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One of the most powerful lessons I have learned is the idea of not complaining about something unless you are prepared to offer a tangible solution. Complaining for the sake of complaining is detrimental to morale and counterproductive. It may make you feel better in the short term, but in the long run will only ruin any positive feelings or incentive to improve, and also go on to create a toxic culture where the goal is to tear down others and not to build.

Much ink has been spilt attempting to explain where Korach went wrong. Many agree that he had good people skills and great charisma, yet there is also almost universal consent that he was a horrible leader. One only look at the outcome to see the point so explicitly made.

How can this be? He instilled the loyalty of 250 people to go against perhaps the greatest leader, Moses. Could he really be so terrible?

Leadership is not simply about having followers. That perhaps is the easiest part of being a leader.

The harder part is developing a vision, a reason for people to follow you. Korach’s vision is simply to not be Moses, or more accurately, to call out Moses for consolidating power, while offering no tangible solution. One cannot articulate a vision by defining what you are not or against. Looking at the text, Korach’s main complaint is: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them and Adonai is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves over Adonai’s congregation?” (Num. 16:3). There is no plan, there is no alternative, simply that Moses shouldn’t have all the power. What kind of vision is that?

Pirke Avot (Ethics of our Fathers) 5:15 teaches us, “Every dispute which is for the sake of heaven, in the end it will endure. And every one which is not for the sake of heaven, in the end it will not endure. Which is a dispute for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And which is not for the sake of heaven? The dispute of Korach and his congregation.”

What was Korach’s dispute? Ostensibly, it was for Moses and Aaron to share the leadership, a very worthy cause. So why then do the rabbis condemn it as a dispute not l’shem shamayim (not for the sake of heaven)?

Rambam (the famous Medieval biblical commentator, philosopher and physician) sheds some light on what this type of dispute might mean. In his commentary on the Mishna, he teaches that those who cause disputes not with the intention of causing trouble, but instead to seek the truth, their words will stand and their ideas will not be cut off. Therefore, according to Rambam, Korach must have been more interested in causing a dispute rather than finding ultimate truth.

The implication then is that a dispute that is for the sake of heaven endures precisely because it has uncovered truth. Ultimate truth is enduring and if Korach wasn’t actually interested in finding truth, but rather simply in making a problem for Moses, then his rebellion was not for the sake of heaven. This is evidenced by his complete unpreparedness or unwillingness to offer any alternative. His leadership was totally devoid of any vision or inspiration. One wonders then how he was able to inspire 250 people to follow him.

I pray that we find the strength to put forth our thoughts and complaints in a positive light and at the same time be able to offer a possible solution to any problems we perceive. Anyone can offer an objection. A true leader with vision offers a way forward. For the sake of heaven, I pray that we take seriously the obligation to pursue disputes in an open and honest way, seeking that ultimate truth, as Hillel and Shammai, and not like Korach. That we call out those that seek to undermine that search for truth.

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How do we face new beginnings, changes and the unknown?

Even if we are receiving a promotion at work or experiencing an upgrade of some sort in our lives, there is a challenge in integrating change.

When facing the unknown, one aspect of our self is confident about it, and the other feels trepidation.

In this week’s parasha (Torah reading), twelve spies are sent by Moses on a reconnaissance mission into the Promised Land. They return with news. Ten of them say that the land is filled with the offspring of giants, and that the cities are huge and well fortified, giving the Children of Israel the feeling that they will be too weak against them. Two of the spies, Joshua and Caleb, give a different view of the land and its inhabitants. They give the people encouraging report, stating that they would be able to enter the land and fulfill their destiny.

The Children of Israel are terrified and can’t help but focus on the report of the ten spies. They disregard the hopeful message of the two. The people lament and complain and wish they had never left the ‘safe’ slavery of Egypt. Moses falls on his face in despair and God decries that the people are not ready to enter the land, they will need to wander for another thirty-nine years and all these people will need to perish in the desert and only their children will be able to enter the land. The exception is Joshua and Caleb.

What can this story mean to us? One way of understanding it, is in a symbolic way. To me the story is inviting us to think about positive opportunities that present themselves to us in our lives – some that we have worked hard for, some that seem to come to us out of the blue. When this happens, there is a part of us that can’t rise to the occasion, that part is too afraid and can’t step up to that new level. This is like the ten spies and the people who bought into their vision.

