Morning, Noon, and Night – Parshat Pinchas 5781

Want a great way to quickly get to know someone? Ask them to describe their ideal day. When Duncan and I were first dating, we discussed our “perfect days.” I challenged him to write up a whole itinerary. Where would he be? Who would he be with? What would the day look like from start to finish? And then I created an itinerary for mine. The elements in my perfect day always involve someplace near a body of water. I’m with my family enjoying the sun and the open sky, but I’ve also built in some alone time. The ideal day always begins and ends with me taking a long walk to set my intention for the day, and then reflect back on the day before bed, respectively.

Despite the fact that these ideal days almost always include some hypothetical components that may change with age, the morning and evening reflection is a constant. I am my most grounded self when I have those two touch points in my day. I think my attraction to the idea of starting and ending my days with a connection to the earth, to God, and to my body also offers some insight into my love of Judaism. 

Jewish living is structured around prayer – daily prayer – and that comes 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 the holidays.

This is a big, long, full section of Torah that walks us through conflict and resolution in multiple ways, and then ends with a recitation of how we might find balance and connection to God in celebration of holidays and daily moments. It lays out this structure according to sacrifices. Chapters 28 and 29 list the sacrifices for the daily offering, the new moon, the Passover offering, Shavuot, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, and Shemini Atzeret. Each one is delineated by what offerings are made, how we make them, and why they are important. 

The daily offering, the Tamid, the one which is our constant, is said to have been offered in the morning and at twilight. It is an offering that is funded by the people, not just the leaders or the rich, but one that is made by all of us together. When the Israelites were no longer able to practice daily sacrifice, the rabbis determined that prayer, the Amidah, would fulfill this obligation. That is to say that the sages couldn’t imagine a world without a daily interaction with God, both at the beginning and the ending of the day.

Parshat Pinchas is the reminder that each day needs grounding in holy purpose, whether it’s a formal Yizkor service or an hour gardening. But I challenge you to make it your job not necessarily to be the people of Israel in this comparison, but to be the Tamid, the constant. You keep alive the flame that ignites the holiness in the rest of our holy community.

The Big Picture – Parshat Balak 5781

As a kid I used to love those brain teaser books that showed you one small part of a bigger picture, and you had to guess what the big picture was. These puzzles are a wonderful metaphor for our lives. What conclusions do we make based on just a small part of the picture? When you only hear one side or one snippet of a story, do you jump to conclusions on the assumption that you understand the situation in its entirety, when in reality you only know the smallest amount? This is also true about communities. Our community is made up of many individuals who come together to create something bigger than themselves. This is what makes a community beautiful. 

In a sense, we do this with the Torah by reading one portion at a time. Although we know the story after reading it over and over again each year, these small portions eventually add up to the story of the Israelite nation from birth to entry into the Land of Israel. The text each week gives us one deeper layer than the week before into understanding the bigger picture. Since we, the readers, are with the Israelites from beginning to end, we know them in their entirety, but when the Israelites encounter other communities on their journey, they’re only observed bit by bit. In other words, if you were to encounter the Israelite nation halfway through the Torah, you’d have no context for who they were or what they had been through. That happens in this week’s Torah portion. 

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 Balaam the “prophet” to curse the children of Israel. God allows Balaam to go to the land of Moav, but only if he will speak what God tells him to say. On the way there, Balaam finds himself frustrated with his donkey, who refuses to move. As it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. Balaam cannot see the angel, only the donkey can, so Balaam gets angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

In laying out the scenario to Balaam, King Balak says about the Israelites, “You will see only a portion of them.” One interpretation suggests that in order to curse them, Balaam had to see them with his own eyes, but Balak didn’t want Balaam to get the full view in case he ended up siding with them (which he eventually does). According to another theory, the purpose of this statement is to tell Balaam that while the small number of people he would encounter might not seem impressive, their numbers were actually much greater, and they needed to be fearful and on guard. But in either interpretation, Balak is acknowledging and even admitting that Balaam isn’t getting a complete picture of this nation of people. Instead, Balak is playing mind games and withholding his predisposed and misinformed beliefs.

