesome respect for Heaven, is the only tool that we must obtain on our own. The Talmud, in masechet Megillah (25a) quotes Rabbi Chanina: “Everything is in the hands of Shamayim (Heaven) except Yirat Shamayim.” The Talmud then quotes our opening verse, …” Just what is G-d asking of you? Merely to fear Ad-noy your G-d….”
Seems pretty easy….
 
The Talmud asks, ” Does the Torah think this is such a small matter?“, and then answers, “Yes, for Moshe, this was a small matter! Like someone who is asked for a large item, and he has it, it seems small. But to one who does not have it it seems large indeed.”
Because of the massive challenge of obtaining spiritual sensitivity and refinement of practice we often choose to abdicate our responsibility in the arena of developing yirat shamayim. In our busy modern lives we are often unavailable spiritually, and lose our perspective of the awesome power of our Creator.
 
The Israelites had the same challenges. In our parasha Moshe had the following to say to the generation about to enter the land: Remember the entire path along which Ad-noy your G-d has led you these forty years in the wilderness, in order that you live in want, to test you, so that you may know what is in your heart, whether you will keep His commandments or not. (Deut. 8:2)
Realizing that we are constantly being challenged is a key factor in developing yirat shamayim.
Moshe continues: He had you live in want; He let you go hungry, and then fed you manna which you did not know and your fathers did not know…..(Deut. 8:3)
Both the ease and the difficulty we find in living our lives is from above, a daily test. Yes, even our success is a test. When our needs are provided, we have the tendency to give ourselves the credit. and downplay the role of G-d in our lives.
…in order to teach you that man can not live on bread alone, rather, man can live on anything that comes from the mouth of G-d. (Deut. 8:3)
 
Rav Hirsch writes that bread is a symbol of man’s control of technology, in partnership with G-d. The Creator gives us the seeds, water and light to produce sheaves, but humans provide the process to turn wheat into bread. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of thinking that our efforts alone are responsible for our achievements.
He points out that the Hebrew word for bread, lechem, is also the root of the wordmilchama, meaning battle or war. If we see our successful efforts at earning our daily bread as purely our own means than we will be in a losing battle with our spiritual selves. Our existence is not predicated on the natural and human resources represented by bread, only on the care of G-d to sustain us.
 
The parsha closes with the second paragraph of the Shema, detailing the concept of reward and punishment. And it will be, if you really listen to My commandments that I command you this day to love the Lord, your G-d, and to serve Him with all your heart and with all your soul,. I will give the rain of your land at its time, the early rain and the latter rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. I will give the rain of your land at its time, the early rain and the latter rain, and you will gather in your grain, your wine, and your oil. Beware, lest your heart be misled, and you turn away and worship strange gods and prostrate yourselves before them. And the wrath of the Lord will be kindled against you, and He will close off the heavens, and there will be no rain, and the ground will not give its produce, and you will perish quickly from upon the good land that the Lord gives you. (Deut. 11:13-17)
…. Mah Ad-noy Elokekha sho’ail may’imach……Just what does G-d want from us?
To engage, to nurture the relationship. Anything less on our part will result in distancing us from G-d, and prolonging our spiritual and physical exile.
 
We are living in an age of unprecedented affluence. Yes, there are those that are struggling, but for the most part the Jewish people are free from the pangs of hunger.
Yet, we still live in exile, an exile spanning the rise and fall of the great empires of the world, without having achieved the ultimate goal of our covenantal relationship, world peace, and the Jewish people living in their ancestral homeland with the Shechina, the physical manifestation of G-d in the world, resting between the k’ruvim (the cherubs) in the inner sanctum of the Temple in Jerusalem, the holiest place on earth. Do we know what we are missing?
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

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All You Need is Love

Parashat Va'etchanan

 
There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done.
 
Nothing you can sing that can’t be sung.
 
Nothing you can say but you can learn how to play the game
 
It’s easy.
 
There’s nothing you can make that can’t be made.
 
No one you can save that can’t be saved.
 
Nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you
 
in time - It’s easy.
 
- The Liverpooler Rebbes
 

 

The revelation at Sinai was the defining moment in the transformation of the Jewish people from a nation of slaves to a spiritual community, united by their covenant with their creator. The experience was so intensely awesome and breathtaking that the Israelites couldn’t handle it. They asked Moshe to serve as their go between:

They said to Moses, “You speak with us, and we will hear, but let G-d not speak with us lest we die.” (Ex. 20:16)

Afterwards, still reeling from the experience, the people had an opportunity to hear all the specifics: And he (Moshe) took the Book of the Covenant and read it within earshot of the people, and they said, “All that G-d spoke, Naaseh v’nishma, we will do and we will listen.” (Ex. 24:7)

Naaseh v’nishma, we will jump right in, and learn the details later....

The Talmud in Masechet Shabbat (88a) praises this response:

R. Eleazar said: When the Israelites gave precedence to ‘we will do’ over ‘we will listen,’ a Heavenly Voice went forth and exclaimed to them, Who revealed to My children this secret, which is employed by the Ministering Angels ? As it is written: Bless G-d, his angels, those mighty in strength, that fulfill his word, that listen to the voice of his word. First they do and then they listen? (Psalms 103:20)

Moshe returns to the mountain to get the rest of the Torah:

And G-d said to Moses, “Come up to Me to the mountain and remain there, and I will give you the stone tablets, the Torah and HaMitzvah, the commandment, which I have written to teach them.” (Ex. 24:12)

The tablets and the Torah seem self explanatory, but what is HaMitzvah, The Commandment?

Unfortunately, the Israelites could not wait long enough to find out. Before Moshe could return from the mountain they built the Golden Calf, and stumbled their way from one unfortunate event to the next. The inspiration was short lived, indeed, and they seemed to live in constant fear of G-d. What happened to naaseh v’nishma? Evidently they were not angels after all, merely human.

In this week’s parasha, always read on the shabbat after Tisha B’Av, Moshe is addressing the next generation, who had come of age during the 40 years of desert wanderings, and were to inherit the land denied their parents after the infamous episode of the scouts. That episode was the event that set the stage for all the calamities to befall the Jewish people in the future on that fated calendar day of the 9th of Av.

Moshe is recounting the history of the revelation at Sinai, which many remembered from their childhood and adolescence. He recounts that moment of initial inspiration: Moshe called all the Jewish People and said, ‘Shema Yisrael, listen carefully Israel, to the statutes and laws that I am relating in your presence today, for you are to study them, and be careful to fulfill them.” (Deut. 5:1)

Moshe is telling the people that they need to listen, to comprehend before they take action. Moshe reviews the ‘Ten Commandments” spoken by G-d at Sinai. He then recalls the response of the previous generation 40 years earlier, after they begged Moshe to intercede for them:

You approach, and hear all that the Lord, our God, will say, and you speak to us all that the Lord, our God, will speak to you, V’shama’inu Vi’asinu, and we will listen and we will do. (Deut 5:24)

But wait...we will listen and we will do..... The order here is reversed! Why is Moshe presenting a revisionist history?

Moshe retells G-d’s response to the original declaration, Naaseh v’nishma, we will do and we will listen, reported in Exodus 24:7 : “.... I have heard the sound of this people’s words, that they spoke to you, everything they said is excellent!” (Deut. 5:25)

G-d does not say, ” I heard their words”, but rather, I heard et kol devarim, the sound, the intent of their words.

The sentiment and the passion were there, but their procedure was out of order. Moshe takes the liberty of correcting their error, V’shama’inu Vi’asinu, and we will listen and we will do.

Moshe continues reporting G-d’s response to him forty years earlier:

Would that their hearts be like this, to fear Me and to keep all My commandments for all time, so that it might be well with them and with their children forever! Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’ But as for you, stand here with Me, and I will tell you the entirety of HaMitzvah, the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances which you will teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess. (Deut 5:26-28)

HaMitzvah, THE COMMANDMENT, is back on the table...

And now, in chapter 6, we will find out just what that means. This is HaMitzvah, the commandment, the statutes, and the ordinances that the Lord, your God, commanded to teach you, to perform in the land into which you are about to pass, to possess it. And you shall, therefore, listen, O Israel, and be sure to do, so that it will be good for you, and so that you may increase exceedingly, just as the Lord, the God of your fathers, spoke to you, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deut. 6:1-3)

Now that we have our priorities straight we can proceed:

Shema Yisrael, Ad-noy El-haynu Ad-Noy Echad!

Listen, Israel! Ad-noy our G-d, Ad-noy is the One (Deut. 6:4)

First, Listen...

Then, Do...

V’ahavta et Ad-noy El-hecha, b’chol l’vavcha, uv’chol nafshecha, u’vchol mi’odecha.

You are to love Ad-noy your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your resources” (Deut. 6:5)

Loving G-d.... that was the element that was missing from the previous generation!

By placing the procedure for acquiring the Torah in the correct order we will be able to relate to G-d out of love, instead of solely by fear.

Perhaps this teaching of Moshe in our parasha, perhaps the Shema itself, is a tikkun, a repair, of the missteps of the generation that left Egypt. They did not know that naaseh v’nishma must eventually lead to n’shma v’naaseh, and instead lived their days in constant fear of G-d.

This is the essence of the first paragraph of our twice daily recitation of the Shema. All you need is love...a purely human emotion, angels need not apply.

By carefully listening to the words of the Torah, by studying the teachings of Moshe and the sages we can come to take action, and strive to fulfill all the mitzvot motivated by love and understanding, not merely by fear.

Wishing you a lovely shabbat,

Rabbi Greg

Thanks to my friend and teacher R’ Menachem Leibtag for his insights on the meaning of HaMitzvah.

All you need is love, all you need is love,

All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

Love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love, love.

All you need is love, all you need is love,

All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

There’s nothing you can know that isn’t known.

Nothing you can see that isn’t shown.

Nowhere you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be.

It’s easy.

All you need is love, all you need is love,

All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

All you need is love (all together now)

All you need is love (everybody)

All you need is love, love, love is all you need.

 

Never Can Say Goodbye

Parashat Devarim

Our hero had led his people for a generation. Early in his career he buoyed their spirits when they were drowning in a sea of doubt. He gave them steadfast encouragement, and inspired them to fearlessly fight on, and brought them from the brink of disaster to the pinnacle of achievement. Suddenly, at the apex of their ascent, he received a message from above, that he would not accompany his people in their pursuit to recover the mantle of greatness. Their hero would die in the desert. He gathered his troops, and made an impassioned speech that would go down in history as one of the most inspirational moments of all time. He began,

“Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth….”

On July 4, 1939, Lou Gehrig, legendary first baseman and captain of the New York Yankees, after receiving his death sentence of ALS, a debilitating neurological disease, addressed his people and expressed his unwavering appreciation for the good fortune of his life, family, associates, and fans. His words were echoed on the silver screen by Gary Cooper in “Pride of the Yankees.”

Instead of an angry defiant backlash against G-d, Gehrig took the opportunity to inspire us to see the good that is present in our lives, even when clouded by our day to day challenges.

In Parashat Devarim (Deuteronomy), Moshe, after receiving a message from above that he would not accompany his people on their pending conquest of the Promised Land, stood before the Israelites and began to deliver one of the most poignant goodbye speeches in the history of civilization.

On that side of the Jordan, in the land of Moab, Moses commenced [and] explained this Torah, saying,”The Lord our G-d spoke to us in Horeb, saying, ‘You have dwelt long enough at this mountain. Turn and journey, and come to the mountain of the Amorites and to all its neighboring places, in the plain, on the mountain, and in the lowland, and in the south and by the seashore, the land of the Canaanites, and the Lebanon, until the great river, the Euphrates River. See, I have set the land before you; come and possess the land which the Lord swore to your forefathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give them and their descendants after them.” (Deut. 1:6-8)

But Moshe was not content to list his personal achievements, or stroke the egos of his flock. Rather, in the ultimate act of love, he takes the opportunity to point out their shortcomings, and inspire them to surpass their own expectations.

Our sages teach that at first his words of rebuke were subtle, and couched in geographical and chronological references. As he proceeded he strengthened his approach, hinting at some major impediments to the ultimate destiny of the Jewish people:

Eicha esa l’vadi tarchakhem u’masa’akhem v’rivkhem. How can I bear your trouble, your burden, and your strife all by myself? ( Deut. 1:12)

It is no coincidence that the word ‘Eicha‘ is the very same Hebrew word that begins and names the Book of Lamentations we chant in our sorrow, on Tisha B’Av, the ninth of the month Av, which occurs each year in the week following Parashat Devarim.

Moshe gets even more specific, until he openly mentions the single most catastrophic incident to befall the Israelites in the wilderness:

And all of you approached me and said, “Let us send men ahead of us so that they will search out the land for us and bring us back word by which route we shall go up, and to which cities we shall come.” (Deut. 1:22)

We first learned about this incident in Parashat Shelach.The incident of the scouts is brought up again here, and we are all urged to consider it well. Our inability to appreciate the gifts of G-d, no matter how small, will prevent us from receiving our spiritual and physical inheritance. Moshe continues:

And the matter pleased me; so I took twelve men from you, one man for each tribe.. And they turned and went up to the mountain, and they came to the valley of Eshkol and spied it out.

And they took some of the fruit of the land in their hands and brought it down to us, brought us back word, and said, “The land the Lord, our G-d, is giving us is good.”

