Parshat Vayera

Torah Reading for Week of October 13-19, 2013

“The Means to Reconnect”
By Rabbi Andrew Feig, ’07

 

When I was a student at AJRCA, my teacher, Rabbi Eli Shochet, asked our Mishnah class the following question: “Why do you think men are obligated to fulfill the mitzvot more than women?”  The answers spanned the usual range of answers:  “Women are more spiritual and, therefore, do not need the mitzvot as much as men to connect to G-d,” to “Ancient Israel was a patriarchal society and focused more on men.”  Rabbi Shochet continued to ask more questions.  “Does anyone of you have sons?  Men, do you remember your behavior as boys?” A few of us acknowledged affirmatively. Puzzled, we thought about these prompts. Rabbi Shochet then offered the following explanation:  “Men may be bound to the mitzvot more than women because as boys, they needed more discipline.  For example, think about boys; they need constant reminders to wash their hands, sit down, eat their meal, and then stay at the table until everyone is finished. The mitzvot, expressed through the blessings before and after a meal, force our boys to wash, sit down and appreciate what they just ate.”

As a parent and educator, I am always struck by this very simple, yet powerful understanding of Jewish practice as a spiritual discipline.  It helps frame much of the way I think about observance as it relates to spirituality and to real life, day-to-day challenges.  It is also a powerful reminder of a rationale for fulfilling mitzvot, namely to appreciate the blessings we have in our lives on a regular basis.

In this week’s parashah, we read the story of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac.  It is one of the most jarring passages in the Torah, and yet I think it dramatically teaches us a lesson about life’s grand blessings.  In Vayera, we read G-d’s famous command to Avraham: “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the heights that I will point out to you.” (Genesis 22:2)

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, until recently the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain, writes in his book, Covenant and Conversation: Genesis, “We cherish what we wait for and what we most risk losing.  Life is full of wonders.  The birth of a child is a miracle. Yet, precisely because these things are natural, we take them for granted, forgetting that nature has an architect, and history an author.”  He goes on to discuss that Judaism is a “sustained discipline in not taking life for granted.”  We are a people that recognize human fallibility, and we need reminders, rituals, and celebrations as a remedy for this fallibility.  In that sense, Jewish practice provides the structure for a rich, spiritual life.  

And that may be a lesson we can derive from one of Torah’s most challenging stories.  Judaism, on one level, is a vehicle for helping us to relive sacred and deeply meaningful moments, a modality that reinforces community ethics and standards, and a method that forces us to confront its core values and remind us of our own.  Boys and girls, men and women, need the means  to reconnect in these ways, just as Avraham might have needed to dramatically recognize the blessing he had in his son that lay prone before him. 

Parshat Pinchas

Torah Reading for Week of June 23-June 29, 2013

“Five For One”
By Rabbi Janet Madden, Ph.D. ’11

 

Parshat Pinchas is often thought of as synonymous with the zeal with which Pinchas takes up his spear and executes the Israelite-Midianite couple Zimri and Cozbi. Actually, however, the brief episode of violence ends the previous parsha. The idolatrous pair is dispatched with a single thrust and the twin plagues of the dangerous influence of foreign women and deadly illness are simultaneously extinguished.

But Parshat Pinchas goes on to recount a more compelling and far more nuanced narrative. This story is driven by a zeal expressed not through violent action but through discernment, reason and patience. Its focus is on five unmarried daughters, orphaned and marginalized women who dare to challenge custom and law. The narrative of the daughters of Zelophehad spans three locations in the Tanach, mirroring the stages of the initiation, pursuit and completion of the women’s quest for justice. In the Torah, in Numbers 27 and 36, the daughters’ petition to be recognized as their father’s heirs results in the promise of inheritance and a subsequent profound legal reform; finally, in Joshua 17, the sisters take possession of their portion of the Promised Land.

Tractate Bava Batra records the rabbis’ praise for the learning, wisdom and virtue of the daughters of Zelophehad; Me’am Lo’ez asserts that their assertion of their claim to their father’s land, enables Moses to pay homage to the Shekhinah. But at its heart, this is a story about the power of the ostensibly powerless to effect a profound tikkun. So important is the theme of the dignity of the individual that in each iteration of the story, each daughter is individually named. Further, the order of the listed names varies in the different segments of the story, a fact that Me’am Loez explains as a way to emphasize the fact that all five women possess equal wisdom.

