Very often when I give an assignment in class my students will ask me “Can we work together?” Grammatical issues aside, this is not an unreasonable question. It is common to want to do something with another, not to face some challenge, even a class assignment, alone. This is borne out in this week’s Torah reading, Bechukotai, the final parsha in the book of Vayikra.
The parsha begins with a series of blessings that the people will receive for properly fulfilling the commandments. Following theses blessings comes the To’chacha, meaning admonition, a series of punishments and curses which will befall the Jewish people should they fail to live up to their part of the Divine covenant that was forged at Sinai. This To’chacha is repeated later in Parshat KI Tavo, in the book of Devarim however, there are some differences.
In one interesting verse in the To’chacha, it is described how the people will flee from their enemies, “I will bring weakness in the hearts of the survivors . . . they will flee as one flees the sword, and they will fall, even without a pursuer. They will stumble over each other . . .” When the rabbis of the Talmud interpret this verse “stumble over each other” they teach us that we should really read verse “they will stumble because of one another.” They go on to say that the verse means that all Jews are responsible for one another.
This is an essential idea in Judaism; that we do not live in a vacuum. We are part of a greater community and our actions can have an effect on others. In fact, more than a community, as mentioned, ultimately we part of that grand covenant at Sinai, a covenant that binds us together with a common history and a common destiny.
The To’chacha in our parsha (unlike in Parshat Ki Tavo) ends with a message of hope. The Torah reads, “But despite all that, when they are in enemy territory, I will not reject them . . . But for their sake I will remember the covenant with the first generation, the ones I brought out from Egypt in the sight of all the nations, in order to be their G-d; I am HaShem.” No matter what challenges the Jewish people will encounter, they will not be alone.
Regardless of time or place the Jewish people are linked together, and the roots are deep and the bounds are inextricable. While at times we may fight and argue among ourselves, in the end we are responsible for one another.
As we complete the Book of VaYikra, may we remember that despite differences in thought and in practice among our people, and the debates regarding these differences are often passionate, we are part of one covenant with one Torah. May we indeed be worthy.
Chazak, Chazak v’Nitchazayk
This week’s parsha is Behar. There is a commandment to count seven years in a cycle of seven, meaning seven years, seven times for a total of 49 years. Each seventh year is a sabbatical year, the year when the land of Israel is to lie fallow. After the 49th year there is an additional year that is significant. That 50th year is called the Yovel, Jubilee, year, which is a freedom year of sorts. One who was an indentured servant went free, one who had to sell family land in the past due to debt, or other reasons, has his land returned to him.
To a certain extent, some of the laws mentioned in the parsha are not so relevant for us today, especially since we are not farmers. However, there is still indeed something important for us to learn. The Torah says here to count the years. “You shall count for yourselves seven cycles of seven sabbatical years, seven years, seven times . . . “ That 50th year mentioned a moment ago is also a sabbatical year. Therefore a farmer needed to keep the sabbatical year for two years in a row! No planting, no harvesting for two years.
How would the farmer earn a living or feed his family for two years? The farmer needed to think for the future for the choices and decisions he made would have an effect on his family in the years to come.
There is a story in the Talmud about Choni, the Circle Maker. One day Choni happened upon an elderly man planting a carob tree. Choni asked the man how long it would take the tree to grow and bear its fruit. The elderly man answered 70 years. When Choni pointed out that it was doubtful the man would live another 70 years, the elderly man responded, “Just as my ancestors planted for me, so too, I plant for my descendants.”
The elderly man was planning for the future, even though it was not a future he would personally experience. I have mentioned this passage previously, and indeed it is a favorite of mine. The man was looking towards the future and thinking of what could be. He knew that he personally would not benefit from the fruit of that tree, but the decision to still plant the tree would affect other people.
The decisions we make today can have a profound result not only on us, but others later on. This can be at once daunting and exciting. Is this the right thing to do? Will it work out? These are questions we ask ourselves. However, we can also ask, “Can you imagine what we can create here?”
This idea of the Yovel year is especially poignant for in June I will have reached my Yovel. Have I planted well for my wife and children for their futures? Have I planted well for my students, for GBDS and its growth and vitality? I pray that arrogance of youth has been replaced by not only the grey in my beard, but tempered with (some) wisdom.
