Which way is East? West!

New York on this early morning hides her face under a blanket of clouds, so I can’t quite bid her good-bye, which is just fine. I know, I know – closure is so important, and yes, it is, but then again, we, the people who on the same day, finish and begin the Torah once again, do we actually believe in closure?? Does that (illusion) give us a feeling of comfort and control, to think (!) we know whether we’re done somewhere, and if and when we’ll be back, or not? I left Israel umpteen years ago for a less-than-a-year trip around the world, which I have not yet completed, and – at the same time that I am eager to do so, go back and settle “once and for all”, I already plan when to be back on this side of the ocean… Sometimes I wonder why we’ve been called “Am Hasefer”, “the People of the Book”, when really, we are the People of the Journey…

How fitting to be traveling (East through West) on the week of this Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, when the Children of Israel are just 3 days away from the Land of Israel, but then, as Paul Simon says: “the nearer your destination, the more you’re slip slidin’ away”…

Three days; that’s all it would have taken. The journey should have ended in no more than eighteen months. And now, instead, will last for 40 years. This Torah portion should have been named something like “the disaster”. Instead, it is called “Be’ha’alotcha”, erroneously often translated “when you light the lamp” when it really means “when you bring up”, from the root a.l.h.ע.ל.ה same as going up to the Torah and – going to the Land of Israel.
Some teach that the book of Numbers is really three books: first, chapters 1-10:34, and last, chapters 11-36. In between them, there are two verses (chapter 10:35-36) which the sages deemed as the second book.
It is easy to understand the theme of the “first book”, which centers on the last preparations and the final stages of the journey, including organizing the traveling camp and completing the mishkan. Similarly, it is easy to understand the theme of the “third book”, which includes all the stories of the “delay”: the complainers, the spies, Korach and his mutiny and more.
What are the two verses in between and why are those considered the whole “second book”? They will most likely look familiar from this week’s Torah service:

לה  וַיְהִי בִּנְסֹעַ הָאָרֹן, וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה:  קוּמָה יְהוָה, וְיָפֻצוּ אֹיְבֶיךָ, וְיָנֻסוּ מְשַׂנְאֶיךָ, מִפָּנֶיךָ.
35 And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, that Moses said: ‘Rise up, O LORD, and let Thine enemies be scattered; and let them that hate Thee flee before Thee.’
לו  וּבְנֻחֹה, יֹאמַר:  שׁוּבָה יְהוָה, רִבְבוֹת אַלְפֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל
36 And when it rested, he said: ‘Return, O LORD, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel.

That was supposed to be the whole journey: the ark will travel and rest. The Children of Israel, led by Moshe, will travel safely and uneventfully. No enemies, no trouble. It’s but a small distance. They’ll arrive shortly. The end.
Interestingly, in every Torah scroll, these two verses are separated by two upside down letters, two upside down nun’s. This was possibly done to accentuate the tragedy, as if to say, look! we were so, so close!
What happened?  Was it Moshe who was tired and heartbroken from the situation brewing in front of his eyes which led to his inability to enter the Land, who lacked in his leadership skills?  Were the People, in spite of being at Sinai, in G-d’s presence, and receiving the Law, not ready? Now I think that the Torah says, ‘it’s hard to know what exactly “happened”; it’s just did. Now let’s deal with what’s in front of us’….
Be that as it may, the Torah portion of what could be a tragic turning point, is called “Beha’alotcha”, literally, “as you bring up”, opening with lighting the holy menorah, what became the emblem of the State of Israel many years in the future, symbolic of who we are: not disconnected, fragmented pieces, but a one whole People. Indeed, we got used to quick stories, 90-120 minutes with “they lived happily ever after” caption smeared at the end. But, the journey is rarely that simple, and rather, often, much more complicated than we initially expect. Even when the path is clear, we fall short, fall down, have regrets (ragrets 😊), change our mind, get scared. And, get up. In fact, the Torah might be telling us that there is really no other way. What if the Children of Israel did everything “right” as they “should”? What if they just walked straight into the Land without any hesitation, full of faith and fervor?? I think that would be much worse – for us – than them making mistakes! The Torah in its wisdom, reminded us that even then, even in the strangest “detours”, our direction is still, always upward, to the light.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Naso: Lift up your eyes and see – yourself

176 – is the number of the verses in this week’s portion, Naso, the longest in the Torah, same as the longest Psalm (chapter 119) and as the longest tractate in the Talmud (Bava Batra with 176 dapim, pages). Why so long? Some suggest that this reading, usually closest to Shavuot, and the Giving of the Torah, from either side of the holiday (before or after), so detailed and flowing with information, is like being near a fountainhead, with fresh water gushing all around.

