Thursday, March 21, 2019

Come Wash The Night-Time Clean; Come Grow The Scorched Ground Green (John Barlow & Bob Weir "Cassidy")

One of the most indelible memories of my grandparents was the ritual of my grandfather taking out the garbage. Back in those days, there was no recycling, no separating paper and plastic and food. The ritual had more to do with the command given. The command would come from my grandmother, all 4’10” of her. She would only notice that the garbage needed throwing out when she was in the kitchen and he was not. So she would yell out his name tell him the garbage needed to be thrown out. All that was involved was removing the plastic sack from underneath the sink, tie it in a knot, walk out of the apartment into the hallway, open up the door to the garbage shoot and let go. As a child, it was pretty fun to partake of this task with him and watch the garbage bag go down and then listen for the landing. Sometimes the landing would be muffled and sometime you would hear more stuff break. However as I grew older, so did they. The command never changed, nor did the fact that my grandfather would always be somewhere else in the apartment when she yelled at him to throw out the garbage. Usually, during my visit, I would be sitting in the kitchen as my grandmother felt obligated to give me something to eat or drink, that’s when the command would be issued. I learned to suggest to my grandmother that I would throw out the garbage and that she didn’t need to bother Grandpa. My grandmother claimed that he liked to throw out the garbage, maybe he derived the same thrill of listening to the garbage bag land that I did when I was a little boy. However, my grandfather explained that he didn’t really like it. However, for my grandfather, there was a valuable lesson in throwing out the garbage. As the President of a sportswear company, my grandfather explained that it was pretty easy to get caught up in the perks, the benefits, the “image” and the superficial. Throwing out the garbage, he explained, allowed him to retain his humility and that he wasn’t too important to engage in menial tasks. Menial work kept allowed him to maintain a sense of perspective, balance, and appreciation for everyone who worked an honest day.
This week’s Parsha is Tzav. It is also Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Chag HaPesach, the Passover Holyday. Like last week’s Parsha, Parsha Tzav focuses upon Korbonot (offerings). While last week we read of God’s commanding Moshe to teach the laws of Korbonot (Offerings) to B’nei Yisroel, this week we read of God commanding Moshe to teach the laws of Korbonot (Offerings) to Aaron and his sons. The Parshah concludes with instructions for Aaron and his sons to remain outside of the camp for seven days. These are the seven days required for spiritual and to some degree, physical preparation. The Priests must remain outside of the camp because they are in the process of purifying themselves for this extremely sacred and vital position, Kohen Gadol.
Besides Moshe, the Kohen Gadol was the most vital role within Israelite society. It was the Kohen Gadol that served as a vehicle for the common person to draw closer to God. When the common person or the king needed to atone, they would bring a sacrifice to God. However, it was the Priest that had to check for blemishes. It was the priest that had to slaughter the animal in a very precise way. It was the priest that had to sprinkle the blood.  Later on, it was the priest who became the “spiritual advisor” to the king. Unlike any other position, the priesthood was based upon lineage and was promised by God to Aaron for eternity (or as long as there was a Temple). Yet as important as this was for the welfare of B’nai Yisroel’s relationship to God, the Priest was eternally reminded of the importance of humility within a leader. V’hotzi et a Hadeshen el Michutz La’Machaneh el Makom Tahor-“and he shall bring the ashes to the outside of the camp, to a pure place (Lev 6:4).” Here is arguably the most important position within the community and he has to shlep the ashes out from the Mishkan. What’s even more amazing is what the Talmudic tractate Yoma teaches. The Talmud explains that the priests were so anxious to take out the ashes that a lottery system had to be introduced to pacify all those who wanted this “honor”. Anyone could have been commanded to take out the ashes. Why the Kohanim (the Priests)? Like all other aspects of the sacrificial process, the priests’ sole concern was the Temple and everything about the Temple. No task was below the priest. No aspect of the Temple remained untouched or unaffected by the Priest. The Sefer HaChinuch, a thirteenth-century work enumerating and explaining all 613 Mitzvot explains that Terumat HaDeshen is a positive commandment. The priest removes these ashes daily, and in doing so, he is enhancing the Mizbeach (the altar) and beautifying it to the best of his ability. Rashi adds that the priest would wear old clothes and nice his daily Priestly Vestments or his Holiday Vestments to do this type of menial work. All agree that the Kohen was never thought to be too important for such a lowly task.
So what can we learn from Parsha Tzav, and the Priest’s most menial of tasks? First, we learn just how vital it is for people to be willing to roll up their shirtsleeves and do some of the dirty work. After all, if family members or members of a community are unwilling to “to get dirty” for a greater purpose, then the purpose must not so great. Also if those in leadership positions within a family or a community are unwilling “to get dirty”, why should anyone else “get dirty? So on Thursday morning, it’s my job to take the trash and recycling to the curb. Our children know that they have their respective tasks and they know that they are responsible for and chores around the house. No one is so special that they are absolved from these tasks. Sure, they complain but I remind them that this is about developing character, independence, humility, and empathy. No matter how important we think we are, we always should be reminded to take out the ashes. We need humility in order to remind us of where we fit in, and who we are. Possessing this humility gives us credibility when dealing with anyone. Possessing this humility reminds us of how we should treat others as well as how we wish to be treated. Besides, it allows me to keep one of the lessons that my grandfather taught me alive and well in his great-grandchildren.
Rav Yitz

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Heard A Voice A-Calling, Lord You Was Coming After Me (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Bertha")

My children love to play games with me. No, I am not talking about “Monopoly”, or cards, or any of those kinds of games. My children like to play a game called: “Ignore”. Have you ever heard of it? I am convinced that every home that has teenage children plays some iteration of the “Ignore” game.  I remember playing it with my parents when I was a teenager.   The game can be played at any time of day and under nearly any circumstance. The rules of the game are rather simple. The parent initiates play by calling out to the teenager by making a request of him/her. The teenager ignores the first request. The parent generally should wait not less than 30 seconds but not more than 60 seconds before calling out to the teenager with the same request. Again, the teenager ignores and again after another 30-60 seconds, the parent calls out for the same request, only louder and more specifically. “Hello, I am talking to you” or “can you hear me? I am talking to you.” Now the game changes slightly. The teenager needs to respond, and generally, the response involves a grunt, “Huh” or a question such as “what?” or a statement such as “Ok, Ok, I heard you” or “Ok, I’ll do it in a minute”.  Keep in mind, that those statements are code for “I am ignoring you doing something else that I prefer to be doing rather than anything you request.” Now the game escalates, the parent needs to close the physical gap, stand in front of the teenager and issue the request, thereby making the teenagers ability to ignore much more difficult. The teenager can escalate by ignoring or declining to fulfill the request. Now, the parent faces three alternatives and needs to quickly assess the importance of the request. If the request is unimportant, then the parent can end the game by ceasing to make another request. If the request is important then the parent can utilize leverage in a loud threatening way. However, this usually leads to a delay in fulfilling the request by engaging in a fight, at which point the teenager wins the “Ignore” game. The third alternative requires great discipline but offers the greatest possibility of a parent’s victory. The parent needs to get the teenagers attention and to focus upon the request. To accomplish this the parent still utilizes leverage however does so in a quiet disarming manner. When I was a teenager, I knew that when my father took off his glasses and squint/glare like Clint Eastwood and spoke quietly, that it was time for me to listen, and fulfill whatever request was being made. I never mastered the Clint Eastwood glare like my father. Instead, I try to close the physical distance, and with as much calm in my voice, as I can muster, I turn the request into a transaction. While my father relied on his inner Clint Eastwood stare; I rely on my inner Don Corleone and try to “make an offer they can’t refuse”. I try to speak quieter in a colder more calculating manner and begin with a confirmation that they will ultimately fulfill the request.  Then I make a business arrangement and tell them that I know what their more imminent requests will be and that I won’t be able to fulfill them unless my request is imminently filled. We agree on a reasonable timeframe for the request to be fulfilled and with mutually agreed upon deterrents to prevent potential “forgetfulness”. Then I say “thank you” and the Ignoring game concludes.

This Shabbat we begin the third book of the Torah, Sefer Vayikra by reading from the Parsha with the same name VaYikrah. For all of Bereishit (Genesis) and the first half of Shmot (Exodus), we read narratives. The Second half of Shmot, we read the blueprints of and then the actual construction of the Mishkan – the portable worship station that would accompany Bnai Yisroel on their Trek towards Eretz Yisroel. Now the Torah takes a break from narrative and construction. Now we begin reading the various types of offerings that Kohen Gadol, the High Priest, will make on our behalf. These offerings are the various means by which the individual or the community is able to approach Hashem. We approach Hashem for a variety of reasons, including special occasions for personal reasons: repentance, thanksgiving, and special occasions for communal reasons: seasonal festivals, or daily service.

We are familiar with the language that usually appears when Hashem speaks to Moshe. VaYomer Adoshem el Moshe Leimor Hashem said to Moshe saying; or VaYiDaBeR Adoshem El Moshe LeimorAnd Hashem spoke to Moshe saying. Now for the first and perhaps only time, Hashem neither ‘says’ nor “speaks” to Moshe. Instead, we read   Vayikrah el Moshe -God called to Moshe (Lev 1:1). ” Imagine, God calling out to a person before speaking? The word “VaYiKRa” ends with a letter that is in smaller font size than the rest of the letters that are found in the Torah. So clearly, this type of VaYiKRa is different than the typical kind of VaYiKRA with all the letters being the same size. Rashi, the 11th-century French vintner, and commentator explain that God speaks in a loud booming voice; a voice that can shatter trees and be heard throughout the world. However, this VaYiKRa, was only heard by Moshe. The calling was done so in a loving manner. The diminutive final letter – Aleph; suggests two possibilities.  First, Hashem whispered Moshe’s name in a manner that only Moshe could hear. Second, Moshe was humble enough, as symbolized by the diminutive letter, that his soul was receptive to God’s calling. The result of which Moshe quickly and eagerly responded with Hinneni“Here I am”.

I can’t imagine Moshe ignoring God’s calling out to him. On those rare occasions when my children don’t feel like playing their games, and they respond to my calling the first couple of times, they always seem surprised that I am nicer, easier going, and my request never seems so neither overbearing nor unreasonable. They even think that I am a good mood. Usually, their acknowledgment elicits a smile from me. I explain to them that no one likes to be ignored and that we get along so much better when we actually pay attention to one another, especially when we hear our names being called.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Honest To The Point Of Recklessness Self-Centered To The Extreme (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Althea)

