Thursday, February 22, 2018

But I'll Roll Up My Shirt-Sleeves And Make My Best Shot (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Believe It Or Not")

About thirty miles south of where our daughter lives and works; a high school shooting in Parkland, Florida took place.  Seventeen students and faculty were murdered and over twenty were wounded. In the aftermath, numerous vigils and demonstrations took place in Florida and throughout the United States; the demonstrations, protests and vigils continue to take place.  During a local news broadcast in South Florida, a student was interviewed. She made a stunning statement. She explained  that when she goes to school, she goes to learn. She refuses to believe that she and thousands of school students need to change their “student” attire for the "war" attire.  She should not have to wear a bullet proof vest in order to feel safe at school. She shouldn’t have to “pack” her own weapon and prepare for “shootouts” in school. She concluded her statement by saying that students should be dressed to learn. This is not the Wild West,  nor are these students in the military at battle front in Afghanistan.
This particular Shabbat is also known as Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat that immediately preceeds the Holiday of Purim. To acknowledge this, we read the last several verses of Ki Teitzeh (Deut. 25:17-19). These three verses is the commandment to remember what the tribe of Amalek did to the generation that left Egypt. As Bnai Yisroel is about to into Eretz Canaan, they must remember the evil perpetrated upon their parents and grandparents  by Amalek; they must also  blot out the memory Amalek, the embodiment of evil.  However, this week’s Parsha is entitled Tetzaveh. It  is all about dress codes, and looking appropriate. God explains to Moshe that both Aaron and his sons must go through a seven-day consecration ceremony. This ceremony consists of the priests wearing Bigdei Kahuna (Priestly clothes), and offering a sheep sacrifice every morning and afternoon. Besides this, a meal offering (grains) and a libation offering (wine) must accompany the sheep sacrifices. Keep in mind that the slaughtering of animals and then burning of these sacrifices will definitely cause a stench. Since air freshener in aerosol cans did not yet exist, God reminds Moshe that another altar must be built. This altar is for incense, which is to be burned all day and every day during this seven- day period.
            It seems kind of odd. Imagine getting all dressed up in a beautiful Chanel, or Armani suit in order to do lawn work, slaughter animals, or build a fire? The clothing doesn’t seem to be appropriate for the activity. It would appear that the Kohen Gadol might be a bit overdressed. Imagine the cleaning bills? So, why does God tell Moshe V’Asitah Vigdei Kodesh L’Aharon Achichah l’Chavod U’letifaret- and you shall make vestments of sanctity for Aaron your brother for glory and splendor. (Ex 28:2). The Parsha spends a lot of time describing gowns, turbans breastplates, forehead plates and tunics. Clearly the Torah considers these garments as sacred. Only the Priest can wear these garments, and only at the time of making sacrifices. These were very expensive glorious looking clothes to be used for sacrificing animals, sprinkling blood, and burning the sacrifice. The Kohen worked in the Mishkan, the place where God would dwell. Everything associated with the Mishkan must reflect the fact that God dwells there. Like a king’s palace reflects royalty, those who serve in the king’s court would also dress appropriately no matter the type of person. The Sefer HaChinuch explains that the magnificence and beauty also served to inspire awe in the hearts of all who came, and as a result, they were drawn closer to God. Anything that looked less than “beautiful” would be out of place. This explains why the Priest did not have a cleaning bill. Once the clothes became soiled they were replace by new garments.
