Thursday, August 22, 2019

Man Oh Man Oh Friend Of Mine; All Good Things In All Good Time (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Run For The Roses")

     It was an incredibly busy week for our family. I picked up our 15-year-old and 17-year-old daughter from summer camp. Upon our return, laundry was brought in, and then my wife and three teenage children had our first and last family dinner. The next morning, we dropped off the two teenagers, who had just returned from camp, at their grandparents home in Upstate New York. After about a 30 minutes visit, my wife, our 19-year-old daughter and I got back into the minivan and drove to New York City. By 9 P.M., we dropped our daughter’s bags off at her dorm room. After a nice dinner and a nights sleep; we returned to her dorm, stood in line for her key and then mom and daughter got our daughter settled into her dorm room and began her week of orientation before she starts classes at University. As Mom was helping our daughter get settled, I drove back to pick up our two kids who had spent 36 hours with their grandparents. Mom flew back from New York and while we drove back home. The next morning, the two high school age kids went to the oral surgeon and had their wisdom teeth removed. After everything was finished, and the oral surgeon told me about the post-op care, she commented about the fact that we had brought two kids in on the same day to remove wisdom teeth. She thought that it was very smart to do because it was time for both of them to have the teeth removed, and everything happens in its due time. So why wait?

     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 behavior 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’SavataI 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 commandment.

     The reward for obedience is so simple and perhaps so uninspired. The reward for obedience is rain in its due time. V’Natati M’tar Artzechem B’Ito- then I shall provide rain for your Land in its proper time (Deut. 11:14). Rashi, the great 11th-century French commentator, explains that “in its proper time” means that the rain will come at night so as not to cause inconvenience. Alternatively, Rashi explains that “in its proper time” means late Friday night when everyone is in their homes. For farmers, that is truly a relief. For those of us who are not farmers, the reward as simple as it is explicitly stated; it is incredibly profound. Rain in its due time means that there is order, that life and nature will progress in an orderly and natural manner. Things will happen in due course and our job is to respond and behave appropriately.

     Moses reminds the people that life happens in due course, That our reward for observance is the reassurance that the life So as our 17-year-old daughter and 15-year-old son lay on the sofa recovering, as we change their gauze, and feed them ice cream, I am reminded of the oral surgeon’s comments. Everything happens in its due time. Children grow up, they go off to college (university), they get their wisdom teeth out, they graduate, they make a life for themselves. For some reason, as I watch my kids sitting quietly, eating some ice cream, amid the incredibly busy week, the nearly 1000 miles that were driven in three days, I have found great comfort that life’s reward seems to be that life happens in its due course.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, August 14, 2019

And You Of Tender Years, Can't Know The Fears That Your Elders Grew By (Graham Nash -"Teach Your Children")

          Our university-bound daughter returned from summer camp this week. With only a few days to get her clothes washed and packed before being dropped off at University next week; I reminded her that one of the important aspects of being a “college student” is the opportunity to question, question authority, and to question the dominant culture. The idea of questioning is incredibly Jewish and in a sense, “counter-cultural”. As we spoke, I happen to be listening to a band who played for only the second time together fifty years ago before several hundred thousand people. As she listened to the lyrics, I reminded her that fifty years ago this week, in August of 1969, on a farm dairy farm owned by Max Yasgur the Jewish son of Russian immigrants, outside the small town of Beth El, NY, a music and arts festival took place known as Woodstock. Hundreds of thousands of “college-age kids” gathered together. Woodstock would eventually come to represent the counter-cultural movement of an entire decade and generation. Forget for a moment that the nearest town was Beth El, named after the Bet El in Torah. Max Yasgur, the Jewish Dairy farmer, was a member of the Republican Party, a supporter of the Viet Nam war, and he essentially disagreed with everything that the Woodstock came to represent. When asked why he leased his fields for the Woodstock festival, Yasgur explained: “that if the generation gap is to be closed, we older people have to do more than we have done.” ("Farmer With Soul: Max Yasgur". The New York Times. 1969-08-17)

          This Shabbat, we read from Parsha V’Etchanan; it is also known as Shabbat Nachamu “Shabbat of Comfort”. Parsha V’Etchanan is always the Torah portion that immediately follows Tisha B’Av. Certainly, after commemorating the destruction of the First and Second Temples, B’nai Yisroel needed spiritual comforting. Certainly, in this week’s Parsha, V’Etchanan, Moshe’ reassures B’nai Yisroel of its destiny and in doing so, comforts them. After concluding a brief history of B’nai Yisroel’s wanderings and a gentle rebuke of this generation which is about to enter into Eretz Canaan, Moshe now provides a framework for all the laws he will teach in succeeding weeks. Moshe presents the Aseret Dibrot, the Ten Commandments to this news generation. Moshe infuses the people with self-respect. He reminds this generation that the entire basis for our nationhood and our relationship to God is avoiding idolatry at all costs. Avoiding idolatry ultimately distinguishes us from the rest of the world. Finally, Moshe reminds the people that if they follow the advice, then everything will go well. From that perspective, Moshe is re-assuring the people that the future is possible and plausible.

          Certainly the re-iteration of the laws, the inspiring words of the inevitable entry into the land and the realization of a covenant that God made with B’nai Yisroel’s ancestors are considered to words that are both comforting and inspired. However, those words provide comfort in the short term immediate future. Moshe understands that insuring a future is not about the next day, week, month or year. Moshe needs to provide comfort, inspiration, and sustainability for not only the generation that is ready to enter the land but all the generations that will be born in the land, born while in exile and all the generations that transcend time. First, Moshe invokes the two witnesses that embody the infinite. Heaven and Earth are the witnesses to B’nai Yisroel’s acceptance of covenant (Deut 4:26). Moshe reminds this generation that they will become parents and grandparents (Deut. 4:25). Moshe reminds this generation that their primary responsibility is to teach these ordinances, these laws to their children and grandchildren. Moshe reminds this generation that it must teach “how” to observe, “when” to observe, and “why” to observe, and every parent must be prepared for the inevitability that the children will question (Deut. 6:7; 6:20). For Moshe, the most important way to sustain the generational commitment to the covenant is for parents and grandparents to teach and transmit the data, the information, and the values to the next generation.

          Moshe understood and warned B’nai Yisroel that the success of the covenant is depended upon B’nai Yisroel remaining separate and apart from other people. Moshe understood that the covenant remains viable as long as and as effective as parents and grandparents are able to teach it to their children. Moshe also understood that children’s curiosity, children’s desire to learn, to question and to seek reminds parents and grandparents of their sacred task. Then it is up to the older generation to do what it can to pass along their experiences, their wisdom, their knowledge and diminish that generation gap. Fifty years ago, a Jewish dairy farmer in Beth-El, New York understood that and fifty years later, with our daughter preparing to head off to university, we understand that as well.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Nothing To Tell Now; Let The Words Be Yours, I'm Done With Mine (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Cassidy")

Last Saturday there was a mass shooting in an El Paso Walmart. More than twenty men women and children were murdered and dozens were wounded. The murderer was arrested. It turned out that he posted a racist screed upon a website that is utilized by White Supremacists, Neo-Nazis throughout North America and Europe. The perpetrator of the Christchurch, New Zealand, mass shootings, also posted a similar racist, anti-immigration screed on the same website. Also this week, a man Florida man who had been arrested for sending pipe bombs to those politicians and wealthy Jewish liberals who oppose the President's immigration policy and rhetoric was sentenced to 20 years.
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 the experiences of the past 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.
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 are 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 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 preceded this Eilah were God’s the words, and the words that proceeded this Eilah were 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. Here was Moshe Rabeinu, the elder statesman, the individual that unquestionably had the closes relationship with God, speaking before the younger generation. He speaks to them about their connection to their past, he speaks to them about their ancestors, their heroic deeds and their backsliding. He speaks to them about a covenant, he speaks to them about the inheriting the land of Canaan.  Moshe begins the process, with his words, to connect the present generation to past generations and to connect this present generation to the original covenant that God made with the Patriarchs, Moshe, and B’nai Yisroel at Sinai. 
One of the roles of leadership is to speak to people in a way that binds the people and the community together. They can be bound together through a common experience (either positive or negative), a shared history, or a common purpose. All of “these words” would transcend differences and make individuals part of something much bigger and more meaningful. So when a leader is afforded the opportunity to present Eilah HaDevarim only these words to communities that are grieving,  it is an opportunity for words to inspire, educate and motivate instead of using “Eilah HaDevarimonly these words; words of moral relativism, words that absolve self responsibility, words of blame and words that lack sincerity and integrity when taken in the context of all the words of hate and vitriol. Such a lost opportunity teaches us the power and the importance of words.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, July 31, 2019

With Its Words Of A Life That Could Almost Be True (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Black Throated Wind")

Our nineteen-year-old daughter was confronted with a conflict while working as a camp counselor. Camp is scheduled to end two days before she needs to be at her university dormitory in New York City. She needed a week at home in Toronto before heading down to University. So she arranged with the camp to that she would leave four or five days prior to the official conclusion of camp. She and the camp agreed and signed a contract.  When I went to visit her, my wife and our two other children last week, she and I spoke about her early departure. She explained that she felt conflicted because originally she wanted to leave a week before the official conclusion of camp and the camp ‘s original position was that leaving early was unnecessary. Both sides compromised on four days.  As we spoke and she shared with me her frustration, I suggested that she speak to her boss, request an earlier departure date and simultaneously offer to forego being paid the last week. I thought my suggestion was completely reasonable. She gave me a look of shock and incredulity. Then she stated, “I have a contract, I gave my word”.
This Shabbat, we read from the final two Parshiot in Sefer Bemidbar (Book of Numbers): Matot and Masei.  This double Parsha begins with the laws of Nedarim (Vows), and then Bnai Yisroel fights against the Midianites. Moshe rebukes his officers for their collective failure to deal with the Midianite woman since they were the cause of Bnai Yisroel’s plague in the first place. Bnai Yisroel then begins the process of dividing the spoils of this battle. Two tribes, Reuben and Gad request to settle in the land east of the Jordan River and not the land promised by Hashem. Moshe expresses his anger over the request and the two tribes amend their request. Moshe adds a condition and an agreement is reached. The Torah recounts the various stops that Bnai Yisroel made on their journey to Eretz Canaan, the boundaries of Eretz Canaan are clarified, the new leadership is introduced and the cities of refuge of explained and established. Finally, Sefer Bemidbar concludes with a reminder of the laws for tribal inheritance. With all those loose ends neatly sewn up; Bnai Yisroel now sits on the eastern bank of the Jordan River waiting to enter Eretz Canaan. As we conclude the reading, we say Chazak Chazak v’ NitChazeikFrom strength to strength we shall go forward in strength.
The beginning of the Parsha, with its focus upon Nedarim v’Shvuot Vows and Oaths, we are being reminded of two vital concepts. First, we are reminded of the Aseret Dibrot, of the Ten Commandments and specifically invoking God’s name in vain.  Ish Ki Yidor Neder L’adoshem When a man takes a vow to Hashem (Num. 30:3). Part of the process by which one makes a vow is to invoke God name. Therefore, a failure to keep the vow or the oath means that one has used God’s name in vain. The repercussions of which are extremely serious.  Second, we learned in Sefer Breishit (Book of Genesis) that speech is holy. Speech is part of the God’s creative process; Vayomer Elokim, Yehi Or, VaYahi Or- And God said: Let there be Light, and there was light. In a sense, speech is perhaps one of the only actions available to us that allow us to emulate God. When we make a vow or an oath, we are acting similar to God. A Neder is a pledge to prohibit oneself from something that that the Torah permits. Or a Neder can be obligating oneself to something that the Torah considers to be optional. Obligating one’s self to contribute to a specific charity would be an example of "obligating that which is optional". Refraining from apples would be an example of prohibiting something that is originally acceptable. In either case, the individual is truly acting like God. The individual is creating Halacha and making his vow and or oath becomes tantamount to Torah. Clearly, this cannot be taken lightly. After all, the severity of the language is a function of the fact that one makes this vow, pledge or oath to God and not to oneself or to another.  Fundamental to our vows with God is a trust in the relationship, trust that it exists, trust that it is desired by both and trust that is must be treated as sacred.
Indeed, my daughter made gave her word regarding her early departure from camp. Yes, she complained. Yes, she shared her anxiety as she wondered how everything would get done before her leaving for university. Yes, she was certainly shocked when I suggested that she calmly and reasonably offer to give up a week of pay in order to leave earlier than the time that had been agreed upon. All that time, as I listened to her, and made suggestions, I thought I was listening to my little girl. After she incredulously told me that she gave me her word and signed a contract’ my little girl reminded me that her mother and I spent the last nineteen years raising her to be a woman that kept her word.  I guess she is our little girl isn’t so little anymore. Indeed, she is a woman of her word.  

Rav Yitz  

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Can't You See That You're Killing Each Other's Soul (Jerry Garcia - Great Cream Puff War)

Earlier in the week, I went to the hospital to do Vidui, the final confession for an elderly man whose death seemed imminent. When I arrived, his family was there including children and grandchildren. After I did the Vidui, the children and the grandchildren needed to talk. They asked me about a funeral, whom to call, and what to do. The daughter in law, holding her youngest child on her lap asked me whether or not I thought it was appropriate to bring children to the funeral and to the cemetery. Unequivocally, I said that it was absolutely appropriate to bring the children and it is important for them to be with their family during this difficult time. I explained that children need to learn how to make sense of certain life cycle events. It should not be left up to their imagination, nor should they be alone. They should be with their family, free to ask questions and express their feelings. Also, they need to learn how to deal with this kind of loss since it is something they will contend with throughout their respective lives, and being with their parents and family for the first time is the safest way to learn how to deal with this type of loss.  I explained to this young mother, that the most important gift she and her husband can provide for their children is the emotional strength to handle loss and not be afraid.  The emotions of loss: grief, sadness, sorrow, despair are part of the process of dealing with these life cycle issues in a matter of fact type of way. I asked the young mother if she wanted her children to grow up being whole and complete people. She responded that she did. I explained that to be whole and complete means that her children do not grow up being paralyzed by life and death, nor becoming so emotionally distraught that they don’t know how to live life after experiencing such a severe loss. I suggested that might be the biggest gift parents can give their children, the tools to find Peace, a Brit Shalom, Covenant of Peace.
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 Bnai 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 behavior 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 Shelosh Regalim (Three Pilgrimage Festivals, etc).
Isn't it odd, or perhaps even disturbing, that Pinchas' zealousness, his subsequent spear throwing and impaling his targets is 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, I imagine that most people consider or at least can understand why some may consider Pinchas act to be nothing more than fanaticism or vigilantism. The Neziv (Rabbi Zvi Yehuda Berlin Poland 1817-1893; the Rosh Yeshiva of the Volozhin Yeshiva) assumes that intrinsic to an act of vigilantism or fanaticism is a person whose soul and entire being is in turmoil and not in a state of peace.  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 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 Brit Shalom, Covenant of Peace. Once Pinchas committed his first act of zealous defense of God's glory, perhaps it becomes easier and easier to commit a second, third or forty-eighth act in the name 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, ideology, and the slavish adherence to defending its purity. The zealot, by definition, is an extremist. Jewish Law frowns upon extremism (see the laws of the Nazarite).  Precisely because the zealot does not know peace when he/she commits such an act, the only “gift” God could give Pinchas was that the tumult and turmoil within Pinchas’  soul should cease and his soul should become Shaleim whole, complete and at peace.
From this perspective, that Brit Shalom was not so much a reward of external gain as it was a reward for internal “normalcy”, the Brit Shalom and the Brit Kehunat L’Olam seem much more appropriate. Isn’t that what we wish for our children? We know that during the course of their lives there will be moments of tumult. We know that they will experience tension between their belief system and the realities of daily life. We know that they will be exposed to extreme emotions of joy, of sadness, of anguish and of anger. Pinchas received a Brit Shalom in order to manage the tumult within his soul. When parents and grandparents see their children and grandchildren's soul in spiritual and emotional tumult;  certainly they wish for nothing but Peace for their suffering children and grandchildren. Indeed, when children and grandchildren experience extreme and intense emotions that are an inevitable part of life; we pray that they will be able to return to a state of peace and contentment with themselves and their lives.
Rav Yitz