But you did not want to go up, and you rebelled against the commandment of the Lord, your God.
You murmured in your tents and said, ‘”Because the Lord hates us, He took us out of the land of Egypt, to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to exterminate us.”
 (Deut 1:23-27)

Here is the story as it unfolded back in Parashat Shelach, in the Book of Numbers (Bamidbar):

They spread an [evil] report about the land which they had scouted, telling the children of Israel, “The land we passed through to explore is a land that consumes its inhabitants, and all the people we saw in it are men of stature. There we saw the giants, the sons of Anak, descended from the giants. In our eyes, we seemed like grasshoppers, and so we were in their eyes.

The entire community raised their voices and shouted, and the people wept on that night. All the children of Israel complained against Moses and Aaron, and the entire congregation said, “If only we had died in the land of Egypt, or if only we had died in this desert. Why does the Lord bring us to this land to fall by the sword; our wives and children will be as spoils. Is it not better for us to return to Egypt?” They said to each other, “Let us appoint a leader and return to Egypt!” (Num. 13:32-14:4).

The Torah tells us of G-d’s response, that the entire generation would wander in the desert for 40 years, and only the next generation would be able to enter the Promised Land.

The Talmud ( Taanit 29a and Sotah 35a) tells us that it was the eve of the Tishah b’Av. G-d said “they cried for no reason. I will fix the day to be a day of crying for generations.”

Tisha b’Av would be the day that both Temples were destroyed, and prove to be a most unfortunate date on the calendar through the centuries:Moses related all these words to the children of Israel, and the people mourned greatly. (Num. 14:39)

In this week’s parsha of Devarim, Moshe now implores his people not to repeat the mistakes of the previous generation, to be open to recognizing the inherent good in all that G-d bestows.

Lou Gehrig’s speech inspired his team to go on without their fearless leader, and they won the 1939 World Series.

Moshe did not live to see his people win the conquest of the Land of Israel. Ultimately, the failure to appreciate G-d’s gifts resulted in a break down in the moral and spiritual fabric of the nation, and Israel went into an exile that continues to this day, two thousand years later.

Gehrig concluded his address, “When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body — it’s a blessing. When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed — that’s the finest I know. So I close in saying that I may have had a tough break, but I have an awful lot to live for.

May our prayers this Tisha b’Av, expressing our sorrow at a life without the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, without prophecy, without the physical presence of G-d dwelling between the cherubs, penetrate the depths of centuries of anguish and exile. May our mourning arise not out of self pity, but as part of a process inspiring us to return to our true spiritual lives, with gratitude for all of G-d’s gifts, no matter how small. We too, have an awful lot to live for.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

Full text of Lou Gehrig’s speech here

What is ALS?
Amyotropic Lateral Sclerosis (also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord resulting in muscle weakness and atrophy. 

A beloved member of our congregation is currently battling this horrible disease, and he is a hero as well, and an inspiration to all of us. May our Creator grant him a Refuah Sh'laima.

The Fantastic Journey

Parshiot Mattot/Masei

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”  – John Lennon

With this week’s reading, Parshiot Mattot/ Masei, the book of Bamidbar (In the Wilderness), the 4th of the five books of Moses, comes to a close. Although the popular name Numbers describes the censuses taken during the 40 year period over which the book spans, it is the midbar, the wilderness, that provides the backdrop for this epic.

From the first sentence of the second part of our double parasha, our parasha sets out to expound upon all the journeys that B’nei Yisrael took as they wandered for 40 years in the midbar.  What follows is a comprehensive list of every departure and every encampment after their exodus from the land of Egypt.  But for all the parasha’s fastidiousness, it does not describe much if anything about the actual journeys themselves.  Perhaps the reason for this is because the Israelites couldn’t see the bigger picture, the significance of the journeys themselves.

“These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who had gone out of the land of Egypt according to their organized groups, with the guidance of Moshe and Aharon. Moshe wrote down their departures for their journeys as directed by G-d, and these are their journeys for their departures.” (Num. 33:1-2)

Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, the 19th century sage, points out the change in the order in verse two:

“Moshe wrote down their departures for their journeys as directed by G-d, and these are their journeys for their departures.”

 

Rav Hirsch says that G-d intended for the journeys to be the focal point of their desert wanderings, as evidenced by the text. They were to depart solely to begin each journey.  But the Israelites, in their fragile human condition, despite the leadership of Moshe and Aharon, lived in fear of the unknown. Each journey was a momentary diversion from their spiritual struggle, and they lived for each departure.

This parasha is read each year as we approach the 9th of Av, the national day of mourning, when we take the time to reflect on our longest journey as a people, the current exile that started 2000 years ago and that has led us through the darkest and scariest corners of the world, and of humankind.

Although the wilderness is a frightening concept, the Torah teaches that the greatest of opportunities spring from the midbar, the wilderness. Moshe first confronted G-d at the burning bush in the wilderness, and it was in the midbar that manna fell from the sky to sustain the Israelites.

In our own lives, it is also the unknown that provides our greatest opportunities. If we can go forth knowing that fact, the journey will be meaningful, even if we cannot imagine our destination at the outset. As we approach the month of Av, our saddest time of the year, when we lament for lost potential and harsh exile, let us at least learn something from all the journeys that have gotten us thus far.

“…Va-yifnu el-hamidbar v’hineh k’vod ad-nai nirah b’anan – ….and they turned toward the wilderness and the glory of the Lord appeared in a cloud.” (Ex. 16:10)

Seeing and feeling the presence of our Creator in our darkest moments means that our brightest cannot be far off.

May we soon rejoice as the month of Av turns from our greatest sadness to our greatest joy.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

A Separate Peace

Parashat Pinchas

Recently I had the pleasure of participating in a Simchat Hachnasat Sefer Torah- a community celebration welcoming a newly completed Sefer Torah, a beautiful Torah scroll. A crowd of people gathered round as the sofer (scribe) finished filling in the last few letters, and I was honored with the filling in of the letter “yud“, the first letter of my Hebrew name, Yosef.

The letter “yud” is part of G-d’s name, is the symbol for the number 10 (and all that number’s considerable mystical implications), and is reminiscent of the word “yid”, a Jew. Every letter in the Torah is sacred, and one damaged or incomplete letter will “pasul” (invalidate) the entire scroll!

Last week’s reading, Parashat Balak concluded with a disturbing story of errant sexuality and weak morals.

As a result of the idolatrous and licentious behavior of the Israelite men with the Moabite women, and the public display of lewdness by an Israelite leader and a Midianite princess in front of the Ohel Moed (the Tent of Meeting) G-d sends a plague upon the Israelites. Pinchas, the son of Elazar the high priest, rises up and kills the offending couple, and the plague stops.

In this week’s sidra, Parasha Pinchas, G-d tells Moshe that Pinchas is a hero:

Pinchas the son of Elazar the son of Aaron the kohen has turned My anger away from the children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them, so that I did not destroy the children of Israel because of My zeal. (Num. 25:11)

At first glance, this is a disturbing statement. If G-d found the deviant couple’s behavior so abhorrent, why couldn’t G-d kill them along with the 24,000 people that lose their lives in the plague?

The name Pinchas, spelled “pay,yud, nun,chet.mem“ is written in a torah scroll with a small “yud“, much smaller than other “yuds” used all over.

            

It is if the “yid“, our inherent Jewishness is diminished by this violent act. So why is he being praised?

And his reward is great:

” Therefore proclaim it: Lo! I give him my covenant of shalom (peace). And to him and his descendants after him will be this covenant of eternal kehuna (priesthood), because he brought to bear the rights of his G-d and effected atonement for the children of Israel” (Num. 25:12).

Pinchas is rewarded with the priesthood!

Is vigilantism the kind of response to evil that the Torah is teaching us?

If we look closely at the word “shalom” as written in the Torah scroll we find that the third letter, a “vav“, is defective!

The top part of the letter is severed from the rest, leaving a “yud” floating above a line. Obviously this peace is defective as well, and the “yud“, representing the “yid“, the Jewish spark in all of us, is recoiling from this violent act.

The Talmud in Sanhedrin teaches that one does not have the right to be a zealot, and this was a one time exception!

We should be upset by this story, the Torah does not condone vigilantism.

If we disregard the broken vav we get the word shalem (whole or complete). This is a hint towards our true goal: a consummate peace, uncompromised, pure. A peace that comes about only through violence is not a lasting peace, not a complete peace.

Ultimately, we will have to lead by our actions and not by our weapons.

May we, through our efforts of striving to live our lives according the mitzvoth of the Torah, be able to mend the broken vav, and bring about our ultimate redemption. Only then can we truly know a complete peace, a shalom shalem.

Shabbat Shalom.

Rabbi Greg

The Mouth That Roared

 Parashat Balak

 

Parashat Balak contains some fascinating narrative about the nature of the Jewish people, and some uncensored insight into the duality of human existence.

In the parasha we learn of the desires of Balak, the King of Moav, to eliminate Moshe and the Israelites. Balak is terrified by reports of the chosen people’s military victories over neighboring monarchies and, although not directly threatened by Israel, decides to take action . Since Moshe, the celebrated Israelite leader, spent his formative years under the tutelage of his father in law Jethro ,the high priest of Midian, perhaps the Midianite elders would have insights into his weaknesses as well.

Rashi (Num. 22:4) explains that the Midianites told Balak that Moshe has “no power except for his mouth”. Recall that the Torah says that G-d speaks to Moshe “Mouth to Mouth” (Num. 12:8). Yet, instead of assembling an army to destroy Moshe and the Israelites, Balak sends for the evil prophet Bilaam. Quoting the midrash Rashi writes, “We, too, will confront them with a man whose power is in his mouth”.

Bilaam is hired to use his mouth to curse the Israelites.

The parasha details how the mouth of Bilaam fails, and repeatedly offers blessings instead of curses. The power of the mouth is highlighted by the famous story of Bilaam’s donkey speaking, having a prophetic encounter beyond the ability of her owner.

In the end a frustrated Bilaam advises that Israel’s downfall would be through their eyes instead.

The Talmud explains the process, starting with lusting after articles of clothing, until physical lust takes over with an infamous episode of idol worship and debauchery.

The results are catastrophic, leading to the death of 24,000 Israelites via a divine plague.

Similarities with the episode of the golden calf abound.

Although the number of casualties (3000) is less, the conditions are almost identical. In Parashat Ki Tisa the Torah says “They arose early the next morning, and offered burnt offerings, and brought peace offerings. They sat down to eat and drink, and got up l’tzachaik.” (Ex. 32:6) Although commonly translated as playfulness and laughter, Rashi informs us that this means licentious behavior.

Here too, in our parasha, the illicit activities are preceded by eating and idolatry. “They (the Moabite women) invited the people to their idolatrous sacrifices, and the people ate and prostrated themselves before their gods (Baal Peor).”(Num. 25:2)

Rav Kook describes the worship of Baal Peor as the epitome of idolatry. Unlike the shiny and polished Golden Calf, Peor was worshipped in a disgusting ritual described in the Talmud (Sandedrin 64a).

After the Calf, the Torah tells us the people had exposed themselves spiritually, by their idolatry. Moshe issues the challenge, “….Mi Ad-nai elee, whoever is for G-d, come with me!….” (Ex. 32:26). All the Levites gathered round, and delivered justice.

In our parsasha the episode culminates with an Israelite having relations with a Midianite woman at the entrance to the Mishkan, in full view of all the Israelites, a physical exposure. Once again, the tribe of Levi stands up, as Pinchas takes action to stop the public desecration of the holiest spot on earth.

Once again, those who would deny the will of G-d tried to silence G-d’s witnesses, but in the end it is only the Jewish people themselves responsible for their downfall .

Even today, assimilation and intermarriage are able to achieve what no foe could ever do. We are our own worst enemy.

These days idolatry has shifted to the worship of money and power, and it is painfully obvious how this kind of worship leads to further erosion of the moral fabric of our society.

How many headlines over the past few years were filled with the rich and famous falling from grace due to the inability to control their basest urges!

Judaism teaches that humans are both physical and spiritual beings, and that our physical desires can be channeled, through the Torah’s teachings, into tools to help us reach our full potential.

Our mouths can create great beauty, and pray for divine assistance in the challenges of our earthly existence, or create damage and destruction worse than we can imagine.

Our eyes can keep us inspired by observing the presence of G-d in the world, or lead us into a world void of holiness and spirituality.

The choice is ours.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

A Sense of Life

 

Parashat Chukat

The birth of the nation of Israel was a sequence of miraculous events, and one of the most striking was the mass prophetic experience, culminating in the revelation at Sinai. The precursor to that ultimately defining moment was the spontaneous expression of the awesome power of G-d, as expressed in the Shir HaYam, the Song of the Sea that begins, “Oz yashir Moshe u’vinai Yisrael.., then Moshe and the children of Israel began to sing….” (Ex. 14:30).

It was a moment of unparalleled national prophecy, in the form of a song, the nations creative response to their deliverance.

This creative environment, brimming with life, was in fact short lived, and after being overwhelmed by Sinai, conditions eventually deteriorated.

This week’s parasha signifies the end of an era, and the sunset of the Mosaic triumvirate.

The Torah transports us from the beginning of the second year in the wilderness thirty eight years hence, and we are now in the fortieth year of the desert wanderings.

We have no record of any stories during this period, just the twenty locations the Bnai Yisrael encamped during that time (Rashi on Num. 33:10).

According to the classic medieval commenter Ibn Ezra, the interim period was dark, without prophecy or divine contact, save for the miraculous nature of their shelter and sustenance.

Most commentators agree that the details of the parah adumah, the red heifer, which would purify one exposed to the spiritual residue of death, took place in the first year or two after leaving Egypt. This makes sense, as the decree that the generation of the Exodus would live out their lives in the desert, and death would be a fact of life in the wilderness.

