Thursday, June 20, 2019

Behalotecha - It's the Feeling that Counts

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Behalotecha - It's the Feelings that Count:  There is a great story in the Talmud (Berachot 34a) about a time when someone in the study hall of Rabbi Eliezer led the prayers very quickly and the students complained he should go slower.  
Rabbi Eliezer said to them, "don't you know the part in this week’s Parshah of Behalotecha, when Moses prayed to God on behalf of his sister Miriam? All he said was 'God please heal her.'  A quick prayer sufficed, the same with the prayers today."  
Another time, someone else led services, but was very slow and the students complained again to Rabbi Eliezer that this one should go faster.  
However, Rabbi Eliezer in this case reminded the students, "Moses was on Mt. Sinai for forty days and nights, don't worry, however long it is, it won't be that long!"
The lesson here is twofold.  First, our prayers may be long or short, but if they have kavannah, if they have intention, then they may very well be sufficient.  But second and even more important, is having the discernment, the thoughtfulness, to recognize that sometimes situations are different and require different approaches.  
We know this is the case in our story from Rabbi Eliezer's words and actions.  Who was it that Rabbi Eliezer had in mind with what he said?  The person leading services and that person's standing in the community.  Could you imagine how it would feel if the rabbi in either story had criticized the prayer-leader, taking the side of the other students against that person?  How humiliating!  Rabbi Eliezer, however, is able to quickly and cleverly teach a valid lesson to his complaining students (about kavannah in prayer) while at the same time subtly teaching them the lesson of respect for other people, also.  
I hope we can be equally sensitive to Rabbi Eliezer's lessons about how to pray and how to treat people.  
Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, June 14, 2019

Nasso - Nazirites vs. Negotiators

Nasso – "Nazirites vs. Negotiators:"  We live in a world today of nazirites.  Not actual nazirites as in the Torah portion this week; people who swear off wine and cutting their hair and maintaining a high level of purity, but people who get too focused on their own saintliness, their own rightness, at the expense of the rest of the world.
Judaism makes room for the nazirite, and throughout Jewish history there have been all sorts of variations on the idea of perfecting oneself – from the Hasidic tradition to the mussar tradition.  And while none of these completely pulls the person from society, equally none of them keeps the person in the midst of society, making the hard, messy, dirty choices that society requires to keep functioning.  That is why Judaism rejects as an ideal the nazirite and why the Torah even insists such a person brings an offering of atonement after their nazirite period ends. 
The ideal person is the rabbinic sage of ancient times.  Enmeshed in the world, seeking to make the words of Torah, already ancient in rabbinic times, meaningful and alive in the new circumstances in which they lived.  Those rabbis often supported themselves through other sorts of work and were actively engaged with their fellow Jews and non-Jews in real ways.  And they still sought to improve the world and make it better.  They just weren’t fanatics about it.
We need more people like that.  Those willing to compromise.  Those willing to see how others live.  Those willing to get their hands dirty.  It is all too easy to retreat to a corner of ideological purity like the nazirite does, and there is nothing inherently wrong with that.  But you are no longer engaging in the world when you do that.  Meeting people where they are, even if you don’t like it, that is how things get done.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Bamidbar - Life’s Journey

Bamidbar - Life’s Journey:   The Book of Numbers starts with a census, in essence an accounting of each solitary person in the people Israel.  This group of individuals becomes something more, something unified at Mt Sinai, that place you find in the 
the wilderness (which is where you are when you are a solitary person, someone “alone”) and brings that people together into a relationship of love - God’s love and their love for each other as a people.   From their they build a house and find a home - the Tabernacle and ultimately the Land of Israel.  There are many failures and challenges along the way but in the end, held together by that experience at Sinai and the giving of the Torah, they are able to go forward and face it all.  
As we read the start of Numbers and then move into Shavuot, the holiday of giving of the Torah, we have the chance to relive and recommit to our part in this story that mirrors and guides our lives’ stories, where we struggle to find relationships and make our homes - whatever they may look like - but like our ancestors, we will be strengthened and guided by our commitment to Torah.  
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach!