Daf Yomi – Sanhedrin 38

A great honor to teach the “daf” – the daily page of Talmud, with lots of beautiful messages about the human’s creation.

 

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See, when all else fails…

Vignette:
We’re standing at the bottom of a 215 foot waterfall in NY’s Cayuga State Park, amazed. How does something like this form, exactly here, exactly like this? There is a little sign about the kind of rock, the force of the water, how over 10,000 years… I read it carefully, impressed by the details of geography and geology, and yet, one wonders… in the face of such magnificent nature, what is the explanation for that?
When all else fails, there is always G-d.

Re’e – on seeing:
In his lectures about Buddhism and Psychology, Robert Wright shares a realization his brother had: “Girls don’t look at me”, said the middle aged man, “not because they think I’m unattractive, but simply, because they don’t see me!”
It’s a great exercise, to try to see “different” people then we’re used to, different age groups, different social groups; places we thought we knew; colors we took for granted. I remember having to practice sketching at some point of my life and realizing trees were not all “shamrock”, grass green but can be dark, light, and even silver-olive, brown, purple; and what about their shapes? The various seasons?
How much do we really see?
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses opens with the famous word: Re’e! See! We can be commanded to see! We can learn to see good!
Why now?
Seeing is one of the first things G-d does in the creation of the world: “וירא אלוהים את האור”…. G-d sees the light and qualifies it as “good”. He can then distinguish it from darkness.
We are told about Abraham, walking with Isaac to the mountain that “he lifted his eyes and saw the place from afar”(Genesis 22: 4). The midrash tells us that he then turned to Isaac and asked him, ‘do you see anything on one of the mountains’? Isaac replied: ‘yes, I see a pillar of fire standing, connecting heavens and earth’. He told the lads traveling with his: “you stay here with the donkey” (22:5). Donkey, in Hebrew is chamor – חמור like chomer, חומר, materialism, as if saying, ‘you who can’t see that place, will remain down here’.
But the sense of sight can also fool us: Isaac was blind, some say because of the knife glistening blade at the time of his binding. Perhaps symbolically, that was the point he stopped “seeing” parts of the world around him, especially those related to his family. Even though he successfully dug wells and dealt with his neighbors, of some things at home, he was not aware.
We can be led astray by sights and visions, by outward beauty, attractions, distractions, and there are plenty of examples for that too.
What’s so critical about reminding us to see especially now?
In these Torah portions the people are about to enter the Land of Israel. Unlike the desert, in the Land there will be no obvious miracles. In such a situation, “seeing” – being aware of our surroundings, remembering G-d’s gifts and our spiritual path, will be harder and harder. It is now that we are taught to see; see any way we can; open up and see.

Having clear choices:
Sforno who lived in the 15-16th century Italy gives one of my favorite albeit chilling commentaries to this opening verse: “see, I set before blessing and curse…” (Deuteronomy 11:26). He answers an unasked question: what do you mean ‘I set before you blessing and curse? Didn’t G-d set many more things before the people and before us??’ but Sforno says that “see” here is a warning, and that it should be read like this: ‘watch out! There is only “blessing” and “curse”, not anything else. The middle grey mush is nothing. If we don’t walk in the way of blessing, that in itself is already a curse.’

That place I show you…
The Torah’s 5th book, Dvarim (Deuteronomy or “things”) is considered largely Moses’ “rerun”. But if it’s a rerun, what do we need it for?? It’s so much work to write a Torah, so a whole book just to repeat what was already said? A more careful read reveals that there are differences and exactly those, are important to our understanding.
One of the things our 5th Book highlights is the connection with the Land of Israel, a land which is nothing like Egypt; a land that G-d inquires about constantly (11:10-12); a good land, with flowing water, vegetation to eat, and resources where you’ll lack nothing (8:7-10); a land that will reflect the Torah you receive for ever more, so that even thousands of years from now, those choices of blessing and curse will still be visible on the same mountains (11:29-30):

