To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.

- Ecclesiastes 3:1

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Reflections

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Korach (Numbers 16:1-18:32).  The narrative conveys the ongoing tension within the Israelite community.  Those who acted like murmurers earlier have now become the complainers.  The complainers stir the pot of discontent, bringing others along with them until, in this week's parsha, we have outright revolt.

The classic commentators ask about the detailed genealogy which introduces the co-conspirators who rise up against Moses and Aaron.  Why is it, they wonder, that the opening of the portion doesn't simply say, "Korach took (joined with) Datan, Abiram and On" rising up against Moses (16:1-2)?  In essence, what is important about their ancestry?

Let me suggest that the answer to these questions may rest in the co-conspirators' emotional DNA.  How we understand ourselves is often in relationship to those who came before us.  Korach was the great grandson of Levi and the others, two brothers and a cousin, were the grandsons of Reuben.

Reuben, you may recall was the firstborn of all of Jacob's children (Genesis 29:32).  He convinced his brothers not to kill Joseph, but was either passive or non-participatory in the decisions regarding Joseph's future disposition (Genesis 37:22-30).  Ultimately, Reuben questioned his own moral compass.  He asked himself, "Where do I go from here?" a question which continues to plague his descendants as they attempt to understand.  "We are the children of the firstborn and yet we feel marginalized.  Must we continue to be plagued by the indecisions of past generations or can we forge with others a more distinguished role for ourselves and our descendants?"

The descendants of Levi have a prominent role in communal leadership and yet Korach is not satisfied with the specific tasks relegated to his family.  He mistakes "holiness" with "entitlement" when he states "the entire congregation is holy" (16:3).

The mixture of unresolved disappointment and the entitled false god of name recognition privileged status, form a volatile brew which spills over to wreak havoc upon the entire community.  Our parsha indicates that the only way the community could be saved was to have those who joined in the rebellion be swallowed by the earth (16:32-34).  When our jealousies and unresolved angst are left to eat at us, when we project our emotional struggles onto others rather than work to heal from within ourselves, then we may find that we are consumed by our inner fires of disappointment and swallowed by greed and envy.

Later, the Torah will remind us that while Korach may have been swallowed by the earth, his sons were not (Numbers 26:10-11).  Rather than allowing the resentments of their patriarchal ancestor to consume them with jealousy and anger, the sons of Korach are noted as the authors of eleven psalms.  The Torah warns that there is the potential, if allowed to go unchecked, for the struggles of one generation to inflict and infect subsequent generations, but the power to overcome the faults and unresolved issues of the past are within each of us.

Korach was correct when he stated that each member of the community is holy.  Sadly, he was not willing to see that the empowerment of that which is sacred within us places upon us the obligation to strive to live up to that holiness through acts of healing, caring and compassion for one another.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1-15:41).  The parsha opens with what appears to be a Divine command:  Moses is instructed to send out spies, princes from each of the tribes, to scout out the land of Canaan, the Promised Land, and bring back a report of what they see to the community (12:1-3).  Yet, if we link the growing murmurings of the last parsha with the intensifying distress which follows the spies' reports, we get a better understanding that the command is more of an attempt to prove a point:  oftentimes impatience and loss of faith go hand in hand.

Not too long ago, a colleague asked for advice and guidance regarding a proposal he was presenting for grant consideration.  The feedback which I offered required a "return to the drawing board" to fine tune and more clearly articulate the goals of his project.  He politely thanked me, but told me that others who had read it thought it could be submitted "as is" and that he was, to quote him, "impatient to get the ball rolling."  He said, "I'm a good talker and any questions that the grant committee might have I'll address when I meet with them."  The problem was that he misread how the granting process was going to work and was ultimately told that his project was too vague and the process of completing the project not clearly delineated.  He was never invited to speak before the committee.  He never received the grant and turned his attention to a different and less challenging project.

The "sending forth" which is the divine directive, is better understood as "you send forth" because "while I have told you and shown you that the community is not yet ready to enter the Promised Land, your impatience and theirs serves to underscore your struggle of faith."

While the most direct route may be the shortest journey from point A to point B, it can also be the most perilous if we are not prepared for the challenges we will face.  How we see ourselves is frequently the lens through which we see the world around us.  Ten of the princes saw themselves as insignificant insects and the people who inhabited the land as if they were giants (13:32-33).  Tragically, they projected their own insecurities and fears onto those on whom they spied, uttering to the community, "...and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight (as well)."

But two princes, Joshua and Caleb, offered a different perspective.  They spoke to the people about strength and faith which come from a commitment and determination to find affirming ways to meet difficult challenges (14:6-9).  The path of least resistance may be easier to travel, but its destination may, in the end, be less satisfying and less meaningful.

Patience and determination go hand in hand with hope and faith.  The only way for any of us to reach the promised land we dearly desire is through a belief that it is not beyond our capabilities and a dedication to the ongoing work to live up to those expectations of ourselves.  When people get things without really putting in the effort, we might say that they were handed it "on a silver platter."  But if we want the platter to maintain its sparkle, we have to put in the effort of keeping it polished.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this week is Behaalotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16).  Having organized the way that the community would move through the wilderness with the Tabernacle and having described the various responsibilities of the Levitical clans, the journey takes on a new significance (10:33-34).   Moses' plea on behalf of the community is couched in terms of those whose real enemy is G-d (10:35-36):  "may Your foes be scattered and those who hate You flee from before you."

