Bemidbar: Make Yourself Like a Desert

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At a first glance, the opening of this week’s parasha and the fourth book of the Torah seems general and vague:

וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד:  בְּאֶחָד לַחֹדֶשׁ הַשֵּׁנִי בַּשָּׁנָה הַשֵּׁנִית, לְצֵאתָם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם–לֵאמֹר

God spoke to Moshe in the wilderness/desert of Sinai, in the tent of meeting, on the first day of the second month of the second year since leaving Egypt, saying:

While the names of each of the five books of the Torah are taken from the first significant word of their first verse, for the rabbis these words were not random or coincidental. Rather, they can provide insight about the essence of the entire book and often an intention for ourselves. The following midrash goes beyond the fact that the entire book of Bamidbar is set in the wilderness, ultimately turning into forty years of wandering, and gives us a prescription for how to bring the experience into our lives (Bemidbar Rabbah 1:7):

דָּבָר אַחֵר, וַיְדַבֵּר ה’ אֶל משֶׁה בְּמִדְבַּר סִינַי, אֶלָּא כָּל מִי שֶׁאֵינוֹ עוֹשֶׂה עַצְמוֹ כַּמִּדְבָּר, הֶפְקֵר, אֵינוֹ יָכוֹל לִקְנוֹת אֶת הַחָכְמָה וְהַתּוֹרָה, לְכָךְ נֶאֱמַר: בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי

Another interpretation: “God spoke to Moshe in the desert/wilderness of Sinai” – anyone who does not make themselves open and owner-less like a desert is not able to acquire wisdom and Torah — this is why it is written: “in the desert of Sinai.”

For me, this interpretation makes me think about the privilege which I have had over the past year to be part of Bais Abe, and the openness which each of you have shown as you welcomed me into the community. I have learned so much which I hope to take as I move towards semikhah and the official beginning of my rabbinate, especially through Bais Abe’s unique mission of openness and lowering barriers to entry and participation.

How can you make yourself open like a desert or wilderness as we begin the book of Bemidbar and prepare to receive the Torah in just a few days on Shavuot?

Behar-Behukkotai: What’s your greatest value?

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(image of painting by artist Ahuva Klein)

My teacher, Dr. Elana Stein Hain, director of leadership education at the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America, loves to teach about the often divisive issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the lens of values. It’s often hard to get anywhere when talking about policy with someone who sees the issues in such a different light than oneself, but Elana has helped to show me how discussing values can really open one up to understanding the other, even when there might seem to be an unbridgeable chasm.

In Behukkotai, the second half of this week’s parasha, we find one of two places in the Torah where a long passage of curses known as the Tokhekha is read, often at a faster pace and in an undertone. Here, as in Parashat Ki Tavo at the end of the book of Devarim, the list of curses is preceded by a shorter but beautiful passage of blessings. At the center of the blessings in our parasha, which are mostly material and economic in nature, we read the following (Vayikra 26:6):

וְנָתַתִּ֤י שָׁלוֹם֙ בָּאָ֔רֶץ וּשְׁכַבְתֶּ֖ם וְאֵ֣ין מַחֲרִ֑יד וְהִשְׁבַּתִּ֞י חַיָּ֤ה רָעָה֙ מִן־הָאָ֔רֶץ וְחֶ֖רֶב לֹא־תַעֲבֹ֥ר בְּאַרְצְכֶֽם׃

I will give peace in the land and you will lie down, and nothing will cause you fear; I will remove beasts of prey from the land, and no sword will pass through your land.

Rashi seems to ask the question, what is the value of peace? Why does the Torah emphasize it when it doesn’t fit perfectly with the other blessings which precede or follow it? He explains:

ונתתי שלום – שמא תאמרו הרי מאכל והרי משתה, אם אין שלום אין כלום תלמוד לומר אחר כל זאת ונתתי שלום, מגיד שהשלום שקול כנגד הכל

I will give peace – Lest you say, there is plenty to eat and drink, but there is no peace; if there is no peace, there is nothing. This comes to teach us that if the Torah says “I will give peace” after all of these other blessings, then it must be equal to everything else…

While many robust conversations may be had about what the greatest value is in connection with the land of Israel, Rashi certainly seems to come down on the side of peace as the greatest value here.