What is said in these 176 verses?
The parasha opens with the orderly travel of the Children of Israel in the desert, parallel to the orderly creation, and ends on the day the mishkan is erected and dedicated, the tribes’ princes bring lavish sacrifices, and Moses hears “The Voice” speaking to him there (Numbers 7:89).

With such ‘wow’ “bookends”, we might wonder, what else is in this parasha? Surprisingly, we find here obscure topics as the removal from the camp of metzo’ra’im (Torah lepers, sort of), description of the zavim (people with “impure” bodily excretion) and other t’me’im (spiritually impure people), maybe because we need to explore and clarify critical distinctions of holiness which were not previously discussed. It is here that we also find the Sotah, a married woman suspected by her husband of adultery. Then, the Nazir, the one who opts for extra religious observances. Then, the priestly blessing. And then, the tribes’ princes bringing their sacrifice.

Is this just a strange laundry list that fell into this chapter, before we get to the “real” stories??

Numbers is the Book of Travel, so appropriately here for me now. Once again, I journey. And once again, like the Children of Israel, the journey is expected to be roundabout. Ultimately, to the Promised Land, but, then, there are going to be detours… (and on that, tbc -).

Back to the Book and this parasha, Naso means “lift up” and begins with the end of the mifkad, a count. What an incredible organization!! Everything is spelled out: which tribes reside next to which other tribes, and where is each relatively to the Tabernacle in the middle; who carries what, who travels with who. Order is necessary before disorder or there is no meaning to either one, and in that we going back to creation: an abyss before an orderly creation; an orderly creation, like a painter setting his clean canvas and bran-new paints, just in order to create a mess again….

It’s the story of a People. but in order to hold the group, the “mess” of this book first must begin with the individuals who need a “tikkun”, a repair: there are those that need it in their relationship with themselves; others – who struggle int heir relationship with G-d and others – with their fellow humans; including those who live in agony and doubt in their closest circle, at home, and need to resolve that before continuing.

Only once the Torah prescribed a method for each, we continue to the priestly blessing, which must be said with love, and to the offerings of the leaders of the tribes. Throughout the book we’ll spiral through these circles: from individuals to home communities, tribes, to the “klal” (the whole people) to how we deal with the world around us. Only then, we’ll be ready to approach the Land.

I am in awe, again, at the Torah’s great wisdom: We, who most pray in the plural language (“our” G-d, “our” king, G-d of “our” ancestors), might think that the “group” is more important than the individual; that we always “must” sacrifice ourselves for the greater good. Comes the Torah and says, let’s not go there just yet. Let’s first find a way to heal each individual according to their pain and needs, as best we can, and then, go from there to build the tribe and then, the whole People. Although each one of us is incomplete without another (as symbolized by the half shekel), each incomplete part has to constantly work to be whole within its “complete incompletion”…. And to think Freud was Jewish! What a coincidence!

May it be a Shabbat of healing, good beginnings and re-beginnings, and safe journeys. Shabbat Shalom.

In the words of the one and only “Sunscreen Song”: You are not as fat as you think… and much more.

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Closing the 3rd Book; Celebrating the One City…

After the dramatic closing of the Book of Leviticus with “The Blessings and the Curses / Consequences”, there’s another chapter we rarely get to; a little appendix, as if the Torah says, oh wait, I have a few notes left here, let’s just put them where no one will see it…

If Genesis and Exodus were books describing G-d acting in the world, Leviticus spells out for us what to do. The first books are a pouring from on high – down, and this one – from down – up. At the very end we look at a person’s value. This is done vis-à-vis what happens is a person takes a vow and needs to redeem themselves at the Temple. This might seem sacrilegious: how can we speak of people’s value when people are created in G-d’s image? When we teach that people are created equally?? Isn’t each of us irreplaceable and therefore, impossible to estimate? How dare the Torah do that?!!