כט וְהָיָה, כִּי יְבִיאֲךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ, אֶל-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-אַתָּה בָא-שָׁמָּה לְרִשְׁתָּהּ–וְנָתַתָּה אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה עַל-הַר גְּרִזִים, וְאֶת-הַקְּלָלָה עַל-הַר עֵיבָל. 29 And it shall come to pass, when the LORD thy God shall bring thee into the land whither thou goest to possess it, that thou shalt set the blessing upon mount Gerizim, and the curse upon mount Ebal.
ל הֲלֹא-הֵמָּה בְּעֵבֶר הַיַּרְדֵּן, אַחֲרֵי דֶּרֶךְ מְבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, בְּאֶרֶץ הַכְּנַעֲנִי, הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּעֲרָבָה–מוּל, הַגִּלְגָּל, אֵצֶל, אֵלוֹנֵי מֹרֶה. 30 Are they not beyond the Jordan, behind the way of the going down of the sun, in the land of the Canaanites that dwell in the Arabah, over against Gilgal, beside the terebinths of Moreh

What is the explanation for that?
When all else fails, there is always G-d.

Shabbat Shalom.

Mount Eival, the Mountain of Curse, next to Mount Grizim, the Mountain of Blessing, in the Shomron -Samaria, near Sh’chem – Nablus, Summer 2017

 

 

 

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Do Make a BIG Deal!

Vignette:
I’ve never lived in an apartment building, not like this, where it’s possible to tell what day of the week it is by the smells in the hallway, and what time. Sunday morning announces itself with strong coffee and pancakes, while Thursday evening and Friday announce themselves with soup and kugel, chicken and meatballs, and Shabbat – with tchulent (chamin). Maybe someday, just like we have cameras for our vision, someone can come up with a scent app so we can capture and save and remember our life’s good, orienting scents.

Torah Portion – Heel!
Ah, don’t make such a big deal! It’s just a minor issue!!
Again and again we hear such statements, and while, of course, there is room for compromise in life, this week’s portion, Ekev, tells us otherwise.
Ekev, what a strange name for a Torah portion! “because” – it is translated, “as a result of…” but these are translations with commentaries. Ekev comes from the word akev, heel. Rashi, in his famous commentary to this opening verse, says: “And it shall come to pass, because you hearken to these ordinances, and keep, and do them, that Hashem your God shall keep with you the covenant and the mercy which He swore unto thy fathers” (Deuteronomy 7:12), says that we’re talking about the “light mitzvot”, מצוות שאדם דש בעקביו
Easy, common, mitzvot that one squishes with one’s heels.
What is the connection between heel and “because”? or, in other words, why is heel so pivotal here?
If we go back and look at the first time this root appears in the Torah, we find ourselves in Genesis 3:15:

טו וְאֵיבָה אָשִׁית, בֵּינְךָ וּבֵין הָאִשָּׁה, וּבֵין זַרְעֲךָ, וּבֵין זַרְעָהּ: הוּא יְשׁוּפְךָ רֹאשׁ, וְאַתָּה תְּשׁוּפֶנּוּ עָקֵב. 15 And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; they shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise their heel.’

This is G-d talking to the snake in the Garden of Eden. The heel is the point “over which”, if you will, is the life long war with the snake. We also know the expression “Achilles’ Heel”, describing a weakness in spite of an overall strength, which can lead to a downfall. In Greek mythology, we’re told, when Achilles was a baby, he was dipped in the water of the river. The water should have covered his body, giving him a protective shield, but while doing so, his mother held him by his heel which was left untouched by the magic water, thus making this his vulnerable spot. Though he survived many wars, a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, causing his demise. We can see another “heel” when Jacob holds on to Esau: what is he trying to do by holding his brother’s “heel”? by being named after this spot?

