Thursday, June 19, 2014

Parashat Korah: It’s Not About You

One of the greatest dangers for any leader is believing that he or she  is naturally endowed with authority, that a holding a title automatically means that the person in authority will receive respect and adulation. Instead, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky argue that an effective leader must recognize that authority is given in return for a person fulfilling a specific purpose, and it is the fulfilling of that purpose that leads to reader.  They write:

“If you find yourself heroically stepping into the breach to restore order, it is important to remember that the authority gain is a product of social expectations.   To believe it comes from you is an illusion.  Don’t let it get to your head.   People grant you power because they expect you to provide them with a service.   If you lose yourself in relishing the acclaim and power people give you, rather than on providing the services people will need to restore their adaptability, ultimately you jeopardize your own source of authority” (Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line, 168-169).

Well aware that many leaders develop a love affair with their own authority, Heifetz and Linsky urge us to see authority as a product of service, a lesson that we learn in Parashat Korah.    While Korah’s critiques of Moses may appear reasonable on a first-reading, our rabbis will argue that Korah is someone who misunderstands the nature of authority, and that misunderstanding lies at the root of his heresy.

Upon challenging Moses and Aaron, Korah audaciously asks, “Why do you uplift yourselves over the congregation of Adonai?” (Bemidbar 16:3).   Looking at the context of our parasha, many of our earlier commentaries argue that Korah’s critique is rooted in the fact that Moses and Aaron, two brothers, hold both the highest political and religious positions of the Israelites.   Regarding this verse, Rashi states that  “It is one thing for you [Moses] to have taken the kingship for yourself- but you shouldn’t have have assigned the priesthood to Aaron” (Rashi on 16:3), and Ibn Ezra states, “Making Aaron the High Priest and Moses, who taught him what to do, even higher than him [is the root of Korah’s critique]” (Ibn Ezra 16:3).  In each case, our commentaries assume that Korah rebels because he’s angry that Moses’ family is holding all the levers of religious and political power.

However, later Hasidic commentaries note that Korah’s critiques cannot be taken at face value, because Korah himself misunderstands the nature of Moses’ authority.   Rabbi Simha Bunim of Pshischa argues that Korah’s critique that Moses is drunk with power absurd, for the Torah explicitly tells several times that Moses is humble and meek, and never sought the position he was ultimately given:

“In a dispute with righteous men, usually those who engross in such conflict attribute to these men traits which are the total opposite of their true character.  The Torah specifically states that Moshe Rabbeinu “was very meek, above all the men that were on the face of the earth.”   His opposers, wishing to find fault with him, centered on arrogance of all things, for which to attack their leader!  We can see how great the power of corruption is when a dispute is not for the sake of Heaven.   It distorts and blinds even the wisest of men, causing them to lose all logic and sense.  What greater folly could there be than to accuse Moshe Rabbeinu of being arrogant!?!” (Rabbi Simha Bunim of Pshischa, Itturei Torah on Bemidbar 16:3).   

In this commentary, Korah’s rebellion is blasphemous because he attacks Moses for something that the Torah explicitly says that Moses is not.    Rather than looking at the true roots of Moses’ authority, namely devotion to God, Korah tries to convince others that Moses has overstepped his authority.

Taking a different approach,  Rabbi Meshullam Feivish of Zabriza writes in Yosher Divrei Emet that while no leader can avoid developing some degree of arrogance, Korah’s mistake assuming that only Moses was drunk with power, that Korah himself had not already fallen into the same trap.    The Yosher Divrei Emet states that Korah, “could not believe that Moses did everything by the word of God and that he was in truth so humble and lowly,” and Korah “never imagined that that he might bear a sense of grandiosity.” In contrast, the Yosher Divrei Emet argues that Moses’s awareness of his blindspots was his greatest strenght as a leader, an incredibly important lesson for all of us as we think about what it means to show religious leadership.   The commentary states:  

“[Learn from Moses’s own reluctance to lead] not to compete for any mitzvah that has an aspect of authority in it.   Flee from such a thing.  If it is right for you, God will force the whole world to make that opportunity for leadership come your way.  But weigh this matter with deep thought and a sense of pure justice, asking God’s help that no evil urge lead you to oppose His will” (Yosher Divrei Emet #30, 33-34).

No matter who we are, or what position is given to us in the Jewish Community, the challenge is for us to realize that authority and power are only for the purpose of serving God and advancing the Jewish people.    Power in and of itself is the approach of Korah, the belief that what position you hold makes you inherently better than others.    Therefore, we must teach our children what it means to be leaders, but be leaders for a divine purpose, devoted to fulfilling a particular mission, rather than achieving personal gain.   