There is another part within us that can make the leap into the next step of our evolution, the part that has the courage and believes in your own ability. This is like Caleb and Joshua, who can see opportunity in the Land and have confidence in their own abilities and those of their people.

This week we reflect on the opportunities we have and our reactions and responses to these opportunities. Do we have confidence in ourselves or do we shy away? What is the part of ourselves that is fearful and what is the part that can face the unknown and take up the challenge? Both aspects are there, and it’s important to recognize them.

Of course it’s also important to spend time discerning which goals and opportunities are going to take us in a direction of goodness and compassion and growth.

With this Shabbat may we be blessed to be able to face the challenge of stepping into opportunities that will help us to grow.

And may we have supportive people around us to smooth the way towards our land of milk and honey.

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This week’s Torah portion begins with the command to Aaron to light the menorah, the seven branched candelabra which burned in the Temple. The word used for lighting is unusual, directly translated it more closely means to raise up the lamps than to light them. So it reads: “Speak to Aaron and say to him: ‘when you raise up the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.’” (Numbers 8:2)

Rashi, the biblical commentator asks why this expression is used, why not just say light the lamps? What is the Torah trying to convey? He answers that Aaron had to stand by the menorah and light the wick until the flames rose into the sky, until they were lifted up. It is easy to light a candle or a light quickly, with little attention and find that it is lit but then soon goes out. Aaron had to ensure that the flame that he was creating was burning brightly with not chance of being extinguished. And this light that Aaron was to bring into the world was not just in the menorah, it represented the light that we are all to shine into the world and it comes through the metaphor of the menorah.

There are many places of darkness in our world, places which need to find light, to have it shine upon them with hope, love, compassion and peace and it is our challenge to be like Aaron, to bring that light and not just for a brief moment, but rather a sustaining light which will shine even when challenged, even when the darkness threatens, the winds of hate try to snuff it out, we need to tend to the flame, minister to it so that it continues to shine despite the challenges and difficulties.

It is significant also that the menorah has seven branches. The mystics associated each of the branches with one of the aspects of divinity and noted that we all have our path to bring the light into the world. Each of us has our own path to combat hatred, to push back the darkness and it is for us to find the one which is our truth, our path to light. Chana Weisberg interprets each one differently. She says:

There are some individuals who are right-oriented: they are outward bound, giving, extroverted, full of love and kindness (chesed) to everyone around them. There are others who are more introverted, more restrained, more exacting and fearful (gevurah). Then there are those who beautifully (tiferet) synthesize the two, sometimes giving and other times withholding. Some individuals surge with a swell of competitive energy (netzach), while others are masters of non-swerving, consistent devotion (hod). Some are characterized as being experts at connecting with others (yesod) by gathering and condensing their messages through effective communication skills. And others have an aura of authority, regality (malchut), confidence and self-appreciation that affects all aspects of their personality.”

Each of us has our path, we have our way to bring our light into the world, to push back the darkness and help the flames of love and beauty rise to the heavens. This week as we are again mourning the loss of life and suffering brought about by acts of terror, we realize more than ever that we need that light, the light of hope, love, compassion and peace. May we each in our own way, help to bring that light to shine brightly into the darkest corners and so flood the world with hope and peace.

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This week’s parasha contains the inspiring and guiding words of the “Birkat Kohanim”, the Priestly Blessing, which is traditionally recited during the repetition of the Amidah, as well as at home on Shabbat and festivals when blessing one’s children, when blessing a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, at a Brit or Simchat Bat, at a Pidyon HaBen, and during other ceremonies where we have great reason to celebrate.

On Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, and on the last day of each of the three pilgrimage festivals (Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot), the Kohanim partake in a practice called “duchening” (taken from the Yiddish word duchan or platform) during the repetition of the Musaf (additional) Amidah, where they bless the congregation emulating the practice carried out during Temple times.

The duty of duchening is designated to the Kohanim, taken from the verse preceding the blessings, which reads; “Speak to Aaron and his sons: Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them:” (Numbers 6:23).