This is what made these past 15 months truly difficult. For almost a year and a half, we’ve only been seeing a portion of each other at a time. Birnbach Hall wasn’t full of people on Rosh Hashanah. Families weren’t shoulder to shoulder at my house for Fourth Fridays. Even those times when we had a hundred or more people on Zoom together, you can only fit a certain number of people on the screen at a time. If you “only see a portion” of the people, it’s nearly impossible to get a sense for what this community really means.

As the world starts to open again and more restrictions are lifted, we’re almost at the point where we can once again see the big picture. And as one of the people who has been fortunate to have the vantage point of looking out at our community in its entirety, I can’t wait to have that view again.

Our Empathic History – Parshat Chukat 5781

It’s difficult to see someone you love in pain. This is certainly the case for me. It hurts me to see people hurting, emotionally or physically. When one of my children – or even my husband – has a bad cut or scrape, I can’t look at the injury or hear about it without my heart sinking into my stomach or even feeling a little lightheaded. It isn’t so much that I can’t stand the sight of blood, it’s that I feel deeply in my body the pain of other people. I carry their hurt with me. Sometimes this is called sympathy pain (although maybe it should be called empathy pain) or even just being sensitive. Regardless, our ability to “feel” with another and to hold each other’s feelings and pains is one way in which human beings can support and show compassion for one another. 

In addition to feeling physical pain, there is a different experience of sharing non-physical pain, the kind of pain brought on when someone’s honor is damaged or disrespected. The question explored in this week’s Torah portion is who shares that type of pain when you experience it? Is it your immediate family? Is it your circle of friends? Or could that pain possibly be shared with people who came long before us?

This week we read Parshat Chukat, which 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. In the middle of these major developments, we are also given a purification process that seems somewhat out of place in the context of the significant events that follow it.

As the Israelites travel out from Kadesh, Moses sends messengers ahead to the king of Edom. He shares the following in chapter 20, verses 14-16: “Thus says your brother Israel: You know all the hardships that have befallen us; that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors. We cried to the Lord and He heard our plea, and He sent a messenger who freed us from Egypt.” It’s quite a dramatic message, and ultimately a message of faith to say, “We’ve been hurt and abused, but we’ve got God with us.”

One line feels a bit odd, however. What does it mean for the Egyptians to have dealt harshly “with us and our ancestors?” The word used is avoteinu, which is the way the Torah refers to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, and Leah. But we know that aside from Jacob, none of the rest of our ancestors were in Egypt, which means none of them were dealt harshly with. So why phrase it this way?

Bamidbar (Numbers) Rabbah interprets this to mean that when Israel suffers, our ancestors in heaven feel their pain. We often talk about how the pain of the present can affect future generations, but we don’t often think that our past can feel our current pain. If you think about it, though, it makes sense in relation to how we already think about the past. I’ve heard plenty of times “Your dad would be so proud.” Do they mean that he would only be proud if he were still alive? Or is there a deeper connection that suggests he’s still proud on some level that we believe in, but can’t really understand? Or could I make the memory of him proud? And if the memory of him can be proud, can the memory of him also feel shame or hurt or pain? 

This week our Torah portion sends us a hopeful message, especially as we’re finally renewing relationships with people in person. The message is that we are all connected in many more ways than through either our stories or through our physical interactions. Rather, it’s both. And perhaps coming to this realization that we can feel each other’s pain, see each other’s vision, and help each other achieve greatness would make our ancestors proud.

A Place for Rage – Parshat Korach 5781

We live in a world where it’s becoming increasingly socially acceptable to express your disdain, outrage, or disagreement in a public forum rather than privately with the person against whom you have the complaint. On the one hand, it can be constructive to call out misdeeds and to call out hate and bigotry, with the hope that we’re better able to hold people accountable for their actions. At the same time, this means that we’re constantly forgetting the power and importance of one-on-one conversations when we’re angry, upset, or frustrated. The repercussions from public rebuke can be extreme for both parties; at the same time the lack of consequence or follow through for private response is also troubling. So we’re left with a choice. Which is better: a public shaming with big repercussions, or a private shaming with measured response, but perhaps no significant change?

