The People of the Journey & the Journey of the People: Matot-Mas’ei

L and I are introduced warmly because “you’re both from Israel! isn’t it wonderful?!” I quickly notice that my Hebrew is too fast for her and that she has an accent I can’t quite place. The hospital worker who made the connection says that L needs assistance and maybe I could help? Sure. She just needs someone to walk with her and her two children across the street to an emergency room a couple of blocks away.
It doesn’t take us long to realize that we come from very different sides of Israel as she’s from a large Palestinian village in the “West Bank”. 6000 miles from here this would matter so much it might be the end of the conversation, but in NYC, somehow’ almost magically, it’s possible. On the eve of Rosh Hodesh Av, when we commemorate the destruction of the Temple and all its ramifications, exile and dispersion, I’m reminded of what are (so far) my 3 favorite words in Gemara (Baba Batra 14:b): —- Shkoyach (good job!) Moses, for breaking them, says (supposedly) G-d regarding the smashed Tablets. Somehow, good things – might at times – come out of the broken shards scattered around us.
When it’s time for good byes, we hug once and again. The 5-year-old tugs at me, “Don’t I get a hug too?” I think, this evening was one of those times.
*******
Reuven and Gad approach Moses with a scary request: Even after this whole journey, on the verge on entering the Land, they wish to be allowed not to go into the Land; to create the first diaspora, purposefully, not through a horrible disaster but through a valid, different scale of priorities, and a new promise: for those “overseas” to help those in the Land, to be there for each other.
Ultimately, per later prophets, we’re taught that everybody should be and will be in the Land, one day, but for now, that history needs completion; that we don’t do things all at once, that life takes time, for us as individuals and as a People.
*******
This week’s reading is made of two Torah portions: Matot – Mas’ei, literally meaning: The Staffs and The Journeys of”. I am especially fascinated by the latter, a grammatical construct that needs another word, that begs for the rest: the journeys of… ? tell me more! Ah, sorry, it’s the end of the Book; you’ll have to write in your own…
Of course, the Torah – past the portion’s name – continues the verse (Numbers 33:1-2):
אֵ֜לֶּה מַסְעֵ֣י בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר יָצְא֛וּ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרַ֖יִם לְצִבְאֹתָ֑ם בְּיַד־מֹשֶׁ֖ה וְאַהֲרֹֽן׃
These were the journeys of the Children of Israel who went out from the land of Egypt, troop by troop, in the charge of Moses and Aaron.
2
וַיִּכְתֹּ֨ב מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־מוֹצָאֵיהֶ֛ם לְמַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם עַל־פִּ֣י יְהוָ֑ה וְאֵ֥לֶּה מַסְעֵיהֶ֖ם לְמוֹצָאֵיהֶֽם׃
Moses recorded the starting points of their various journeys as directed by the LORD, and their journeys by their starting points are as follows:
This is followed by a list of 42 sites, described rhythmically with “and they traveled from… and they camped at…”. In Hebrew from is described with the letter מ- mem, which (coincidentally) equals 40, while at is described with the letter ב- bet, which equals 2, altogether 42.
The list is often challenging to read, like a strange “laundry list” which makes no sense. Some of these places, we have never heard of. For example, we don’t know that this particular journey passed through a specific place called חרדה – Charada (Numbers 33:24), but we might wonder, as Charada in Hebrew means – anxiety, and how fitting for this to be right in the heart of the journey! The place we left, is far; the place we’re going to, is nowhere in sight; it’s just us and this desert. Have we chosen correctly to leave the “flesh pots of Egypt”? should we have stayed? Gone elsewhere? Plod along? How do we know that tomorrow will be better? That we did right by our kids? By or forefathers? By our time on this earth? Each moment is our best guess. At times, we feel confident and secure, and at times, anxious. For the Torah “slips”, either one is an integral part of the journey.
We’re often called “The People of the Book”, but I think even more so, we are the People of the Journey. Many years later, a famous Chasidic story will tell us about Reb Yitzchak who traveled far to look for the treasure in his dreams, only to find it back at home. The verse that talks about the “starting point of our journeys” maybe teaches just this: in Hebrew, motza – is indeed, the starting point, but the same root, matza (not matza the Pesach bread, which is spelled differently), is also a “find”. The Children of Israel return to the Land of their forefathers, where it all begun. Our own journey might, at the end of the day, lead us back home, to find and rediscover our very origins as a new found treasure once again.

