Wednesday, August 15, 2018

All The Things I Planned To Do, I Only Did Half Way (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Mission In The Rain")



          I guess summer vacation is rapidly drawing to a conclusion. Our teenagers have all returned home. One returned from her summer as a camp counselor, one returned from camp as a camper, and one returned from her summer in Israel. Each of them had a terrific time, with meaningful experiences and a powerful desire to return next summer. As we sat down to have our first family dinner together in about 8 weeks; I asked each of them their summer experience met their expectations. I asked them if there was anything they felt that they missed out on. I asked if there was anything they wished they could have done differently in order to achieve a better result. Each wondered aloud what was wrong with me that I was curious about their judgments, their self-evaluation once this reflective process was completed. I looked at each of our teenagers and reminded them that the only way to determine if an experience was good or bad, worth doing or not, is to be a bit self-reflective, wonder if it met expectations. Then I reminded them that most of all it is important to make sure that expectations are realistic, that the pre-conceived pictures are based upon reality or fantasy, achievable or unreachable.
This week’s Parsha is Shoftim. Moshe has completed his lecture on the values of monotheism and covenant. Now he begins telling B'nai Yisroel all the nitty-gritty details of living a Jewish life within this community. What a downer! B’nai Yisroel is inspired and ready to enter into Eretz Canaan and begin living the life in the land that God had promised their ancestors. They are now ready to begin fulfilling the dream that allowed them to survive centuries of slavery. So what does Moshe Rabbeinu do? He brings them crashing back to reality. Now they will listen and understand laws concerning war, punishments for idolatry, choosing a king, jurisprudence, priestly entitlements and unsolved murders. Moshe gives B’nai Yisroel a healthy dose of reality by supplying all the details required to uphold the Covenant.
            One of these laws is rather curious yet serves as a reminder of how important it is to maintain a balance between dreams and reality, between the idealism of our youth and the cynicism of age. V’Hayah Ch’shivto Al Kisei Mamlachto V’Chatav Lo Et Mishnei HaTorah HazotAnd it shall be when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself two copies of this Torah in a bookV’Haitah Imo V’Kara Vo Kol Yemei Chayav Lema’an Yilmad L’yirah et Adonai ElohavIt shall be with him and he shall read from it all the days of his life, so that he will learn to fear the Lord his God, Lishmor et Kol Divrei HaTorah Ha’Zot V’Et HaChukim Ha’Eilah La’Asotamto observe all the words of this Torah and these decrees, to perform them, so that his heart does not become haughty over his brethren and not turn from the commandment right or left, so that he will prolong years over his kingdom, he and his sons amid Israel (Deut. 18:18-20). The king must write and maintain two Sifrei Torah. The “personal” Torah must be carried with him wherever he goes: meetings, wars, benefit dinners etc. The Torah must always remain physically near his heart. However, the second Sefer Torah sits in the treasure room as a pristine copy, as a benchmark. This “benchmark” Torah remains enclosed, protected, and untouched. The king may consult it, but this pristine copy never leaves the sanctuary. How brilliant! The “personal” Torah that is carried around eventually becomes worn, the letters fade, and the parchment may even tear. This would most likely occur unbeknownst to the king. Yearly, the king must lay his “personal” Torah besides the “benchmark” Torah. There, in the inner chamber, the two Torahs are checked against each other. Then if there are any discrepancies in the “Personal” Torah, the king must make the necessary corrections. The king’s “personal” Torah must reflect the purest and highest standard. Through daily wear and tear, through the compromises necessary to manage a kingdom, the king must regularly check to make sure that he has not gradually drifted away from the “Pristine” or “Benchmark” Torah.
            This is the ultimate form of personal “Checks and Balances”! Instead of waking up one morning twenty or twenty-five years later wondering “What’s become of me”; Judaism understands that we all make compromises. Sometimes we may even, unfortunately, compromise our integrity our values and our own sense of propriety. Sometimes our drift from the ideal is not even that pernicious. Sometimes we just slow down or get sidetracked. However, Judaism is about behavior that expresses our relationship with each other and with God. Like a king that needs to periodically check his “personal Torah” against the “Benchmark Torah”, we also must check our “Personal Torah” against the “Benchmark Torah”. Certainly, the process may be uncomfortable, and yes, there is the danger of becoming so self-absorbed that we become paralyzed. The process occurs on a regular enough basis that we don’t become too paralyzed that we can’t function. However, what is so empowering is that this “personal Torah” is not confined to the King. In this regard, we are all kings, we are all royalty. We are all better off making sure that our “personal Torah”, the one we carry with us wherever we go matches up with Torah, the Torah that we learn from, the Torah that we read upon Shabbat and Holidays.  As I remind my teenagers regarding this self- reflective exercise; this is one of the ways that a teenager becomes an adult and one of the ways a parent learns to trust a teenager.