Over the next thirty eight years the adults who left Egypt gradually died out, and now the Israelites, consisting of the next generation, were at the edge of civilization, ready to begin their conquest of the land.

Moshe’s sister Miriam and brother Aaron die, and Moshe himself is informed that he will not live to see the promised land.

Then G-d said to Moses and Aaron, “Since you did not have faith in Me to sanctify Me in the eyes of the children of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly to the Land which I have given them.” (Num. 20:12)

In order to merit admission into the Holy Land, the people would need new leadership, and a more mature relationship with G-d and each other.

We know that Joshua would be the one to assume the role as leader of the congregation, and lead them into the land. How do we know the people themselves have demonstrated their worthiness for deliverance?

The stain on the collective psyche of the Israelites, after their parents were led through the split sea, and spontaneously erupted in prophetic songs of praise, only to be dancing around a golden calf a few weeks later, must have been substantial. The ensuing period was void of joyous outpourings, and triumphant melody was replaced with the dissonance of complaints and lamentations.

Aaron the high priest was loved by all and his passing a terrific loss:

“….the entire house of Israel wept for Aaron for thirty days.” (Num. 20:29)

The death of Aaron was transformative for the nation, because next the Torah records them reaching out to G-d for help in a military confrontation:

The Canaanite king of Arad, who lived in the south, heard that Israel had come by the route of the spies, and he waged war against Israel and took from them a captive. Israel made a vow to G-d, and said, “If You deliver this people into my hand, I shall consecrate their cities.” G-d heard Israel’s voice and delivered the Canaanite. He destroyed them and consecrated their cities, and he called the place Chormah. (Num. 21:2-3)

The nation temporarily relapses and express their frustration by falling back on a familiar refrain: The people spoke against G-d and against Moses, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in this desert, for there is no bread and no water, and we are disgusted with this rotten food.” (Num. 21:5)

They are quickly punished with an attack by a bevy of poisonous snakes, but this time the people are remorseful, and take the first step in repentance:

The people came to Moses and said, “We have sinned, for we have spoken against G-d, and against you. Prayto G-d that He remove the snakes from us.” (Num.21:7)

Moshe is told by G-d to make a sculpture of a snake, and the people could be healed by using artwork to reflect on their current state.

This would be the last recorded complaint by the Israelites.

A few verses later the Torah tells us of a book called

“The Wars of G-d” and an entry that makes a connection between Sufa (The Sea of Reeds that split miraculously 40 years earlier) and the streams of Arnon, which border the land of Israel.

Rabbi S.R Hirsch notes that the mention of this book in the Torah proves that there was literary activity among the Israelites.

The people are given the gift of water, and there is a striking similarity to the miraculous splitting of the Sea of Reeds just after Egypt; The entire nation, after remaining tacit an entire generation, once again erupts into spontaneous song: Oz Yashir YISRAEL…

Then Israel sang this song: “‘Ascend, O well,’ sing to it!

A well dug by princes, carved out by nobles of the people, through the lawgiver with their staffs, and from the desert, a gift.

From the gift, to the streams, and from the streams to the heights.

From the heights to the valley in the field of Moab, at the top of the peak, that overlooks the wastelands.” (Num. 21:17-20)

But this enthusiastic performance did not require the conducting skills of Moshe, for the nation had developed their spiritual skills to create on their own.

After the next documented military victory (they were on a roll!) we hear the Torah mention the words of hamoshlim, the poets! The creative spirit is back, and in full swing. The Torah quotes the poets saying:

“Come to Cheshbon, may it be built and established as the city of Sichon…”(Num. 21:27).

The Talmud (Bava Batra 78B) teaches that the word hamoshlim, the poets, can also mean “the rulers”, those who have dominion over their urges.

Chesbon means an accounting. Those who are in control of their urges can make achesbon, calculate the result of their actions ahead of time, and make informed decisions.

Art is the result of people engaging, taking the time to calculate, to reflect on their experiences, and have domain over sound, shape, color and thought.

Through the artistic outpouring of image, word and verse, the nation is revitalized and can joyously express their sense of life.

As to the role of emotions in art and the subconscious mechanism that serves as the integrating factor both in artistic creation and in man’s response to art, they involve a psychological phenomenon which we call a sense of life. A sense of life is a pre-conceptual equivalent of metaphysics, an emotional, subconsciously integrated appraisal of man and of existence. Ayn Rand: “The Psycho-Epistemology of Art,” The Romantic Manifesto

There will be challenges ahead, but a nation that can stop, reflect , make an accounting, a cheshbon, and grow, will not be held back from achieving their spiritual and material potential.

Here’s to all of us achieving all of ours, creatively.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Cold as Ice

Parashat Korach

You’re as cold as ice
You’re willing to sacrifice our love
You never take advice
Someday you’ll pay the price, I know

I’ve seen it before
It happens all the time
Closing the door
You leave the world behind

You’re digging for gold
Yet throwing away
A fortune in feelings
But someday you’ll pay….

Lou Gramm, Mick Jones (Foreigner)

This week’s parasha is named after one of the most oft-vilified characters in Tanach.

Korach, conventional wisdom tells us, wanted to usurp the authority of Moshe and Aaron, command the kahuna (priesthood), avenge the forty year sentence of wandering in the desert as a result of the episode with the scouts in Parashat Shelach, and organize a revolt by the Israelites. Knowing exactly what Korach wanted, or his precise motivation for challenging Moshe is difficult to ascertain, because he never really goes on record. We do not find a direct quote from Korach anywhere in the entire parasha, but perhaps he is included here:

“Korach the son of Yitzar, the son of Levi, took, along with Datan and Aviram, the sons of Eliav, and On, the son of Pelet, sons of Reuven. They confronted Moses together with two hundred and fifty men from the children of Israel, chieftains of the congregation, representatives of the assembly, men of repute. They assembled against Moses and Aaron, and said to them, “You take too much upon yourselves, for the entire congregation are all holy, and the Lord is in their midst. So why do raise yourselves above the Lord’s assembly?“  (Num. 16:1-3)

But, perhaps not..why would Korach say that?

After all, Korach was a Levite, in the special legion of the sons of Kahat (the second of the three sons of Levi), who had been honored with the role of care and transport the holy ark!  So, what did Korach really want?

And furthermore, what (in verse 1.) did he take?

As you can see, we have our work cut out for us. Rashi, who usually has a simple pshat, a plain explanation, goes right to the Midrash (Tanchuma) for an explanation.  The Midrash is not so impressed by Korach, and describes a power struggle precipitated by the appointment of his cousin Elitzafon as leader of the Levites, even though Elitzafon was the son of the youngest of four brothers.  (Moshe was a son of the oldest of four brothers…). According to the Mishna this breach of protocol
was the motivating factor in the activities of Korach to organize against Moshe.
The Midrash then reports a series of confrontational conversations where Korach is portrayed as an insolent, belligerent  and conniving rabble rouser. As so often happens, the Midrash paints a picture in black and white, while the text itself is in many shades of grey.  The other rebels, according to many commentators, has their own reasons as well.

Datan and Aviram had a history of bad character.  Rashi teaches us that they were feuding with Moshe back in Egypt.  “He (Moshe) went out on the second day, and behold, two Hebrew men were quarreling, and he said to the wicked one, “Why are you going to strike your friend? And he retorted, “Who made you a man, a prince, and a judge over us? Do you plan to slay me as you have slain the Egyptian?…“  (Ex. 2:13-14)

Rashi also explains that they were the ones who hoarded the manna (Ex. 16:19-20), in defiance of G-d’s instruction.

So, it comes as no surprise that they would attach themselves to any opportunity to continue their destructive behavior.

The two hundred and fifty noble leaders of Israel seemingly have no motivation for malicious activity. The Netziv (R. Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin (1816-1893), of Volozhin), writes that they were overcome by their spiritual yearnings, and wanted to come closer than was permitted. Their tragic demise mirrors that of the two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, whose desire to come close took them out of the realm of  the divinely mandated behavior necessary for this world. Like the incense they offered in vain, religious passion has the power to enrich or destroy life.

But Korach  knew better. Korach seemingly had it all- a good job, wealth ( the talmud in Pesachim 119a tells us that he had found treasure that Joseph had hidden away in Egypt), and influence.   It is no surprise that he was silent when Moshe tried to engage in dialogue with him ( Bam. 16:7) He had no response, because there was nothing to say. The name Korach in Hebrew means “ice”. Korach was frozen in his spiritual development, trapped by jealousy that prevented him from achieving his potential. He had experienced the same revelation as the other Israelites, and knew that Moshe’s authority was mandated by G-d. But, unlike Moshe, who continually gave of himself, Korach was unable to give. He could only receive. He was a taker. Perhaps that’s why the Torah said that ” Korach took“, without explanation. It wasn’t anything in particular, rather his nature. He could not warm up to the idea of mankind’s unique ability  to act in the image of G-d, by giving of ourselves.

We all have the ability to be a catalyst for change. Get involved, volunteer. Give what ever you can- money, time, blood, thanks.
Just give, and the taking will be so much more fulfilling.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

Got Sticks?

 

Parashat Sh'lach

 

The end of this week’s parasha is an enigmatic story about the mekoshesh, the wood gatherer, who is executed for gathering sticks on the Shabbat. On the surface this seems incredibly harsh, inflexible, and autocratic.
Got sticks? You’re a dead man….
Of course, there is much more here than first meets the eye, so let’s dig a bit deeper together.
First, a little background.
Last week’s reading, Parashat Beha’alotcha, recorded some misgivings by the Israelites, complaining and asking to go back to slavery. Like modern day prisoners freed after decades behind bars, wanting to go back to the confined familiarity rather than adjust to a life of free choice, the Israelites, in a moment of weakness, have some second thoughts.
This led to the incident of the m’raglim (scouts) in the beginning of this week’s sidra, Parasha Shelach.

The m’raglim bring back a report recommending that the people NOT try to enter the promised land, “ …. a land that devours its inhabitants..” (Num. 13:32). A breakdown in faith led to the inability to see the big picture, and the Israelites tumble from their exalted spiritual heights. The slave comes out of Egypt, but Egypt will not come out of the slave.  It is decreed that the current generation would wander for forty years, and only their children, who did not know servitude to a human master, would take possession of the promised land.
“Your children, they shall be wanderers in the desert for forty years, and they will bear [the burden of] your dissoluteness, until the last of your corpses are in the desert. According to the number of days which you scouted the land; forty days, a day for a year, a day for a year you will bear the burden of your iniquity forty years, and you will know My displeasure.” (Num. 14:33-34).
But what of the covenant? What was the obligation of those exiled in the desert?

In the next chapter the Torah elucidates: “And if one day you should fall into the error that you no longer need to observe all these commandments that G-d has given Moshe; All that G-d has commanded you from the day that G-d gave His commandments, and onward to your descendants; Then it shall be if, by the eyes of the community, an act of inadvertence has been committed, the entire community shall prepare one bull each….” (Num. 15:22-24).
Our sages derive from the verses that the deviation was avodah zara, idol worship.
Denying the existence of G-d in the world by ignoring the covenant is a form of idolatry! (Talmud, Horayot 8a). Rabbi S. R. Hirsch explains that the prohibition of idolatry is the fundamental principle of all the Torah’s commandments, and the whole Torah stands or falls by the fulfillment of this prohibition.
Obviously, the deal still stands…
But, inadvertent deviations would require an offering.
And intentional violations?
But as for the person who does this with an uplifted hand………he has blasphemed G-d by so doing, and that soul shall be uprooted from the midst of its people.” (Num. 15:30)
Immediately afterwards the Torah tells us:  “While the Israelites were in the wilderness they discovered a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath day”(Num. 15:32).
All the Israelites who heard G-d speak at Sinai, who said “naaseh  v’nishma” (We will do and we will listen) knew that their covenantal responsibility for observing the Sabbath precluded the actions they witnessed (The Talmud discusses specifically what the violation was – harvesting the wood, bundling it, carrying, etc.).
Denying the Shabbat was an act of avodah zara, denying the authority of G-d, a transgression punishable by death!  “And G-d said to Moshe, The man shall be executed; let the entire community stone him with stones outside the camp.” (Num. 15:35). Ouch!
Yet we do not rely on a literal reading of the verses of the Torah to define our observance of the revealed law.
Our tradition teaches that capital punishment was rarely meted out, and only after a series of conditions were met. (The Talmud in Sanhedrin 41a tells us that 40 years before the destruction of the second temple the Sanhedrin lost the authority to decide capital cases, so in practice Jewish law does not enforce the death penalty….).

In order to have committed a capital offense the violator needed to know the significance of his actions. His actions must take place in public, with two witnesses. He needed to be warned by the two witnesses, and commit the offense in front of the witnesses immediately after being warned. The Torah tells us that the execution would take place “outside of the camp”, so as to provide more time for new facts to be discovered that would prevent the execution from taking place at all.
The Torah is not teaching us to be a band of roaming zealots, looking for violators to “rub out”. To the contrary, Judaism despises capital punishment.
But this case in our Parasha is still baffling. Why did he have to die?
The case of the mekoshesh seems to be a classic case of “Suicide by Cop”. This is the conclusion reached by the midrash quoted by Tosefot in  the Talmud( tractate Bava Batra 119a). Lest the generation condemned to wander in the desert think that Shabbat observance was irrelevant, the mekoshesh deliberately committed a capital offense, demanding his execution to prove the sanctity of Shabbat in the presence of the Shechina. According to this midrash he died “L’shem Shamayim“, for the sake of heaven.