The heel is what holds our posture. It is what gives our standing pose a good foundation.
What is the snake? Nachash (snake) shares its root with lenachesh – to guess, also – to use hidden tricks and magic, that is –to rely on something unstable, “slithering”. The animosity between the snake and our heel can be therefore, symbolic of us being hurt in our most vulnerable spot by doubt, by something small, slippery. And remember, the snake “looses” his legs right after the Garden of Eden incident. Likewise — when hiking, we most often don’t trip because of a huge mountain, but because of a small rock on our path. We don’t make a puzzle beautiful because of one big piece in the middle, but because of connecting lots of small pieces to one.
“Don’t sweat the small stuff and it’s all small stuff”, says a catchy magnet we’d like to believe, but really??
There is a scene in one of my favorite movies, “Friendship in Vienna”. Based on a true story, it describes two best friends in Vienna of 1938, one girl is Jewish and one’s father just joined the Nazi party. Upon the latter’s family’s return from Munich to celebrate Hitler annexing Austria, the Jewish girl notices that her friend is wearing a pin of Hitler Youth on her collar. Yelling at her outraged, the friend responds: “it’s nothing, it’s just the surface of things; in my heart you’re still my best friend”. It’s just a pin. It’s meaningless. Don’t worry about it. Don’t make such a big deal of such a minor matter!!!
But our life is often made of little details coming together: this minor decisions, plus that small issue, along with this other incident brought us to where we are today. It’s not that I think the Torah advocates for us to be petty; it wants us to be “large” and have “vision” and see the “big picture”, but for this week, it wants to remind us to pay attention to the details in our life. Like an impressionist painting, made of lots of tiny dots, that is how the big picture is made.

Shabbat Shalom.

 

 

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The morning after (Tish’a Be’av)

Vignette:
Hot, sticky summer night, and suddenly – sparks hopping around in the grass and bushes – fireflies! Until now, fireflies appeared only in my kids’ children’s books. Now they are here, dancing. Them and the beautiful, red cardinal, to remind me that stories are real.
Tish’a Be’av – the days after:
The worst thing Tish’a Be’av got going, aside from being the longest, hottest fast of the year, is falling in the dead of summer, when there is no school. At some point, there was an idea to combine Holocaust Day into Tish’a Be’av. After all, argued those in favor, we already have a national mourning day. Let’s tag all our national troubles to that one. The founders of our State said no, and therefore, lucky for us, whether we like it or not, at least about the Holocaust, we know a thing or two. Which can’t be said – for a large segment of the our people – when it comes to Tish’a Be’av. Wait, Tish’a be’av? Isn’t that the day we plant trees? Oh, that’s Tu Bishvat? My oh my, they do sound similar…
So now, we have discussions about how to find meaning on this day. Because, really, we’re clueless. What does it mean that the Temple was destroyed? Who cares? 2000 years have gone by! As one of my traveling teens said to me, “if a building collapses, or whatever happens to it, and you want it fixed, then fix it! Why the whining?”
To say that, is like living in a world devoid of any sunlight, and for someone would say, ‘what are you complaining about? Here, plug in this little night light, you’ll be fine’. This is one of the biggest tragedies of this day in our time, that we don’t know what we’re missing.
***
Rav Avi Weiss holds an afternoon prayer-vigil opposite the U.N. building in NYC. For 40 years, every year, on Tsh’a Be’av, he’s there, in the middle of this intense fast, standing up for the Jewish people, telling the world, Am Yisrael Chai – we’re here. Every country’s flag waves in front of us as he speaks passionately, encouraging us to continue and dream big, not to give up – who would have thought we’d be where we are? This too is Tish’a Be’av – destruction is the lowest we can go, but it only means, from there, we can go only up, always up.
***
I’m an particularly touched this year by the juxtaposition of the two shabbatot before and after Tish’a Be’av: the one before is called Chazon – vision, and the one after, this Shabbat coming up this week, Nachamu – comfort. And I’m puzzled: shouldn’t it be backwards? First comfort, in preparation of the calamities ahead, and then, once we survive, IF we survive, we’ll work on our vision… but the sages tell us – opposite: going into disaster, you don’t need comfort. It’s going to happen, whatever it is. But you need a vision to see beyond; to know there is a beyond. Then, we’ll sit and comfort.
And, in this Torah reading Moses also introduces – love: “You shall love you G-d”… (Deuteronomy 6:4). What is this? Can love actually be commanded??who can be forced to truly love? Not possible. Is it a request, as some suggest?? Also, strange. I think, it’s simply a fact. This is how it’s going to be. just like with people, your relationship with G-d will not always be predictable, not always neat and organized. It will have crazy moments, unexplainable events, passionate break ups and emotional come-backs, but always, together, guided by the most simple, complicated, healing and powerful force in the universe –love.