Peace
Rav Yitz

Thursday, August 9, 2018

That A Man Can Be As Poor As Me (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Black Peter"



          Our sixteen-year-old daughter has been in Israel for the past 5 weeks. She is scheduled to return early next week. Because of cell phones and WhatsApp, we have communicated with her quite frequently, she has spoken to us, video phoned us, and texted us. She has sent us pictures of nearly everywhere she has traveled throughout Israel. She has been to Israel on numerous occasions so she is rarely surprised by what she sees. She spent last Shabbat in Jerusalem. When we spoke to her, she commented that she is always overwhelmed by the poverty she sees, the number of beggars, and certainly the numerous women begging, pleading, and asking for money in order get their food for Shabbat. Our daughter is astute enough to notice the shopping bags full of change that the women outside the Kotel (Western Wall) have while they continue to ask for more. She appreciates the irony that when she gave a few shekels to a woman, the woman incredulously returned the shekels to our daughter. However, our daughter explained that she felt a tinge dismay; that something seemed so wrong. Here she was at the Judaism’s most holy site, and economic poverty surrounded this source of spiritual light and holiness. It seemed, to her, counterintuitive and she wondered how these two images co-existed.
This week's Parsha is Re'eh. Moshe continues his discourse. He has already explained the Mitzvot, and he continues to do that. Moshe has alluded to the blessings of life if B'nai Yisroel follows God's commandments. He has and continues to allude to the curses that will befall B'nai Yisroel if they violate the most important commandment-idolatry. "See I present before you today a blessing and a curse" (Deut.11:26). V'haklalah Im Lo Tishm'u el Mitzvot Adonai Eloheichem V'sartem Min Ha'Derech Asher Anochi M'taveh Etchem Ha'yom La'lechet Acharei Elohim Acheirim Asher Lo Y'Datem-"And the curse: if you do not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, and you stray from the path that I command you today, to follow gods of others, that you did know." (Deut. 11:28) Moshe presents B'nai Yisroel with two pictures, a world when B'nai Yisroel lives up to its covenant with God and one in which they don't.  He reminds Bnai Yisroel of the sanctity of Eretz Yisroel (the Land of Israel), the consumption of foods that are consecrated to the Kohanim and he warns Bnai Yisroel to avoid imitating the Rituals and Rites of the Egyptians and the Canaanites. Moshe reminds Bnai Yisroel to be careful of false prophets, avoiding non-kosher foods, not living in wayward cities, forgiving loans after seven years, caring for the less fortunate and celebrating the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot.
During the course of his warning Bnai Yisroel of the dangers of not following the Torah and exhorting them to observe the Torah, Moshe makes a simple if not stunning admission regarding the reality of our physical existence. Ki Lo Yechdal Evyon Mikerev Ha'Aretz -For destitute people will not cease to exist within the Land, therefore I command you saying, 'You shall surely open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your land" (Deut 15:11). The Torah may be many things, but spiritually unrealistic is not one of them. Judaism recognizes human reality and weakness as well as the importance of empathy. Focusing upon the word “brother”, Rashi (the great 11th Century French commentator) explains that if someone fails to empathize with his brother’s poverty; there may come a point when he joins his brother in poverty. For Rashi, there is little that separates the impoverished brother and the well-off brother, and as a result, the well-off brother must be able to see himself in the impoverished brother.
We know there will always be those less fortunate.  Whether "less fortunate" is a physical, emotional, spiritual, economic, or intellectual not everyone is as fortunate as the next person. We learn that tzuris is part of life and it transcends gender, age, and color and nationality. Moshe recognizes that in our zeal to make the world better, in our zeal to do Tikkun Olam (fix the world) we may grow dismayed and even beaten down because there is so much suffering.  Moshe reminds us that we are not obligated to do the impossible and eliminate the condition of poverty. Instead, our job is to contribute to the solution, by extending oneself to one who is less fortunate. Our sixteen year old understood the message.  The Kotel and what it symbolizes is an ideal, a utopia perhaps. The poverty that seemingly surrounds the Kotel manifest in all those beggars reminds the rest of us that we need to continually strive towards that ideal, towards that utopia. Rather than be overwhelmed our daughter realized that these two disparate images were empowered her to engage in acts of Chesed (Kindness) and Tzedaka (Charity) throughout her life.

