Out of Love – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5781

It’s human nature to interact differently with different people. Chances are we’re going to be more tolerant of certain behaviors in some people and less in others. For example, if you cut me off on the highway, and then slow down in front of me, I might react somewhere between perturbed and enraged because I won’t have the context to understand you or your actions. On the other hand, if we know each other, and I know you’ve had a bad day, I’m likely to be more forgiving if you seem rude or checked out. This works in other ways too. While I might not think twice about reprimanding my children for a certain behavior we’ve talked about over and over again, I probably wouldn’t have the same reaction toward someone else’s child. So if the action is the same or similar, why is my reaction different?

The answer, simply, is love. In relationships with friends and loved ones, there’s a history and familiarity that comes with the territory. I’ll describe what this is like for me with my kids, but even for those of you who aren’t parents, you can probably relate in the way you treat your partner, parent, loved ones, or even pets. 

Neither of my children slept through the night until well after they turned two years old. As frustrating as that was, and despite all our sleepless nights, I still love them. And like many children, mine are mostly great listeners at school and pay attention when others talk, but for me, their ears tune me out and can’t hear a simple direction. Often aggravating, but yes, I still love them. We tolerate and accept things in different ways because we love each other; that’s what a family does. 

From this week’s Torah portion (and elsewhere in the Torah) we understand this to be part of our relationship with God too. 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.

As the Israelites are leaving Egypt and on this long journey, they complain. A lot. Moses gets to the end of his rope and finally goes to God and lets it all out. “Why did you do this to me?” he screams at God in chapter 11, verse 11 of Numbers. He goes on to complain that God made him take them out, and now God expects him to “carry them in my bosom like a nurse carries an infant.”

It’s an odd expression, but Ha-Emek Davar, a 19th century Russian commentator on Torah, suggests “even if the infant hits the nurse or soils her clothing, she does not reject the child.” Moses is essentially asking God, “They’re screaming at me, and hurting me, and breaking me, and I still have to love them?” God’s answer is an emphatic “Yes!” Yes, we have to love our family (in this case our people), and when those we love struggle, it is our job to support them. Yes, you need to show them unending love and encouragement, even when you feel beat down.

I began by admitting that we naturally alter our reactions and behavior depending on who we’re engaging with, but Parshat Beha’alotcha teaches us that our work as citizens of the world is to extend generosity, love, and compassion everywhere, especially when there is struggle or strife. You would want the same extended to you. 

Raise Your Voice – D’var Torah for June 13

These past 14 weeks have been hard. First we were totally focused on controlling the spread of a global pandemic, while somehow trying to keep our economy from imploding. And then just when we thought things were starting to slow down to the point where we could see glimpses of normal through the thick fog of COVID-19, we found ourselves in the throws of a different disease, one with a much longer and more insidious history.

Throughout time human beings have been constantly trying to contain outbreaks of infection and disease, not just epidemiological but also ideological. Of course the Torah has rules for dealing with leprosy and other contagious diseases. In fact, in Leviticus we learn about quarantine and cleaning, never more useful than now.

But the Torah also deals with other issues that plague society, just as we still do today. Racism, bias, hate, and homophobia – these are all woven in at various points in our ancient text. And this week is one of those key moments that brings them together.

Last week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha. It begins with instructions for the purification of the Levites as they do their holy work in the Tabernacle. Makes you wonder what their hand-washing song was, right? 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 to the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, and teaches us that God’s presence hovers over it in a cloud. Finally, Moshe’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.

It’s a time of desperation. The Israelites are confused and lonely, beyond ready to leave the uncertainty of the wilderness behind. Hmmm – a feeling of desperation due to uncertain times? I wonder what that’s like. Yet they rally, again and again. Moses, their leader, is himself confused and upset. He doesn’t know where to turn, so he turns to God. And God sends him right back to the people to help them move forward together. There’s a lesson within a lesson: leadership mean not running from our problems or blaming someone else, it is returning and working together.

However, even Moshe’s siblings Aaron and Miriam have had it with their baby brother as the leader, so they try to cut him down. In chapter 12, Miriam and Aaron are having a private sibling meeting, and Miriam says, “He married a Cushite woman!”

