Subtle Changes – Parshat Vaetchanan

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I feel like a lot of parenting is making small changes to daily life that (hopefully) add up to a big shift in behavior. When we had infants, we’d notice that a five-minute shift in bedtime routine could change an entire sleep pattern. As they got older, we learned the sweet spot for nap time and changed our schedule accordingly to fit that need. And when Shiri’s weekday morning routine became problematic, we changed our screen time rule to only once per week. Each shift was minimal in the grand scheme of the work of being a parent, and yet those subtle differences totally changed the way that our family interacts.

There are plenty of examples of minimal changes that produce maximum reward. Trying to stick to a budget? Just making your own coffee two days a week can add up to some major savings compared to the daily latte. Working on weight loss? Trading one junk snack for a vegetable is remarkable. Working on getting more sleep? Five extra minutes of screen-free downtime before bed makes all the difference in the world. Subtle, small tweaks lead to major positive results, and we see the same phenomenon in the Torah.

Parshat Vaetchanan, which we read this week, offers some insight into this concept. The Torah portion continues with the retelling of the laws here again in the book of Deuteronomy. We also read about God’s persistent refusal to allow Moshe to enter the Land of Israel. The Torah then issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society. Moshe then sets three cities of refuge, and we receive probably the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema.

Significantly, the text contains the Ten Commandments. But this is the second time that Moshe shares the commandments with the Israelites, and while the intention and meaning of the commandments largely remain the same, there are a few notable tweaks. Instead of “honoring your father and mother” it reads “revere your mother and father.” Instead of “remember the Sabbath day” it reads “keep the Sabbath day.” Small changes in words that lead to significant interpretive differences. The order of mother and father is switched, as is the verb, to remind us that we should both honor and revere both parents. “Remember” versus “keep” Shabbat is a subtle change that tells us about how we should both guard sacred time and plan ahead for it.

Visually there’s not much difference. You have to be a careful, close, and critical reader of these texts to actually notice the changes that were made. However, these subtle tweaks to the text lead to broad positive outcomes in the society that is being built. Parshat Vaetchanan reminds us that it’s sometimes the small changes that are most effective over time.

The Path You Choose – Parshat Devarim 5779

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When I entered rabbinical school, I was convinced that I was the right person to be an “education rabbi.” I never saw myself as a pulpit rabbi, thinking I didn’t have the stamina or disposition to sustain the rigors of pulpit work. I wasn’t sure I could do funerals or b’nai mitzvah with the grace, conviction, or authority as the rabbis I had grown up with, so I followed a slightly different path. I sought out positions in education and the day school world so I could work where I thought I would excel. Then four years into my rabbinate at a day school I had to decide if teaching middle schoolers was really my strong suit, but because I hadn’t been a full-time synagogue professional, I felt torn in different directions, neither of which seemed exactly right at the time. I was terrified of leaving the day school world I know, yet wasn’t sure synagogue life was right for me. Then I took a leap.

This week in our parshah, the Israelites follow a story not so different from mine as we enter into the final book of the Torah, Devarim (Deuteronomy). Devarim stresses the covenant between God and Israel and looks toward Israel’s future in a new land as they build a society that pursues justice and righteousness. The central theme of this section of text is monotheism, the belief in one God, and building a society around the laws we’ve been given over the course of the four previous books.

Moses has been the leader of the Israelite nation for the entire Exodus and origin of the nation. While he was the right person for that part of the job, delivering God’s message and inspiring with his own words, life in the land of Israel will be very different. As they arrive at this pivotal moment, Moses says, “I cannot bear the burden of you by myself.” Moses is aware that it is no longer the time for preaching and teaching of the new laws. It will soon be time for battles and conquering the land. Moses is self-aware enough to know this is not his strength as a leader.

As a day school rabbi, I quickly learned that I needed more expertise in the classroom. Of course this expertise comes from years of experience, so I sought out mentors and advisers and asked seasoned teachers to observe my class and provide feedback. But when that didn’t seem to improve my classroom comfort level, it was time to evaluate whether I was the right person for the job. Now, several years later, I’ve had the benefit of not only trying a different path and loving it, but also learning enough from my previous experiences to discover I even like teaching middle schoolers, just not when it’s all I do!

In life we all have endeavors in which we excel, as well as endeavors in which we might expect to excel, but for whatever reason don’t. The Torah this week reminds us that it’s never too late to switch paths or admit that a certain job might not be the right job. Just because you have a job that you think you might love doesn’t mean you’ll be successful at it. When it’s time to make that decision, may we do it with the strength and self-awareness of Moses.