Peace
Rav Yitz

Thursday, August 2, 2018

It's Good To Touch The Green Green Grass Of Home (Curly Putnam - "Green Green Grass Of Home")

A good case could be made that LeBron James is the most despised athlete in Toronto. His Cleveland Cavalier team has eliminated the Toronto Raptors from the playoffs in each of the last three years, and, as a result, he has broken the hearts of Toronto Raptors fans. The broken hearts have become so acute, that following the most recent playoff loss to Lebron James and his Cleveland Cavalier team; Raptor management fired the coach and traded away its most beloved player who, by the way, liked Toronto so much that he wanted to remain in Toronto. LeBron James earns nearly $100 million a year in salary and endorsements. He acknowledges that his family is financially secure for several generations. He understands that he has more than enough. He understands that he can’t possibly spend all that he earns. He readily acknowledges that he has been blessed and with such a blessing comes the obligation to “do good in the world”. LeBron strongly believes that he has an obligation to give back to the community. For LeBron, giving back to the community means providing educational programs for “at-risk youth” in his hometown of Akron.  Until this past week, LeBron’s foundation has invested tens of millions of dollars in college scholarships for at-risk students, providing them with academic and emotional support in order to help them earn a college diploma. Then earlier this week, LeBron’s foundation opened up a school in his hometown of Akron, Ohio. The elementary school is designed for at-risk students. It provides breakfast, lunch, tutors and uniforms for the students. It provides family and career counselling for families, and tutors for its students. As well as aftercare programs for students. The school is considered to be a state of the art facility. When the school opened, LeBron said that besides the birth of his children, the opening of the school was the most meaningful moment of his life, more than winning an NBA Championship.
This week’s Parsha is Eikev. Here in his second discourse, Moshe explains to the new generation how the second set of tablets that contain the Aseret Dibrot came into being. He explains how God forgave the parents of their idolatrous behaviour in regards to the Eigel Zahav (Golden Calf), and all B’nai Yisroel must do essentially refrain from Idolatry, serve God, worship God, and the nation will be rewarded with water, grass and quality lives. Moshe also reminds B’nai Yisroel that they have nothing to fear when they enter into Canaan and conquer the land even if they are outnumbered. God already demonstrated that he will protect his people. He did so during the Yetziat Mitzrayim (Exodus), and he did so over the past 40 years in the wilderness. As long as B’nai Yisroel keeps its side of the B’rit, God will continue to protect his people. V’Haya Im Tishma’u El Mitzvotai Asher Anochi M’tzaveh Etchem Hayom L’Ahavah Et Adonai Eloheichem Ul’Avdo B’Chol Levavchem Uv’chol  Nafshachem. V’Natati M’tar Artzechem B’Ito Yoreh Umalkosh V’Asaftah D’Ganecha V'Tiroshcha v’YitzharechaIt will be that if you hearken to My commandments that I command you today to love Hashem your God and to serve him with all your heart and with all your soul, then I shall provide rain for your Land in its proper time, the early and the late rains, that you may gather in your grain, your wine and your oil.  V’Natati Esev B’Sadcha Livhemtecha V’Achalta V’Savata – I shall provide grass in your field for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied (Deut 11:15). Among the rewards is grass for our cattle and we will eat and be satisfied. In this second paragraph of the Shema, we are told that there is a reward for our obeying God’s commandments and there will be retribution for disobeying God’s commandments. Among the rewards is a phrase that, at first glance, does not seem like such a reward. What does this mean and how does it relate to the perils of celebrity?
The simple meaning of the verse suggests that we will eat the grass and or the cattle, but whatever we eat, we will be satisfied –v’Savatah. Satisfied implies that we will not be wanting for anything. Satisfied means fulfilled, content. How can the grass that God will make plentiful satisfy us. Have we ever been too busy to eat? Have we ever been in a place or a situation that cause our adrenaline to pump that we didn’t even feel hunger pangs? Most probably yes, we have all been in situations or places where we were too busy, to wound up, too excited to eat. Yet, we were clearly in a place, both physical and spiritual where we were satisfied.  Rashi explains the verse as follows: When you are very prosperous, you must be very careful not to rebel against God, because man rejects God only when he is sated.”
Experience shows that the temptations of wealth are among the hardest to resist. People who are rich in wealth but poor in sophistication often succumb to temptation. They succumb due to ignorance. They succumb due to arrogance. Sometimes they succumb to boredom. It is so refreshing to see an athlete, even one despised here in Toronto, acknowledge his blessings, accept his obligation to give back to the community, and then do so in a manner that will benefit this generation of young people as well as leave a future legacy.


