Thursday, June 21, 2018

The morning sun will rise, but the darkness never goes from some men's eyes. (John Barlow & Bob Weir- "Throwing Stones")



We attended two commencements this week, a middle school commencement and a High School commencement.  Grandparents attended as well as our eldest daughter in from Florida.  Yes, there was a lot of pride, and a realization of a “new normal”. Each graduation featured a similar comment regarding a need for the “graduates to be aware that the world is full of possibilities as well in need of some fixing.  When we talked to our graduates that the world might need some fixing, we immediately asked them if they had seen the pictures of children being taken from their immigrant parents along the Texas/Mexican border. We asked if they heard the White House Press Secretary refer to the Bible as the pre-text to justify a policy of separating children from parents as a deterrent from entering a land of freedom and opportunity.  As I watched my kids walk across the stage, to receive their diplomas; I thought about all the stages my wife and I walked across to receive our diplomas, diplomas from schools in the U.S. and Canada.  I thought about my Grandfather, a son of immigrants. As I watched our children, my grandfather’s words, one of his many mantras, haunted me. “Parents sacrifice so that the children, the next generation will do better”. I thought about my mother in law whose parents were among the last leave Germany, arriving in New York before Jews were turned away like the “Voyage of the Damned”. As our kids walked across the stage, I thought about all those parents just traveled 1500 miles fleeing the for their lives and their children’s lives seeking asylum,  only be refused entry and have their children taken from them in the process. 
This week we read from Parsha Chukkat. This Shabbat we read from Parsha Chukkat. Chukkat begins by telling us the Law for the Red Heifer. The Priest who prepares the mixture of water and the Red Heifers burnt ashes will render the entire nation spiritually pure; but the mixture will render him impure. A brief narrative concerning the death of Miriam, the lack of water and B’nai Yisroel’s resulting anxiety and lack of faith leads to the issuance of another test of faith in the Wilderness. Moshe and Aaron don’t know what to do; so God tells them: Kach et HaMateh v’Hakhaeil Et Ha’Edah Ata v’Aharon Achicha v’Dibartem El HaSela L’Eineihem V’Natan Meimav V’Hotzeitah Lahem Mayim Min HaSela V’Hishkita et HaEidah v’Et B’IramHashem spoke to Moshe saying: Take the staff and gather together the assembly, you and Aaron your brother, and speak to the rock before their eyes that it shall give its waters. You shall bring forth for them water from the rock and give drink to the assembly and to their animals (Num. 20:8). Instead of following instructions, Moshe succumbed to his anger and hit the rock with his staff. Indeed water came out, the people drank, but Moshe and Aharon were punished. Aharon died and Moshe learned that he would not be able to enter into Eretz Canaan. As B’nai Yisroel resumes its wandering, they are attacked by Amalek. As a result, B’nai Yisroel is forced to go around the heart of Amalek territory. The people complain to Moshe again. They try to seek permission from the Sihon, the King of the Amorites, to pass through Amorite territory. Sihon denies permission and B’nai Yisroel attacks and eventually defeats the Amorites. Og King of Bashan tries to prevent B’nai Yisroel from marching through his land, B’nai Yisroel, with the help of Hashem, defeats King Og and his army.  