This will be the last Dvar Torah from Schechter for the year, as the site will go on hiatus for the summer. In just two years, Schechter has been visited over 22,000 times, and I hope that next year will provide an opportunity to expand the learning opportunities made available by this site.   Until September, keep studying, keep learning, and have a wonderful summer.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Parashat Shelakh Lekha: Covenantal Words

Rabbi Abraham Heschel said that “One of the major symptoms of the general crisis existent in our world today is our lack of sensitivity to words,” our collective choice to looks words are tools, things that simply drive conversation.  Instead, Heschel argues that “words are a repository of the spirit,” that within each there is the potential to sanctify or de-sanctify our lives by how we use words, and thus we must learn how “repair the vessels” of ordinary language.    I thought about this teaching from Heschel as I read this week’s parasha, where how words are used caused a practical reconnaissance mission to lead the Israelites to a spiritual crisis with the potential to destroy the covenant.

Parashat Shelakh Lekha contains the extended drama of the Moses, the spies sent to survey the land of Canaan, the Israelite nation, and God, where a report from the majority of spies that the land of Canaan was unconquerable placed the entire covenantal relationship between the Israelites and God in danger. For our commentators, the sin of the spies is difficult to identify precisely, leading our commentators to argue that some some kind of falsity must be contained in the report itself.   Rashi alludes to this idea in his commentary on the spies statement that the land of Canaan “is an emitter of milk and sweetness,” for while this comment may appear positive about Canaan, Rashi states that, “Any lie that does not begin with a little truth is not upheld (viz. does not acquire credibility)” (Rashi on Bemidbar 13:27).  Our later commentators from the medieval period through the present will be left to determine what precisely was the “lie” in the spies’ report.

For the Ramban, the sin of the spies is implicitly understood through a close-reading of the parasha, for the statement that the spies “produced” a report tells the reader all they need to know about the crime implicit in the report.   The Ramban states:

“Note that one who ‘produces a report’ is a liar who gives false facts, whereas one who tells the truth is referred to as one who ‘brings a report’- compare ‘Joseph brought a detrimental report about them to their father’ (Genesis 37:2).   It was for this that the spies were punished with death (in a plague), as explained in 14:37: ‘The men who had produced a detrimental report on the land died in a plague before God’” (Ramban on Bemidbar 13:32).

According to the Ramban, the Torah telling us that the spies “produced a report” means that the report itself was not an objective analysis of Canaan, but rather a tale that the spies wanted to tell Moses and the Israelites.  As a result, the sin of the spies was that they lied in their report, painting a picture that might be a description of the land as they understood, but not the land as it was.

However, given the fact that the spies who were punished offered a similar report to Joshua and Caleb, we can question the accuracy of the Ramban’s interpretation, for how is it possible that all spies “produced” a report, and it was only the opinion of two of them that made their report “true” and the other report “false.”   Taking a different approach, Rabbi Isaac Arama, author of the Akedat Yitzhak, argues that while nothing that the spies said was technically false, the fact that the spies offered an opinion at all was their sin.  He writes:

“They exceed their terms of reference as spies and appointed themselves as advisors.  This recalls the case of a man who sent his representative to visit a clothing shop and look at a particular garment they had for sale.   ‘Examine the quality of the material, its length and width, and its appearance, and give me a report, because I want to buy it.’   On his return the representative reported ‘I have seen it, the material is good, it is long and wide, but it is greenish (or reddish) and it is very expensive, about a thousand gold coins.’  He thereby exceeded his terms of reference as a reporter and turned himself into an advisor” (Akedat Yitzhak on Bemidbar 13:27).

According to the Akedat Yizhak, the spies were asked to describe the land of Canaan; no more, no less. However, when the spies returned with their report, the mixed their report with an evaluation of prospects of taking the land.   By exceeding the bounds of their mandate from Moses, the spies caused havoc to ensue amongst the Israelites, thereby making the spies complicit in a societal breakdown that only occurred because they did not follow the directions given to them.

Taking a look at the implications of our parasha, Rabbi Moses Hirsch Segal wrote that the even if the spies had genuine doubts about the ability of the Israelites to conquer the land of Canaan, the spies should have realized that any obstacles to conquest would be overcome because of God’s covenant.  However, the spies’ report completely ignored God’s role in taking the Israelites to the promised land, and Segal that this is why God’s punishment was so harsh.   Segal writes (emphasis mine):

"The sin of the nation in the matter of the spies was, like the sin of the golden calf, an enormous act that changed the whole course of the history of that generation. For just as the sin of the golden calf involved a breach of the covenant... so the sin involving the spies was a breach of the covenant and a rejection of God's promise that the land of Canaan would be an inheritance for Israel... Therefore we find that only in the case of these two sins did God desire to punish the nation with complete annihilation, and to establish a new generation from the seed of Moshe... (Bamidbar 14:12; Shemot 32:10). Likewise, only in relation to these two sins did Moshe claim in his prayer... that this (the destruction of the nation) would involve a desecration of God's name…” (Moses Hirsch Segal, Masort U-Bikoret, 90, translation from Yeshivat Har Etzion).

