Thursday, May 30, 2013

It's Not as Hard as You Think - Shelach Lecha

The portion this week, Shelach Lecha, is one of those that teaches us a positive lesson by means of a negative example. In general, I like to look at stories in the Torah, and I suppose I would like to think I try to look at events in life in this manner. That is, trying to find something positive to take away from a setback or failure; some corollary to the incorrect result that might teach something good anyway. Granted, that's not always easy nor is it the case that just because one might find something beneficial even in a bad experience that anyone else could or should, but I do feel it is worth the effort. So what is it that we learn about in the parshah this week? It is that even a relatively small group of people can have a huge impact on a community. And who makes up this small group of people? In the case of our portion, they are the 10 of the 12 spies who came back with a pessimistic assessment of the Jews' ability to conquer Israel. These ten, despite what Joshua and Caleb, Moses or Aaron try to say or do, are able to convince all the others that the mission that they have been given by God will be impossible to undertake. Now you might say that these ten did not have to do a lot of convincing given who they were talking to. The Jews to this point in the story have not been models of get up and go, can do thinking. So you might be thinking - those ten had it easy to convince the rest of the community not to try. But that is the very point! Here is a giant group of people, 600,000 and potentially even more according to the traditional sources (and even if we're talking hundreds only it is still impressive), and all it takes to push them into a firm decision about what to do - granted the wrong decision, but a firm one nonetheless - is to hear from ten guys that the land is full of giants and they felt like bugs. Sometimes we let ourselves be convinced that getting the right thing done will be too big a task. That convincing others to do the right thing, to change something for the better will be too hard. The spies teach us, again through a negative example, that this need not be the case. They teach us that it may not be hard at all for a tiny group to influence many others to go along with them. Let us try then to not give up and not be challenged by the odds but rather to remember the spies and realize that just as they were able to have a lasting negative impact though small in numbers, we may be able to have the same influence but for the good. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Monday, May 20, 2013

The Pitch: Lighting the Lights

Parshat Behalotecha this week could be a character on Mad Men. Okay, that is actually not true at all. For a lot of reasons. But now that we've admitted that, the portion does start off with a wonderful "catch phrase" that could be a motto or slogan or pitch or whatever it is they would call it, were you trying to "sell" Judaism. "Light the lamps so as to give light in front" is a phrase lifted from the start of this parshah. It distills for us just what it is we need our faith to be about. For ourselves, for others, for Israel, for God, we need our Jewish behavior, which really, at the end of the day, should include all our behavior, to be a source of light. Shining light to show the way, give comfort, inspire and make the world a better place, a more meaningful place, a more illuminated place. The ways in which this can happen are many. No doubts the mitzvot lay out for us many places where lights need to be lit. And they suggest to us many others ways in which we can, through all the small things in life, light things up. Now if the parshah were Don Draper, it would close the pitch with some appeal to memory or the past or going home again - maybe the parshah is a Mad Men character after all - those are all Jewish ideas come to think of it - and it would be true, we connect with our past and point the way into the future with the eternal light that God has given to us to keep shining in a world that so very much needs it. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Aaron Benson

Friday, May 17, 2013

The Blessing of Focus

The Torah Portion this week, Nasso, includes perhaps one of the best known biblical passages, what we often call the Priestly Blessing: 'The Lord spoke to Moses, “Speak to Aaron and his sons, ‘Thus you will bless the people of Israel. Say to them, The Lord bless you and protect you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!’ Thus you will link My name with the people of Israel, and I will bless them.”' The Rabbis do much to explain this blessing to us, in which God offers us six different things - blessing, protection, kindness, grace, favor, and peace - a pretty good deal for one blessing! One way I think about the blessings we receive in this blessings comes from the way in which the Jewish people are to receive the blessing when it is given. In those communities in which the kohanim, the priests, still offer this blessing (I find it among the most moving rituals of our liturgy), the congregation is meant to stand silently, looking away from the priests, often by covering their heads with their prayer shawls, and focus on the blessing, primarily through listening. I think we learn something from the way this ritual is performed. The ritual teaches us that one of God's greatest blessings to us it the ability to focus, even intently focus, on a thing. To be able to work hard, study hard, to really examine something or some relationship is a true gift that God gives us. It can even, much like the priestly blessing itself, produce many benefits from just one source. So this week, as we read the words of the Priestly Blessing in the Torah, take time to pause and really reflect on the opportunities that come to us from God's blessings. Shabbat Shalom, Aaron Benson

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

The Lineage of Torah

The Book of Numbers starts this week and starts with an instruction to "count the heads" (1:2) of all the households, But the Hebrew word se-u could also mean, "lift the heads". Why would the Torah use such ambiguous language? The great commentator Rashi informs us that prior to the census each Jew was required to produce a book of their lineage. The Midrash adds that producing this book was also required to be able to receive the Torah. Why is receiving the Torah dependent upon having this book of lineage? This sounds very class conscious and elitist - so what about the poor Jew like me who would have problems telling you about anyone older than my great-grandparents, about whom I could tell you very little to start? I think that “producing the head-raising lineage” here is something very different - and in fact it is what we celebrate with the holiday of Shavuot next week. More than rattling off the names and dates of your forebears and when they lived and died, it's about the Wisdom and Traditions that united them and unites them with us. Any Jew who puts himself or herself within that lineage of those who are willing to accept the call is counted. This Shavuot may we all be able to elevate and lift up our heads, our minds, our hearts, and our deeds, so as to take our place within that lineage. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Walk in My Ways - and Eat Your Broccoli

"How about one broccoli and two desserts?" Thus is the reasoning of my son regarding eating dinner. Suffice it to say, that while we probably give in on a lot, that was not a deal we were going to accept. It can certainly be frustrating wanting to do what's right for your children even when they don't see it that way. It occurs to me to share this story because of something a friend mentioned regarding God and our prayers to God: "I know, we really don't want a God who takes advice from his creations." It was a great sentiment. And while the relationship between God and us and parents and kids is not exactly the same - I thought the story put it in context. And all of it goes to helping us understand the parshah (actually two combined) this week. The start of Leviticus 26 tells us that if we "walk in God's ways" then He will, so it seems anyway, bend the will of creation to suit our needs. However we know, as I suspect even our ancestors did too, that sometimes that doesn't seem to be the case. Rather I think, and I think it is along the same lines as our examples, that the emphasis is not to be on the rains and produce of the land but on the walking in God's ways. Walking in God's ways goes along with parenting with concern for the child's true health and well-being, or accepting that God isn't a magician for me. It is our understanding that living upright and moral lives, and helping others, being God's agents in this world - that those are the things that make whatever the rains and crops and whatever anything else does, if not "okay" then at least "endurable" - because we have caring people willing to step up all around us. Just as I hope in some small way, that eating broccoli will produce a child who cares about his own health and well-being and that of others, so too I think that this is what God wants of us and what He is trying to tell us in our parshah this week. Shabbat Shalom, Rabbi Benson