It is part of four specific laws mentioned in this week’s parasha, that relate to the Kohanim. The first three deal with judicial or supervisory matters where the Kohein presides over a matter or makes a determination. The fourth law, the Priestly Blessing, is an opportunity for the Kohanim to bestow blessing on the people, using the same words that appear in the Torah, that have been in existence for thousands of years.

The practice of defining permission or dispensation through patrilineal lineage is the source of a fair amount of debate in pluralistic and/or egalitarian communities, including our own community. In an environment where we promote equal participation in just about everything we do, can we still carry out a practice designated for only a limited number of our congregation, based solely on who their ancestors are? How do we create the appropriate balance between tradition and modernism?

These very questions are sometimes the topic of lively and often comical debate between members of the clergy. Going into the arguments for and against would require a lot more than a bulletin cover to do justice to the debate. That doesn’t mean it isn’t important, just that it needs the right platform and scope to allow open discussion and explanation.

For me, the more important point is that we live in a community that is open to and encourages this type of debate. It isn’t just shut down on one side or the other, we have the freedom to debate / argue / explain / request / etc with others in a free manner, as long as we maintain respect for one another. And in this case, just as important is the fact that we don’t simply discard the practice, while debating the merits of its existence and relevance today. We learn while debating, and we grow through our experiences in learning and doing, just like the Kohanim do when they bless us.

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This week we begin reading the Book of Numbers, the fourth of the Five Books of Moses. It is called the Book of ‘Numbers’ because it begins and ends with a census of the People of Israel. Why is counting the people so significant? Rashi, the 11th Century French commentator, points out that God’s repeated counting of the people is done out of love and caring for them.

To me, it is reminiscent of the many times in Torah that people are called by God and when they are ready to answer they say, hineini, ‘I am here’.

The Sfat Emet, the Hasidic master of the Nineteenth Century states that saying Hineini is a catch phrase indicating that one is present on all levels: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually.

It takes courage to really be present to who you are, where you are and what you believe in. It is a time to reflect on these issues and this week’s Torah portion invites us to consider what we stand for and how we can stand up for our principles and what we know to be true.

Rashi’s linking of being counted and being loved, is in a way saying that when we do say, hineini, I am here and I am standing up for what I believe in, then, I am ready to love and be loved. When we connect to our core principles and what we are passionate about, we are more open to giving and receiving compassion.

The concept of standing up to be counted is also an invitation to be aware of what is happening right now in our lives and in the world, rather than being stuck in the past or the future. Being present to the moment, as Ekhart Tolle, the highly acclaimed author suggests, is one of the keys to wellbeing and fits with the themes of our week’s Torah reading.

This week we also read the touching words of Hosea, the Prophet:

“And I (God) will betroth you to Me forever, and I will betroth you to Me with righteousness and with justice and with loving-kindness and with mercy.”

When we stand up and are counted, when we say, hineini, “I am here”, we participate in being counted in the census and we are united with the Oneness of our own being, humanity and our connection with the divine.

With the Festival of Shavuot only a few days away, we also consider how we might celebrate in community, with learning, prayer and eating together. We have a fabulous program at CBTBI and hope you can join us.

This week may you be blessed to know that you are important and YOU COUNT.

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This week’s parasha of Behar/Behukotai teaches some of the most revolutionary social and economic regulations known to humanity. The portion begins with the teaching of Sabbatical and Jubilee years, which require that debts be remitted and land redistributed. Consequently, the gap between rich and poor would never be too extreme and everyone among the people of Israel would have a connection to the land (other than the Levites who were provided for in different ways). As well, Behar teaches our obligations to those who fall into difficult financial circumstances. Judaism fully recognises the importance of the material world in which we live – it is not to be transcended, denied or avoided, but fully lived in.

The Torah’s teaching about poverty and the poor reveals a profound concern for humanity. In other law codes developed around the time of the giving of Torah, the poor had no rights. In fact, in Rabbi Joseph Hertz’s commentary on the Torah, he notes that in ancient Rome, “the creditor could imprison the debtor in his own private dungeon, chain him to a block, sell him into slavery, or even put him to death.” Debtor’s prisons existed in most of the world into the 19th century, and some Australians, among them Jews, can attribute their arrival in this country due to laws against debtors. In contrast to this, the Torah declared the poor must be protected and provided for through the requirements of tzedakah.

