Creatures of Habit – Parshat Devarim 5778

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A few year ago, the summer before Matan was born, we bought a new couch. Our old couch was still in great condition, but we expected, and rightly so, that a larger couch would better suit the needs of our growing family. We went and sat on many couches looking for the right balance of child friendly, clean lines, adequate seating, and comfort. We settled on a couch that was a sectional and included a chaise lounge.

Previously, my regular couch spot had been the corner of the sectional. Everyone knew this was my spot. But with this new couch, I had great visions of using the forward-facing chaise lounge to relax with my feet up, back straight, TV ahead. What happened? The couch arrived, and my grand plan to move to this new spot lasted only a few months after Matan’s birth. Back to my corner I went. After so many years in the same spot, it just didn’t feel right to move. The perspective was different, the cushions not squished just so, and it simply didn’t work.

As human beings we are hardwired to become creatures of habit. When we stay somewhere too long, or do something the same way long enough, it can be very difficult and even painful to make a change. The Israelites are acutely aware of this in our Torah portion this week, Devarim. 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 Israelites at this point in the Torah have been stationary for a bit. They have created camps outside the land of Israel and grown as a nation. They have become accustomed to this transient lifestyle, and there is some concern for how they will adjust to their new land. In Moses’s first discourse to the people, he begins, “The Lord our God spoke to us at Horeb, saying: ‘You have stayed long enough at this mountain.’” God understood the danger in the people growing too comfortable where they were, reluctant to move toward an unknown future.

A big shift can be scary, but our growth as an individual or community often requires a change. A growing family needs more space, just as a growing synagogue or school might. When we first got the new couch, I went back and forth in different spots for three months so that I could properly nurse and snuggle with Matan. It wasn’t a huge, life-altering change, but the discomfort of changing routine and losing my cozy corner was both physical and emotional. While living in the routine and within our (sometimes literal) comfort zone is easy, and even necessary at times, we grow and learn much more when we stretch into new, uncharted territories. Parshat Devarim reminds us that it is our job to keep moving, to search out the next challenge, and to overcome it together. Does that mean I’m giving up my spot? Not a chance.

 

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Taking a Breather – Parshat Matot-Masei

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Last year PBS aired a special program about astronaut Scott Kelly’s homecoming and readjustment to life on Earth after living on the International Space Station for 11 months. Segments included discussions of what’s next in space travel, including theoretical travel to Mars, and the tests conducted to track changes between Kelly and his twin brother Mark, who remained on Earth as the control part of the experiment. One of the most compelling clips was of Kelly learning to walk again after spending nearly a year in zero gravity.

While I can’t imagine that degree of readjustment, I can distinctly recall the culture shock of reentering society every summer when I’d come home from camp. It would take a few days to settle in to sleeping in a quiet room by myself and being responsible for my own food choices again. Even the loud blare of the TV after a few weeks without it was difficult to readjust to. When I came back from my year in Israel, I remember thinking that the fat 2-liter bottles of pop (yes, pop) we have in America were so funny looking compared to the slender 1.5-liter bottles they had in Israel. Each time I tried to reenter society, I would need a few days, possibly even a week, to decompress and wrap my head around the change in environment.

I realize there’s quite a chasm between astronaut Scott Kelly’s readjustment and my own, but it turns out that the whole notion of taking time to rest before reentering society after a life-changing experience is as old as the Torah itself. 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 19 we read of the Israelites coming back from a war of vengeance. The warriors who have engaged in battle and caused death are not allowed to come back into the camp for a week’s time. This behavior was beyond what was (and is) generally acceptable for members of our society, but was permitted during times of war. Because of this, the soldiers are permitted to reenter society, but only after they have taken that one week away, outside of camp. This was done both for sanitary reasons of corpse contamination and as an emotional transition back to the world of normal living.

Included in these parshiyot is the reminder that transitions, whether in and out of major life events or just returning from a summer away, require an adjustment period. Life can be pretty challenging at times, and you owe it to yourself to take time to regroup before returning to the demands of daily life.

The Same, But Different – Parshat Pinchas 5778

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When I was pregnant with Matan, I heard many well-meaning reminders not to compare the two children. It is inevitable, though, that we look for similarities when we look at our children. Whether in the way they look (my two look exactly the same), the age at which they meet certain milestones (Matan is slightly faster in some respects), or their nature in general, I find it difficult to stop myself from noticing how they’re alike. The only problem is that all the tricks and parenting strategies I’ve honed with Shiri will fail on Matan, and I’ll be forced to remember that while they may look the same, they are completely different children.

This doesn’t just apply to parents. If you have a sibling, you have likely gone through this too. Perhaps you’ve had the experience of sitting in class on the first day of school, when a teacher reads your last name and then makes a comment about your older sibling who had the very same class. You’ve instantly gone from being an individual with your own identifying qualities to being linked to whatever behaviors and expectations – good or bad – the teacher associates with another member of your family.  

The Torah is full of stories of siblings and the wrongs or rights they’ve done to one another. We hear stories of sibling rivalries, betrayal, and support. Our parshah this week, Pinchas, is no exception. The Torah portion bounces from event to event; you’ll get dizzy trying to keep up. We begin with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took against those who defied the prohibition of 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 Hodesh and the holidays.  

