Thursday, May 25, 2017

As Well To Count The Angels Dancing On A Pin ( John Barlow & Bob Weir - "Weather Report Suite Part II: Let It Grow")

This week, the President of the United States had visited Saudi Arabia, Israel, and the Vatican. His trip will conclude by attending a meeting with NATO and the G7 in Brussels. His visit to Israel was marked by a historical first. It was the first time that a sitting President ever went to the Kotel (The Western Wall). Yes, President Trump wore a Kippah, slipped a note into one of the many crevices in the Kotel, and he met with the Kotel Rabbi. Actually it was quite a powerful image. At a later point during his time in Israel, he visited the Holocaust Museum known as Yad VaShem.  Yad Vashem not only is Holocaust Museum. It not only offers an explanation of how the systematic destruction of six million Jews and occurred, not only does the museum display artifacts from what the Nazis collected, shoes, glasses etc.; the museum also bears witness. Yad Vashem has managed to make an accounting of 4.5 million of the 6 million. In a sense, Yad Vashem has gone through the painstaking process, and continues to go through the painstaking process of taking a census.
This Shabbat we begin the fourth book of the Torah, Sefer Bemidbar, by reading the first Parsha, Bemidbar. Literally meaning “In the Wilderness”, this fourth book of the Torah resumes the narrative format with B'nai Yisroel preparing to leave the foot of Mount Sinai. For the past year, B'nai Yisroel has essentially camped out at Har Sinai and listened to Moshe and Aharon teach all the laws concerning Tamei/Tahor –Purity and Impurity, Kodesh and Chol – the Holy and the Mundane, as well as the laws for Korbonot, sacrificial offerings. Prior to B'nai Yisroel’s embarking on the remainder of its journey a census is required. In fact, Parsha Bemidbar consists of three types of census. The first census counts all men over the age of twenty that come from all the tribes except for the Levites. The second census focuses only upon the Levites. Since this tribes’ sole function is to operate and manage the Mishkan, ascertaining the number of workers in the Mishkan suggests the importance of the Mishkan to the everyday life of the B'nai Yisroel. The third census focuses upon the organizational placement of each tribe around the Mishkan while traveling.
The Census that God commands Moshe at the beginning of this fourth book of the Torah is very different than the last census taken. Until now there had been one Census taken while B’nai Yisroel was at Sinai, engaged in the construction of the Mishkan. All the way back in Parsha Ki Tissa, in Sefer Shmot (the Book of Exodus) God had commanded Moshe to count everyone by levying a half shekel tax. In fact we are commanded not to count by pointing and counting but rather we would count the number of ½ Shekel collected and that number would then tell us the total number of men twenty years and older. (Ex 30:11-14) Now God commands Moshe S’u Et Rosh Kol Adat Bnai Yisroel L’Mishpechotam L’Veit Avotam Mispar Sheimot  Kol Zachar L’Gulgulotam; Miben Esrim Shana Va’Malah Kol Yotzei Tzavah B’Yisroel Tifkedu Otam….- Take a census of the entire assembly of the Children of Israel according to  their families, according to their father’s household, by number of the names and every male according to their head count; from  twenty years of age an up everyone who goes out to the legion in Israel, you shall count them (Num. 1:2-3)…. Abravanel, the 15th century Portuguese commentator points out the apparent contradiction in the two types of census:  the first being found in the Sefer Shmot, and the second in Parsha Bemidbar. “Surely this (Bemidbar) is just the opposite of what the Torah had commanded on an earlier occasion (Sefer Shmot Parsha Ki Tissa).” There in Ki Tissah, they poll (a tax) was taken.  “How could the Almighty have commanded them here to number them by their polls?” Abravanel notes the word “Tifekedu Otam” – you shall “account for them” (according to Rashi and “accounting” is a Poll or a levied tax).  Ramban, the 12th century Spanish commentator and philosopher points out that Tifkedu is an expression of visitation, remembrance and providence. 
              So when the President went through the museum he not only saw a memorial to a vast number of people, he not only saw the how and why such an evil was perpetrated, but he also had a chance to see individuals, names,  with their own lives, their own path and their own destiny cut short by the Shoah. He had an opportunity to express a sense of visitation. He had an opportunity to express remembrance. He had an opportunity to express providence.   Indeed Yad Vashem embodies Ramban’s understanding of PaKaD - accounting. The institution visits the victims and it allows us to visit. The institution serves as a national memory and allows us to remember. The institution is a testament to providence, that is to say, that despite such evil, the holiest, most divine aspects of the human spirit are expressed in the fact that such a museum and other museums like it have been created. Such an accounting, such an experience is more than “amazing”. Hopefully, such an accounting, such an experience is awe inspiring, emotionally powerful and reminds us not only of the evil that has been and can be perpetrated but what is required to eliminate evil and allow goodness to flourish.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Pretty Soon Won't Trust You For The Weather ( Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "They Love Each Other")

