The True Source of Human Sustenance

Shabbat eve 8/15/14 –

Most of us probably remember an early childhood ‘experiment’ – taking a lima bean, placing it gently in a small cup of dirt from the yard, giving it a bit of water, and waiting….watching….waiting….until one day, a tiny green tendril poked its head out from the soil, reaching upward, stronger each day. A leaf unfurling, a new shoot sprouting forth.  A moment of creation, re-enacted.  As a child, it was almost miraculous to behold; but soon enough, with age and time, the miracle more than likely became routine, even burdensome – awe transformed into chores of weeding (though Ralph Waldo Emerson says: ‘What is a weed?  A plant whose virtues have not yet been discovered.’) or raking for our parents, then later on maybe to landscaping and planting gardens for ourselves….and the more that we do, the more we are impressed by the work of our own hands.

That changed for my family 7 years ago.  We moved into a house where there were 12 fruit trees, and a large yard with potential for a large produce garden.  John and I – well, mostly John – slowly and systematically redesigned our yard, creating a drip-irrigated fruit and vegetable garden, to the extent that there was very little that I bought anymore in terms of produce.  We would eat whatever was growing, whatever was in season.  Moreover, the more that we cultivated, the more that we became acutely aware that while we worked very hard, either trying to replicate things that ‘worked’ or trying different techniques and arrangements, using varieties of seeds and plants – sometimes things worked and sometimes they didn’t.  While we worked to create and prepare all of the conditions for growing, there was a piece of it that was out of our hands. And we stood in awe of that – God’s presence in creation, in our yard.

In our Torah cycle this week, the Israelites are [still] standing at the edge of the Promised Land – “For the Eternal your God is bringing you into a good land, a land with streams and springs and fountains issuing from plain and hill; 8) a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs, and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey;”  It is an image I totally relate to, standing at our back door in California, looking out at the abundance of what we coaxed from our yard.  And now, I stand here, glimpsing the abundance of my new ‘promised land’: of meaningful work, a new community, and bright new opportunities ahead in this next phase of my career and my family’s life; the gifts of life bring us sustenance.

As we look over the Land of our lives – lands of streams and springs, walking paths and trees; of abundant produce and beauty; lands of shopping malls and billboards, of life’s comforts and the illusion of security… we are always in some danger of forgetting the source of all of these gifts.  It is all too easy for us to think that what we have is solely because of our own work, our own education, our own talents, or our own perseverance.  It is too easy to forget that our successes depend on so many things beyond our own talents.  I know – it is too easy to be lulled into believing excessively in the extent of my own capacity – whether excess pride in our garden, or excess pride in the achievements that helped me to get to this moment.

Our tradition knows this danger.  Moses exhorts us to remember that with abundance and plenty comes the risk “that your heart will grow haughty and you will forget Adonai your God” (8:14) and “You will say in your heart: My power and the might of my hand have gotten me this wealth…” (8:17).

Ah, you might think, but that isn’t me, is it? I am not haughty or egotistical or self-impressed…..for myself, I could look at all the good that I have done – we shared our abundant harvest with neighbors, friends and family;  or – look at what a great job I am already doing here at NVHC!  We all pride ourselves on a job well done. We all consider ourselves deserving of the profits of our labor.

The concern for the tendency of humanity toward self-promotion and need for appreciation and admiration is clearly addressed here– a trap for each of us.  But – here’s the beautiful part – we are given a way to avoid that path of arrogance, to avoid thinking that all that we have achieved is by our own hands alone. The prescription for how to counteract this is here, in the verses that follow, in the commandment embedded in this section: ‘V’achalta v’savata uveirachta’ – after we have eaten the manna that God has provided, and we are satiated, we are to give thanks – literally offer blessing to God, the ultimate source of all of our sustenance.  That is, when we start thinking this way, we are to remember that our strength was, after all, given to us by God.