Rabbi Segal’s commentary introduces the notion that faith plays a larger role in our parasha that any of us might realize from a first-reading.   Yes, an objective report of the land of Canaan would lead anyone to conclude that human conquest would be a difficult proposition, yet it should have been understood that Canaan would not need to be conquered by human effort alone, but rather through the covenantal partnership between the Israelites and God.   In fact, the reason that Joshua is rewarded for his report about Canaan is because he does not deny the difficulties of conquest, but states that, “If the Lord desires us, He will bring us to this land and give it to us, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Bemidbar 14:8), a simultaneously recognition of the challenges and covenant.   According to Segal, since the spies and that Israelite generation forgot what it means to be in relationship with God, “only the next generation would achieve a renewal of the intimate relationship between God and His nation, Israel, via Moshe, God's servant," a biblical do-over for the Jewish people and God.   

I have no doubt that the spies had their reasons for speaking to Moses and the people the way that they did, yet perhaps the above commentaries all reflect the teaching from Heschel that words are not merely tools, but can used in way that ennoble or debase the spirit.   As begin to wind down another year at Schechter, our challenge is to ask ourselves how are using words, what power those words hold, and what we can do to ensure that our children will learn from our parasha how to use words in a way that strengthen our entire community.   

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Parashat Behaalotekha: A Raw and Real Faith

From the time we are young, we are taught that the Torah represents the paradigm of divine obedience and devotion, that it is a statement of true love between the Jewish people and God.  However, we often lose sight of the fact that the Torah itself contains an ongoing struggle between God and humanity, where the God provides everything that humanity needs to survive, yet humanity does not keep up our end of the bargain by choosing ignore the source of their bounty. As readers of the text, we must figure out a way to see these acts of public doubt as lessons that enlarge our faith, rather than contract it.   Regarding this tension, James Fowler writes in Stages of Faith that, “Doubt and struggle aren’t necessarily [an indication of] rejecting one’s faith, but perhaps longing for a more intimate relationship with the Holy,” a lesson that we learn from this week’s parasha.

Parashat Behaalotekha officially begins the Israelites’ march from the foot of Mount Sinai to the land of Canaan. However, almost immediately upon leaving Mount Sinai in chapter 10 of Sefer Bemidbar, the Israelites complain that God is not providing them satisfactory food in chapter 11, leaving the people on the brink of rebellion against Moses and God.  Rabbi Nathaniel Helfgot points out that the the eleventh chapter of Sefer Bemidbar contains a linguistic devices that alludes to the kind of tension that emerges between God and the Israelites.   According to Helfgot, the words basar (flesh) and ruah (spirit) occur as a pair twenty-one times in fourteen verses of the Torah.   However, seven of those verses, and more than half of the pairings, are in Sefer Bemidbar, and five of those seven verses are in this chapter of our parasha.   Given the tensions expressed in chapter 11 of Sefer Bemidbar, Helfgot argues that the use of this linguisitic device,

“exhibits the fundamental tension of this chapter.  Which realm will dominate?  Will it be the Flesh and what it represents in terms of physical and immediate gratification, or will it be the Spirit, representing the Word of God and His mission for the Jews” (Nathaniel Helfgot, Mikra and Meaning: Studies in Bible and Its Interpretation, 109)

Helfgot's analysis seems particularly accurate when we think about this chapter in the context of Sefer Bemidar, as a whole. The famous events of Sefer Bemidbar, including Moses striking the rock, the twelve spies, the rebellion of Korah, and others, indicate a tension between whether the Israelites can remain devoted to God (i.e. spirit), or will they be devoted to their own material desires (i.e. flesh).

In fact, Jacob Milgrom argues in his commentary that the tension is even greater in our parasha than Helgot suggests, for the kind of critiques brought by the Israelites to Moses about God are tantamount to denying God’s existence, in particular the criticisms about the food the Israelites ate in Egypt.  Milgrom writes (emphasis mine):

“In Exodus 16:11-13, the quail (as well as the manna) were God’s gracious gift to Israel in response to its hankering after meat (Exodus 16:3) in order that they may behold the Lord’s power and, henceforth, trust in Him (Exodus 16:4, 6, 12).  By contrast the gift of quail in verse 20 of this passage is given in anger and will result in many fatalities (vv. 33-34).  God’s words expose the real reason behind the complaint: The craving for meal expresses a disguised desire to return to Egypt and is tantamount to a rejection of God (v. 20)” (Jacob Milgrom, JPS Torah Commentary: Numbers, 88).

