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.

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.