Wednesday, March 22, 2017

When All We Ever Wanted Was To Learn And Love And Grow (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Days Between")

Last weekend and this weekend millions of and millions of Americans suffering from the exhaustion that is the drama of FBI Investigations, Senate confirmation hearings, Trump-care, alleged collusion with the Russians; found solace and will seek solace from a bunch of university age young men playing basketball. Indeed, for a college basketball fan, these final two weekends in March are a great time of year. Last Thursday sixty-four teams began the tournament and by the end of this weekend, four teams will play for a national championship. It is truly some of the most competitive dramatic and exciting basketball. More importantly it is a wonderful escape from the constant and overwhelming flow of political news out of Trump administration. In order to win the national championship a team must win six games in a row. In order to win these final six games of the season, each individual must put aside his ego, his own individual needs and accept his responsibility and his obligation to the team. Each individual must fulfill his role even more effectively and efficiently than during the games leading up these final six games. Each individual must decide that the common goal of the team is the most important goal.  Everything that can be done to fulfill this goal even if it means diminished personal satisfaction and glory must occur otherwise there is no hope of a championship.
            This week we combine the final two Parshiot, Vayakahel-Pekudie, and complete the Book of Exodus. Following the sin of the Golden Calf and Teshuvah (repentance), B’nai Yisroel begins executing God’s instructions for the Mishkan, the Ark, and the Tent of the Meeting. You will recall that when God gave these instructions to Moshe, God started from the middle of the Mishkan – the Aron and worked out to the walls of the Tent of the Meeting.  When B’nai Yisroel begins the building process, it begins with walls of the Tent, then concludes with the altar and finally the Ark. 
After the destructive behavior of worshipping the Golden Calf, B’nai Yisroel comes together, and shares a common constructive experience bound by a common goal. Their goal is to complete the construction of the Mishkan. The common experience is their contributions of raw materials. V’Yavo’u  Kol Ish Asher Nasahu Libo V’chol Asher Nadvah Rucho- Every man whose heart inspired him came; and everyone whose spirit motivated him brought the portion of God for the work of the Tent of the Meeting, for all its labor and for the sacred clothing (Ex.35:21). By participating in this constructive process, everyone had an opportunity to repent for the sin of the Golden Calf and for their lack of faith. If viewed as a process, B’nai Yisroel began on the outside of its relationship with God, struggling to connect to God by means of idolatrous behavior.  After repentance, and with the completion of each aspect of the Mishkan and the Ohel Moed; B’nai Yisroel began moving towards the Holy of Holies. They started with the walls of the Tent of the Meeting, and finished with the ark. They started where they were capable and as they continued to spiritually and grow and develop they were able to move to the next aspect until finally concluding with the Aron.
For the vast majority, we approach God in a similar way. As we become inspired, we come to Judaism. As we become motivated, we dedicate a greater portion to God, both in terms of Tzedakah and time. It is very rare when our motivation or dedication comes as a result of a “bolt of lightening” or some existential metaphysical sign or wonder. No, our motivation and dedication is a result of our recognition that there is something missing in our lives. We miss meaning and purposefulness in our lives. We miss contentment in our lives. We miss peace in our lives. Certainly we can be happy without meaning. Certainly we can be happy without contentment. Certainly we can be happy without peace. Why? Happiness is rather fleeting and quite often it is the result of some external factor. Meaning, contentment and peace are ultimately internally influenced and far less fleeting.  Our movement towards God, our movement towards greater observance, is a series of steps. We don’t begin as a Tzaddik observing all mitzvot.  Rather, one mitzvah leads to another, learning leads to more learning which eventually leads to doing.
We learn several vital lessons from these Parshiot. First, we learn that Judaism requires two parties, God and B’nai Yisroel. Both must exist together in a balanced relationship. When God and Torah become so far out of reach, B’nai Yisroel will become alienated and turn to idolatry, such as the Golden Calf, crass materialism, money or some other “God”. When B’nai Yisroel fails to elevate itself in Kedushah, in holiness, then we fail in our dual mission: make our lives more meaningful and spiritual; “be a light among the nations”. However when we enter into a highly participatory and shared communal experience, such as building the Mishkan, or any project or program that we build, we must sacrifice some of our personal needs for the well being of the community. Second, we learn that when the community shares a commons sense of purpose, something wonderful happens. We achieve that balance between God and ourselves. The result, of course, is that God will dwell among us. God’s dwelling among us makes our community a little warmer, a little kinder, and more significant. Third, we also learn that the actual process of building requires hard work. B’nai Yisroel, like any team shared in the difficulty of the task. Greater participation makes the experience that much more meaningful and more rewarding. What is the reward? The reward is a community that shares simchas and tsuris, victories as well as defeats. The reward is that no individual member of the community should ever feel alienated and alone. The reward is a community that strives for growth and improvement. This brings more meaning to the life of the individual, the family, and the community.
Rav Yitz