Peace,
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Loose With The Truth, Maybe Its Your Fire (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Althea")



          With an empty house (soon to be filled with my wife and children over the next few weeks), I haven’t had to fight with anyone over the remote control, over the type of music that is played (Jazz or The Grateful Dead); or anything for that matter. Earlier this week, I noticed a book on our bookshelf that I haven’t read in about 30 years but it seemed like it would be pertinent to the times we are living in George Orwell’s 1984. So I began reading it. As I am reading a book about life in a totalitarian state where Big Brother is always watching, telling its citizens how to think, always rewriting history, always being sure to eliminate facts and thereby make truth subjective rather than objective. As I am reading the book, as I thought about “fake news”, as I study Torah, I realized how decidedly “Un-Jewish” this is. I realized that facts, truth, paying attention to what we see, what we read, and what we hear has been the key to the survival of the Jewish People. The Jewish people read the Torah. The history of the Jewish people has been to hear the words of the Torah and to listen or heed those to who teach and transmit Torah. Within that process of reading, listening and seeing all of which, by the way, are a means towards learning, comes questioning. It seems that asking questions is the basis for which reading, listening, and seeing allows us to pursue truth, to determine which are facts and which are not, and to make sense of facts.    
           This week’s Parsha is V’Etchanan. The Parshah begins with Moshe's recounting his experience of pleading to God to allow him into the Land. Moshe explained to this new generation that because of the previous generation’s whining and complaining, he lost patience and failed to adhere to God's command. Moshe explains that this is why he cannot cross into the land as well as Joshua becoming the leader. Moshe then recounts his experience and his generation's experience of revelation at Sinai. However, instead of just stating the facts, Moshe adds his own editorial comments. "For the Lord, your God is merciful, He will not abandon you or destroy you, He will not forget the covenant of your forefathers that he swore to them" (Deut. 4:31). Moshe is offering hope, suggesting that no matter what happens to this people, they must always know and believe that we always have the capacity for Teshuvah for return or repentance to God and that we will always be accepted. Moshe then begins recounting the giving of the Aseret HaDibrot, The Ten Commandments. Moshe again reminds B’nai Yisroel to never participate in Avodah Zarah (idolatry), and avoid it at all costs. He implores us to pass this information and to teach these traditions and these laws to the next generation.
Throughout this Parsha, the secrets to our survival are revealed in large broad statements as well as the use of certain words. One secret to our survival is the Aseret Dibrot -The Ten Commandments (Deut. 5:6-19). Another secret to our survival is perhaps the one theologically dogmatic statement in Torah: Shmah Yisroel Adoshem Elokeinu, Adoshem EchadHear O Yisroel O Lord Our God, the Lord is One. (Deut. 6:4). Certainly, the “Shmah” contributes to the secret of our survival. Moshe’s re-iteration of God’s nature also contributes to the secret of our success.  Ki Eil Kanah Adoshem Elokecha B’kirbecha Pen Yechreh Af Adoshem Elokecha   Bach V’Hismidcha Mei’al Pnei Ha’Adamah- For a jealous God is the Lord your God, among you lest the wrath of the Lord your God will flare against you and He destroys you from upon the face of the earth…(Deut 6:15-19). Certainly, these powerful explicit statements of theology, universal moral guidelines, and our fear of retribution contribute to the secret of our survival.
However, the essence of our survival is our sense of purpose and our sense of existence. This sense of purpose is based upon accepting facts, and truths and asking questions, always asking questions in order to better understand facts and truths so that we can transmit what we learned.  Our purpose is to live according to these laws. “You shall be careful to act as the Lord your God commanded you, you shall not stray to the right or left. B’chol Ha’derech Asher Tzivah Adoshem Elokeichem Etchem Teileichu L’ma’an Tishyun V’Tov Lachem V’Haractem YamimOn the entire way that the Lord your God, commanded you shall you go, so that you shall live and it will be good for you, and you shall prolong your days…(Deut.6:29-30).  We live according to the Torah so that our lives will go well so that our lives will have more meaning so that the quality of our lives determines length. We learn that living a long life is not about the length it is about quality. Our sense of purpose is to achieve this quality. Besides “purpose” we must have a sense of our existence. Our sense of existence is our acceptance of our place. There were generations that came before us and, G-d willing, generations will follow us. Each and every generation must be empowered to question.  Ki Yishalcha Vincha Machar Leimor Mah Ha’eidot vHa’chukim v’Hamishpatim asher Tzivah Adoshem Elokeinu EtchemIf your child asks you tomorrow saying; What are the testimonies and the decrees and the ordinances that the Lord your G-d commanded you V’Amarta L’vincha Avadim Ha’yinu l’Faroh B’MitzrayimYou shall say to your child, “We were slaves to Pharoh in Egypt…(Deut. 6:20-21). Jewish survival depends upon full disclosure even if it is troubling or doesn’t’ present the Jewish past in the most favorable light: “We were slaves in Egypt”. The Jewish people’s sense of purpose is of that of the transmitter between the older generation and the younger generation, between the past and the future. As we delve deeper into the Book of Deuteronomy we understand that our survival is dependent upon our ability to transmit this sense of purpose and sense of existence to the next generation. The ability to transmit and the ability to accept transmission is what makes us a holy nation.
Peace,