Gratitude for the source of life, to the Source of Life, is meant to be at our center. And how does Torah describe the consequences of not holding this consciousness? “If you do forget the Eternal your God . . . I warn you this day that you shall certainly perish.” (Deuteronomy 8:19).  Will God really come and strike us down? Unlikely – at least not in my theological construct.  But, look around at our world.  At people whose lives seem full of stuff, who procure every material thing that they desire, who are never left wanting for food or clothing.  That is only sufficient if we can recognize that things are fleeting; without expressed and understood gratitude and blessing for all that we have, our lives become overrun with an endless spiritual hunger, bereft of finding true joy and sustenance, even when our bellies are full of manna.

There is a teaching from Menachem Mendyl of Rymanov, an 18th Century chasidic teacher who teaches that the virtue of manna was that it was given every day in appropriate measure to each person’s needs.  Even so, this did not quench the cravings of the Israelites, for their cravings were spiritual in nature. Food feeds the body but not the spirit. The human spirit is such that we crave more than bread. While we may pursue money or materialism, there is a spiritual dimension of life that ultimately satisfies the soul, making our existence feel truly worthwhile.

The successes we achieve do not guarantee our happiness. After we’ve bought the house of our dreams, or our fantasy sports car, the latest cell phones, laptops or DVDs, we are all too often looking to the next thing. This is the essence of our teaching here: For satisfaction to be lasting, it must be more than material; it must be spiritual. It is right here in this week’s reading: “…in order to teach you that a human being does not live on bread alone…” meaning, we need more than bread and money; we need stimulation and a sense of meaningful achievement. We need to know that our lives have purpose, and that somehow we have made a difference. We want to be assured that our work is productive and will have lasting value.

The spiritual challenge of Ekev therefore becomes how to break the spell of consumerism – the human obsession with acquisition and ownership – whose power over us rests only in our continual dissatisfaction.  Amitai Etzioni, a professor at George Washington University, writes: “Shifting away from obsessive consumerism does not call for a life of sackcloth and ashes, nor of altruism. And it does not call on poor people or poor nations to be content with their fate and learn to love their misery; clearly, the capitalist economy must be strong enough to provide for the basic creature comforts of all people. But it does call for a new balance between consumption and other human pursuits.” Physical and spiritual.  True Sustenance requires meaning.

One more story: It is of a prisoner in a Russian labor camp whose job it was to turn a heavy wheel attached to a wall. For twenty-five years, the prisoner worked at his backbreaking labor. He assumed that this wheel must be attached to a mill on the other side of the wall; perhaps he was milling grain, or pumping water that irrigated many fields. In his mind’s eye, though, he saw the plentiful crops and the sacks of milled grain feeding thousands of people. After twenty-five years of hard labor, when he was about to be released, the prisoner asked to be shown the apparatus behind the prison wall. There was nothing there! The wheel was just a wheel—all his “work” had served no useful purpose. The man collapsed in a dead faint, absolutely devastated. His life’s work had been in vain.

What we find here about living is that it is upon us to go beyond just eating and being satisfied, but it is rather in making the opportunity to acknowledge that we are part of a larger world, that much as we like to think we are in control, and whatever one’s theology, belief in God, looks like, it is just not all in our hands.  As we approach the transformative time of our High Holy Days, may we find ways to explore how we can truly sustain our souls in order that we can pursue real t’shuvah – a true turning to our best selves.

Shamor V’zachor

Anniversaries bring moments of reflection – times of looking backward, look ahead.  So as John and I celebrate our anniversary next week, I am once again thinking about our years and life together as we have built our family. Our marriage, which joined us and our 4 relatively young kids together, opened up many opportunities to share and retell the stories of our lives – not just as a couple, but with new ‘audiences’ for our stories in each other’s children.   The kids were all eager to listen, to absorb, and ultimately to embrace the stories as their own.  It is both entertaining and awesome to hear them talk now, to hear one of my daughters begin, ‘do you remember the time when John chased his brother David up the tree?’, or when my step-daughter talks about where I grew up – retelling and recounting moments of family history that preceded them, that preceded our family coming together– talking as if they had been right there, as if these were their own stories all along! The tales have grown over the years, taking on a bit of a life of their own.