Yet rather than serving as an uplifting message of the tranquility which comes with a sense of Divine presence, the people became "like" complainers (11:1).  They acted in a way which seemed odd, as if they were testing out an attitude.  We might ask ourselves, what prompted this kind of response?  Rashi, reflecting on a passage in Sifre (midrashic collection based on Numbers), offers us an insight.

Commenting on 11:5, "we remember the fish that we ate in Egypt for nothing (my italics, the Hebrew, necham, implies "free of charge")..." Rashi suggests that the nothing refers to a time before they were bound to the covenant as a free people.  In Egypt they worked, they lived a slave's life, but they had no obligations and weren't burdened by the responsibilities of living a life imbued by the commandments of creating a just and compassionate society. For as we learned already in Leviticus 26:3-4 and will see as well in Deuteronomy 11:13-15, to be a partner in the covenant comes with a quid pro quo: follow the commandments  and you will be blessed with the sustenance of life.

When Israel was given the Torah at Mt. Sinai, they could only accept it as free people.  Yet freed from the physical bondage of slavery, they needed to release themselves from the spiritual bondage of a delusional way of life:  that they would be taken care of without any obligation on their part.

It seems to be such a human yearning to be cared for and owe nothing in return that people are willing to forfeit their own freedom to obtain the illusion of bliss.  And yet we know that "you don't get nothing for nothing."

We have just finished celebrating Shavuot, the Giving of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.  It comes with both its blessings and its obligations.  There is a humbling aspect of receiving the responsibilities of commitment to an eternal relationship:  in accepting this relationship you acknowledge that the real rewards of life come with a price tag.   It costs a dedication to something greater than ourselves.  The Giving of Torah is the gift to us.  The Acceptance of Torah with all its obligations is the price we must commit to if we are ever to create a just and compassionate society.

On Tuesday night, many of us gathered to study and accept the gift of Torah and perhaps also to nosh some blintzes and cheesecake.   People often ask why we eat dairy products on Shavuot.  It may be because the Torah says that Israel is a land flowing with milk and honey.  But another explanation reflects on the nature of modesty.  Dairy products seem to symbolize the humble way in which we might approach the Torah and our commitment to the Covenant of Israel.   In our humility, we accept the awesome responsibility of committing to a way of life beyond simply satisfying our own selfish needs.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Naso (Numbers 4:21-7:89).  The parsha opens with the continued description of the Levite families and their work in the transporting of the Tabernacle (4:21-49) and concludes with a description of the offerings brought by a representative, a prince, of each of the tribes (7:1-89).  In a symbolic gesture of communal unity, each tribe's offering was exactly the same, as if to say, "We affirm our distinctiveness as separate tribes, but we share in the sacred task of creating a wholeness through our communal bonding."

The parsha also delineates the laws of the Nazirite (6:2-21):  timebound obligations which an individual chose to fulfill in order to test his/her ability at self restraint.  It is an interesting model of self-limitation.  How do we set boundaries in our personal lives which help us to affirm a sense of control and define our uniqueness?

There is an intriguing juxtaposition in the parsha.  The laws of the Nazirite are followed by the Priestly Benediction:  a special series of blessings which the Kohanim invoke for the community's well-being (6:22-26).  Like the Nazirite laws, the Priestly Benediction has a limit-setting quality--they remind the priests that in offering these blessings over the community they serve as divine conduits.  The priests themselves have no extraordinary powers, rather, they, like all the members of the community, find their strength through the fulfillment of obligations unique to them.  Their task is to acknowledge that through their obligations, the community will better understand the divine blessing offered to each and every individual (6:27).

Perhaps this sense of individual blessing might be best exemplified by the middle section of this three-part prayer:  "May Adonai's face shine upon you and be gracious to you (6:25)."  Recently, someone asked me to explain to her the nature of "grace."  This verse offers a beautiful insight.  G-d's face is to be understood in the spiritual sense of moral insight.  When we allow ourselves to be aware of the sacred nature of all living things, we permit ourselves to see the world differently.  We are in essence open to the nature of being "awestruck."  It is that awareness of the sacred in the other which will hopefully, in return, let others see the uniqueness within us.  "Grace" then is the beauty of being seen in the most favorable light.  We hope that others will see us (and that we will allow ourselves to see ourselves) as G-d sees us--created in the Divine Image, beautiful in our own unique way, loving and loved.

Sometimes people get lost in the belief that they are unlovable, unworthy, wretched creatures.  To wander in that wilderness of self-loathing is a terrible and frightening abyss.  The parsha serves as a testimony that each of us is needed and important in this vast and complex human drama.  By shining the light of awareness, compassion and acceptance on others we can, with grace, bring a sense of well-being, hope and encouragement to those who feel most vulnerable, alone and often invisible.

When the Priestly Benediction is offered as part of the  liturgy, the communal response following each section is "ken y'hi ratzon" (may it be G-d's will).   May that will open our eyes to the sacred within ourselves and in the world around us.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch