30 Days – Parshat Chukat-Balak 5780

As the days seem to run together more than they usually do, it’s easy to lose track of weeks and months, but historically, dividing our year into 30-day segments has been not only significant, but necessary. When children are toddlers, we count their lives by how many months old they are. Bills are due every month. Programs we attend (now virtually) happen on a monthly basis. When we’re counting down to a major life cycle event like a bar mitzvah, we also count down by 30-day increments. There’s something almost instinctive about this time frame. Perhaps it’s because it has a clear, defined beginning and end. Or perhaps it’s because this cycle is naturally present in our lives in menstruation or the lunar cycle. Whatever the reason, the 30-day time frame has inherent value and meaning in our lives.

The number 30 also has biblical roots. Our double parshah this week, Parshat ChukatBalak, is full of plot twists and new experiences for the Israelites. The lands of Sichon and Og are conquered, both Miriam and Aaron die, and we learn that Moshe will not be allowed to enter into the land of Israel. 

Parshat Balak is also the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say. On the way there, Balam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move because as it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. However, only the donkey can see the angel, Balam cannot, so Balam becomes angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

But it’s in Chukat where we see the significance of a month of time. In this section we read about the death of Aaron, and when Aaron dies, the community mourns for him for 30 days. In Hebrew and in Jewish mourning tradition, this is called Sheloshim, and this sacred period of mourning is still observed by many today following the loss of a loved one. For these 30 days life feels upside down, not just because of the emotions surrounding a death, but also because many Jews refrain from the normal celebrations of life, like parties or dances. Many people also do not shave or even listen to the radio. Abstaining from normal life for these 30 days following a loss are meant to help us readjust to our own lives and reenter the world in this new normal. 

Interestingly, just one parshah earlier, we learn about the redemption of a first-born child from service to the priest. This ceremony is also conducted after 30 days. In a sense, the adjustment of living without someone near to you is not unlike the adjustment to living with a new baby in the house – it’s a significant change. In both cases, life is different and new in ways never imagined before. 

The Torah understands that it takes time to adjust to new circumstances, and we are obligated as Jews to embrace that time. The more we can accept these transitional periods, the more capable we are of adapting and settling into healthy life rhythms as we change.

Take Care – Parshat Korach 5780

I often wonder why our world couldn’t do a dramatically better job taking care of one another. I’m not here to argue for socialism or even democratic socialism, but the distribution of power and wealth in most of the world is staggering. When I was in Guatemala, we learned that 3% of the country holds 64% of the wealth. Guatemala suffers from massive poverty, lack of education, malnutrition, and a host of other problems that largely stem from the uneven distribution of wealth in their country. While education and hard work are certainly foundational to individual and societal success, when your homeland is as corrupt as Guatemala, it really doesn’t do you much good. But even putting aside government corruption, the wealth and class distribution problem isn’t unique to Guatemala. Consider tax laws and loopholes here in America. The free market can and does work, but when we incentivize selfishness, society begins to crumble.

This basic fact of civilized society is underlined as far back as biblical law. This week we read Parshat Korach, the narrative detailing 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. 

The end of the parshah brings the rules of tithing. Every Israelite was expected to give a tenth of his or her income to the Levites to support them because the Levites had no other income. The Levites lived their lives in service to the priests. The Levites, in turn, tithed a tenth of what they had to the priests. The Torah suggests that even those who receive support for their livelihood must also give to others. 

Tzedakah sustains the soul of the giver and the body of the receiver. As you may know, the Jewish concept of tzedakah comes from the root for “justice.” Said another way, a just society is one in which we take care of one another. We recognize that each person has a purpose to fulfill and, even in a literal sense, something to give back.

If Only – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5780

Different choices, different paths

As someone who is a poor decision maker, I often find myself second guessing the choices I’ve made. Usually, the bigger the decision, the more doubt I have, even if the decision truly is the right one. My mind always wanders down the path not taken, wondering what would have happened. How would my life have played out differently if any of my major decisions had gone the other way? That’s not to say I’d necessarily change anything if I could. Yes, like most people, I may always have to deal with a little bit of self-doubt, but this type of natural curiosity is also a part of living life.