In the Book of Deuteronomy, which we began last week, Moses is a skilled storyteller.  At the end of his life, he is standing before the generation of Israelites who would soon enter the Land of Israel – this is not the same generation that left Egypt, nor the same people who stood at Mount Sinai. This new generation, therefore, must hear stories of their history, so that they can embrace them and experience it as their own, to bring it with them as they journey forward.  That is why we find so much repetition from the first four books of Torah repeated in this 5th book.  Moses works hard to really get and keep their attention; rather than a dry retelling of the laws and history, he draws the people into the events of the past, telling it in ways so that they could really feel it as if they were there. One particular repetition, found in this week’s parasha – Va’etchanan, is of particular note and interest: The experience at Sinai.  In Parashat Va’etchanan, Moses recounts for them that moment in time, restating its primary content: the Ten Commandments.  He whispers to them of the fire, of the thunder, of the darkness and the cloud of God’s presence hovering at the mountain…..we the readers, are also drawn in and can even imagine being there.

But, like any great storyteller, Moses embellishes.  A close reading of the Ten Commandments as recorded in Parashat Va’etchanan reveals deviations from the wording of the Ten Commandments in Exodus. Many scholars have offered explanations of these variances, each taking into account one or more of the relevant factors of time, place, experience, purpose and point of view of those hearing the speech and of the speech itself.

At Mount Sinai, the people were terrified by the sound of God’s voice; they begged Moses to go get the Torah and bring it to them, saying (in Exodus 20:16) “Speak with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us directly, lest we die.” In this week’s portion Moses recounts that moment in this way: “God talked with you face to face in the mountain; out of the midst of the fire I stood between God and you at that time, to tell you the word of God; for you were afraid because of the fire, and wouldn’t go up to the mountain, so [here is what ]God said: ‘I am the Eternal your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, from the house of slavery…” (Deut. 5:4-6). So for starters, it might seem just from the text and Moses’ introduction to the 10 Commandments in Deuteronomy that the Exodus version was the original version, and here Moses is doing a recap, a paraphrase!

9th Century commentator Ibn Ezra supports this idea, stating that the Ten Commandments as found in Exodus are the words of God, while those found in here in this week’s portion are the words of Moses recounting God’s words; he finds evidence for this in the addition of the phrase “…as the Lord your God has commanded you.” to commandments #4 (Shabbat) and #5 (honoring parents); however, in the introduction to his Torah commentary, he does not ascribe further significance in meaning to the different versions.

When our kids embellish our stories, or their stories, it is entertaining, maybe even endearing, possibly irritating!  But Moses?? Really? Perhaps he was trying to make history more accessible, more understandable, with explanatory comments tailored to different audiences –his first audience were the newly-freed slaves; his later audience were the generation that grew up in the desert.

For now , there is one difference, one embellishment which catches my eye every week as it is highlighted in our Shabbat prayers. It is in the 4th Commandment, concerning Shabbat.

In Exodus 20:8, it says “Zachor et Yom HaShabbat,” Those of you who might know some Hebrew words may recognize that “Zahor” comes from the same word as “Yizkor” or “Zikaron”—do you know what that word means?   “Remember,” right?  So “Zachor et Yom HaShabbat,” means “remember the Sabbath.”

In this week’s portion, Deuteronomy 5:11,  we have a different beginning.  It says “Shamor et Yom HaShabbat.” “Shamor” – maybe you’ve heard: the words ‘Shomeir’ – a guard, or “Shomrim,” those are people who watch over someone after they’ve died, so what is “Shamor?”  So this is “Guard” or “keep” or “protect” or “watch over.” ‘Keep – Shamor (or, guard) the Shabbat day.”

The word ‘remember’, zachor, in Exodus is replaced with ‘guard’ (or ‘keep’), shamor in Deuteronomy, and the additional phrase – ka’asher tziv’cha Adonai Elohecha –  “as the Eternal your God has commanded you” is tacked on.