The naming of each of Zelophehad’s daughters also serves to underscore that the story of these women is the story of the power of the relational. These are not merely biological sisters–their power to challenge the established order stems from the fact that they are true sisters of the heart, united by their shared belief in their cause. Their embodied bond as they stand together “before Moses, Elazar the priest, the chieftains and the whole assembly” and speak not as individuals but in a single, united voice is so compelling Moses that takes their case to the Holy One. And, from the Holy One comes the affirmation of the right that the sisters have asserted as well as the establishment of their case as the precedent for “the law of procedure…in accordance with [the Holy One’s] command to Moses.”

Tractate Semahot explains that the origins of the sisters’ extraordinary vision of equal rights and equal justice is anchored in their belief in the Holy One’s compassionate presence: “When the daughters of Zelophehad heard that Eretz Israel was to be apportioned to the tribes in accordance with the men and not by women, they gathered together to take counsel. One said to the other: “The Omnipresent’s compassion is not like that of flesh and blood. Flesh-and-blood creatures have greater compassion for males than for females. But the One who spoke and the world came into being is not like that. Rather, His mercy extends to all, to the males and to the females…’”

The story of the daughters of Zelophehad is a story worth our careful attention–its three-part structure comes to remind us of the tripartite structure of life–beginning, middle and end. Its five main characters come to heighten our awareness of how our individuality is not obviated when we are in mutually supportive relationships. In their relationships with one another, these orphaned sisters find strength and inspiration that surpasses their individual strengths, and they draw yet more strength and inspiration from the One who is always available to us. May we, too, turn to the Compassionate and Omnipresent One to support our hopes and dreams for a more just world.

Parshat Balak

Torah Reading for Week of June 16-22, 2013

“Moses and Balaam” By Wynne R. Waugaman, PhD,
AJRCA Third Year Rabbinical Student

 

Why does the Torah include this story about Balak and Balaam?  It doesn’t seem to have any real relationship to the chapters before or after it except for the very end, where we are introduced to the plague that descended upon the Israelites who were seduced to worship the idols of the Midianite women.  One possible purpose is to provide a story about a man that was the complete opposite of Moses.

However, Balaam, the only non-Jewish prophet we read about in the Torah, and Moses were actually alike in many ways.  Both had the gift of prophecy, although Moses used his for good while Balaam used his for evil.  Balaam and Moses faced similar challenges in their lives. While both had the power of their own voices, G-d controlled their tongues.  Moses and Balaam both tried to ignore G-d’s wishes, which made G-d very angry: Moses refused to accept the responsibility of gathering the Israelites as G-d requested, while Balaam disobeyed by saying he was turning back when, in reality, he fully intended to go forward on his course to curse the Jews.  Further, both Balaam and Moses blamed their own shortcomings on others.  When the angel stood in front of him, Balaam claimed the reason he sinned was because he didn’t see the angel.  It wasn’t really his fault; if he would have seen the angel, he wouldn’t have sinned!  Moses, on the other hand, blames the Israelites for causing G-d to forbid him to enter the Promised Land!

How then do these two prophets really differ?  Examining more closely, we can see that they differ in their personalities and their overall behavior.  Moses is a shepherd who cares about the sheep under his watch. Indeed, isn’t this what led him to his first meeting with G-d during which he is selected to lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt? He also pleaded with G-d on behalf of the people at the golden calf and the incident of the spies. In contrast, Balaam demonstrated great cruelty to animals by beating the donkey who apparently served him well except for this one transgression.  The punishment hardly fit the crime in this case.  Moses is an open and straightforward man; you know what he is thinking.  When he is angry, he wears his anger on his sleeve.  Balaam is a devious man; he pretends to obey G-d, but in reality, doesn’t. 

This brings us back to the original question.  Why is this story inserted here?  Was Balaam a real person or is this just a midrash?  Is this to make Moses seem a more desirable prophet and perhaps make his punishment by G-d, of not being able to enter the Promised Land, seem extremely harsh and inappropriate?  Are we supposed to feel sorry for Moses? 

I think not.  I believe that Moses wanted us to learn a message from Balaam, that G-d’s Will prevails.  A prophet, a sorcerer, or a soothsayer cannot override the Will of G-d.  We have seen this time and time again throughout our history: even a clever person like Balaam, who schemes to destroy the nation of Israel through dishonesty with G-d, does not succeed.  The ultimate source of wisdom needed in our daily decision-making comes from G-d.  We ask G-d to provide what we lack. 