Shabbat Shalom.

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From Moses, Pinchas and “The Daughters”, to Joseph

Last Sunday was the 17th of Tammuz, a fast day, which according to tradition, commemorates five calamities which befell the Jewish people on this day:
1. Moses broke the two tablets of stone on Mount Sinai;
2. The daily tamid offering ceased to be brought;
3. During the Roman siege of Jerusalem, the city walls were breached (proceeding to the destruction of the Second Temple);
4. Prior to Bar Kokhba’s revolt, Roman military leader Apostomus burned a Torah scroll;
5. An idol was erected in the Temple.
I’m especially intrigued by #3. Our scripture and numerous songs are full of references to the walls of Jerusalem, which we’re used to, but if we think about it, it’s confusing. If it’s the city of peace (shalem, wholeness), Isn’t the goal to have no walls?
Jerusalem’s walls make it a “reshut hayachid”, an individual’s domain, and the image can be extended to our modern days. We often speak of “boundaries”; of one’s inability to create relationship without knowing where one ends and where one begins. Healthy boundaries around our own “reshut hayachid” are needed (including “guards”, if to follow Jerusalem’s imagery), not because we necessarily prepare for war, but because knowing who we are is a better way to be wit others.
*******
What is the verse that we read more than any other during our annual Torah reading?? Surprisingly it’s a verse in this week’s reading (numbers 28:3):
ואמרת להם זה האשה אשר תקריבו ליהוה כבשים בני־שנה תמימם שנים ליום עלה תמיד
Say to them: These are the offerings by fire that you are to present to the LORD: As a regular burnt offering every day, two yearling lambs without blemish.
On top of reading it on this Shabbat, we read it during most days of Rosh Hodesh (New Moon). In addition, because of the way Rosh Hodesh reading is divided, it is read twice (once for the Kohen, 1st aliya and again for the Levi, 2nd). This means that the verse is read between 25-35 times a year. The verse speaks of the daily Tamid offering, #2 of the calamities above. Without the Temple, it’s hard for us to grasp the disaster of what we’ve lost. Perhaps because this spoke to something we did daily and can no longer be done, this is the verse we read more than any other.

*******
There are a number of other topics in this portion. On top of a count of the Children of Israel and the description of the holidays, the Torah portion opens with Pinchas, Aaron’s grandson, who, surprisingly, receives the “covenant of peace” for his act of zealousness, and later shares the famous story of the Daughters of Tzlofchad who come before Moses to give them an inheritance in the Land of Israel, for their “father died in the desert… and had no sons” (Numbers 27:3).
I’d like to look, not at issues of the “feminism” of those 5 daughters (for in spite of our modern eye on the text as such, I am not sure we’re talking in these terms here), but rather at Moses’ leadership in this section. Rabbi Sherki points out the times that Moses “doesn’t know the answer” (two of these incidences are here – Pinchas who takes over when Moses s stunned, and the Daughters of Tz) have a commonality: They are situations when Moses had to deal with an offspring of Joseph. Moses offers a leadership that is attached to G-d and concerned with the people’s spirituality. Joseph offers a national model that cares more about Peoplehood. It’s no wonder that on the verge of entering the Land, we get a new leader for the future challenge: Joshua Bin-Nun of the tribe of Ephrayim, Joseph’s son. The Daughters are also heirs to Joseph – his other son, Menashe, and according to the midrash, Pinchas always has part of his lineage rooted in Joseph.
Entering the Land necessitates a leader that cares about nationality. It also tells us that the halacha we received might be some amendments and innovations, where women will take a major role. What, how, and how much remains to be seen.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Balak: It’s a great view from up here!

