Swallow My Pride – Parshat Korach 5778

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Frozen’s Elsa makes it sound easy, but it’s hard to “let it go.” There will always be interactions with other people that leave you upset, confused, or emotionally beat down. When it feels like I’ve been wronged, I can hold a grudge like the best of them, and I don’t always have the easiest time moving on. For better or worse, I often hold myself accountable and dwell on what I may have done wrong or could have done differently for a different outcome. Rising above these moments challenges me to my core. I almost always feel better once I have risen up and worked toward being the “better person,” but the effort it takes can sometimes be monumental.

This basic human condition goes as far back as the Torah, at least. This week we read from Parshat Korah, the famous story of rebellion, betrayal, and leadership. The narrative details the revolt of Korach and of Datan and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares a revolt, while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a revolt of their own. Chaos breaks out in the camp, and those who don’t see a purpose to the fight pull away, which becomes a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

As the rebellion is happening, Moses as the leader has a few choices to make. He can continue on his path as the leader and ignore the chaos; he can choose to confront and shame the rebellious parties; or he can try to engage with them and forgive, moving forward together.

In chapter 16, verse 12 we read that Moses sent for Datan and Aviram. Rashi interprets this verse in the following way:

Here we see the greatness of Moses’s soul. He set aside his own dignity and his feelings of resentment toward those who spoke ill of him and took the initiative to heal this breach in the community.

Moses took the high road. Moses is a leader through and through, and in this moment he chooses to lead by example.

Holding onto a grudge is easy. The challenge is to rise up and move beyond hurt emotions, anger, and pettiness. When we read the Torah portion this week, we’re reminded of our ability to rise up and the opportunity to make positive change. Be like Moses, as hard as it is, so that as we near the High Holidays, we practice what it truly means to forgive.

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You CAN Handle the Truth – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5778

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Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much collective integrity we have. We hear stories all the time about corporations putting shareholders’ interests above customers and employees or about people in positions of power using that power to take advantage of others. On the other hand, more people are standing up for their rights and making their voices heard. How often is your integrity called into question or into action? Have you had to speak out against an injustice, or if you needed to, could you? We try to teach our children that the right way is not always the popular way, but it can be a long road and a difficult lesson.

We find one such lesson in the Torah this week with Parshat Shlach Lecha and the story of the spies. The parshah begins with Moshe sending 12 spies, one from each tribe, into the land of Cana’an to bring back an accounting of the land. The spies return with mixed reviews. Two spies report back with positive findings, but the negativity of the other ten reports instills so much fear in the nation that they decide they do not want to make the journey into the Promised Land after all. This infuriates God, who then decrees that anyone who went out from Egypt at age 20 or older will not be allowed to enter the land of Cana’an. This generation will purposefully die out so that a new generation, unfettered by the destructive mindset of their predecessors, can start anew.

We don’t know the motive behind the negative report, but clearly Moshe and Aaron, as the leaders of the people, must have felt defeated. After having led the Israelites out of Egypt, making promises of a great new land, the very same group decides they want nothing to do with the land anymore, and we’re left to guess whether it was fear of change or a lack of courage on the part of the spies. What we do know is that when Joshua and Caleb come back, they offer a different report. In chapter 14, verses 6-10 we hear of all the good in the land. As they finish their report, they leave with a powerful message:

“Only you must not rebel against the Lord. Have no fear then of the people of the country, for they are our prey: Their protection has departed from them, but the Lord is with us. Have no fear of them!” As the whole community threatened to pelt them with stones, the Presence of the Lord appeared in the Tent of Meeting to all the Israelites.

Joshua and Caleb had the courage to speak the truth. They held integrity to their story and their belief in God in the face of a nation ready to rebel (again). Ultimately, Joshua and Caleb are right. They speak the truth, and as the Christian Gospel of John will instruct in a different context and 600 years later, the truth is literally what sets them free. The misguided majority dies out in the wilderness, and those with courage and integrity (Joshua and Caleb) live on to see their dreams realized. The lesson of Parshat Shlach Lecha is that certain truths don’t vary according to how many people agree. Shabbat shalom.

It Never Gets Old – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5778

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There are some days when I wake up completely unexcited about my familiar routine. I know, I know – it sounds strange to hear this coming from someone who thrives on routine. Nevertheless, sometimes I Just want to do something totally different. There are only so many ways I can make lunches, get kids dressed, get out the door, and follow through with any other daily duties before they all start to feel laboring and repetitive.

I especially feel this way in the summer when work at the shul tends to slow down. I’m left with no camp kids in the building, no Aliyah, and very few visitors simply because there’s less going on in summer. That’s when my job as a rabbi tends to feel more like a nine to five desk job. Nothing against all the nine-to-fivers out there, of course. Every job fills a certain need and can be rewarding in its own way, but one of my favorite parts of being a rabbi is that every day is different. Unfortunately over the summer, that is less often the case. I have to challenge myself to find inspiration and excitement in those lazy hazy crazy days of summer to write and prepare for the next school and programming year.

This week we find the Torah also reaches a similar lull in the action. This week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha, a turning point in our narrative. This section of text begins with instructions for the purification of the Levites as they do their holy work in the Tabernacle. We read about the first Passover sacrifice in the wilderness and how to celebrate Passover if we miss it the first time around. Then the text turns toward the Tabernacle itself, the Mishkan, and teaches us that God’s presence hovers over it in a cloud. Finally, Moshe’s family – his father-in-law, wife, and children – return to join him and the rest of the Israelite nation on their journey through the wilderness. It is in the return of his family to the camp that we learn about what unrealistic expectations have been levied against Moshe.

