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.

From Bad to Worse – Parshat Chukat 5779

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Department of Homeland Security Office of the Inspector General

Sometimes it seems that no matter how bad things are going, just when you think it can’t get any worse, there’s more bad news. I’m sure you’ve been there. You’re at the end of your rope, dealing with every possible frustration you can imagine, and then something else comes along that totally knocks you down. Often this is simply the way life plays out; it’s an unfortunate coincidence and nothing more. Sadly, there are also the (hopefully) few times when someone else sees you at a weak or vulnerable moment and takes advantage. But why does this happen at all? Why do we prey on the weak, even when we know it’s wrong? It’s a behavior that reappears throughout history, including in the Torah.

Our parshah this week, Parshat Chukat, 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. 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 Moshe 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 concludes with praise and thanks being sung to God for the water of the well.

In chapter 21, verse 1 we read, “When the Canaanite, King of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev learned that Israel was coming by the way of Atharim, he engaged Israel in a battle and took some of them captive.” The word used in Hebrew is not really “learned,” as shown in the common translation, but “heard.” When the king heard that Aaron and Miriam had died, he suspected that the morale of the nation would be low due to the loss of these two leaders, and he saw that weakness as a time to attack.

Clearly the King of Arad had his own power-hungry needs at heart, not the needs of another nation. You might argue that this act of aggression was simply a part of warfare; they saw an opportunity and seized it. And my counter argument would be yes, but at what cost? Why create an enemy instead of an ally? Why create more tension where there was less, or even none? Instead of attacking the Israelites when the other nation heard they were at a disadvantage, they could have sent aid.

I’m sure you’ve noticed the uptick in reports in the news about the conditions at the Mexican border. While the debate over immigrant status is a big part of this issue, I’d like to attempt to leave the political divisiveness out for now and focus on how we are treating our fellow humans. Regardless of your stance on how much immigration should be allowed or what that process should entail, the “solutions” we have for these families trying to escape life-threatening situations in their home countries are, in effect, kicking them while they’re down. We’re taking advantage of their dire situation to treat them in a less-than-humane way. I would urge you to question whether this solves the root problem or takes a bad situation and makes it worse.

Waging “war” in any form should be a last resort, not a temporary answer to a problem, because that kind of solution creates more problems than it solves. May this be the lesson we take away from the Torah portion this week.

Jewish Learning Through Osmosis

Last Shabbat my 2.5 year old son sat through an entire service with me. He was moved by the word “Amen” and started belting it out after every time the congregation did it. The other night my children picked up their guitars and an empty notebook and started playing Shabbat. The empty notebook became my 5.5 year old daughter’s siddur. As she turned the pages she sang her heart out, singing V’ahavta, Kiddush for Friday night (long version), Adon Olam, V’shamru, and then my 2.5 year old son joined in with Ki Mitziyon. My heart was soaring.

But here’s the backstory. On Friday nights my daughter covers her ears and fights me when I insist we sing the “long” Kiddush. And on Shabbat morning my kids are always running in and out of the service, spending more time chasing friends and talking in the lobby than sitting still in the actual service.

On Shabbat I am often given looks from congregants who feel my kids are too noisy or a distraction from the service when they use their “quiet voices” and run in and out. I myself was shushed as a kid. And yet, while they are busy moving their bodies, reading books, talking loudly, they are also listening and absorbing and retaining.

Children running in and out of services can be a distraction. But children are also learning as they move, absorbing the feel and sounds. My kids and so many others have learned our tradition simply by being surrounded by it.

To all you families getting side eye and shade for having noisy children in shul: KEEP AT IT. You are not alone, and it will pay off. To all of you wondering what you can do to make it easier for your children to internalize their Judaism, or even learn for b’nai mitzvah: SHOW UP! To all of you complaining about children and their “noise” in shul: LOOK UP and see the joy that is the future of our people.

Pay No Attention – Parshat Korach 5779

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One of my biggest challenges as the mother of two young (in other words, highly emotionally driven) kids is the temper tantrum. I myself was an expert tantrum thrower as a child, so I’m convinced some of their “ability” is genetic, and some is simply payback for my awful emotional behavior as a child. Sorry, Mom!