When we mistranslate tzedakah as charity, we misunderstand Judaism’s ethical and religious demands upon us toward the poor. Charity derives from the Latin word, “caritas”, or love. Judaism’s core value (as made clear in the Shema) is love; but in Judaism love is more than a feeling. Judaism places an enormous ethical demand upon us through the concept of “gemilut chasaadim” or deeds of lovingkindness. The emotion of love is admirable for certain acts and tzedakah given with love is of a higher level than that given begrudgingly, but tzedakah ultimately is an act not a feeling. It is derived from the concept tzedek, justice or righteousness. Tzedakah does not depend how we feel. Tzedakah places both a legal and a moral obligation upon us. Moreover, it decrees that the poor have rights – legitimate claims upon our funds.

The clear message of Torah is that the poor must be provided food, clothing and shelter. This is their right and our duty, our mitzvah. Everyone must give something – even the recipient of tzedakah. The great teacher of ethics, Rabbi Israel Salanter, said “Generally we think of our material needs and our neighbour’s spiritual needs; but we should provide for our neighbour’s material needs and our spiritual needs.” Some aspect of our providing material goods yields spiritual benefit.

Our gift of tzedakah responds to a human need, and Judaism does not imagine that a war on poverty can be won. Later in the Torah, in another passage delineating our obligations for tzedakah, we are told that even with all our giving “the poor shall never cease out of the land.”(Dt. 15:11).

The teaching of Behar (especially combined as it is with the curses and blessings recounted in Parasha Behukotai) recognises that in this real material world there will always be those who are blessed, those who have misfortune, those who rise, those who fall. Torah commands we provide for those whose means fail. At the heart of our obligation to give and to the disadvantaged’s right to receive is the essential truth – the profound God-given dignity of each human soul. “The one who gives to the poor makes a loan to the Lord.” (Proverbs 19:17)

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Toward the end of this week’s parashah, we learn of an unnamed man who blasphemes God. The Israelites have set up camp, and he and his mother, want to join with the tribe of Dan. The mother, who has a familial connection with the tribe of Dan, is named as Shlomit bat Divri.

Shlomit is described as a babbling flirt, smiling and socializing with many people. She fraternizes with an Egyptian and gives birth to the unnamed son who is described as having a high regard for Moses, owing to his leadership and example.

When Moses orders everyone to set up camp according to their tribe, the young man and his mother attempt to pitch their tent among the Danites. Mother and son are angry and frustrated when the Danites object to their presence and take them to Moses. Moses listens to the arguments, and then agrees with the Danites. Seen from the unnamed man’s perspective, Moses has betrayed him, and has taken the side of those who refuse to recognize him as one of their own. Angered even further, the young man publicly rejects God, blaspheming and cursing God’s name and rejecting his mother’s heritage. His punishment for doing so was to be taken outside the camp and be stoned to death.

While the story focuses on the lesson not to curse God’s name or treat God in a shameful or lowly manner, there is perhaps a more comprehensive lesson. Some commentators blame the mother, Shlomit Bat Divri, for her son’s unacceptable behavior. If it weren’t for her promiscuity, such a rebellious child would not have entered the world and disgraced his people or God. Although parents and guardians are responsible for educating their children and ensuring that they treat others with respect, if that applied to Shlomit Bat Divri, it surely also applied to the Danites, who rejected this individual, based on his family’s background?

Confirmation and acceptance of an individual is the responsibility of the community. Isolating individuals and families based on unreasonable logic (or lack thereof) does not show the strength of a community, it shows weakness and desperation.

The Torah gives us the full name of the woman whose son committed this atrocity – Shlomit Bat Divri L’Matei Dan, Shlomit the daughter of Divri, of the tribe of Dan. We are told that the Torah gives us her full name and association because the responsibility of proper education, upbringing and respect are the responsibility of the parent(s) AND the community.

There are so many stories of people feeling rejected by their community because they married a non-Jewish partner, or because they are gay, or because of their race, or for many other reasons. While we are an inclusive community, we are unfortunately not immune to this. We have a responsibility to set an example and welcome everyone into our community. The Torah teaches us that it is our obligation as a society to teach our children that to isolate or marginalize people because of their differences is unacceptable.

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