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Archive for Juny de 2016

Parashah Shelach

The story of the scouts’ exploration of the land of Israel that forms the basis of this week’s parasha concerns what we see (our vision) and how we see (our perception). This is made clear by the conclusion of the parasha in the maftir. (This maftir is taken into the liturgy as the third paragraph of the Shema. Alas, in most Progressive siddurim this paragraph is abridged and truncated, obfuscating its import in our liturgy. The important Torah verses under consideration herein have been removed from Reform’s version of the Shema. These verses form the basis for the practice of wearing a tallit with tzitzit.).

The Lord said to Moses as follows: ‘Speak to the Israelite people and instruct them to make for themselves fringes on the corners of their garments throughout the ages; let them attach a cord of blue to the fringe at each corner. That shall be your fringe; look at it and recall all the commandments of the Lord and observe them, so that you do not follow your heart and eyes in your lustful urge . . ..’”

The Hebrew word that is here translated as “do not follow” (after your heart and eyes) is the same word that is used at the beginning of the parasha and translated as “scout out” (the land). The Torah wants us to learn how to use our eyes on a daily basis, knowing how we used our eyes in scouting out the land.

Analysis of the story of the scouts reveals that their major problem was not what the saw, but how they perceived it. Based on Moses’ different recollection about the incident of the scouts recorded in Deuteronomy, the tradition debates whether sending the scouts was an act of obedience to or rebellion against God. In either event, all the commentators agree that the major transgression of the scouts was not as much what they saw but how they perceived what they saw, spreading fear through the community of Israel.

At first, they report accurately about what they saw: “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey….” As they continue, however, they reveal their fear-based perception: “The country that we traversed and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size . . . we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.” From this one verse in Torah comes so much teaching about how our eyes can mislead us. We often compare ourselves to others, whether in terms of our physical appearance, intellect or emotional capacity. Those comparisons can lead us to belittle ourselves; we then assume that others see us in that light as well. What we perceive “out there” influences our self-awareness, precisely the opposite of what the Torah hopes for us in a faith based system.

Hearing the scouts’ negative assessments, Caleb and Joshua exhorted the whole Israelite community: “The land that we traversed is an exceedingly good land. If the Lord is pleased with us, He will bring us into that land, a land that flows with milk and honey, and give it to us; only you must not rebel against the Lord.” Their perception of the outside world is guided by an inner faith. Ideally we know that from positive self-awareness comes mastery of the world and of life, entry into “the Promised Land.”

Most of us, when reading these stories, tend to identify with the heroes, whether Moses, Aaron and Miriam, or in this story, Joshua and Caleb. We distance ourselves from the fears and foibles of the other scouts and also from the nameless masses who panicked when hearing their report. But are we consistently so heroic in our daily life? How often do we let our personal faith and self-mastery guide our perception of what we see? What do we choose to notice in that outer world that becomes our field of vision, those things that shape and influence us? In reality there are few Calebs and Joshuas. Because we so often fail in our personal scouting missions, the Torah encourages us to look at those fringes and recall the commandments of the Lord and observe them. Judaism, like other spiritual and religious traditions, teaches that discipline develops the ability to see the world from the inside out, not the other way around. Perception and vision are inextricably linked.

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In this week’s parasha, a description of Moses offers us the chance to find a way to change the world and the way we live in it now. The story of the Israelite’s journey takes a pause and we focus in on Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ siblings. They are talking maliciously about Moses’ wife and indeed Moses himself. They suggest that they are as good as Moses and yet he gets all the attention. Then God punishes them for their words. But in between the act and the punishment, we find a curious line which says that Moses was humble, the most humble man in the world. We must ask what on earth that line is doing in the middle of a lesson about the evils of gossip! They suggest there must be a connection between this story about Moses and his humility. But what?

I have often thought that humility is not a positive characteristic. Today we are taught to have high self esteem, not to denigrate ourselves and to be proud of our achievements. Yet humility seems to say the opposite; be polite, don’t praise yourself too much. But if that were the sense of the word the Torah is trying to impart, the line about Moses would have no place in the midst of that story. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his Torah commentary suggests an alternative understanding of humility. Humility, he says, is not the act of putting your own achievements on the bottom rung, rather it is recognizing our place in the greater scheme of life. Moses does not respond to the attack on him and his character by his brother and sister, yet we would expect him to do so. He is a passionate advocate for his people with God, he stands up to injustice, the pharaoh of Egypt was no match for him, yet his own siblings silence him. His silence could be seen as a sign of weakness, he did not want to confront them, to challenge them, he backed away from the argument. It could be that he was too hurt and angry to respond. But the line about his humility tells us that neither are the reason. Rather, he could see the bigger picture. He could see that in the grand scheme of things, this was not so important, when you have been in touch with the Divine, as Moses had, this interaction was small by comparison, and not worthy of his time and energy.

And perhaps that is what humility is about. Stepping aside yourself, just a little, in order to reveal and see the greatness of the other. This does not mean that to be humble one needs to denigrate self, rather it is a way of seeing others in the best light they can be and understanding our place in the greater scheme of the universe; determining what is really important.

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Parashat Naso is the lengthiest of Torah portions in our reading cycle, discussing the sotah (teaching the notion of mind over matter), the nazir (teaching the tension between the physical and spiritual) and chanukat habayit (a passage also read at the festival of Chanukah and teaching about gratitude). Naso also contains in 15 short words one of the Torah’s most beautiful and meaningful passages, which is known as the Priestly Blessing or “threefold benediction”. Much has been written about the exquisite structure of the Priestly Blessing and its development from verse to verse.