According to Milgrom, while the hunger of the Israelites immediately following the exodus from Egypt was the cry of an oppressed people who needed to feel that God would provide for them, the hunger of the Israelites in our parasha was the immature complaint of a people who saw a temporary hardship as a sign that God was a fraud.   Milgrom’s commentary offers a window into how even a complaint that appears reasonable on the surface can actually reveal a far more dramatic critique of God.

At the same time, Jack Miles, the former Jesuit who wrote God: A Biography, asserts that while that the dialogue in this chapter reveals an enormous tension between God and the Israelites, the fact that the Torah preserves that tension says something important about the Torah itself.   Miles writes:

“Morally, the originality of the same ancient authors and editors lies in their refusal to “ennoble” either God or Israel by making their story merely one of estrangement and reconciliation rather than, as it is, one one of continuous mutual complaint.  Structurally, a simplification of that sort could have easily been managed.  What would have changed would have been less the story line than the distinctive emotional tone--the spirit, in a word.   By preserving the spirit of complaint--complaint against man in the name of God, and against God in his own name--on its first full-blown appearance, the ancient editors set something portentous in motion” (Jack Miles, God: A Biography, 133).

According to Miles, while we might recognize that the Israelites’ complaints are theologically audacious and religiously problematic, the fact that the Torah preserves those complaints means that the Torah wants us to know that it is possible, and even permitted, to express open doubts about God.   Like the Israelites, our relationship to God must exist in a dynamic tension, and we must know that expressing those feelings may be a sign of doubt, yet it is also a sign that we are human.  

When we teach our children about God, we are asking them to put their faith in something they cannot see, and it may be a too wide leap of faith to ask those children to embrace a relationship with God that makes no room for doubt, disobedience, or disbelief.   While the Torah acknowledges that tension with God is messy, it is that messiness that characterizes any kind of relationship, and thus we must help our children work through the messiness, seeing how a relationship with God is that raw, but real, is the very kind of relationship we want them to develop.    The more we help our children see that expressing doubt opens a holy space, the more our children will feel that the Jewish Community is the holy space in which they want to travel for throughout their Jewish lives.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Parashat Naso: What Can You Live Without?

Theologian Margaret Miles writes that moderns would do well to see the value of asceticism, the religious ideal that one should refrain from worldly pleasures in pursuit of loftier spiritual goals.   In fact, in an age of overwhelming wealth and privilege, alongside an ever-present danger of crass materialism, Miles argues that we may need a “new asceticism” now more than ever.  She writes:

“...Scriptural language...sets the human being either in the perspective of connection to the source of life and being, or in that of the disorientation caused by clutching at objects of immediate pleasure and enjoyment.  Such objects, good in themselves, become “too dear” in that the person becomes attached to them instead of to the source of life and being.  They become addictive.  Because they are created thing that owe their being to the generosity of the Creator, they cannot provide the infinite life and satisfaction for which human beings long.   We are addicted when we refuse to recognize that we demand of these objects what they cannot provide.   We need to recognize that forcing them beyond their capacity to give devalues them, and that we must continually be frustrated by their inability to give us greater life” (Margaret R. Miles, Fullness of Life: Historical Foundations of a New Asceticism, 157-158).

According to MIles, the things about which the average human being obsesses, namely material possessions, wealth, and status, are the things that we actually need the least, and, according to Miles, most take away the individual from the pursuit of God.  In contrast, a life of controlling one’s desires, a life where abstention is considered a virtue, is a life Miles is says is most worthy living today.   

Parashat Naso describes the Torah’s model of an ascetic, the nazir.  According to our parasha, the nazir, “shall abstain from wine and strong drink: he shall drink no vinegar of wine, or vinegar of strong drink, neither shall he drink any liquor of grapes, nor eat fresh grapes or dried” (Bemidbar 6:3).   While Jews are no longer able to take a vow of nezirut today, our commentators sought to understand what universal messages we might draw from the specific prohibitions observed by the nazir.  Attempting to draw a distinction between what the Nazir must do and not do in order to demonstrate their devotion to God, Obadiah Seforno argues that the Torah wants to make clear that the Nazir devotes his life to God by way of abstaining from certain worldly pleasures, as opposed to physically harming himself.  Seforno states:

“...he is not to flagellate himself, or practice fasting, but only to abstain from wine and intoxicating liquids.  The former methods of self-denial would result in a diminished ability to serve the Lord with all one’s faculties.   Flagellation, a common practice among certain types of monks and “holy men,” is not allowed, but becoming a teetotaler does reduce the urge to let oneself go and engage in demeaning activities due to drunkenness” (Seforno on Bemidbar 6:3).