G-d’s Will touches every aspect and moment of our lives: goals, attitudes, and means — why, how, and what.  We have a choice.  We can follow the Will of G-d according to Moses, or we can choose the path of Balaam.

Parshat Chukat

Torah Reading for Week of June 9-15, 2013

“Grieving Miriam”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, President of AJRCA

One of the many puzzling episodes in the Torah appears in this parsha, the story of Moshe hitting the rock and then, as a result, not being allowed to enter the Land of Israel.  A variety of explanations are offered by commentators:  it was the way he spoke; it was because he hit the rock instead of speaking to it; Moshe lost control of his temper; and more.

Commentators have also pointed out that the reason for the Israelites’ complaint was the lack of water; and the Midrash connects that with the death of Miriam which immediately preceded.  As long as Miriam was alive, they always had a well from which they could draw water.  Now, after her death, it was gone.

But the connection between the episodes goes deeper.  We have to ask, why was Moshe so upset about this incident?  After all, they were out of water.  And he calls them “rebels,” but it has been decades since there was a rebellion – this episode is at the end of the forty years in the desert. 

The word he uses to address the people is morim which, vocalized differently, is Miriam.

Something else is going on besides anger at rebelliousness.   Perhaps we could read the phrase, “Listen, please – Miriam!  Can we bring forth water from a rock? – as you did?”

Perhaps we are witnessing Moshe’s anguish of grief at losing the sibling who has been at his side for forty years.  Yes, they had a fractious moment when Miriam criticized Moshe’s relationship with his wife and perhaps his leadership.  But when she was chastised by G-d with tzaraat, Moshe immediately and passionately pleaded with G-d for her healing.

We do not know much about the bond between Moshe and Miriam.  She had saved him from death as an infant and, six years his senior, may have been an object of his admiration.  Surely, the song they both sang after the splitting of the Yam Suf represented a moment of glory and gratitude for both of them.

In some ways, the story may remind us of the Akeidah.  Avraham torn between his love of his son and the commandment of G-d is paralleled in some way by Moshe torn by his grief and yet trying to attend to G-d’s command and the needs of the people.  There is no resolution of moments like this.  We can only open our hearts to hear, as best we can, the deep human experiences recorded in the Torah.

Parshat Korach

Torah Reading for Week of June 2-8, 2013

“Unholy Arguments”
By Elisabeth Kesten, AJRCA Rabbinic Student

 

How can we judge arguments?

Pirkey Avot 5:17: All arguments for the sake of heaven will in the end be perpetuated, and those not for the sake of heaven are destined not to be perpetuated. What are arguments that are pursued for the sake of heaven?  The controversies of Hillel and Shammai.  And what are the ones that are not pursued for a heavenly cause? The controversy of Korach and his congregation.

The Rabbis say here that arguments that serve unselfish ends have a Divine purpose, but those of Korach, which served personal advancement and gain, are deemed selfish.  ‘Korach and his congregation’ stand together against Moses and Aaron, but they seem to be ready to fight each other any minute.

Malbim says that Korach was interested in the High Priesthood, since he contended that Amram had received the firstborn share as the eldest son of Kohat, and that Moses his son had been appointed leader and king over the people. It was therefore the right thing, so Korach claimed, that the High Priesthood be given to himself as the son of Yitzhar, the next in line of succession.  Dathan, Abiram and On ben Pellet, on the other hand, were animated by other grievances. They belonged to the tribe of Reuben who was Jacob’s firstborn, and entitled to the highest office of spiritual and political leadership.  Ibn Ezra suggests that the 250 rebels were all firstborns who considered that the priesthood was their natural privilege.

This is why Malbim, analyzing Pirkey Avot, notes that it doesn’t say the ‘controversy of Korach and Moses.’  Instead we find ‘controversy of Korach and his congregation.’ This shows they were not even united amongst themselves, let alone for unselfish reasons.

The fact that the 250 were ready to be in a trial by ordeal shows that they were totally sincere in their beliefs.  Sincerity is a neutral character-trait, neither positive nor negative. Sincere Egyptian slave masters and baby killers thought they were doing something good for Egypt and their god-king, Pharaoh.  Sincerity can be compared to a knife. With a knife you can murder, or you can cut a sacrifice into pieces to share and eat it. We can be sincerely devoted to an evil goal as easily as to a good one.  Only the right values give those character traits a direction and a goal. 