The Parsha concludes with B’nai Yisroel settling on the Plains of Moab on the eastern side of the Jordan poised to enter into Canaan.
After the decree of the Law of the Red Heifer, the Torah begins a new narrative, a narrative about Miriam’s death, a lack of water, B’nai Yisroel’s complaint and God’s response. Rashi comments on the first Pasuk of Chapter 20.  Eidah Shaleimthe congregation is complete (whole). Sh’Kavar Meitu Metai Midbar, V’Ilu Parsho L’Chayim (Tanuchuma) – All those of the generation that left Egypt that was supposed to die have died in the wilderness, and all those who are alive at this point are supposed to enter into Eretz Canaan.  From this point on, the Torah records the final year of B’nai’ Yisroel’s time in the wilderness.  So 38 years have transpired from the first chapter of the Parsha to the second chapter of the Parsha. Yet in 38 years, a generation that didn’t really know slavery, which only knew that Hashem provided food and water, a generation that didn’t have do anything except learn Moshe’s Torah begin to sound like their parents and perhaps their grandparents. Yes, Moshe disobeys God by hitting the rock rather than talk to the rock. However, Moshe’s frustration might have been a result of the fact that he expected this generation to know better, to have more faith in Hashem, more trust in Hashem, more of sense of purpose in terms of its relationship with Hashem. Sadly, after thirty-eight years, our ancestors, this time, a generation born to freedom, still had work to do Vis a Vis its relationship to Hashem. Yes, they came a long way since their parents were slaves, but they still had a long way to go in terms of trust in Hashem, faith in Hashem, and a confidence that Hashem would not abandons his chosen people.
                Sadly, the White House Press Secretary is right.  The events transpiring along the U.S. Mexico border have a biblical sensibility about it. She thinks that the “enforcement of the law” defines the biblical nature of the treatment of these immigrants/refugees. A group of people fleeing a miserable place and seeking a “promised land” is indeed biblical. However, it is the behavior of Og and Sihon, denying entry of a people seeking a better life that is so troubling.  One would have thought after the dismal record of preventing Jews from entering with the outbreak of WWII and the detention of Japanese Americans, it would do better than that. Sadly, a nation that had once been a moral beacon is not an Eida Shalem (a Complete Congregation). Instead, it is incomplete and as such a darkness emanates from that moral beacon rather than light. Needless to say, at each graduation, my family has never sung the “Oh Canada” louder nor with as much pride.
Peace,
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