There is a concept in Judaism called Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of the soul. Cheshbon HaNefesh, similar to analyzing a balance sheet, Cheshbon HaNefesh forces the individual to engage in analysis of “where they are in their lives”. How far astray have they wandered from the most sacred and holy aspects of themselves? How far astray have they wandered from the best version of themselves? It is not a process that leads to a request for forgiveness although it is a process that may lead to an apology. It is not a process that leads to a request for mercy; although it is a process that may inform and direct others to avoid the mistakes that the individual made. It is not a process that generally occurs in public; rather it is a deeply personal and spiritual endeavor.  Last week and this week; it was possible to watch and listen to Michael Cohen as a case study in Cheshbon HaNefesh – a spiritual accounting of the soul. He offered no excuses.  His character flaw made him susceptible to all kinds of temptation, he did many bad things he was going to prison. His character flaw meant that he sacrificed the values and morals that he learned from his parents, he had become untethered to the code and behavior by which he was supposed to live his life. He knew that he had disappointed his family and himself.  He had just made an accounting, and where his misdeeds affected others, he apologized.  After the two days of hearings, it is quite clear that Cohen has become unburdened, spiritually cleansed and ready to do time, without noise, drama, fanfare or a pardon.
            This week's Parsha is Pekudei. It is the last Parsha of Sefer Shmot. The Parsha, in a very matter of fact way, provides us with an accounting of all the material that was used for the Mishkan. The Parsha, in a very matter of fact way, tell us all that Betzalel and Oholiab had done while inspired by God and their art. We derive this idea of "taking stock" from the first Pasuk. Eilah F'kudei Ha'Mishkan Ha'Eidut Asher Pukad Al Pi Moshe Avodat Ha'Leviim - These are the countings of the Tabernacle, the Tabernacle of Testimony, which was reckoned at Moshe's bidding (Ex.38:21). What follows is essentially a ledger of all materials that were used in the Mishkan's construction.  What follows is essentially a ledger of the order in which Betzalel, Oholiab, and B'nai Yisroel used these materials and actually constructed the Mishkan. Why do we need this accounting? We have been reading about the Mishkan for the last four Parshiot. However, it was not until now, when Moshe and B'nai Yisroel were able to look back at the process and see exactly how far along they have come. Think about it. For a lengthy period of time, B'nai Yisroel, as told to us in the Torah, had experienced an individual, communal and spiritual revolution. They watched Ten Plagues destroy Egypt, fled Egypt, and experienced the miracle of the Crossing of the Yam Suf. They witnessed the revelation at Sinai, received the Ten Commandments, panicked and built the Golden Calf. They began the Teshuvah process by bringing a half Shekel as a means of expressing atonement. They willingly brought their precious jewels and raw materials for the construction of the Mishkan. They came together as a community and they successfully constructed "God's dwelling place."
Certainly, there were specific events that we would deem as vitally important, including the actual exodus from Egypt, the Crossing of the Reed Sea, and the Revelation at Sinai. However, in each of these three pivotal moments, B'nai Yisroel behaved as individuals. During each of these three pivotal moments, one could argue that B'nai Yisroel was more reactive than proactive. After the Tenth Plague, following God's direct command, B'nai Yisroel left Egypt. After God opened the Reed Sea, B'nai Yisroel began to cross it. It is the Midrash that explains that B'nai Yisroel took the first steps into the water prior to God's miracle.  The Revelation at Sinai was a more reactive experience than a pro-active one. Even the Golden Calf fiasco could be argued as B'nai Yisroel's response to the fact that Moshe delayed his descent from the mountain. B'nai Yisroel only acts pro-actively when they willingly bring their donations in order to build the Mishkan. Those donations were a proactive expression of their engaging in Teshuva, Repentance.  For this generation, constructing and completing the Mishkan, was perhaps its greatest achievement.  For the time being, they were finally pure of soul and pure of heart. They understood what it meant to be a community, a holy community, and the Mishkan was an expression of that. Therefore when B'nai Yisroel completed this transition to “peoplehood” culminating in the completion of the Mishkan; it makes sense that an accounting of the Mishkan's construction would occur.
  From Moshe's "accounting", we learn something very important about human nature. As individuals, as part of a team and as part of a community; we need to do Cheshbon HaNefesh, an accounting of our souls. While it is certainly important to do Cheshbon HaNefesh at prescribed times with the community (Yom Kippur for example); it is also vital that we engage in this process when we have survived and successfully or unsuccessfully navigated through a transition.  These transitions and changes are not necessarily confined to lifecycle events or the calendar but as a part of life in general; and certainly when about to begin a new and difficult phase of life. Parsha Pekudei reminds us that we must possess the self-awareness to step back and look back at the process and own it, and if it is appropriate, mourn it, celebrate it, or learn from it. The result is that when the time comes for the next project, (The Holy Temple), the next national endeavor (Bnai Yisroel’s entry in to the land of Israel), the next hardship to be faced or the next joyous occasion to celebrate; Cheshbon HaNefesh will lead to thoughtful and correct decisions that are to the benefit of the person and the community.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

They're A Band Beyond Description Like Jehovah's Favourite Choir (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Playing In The Band")

Our 11th-grade daughter plays on her high school’s volleyball team. This week,   her volleyball postseason tournament which culminated in the championship game took place this week. Forgetting the outcome of the team’s tournament performance; our daughter has grown and matured in a manner that can only occur as a result of participating in a team sport or group activity. I played basketball for my High School and I played two years of college basketball. That experience continues to be an importance influence in how I view my family, my friends, my job, my community and functioning as an observant Jew. We noticed similar changes in each of our children as they participated in a team or in a long term group project. Our volleyball playing daughter has taken greater initiative at home, and at school. Playing volleyball has taught her the importance of teamwork, doing one’s job, putting aside individual accolades for the good of the team, and working hard towards a common goal. I was particularly fascinated when she expressed frustration when a teammate seemed to be a bit lax in their effort in practice, and I was just as fascinated as she expressed frustration when she sensed that some of her teammates didn’t appear to understand that the team was more important than the individual.                
This week’s Parsha is Vayakahel. Following the sin of the Golden Calf and Teshuvah (repentance), B’nai Yisroel begins executing God’s instructions for the Mishkan, the Ark, and the Tent of the Meeting. We recall that when God gave these instructions to Moshe, God started from the middle of the structure (the holiest point of the structure) and worked out towards the outer walls of the structure. God gave instructions beginning with the building of the Aron (the Ark), and concluding with the walls of the Tent of the Meeting. When B’nai Yisroel begins the building process, they begin with walls of the Tent, and then conclude with the altar and finally the Ark. 
After the destructive behavior of worshipping the Golden Calf, B’nai Yisroel comes together and shares a common constructive experience bound by a common goal. Their goal is to complete the construction of the Mishkan. The common experience is their contributions of raw materials. V’Yavo’u  Kol Ish Asher Nasahu Libo V’chol Asher Nadvah Rucho- Every man whose heart inspired him came; and everyone whose spirit motivated him brought the portion of God for the work of the Tent of the Meeting, for all its labor and for the sacred clothing (Ex.35:21). By participating in this constructive process, everyone had an opportunity to repent for the sin of the Golden Calf and for its lack of faith. If viewed as a process, B’nai Yisroel began on the fringes, idolatry, and after repentance, began moving towards the Holy of Holies. First, they built the walls of the Tent of the Meeting, the altar, then the Holy of Holies. For the vast majority, we approach God in a similar way. As we become inspired, we are drawn towards Judaism. As we become motivated, we dedicate a greater portion to God, both in terms of Tzedakah and time. It is very rare when our motivation or dedication comes as a result of a “bolt of lightning” or some existential metaphysical sign or wonder. No, our motivation and dedication is a result of our recognition that there is something missing in our lives. We miss meaning in our lives. We miss contentment in our lives. We miss peace in our lives. Certainly, we can be happy without meaning. Certainly, we can be happy without contentment. Certainly, we can be happy without peace. Why? Happiness is rather fleeting and quite often it is the result of some external factor. Meaning, contentment, and peace are ultimately internally influenced and far less fleeting.  Our movement towards God, our movement towards greater observance, is a series of steps. We don’t begin as a Tzaddik observing all mitzvoth.  Rather, one mitzvah leads to another, learning leads to more learning which eventually leads to doing.
We learn several vital lessons from this Parsha. First, we learn that Judaism requires two parties, God and B’nai Yisroel. Both must exist together in a balanced relationship. When God and Torah become so far out of reach, B’nai Yisroel will become alienated and turn to idolatry, such as the Golden Calf, crass materialism, money or some other type of “God”. When B’nai Yisroel fails to elevate itself in Kedusha, in holiness, then we fail in our dual mission: make our lives more meaningful and spiritual; “be a light among the nations”. However, when we enter into a highly participatory and shared communal experience, such as building the Mishkan, or any project or program that we build, we must sacrifice some of our personal needs for the well-being of the community. Second, we learn that when the community shares a commons sense of purpose, something wonderful happens. We achieve that balance between God and ourselves. The result, of course, is that God will dwell among us. God’s dwelling among us makes our community a little warmer, a little kinder, and more significant. Third, we also learn that the actual construction process requires hard work. B’nai Yisroel, like any team, shared in the task’s difficulty. Greater participation made the experience that much more meaningful. When the experience is more meaningful, then the reward will be greater. What is the reward? The reward is a community that shares simchas (joyous occasions) and tsuris (sad occasions), victories as well as defeats. The reward is that no individual member of the community should ever feel alienated and alone. The reward is a community that strives for growth and improvement. This brings more meaning to the life of the individual, the family, and the community.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Close The Gap Of The Dark Years In Between (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Cassidy")

Earlier in the week, our kids had a few days off and visited their grandparents in Rochester, NY. The plan was for my parents to drive the kids back to Toronto and spend the night, see their granddaughter play in her volleyball match and return to their home the next day. The day before they were to drive back to Toronto, I received a phone call from my father. His stomach was bad, he wasn’t feeling well, and he anticipated that driving on the designated day was problematic. Rather than listen, I grew incredibly impatient and told him that I would drive down to pick up my kids have dinner and drive back. He then asked me to spend the night and head back the next morning. I gave my father an earful as I shared by aggravation with him. He must have been feeling quite ill because he said that he didn’t feel well enough to yell back at me. I may have yelled a few other choice words, hung up, and prepared for an afternoon and evening of driving. When I arrived at my parents, my mother thanked for schlepping. In fact, she thanked me far too much. My father was lying in bed, I checked in on him. Again, he asked me to spend the night. I reminded him that if he felt too sick to fight with me, why would he keep asking me such a question and start a fight? After some more choice words, I told him I planned on eating dinner and returning to Toronto. As I sat with my mother and my two kids and ate dinner, my father sat down at the table. He looked pale and drawn. He smiled weakly and started to say something. I am not sure what he said, all I know is that I became acutely aware that both my parents are aging and that I want them to see their grandchildren whenever possible. Then I apologized for the way I spoke to my father and my impatience with him.
In this week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, we read about Moshe and a nation entering into the apology process. We read about T’shuvah. The parshah begins with God telling Moshe to conduct a census and each adult should make a donation. Meanwhile, B’nai Yisroel had been getting quite worried while Moshe was up the mountain for 40 days and nights. So they had Aaron build a Golden Calf. Well needless to say, B’nai Yisroel’s idolatry (avodah zarah) did not exactly go unnoticed. God says “Let my anger flare up against them and I shall annihilate them…” (Ex. 32:10). Moshe was just as angry. “Moshe’s anger flared up, He threw down the tablets from his hands, and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Ex. 32:19). Moshe chastised the people and then went back up the mountain to placate God’s anger. After everyone calmed down, punishments were meted out.  As God and Moshe began the re-issuing of the two tablets. Moshe pleads for forgiveness on behalf of the people and then descends with the second set of tablets.
 God and Moshe grew closer. God had a new found respect for Moshe and his people, and Moshe had a new found closeness with God. So much so, that Moshe uttered the words “Hodi’eini nah et D’rachecha V’Eda’acha -Make your way known to me so that I may know You…Show me Your Glory” (Ex. 33:13:14). God re-issues his covenant with Moshe, and reveals himself to Moshe. What an incredibly powerful moment! Moshe sought forgiveness, and learned how to do so in a thoughtful and honest manner. Certainly, there was punishment. Certainly, there was fear. Yet the process lent itself to a closer, more loving, respectful, meaningful and deeper relationship. Rashi clarifies Moshe’s request. “Moshe said that he had failed to understand sufficiently what God had told him and he wanted God to accompany him and Israel not God’s angel”. Moshe wanted to understand God’s way of bestowing reward. Reward was a function of spiritual proximity. Moshe’s apology was expressed in the form of a request. How do I attain greater spiritual proximity? “How do I find favour in your eyes” (Ex. 33:12)?   This closer, more awesome relationship is a product of doing T’shuvah, repentance. As a nation we had never sought repentance. As a nation, we did not even know what repentance was. As a nation, as children, we were just told to behave.  We had not tested the ramifications for not obeying. Now, B’nai Israel had made a grievous mistake. This mistake emanates from a maturing group.  However part of the spiritual maturation process, like any growth process is falling down, making mistakes, and then knowing enough to seek repentance, to do T’shuvah. Moshe did this on behalf of B’nai Yisroel. Moshe wanted to apologize not only to protect the people but also to gain a deeper comprehension in order to become spiritually closer.
            Perhaps there is no experience more humbling than asking for forgiveness.  To truly seek forgiveness, one must put aside one’s own ego, as well as one’s feeling of shame and embarrassment.  If our egos are too large, if we are too ashamed and too embarrassed then we will prevent ourselves from humbly seeking forgiveness and we remain distant As children, adults, and as a people, we all need a way to apologize in a meaningful, honest and thoughtful manner. We all need a safe haven to issue such an apology. Then when punishment is meted out, we understand that it is a result of behavior and not for being. No matter how long we remain negligent in our behavior and observance there is a way back towards God and Torah. However the impetus is upon us. We must take the first steps. We must go through some introspection, some tough honesty, and some self-reflection because that formula demands it. Otherwise the words are rather empty. Only then can we achieve meaningful repentance and stand in close proximity to God. Only then can we achieve a sense of self-contentment, inner peace and spiritual radiance. “When Moshe descended from Mount Sinai… Moshe did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant” (Ex. 34:29).