There also seems to be quite a bit of this “what if” mentality making its way into discussions everywhere as we attempt to battle contagious diseases and racial inequality. Unfortunately, we rarely get to see both sides of the coin. We rarely have the opportunity to see what would have happened under different circumstances, or if different decisions had been made.

Interestingly, our Torah portion this week presents us with such an example. In the Torah, we’ve now reached the point when the Israelites are ever closer to reaching the Promised Land and their own new beginning. Parshat Shlach Lechah, our Torah portion this week, teaches us about the nature of change and the emotions that come with it. The text begins with Moshe sending out twelve men, one from each tribe, to look at the land of Cana’an. As the spies venture out, one can imagine Moshe standing and watching them fade into the distance, hoping they’ll come back with a positive report. Like any parent or teacher, he knows they might be nervous or scared, and he hopes that they represent their community with good faith and integrity. 

After the spies come back and share a horrific accounting, we hear the people’s response to the entire situation. “All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt,’ the whole community shouted at them, ‘or if only we might die in this wilderness!’” This in turn leads to a series of “why.” Why did God do this? Why are we here? Why didn’t we stay in Egypt? In other words, if only we’d done this differently, maybe we wouldn’t be hungry or scared. 

Typically we ask the “if only” questions when we feel a sense of helplessness or inadequacy. We often use it as a coping mechanism for our inability to deal head-on with the problems presenting themselves. Luckily, the Torah continues with the antidote, faith. Also in Parshat Shlach Lecha, two other spies, Joshua and Caleb, offer a much more positive outlook, rooted in good faith and a sense of hope in the possibility of a brighter future. 

It’s human nature to doubt ourselves and wonder what might have happened had we made different choices. But as humans, we also have the ability to trust in ourselves, to consciously let go of the “what ifs,” and to live in the present and put faith in God and each other. We are resilient, even when it may feel difficult. The key is to open ourselves up to that different interpretation, to give ourselves the opportunity for a second opinion, and to realize that one misstep or bad choice doesn’t decide it all. Perhaps then we can turn our “if onlys” into “even ifs.”

Raise Your Voice – D’var Torah for June 13

These past 14 weeks have been hard. First we were totally focused on controlling the spread of a global pandemic, while somehow trying to keep our economy from imploding. And then just when we thought things were starting to slow down to the point where we could see glimpses of normal through the thick fog of COVID-19, we found ourselves in the throws of a different disease, one with a much longer and more insidious history.

Throughout time human beings have been constantly trying to contain outbreaks of infection and disease, not just epidemiological but also ideological. Of course the Torah has rules for dealing with leprosy and other contagious diseases. In fact, in Leviticus we learn about quarantine and cleaning, never more useful than now.

But the Torah also deals with other issues that plague society, just as we still do today. Racism, bias, hate, and homophobia – these are all woven in at various points in our ancient text. And this week is one of those key moments that brings them together.

Last week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha. It begins with instructions for the purification of the Levites as they do their holy work in the Tabernacle. Makes you wonder what their hand-washing song was, right? 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 to the Tabernacle, 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’s a time of desperation. The Israelites are confused and lonely, beyond ready to leave the uncertainty of the wilderness behind. Hmmm – a feeling of desperation due to uncertain times? I wonder what that’s like. Yet they rally, again and again. Moses, their leader, is himself confused and upset. He doesn’t know where to turn, so he turns to God. And God sends him right back to the people to help them move forward together. There’s a lesson within a lesson: leadership mean not running from our problems or blaming someone else, it is returning and working together.

However, even Moshe’s siblings Aaron and Miriam have had it with their baby brother as the leader, so they try to cut him down. In chapter 12, Miriam and Aaron are having a private sibling meeting, and Miriam says, “He married a Cushite woman!”

Let’s be clear. This isn’t like my dad, who went to University of Michigan, marrying my mom, who went to Michigan State. Miriam is pointing out that Tzipora likely came from Ethiopia or Nubia. Later commentators suggest that Miriam was chastising her brother for marrying someone with a darker skin tone. It’s not just a comment on skin color that’s the issue here; it’s that Miriam is judging Tzipora based on her skin color. But whatever Miriam’s intentions are, God isn’t pleased with the bias Miriam and Aaron show toward to their sister-in-law, especially in calling her out as “other” based on appearance and nothing else.