And yet, insurance companies, for example, must deal with this all the time: when paying for certain damages, how much is this or that human being “worth”? Why? How do we figure it out? I might not love or understand all the Torah has to say about this – I don’t know much about “vows” and “Temple calculations”, one reason why we have a whole Talmudic tractate on the issue called Arakhin and coming up in Daf Yomi later in June – but I love that it does dare to speak about it, and offer us two simultaneous scales: each person is equal: “If it is a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the “equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight” (Leviticus 27:3). What kind of a man? Wise? Kind? Strong? None of the above? Doesn’t matter. And at the same time, weather this is a free man or slave, might matter. Namely, not the human being but our role within the society.

There are many challenges in this chapter and the tractate, and laws following. I am not saying the scale is perfect or user friendly nowadays. For one, it applies to vows and Temple. But the idea that our worth is made of both who we are as single, unique, individuals, made in G-d’s image being while at the same time, influenced by the world we live in, does resonate. This is maybe the reminder at the end of a book filled with laws: You are one and only; you are an integral part of the whole and the whole does need to be considered. Which way is it? You got it: yes.

** ** ** ** ** ** **

This Sunday, the 28th of Iyar, is Yom Yerushalayim, Jerusalem Day, a day commemorating the reunification of the city in 1967. The midrash tells us that many, many years ago, Shem, the son of Noah suggested that this clear-mountain air city would be called Shalem, wholeness, perfection; while Abraham suggested that this site, chosen by G-d, should have be knowsn as Yir’a, reverence, awe.
G-d, who listened to both decided to combine both names into one, and call the city Yeru-shalem, but then Shem came back all sad: “not enough you put me second, Abraham’s name is longer: mine is 3 letters and his is 4”. G-d decided to rearrange things slightly, making from yir’a – yir’u (which combined the alef and heh into a vav, maintaining their numerical values), so Shem wont be upset. But after he left, G-d decided to add another letter, the letter yod for His name, maybe so we remember our priorities, and so that Yerushalayim will have 7 letters (in Hebrew) like the 7 days of the week, the 7 branches of the menorah, and many more sevens of perfection.
Just this morning, there was a stabbing attack in the city, that struggles to hold holiness and perfection along with the utmost mundane and pained life, of screams and sirens, noisy bulldozers and cranes and buses and light-train and traffic jams and taxi drivers honking through narrow streets; merchants yelling in the open markets where people rush between bins of fresh vegetables, sweet fruits, and colorful spices, avoiding the tahini sauce smeared on the sidewalk; kids running around. And soldiers. And people: religious, secular, Arabs, Jews, tourists, foreigners, locals; countless languages and accents. Talking about peace, perfection and reverence seems absolutely delusional. And yet, a gateway is naturally a place full of hustle and bustle. A place that connects heaven and earth can’t be all heavenly; it must be both. This possibility, now more alive than maybe ever, is what we celebrate.

Shabbat Shalom & a peaceful, joyful Yom Yerushalayim.

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Fire in the Land and a day for memory away – Weekend of Shabbat Be’har

I’m watching the news about the recent, some still going on, fires in Israel with a strange mixture of anger and pain. Images from past fires, that of recent November in NorCal; Haifa of December 2010 and November 2016 come to mind. At first, I am angry at “us”. After all, if there are fires on the heels of Lag Ba’omer, a day notorious for hazards following elaborate bonfires at night, and especially when the temperatures are in the 100F and it’s super dry, it must be carelessness, it must be stupidity, it must be… it must be “us” “not doing enough”. Then initial investigation notes that those are not started by a random, unattended “kumtzitz” left to smolder, but rather by arson. And then… of course, it’s ok to be angry at ourselves but not quite as p.c. to be angry with anyone else. What to do? what to feel??