Shabbat Shalom.

flower from the wall

 

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Shabbat Chazon: Intro to Moses’ Speech and more

Vignette:
Riding the bus through the Bronx on a cloudy errands’ day, I find myself instinctively getting up when an “older” person gets on, offering them my seat. The person I just got up for, might be around whatever age I am now, and looking at me quite confused. I can’t explain, but somehow, when I ride a bus, any bus, I immediately revert to being the Haifa girl of my youth. Above my head are verses in square little red letters — “rise before the elderly; show respect to the aged”, they say, quoting Leviticus (19:32).
It looks so normal; every kid in Israel knows the bus-riding routine. And yet, on the week of Tish’a Be’av it gets a special meaning: 2000 years after the harshest war against us, and after our almost compete destruction, somewhere in this world, there are little signs with quotes from the Torah in buses, stubbornly continuing to teach the next generation that very same way of life.
*******
This week, we turn to the Book of Deuteronomy, the last of the Five Books. It is comprised of Moses last speech during the last month of his life (some say 36 days), and usually thought of as a “repetition” of what happened before and what was previously taught. Its other name is “Mishne Torah”, “Second Torah”, clearly, just the rambling on an old man who, after 40 years in the desert, is tired and bitter for missing out on his biggest dream, going with the People into The Land.
To add to this view of the elderly Moses, there is no obvious order in his reminiscing: if he wants to rebuke the people for their bad behavior, shouldn’t he start with the Sin of Golden Calf, which was the earliest, and then remind them of what transpired next, then next? The sins in his words appear just as they appear in his mind. He sounds almost confused, like when I sort through old photos, ‘wait, where was this? Is that…? Are you sure??
I always like Moses in the early parts of this Book of Dvarim, of ‘stuff’, like a parent walking his child to the bus stop – or airport – before they take off for a long time, on a journey the parent can’t join, as is the way of the world, and yet, no less painful. What to say? Some awkward joke? A last piece of advice? Like… eh… honey… ?
But Moses is not me. And although he is now 120 years old, he is as strong, sharp and fit as ever (Deuteronomy 34:7). So what’s going on here?
Moses, to the last moment, remains Moshe Rabeinu, Moses our teacher. His words are not meant for his own musing but for us. He never stops being an educator with a message to the people. As such, he can be selective with his fact. The purpose is not a history book of exact chronology, but a teaching which he edits and sets in front of his listeners as best suits the message.
The Sin of the Spies is the most critical one right now: As they are about to enter the Land, what is they “chicken out”? what if they send another set of spies? Will they miss the opportunity, or will the promise be fulfilled this time? Moses’ role is to remind them of the bad decisions of the past and encourage not to miss the mark this time.
And yet, even before the retelling of the Spies (1:22-42) we find that for Moses, first thing first: an orderly society with a structured, fair, just system of judges and courts (1:8-17 – quoted below). This emphasizes Moses’ preparations – that’s what he did, as opposed to what the people did – send spies, and check the physical qualities of the Land.
Is checking something’s – or someone’s – physical qualities to best way to know its essence? To know “how things will work out”? Obviously not. Further: if to judge from the later chapters (28:63-64), Moses knew that there might be times when we’ll be removed from the Land. If that was to be our one and only focus, how would we survive? Indeed, if our history was a “normal” story, it should have ended somewhere in the year 70-135 CE. But it’s not. And our focus have been – and should continue to be – much broader. Moses might be hinting us that even though the whole purpose of the journey was to go into the Land, and even though he is incredibly sad not to join, nevertheless, that is not what’s critical here. What’s most important is first what kind of people we are; what kind of society we have and what values we bring to the world.
*******
Through a precise system, Tish’a Be’av – the day we commemorate the destruction of the Temple – and Pesach share the same day of the week (that is, whatever day of the week 1st day of Pesach is also the day of the week Tish’a Be’av), so if this year, 1st day of Pesach was Tuesday (April 11), Tish’a Be’av is coming up this Tuesday, August 1. Coincidence? Maybe. But what if not.
Despite more than 3500 years of learning, we still have no good explanation exactly, why Egypt? Why slavery? Why be exposed to such cruelty? We offer explanations and they are nice, but satisfy us in a most limited way.
Why was the Temple destroyed? Why the exile? Why… so many unanswered whys. Our wish is for easy, simple answers: this is because of that; if you do this, this will happen; these are nice people, these are not.
But turns out, life is not like that.
On Pesach we eat matzah and maror bound together: the sweet taste of freedom and the excruciating bitterness of slavery don’t show up in two neat separated packages so we can choose which one. On Tish’a Be’av we are exposed to horrific devastation. And yet, the sages teach us, that the messiah will be born davka on that day, and a week later, we celebrate “Tu Be’av”, an ancient “love holiday”.
Eastern religions advise us to “detach”, but Judaism invites us to feel, to struggle, to engage; to sit on the floor and cry for all the national and personal losses. And at the same time know there will be a tomorrow. And smiles. The Shabbat before Tish’a Be’av is called “Shabbat Chazon”, the Shabbat of Vision. Let us see the destruction but also, what’s beyond.