The Bottles Stand As Empty Now, As They Were Filled Before (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Ship of Fools"



A Canadian acquaintance of mine used to be a huge fan of President Trump. He had a “Make America Great” hat and everything.  When I asked why he was such a fan, his answer was similar to approximately 40% of Americans, “because he says what’s on everyone’s mind but no one has the nerve to say.”  We met for coffee this week and I asked him if he thought the Canadian Prime Minister “had a special place in hell” because he called the President out on the ridiculous misrepresentations of tariffs and trade with the United States. I asked him if he was still a fan of the U.S. President who recently threatened the Prime Minister and Canada by saying that if the Prime Minister continues doing what he is doing the Canadian people will suffer. I asked my friend if he thought that the North Korean leader was a smart, great guy, whom the President is looking forward to having to the White House. He sheepishly smiled and explained that he honestly did not think that it was possible for a President to screw up the U.S / Canadian relationship. I reminded him that the relationship is stronger than a Donald Trump “tweet” or two. However, it is troubling to think of all the serious issues that need to be dealt with, and this President  creates a problem, spreads emptiness, antipathy and mistrust because he can, because it provides a sense of empowerment.
This week we read from Parsha Korach.  Korach was a relative of Moshe's. They both came from the tribe of Levi. Korach questioned Moshe's authority eventually leading a rebellion. Korach did question Moshe’s authority in a private meeting between individuals. Rather, Korach gathered 250 supporters, and then publicly challenged Moshe. Moshe tried to keep peace within the community, but to no avail. A divine test is administered, and Korach and his supporters fail. The earth swallows them up. However God is angry and a plague falls upon the people. They are communally punished for Korach's actions, their passive support, and their failure to bond together against Korach. Yet the people are still not convinced that Moshe and Aharon should remain in charge, only that Korach was unworthy. So a second divine test is administered this time with 12 rods stuck in the ground and almond branches resulting in Aaron’s staff, thus symbolizing that God has chosen Aharon to be the Kohen Gadol.  The Parsha concludes with God speaking to Aharon, and re-iterating his obligations in terms of the Mishkan, the Altar, and the Tent of the Meeting.
The Torah portion begins in rather innocuously, much like many rebellions. VaYikach Korach ben Yitzhar Ben Kahat ben Levi v’ Datan V’Aviram B’nai Eliav V’On ben Pelet Bnai ReuvenKorach son of Itzhar son of Kohath son of Levi took Datan and Aviram.  Korach “took” these men? Where did he “take” them? Rashi, the 11th- century French commentator, offers an explanation based upon the Midrash Tanchuma (a fifth century compilation of rabbinic commentary). Rashi points out that VaYiKach he took - suggests that there should be a direct object. Since there is no direct object, Lakach Et Atzmo LTzad Echod – he [Korach] took himself off to one side or separated himself from the rest of the Leviim. By definition, a rebellion is a means of separating oneself from authority or accepted norms. The name Korach coming from the three lettered root of Kuf (K) – Resh (R) and Chet (Ch) means to make something empty or bald. KoRaCh’s rebellion against Moshe was not an attempt to create a better more efficient form of governance. Instead, KoRaCh’s rebellion was an attempt to elevate his own stature. He gathers leaders from other tribe, tribes that were geographically near him that heard his complaints. He didn’t have the support of other Leviim.  Korach was the first great “disruptor”, challenging Moshe’s authority and the institutions that he helped to establish in order to keep B’nai Yisroel safe from all those threatening societies.  
As my friend and I finished up our coffee; I told him to read the Tuesday June 12th NY Times column by David Brooks, a politically conservative observant Jew.  Just last week, we commemorated D-Day, and the generation that created the post war institutions that saved the world and saved democracy. Over the past year, Brooks explains, we have watched the President, as well as leaders from Russia, Turkey, Poland and all the nationalist movements weaken these Post-War institutions that has kept much of the world safe, lawful and democratic.  Brooks points out that these highly nationalistic despotic oriented leaders are very different than those that saved the world from Hitler’s Germany. They are intent on fanning mistrust, spreading an emptiness of their world view in which there is no greater good than one’s own self- aggrandizement. Who knew that they were all taking a page from Korach?
Peace,
Rav Yitz