In tractate Bava Batra (117:a) of the Babylonian Talmud we learn: משונה נחלה זו מכל נחלות שבעולם – This Inheritance – i.e. this Land – is unlike any other in the world. How can anyone say it, especially some 1800 years ago? Have they traveled all over the world and checked it out? Did their “compare and contrast”??
The Torah reading of this week takes it further, with the commandment of shmita, the “sabbatical”. The Land, we’re told, has its own Shabbat. Just like us. The land is a living thing, not just something we act on, but something that responds in its own way. She “eats” (Numbers 13:32) and can choose to “throw up” (Leviticus 18:25); a land that responds to a loving hand and reject those who mistreat her, exhaust her and manipulate her to their own hearts content.
I have this idea that it’s possible to look at (at least) the first three Books of the Torah as a spiral rather than just a linear story. Things (motifs, verbs, themes…) happen in a parallel fashion, expanding on each other and not just a long continuance story (that too, but not just-).

I can’t help but notice that each book has a central, somewhat magical, godly, divine place of its own: in Genesis, it’s the Garden of Eden; in Exodus – it’s the mishkan (tabernacle) and in Leviticus –the Land of Israel. Under the “spiral theory”, each adds meaning as well as observance to that of previous one presented: Genesis is about individuals, Exodus – about Peoplehood, and Leviticus – about the practical implications of the earlier ideals in the form of mitzvot. This pattern repeats in more than one aspect.

Specifically here, as far as a “The Place”, in Genesis, we had a Garden, a heaven for just two people and G-d; in Exodus – the building of the mishkan – a place for the whole nation to connect directly with G-d who lives amongst us; and in Leviticus, we have the Land, a national home and source of “light unto the nations”, to inspire, not only our own individual and communal selves’ growth and well-being, but the whole world, in ways that are beyond what we understand.

The fires are extremely painful, and the smoke might cover our eyes and burn our lungs, but homes will be rebuilt and trees will be planted, those that were destroyed and more.

* * * * * * *

This Monday is Memorial Day, a fun, long, sunny, pleasant weekend of shopping, bbq’s, parks and travels. A Few years ago, back in CA, I got into a conversation with a community member, when I did my proud Israeli thing and invited him to Yom Hazikaron ceremony. He said, ‘will you also come to Memorial Day’? I said, ‘what’ in surprise, and thought (a little haughtily I must admit), ‘what, there’s a sale somewhere I shouldn’t miss?’ but he (patiently, I must add) directed me to the service at the Jewish cemetery, honoring fallen US soldiers, and I stood there, in awe and tears. And ever since, my Memorial Day changed. I still hope for a fun, long, sunny weekend with all its trimmings; no, it’s not at all Yom Hazikaron, and yet, somewhere along the day, it’s nice to pause.

Shabbat Shalom

 

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The holiday not on the list: Parashat Emor

This year, 8th day of Pesach was on Shabbat. On that day, Israel went back to the regular weekly Torah reading, while outside of Israel, we remained with the holiday one more day, and since – one Torah portion behind. That’s how it’s going until the week of August 2!! Every week, in this season of celebrating redemptions, past and present, I get “Torah words” for two different Torah readings, mirroring two different worlds we live in. Ina  For this, and other reasons, I opt to write about a holiday coming up next week.

A holiday?? Yes, a Torah holiday; a Torah holiday which doesn’t appear in this week’s (chutz la’aretz) parasha of Emor (Leviticus 21:!-24:23) and the only Torah holiday during the month of Iyar.

Pesach Sheni – literally 2nd Passover – addresses people who missed the 1st Pesach. When it was time to bring the Pascal offering, they were unavailable, either because they were “ritually impure through contact with a dead body, or away on a distant journey” (Numbers 9:1-12). This situation has never come up before, so it is not obvious for Moses what to do. In response to their query, he asks G-d who tells him that these people can prepare the same offering a month later, on the next full moon, the 14th of Iyar, this year coming up this Sunday, May 19.

