Temptation Looms – Parshat Vaetchanan 5782

Am I the only one who can’t keep certain foods in the house because I can’t keep myself from eating them? Pre-Covid, our house had just a small assortment of salty snacks, mostly because I simply could not eat them in moderation. When we found ourselves home all the time with two children who were constantly hungry for a snack, we quickly tired of constantly putting food in bowls and then washing those bowls. Instead, we opted for single serving packages of all their favorites (Chex Mix, potato chips, Cheez-Its, Cheetos) so we could put them in an easily accessible place and not have to spend the whole day portioning food. While we’ve gone back to bulk sizes to avoid waste, unfortunately now we’ve gotten in the habit of having all my favorite snack foods readily available at home, and I’ve had to find a way to keep myself from grazing on them all day every day. 

The truth is I’m a big believer in moderation and learning my limits, I just didn’t want to with these foods. My original plan of keeping minimal pantry items may have worked for me, but it wasn’t the right choice to keep them from my other family members who enjoy them. As with so many parts of our lives, temptation is best overcome by digging in and understanding our limits and boundaries. 

The Torah periodically shows us types of temptation to avoid, and each time is another reminder of how powerful our choices can be. Parshat Vaetchanan 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 issues a caution to uphold the mitzvot as the key to building an Israelite society, Moshe sets three cities of refuge, and we receive what is the most well-known instruction in the Torah, the Shema. 

Among these rules and rehashing of appropriate worship, in chapter four we read about all the objects and beings of God’s creation. The sky, the sun and stars, animals, human kind. And, while talking about how awe-inspiring those creations are, the Torah tells us not to worship them. This is a warning against the sultry seduction of the idolatry practiced in the nations that surround the Israelites. But this section of text makes you wonder: if the Torah is concerned that we’ll stray from our worship of God to worshiping the natural world, why were these celestial bodies and earthly wonders even created? In other words, if I can’t keep my hands out of the bag of Cheetos, why keep them in the house?

For one thing, the rest of creation is critical to our survival. Clearly there’s a difference between humankind needing the sun’s light and my “needing” a bag of Cheetos. But even more than that, the gift of choice is one of the signs of the divine spark within us. The free will we have to choose to eat for nourishment (and maybe occasionally for pleasure) and to choose to maintain our faith is the true gift of life.

Becoming You – Parshat Devarim 5782

I’ve always found it peculiar when we ask children, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” It’s fun to talk about potential future professions, but by no means is this a reliable gauge of a child’s long-term interests. For one thing, children are often focused on fantasies of being like their fictional heroes, with little to no grasp on the world that awaits them. It also bothers me when adults put any sort of emphasis on the answer to this question, because we’re all constantly changing, growing, and learning, and to think that something you love or excel at when you’re five will be the passion you’ll carry forever feels like an unreasonable expectation. While there are some humans who know in their core at a very early age what their purpose in life is, the vast majority of us take years or even decades to find that purpose and then create a life with it. 

Does the question really affect children in a negative way? Perhaps not, but children do internalize much more than we give them credit for. So how much is ruled out early on in our minds because we receive external influence? When we feel pegged in a certain hole, our lives might not develop as freely as they could without that expectation. Moses is a prime example of this in our Torah portion this week. Thankfully, as we know, he overcomes this challenge.

Parshat Devarim begins the final section of the Torah, which shows the Israelites totally unmoored by the change in leadership and location ahead of them. 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.

The book of Devarim begins by saying “These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.” The image of Moses addressing all of Israel with strong, confident words is surprising, considering it was Moses who, way back in Exodus, said he could never be the leader because he was not a “man of words.” What changed?

Over the course of the last 40 years, Moses found his voice. He grew into a place where he no longer questioned his insecurities; he discovered he could use words wisely and skillfully. At this point in the Torah, he has not only found his power, but has maintained confidence in himself and managed to take that negative self view and flip it around. He is more than a “man of words.” He is a man who guides, teaches, and leads with those words. If only the Moses from Exodus could see this Moses now!

This moment in Torah is a clear reminder of what it means to change, to grow, and to embrace what we can become. What would it look like if we slightly changed the career question to, “What five jobs would you love to have in life?” or simply “What are you great at?” Perhaps that kind of openness would lead to more happiness and self assurance before we spend 40 years questioning ourselves in the desert.

Where My Heart Is – Parshat Matot-Masei 5782

What do you do when you see a loved one making a bad or destructive decision? Do you intervene? Do you let it play out? Or when you can see two opposing views among friends, do you take sides? Do you try to remain neutral? 

When your heart’s divided, it’s difficult to see the clearest path forward. What I know in the depths of my soul is that when this happens, especially to people who have supported and loved me through the years, I often try to step back as long as possible and stay out of it until I can’t any longer.

This is a lesson that’s tough to learn, and one that Moses finds himself in the middle of in this week’s Torah portions. The Torah we read today is still the same Torah inspired by God and interpreted through Moses, and 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 a discussion of the different vows the 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.

As the Israelites continue on their journey to the land of Israel, they find themselves facing challenges against a multitude of nations along the way. Often, they act as one undivided unit in their attack, led by Moses and guided with clear principles and expected actions. That changes in this portion, though, as the conflict is with the Midianites.