Shabbat Shalom.

ח רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לִפְנֵיכֶם, אֶת-הָאָרֶץ; בֹּאוּ, וּרְשׁוּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע יְהוָה לַאֲבֹתֵיכֶם לְאַבְרָהָם לְיִצְחָק וּלְיַעֲקֹב לָתֵת לָהֶם, וּלְזַרְעָם אַחֲרֵיהֶם. 8 Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which the LORD swore unto your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their seed after them.’
ט וָאֹמַר אֲלֵכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא לֵאמֹר: לֹא-אוּכַל לְבַדִּי, שְׂאֵת אֶתְכֶם. 9 And I spoke unto you at that time, saying: ‘I am not able to bear you myself alone;
י יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם, הִרְבָּה אֶתְכֶם; וְהִנְּכֶם הַיּוֹם, כְּכוֹכְבֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם לָרֹב. 10 the LORD your God hath multiplied you, and, behold, ye are this day as the stars of heaven for multitude.–
יא יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי אֲבוֹתֵכֶם, יֹסֵף עֲלֵיכֶם כָּכֶם–אֶלֶף פְּעָמִים; וִיבָרֵךְ אֶתְכֶם, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר לָכֶם. 11 The LORD, the God of your fathers, make you a thousand times so many more as ye are, and bless you, as He hath promised you!–
יב אֵיכָה אֶשָּׂא, לְבַדִּי, טָרְחֲכֶם וּמַשַּׂאֲכֶם, וְרִיבְכֶם. 12 How can I myself alone bear your cumbrance, and your burden, and your strife?
יג הָבוּ לָכֶם אֲנָשִׁים חֲכָמִים וּנְבֹנִים, וִידֻעִים–לְשִׁבְטֵיכֶם; וַאֲשִׂימֵם, בְּרָאשֵׁיכֶם. 13 Get you, from each one of your tribes, wise men, and understanding, and full of knowledge, and I will make them heads over you.’
טז וָאֲצַוֶּה, אֶת-שֹׁפְטֵיכֶם, בָּעֵת הַהִוא, לֵאמֹר: שָׁמֹעַ בֵּין-אֲחֵיכֶם וּשְׁפַטְתֶּם צֶדֶק, בֵּין-אִישׁ וּבֵין-אָחִיו וּבֵין גֵּרוֹ. 16 And I charged your judges at that time, saying: ‘Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between a man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him.
יז לֹא-תַכִּירוּ פָנִים בַּמִּשְׁפָּט, כַּקָּטֹן כַּגָּדֹל תִּשְׁמָעוּן–לֹא תָגוּרוּ מִפְּנֵי-אִישׁ, כִּי הַמִּשְׁפָּט לֵאלֹהִים הוּא; וְהַדָּבָר אֲשֶׁר יִקְשֶׁה מִכֶּם, תַּקְרִבוּן אֵלַי וּשְׁמַעְתִּיו. 17 Ye shall not respect persons in judgment; ye shall hear the small and the great alike; ye shall not be afraid of the face of any man; for the judgment is God’s; and the cause that is too hard for you ye shall bring unto me, and I will hear it.’

