Thursday, May 31, 2018

"On the Way" Parshat Behalotecha

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Parshat Beha'alot'cha - "On the Way"  Details about worship, the Jews complain some more, Moses and his siblings get into an argument, and the journey towards the Promised Land continues. Were our parshah an episode of TV, this would not be a major one with exciting reveals or a dramatic cliff-hanger ending. It would be focused on filling in more of the details of our plot, characters and the world they inhabit. In that way, it is much like the life we lead today.  We are more likely than not somewhere "along the way" in our lives.  Perhaps we are facing some dramatic moment, but more than likely we are just facing life.  That doesn't mean however there isn't anything the Torah can't tell us about the journey we are on. 
Rabbi Simcha Bunam said:  Two merchants go to the Leipzig fair.  One goes by a direct route, another by an indirect route, but both reach the same destination.  In the service of God, too, we aim at holiness, and hope to arrive at the point where we make God’s will our own.  As long as we get there, it makes no difference how long our journey has been, how long we have served God.  One may die young yet achieve just as much as one who dies in old age.  We have learned (bBer. 5a) “more or less, it matters not, if the heart is turned to Heaven.”

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Who is Our Redeemer? Parshat Naso

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“Who is Our Redeemer?”  Parshat Naso – The worldview of Judaism is at odds with that held by many in America today, and we see that reflected in a passage in our portion this week.  In it, we find (Numbers, chapter 5) the rules for restitution following an injury and we encounter there the verse, “But if that person has no close relative to whom restitution can be made for the wrong, the restitution belongs to the Lord and must be given to the priest” (Num. 5.8). 

The Rabbis have a hard time imagining the Jew who lacks a “close relative” or a go’el, a “redeemer” to use the Hebrew.  Surely, they wonder, everyone must have someone else in the community to whom they are attached.  Fresh off the story of Shavuot, we see how the system typically worked, with Naomi and Ruth coming to rely on the aide of their distant relative Boaz, who ultimately marries Ruth, because, at least in part, he has an obligation to help them.  The case at hand regarding the redeemer, so the Rabbis decide, must be that of a new convert who has no children and hasn't had time yet to make familial connections, and thus doesn’t have anyone to stand in for him. 

While this is interesting on its own, it is the larger message it speaks to that sparks my concern this week.  The Rabbis, as well as the Torah portion itself, imagines that usually, the community is very much an extended family, and more than just that, the community is forged with links connecting and obligating people to help and support and stand up for each other. 

And even more, it is a community in which the individual is not meant to stand alone.  The measure of the individual is not the final measure.  The measure of the individual as connected to the community, as a part to it, as bound to it, that is what counts.

Our modern era has lost this notion, and finds it challenging if not repelling – the idea that we might be limited in our choices or our actions by “community.”  That not everything I could conceive to do might be right to do because it might impact others negatively even if it doesn’t bother me. 

We would do well to keep in mind that that notion is in fact the spurious departure, for such an emphasis on the individual alone is a relatively recent development in the human conception of how humanity works. 

Let us, as Jews, give thanks, that we are still part of a community where we can reliably hope on the help of earthly redeemers to support us when we need it, while we pray all come to know in God the true and ultimate Go’el Adam, Redeemer of Humanity.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Parshat Emor - Better Luck Next Time

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Parshat Emor, "Better Luck Next Time" - The Dubner Maggid taught that people are often governed by their wicked nature. That we do not always get things right the first time.  We suffer because of this.  But most people figure out the second time they try it.

This is how the Chasidic Sage explains the opening line of our parshah this week, "The Lord said to Moses, "say to the priests, saying to them..."  Why did God tell Moses to "say" it twice?  

The Dubner Maggid says it is like a person whose doctor says don't eat garlic.  If the person listens, great.  But even the person who doesn't listen and gets sick, at least comes to know why they are sick - they really are allergic, and they also learn to trust their doctor.  

Rashi explains the double saying as God warning the priests to really listen to God and be careful after the earlier deaths of Nadav and Avihu, two of the priest who erred in their offerings and were struck down.  

The Dubner Maggid connects his teaching to that of Rashi's to make his observation about human nature - we do often times need to make a mistake to learn how to do things right, and luckily God seems to understand that about us and has built that into God's plan!