And what is the direction and goal of Korach and the other rebels?

“You take too much upon you, while the whole congregation are holy are holy, and the LORD is among them: Why do you lift yourselves above the congregation of the LORD?”

Nechama Leibowitz points out that it does not say: ‘all the congregation is holy’ but it says: all the congregation – they are holy, meaning every one of them, individually. They are saying, we are all equal, we are all holy, and nobody is different.  Who is Moses to think that he is holier than we?  They think that they are holy, without any merit or any effort on their side. This is not an argument “for the sake of heaven”; it is about their own advancement.

The problem is that only G-d is holy!  With people, holiness is not a state of being; it is an effort, a goal, a lifelong process to do G-d’s will.

Also, i­n matters of attaining spirituality there is no comparison of one to another.  Each person is on his/her own path towards a relationship with G-d, and everybody is responsible for his/her own growth and spiritual progress.  People don’t start out the same; they have different character-traits from birth, becoming even more different through upbringing, life experiences, joys and tragedies.  It’s important not to judge, or to think we are better or closer to G-d than others, when in reality only G-d knows who makes the biggest effort; G-d alone can give us credit for our good intentions.

Shabbat Shalom

Parshat Shelach

Torah Reading for Week of May 25-June 1, 2013

“Grasshoppers and Giants: Who are You?”
By Rabbi Meredith Cahn, ‘11

 

Growing up, my mother often took my sisters and me to Broadway musicals. All the women dancers were petite, to be lifted easily by the male dancers. Later, we went to the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, where I encountered Judith Jamison, the larger than life – or larger than any woman – dancer. She exhibited power, grace and emotional interpretation. But how did she make it to the dance stage in the first place? Her parents sent her to ballet lessons at age six, to imbue her already noticeable height with grace. She was a giant among grasshoppers, who believed in herself enough to develop her technique and let the music flow through her, so that she could reach the heights of an art form usually reserved for petite bodies.

Grasshoppers and giants permeate this week’s torah portion: Shelach Lecha. Moses assigned the leaders from each tribe six specific, strategic tasks to prepare for claiming our inheritance. Off they went to scout the land. Upon returning, they reported to Moses and the whole community, as they showed them the fruit of the land. (Num. 13:26)

“We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey, and this is its fruit. However, the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…” (Num. 13:27)

After they showed the giant grapes, the next word is efes: However… That one little word means so much. Efes often means, “it will all come to naught.” The land may flow with abundance, efes – it will all come to naught—because we seemed like grasshoppers ourselves and so we must have seemed to them… (Num. 13:33)

The rabbis associate this story with the disastrous day of Tisha B’Av, the 9th of Av, the day that witnessed the destruction of both the first and second temples. Ten of the 12 scouts came back with a report that sent us into a dither of hysteria.

Rabbi Finley the Elder explains that the tragedy of this story is in the nature of the sin we committed that day. Our leaders – with a tiny word – efes – however —allowed their own anxiety in the face of insecurity to overwhelm all that had been given to them. And we–the people of Israel, ran amok. One way of defining sin is the unmediated actions that stem from our fears and anxieties. Of course we will be scared when faced with giants, or when we are asked to do something far outside our comfort zone, that asks us to stretch.

It is what we do with our fears and anxiety that is a key to Jewish spirituality. Our teachings offer us better ways of looking at our behavior and at ourselves realistically – to assess with open eyes whether we really are grasshoppers, or whether we are projecting our fears onto others.

Joshua and Caleb rose above their slave mentality. While they might have seen themselves as grasshoppers, they did not assume that others did, nor did they imagine grasshoppers as helpless creatures without a Friend in the world. With faith in the Holy One, each other and themselves, they knew that the children of Israel could achieve what had been promised them.

We find redemption when we can see ourselves realistically and recognize we are made b’tzelem Elohim – in the divine image; sometimes we might be grasshoppers, but we can defeat giants. May we all explore the ways we view ourselves as grasshoppers, and transform that image to one of strength, and value, ready to meet the challenges of our lives.

Parshat Behaalotecha

Torah Reading for Week of May 19-25, 2013

 

“The Book within the Book”
By Rabbi Larry Seidman, PhD ‘09

 

This week’s Parsha, Behaalotecha, is a part of the book of Numbers, Bamidbar, one of the five books of Torah.  Yet some say that it has a whole book of the Torah inside it.  How can that be?