 

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

No One Knows Much More Of This Than Anyone Can See (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - Days Between)



          Celebrating Israel at 70 has been marked by the annual Walk With Israel Day here in Toronto, and the annual Israel March in New York. Our children decided not to participate as they were anxiously preparing for final exams. Our seventeen year old claimed that she will be showing plenty of support for Israel as she will be spending the year studying there. As her mother began to protest, I gently reminded her that not only will have we already had one daughter spend a year in Israel studying, and now this daughter will spend the upcoming school year in Israel studying; I reminded her that God willing, our two younger children will also choose to take a gap year between high school and university studying in Israel. Before my wife could respond, I also quickly added that our each of our children’s gap year result in thousands of my dollars contributing to the Israeli economy, especially in the form of food products, and whatever else 18-year-olds spend money on while enjoying a gap year in Israel. I feel that Israel has both my emotional, spiritual and economic support. As a result, I have no problem criticizing Israel even if I don’t live there. I am American, I pay my taxes. I don’t live there, but I have every right to criticize the United States. However, in order to offer constructive and thoughtful criticism, one must be educated and informed. Yossi Klein HaLevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. He wrote an incredibly insightful article in the May 30th Jewish Week entitled: “Welcome to the Dysfunctional Relationship Between Israelis, American Jews.” Liberal Jews in America and Canada, because they live in the world’s safest diaspora environment have a very distinct perspective.  Israelis live in one of the most unsafe neighborhoods in the world, have a very distinct perspective.  
This week’s Torah portion is Parsha Shelach Lecha. The Torah portion begins with the narrative of Moshe gathering up twelve spies, one corresponding to each of the twelve tribes, and giving them the mission. The spies are told to investigate the quality of the land – fertile or barren, its inhabitants - warlike or peaceful, the nature of cities –fortified or open? The spies go and investigate and return. Ten spies offer a negative report and two, Caleb and Joshua, offer a positive report. B’nai Yisroel listens to the ten spies with the negative report and fell utterly overwhelmed at the prospect of entering into the land that Hashem promised them.  Hysterical, the people beg to return to Egypt. Hashem wants to wipe them all out immediately but Moshe defends the people just like he did after the Golden Calf. So rather than wiping out an entire people Hashem punishes B’nai Yisroel by prohibiting this generation from entering into the land. Eventually, when the slave generation has died out, the generations born in freedom will enter Eretz Canaan.  The people hear the punishment and decide they are ready to enter the land. Moshe explains that it is too late since entry into Canaan is ultimately premised upon faith.  Then Moshe begins teaching B’nai Yisroel laws specific to and premised upon settlement in the Canaan.  First Moshe teaches the Libation Offering as well as Challah. Next, Moshe teaches the laws of public atonement of unintentional idolatry, individual unintentional idolatry, intentional idolatry, a reminder about violating Shabbat and finally the laws of Tzitzit.
            The ten spies whom B’nai Yisroel chose to believe did not really bring such a negative report. They explained that the land was fruitful and fertile, there were trees and that it was really quite beautiful.  The problem with the report was that it revealed more about the spies and B’nai Yisroel than the land itself. When seeing some of the inhabitants and the physical size of some of those inhabitants.  The Ten spies said Vanhi V’Eineinu Ka’CHaGaVim V’Chain Hayinu B’Eineihemwe were like grasshoppers in our eyes and so we were in their eyes. (Num. 13:33) How do the ten spies know how the Nephilim (the Giants) perceive them? Did they ask the Nephilim? The answer to both questions is “No”. No they don’t know how the Nephilim perceive the Ten Spies and “No”, the Ten Spies did not ask the Nephilim. The spies feel small because from their own perspective and self- image, they are small. When they look in a mirror, they see slaves. They don’t see people who stood at Sinai and received the Torah. They don’t see a people who carry a Mishkan with Hashem protecting them and scattering their enemies. They don’t see a people worthy of Hashem’s daily miracles of Manna, and water.  Instead they carry with them the burden of two centuries of slavery and being slightly less than human rather than being slightly less than angels.  Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (The Kotzker Rebbe) explained that this was the root of the spies as well as Bnai Yisroel’s sin. They had no right to consider how others viewed them, nor should they have been at all concerned. How could they consider how others viewed them? The Spies had no perspective or they had a rather limited perspective.  They should have all been spiritually strong enough to realize and accept that they were “priests to the nations” and “chosen by God”.  After a couple of centuries of slavery they lacked an accurate sense of self perspective. The fact that such spiritual awareness was still lacking even after all the miracles and promises that God made; meant that problem lay with B’nai Yisroel. These former slaves were not ready for the responsibility of land and peoplehood; they lacked a healthy sense of national self-perspective.
            Perspective affects not only how we see ourselves but how we deal with the rest of the world. Perspective affects how we deal with our own people. Perspective affects how liberal Jews deal with Right-wing Jews. Perspective affects Orthodox Jews deals with the non-Orthodox Jewish community. Perspective affects how Jews who are 1st and 2nd generation in Canada and the U.S. with their 3rd and 4th generation fellow Jewish Canadian or Jewish American. The Talmudic Sages taught us is that both perspectives are important in order to render a judgment because both majority and the minority perspectives were presented in the Talmud.  Klein HaLevi reminds us that throughout history, Jewish identity has managed to thrive by finding a balance between competing perspectives, realizing that the most accurate national perspective was a balanced mix, with each perspective offering a check and a balance to the other. Jewish Identity is only threatened when one perspective begins to dominate and alienate the other.

Peace,
Rav Yitz  

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Dawn Is Breaking Everywhere; Light A Candle, Curse The Glare (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia "Touch of Grey)



          Discussion around our dinner table this week focused on our daughters’ lamenting about all the studying they needed to do to prepare for their final exams. For discussions of this nature, I usually remain quiet. Usually, my lack of a response annoys my wife or my daughters. If pushed enough I will look up and smile and say that rather than complaining about the task before them, they should use their energy to do the work. Then I try to change the subject to current events, to the world outside our home, and our children’s complaints about school. So before I could actually change the subject, both of our daughters began talking about Roseanne Barr, her twitter comment, ABC’s response, and just exactly who is Valerie Jarret. I told them who Valerie Jarret is. They took out their phones to show us and to read to us the racially offensive tweet that Roseanne Barr sent. We discussed the fact that the “Roseanne”, Barr’s highly rated sitcom was canceled within three hours of the tweet. I asked them what they thought of Roseanne’s apology, the President’s and the White House’s silence on the issue, and the fact that even Sean Hannity thought the comments were racist, abhorrent, and that The Roseanne show should have been canceled. I was curious what our kids thought about the comments, the ABC response, and what would allow a public persona with so much to lose to suspend judgment, or civic decency even for a moment, and make such a statement on social media?
This week we read the third Parsha from The Book of Numbers, Parsha Be’Halotcha. In the previous two parshiot: Bemidbar and Naso, B’nai Yisroel takes a census and prepares for its upcoming journey from Sinai to Eretz Canaan. This week, the final preparations are ordered and executed and the departure from Sinai begins. Aaron, Moshe’s brother, and the Kohen Gadol, lights the lamp for the Mishkan, the entire Levite tribe is purified, offerings made and their service for maintenance of the Mishkan begins. Final instructions for observing Pesach under these new conditions, (they were not leaving Egypt anymore nor had they arrived in the land) were offered, including the case of coming into contact with the deceased and becoming spiritually impure. The narrative tells us the manner in which B’nai Yisroel traveled: sheltered by a cloud during the day and protected by a pillar of fire at night. Then the complaining begins. They complain about the Mannah. They complain about the food. They complain about Moshe’s leadership. Moshe’s sister complains about his wife.
The first few verses, from which the Parsha gets its name Be’Halotcha seem rather disconnected from the rest of the narrative. Rather, these first few verses seem more connected to the previous Parsha that discussed the various responsibilities of each Levi family and gifts brought by the twelve tribal princes. Left out of last week’s Parsha is the specific role of Aaron and his family.  So Aaron is given the job to light the Menorah, the Neir Tamid, the eternal light, every day.  Visually, it appears that Aaron turns on the lights of the Mishkan, the mobile worship station that was central to B’nai Yisroel’s social organization and theological understanding. Imagine the boss arriving so early that he/she turns on the lights every morning. According to the Talmud in Menachot 88, Aaron didn’t just light the Menorah, he had to clean the seven lamps out every morning prior to lighting the lamps. He would have to lean it over to clean it and the stand the Menorah back up prior to lighting. Every morning, cleaning the lamp and lighting the lamp was the first activity.  So it is interesting to note the word that the Torah uses to describe this process. Normally, the Hebrew word for “kindling a light” or “lighting a lamp” is LeHadlik.  On Shabbat, and on Holidays, when candles are lit the blessing uses the word Le’Hadlik Neir – kindling the lights. So why does the Torah use Be’Halotcha – literally “when you raise the lamps”? The Or HaChaim, the 18th-century Moroccan commentator, explains that the process of removing the lamps, cleaning them out, re-assembling the lamps upon the main stem, putting the lamp back to an upright position and finally lighting it is tantamount to building a new Menorah every day.  Six branches three on either side of the trunk bent towards the middle flame were lit every day reminding Aaron and all who entered into the Mishkan that there was one source of spiritual light. Perhaps that entire process, the awareness which occurred on an everyday basis, was much more than striking a match and lighting a wick. Instead Aaron became aware that everything he did on a daily basis was really about elevating his soul.
Over the course of several dinners this week, we came back to the Roseanne comments, the fallout and the question I asked regarding why do we think a public persona with so much at risk (a television show and millions of dollars) could possibly think it was all right to say. Our daughters said that over the past couple of years, it seems that leaders, whether in business, entertainment or even the politics have been saying and doing incredibly inappropriate things. They also thought that social media has made it so much easier for people to share unfiltered thoughts. Finally, they felt that leaders, leaders in the community, in business and even the country set the tone. If a leader doesn’t do the hard work of filtering their words, doing their work, cleaning their “house”, then the light they reflect will enlighten no one but rather cast a pall upon society.  Then our daughter’s reminded me that the next time they complain about all their work and studying for finals, that I should at least express a little empathy before I tell them to toughen up, buckle down, work hard and do your best.


Peace,
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Well You Know, Hate's Just The Last Thing They're Thinking Of (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Looks Like Rain")



