Thursday, June 22, 2017

We Will Leave This Place An Empty Stone (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Throwing Stones")

With school coming to an end, and a wife and three children packing up and getting ready for camp, the house had been in a state of chaos; clothes, boxes, duffle bags and sheets were all over the floor. It had become difficult to walk. I could barely get into bed since so much of my wife’s things had accumulated upon our bed.  Then, amid clothes, garbage, bags, and more clothes, something odd began to happen.   Clothes, towels, sheets, shoes and toiletries started to be packed into duffle bags. Full bags which had briefly blocked access in the hallway were brought down stairs. Duffle bags were loaded into the bag of the minivan. My wife and 17 year old daughter drove off ( I will bring our 16 year old daughter and 13 year old son to camp on Tuesday). Amazingly enough, I could see the floor again, I had access to my bed again, and I no duffle bag blocked my access to a room, or a stairway.  The house was starting to empty out. Needless to say when I return from dropping off the remaining two children, the house will be as empty as ever.  It will be quiet as ever and as peaceful as ever. For a little while, that emptiness, that quiet, will be much appreciated and cherished.
This Shabbat, we read from Parshat Korach.  Korach was a relative of Moshe's. They both came from the tribe of Levi. Korach questioned Moshe's authority. He did not do this during 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 Parshah concludes with God speaking to Moshe and enumerating Aaron’s priestly responsibilities, all of the entitlements and all the sacrifices that come with the position.
Just exactly who is Korach, did his rebellion begin spontaneously or was it a long time in the making? The Torah begins the Parshah, teaching us Korach’s genealogy.  His great grandfather is Levi, the third son of Yaakov.  This means that he is a cousin to Moshe and Aharon, both of whom were also the great grandson’s of Levi. Without know much more about Korach, we can already guess his motivation behind the rebellion.  The entire power structure, Torah knowledge, and Priestly knowledge, was controlled by the two brothers, Moshe and Aharon.  The other Leviim, we know, had been given certain special tasks focused upon the maintenance of the Mishkan.  Certainly within the culture of the Mishkan, these jobs, and these Levite families were a big deal. However, outside the Levi  tribe, outside the culture of the Mishkan, not too many members from the tribe of Benjamin, Asher, Naftali, Dan or even Judah cared too deeply about the responsibilities of the various Levite families. Their only concern was Aharon, since they brought their offerings to him; and Moshe, since he was the ultimate decisor of Jewish law. Ibn Ezra, the late 11th  early 12 century Spanish commentator explains that the rebellion was hardly spontaneous.  He had been thinking about this since the inauguration of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), when Aharon and his sons were designated to replace the other  first born.  Korach took two leaders from the Tribe of Reuben, Jacob’s biological first born son, but overlooked in terms of spiritual inheritance.  The name Korach, means “Baldness, bald spot, or emptiness”.  Korach wanted to be the legitimate heir to Levi. He wanted to  fill the void of leadership when the Mishkan was being built and a person (and ultimately a family) had to be the head of the Mishkan.  However, Korach also spread emptiness to the rest of the community. For Korach to gain power, he separates himself from the community- Vayikach Korach (16:1). He creates an empty space in order to justify his filling it.
Yes, my house will be empty for a few weeks. It will be quiet, it will be peaceful. As soon as the cleaning late comes, it will finally be clean. It will even stay clean for several weeks. I will even relish the quiet and the emptiness. Those empty places, will remain empty until my wife and children return from their summer camp experience. Then, once again those empty spaces will be refilled. Korach didn’t want emptiness for the sake of emptiness. He wanted emptiness in order that he could be the one to fill it. He looked at emptiness as an opportunity to satisfy his own sense of ego.  We all go through moments of experiencing emptiness.  We can leave those spaces empty and in so doing, make them sacred. We can fill that emptiness with sacred activity such as learning and study of Torah. We can even fill those empty spaces with self aggrandizing activities.  Certainly some choices and motivations behind chosen activities will ultimately become more meaningful and beneficial than others.
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

And At Last It's The Real Thing Or Close Enough To Pretend (John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Saint of Circumstance")