According to Seforno, it is foolish and dangerous to assume that one can show devotion to God by making their body unable to function.   Instead, Seforno argues that one can show devotion to God by demonstrating that one does not need all worldly pleasures to achieve satisfaction in this world, and abstaining from these behaviors will ultimately lead to rewards in the next world.

Taking a similar approach to Seforno, while emphasizing the lesson that non-Nazirites can learn from the laws of the Nazir, Abraham Ibn Ezra argues that the Torah tells us that the laws of the Nazi place so much emphasis on the head to symbolize the spiritual kingship of one who chooses to take on these obligations.   Ibn Ezra states:

“Hair set apart for his God is upon his head”: Some say that “nazirite” is related to nezer, “headdress,” and since our phrase literally says, “the nezer of his God is upon his head,” that is not at all implausible.  Know that all human beings are slaves to worldly appetites.  But the truth king, who wears the kingly crown of nezer upon his head, is he who is free of appetite” (Ibn Ezra on Bemidbar 6:7).

Ibn Ezra argues that the abstentions observed by the nazir reflect an ideal state of living for all human beings, where every person is able to restrict his or her appetites, putting aside trivial things in pursuit of godly devotion.   As a result, the nazir is not only an individual who made a choice to pursue the true path of divine devotion, but a paradigm for how all of humanity can serve God.

Finally, in the modern day, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, one of the leading thinkers in Modern Orthodox Judaism in the twentieth-century, writes that the entire goal of religious observance is reflected in the life chosen by the nazir, a life where one attains highest levels of sanctity by way of asceticism and abstinence.   Rav Soloveitchik writes:

“The aspiration to achieve a state of ecstatic transcendentalism, the negation of life and this mortal world, the annihilation of existence and reality, the reaching out of the religious personality to the ethereal world that stretches beyond the confines of tangible existence is embodied in many of the systems of conduct involving asceticism, vows of abstinence and withdrawal from society.   The religious personality sometimes imagines that afflictions, suffering, fasts and solitude constitute the media bringing immortal happiness to man...According to his outlook, the man who withdraws from the world and forgoes earthly and ephemeral pleasures is rewarded with eternal life and a sublime, spiritual existence” (Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, “The Halakhic Personality,” WZO Department for Torah Education, Jerusalem, 5739).

For Rav Soloveitchik, Judaism is a spiritual discipline, an opportunity for everyday actions of abstention to pursue a sanctified spiritual existencce.  Furthermore, Soloveitchik argues that when religious people make the choice to give up something pleasurable to them, those individuals are defining what “pleasure” means in a radically different way, for pleasure, to the religious mind, is found in moments of divine connection, rather than earthly desire.

While Judaism always places emphasis on the importance of expressing gratitude for good fortune, our parasha reminds us that there is value in resisting the temptation to only want and take more, and that the nazir develops a unique connection to God by way of learning what they can live without.   This week, ask yourselves how you are teaching your children the value of holding back from their desires, and seeing the immense personal value that can come from resisting their urges.   If we can teach our children to ask what they can live without, we will take one small towards a life of genuine abundance, pleasure and holiness.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Parashat Bemidbar: A Person’s a Person

Don't give up! I believe in you all.
A person's a person, no matter how small!
And you very small persons will not have to die
If you make yourselves heard! So come on, now, and TRY!
  • Dr. Seuss, Horton Hears a Who (1954)

Regardless of whether or not we view the Torah as historical truth or a divinely-inspired text, the Torah-text focuses almost exclusively on the lives of the Israelites elites, the people who are directly receiving God’s messages and commands for the people.    While we learn a great deal about Moses, Miriam, and Aaron, we learn very little about the everyday lives of ordinary Israelites, which might lead one to conclude that the Torah is simply not concerned about individuals, and sees the Israelites as a single corporate entity.   However, in Parashat Bemidbar, where Moses is commanded to take another census of the Israelites, our commentators’ understanding our parasha’s message will teach us, like Dr. Seuss writes, that a person’s a person, and that counts a great deal.

Parashat Bemidbar opens the fourth book of the Torah with God commanding Moses to, “Take a census of the whole Israelite community by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names, every male, head by head” (Bemidbar 1:1-3).  On the one hand, almost all our commentators who take a peshat (contextual) approach to reading our parasha argue that the census in our parasha was given solely for the purpose of identifying those males fit for military conscription.   However, the question remains as to why God would command a census at all, for surely God would be able to count the Israelites without the aid of Moses and the Israelite leadership.