The mystery surrounds two verses, Numbers 10, verses 35 and 36. In the Torah scroll, and in almost all Hebrew copies of the text, these verses are separated from the rest of the Torah by a unique symbol, the “nun hakuffah”, the inverted Hebrew letter “nun”.  You find it just before and after the verses. 

These two special verses are sometimes called The Song of the Ark.  The first line begins “Va ye hi bin soah ha’aron…”  We chant this verse in the synagogue every time we take the Torah out of the Ark.  The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation states:

 

Num 10: 35 When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say

Advance O Lord

May your enemies by scattered

And may your foes flee before You

Num 10:36 And when it halted, he would say,

Return oh Lord

You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands.    

 

Why are these two verses marked in this unique way? 

This topic is discussed in the Talmud, in the tractate Shabbat, page 115b and 116a. The Tanna (early Talmudic rabbi) R. Simeon b. Gamliel  asserts that these marks are there because the verses are in the wrong place.  Perhaps some ancient scribe noticed that he had copied these verses incorrectly and marked them to be fixed in his next copy.  Future scribes, however, copied the error and the correction symbols rather than actually making the correction.  In the second century BCE, scholars created the Septuagint, a translation of the Torah into Greek.  They did not translate the two verses where they are today.  Rather they moved verses 35 and 36 to be before verse 34.  Perhaps this is the correction that R. Simeon wanted.

The Talmud, as usual, has a second reason for why these two verses are marked in a special way.  The great editor of the Mishnah, Yehuda HaNasi, known simply as “Rabbi,”  gives a different explanation.  He says that the two verses are separated from the rest of the text because they comprise a separate book of Torah. How could they be a separate book of Torah?

Elsewhere in this Parshah, (Numbers 11 verses 26-30) we have the story of Eldad and Medad.  They were among the men chosen to join Moses to hear G-d’s words in the tent of meeting.  Nevertheless, they declined to go!  They chose to stay in their own tents and they prophesied, i.e. they had a divine experience. 

The JPS translation of verse 26 says “they were among those recorded” to join Moses, but the Hebrew (“hem b’kituvim”) literally says “they are in the writings”.   A Midrash explains that there once was a book called the Prophecy of Eldad and Medad.  Rabbi explains that this book was suppressed and only these two verses remain of it.  That is why they are marked by the inverted nuns.

Whatever the reason, our forefathers put a lot of attention on “Va y’hi b’insoa…”.  The effect is to cause us to stop and think as we take the Torah out of the Ark.  We recall that in Biblical times, the Torah was the magical talisman that led the armed forces into combat.  Few of us would advocate using the Torah in that way today.  Indeed the Tanakh itself, in the First Book of Samuel (4:5-11), reminds us that the whole Ark was lost in battle when our leader relied on its numinous power rather than deriving a sound military strategy.

Perhaps the two inverted nuns are there to warn us that physically lifting up the Torah in the synagogue is not enough to chase away G-d’s enemies.   Lifting, touching, kissing, even listening is also not enough.  No, we have to understand, to study, and to internalize the teachings.  Perhaps Eldad and Medad want to teach us that there is a time to venerate our holy objects, but that it needs to be balanced by a time to stay in our tents and meditate on G-d’s word.  There is a need to think about the contemporary meanings of the Tanakh to internalize its teachings and to figure out how we use Torah to live our lives.  Maybe this is how we achieve Moses’ prophecy: “Advance O Lord, May your enemies by scattered, And may your foes flee before You.”

Can it really be true that these two verses constitute a separate book of Torah, a book not written by Moses?  The Mishnah, the oldest Jewish law, (Yadaim 3.5) says that a defective Torah scroll is sacred as long as 85 letters are legible.  It cites the example of these two verses, which contain eighty five letters as sufficient to have the status of a sacred scroll.

If Numbers 10, verses 35 and 36 are a separate book, then the portions of the Book of Numbers before and after must also be separate books, so there are a total of seven books comprising the Torah.  The Talmud quotes R. Samuel b. Nahman in R. Jonathan’s name to give us the proof text.  It is Proverbs 9, verse 1: “Wisdom has built her house; she has hewn her seven pillars.”   We must study all seven books of the Torah and use them as pillars to build our wisdom.