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

History's Page Will Be Neatly Carved In Stone ( John Barlow & Bob Weir- "Throwing Stones")



It’s not every week where we get to watch history made and unmade. For all the soccer (football) fans, history was made when France won the world cup led by a teenager. That hasn’t happened since the legendary Pele led his team to a World Cup victory while he was a teenager. History was also unmade as the President did his level best to undo a seventy-year relationship with Europe, explicitly commenting historical allies including Canada, Germany, England and NATO, the EU, should be considered foes. History was also unmade as the President did his level best to befriend a government, a type of leadership, and a country that, in the aftermath of WWII, gave the world an Iron Curtain, attempted to give nuclear missiles to Cuba, brought legitimacy to North Korea, Chairman Mao’s China, Assad’s Syria, as well as a rise in cyber warfare in places that have democratic elections. As remarkable uplifting as it was to watch history made; it was equally disconcerting and deflating watching history being unmade. I was raised to believe that History could be considered something sacred, something holy. It is something to be learned. It is something that connects the present to the past. It allows us to chart a path to a better future. So I was absolutely aghast when I saw a leader behave in a manner that was completely bereft of a sense of history, and acknowledgment of belonging to a rich tradition, of belonging to an organization that predecessors helped to create. Perhaps even more troubling is that without a sense of history, a person could legitimately believe that until showing up, nothing preceded his/her arrival, and nothing of value will probably follow. That attitude is completely at odds with a person who reveres history and that attitude is completely at odds with Torah, Judaism and Moshe Rabbeinu.
This week’s Parsha is Devarim, which is the first Parsha of the Book of Deuteronomy or Sefer Devarim. Moshe recounts in very wide brushstrokes, the experience of the generation that fled Egypt. Very few details are given. In fact Moshe begins the story at the foot of Sinai; however, the name is changed from Sinai to Horev. In his recounting, Moshe speaks as a participant in this national experience not in the third person, as was presented in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers. This is quite different from the Moshe we have seen. Until now he spoke as a prophet. God spoke to him and he spoke to B'nai Yisroel. Now Moshe displays a certain amount of freedom as he shares past experience from his perspective. Parsha Devarim is the introductory Parsha to Moshe’s formal teaching of the Torah to this new generation. Moshe begins with a history lesson beginning with the most recent events and working backward to the Exodus. Moshe Rabeinu, now only a few weeks from the moment of his death, imparts his teaching and his wisdom upon B’nai Yisroel like a dying grandparent or parent would to his/her children.  This re-telling or repetition of history and laws to a new generation inspired the Talmudic Sages to call Sefer Devarim (The Book of Words- Deuteronomy) the Mishnah Torah or the repetition of the Torah.
