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Each year we come to this time of confrontation, when our greatest prophets challenge us to get out of our solipsistic thinking and do something positive and helpful for life itself. Alas, it seems as if as the years go on, the pleas from Moses and Isaiah, the greatest prophets of the Jewish people and perhaps all humanity, fall on ears turning more and more deaf. Jews, like many others, are “seeking spirituality”. Certainly, it is necessary, crucial, for each of us to be touched deep in our spiritual core, for our souls to feel connected to the source of life and light we call God, and therefore to each other. But spirituality is ultimately a launching point for action and goodness.

The entire book of Deuteronomy is a series of speeches by Moses imploring people to in essence “love God” (the spiritual element of being) as part of a covenant to be a people of justice and right action (the human element of doing). In his opening message read always in conjunction with the opening of Deuteronomy, Isaiah shares his vision with the people: “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord has spoken: ‘I reared children and brought them up – and they have rebelled against Me! . . . that you come to appear before Me – who asked that of you? Though you pray at length, I will not listen. Your hands are stained with crime.” (Excerpted from Isaiah 1: 1-15). Read in their entirety, these verses clearly state the essential Jewish proposition taught since the time of Abraham, that to “walk with God” means to do that which is just and right.

Reading through the Torah, Jews are often surprised that it does not speak much of spirituality. Today, many people want to to pursue a spiritual life. It seems as if people are asking for a life of inner reflection without a sense of responsibility or obligation for the other. Judaism, like certain other spiritual practices, teaches that the earth and all on it is the living expression of God. To be truly spiritual therefore is to embrace fully the human realm and all its requirements. Absolutely we must be in touch with our inner self – but not exclusively so. Thus, Isaiah further teaches in the name of God, “Wash yourselves clean, put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice; aid the wronged.” (Isaiah 1:16-17) To truly be a spiritual person, one must walk the walk, talk the talk: do the deeds that heal earth and humanity.

The rabbis established the scriptural readings in our calendar with great spiritual intention. These readings of Moses and Isaiah always precede Tisha B’Av, the time we commemorate the destruction of the First and Second Temples. According to tradition, not only the Jewish people, but also God’s Shekhina, or in dwelling presence, went into exile. The Temples were destroyed not because people were not spiritual enough, but because they thought that if only they were spiritual that would be enough. We stand on the verge of the destruction not just of the Temple but of an earth that will sustain human life. May our spiritual pursuits awaken us to our human obligations to act justly and do right, to protect our planet and to provide for those in need.

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In this week’s parasha we read the fascinating story of the Daughters of Zelophad. They are five women who were the only remaining descendants when their father died. According to the custom of the time, when a person died with no sons, their property would revert back to the tribe. The Daughters of Zelophad were not satisfied with this situation and they went to Moses and petitioned him, saying that it was not right that their family holding would be returned to the tribe when their father had five deserving daughters. Moses was not sure what to do, he appreciated their arguments and said he would take it to God for a ruling. God ruled in favour of the daughters of Zelophad and thanks to their courage and wisdom, the law was changed to allow women to inherit property when there were no surviving sons.

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson brings a beautiful commentary on this portion. He quotes Rashi’s words: “Their eyes (the daughters’) saw what Moses could not see.” What did they see that Moses did not? They saw the injustice of the law which would disposess the women and their family simply because there were no males to inherit the property. Moses and the elders failed to see the wrong which was being perpetrated until the daughters pointed it out to them. Only then were they able to make the situation right and care for the vulnerable in their society.

Sometimes we can be like the elders and Moses. We look with our eyes but we fail to see what is truly before us. We sanitize the world so that we look upon only the good and brush past the things which cause us pain or distress. But it is important to see not only with our eyes but also with our hearts and our heads.

When we look at the world around us we must try to be conscious of those who need assistance, those who need our love, compassion and care. Sometimes those who are struggling hide their pain, they are embarrassed, ashamed, feel nobody will care, nobody wants to listen. But if we look with eyes that see into the depths of their souls, we can see their hurt and then work to heal their suffering, be a listening ear, a compassionate heart. We are tasked as Jews, with tikkun olam, healing and repairing the world, making right the wrongs in society. We can only do that if we first see the places where there is need and then act to change them.

Every time I read this parasha, I can’t help but think of the hilarious Shrek movies, where the beloved talking donkey, voiced by none other than Eddie Murphy, displays a boundless ability of making his opinions and thoughts heard. Yes, it’s a movie franchise, an animated one at that, and yes, it is meant to be comical and poke fun at the vast array of fairy tales told through the ages.

However, unlike the Shrek movies, the Torah isn’t known for its comedic value, nor is it abound with talking animals. The only other talking animal in the Torah is the snake in Gan Eden in Bereishit. Yet, in this week’s parasha, we find the combination of both.

The King of Moab, Balak, asks the prophet Balaam to curse the Children of Israel. So Balaam heads off to the Israelite camps, to carry out his assigned duty. Incensed at what was being planned, God places an angel armed with a sword, in the way of Balaam and his donkey, . Each time the donkey attempts to evade the danger of the armed angel, Balaam becomes more infuriated. Finally, the donkey drops to the floor and refuses to move. Then Balaam loses it, and starts to hit the donkey with a stick.