Thursday, July 18, 2019

But The Darkness Never Goes From Some Men's Eyes (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Throwing Stones")

Why did he have to do that? Why did Trump invoke Israel and antisemitism when siting four Democratic Congresswoman of color as, Socialist, haters of America and finally telling them to “go back where they came from” if they hate America so much? I am not a fan of three of the four congresswomen. I don’t like Ocasio-Cortez; I don’t Tlaib, and I don’t like Omar. I don’t like their policies regarding Israel, I don’t appreciate their comments regarding Jews and Israel. I also know that I would never have voted for them. They are 4 votes in the Democratic Caucus and if they were smart and so politically astute, they would focus more on keeping quiet,  trusting Nancy Pelosi, and focus on getting rid of Trump, rather making provocative statements on Twitter in order to get more followers.  However, of all people to use  Israel and Anti-semitism as a standard when trying to find a convenient political target to replace Hilary Clinton and “Lock her up”.  Trump was the guy who managed to find moral relativism in Charlottesville. Trump and his anti-immigration, pro-conspiracy international kabal inspired a gunman to kill Jews in Pittsburgh, and inspire another crackpot to manufacture pipe bombs and send them to at least two Jewish liberal billionaires who support left-wing liberal causes.  Trump is the guy that racists love. Trump is the guy that Neo-Nazi and white supremacists love. Trump is the guy that is praised by David Duke. So why did the guy that white supremacists and neo-Nazis love so much, why did he need to cite ‘anti-semitism’ and ‘love for Israel’ as part of his “America, love it or leave it” racial scree? Make no mistake, I can’t tell you how many observant Jews have said, “you know the President is right, they (the four freshman Democratic congresswomen of color) are anti-semitic and anti-Israel.”  I wince as I remind them of Charlottesville, Pittsburgh, and Poway because I understand that Trump has managed to weaponized Israel and Anti- Semitism among Jews, thereby making the Jewish community even more disunified.
                 This Shabbat we read from Parsha Balak. Balak was a Moabite King. After watching what B’nai Yisroel had done to the Ammonites, Balak was distressed. He realized that fighting B’nai Yisroel with a regular army was doomed to fail because he realized that God had blessed them. Being a clever king, Balak surmised that the only way to fight B'nai Yisroel was to fight them on a spiritual level. Since God blessed Bnai Yisroel, Balak wanted to find someone to curse them. There lived a prophet, a “Prophet Consultant,” a “hired gun” if you will, named Bilaam. King Balak hired Bilaam to curse B’nai Yisroel. Bilaam is visited by God and told not to curse B’nai Yisroel. Bilaam ignores the visitation. On his donkey heading towards B’nai Yisroel’s camp, and preparing his curses, the donkey stops. Although Bilaam could not see the angel standing in the middle of the road with a sword drawn, the donkey did. As a result, the donkey refused to continue forward. Finally, Bilaam realizes that there is a divine force in the middle of the road and must confront it. Bilaam listens and heads toward the camp. Looking down upon the encampment, Bilaam blesses B’nai Yisroel with words that we say upon entering into any synagogue, words that we teach our children at the youngest of ages. Ma Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov Mishkenotecha Yisroel – How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel – Kinchalim Nitayu K’ganot Alei Nahar K’Ahalim Natah Adoshem Ka’Arazim Alei Mayimstretching out like brooks like gardens by the river, like aloes planted by Hashem, like cedars by the water (Num 24:5-6). Try as he might, Bilaam is unable to curse Bnai Yisroel, rather he blesses them.
