Changing of the Guard – Parshat Chukat 5782

When I was in Israel for my year of rabbinical study in Jerusalem, I took our very long break over Hanukkah to head over to Greece with a friend. Our plan was simple: drink ouzo, eat amazing Greek food, and check out every cultural experience we could. On one of our days wandering in Athens, we wound up watching the changing of the guard at a palace. It was incredible to witness. They were so precise in their movements; they knew exactly what to do, where to go, and how to behave. What we did notice, however, was that at each shift change (yes, we went back multiple times to watch) the new guards chose a slightly different place to stand. The change was small, but noticeable to us. Change is inevitable, even when we’re rigid and following a strict pattern or set of rules.

I’m not creative with a needle and thread, but in my one sewing adventure, I remember thinking I followed the same pattern to cut two equal pieces of fabric, only to find out I’m either bad at tracing or bad at cutting. The pieces were just ever so slightly different, but enough to not match. The same thing can happen with recipes. Use the same base, but change one ingredient or use fresh herbs instead of dried, and it completely changes the dish.

This is true with our Judaism. We base our traditions on the same book, the Torah, and yet how we observe today would be unrecognizable to the Israelites who were the first to inherit these traditions from God. We even see hints of these changes start to happen in our Torah portion this week. 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.

For some, the weight of this parshah is that it carries with it the deaths of Aaron and Miriam and the mention of Moshe’s death as well. As heavy and full of grief as these moments are, we’re also watching the changing of the guard of the leadership of Israel. What the narrative marks is the moment when the Israelites who are in the desert have less of a collective memory of what it was like in Egypt and more memory of standing at Sinai. And soon, as the Israelites move into the promised land, the generation that stood at Sinai will be dwindling, and that too will be a memory.

There’s great purpose in this distinction. It reminds us that since the beginning of life, we are always learning, growing, and building on the memories and lessons of those who came before us and transmitting them to the next generation as they take on the mantle of leadership. The lesson in Parshat Chukat forces the Israelites to see that no leader, no person lives forever, and that’s not a bad thing. It pushes Moshe to train Joshua and opens the hearts and eyes of the people to seeing Joshua as the leader. 

A changing of the guard is significant, whether temporary or permanent. Even with text as old as Torah, we learn that change is built into everything we do. It’s up to us to prepare to pass it on. 

You First – Parshat Korach 5782

I am the firstborn child in my family. I am married to a firstborn, my mother is a firstborn, and my daughter is my firstborn. What do we all have in common? We’ve all been asked at various moments in our lives to take care of our younger siblings. That, and we had much stricter rules about what we could and could not do compared to our younger siblings. As a firstborn child, I had to break my parents in. Having never been parents before, I was their “practice” child, like all first children are. They tested discipline strategies and bedtime routines; they learned so much about how to raise a tiny human by trying it all out on me.

When my sister was born, they finally had it down perfectly. Well, not really, but at least they had a basic idea. That’s how Duncan and I felt about our kids. With Shiri I was a nervous wreck about everything when she was an infant. I worried so much that I didn’t really fully enjoy much of that early parenting experience. The second time around, I sort of knew what to expect and was able to relax more. This is all to say there’s quite a bit of baggage that accompanies first children, and that’s evident in the Torah too.

This week we read Parshat Korach, 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.

While this fighting and frustration is happening, we also receive laws about how the nation will live and breathe day to day, including the honoring of the priests for their work on behalf of the people. In chapter 18 God details the list of all the gifts to be offered up to the priests. This list starts with the best wine and oil, followed by all the “firsts.” The priests are to be offered the first fruits of the trees, and even the firstborn from animals and humans, if it is a male. That’s right, firstborn males didn’t get to remain at home; they had to go straight to work.

Like in plenty of other instances, though, there’s a loophole. The Torah offers a ritual that can save the child from this labor and instead allow them to remain with their family. The offering is called Pidyon HaBen, the “redemption of the first born,” and it’s a Torah rite still observed today. The ceremony takes place on the 31st day of the firstborn male child’s life in which they offer the cohen, the priest, a monetary sum (usually special coins) in exchange for the honor of keeping their child at home. 

Why have we kept this seemingly ridiculous ritual? Perhaps less than a financial necessity, it’s to mark the moment a parent fully recognizes the responsibility and honor of being a parent. In this ritual the monetary amount paid to the priest to keep the child is actually extremely small because of the preciousness of parenthood. Raising a child is certainly costly, but as parents know, being a parent is not about the expense, but the gift of love, learning, and growth of experiencing many firsts together.

The Rest of Your Life – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5782

It will be no surprise to many of you, my loyal readers, that I’m not great at downtime. I’m a planner, and I like to be busy, whether it’s reading a book, going on a walk, or even just texting a friend. Idle time is not my favorite, so as you can imagine I’m not the best when I’m supposed to be resting to recover from an ailment or when we lose power and it’s pouring rain. This is also why I sometimes struggle with Shabbat. While I’m often working on Shabbat, and thus busy, Shabbat afternoons, especially in the summer, feel restless rather than restful. For most of the week, I’m also attached to my phone, so avoiding technology is particularly difficult when my normal response to having nothing to do is to grab my phone and mindlessly scroll social media.