Today we live in exile, and the presence of G-d is blurred and unfocused. The  consequence of a life without the sanctity of Shabbat is an even greater chasm between the profane and the sacred.
More than the Jews have kept the Shabbat, the Shabbat has kept the Jews.” – Ahad Ha’am
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

The Sound of Inspiration

Parashat Beha'alot'cha

 

This week's d'var torah is dedicated to the memory of Mr. Mayer Steinmetz, z'l, who knew better than anyone that nothing comes without effort.

This week's Sidra is a real whirlwind of ideas and activities.

It starts with the illuminating instructions to Aaron concerning the lighting of the menorah. The Ramban writes that this section of the torah is a hint for Hanuka, which continues to light up the world during the darkest times of the exile. We learned back in parashat Terumah (Ex. 25:40) that the menorah was intricately formed from one solid block of gold with an elusive method that, according to the tradition, was beyond the abilities of Moshe.Moshe is then commanded to create two musical instruments, two chatzatzrot (trumpets), in the same fashion, drawn and hammered out of a single block of silver. The only other time we learn about this method of manufacture is for the two k'ruvim (cherubs) that define the resting place of the Shechina, the physical manifestation of G-d on Earth, on top of the holy aron (ark). Spiritual ground zero....

Is there a connection between the unique construction of these three kailim, the expansion outward from a dense core?

The Hebrew term for this process is m'ksha, meaning with difficulty

The trumpets were to be blown when Bnai Yisrael were to break camp, and were used to lead them into battle.Each sound needed to be produced separately, and with an intense physical effort. The trumpets were not blown on a whim, but rather at the display of a sign from G-d.The Menorah was lighted once each day, requiring another type of effort, that of commitment to a regular routine.These two vessels are reminiscent of the revelation itself, as we learned in parashat Yitro:"All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain emitting smoke. The people saw [all this] and they trembled, and stood far off." (Ex. 20:15)And the people responded, "Na'aseh v'Nishma", we will do, and we will listen.

But this initial inspiration cannot be sustained without effort, and the flames will die out if not well attended, and the k'ruvim, the cherubs facing inward towards the shechina itself, will turn their faces away.

In the middle of our parasha we have a most unusual occurrence, two verses surrounded by two upside down letter "nuns", as they appear written in the Torah.

"Whenever the Ark departed Moshe would say: "Rise, Ad-noy, and may your enemies disperse, and those who hate You flee before You. When it rested, he would say: "Come to rest, Ad-noy, among the myriads and thousands of Israel." (Num. 10:35-36)

The letter nun is also the symbol for the number 50. The revelation took place "on the fiftieth day".Perhaps the two inverted nuns are reminding us that even in the midst of the height of our exalted status as a nation, being led by the clouds of glory, we cannot lose sight of the effort required to maintain the inspiration, the hard work involved in fulfilling our promise in accepting the covenant, "Naaseh v'Nishma", pronounced with two nuns. The tide quickly turns, and the next sections of the Torah shows us what happens when we cannot maintain our level of inspiration, with disastrous consequences.

Yes, it is m'ksha, it is difficult.

But, by combining the music of mankind, the creative effort as symbolized by the trumpets, with the light of Torah, spilling out from the Menorah, we can restore the wayward nuns to their upright position, and merit the return of the Shechina to her home, between the k'ruvim.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Nothing to Sneeze At!

 

  

  

 

 

Parashat Naso

 

Over the recent Shavuot holiday we heard the Kohanim (including a father and two teenage sons!) bless the congregation with the ancient formula found in this week's parasha:

 

"Y'varechicha Hashem, v'yishmarecha. Ya'air Hashem panav elecha, v'yichunekka. Yisa Hashem panav elecha, v'lisaim l'cha shalom"

"May the Lord bless you and watch over you.

May the Lord cause His countenance to shine to you and favor you.

May the Lord raise His countenance toward you and grant you peace."

(Num. 6:24-26)

  

One of the most satisfying rituals in my life is my weekly opportunity to bless my children on Friday nights, before making Kiddush. It is a wonderful, private, albeit brief moment to connect with them, and focus my entire being towards each of them, and  give of myself to them, spiritually.  When my children starting spreading their wings and spending shabbatot away from home I gave them their b'racha (blessing) on the phone. 

During the years when my older children were studying in Jerusalem, I made sure to connect with them erev shabbat as well. In fact, because of the time difference, I started to feel the special just -before-shabbat energy emanating from the Holy Land in the morning, and Fridays began to feel more and more special.

 

In light of the recent tragic events in Orlando and Tel Aviv it is especially important that we connect with our children, to give them our love and a special blessing, knowing that it is only through the grace and mercy of our Creator that we have children to bless.

  

The traditional text the kohanim use is the same blessing Jewish parents have been bestowing on their children for generations.

I remember Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach saying that we all have the power to bless each other, and we should, at every opportunity. Unfortunately, the only time most people extend a blessing is after hearing someone sneeze, and most of the time do not actually have the intent of bestowing a genuine blessing, of giving of themselves to another. More on this in a moment...

  

As our memories of Chag HaShavuot, our celebration of the giving of the Torah to the children of Israel, start to drift away in the warm spring air, it is fitting to re-examine the events preceding that historic moment of revelation.

  

The scene: The Israelites are camped in the Sinai desert, opposite the mountain,shortly after being liberated from Egyptian bondage.

Moshe went up to [the Presence of] G-d, and Ad-noy called to him from the mountain, saying, "This is what you shall say to the House of Yaakov, and tell to the Bnei Yisrael. You saw what I did to Egypt; and [how] I carried you on wings of eagles, and brought you to Me.  And now if you listen diligently to My voice, and preserve My covenant; you shall be My special treasure among all the peoples, for all the earth is Mine. You will be to Me a kingdom of kohanim, and a holy nation." These are the words that you shall speak to the Bnei Yisrael." (Ex. 19:3-6)

  

A kingdom of kohanim, of priests. A priest is a special emissary of the Divine, capable of extending G-d's blessing to whomever they come in contact with. Rashi quickly points out that this verse is not meant to be taken literally, and offers a proof text that refers to Kind David's descendants as kohanim. Only the descendants of  Moses' brother Aaron are technically called "kohanim", the special family line that is the spiritual conduit for the the offerings in the Temple, and all matters of holiness.

  

Yet, we were all created for just that purpose.

G-d's covenant with Abraham stipulated that we would be a blessing, and the entire world would be blessed through us. "Through your children, will be blessed all the nations of the world, because you heeded My voice" (Gen. 22:18)

 

Then, at Sinai,  as we as a nation were preparing to receive the Torah, we were reminded of our innate ability to reflect the G-dliness in each of us, and bless others.

 

Now that we have symbolically reenacted the receiving of the Torah this week, let's not forget our inherited abilities.

Don't let the experience of Chag Shavuot leave us with only the memory of taste of cheesecake to show for it.
Rejoice, bask in the light of our inheritance, and realize that we have the power to spread this light to others.

 

That is surely nothing to sneeze at...

 

Blessing all us to have a Shabbat Shalom, a Shabbat filled with meaning, and joy.

 

Rabbi Greg

 

It's a Family Affair

 

  

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parashat Bamidbar

  

It's a family affair, it's a family affair

It's a family affair, it's a family affair

One child grows up to be

Somebody that just loves to learn 

And another child grows up to be

Somebody you'd just love to burn

Mom loves the both of them

You see it's in the blood

Both kids are good to Mom

'Blood's thicker than mud'

It's a family affair, it's a family affair

-Sylvester Stewart (Sly Stone)

  

  

  

This week's reading begins our annual relationship with Sefer Bamidbar, or Book of Numbers, and the same named sidra, Parashat Bamidbar.

  

The English name is pretty straightforward. This fourth book of the Torah has two distinct census taking stories (did you notice how I wiggled out of having to commit to a plural form of "census"?). It is also called in Hebrew, "Chumash HaPekudim", the book of countings.

  

The tradition Hebrew name, Sefer Bamidbar (The Book of the Wilderness) has a much more enticing name. It connotes openness, potentiality, uncertainty.

  

  

This parasha will always beckon to me in a unique way, as it was the day after Shabbat Bamidbar that my wife and I stood in the wilds of the chuppa, our wedding canopy, many years ago.

I still recall our then newly minted M'sader Kiddushin, HaRav Daniel Wasserman (now the venerable Senior Rabbi at Congregation Shaare Torah in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh) addressing us during the ceremony.

"Take a head count of the entire congregation of Bnei Yisroel according to their families , according to the house of their fathers....." (Num. 1:2)

  

Rav Wasserman pointed out that it was most significant to be considering this verse while standing under the chuppa, as this was the final step in becoming a Jewish family. Upon emerging from the chuppa, my new wife and I would be numbered among the aforementioned, indeed worthy of divine tally.

  

I have since had many years, and many encounters with Parashat Bamidbar, always flashing back to my time under the chuppa, and my fond memories of the young Rabbi. In one of our meetings prior to the wedding day he asked us to acquire a set of books entitled Sefer Hachinuch ( the Book of Education) which would turn out be the start of our substantial library of Hebrew sefarim. The author, who is called simply "The Chinuch", was a 13th century Spanish scholar who wrote the book for his young son and for all of us, explaining the reasons for the various commandments, and enumerating and organizing them by parasha.

  

When I looked up my wedding parasha, this week's Parashat Bamidbar, I saw no entry at all. This sidra contains no mitzvoth, no commandments.

  

It is, in fact, homiletically speaking, just a wide open, barren wilderness of spiritual ideas amidst specific instruction to the nation who had left Egypt, in anticipation of entering the promised land.

  

And, a census...

  

Rashi mentions, almost in passing, when explaining G-d's three documented countings of the Jewish people, that G-d counts "kol shaa" -all the time.

  

G-d is constantly counting the most significant creation, and we are constantly accountable.

  

During the course of my rabbinic training I learned about the concept of a devar sh'b'minyan- something that is always counted (or sold by number). Unlike other substances which are considered insignificant in very small quantities, and would not affect the kashrut of a mixture should a very small amount be mixed in, a devar sh'bminyan is ALWAYS significant.

  

Perhaps the Torah is teaching us that our accountability is a constant, and that our

covenantal responsibilities are intact all the time.

  

Our tradition teaches that our wedding day is like Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement; a cosmic reset button, that we are once again a blank slate in the spiritual midbar, the wilderness.

  

How can we see if we are successful in our Jewish journey? By seeing ourselves in the context of the families we are creating and nurturing.

  

Unlike our public personae, on display when we choose to go out into the world, our families see us "kol shaa"- all the time. Our families are a two way mirror into our own souls, and our goal of achieving spiritual significance is most assessable in this context.

  

In our daily recitation of the Shma we acknowledge the commandment to teach our children, which is a constant mitzvah. Any parent will tell you that they learn more about themselves by parenting than by any other activity. Our families will continue to reflect our successes and failures long after we have left the world, and it is a source of great pleasure for all people when the next generation is representing the spiritual accomplishments of their predecessors, who continue to be counted.

  

May we all continue to be counted among the living, and have a joyous Chag Shavuot.

  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

  

  

Taking a Chance on Love

 

  

 

 

 

"O! for a muse of fire, that would ascend the brightest heaven of invention." - the Rebbe of Stratford-on-Avon

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parashat Bechukotai

 

 

Like many artists, my current state of mental health is largely determined by the elusive presence of "my muse".

Although I have often quipped that my muse is a (hopefully lucrative) deadline, I am subject to the whims and fancy of my creative juices, which sometimes are just not flowing. Like a car with an unreliable battery, I never know if I will be able to get started with a simple turn of the key, or if I will have to spend my time looking for a jump.

 

When I am inspired, life unfolds smoothly, time passes quickly and productively, and my euphoric presence is a positive influence on my family, my friends, my congregants and my collaborators.

When my "muse" seems to have forgotten about me, time drags to a crawl, all of life's little rough edges get increasingly sharper, and I find myself relying on my back catalogue of work to sustain me until that moment when my muse reappears, and I am able to forge ahead with abandon.

 

According to the ancient Greeks, there were originally three muses;  Aoidē, the muse of song or voice,Meletē, of practice, and Mnēmē, memory. The Rav HaNazir, Rabbi David Cohen , writes in his book "Kol Hanavua" that some early Greek philosophy actually comes out of traditional Jewish wisdom. Perhaps there is a traditional Jewish source to this mythological tradition?

 

In this week's Torah reading, Parashat Bechukotai, in Chapter 26, beginning with verse 3, we read the fine print of the brit, the contract we accepted earlier at Sinai when we, as a nation, answered, '"Na'aseh v'N'shma, we will do and we will listen." Upon our arrival at verse 14, we revisit the first of two very dark neighborhoods of the bible, the tochacha (words of rebuke) section, detailing the consequences of casting off our covenantal responsibilities. It is a shocking reminder of Jewish history, as many of the unfortunate and tragic experiences of our people are outlined here.

 

A careful reading of this tochecha reveals two distinct categories of national transgression.The first section refers to a defiant attitude towards the mitzvot. "And if you will not listen to Me, and if you will not fulfill all of these commandments; If you despise My statutes and your souls loath My laws, so as not to fulfill my commandments, thereby breaking my covenant, then, I will do the same with you. I will impose terror upon you, swelling and fever that consume the eyes and fill the soul with grief. You will plant your seeds in vain, because your enemies will consume your crops."(Lev. 26:14-16)

 

Ouch! These are harsh words indeed! And, it gets worse... But, these consequences are reserved only for those who find the concept of a G-d repulsive, and who will most likely attribute their misfortune to worldly forces alone.