Lately, my son has been sitting with me watching many of the news shows that I watch. Maybe he wants to spend time with me.  This week we learned of a Times of Israel article about the U.S. President’s upcoming trip to Israel, Saudi Arabia and Rome. This is President’ Trump’s first overseas visit as President so the eyes of the world will be on Trump. America's allies will be watching and so will America's enemies. For the first time ever, a U.S. President plans to visit the Kotel (Western Wall). This is a very big deal. It is a big deal for the Israel. It is a big deal for the Jewish People. Israeli Government representatives asked the White House representatives if Prime Minister Netanyahu could accompany the President. Could the Israeli press cover this historical moment? Normally, before the President arrives, representatives of the from the State Department usually arrive a week or two ahead, work out the itinerary, security, meetings according to  all the necessary  international protocol. Unfortunately, the State Department is only minimally staffed as the President decided to severely cut its budget. As a result, the White House has sent representatives to make these preparations and they are not quite as well trained as the State Department. During a meeting with their Israeli counterparts, the Presidents itinerary was discussed. With great ignorance and arrogance, the White House representative declined Netanyahu’s offer to accompany the president and couldn’t understand why Israel and the Israeli press cared so much about the President’s visit to the Wall since the Wall and Jerusalem were part of the West Bank. Not only did the ignorant comment make the news in Israel it made the news in the United States and Canada. By the next day the White House put out an explanation. As our children watched the news with me that night and saw me shaking my head; our son asked me why I seemed so disgusted. Like a good father, and a typical rabbi, I answered his question with a question. “Why do you think?” He thought for a moment, I could see him thinking. He astutely remarked that over the past couple of weeks, the President, otherwise known as the leader of the free world, fired the Head of the FBI, the day after during a meeting with the two Russian official in the Oval Office, verbally passed along classified information, White House representatives are making asinine comments about Jerusalem and the Wall as being part of the West Bank and the classified information that the President shared with the Russians in the Oval Office came from Israeli intelligence sources. My son told me that I probably shook my head out of disgust because the Leader of the Free World was so untrustworthy, and if the President is not to be trusted, that diminishes America, and a diminished America is not at all good for Israel.
This week, we again read a double portion, Parsha Behar and Parsha Bechukotai. These are the last two Parshiot of Sefer Vayikrah (Book of Leviticus). Throughout the entire book, we have read how to elevate our lives with holiness. We elevate our lives by thanking God and atoning to God, through a variety of Korbonot. We elevate our lives by avoiding behavior that defiles us; we don’t marry our sisters. We elevate our lives in everyday physical behaviors; we only eat certain types of food. We elevate our lives by consciously setting aside holy times throughout the day, week, and season. In Parsha Behar we elevate our lives and our land with holiness by setting aside another type of sacred time, Shmita (the seventh