What is the most important value for you in connection to Israel (some of the other values Elana teaches about include: land, self preservation, justice, compromise)? What does peace look like to you?

Emor: You Can Sanctify God’s Name

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Parashat Emor contains a beautiful and fascinating combination of laws which are particular to the Kohanim and the functioning of the Mishkan (tabernacle) and Beit Hamikdash (Temples in Jerusalem). as well as those which apply to all Jews, especially those related to the holidays. During a segue between the section of the parasha which is particular to the Kohanim and Chapter 23 of Vayikra in which Moshe lays out the laws of Shabbat and the Festicals to the entire people, we are told (Yayikra 22:32):

וְלֹ֤א תְחַלְּלוּ֙ אֶת־שֵׁ֣ם קׇדְשִׁ֔י וְנִ֨קְדַּשְׁתִּ֔י בְּת֖וֹךְ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲנִ֥י יְהֹוָ֖ה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶֽם׃

You shall not desecrate my holy name, and I shall be sanctified among the people of Israel; I am the Lord who sanctifies you.

The classic Torah commentaries have a number of different interpretations of the idea of sanctifying God’s name, including praying with a community, observing the festivals, and being killed because one is a Jew. In our global world today, I believe that there are many ways in which we can sanctify God’s name in our words and actions, whether in person or on the internet, whether studying Torah, refraining from speaking ill of others and helping those in need, among others.

What acts do you find are the most meaningful ways to sanctify God in your life?

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Don’t Put Your Finger on the Scale

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In the heart of the Kedoshim, the second part of this week’s double parasha, we are commanded to be honest with weights and measures. In ancient times merchants would keep weights. often made out of stone, in order to measure produce oil, or other merchandise which they were selling. While cheating on a large scale might be noticeable, one could easily make their weight just a bit smaller without the customer noticing and thus make a bigger profit. The Torah instructs in Vayikra 19:35-36:

לֹא־תַעֲשׂ֥וּ עָ֖וֶל בַּמִּשְׁפָּ֑ט בַּמִּדָּ֕ה בַּמִּשְׁקָ֖ל וּבַמְּשׂוּרָֽה׃ מֹ֧אזְנֵי צֶ֣דֶק אַבְנֵי־צֶ֗דֶק אֵ֥יפַת צֶ֛דֶק וְהִ֥ין צֶ֖דֶק יִהְיֶ֣ה לָכֶ֑ם אֲנִי֙ יְהֹוָ֣ה אֱלֹֽהֵיכֶ֔ם אֲשֶׁר־הוֹצֵ֥אתִי אֶתְכֶ֖ם מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם׃

Do not commit deceit in judgment; in measuring, weighing and determining length. You shall have just scales. solid and liquid measures, for I am the Lord your God who took you out of the land of Egypt.

Rashi, in reading these verses closely, notices two phrases which stand out and seemed possibly superflous. He first asks, why did the Torah mention judgment here, using a word mishpat which is connected for the words for trial and a judge in court. He explains:

…מלמד שהמודד נקרא דיין, שאם שיקר במידה הרי הוא כמקלקל את הדין…

…This teaches that one who measures is called a judge, since if s/he is dishonest in measuring, s/he has perverted justice.

Thus Rashi explains that the reference to judgment underscores the responsibility that even a merchant has in being honest in their business dealings and creating a just society. He also asks in connection with the second verse on our topic, why did the Torah mention that God took us out of Egypt in connection which this particular mitzvah, and not with other important laws like honoring one’s parents? He explains:

אשר הוצאתי אתכם – על מנת כן.
דבר אחר: אני הבחנתי במצרים בין טיפה של בכור לטיפה שאינה של בכור, ואני הנאמן ליפרע ממי שטומן משקלותיו במלח להונות את הבריות שאינן מכירין בהן.