As we have watched the James Comey, the former Director of the FBI, testify before a Senate hearing, and then watched Attorney General Jeff Sessions testify before the same Senate hearing, we have been hearing more and more about Fake News. Yes, Fake News, it is just another thing to make me roll my eyes and teach my children critical reading and reasoning skills to recognize fake news, ignore fake news and prevent it from skewing attitudes. Now I have to remind my children that it’s not enough to listen, they must always be mindful of the source, who broadcast it, where did they get the information? When their friends repeat something far-fetched or ridiculous because they heard it or their parents heard it on some right wing or left wing news show; my kids have to learn to ignore their friends.  My kids will now have learn how to determine if a story true or is a very small percentage of it true and the rest merely an extrapolation based upon assumption and conjecture? Whose bias is satisfied, whose agenda is expressed by such a story? Fake news only works if people listen to it and think of as news as opposed to the trash that it really is.
This Shabbat we read from Parsha Shlach Lecha. Parsha Shlach Lecha includes the troubling narrative of the 12 spies and the ensuing report of Eretz Canaan made to Moshe and B’nai Yisroel. Until this point, the plan was that B’nai Yisroel was to head towards Eretz Canaan. Certainly, God and even Moshe had grown steadily angry at B’nai Yisroel as their complaints from the previous parsha, B’haalotcha, began to sound like a lack of faith. Despite the complaints, God had not yet prohibited this generation from entering into the Land. However following the negative report from ten of the twelve spies, the people follow the majority opinion, and God and Moshe realize that this generation is not yet ready to enter the land. This was the reason why B’nai Yisroel would now have to wait nearly 4 decades prior to entering Eretz Canaan. Yet towards the end of the Parsha, Torah makes it very clear, that despite this generation’s lack of faith, returning to the land is inevitable and a covenant that will be fulfilled. KI Tavo’u El Eretz Moshvoteichem Asher Ani Notein LachemGod spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: When you will come to the Land of your dwelling places that I give you…. (Num. 15:2). Even at that point while punishment was meted out, the punishment did not remove hope, it did not remove inevitability, nor did it mitigate the covenant that God had made with Avraham, Yitzchak Yaakov or Moshe Rabeinu at Sinai. Rather this punishment delayed the inevitable and waited for another generation that was worthy enough to inherit the covenant.
After the ten gave their report, Caleb one of the two with a positive report (Joshua being the other) simply stated his opinion. Caleb did not disagree with the majority report that it is a land flowing with Milk and Honey, and the cities are fortified etc. Rather Caleb first silenced the other spies: VayHas Caliev et Ha’Am El Moshe VayomerCaleb hushed the people toward Moshe and said Aloh Na’Aleh V’Yarashnu Otah Ki Yachol Nuchal LahWe shall surely ascend and conquer it, for we can surely do it (Num. 13:30). How did Caleb silence them? What does it mean that he silenced them towards Moshe? What possessed Caleb to be so optimistic and not the other ten spies? Beginning with Caleb’s faith in God while the others’ faith wavered; Caleb also had a deep respect for the current institutions of leadership and a profound faith in Moshe’s leadership. Rashi, the 11th century French vintner, Rabbi, and commentator, offers his insight:  His belief in the inevitable was a result of his experience at Sinai. The spies were already biased against Moses Lishmoah Ma ShYidabeir B’Moshe Tzavach v’Amar, V’chi Zo Vilvad Asa Lanu Ben Amram –To listen to what he (Caleb) would say against Moses, and Caleb cried out and said, Is it this alone that the son of Amram has done to us. HaShomeiyah Haya Savur Sh’ba L’Sapeir Bignuto The one who heard this was under the impression that Caleb was about to speak in disparagement of Moses. For Rashi, the issue is not the ten spies’ negative report per se. Rather it is the fact that people listened to it rather than dismissed it. The people wanted to believe the spies, they were ripe for a negative report because their faith was already wavering. The report merely justified their perception and lack of faith. For Rashi, the people the people already had were predisposed to the spies’ negative report. So the spies pandered to the people.

We all struggle with our faith.  And while we intellectually understand the importance of maintaining an optimistic attitude in life, sometimes we can only see hardship difficulty and impossibility. Because of our own bias, and perhaps our desire for simplicity and simple answers, we can easily become susceptible to fake news, to misinformation, to a bad report that, on the surface is completely logical. However upon further examination, upon further thought we might learn something else. Fake news, or a negative report such as what the ten spies offered, teaches us that, ultimately, the choice to listen and accept fake news or the spies’ negative report is up to the listener. If the listener’s faith in social institutions, authority, society, is already diminished then that listener is vulnerable and the prime target of and consumer of fake news. For Caleb, for Joshua and ultimately for the generation that was born in the wilderness, the Generation that didn’t know slavery, they were immune to this fake news.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Built To Last Till Sunshine Fails And Darkness Moves On All (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Built To Last")

