Time for an Update – Parshat Matot-Masei 5781

I recently saw a Facebook memory pop up. It was a very frustrated me as a rabbinical student when I woke up one morning to go to class and found my computer locked in the midst of an epic system update. It was 30% done, and that meant I wouldn’t have been able to take my computer with me for classes or finish my homework, and basically being without my computer felt like a type of mental paralysis. This was pre-smartphone, so there was no backup option of using my phone to get work done. However, my computer hadn’t crashed; it was making itself better. When I got home that night, I had an extremely awesome working computer that was all updated and ready to do the work I needed. And these days either the updates happen faster, or I’ve figured out how to time them appropriately. 

More and more things in our lives receive regular updates: our phones, our TVs, even our refrigerators connect to the internet for firmware updates. We’re always finding ways to take something and make it safer or more secure. Think of the number of car safety features that have become standard over the last decade or so. Now there are back-up cameras, automatic brakes, passing alert sensors . . . despite the too frequent use of cell phones while driving, we’ve never been more informed and aware as drivers. We don’t just update our digital lives. As information changes, health recommendations change, languages change, and books get new, revised editions. All this is to say that as our world changes, so does the information we need to be a part of it. 

There is one book, however, that does not receive regular updates or revised editions. The Torah we read today is still the same Torah inspired by God and interpreted through Moses. In our parshah 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.

As the text begins we find ourselves in this section of laws dealing with vows. Chapter 30 specifically deals with the vows of women. Basically, the Torah tells us that if a woman makes a vow while she is still young, her father can decide to validate the vow or invalidate it. The same then holds true for her husband; he too can choose whether or not her words are valid.

This stated subordination is certainly problematic for the world we live in, but it was troublesome to the sages in the Talmud as well. Already at that time they tried to limit the applicability of this law by restricting the time one could annul another’s vows. And yet, the law still exists in the Torah, and we read it year after year.

For better or worse, the scroll we call the Torah isn’t updated. We can’t change the words themselves because, as words of God, the story is static and unchanging. Fortunately though, we have rabbinic scholars who have worked for millennia and still work daily to understand the intent of the commandment, so that it can apply in a modern form to our lives today. In fact, this is the work of the Committee on Jewish Laws and Standards for the conservative movement. 

While we might not change the main body of the United States Constitution, we have amendments that allow for new interpretations and even changes. In a similar way, the Torah is in a sense the first draft, and the Talmud (and even this drash) are the updates. That first draft is still critical. To update anything, we must start with a solid foundation. The Torah is our foundational document, and this week’s portion is a reminder that we continue to update it using the spirit and intention of the law in order to guide us in our lives today. 

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.

Burning Up – Parshat Matot-Masei 5779

burning-up.jpg

Every Monday morning I join our Foundation School learners for Havdalah. We sit together in a big circle, share what we’re grateful to God for, and then say goodbye to Shabbat and hello to the awesome week we’ll have together. We mark this transition by using the Havdalah candle. Over the years we’ve had many different candles, some tall and thin, others short and wide. Some are multi-colored, and others are solid or just blue and white. With each new candle the children check out how many wicks the candle has, how bright and big the flame is, and how loud the sizzle is when we put the fire out. We are fascinated by the burning flame and how by the act of sanctifying that fire we move from Shabbat, a holy, sacred time, into the rest of the week. Then the following Friday night we start all over again by lighting the two Shabbat candles. In and out of sacred space we float by the sparking and snuffing of a flame.

The power of fire in our Jewish faith has been evident since the beginning of the Torah. In our parshah 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.

In chapter 31, verse 23 we read about the ways in which we can purify objects. If an object can withstand fire, then it is to be passed through the fire. This ritual is still used today to kasher (to make acceptable for kosher use) utensils from milk to meat or vice versa. Although the metal remains unharmed, fire is able to cause chemical changes to other materials, thus changing their state. Metal doesn’t necessarily change its state (except under extreme heat), but the fire still represents that transition.

Heat changes things. It leaves a mark, literally, in the form of a blister or worse when our skin touches fire. And figuratively, a fire within our souls can ignite us to work for change in our own lives or the world around us. This week, the words of our ancient text require us to embrace fire as a mechanism for change and remind us how we might harness that fire for good. May we move from one phase into the next with our passion at the forefront. May we be inspired by the dance of the flames of whatever lights we kindle.