During the recalling of the census, we learn the following:

Born to Pallu: Eliab. The sons of Eliab were Nemuel, and Dathan and Aviram. These are the same Dathan and Aviram, chosen in the assembly, who agitated against Moses and Aaron as part of Korach’s band when they agitated against the Lord.

We learned the story of Dathan and Aviram earlier in the Torah when they joined with Korach and caused a great deal of trouble. Suddenly, here in our parshah, we learn that there was a third brother, Nemuel.

This older brother didn’t join his younger brothers in their nefarious activities, which means we now have the narrative of three brothers, raised in the same environment and with the same parenting, who did not all turn out the same. Can you imagine Nemuel going to school and having people find out he’s the older brother of the two troublemakers?

This week’s parshah offers an interesting version of the nature versus nurture debate. We see that brothers can be similar biologically, yet have opposite values and leadership qualities. It’s a helpful reminder – whether with students, children, or siblings – not to rely on assumptions, but to judge each person on their own merit.  

 

Friends and Neighbors – Parshat Balak 5778

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Having recently gone through the process of renovating and expanding our house, I am all too familiar with city ordinances, HOA requirements, and the laws surrounding what I can and cannot do to my property. A lot of thought and energy goes into city and neighborhood planning. One of the reasons that Duncan and I chose our home and wanted to stay (as opposed to buying a bigger one) when our family grew was because of the setup of the neighborhood. Our neighborhood is set up in one big circle. There are spokes coming off the circle to a few side streets, but each of those ends in a cul-de-sac, putting you right back out into the communal goodness. In our intimate little neighborhood, we have relative privacy and also the joy of greeting one another as we step out for a walk or a dip in the community pool.

Building a community takes thoughtfulness and vision, as we learn in this week’s Torah portion, Balak. This week we read a narrative filled with opportunities to do the right or wrong action and say the right or wrong words. Yes, you’re remembering correctly. This is the parsha with the talking donkey. Parshat Balak is the story of Balak, son of Tzipur and king of Moav, who solicits Balaam 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.  

When Balaam opens up his mouth to curse the Israelites, instead a blessing comes out. “How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwellings, O Israel!” The words to Ma Tovu come out as a blessing of the people. This verse alludes to the setup of the camp, as Balaam saw that the arrangement of entrances to houses made it impossible for a family to see inside the tents of others. The Israelite tent city showed a respect for privacy.  

Judaism is a religion founded on and bound to building community. We require a minyan (a quorum of 10 people) in order to perform certain tasks precisely because community is so important. But our text today recognizes the importance of having space to yourself. The value of privacy is that it allows us a much needed dividing line between public and personal, thereby making private time and community time both more special.  

Ma tovu! How good is our community when we come together, when we respect the need for private space and when we build a sacred space in which we gather together.  

Israelites Behaving Badly – Parshat Chukat 5778

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Amy McCready, the author who created the Positive Parenting Solutions resources, suggests that the real reason children misbehave is not out of defiance. To parents, it may seem like opposition for the sake of opposition, but the underlying reason, according to McCready, is about the need for belonging and significance. “Belonging” is the sense of connection and positive attention we seek in our interactions with others, and “significance” is the sense of autonomy and capability that empowers us.

In her parenting tips, McCready says that children act out when they feel that one of these needs isn’t being met, and she offers disciplinary strategies that work to fulfill these needs rather than offer a temporary solution (yelling, time-outs, etc).

Parshat Chukat, our Torah portion this week, is a perfect illustration of the often-used analogy of the relationship between God and the Israelites to that of parent and child. We have actual examples of how the Israelites revealed a desperate and oppositional nature through their behavior. Here’s a quick summary of the parshah. 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. When Miriam dies, we’re given one more water miracle on her behalf, with water flowing from the rock. We also learn that the reason Moses and Aaron are not allowed to enter the land of Israel is because of the incident in which they struck the rock out of frustration instead of speaking to it as God had commanded. The text ends with praise and thanks being sung to God for the water of the well.

In the midst of these major plot points, the Israelites complain about the journey out of Egypt, as we see them do several times. Specifically, in chapter 20, verse 4 the Israelites plead with Moses, “Why did you bring us out to the desert for us and our beasts to die here?” In this moment the congregation is thirsty and discouraged. They left Egypt full of hope and optimism as God’s chosen people, but things are different when they’re “alone” in the desert. They lack belonging and significance. In isolation, they don’t feel the sense of belonging they had in Egypt. As terrible as bondage was, at least they knew they were connecting to something. And in the wilderness, with God and Moshe and Aaron making all the decisions, how could they feel significant? How could they feel like anything other than cattle being moved laboriously to another pasture?

But of course there’s more to this lesson than just a warning about whining in the desert. Even as the Torah shows the negative impact of this tantrum-like behavior, we also see time and again the reminder that things like community and prayer are the antidotes. When we feel disconnected or in turmoil, our Jewish community provides the sense of belonging and the help we need. When we feel like life has spun out of control, prayer offers a sense of significance, a feeling that we do have the power to change for the better.

May we go into Shabbat with feelings of both belonging and significance, and hopefully the tantrums will be few and far between.