The text begins in a familiar way: God speaks to Moses with an action, Moses tells Aaron, and Aaron does it. The exact words are “Aaron did so.” The Vilna Gaon, an 18th century commentator, interprets this to mean, “Day after day, year after year, Aaron’s attitude never changed. His work was never boring or routine. He approached each day with the same sense of reverence he brought to his first day.” That’s a pretty incredible interpretation. The Vilna Gaon is taking a routine act, which is described in a very routine way, and suggesting that it was never boring. How is that possible?

Beha’alotcha means “in your being lifted up.” Aaron’s work may seem repetitive on the surface, but it was always toward a higher purpose and calling. When we’re a part of something that feels like it matters, we have passion for it. I know my children feel this way each and every day because in their eyes, everything they explore, create, and invent is fresh and new. The Torah challenges us this week to be like Aaron in his excitement even when engaging in our day-to-day duties and earthly occupations. By elevating our work to be holy, whether for the purpose of serving God or serving others, it’s much easier to infuse it with joy and enthusiasm every time.

 

 

Washing Your Mouth Out with Soap (And Other Weird Punishments in the Torah)

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I’ll never forget the one and only time I made the mistake of not listening to my mother’s warning of “Say that again, and I’ll wash your mouth out with soap.” I had been practicing asserting my “maturity” in language by using certain curse words. I was asked repeatedly to stop and didn’t heed the warning. Yes, she actually washed my mouth, and rest assured I learned my lesson. Soap leaves a terrible taste, not unlike the words I was using.

I’m not advocating this antiquated consequence, but engaging our senses in symbolism and to understand how our actions might affect others is powerful. Think of how we eat bitter herbs on Passover to remember the bitterness of Egypt. On the happier side, think of the candy thrown and eaten to taste the sweetness of a simcha.

The Torah is full of reminders of ways in which we might physically experience our missteps or cruel actions. One of the most prominent stories of “eating your words” comes out of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Naso. This section of text is one of the longest in the Torah. In it we read of the different roles of the chiefs of the tribes, the number of Israelites in the army, and the ways in which the camp deals with those who are “other.” We also receive the blessing of the kohanim (the priests) and the laws of the Nazirite.

Also within the words of the text is the story of the Sotah. The Sotah is the woman suspected of betraying her husband, and it involves a strange and somewhat demeaning ritual. The man is to bring his wife forward, and she is put through a series of rituals that include eating barley flour (the flour used for animals), drinking the water of bitterness, and the “loosening” of her hair. Once the woman drinks the potion, if she has betrayed her husband she will show physical signs of change. If not, her body will remain unharmed.

This is a pretty severe take on washing out your mouth, with waters of bitterness matching the bitterness of the situation. It’s similar to when Moses made the Israelite camp drink the ground-up powdered Golden Calf after that bitter incident, a part of the story not as well known.

We might not agree with the severity of these examples from the Bible, but the overarching idea is true. Things that involve more of our senses stick with us. From those certain smells that take you back to your grandmother’s kitchen, to the way you can pick up a musical instrument after many years and still play a song, our senses define our experiences. The more you involve your whole being in anything – Judaism included – the stronger your emotional ties will be.

 

 

Your Three Words – Parshat Bamidbar 5778

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As I was writing Pirkei Imahot with Lois Shenker two years ago, we both challenged each other to come up with three-word bios for ourselves. We’d asked our other contributors for the same thing, so we thought we’d better do it too. I really struggled with this task. How would I represent myself in three words? Am I a “mother, rabbi, friend”? Am I a “mother, daughter, wife”? Am I a “teacher, learner, preacher”? I went through what felt like an entire dictionary of adjectives to try to describe myself in only three words. I always left the exercise feeling like I’d left out an essential piece of who I am. I am a mother and a daughter, I am a wife and a sister, I am a teacher and a preacher, I am a rabbi and a friend, I am silly and serious. Each time I picked one adjective, I felt like I was somehow diminishing another element of my being.

The truth is, as we evolve in life we go through multiple titles, multiple personality changes, and multiple identifiers. The Israelites as a nation are themselves experiencing this phenomenon as they have left Egypt and become their own nation. In Parshat Bamidbar, which we read this week, we read about the appointment of the leaders of the army that will guide the people along with Moses, Aaron, and the other leaders of the tribes. We learn of the accounting of the eligible soldiers over 20 years old, the special purpose of the tribe of Levi, and the order of the encampments for the travels of the children of Israel in the wilderness.

The order of the encampments is part of the process of God trying to set up a society that identifies the individual tribes and connects them to the greater community. In chapter 2, verse 2 we read:

The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the banners of their ancestral house; they shall camp around the Tent of Meeting at a distance.

In this one verse there are three different elements of identity: the self (the standard), the family (the ancestral banners), and the community (the Tent of Meeting).

All this time I had been trying to pick three individual characteristics that define me, but perhaps our identities are threefold by nature. According to this text of the Torah, our identity is who we are for ourselves; how we connect to our home base, whether it’s the family that raised us or the family we choose; and our community, the places in which we congregate, celebrate, and share publicly. The real challenge then is not coming up with the identifiers themselves, but working to make sure each of these three categories supports the person you desire to be.