 

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To journey forward is to stop and go

2,878 miles (4,632 km!); 27 happy teens; 2 counselors; 1 driver; about 10 different over-night sites and possibly 60-80 bathrooms; 4 National Parks; 2 dams; 4 lakes; lots of trees and even more – squirrels; 1 museum; 1 Golden Gate Bridge; 1 Pacific Ocean; 1 repower outage; 1 tour guide, excited everybody is back home safely.
We spend a significant amount of time on hiking and learning how to hike; how to pack our backpacks have enough water, comfortable, “sole-full’ shoes; hats that shade us from the sun.
It was an above average rainy year in the Western U.S. so there is still snow around Tahoe and lots of water everywhere. The Yosemite falls are gushing; the mist trail is misty; the moss is so so green. Everything is amazingly beautiful. I want to show them everything: here’s a plant; here’s a tree; look, footprints of deer; see those rocks? The layers? The cliffs? They take pictures and share them with the world.
I’m reminded of my days, many years ago, hiking with another teen group while working at the Society for Protection of Nature in Israel. Once again, I have great appreciation, even admiration to nature around me. I walk around with a feeling of great excitement: look! look!!! I drag them to yet another peak to wow at the view stretched before us, “common, we can do it, let’s go”.
And yet, that love of the Land I grew up with, that unexplained feeling between G-d, His People and that tiny plot of Land the size of New Jersey on the other side of the world that can’t be described in words but is so evident when there, is a different story. I find out that try as I might, I don’t quite know how to share that here.

*******
There are times that the trip is a blur – like the famous joke: it’s Tuesday so this must be the Grand Canyon. But there are also moments that we slow down, that we sit and “kumbaya”, and think about what we’ve done; how different places impact us differently.
In the last Torah portion of the Book of Numbers, the journey of the Children of Israel is described in rhythmic pattern, telling us about every place separately by repeating the words ‘vayis’u vayachanu’ in between – and they traveled and they camped. And they traveled and they camped.
And the question is, why not just give us a “laundry list” of all the 42 sites along the way? Why the added “and the camped”?
And one of the explanations I particularly like is that in our journeys every place has significance; every place has merit.
We may be in some place that is not so attractive; the day seems to have been rough; we were faced with unexpected challenges; and our thoughts wonder to doubt.
We start thinking about how we’re not supposed to be here. I should not have done this.
But the Torah reminds us here that in our journey in life, every place we go through, has meaning; every place provides us with an opportunity to grow; every place propels forward, closer to our goal.
Ultimately, from Avraham on, we are a people of a journey, But – Journeying is not just walking mindlessly on and on. It is also about processing what happens along the way.