If you google it, you’ll find some lovely commentaries how the day has come to symbolize how there are always “second chances” and a “power to go back in time and redefine the past”…
Lovely. Except that for me, Pesach Sheni happens to be my father’s yahrzeit (the anniversary of his death). And there is nothing like a yahrzeit to remind us that try as we might, there is not “always” a second chance, nor a way to rectify and redefine the past. In fact, the whole teaching seems to highlight exactly the opposite! If there was “always” a second chance, then 1. there would not have been a need to ask Moses about it; 2. there would not have been a need for him to check with G-d Almighty before replying; and 3. We would have had already a Yom Kippur Sheni, Sukkot Sheni, Hanukkah Sheni etc etc.

But…. we don’t.

So the fact is that the people asking and Moses himself, knew very well, as I am painfully reminded each year, that second chances are super rare and hard to come by; that while we pray and hope, beg and bargain for them, rather than an “always”, they are usually not readily available and extremely unlikely; that life should be lived while we can rather than by relying on an “always tomorrow”.

More than anything: by focusing on the “p.c.” message of “second chances” as the core value of this day, we completely miss what it is, what is its place in our tradition, and what does it teach us about our own time!

So what it is? for that, please join me at Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland, CA this Shabbat 😊

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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On the Juxtaposition of Zikaron & Atzma’ut

Translate Yom Hazikaron to English and you get “Memorial Day”: end of spring to summer weather; BBQ’s with beer and wine; a long awaited weekend chill getaway; flowery summer dresses on sale.

Maybe it’s no wonder then that it’s almost impossible to explain this day: Traffic jams at the entrance of cemeteries; sadly familiar heart-breaking music; framed photos and stories of endless love cut short; a candle; grey-haired men crying.

For many in Israel, this day is more serious and holy than Yom Kippur, more soul-searching, thought-provoking, touching, and therefore, much more observed. You might see people biking on Yom Kippur through the empty streets or enjoying a fall day on the beach, claiming that “that’s how they connect to G-d”, but you’re likely to see far fewer, if any, doing so during the memorial siren of Yom Hazikaron. This is a reflection of the new phase of ge’ula גאולה – this time of redemption: it creates its own commemorative day as well as joyful holy-days, which initially are incredibly personal. And perhaps that too makes it ever so hard to communicate.

*******

And then the sun sets and the day is over, and just like this – it’s all gone: the white button-down collar shirt with the memorial sticker, gives way to a fashionable statement; loud speakers in the streets, noisy music, parties, and yes, BBQ’s too. We run from the cemeteries to the dance floors, hold hands, wave flags and cheer. And one wonders, must we?? How about doing it like in the U.S for example, Memorial Day more than a month away from Independence Day – with time to switch moods as needed ?

And yet, we are a People of juxtapositions, of contradictions, able to hold this and that simultaneously, not as a default but as an ideal, knowing that if we let go of one, they’ll both lose their meaning.

We are therefore deeply rooted in a rich past, still mourning a long ago and far away Temple destroyed almost 2000 years ago, and at the same time, equally committed to an even better future, leading the way in creativity and innovation;

We focus our attention and pray for peace in one tiny place 6000 miles away, while we live everywhere around the globe;

We raise our glass with a cheerful Lechayim, not for one minute letting go of what it takes for us to be here, to say that Lechayim

We are people of Juxtapositions.

Last week, we read from the Torah portion of אחרי מות – Acharei Mot, literally meaning – “after the death of”; this week, it’s קדושים Kedoshim, “holy ones”; and the week after, we’ll read אמור “Emor”, say. If we put it all in one sentence, we’ll get – אחרי מות קדושים אמור – “After the death of the holy ones, say”… But wait, Acharei Mot refers to the death of Aaron’s sons, and after their death he was silent! So, should we be silent or say something?? The answer of course is, yes. Let us have our day of silence, sadness and tears today. We’ll be back to doing tomorrow.