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

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

While celebrating Purim and participating in a festive meal; between platefuls of food and shots of Scotch, a few of the husbands began an interesting conversation. Being the only American at this Purim Seudah, someone asked “why does it appear impossible for the most powerful country in the world to provide universal health care for its citizens?” This was not exactly the question I was prepared for on Purim. I assumed we were would talk about Haman, Mordechai, Esther and Persia. I thought we would talk about The Mentsche on The Bench, or the fact that they read the Megillah in the dugout of the Israel National Baseball Team’s batting practice prior to its game against Cuba. Maybe we would have agreed that it is too bad that Iran didn’t have a baseball team in the World Baseball Classic so that Israel could beat them just like they defeated South Korea, Chinese Tai Pei, and Cuba. No, it appears that when our friends have lots of Scotch and an American sitting at the table they like to take their jabs at the United States, and health care and health insurance seemed to be the topic. Maybe they had been hearing the mantra of Repeal and Replace. Maybe they heard about Trumpcare. Maybe they heard about “exploding premiums”, or that millions of a nation’s poorest will lose their health insurance. Whatever the case, I had to offer an answer. I answered the question with a question. How is health care viewed in all of the other industrialize countries where national coverage exists, including Israel and Canada? Is health care a right of each citizen or is health care a marketplace item like a car, phone, and milk or internet service? If it’s the latter, then each citizen pays (or not) for insurance based upon need and affordability. If it’s the former, then each citizen must accept the premise that he/she pays into a system that helps the greater good. Americans are just beginning to realize that it is advantageous to be part of something bigger than just themselves as their health insurance is about to be eliminated.
This week we read from Parsha Ki Tissa. As mentioned, we are a few weeks away from Pesach; we take note of that by reading the special Maftir Aliyah which focuses upon the Laws of the Red Heifer (Num. 19:1-22). The reason has to with the Pesach Offering. The ashes of the Red Heifer were sprinkled such that all of B’nai Yisroel would be deemed as purified and therefore able to bring the Pesach offering. Parsha Ki Tissa is divided into several parts. The first part being the commanded to take a census of the population and collect a half shekel for each person counted. The second part is the final blue prints for the Mishkan, the spices that are to be used, as well as the oil that is to be processed prior to burning. God then designates two men, Betzalel ben Uri from the tribe of Judah and Ahaliav ben Achisamach from the tribe of Dan to be the Master Builder and Designer of this national project. God re-iterates the commandment of the Shabbat and reminds Moshe that anyone who violates it will be put to death and his/her soul will be cut of from the people.  The next part Bnai Yisroel commits the sin of the Eigel Zahav (Golden Calf): they built and then worshipped an idol. God wants to wipe out the people but Moshe urges God to reconsider. Moshe then descends the mountain and becomes just as upset as God, and he throws down the Shnei Luchot HaBritthe Two Tablets of the Covenant. After a day or two when calm has been restored, Moshe re-ascends the mountain in order to pray for national forgiveness. Moshe then has an opportunity to experience another personal revelation even more powerful than the Burning Bush; Moshe has the opportunity to witness God’s passing before him. Dictated by God, Moshe chisels the Aseret Diberot into two new Tablets. He then goes back down the mountain. This time he descends with light and glory of God emanating from him.
There are many powerful moments, and deep theological issues raised in this Parsha. Certainly it seems that the Census has very little to do with the rest of the Parsha. Yet the Census and the Machatzit HaSHakel, the half Shekel tax, is vital. V’Natnu Eish Kofeir Nafsho L’Adoshem Bifkod Otam V’Lo Yiheyeh Bahem Negef Bifkod OtamEvery man shall give Hashem atonement for his soul when counting them, so that there will not be plague among them when counting them. Zeh Yitnu Kol HaOveir Al Hapkudim Machatzit HaSHekel B’Shekel HaKodesh Esrim Geirah  HaShekel Machatzit HaShekel Trumah La’AdoshemThis shall they give, everyone who passes through the census, a half shekel of the sacred shekel, the shekel is twenty geira, half a shekel as a portion to HaSHem (Ex. 30:12-13). It is not enough to just take a census by counting people as “one, two three…” Counting in such a manner merely relegates the individual to a numbered status. However contributing something, in this case a half shekel, the individual is not relegated to the status of number, but rather a contributor, an equal contributor to a cause like the next person. Poor or wealthy, it doesn’t matter. Everyone contributed the same amount. As a result everyone had an equal stake in the welfare of the community and the maintenance of the Mishkan. By casting individual gain and personal interest aside, and instead focusing upon the welfare of the entire community, every individual’s spiritual merit is merged into every other individual’s spiritual merit; the community becomes unified and thus able to withstand divine judgment and retribution.
            Certainly none of us takes great joy in watching our hard-earned income leave our pockets and go to the Federal government in order to pay for a variety of goods and services including health insurance. However, living in Toronto; I hear the criticism of Canadian Health Care and American Health Care. Canadian society seems so much more civil. The federal government makes transfer payments to the Province, a payroll deduction tax contributes to funding OHIP as does a percentage of income tax. Everyone contributes because everyone derives a benefit. As a result, the linkage between citizenry and the social fabric of society is strengthened. Thousands of years ago, Moses understood this with the Machatzit HaShekel as a way of financing the Mishkan. Nowadays every industrialized country including Israel and Canada understand this importance of making a commitment to its citizens. Hopefully the leaders south of the border can figure it out, despite President Trump’s tweet: “nobody knew that health care could be so complicated!”

