You First – Parshat Korach 5782

I am the firstborn child in my family. I am married to a firstborn, my mother is a firstborn, and my daughter is my firstborn. What do we all have in common? We’ve all been asked at various moments in our lives to take care of our younger siblings. That, and we had much stricter rules about what we could and could not do compared to our younger siblings. As a firstborn child, I had to break my parents in. Having never been parents before, I was their “practice” child, like all first children are. They tested discipline strategies and bedtime routines; they learned so much about how to raise a tiny human by trying it all out on me.

When my sister was born, they finally had it down perfectly. Well, not really, but at least they had a basic idea. That’s how Duncan and I felt about our kids. With Shiri I was a nervous wreck about everything when she was an infant. I worried so much that I didn’t really fully enjoy much of that early parenting experience. The second time around, I sort of knew what to expect and was able to relax more. This is all to say there’s quite a bit of baggage that accompanies first children, and that’s evident in the Torah too.

This week we read Parshat Korach, the narrative detailing the revolt of Korach. 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 turns out to be solid decision making, as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

While this fighting and frustration is happening, we also receive laws about how the nation will live and breathe day to day, including the honoring of the priests for their work on behalf of the people. In chapter 18 God details the list of all the gifts to be offered up to the priests. This list starts with the best wine and oil, followed by all the “firsts.” The priests are to be offered the first fruits of the trees, and even the firstborn from animals and humans, if it is a male. That’s right, firstborn males didn’t get to remain at home; they had to go straight to work.

Like in plenty of other instances, though, there’s a loophole. The Torah offers a ritual that can save the child from this labor and instead allow them to remain with their family. The offering is called Pidyon HaBen, the “redemption of the first born,” and it’s a Torah rite still observed today. The ceremony takes place on the 31st day of the firstborn male child’s life in which they offer the cohen, the priest, a monetary sum (usually special coins) in exchange for the honor of keeping their child at home. 

Why have we kept this seemingly ridiculous ritual? Perhaps less than a financial necessity, it’s to mark the moment a parent fully recognizes the responsibility and honor of being a parent. In this ritual the monetary amount paid to the priest to keep the child is actually extremely small because of the preciousness of parenthood. Raising a child is certainly costly, but as parents know, being a parent is not about the expense, but the gift of love, learning, and growth of experiencing many firsts together.

The Rest of Your Life – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5782

It will be no surprise to many of you, my loyal readers, that I’m not great at downtime. I’m a planner, and I like to be busy, whether it’s reading a book, going on a walk, or even just texting a friend. Idle time is not my favorite, so as you can imagine I’m not the best when I’m supposed to be resting to recover from an ailment or when we lose power and it’s pouring rain. This is also why I sometimes struggle with Shabbat. While I’m often working on Shabbat, and thus busy, Shabbat afternoons, especially in the summer, feel restless rather than restful. For most of the week, I’m also attached to my phone, so avoiding technology is particularly difficult when my normal response to having nothing to do is to grab my phone and mindlessly scroll social media.

This week we read Parshat Shlach Lecha and the well-known 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 their report, and it’s pretty discouraging. Two spies report back with a positive message, but the negativity of the other ten reports instills so much fear into the nation that they decide they don’t 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. As the Torah details the creation of a nation that is fierce and fit, God notices that they are also struggling with preserving the sacred downtime that is Shabbat.

This idea of rest is so serious that we hear the story of a wood gatherer who gathers wood on Shabbat. God deals a harsh punishment; the Torah declares the consequence for this infraction was death. While such a punishment may sound disproportionately severe to our ears, it certainly furthers the notion that making time to stop, rest, and rejuvenate is essential to living. These days no one will stone you for not taking care of yourself and resting on Shabbat as the Torah might suggest. However, we’re no less responsible for helping each other push the pause button and for our own health.  

Deep down, I know that breaks are essential, rest is restorative, and that putting down our devices can be lifesaving. Or at the very least, Shabbat can be your weekly reminder to be present not only for your family, but also for yourself. 

Memory For All Time – Parshat Beha’alotcha

As we continue to weather the Covid years, I’ve found myself wondering which of the lessons I’ve learned will stick with me. Will I carry with me the lessons of resiliency or will the need to have a completely stocked pantry be what sticks? Will I return to the comfort of rigid planning, or can I carry with me a more go-with-the-flow attitude I’ve had to adopt? And, how will I keep myself from forgetting? 

During the early stages of the pandemic, I was quite mesmerized by historical fiction about the 1918 pandemic, which brought a certain comfort knowing that even as awful as it was then, I was born into a world where the nasty scars from it have all but disappeared. I also read it to get a glimpse into what might become part of our everyday lives in the wake of a societal rebirth.

Habits are often formed in response to specific circumstances, but then change as the world around us changes. If I want to hold on to any of the good habits I’ve developed throughout these years, I’ll need to do some active work to keep them alive. This is a lesson as old as Torah.

Our parshah this week, Beha’alotcha, lands us with Aaron and Moses as they get into the daily requirements of their jobs. 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, the Mishkan, and teaches us that God’s presence hovers over it in a cloud. Finally, Moses’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.

