Thursday, May 28, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Naso - Sharing a blessing

I remember as a child going to an Orthodox synagogue to celebrate a family friend becoming Bar Mitzvah, and, at one point in the service, seeing a number of men go to the front, put their tallit over their heads and then reach out their hands in some strange gesture as they said words of Hebrew.  I commented that it looked like a Ghostbusters moment with the way that the tallit covered them.  Later on I would discover that this was the moment when the Cohanim, the priests of that community, stepped forward to offer the priestly blessing upon the whole congregation.  Today, I have the opportunity to offer the priestly blessing in two contexts.  As a Rabbi, I give the priestly blessing to the B’nai Mitzvah and to various other people who come up to the Bimah to receive blessings.  But, as a father, I get to give the blessing to my daughter Gabby every Shabbat, when my wife and I together, bless her. 

The words that we use for the priestly blessing come from this week’s Torah portion where we’re told “and God spoke to Moses saying speak to Aaron and to his son saying, in this way you shall bless the people of Israel, saying to them…and, then God gives the blessing which incorporates God.  And so God tells us to bless each other by saying “Yevarechecha Adonai veyishmerecha, may God bless you and keep you, Yaer Adonai panav elecha veyichuneka, may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you, Yisa Adonai panav elecha veyasem lecha shalom, may God lift up God’s face to you and give you peace.” 

It’s a beautiful blessing that God gave to the priests that we, in turn, give to one another.  The first part of it just speaks of blessing and being protected, the second part has this idea of God’s face shining and then being gracious to us.  But in that final part, we have a sense of God really lifting up God’s face to look upon us, eye to eye, directly and then giving us peace.  In this way, we might see that the blessing elevates and gets bigger and bigger so that ultimately, the final blessing is one – for God to see us, and two – for us to have peace. 

There’s something very powerful about this blessing and I know that when I get to offer this blessing to B’nai Mitzvah, and, when I get to offer it to my daughter, I am always struck by what it means to give a blessing and to share a blessing.  And, in the end, in the following verse of our Torah, it says “and they shall put my name upon the people of Israel and I will bless them.”  In this way, when we give this blessing, not only do we share in this history stretching back to Aaron the priest,  not only do we get to offer wonderful words, but we firmly associate ourselves with God, as God places God’s name upon the people of Israel.

It is wonderful to receive a blessing, but it is even more powerful to be able to give a blessing and share that blessing with others.  I hope that we all have many opportunities to share our blessings.  

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Bamidbar - Look how far we've come

When we talk about numbers, there’s a point where the numbers become almost inconceivable because of the vastness and the size of them.  When we think in small numbers, we can imagine four people, we can imagine ten people, we can even imagine what two hundred, three hundred people look like.  And with sporting venues we can maybe even get up to fifty, sixty thousand.  But once we start getting above those kind of numbers into the hundreds of thousands, it’s really hard to imagine what that means and what that’s like.  And, in some ways, the numbers can lose a sense of meaning.

This week’s Torah Portion of Bamidbar begins with just that kind of list of numbers.  As we take the census of the Israelite males over the age of twenty in the wilderness.  At this point, as we begin numbering off the different tribes, we get numbers of forty-six thousand five hundred, fifty-nine thousand three hundred, forty-five thousand six hundred and fifty and so on.  The vastness of these numbers is hard to imagine.  Ultimately concluding with the total number of Israelite males age twenty and over at six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty. 

The implication must have been that if that was the males alone over the age of twenty, there were probably something like two million Israelites in the wilderness when the census was taken.  This contrasts with the book of Shemot, Exodus, which begins with the names of Jacob’s twelve sons who went down to Egypt and we’re told that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob because Joseph was there already. 

From seventy to six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty if not more.  It is clear that in the four hundred and thirty years in Egypt and the one year in the wilderness, we, as a people, have grown from a family into a real community, a nation.  Amidst the enormity of the numbers of the census, it would be easy to lose sight of the individual people who made up those Israelites counted by Moses. 

In contrast with the book of Exodus, Shemot which begins with the lists of the names of Jacob’s sons, we have this six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty, an almost incomprehensible number.   But, yet we still have individuals.  Because before we get those numbers, we’re told of the twelve people who will help Moses and Aaron with the counting of the Israelites.  From Reuben Elizur son of Shedeur, from Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, from Judah Nahshon, son of Amminadab – and, so on and so forth.  We remember that despite the growth, despite how far we have come from a family into a nation – individuals still matter. 

And that nation is still made up of individuals and each one of those six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty people count as well.  We’ve come a long way from the family that moved down to Egypt and grown exponentially but at the same time we remember, no how big the nation, the people or the community, it still, at its core, about the individuals of which its comprised.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Bechukotai - Rewards

Our daughter Gabby is now at an age where we’ve started to negotiate a little bit in order to get her to do certain things.  In this way she’s told, if she finishes all of her food then she might be allowed to have a cookie at the end.  Or, if she behaves herself, then we’ll go somewhere.  She’s learning the fact that she has some power over what will happen through the behavior and the way that she behaves.