But that’s not all!  Exodus 20:8-9 continues: “Six days shall you labor, and do all your work; But the seventh day is Shabbat of the Eternal your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your cattle, nor your stranger that is within your gates.” While Deuteronomy 5:12-13 states: “Six days you shall labor, and do all your work; But the seventh day is Shabbat of the Eternal your God; on it you shall not do any work, you, nor your son, nor your daughter, nor your manservant, nor your maidservant, nor your ox, nor your ass, nor any of your cattle, nor your stranger who is inside your gates; that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.

The additional words in Deuteronomy do not contradict the Exodus version in any way; while they expand the perspective of our livestock, it also add another idea of purpose: “that your manservant and your maidservant may rest as well as you.”

And wait, there’s more! In the last part of the 4th commandment comes the reason for Shabbat; it is here that we find two divergent rationales for Shabbat observance.  Exodus 20:10 reads: “For in six days God made the heavens and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore God blessed the Shabbat day, and sanctified it.”  Deuteronomy 5:14 reads :  “And remember that you were a servant in the land of Egypt, and that the Almighty your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and with an outstretched arm; therefore the Almighty your God commanded you to keep the Shabbat day.”

Wow, these are completely different!  In Exodus, the rationale for Shabbat is Creation: Shabbat is a sign of the Covenant, a testament to the wonder and power of creation. On the other hand, in Deuteronomy, the Shabbat is commanded as a reminder of our enslavement in Egypt, and of our liberation by God’s divine power. This is no mere explanatory or narrative instruction heaped on by the storyteller; they are two vastly different reasons for observance of Shabbat.

Zachor and Shamor – Just as these opening words of the two versions are familiar to me, they probably familiar to you, because we sing them together every week.  If I begin the phrase, which opens “Shamor V’Zachor B’dibur echad”, can you finish it? …. Yes, “hishmi-anu el han’yuchad.” Where does that come from, what prayer, do you remember?  Right, it comes from L’cha Dodi.  Let’s open to that in your siddurim and look at it for a minute.   It’s on page 138.

(sing): “Shamor V’Zachor B’dibur echad.”—it says that “Shamor”— “guard”— “v’zachor”— “remember”—Shamor and Zachor were said as if God uttered it in one utterance.  What does that really mean?  Well, most traditional commentaries refer us to the nature of Divine Speech (Talmud, Shevu’ot 20b): that is, zachor and shamor were uttered by God simultaneously, in a way that human speech is incapable of imitating or understanding:

L’cha Dodi is a piyut – a creative and inspired Shabbat poem, whose author drew upon these commentaris that express a belief that God really uttered them almost in one breath, and that “remembering” and “observing” (zachor and shamor) are two distinct acts, and that we must do both.  That is, you really can’t have one without the other.  “Remembering” is what one does in order to prepare for Shabbat — perhaps thinking about what one is going to do to make Shabbat special. “Guarding/Observing” Shabbat is what one does on Shabbat itself.   They are not necessarily the same thing.  We can easily imagine a 24-hour period in which we disengage from creative activity as a way to express Divine rest, a sterile day of no work in which we have indeed fulfilled the commandment of zachor to the letter– honoring the cessation of work at the end of creation – without actually having observed Shabbat.  Similarly, one could prepare down to the last detail for Shabbat – cooking, preparing, saying Kiddush, even sitting in synagogue, and yet still not keep Shabbat – missing the essence of the sacred rest. Each aspect of Shabbat together creates a complete, sanctified day of rest. In effect, that is how God could utter zachor and shamor simultaneously.

But, that still leaves us with the question: why is “Shamor” first in the piyut when in the Torah “Zachor” comes first and “Shamor” comes later, in this week’s version?

Here is perhaps one clue: this beautiful piyut was written in the 16th century by a famous mystic named Shlomo Alkabetz.  There’s this aesthetic thing that paytanim – piyut writers – love to do, which is to write the verses of their works as an acrostic, which means if you take the first letter of each stanza, it spells something.  So what do you see if you look—start with the first stanza if you can read Hebrew: Shin, Lamed, Mem, Het.  Do you know what that spells?  Shlomo!  That’s his name!  But ‘Alkabetz’ would be very cumbersome to try to compose lines for, so he doesn’t spell out his last name on the other stanzas, he instead spells “the Levite” so he’s “Shlomo HaLevi.”  So there’s one reason that the verse begins with shamor, not with “Zachor”, in order to easily spell his name!