Parshat Naso

Torah Reading for Week of May 12-18, 2013

 

“In or Out of the Camp: A Reflection”
By Rabbi Cheryl Weiner, PhD, ’07, AJRCA Director of Placement

 

In this week’s parasha, among all of the detailed instructions for determining whether your wife may be a sotah, an adulteress, and how to become a nazir, a Jewish monk, there are verses regarding tzara’ath, eruptions of the skin, and tum’ah, ritual impurity due to contact with a dead body. Each of the discussions, of sotah, the nazir, tum’ah, and tzara’ath, includes the themes of sustaining the purity of the community through isolation from the camp.

The vast rabbinic commentary regarding tzara’ath did not assume that these ailments were medically induced. Rather, they were seen as physical manifestations of a moral turpitude that was being punished, ranging from an evil tongue, murder, a vain oath, illicit sexual intercourse, pride, theft, and miserly behavior (T.Bavli Arachin 16a) Cures would be affected by repentance and forgiveness. Only separation protected the community from infection from whatever it was that caused the tzara’ath.

At dinner with two adult students of mine, both working in the medical industry, one as a neurologist, the other as an AIDS health administrator, I discovered that those afflicted with AIDS are still treated as social pariahs in many communities. Often families do not support treatment regimens due to their fears of ostracism. If you fill a prescription, you might be “outed” by your neighbors as having AIDS, considered as a sign of moral turpitude rather than as a disease. In many communities, those with AIDS are forced to stay outside the camp.

At a recent family gathering, I discovered that a number of years ago, a family member was told that her new husband was not allowed to walk down the aisle with her at her son’s wedding, because he was not Jewish.  Today, who gets to stand under a chuppah or who gets to have any aliyah or who gets to be buried next to a loved one can be challenged by laws established to set up boundaries. These boundaries were established to maintain the sanctity of the community. While we often struggle with the inclusion of those who are not Jewish, how does exclusion protect the sanctity of the community especially when these are beloved individuals within families as well as congregations?

How do our sensibilities and values related to issues of inclusion vs. exclusion define our personal and collective version of Judaism? We need only look at the landmark legislations issuing forth from Israel regarding Women of the Wall to recognize that we still struggle as a people to understand how to distinguish who belongs in the camp and who does not. What constitutes moral turpitude and who undermines the sanctity of the tradition? According to a whole segment of the Jewish tradition, a female wearing a tallit and wrapped in tefillin or raising her voice in prayer should be kept outside the camp. In gratitude, I can report that with pressure from the Jewish mixed multitude and G-d’s grace, this concept has been challenged and women have been invited to come back into the camp at the Kotel, the Western Wall.

This week, as we continue to celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, we can bring into consciousness how we want to sanctify the mishkan,the divine tabernacle of our souls. We can contemplate who we want to include or exclude from the camp and what the consequences are for these actions. We can also examine who we are as a collective and what our goals are for our rituals and relationship to G-d as we stand again at Sinai and enter into Shabbat. May we raise all of our voices in prayer as we sanctify these and those, the words of the living G-d.

Parshat Bamidbar

Torah Reading for Week of May 5-11, 2013

“Prepare Your Soul: Experience the Wilderness”
By Ronnie Abrams, AJRCA Senior Chaplaincy Student

 

Did we find our soul in the Wilderness or did our soul find us there?

What must it have been like in the camp of the Israelites before the giving of the Torah, among these people who had witnessed the great miracle of being brought out of Egypt and given their freedom?  In the camp, we can imagine a people who were involved with and consumed by everyday decisions of life such as new births, the raising of children and the tending to their animals.  We are told that these were a people who continually complained.  Often times Moses was frustrated with them and turned to the Eternal One for help and patience.

Even when it came time for them to encamp in order to get ready to have the most life-changing moment of all, the receiving of the Torah, there was disagreement in the camp.  How do we know this?  The commentaries explain that the tribes were told to encamp in a specific order around the Tabernacle.  But the encampment is listed three different times with three different orders. (Bamidbar 1:5-15, 20-43, and 2:3-31)  Ibn Ezra and Malbim seek to explain the Torah’s logic with multiple explanations about the family’s birthright.  However, if we were to observe these people’s reactions on a daily basis, would it not be normative behavior for them to have disagreements about even something as basic as how to place themselves around the Tabernacle?  Do we not know these people as ‘stiff-necked’ and a complaining people?  