Something similar goes on in this week’s Torah portion, between God and the Israelites.  In this week’s Torah portion we start by saying IF you follow my laws and faithfully observe my commandments and then we get all of the things that will come for us.  And, really we can divide it into four promises made by God ~ I will grant you rains in the season, an important necessity for an agricultural society.  I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone.  I will look with favor upon you and make you fertile and multiply you, maintaining the covenant with you and I will establish my abode in your midst and I will not spurn you. 

Four promises made by God, if, we the Israelites obey the commandments given by God.  Of these four promises, three may be considered to be in the natural world or in the area of God, the rain, the favor from God and the establishment of God’s abode in our midst.  But in the midst of this we have this idea of receiving peace and lying down untroubled.  It goes on to elaborate  ~ I will give the land respite from vicious beasts and no sword shall cross your land.  The promise of peace may seem a little bit strange, because as we know, peace requires not just us to adhere to it but our neighbors and those around us to adhere to peace. 

Perhaps the message for us to take away is that when we pursue and follow God’s commandments as we’re supposed to, then we will be the kind of people who make peace with our neighbors.  We will have the kind of society that is at peace with those around us and, therefore, we will be untroubled by anyone.  And no swords shall cross our land.  These commandments remind us, as we do with our daughter Gabi, that we do have power over our fate.  Through our actions, we can encourage God’s behavior, but more than this we can create a set of circumstances by which we live in favorable situations.

Bechukotai makes it clear how we can be rewarded.  The challenge is for us to live up to our side of the deal so that we receive these rewards rather than the punishments which God also elaborates.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Behar - The Lessons of Slavery

One of the oft-repeated tropes in our Torah is the line “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  This declaration is made on several occasions as if to emphasize certain mitzvot and commandments given by God and to insure, that we as a people are constantly reminded that we were slaves in Egypt.  We take this message into our own lives today and at our Passover sederim we say, “we were slaves in Egypt.”  Owning that slavery experience from which we were redeemed by God. 

In this week’s Torah portion of Behar we have a very short portion of only 57 verses.  And in these 57 verses on three occasions we read, “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  Emphasizing in each case a different commandment that we are given.  The overall focus of Behar is about the sabbatical year and the jubilee year.  And the regulations and laws that accompany them.  These three occurrences  of “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.” are all related to the regulations and rules of slavery in the context of the Sabbatical and Jubilee years. 

In two of the instances the declaration is made in the context of a law about freeing the slave in the Jubilee year.  In the first instance, it is about the situation where an Israelite is forced to become a hired laborer to another Israelite, in which case, they remain in that space until the Jubilee year, and then he, his children, shall be free and go back to their family and their original ancestral holding and, as it says, for they are my servants whom I freed from the land of Egypt.

Then, continuing along this theme, it tells us again, that if an Israelite becomes a hired laborer to a resident alien, similarly the person should be freed because as the text says “it is to me that the Israelites are servants, they are my servants, whom I freed from the land of Egypt. I am Adonai, your God. 

The remaining occurrence of this text, and the first one in the Torah portion comes in a different context.  This time it says, if your kinsmen being in straits, comes under your authority, and you hold him as though a resident alien, let him live by your side, do not  exact from him advance or accrued interest, but free your God, let him live by your side as your kinsmen, do not lend him your money, advance interest or give him your food at a crude interest.  “I am Adonai your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, to give you the land of Canaan to be your God.”

In this way, in this occurrence, it is also about our obligation not to enslave.  We were slaves in Egypt, and as such, we know the pain and troubles of slavery and therefore we must never enslave someone by forcing them into a situation where they owe us more than they can repay.  God reminds us in this text that slavery is an undesirable situation for ourselves and it’s also an undesirable situation that we should not be forcing another person into.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Emor - Counting up

I have always found numbers to be soothing.  Something about the laws and rules of numbers have a calming influence on me.  I think it’s for that reason that I find Sudoku puzzles to be something quite relaxing to do and occasionally, in certain situations, I will count things in rooms as a way of keeping myself calm. 

It’s no wonder, therefore, that I’m attracted to the instruction that we get in this week’s Torah portion of Emor, to count.  In the Torah portion of Emor, we get the first full telling of our festive calendar.  We’re given the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot.  And for 4 of those 5 festivals, we’re given a date.  Pesach gets a date, Rosh Hashanah gets a date, Yom Kippur gets a date and Sukkot gets a date.  

But, Shavuot is left in a slightly strange position where no date is given by God to Moses.  Instead, the text says, “ and from the day in which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering, the day after the Sabbath, you should count off 7 weeks.  They must be complete.  You must count until the day after the 7th week, 50 days, then you shall bring an offering of new grain to Adonai.”  In this way, Shavuot is not introduced with a date, but rather by a duration of time, from Pesach until Shavuot.  7 weeks, or 7 sets of 7 days for 49, making the 50th day the festival of Shavuot. 