The Jewish people always have one or two questions when assessing people and governments. “Is it good for the Jews? Is it good for Israel?” Obviously, depending on the definition of “good”, the answer will vary. Also depending on which version of Israel matters, democracy or Jewish,  the answer may vary. Even how one understands “Jew” will cause the answer to the question, “is it good for the Jews” to vary. Certainly, Bilaam must be good for the Jews. Yes, he may have started off as wanting to curse the Jews, but that was because Balak hired him to do it. In the end, he not only offered a blessing, but we invoke that blessing every morning. Mah Tovu Ohalecha YaakovHow Goodly are your tents O Israel. Those words of praise must be good for the Jews and good for Israel, right? Bilaam can’t be such a bad guy. No, the real bad guy must be Balak, the king of Moab, he is the guy that wants to curse Israel.  In the Talmud, Tractate Taanit 20a, R’ Samuel Bar Nachmani, suggests that the blessing isn’t really such a blessing. Bilaam invoked the mighty Cedar by the river when he blessed the Jews. Cedars do not grow in well-watered areas, its stock does not drive up new shoots and it has few roots. A wind from the South will uproot the Cedar and lay it flat on its face. Soon after this episode of Bilaam blessing B’nai Yisroel, he will devise the plan for Balak’s attempt to destroy B’nai Yisroel. It is Bilaam who brings the daughters of Moab in order to entice the men of B’nai Yisroel so that they begin acting like Moabites and the other idol-worshipping nations and dividing a nation.  So maybe Bilaam is not such a friend to the Jews after all.
                How bad is Trump for the Jews and Israel? He is awful. I don’t want Israel to be political fodder for the Republicans or Democrats. Support for Israel is in America’s best interests. When Israel gets weaponized by one political party against another, it is bad for Israel and it’s bad for the Jews. That’s how a right-wing, anti-immigration anti semite walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and started shooting. That is how and anti-semite, who believes that there is an international conspiracy taking over the world, walked into a synagogue in Poway and began shooting. Yes, it’s bad for the Jews because Trump and his weaponization of Israel and Jews create additional rifts within a Jewish community that will always be divided because of observance. It’s bad for Israel because it creates increased alienation between it and the less observant diaspora Jews. This phenomenon is played it in terms of generations and observance and contributes to the concern why Israel receives tepid support if any from the young, non-observant Jews. So regarding four woman of color, one of whom represents a district that historically was a Jewish neighborhood in Minneapolis, they are four women with four votes in Congress. They can have a twitter following of millions and millions but, only the people in their district can vote for them. So if the people in their district don’t vote for them, they are no longer in congress. If they decide to run for the Senate, even with all their millions of twitter followers, only those in corresponding states could vote for those women if they decide to run for Senate.  However, the President can affect foreign policy. The President can create an atmosphere that legitimizes racism, that looks at all brown skin people trying to immigrate to the United States as “illegal”, can appoint Supreme Court Justices, can sell the virtues of American and pervert is Democratic ideals in order to enrich himself. And that is bad for the Jews. Anything or anyone that threatens liberal democracy is ultimately bad for the Jews. History teaches us that we don’t do well in totalitarian governments. We didn’t do well in Communist Imperial Russia nor did we do well in Fascist Nazi Germany.  So maybe being loved and praised by Trump isn’t such a good thing especially when all the racists and white supremacist agree with him.
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