While this an amusing answer, it does not really satisfy, for it seems way too narcissistic for a great mystic to decide to change the order of words from Torah just so that it would spell his name out.  So, other commentaries offer the following: that “shamor” refers to commandments that are associated with nighttime; when you think about things that you guard, you guard things in the evening when things get dark and they need protection and guarding, and “zachor” are things that you remember when you’re awake during the day.

How does that help us understand this and give it meaning? Well, in Judaism, a day begins when?  …..When the sun sets, in the evening.  So, as we begin Shabbat right now, this evening, we begin with “shamor” – because it is the nighttime, so we’re going to ‘shamor’ first and then in the day tomorrow, we’ll ‘zachor’.

A third possible understanding for why the order here is “Shamor v’zachor” is that the Sages teach that “Shamor” refers to all the commandments around Shabbat that you have to guard against, meaning all the negative commandments, the things that you shouldn’t do on Shabbat, in order to observe Shabbat. “Zachor” then refers to all the positive commandments, all the things that help you make Shabbat meaningful and embrace its beauty and rest – things like lighting the candles, sanctifying the wine, taking a rest.  We should consider the things first that get in our way of observing Shabbat so that we can then embrace the things that help us, both sides then of our observance coming together.

I said earlier that God’s uttering both words simultaneously was considered beyond human comprehension.  Let’s consider for a moment the human capacity in how we hear more than one thing at the same time.  We all hear selectively – we may think that our kids are really great at this(!). How does this order of the words Shamor v’zachor matter for us today?  What do we selectively hear? What is it that we need to hear?

This Fourth Commandment tells us to remember the Sabbath as well as to keep it. And when we try to remember the vision of the holiness of life that is embedded in Shabbat, we help create the conditions – an atmosphere of true peace and repose – making it possible for others to remember Shabbat, and its meaning, too. And all of that remembering brings us closer to a world in which the idea of Shabbat can be transformed into genuine force and action for the betterment of all communities.

The link between Shabbat and the community it creates is highlighted by Ahad HaAm, a pre-State-of-Israel Zionist thinker who said, “More than Israel has kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept Israel.” He certainly meant more in this statement than Jewish survivalism. He saw that in the new Jewish homeland, the regulation of time through the laws of the Sabbath gave the Jews the chance to regroup in communities at the end of every week, and it was that regrouping which sustained their Jewish identity. Shabbat fosters community; it coordinates non-work time. It makes people stop working not only for 25 hours a week, but for the same 25 hours a week.  When, as a community we share non-work time, when we look up from our tasks, our computers, our smart phones – and start to look into the actual (not virtual) faces of others, we see family, we see neighbors, we see people.  Not bosses, or employees, or service people – and it is in relationships between people that we forge bonds of a loving and caring community.

For me, I believe that Ahad Ha’am’s intention in noting that Shabbat has kept our people together turns Shabbat into the clock for Jewish living. It is a remarkable idea that we become more Divine when we stop our endeavors, and simply appreciate all that we have.  Shabbat provides a necessary “release from our daily grind” and resting becomes a collective act.  That we need Shabbat in our lives then makes obvious, intuitive sense. Society and cultural trends today involve advanced technology which while enhancing the quality of our lives also puts us into a state of endless, inescapable ‘on-ness’.  Here, we generally begin together, as we did tonight, by asking you to unplug, to turn off, even to just put your phones on vibrate – and I know that is truly difficult for some.  But without some sort of framework or boundary, we become blurred, with a loss of appropriate boundaries between day and night, work and rest, consumption and appreciation.

The Sages point out that these two perspectives of Shamor and Zachor point to the duality of holy time in Judaism – that is, our sacred moments have more than one purpose, one expression. We can observe Shabbat individually or we can observe Shabbat connected to others. We can choose certain actions to do only on Shabbat and we can choose certain actions to put aside until after Shabbat. We can choose to observe Shabbat on Friday night or we can choose to observe it on Saturday. We can begin Shabbat with beautiful rituals and music and we can end Shabbat with beautiful rituals and music. This duality is one of the many reasons we light two Shabbat candles every Friday night.