Our Torah portion this week, Parshat Korach, debates this as well. This week we read the narrative detailing the revolt of Korach. 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 turns out to be solid decision making as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers.

The reason for Korach’s revolt is that he feels he and his people don’t have a voice in the current leadership. Moses is upset, he’s trying to do the best he can, and doesn’t know how to move forward. They are at an impasse. Korah decides to make a big public display, airing his grievances and making sure that everyone knows why he is upset. Moses, on the other hand, tries to make amends and find common ground and perhaps a way forward. Tragically in the end, it results in death and destruction on top of the hurt feelings and hate. 

What do we learn? It’s hard to know when to speak up and turn a disagreement or difference of opinion into a bigger deal and when a private, more quiet approach is a better way forward. What we can say for certain after reading Parshat Korach is that it’s always best to consider all options before acting. If there are atrocities, if there is corruption, by all means, call it out. And at the same time remember it’s ok to be deliberate and strategic about how you approach delicate or potentially controversial issues. It doesn’t seem to be the preferred method in an age driven by social media and every minute news, but if this week’s Torah portion teaches anything, it’s that the measured response deserves a seat at the table.

If You Could See You Like I See You – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5781

I struggle with body dysmorphia. It isn’t something I talk about often, and this is probably the first time I’ve shared it so very publicly. I’m not exactly sure how I got to this point, but when I look at my physical self, I see my flaws instead of my strengths. What’s even more frustrating than this disconnect is the fact that I’m aware of it. I know the way my eyes view my body is a distortion of the reality of what others see. It’s like I’m at war with myself. My body birthed two incredible babies, and my legs carry me an average of 130 miles a week; yet, there are days when I look in the mirror and can’t see past my own perceived flaws instead of the strengths that I know are there. 

If you know someone who struggles with body dysmorphic disorder, you know there’s no “cure” or any way to talk them out of it. It’s an uphill battle no matter how much you praise their strength or beauty or how much you gently try to remind them that the issue is mental and not physical. When I get stuck in these moments, the thing that helps most is going back to a list I’ve made for myself of things I love about me. It’s not just physical things, but things that make up my entire being. This is usually the most reliable way to help me become “unstuck” from that destructive thinking mode.

While not all of us might have to deal with body dysmorphia, we all go through moments of doubt. Each of us is likely to experience times when we let negative feelings creep in. Our Torah portion this week reminds us that while being in a self-doubt rut isn’t helpful, there’s power in reframing our reality.

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.

At the end of chapter 13, the spies come back and share their story. They use a lot of negative language when they compare themselves to the Canaanites. They use phrases like “we cannot rise up” and “it is stronger than we” and “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves.” Each statement is another way of saying “We’re not good enough, we are unable, unworthy, weak.” It’s not based in reality, as we find out, but in their perceptions. The Israelites lose sight of the fact that not only is God with them, but they have already overcome so many battles and struggles.

Somehow, the Israelites cannot imagine that others would see them as strong, brave, worthy or powerful. Instead of taking stock of how awesome and incredible they are, they’re comparing how they measure up to others. This toxic outlook spread beyond the spies to the entire nation, and it would have been the single viewpoint, were it not for Joshua and Caleb and their perspective. It wasn’t merely a different accounting of the land. Joshua and Caleb reminded the Israelites of God’s power and of their own strength, and they fought to push the other, more negative narrative aside. 

Like Joshua and Caleb reminding the Israelites how strong and courageous they are, Parshat Shlach Lecha is a reminder to us all that our perspectives of ourselves are sometimes so skewed that they leave reality in the dust. As we start to reopen our communities and see each other more often face to face, let’s remember that the version of someone you’re seeing might not be the version of themselves they saw for the last 15 months. Instead, let’s promise to recognize and reconnect with each other’s inner beauty and strength. That is truly how we’ll lift one another up.