            Is Parsha Tetzaveh really teaching us that clothes make the man?  We learn that all this magnificence and beauty is in the context of the Priest serving God. We learn that all this magnificence and beauty is in the context of the Priest performing sacrifices to God, on behalf of themselves and the community. A relationship with God, who dwells among us, is based upon the creation of Zman Kodesh (holy Time) and Makom Kodesh (holy space). The holy place was the Mishkan, the Tabernacle and later the Bet HaMikdash, The Holy Temple. Following the destruction of the Temple, the Bet Midrash, (House of Learning), and Shul, (Synagogue), and even our own homes have become Holy Places. The holy time is Shabbat, the three times a day when we pray,  when we study Torah, when we light candles, and when we celebrate Holidays, or even when our children go to school in a warm safe environment.  Beauty and magnificence only serve to enhance this holy time and holy space. While it may seem odd to read a commandment to remember evil and blot evil out while also reading about the Holy Vestments of the High Priest; these High School students are doing just that.  High School students are telling all those who listen, that for them, their school, the opportunity to learn, is a sacred endeavor occurring in a sacred place.  An AR15, a symbol of evil,  only violates the sanctity of the time and space designated for beauty and sanctity of learning.
Rav Yitz

Thursday, February 15, 2018

But You'll Never Find Another Honest Man (robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Loser")

We went and visited our eldest daughter. Thankfully she lives in Florida, so our visit coincided with our desire to be somewhere warm and sunny for a few days. During our visit, I received a special treat. I had a chance to watch our daughter at work. She is the Campaign Manager for a women running for the U.S. House of Representatives in a congressional district in Palm Beach Florida. We went to her office and because her brother and sisters needed community service time for school, they spent a few mornings doing volunteer work for their big sister and the campaign. One of the largest components of a campaign is fundraising. I spoke to our daughter and the candidate and asked if there was ever a time when they felt that the campaign could not accept a “campaign donation” from individuals or a Political Action Committee (PAC). Maybe the donor’s beliefs about other issues were totally at odds with the candidate’s positions. Acceptance of the donation would cost the candidate moral integrity and render the candidate as “a flip-flopper” or “pandering”, or without a discernable moral code.  Both our daughter and her candidate explicitly said that they have refused donations when the cost is a sacrifice of personal integrity and moral code. I gave my daughter a look that she has received from me since she was a little girl. She then explained to me that they before they accept a donation, they research the donor in order to make sure that acceptance of the donation doesn’t necessitate a diminishment of or a compromise of integrity. If the research makes a mistake and they find out, our daughter makes sure that the donation is returned right away.
This Shabbat, we read from Parsha Terumah. In it, Moshe has re-ascended the mountain in order to receive the laws, and the blueprint, if you will, for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable tabernacle that will eventually permit B’nai Yisroel to gather, to make offerings to God and to provide a physical dwelling for God. If you are an architect, or if you are an interior decorator, this Parsha goes into tremendous detail about Mishkan’s construction and decoration. Before all the detail are presented for construction and decoration, God commands Moshe to tell B’nai Yisroel that the funding for this vital public works project will come from each individual V’Yikchu Li Terumah Mei’eit Kol Ish Asher Yidvenu Libo Tikechu et Terumati They shall take for me a portion, from every man whose heart motivates him, you shall take my portion (Ex. 25:2). The holiest spot within the community, the most sacred area is based upon each and every individual apportioning a percentage of their assets to the construction of, decoration of, and maintenance of the Mishkan. How incredibly equitable! Everyone is involved and everyone has a stake in the outcome. There were no “dues” per se. Rather, each individual had to look within him/herself and be brutally honest. Each individual would give as they saw fit. 
          This was a sacred moment between the individual and God. The object was not to give due to social pressure but rather for the holiest of reasons. However, such a process requires tremendous honesty. Such a process requires us to be sure that our outside matches our inside. Such a process forces the individual to “mean what you say and say what you mean”. Such a process forces the individual to not only “talk the talk” but walk the walk”. This message is subliminally hinted at when we read about the design of the Aron, the Ark that is to hold the Shnei Luchot Ha’Britthe Two Stone Tablets upon which are written the Ten Commandments. V’Asu Aron Atzei Shitimthey shall make an Ark of acacia wood (Ex.25:10).  V’Tzipitah Oto Zahav Tahor Mibayit U’Michutz T’Tzapenu V’Asita Alav Zeir Zahav Saviv – You shall cover it with pure gold, from within and from without shall you cover it, and you shall make on it a gold crown all around (Ex. 25:11).  It makes sense that the outside of the Ark is covered with gold since that will be viewed by the people. However, what is the reason for lining the arc with pure gold from the inside? Rabeinu Chananel, the 11th century North African Talmudist, comments that this arrangement symbolized the Talmudic dictum that a Torah scholar must be consistent; his inner character must match his public demeanor, his actions must conform to his professed beliefs. However, there is no reason to limit such sentiment to Torah scholars. Kol Ish Asher Yidvenuy Libo Tikechu et Terumati every man whose heart motivates him you shall take my portion. Every man should be motivated to be consistent. Every person’s actions should conform to his/her professed beliefs, and his or her beliefs should be expressed by behavior.
