Torah Reflections – July 6 – July 12, 2014

Pinchas

Numbers 25:10 – 30:1

The Mount of Transitions

As we are nearing the end of the Book of Numbers, and therefore the end of the Exodus narrative — which will be retold by Moses in the last book of Deuteronomy — this week’s Torah portion tells of Moses receiving God’s instructions on how to prepare for his impending death. Moses is to climb up a mountain where he is to die, but only after being given the opportunity to look upon the Promised Land for the last time. From the mountaintop, Moses looks into the future. A future without him. The mountain itself has an intriguing name. It is called Har HaAvarim, which, in Hebrew, means the Mount of Transitions.

I often share that in my reading of Torah I see all the characters in the stories as representing different aspects of ourselves. This week, you are Moses. What would you do if God had made known to you the imminence of your own death, yet with enough time to prepare? How would such knowledge impact your life? Here you are, at the twilight of your life, about to die, thinking back on all that you have accomplished; but also given the opportunity to look forward in time, taking-in the vast territory to be explored still, yet knowing full well that you will not be able to taste its promises, or discover its gifts. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – June 29 – July 5, 2014

Balak

Numbers 22:2 – 25:9

We Are Not in Control               

 

This week’s Torah portion retells one of the most peculiar stories in Torah; that of Balaam and his donkey. Balaam is a professional curser hired by Balak, king of Moab, to curse the Hebrew tribes amassed at his borders, poised to invade his land. That morning, Balaam saddles his donkey and rides to meet Balak. Though the story ends with Balaam blessing — rather than cursing — the Hebrews, it is the side story of Balaam riding his donkey that is most intriguing. It is intriguing because, for one, the Torah — which is normally pithy in its narration– has no need to offer a lengthy description of Balaam’s ride. It adds nothing to the general narrative. Two, in the rare instances when Torah does detail episodes of characters’ lives, these are usually Israelites and certainly not their enemies. This story clearly begs for our attention.

Balaam is on his way to meet Balak. His donkey suddenly, and for no apparent reason, “swerved from the road and went into the fields; and Balaam beat the ass back onto the road.” [Num.22:23] A few minutes later, however, as Balaam was approaching vineyards enclosed by stone wall fences, the donkey veered off the road again, squeezing Balaam’s foot against one of the walls; “so he beat her again.” [Num. 22:25] Then once more, as the path narrowed, all of a sudden Balaam’s donkey stopped dead in her tracks and decided to “lay down under Balaam; and Balaam was furious and beat the ass with his stick.” [Num.22:27] [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections June 22 – 28, 2014

Chukat
Numbers 19:1 – 22:1

The Dissolving Power of The Light of Truth

Since we left last week’s Torah portion and opened our books again to study this week’s, thirty-eight years have passed. The generation of Israelites who had known the slavery of Egypt has now died, and a new generation has arisen who’s only memory of Egypt’s captivity is the tales their parents left behind. The image is that in our time of wandering through the wilderness, we have done our spiritual work and have managed to leave behind our slave-mentality, our narrow consciousness plagued with unrelenting attachments and cravings for control. We have been able to transcend this aspect of ego-bound consciousness, yet it is still part of us even if seemingly a distant memory or an ancient tale.

In Torah, the time is now for conquest, for circumventing or defeating the armies that still surround our Promised Land. Before engaging in battle, Moses sends emissaries to ask for safe passage through the lands of the different powers standing between the Hebrews and their final destination. The Torah recounts the plea these messengers make to the king of Edom, descendant of Esau, Jacob’s brother — replaying, in so doing, the original encounter between the two siblings:

“Thus says your brother, Israel: You know the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors.” [Num. 20:14-15]

Some rabbis translate the Hebrew “va-yarei-u lanu,” rendered here “dealt harshly with us,” as: “made us seem harsh, bad.” They comment that “to justify their cruel treatment of us, they proclaimed that we were evil and deserving of persecution.” (Etz Hayim: Torah and Commentary; p.886) Perhaps what this new generation of Hebrews was realizing in saying these words, is that we all tend to make our enemies — those we hold grudges against, those we dislike — into bad people deserving of all the evil that befalls them. Perhaps they were asking the Edomites not to fall prey to the same human trait, and rise above the unhealed story between their extended families. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – June 8 – 14, 2014

Sh’lach L’cha

Numbers 13:1 – 15:41

They Warned Moses And They Were Right           

This week’s Torah portion begins with the famous episode of the spies. Much has been said and written about this episode as it is a turning point in the unfolding drama of our exodus from Egypt and our march toward the Promised Land. This year, after reading many rabbinic commentaries on these verses, I find myself understanding this story from a totally new and different perspective; as a consequence, seem to be in complete disagreement with the interpretations I have studied so far.