FJ comes down the hallway in his big smile and light, dancing gait, especially cheerful after a shower. “I feel like a new man”, he proclaims in his booming, friendly voice, as if he’s not wearing hospital pj’s, “and man, the view from up here, just doesn’t cease to amaze me!”
The view from Bellevue Hospital’s 19th floor is indeed fantastic, even if broken to little squares by the thick bars, and somewhat opaque by the double glass and grime. FJ invites me over to see it better: “You’re worried, chaplain? Don’t worry. Look at those kids on the walkway by the water, do you see? Probably on some field trip, and over there, that boat coming in on the East River, right there! This morning I saw the airplanes whizzing in and out! And there’s even a pool in the building next door. I wish I could get a job there, right there! I’d do anything, windows, laundry, sweeping the whole staircase of them 20 some floors, ‘sir, would you like me to take out your trash’? Anything, anything at all”.
We stand there quietly for a moment, hands on the bars, gazing outside, as he grows serious: “Seriously, I wish, I wish I could do this, but how? When I get out, they’ll send me away with $40 to the shelter. I’ll still have no job, no training, nothing to do where I have meaning. Day one, I’m fine, strong, hopeful; day 2, I’m carrying on, a bit slower, but still pushing through; I now have $27 but hanging in; Day 3, struggling with the $15 left, lost as to what to do next; day 4, some guy invites me to shoot or snort or smoke, and I think, who the f—k cares about me anyway, let’s have a little something, anything, just to take the throbbing pain away; day 5, you don’t know what day it is anymore; before too long you get in some trouble and you’re locked up again for some s—t. Oh my G-d, if only there was a way to break out of this cycle, to learn a trade! The subways, where our mammas and sisters and everyone in this city ride, are filthy. Give us a respectful job; we have energy, we can clean them up; we can garden, we can do something, anything, but instead, time goes by, prisons get hundreds of thousands of dollars for each and every one of us”.
According to Wikipedia, the United States has the largest prison population in the world, and the highest per-capita incarceration rate. A couple of other alarming facts: With a high relapse rate, it has not proven as a “correctional” system, and the racial picture is even more horrifying with Blacks taking up more than 3 times their place in US population. I am not arguing their innocence or lack thereof, for some have it, and some don’t; I am just wondering: what are we doing? To each other? To ourselves? To G-d’s image and presence in this world?
*******
The Torah portion of Balak is one of a kind: a magician, a speaking she-donkey, curses that turn into blessings… what’s going on? Here are just a couple of thoughts about it:
Balak, king of Moav, hires Bil’am to curse the Children of Israel on their journey to the Land (Numbers 22:5), and the question should be asked: if Bil’am is so powerful, why not hire him to bless the Moabites, instead of curse the Children of Israel? Turns out, that sometimes, we, humans, get so involved in our desire to destroy someone else, that we focus on that, instead – and sometimes at the expense of – our own well-being.
Another question is the famous “ma tovu”, the words that decorate many synagogues throughout the world and open our morning prayers: XXX why pick the words of a non-Jewish magician who set to destroy us, as those that adorn our shuls and start our day? The MaHaRaL teaches that there words are true, davka because they come from an “outsider”. We know from the Talmud that witnesses must be completely not related to the matter over which they testify, or it seems false because they are —- noge’a bedavar, related to the matter. In order for something to credible, it should come from an impartial source. So it is with ma tovu: had we praised our own tents, camp, overall fabulousness it might come from – and create – a feeling of haughtiness and pride, a ‘look at us, aren’t we wonderful’ (the same feeling that might have led to the transgression at the end of the section), but like this, we had no control over what blessing was said. Therefore, it became even more powerful, like an objective testimony.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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Chukat: on struggle and love – בסוף יהיה טוב