(Previous articles on this day here can be found by searching “Yom Hazikaron”)


 

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“From Victims to Victors”: a moving Yom Hasho’a visit

Yom HaSho’a in NYC: subways and traffic jams; people rushing, jogging, zigzagging to their errands, their work, their home; pretty stores flash their goods; passersby and store-keepers half nod a hi, welcome, have a nice day, and as if on automatic pilot, I nod back. The only sirens – a lone ambulance or police car, here and gone. I walk in the streets mindlessly, the mixed-up undecided weather – cloudy, sunny, drizzly all at once – reflecting my feelings.

Having grown up in a country which on this day stands still, flag lowered, radio music switched in all channels, ceremonies everywhere, the voice of the new reporter solemn, the day is etched in my soul. What to do with it here? How to hold it? For years, I’ve organized, wrote, announced, spoke, sought speakers, arranged the music, practiced with the children, made sure others came…. This year I pause to look what’s around. There are several respectful gatherings, ceremonies, stories by survivors and their offspring; there are photos and movies, names and violin music; The “Bayit” in Riverdale puts together an admirable and should be duplicated Yom HaSho’a seder, predicated on the Pesach Haggadah and initiated by Rav Avi Weiss. But all in all, one must seek these things out; they can be easily missed.

I thought it was a struggle to deal with the Holocaust in Israel – the silence of the survivors and those around them, the “diagnosis” of the 2nd and now 3rd generations, the burden, the guilt, the pain, the joy of making it through, the faith and its loss, the silence (did I mention it?), the loud sound of quiet, of those of won’t speak, those who won’t ask and hear… and yet, slowly, I realize the complexities of dealing with the Holocaust and its “Day” from abroad. I wonder, how close do we actually dare get, living in a “land not ours”?

Perhaps this is why I am especially appreciative that my yeshiva organizes a visit to the home of Ted Comet. Ted, a native of Cleveland, Ohio and a graduate of Yeshiva University, has been a key player in Jewish communal affairs since the end of World War II, working to meet the needs of Israel and world Jewry. In his career he held several major positions including, to name a few (hold your breath-) Associate Executive Vice President of JDC, Executive Vice President of the World Council of Jewish Communal Service, longtime Assistant Director of the Council of Jewish Federations and the National Director of the American Zionist Youth Foundation, as well as founder/chairman of the Israel Parade on 5th Avenue and producer Israel folk dance festivals (!) at Carnegie Hall and the World’s Fair.

But our visit’s focus is his wife’s art work, a survivor who chose to deal with her trauma first through weaving, and then through helping others in deep, meaningful psychotherapy. We stand in awe in front of the impressive tapestry, thinking and feeling  the pain, not only of those who perished, the immense, immeasurable loss for the Jewish people which we haven’t yet recovered, but of the pain of the living and the struggle we all share, in her words, “to turn the victims to victors”.

We often hear the words, “never again”, then watch in honor the recent shootings in Pittsburgh and outside of San Diego; the swastikas on walls, the marches in Germany, the yelling elsewhere, and we wonder, didn’t we just say, “never again”?? Do these words even mean anything??

For some reason, I am reminded of another Yom HaSho’a long ago and far away: while the ceremony was going on inside, outside a demonstration ensued. When I approached their leader, he barked at me, ‘You Jews, always whining about your people and what the Nazis did to you, he said mockingly, what about everyone else who suffered’? I told him that I agree with him; that I’m really sorry for his and everyone’s else pain, and that I wish the whole world would stop, if only for one day, to remember and cry together. I don’t know if my words had any impact or they just got tired or their permit expired, but before too long, they were gone.

The Torah readings around this day are usually from Leviticus 16-20 – Acharei Mot (this Shabbat, outside of Israel; and) Kedoshim (in Israel), jointly translated as – ‘after the death of – the holy ones’… what can we do “after the death of the holy ones”? At the end of the day, we have little control over what others do and what is done to us by others, but we can “never again” ourselves: “never again” will we forget; “never again” will we doubt our own family’s stories; “never again” will we respond with silence when speech and action is appropriate, with carelessness when a helping hand is called for; “never again” will we address victors as victims. There is still so much internal healing to do.

I left Ted’s home thinking, maybe I’ll buy a loom… maybe just start there and see where it goes.

Shabbat Shalom.

Ted Comet, and his wife’s Shoshana z”l, healing weaving

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