Both the Parsha and the Book of Devarim begin with a narrative statement.  Eilah HaDevarim Asher Diber Moshe El B’nai Yisroel B’Eiver Yarden-These is the words that Moshe Spoke to all Israel, on the other side of the Jordan…(Deut. 1:1) For the next 5 verses, the Torah’s text is in the third person narrative form in which a time and place are clarified. Finally, beginning with verse 6, the third person narrative shifts to Moshe’s words.  What follows in Moshe's teaching and Moshe’s repetition of the Torah embodies tradition. Moshe’s teaching and his repetition of the Torah, exemplifies every parent’s responsibility to strengthen the child’s connection to Judaism, to Torah, and to God. Why do we need to be told that for five verses, Moses’ words will be arriving shortly? Since there are no wasted words in the Torah, why don’t the words Eilah Devarim appear immediately before Moshe begins speaking? The Or HaChaim, Chaim Ibn Attar (1696-1743), was a leading Moroccan Rabbinic Commentator of his day, explained that the word Eilah implies “only” and is therefore restrictive and separates that which came before from that which follows. The words that came before this are God’s the words that follow this Eilah are Moshe’s and are of his own volition.  Citing the Talmud in Tractate Megillah 31, we are reminded that Moshe personally recorded the curses and admonitions in this book and even the legislation which he repeats he does so voluntarily; not because he was commanded to do so.  The first five narrative verses clarify time and space as Moshe’s words are about to follow because we might conclude that just as Moshe felt free to say what he wants here in Devarim, he might have felt free to say what he wanted in the previous books of the Torah. “Only these words” that Moshe spoke of his own volition.
The Book of Devarim will remind us that Moshe Rabeinu was an incredibly humble man. There was none more humble. Here was Moshe Rabbeinu, the elder statesman, the individual that unquestionably had the closes relationship with God, a leader of a people for more than forty years. He had every reason to believe that there was no narrative before he came upon the scene. He has every reason to not care what happens after he is gone since he is prohibited from entering into the land. However by taking on the role of the transmitter, Eilah HaDevarim Asher Dibeir Moshe – “These are the words that Moshe spoke” and was astute enough to write down, Moshe understood his place in History. He understood what it meant to make history, and to do so, inspire people to continue transmitting his message, his words long after he was gone. After watching certain leaders unmake history, fail to understand his place in history; I realize that those leaders don’t have words that inspire a message worth transmitting to future generations.
Peace,
Rav Yitz

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Your Typical City Involved In A Typical Daydream; Hang It Up And See What Tomorrow Brings (Robert Hunter, Jerry Garcia, Phil Lesh, Bob Weir) "Truckin"