You Can Trade Your Soul For An Electric Guitar (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Heaven Help The Fool")

Since last Sunday was particularly quiet, I took a drive and spent the day with my parents. I played some golf with my father, sat by the pool with my mother. When we talk, the subject matter is generally the same thing. My parents spend a lot of time talking to me about our four children: how they have matured, the kind of people they are, their plans, and then, like all Jewish grandparents; they “kvell” (take great joy praising how wonderful their grandchildren are). The next subject is their health. I listen as they share with me their aches and pains and their upcoming doctors' appointments. Often times we discuss Judaism and their Torah classes, and the myriad of questions they may have. Frequently, we discuss the news including politics, Supreme Court decisions and Israel. However, when the news is overly depressing, my parents will discuss sports. After everything that has been going on in Washington DC this past week, my parents and I discussed sports. It was a particularly uninspired week that even my mother joined in our discussion on sports. Thankfully, at this time of year, any discussion centered on sports usually focuses on baseball, free agents, and the trade deadline. We prognosticate as to what our favorite team will do in order to put themselves in the best possible position to win the World Series. During our discussions, my parents and I are always amazed at how a change of environment can truly affect a player’s outlook and performance. Whether it is the organization, the stadium, the fans, the fact that the player has a chance to play in the postseason, or just knowing that they are now playing for a team that wants them; we are always amazed how much better that player performs.
This Shabbat is we read Parsha Balak. In the Parsha, we read an interesting narrative that is filled with suspense, humor, intrigue, an apparent “midseason trade” and even a happy ending. It is interesting to note that throughout the Parsha, the focus is upon the outside world as it relates to the B’nai Yisroel. That is to say, Balak, the king of Moab and the tribe of Midian are the subjects of the Parsha. B’nai Yisroel hovers as the main reason for why the narrative is pertinent; however for once, Bnai Yisroel is not doing something wrong, they are not recipients of God’s anger. Instead, they placidly and temporarily settled on the plains of Moab waiting to enter into Eretz Canaan. Not until the end of the Parsha and only after the narrative of Balak and Bilaam concluded, does the Torah return to a narrative style with Bnai Yisroel as the subject of poor behavior and God’s anger. 
            Bilaam, a soothsayer is hired by Balak to curse Bnai Yisroel. By cursing Bnai Yisroel, Balak believed that this was the only way to defeat Bnai Yisroel since they had successfully waged war on all the indigenous tribes thus far. The donkey that Bilaam rides upon on his way to cursing Bnai Yisroel refuses to respond to Bilaam, Bilaam grows angrier and angrier. The donkey is able to see an Angel of God in the road and Bilaam the soothsayer cannot. So a humorous conversation between Donkey and Soothsayer occurs (this is the funny part). Bilaam eventually realizes that he is unable to curse B’nai Yisroel. Finally, when he is looking from the hills down upon B’nai Yisroel and sees a peaceful, God-fearing community he utters praise instead of curses.   Imagine Balak’s anger and frustration? He hires Bilaam to curse B’nai Yisroel; instead, he blesses B’nai Yisroel! Vayomer Balak El Bilaam Meh Asita Li Lakov Oyvai L’Kachticha V’Hinei
Beirachta Vareich Balak said to Bilaam, “What have you done to me! To curse my enemy have I brought you – but behold, you have even blessed!” (Num. 23:11) Balak’s frustration is something we can all understand. He believed that Bilaam, a powerful soothsayer/prophet was capable of communing with God and deriving the appropriate sign in order to curse Bnai Yisroel. Bilaam’s response is quite revealing: Halo Eit Asher Yasim HaShem B’Fi Oto Eshmor L’Daber! Is it not so that whatever Hashem puts in my mouth, that I must take heed to speak! Essentially Bilaam explains that he can only say what God would have said. If Balak could have traded Bilaam for another soothsayer, he probably would have.
As awful a person as Balak is, and as mercenary a person Bilaam is, we can learn a lot from the exchange of both men.  Balak hired the soothsayer to do a job for which Bilaam was renowned for doing. Bilaam did not live up to his reputation.  Had Balak issued a curse himself, even if it failed, at least he would have felt empowered.  For Bilaam, at least for that moment, he turned inwards, listened to his soul, listened to the donkey, listened to God and his entire attitude changed. At least for the moment, this mercenary soothsayer offered only blessings to the Jewish people. The fact of the matter is that we need to turn inwards, towards our soul. There, in our own soul, we will find holiness. The funny thing about the trade deadline, sometimes it is the trades that don’t get made turn out to be the best.  Rather than trading for another player –looking outwards; teams decide to stick with the personnel that they have and commit to playing better, commit to exerting greater effort, working harder. They look inward and renew a sense of commitment and purpose. 

Rav Yitz