At this moment, the Israelites have left Egypt and the story of Passover is both fresh in their minds and a world away in this first new moon of the second year following the Exodus. God notes this moment and then instructs Moses and the nation on how to reenact the story of the Exodus so that they would not forget. Keep in mind, the nation is still in the desert. They’re a mere 12 months removed from slavery, and yet that story, the miracle of crossing the sea and the wonderment of God, might no longer be fresh in their minds. Therefore they must review the story before it is too distant a memory to really be carried on.

If you try to glean something from an experience after the experience is over, you might miss quite a bit. At this point we’re not quite out of the pandemic, but hopefully far from the height of it. This is the time to remember the lessons we’ve learned. This is the time to make some habits permanent. 

Do the Work, See the Results – Parshat Naso 5782

Wouldn’t it be nice to get results without putting in the work? Sometimes we call this “magical thinking.” I often wish I could find an easy way out of certain tasks. Whether it’s doing the dishes or changing the bed linens, I wish I could access my inner Samantha from Bewitched and simply wiggle my nose to have everything back where it goes. When I’m nagging the kids to clean their rooms, I wish the magic of Mary Poppins would somehow descend upon our house to get us to the finish line. And do I really have to work out and eat sensibly? Why isn’t healthy living easier? As we learn over the years, results don’t come by magic; they come by putting in the hard work, by gritting your teeth through that last mile, or by bringing in one more bag for trash in the almost clean room.

On the positive side, there’s much more satisfaction to be had from the end of hard work than if no work was required. There are also lessons that can only be learned through putting in the time to accomplish something. The accolades you receive for something you’ve completed feel even better when you know your participation helped get it done. We see this in the Torah too, including when Moses finally takes ownership of his leadership role and when the builders of the Tabernacle take pride in their artisanship. 

As we read Parshat Naso this week, we see the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and establish a successful community. The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God. 

In this section of the narrative, the Israelite nation is ready to move, and they’re working to situate the Tabernacle, the heavy ark constructed of gold and wood, which carries the tablets of stone that God inscribed. This was no lightweight piece of furniture. To move it required all hands on deck. The language suggests that the Levites, those non-land holders, the helper people of the nation not often described as physically strong, were to portage the Tabernacle on their shoulders.

This protected group, for whom the community is supposed to provide, is commanded to take on physical labor for the people. Noting how this physical labor contrasts with their normal roles of washing feet, the Kotzker Rebbe, the great Polish leader and scholar, comments, “One does not acquire the least spark of holiness without effort.” In other words, doing the work is what opens the Levites up to understanding the divine.

So too for us, doing the work allows us to find moments of sanctity, togetherness, and pride in a job well done. To achieve the reward of holy community, or perhaps even any reward at all, we’ve got to do the work. Get dirty, get a little bit sore, and don’t wish away the social and personal growth that’s just as gratifying as the finished product.

Pulling Your Weight – Parshat Bamidbar 5782

I love being a part of a collaborative team. Nothing gives me greater joy and satisfaction than when I’m a part of a “we” especially when “we” are creating, bouncing ideas around, and supporting each other. It’s rewarding when all that work pays off in a beautiful end product that exceeds everyone’s expectations.

My one anxiety about teamwork is worrying that I’m not contributing enough or pulling my weight. If you’re not feeling creative or you’re struggling to complete a task, it can feel like you’re letting the entire team down. I value the hard work that others put in, and I expect the same from myself. By the same measure, I tend to hold others to the same high expectations I have for myself, and I struggle when those expectations aren’t met, despite the fact that they are my own expectations, no one else’s.

Being part of a team is really about the benefits of accomplishing something together. When we combine our strengths, it shouldn’t matter if all members are pulling their weight the entire time nonstop. We can allow moments when a team member or two can take a break to catch their breath without having the whole team fail or fall behind. Problems arise when neither the weight people pull nor the breaks they take are evenly distributed. We’re warned about this type of disparity in our Torah portion this week. 

We begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bamidbar. The Israelites are now in the desert, and the groundwork for the structure of their future has been laid. Army leaders are appointed to lead alongside Moses and Aaron, a census is taken of the people, and we learn that the camps are situated in a specific order, each with a flag in the center that tells us which tribe is there. The time spent in Egypt is a distant memory at this point.

As the different roles of the tribes are laid out, we receive the lists of physical, mental, and emotional labor that each officer and their tribe must commit to in order for the entire nation to succeed. Notably in this list, those with titles like “Chief” are not exempt from physical labor.

Specifically, we find out Elazar, the Chief Officer, is assigned to guard duty. Elazar is one of Aaron’s sons, and he’s one of the highest authorities in the nation. His job is no ordinary desk job. Instead, he’s got hard labor. Why? Because according to the Jerusalem Talmud, “There is no special privilege in the palace of the king.” In other words, there is no room for an “honorary” position in the service of God. 

Judaism is built around the notion that each of us has a purpose and work to do in building and maintaining our society. Parshat Bamidbar reminds us that who’s on the team or who they’re connected with isn’t nearly as important as what you can accomplish together with the personnel and skillset you have.