In a medieval commentary, the Ramban argues that the taking on census is more a theological statement than a practical one, because God wanted to the Israelites and the world to see how much God’s chosen people grew in size from the time when Jacob and his family went down to Egypt, seventy in number, until the time when the Israelites were ready to journey to Canaan.  The Ramban states (emphasis mine):

“It was necessary for the Torah to record the total number after giving the details because Moses and Aaron had been commanded to ascertain the number of the people and the number of each tribe, for this was the manner of kings to number the people.  But I have not understood the reason for this commandment, why God ordered it (i.e. to record the general total).  It was necessary to know the number of each tribe separately for the purpose of the arrangement of the camp according to standards, but why was it necessary to know the general number?   Perhaps the idea was to make known God’s loving kindness unto them, that when their fathers went down to Egypt they numbered only seventy souls and now they were as the sand of the sea.  And after every pestilence and plague God numbered them in order to make known that although he wounds, he also makes whole again, in accordance with what our Sages said, “out of an abundance of love for them God numbers them frequently.”” (Ramban on Bemidbar 1:45).

In this commentary, the Ramban points out that commanding Moses to go through a human-driven process of counting the Israelites will allow the Israelites to discover themselves how much they have grown in number.  By extension, by allowing the Israelites to realize for themselves how much they’ve grown as a people, they will also come to realize that God’s promise that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the “sands in the sea” had finally come to pass.

While the Ramban that asking Moses to take a census at all reveals an important theological message, the Torah commentary of Rabbi Yosef Karo, known as the Toldot Yitzhak, argues that how Moses and Aaron took the census itself also reveals a message about the connection between God and the Israelites.   Karo states:

“The Israelites were not counted by their heads, nor were they counted by giving the half-shekel.  Each person wrote down his name on a slip of paper and gave it to Moses our Teacher, Aaron and the heads of the Tribes.  Then the slips of paper were counted.  This form of census portrayed a great level for the Israelites, since each one was counted separately.   In this way God would remember each and everyone for a blessing” (Toldot Yitzhak on Bemidbar 1:2).

For the Toldot Yitzhak, each individual (male) Israelite had the opportunity to be counted as a distinct individual in the census taken in Parashat Bemidbar.   By allowing each person to be counted, individual Israelites were transformed from nameless faces in the proverbial crowd to individuals whose existence matters and is known.

Finally, taking a similar theme to the Toldot Yitzhak, but emphasizing the census’ impact on Moses himself, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev writes in his Kedushat Levi that taking the census was intimately connected to Moses learning the Torah.   Rabbi Levi Yitzhak states:

“The verse would have made more sense in the reverse order: Moses counted them, as God had commanded him.  But this appear to be the meaning: God gave the Torah to Israel, and the souls of Israel form the body of the Torah.  There are six hundred thousand Jewish souls, parallel to the number of letters in the Torah.  Israel, in others, are the Torah.  Each one of us constitutes one of the Torah’s letters.   By counting Israel, therefore, Moses was learning the Torah” (Kedushat Levi on Bemidbar 1:19).

In this final commentary, the taking of a census is akin to learning Torah, the rabbinic ideal of how we engage with God’s message for humanity in our daily lives.  If God created human beings in his image, then counting each human being in a census is a reminder that everything we do for humanity imbues our life with God’s worldview for how human beings should treat one another, a world where every person counts.

In each commentary, the ability to recognize and identify the presence of each individual in a community makes an important statement about the spiritual aspirations for the community itself.  When a community ensures that no individual is lost in the crowd, and no one’s presence is considered expendable, the community makes a statement about what it means to emphasize dignity, justice and fairness.    At Schechter, we pride ourselves on making sure that each child is taught in a way that meets their unique needs, a vision echoed in our parasha, one that we must ensure continues to thrive in our school community and the entire Jewish world.   

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Parashat Behukotai: Find Your Element

Sir Ken Robinson wants to transform education by shifting our traditional modes of learning to a process where each individual can discover his or her “element,” the subject that this student loves to learn, something that is essential to that student’s “identity, purpose, and well-being.”   Robinson writes:

“The Element is the meeting point between natural aptitude and personal passion. What you’ll find in common among the people you’ve met in this chapter and the vast majority of the people you will meet in the coming pages is that they are doing the thing they love, and in doing it they feel like their most authentic selves. They find that time passes differently and that they are more alive, more centered, and more vibrant than at any other times” (Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything, 21).  

Jewish tradition takes embraces wholeheartedly the approach outlined by Robinson, for Judaism is not content for someone to simply “study” Torah.   Our tradition uses word like cleave, immerse, and embrace Torah, sending the message that only when a person considers Torah their “element” will he or she actualize God’s vision for the Jewish people.   