In many ways, 7 is Judaism’s lucky number and so I like the fact that we count 7 sets of 7 to reach the festival of Shavuot.  But more than this, there is significance in the fact that we have to count up.  Normally, when we’re excited for an event, a birthday, or going away to summer camp, we count down so that we reach to zero and at that point, the fun thing has arrived. 

But for Shavuot instead we count up.  The Counting of the Omer involves us each and every day, numbering the day, so that we add days on days until we reach 49 days and on the 50th day we celebrate. 

Counting up reminds us that every day matters.  That every day is significant and not something to be taken for granted with only the destination in mind.  The counting toward Shavuot reminds us that the journey is equally important.  And this is so apt and appropriate for the move and transition from the festival of Pesach to Shavuot.  Our festival of freedom from slavery in Egypt to our festival of Torah.  Shavuot gives Pesach purpose.  But we don’t just get that purpose immediately, we have to work for it.  We have to go through 49 days to be ready to receive the gift of Torah.  We count up, knowing that each and every day matters and at the end we receive God’s most precious gift.  As we stand together at Mt. Sinai as one people accepting the gift of Torah.  

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim - Getting away with it

When we’re young, as children, we learn the difference between right and wrong and that in many ways, in life, we have choices to make.  We choose to do the right thing or we choose to do the wrong thing.  The reason that we avoid doing the wrong thing can be because we know it’s wrong and therefore we don’t do it.  It can also be because of a fear of punishment and when it’s just because of the fear of punishment sometimes people end up doing the wrong thing because they feel they can get away with it.  If it's all about the punishment and you know you won’t get caught is there really any problem?  I hope that we live our lives according to a different standard where we avoid doing the wrong thing and do the right thing because that’s the way it should be. 

In this week’s Torah portion of Acharei Mot-Kedoshim we get a very interesting series of laws known as the Holiness Code.  And in the midst of them, we get a number of specific laws.  We’re told that the wages of the person who is hired with you shall not remain with you all the nights until the morning so that we must pay our hired help immediately and in a timely fashion.  We are also told not to curse the deaf nor put a stumbling block before the blind.  But we shall fear our God, I am Adonai. 

These 3 commandments together, appearing one after the other, are things that we could get away with.  The hired help has very little control and very little power and so if we do not pay them immediately, what are they going to do about it?  The deaf person who is cursed does not hear the curse and the blind person, before whom a stumbling block is placed, does not see it.  So in all 3 cases, we have the power, and as such, we can get away with doing the wrong thing. 

But the Holiness code comes as a reminder and tells us no.  We must do the right thing.  And, it offers some warning by saying, and you shall fear God.  As if to remind us that God sees what we do, God knows what we do and even if we might get away with it here on earth, God is watching.  And then it reminds us, I am Adonai.  And the importance of this declaration at the end should not be underestimated.  

The Holiness code begins with God telling us, you shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God am holy, and here it says I am Adonai, just to remind us that we need to be holy.  And one of the ways that we can be holy is by always doing the right thing, even if we can get away with something, if we know it’s wrong, we should not do it.  Because in doing the right thing we can make ourselves holy just like God.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Tazria-Metzora - Including All

Campaigning has once again begun in the British elections. And, as a result, it is inevitable that there will be debates about immigration policy and immigrants in British society.  Once again, political leaders will do battle trying to determine who is in and who is out.  And, all too often, they will try to score points by being harsh on immigration and the immigrants who have contributed and do contribute so much to British society.  At times, when listening to the politician’s campaign, it will seem like they’re trying to determine who is acceptable to be a part of "our" group and who is not, rather than seeking to find ways to include everyone in society.

In this week’s Torah Portion of Tazria-Metzora, we appear to get a similar kind of situation where the Torah lays down a legal system and laws for who is considered clean and unclean.  And, by virtue of a person’s uncleanliness, who needed to be removed or kept separate from the camp for a period of time.  Tazria-Metzora is often considered to be one of the yucky Torah Portions dealing with subjects such as skin disease, discharge, emissions, leprosy and other bodily functions.  At its core, the Torah Portion deals with when a person is clean or unclean and the ritual by which a person can be re-admitted and re-included in the camp. 

At first glance, when we look at this torah portion, we may therefore assume that it is about exclusion, about searching out the unclean and excluding them from society.  But I would suggest that it is the opposite.  Tazria-Metzora serves as a reminder of the importance of finding ways to include all, so that when a person was removed from the camp because of the suspicion of leprosy, this was a temporary removal.  Ultimately they would be returned and re-admitted into the camp and into society because Judaism and the laws of Tazria-Metzora sought to find a way to include everyone and to find a way back for those who had once been excluded. 

It would be nice if the politicians in this year’s British election remember the message of this week’s Torah Portion.