Burning Up – Parshat Matot-Masei 5779

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Every Monday morning I join our Foundation School learners for Havdalah. We sit together in a big circle, share what we’re grateful to God for, and then say goodbye to Shabbat and hello to the awesome week we’ll have together. We mark this transition by using the Havdalah candle. Over the years we’ve had many different candles, some tall and thin, others short and wide. Some are multi-colored, and others are solid or just blue and white. With each new candle the children check out how many wicks the candle has, how bright and big the flame is, and how loud the sizzle is when we put the fire out. We are fascinated by the burning flame and how by the act of sanctifying that fire we move from Shabbat, a holy, sacred time, into the rest of the week. Then the following Friday night we start all over again by lighting the two Shabbat candles. In and out of sacred space we float by the sparking and snuffing of a flame.

The power of fire in our Jewish faith has been evident since the beginning of the Torah. In our parshah this week we read the final sections of text from the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar. Parshiyot Matot and Masei begin with the discussion of the different vows Israelites might make, and then they detail the requests of the various tribes as they get ready to enter the Promised Land. The chapters end with the final placements of all the tribes as they prepare to divide their land inheritance.

In chapter 31, verse 23 we read about the ways in which we can purify objects. If an object can withstand fire, then it is to be passed through the fire. This ritual is still used today to kasher (to make acceptable for kosher use) utensils from milk to meat or vice versa. Although the metal remains unharmed, fire is able to cause chemical changes to other materials, thus changing their state. Metal doesn’t necessarily change its state (except under extreme heat), but the fire still represents that transition.

Heat changes things. It leaves a mark, literally, in the form of a blister or worse when our skin touches fire. And figuratively, a fire within our souls can ignite us to work for change in our own lives or the world around us. This week, the words of our ancient text require us to embrace fire as a mechanism for change and remind us how we might harness that fire for good. May we move from one phase into the next with our passion at the forefront. May we be inspired by the dance of the flames of whatever lights we kindle.

Your Heritage – Parshat Pinchas 5779

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When Duncan and I decided to get married, one of the questions we had to consider was what I would do about my last name. The traditional expectation (though not so much these days) was that I would take his name, making me “Mrs. Gilman” or “Rabbi Gilman.” However, as much as I love him and his family, something didn’t sit right with me about changing my name. My sister and I are the last two Posens of our generation, and we have no male cousins who would automatically carry on that name. Also, I became a rabbi largely because of the influence of my family. I grew up sitting in shul with my grandparents and celebrating holidays and virtually every Shabbat with my family. I am who I am, a Posen, because of that experience, and since all of my grandparents and my father had passed before my ordination, becoming “Rabbi Posen” was a way for me to honor their legacy and carry on our family name for one more generation.

So much of Jewish law focuses on the traditions of our forefathers, but this week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, takes the first step in changing the standard. Parshat Pinchas begins with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took toward those who defied the prohibition against idolatry. Then we move to the daughters of Zelophechad (Joseph’s great-great-great-grandson), who want to inherit land after their father’s death because he had no sons. Then Joshua is appointed Moshe’s successor, and we end with the sacrifices we are to make for Rosh Chodesh and the holidays.

The daughters of Zelophechad represent an interesting moment in the Bible. Traditionally, women were not guaranteed inheritance from their father’s estate. If a man died, his inheritance was for the sons. In this case, there were no surviving sons, and the daughters felt it was their right to receive their father’s estate. The daughters petition Moshe for this, and Moshe doesn’t know how to proceed. The daughters argue that by not receiving an inheritance, their father’s name will be wiped out. The ownership of land was more than monetary security; it was the security of their legacy and their place in the world.

So much of what we do in the world is tied to where we’ve come from. Whether land or legacy, we have an identity that shapes us and tells our story, and the Torah this week reminds us that that story is worth fighting for.

Point of View – Parshat Balak 5779

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This week we read the story of Balak and Balam. It’s the closest thing we have in the Torah to a Warner Brothers slapstick cartoon, in which this duo seeks to curse the Israelite nation, but everything that can get in their way to stop them, does. But if we can get past the talking donkey, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular message we read this week.

Balak and Balam go out to curse the Israelite nation, but they each have a different perspective. Balak can only identify the differences between himself and others – in this case the Israelites – and can only think to offer a curse. Balam on the other hand, although he intends to be negative, ends up seeing the positive. Balam opens his mouth to curse the Israelites, but instead this blessing comes out: “Ma tovu ohalecha Ya’akov mishkenotecha Yisrael.” How wonderful are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, Israel.

Those words may not have been Balam’s intent, but according to our commentary, this line accurately reflects Balam’s perspective, viewing the Israelites himself. Specifically, he sees that the Israelites, unlike other nations, set up their camp with their tents all facing the center, which created a sense of community while maintaining individual or family private space. This type of shared community represents a big cultural difference between the Israelites and their surrounding neighbors.

Balak intends to curse a culture and people that look different from him, while Balam, though not by choice, sees beauty and value in the diversity and compliments it. Parshat Balak, besides being known as sort of a cartoony story, is a reminder that fear or hatred of our differences is a choice. We can choose to be scared of a cultural identity other than our own, or we can choose to embrace it. We can use our words and our attitudes to berate or belittle, or we can see the blessing in our diversity.