Let’s be clear. This isn’t like my dad, who went to University of Michigan, marrying my mom, who went to Michigan State. Miriam is pointing out that Tzipora likely came from Ethiopia or Nubia. Later commentators suggest that Miriam was chastising her brother for marrying someone with a darker skin tone. It’s not just a comment on skin color that’s the issue here; it’s that Miriam is judging Tzipora based on her skin color. But whatever Miriam’s intentions are, God isn’t pleased with the bias Miriam and Aaron show toward to their sister-in-law, especially in calling her out as “other” based on appearance and nothing else.

As punishment for this prejudice, God afflicts Miriam with leprosy. A contagious physical disease as a consequence for a contagious societal disease. Prejudice spreads like a disease – quickly and deeply. And like leprosy or COVID-19, it takes systems and study, research and action, to contain, to change, to eradicate. It is not something that simply disappears after time.

Sometimes it even takes rising up. Look no further than Pride Shabbat. Lest you think riots are not the answer, the first Gay Pride marches were scheduled to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Sadly when peaceful protests are no longer enough, what’s left?

Imagine Miriam and Aaron, standing before God, being called out on their privilege for being a part of the leading family of a chosen people, being called out for their racism. Miriam and Aaron must have been terrified, hurt, maybe ashamed, and they had no choice except to own it. Miriam is a prophet; she’s a leader among her people, and she’s forced to confront her bias – albeit in a very physical way – in order to continue to lead. She had to own it, and so do we.

How does Moses react to his sister’s affliction? With thoughts and prayer. Apparently Moses was all over Facebook back then. After he sees her looking sick and ashen, he prays “Please God, pray, heal her.” But as we all know, thoughts and prayers alone don’t cut it. The prayer isn’t what heals her. God comes back at Moses and says “No!” She must be contained, she must be shut out, seven days in quarantine, a place to regroup, to confront her ills and make a commitment to change. That’s what God prescribes.

I don’t know if you’re aware, but there are six specific events in the Torah that we are commanded to remember every single day of our lives, and this is one of them. Each and every day we are commanded to remember that good people, righteous people like Miriam even, are susceptible to the disease that is racism. If it can happen to a prophet of God, it can happen to anyone, and maybe not in the form of racial prejudice, but sexism, agism, homophobia, just to name a few. Who among us is immune? Who among us can say they’ve been vaccinated against any prejudice at all? No one is completely without bias, but we can challenge ourselves to find those biases we may harbor and at least acknowledge their existence so we can work to be better. We can try really hard at this because it’s that important.

In this time of unrest, in this time where we face our own uncertain wilderness, we must hold onto this story. The reminder from God – FROM GOD – that thoughts and prayers alone won’t heal our world, but actions will. Calling out injustice will. Confronting our own biases will. This is how we heal the disease. This is how we return from isolation and quarantine to a community that is healed.

Second Chances – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5780

Event organizers all around the world have been facing the same dilemma for months: to cancel or to reschedule. If an event is canceled, what does that mean for attendees? Do they receive a full refund? For charitable events or nonprofit organizations, are they offered the opportunity to consider previous payments a donation? And if an event is rescheduled, how far into the future does it need to be? Do you even bother trying to schedule it for the fall, or simply wait until the same time next year?

Sadly, COVID-19 has either delayed or canceled countless plans and events, which of course is to be expected if we’re going to try to lessen the toll it takes on human life. However, in many cases what COVID-19 has given us is a chance for a redo on things we may have missed out on. 

Interestingly, there’s a direct parallel in the Torah this week about postponing or extending celebrations because of illness. This week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha, a turning point in our narrative. This section of text begins with instruction 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, Moshe’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. It is in the return of his family to the camp where we learn about what unrealistic expectations have been levied against Moshe. 

The Torah, in elevating the Israelite nation, recognizes that life sometimes gets the best of us and a second chance is needed. Chapter 9, verses 6-12 describe a second Passover observance that happens exactly one month after the first Passover. Not everyone celebrates this one because it exists specifically for those who were unable to celebrate actual Passover because of sickness or impurity. The Torah argues: why must these people miss out on a great opportunity to honor God and join their community?

So, second Passover, or Pesach Sheni, is born. The Torah reminds us that missing out because of another major obligation doesn’t mean that we don’t care. And not every holiday or event can be made up in its entirety, but if we can create an opportunity for everyone to be included, we should. 

Unfortunately, sometimes when you have to pick and choose, there are no second chances to make up what you missed. This week’s Torah portion reminds us of how meaningful those second chances can be, and perhaps this year is an opportunity to reexamine our priorities to make sure we don’t take first chances for granted.