When a tantrum starts, I try my best to stop it immediately before it gets really out of hand. However, if I’m unsuccessful it usually means I need to go to my backup tactic, which is simply to ignore the irrational behavior. This isn’t my first choice method because it usually means one of my children is now screaming and flailing their body, possibly in public, and I have to ignore it in order for the ordeal to end. I often get knowing, compassionate looks from other moms as I implore them with either my words or just my own looks, “Pay no attention.” While it’s not pleasant in the moment, depriving these irrational demands for attention of the attention they’re seeking can be the best way to end them.

This week we come to a giant temper tantrum in the Torah. We read from Parshat Korach, the famous story of rebellion and betrayal, but also leadership. The narrative details a revolt within the Israelites from Korach, Datan, and Aviram. Korach breaks apart the priesthood and prepares the revolt while Datan and Aviram, two other troublemakers, begin a rebellion 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.

When Moses hears of the uprising, he sends for Datan and Aviram to come to him. They answer, “We will not come!” and respond instead by listing all the injustices that Moses has brought upon them. He took them from their warm home, from their “perfect” land to a terrible, horrible place. As a parent, this is clearly a tantrum if I’ve ever seen one. While they go on and on, Moses stands by with God simply waiting for the tantrum to end. Moses even says to God, “Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.” Moses, like the hapless parent who just wants the tantrum to end, doesn’t know what else to do with these rebels other than let them yell it out.

One of the many responsibilities we have in any relationship – partner, parent, or coworker – is knowing when to allow people the space to vent their anger in a safe way and then help them put the pieces back together through dialogue and discourse. The hardest part is stopping ourselves from reacting and simply providing that safe space.

Of course in Parshat Korach those who led the rebellion faced a fate much worse than an exasperated parent (although my children might disagree). Still, the lesson of the Torah portion is to let cooler heads prevail when possible, even if in this case the heads in question never really cooled.

There’s a saying taught to preschoolers that goes, “You get what you get, and you don’t get upset.” This mantra seems to be a great way to teach gratitude and calm responses, but unfortunately it discounts upset feelings as bad or wrong. I know several teachers who have modified the phrase slightly to, “You get what you get, and you don’t throw a fit.” While it doesn’t rhyme as well, it reinforces to the child that feelings of disappointment are natural, but a tantrum is what’s not welcome. If only Moses had been a preschool teacher.

Putting a Face with the Name – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5779

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I’ve written about naming and the meaning of names before, but it seems it keeps catching my eye in various places in the Torah. I always recall how we named our two children. With our daughter, we had a few good alternatives, but Shiri was our favorite girl’s name. For Matan, it was a little different. Most of you know that his English name is Max, and his Hebrew name is Matan (meaning “gift”). But we never actually use his English name. You see, for both children we were more certain about the girls’ names than the boys names we picked, but we didn’t know if Matan would be a boy or a girl. Although “Max” was a top contender, it somehow didn’t seem to match as perfectly as we hoped when Duncan had to tell the hospital his name after he was born. Even at his bris I wasn’t so sure about it, and by the time we did realize that we were calling him Matan instead of Max, it was past the time when it would have been easy to legally change it. Despite the fact that filling out medical and other legal forms is somewhat complicated now, saying his Hebrew name each day is still a delight and joy to remember how incredible this gift is.

Names convey an identity in a couple of ways, including how we relate to family members as well as to our religion. As you probably know, the Torah is full of examples of how religion influences names. Think of the changes of Avram to Avraham, Sarai to Sarah, Jacob to Yisrael. Moshe gets his name because the Hebrew root means to be drawn up as he was drawn out of the water.

This week we read Parshat Shlach Lecha and the 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 do not 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.

We tend to think of Joshua as the hero of the story because he was one of the two spies who returned with an honest, unexaggerated report of the land. However, in the list of the spies we’re given in chapter 13, verse 16 it says, “Moses changed the name of Hosea, son of Nun, to Joshua.” By adding the letter yud, the meaning of his name becomes “God will save.” Rashi interprets this change to mean “May God save you from the malign and influence of the other scouts.”

As early as the Torah, we’re given this lesson that perhaps there’s something more to a name than just an identifier. We have the power to change them, and sometimes they have the power to change us. In Judaism we have a beautiful tradition of changing the names of our loved ones in times of trauma by adding “chayim” (life) to strengthen that person with life. Imagine if we always interpreted the sound of our names being spoken out loud as very short, individual blessings bestowed on us by others. Imagine how much strength would that build. Shabbat shalom.