Its’s final exam season in our home. Needless to say the stress level is unbearable. The slightest noise or parental request to put something away or empty the dishwasher is greeted a curt, frustrated response. One of the finals this week had to do with World History.  So in lull, when my knowledge and understanding of World History was sought I offered a brief lesson, with the aid of film clips from YouTube about the significant of the past week. Three historical events were commemorated this past week. The first historical event occurred 72 years ago this week and stopped the spread of Fascism, the cult of personality, authoritarianism and brought together the combined forces of four nations to battle evil. Seventy two years ago this week, D-Day (“The Longest Day”) brought together Canadian, British and American forces and the successful invasion of Normandy and the final allied offensive that would end the war in Europe nearly eleven months later. The second historical event occurred 50 years ago this week and stopped the aggression of three nations whose intention was to eliminated the state of Israel and push the Israelis into the sea. The Six Day War culminated in an Israeli victory that tripled the size in area, now controlling the Golan Heights, Gaza, The West Bank and Re-unification of Jerusalem. The third historical event did not involve a military victory. However all military victory’s mean that soldiers die.  Nearly 4500 allied soldiers died on that first day of the Invasion of Normandy. Far fewer Israeli soldiers were killed during the Six Day War: approximately 775. In the first week of June in 1968, while the Viet Nam war raged on in the jungle of South East Asia, one man was assassinated in Los Angeles: Bobby Kennedy. I suggested that in all these deaths, men were killed laying down their lives for their country, and for their beliefs. Then I asked my history students (our children) one question. In which of these events was the world saved from entering a period of protracted human darkness and evil?
This morning we read from Parsha BeHalotcha. This Shabbat we read from Parsha Behalotcha. For the previous two Parshiot, Bemidbar and Naso, B’nai Yisroel has counted and prepared for their 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.
As B’nai Yisroel finally begins its trek from Sinai towards Canaan, the Torah makes the following statement.  Vayehi Binsoah Ha’Aron VaYomer Moshe, Kuma Adoshem VeYaFuTzu Oyavecha, VeYaNuSu Misanecha MiPanecha. U’vNucho Yomar Shuva Adoshem Rivvot Alfei YisroelWhen the Ark would journey, Moshe said: ‘Arise Hashem, and let Your foes be scattered let those who hate You flee from before You. And when it rested, he would say, ‘reside tranquilly, O Hashem, among the myriad thousands of Israel. (Num. 10:35) Today we say the first part of the verse while we take the Torah out from the Aron before we read the Torah, and we say the second part of the statement when we have finished reading from the Torah and are returning it to the Aron.  In the Torah, this verse is enclosed by two brackets. The bracket is really an inverted letter, the letter “Nun”.   The Talmud in Shabbat 116a Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi teaches Mipnei Sh’ Sefer Chashuv Hu Bifnei AtzmoBecause it constituted a book on its own. His a rather cryptic statement since it suggests that there are more than 5 books comprising the Torah. We normally think of the Torah as comprised of 5 Books or Scrolls: Breishit- Genesis, Shmot –Exodus, Vayikra – Leviticus, Bemidbar-Numbers, and Devarim-Deuteronomy.  However Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi considers the fourth Book to really be three smaller books: Numbers A (chaps1-10:34); Numbers B (10:35-36) and Numbers C (10:37-36:13); for a total of seven boos of Torah. R’ Yehuda’s understanding of seven books of Torah seems to correspond with a verse from Mishlei (Proverbs (9:1): Chachmot Banta Veitah Chatzvah Amudeha Shiva- With all forms of wisdom did she build her house; she carved out its seven pillars. Perhaps this bracket of the Hebrew letter Nun and the enclosed verse; tells us something about the Lamp that was lit at the beginning of the Parsha. The word for lamp HaNeirot; that is to say “illuminate the lights” of the tabernacle. B’nai Yisroel for the first time was taking God’s light, this wisdom and carrying it amongst themselves, using it to create light within its camp and using it to ward off all the negative forces that would otherwise seek to destroy them. For the first time, B’nai Yisroel would now have to use its wisdom, its understanding of Torah, in order to bring light and holiness to the world.
One only needs to listen to the speeches of Bobby Kennedy, hear is idealism through his Boston accent, and his desire to make the world a better place. One only needs to appreciate that fact that he was the victim of Palestinian terror like so many Israelis because he tried to bring light to those who lived in darkness not only in the United States but throughout the world. One only needs to walk through gates into the Old City to appreciate the miracle that Israel manage to reclaim the Old City of Jerusalem. One only needs to stand at the Kotel to realize that Jerusalem, the City of Gold was now belonged to the descendants of King David and appreciate the spiritual light that emanates from this city. One need only stand at the beaches of Normandy and see row after row of those who died and look out at the waters of the English channel to not only appreciate the miracle that transpired but to also understand how all these men who fought on that day saved the world from darkness.  With the conclusion of the study break, our kids could see where and how events spanning several decades are intertwined and connected.
Rav Yitz