Day to Day – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5779

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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

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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.

 

 

Bring Up the Rear – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5777

Bring up the rear

If you’ve visited an early childhood classroom, you know the excitement that comes when a child finds out their assigned job for the rest of the day. These little learners love responsibility, which means that they’ll gladly take on any role they’re given because it is theirs and theirs alone for the day. From line leader to garbage collector, from door holder to clipboard carrier, the kids get excited to see what their responsibility of the day is. For the teachers of classes with 10 or more kids, that means coming up with some creative responsibilities.

I remember having these rotating duties as a preschooler myself. And while you might assume that line leader is the most coveted role, I always loved being the caboose, or in other words, the last one in line. There’s something to be said for the power of being able to see the rest of the line and the fact that everyone else in the class has to walk at least as fast as the person at the end.

This week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha. In this section of text we receive the commandment to light the menorah in the Tabernacle. We also learn of the Levite army, the sacrifice of Passover, and how we might celebrate a second Passover if we miss the first. The portion ends with Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, returning to his own people, the appointing of 70 elders to assist Moshe, and finally Miriam’s punishment for gossiping about her brother. The middle of the text, however, focuses on the Israelites and the way in which they will finally move through the desert.

The directional guides along the journey (the “line leaders”) are represented as a cloud by day and a fire by night, and the Mishkan is a sort of magic wand that also guides the people as they move. Everyone has their place in the line, including the “caboose,” which is the tribe of Dan. In the Torah, Dan is described as “gatherers.” For this reason Rashi comments that the tribe’s task was not only to be last in line, but to gather up lost objects dropped on the way and return them to their owners.

Another commentator speculates that not only would they be responsible for lost objects, but for individuals who may have strayed from the course. Perhaps they were chosen for this role because while the tribe of Dan is portrayed as weak of faith (later becoming an idol-worshipping community) they were strong in love for the community.

The caboose, the last in line, has the job of helping everyone to keep up. The members of the tribe of Dan, while perhaps not as eager as everyone else, were not the stragglers. They still had a job to do. Even if you’re bringing up the rear, wherever you stand in the line, wherever you are on the spectrum, you’re a part of the community. The same goes for our Neveh Shalom community. Whether you’re a service leader, board member, Kiddush maker, cookie baker, or a more casual observer from behind, the role you choose isn’t nearly as important as knowing your role matters.

Meet Me Halfway – Parshat Beha’alotcha 5776

Meet Me Halfway

Life is often about making compromises. Sometimes we compromise because it’s the easiest solution. I work on one side of town, you work on the other, and we pick a place in the middle for coffee. Other times compromise means one person bends a little bit further than the other to make the situation work. The key is for each party to know what they want and how far they’re willing to bend, as well as recognize that pleasing only yourself won’t lead to a workable solution.

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 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 is in the return of his family to the camp that we learn about what unrealistic expectations have been levied against Moshe.

As God is conversing with the Moshe, God tries to understand both the mood of the people and the situation at hand. In chapter 11, verse 17 God says, “I will come down and speak with you there, and I will draw upon the spirit that is on you and put it upon them; they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone.” The people are angry about their food situation and generally about being in the desert, and they take it out on Moshe. God realizes that in these circumstances and with this state of mind, it is unrealistic to ask the people to elevate themselves. And so, God will “come down.”

Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century German commentator on the Torah, reads this verse as God predicting that given the mood of the people, they shouldn’t be expected to rise toward God. Instead, God will come down to shorten the distance between them. In other words, well before we started talking about things like relational Judaism and the outreach potential of social media, God understood the need to address the people where they were and help elevate them by meeting them halfway.

Too often we demand compromise as if it’s one-sided. We expect others to “rise to the occasion.” But parshat Beha’alotcha reminds us that sometimes we have to meet in the middle in order to move forward together. This is the blessing this week, the blessing of walking with each other, of accepting each other where we are at in every circumstance and working to move forward together.

[Watercolor by Frits Ahlefeldt]