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Lipson

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Goin' Where The Climate Suits My Clothes ("Going Down The Road Feeling Bad" - Traditonal Folk Song)

With my wife’s birthday around the corner and our 18-year-old daughter in Israel, I came up with the perfect gift. I sent her to Israel to visit our daughter. As excited as she was to go to Israel and to see our daughter; I think she was just as happy to be out of the snowy wintry cold that has gripped Toronto. As her flight date approached, I would have thought that her excitement and anticipation would have increased. Instead the anxiety of “what to pack” replaced some of that excitement. Over the years, when I watched her go through the internal debates on the merits of which skirts, which dresses and what sweaters to bring, I used to grow impatient and aggravated. Perhaps packing clothing is fundamentally easier for me. I focus on the reason for wearing the clothes. I don’t focus upon whether or not I like a particular article of clothing or anticipate a desire to wear a specific article of clothing. So this time as my wife’s anxiety increased, I just attempted to disengage. Amazingly enough, the stress of her packing remained essentially confined to my wife. The stress and the anxiety didn’t spread to me or the kids. If she asked me if something fit, I answered. When she needed me to bring down her suitcase, I did. When she needed me to help with laundry, I did. Because I essentially stayed away from her packing the suitcase, I didn’t have to experience her concerns about what to pack.
 This Shabbat, we read from Parshah Tetzaveh, and in it, we learn about the uniform of the Kohen Gadol, the High Priest. Just like last week’s Parshah was a series of instructions on the way in which a physical space becomes beautified and holy, Parshah Tetzaveh offers a series of instructions on the way in which a certain individual’s physical appearance is beautified, and glorious. From head to toe, we are told that each item of the Kohen Gadol’s priestly uniform is made of fine linen, valuable stones, gold, cotton silk turquoise wool to name just a few of the ingredients. Certainly, we could understand the Parshah from a superficial perspective but to do so would be to misunderstand a deeper and perhaps more powerful message. We live in a society where “clothes make the man”, clothes define who and what we are. However, Parshah Tetzaveh teaches us something radically different. Instead of clothing making us look sharper, slimmer, better proportioned, what if clothes could express our intelligence, our emotional health, our sense of decency, the holiness that exists within our soul and the degree to which that holiness is expressed. What would such clothes look like? Such clothes would have to express the degree to which we have permitted God into our lives. Such clothes would have to express the holy magnificence of God’s presence within our lives.
                The Torah is very clear as to the reason for such highly decorative, highly ornate clothing. V’Kidashti et Ohel Mo’Ed v’Et Ha’Mizbeach V’Et Aharon v’Et Banav Akadesh L’Chahen Li – I shall sanctify the Tent of Meeting and the Altar; and Aaron and his sons shall I sanctify to minister to Me V’Shachanti B’Toch Bnai Yisroel V’Hayiti Lahem L’Elohim I shall rest My Presence among the Children of Israel , and I shall be their God (Ex. 29:44-45). God’s presence will make the Tent of the Meeting holy. In other words, God’s presence will make a particular space holy.   Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno (15/16th Century Italy) explains that God rests among us in order to accept with favor our prayers and service. However, God resting his Presence is not enough. The Kohanim and ultimately the rest of us need to recognize that this is our God and we need to act appropriately. We can never take God’s proximity for granted. Therefore Aaron and his son’s, serving on behalf of the people, must achieve a higher degree of holiness compared to the rest of the people. This higher level of holiness must exist both inside and outside. Any inconsistency renders the Kohen Gadol impure. If the clothes become physically dirty, then he is momentarily impure. If his heart wanders, if his mind is elsewhere, or if he has not completely given of himself to the service to God on our behalf, then he is momentarily impure as well.
 Judaism strives to create opportunities where the physical world seamlessly connects to the spiritual world. In the realm of time; Shabbat is a designated day when the physical seamlessly knits together with the spiritual world.  However, even in the course of a regular day, we can wear our spiritual clothing: prayer, Kashrut, study, and simple acts of kindness (Gemilut Chasadim) and make sure that these spiritual clothes match our external clothes. Sometimes it is very easy to lose sight of what matters. Frequently we focus on the outside.  As my wife was almost finished packing, she asked me about an article of clothing. I smiled before I responded and she answered herself. Her answer stunned me. She explained that she wouldn’t take that particular article of clothing because she was going to Israel to visit her daughter and spend time with her. Nothing else really mattered. With that answer, there was no more anxiety and we all were excited for her birthday journey to Israel.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Light The Song With Sense And Color, Hold Away Despair (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Terrapin Station")