How did these people move from this life of everyday disagreements to preparing themselves for the moment that would change each one of their lives, let alone, the world? 

The answer is that one takes time out of everyday life and converts it into a time of soul purity, with three days of internal preparation.  One becomes like the earth under one’s feet and the heavens above one’s head.  Their souls begin the transformation that would allow each person in the camp to become one entity, one soul, and many individuals, at the same time, each ready for his/her own miraculous experience.

 Chazal tell us that the Torah was given to us in the second year; not the first, (Bamidbar 1:1) and that is because we did not yet know how to receive the Law in the first year (exemplified by the creation of the golden calf). (Exodus 32-34)  But in this second year, in the expanse of the wilderness we were able to take the three days and purify our souls in preparation of the Torah; this Torah which would then lead us through the wilderness with direction for the rest of our lives no matter where we would be.

We could ask ourselves if this story of the wilderness is as important to us today as it was to the B’nai Israel when the Torah was first given. This question is answered by each one of us as we stand before our own Sinai receiving our own Torah.  Perhaps today, in the 21stcentury, we may also need to take some days of preparation in order to be able to find our individual soul and, in doing so,  hear that singular Jewish soul that calls out to all of us to find our own soul’s potential for growth.  Today we may need time to find our soul in order to once again receive our Torah with clarity of mind and purpose of heart. 

May we all find HaMakom (The Place) that will open our individual soul to our own wilderness that allows for the growth and life’s potential of a singular Jewish soul.

Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

Torah Reading for Week of April 28-May 4, 2013

 

“G-d’s Nearness is A Promise”
By Rabbi Elisheva Beyer, RN, MS, JD ’06

Bechukotai tells us of G-d’s promises for following His commandments and consequences for failing to do so.  The parsha opens with, “Bechukotai tale’chu,” which translates as, “If you go in My chukim….” “Chukim” (plural) or “chok” (singular) has several meanings. 

With regard to this passage, chukim are understood as decrees from G-d which are not necessarily ones we can rationally understand. The classic chok identified in rabbinic literature is the ritual of the red heifer which purifies the defiled but defiles those involved in its preparation.  While we may rationally understand the prohibitions against murder or robbery in a civilized society, the red heifer ritual is beyond understanding.  Chok may also mean a boundary, as in, “When He assigned the sea its limits [chuko].” (Proverbs 8:29) Yet another meaning is an allotment or portion as, “Give me my daily portion of [chuki] bread.”  (Prov. 30:8)

More specifically, bechukotai is related to the root “chakika,” which means “engraved.”  Thus, our Sages tell us that G-d’s path must not only be written on our hearts, but rather, it must be engraved upon our soul.  (Alter Rebbe, Likkutei Sichot Bechukosai; Sefat Emet Parsha Chuka)  Our psyche and soul are to be engraved or, perhaps in modern language we would say that we are to be “hard-wired” with G-d’s path connecting us to G-d.

Consciously following G-d’s path must be interconnected with every moment.  G-d is our first thought in the morning when we wake with thankful prayer for returning our souls to us.  It is mindful focus upon G-d during every thought and every breath.  G-d is concerned with everything we do:  how we treat our family, ourselves, the stranger and even how we treat material items.  Do we avoid negative speech?  Do we preserve the dignity of each person we see though compassionate responses?  Do we avoid waste?  G-d’s path also needs to be our prayer mind as we thank G-d for the day and resolve to do better tomorrow in our last thoughts before we sleep. 

Following G-d’s way is the path to blessing.  The blessing for following G-d’s path is G-d’s nearness.  “I will place My Sanctuary among you.  My Spirit will not reject you.  I will walk among you.  I will be G-d unto you and you will be a people unto Me.”  (Lev. 26:11-12) 

Experiencing G-d’s presence is a gift which requires our focus.  Where our mind takes us that is where we live.  Would that we could live the prayers of King David who said, “I am my prayer.”  (Ps. 69:14) and, “may my heart be perfect with Your statutes (chukim).” (Ps. 119:80)     

During this time in the Hebrew calendar, we count the omer which challenges us to daily personal refinement as we move closer towards our own personal “Sinai.”  This includes a dedication to G-d’s path.  It must be a deeper experience than something merely written on our heart.  Torah needs to be received in such a way that we cease to see ourselves as an independent entity, like pen and paper.  We need to be so involved living G-d’s path that it is permanently engraved on our innermost being, where the person and “Torah” are integrally united.