Earlier this week, the Jewish People celebrated Chag HaShavuot, the Festival of Weeks, and the celebration of the Giving of the Torah. One of the rituals that occurred in many synagogues on Shavuot and occurs on the other two Jewish Festivals: Pesach and Sukkot, is the ceremony known as Duchening. The Kohanim of the congregation stand upon the bimah and with Talis covering them, the make blessing known as Birkat Kohanim. In Israel, the Duchening ceremony occurs every Shabbat. On Friday night, before sitting down to the Shabbos dinner, the father makes the Birkat Kohanim upon his children. When I have attended my first church wedding, I was surprised that the Catholic Priest made the Birkat Kohanim, in both Latin and English. When I made the Birkat Kohanim this past Friday, our dinner discussion included the recent events in Gaza and Hamas call for Gazans to march toward the security wall in the hopes of breaking it down.  There were reports of Gazans flying kites with incendiary devices to be dropped upon the other side of the fence in Israel.  Our daughter asked if there was an Islamic equivalent of Birkat Kohanim that a parent offers his/her child, or to the community for that matter.
This Shabbat we read from Parsha Naso. The Parsha’s 176 psukim make it among the longest parsha in the entire Torah.  Its length is also reflected in the wide variety of topics covered including:  the census for the tribe of Levi, the Priestly tribe, the responsibilities for the maintenance and operation of the Mishkan, the purification of the camp,  the treatment of the wayward wife (the Sotah), the vow of the Nazir ( a vow that limits the behavior of the individual as a means of elevating oneself to a higher level of holiness for only a limited time),  the identical tribal offerings made by each leader in order on twelve successive days that celebrated the fact that the Mishkan was “open for business”. Inserted in these seemingly disparate rules and narratives are the priestly benediction. A quick glance at the different components of Parsha Naso suggests that each is connected to each other because of the idea of Naso – “lift up”. Indeed each component discussed issues of how we can raise ourselves up in holiness, either through our own actions or the actions of the other.
The Priestly benediction is an example of a third party elevating us, or at least offering a supplication to God on our behalf that we indeed are worthy of blessing.  From that perspective, I can’t imagine a more powerful ritual for parents to do with their children. Yevarechecha Adoshem VaYishmarecha, May Hashem bless you and keep you. Ya' eir Adoshem Panav Eilecha VaYichuneka, May Hashem make His face shine upon you and be gracious to you Yisa Adoshem Panav Eilecha VaYaSem Lecha Shalom May Hashem lift his countenance upon you and give you peace.( Num 6:24-26). What does it mean that God should “keep" our children or “guard” our children? Naturally as parents invoking Hashem to protect our children seems like a great idea given all the tsuris in the world. Yet Rashi, the great 11th-century French commentator explains that this first blessing is not Hashem protecting our children. Rather the “blessing” should be the blessing enumerated in the Torah, that our children should be materially well off and Hashem should “protect” our children and their material blessings from those who might take such blessing. The second blessing which speaks of “shining Hashem’s face upon” our child is our desire for our children to become enlightened by Torah and a meaningful relationship with Hashem. The “gracious” is the subliminal understanding that all we can ask for is that our children have an intellectual and spiritual ability to learn Torah and connect to Hashem; we hope Hashem was gracious in giving our children plenty of ability in order to receive such “light”.  The third blessing is perhaps the most relevant for parents and children. Rashi explains that “lifting His countenance to you” means that Hashem should suppress His anger. One could also understand that that the light or the enlightenment we seek is the gift of God raising his face up towards us so that we can cast aside or let go of our anger and hatred in order that our souls shall be at peace in this world.  Both interpretations suggest that we desire for our children to at peace, to be Shaleim, to be whole and complete. Anger and hatred prevent Shleimah – wholeness, harmony, peace.
I thought about our daughter’s question, I thought about my own childhood dutifully walking towards my father and receiving this blessing. I thought about the blessing itself with its invocation of peace, of God’s shining his glory about the person receiving the blessing. I thought about God raising his face towards the person receiving the blessing.  Maybe I am ignorant, however, I remain unfamiliar with any equivalent in Islam where a priest stands before the community and issues Birkat Kohanim or an equivalent.  I even looked to see if there was an equivalent. I couldn’t imagine why parents of Gaza would listen to Hamas and place their children in harm’s way. I can’t imagine hating so much that I am willing to harm my own children in order to feed that hatred. I thought about the words that Golda Meir purportedly said: Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.”  When the Palestinian people stop listening to Hamas, when they stand up to Hamas rather than offer their own children to Hamas’ hatred, then Israel will know there is a partner for peace in Gaza.  

Peace,
Rav Yitz

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Ask Me No Questions, Sing You No Names (Peter Monk & Phil Lesh- "Passenger")



Our 8th-grade son participates in a very unique program that only a handful of Jewish Day Schools in North America offer. The program is called “Names Not Numbers”. A small group of 8th-grade students is teamed with a Holocaust Survivor. This “team” goes through a process of interviewing the survivor. Each team formulates interview questions, conducts the interview, tapes the interview, edits the interview, and produces a mini-documentary about their assigned survivor. The team also has a writing assignment and presentation that is made in front of fellow classmates. In about a week, the final product will be shown before a gathering of parents, family, the survivors and their families, as well as school administrators and various members of the community. It should prove to be a remarkably moving and inspirational evening. Certainly, our son’s experience has been transformational on several levels. He learned a powerful pedagogical lesson. He understands what it means to be part of a team, working together to accomplish a common goal. Everyone had a job, each member of the group had to rely upon each other in order to generate this multimedia presentation. Second, our son touched history, history spoke to him in the voice of the Holocaust Survivor. Our son didn’t just read about something from a third party. He didn’t encounter a primary document. Along with his team, he created the primary document by recording the words and the story of his assigned Survivor’s life. While it is very easy to get lost in the numbers of the Holocaust and the enormity of it; our son saw a number on the Survivor’s arm and that number was so much more than just a number. That number belongs to a name, a person, a life.
This week, we begin reading the 4th of the 5 books of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar, the Book of Numbers. This week’s Parsha is the same name Bemidbar. Numbers is aptly named. The book begins with counting, the counting of people, a census. God commands Moshe to take a census, MiBen Esrim Shana V’Mala Kol Yotzei Tzava B’Yisroelof all males over the age of twenty, everyone who goes out in the Legion of Israel (1:3). Once the number of fighting age males has been established by tribe, each tribe is placed in a specific formation around the Ark. This will become the formation in which Bnai Yisroel is to travel from the foot of Sinai to Eretz Canaan. Finally the Tribe of Levi, the Priests are counted. However because Levi’s only responsibility is the Ark, and the Mishkan; they will not be able to hold land in Eretz Canaan, nor do they fight. Rather they are now counted and assigned specific functions in terms of maintaining the Mishkan. Immediately after Shabbat, the Jewish People celebrate the Chag Shavuot, The Feast of Weeks, the Festival of First Fruits, the holiday that commemorates Matan TorahThe Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  
God order’s a census of people. However for whom is the counting?  Certainly, God is God and already knows the number of souls that comprise B’nai Yisroel as well as those able to fight. When God wants Moshe and Israel or anyone for that matter to do something for himself the language indicates it. Lech LechaGo for yourself God commanded Avraham, and Shelach Lecha send for yourself  God will command Moshe in several Parshiot from now.  Here, God commands Moshe Se’u et Rosh Kol Adat Bnai Yisroel count the heads. Since Lecha- for you does not appear; it would seem that the counting is not for B’nai Yisroel nor Moshe, but rather for God. So, why does God need or want a counting? We have already been told that B’nai Yisroel is Am Segulaa treasured nation, meaning B’nai Yisroel possesses some type of value. Each individual has value and from that, each individual has a purpose. Parshah Bemidbar demonstrates that there is an intrinsic value in the individual.  Halachically, we know this because the Legal Principle of Pikuach Nefesh, Saving a Soul exists. This principle appears in the Babylonian Talmud Tractate Shabbat, “the saving of life supersedes the Sabbath (Shabbat 132a). There is a Midrash in Tractate Sanhedrin which expresses the individual’s importance to God, and therefore God’s desire to count us. “If a person stamps several coins with the same die, they all resemble on another. But the King of kings stamps all human beings from the mold of the first person; and yet not one of them is identical to the other one. Therefore every individual has merit and is obliged to say “for my sake the world was created’”. (San4:5).
We all are given numbers some numbers are branded upon us because of hatred. Some numbers are ways in which government can keep track of its citizens such as Social Insurance cards Social security cards. Some numbers are given to us to keep track of how we spend. Some numbers are assigned us so that we can contact each other. It would seem that it is very easy to lose oneself amid the numbers that are used to identify each of us. However, as our son pointed out, amid each number, amid each survivor there is a story. Each individual, like the giving of the Torah, has his/her own narrative, a code that allows survival. Like the Torah’s survival depends upon study and transmission, the same could be said of the survivors and for each member of the Jewish People. Everyone has a story and a code. As our son explained to us, his connection with the past and any connection he has with the next generation depends upon his ability to receive the transmission of the story, and then transmit and teach that story as well as his story to the next generation.