As punishment for this prejudice, God afflicts Miriam with leprosy. A contagious physical disease as a consequence for a contagious societal disease. Prejudice spreads like a disease – quickly and deeply. And like leprosy or COVID-19, it takes systems and study, research and action, to contain, to change, to eradicate. It is not something that simply disappears after time.

Sometimes it even takes rising up. Look no further than Pride Shabbat. Lest you think riots are not the answer, the first Gay Pride marches were scheduled to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Sadly when peaceful protests are no longer enough, what’s left?

Imagine Miriam and Aaron, standing before God, being called out on their privilege for being a part of the leading family of a chosen people, being called out for their racism. Miriam and Aaron must have been terrified, hurt, maybe ashamed, and they had no choice except to own it. Miriam is a prophet; she’s a leader among her people, and she’s forced to confront her bias – albeit in a very physical way – in order to continue to lead. She had to own it, and so do we.

How does Moses react to his sister’s affliction? With thoughts and prayer. Apparently Moses was all over Facebook back then. After he sees her looking sick and ashen, he prays “Please God, pray, heal her.” But as we all know, thoughts and prayers alone don’t cut it. The prayer isn’t what heals her. God comes back at Moses and says “No!” She must be contained, she must be shut out, seven days in quarantine, a place to regroup, to confront her ills and make a commitment to change. That’s what God prescribes.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but there are six specific events in the Torah that we are commanded to remember every single day of our lives, and this is one of them. Each and every day we are commanded to remember that good people, righteous people like Miriam even, are susceptible to the disease that is racism. If it can happen to a prophet of God, it can happen to anyone, and maybe not in the form of racial prejudice, but sexism, agism, homophobia, just to name a few. Who among us is immune? Who among us can say they’ve been vaccinated against any prejudice at all? No one is completely without bias, but we can challenge ourselves to find those biases we may harbor and at least acknowledge their existence so we can work to be better. We can try really hard at this because it’s that important.

In this time of unrest, in this time where we face our own uncertain wilderness, we must hold onto this story. The reminder from God – FROM GOD – that thoughts and prayers alone won’t heal our world, but actions will. Calling out injustice will. Confronting our own biases will. This is how we heal the disease. This is how we return from isolation and quarantine to a community that is healed.

Second Chances – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5780

Event organizers all around the world have been facing the same dilemma for months: to cancel or to reschedule. If an event is canceled, what does that mean for attendees? Do they receive a full refund? For charitable events or nonprofit organizations, are they offered the opportunity to consider previous payments a donation? And if an event is rescheduled, how far into the future does it need to be? Do you even bother trying to schedule it for the fall, or simply wait until the same time next year?

Sadly, COVID-19 has either delayed or canceled countless plans and events, which of course is to be expected if we’re going to try to lessen the toll it takes on human life. However, in many cases what COVID-19 has given us is a chance for a redo on things we may have missed out on. 

Interestingly, there’s a direct parallel in the Torah this week about postponing or extending celebrations because of illness. This week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha, a turning point in our narrative. This section of text begins with instruction 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, 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 where we learn about what unrealistic expectations have been levied against Moshe. 

The Torah, in elevating the Israelite nation, recognizes that life sometimes gets the best of us and a second chance is needed. Chapter 9, verses 6-12 describe a second Passover observance that happens exactly one month after the first Passover. Not everyone celebrates this one because it exists specifically for those who were unable to celebrate actual Passover because of sickness or impurity. The Torah argues: why must these people miss out on a great opportunity to honor God and join their community?

So, second Passover, or Pesach Sheni, is born. The Torah reminds us that missing out because of another major obligation doesn’t mean that we don’t care. And not every holiday or event can be made up in its entirety, but if we can create an opportunity for everyone to be included, we should. 

Unfortunately, sometimes when you have to pick and choose, there are no second chances to make up what you missed. This week’s Torah portion reminds us of how meaningful those second chances can be, and perhaps this year is an opportunity to reexamine our priorities to make sure we don’t take first chances for granted.