A magnets in a store somewhere here says: “it’s going to be ok at the end. If it’s not ok, it’s not the end”. I am guessing its not based on a Rashi for this week’s Torah portion, but, then again, it could.
Just like that, between last week and this one (or between this one’s beginning of chapter 19 and the following chapter 20) Almost 40 years have gone by. The People are inching towards the Promised Land and the stories along the way are fascinating. Here is a seemingly insignificant piece (Numbers 21:13-15:
מִשָּׁם֮ נָסָעוּ֒ וַֽיַּחֲנ֗וּ מֵעֵ֤בֶר אַרְנוֹן֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר בַּמִּדְבָּ֔ר הַיֹּצֵ֖א מִגְּב֣וּל הָֽאֱמֹרִ֑י כִּ֤י אַרְנוֹן֙ גְּב֣וּל מוֹאָ֔ב בֵּ֥ין מוֹאָ֖ב וּבֵ֥ין הָאֱמֹרִֽי׃
From there they set out and encamped beyond the Arnon, that is, in the wilderness that extends from the territory of the Amorites. For the Arnon is the boundary of Moab, between Moab and the Amorites.
עַל־כֵּן֙ יֵֽאָמַ֔ר בְּסֵ֖פֶר מִלְחֲמֹ֣ת יְהוָ֑ה אֶת־וָהֵ֣ב בְּסוּפָ֔ה וְאֶת־הַנְּחָלִ֖ים אַרְנֽוֹן׃
Therefore the Book of the Wars of the Lord speaks of “…Waheb in Suphah, and the wadis: the Arnon
וְאֶ֙שֶׁד֙ הַנְּחָלִ֔ים אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָטָ֖ה לְשֶׁ֣בֶת עָ֑ר וְנִשְׁעַ֖ן לִגְב֥וּל מוֹאָֽב׃
with its tributary wadis, stretched along the settled country of Ar, hugging the territory of Moab…”
What is the Book of the Wars of the Lord? We don’t quite know, and where we don’t know, the midrash has a party. A few verses later it says, “then Israel sand that song” (21:17), which might remind us of a verse in Exodus (15:1): “then Moses and the Children of Israel sang this song”. As the Exodus event was after the splitting of the Sea, here too maybe there is a reference to the sea? The word “Suphah” is a reminder of Suph, like Yam Suph, the Sea of Reeds. Therefore, here too we speak of similar, great miracles. What happened? The midrash (below in the Hebrew) tells us that when the children of Israel came to wadi Arnon, they were going to walk through in the wadi, facing “ein-sof” (endless, enormous amount of) people. Above it, were mountains with protruding rocks on one side, and hollow caves on the other. In order to protect the Children of Israel, from enemies above and those hiding in the caves, G-d hinted at the mountains to come together and become a flat pathway, hiding the people, and making it impossible to be attacked.
Vahev & Supha, those mountains, became symbolic of forces that come together, for a greater good: vahev from the same root as ohev, loving, and supha – storm, but also, sopha – its end, to mean, in the end they became one. As it says in the Talmud:
אמר רבי חייא בר אבא: אפילו האב ובנו, הרב ותלמידו שעוסקין בתורה בשער אחד, נעשים אויבים זה את זה ואינם זזים משם עד שנעשים אוהבים זה את זה, שנאמר; “אֶת וָהֵב בְּסוּפָה”, אל תקרי בְּסוּפָה, אלא בְּסוֹפָהּ.
— מסכת קידושין דף ל’, עמ’ ב’
רש”י: מתוך שמקשים זה על זה, ואין זה מקבל דברי זה, נראין כאויבים, והכי דריש לה (כלומר הדרוש על הפסוק הוא): ‘ספר מלחמות’ – מלחמה שעל ידי ספר, ‘והב בסופה’ – אהבה יש בסופה”.
It is taught by Rabbi Chiya Bar Abba: even the father and the son, the teacher and his student, who are busy with Torah together, can become enemies, and won’t let go until they become beloved again, just like it says in our verse: “Vahev & Supha. Don’t read supha, but sopha, its end. And Rashi adds: they make things difficult for each other because of a Book – that is, learning, arguing and “warring” over what’s written in The Book, but those kind of wars, end up in love. And perhaps as our magnet says, if there is no love, if there is no good resolution, then they are not yet done.
This became halacha, written in the Shulchan Aruch (Yore De’a 244:10), the book coding Jewish law, behavior and customs (written in the 16th century): It is not allowed for a student to teach where his teacher is teaching (differently) is forbidden (because it can be embarrassing), but to argue over a decision or teaching which seems different and he has proof, of course, for that is the ways of the Torah, and the whole book of full of arguments… for it is not allowed to be flattery and the Torah is the Torah of truth…
May we find differences (implying identity), a healthy struggle and – love in our learning and in life.
Shabbat Shalom.