Day to Day – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5779

day-to-day.jpg

Certain tasks tend to become mundane if you do them day in and day out. When it comes to home life, I wouldn’t mind never changing another dirty diaper or doing laundry again. At least the diapers will be out of our house in another year or less; no such luck with the laundry. In my work life too, there are rabbi duties that are – how shall I put this – less glamorous than others. Turning in payroll, catching up on email, meetings about programming. They are necessary, but in no way exciting parts of the job.

The good news is there are plenty of other daily responsibilities, like reading or singing at bedtime with my children and leading services or engaging in life cycle events, that are never dull, rote, or boring. They are exciting and inspiring each and every time. We all have tasks that we don’t relish doing regularly and those in which we find great fulfillment, and we can only hope they balance each other out.

Our parshah this week, Beha’alotcha, lands us with Aaron and Moses as they get into their 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.

It is in the return of his family to the camp that we learn about what unrealistic expectations have been levied against Moses. As the text begins, God tells Moses to talk to Aaron and have him light the lamps in front of the lamp stand in a certain way. And “Aaron did so.” There was no fight or frustration with this seemingly dull task he was required to do daily. Instead, Aaron just did it. The Vilna Gaon, an 18th century Talmudist, interprets this text to mean, “Day after day, year after year, Aaron’s attitude never changed. His work never became routine or boring. He approached each day with the same sense of reverence he brought to his first day.” That is to say Aaron found joy in the spiritual elevation of performing this task for God and his community.

I am blessed to have found a career that offers me considerably less ordinary routine and considerably more joy in the work that I do. Parshat Beha’alotcha is a yearly reminder to find joy not just in the obvious places, but also in the everyday tasks we are required to accomplish. Day after day Aaron did his job with joy. It was not an exciting job, but a holy one. Think about the things you do on a daily basis and how you might find joy, meaning, and perhaps a higher purpose in them. You might find that simply elevating the simplest tasks removes the mundane altogether. I haven’t made up my mind whether or not that includes diaper changes.

It Never Gets Old – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5778

never-gets-old.jpg

There are some days when I wake up completely unexcited about my familiar routine. I know, I know – it sounds strange to hear this coming from someone who thrives on routine. Nevertheless, sometimes I Just want to do something totally different. There are only so many ways I can make lunches, get kids dressed, get out the door, and follow through with any other daily duties before they all start to feel laboring and repetitive.

I especially feel this way in the summer when work at the shul tends to slow down. I’m left with no camp kids in the building, no Aliyah, and very few visitors simply because there’s less going on in summer. That’s when my job as a rabbi tends to feel more like a nine to five desk job. Nothing against all the nine-to-fivers out there, of course. Every job fills a certain need and can be rewarding in its own way, but one of my favorite parts of being a rabbi is that every day is different. Unfortunately over the summer, that is less often the case. I have to challenge myself to find inspiration and excitement in those lazy hazy crazy days of summer to write and prepare for the next school and programming year.

This week we find the Torah also reaches a similar lull in the action. This week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha, a turning point in our narrative. 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 itself, the Mishkan, and teaches us that God’s presence hovers over it in a cloud. Finally, Moshe’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. It is in the return of his family to the camp that we learn about what unrealistic expectations have been levied against Moshe.

The text begins in a familiar way: God speaks to Moses with an action, Moses tells Aaron, and Aaron does it. The exact words are “Aaron did so.” The Vilna Gaon, an 18th century commentator, interprets this to mean, “Day after day, year after year, Aaron’s attitude never changed. His work was never boring or routine. He approached each day with the same sense of reverence he brought to his first day.” That’s a pretty incredible interpretation. The Vilna Gaon is taking a routine act, which is described in a very routine way, and suggesting that it was never boring. How is that possible?

Beha’alotcha means “in your being lifted up.” Aaron’s work may seem repetitive on the surface, but it was always toward a higher purpose and calling. When we’re a part of something that feels like it matters, we have passion for it. I know my children feel this way each and every day because in their eyes, everything they explore, create, and invent is fresh and new. The Torah challenges us this week to be like Aaron in his excitement even when engaging in our day-to-day duties and earthly occupations. By elevating our work to be holy, whether for the purpose of serving God or serving others, it’s much easier to infuse it with joy and enthusiasm every time.