I took you out of Egypt – so that you can pursue honesty and justice. Another explanation: just as I could tell the difference between a firstborn and non-firstborn in Egypt, I am careful with those who are dishonest with their measures and cheat others, and I will exact justice from them.

Through these verses, we see how important the Torah and our rabbis consider honesty to be, especially in areas where one could be slightly inaccurate and get away with it. Even if we are not all merchants, what are some areas today where we can go out of our way to be faithful and honest even if only God would know the difference.

Tazria-Metzora: Cleansing Our Speech

d7a4d7a8d7a9d7aa-d79ed7a6d795d7a8d7a2Our Bar Mitzvah last Shabbat afternoon at Bais Abe, in his d’var Torah, spoke about how the skin condition of tzara’at, the focus of our double parasha, is connected by the rabbis with the prohibition of Lashon Hara, speaking ill against another. In the beginning of Metzora, the Torah outlines the procedure for purification after one has been diagnosed with and healed from leprosy. The ingredients necessary for this purification included two birds, scarlet wool, and a hyssop branch. Rashi on Vayikra 14:3 explains the symbolism of these different objects:

טהורות –… לפי שהנגעים באים על לשון הרע, שהוא מעשה פטיט, פיטפוטי דברים, לפיכך הוזקקו לצפרים לטהרתו צפרים שמפטפטין תמיד בציפצוף קול.
ועץ ארז – לפי שהנגעים באים על גסות הרוח, * ומה תקנתו ויתרפא ישפיל עצמו מגיאותו כתולעת ואזוב.
Pure [Birds]- Since the skin condition comes to one who spoke Lashon Hara, which is a matter of speech, therefore birds which chatter were necessary for the purification of an affliction which is caused by speech.
A Hyssop Branch – Since the affliction comes to one who is haughty, the cure for it comes through humility like the lowly hyssop plant.
While one could say that these items were chosen to remind the person recovering from tzara’at of their sin, I think that the choice of “chattering birds” is also a reminder of the ubiquity of speech and the importance for all of us to be careful of our words ans how they affect others. The cure for speaking in a way which hurts others is not to be silent, but to be more thoughtful and be sure that we use our tongues in a way which heals and doesn’t hurt.
In the absence of tzara’at and the objects used to heal from it, what means can we use today to remind ourselves about the power of speech and the importance of speaking in a way which heals and does not hurt?

Shemini: Lessons for Helping Those in Grief

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The Torah recognizes that the death of two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu in this week’s Parasha of Shmini was an unspeakable tragedy. We are told that they died because they offered a “strange fire,” yet the rabbis struggled to pinpoint their exact cause of death. Just as with many tragedies which we confront today, there may be no single explanation for their death, but there is much that we can learn from some of the responses in the aftermath. Immediately after Nadav and Avihu’s passing, Moshe called upon their first cousins Mishael and Elzafan to remove their bodies from the Holy of Holies where normally only the high priest may enter. This was likely because Aharon and his sons were to overcome with grief to see the bodies of their beloved ones. Yet the Netziv (Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Yehuda Berlin, 19th century Lithuania) in his commentary Ha’amek Davar asks: Why Mishael and Elzafan? Aharon’s sons had many cousins named in the Torah, why these? He answers:
שידע שהוא אוהב וריע ומצטער בצערו. וכן היו בניו ענוים ותיקים. ומדתו של מישאל יש להבין ממה שהיה אחיו הקטן נשיא לקהת והוא לא ערער ע”ז
[Moshe] knew that Mishael and Elzafan’s father Uziel was a person of love and friendship, and and shared in Aharon’s sorrow. Mishael’s altruism was known from the fact that his younger brother was chosen to be the tribal leader, and he was not jealous.
Our rabbis teach that we must have a sense of self, but there are times when we must put that aside in order to be there for others. While we may struggle with the “why” questions in the wake of a tragedy, we can learn from Mishael and Elzafan an example of how to respond in the wake of events which defy explanation: with empathy, love and and support.
Feel free to share an example of someone whom you have seen respond thoughtfully or a thoughtful action in the wake of a tragedy of any sort.