            Every day, we face the struggle to keep the pure gold that exists within our insides the same as the pure gold that exists on the outside. The object is to never tarnish that which lies within nor that which lies without. So we should seize every opportunity to express holiness, whether Mitzvot l’Ben Adam L’Chavero (Mitzvot that pertains between people) or Mitzvot L’Hashem (Mitzvot that pertain to God.  If we neglect those opportunities, we tarnish the most precious aspect: our souls’ purity and holiness. When I asked our daughter why she is so rigorous in checking the donors and demands that her staff must be so rigorous in checking the donors; she smiled and reminded me that her father is a Rabbi, that she grew up in an observant home, and, more than anything, she understood that personal integrity is based upon behaviour both in the home and outside the home. We don’t behave in a manner or associate with those who tarnish our integrity, our code, and our “brand”. That is to say, their insides, match their outsides. She continued to explain that this rigor is one the few ways the voters can determine a candidate’s integrity and authenticity. As I listened to my daughter and watched her work, it became clear that she learned this lesson well.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Strangers Stopping Strangers Just To Shake Their Hand (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia "Scarlett Begonias"

Winter can be a tough time for the homeless. Winter can be a tough time for the impoverished and the lonely. When I lived in New York, I became acutely aware of this “seasonal hardship” and numerous food kitchens and shelters established by local synagogues and churches to help people normally considered to be “strangers” by that membership of that particular church or synagogue.   While the issues of homelessness may not appear as pronounced as New York’s for most of the year, Toronto’s harsher and longer winter makes the problem particularly acute. Our synagogue (shul) participates in what is known as “Out of the Cold”. On Monday evenings, for eight weeks, our shul community provides a hot meal and a warm space for those in need.  On Monday evenings, for eight weeks, I pick up our 17-year-old daughter (who has been volunteering in this program for the past six years) and her 13-year-old brother (first year of volunteering). Like his sister, he has also experienced a powerful transformation. At first, the people who came to partake of the warm food, shelter, and clothing were “stranger”. They were nothing like him, they did not look like him, nor were they raised like him. Our 13-year-old son had nothing in common with these “strangers”.  Indeed, they were strangers. On that first Monday evening, there was trepidation. Five Monday evenings later I watch our son serve warm meals to strangers in need and help these strangers obtain weather appropriate clothing from the bins that are in our shul basement. However, he does something else. He greets these strangers, he talks to these strangers, he listens to these strangers and he now there is no more trepidation. Now, he no longer considers them strangers. They are just people with the same basic need that he has, to be fed, clothed, have a shelter and to be treated with dignity and grace.
This week we read from Parsha Mishpatim. Moshe is still at Mt. Sinai. However, the revelation that occurred with the giving of the Aseret Dibrot (Ten Commandments) is long gone. Instead, God has now started giving Moshe numerous laws that affect the day to day issues raised by human interaction. There is no shofar blowing, there is no anticipation of meeting God at the mountain. Rather there is only God telling Moshe how to decide various legal matters including the damages to be paid if my ox gores your ox; two men are fighting near a pregnant woman and she gets hurt,   and how to treat to a Jewish servant, observing festivals, the issues of liability for those who are asked to safeguard another’s property as well as manslaughter, to name just a few of the fifty-three commandments (according to the Sefer HaChinuch).  Moshe tells these laws to B’nai Yisroel and they respond with the words Naaseh v’Nishmah – we will do and learn.  The Parsha concludes with glowing fire upon the Mountain that Moshe ascends once again.