The Torah then goes on to describe those who choose to believe in G-d, but not commit themselves to the responsibilities of the covenant.

"If you will walk with me KERI, and have no desire to listen to me, I will increase the consequences upon you sevenfold, as your transgressions".  

The word KERI is usually translated as "contrary". Rashi explains that KERI means irregularly, or by chance. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch goes even farther, describing those whose behavior may by chance conform to the Torah or not. They are not opposed on principle to the commandments, but the mitzvot are too much trouble to take seriously.

The consequence is that G-d will respond in kind. " Then, I too, will walk B"KERI..."

 

G-d's response is that obvious Divine intervention in the world for the sake of the Jewish people will be diminished, allowing human and natural forces to operate unimpeded.

Rabbi Yitzchak Arama (1420-1494), in his famous commentary Akeidat Yitzchak, writes that mankind can divided into three categories: The non believers, who attribute the world and their very existence completely to chance; those who believe in some kind of spiritual element, but who do not recognize G-d as the sole creator and authority in their lives, and those who believe in the true Creator, and accept the yoke of heaven.

 

We can say the same about our brethren, the Jewish people. Many have chosen to remove G-d, and matters of the soul from their lives, and the words of the Torah are completely irrelevant to them. G-d is not present in the lives of those who choose not to have a relationship.

A few have devoted themselves to serving the Creator in a strictly committed fashion, being as careful as possible to remove themselves from any situation that could distract them from their spiritual mission.

 

Most of us, however, believe that although ultimately we are under a divine stewardship, and there are spiritual, moral and absolute truths that shape our lives, we need to experience all that the world has to offer, and prefer to embrace the secular as well, and on our own terms. And as we are influenced by those for whom religion is irrelevant, and morality flexible, we continuously struggle with the competing urges to accept or break free from our spiritual servitude. Materialism replaces spirituality, and with it, an inability to feel satisfied in life. "You will eat but you will not be satiated..."(Lev.. 26:26).

We are content with b'keri, chance encounters with the divine. We will initiate the sacred relationship at our convenience, whenever we decide to turn the key. As a result, many of us often live in a confused, uncertain state, never sure of whether or not our spiritual engines will start up, or if we will have to wander around aimlessly in search of a jump. We never know when our next moment of inspiration will arrive, and whether we will be ready to act if and when it does.

 

But the tochecha ends on an up note. The Jewish people have the capacity to return, to reinitiate the relationship, to once again live an inspired life, with the presence of G-d obvious, powerful, and deeply satisfying.

"...But, when the time finally comes that their stubborn spirit is humbled, I will forgive their transgressions. I will then remember My covenant with Jacob, and also my covenant with Isaac, and also my covenant with Abraham I will remember, and I will remember the land". (Lev. 26:41-42)

 

We can choose to recapture our muse, even all three of them. When we choose to sing, and take the time to practice a bit, we are privileged to bask in the memory of the greatest moment in history, the creation of the human spirit.

 

Last week we celebrated Lag B'omer, a turning point in the Jewish calendar, where we move from mourning the past to embracing the future. We begin to approach the holiday of Shavuot, when we celebrate the opportunity to rededicate ourselves to a life filled with deliberate encounters with the Divine, and the rewards of Torah. We can do our part to rekindle our spiritual memories, just as we ask our Creator to remember us on Rosh Hashanah.

Judaism does not require perfection, just dedication.

 

We have our muse, and if we can keep the relationship strong, we needn't leave anything to chance.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

License to Kvell




Parashat Behar

I’ve often said that being a rabbi is a bit like being James Bond. My license, however does not permit me to kill at will (although I have been known to give a few lethal looks to my children now and then..), but rather to say the “G” word with impunity, without revealing my political hand.
Face it, in most modern Jewish, politically correct professional circles, regular talk about G-d or the Bible would cause many to look askance at the speaker, revealing the offender to be some fanatical, right wing holy roller.
One could minimize the fallout if, in casual conversation, one would say “Torah”, instead of “Bible”, or exchange the “G” word for The Creator, or Sovereign of the Universe. They might then be able to escape with just a head roll, or a nervous laugh.

Still, to many people, the Bible is an organ of the conservative segment of our population, stressing family values, the joys of heterosexuality, and law and order.

Is the Torah a right wing publication?
Why, just last week we read about ‘an eye for an eye” (Lev. 24:20), and the capital punishment of the blasphemer! (Lev. 24:14)
(of course, we all know that an “eye for an eye” means monetary compensation based on the severity of the injury, and that capital punishment, which required warnings, was hardly ever meted out…)

But, consider the source of “…Love your neighbor as yourself..” (Lev 19.18), “…Be kind to widows and orphans…” (Ex. 22:22), “…Leave the corners of your field for the poor…” (Lev 23:22). and “Be kind to your enemies. Do good to those who hate you”. (Ex.23:4-5)

These legislated acts of kindness do seem to have a liberal outlook, no?

This week’s parasha gives us even further insight into the politics of the Torah. Every seventh year the land must rest. All privately owned land in the Holy Land is open to all, it’s produce free for all. (Lev. 25:4-5).
In addition, the fields may not be sown on the seventh year.
Contrary to popular belief, this mitzvah is not designed to rest the fields for replenishing minerals, etc, as a regular crop rotation would accomplish that, without a national “cease planting” in effect.
Rather, it underscores the vulnerability of the Jewish people, and their absolute dependence on G-d.

At the end of seven such seven year agricultural cycles, after the 49th year, there is a special Yovel (jubilee year), which shares many of the restrictions of the aforementioned sabbatical year. That’s two in a row! In addition, at the time of the Yovel, all land reverts back to the original owner, and all indentured servants go home, free.
Think about it- no matter how much land one could acquire as a result of sound business practices during the previous 49 years, all was returned.
Redistribution of wealth?
Pretty left wing…

Actually, the Torah is teaching us that the possessions were never ours at all.  “…For the land is Mine, for you are merely foreigners and temporary residents before me.” (Lev 25:23).

Would our madness of striving to obtain success and material wealth be tempered if we knew that all would be returned in time, that we would revert back to our previous economic state? Would we slow down, spend a little more time with our families, read a few more books, drink a little more wine?

This is the time of year when we are in the midst of a miniature holy cycle of time, as we count the 49 days and 7 complete weeks leading up to our holiday of Shavuot, celebrating the receiving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

Although we can indeed receive the Torah each and every day, Shavuot can be a wonderful time to press the reset button, and see and hear the Word anew, politically unencumbered. We can revert back to our former optimism, free ourselves of all of our dysfunctional biblical baggage that prevents us from truly being free to live our lives in partnership with our creator.

Our Torah is unparalleled in describing the potential of all people, but the potential can only be realized when we accept the terms of the agreement.

May this year bring us even closer to making partner.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

Can I Get a Witness?

Parashat Emor

 

Many people have the custom of studying  the popular mishnaic text, Pirkei Avot, The Ethics of the Fathers, during the weeks between Pesach and Shavuot. The first mishna in the second chapter quotes Rebbe (Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishna, born 135 C.E.)

 

Be as careful with a "light" mitzvah as with a "heavy" one, for you do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. Consider the cost of a mitzvah against its rewards, and the rewards of a transgression against its cost.... (Avot 2:1)

 

To understand this, we must ask ourselves: is the mishna implying that there is a hierarchy among the commandments, or rather suggesting that each of us will find certain mitzvot more challenging? There are many cogent arguments that can be made for both approaches.

 

Certainly there are commandments requiring physical action or inaction (saying the shema, not eating treif,  living in a succah, eating matza on Pesach, fasting on Yom Kippur) that could be easier or more enjoyable for some, and perhaps the reward is greater for those who find a particular mitzvah more challenging. And what are the rewards and costs? Could the same mitzvah be both "light" and "heavy". Are some commandments really more important than others?

Consider this passuk (verse) from this week's parasha:

 וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ, אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי, וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי, בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אֲנִי יְהוָה, מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם.

"You shall not desecrate My Holy Name , rather I should be sanctified among the Children of Israel . I am G-d Who makes you holy." (Leviticus 22:32)

  

The Jewish people were chosen by their creator to be aidim, witnesses, testifying to the existence of G-d, and of G-d's presence in the world.

If a Jew should knowingly and publicly deny the Torah, and the divine authority , by ignoring its dictates, they are performing a Chillul Hashem- a desecration of G-d's name. One of the reasons traditional Jews have often worn similar garments, a Jewish uniform, so to speak,  is to underscore the fact that their every action in public will be viewed as a Jewish action, for better or worse. How much more so under the scrutiny of our creator! When a Jew performs an act publicly that demonstrates the beauty, compassion, wisdom, or sensitivity of Judaism, he or she has made a "Kiddush Hashem", a sanctification of G-d's name. 

  

 Many people erroneously believe that the Torah's laws of righteousness and fairness only apply to behavior towards other Jews.

The Jerusalem Talmud, in the tractate of Bava Metzia tells a story of the great sage  Rabbi Shimon ben Shetach, a humble dry goods merchant, who's gracious and fair dealings with his gentile neighbors were well known. Once, his pupils presented him with a donkey which they had purchased from an Arab. Under the neck of the animal they found a purse containing an expensive pearl, whereupon they joyously told their master that he might now cease toiling since the proceeds from the jewel would make him wealthy. Rabbi Shimon, however, replied that the Arab had sold them the donkey only, and not the pearl; and he returned the gem to the Arab, who exclaimed, "Praised be the God of Shimon ben Shetach!"

  

The ultimate opportunity for the sanctification of G-d's name is in our adherence to the Torah's principles under pressure, or even threat of loss of life.

The Torah teaches us that a Jew is obligated to sacrifice his or her own life in an act of Kiddush Hashem, rather than to commit murder, immorality, or idol worship. The millions of martyrs who died as Jews instead of living as idolators or gentiles have perhaps performed the highest level of sanctification of G-d's name. The story of the Ten Martyrs we read in the synagogue on Yom Kippur  is one of the most emotional and inspiring pieces in our entire liturgy.

  

One need not face death to achieve this level of spiritual attainment. When a minyan says kedusha (and thinks about what they are actually saying!) during the repetition of the Amidah prayer they are sanctifying G-d's name, and when the opening words of the kaddish (sanctification) prayer are chanted the congregational response of Amein, Y'hay  Sh'mai Rabba... is a literal Kiddush Hashem. It is inspiring to see how the death of a loved one is the impetus for countless jews to re-examine their relationship with their creator and their community. By going to the synagogue to say the mourner's kaddish one can turn his deepest sorrow into an opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of sanctifying the name of G-d. The spiritual force of the living and departed are combined and the results are far reaching in this world and the next.

  

What about the private arena? Is it possible to perform the mitzvah of kiddush hashem in a non public setting?

The very act of sanctification is actually an affirmation of our love of our creator, and a  private statement of Shema Yisrael, and v'ahavta eit Hashem elokecha is indeed an opportunity to perform the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem in the privacy of our own rooms.

In most prayer books, and as written in a Torah scroll, the letters "Ayin" and "Daled" of the first verse are enlarged -- encoded to spell out the Hebrew word Aid -- "witness." When we say the Shema, we are testifying to the Oneness of God, the transcendental sanctification by our own pure thoughts and speech.

  

May we be blessed to fulfill the mitzvah of Kiddush Hashem through life, and not death.

  

Can I get a witness?

  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

  

 

 

Houses of the Holy

 

 

Parashat Kedoshim

This week, as we resume our exploration of Sefer Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, we are reunited with Parashat Kedoshim. We are all familiar with the daunting opening line, Kedoshim Tiyuyou shall be holy...

A closer look at the Hebrew grammatical structure shows that this commandment is in the second person plural- you, meaning the collective Jewish people.

As the parasha unfolds, we get many more commandments (51 in all), some familiar (Shabbat), some new (Shatnez- the prohibition of wearing of wool and linen woven together).

If you look closely, you can find all of the 10 commandments represented here, but with a twist.

The original 10 commandments were all stated in the second person singular- here we find them in the second person plural. In fact, most of the mitzvot in the parasha are in the plural form.

  

What is the take away? We are part of a significant group, a nation worth taking out of Egypt to uphold an ancient covenant. When the Torah speaks in the second person plural, our Creator is speaking to each one of us as a member of this significant group. It is so easy to feel like an outsider when it comes to religious practice- I am not one of "those", I'm not so religious... Of course we know that any group is the sum of unique individual contributions, and Klal Yisrael, the worldwide community of Jews, is sustained spiritually by everyone doing what they can, at their own level, intensity, and breadth.

  

Most of the mitzvot can be done at home-why come to synagogue? Why pray in a shul? In addition to the words of the sages that teach that the Divine Presence rests on a group, it is also a chance to really feel like part of the community of Israel. Knowing that EVERYONE'S participation is vital to creating this community can bring great meaning to a seemingly insignificant ritual.

I cannot express in words the inspiration I get from seeing someone struggling to read Hebrew, finally able say a few lines of heartfelt prayer, determined to do their part to be a part of the whole.

  

Kedoshim Tiyu- You shall be holy.

Kodesh actually means set apart. Our holiness as a people comes from our communal identity.

Our wholeness as a congregation is holiness manifest.

Looking forward to seeing you soon at The House of Friends!

  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

  

Holy Matzah, Bat Man!