This approach is echoed in how rabbis analyze the first verse in Parashat Behukotai, which states that  “If you walk in My statutes, keeping and performing My commandments, I will grant your rains [gishmeykhem] in their times” (Vayikra 26:3-4).   While a first-reading of the parasha might lead us to conclude that the Torah uses the words “laws” and “commandments” for rhetorical effect, our traditional commentators reject the idea that any literary device is only used by the Torah for rhetorical effect. Taking a familiar approach, Rashi argues that the purpose of this verse is to make Torah study the central value of the Jewish people.  Rashi states:

“If you follow My laws and faithfully observe my commandments”: “Follow My laws” would seem to mean “observe my commandments.”  But if that is stated explicitly, what is meant by “follow My laws”?  That one should labor in the study of Torah, and one should do so in order to “observe my commandments.”   As Deuteronomy 5:1 says, “Hear, O Israel, the laws and rules that I proclaim to you this day!  Study and observe them faithfully”” (Rashi on Vayikra 26:3).

On the one hand, Rashi’s commentary identifies that the seeming redundancy in the Torah-text between the words “laws” and “commandments” actually draws a distinction between the study of Torah specifically and pursuit of mitzvot generally.   However, Rashi’s commentary also expands upon the contextual meaning of our parasha, asserting that we do not follow Gody only through the observance of mitzvot, but also through engaging in the passionate pursuit of a divine connection through Torah study.

Taking an approach that combines philosophy and mysticism, Bahya ben Joseph ibn Pakuda, otherwise known as Rabbeinu Bahya, writes in his Hovat Ha-Levavot (The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart) that the verse in our parasha connects rainfall with the observance of mitzvot because the observance of mitzvot is connected to the sustenance to humanity and the entire world.   He states:

“You must know that God in His Holy Book has entrusted the world and everything in it to your service, for your welfare, on condition that you obey Him.   If you disobey Him, everything will disobey you too, as is made clear in the Scriptures: “If you walk in My statutes, keeping and performing My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, and the land shall yield her produce, and the trees of the field shall yield their fruit” (Vayikra 26:3)” (Bahya ben Joseph Ibn Pakuda, The Book of Direction to the Duties of the Heart, “On Self-Reckoning for God’s Sake,” Translation by Menahem Mansoor, 360).

For Rabbeinu Bahya, the foundation of the world depends upon the observance of the mitzvot, because God entrusted us to live our lives in a way that reflects God’s Torah.   While taking a different approach than Rashi, Rabbeinu Bahya’s commentary reminds us mitzvot are meant to be an all-consuming approach to life, and not merely a secret of discrete acts.

Finally, the Or Torah writes in his Hasidic commentary that this verse from our parasha shows that one cannot truly embrace Torah unless they perform mitzvot with passion and devotion.    He states:

“...This verse may also be applied to fulfilling the commandments.  A person who understands the meaning of a commandment and its origin will do it with incomparably more fervor and desire than one who does not, who follow it as a statute for which no reason is given in the Torah.  Even if the latter person does it to fulfill God’s decree, it just cannot bear the same enthusiasm.  Thus: If you walk in My statutes.  Even when you don’t know the reason, you walk with devotion and fervor.   This will be even more true of My commandments, where you know the reasons.   Then I will grant your rains, [purifying your bodily selves: gishmeykhem].”   (Or Torah on Leviticus 26:3-4, in Arthur Green ed., Around the Maggid’s Table, 310).

In this final commentary, it is not enough to observe the mitzvot; the mitzvot must be observed in a particular way, and with a particular mindset.   Whether we call it passion or devotion, our parasha challenges us to see a full embrace of God’s Torah as the only way to truly show that we are following his words.

While our students at Schechter primarily learn about Judaism by sitting and studying in a classroom, ultimately our vision for Jewish education is that each child find their pathway to make Judaism something essential to their purpose, and a passion they wholeheartedly embrace.   By extension, if we wish to make sure that our children are in their element when studying Torah, then it follows that we must take that challenge in our own lives.  This Shabbat, ask yourself, “What do I need to do make Torah my element?,” and then go out and do it.  It will be the best choice you’ll ever make.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Parashat Behar: A World of Opportunity

In 1751, the colony of Pennsylvania ordered the creation of a bell that would celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of William Penn’s Charter of Privileges, the colony’s original constitution that granted unprecedented religious freedom and government participation for the colony’s citizens.  Because this “Liberty Bell,” as it became known, would be constructed for the colony’s jubilee celebration, the makers of the bell chose to inscribe a famous verse from Parashat Behari, “Proclaim liberty (dror) throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Vayikra 25:10).   In making the choice to describe this biblical verse on the bell, the colonists were making the statement that their colony should be a place with freedom of a unique and special quality.

