Thursday, July 18, 2019

Parshat Balak - Being Able to "Sees"

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Parshat Balak, “Being Able to ‘Sees’” The importance of being able to see more than one thing at a time is particularly important to us – as we learn in this Parshah:

“And he took up his parable and said, ‘Balaam the son of Beor has said, and the man whose eye is open has said…”
 נְאֻם בִּלְעָם בְּנוֹ בְעֹר, וּנְאֻם הַגֶּבֶר שְׁתֻם הָעָיִן.

Rabbis understand to mean Balaam had one eye – literally and figuratively. 

What did Balaam do?  He was able to communicate with God and he did give the mah tovu blessing to the Jewish People. 
But… we understand that he still sought to defeat the Jews by non-supernatural means and was eventually killed because of it.  Our tradition understands him to be an evil character. 

How could this be?  He was able to see God and the truth about God.  But, he was unable to see that he himself was not a good man.

In Judaism it is very important to see with TWO EYES, one to recognize God and to know what God wants.  But even more important, two to see how well you are fitting into what God wants.  It’s easy to point out the flaws in everyone else, and how they fall short of God’s wishes, but we must be able to cast an eye on ourselves also.

Being able to see how well we measure up is more than just “half” of what we need to see.  We are truly “blinded” if we are unable to perceive our own faults and shortcomings.  Being able to see these, and then also being able to see what we should aspire to achieve and be like (in God’s eyes) allows us to have “complete vision” and “clear eyes.”

Thursday, July 11, 2019

Chukkat - What's the Difference?

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Parshat Chukkat - What’s the Difference?  Numbers 20 tells us of the deaths of Miriam and Aaron, Moses older sister and brother and two of the key leaders of the Exodus.  Miriam’s death is told all in the first verse, In the first month [of the fortieth year] the whole Israelite community arrived at the Desert of Zin, and they stayed at Kadesh. There Miriam died and was buried. 
Aaron’s death comes at the end and is described like this:
23 At Mount Hor, near the border of Edom, the Lord said to Moses and Aaron, 24 “Aaron will be gathered to his people. He will not enter the land I give the Israelites, because both of you rebelled against my command at the waters of Meribah. 25 Get Aaron and his son Eleazar and take them up Mount Hor. 26 Remove Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar, for Aaron will be gathered to his people; he will die there.”
27 Moses did as the Lord commanded: They went up Mount Hor in the sight of the whole community. 28 Moses removed Aaron’s garments and put them on his son Eleazar. And Aaron died there on top of the mountain. Then Moses and Eleazar came down from the mountain,29 and when the whole community learned that Aaron had died, all the Israelites mourned for him thirty days.
Big difference between the two of them.  It would be easy to chalk the difference up to Aaron being a man and Miriam a woman and thus Aaron gets more attention, and that may very well be a big part of what is going on here and shouldn’t be discounted.  However, if that’s all we see going on, we may perhaps miss other lessons these passages attempt to teach.
Right after Miriam dies the people complain they have no water, and tradition tells us that they merited water from a special well during Miriam’s lifetime but lost that gift when she died.  Perhaps the urgent need to find water in the desert is part of the difference?
Aaron is the inaugural High Priest, a very public figure. Miriam, though a leader and a prophet in her own right, comes across in the text as perhaps less of the public figure and a little more of a behind the scenes or supporting player.  Is there a reason or a need to mourn public figures of the type like Aaron differently than private ones like Miriam might have been? 
Furthermore, people are just different, in life and in death.  Has every member of your family lived a similar life?  Have those you loved and lost always had similar funerals? 
I think the Torah wants us to consider all these possibilities to draw us further into the story.  I also believe the Torah leaves the answer unspoken because at different times in our lives we will need the emphasis in a given story to be different depending on where we are. 
But I also believe very keenly in the importance, in death, of celebrating each life in a manner that best suits the individual, regardless of their rank or family.  It is one of the most important ways we show our love and respect for them when we do this. 
And if it is important to do that when a loved one dies – well perhaps we needn’t wait that long to recognize and appreciate all the unique gifts our loved ones possess.  Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Korach - First and Foremost

Parshat Korach - First and Foremost:  When memorizing a list of items, people usually get the first one or two and maybe the last couple, but in a long list, the middle gets forgotten.  It’s just something about the way humans and their minds work that the first makes an impression.  It’s the same with a collection of valuables, the one that we get first is often most prized. 
And according to Sefer ha-Chinuch, the medieval book about the mitzvot, the same can be said when a person first becomes a parent, that first child is simply special for being the first and so transformative for the family and everyone concerned.  Our Torah portion this week wraps up with a reminder of the law stated earlier that a first-born son must be redeemed by his family from the kohanim, the priests.  This is, according to Chinuch, a reminder of both the days when the first-born were the priests, but also because, “we acknowledge that whatever we posses in reality belongs to God.  A person’s first acquisition is usually the most precious in his eyes, therefore in giving the “first” to God we demonstrate that we remember this important fact.”
What benefit is it to “give” the “first,” most “precious” to God?  We human beings can easily fall victim to our own sense of self-importance, we can let our egos and what’s “ours” to get in the way of what’s right or actually best.  When we let this happen, we can harm relationships and the world around us, unnecessarily defending “ours” against everything and everyone else.  Let’s not be too quick to do that.  And remembering that what we think is ours is really God’s, is a good place to start.  That doesn’t mean we can’t still care passionately or love that which is God’s, nor does it mean that we can’t fall victim to standing up for what is God’s when God doesn’t need the help (let alone using the notion that we are defending “God’s” when really we are back to defending what we think is ours again). 
So, when you feel threatened or on the attack, or overly anxious about things, try to remember that it all belongs to God, that its okay to be strong by not fighting, by even surrendering sometimes.  Going back to the parshah’s example, our kids are our responsibility, it’s true.  But they will grow and develop, have interests and personalities that may be different and even at odds with our own.  Do we need to bend them back to being what we think they should be?  Or do we need to foster and nurture what God saw fit to add to the world by bringing them into it?  The parshah tells us it’s the latter – and it’s true as much about our first child as the last child of someone else.