Being a Jew has always meant finding a place on the spectrum between keeping all the commandments and keeping none.  Contrary to claims made by certain Jewish authorities, there have always been many paths of practice in Judaism. You can observe – guard – Shabbat in one way or many ways, to the letter of the law or honoring its spirit.  I believe the important part is that you are always seeking, growing, and learning.  I once learned that rather than rejecting something that we don’t do or don’t want to do, we should instead say it is something we don’t do yet – allowing always for the possibility of change that can exist in every moment.

So perhaps you will one day turn your phone off for an hour on Shabbat and give yourself a little peace. Or take a walk that you have put off. Or put off a chore that could be done a different day. Just for a little while. Shamor – Find what is in your heart, the kavanah, the intent of your practice; this will guide you to remember – Zachor.   As you think, you can embrace your ways to observe, leading you around to act, to guard  – Shamor – this precious heritage that is the continuous cycle of our communal moment of holy cessation. Shamor v’zachor – keep and remember. Shabbat shalom.





All I can think about is Israel.  As a Jew, as one who has family and friends living there, as one who has lived there myself, as one who is connected to the life of our people that looks to the east – to our spiritual homeland – I am so troubled by the events in the Middle East.  The violence against innocents, the skewed news reporting, the insanity of hatred….on all sides. The flood of articles, of blogs, of emails, of Facebook posts all make it almost impossible to think clearly anymore.  I consider myself to be more passionate than eloquent on the subject, feeling that I must put something in writing here, to acknowledge the struggle and the pain of this time.  Even the struggle to somehow find meaning in this all through Torah feels like an overwhelming climb.

So I share here two things:

One is a link to an piece that resonates particularly well with me, and I am grateful to Rabbi Menachem Creditor for his thoughtful and inspiring, yet difficult words.

The other is my own simple prayer – that as we conclude the Book of Numbers this week, we will say together as a community as we do whenever we finish a book of Torah, ‘Chazak, chazak, v’nitchazeik’.  Be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another. This week, more than any other, may that be so.

The Excess of Zealotry

“God spoke to Moses, saying: “Pinchas, the son of Elazar, the son of Aaron the kohen [priest], turned away My wrath from the children of Israel with his zealotry for My sake . . . Therefore . . . I shall grant him My covenant of peace . . .” [Numbers 25:11–12].

I find myself highly distracted this week by the events in Israel.  We have family living there about whom we worry; friends and colleagues who are there for various study and travel, hundreds of kids from Reform congregations on their trip of a lifetime to Israel, to connect with and understand their own personal connection to our homeland.  I am worried, troubled, angry, frustrated, feeling helpless.  My prayers are also with the Fraenkel, Shaer, Yifrach, and Abu Khdeir families.

Zealotry is defined as fanatical devotion. Pinchas’ deed evokes many associations—courage, decisiveness and religious passion are several that come to mind—but peace hardly seems one of them.

The zealot often covers his own weaknesses and self-doubt by attacking others. That is why the people of Israel questioned the motives of Pinchas in killing Zimri.  Pinchas is protected because God grants him a covenant of peace. Why does God call for this? I struggle so much with this story, this episode in Torah. It doesn’t matter how much the commentaries try to massage the text and find a reason, a lesson, an explanation…

No matter the reasoning, I can’t get my head around why God would call for this. Isn’t there another solution? This is one of the times when I look at Torah and think that this moment is to challenge us to think differently, perhaps to learn and discern when to disagree with what is taught to us. That is just as important a life skill as learning from positive models of behavior and understanding. It is all I can think about.

[Pinchas 2014]



Creating Holy Space

Moving is easy – said no one, ever.

Moving is stressful and time-consuming. While I have continued to contemplate the teachings and messages of the Torah portions of the past couple of weeks, it was more than I could accomplish to actually sit down and put thought to paper.

