Walking Through Fire – Parshat Matot-Masei 5780

How much of your emotional response is automatically written on your face? When I’m angry, embarrassed, or generally uncomfortable, I get flushed. My body temperature seems to go up, and it’s a sensation like I have to put out the fire. But this happens on its own; I can’t control it. I know when it starts because my ears begin to feel hot, and then I know the redness is coming. It’s true – I don’t have a great poker face. I show my colors plainly, and they are red and pink and hot. The good news is this change means I’m processing or working through things. Emotional “fire” can transform people mentally just as actual fire transforms things chemically. Whatever rage or fury I’m feeling in the moment, I know I’ll have the opportunity to think or behave differently and learn from that when it passes.

This transforming and purifying property of fire is mentioned in the Torah too. 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. 

The text talks specifically about the purification of warriors and captives. The methods of purification are similar to what we use today to purify bodies and vessels: water and fire. In Jewish tradition, whether it’s the purification of a deceased body before it goes to burial or the purification of a living body in the cleansing waters of the mikveh (ritual bath) we still follow this procedure. And now, as we try to prevent the spread of disease, water and hand washing in particular are on our minds and more important than perhaps they have ever been.

Judaism also purifies with fire. Any item that can withstand the heat is to be passed through fire on its way to becoming pure or neutral. This is the ritual we still use for kashering (making kosher) cooking tools.

Whether we’re transforming a pot from dairy use to meat use or transforming ourselves from passive to actively engaged, heat is an agent of change. I might not enjoy having my ears turn red, but it usually means I need to check myself, possibly tread carefully, and grow from that experience. Shabbat shalom.

Moral Courage – Parshat Pinchas 5780

If we’re supposed to be guided by our morals, what happens when one person’s (or community’s) morals conflict with another’s? We all have so much in common with each other, but these days we’re divided by extremes on every issue. If you bring up a particular topic, you risk the response of someone ready to shout it down, or, just as unhelpful, it’s met with confirmation bias, which means it will be interpreted according to other people’s preexisting beliefs, not seen as new information to consider.

Personally, my integrity comes from many places, but primarily from my Jewish traditions. The commandments of the Torah and the values of Jewish living guide me in my decision making and understanding of the world around me. This has been true of Jews living an observant life since the time of the Torah.

This week’s parshah, Pinchas, puts moral courage on display. We begin with the story of Pinchas (identified as Aaron’s grandson) and the extreme action he took against those that 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 Chodesh and the holidays. 

Chapter 25, verses 17-18 read: “Assail the Midianites and defeat them – for they assailed you by the trickery they practiced against you – because of the affair of Peor.” Why were the Midianites against the Isarelites? We’re told it’s originally because the Israelites had different ways of worship from the other nations that surrounded them. But beyond that, the Israelites didn’t engage in hostile takeovers; they did not rape and pillage or even encourage each other to engage in dishonest acts to prove superior. They stood on a moral ground that made them stand out from everyone else. Because of this, other nations tried to trick and disadvantage the Israelites and pull them away from their moral compass.

Parshat Pinchas stands as a reminder that personal moral courage isn’t automatic. It takes hard work to build it up, and it’s almost always tested by those who lack similar convictions. It’s our responsibility as Jews to use that sense of justice we’ve built up for so long.

30 Days – Parshat Chukat-Balak 5780

As the days seem to run together more than they usually do, it’s easy to lose track of weeks and months, but historically, dividing our year into 30-day segments has been not only significant, but necessary. When children are toddlers, we count their lives by how many months old they are. Bills are due every month. Programs we attend (now virtually) happen on a monthly basis. When we’re counting down to a major life cycle event like a bar mitzvah, we also count down by 30-day increments. There’s something almost instinctive about this time frame. Perhaps it’s because it has a clear, defined beginning and end. Or perhaps it’s because this cycle is naturally present in our lives in menstruation or the lunar cycle. Whatever the reason, the 30-day time frame has inherent value and meaning in our lives.

The number 30 also has biblical roots. Our double parshah this week, Parshat ChukatBalak, 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. 

Parshat Balak is also 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 because as it turns out, the donkey sees an angel of God in the road. However, only the donkey can see the angel, Balam cannot, so Balam becomes angry at his stubborn animal and beats the donkey.

But it’s in Chukat where we see the significance of a month of time. In this section we read about the death of Aaron, and when Aaron dies, the community mourns for him for 30 days. In Hebrew and in Jewish mourning tradition, this is called Sheloshim, and this sacred period of mourning is still observed by many today following the loss of a loved one. For these 30 days life feels upside down, not just because of the emotions surrounding a death, but also because many Jews refrain from the normal celebrations of life, like parties or dances. Many people also do not shave or even listen to the radio. Abstaining from normal life for these 30 days following a loss are meant to help us readjust to our own lives and reenter the world in this new normal. 