Taking a Breather – Parshat Matot-Masei

taking-a-breather

Last year PBS aired a special program about astronaut Scott Kelly’s homecoming and readjustment to life on Earth after living on the International Space Station for 11 months. Segments included discussions of what’s next in space travel, including theoretical travel to Mars, and the tests conducted to track changes between Kelly and his twin brother Mark, who remained on Earth as the control part of the experiment. One of the most compelling clips was of Kelly learning to walk again after spending nearly a year in zero gravity.

While I can’t imagine that degree of readjustment, I can distinctly recall the culture shock of reentering society every summer when I’d come home from camp. It would take a few days to settle in to sleeping in a quiet room by myself and being responsible for my own food choices again. Even the loud blare of the TV after a few weeks without it was difficult to readjust to. When I came back from my year in Israel, I remember thinking that the fat 2-liter bottles of pop (yes, pop) we have in America were so funny looking compared to the slender 1.5-liter bottles they had in Israel. Each time I tried to reenter society, I would need a few days, possibly even a week, to decompress and wrap my head around the change in environment.

I realize there’s quite a chasm between astronaut Scott Kelly’s readjustment and my own, but it turns out that the whole notion of taking time to rest before reentering society after a life-changing experience is as old as the Torah itself. 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.  

In chapter 31, verse 19 we read of the Israelites coming back from a war of vengeance. The warriors who have engaged in battle and caused death are not allowed to come back into the camp for a week’s time. This behavior was beyond what was (and is) generally acceptable for members of our society, but was permitted during times of war. Because of this, the soldiers are permitted to reenter society, but only after they have taken that one week away, outside of camp. This was done both for sanitary reasons of corpse contamination and as an emotional transition back to the world of normal living.

Included in these parshiyot is the reminder that transitions, whether in and out of major life events or just returning from a summer away, require an adjustment period. Life can be pretty challenging at times, and you owe it to yourself to take time to regroup before returning to the demands of daily life.

Your Mood Swing is an Act of God

Mood Swing

Hannah Glass, one of Neveh Shalom’s seniors, once told me, “God is the explanation for those things we simply cannot understand.” Not only is it Jewish nature to wrestle with God, it is human nature. In a world that relies on physical evidence, a being that cannot be physically seen or touched is difficult to believe in at times. Some people find faith challenging; others find comfort believing that there is an entity greater than us in every way. And to add to this inner struggle, we also have to realize that as we change, our understanding of God can change too. Growth means we shift and adjust, and therefore our notion of God can too.

The proof is in the Torah, which is full of different experiences of God. There are times when God is kind, times when God is vengeful, times when God is caring like a parent, and times when God has what is unmistakably a short temper. These different aspects reveal an ever-changing nature of God and the kind of emotional changes we ourselves might experience. However, we also learn that fluctuations in God’s temperament do not diminish the loyalty and dedication God has for the Jewish people.

This week we read the last segments of the fourth book of the Torah, Bamidbar. Parshiyot Matot and Masei start by talking about the various vows the Israelites will make, and afterward they detail the requests of the different tribes as they prepare to enter the Promised Land. This section ends with the last arrangements of the tribes as they define their territorial legacies.

As the Israelites get closer to entering into the Promised Land, they also enter into discussions with God about what their options are in this new, uncharted territory. In chapter 33, verse 52 we learn:

You shall dispossess all the inhabitants of the land; you shall destroy all their figured objects, you shall destroy all their molten images and you shall demolish all their cult places.

It’s easy to read this as a literal takeover, or at least a pretty harsh declaration of intolerance. But the Torah’s larger purpose here is more of a warning to the Israelites not to fall into the trap of blending their religious practices with the practice of the Canaanites, thus losing their own culture. At this point in the Torah, the Israelites still face the very real fear that the God they have known is only with them for the duration of the Exodus. Their concern is will this new place necessitate new ways to connect with God? This is why the Torah makes a point of stating, “No, you don’t need those other gods. I, the God with you through the Exodus, am your God through life.”

We often think of God, at least in the Torah, as having human-like emotions. But since we are created in God’s image, wouldn’t it stand to reason that perhaps we are the ones having God-like emotions? And yet even a God-like mood swing or emotional struggle only has as much power as we give it. Yes, we go through changes. Yes, there is uncertainty in life. That doesn’t mean we lose who we are.