While I was getting our sixteen-year-old daughter packed and readied for her summer trip to Israel, we were both riveted to the rescue of 12 Thai boys and their soccer coach who had been stuck in an underwater cave for the past couple of weeks. The two-mile journey to rescue the 12 teenage boys and their coach was fraught with all kinds of danger: murky water, extremely narrow passages, tunnels completely submerged in water, small chambers with limited oxygen, and jagged rocks. Certain points along the route had specific names including Monk’s Junction and Pattaya Beach. For a professional cave, diving Navy Seal the journey from the opening to where the boys and their coach were found took roughly 4-5 hours. Each boy who was tethered to a lead diver and escorted by another diver back to the surface traveled the two kilometers in 6-7 hours. For the divers it was an 11 hour round trip journey. As our daughter began her journey, these 12 boys and coach concluded their own harrowing journey to freedom.
This morning we read from Parsha Matot/Masei. These are the final two parshiot of Sefer BaMidbar (Book of Numbers).  Like the end of most books, these parshiot tie up numerous loose ends. It ties up the loose ends of the narrative such as how to deal with the Midianites following episode with Pinchas, the daughters of Tzelophchad and issues of inheritance, as well as the borders of Eretz Canaan, and the Cities of Refuge. All these final issues must be dealt with since, from a narrative perspective, B’nai Yisroel is spiritually and physically ready to cross the Jordan River and enter into Eretz Canaan. B’nai Yisroel is about to realize the Brit, the covenant that God made with the Avot: Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov.
            Whenever an individual, a group, a community or a people stand on the precipice of a realized goal; looking back upon the journey only makes sense.  Whenever an individual, a group, a community or a people experience anxiety about the ability to handle future unknowns; looking back at past lessons also seems to make a lot of sense. We look back upon the journey for a variety of reasons. First, we look back upon the journey in sheer wonderment; we cannot believe we have traveled so far and finally achieved. Second, we look back upon the journey in order to provide context and meaning for all those who joined in the journey towards the middle or the end. Third, we look back upon the journey as a series of opportunities that were necessary in order to realize the stated goal. Fourth, we look back knowing that if we overcome past obstacles and fears, then we should be able to overcome future anxieties, obstacles, and fears.  Eilah Masei V’nai Yisroel Asher Yatzu M’Eretz Mitztrayim L'tzivotam  B’Yad Moshe v’AharonThese are the journeys of the Children of Israel, who went forth from the Land of Egypt according to the legions under the hand of Moshe and AharonV’Eilah Maseihem L’MotzaheihemAnd these are their journeys according to their departures. (Num. 33:1-2) God commanded Moshe to keep a record of their travels according to their Maseihem - destination. This is means of recording based upon positive expectations when there were no travails, issues or problems. Moshe also kept a record of their travels based upon Motzaheihem their departures, when there were travails, issues, and great difficulties, when people murmured against God, against Moshe etc. Now that Bnai Yisroel stands on the brink of entering Eretz Canaan, all the experiences, both positive and negative gave Bnai Yisroel an opportunity to learn Faith.  The journey and all that was experienced during that 40-year journey was necessary in order to arrive at this point in time.
As I pulled up to the airport, helped my daughter check her bag and said our goodbyes for her five-week trip to Israel; she had a bit of nervous look in her eye. She has been to sleep away camp before. She has been to Israel without her mother and me. I asked her if she was OK. She smiled through a tear welling up in her eye as she explained to me that those boys had a journey, an experience that they will never forget, each open oxygen depleted chamber, each extremely narrow passageway; an experience and a journey that will have a deep effect upon them. She smiled and said that for the next five weeks she will be on a journey. She laughed nervously reminding us both that it should never be as harrowing and as dangerous as those boys. Then she smiled at me and said that she knows that she will be affected by her journey. I smiled back at her, agreed with her, and then whispered to her to stay safe, use good judgment and learn. She kissed me on the cheek, thanked me and said that she would do all those things. As she walked through security, I have no doubt, that like all of us who take a moment or two during our own journey, that she will grow and mature on this particular journey.
Peace,
Rav Yitz

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Who'll Go Right Through The Book And Break Each And Every Law (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "I Need A Miracle")