While we are not prophets with an ability to foresee what will come, we still must look towards the future. We must still dream and have a vision of what could be and at times we must take risks for nothing good comes without risks. Our task is to make the choices, the decisions so that the metaphorical carob trees we plant today will indeed bear their fruit tomorrow.
Many years ago, in the aftermath of 9/11, I applied to become a chaplain in the U.S. Army. I traveled to Fort Dix where I had to undergo a complete physical and have an interview. The experience began with a briefing from a sergeant. There were about 30 of us in the room. All of the other potential recruits were in their late teens or early twenties. At one point during the briefing the sergeant mentioned that no hats were allowed to be worn inside buildings on the base, except for any “headgear of a religious nature.” At that point every eye became fixed squarely to the top of my head. I suddenly became acutely aware that I was different than others and it wasn’t because I was 15 - 20 years older than everyone else in the room. Anyway, for various reasons, my stint in the military is confined to that day, though I did come away with a few amusing anecdotes
This week’s parsha is Emor and in it there is a verse which is fundamental regarding our existence as Jews. The Torah says, “Do not desecrate me holy Name. I must be sanctified among the Israelites. I am the HaShem, who made you holy and who brought you out from Egypt to be your G-d, I am HaShem. “ The verse is more than merely a call to be holy, rather it is a mandate not to create what is known as a Chilul HaShem and to indeed make a Kiddush HaShem.
What is a Chilul HaShem? Simply translated a Chilul HaShem is a desecration of HaShem. The word Chilul comes from the same as the Hebrew word for outerspace, chalal, which means a vacuum. A Chilul HaShem is a situation where there is a vacuum, a void, of HaShem’s presence. A Kiddush HaShem, on the other hand, is a sanctification of HaShem where HaShem’s presence is felt. Both concepts are rooted in our behavior. When we act in ways that will reflect well on Jews and Judaism we create a Kiddush HaShem, when we act the opposite, in a manner that shows Jews and Judaism in a negative light, that is a Chilul HaShem.
William Shakespeare wrote in his play Twelfth Night, “Be not afraid of greatness. Some are born great, some achieve greatness and others have it thrust upon them.” Of all the nations that lived during ancient times, only the Jewish people continue to not only exist, but thrive. This ability to endure all the trials and tribulations of the past and contribute to humanity in such a significant way surely testifies to the greatness of the Jewish people. However, that greatness in many ways was thrust upon us. There is no question that the Jewish people had to rise above the challenges in order to persevere. But with that greatness comes an immense responsibility. We are Judaism’s ambassadors to the world; we must live in such a way that will make a Kiddush HaShem. As the prophet Isaiah said, “You are my servant, Israel, through whom I will be glorified.”
May we be worthy of this sacred task.
I still remember the first time I saw it. It was 1998 and I was in Israel with that year’s 8th grade and I was so excited. I had wanted to go during my other trips to Israel but it never worked out but now I was finally here. I had seen old photos of this special place, read about it, even taught about it in my 8th grade Jewish history class which focused on the history of Israel. Now I was standing there where history had been made so many years ago.
Of course, I am referring to the room at the Tel Aviv Art Museum where 68 years ago today David Ben –Gurion declared to the world that the Jewish people were taking their destiny into their own hands and establishing the first Jewish sovereign state in 2500 years. A mere three years after the near decimation of the 6,000,000, the Jewish people were now the arbitrator of their own future. That room in 1998 looked as it had 50 years prior with the large portrait of Theodor Herzl flanked by the Israeli flags. I stood there, staring, trying to imagine what it was like to have been there on that day.
This week’s parsha is Kedoshim. In the opening verses of the parsha there is a Divine call, a mandate, maybe even a plea, to be holy. The reason given? “. . . for I am holy, HaShem your G-d.” This is not first time the Jewish people are commanded to be holy. In Parshat Yitro when the Israelites were about to receive the Torah they are told “You shall be a holy people.” The parsha is essentially a litany of various actions which either the performance of or the refraining from defines holiness. These actions include idolatry, certain offerings and how the remains of the animal are handled, giving to the poor and dealing honestly in business. The famous, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind,” the command not to give bad advice to an unsuspecting person, especially if you could benefit from that person’s mistake is part of this Holiness code.