Some of you might recall that Moses sends twelve leaders (one elder from each tribe) to scout the Promised Land before crossing into Canaan. Upon returning 40 days later, the elders give their report to Moses in front of the entire nation of Israel. They display the enormous fruits they brought back; a cluster of grapes so big it took two of them to carry it on a pole. Ten of them proceed to say that though the land they saw was flowing with milk and honey; the people of the land were strong and powerful — giants in fact — living in fortified cities. The land, they reported, devours its people — our sages explain — because of never-ending wars. They warned Moses and the people not to go in. But two of the “spies” took the opposite stance and urged the people to go ahead; to have faith, and conquer the land. Traditional interpretations of this story chastise the ten for being such “glass-half-empty” downers, while championing the optimism of the two in the minority. But – they were wrong. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – June 1 – 7, 2014

B’ha-alot’cha

Numbers 8:1 – 12:16

The Many Branches of Our Inner Menorah          

The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you kindle the lamps, toward the face of the Menorah shall the seven lamps cast light.” Aaron did so… This is the workmanship of the Menorah; hammered out of gold, from its base to its flower it is hammered out; according to the vision that the Eternal had shown Moses, so was the Menorah made. [Num. 8:1-4]  

The beginning of this week’s Torah reading brings us to the final preparations for the use of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle. The seven-branched Menorah which stood at the entrance of the traveling structure is, to this day, one of the most universally recognized symbols of Judaism. At inception, it was meant to recall the scene of the burning bush, a spiritual image of the ever-present Light of God. In early centuries, it was associated with Aaron and the priestly caste of his descendants. Later on, the Menorah became a symbol of victory when the Maccabees rededicated the Temple from Greek pagan worship by re-kindling it. Then, a symbol of Jewish defeat when it was carried off to Rome in 70 C.E. by Titus and his victorious armies. Today, the Menorah is the seal of the State of Israel and a giant replica stands at the entrance to the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, in Jerusalem. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections May 25 – 31, 2014

Nasso

Numbers 4:21 – 7:89

The True Purpose of Blessing         

In our Torah reading this week we happen upon one of the central blessings of our tradition; the Priestly Blessing.

And the Eternal spoke to Moses, saying; Speak to Aaron and to his sons saying; Thus you shall bless the children of Israel, say to them: YeVarech’cha YHVH V’Yish’mrecha -The Eternal One blesses and keeps you always. YaEr YHVH Panav Elecha, ViChuneka -The Eternal One shines His face upon you, and is gracious to you. Yissa YHVH Panav Elecha, V’Yassem Lecha Shalom. - The Eternal One lifts up His face toward you, and brings you peace.

V’Samu et sh’mi ahl b’nai Yisrael V’Ani Avarechem. - And they shall place My name upon the children of Israel, and I will bless them. [Num. 6:22-27]

The concept of blessing is a real challenge to 21st century modernists. It feels uncomfortable to revert back to these ancient practices because, oftentimes, they appear to conjure up the goodwill of a God “out there;” a notion that has become foreign to many of us. It might be especially true in this case, as the opening verses leading up to the blessing seem to place the Temple priests as intermediaries between God and the people; a concept that tends to add to our discomfort to begin with. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – May 17 – 24, 2014

B’midbar

Numbers 1:1 – 4:20

We Lose Our self To Find Our Self        

 

The midrash relating to the opening of this week’s Torah portion, “B’midbar,” meaning: “In the wilderness;” asks its reader: “Why was the Torah given in the wilderness?” Why not, our rabbis wondered, give the Torah in the more spiritually elevated Promised Land atop Mount Moriah in Jerusalem, for example? Besides, why give the Torah in the desert to a generation of stiff-necked people whose spirit had been crushed by years of enslavement? Giving the Torah in the Promised Land to the first generation of born-free Israelites offered the possibility of greater spiritual readiness on the part of the recipients.

The answer to these questions has to do with purpose. On one hand, Torah is akin to a spiritual conveyor belt whose purpose is to support anyone interested in personal growth and insight into Truth, to expand one’s consciousness through practice. As such it offers laws, guidelines and rules to follow; all of which are made universally available. Torah doesn’t discriminate as to where one finds oneself when embarking on one’s spiritual journey. One doesn’t need to already be at a specific level of consciousness, spiritually ready, to step onto the path of Torah. There is no Promised Land to have reached before being able to receive Torah; it is available to all of us — stiff-necked or not. Torah was given in the desert because, oftentimes, that’s where we find ourselves as we take our first step on our spiritual journey. As the Chasidic masters explain: “The desert is the most miserable of all places. Having received the Torah there, Israel could take its Torah to the deprived of the earth, and from lowliness ascend to the heights.” [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections – May 4 – 10, 2014

B’har

Leviticus 25:1 – 26:2

Proclaim Liberty Throughout The Land       

On July 8, 1776 the Liberty Bell was rung in Philadelphia to mark the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. On the side of the legendary cracked bell the famous inscription: “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof.” This renowned saying is taken from a verse in this week’s Torah portion; yet that critical word “liberty” is, in fact, a mistranslation. The Hebrew word “dror” isn’t proclaiming “liberty,” rather it is calling for “release” or “amnesty.” And that is vastly different.