Parashat Achrei Mot

The Pesach dishes are back on the shelves, the haggadot are put away, the smell of fresh baked bread and delicious baked goods emanates once again from the kitchen, and the last bite of matzah is a distant memory (if you didn't like eating matzah this year, remember to switch to handmade whole wheat matzah next year- delicious!). Does it feel like the big game is over? Perhaps it is useful to conduct a post game analysis. Was this a successful yom tov? 

The whole family reunited, children and grandchildren together with the older generation, participating in one of the oldest Jewish rituals- how could we not put up a few points on the board! Now, for the late game analysis.. How many of us continued the seder after the afikomen? Did we feel like we had been freed from Egypt, or a parallel constricted reality? Did we feel the presence of G-d while we were singing G-d's praises? Did we feel connected beyond our family? Did we feel part of something much bigger, part of a nation all reflecting on our dedication to serving as representatives of our Creator? If it was just a big meal, than perhaps we are still hungry for something ultimately more filling and satisfying.

Recently (In Parashat Shemini)  we were introduced to the concept of holiness through controlling how we use our mouths, vis-à-vis eating. In our last regular weekly parasha (Metzorah) we learned that holiness is based on what comes out of our mouths as well, and the perils of harmful speech.

Our internal drive for self-preservation makes the acquisition of food a passionate endeavor, and our ability to control our appetite is a key for entering into the realm of holiness.
The Torah gave Adam and Eve all produce of the earth as food, save for that of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is no surprise that the first failing of mankind, the action that evicted human beings from paradise, into a world of toil and tummel was eating the forbidden fruit.

Today, most most people think of forbidden fruit in the context of another appetite, that of human sexuality. Judaism, unlike many other religious traditions,teaches that sexuality is both healthy and pleasurable. In fact, because there is a divine commandment to reproduce, sexuality can be a powerful vehicle for holiness even when propagation of "the species is not the intended goal. There are, however limits to this pleasure. These limits are not always logical, and many fall under the legal umbrella of chukim, commandments we must follow even if the reason is beyond our understanding. 

In this week’s  parasha we read about the arayot, the physical pairings that the Torah singles out as harmful.
The Torah explains that these relationships were the practice of the Canaanites, who were being expelled from the land for these very practices.

These relationships go beyond the commonly known incestuous combinations that are know to incite genetic mayhem, to relationships that are not at all connected by blood. For example, a man is forbidden to ever marry his wife’s sister during his wife’s lifetime, even after a divorce (Lev. 18:18).  

The concept of harmful pairings is developed in the next week's parasha, Parashat Kedoshim. 

The Torah says, “You shall observe My statutes: You shall not crossbreed your livestock with different species. You shall not sow your field with a mixture of seeds, and a garment which has a mixture of shaatnez shall not come upon you” (Lev. 19:19).

Shaatnez, a mixture of linen and  wool, is forbidden to be worn. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that this is related to the offerings of Cain (linen) and Abel (a lamb) that resulted in the world’s first murder.  
Murder? Why should the Torah care what I choose to wear?

Some pairings are beyond the limits. As a stream of water is strengthened when its channels are limited, so is our holiness as our natural desires are restricted. 

May we see these restrictions as broad avenues to get closer in our relationship with G-d, and stimulate our spiritual appetites.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

  

 

The Mouth Speaks

Parashat Metzora

This week’s reading is an opportunity to spend some quality alone time with Parashat Metzora, usually read in tandem with Parashat Tazria, which was the subject of last week’s posting. (for my comments on Tazria click here). 
The subject of the power of speech to create and destroy is worth dwelling on.
Last week we talked about the concept of lashon hara, “evil” speech in general terms.
Specifically, lashon hara is the dissemination of true information with the intent, consciously or otherwise, to mock, belittle, deride, or otherwise prejudice public opinion against someone or something. 

Outright falsehood and mendacity used in a slanderous manner is known as motzi shem ra (bringing about an evil name),
Our sages teach us that the name of our parasha, “Metzora”, literally, one inflicted with tzara’at (commonly mistranslated as leprosy)is a contraction of ”motzi (shem) ra”.

Both are byproducts of a far more common type of speech, called rechilut/gossip.
According to Maimonedes, seemingly harmless gossip leads to harmful gossip.


It is fitting to dwell on these matters as we prepare ourselves for Passover. Our rabbis teach us that the word Pesach can be read as “peh sach”, the mouth speaks. This can be our opportunity to participate in an exodus from rechilut, from mindless gossip that masks the power and beauty of inspired speech. Along with the positive commandments to remove chometz (leavened food) and eat matza, the the Torah instructs us: V'Higadeta l'Vincha ba'Yom ha'Hu Leimor, ba'Avur Zeh Asah Hash-m Li b'Tzeisi m'Mitzrayim" -- "And you shall relate to your child on that day, saying: It is because of this that
Hashem did for me when I came forth out of Egypt"
(Exodus 13:8).

Indeed, the very mitzvah of “V'Higadeta l'Vincha”, you shall tell your child, is our chance to make a tikkun, a repair, of the damage caused by our enslavement to unenlightened small talk. This is the beginning of the month of Nissan, the first month of the Jewish calendar. What a fine time to begin to cultivate a sensitivity to the power of speech, and the beauty of silence!
Rabbi Dovid HaCohen, the famous Nazir of Jerusalem, and main disciple of Israel’s first Chief Rabbi Rav Kook, used to spend his shabbat day in a ta’anit dibbur, a “fast” of silence. Rav Kook himself wrote  “Sometimes we can sense the ties between our speech and the world. This is the beginning stage of redeeming speech from its exile."

May we, our hearts, minds, and mouths look forward to an end to the long winter of our exile, and and may we be together, if not this, then next year, in Jerusalem.
Shabbat Shalom, and a Chag Pesach Kasher v’Sameach,
Rabbi Greg
PS
the following is a special prayer composed by the venerable Chafetz Chaim, author of Sh’mirat HaLashon, a major work devoted to helping us master this part of our spiritual growth

Gracious and merciful G-d, help me to restrain myself from speaking or listening to derogatory, demeaning or hostile speech. I will try not to engage in L'shon ha-ra, either about individuals or about an entire group of people. I will strive not to say anything that contains falsehood, insincere flattery or elements of needless dispute, anger, arrogance, oppression or embarrassment to others. Grant me the strength to say nothing unnecessary, so that all my actions and speech cultivate a love for your creatures and for You"

Def Leper

 

Parashat Tazria

 

 
Although I have traditionally eschewed the mainstream corporate mentality of suit, briefcase and expense account, I am familiar with the culture, as some friends and family have spent substantial time in that world. There is an expected attitude towards moving up the ladder, and an inherent part of the process is the annual (or quarterly) review where employees are given constructive criticism so that they may concentrate on specific areas that need improvement.
 
In the education field substantial time and resources are spent on assessment activities. These activities and tools not only gauge the abilities of students to learn, but also that of teachers to teach.
 
Way back when, in school days of yore, I played woodwinds in the pit for a high school production of "Applause". As the title tune explains, approval from the audience is a major motivating factor in show business. As I became more artistically driven the approval I sought was mostly from other musicians, painters, writers, hipsters, and the occasional well connected critic or reviewer, although paying audience were a good sign that I was on the right track for sustaining a career in the arts. If someone's work was substandard the audience would dwindle, as would the calls from potential collaborators, and the person would get the message-more practicing required!
 
The need for approval from the public spreads into many fields. Ed Koch the mayor of New York City from 1979 to 1989 is renowned for walking around the city and cheerfully asking everyone, "How'm I Doing?
 
The Torah gives us an annual review, called Rosh Hashanah, and we are given an opportunity to perfect our job performance, as well as make amends for any shortcomings in our spiritual growth. Although most of us do our most intense soul searching during the officially sanctioned ten days of repentance, the opportunity for introspection and t'shuva ( returning to the correct path) is available year round.
 
Historically, when the the nation of Israel fells short of its mission they were informed by the usual channels- plagues, draughts, floods,wild beasts, etc. These signs were the catalyst for national behavior modification, and the Torah documents many cases of national t'shuva.
 
In this week's parasha we get a glimpse into a unique and wondrous methodology- the Torah's plan for informing individuals that they are falling short of their spiritual responsibilities by actual physical signs on the their bodies!
 
One of these signs is called tzarat, almost always translated as leprosy, and is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and mistranslated ideas in the Torah.
 
Firstly, tzarat cannot be the famous and now completely treatable bacterial infection (also called Hansen's disease) that caused millions around the world to be sequestered ( even today there are reported to be over 1000 leper colonies in India). The symptoms of tzarat were ignored during national celebrations, weddings, and other festive times when the greatest number of people could potentially be threatened by an infectious disease. Clearly the Torah is not concerned about a public health threat. The symptoms only indicated the potential for diagnosis, and were completely benign to others until the time of "official" declaration by a kohane.
 
Tzarat, as described in the Torah is a SPIRITUAL malady, which leaves the afflicted in a state of tumah, or spiritual impurity, which can spread by contact. The first signs, or nega'im are found on the walls of a person's house. The tumah sets in only when declared by the kohane. The Torah mercifully tells the afflicted to move his possessions outside of his house ahead of the visit from the kohane, lest the tzarat (which does not technically exist prior to the kohane's declaration) affect those articles as well. This is a sign from G-d that the individual is falling short in his relationship with the community by improper use of speech. The house is closed off, and the afflicted is given time for reflection and repentance.  
If this opportunity passes with no change, the nega'im appear next on clothing, and finally on one's skin. The word nega, or mark, also means touch. G-d is touching them to alert them that they are in danger of failing their periodic review, and give them time to work on themselves, in privacy. After a week's time they can rejoin the community after a fascinating but complicated purification ritual.
 
Hurtful or improper use of speech, called Lashon Harah in Hebrew, is singled out here, from among all possible human shortcomings, because it directly contradicts the holiness of our Creator. 
Our world, and all that are contained within are the products of Divine Speech, (whatever that means!) . Every morning we start our communal prayers with "Blessed be the one who spoke, and the world came into being".  
Humans are distinguished from other beings by their ability to use speech. To use speech to hurt or destroy is the antithesis of holiness, and tzarat was a friendly wake up call to get to work and grow in that area.  
One of the many tragedies of the current exile is the loss of prophecy, and with it, the personal, undeniable feedback from G-d. 
In today's challenging spiritual environment it is much more difficult to sense the presence of G-d, and we are not now fortunate enough to receive a divine tap on the shoulder when we err. The voice of G-d now comes mostly from within. By continuously working on refining ourselves, we will be growing spiritually, and when we ask ourselves, "How'm I doing?", we can become more and more sensitive to the "still, small voice".  
Let's pray that it does not fall on deaf ears.
 
Shabbat Shalom, 
Rabbi Greg

Only the Good Die Young

  

Parashat Shemini

  

After a long spring training season, it was finally time for the opening day of the baseball season. Unfortunately for my baseball loving sons (and their only partially jaded father) the first game of the season was held on eve of Yom Tov, the seventh day of Passover, when the candles glowed and screens were dark.

  

Driving back home at the end of the chag a few days later we managed to catch the last few innings of the Yankee's second game of the season, and were not too upset that the Red Sox walked home what would prove to be the winning run.

  

It was a wry coincidence that a wild pitch and passed ball by the Yankees a few nights earlier allowed their arch rivals to win the opener in a similar fashion. But, that's the game. Despite all the excitement and fanfare, it usually comes down to the avoidance of the one minute error that can turn joy into tragedy.

  

In this week's parasha, Shemini, we are given box seats to opening day at the mishkan. There had been a seven day spring training, with Moshe directing his team in all sorts of drills, setting up and breaking down the mishkan in anticipation of a long, successful season and hopefully an endless summer.

  

We learn that all was ready and in place for the opening ceremony.

  

"They took that which Moshe commanded, before the Tent of Meeting; and the entire congregation approached and they stood before G-d. Moshe said, This is what G-d commanded you to do: and the glory of G-d will appear to you." (Lev. 9:5-6)

  

The Almighty throws out the first pitch, so to speak, and the season begins!

  

"A fire came forth from before G-d and consumed what was on the altar; the burnt-offering and the fats. All the people saw and they raised their voices in praise, and they fell on their faces". (Lev. 9:24)
You couldn't ask for a more dramatic beginning!

  

Two sons of Aaron, the Kohane Gadol, are so inspired that they present their own offering, and the results are tragic:

  

"Nadav and Avihu, Aaron's sons, took, each of them his fire-pan, placed fire on it and then placed incense upon it and they brought before G-d a strange fire, which He had not commanded them. A fire came forth from before G-d and consumed them, and they died in the presence of G-d." (Lev. 10:1-2)

  

For millenia our sages have been discussing exactly what took place. What went wrong, why did the two brothers, enveloped in the passion of the moment, deserve to lose their lives in such a dramatic fashion?

  

The major commentators have learned that this was the result of, among other things, disregarding their teacher Moshe, or possibly entering the mishkan in a drunken state.
But, those are difficult explanations, because right away the the Torah seems to praise them:
"Moshe said to Aaron, 'it is as G-d spoke, saying: 'through those that are near me I shall be sanctified, and in the presence of the entire people I will be glorified'......." (Lev 10:3)

  

What was this strange fire? An unauthorized voluntary offering in the midst of a tightly choreographed sacred proceeding, rehearsed over and over again.

  

The brothers must have acted out of love, swept up in the passion of the moment.

  

Was it inevitable? The name Nadav is the same word as nadava, a non required free will offering. But the divine service is a team activity, with everyone doing their own dedicated part of the sacred work, in conjunction with that of others. Every part is interdependent. Even a nadava, a voluntary offering requires a coordinated group effort.