Following the awe-inspiring revelation at Sinai in Parsha Yitro, it might seem like a spiritual let down as we read of one law after another and the mundane rules that are established to govern human interaction. However, buried beneath these rules and regulations God reminds Moshe of the foundations upon which these executive orders are based.  V’Ger Lo Toneh  V’Lo TilChatzenu Ki Geirim Heyitem B’Eretz Mitzrayim You shall not taunt or oppress a stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. The Talmudic Sages in Baba Metzia 59b reminds us that the Torah cautions us regarding our treatment of the stranger no less than thirty-six times. No other “executive order”, no other commandment, loving God, Shabbat, circumcision, forbidden foods, uttering a falsehood occurs as frequently loving the stranger or refrain from oppressing the stranger.  The Talmudic sages understand this commandment in terms of the “stranger” (the idol worshipper turned proselyte). When the “stranger” ceases worshipping idols and begins the process of Torah study; no one oppresses, mocks or demeans his origins. Later Medieval Commentators explain that the “stranger” is not only an idol worshipper turned proselyte, in other words, the spiritually defenseless. The “stranger” is the economically defenseless as well. RaShBam (11th Century French commentator and Rashi’s nephew) clarifies “Do not oppress him” to do your work since he has no champion. RaMBaM, the great Spanish commentator, adds a caveat to RaShBam. God defends the defenseless. God protects the widows and the orphans. In the previous Parsha, Yitro, God reminded Moshe to tell B’nai Yisroel that they were to be a Nation of Priests, that is to say, B’nai Yisroel is supposed to embody Godliness here on earth. Caring for the stranger embodies Godliness. Failure to care for the stranger embodies the Egyptians. 
Underlying the mundane concern of human relations lies the most profound and awe-inspiring idea.  It is human nature to fear the “other” to fear the “stranger”, to fear those who look different. Human nature is fully on display in the White House. Yet Torah, Judeo-Christian morality, liberal democracy and the values with which we raise our children seems to appeal to something that transcends human nature. Instead, we are supposed to strive for something greater than human nature. We are supposed to transcend our fear of the stranger, we are supposed to transcend our trepidation of the “other”; we are supposed to be able to empathize with the stranger. After all, at some point in our history, we were all strangers.  This group of former slaves was learning how to create a civil, just, caring and humane society predicated upon law, trust, the sanctity of the human soul, and the necessity for empathy. Over the past several Mondays, we have noticed our son has started to understand what means to empathize. Maybe the Whitehouse should participate in an “Out of the Cold” program.  
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

My Words Fill The Sky With Flame; Might And Glory Gonna Be My Name (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Estimated Prophet")

          For the past several weeks, my kids have been asking me questions about food. No, I don't get too many questions about Kashrut. However, I am asked numerous questions about food, calories, fat content, and exercise. Apparently, I have a new job in our family. Perhaps I have a certain degree of "street cred" with my kids because of my weight loss and because of my daily work-out; a regimen including push-ups, crunches, and an hour on the elliptical machine. I have become our family's personal trainer/nutritionist/life coach/guru. Before I was just a dad. Primarily their questions are about food, nutrition, exercise, and anatomy. Invariably my answers drift into making sure to get enough sleep, avoiding stressful situations, developing healthy outlets for stress so that no one becomes emotionally overwrought and overwhelmed, being extremely disciplined in these new behaviors. They listen, and engaging in trial and error, they figure out what works for them, and only then do they realize that the hardest part is putting it into disciplined practice.