 

The midrash:

“אז ישיר ישראל את השירה הזאת” השירה הזאת נאמרה בסוף מ’ שנה והבאר נתנה להם מתחלת ארבעים ומה ראה ליכתב כאן הענין הזה נדרש למעלה הימנו על כן יאמר בספר מלחמות ה’ את והב שעשה להם הקב”ה אותות ונסים בנחלי ארנון כנסים שעשה להם בים סוף ומה הם נסים של נחלי ארנון אדם עומד על הר זה ומדבר עם חברו בהר הזה והוא רחוק ממנו ז’ מילין והדרך יורד לתוך הנחל ועולה ודרכן של ישראל לעבור בתוך הנחל נתכנסו כל האומות לשם אוכלוסין שאין להם סוף ישבו מקצתן בתוך הנחל והנחל מלמעלן עשוי מערות וכנגד המערות הר שכנגדו עשוי סלעים סלעים כגון שדים שנאמר ואשד הנחלים נכנסו האוכלסין לתוך המערות ואמרו כשירדו ישראל לתוך הנחל אלו עומדין לפניהם שבתוך הנחל ואלו למעלה מן המערות ונהרוג את כולם כיון שהגיעו ישראל לאותו מקום לא הצריכן לירד למטה מן הנחל אלא רמז להרים ונכנסו שדים של הר זה לתוך מערות ומתו כולם והקיפו ההרים ראשיהם זה לזה ונעשו דרך כבושה ולא נודע אי זה הר נסמך לחבירו ואותו נחל מפסיק בין תחומי ארץ ישראל לתחומי ארץ מואב שנאמר כי ארנון גבול מואב בין מואב ובין האמורי הר שבארץ מואב לא נזדעזע שבו המערות וההר מארץ ישראל נזדעזע שבו הסלעים כמין שדים ונסמך להר שכנגדו ומפני מה נזדעזע מפני שהוא מארץ ישראל משל לשפחה שראתה בן אדוניה בא אצלה קפצה וקדמה אותו וקבלתו נכנסו הסלעים לתוך המערות ורצצו כל אותן גבורין והבאר ירדה לתוך הנחל ומתגברת שם ואבדה כל האוכלסין כדרך שאבד אותן הים לכך הקיש את והב בסופה לנחלי ארנון ועברו ישראל על אותן ההרים ולא ידעו כל נסים הללו אמר הקב”ה הריני מודיע לבני כמה אוכלוסין אבדתי מפניהם ירדה הבאר לאותן המערות והוציאה גולגליות וזרועות ורגלים שאין להם חקר וישראל חזרו לבקש את הבאר וראו אותה שהיא יוצאה מלאה מתוך הנחל ומוציאה איברים איברים ומנין שהבאר הודיע בהן שנאמר ואשד הנחלים ומשם בארה וכי משם היתה והלא מתחלת מ’ שנה היתה עמהם אלא שירדה לפרסם את הנסים והיו ישראל עומדים על הנחלים ואומרים לה עלי באר ענו לה ואמרו שירה עליהם:

Shulchan Aruch:
דווקא להורות במקום רבו אסור, אבל להתווכח עם רבו באיזה פסק או הוראה, שלא נראה לו כמו שרבו אומר, ויש לו ראיות והוכחות, וודאי שרי (מותר), שהרי כל הש”ס מלא מזה שהתלמידים התווכחו עם רבותיהם. ואמרו חז”ל; אפילו הרב ותלמידו נעשו אויבים זה לזה בהלכה, ואת והב בסופה, שאחר כך נעשו אוהבים זה לזה וכן אב ובנו, וכך דרכה של תורה. ואמרו חז”ל “ומתלמידי יותר מכולם” ואסור להחניף בדברי תורה, והתורה נקראת אמת. ומכל מקום, אם רבו עומד על דעתו, אסור לו להורות עד שרבו יודה לדבריו.