Then Adonai opened the ass’s mouth, and she said to Balaam, “What have I done to you that you have beaten me these three times?”. Balaam said to the ass, “You have made a mockery of me! If I had a sword with me, I’d kill you.” The ass said to Balaam, “Look, I am the ass that you have been riding all along until this day! Have I been in the habit of doing this to you?” And Balaam answered, “No.” (Numbers 22:28-30)

Only at this point, is Balaam able to see the angel and he realises that he actually owes his life to the donkey. He expresses to the angel that if it is God’s will, he will turn back and not continue to the Israelite camp to carry out his assigned duty. The angel tells him to carry on with his journey, but he must only use the words that the angel will tell him. Balaam continue on his way, and instead of cursing the Children of Israel, he ends up blessing them.

The story could easily have taken place without the piece with the talking donkey. That being the case, what can we learn from this very unusual encounter?

Firstly, there is a direct connection between what happened there and Balaam’s mission. The donkey sees the angel of God blocking the way, which Balaam initially fails to see. Then the donkey speaks, and Balaam discovers the truth behind what had occurred. If we look back at Balaam’s mission, it involves seeing (he had to view the Children of Israel in their camps) and speaking (after he had seen/found them, he was to curse them).

Secondly, the donkey represents a humble beast of burden. Balaam rides atop the donkey reflecting the spoken order where the powerful are honoured and distinguished as they ride upon the backs of the lowly and the hapless. Through experiencing Balaam’s lack of control as he beats the donkey, eventually falling to the floor, the donkey seems to mock Balaam, and metaphorically, the assumed order.

By using the “over the top” encounter, where a donkey can see what the human cannot, and where that donkey not only speaks, but also challenges the hierarchy and order, the Torah teaches us that there is much to be learnt through humility and respect, and that power and perceived superiority are not always a formula for success. Let us take the time to acknowledge and respect that all parties (human or otherwise) play an important role in our journeys, and let’s be grateful for the role they play, whether intentionally or unintentionally.

In the words of Shrek; “That’ll do Donkey. That’ll do”

This week’s parasha, Chukkat, challenges us with paradox. In it we learn of the mysterious ritual of the Red Heifer, a prelude to the story of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron and the death sentence for Moses who will not enter the Promised Land. Much is taught about the failure of Aaron and Moses to sanctify God; the story of the waters of Meribah in a sense is as perplexing as the story of the Red Heifer. It makes no sense that two of our greatest leaders are condemned not to enter the Promised Land because of one mistake. Similarly, the story of the Red Heifer is beyond rational comprehension.

While the life giving waters of mikvah purify in most circumstances, only a special concoction, including the ashes of a specially slaughtered burnt cow purify one who has had contact with a corpse. Even stranger, while the ashes of the burnt heifer purify the one on whom they are sprinkled, the one who prepares and sprinkles them becomes impure by contact with the very same ashes. According to tradition, the wise Solomon said of this passage, “I succeeded in understanding the whole Torah, but as soon as I reached this chapter of the Red Heifer, I searched, probed and questioned. I said I will get wisdom but it was far from me.” (Midrash, B’Midbar Rabbah 19:3). Despite this, sages throughout the generations have searched for meaning in this passage that is apparently beyond meaning.

The materials used for purification reveal a pattern of opposites. The four elements – the red heifer, cedar wood, hyssop and died thread – contain two opposite pairs. The red heifer is the rarest of creatures, while the worm from which comes the dye for the thread the most base. The cedar is the mightiest of trees and the hyssop the lowliest of plants. Only when these distinct and opposite realms are brought together in one mixture does purification become possible.

But what does the bringing together of these opposite realms suggest? The great Italian rabbi of the early 16th century, Rabbi Ovadiah Sforno teaches that one must live a life of moderation. Others comment on the dangers inherent in following one extreme or exclusive path, and not seeing the truth revealed in tension or dialectic. Rather than being bound to one truth, one teacher or one leader, we should recognize the positive aspect of opposing positions in life and tensions in tradition.

That there is no “one truth” may be the essence of this passage. Perhaps the meaning within this passage is precisely its enigma, hinting that life itself presents us the greatest mystery of all. Tradition takes this back to a potentially dogmatic position: The Divine will is more awesome than the human, and therefore there needs to be a point where human will should bend to God’s will as expressed in the Torah. Beyond this traditional take, we can look at the same passage and understand that Torah is suggesting that we humans need to embrace the truth that not everything can be explained and categorized, that life is far more grey (or colorful) than black and white.

Judaism celebrates the asking of questions more than the dictate of authority. Perhaps that is why this passage precedes the one telling of the deaths of our greatest and most authoritative leaders – Miriam, Aaron and Moses. It reminds us to live courageously and with faith means precisely to live in embrace of the great mystery and the expanse of that which may be.

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.

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.

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.