The Rabbinical Assembly’s Etz Chayim notes, “The text of this passage has been found on silver amulets dating from the late 7th century BCE, the only known inscription with a biblical text that predates the Babylonian exile.” The proven antiquity of these verses highlights not just their historical importance in Jewish life, but also the eternal message at the heart of Judaism. While aspects of law and ritual change, Judaism’s purpose of connecting human and God in the physical, intellectual and spiritual realms remains core and constant.

At the same time, each generation receiving this blessing has discovered new meaning within it, passing that insight down to the next. One teacher has noted that each blessing has a double formula, the second part reinforcing the first as follows:

May God bless you – with physical abundance and prosperity; and protect you – from the dangers of robbery on the one hand and greed and selfishness on the other.

May God’s face shine upon you – with the endowment of enlightenment and intelligence; and be gracious with you – so that one’s intellect is not used with disdain and arrogance, but with generosity of purpose. May God’s countenance be lifted toward you – with the deepest connection to the spiritual realm; and bring you peace – so that one’s religious understanding is never used as a club or a sword against the other, but as a path for finding wholeness within, between and among.

We often hear the Priestly Blessing, many of us blessing our children each Shabbat with these words. Each time, we transmit the most ancient of our ancestral teachings. This Torah reminds us of our central task as Jews: to connect with God in our physical bounty, intellectual growth and spiritual practice, always cognizant of our duty to the other – where God also dwells – and our ultimate goal of creating peace specially in the aftermath of the killing in Orlando where so many lives have been shattered.

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We open the forth book of the Torah, known by different names in English and Hebrew. The English follows the custom of all translations to name the book after its major theme: the book of Numbers opens with a census of the people and concerns the ordering of the tribes for the final move toward the land of Israel. The Hebrew follows the custom of naming a book (and also each parashah) by its first significant word: here, “B’Midbar”, which translates to “in the wilderness”. In the wilderness happens as well to capture a major theme of this book, for this book describes the famous 40 years of “wandering in the wilderness”.

The tradition has conflicting views about the experience of our ancestors in the wilderness. On one hand, it was the place of the greatest apostasy and rebellion, and thus the place where the generation that was redeemed from slavery in Egypt had to die. It is the site of the idolatry of the Golden Calf, and then a litany of rebellions that comprise most of the book of B’Midbar. On the other hand, it is also the place where the Torah is given to the people. By placing the reading of this parashah always on the Shabbat before Shavuot, the festival that celebrates our being given the Torah, the rabbis indicate that this latter aspect of the wilderness is the one we should remember foremost.

In so doing, the rabbis follow the prophets who came hundreds of years before them. The prophets memorialized the 40 years of wandering in the wilderness as a time in which the relationship between Israel and God was most dear. The words of the prophet Jeremiah, recited in our Rosh Hashanah liturgy, state: “I remember for you the grace of your youth, the love of your betrothal days, when you went after Me in the desert, in a land unsown.” The prophet Hosea, in the words read in the haftarah this week says, “Assuredly, I will speak coaxingly to her and lead her through the wilderness, and speak to her tenderly…there she shall respond as in the days of her youth, when she came up from the land of Egypt.”

The rabbis query what is so special about the wilderness that it is the place where Torah is given; they understand the Torah as the ketubah, the document of marriage between God and the Jewish people. One answer they provide is that the wilderness is accessible to all, a site belonging to no one and thus everyone: The Torah binds Jews to God, but it is open for anyone to bind themselves to God through Torah if they so choose. Another is that “whoever does not make him or herself free like the wilderness, cannot acquire the Torah.” The freedom of the wilderness further reminds us that whenever freedom of thought is curtailed so too are words and principles of Torah.

As we enter the book of the book of the wilderness in preparation for Shavuot, may we be inspired to think openly and freely, and to remember, that the Torah is intended to be accessible to all. As it is written, “For all its ways are pleasant, and all its paths are peace.”

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This week with the reading of parashat Bechukotai we come to the end of the book of Vayikra. Towards the end of the book, the Israelites are asked to pledge their value in silver to the sanctuary. The Torah then provides a handy scale by which a person’s value could be determined: for a male from 20-60 years of age, 50 shekels of silver, a female 30 shekels of silver. A male child from one month to 5 years, five shekels, a female three. A male over 60 pays 15 shekels, a female 10. And if a person could not afford the pledged amount there was a system in place to enable them to pledge a lesser amount which was within their means. (Leviticus 27:1-8).

So what is the value of the person which was being assessed? In the Torah it was the value of productivity that person could offer to the community. The difference in value for gender probably also relates to that time period, where women earned less than men. (Sadly research today shows despite gender equality, women are still often paid less than men for doing the same work) So the value of a person for the Temple pledges was connected to productivity and earning capacity.

If we look at our world today how often is this still the case? How often do we judge ourselves and others and our worth by our ability to earn, our relative wealth, our possessions? And how often do we, despite recognizing the futility and fraught nature of this assessment, live our lives with money and its acquisition as a central goal and purpose? Our Torah reading this Shabbat inspires us to take a few moments to reflect upon our values and our lives; to pause and recognize the ways in which we place the value of money and wealth above family, community and time for ourselves. We are currently in the period of the counting of the Omer, the time when we count each day from Pesach to Shavuot.

We are coming close to the end of our counting journey and we are reminded of the passing of time, the value of each day, what we can do to make our time count. Time is a precious commodity, placed in our hands, a gift to do with as we choose. As we decide how to live our days we are inspired to reflect upon our value, what are we worth? What do we value? What do we place at the center of our world and what really matters? As we do so, we may come to a consciousness that we need to shift our priorities, to adjust our values to reflect what we know in our hearts: a person’s value is not measured by the material but rather by the goodness within and the blessings they bring to themselves and others.

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