But this week – words of blessing abound, their offering unintended. I could not pass up making the time to reflect upon this, as this week I enter a new community that is welcoming me with great love and blessing. The fairly well-known verse from this Torah portion that has made its way into our daily liturgy: “Ma Tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” [Numbers 24: 5]– ‘How beautiful are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel’ – are unintended words of blessing uttered by the Aramean seer Balaam, as he aims to place a curse upon the Israelites on behalf of Balak, the Moabite king.

I am blessed with an amazing opportunity in my new role, a new leader in a congregation. As a cantor, my job is to employ the weaving of music and language to set the foundation for an atmosphere of kedusha – sacred space and intention. I am now blessed to work with a colleague who not only gives me the space and empowerment to do so, but he does it in partnership with me, a journey of leadership and prayer which we now undertake together in service of our congregation.

Ma Tovu – words of blessing of space, of generations. Balaam knows in the end that even if he wanted to curse the Israelites, “…even if Balak gives me his house full of silver and gold, I cannot transgress the word of the Lord to do either good or evil on my own; only what the Lord speaks can I speak.” (Numbers 24:13) Balaam intention is transformed upon his encounters with our God – the Holy One of Blessing. The words become transformed by the intention and power of blessing.

As I move into a new space – a new office, a new sanctuary, a new home, a new town, a new state, what I believe will infuse kedusha into my days is not the inherent qualities in each of these places, but what I bring to it, what I say and do in each of those spaces. While we will place a mezuzah upon the doorway of our new home, uttering words that invoke the transformation of intention, it is how I behave inside the walls of my house that will it a home.

In Exodus 25:8, we read of God’s instructions for the building of the desert tabernacle, the purpose of which was to ‘…Build for Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.’ To dwell among the people. The holy space is not for God to live, but for us to experience the Divine Presence. Hence, the purpose of the space becomes what we bring to it, that we actually create the space, and through our actions and intentions as we enter into a space we make it holy and can therefore experience God. Through word – touching our intellect, inspiring the mind, and through aesthetic – art, music, color, sound – each piece open channels of holiness that go beyond the intellect to the heart.

Ma Tovu – This blessing in Torah reminds us that the spaces in which we dwell can be filled with blessing because of who we are and what we do there. The words spoken, the music sung, the intention with which we create an atmosphere of prayer is what makes the walls of a sanctuary come alive with kedusha, with that spark of the sacred. Ma Tovu – How beautiful are our tents, O Jacob, our dwelling places O Israel, when we speak and act, sing and pray in those places in ways with the kavanah – the inner direction – that invites God to dwell among us. For me, I pray that I bring blessing to each new place and space that I inhabit.

[Balak 2014]

What You Get  Is What You See

Subjectivity. The Webster’s Dictionary definition of subjective is “relating to the way a person experiences things in his or her own mind, based on feeling or opinions, rather than facts.”  This week’s Torah portion deals with the nature of subjectivity.  Chapter 13 of the Book of Numbers contains the narrative of the scouts sent out by Moses to scout out the Land of Canaan, the land already promised by God to the Israelites.  That, in and of itself, is a test of the subjective, for what is it that they are scouting?  It is not whether or not to go, but rather to discern what it is that they see in a place to which they are already committed to live and grow.

The adage ‘What you see is what you get’ is often meant in the context of there being no hidden agenda to something, that what is visible is all that there is.  In this case, it becomes much more than that; the facts of what things are is not disputed, but the way we interpret them and value them, how we see things play out in our own lives….that is in fact what we get.  The same circumstances/facts/details with each person seeing them differently – we each respond to them differently and therefore end up with different results.

Life is all about how we see things.  And, how we see things affects how others who rely on us understand a situation.  The scouts each had their own perspective –ten of them saw the people there as giants and even presumed that they saw us as if ‘we were like grasshoppers.’ Their own perspective of themselves clouded the truth in front of them.  Two of the scouts, Joshua and Caleb, saw the same circumstances, the same situation – but they saw possibility, they saw the hope of today, they saw the promise of tomorrow.  Caleb and Joshua succeed and endure because of their faith in how they were to view and understand what they saw before them.