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Korach: evaluating self-evaluation

On a week when we delve deep into dealing with dispute, a little message of peace can’t hurt:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KNGqqFaahGY

* * * * * * *
This week’s reading presents us with The “role-model” for machloket – dispute or controversy, Korach. Why does he stand out and what do we want from the poor guy?
Well, “poor” would be a matter of definition: In modern Hebrew we use the term “ashir ke-Korach – wealthy as Korach (and no one else) to express immense financial affluence. The midrash tells us that Korach was so “loaded” that he had 300 oxen just to carry the keys to his treasury! And yet, in Pirkei Avot we learn that a wealthy person is “one who is happy with their portion” (4:1). Korach in that sense is indeed the poorest person in the world. Like Haman in the Purim story, he too lives under the motto of “and all that is not enough” (Esther 5:13). Should we feel sorry for him for maybe all he had was money without prestigious, we know that he was also a Levite and had a respectful job in the service of the Mishkan (Tabernacle)
But Korach is bitter, churning and turning, not because his lot is small but because he has his eyes on what his cousins, Moses and Aaron, have; not in exchange for what he has, but in addition; not for anyone’s well-being and benefits; just to have.
The Torah portion begins with “And took Korach…” (Numbers 16:1). I’m purposefully leaving the Hebrew order of words, to emphasize that the reading opens with taking. What did he take? The commentators try to explain and the more they try, the more we know that we have no idea and it does not matter. The Torah wants to alert us that he is a “taker”; a taker not for the sake of giving but for the sake of hording. As such he stops the “flow” of what’s around him. Ultimately, the earth will open up to swallow him, his family and their property in a grand gesture. His connection to earthly materialism, envy and chase after honor, take him down.
Some say that what Korach took is the word “emet”, truth, from the end of last week’s reading, at the end of the section about tzitzit. The tzitzit is a garment worn over the body, against the heart, not to be confused with the tzitz, which is what Aaron, the high priest, one of the positions Korach envied, wore to his head. Not to be confused, or was it? Korach mixes up “head” and “heart”. What should lead our decisions, especially as those impact others? Just last week, we read “do not follow your heart and eyes… (15:39)”…
Korach’s façade is “equality”, which means he is not only greedy but also dishonest: “everyone is holy”, he says to Moses and Aaron, “and why do you lift yourselves up above G-d’s community?” (16:3). ‘Lift yourselves up’?? Just a few chapters earlier (chap. 12), Moses was described as the humblest of all people on earth, the one who welcomes other prophets (11:29)! If Korach was a true seeker, Moses would have welcomed him too, but Korach is not interested. In the name of seemingly “beautiful ideals” (consider the atrocities conducted in the previous century in the name of forced equality), he calls for the “well needed” rebellion: enough with the rule of these two! Let’s have “equality”!
Wait what’s the problem? Isn’t that what the Torah teaches anyway?
While the Torah teaches that all people were created in G-d’s image, there are still distinctions. We do not live in a giant pot of cholent, where we all blend into an indistinguishable stew. Rather, each one of us has a unique role and calling; each is a unique piece in a complex puzzle. Korach wants to cancel all that in the name of “openness and sameness”, such noble ideas! If only everybody be “equal” and he would be in charge of that “new world order”…
Although Korach appears as someone who “only objects to Moses” and what’s the big deal, a deeper look reveals that he stands for someone who objects the order in which G-d set the world. This is also why Moses tells him, “let morning come and then G-d will make known…” (16:5). Morning is an indication of clarity (boker from levaker, to criticize, to see clearly, as opposed to erev, from levarev, to mix things up).
The mishmash he creates, is a reflection of who he is. He knows not who he is, what is his true self-worth and how he blends in with the community around him, for his own betterment and those around him. Moses, on the other hand, stands opposite to and apart from this confusion with a humble but clear and strong sense of self and his own mission.
There are questions as to when did this story happen. Did it really happen right here, after the spies, when G-d said, again, that Moses is “it”? Rav Uri Sherki suggests that this happened after Moses broke the Tablets and before he got the new set. This would be a semi-appropriate time to challenge his leadership, and to have him “fall on his face”, as described, and be distressed by the rebellions actions.
Korach, of course, was not alone. Along with him came other trouble makers and impractical idealists. The latter, group of 250 men, came with their incense pans to bring an uncalled-for offering. After a fire came down from heaven, leaving their pans behind, G-d instructs Elzazar, Aaron’s son, to use those pans to cover the altar. If the incident happened before Moses’ getting the second set of the Tablets, this would explain the need to still cover the altar.
It would also leave us with the beautiful idea that it is up to us to decide what to do with our holy vessels, be those our dishes, bodies or skills, all vessels to carry G-d’s light. There will always be a choice whether to bring a foreign fire or build the Place of G-d. We are our own best asset. The better we know ourselves, the better we can use our abilities in the best way.
Shabbat Shalom.