Moses is whom the people look to, and it’s his job to lead the nation he loves deeply in this moment. At the same time, his wife Tzipporah is of the Midianites, and his father-in-law Yitro was a Midianite priest who saved Moses’s sanity when he didn’t know how to delegate. The Midianite people took Moses in when he left Egypt fleeing for his life. Moses finds his heart torn in two and decides to let the other leaders take on this battle. Moses takes a step back; he does not lead the charge. Unfortunately, what ensues is reckless behavior by the Israelites, without care for human life.

This portion is full of strange dichotomies. Moses stood back because his heart was torn, but doing that led to more heartache and violence. He returns to his position and rails at the army as a whole for their unthinkable choice to hurt women and children, innocent and weaponless, but still celebrates the triumph of his nation. 

It’s hard to know what the right choice is when you feel torn between two places or people or ideas. However, that doesn’t get you out of making a choice. Moses makes mistakes, as all leaders do, and in this week’s Torah, we learn the hard way what happens when the worst choice is making no choice at all. 

The After Party – Parshat Pinchas 5782

I love watching award shows. In particular, I love watching the joy on people’s faces as they win, seeing the way they cheer for one another, and of course the fashion on display. But if I’m being honest, I’m a little jealous of the after parties. The award show itself is broadcast for the public to enjoy. It’s intended for the fans almost as much as it is for the nominees and recipients. The parties that follow, however, are for those involved. We may see short clips on the evening news, but that’s about it. These soirées are for the elite and their guests, which might feel exclusive, but for good reason. It’s an intimate opportunity for people with shared experiences to come together. 

There’s an after party in the Torah, which we celebrate every year. We learn about this moment from our Torah portion this week, Pinchas. 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 other holidays.

As we read through lists and lists of how to celebrate each holiday, it becomes clear how God defines the “invitees” for these celebrations. For the most part, they’re meant to be open festivals where all the people would gather to celebrate. There was minimal exclusion among the nations. That is, until we read the final directions for Sukkot. 

We’re first told that Sukkot, the festival of booths, is a seven-day holiday. Then, in chapter 30, we read about this mysterious eighth day of gathering known as Shemini Atzeret. On this day there are fewer offerings to God and a bit more intimacy involved. This is the after party. The Talmud in tractate Sukkot 55b imagines God as a host, welcoming representatives of all nations who have come to pay homage on Sukkot. As the festival ends and the other nations depart, God invites the Israelites to gather just one more day for this intimate, more exclusive time.

With most celebrations, the more the merrier. However, this description of Shemini Atzeret in the Torah is a helpful reminder that gathering together for a specific purpose can be beautiful and holy. Especially during these past couple of years, one of the lessons we’ve learned is that taking the time to focus on the needs of our households and our more immediate circles is a sacred and precious duty, and something to hold onto even in a post-pandemic world.

Open Your Heart and Mind – Parshat Balak 5782

I’m stubborn, I can admit that. And I was even more stubborn as a child. My family always joked it was because of my very auburn hair — maybe you know the reference. Regardless of the reason, I can get stuck in my ways, dig in my heals, and simply be unmoving when it comes to changing my stance or my way of doing something. I’ve also been “blessed” with two children who are strong willed, if you’ll pardon my euphemism, and that makes for some fun times in our household.

It’s not that I can’t change my mind. I have, in fact, become much better at opening my mind and my heart to new ideas and alternate ways of doing things. It’s just that I like my way, and sometimes we might need to agree to disagree.

“Agreeing to disagree” is a part of our vernacular, although if you spend any time on social media, this philosophical compromise has become far too rare. It’s used as a way to pleasantly end a contentious debate, or move on after a stalemate. Of course, there are also times in our world when the fight is worth it. These are times when we’re calling out injustice, when human rights and dignity are at stake. Somewhere in the middle of being wishy washy or complacent in our beliefs and being dug in and unmoving lies progress.

In our Torah portion this week, we see a prime example of the line between stubborn nature and the struggle for human dignity. This week we read Parshat Balak, a narrative filled with opportunities for taking the right or wrong action and saying the right or wrong words. You know this parshah – it’s of course the one with the talking donkey. Parshat Balak is 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. As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. Balam cannot see the angel, only the donkey can, so Balam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

Balam is meant to go and curse the Israelites. But on each attempted curse, God intervenes, and instead of Balam proclaiming how awful the Israelites are, his mouth, guided by God, speaks blessings about their beauty and wisdom. This purpose here is to show both Balam and Balak that they are misguided in their hatred; their desire to curse a nation they know nothing about is misplaced. 

After four futile attempts, they part ways. Chapter 24, verse 25 reads: “Then Balam set out on his journey back home, and Balak also went his way.” What a strange way to end — they agreed to disagree with God! They were each unaffected by this new information, unchanged by the encounter with God’s protecting love for Israel. Instead, they were closed minded and closed hearted, choosing to see what they expected to see and walk away.

Parshat Balak presents the notion that as human beings, being open minded is in our own hands. Information is available to us, but it’s up to us to open our hearts to internalize and interpret it.