This week we read Parshat Shlach Lecha and the well-known 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 don’t 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. As the Torah details the creation of a nation that is fierce and fit, God notices that they are also struggling with preserving the sacred downtime that is Shabbat.

This idea of rest is so serious that we hear the story of a wood gatherer who gathers wood on Shabbat. God deals a harsh punishment; the Torah declares the consequence for this infraction was death. While such a punishment may sound disproportionately severe to our ears, it certainly furthers the notion that making time to stop, rest, and rejuvenate is essential to living. These days no one will stone you for not taking care of yourself and resting on Shabbat as the Torah might suggest. However, we’re no less responsible for helping each other push the pause button and for our own health.  

Deep down, I know that breaks are essential, rest is restorative, and that putting down our devices can be lifesaving. Or at the very least, Shabbat can be your weekly reminder to be present not only for your family, but also for yourself. 

Memory For All Time – Parshat Beha’alotcha

As we continue to weather the Covid years, I’ve found myself wondering which of the lessons I’ve learned will stick with me. Will I carry with me the lessons of resiliency or will the need to have a completely stocked pantry be what sticks? Will I return to the comfort of rigid planning, or can I carry with me a more go-with-the-flow attitude I’ve had to adopt? And, how will I keep myself from forgetting? 

During the early stages of the pandemic, I was quite mesmerized by historical fiction about the 1918 pandemic, which brought a certain comfort knowing that even as awful as it was then, I was born into a world where the nasty scars from it have all but disappeared. I also read it to get a glimpse into what might become part of our everyday lives in the wake of a societal rebirth.

Habits are often formed in response to specific circumstances, but then change as the world around us changes. If I want to hold on to any of the good habits I’ve developed throughout these years, I’ll need to do some active work to keep them alive. This is a lesson as old as Torah.

Our parshah this week, Beha’alotcha, lands us with Aaron and Moses as they get into the daily requirements of their jobs. This section of text begins with instructions for the purification of the Levites as they do their holy work in the Tabernacle. We read about the first Passover sacrifice in the wilderness and how to celebrate Passover if we miss it the first time around. Then the text turns toward the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, and teaches us that God’s presence hovers over it in a cloud. Finally, Moses’s family – his father-in-law, wife, and children – return to join him and the rest of the Israelite nation on their journey through the wilderness.

At this moment, the Israelites have left Egypt and the story of Passover is both fresh in their minds and a world away in this first new moon of the second year following the Exodus. God notes this moment and then instructs Moses and the nation on how to reenact the story of the Exodus so that they would not forget. Keep in mind, the nation is still in the desert. They’re a mere 12 months removed from slavery, and yet that story, the miracle of crossing the sea and the wonderment of God, might no longer be fresh in their minds. Therefore they must review the story before it is too distant a memory to really be carried on.

If you try to glean something from an experience after the experience is over, you might miss quite a bit. At this point we’re not quite out of the pandemic, but hopefully far from the height of it. This is the time to remember the lessons we’ve learned. This is the time to make some habits permanent. 

Do the Work, See the Results – Parshat Naso 5782

Wouldn’t it be nice to get results without putting in the work? Sometimes we call this “magical thinking.” I often wish I could find an easy way out of certain tasks. Whether it’s doing the dishes or changing the bed linens, I wish I could access my inner Samantha from Bewitched and simply wiggle my nose to have everything back where it goes. When I’m nagging the kids to clean their rooms, I wish the magic of Mary Poppins would somehow descend upon our house to get us to the finish line. And do I really have to work out and eat sensibly? Why isn’t healthy living easier? As we learn over the years, results don’t come by magic; they come by putting in the hard work, by gritting your teeth through that last mile, or by bringing in one more bag for trash in the almost clean room.

On the positive side, there’s much more satisfaction to be had from the end of hard work than if no work was required. There are also lessons that can only be learned through putting in the time to accomplish something. The accolades you receive for something you’ve completed feel even better when you know your participation helped get it done. We see this in the Torah too, including when Moses finally takes ownership of his leadership role and when the builders of the Tabernacle take pride in their artisanship. 

As we read Parshat Naso this week, we see the Israelite society trying to move forward after leaving Egypt and establish a successful community. The narrative picks up with a second counting of the people; laws about how we are to treat one another and the property that we own; the blessing of the priests to the people; and the laws of the Nazir, detailing how we might dedicate ourselves directly to God. 

In this section of the narrative, the Israelite nation is ready to move, and they’re working to situate the Tabernacle, the heavy ark constructed of gold and wood, which carries the tablets of stone that God inscribed. This was no lightweight piece of furniture. To move it required all hands on deck. The language suggests that the Levites, those non-land holders, the helper people of the nation not often described as physically strong, were to portage the Tabernacle on their shoulders.

This protected group, for whom the community is supposed to provide, is commanded to take on physical labor for the people. Noting how this physical labor contrasts with their normal roles of washing feet, the Kotzker Rebbe, the great Polish leader and scholar, comments, “One does not acquire the least spark of holiness without effort.” In other words, doing the work is what opens the Levites up to understanding the divine.

So too for us, doing the work allows us to find moments of sanctity, togetherness, and pride in a job well done. To achieve the reward of holy community, or perhaps even any reward at all, we’ve got to do the work. Get dirty, get a little bit sore, and don’t wish away the social and personal growth that’s just as gratifying as the finished product.