In Hebrew, the word used for camping, vayachanu – ויחנו, shares its root with the word, chen – חן, grace.
We find this in Jeremiah, the prophet we come to especially at this season of the three weeks before 9 Be’av:
מצא חן במדבר
The people found favor, grace, a resting place, in the desert
Our journey by definition must be made of both – travel and camping; moving forward and pausing to process. We need to progress, but we should not run aimlessly ahead.
The combination of the two makes for a healthy journey in our people’s life as well as in our personal life. May we find that balance and so continue forward.

Shabbat Shalom.

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More Stories from the Desert (Parashat Balak)

After some days in the desert, we arrive in the City of the Angles. I know that some of my ‘NorCal’ friends will cringe, but I like LA a lot, as do the other 13 million some who live around here, and who opt to all be on the freeways at the same time, or so it seems. Our visit is unusual: we’re not going to see Universal Studios or Disney Land; no stop at LACMA or La Brea tar pits; no drive along the beautiful Sunset Boulevard to look for the actors and other glitzy stars. We’ll skip those and many other fun attractions, but we will go on a three hours tour to the Museum of Tolerance.
At times I wonder, perhaps sacrilegiously, if that is the true holocaust. Not only what happened 70 some years ago but the fact that it’s etched and re-etched into our psyche. A day earlier, we visit Hoover Dam, and a group of kids get separated into another elevator. It’s not even a matter of 5 minutes before we meet up again, but I already have images of other cars carrying kids off; not to mention when the guide asks us to line up against the wall.
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One of our participants is not feeling well this morning, and opts for an extra nap on the soft benches of the Hollywood Museum’s movie theater. I stay behind, watching two hours of the same three documentaries looping around endlessly about Maksymilian Faktorowicz (1872-1938), the founder of the famous cosmetic company, developer of modern cosmetics industry and the one who popularized the term “make-up”, better known as Max Factor.
The film started from wherever it was, which was not the beginning, so it took me a while to figure out that Maksmilian was Jewish; a kid who was an apprentice in a pharmacy, a wigs shop, and a barber shop, created an answer to a need others didn’t even realized they had and now can’t live without.
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We’re reading a seemingly crazy Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2- 25:9) about a king and a magician who are trying to win a war they didn’t have to be in, against the Jewish people, by manipulating curses. So strange! If they want to beat the People, why this whole show? Why not just fight? The people are at the end of their 40-year journey; probably tired of everything – the views, the food, the schlep. With some simple tricks, they can probably be overcome.
But that’s not what the confrontation is about. It’s not a simple battle. The Moabites are the descendants of Lot, Abraham’s nephew, now facing Abraham’s offspring. The struggle is over the rightful spiritual path, and so it’s done via words. Further: maybe coincidentally, the last war was against the Amorites, led by their king, Sichon, both coming from different words in Hebrew for speech (amar and sach).
Words are our thing. Words – speech – are the bridge between thought and action. We teach that the world was created through 10 sayings; and later, in Sinai, it was 10 “statements” that forever changed the world. The ultimate battle therefore, is not in bow and arrows, but in words. Balak and Bil’am are doing all they can to curse the people, but somehow, curses turn to blessings.
How? Not by anything. No magic potion, no abracadabra, no orchestrated sacrifices. Just by being who we are.
In the beginning, at the creation story, G-d sees his creation and says, it is “good”. What is the meaning of this “good”? there was no moral or ethical judgement regarding the light, earth, plants etc. But rather, like we say, ‘this is a good table’, namely, it fulfills the mission for which is was created. So too nature fulfilled its role perfectly.
So maybe here too: in order to reverse a curse, we need not do anything “special” – in this story, we don’t. When Bil’am eventually says, ma tovu – “how goodly are your tents oh Israel”, the Children of Israel don’t do anything “unusual”. Like Shakespeare who said, “to be or not to be”, they just “are”. Maybe it means – being who we really are, is what can change a curse to a blessing.

Shabbat Shalom.

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