year.) Just like the seventh day (Shabbat) is a day of rest. Shmita is a year of rest. Every seventh year, all outstanding debts are cancelled. The land lies fallow. Slaves and servants are set free. Agriculturally speaking, there is a benefit. Resting the soil for a year allows for replenishment of nutrients. Rabbinically speaking, less time devoted to agricultural concerns meant more time devoted to Torah study! Parsha Bechukotai, being the end of Leviticus, tells us the ramifications for behavior. “If you’ll keep the commandments… then I’ll send the rains in their time, the earth and trees will give forth their produce, you’ll settle securely in the land…I will multiply you…I will walk with you” (Lev. 25:3-10). If we don’t live up to these standards, if we neglect adding Kedushah (holiness) to our lives, if we “don’t perform these commandments, if we consider these decrees loathsome, if we reject these ordinances, if we annul the covenant, then I will do the same to you…. (Lev. 26:14:17) God will annul us. All blessing will become curses.
            While the Torah does not paint a very pleasant picture, both parshiot reflect the vital importance of Bitachon, trust in God. In Behar, we may consider this notion of Shmita to be quite nice. All debts are cancelled. On the other hand, if the land is to lie fallow, what would people eat? We are urged to trust God. “I will command my blessing upon the sixth year and it will bring forth (enough) produce for three years (Lev. 25:20-21).  The Chatam Sofer, (Rabbi Moshe Shreiber from Frankfort on the Main, Germany 1762-1839) explained the importance of reminding us that the Mitzvah of Shmita originated from Sinai just like the Mitzvah of gathering the Manna while B’nai Yisroel wandered and traveled to Eretz Yisroel.  God provided a double portion of Manna on Friday thereby guaranteeing enough food for Shabbat during their time of wandering; so too God will “guarantee” enough produce in the sixth year when they are living in the land. B’nai Yisroel won’t starve in the seventh (Shmita) year nor will they starve in the first year of the next cycle while they are waiting for that year’s harvest.
            So what does the Torah teach us? We learn that every rung climbed towards Kedushah, confirms our trust in God. Rather than diminishing ourselves out of ignorance and arrogance, we remind ourselves of God’s presence in all aspect of our lives including the harvest, the Jubilee year, and helping those most vulnerable. Because of this constant reminder, we trust that God is Holy, otherwise we would have no need to be holy. We trust that everything pure and good is attributable to God. Otherwise, we would constantly defile ourselves. We trust that we are created in God’s image. Otherwise, there is no reason to treat people with kindness first. Trust in God, in a sense, is a spiritually individualized Mishkan. The Mishkan was built so that God would dwell among us. Similarly, if our purpose is to attain higher and higher levels of Kedusha, we trust that the end result is God’s dwelling within us. Leviticus teaches us that God is involved in our daily routine. Our struggle for Kedusha is our way of reminding ourselves of this fact. Failure to remind ourselves means we fall away from God and our faith diminishes. When we lack in faith and trust in God, it diminishes the Jewish people. When the Leader of the Free World cannot be trusted, well, my son will watch me continue shaking my head in disappointment as the diminished of the United States and in concern for the welfare of Israel.