  

Perhaps they did not understand the power of the position. This was no ordinary fire they were playing with, rather a fire from heaven.
Maybe this was an echo of creation itself?

  

The beginning of the creation of the physical world, as revealed in the Torah, is the creation of ohr, usually translated as light.
When we think of light, our first thought is of the natural light of the sun. But, the sun wasn't created until the fourth day!
Perhaps this ohr was in fact the initial source of energy that set the world into motion.

  

As we know, energy and radiation are incredibly powerful phenomena, with the power to create and destroy.

  

Human beings, with the gift of free will, are given an opportunity as well, to create and destroy. It is not always possible to know the end result of our actions, or the effect they will have on the world. The Torah, with it's clear sense of order, and natural law, offers a guide to keep us on base, so to speak.
Deviating from that path is a risk, and on the cosmic base path we never know the gravity of the most minute action.

  

We all know the story of the batter who was fined by the manager for hitting a home run, when he was in fact given the sign to bunt.

  

When Nadav and Avihu disregarded the play book, the explicit instructions for sacred actions in the mishkan, they paid the ultimate price.
But their motivation was noble, and can continue to inspire us.
May all our prayers be offered and answered, at the right time.

  

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

Long Day's Journey Into Night

Parashat Tzav

  

This week our parasha continues with the details of the korbanot, the offerings to be brought on the altar in the mishkan, and later the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Last week we read about the various offerings that an individual would bring. These offerings were always brought during the day.

  

In Parashat Tzav we get an insight into the domain of the kohanim (priests), whose activities extended into the night. "It is the olah offering that is on the fire all night, until the morning, and the flames of the altar will remain burning" (Lev. 6:2).

  

The night seems to be the stage for acts of elevated holiness, to take place while most of the world is sleeping.

The Talmud (Eruvin 65a) reports an interesting exchange about the different qualities of day and night activities. Rabbi Yehuda says that nights are for sleeping, implying that daytime is the best opportunity for acquiring wisdom, while R' Shimon Ben Lakish says that moonlight was created only for learning. Rav Zeira credited the clarity of his learning to his daytime study. Obviously there is more going on here than meets the eye.

  

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) teaches that for most of the world, the day is the most powerful platform for our activities. The clarity that Rav Zeira mentioned is epitomized by the unique prophecy of Moshe himself, who, unlike any other prophet, did not communicate with G-d in a dream or night vision. "Rather, the Word of G-d that came to Moshe reached the lucid intellect of an aware individual" (R' S.R. Hirsch, Vayikra 6:2). Therefore, it is only natural that the korbanot be offered during the day. No new offerings could be accepted after hours.

  

But, after a day of striving, of accomplishment, of offering our best, and celebrating our very existence, we can rest assured that the processes that went into play by light of day can continue into the night. Rav Hirsch points out a chronological dichotomy. The universal structure of time begins at night, and proceeds into the day. "......And it was evening, and it was morning, one day" (Gen. 1:5). The yearly calendar follows suit. Rosh Hashana, the anniversary of the creation of human life, takes place in the fall month of Tishrei. The year begins in the autumn and proceeds into the night of winter, and awakens to spring time, matures into summer, and fades away in a wash of color.

  

Not so the sacred chronology. Here, life begins with the day, where one can toil, and invest in the future, knowing that our physical and spiritual offerings will remain burning deep into the night. Rav Hirsch writes," For the night, which symbolizes the stillness of death, cannot drag down the day down after it; rather, the day, which symbolizes a life of closeness to G-d, raises with it the night".

  

Likewise, the sacred calendar starts with the month of Nissan, the month of Aviv, that is, springtime. Our dedication and hard work make it possible to proceed into the dark of winter knowing that we have done our part, and that G-d will provide the return on our investment.


 As the fires burn on

the altar into the evening, the darkness of night provides the stage for our ultimate redemption. It's no surprise we are days away from the festival of freedom, from Pesach. The Torah tells us the Exodus took place at midnight, and during our seder we will recall the power of the divine illuminated against the dark backdrop, in the song Vayehi bachatzi ha'layla, It Happened at Midnight.


 "Bring quickly, Lord, the day which is not day or night.

The day is yours, G-d, and so is the night.

Set guards about your city day and night,

Give us vision clear by day by night,

And it came to pass, at midnight" 


 The true vision of freedom will be as clear as day.

Next Year in Jerusalem.....


 Shabbat Shalom, and good night,

Rabbi Greg

 

"The past is the present, isn't it? It's the future, too."  

Eugene O'Neill

In Like A Lion, Out Like  a Lamb

Parashat Pekudey

They say that March comes in like a lion, and goes out like a lamb. You could say the same about Sefer Shemot, the Book of Exodus. The action packed narrative chronicling the enslavement of the Israelites, the emergence of Moshe as the ultimate prophet and leader, and the breathtaking exodus from Egypt has captivated people for millennia, and those themes continue to instruct and inspire today. The Revelation at Sinai raised the Israelites to their highest possible level, creating the Jewish people, whose rapid decent into spiritual bankruptcy dancing around a Golden Calf is no less astonishing. 

Moshe, without false promises, mudslinging, hyperbole, or any other of the grandiose methods we see everyday during an election year, manages to unite the nation by creating an institution to focus the disparate spiritual yearnings of the Jewish people.

The Mishkan, the first truly successful communal project in Jewish history, is built and inaugurated, and with an equally dramatic ending, replete with fire descending from Heaven and igniting the altar, the Book of Exodus comes to a close and this second phase of our history transitions into mid game mode. 

How do we maintain our inspiration, day in and day out, without the thunder, lightning, and special effects? How do we not lose interest, and go after the next shiny, or loud, or flashing object that passes by?

The answer may lay in the pages to come, the archaic and seemingly obtuse Sefer Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus. On the surface, the painstaking laws and detail of all of the offerings, and the world of tu'umah and taharah, the impure and pure, are the antithesis of the roller coaster ride of Sefer Shemot. But, in the suddenly slow pace of Vayikra, we are able to appreciate the subtleties of the Divine directive. Like fine wine, impressionist art, and jazz music, it takes a little while to be able to appreciate the depth and wisdom contained within. But, I assure you, any efforts to do so will be richly rewarded.

The most important activity in the Mishkan (and later in the Temple) was the Korban Tamid- the two lambs that were offered up, every day, one in the morning, and one in the afternoon. By modeling  this consistent activity, our connection need never be lost, and a deep relationship built on love and trust rather than infatuation can emerge and sustain us.

Ken Yehi Ratzon, may it be G-d's will.

Chodesh Tov, and Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 

 

 

Just a Hunka, Hunka Burning Love

Parashat  Vayakhel

“Lord Almighty I feel my temp'rature rising, 
Higher and higher it's burning through to my soul”

The Tupelo Rebbe

Our  sidra opens with yet another mention of the mitzvah of Shabbat. It seems that Shabbat is a running sub theme of the entire mishkan  section, woven throughout the text like a design in a flowing tapestry. It is no surprise that the entire methodology of tabernacle  building is what we use to codify the specifics of shabbat observation. 
 The Talmud (Shabbat 49B) teaches that the specific activities involved in building the mishkan are the source of the 39  catagories of creative activity (melachot) that are to be curtailed on the shabbat.

Curiously, the text of our parasha does not present us with a list of these activities, only (after threatening blatant scofflaws) a directive to refrain from building a fire on shabbat.  
Why was fire singled out from among the 39 melachot? Perhaps we can learn something from the nature of fire itself.

Rabbi Ovadia Sforno (1470-1550)points out that fire can be  destructive   or  constructive. Fire was  a necessary component of  processing mishkan materials, and it was this beneficial use of fire that the Torah prohibits on Shabbat.  It was the intention that turned a potentially destructive act into a creative endeavor.

This concept is discussed at length again in tractate Shabbat (105B), as well as many other places in the Talmud. Melachot done for the wrong reason, or without intention are not considered significant.
 I think we can play with this idea a bit, and apply this approach to all our activities, and the observance of shabbat itself. 
Through sincere intention our activities can turn from a trivial exercise into a significant statement. Mindless ritual, especially of the type that would seem to technically avoid shabbat desecration actually is destructive-it removes us from the “zone” that is shabbat itself.


We have a choice: we can look at the cessation of creative labor as a prison, and a parallel reality emerges. Our activities and rituals can become spiritually destructive, and create a harmful fire inside that prevents us from experiencing our taste of heaven on earth. 

Alternatively, we can choose to perform or refrain from the same activities, with an intention of  immersing ourselves in shabbat and basking in a glimpse of revealed light.  This can actually have the constructive benefit of giving our bodies pleasure, our minds stimulation, and letting our spirits soar.

That same burning fire, while capable of reducing a house to ashes, can heat a home, and warm our hearts.

“You light my morning sky with burning love
With burning love (hunka hunka burning love Ha)”
ibid.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Greg

Click here more info on the Tupelo Rebbe:

Seeing is Better Than Believing

Parshat Yitro

 

If there is a climactic moment in the Torah, if there is a part of the narrative that defines the emergence of the Jewish people as a spiritual nation, then it is here in this week's reading. The Master Being reveals himself to the Israelites, and they see G-d!

"All the people saw the sounds, the flames, the sound of the shofar, and the mountain emitting smoke. The people saw and they trembled, and stood far off." (Ex. 20:15).

They "saw the sounds", they had a spectacular group revelation. According to the Midrash, 'Rabbi Akiva says, they saw what is heard, and heard what is seen." 

Why then, did they tell Moshe, "...You speak to us and we will listen. Let G-d not speak with us lest we die" (Ex 20:16). Our tradition teaches us that after the first two of the ten "commandments" (not really commandments, but that's another story..) G-d's voice was heard by Moshe only.

This is supported in the text by the fact that G-d refers to himself in the first person for the first two utterances (Anochi), and is referred to in the third person in the remaining statements, implying that Moshe is telling them. Was this part of the divine plan?

As Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan explains in his landmark essay, "If You Were G-d", a continuously visible deity would destroy our free will. Who could choose when the judge and jury are constantly holding court. This constant scrutiny could only lead to rebellion.

It is no surprise then, that 40 days later the nation would rebel with the incident of the Golden Calf.

No, it is more advantageous for us to have to struggle with faith to "see" the voice of G-d, elevating ourselves in the process. The moments that define us these days are those when we are able to choose to do the right thing, when more convenient to do otherwise. But, the echoes of the divine shofar at Sinai still reverberate in the very fabric of being of all creation. If only we would stop, look and listen.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

Senses Taker

Parashat Noach

 

Parashat Noah

With another go around of the opening reading of the Torah under our belts, and our heads well scratched, we plunge right into the wild waters of the chapters of Noah.

 Noah is a study in contrasts, and the debate on his merits or lack there of has been going on for millenia. Even the qualifying statement introducing Noah to the readers of the bible could go in several directions.

…Ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav.. a completely righteous man in his generation…” (Gen. 6:9)

 Rashi explains there are several ways to understand this- perhaps in his own, corrupt generation he could be called a tzadik, but compared to an Abraham, he was no tzadik; or, he was righteous especially in light of the corrupt influences of his surroundings.

 Either way, the rabbis bring him to task for not taking the opportunity to influence his neighbors, for quietly building his ark, knowing full well that the world was about to be destroyed.

 The Torah tells us that the earth had become corrupt, because human beings had become corrupt. Initially human beings were created with five gates of wisdom, the five unique senses. The corruption started, of course, with the eating of the forbidden fruit, and involved an almost total sensual compromise.

 Chava (Eve) erred by listening to the temptations of the serpent with her ears, seeing the beautiful fruit with her eyes, taking it from the tree with her hands, eating from it with her mouth, and convincing Adam to eat from it as well using her speech. Only the sense of smell was not involved in the transgression, as the sense of smell is more connected to spirituality and the serpent had no sway over it. The word for smell, rei’ach, is connected to the word for spirit, ruach. Only the spiritual potential remained intact as the ground was cursed, and humanity compromised.

 When Noah left the ark and saw the desolation of the postdeluvial earth he had a spiritual reawakening of sorts.

Noach built an altar to Ad-noy, and took of every ritually clean (kosher) animal and of every ritually clean bird, and brought up burnt-offerings on the altar.”

 The Zohar writes:

When Noah came out of the ark he opened his eyes and saw the whole world completely destroyed. He began crying for the world and said ‘Master of the world! If You destroyed Your world because of human sin or human fools, then why did You create them’ One or the other You should do: either do not create the human being or do not destroy the world!’ He offered up offerings and began to pray before Him and the aroma ascended before the Blessed Holy One and was sweet.”

Rabi continued “A triple aroma ascended to God: the aroma of Noah’s offering, the aroma of his prayer, and the aroma of his actions. No aroma in the whole world was as pleasing to Him. Therefore He commanded: ‘Be observant and present to Me in due season My pleasing aroma’ (Num. 28:2) This means: ‘Be observant: Present to me the aroma that Noah presented to Me: the aroma of offering prayer and right action.”

 It was now evident why G-d had ordered seven pairs of the “pure”, kosher animals to supplement the initial guest list entering the ark, every species two by two.

 “Ad-noy smelled the pleasing fragrance, and Ad-noy said in His heart, “Never again will I curse the ground because of man, for the inclination of man’s heart is evil from the time of his youth. I will never again smite every living thing as I have done. So long as the earth exists, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, will never be suspended” (Gen 8:21-22).

 All future korbanot, fire offerings, would have a connection to Noah.