Pesah: Don’t Miss the Check-In Time!

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Anyone who has ever flown Southwest Airlines (including most St. Louisans) knows that if you want to get a good spot in line to board the plane, it is in your best interest to check-in online exactly 24 hours before the flight. There is a rabbinic maxim, זריזים מקדימים למצוות, “the fastidious do their mitzvot early,” which similarly encourages us to not miss an opportunity to perform a mitzvah rather than wait until the last moment. A beautiful midrash teaches us how God Himself exemplified this principle when He redeemed the People of Israel from Egypt at exactly the time He had promised. We read in the Mekhilta Derabi Yishmael (1st-2nd Century CE, Eretz Yisrael), Masekhta De-Pisha 14:

ויהי מקץ שלשים שנה וארבע מאות שנה מגיד שמכיון שהגיע הקץ לא עכבן המקום כהרף עין [בחמשה עשר בניסן נדבר המקום עם אברהם אבינו בין הבתרים] בחמשה עשר בניסן באו מלאכי השרת אצל אברהם אבינו לבשרו [בחמשה עשר בניסן נולד יצחק] ומנין שבחמשה עשר בניסן נגזרה גזרה בין הבתרים שנ’ ויהי מקץ קץ אחד לכולן

“And it happened at the very end (ketz) of 430 years” (Shemot 12:31) – When the time of the redemption from Egypt came, God did not delay even by the blink of an eye.  On the 15th of Nisan, God spoke with Abraham at the “Covenant between the Parts” (Genesis 15, when God told Abraham that his descendants would be strangers in a strange land); on the 15th of Nisan the angels came to tell Abraham that Isaac would be born; and on the 15th of Nisan Isaac was born. How do we know that all of these events took place on the same date? The Torah says, “It happened at the very end (ketz)” – there was one date for all of these events.

While us humans cannot necessarily live up to God’s exacting behavior in not missing the promised moment of redemption, there is certainly room for us to emulate His care in not missing deadlines, whether times we had promised to others or mitzvot which have a limited time for their fulfillment. Feel free to share any areas where you have found timeliness to be particularly meaningful (or a meaningful struggle), whether in mitzvot for God or working with others.

Moadim L’simha, Hag Kasher V’sameah!

Tzav: The Story Our Clothes Tell

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This week’s Parasha of Tzav begins with describing the ritual of terumat hadeshen, removing the entrails, ashes and other remnants which had burned all night on the altar in the Mishkan and Temples. While terumat hadeshen was certainly a messy task, it was the first ritual which took place in the Temple each and every morning, and we are told that kohanim used to jockey quite intensely in order to be chosen to complete it.

Despite the honor given to terumat hadeshen,  the Torah tells us (Vayikra 6:4):

וּפָשַׁט֙ אֶת־בְּגָדָ֔יו וְלָבַ֖שׁ בְּגָדִ֣ים אֲחֵרִ֑ים וְהוֹצִ֤יא אֶת־הַדֶּ֙שֶׁן֙ אֶל־מִח֣וּץלַֽמַּחֲנֶ֔ה אֶל־מָק֖וֹם טָהֽוֹר׃

He [the kohen] shall remove his clothing [the white robes normally used in the Temple], and put on other clothing; and he shall remove the remnants outside of the camp, to a pure place.

Rashi searches for an explanation for this “costume change,” which may have seen strange due to the fact that terumat hadeshen was seen as an honor, and the kohanim worked with blood and animals the entire day. He explains:

אין זו חובה אלא דרך ארץ שלא ילכלך בהוצאת הדשן בגדים שהוא משמש בהן תמיד, בגדים שבשל בהן קדירה לרבו אל ימזוג בו כוס לרבו, לכך ולבש בגדים אחרים פחותים מהן

This [change of clothing] was not a requirement, but was done out of respect so that the kohen should not dirty the clothes in which he served all the time with ashes and entrails; this is analogous to the idea that a servant should not serve a glass of wine to his master in the same clothing in which he cooked a stew.