            This week's Parsha is Yitro. Named after Moshe father-in-law, who happens to be a Midianite priest, the Parsha begins with Moshe leading B'nai Yisroel toward the wilderness of Midian where he meets up with his father-in-law, his wife, and his two sons. Yitro suggests that Moshe should create a bureaucracy whereby others administer the small everyday rulings required of a judge. Difficult legal issues would be administered by Moshe. Moshe is then commanded by God to bring B'nai Yisroel to Har Sinai. For three days they will purify themselves, clean their clothes, not have marital relations, and purify their souls for a revelation. There with the mountain smoking and thunder billowing from the heavens, God begins to speak. B'nai Yisroel is absolutely petrified and fearing death, they beg Moshe to go up the mountain as their Shaliach (appointed messenger). Moshe ascends the mountain and receives the Aseret HaDibrot (the Ten Commandments), then descends. Upon his descent, he tells B'nai Yisroel the Aseret HaDibrot. The Parsha concludes with B'nai Yisroel readily accepting the Ten Commandments, Moshe re-assures the people not to fear the thunder and the flames, God attests to the fact that B'nai Yisroel has accepted these commandments and then commands Moshe to build an altar of earth.
         The Ten Commandments are bound by several themes. The first five commandments are God-oriented. The second five commandments are people oriented. Violation of The Aseret HaDibrot is punishable by death. Through our modern perspective, we may not agree but we can understand the concept of capital punishment in terms of murder, testifying falsely, (in which false testimony leads to death), or even kidnapping. However, how do we explain capital punishment as a punishment for not honoring your parents, keeping the Shabbat or committing Avodah Zarah (Idolatry)? Certainly violating Shabbat or violating the first five commandments that are all God oriented does not necessarily hurt someone else. Even not honoring one's parents might not warrant capital punishment in today's day and age. So how do we understand that each commandment is punishable by death? We know that if we do not take care of our bodies, there is a chance our bodies will be hurt. If we don't eat right, get enough sleep, and exercise then our resistance is low and there is a chance we will get sick. If we don't fasten our seatbelts then there is a chance that we won't be able to walk away from an accident. If we drink too much and too often or if we smoke, we know that we are doing damage to our body. As human beings, we also have a soul. Just like we know to do things that help our physical existence, there are things that we do to help our spiritual existence. Failure to take care of our souls is also detrimental to our existence. Failure to take care of our souls leads to emptiness, purposelessness and a misguided existence. The first five commandments are about the welfare of our souls in the context of our direct relationship with God.  The first five commandments give us a sense of purpose for own existence in relation to God. The second five commandment is also about the welfare of our souls, however, these second five commandments are within the context of our relationship to our fellow man beginning with our parents. By violating these second five commandments, we not only hurt the other person but in a sense, we damage ourselves, we diminish the holiness within our souls. As such, we are sentencing ourselves to a spiritual death.
            In a sense, our own ignorance, our own anxieties, our own insecurities, our lack of purpose and our lack of focus imprison us. The Aseret HaDibrot offers us a means to transcend that which imprisons us. We are provided a blueprint to live a life that is part of a community (the second five commandments) and accounts for our own sense of self-worth and purpose (the first five commandments). The Aseret HaDibrot teaches us and commands us to transcend time and space by adding meaning and holiness to our lives. The Aseret HaDibrot teaches us that our spiritual well being is just as important as our physical well being. When our soul is complete, filled with a sense of purpose, filled with love, and filled with the acknowledgment that there is God, we are able to transcend the physical.  As I continue answering my kids' questions about nutrition, exercise and trying to be healthier, I find that my answers not only focus upon their physical health: their nutrition, their physical fitness, their physical development, and the habits that support their physical beings. My answers and my deep-seated concern focus upon their spiritual, emotional, and moral health: their ability to handle stress, their positive demeanor, their sense of faith, their concern for others, their tolerance for those who are different, and to be part of the world rather than retreat from it. Finally, I remind them that health is as much a physical orientation as it is a spiritual/emotional orientation.
Rav Yitz