Rav Yitz 

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

A Hopeful Candle Lingers In The Land Of Lullabies (Robert Hunter & Jerry Garcia - "Days Between")

The last few weeks, there has been a dramatic increase in dramatic increase in Anti-Semitic attacks.  Several dozen Jewish Community Centers throughout the United States have received bomb threats. This week, the bomb threat scare arrived in my hometown of Rochester, NY, and here in Toronto. Both facilities evacuated and eventually determined the threat was just like all the other bomb threats.  Day Schools in the United States have received bomb threats. Jewish cemeteries from St. Louis, to Philadelphia from Brooklyn to Rochester, NY have been the site of vandalism with numerous gravestones toppled. During one of the many news shows that I watch, one of the political pundits who resides in New York City commented that he saw a police officer standing outside a Jewish Day school. The pundit asked the policeman why his presence was required. Was an important official appearing at the school? The police officer responded, “It’s just another day at school”.  In response to these Anti-Semitic incidents in New York State, Governor Cuomo went to Israel to meet with the Prime Minister,  show support for Israel, and spend time with Israel’s security and law enforcement industries and agencies. Then the governor did something to show his support for the Jewish Community in New York. He spent last Shabbat at the Park Avenue Synagogue, one of the wealthiest Conservative Synagogues in the United States. The Governor’s message was simple. His was a message of tolerance and light, and he wanted everyone, even those who gravitate toward intolerance and darkness, to understand that tolerance and light will remain a constant in his administration. Needless to say, all of our children were incredibly proud that Governor visited Israel and celebrated Shabbat as a demonstration of support for Jews in Israel and Jews in North America.
This Shabbat we read from Parshah Tetzaveh. This Shabbat is also the Shabbat that immediately precedes the celebration of Purim. The day in which the Jewish people celebrate the redemption of Persian Jewry during the second or third century BCE. This Shabbat is known as Shabbat Zachor – Shabbat of Remembrance. Besides the weekly Torah portion, Tetzaveh, three verses (Deut. 25:17-19) are recited. In those verses we are commanded to remember what Amalek did to the Jewish people as they left Egypt. They attacked and murdered the escaped slaves. The villain of the Purim story, Haman, according to Midrash (Rabbinic legend) comes from the tribe of Amalek, the Torah’s symbol of evil. However the weekly Parsha Tetzaveh has nothing to do with Purim, or Amalek. Instead the Parsha focuses upon Aaron, Moshe’s brother, Aaron’s sons, their position as the Kohen Gadol, (High Priest), their “work uniform” and their preparations. Just like last week’s Parshah, Terumah, contained numerous details concerning the construction of the Mishkan; Tetzaveh’s focuses primarily upon the details concerning the Kohen Gadol’s uniform. From material to design, this aspect of the Parshah is a tailor/fashion designer’s dream. Once the details for the uniform have been taught, the Parshah concentrates upon the necessary preparations that the Kohanim must engage in so that they are spiritually pure enough to make offerings on the behalf of the people. Only then, when the construction is complete, when the clothing is finished and the purification process fulfilled, then God will rest God’s presence among the people.