Interestingly, just one parshah earlier, we learn about the redemption of a first-born child from service to the priest. This ceremony is also conducted after 30 days. In a sense, the adjustment of living without someone near to you is not unlike the adjustment to living with a new baby in the house – it’s a significant change. In both cases, life is different and new in ways never imagined before. 

The Torah understands that it takes time to adjust to new circumstances, and we are obligated as Jews to embrace that time. The more we can accept these transitional periods, the more capable we are of adapting and settling into healthy life rhythms as we change.

Take Care – Parshat Korach 5780

I often wonder why our world couldn’t do a dramatically better job taking care of one another. I’m not here to argue for socialism or even democratic socialism, but the distribution of power and wealth in most of the world is staggering. When I was in Guatemala, we learned that 3% of the country holds 64% of the wealth. Guatemala suffers from massive poverty, lack of education, malnutrition, and a host of other problems that largely stem from the uneven distribution of wealth in their country. While education and hard work are certainly foundational to individual and societal success, when your homeland is as corrupt as Guatemala, it really doesn’t do you much good. But even putting aside government corruption, the wealth and class distribution problem isn’t unique to Guatemala. Consider tax laws and loopholes here in America. The free market can and does work, but when we incentivize selfishness, society begins to crumble.

This basic fact of civilized society is underlined as far back as biblical law. This week we read Parshat Korach, the narrative detailing the revolt of Korach and of Datan and Aviram. 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 becomes a pretty smart idea as the earth opens up and swallows Korach and his followers. 

The end of the parshah brings the rules of tithing. Every Israelite was expected to give a tenth of his or her income to the Levites to support them because the Levites had no other income. The Levites lived their lives in service to the priests. The Levites, in turn, tithed a tenth of what they had to the priests. The Torah suggests that even those who receive support for their livelihood must also give to others. 

Tzedakah sustains the soul of the giver and the body of the receiver. As you may know, the Jewish concept of tzedakah comes from the root for “justice.” Said another way, a just society is one in which we take care of one another. We recognize that each person has a purpose to fulfill and, even in a literal sense, something to give back.

If Only – Parshat Shlach Lecha 5780

Different choices, different paths

As someone who is a poor decision maker, I often find myself second guessing the choices I’ve made. Usually, the bigger the decision, the more doubt I have, even if the decision truly is the right one. My mind always wanders down the path not taken, wondering what would have happened. How would my life have played out differently if any of my major decisions had gone the other way? That’s not to say I’d necessarily change anything if I could. Yes, like most people, I may always have to deal with a little bit of self-doubt, but this type of natural curiosity is also a part of living life.

There also seems to be quite a bit of this “what if” mentality making its way into discussions everywhere as we attempt to battle contagious diseases and racial inequality. Unfortunately, we rarely get to see both sides of the coin. We rarely have the opportunity to see what would have happened under different circumstances, or if different decisions had been made.

Interestingly, our Torah portion this week presents us with such an example. In the Torah, we’ve now reached the point when the Israelites are ever closer to reaching the Promised Land and their own new beginning. Parshat Shlach Lechah, our Torah portion this week, teaches us about the nature of change and the emotions that come with it. The text begins with Moshe sending out twelve men, one from each tribe, to look at the land of Cana’an. As the spies venture out, one can imagine Moshe standing and watching them fade into the distance, hoping they’ll come back with a positive report. Like any parent or teacher, he knows they might be nervous or scared, and he hopes that they represent their community with good faith and integrity. 

After the spies come back and share a horrific accounting, we hear the people’s response to the entire situation. “All the Israelites railed against Moses and Aaron. ‘If only we had died in the land of Egypt,’ the whole community shouted at them, ‘or if only we might die in this wilderness!’” This in turn leads to a series of “why.” Why did God do this? Why are we here? Why didn’t we stay in Egypt? In other words, if only we’d done this differently, maybe we wouldn’t be hungry or scared. 

Typically we ask the “if only” questions when we feel a sense of helplessness or inadequacy. We often use it as a coping mechanism for our inability to deal head-on with the problems presenting themselves. Luckily, the Torah continues with the antidote, faith. Also in Parshat Shlach Lecha, two other spies, Joshua and Caleb, offer a much more positive outlook, rooted in good faith and a sense of hope in the possibility of a brighter future. 

It’s human nature to doubt ourselves and wonder what might have happened had we made different choices. But as humans, we also have the ability to trust in ourselves, to consciously let go of the “what ifs,” and to live in the present and put faith in God and each other. We are resilient, even when it may feel difficult. The key is to open ourselves up to that different interpretation, to give ourselves the opportunity for a second opinion, and to realize that one misstep or bad choice doesn’t decide it all. Perhaps then we can turn our “if onlys” into “even ifs.”