Jewish tradition ascribes equal importance to the verse chosen by the colonists of Pennsylvania, as our parasha includes this verse in the description on how the Israelites should observe the yovel (Jubilee Year), a time when all slaves should be freed, and all debts should be cancelled.  When examining the language chosen by our Torah, our commentators asked why the Torah uses the word dror for “freedom” or “liberty,” as opposed to hofesh, the more commonly used word for freedom.   While attempting to explain this linguistic, our commentators will help us discover that not all freedom is created equal. Rashi argues that the term dror connotes a finality and complete freedom of movement for the formerly enslaved person.   He states:

“You shall proclaim dror”: For release.  The slave is released even if his six years of service are not up, and even if his ear has been pierced with an awl, making him a slave “for life” (Shemot 21:6).  Said R. Judah: “What is the meaning of this word dror?   He lives on his own and conducts business anywhere in the country.”  That is, he may dar, reside, anywhere he likes-he is under no one else’s authority.  That is what “release” means” (Rashi on Vayikra 25:10).   

According to Rashi, the essence of the word dror is that when the yovel year comes, the previously enslaved person is now “under no one else’s authority.”   However, Rashi’s commentary also implies that merely being granted physical freedom does not warrant the use of the word dror, for this word denotes an additional kind of freedom, one that requires deeper exploration.

Rabbi Avraham Bedersi writes in Hotam Tokhnit, a late twentieth-century book analyzing the usage of synonyms and antonyms in Jewish texts, that a subtle, but essential difference, exists between the words dror and hofesh.   According to Bedersi, “Both terms are antonyms to bondage, but dror surpasses the other in that is denotes charity and purity, i.e., anything free of dross and corruption,” making the word dror not merely a word connoting personal freedom, but that word signifies a certain kind of world. Bedersi writes:

“This meaning of dror stands out in, “And you shall proclaim liberty (dror) throughout the land to all its inhabitants” (Vayikra 25:10), not only to the servants but also to the sold fields, to be returned to their original owners in the yovel year, and to the farmers who interrupt their work on the land.  Thus, “And you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants...and you shall return every man to his possession, and you shall return every man to his family.   A yovel shall shall that fiftieth year be to you, you shall not sow...For it is the yovel, it shall be holy to you…” (Ibid. 10-12).   Deror implies an absence of fear and impediment” (Rabbi Avraham Bedersi, Hotam Tokhnit, translation taken from Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra, Vol. 2, 533).

The Torah uses the word hofesh to describe an individual person’s freedom, yet when Torah single use of the word dror implies what Bedersi considers to be the “unqualified freedom” that can only come in the yovel, where debts are released, slaves freed, and society returns to an original state where people have an equality of opportunity that did not exist previously.    

When we place our parasha in a larger historical context, Bedersi’s reading makes a great deal of sense. In the JPS Torah Commentary, Baruch Levine writes that the term dror reflects an ancient Babylonian practice of new kings releasing those people previously enslaved under prior regimes.  Levine writes:

““You shall proclaim release throughout the land…”: The Hebrew term deror has conventionally been rendered “freedom, liberty.”   More has been learned about it in recent years, however.   Hebrew deror is cognate with Akkadian anduraru, which designates an edict of release issued by the Old Babylonian kings and some of their successors.  This edict was often issued by a king upon ascending the throne and was a feature of a more extensive legal institution known as mesharum, a moratorium declared on debts and indenture” (Baruch A. Levine, The JPS Torah Commentary: Leviticus, 171).

In this commentary, Levine notes that the word dror reflect a state of affairs where a new regime wants to wipe the societal slate clean, and allow ordinary citizens to not be encumbered by previous policies that deprived them of freedom of movement an opportunity.    By extension, when the Torah states that we should proclaim dror throughout the land, our text proclaims that the yovel is a chance for a fresh start and a new world.

In each of these commentaries, we are reminded that mere physical freedom, hofesh, does not matter unless a world of opportunity is open to the newly freed person, the state of affairs our parashah attempts to capture when saying that we shall declare dror during the yovel year.   Like the motivation of those who carved this verse on the Liberty Bell, not all freedom is created equal, for dror (liberty) is a moment when a person feels a new world is open to them.   The message from our parasha and the Liberty Bell is one that must give us pause as we educate our children to be independent thinkers, for one day, each of them will walk out into the world a “free” person, yet if we do not help them see the world as one of immense opportunity, then the freedom is not the quality of which we should expect for them.   As a Schechter Community, may we heed the message of our parasha, and help shape a world where freedom is proclaimed, so that our children all people might see the possibilities a pure and holy freedom will bring.

Shabbat Shalom!