Especially at this time for me, all that I am dealing with is primarily about my own perspective.  Moving, new job, new surroundings, planting roots in a new community – that can be fraught with anxiety and tension, or with promise and hope, all depending on how I see and encounter each step that I have to take to get there.  Like the Israelites, each of my days now are filled with steps both ‘away from’ and ‘toward’.  While my move is not one away from oppression as it was for the Israelites, the definition of a journey implies not merely movement, but movement with directionality and purpose.  My journey now is scouting out what is ahead so I can be best prepared for what lies ahead, seeing things in a positive light, a new chapter of life, with new possibilities.  Whether through a large transition or in the unfolding of a day, what you get is what you are willing and able to see.

[Sh’lach L’cha 2014]

Never Too Late

As I began to write this week, it is in the hours when Jews around the world are preparing for Shavuot – one of our three main festivals, which marks a moment in our history extending through time.  It is the time for us to virtually stand [once again] around the foot of Mt. Sinai, recalling the experience of the Israelite people receiving the Torah in the wilderness.  This is a fascinating approach to so many of our holidays: beyond merely recalling history, we are meant to step back in time to be present in the past as if we were there. However, we are not to live in the past, but rather to draw that experience back into our present lives.  Talk about standing in many worlds and in many times!

To make it more confusing, here in this week’s Torah portion is a passage about the second Passover – Pesach Sheini.   Initially, a year after the Exodus, God instructed the people of Israel to bring the Passover offering on the afternoon of the fourteenth of Nisan [the first month], and to eat it that evening, roasted over the fire, together with matzah and bitter herbs, as they had done the previous year just before they left Egypt. “There were, however, certain persons who had become ritually impure through contact with a dead body, and could not, therefore, prepare the Passover offering on that day. They approached Moses and Aaron…and they said: ‘…Why should we be deprived, and not be able to present God’s offering in its time, amongst the children of Israel?’” (Numbers 9:6–7). In response to their plea, God established the 14th of Iyar [the second month] as a “Second Passover” (Pesach Sheni) for anyone who was unable to bring the offering on its appointed time in the first/designated month.

Virtually all of the mitzvot of the Torah, including those governing rare and unforeseeable circumstances, were of unilateral origin: from God to the people. This law of the Second Passover was instituted in response to the outcry of those who protested being deprived of being able to observe Pesach in its appointed time.  There is no other mitzvah in Torah that, if unable to be fulfilled, has an out-clause and the ability to fulfill it in another way. It is a remarkable notion, and embodies great foresight: like values and principles of Reform Judaism, it is with great kavanah and understanding of the mitzvah that there becomes latitude granted in the fulfillment of the mitzvah.

It gets even more interesting. After the people complain to Moses that they might be excluded from the mitzvah of Passover, Moses waits to give them God’s response, which institutes this Pesach Sheini not only in the case of a person who been “contaminated by death” but adds this alternative observance for someone who is “on a distant journey, whether among you or in future generations” (Numbers 9:10).  In this response, God now grants that anyone who couldn’t do what they had to do because they were touched by death or out of range of the community could have a second go at it every year, one month after Passover, for one day only. Thus, the Pesach Sheinu, the second Passover represents the power of teshuvah — the power of repentance and return; more than just turning a new leaf and achieving forgiveness for past sins, it is the power to go back in time and redefine the past.

The Torah, wishing to include all Israelites in the significant ritual of Pesach, demonstrates here the need to assess circumstances in the application of law and, sometimes, to give us humans a second chance. Here, weighing the exclusion of Israelites from a “perfect” ritual against the accommodation of less-than-ideal circumstances by adapting the ritual in a somewhat inelegant manner (commemorating the Exodus on a day other than its actual anniversary) Torah advocates for adaptation. In other words, in this second Pesach account, we see preference for the acceptance and understanding of human reality over and above the perfect and pristine performance of ritual duties. Here, God is compassionate and understanding. And as we are all made in the image of God—a compassionate God crafting divine rituals around the realities of human life and ensuring the inclusion of all – that is certainly the image we should try to emulate.

[Beha’alot’cha 2014]

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