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.

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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.

Stops Along the Way – Parshat Matot-Masei 5776

Stops Along the Way

Duncan and I love taking road trips. For us, the stops along the way are equally as exciting as the final destination. When we traveled pre-children, we would simply leave with a destination in mind and an amount of time we had to get there. We’d stop when we were tired or if we happened upon a fun diversion. As you can imagine, Shiri has made our trips a bit more purposeful. We still know where we need to end up, but now we try to do it in as little time as possible. I’m sure when our children are a little older, we’ll be able to refocus some of the travel time on stops along the way, but for now these road trips are all about the final destination and not really about the path we take to get there. I’ll be honest – I prefer the leisurely, scenic approach.

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.

Parshat Masei begins with what appears to be a dry list of places. Basically, here’s where we stopped for a night along the way to our destination (Israel). However, our sages view this list as God telling Moshe, “Write down all the places through which Israel journeyed, that they might recall the miracles I wrought for them, guiding them safely through human and natural dangers.” This list, according to the midrash, was actually a recap of how blessed the Israelites were on their journey, not just a directory of the DoubleTrees where they stayed. (Of course when the Israelites stayed at a DoubleTree, it was literally just two trees.)

The point is the Torah could have simply recounted the miracles that occurred, but instead it lists the locales, and by doing so, intimately connects physical space to emotional space. Too often we read the Torah and assume the goal of wandering in the wilderness was to get from Egypt to Israel. Our Torah portion this week reminds us that the journey is about what happens at every step along the way to achieving that goal. Each interaction with another city helped build the character of the Israelites. Each stop let them experience the world a little bit more as free people after they left their life of slavery in Egypt. The stops along the way mark the transitions that the Israelites needed to go through in order to arrive prepared and open-minded in the land of Israel.

On a road trip, you never know what restaurant, landmark, or hidden treasure you’ll find if you just take the time to open your eyes, look around, and enjoy. There are certain times when it’s necessary to stick to the road and get to the destination as fast as possible, but this week’s parshah suggests that equally important in the journey are the stops we make along the way.

Do You Solemnly Swear – Parshat Matot-Masei

Solemnly Swear

As Duncan and I began our journey into parenthood, we had all sorts of grand notions of the type of parents we would be.  Like other parents we know, we swore to each other that we would be the best possible role models. We promised to have all the best qualities we loved in our parents and none of the worst ones. We vowed to be fun, honest, and fair 24/7.  And then Shiri was born.

I’m not saying we went back on every promise, but we found out it was a lot harder to uphold those promises when we were living the reality of parenthood.  Limiting our own screen time to after the baby was asleep in bed was great in theory; however, being up at all hours of the night with a newborn almost always meant a 4:00 a.m. Facebook check.  We wanted to teach Shiri to be a healthy eater and to set healthy examples for her with our food and exercise choices, but some days just demand fries and a milkshake.  We had vowed to act one way, and hard as we try, we still aren’t always in line with those expectations we set for ourselves.

The problem with broken promises to ourselves is they often don’t have enough of an impact to really change our behavior.  Think of New Year’s resolutions or simply trying to change a bad habit.  The problem with broken promises to others is there’s often too much of an impact because of the resulting loss of trust in the relationship.

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.

Promises play a role in both of these sections. In Matot, certain types of vows are identified and explained, including vows of married couples to God and each other. In Masei, the tribes make requests of Moshe, and Moshe responds, vowing to give certain parcels of land to certain people.  These are verbal agreements, once again showing the power of words.

From the creation of the world through God’s word alone, to the myriad laws on how we use our words to create or destroy, the power of speech is identified as one of the unique gifts of a human being.  More specifically, our human communication, when combined with our memory and our empathy, gives us the unique ability to create and enact self-imposed legislation.  Put another way, our speech can represent not only the exchange of words, but the exchange of tangible, touchable things.

The parshiyot this week remind us that our words have this power and that whether or not we can feel it, there is weight to the promises we make to ourselves and each other.