This week, Canada celebrated Canada Day (formerly known as Dominion Day) and the United State celebrated Independence Day. Both countries are the embodiment of the “New World”, a world built upon laws, democracy and based upon a dream that the future is genuinely brighter and more hopeful than the “Old World’s” paralyzing history and restrictive social mores. Both countries offer a possibility, an opportunity and that one ought to be judged by the “content of character”, not by skin colour, country of origin, wealth, or family connections. Both countries have always made it clear that no person is above the law: Not the poorest, not the wealthiest, not the meekest, not the most powerful.  So as my children celebrate both Canada Day and Independence Day; I feel compelled to remind them that what they should keep in mind when they celebrate is that more than any form of government more than any form of a society’s basic principle of organization; Democracy is the holiest form of government and, besides Torah, Democracy is one of the holiest organizing principles of a society. Like Torah, in Democracy the Law is sacred, the law is Holy, and no king no leader is above the Law. Like Torah, Democracy and Law work best when it avoids fundamentalism/extremism of the left and right; but rather sticks to the middle (Deut. 28:14).
This Shabbat we read from Parsha Pinchas. The first few Psukim of the Parsha are a direct continuation of the previous Shabbat Parsha: Balak. There is no elapse of time in the narrative. Balak concludes with a plague upon B’nai Yisroel for its worship of Moabite/Midianite god, Baal Peor. Aaron’s son Pinchas zealously acts by killing Zimri from the tribe of Shimon and Cozbi the Midianite woman. God tells Moshe to reward Pinchas for his behaviour by giving him the Brit Shalom, the Covenant of Peace. This covenant is only for Pinchas and his descendants. Keeping in mind that B’nai Yisroel has now concluded it 40 years of wandering in the wilderness and are poised upon the eastern bank of the Jordan River; a new census is taken. Just like we needed to know how many left Egypt, we now need to know how many will enter into Eretz Canaan. After the census is taken Moshe must judge a legal case concerning the laws of inheritance when a man has only daughters. This brief narrative is about the “Daughters of Tzelophchad”. Following this narrative, God commands Moshe to teach the new generation the laws for time-bound offerings including the Shabbat offering, the Rosh Chodesh offering, the offerings for the Shalosh Regalim (Three Pilgrimage Festivals etc).
Isn't it odd, or perhaps even disturbing, that Pinchas' zealousness, his subsequent spear throwing and impaling his targets appears rewarded with a Brit Shalom - a Covenant of Peace and Brit Kehunat Olam - a covenant of an everlasting Priesthood? (Num. 25:12). Through our modernist lens, many readers will perceive Pinchas’ act to be nothing more than fanaticism or vigilantism. It appears as if vigilantism is rewarded. To offer Pinchas Peace and the Priesthood becomes seems incomprehensible. The NeZiV (Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin Poland 1817-1893; the Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva) offers a fascinating explanation that might be valuable in today's’ age of extremists recruiting young people. The NeZiV explains that the Brit Shalom is a guarantee of peace from an inner enemy from whatever lurked within Pinchas that caused him to kill another human being without due process. "The Holy One Blessed He blessed him [Pinchas] with the attribute of peace, that he should not be quick-tempered or angry. Since it was only natural that such a deed as Pinchas' should leave in his heart an intense emotional unrest afterward, the Divine blessing was designed to cope with this situation and promised peace and tranquility of the soul." We can now begin to make some sense of these covenants. Once Pinchas committed his first act of zealous defence of God's glory, perhaps it becomes easier and easier to commit the second, third or forty-eighth act of zealous defence of God's glory. At some point, from the NeZiV's perspective, the zealot's soul becomes damaged, the zealot's emotions are incapable of feelings, and the zealot's eyes become unseeing except through the lens of their zealousness. The zealot by definition is an extremist and we know that extremism in Judaism is frowned upon and halachically unacceptable (see the laws of the Nazarite).  Precisely because the zealot does not know peace when he/she commits such an act, in Pinchas' case the only gift God could give was that the tumult of his own soul should cease and he should be whole, complete and at peace.
Yes, Pinchas saved a community from further pain and suffering by hurling that spear at Zimri and Omri. Yes, Pinchas murdered that Prince of the tribe of Shimon and that Princess Midian. The Covenant isn’t so much a reward but rather it is a salve or a balm for the tumult within Pinchas’ soul. Now, Pinchas and his descendants could ill afford to ever act as vigilantes, Pinchas and his descendants could ill afford to take on a such a fundamentalist attitude because Pinchas has now been thrust into a position of leadership and rather than embracing the fundamentalist and tumultuous aspect of soul, he must rather embrace the calm, loving demeanor of his grandfather, Aaron, who chased after Justice and loved Amcha.  
Peace,
Rav Yitz