 

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Parashat Sh’lach-Lecha on the 18th Fl

When the eye-doctor subs for the ear-doctor, he opens his class with: the ear is a very different organ from the eye. Let me tell you about the eye… I think about this silly little story countless times, and again last Sunday. It’s the first time I’m on call at my new chaplaincy internship, when the phone rings: the psych patients on the 18th floor are bored and want a little spiritual something. Would I come up?
I am the eye-doctor, knowing only my stories. The people in the room are Christian, Chinese, Muslim and of no religion at all. I have no idea what they are expecting. I can’t do anything but tell them about the parasha. I share briefly the story of the spies (Numbers 13). I ask them what they think about checking up on G-d, if G-d promises you a Land of milk and honey, should you believe blindly, or still send someone to check once again what’s going on before schlepping 2 million people in.
Their vote is unanimous: definitely check again. But, I try to push-back, what if G-d told you to go? Ah, they wave me off with a smile, here we all hear G-d telling us things all the time. G-d doesn’t decide for you. You do. G-d gives you options, good and bad. You need to figure things out for yourself.
Now this story will never look the same.
*******
Long ago and far away, people used to tie a knot in their handkerchief to make sure they didn’t forget something important. Today, while tying a “Kleenex” is pretty much impossible, there is a website called “KnottedHandkerchief” that sends reminder email before an event.
Why do we need reminders? Why do things slip our mind? And how these knots supposed to help?
At the end of this week’s Torah portion, God tells Moses to instruct the Children of Israel to tie knots on their garments as reminders of the obligation to observe all the commandments. A mitzvah for our clothing??
The first humans were naked (Genesis 2:25). Initially, they had no shame and they had no evil inclination within them. They also had no free will, and thus no ability to see choices and make decisions, all essential components in a real relationship.
After the “fruit”, it was no longer natural for them to roam around naked in the Garden, and thus, they “hid”. Their first set of clothing was made and given to them by G-d (Genesis 3:21). It was an act of care, compassion and protection, but also of sadness and distance since the humans were no longer one with each other or with the Divine. Clothing symbolically expressed closeness, G-d’s kindness and empathy, yet also separation. Indeed, from before birth till after we pass, we’re clothed, shelled, divided – and yet, connected. Through our clothing we communicate who we are and check who is another, like soldiers who recognize a member of their unit, a member of another army (this can be a “dangerous” and not very PC metaphor, so just work with it for as long as it works and toss when no longer useful).
Hebrew plays with us a bit, because “begged”, a garment, shares its root with “bagad” and “bgida” which mean – betrayed and betrayal. It turns out that contrary to what we think, what we wear has little to nothing to do with the climate we might live in for even in perfectly comfortable weather, where we would be fine in nothing at all, humans wear something! The Torah teaches that clothing are a way for us to communicate; they are a reminder of our original separation (and not “sin”!) from G-d and each other. This is why we can use them to reconnect.
The commandment of tzitzit specifies: “…so you may not wander after your heart and your eyes to lead you astray (Numbers 15:39)”, and by the way, “lead you astray” is a PG translation to the Torah’s blunt language literally saying “which you prostitute after them”.
Why does the Torah place the heart before the eyes? Aren’t we first attracted by what we see, and then ‘feel’? Apparently not. The eyes are an agent of the heart and not an independent organ. The heart leads, the eye follow. According to what’s in our heart, so we see. This is easily tested when we look at something, or someone, at different times in our lives, and all of a sudden, “it changed”. Did “it”? How about the familiar phenomena that when we’re pregnant, so is everybody, and when we’re looking for college, so is everybody, etc. Is that objective “seeing”?
This very same Torah portion also opens with the story of the “spies”: Twelve esteemed princes of the twelve tribes are sent to check out the Land of Israel before the rest of the nation would follow. Only two of them, seeped in trust in God, saw the Land’s potential! The ten others “saw” an impossible place to conquer or live in, full of “giants”, fortified cities and inedible fruit. Why the different view of the same exact place? Interestingly, the Torah tells us they were sent “latur et ha’aretz”, to scout or “wander” the land, using the same root from the mitzvah of tzitzit where it says “velo taturu”, do not wander! Don’t go around aimlessly without first preparing your heart! In this regard, the heart is just like any other muscle. We hopefully wouldn’t run a marathon “cold”; likewise, we should not send our heart out to decide our life for us without some prep. It too needs some training, some “reminders”.
And there is maybe a little comfort: The Torah tells us that often that which separates us also brings us closer again. Just like what we wear is not only a divider, but also a tool to reconnect, so too, our exit door can be our point of re-entry, and where we erred is where we begin to correct – with each other and with the Divine.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Light up the path…