Recently, our son shared a news report regarding the allied effort in Afghanistan, peace talks with the Taliban, and an eventual withdrawal from Afghanistan.  While no one in our family is an Afghan, fought in Afghanistan or has any remote connection to Afghanistan, our son followed the story very closely. Why was he so concerned with the news in Afghanistan? Our grade nine son participates in Model U.N. He is on the delegation representing, of all places, Afghanistan. In the course of his preparation, he has become the family expert on Afghanistan.  Trust me when I say that while I could find Afghanistan on a map, I never cared one wit for Afghanistan, nor did I ever give much thought to the human cost except in terms of soldiers who tried to offer safety and stability amid such turmoil and chaos.  My jaw dropped as I sat and listened to our son offer this assessment. He was not only speaking about Afghanistan, but he advocated for the innocent and was visibly concerned for those whose lives were at risk living under the Taliban, and the innocent lives at risk if allied forces leave. He spoke thoughtfully, passionately and logically. He was upset as he made his assessment and incredibly empathetic as he advocated for the people of Afghanistan.  Needless to say, I have no authority with the Model U.N. for the real U.N.  However, I saw our son in a whole new light, and I wasn’t sure how to respond.
This week’s Parshah is Terumah. Terumah means “a portion”. In the context of this week’s Parsha, the portion in question is the portion of wealth that B’nai Yisroel would dedicate to the construction of the Aron, the ark that would hold the Luchot Habrit (the stone tablets upon which the Ten Commandments were written), the lamp, the table, and the material for the Ohel Moed (the tent of the meeting). All of which comprised the Mishkan or the Tabernacle. If you are in construction, interior design, or architecture, the details in Parsha Terumah are fascinating; and if you’re not then all those details might seem a bit dry. Whether a fan or not, whether an architect or not, there are certain objects, the construction of which is nothing less than miraculous and perhaps more allegorical than literal in meaning. However what is not allegorical but rather spiritually re-assuring given the myriad of laws that we have read from Yitro and Mishpatim is the goodness and kindness in the human soul.
There are two moments in the Parsha that stand in stark contrast to assumptions about human nature from Parsha Mishpatim. In the previous Parsha, when we read about the prohibition of accepting bribes, perverting justice, selling servants to third parties rather than returning to them to their original owner;  we understand that there is an assumption that human nature is not so wonderful. In fact, one could argue that we are supposed to rise above human nature, rise above our animal-like inclination, Yetzer HaRah (the evil inclination), and be better. So when we read that God wants to live among Bnai Yisroel: V’Asu Li Mikdash  V’Shachanti B’Tocham; a Godly aspect would only do so if the dwelling, if the people’s behavior merited God’s presence.  Certainly, the physical qualities of the structure would be impressive but more important is the fact that Shechinah would dwell among Bnai Yisroel as long as they did not succumb to human nature. Not succumbing to human nature became evident immediately. Before the construction, before the blueprints, Bnai Yisroel already operated above human nature. They contributed materials Kol Ish Asher Yidvenu Libo‘every man whose heart motivates him’ (Ex.25:1). Contributions were based upon the most divine aspect of their souls. Every aspect of the process focused upon that part of the human soul that was beyond human nature. That divine aspect merited God’s presence in the camp. That divine aspect galvanized a community and figured out how to serve God in a way that appealed to the best of humanity.
I finally figured out the words that might bring comfort to our son as he could only see darkness, evil, and awful way in which people in that part of the world have been treating each other for decades if not centuries. I tried to remind him that although that part of the world is pretty dim and risks becoming quite dark if allied forces leave; there is some light in the world. Just like the Aron is encased in gold both on the inside and outside and just like people contributed selflessly rather than selfishly; I was reminded that the world has a lot of beauty. I told our son that despite what he heard on the news and despite my agreeing with his thoughtful assessment as an Afghan U.N. delegate; he needed to be able to accomplish one very important task. He needs to be able to communicate some of the beauty of the country and/or the people he represents. Maybe he needs to look a bit closer in order to find the beauty rather than ugliness, but it is there. If he is able to communicate that; the other delegates in the Model U.N. will surely be supportive of anything he requests.  I reminded him that he should always work hard and search for the beauty in spite of the all the ugly he will encounter. Sharing that process can be incredibly inspiring and ultimately quite empowering.

Rav Yitz