 Now we can appreciate story of the naming of Noah by his father, Lemech “He named his son Noach, saying, “This one will bring us rest from our work and the anguish of our hands, from the soil which Ad-noy has cursed.” (Gen 5:29)

Noah (who, by the way, gets credit for inventing the plow) in a spiritual sense, merits the return of fertility to the earth and ends up smelling like a rose (at least until he toasts his success..but that’s another story…).

 May all of your endeavors leave you smelling as sweet..

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

PS..Enjoy this video of a few of the passengers on Noah's Ark:

 

Not a Jewish Joke

Rosh Hashana 5776

 

Just as Labor Day is a wake up call to the harsh reality that summer is over, and the responsibilities of school, office and community beckon, so too the daily sounding of the shofar in the month of Elul announces that the Days of Awe will soon be upon us. Rosh Hashana already?
Where did the year go?

As Joni Mitchell sang,
And the seasons they go round and round
And the painted ponies go up and down
We’re captive on the carousel of time
We can’t return we can only look behind
From where we came
And go round and round and round
In the circle game

A nice song, but not a Jewish idea.
We don’t see our calendar as circle, but rather as a spiral. As the spiral unfolds we need to evolve as well, growing personally, financially, spiritually.
Two guys are on their way to the racetrack, when one says to the other, ” Boy, I hope I break even today. I really need the money.”
Cute story, but not a Jewish joke.
Being Jewish is not about breaking even.
If another year passes and we are the same person we started out as, we have not broken even- we are deep in the red.

The Hebrew words for “Days of Awe”, Yamim Noraim, can also be translated as “Days of Fear”. Many of us especially relate to the latter. What is the source of this fear?
More than the fear of having to sit through marathon religious services, and the feeling of not really knowing what we should be thinking or feeling, is the fear of accountability.

A man walks into a bar and says, “Give me a beer before problems start!”
Again, the man orders a beer saying, “Give me a beer before problems start!”
The bartender looks confused. This goes on for a while, and after the fifth beer the bartender is totally mystified and asks the man, “When are you going to pay for these beers?”
The man answers, “Ah, now the problems start!”

We need not get stuck with a tab we can’t pay.
The Rambam (Maimonides) teaches that the sound of the shofar is crying out,”Wake up, you slumberers, from your deep sleep. Take an accounting…

The sound of the shofar reminds us to settle our accounts while we still have the luxury of time.
This special seasonal tally is called a cheshbon hanefesh, a spiritual accounting.

How do we begin? We can turn to the Talmud for advice. The sage Raba, in tractate Berachot (31a), says that the first three questions asked while being judged by the heavenly tribunal are, “ Were you honest in your business dealings? Did you set aside a regular time for study? Were you actively trying to create a family?

It is significant that the first question deals with human relationships. The measure of our success as a Jew is how we relate to others, and the G-dliness we seek to integrate into our lives is first and foremost expressed in our social interactions.

Have we fallen short in this area? We still have an opportunity to make amends, and although Yom Kippur does not atone for damages to another person, we can still personally ask for mechila, for forgiveness, from anyone we may have wronged.

Seeing ourselves as works in progress is crucial to Jewish growth, and regular study, even in small amounts, will go far in helping us feel like we are in fact growing. If you need strengthening in this area then now is the time to find a learning partner, register for a class, subscribe to an email list. Rabbi Hillel in the Mishna says, “…..and don’t say I will study when I have time, lest you never find the time” (Avot 2:4)

Interestingly, the question about creating a family asks, “osakta b’pirya v’rivya?”- Were we osaik, were we completely occupied in creating a family? Anyone can have children, but to be actively involved in their spiritual development is another matter altogether.
Are we outsourcing our children’s Jewish lives, or are we actively involved, leading by example? Why not resolve to spend a few minutes connecting with your children spiritually each week, especially on Shabbat. It is worth the investment.

After our chesbon hanefesh, our “soul accounting”, we can easily come up with a spiritual business plan. What are our goals for the month, for the year? Five years? Ten years?
Make a list, put it on an index card, and carry it with you, taking a glance weekly, or better yet, daily.

With the proper preparation we can change the “Days of Fear” back into the “Days of Awe”, when we can confidently bare our souls to our creator. Although we are works in progress, we are sincere in our desire to connect, and work on our primordial relationship.
We are truly in awe of the power of G-d in the world, and are eager to return to G-d, and to ourselves.

K’tivah v’chatimah tovah – “May you be written and sealed in the Book of Life, for good.”

Shana Tova u’metuka, A  good and sweet year!

Rabbi Greg

 

Blind Justice

 

Parashat Shoftim

Years ago I used to live in a certain county in northern New Jersey known for it’s colorful political tradition. Well… actually for its corrupt political tradition. In fact, one year a mayor, convicted for graft and corruption ran for re-election from his jail cell- and would have been re-elected had the courts not ruled that an incarcerated felon could not participate in a public election!

This is not an isolated case- many unscrupulous pols, after narrowly escaping prosecution on some technicality are re-elected each year. And many voters do not seem to care; as long as their own personal needs are being met, they will continue to pull the lever along party lines. Citizens throughout the world continue to be abused by elected or self imposed leaders, and many have suffered a moral weakening, and have resigned themselves to the status quo. I often think about the classic line delivered by Joseph Welch at the infamous McCarthy hearings, when he turned to Senator Joseph McCarthy and exclaimed, “Have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

 

As one astute political commentator writes, ” When I considered all this, the more closely I studied the politicians and the laws and customs of the day, and the older I grew, the more difficult it seemed to me to govern rightly……. At the same time law and morality were deteriorating at an alarming rate…… I was forced, in fact, to the belief that the only hope of finding justice for society or for the individual lay in true philosophy, and that mankind will have no respite from trouble until either real philosophers gain political power or politicians become by some miracle true philosophers”. Plato, The Republic

In this weeks parasha, Shoftim, the Torah offers a vision of a society where rulers would govern by a philosophy of  divine truth, starting with a judicial system:

You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your gates that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment. (Deut. 16:18).

The community is addressed in the second person singular, as this must be a unified commitment to submit to an independent judicial body. This system must be free of any societal baggage:

You shall not pervert justice; you shall not show favoritism, and you shall not take a bribe, for bribery blinds the eyes of the wise and perverts just words. (Deut. 16:19).

We already learned of the Torah’s mandate of equal justice in Parashat Kedoshim (Lev. 19:15), as addressed to individuals. Here we learn that that the judicial system must follow the same dictates.

Finally, an enigmatic instruction that highlights the responsibility of a Torah based society:

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק תִּרְדֹּף לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר יְ־הֹוָ־ה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ:

Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may live and possess the land the Lord, your God, is giving you. (Deut. 16:20)

As you can imagine, the double language is puzzling. There are many explanations given by the classic  and contemporary commentators. Rabbi Yissocher Frand quotes Rav Elya Meir Bloch (of the famous Telze Yeshiva) as teaching, “”the pursuit of righteousness must also be pursued with righteousness”. We are not merely being taught to run after justice. We are told to run after justice with justice.

Perhaps the double language is telling us we need to think outside of the box, to stretch ourselves in the application of justice. There is a classic midrash that illustrates a creative approach to solving a legal dispute.

Alexander the Great once visited the community of Afriki and wished to observe its judicial system. Two men came before the king for justice. The first said, “I purchased a plot of land from this man, and when I dug to lay the foundation of a home, I found a treasure buried there. I only bought the land, not the treasure, therefore it is not mine.” The seller said, “I too am fearful of the biblical prohibition of ‘lo tigzo”- do not steal’ and I too do not want it back unless it is definitely mine.” The king (judge) asked the buyer if he had a son, he answered “yes”. The seller answered positively to having a daughter. “Wonderful,” said the king, “let them marry and share the treasure.”

A wonderfully creative solution that leaves both litigants as partners in a just conclusion. By the way, the midrash concludes with a comparison to the legal system of the Greek Empire.

Alexander looked at this scene with amazement. The king asked him, “What are you so amazed at? Did I not judge well?” Alexander replied, “Yes, you did.” “And if the same case came before a court in your land what would you have done?” asked the king. Alexander replied, “We would have beheaded both of them and the treasure would have fallen to the royal treasury.” (Vayikra Rabba 27:1)

The Torah’s legal system is a partnership between G-d and society , and at the end of the day, all litigants must accept the outcome as divine mandate.

And you shall do according to the word they tell you, from the place the Lord will choose, and you shall observe to do according to all they instruct you. According to the law they instruct you and according to the judgment they say to you, you shall do; you shall not divert from the word they tell you, either right or left. (Deut.. 17:10-11)

The findings of a Torah based court ARE Torah, the people must accept the judgement, knowing that the will of G-d has been fulfilled.

The previous verse is the source for the concept of Rabbinic law that permeates jewish life. The blessing we make on lighting Hanukah menorot, or before reading the Megillah on Purim, contain the words, “  Blessed are you, ……..asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu, with your commandments…”, yet these mitzvoth are rabbinic in origin. By accepting  rabbinic law as the will of G-d we are following a torah commandment. Many mistakenly assume that since certain mitzvoth are of of rabbinic origin (m’d'rabbanan) that they may be treated as optional. Nothing could be further from the truth. (The rabbis, however, did legislate that in matters of human dignity certain rabbinic laws could be suspended as discussed in Talmud Berachot 17b).  As such, the Torah teaches that rabbinic rulings were to be followed explicitly.

I once saw New York Yankees captain Derek Jeter smile after taking a pitch for strike three. The replay showed that the umpire had made a bad call. Jeter, a consummate professional smiled because he knew that the system had to work with an ultimate authority, and even though there may be occasional human error, the rules depended on a communal adherence to the process.

The Sanhedrin, the Torah based court during the times the Temple stood, could occasionally err as well.

The great  medieval  Ramban (Nachmanides)  writes that even if you think in your heart that they are mistaken, you must still do as they command you. He writes, “[ even if the decision is disturbing] …you are to say,’ The Lord who instituted the commandments commanded that I perform all the mitzvoth in a way that they( the rabbis) teach me to do. He gave me the Torah as taught by them, even if they were to err.”

The buck stops here.

Next the Torah introduces the concept of  Jewish political power, as exemplified by the King. The King and the Jewish courts are given an indisputable philosophical truth, the Torah itself. But the extended exile of the Jewish people has seen a loss of a unified Jewish legal presence, and every year seems to bring a wider divide in the various approaches for interpreting  and implementing Jewish law. We are awash in a sea ofshitot (interpretations of Jewish law) and p’sakim (directives).

We continue to pray thrice daily, in our weekday Amidah prayer, ” Hashivainu shoftainu k’rishona, restore our judges as in  previous years“, for a time when the Jewish people will again be able to serve their creator in the singular, as one people.

This week marks the beginning of the month of Elul, the period of introspection leading up to Rosh Hashanah and  Yom Kippur, where we are privileged to appear before the real ultimate authority, that of the Supreme Heavenly Court. May we approach our days of judgment confident in knowing that the philosophy governing our spiritual lives is the ultimate source of truth, free from any political interference  or corruption, and that we will never strike out in a true heart to heart encounter with our creator.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 

Forbidden Fruit

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Parshiot  Acharei Mot/Kedoshim

  

Recently (In Parashat Shemini)  we were introduced to the concept of holiness through controlling how we use our mouths, vis-à-vis eating. Last week we learned that holiness is based on what comes out of our mouths as well, and the perils of harmful speech.

  

Our internal drive for self-preservation makes the acquisition of food a passionate endeavor, and our ability to control our appetite is a key for entering into the realm of holiness. The Torah gave Adam and Eve all produce of the earth as food, save for that of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. It is no surprise that the first failing of mankind, the action that evicted human beings from paradise, into a world of toil and tummel was eating the forbidden fruit.

  

Today, most most people think of forbidden fruit in the context of another appetite, that of human sexuality. Judaism, unlike many other religious traditions, teaches that sexuality is both healthy and pleasurable. In fact, because there is a divine commandment to reproduce, sexuality can be a powerful vehicle for holiness even when propagation of the species is not the intended goal. There are, however limits to this pleasure. These limits are not always logical, and many fall under the legal umbrella of chukim, commandments we must follow even if the reason is beyond our understanding. 

  

In the first half of this week's  double parasha we read about the arayot, the physical pairings that the Torah singles out as harmful.

The Torah explains that these relationships were the practice of the Canaanites, who were being expelled from the land for these very practices.

  

These relationships go beyond the commonly known incestuous combinations that are know to incite genetic mayhem, to relationships that are not at all connected by blood. For example, a man is forbidden to ever marry his wife's sister during his wife's lifetime, even after a divorce (Lev. 18:18). 

  

The concept of harmful pairings is developed in the next part of the double parasha, Parashat Kedoshim. 

  

The Torah says, "You shall observe My statutes: You shall not crossbreed your livestock with different species. You shall not sow your field with a mixture of seeds, and a garment which has a mixture of shaatnez shall not come upon you" (Lev. 19:19).

  

Shaatnez, a mixture of linen and  wool, is forbidden to be worn. The Midrash Tanchuma explains that this is related to the offerings of Cain (linen) and Abel (a lamb) that resulted in the world's first murder.  

Murder? Why should the Torah care what I choose to wear? Why should the Torah care whom I marry?

  

Some pairings are beyond the limits. As a stream of water is strengthened when its channels are limited, so is our holiness as our natural desires are restricted. 

  

May we see these restrictions as broad avenues to get closer in our relationship with G-d, and stimulate our spiritual appetites.

  

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Greg

 
 

Update this content.

Sat, 29 April 2017 3 Iyyar 5777