Rashi fascinatingly argues that this change of clothing was not a requirement, but was done to show the difference between cleaning the altar and offering sacrifices upon it. Even though the waiter and chef are both essential to the functioning of a restaurant ot banquet, they wear different uniforms which reflect the nature of their jobs.

Feel free to share an experience that you have had or seen where like the Kohanim’s costume change, wearing or switching clothes has made a difference in performing a job or task; or alternatively, a case where the clothing you were asked to wear seemed inappropriate or unhelpful.

Vayikra: The Joy of (acknowledging) Sin

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In the Ashkenazi tradition, one of the best known parts of the High Holiday davening is the Ashamnu confessional. This prayer, in which we list categories of sin according to the letters of the Alef-Bet, is recited in a surprisingly joyous tune. This seemingly disjointed contrast between the words we say and the tune we recite can be answered by an idea in this week’s Parasha of Vayikra.

Among the sacrifices explained in this week’s parasha is (Vayikra 4:22):

אֲשֶׁ֥ר נָשִׂ֖יא יֶֽחֱטָ֑א וְעָשָׂ֡ה אַחַ֣ת מִכׇּל־מִצְוֺת֩ יְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהָ֜יו אֲשֶׁ֧רלֹא־תֵעָשֶׂ֛ינָה בִּשְׁגָגָ֖ה וְאָשֵֽׁם׃

When a ruler sins and accidentally commits one of the acts which God forbids, and is guilty.

Rashi sees a play on words in the opening of the verse with the word אשר, which can mean “when,”  but also “happy, ” like in the אשרי/Ashrei prayer, “Happy are those who dwell in God’s house.”

He explains:

לשון אשרי, אשרי הדור שהנשיא שלו נותן לב להביא כפרה על שגגתו, קל וחומר שמתחרט על זדונותיו

From the language of “Ashrei” – happy is the generation whose ruler is careful to bring an offering of atonement for his accidental sin, as then he will certainly do so for a purposeful sin.

Rashi explains that there is an element of happiness in acknowledging sin, knowing that we can admit mistakes and that God and hopefully other humans will forgive us. Thus when we recite the Ashamnu on Yom Kippur, we use a joyous melody, reminding us to not be overly dismayed at our many errors, but to focus on the power of Teshuvah and God’s acceptance of our return.

What examples of teshuvah inspires you , either by a leader or another individual? Feel free to also share any other thoughts on the ideas above.

Vayakhel-Pekudei: A Havdalah for Transitions

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Towards the end of this week’s double parasha of Vayakhel-Pekudei, the Torah tells us that the work of the construction of the Mishkan was completed:

וַיַּ֨רְא מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶת־כׇּל־הַמְּלָאכָ֗ה וְהִנֵּה֙ עָשׂ֣וּ אֹתָ֔הּ כַּאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה כֵּ֣ן עָשׂ֑וּוַיְבָ֥רֶךְ אֹתָ֖ם מֹשֶֽׁה׃

Moshe saw all of the work, and behold, they had completed it, in the way that God had commanded Moshe they finished it; and Moshe blessed them.

Why did Moshe choose to bless the people at this point? I believe that the meaning behind this blessing is similar to that of the Havdalah which we recite at the end of each Shabbat and festival, marking the transition between the respite of Shabbat and labor of the weekday; we many be sad about Shabbat leaving us but also hopeful about the opportunities of the week to come. Bnei Yisrael have poured their time and resources into building the Mishkan, day in and day out for months. They will now have the opportunity to connect to God through the service in the Mishkan, but might be sad about the opportunity which has now ended to serve God through the building of the home for God’s presence. Perhaps it was like when one completes a 1000 piece puzzle, proud about their achievement but missing the experience of finding the pieces and constructing the puzzle.

Some questions for thought and discussion:

What do you think Moshe’s blessing to the people was at this moment?

Have you ever finished a project, and felt pride in its completion but nostalgia for the process?

Are there other moments of transition in our lives which should be marked by prayer and ritual?