This biblical passage is concerned with the year of the jubilee. Reminiscent of the seven-week cycle of the Counting of the Omer, the Torah speaks of seven seven-year cycles when dealing with land ownership. At the end of this 49 year cycle the Torah states:

“You shall hallow the fiftieth year. You shall proclaim amnesty throughout the land for all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you: each of you shall return to your holding and each of you shall return to your family.” [Lev. 25:10] The Torah sets up a system to prevent enslavement. When a proprietor, falling on hard times, is forced to sell his land, the value of the property is based on how many years separate the time of the sale to the next jubilee year where, automatically, the land is to revert back to its original owner. “What is being sold,” the Torah explains, “is a number of harvests.” [Lev. 25:16]

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Torah Reflections April 27 – May 3, 2014

Emor

Leviticus 21:1 – 24:23

Knowing God vs. Playing God      

The beginning verses in this week’s Torah portion are rather challenging to our current understanding of spirituality. They define an impossibly strict code of holiness for the priestly caste. In reading these verses we get a sense that, in order to perform his sacrificial duties, a priest had to be a perfected being; absolutely pure in mind, body and spirit. What may be most disturbing to our modern sensitivities is the physical requirement for priesthood:

No man who is blind, or lame, or has a limb too short or too long… or who is a hunchback, or a dwarf, or has a growth in his eye, or who has a boil-scar, or scurvy, or crushed testes… No man…who has a defect shall be qualified to offer the Eternal’s offering by fire…the food of his God.” [Lev. 21:18-20]

What human being can meet such standard? Who among us can claim to be defect-free? The next chapter, however, might help shed light to this passage. There we read:

And when a person offers, from the herd or the flock, a sacrifice… to the Eternal… it must be acceptable, be without blemish; there must be no defect in it. Anything blind or injured, or maimed, or with… a boil-scar, or scurvy — such you shall not offer to the Eternal… anything with its testes bruised or crushed…” [Lev. 22:21-24]

As we read here, the Torah makes a perplexing analogy between the priest and the animal he was to sacrifice. How come? Perhaps because this need for holiness is not about the priest as a person, not about the priest’s ego. In fact, one might suspect that, for the priest, this continuous drive for holiness, this strict way of life, was a stringent holistic spiritual practice to achieve ego-less-ness. For this, indeed, was about function; not about personhood. Both the animal and the priest’s only reason for being was to serve a purpose; to be instruments of a greater end: the relationship between the awestruck “offerer” and his God. The ideal of purity — which, our rabbis are quick to explain, was never a reality — stems from the notion that the priest (with the sacrificed animal) served as conduit, as channel through which a connection took place between God and His people. For this to work in the mind of the “offerer” of the ancient world, he needed to maintain the façade, the illusion of an unattainable perfection embodied both by his animal and his priest. [Read more...]

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Torah Reflections April 20 – 26, 2014

K’doshim

Leviticus 19:1 – 20:27

A Holiness Code For Tomorrow     

This week’s Torah portion continues to describe what started in our last portion, what is known as the Holiness Code, which will span the rest of Leviticus. This Holiness Code is a code of conduct, a guide that seeks to define a powerful spiritual practice, a way of being and acting in the world for the Jewish people. This all-important text begins with:

…I am the Eternal One your God. You shall not copy the practices of the land of Egypt where you dwelt, or of the land of Canaan to which I am taking you; nor shall you follow their traditions… You shall observe my decrees and regulations, through the practice of which human beings shall live: I am the Eternal One.  

[Lev. 18:2-5]

This sets the tone for creating a Holiness Code that sets apart, that distinguishes the Jewish people from its Canaanite neighbors. In the early years of the Israelites’ settlement of Canaan this made perfect sense. All of us too, in our formative years, have spent much energy shaping our unique identity by defining who we were based on what we were not; differentiating ourselves from the social norms, and adopting behaviors antithetical to those in place (see parents for details.) No wonder that the Hebrew word for holy, kadosh, also means “separate.” In the formative years of the Jewish people, such a Holiness Code solidified a specific Jewish identity through unique practices that were antithetical, as well, to those in place in the land. Three thousand years later, however, does the Holiness Code and the Halacha as its offshoot still serve this purpose, or has it evolved to embody something else? In other words, should post-modern Jewish identity still be tied to a Holiness Code? [Read more...]

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