Rav Yitz

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Once In A While You Get Shown The Light In The Strangest Of Places If You Look At It Right (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Scarlet Begonias")

Our third child, and youngest daughter, just turned 15. Of our four children, she is the blonde. She is the most artistic, and seems to appreciates the creative process that art embodies. Her school had its annual “Art Exhibit” this week, so we attended. Immediately I could pick out our daughter’s work. I could tell her work by the content, and by her use of color. She definitely has an “eye”. When she looks at something or someone, she sees color, shape, lines, mood, and character. She expresses this in her drawings as well as her photographs. The subjects of photographs are not only of family and friends, but also includes pictures of landscapes, sunsets, sunrises, and animals. She could spend hours looking at a fashion magazine and appreciate the colors, lines and the movement of material. Certainly she has an affinity for physical appearance. Ironically, she is hardly superficial nor is she mesmerized and in awe of beauty and perfection. Actually it is quite the opposite. Her eye is drawn to that which is interesting, to the juxtaposition of color, of shade, and line.   For example, while her older sister will comment that my beard, which is now essentially white, makes me look old; she notices my white beard in the context of the wrinkles around my eyes when I smile or squint. She is the daughter that sees the wrinkles  around my eyes juxtaposed  to my still “youthful” twinkle in my eyes when I smile. Because of her artistic eye, she is able to find beauty everywhere.
This Shabbat we read from Parshat Emor. The four chapters that comprise Parsha Emor focus on the various aspects of Perfection. First the Torah focuses upon the importance of the spiritual perfection and purity of the Kohen. He must remain in a perpetual state of purity. He is restricted in terms of whom he can marry. He is restricted in regards for whom he can mourn. He cannot go to a cemetery. He cannot make sacrificial offerings if he has physical abnormalities. The second of the four chapters reminds B’nai Yisroel that when approaching God with an offering, the individual must be spiritually pure and perfect and so must the offering. These offerings must come directly from the individual making them and not from “the hand of a stranger” (Lev.22:25). The third chapter of the Parsha deals with the perfection and the purity of time. Time is define as perfect in the season follow an order, the holidays such as Shabbat, Pesach, Shavuot, Sukkot, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are designated to come in a particular order. That order is both pure and perfect since time and the designation of “Sacred” time comes from God. The fourth chapter speaks about maintaining purity and the perfection of physical space in this case the Mishkan, and all that is in the Mishkan. The Torah even deals with perfection and purity of human relationships and the punishments meted out when that perfection, purity and holiness is violated. In a sense, this last chapter reminds us of God’s charge to B’nai Yisroel.
The Torah places an emphasis upon the physical appearance of the Kohen as it relates to his spiritual purity and eligibility of serving as the Kohen Gadol.  The last eight verses (21:16-24) explain all the physical abnormalities that exclude the Kohen from assuming the position of Kohen Gadol. Blemishes, blindness, being lame, having any  broken bones, bad skin, abnormally long eyebrows, a blemish in his eyed, are but a few of the physical attributes that make a Kohen ineligible for the position of Kohen Gadol.   How can the Torah, with its primary focus upon Mitzvot (commandments) and the importance of deeds and the Kavanah,(the intention behind those deeds), now focus upon something as superficial as appearance? Sefer HaChinuch, 13th century Spain, comments: “At the root of the precept lies the reason that most actions of people are acceptable, appealing to the heart of those who see them, in accordance with the eminence of those who do them. For when a man is distinguished in his appearance and good in his actions, he will find grace and good understanding (Prov. 3:4). With all that he does in the eyes of all who observe him. Should he be, however the opposite of this- inferior in his form, or peculiar in his limbs then eve if he is correct in his ways, his activities will not be so attractive to the hear…” (Emor 275). As upsetting and politically incorrect as that sounds, the comment and the Torah text infer a keen understanding of human nature. While watching the physically flawed Kohen conducting the ritual slaughtering in a perfectly correct manner; our attention would be upon a perceived flaw in appearance, or a perceived imperfection. As a result, our Kavanah our intention would be lacking and the sacrificial process would fail.
We are now thousands of years removed from a Beit HaMikdash (Holy Temple), the institutions of sacrificial offerings, and a Priestly class upon which we relied as a conduit between the people and God. The Beit HaMikdash has been replaced by Synagogues, shtiebles or wherever a community gathers to pray. Sacrificial offerings have been replaced by the words and music of prayer. The community no longer rely upon the Kohanim to serve as a conduit between it and God. Rather, the person leading the community in prayer and the community itself connects to God. Over thousands of years, there has been a maturing of humanity, of God’s children. While a physical characteristic of a person may have once appeared as a flaw or an imperfection to spiritually immature eyes, now those perceived flaws and perceived imperfection are sources for interest and wonderment as we recognize that we are created in God’s image. As a result of spiritual maturity, what once were considered perceived physical flaws and perceived imperfections are testimony to a more spiritually mature relationship we have with God. Because, we have become more spiritually mature; we are capable of appreciating God’s presences in every aspect of creation including what was once perceived as flawed and imperfect. As I look at my daughter’s art work, and see her use of color, light and line, I see her maturing into a confident, thoughtful, intelligent free spirit.


Rav Yitz