Despite the primary focus upon Priestly vestments, the Parsha begins with the commandment of the Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light. Until now Moshe has been a conduit: VaYiDaber Adoshem El Moshe Leimor, Dabeir El B’nai YisroelGod spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Speak to the Children of Israel’. Now, regarding the Lamp, Moshe doesn’t speak to the children of Israel or to the Priests; instead Moshe is instructed to command the priests. No long is he just a conduit. Regarding the Lamp, the command emanates from Moshe. Regarding God’s first command of Moshe, the Torah tells us,  V’Atah T’tzaveh et Bnai Yisroel VYikchu Eilecha Shemen Zayit Zach Katit La’Maor L’Ha’Alot Neir TamidNow you shall command the Children of Yisroel that they shall take for you pure, pressed olive oil for illumination to kindle the lamp continually (Ex. 27:20). So why is it so important for the command to appear as if it comes from Moshe and not God? Why is this Moshe’s commandment to the priests? Shmot Rabbah (Talmudic Rabbis’ commentary on the Book of Exodus) offers a figurative understand of the perpetual light that Moshe commands to be lit. See how the words of Torah give light to man when he is occupied with them. But whoever is not so occupied and is ignorant, he stumbles…’The way of the wicked is in thick darkness ’…. (Shmot Rabbah 36:3). Moshe is told to command the Aaron and his sons to light the Ner Tamid in perpetuity. Light and learning, not darkness and ignorance must be perpetual and constant. Light and knowledge must provide a lamp for all those who are in need of light and all those who are ignorant and don’t even realize it. Moshe, ever the teacher, ever the law giver, has been tasked to the lamp, to bring light, knowledge and understanding in perpetuity.
I suppose our children are more sensitive to and are more acutely aware of antisemitism than I was at their age. Maybe I was more oblivious. Maybe society was more polite and such “unpleasantness” was part of the extreme aspects of society that scurried about in the dark shadows where polite people didn’t venture. Nowadays society is far less polite and over the past year, we have watched extreme aspects of society receive a warm embrace by what used to be thought of as “mainstream”. As this week immediately precedes Purim, a celebration that commemorates Persian Jewry’s victory over Anti- Semitism; we are reminded that darkness and ignorance remains present even here and that we need to remain vigilant. Generally, light is symbolic of wisdom and enlightenment. The only way to combat intolerance and ignorance is to shine a light upon it, a strong glaring light of an enlightened, educated, sensitive, and democratic society that possesses a profound respect for its democratic institutions and the strength of will to root out the Amalek, the evil, ignorance, and intolerance that exists in every generation.

Rav Yitz