There are 10 different topics and stories in this week’s reading, opening with Aaron lighting the Menorah. The Menorah was made of 7 branches, 9 flowers, 11 knobs and 22 cups (as described in Exodus 25:31-29). The Kabbalists say that the Menorah is like the whole Torah because it constantly sheds light. They tell us how its construction symbolizes it:
In the 1st verse of the Book of Genesis, there are 7 words, like the 7 branches;
In the 1st verse of the Book of Exodus, there are 11 words, like the 11 knobs;
In the 1st verse in the Book of Leviticus, there are 9 words, like the 9 flowers;
In the 1st verse of the Book of Deuteronomy, there are 22 words, like the 22 cups;
Finally, in the 1st verse of the Book of Numbers, there are 17 words, like the 17 tefachim of the Menorah’s height (a tefach is a Biblical measurement of about one fist wide).
Last, if we add all these (7+9+11+22), we’ll get 49, same as the numbers of days between Passover and Shavuot, or – the walk from slavery to freedom; to coming to Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. Inside both words, Torah and Menorah, hides the word “or”, light. This was the first thing G-d created which immediately was defined as “good”. The Menorah is not a “thing” made of many parts, but rather – many parts of an indivisible One.
What about the Menorah today? In the absence of the 17 tefachim tall Menorah, each one of us has to work on our own “little light”, and as the name of the Torah portion suggests, bring it up.
*******
At the end of Numbers, chapter 10, there are two upside “nun’s” (the Hebrew letter), around two famous verses, dividing the Book of Numbers into 3 sections (until then, these 2 verses and what’s going to come after). We’re used to the Torah the way it is, but a second look reveals that the Torah should have ended right there, with the Children of Israel traveling “a three days’ journey to seek out a resting place for them” (Numbers 10:33). What happened?
Paul Simon says, “the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away”…But the People were not ready; and neither was Moshe. Before we know it, chapter 11 opens up with complaints, and soon (next week), we’ll have another (almost) 40 years added to our time in the desert.
*******
As part of learning at Yeshivat Maharat, students have to complete at least one unit of CPE, Clinical Pastoral Education, training us in chaplaincy. I was excited to have been accepted to the program at Bellevue Hospital, which, founded in 1736, is the oldest public hospital in the U.S.. Today, almost at the end of my first week, I am glad I chose to come here. This will be where I’ll spend much of my summer hours going forward, as well as some evenings and weekends shifts (Sundays, thanks to an interfaith cohort!). We’re learning techniques, potential challenges and possible situations. It promises to be quite intense.
At the end of this week’s reading, Moses offers the shortest prayer in the Torah, and he does so, for Miriam’s quick recovery, even though she might have spoken badly about his wife: —- “Please G-d, heal her, please”! (Numbers 12:13). I am reminded of it when our supervisor teaches us the art of silence. There is so much that can be done with so few words.

Shabbat Shalom.

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