Peace,
Rav Yitz  

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Hearts Of Summer Held In Trust, Still Tender Young And Green (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - Days Between)

My family and I were at a Bar Mitzvah last Shabbat. I was speaking to the Bar Mitzvah boy’s uncle who came in from Israel. As we spoke, and I told him that I was a Rabbi of a large synagogue that was about 4 miles from my home; his eyes grew very large and he exclaimed, “You’re him!” He proceeded to clarify himself by explaining that he had heard of this Rabbi in Toronto that walks over 4 miles each way to his shul. He then asked me what I think about when I walk. I explained that on Shabbat morning if the weather is pleasant; I will always begin my walk with the weekly Parsha. I will think about it in terms of my Shabbat morning class, the Divrei Torah that I present in two different minyanim (services). Depending on how much preparation I did during the week; that thinking, going through it in my head; may last a couple of miles or it may last the whole walk. However, if the weather is unpleasant, then at some point my thought will drift to Lottery 649, the New York State Lottery, or the Mega Millions. I will think that I should have bought a ticket. I will think about winning the lottery. I will think how I will set aside some for my children in trust funds. I will think about the various charities I wish to donate. If the lottery is large enough I will think about creating a family foundation where I can spend my days giving Tzedakah (charity).
            Parsha Behar and Parsha Bechukotai. These are the last two Parshiot of Sefer Vayikra (Book of Leviticus). Throughout the entire book, we have read how to elevate our lives with holiness. We elevate our lives by thanking God and atoning to God, through a variety of Korbonot. We elevate our lives by avoiding behavior that defiles us; we don’t marry our sisters. We elevate our lives in everyday physical behaviors; we only eat certain types of food. We elevate our lives by consciously setting aside holy times throughout the day, week, and season. In Parsha Behar, we elevate our lives and our land with holiness by setting aside another type of sacred time, Shmita (the seventh year.) Just like the seventh day (Shabbat) is a day of rest. Shmita is a year of rest. Every seventh year, all outstanding debts are canceled. The land lies fallow. Slaves and servants are set free. Agriculturally speaking, there is a benefit. Resting the soil for a year allows for replenishment of nutrients. Rabbinically speaking, less time devoted to agricultural concerns meant more time devoted to Torah study! Parsha Bechukotai, being the end of Leviticus, tells us the ramifications for behavior. “If you’ll keep the commandments… then I’ll send the rains in their time, the earth and trees will give forth their produce, you’ll settle securely in the land…I will multiply you…I will walk with you” (Lev. 25:3-10). If we don’t live up to these standards, if we neglect to add Kedushah (holiness) to our lives, if we “don’t perform these commandments, if we consider these decrees loathsome, if we reject these ordinances, if we annul the covenant, then I will do the same to you…. (Lev. 26:14:17) God will annul us. All blessing will become curses.
            While the curses in the Torah portion don’t paint a very pleasant picture, both parshiot reflect the vital importance of Bitachon, trust in God. In Behar, this idea of Bitachon is evident in the commandments of Shmitta (the 7-year agricultural cycle) and Yovel (Jubilee). In the Jubilee year, all debts are canceled, and there is a quasi-national “reboot”. While it may sound nice for those of us with credit card debt, consider the turmoil. The economy would come to grinding halt in the months and perhaps year or two before. What lender would lend knowing that the loan gets canceled in 6 months or a year?  In the Shmitta year, the land lies fallow. We all agree that the field needs a rest, a Shabbat, just like we do. If the fields lie fallow, what would people eat? We are urged to trust God. “I will command my blessing upon the sixth year and it will bring forth (enough) produce for three years (Lev. 25:20-21). Just like God provided a double portion of Manna on Friday and thereby guarantee enough food for Shabbat, so too God will “guarantee” enough produce in the sixth year. B’nai Yisroel won’t starve in the seventh (Shmita) year.
            So what does the Torah teach us? We learn that every rung climbed towards Kedusha, confirms our trust in God. We trust that God is Holy, otherwise, we would have no need to be holy. We trust that everything pure and good is attributable to God. Otherwise, we would constantly defile ourselves. We trust that we are created in God’s image. Otherwise, there is no reason to treat people with kindness first. Trust in God, in a sense, provides the foundation for our own individualized Mishkan. The Mishkan was built so that God would dwell among us. The very act of Bitachon (trust in God) is a demonstration of Holiness. As I finished explaining what I think about during my hour and ten-minute walk each way, the other fellow became more intrigued. From his perspective, a person had the opportunity to think/study Torah for several miles and when not thinking about Torah, he was thinking about his family, Tzedakah (charity), and helping those in need (Chesed). Funny, I just needed something to think about on Shabbat while walking back and forth. This mean reminded me that I had figured out a way to make that particular walk just a bit more holy than a walk on any other day.  

Peace,

Rav Yitz