What does it mean to be holy? The Hebrew root kadosh means to be separate for some kind of special purpose. When we recite Kiddush Friday nights we are declaring that this day, Shabbat, is separate from the other six days of the week for something different, something special. When the Jewish people are described as a Holy people, it means that we are a people with some special mission in this world. Rabbi Moshe Nachmanides, the Ramban, (1194 -1270), the Spanish Torah commentator and philosopher writes that holiness refers to moderation, to acting with self-control in those areas which are in fact permitted.
To be kadosh, to be holy is to be special, but at the same time that holiness is also a responsibility. Being holy means that my actions count, what I do has an effect on other people. There is a midrash about two people in a boat. One of them began to drill a hole under his seat. When the other man protested, the first said, “but I am making the hole under my seat,” to which his companion responded, “Yes, but I will sink as well.” Almost every commandment given in the parsha, which the Torah is defining as the path to holiness, is about how we relate to other people in some fashion.
68 years ago today David Ben-Gurion stood in the Tel Aviv art museum and declared to the world that the Jewish people were now a self-governing, sovereign nation. The Jewish people were taking responsibility for their destiny. The prophet Yeshiya’s call to be a “light among the nations” took on new meaning that day. However, that call, as the parsha’s call of “You shall be holy” is our call. Our task is to bring holiness to life, to give holiness a new spirit. May we worthy of this sacred, this holy, mission.
Here is to 68 years of Israel's Independence.
Did you ever have the experience after having spent some time working on something on the computer you accidently hit a random key and the whole screen goes blank? Well, that happened to me early this morning as I was writing for this week’s parsha. I tapped a key by mistake and 45 minutes of work disappeared leaving a white screen in front of me. Being it was 3:00 am I resisted the urge (though I briefly considered it) to run screaming down the hall like a lunatic to wake my wife for her help to try to retrieve my work. Hurling the computer out of the second floor window onto the driveway below was also an option that was oh so tempting, but I forgot to unplug everything and thankfully was preventing from actually reaching the window. Alas, I just sat and stared at the blank screen and wondered what to do next. Okay, I said to myself, let’s try this again – just hit save after every paragraph. (save)
This week’s parsha is Acharei Mot, which opens with an elaborate description of the Yom Kippur ritual which Aaron in his role as Kohain Gadol is to perform. The Torah describes that Aaron is to dress in a linen tunic, with a sash and turban to match and bring a bull into the inner most sanctuary of the Mishkan, where the Ark, was held the tablets of the Ten Commandments, was kept. He was to bring a bull and two he-goats, one goat was designated for HaShem and the other was for Azazel. This second was he-goat was sent into the wilderness and the first along with the bull were both slaughtered as sin-offerings. (save)
However there was another element to this ritual. The Torah describes that there was a cloud that hovered over the Ark in which HaShem’s glory appeared. Aaron was commanded to burn incense and the cloud from this burning was to mingle with the Cloud already over the Ark. The incense offering cloud and the Divine cloud were to mingle, to connect to each other. (save)
The interesting part is that it is only towards the end of this entire description is Aaron to confess the sins of the people, placing these sins on the head of the Azazel he-goat which is sent into the wilderness. This is only one verse out of the thirty. (save)
The parsha is called Acharei Mot which means “after the death.” This refers to the death of Aaron’s two sons Nadav and Avihu. Parshat Shemini described that they died after entering this inner most sanctuary to offer strange fire that was not commanded. What is the connection here? Aaron is commanded to enter this area of the Mishkan not anytime he pleases, but rather only on one specified day of the year, the 10th day of the seventh month, which we know as Tishrei, and this is the date on the Jewish calendar as Yom Kippur. The Torah explicitly says that he should come into the sanctuary at any time “so that he shall not die.” While this is not the time to delve into what happened to Nadav and Avihu, they entered when they wanted with tragic results. (save)
Jewish life is one of rituals. We just celebrated Pesach. The steps of the seder are designed to help us relive the experience of the exodus. Rituals give us structure, they give us meaning. Rituals give us something to which to look forward. (save)
Jewish tradition is also a spiritual discipline. In his book Good to Great, author Jim Collins, a management expert, writes that the common thread of very successful companies is their emphasis on self-discipline among its employees. There are prescribed ways in which rituals are performed, which adds to their power. Yes, at times things may seem regimented. Ultimately that regimentation is meant to uplift and strengthen us, as individuals and as a community, rather than merely restrict us. Our adherence to tradition, to our ritual practice is one of the features that makes Judaism great, such that we continue to pass it over to our children and our students. (save)
Shabbat shalom (save)