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 Devarim (Deuteronomy 1:1-3:22).  In many respects this fifth book of Torah can be understood as a redaction of the earlier four books.  Moses reviews for the generation about to enter the Promised Land all that has taken place during their years of the wilderness journey.  But, like all reviews, it is offered from a particular bias.

Knowing that his life will end before the community enters the Promised Land, Moses offers in a series of talks not only a recap of the forty years of physical wandering, but also a perspective on the values and laws which will identify and sustain Israel as a people. He begins with a blessing:

"Adonai, the G-d of your ancestors, make you a thousand times so many

As you are, and bless you, as was the Divine promise to you." (1:11)

Within this blessing is a wish for a communal memory which will transcend the generations.  By invoking the Divine relationship of past generations (the ancestors), Moses is encouraging the present generation to build on what has been achieved, value the struggle of those who came before them, and honor the past by living lives which are a testimony to the legacy of previous generations.

While our mortality harnesses us with the time limits of the shared journey, our memories of that journey can offer us strength and determination in the face of uncertainty and doubt.  The blessing that one generation offers the next is that in the younger generation's time of need, they may summons the life-affirming values modeled by those who came before them.

There is also within Moses' blessing a reminder that something real and tangible has been offered as a cornerstone of the eternal covenant:  a Divine promise of the ongoing vitality, wellbeing and growth of the community.  There may be moments of profound despair, both communally and individually.  Yet in those darkest times our strength will come in our remembrance of a promise:  we will be sustained and we will be blessed.

In the sacred journey of the calendar year, the Jewish community is in one of its darkest moments.  We have entered the Hebrew month of Av.  This coming Tuesday (beginning Monday evening) is Tisha B'Av (the Ninth of Av).  It is a communal day of profound sadness as the Jewish community remembers and laments calamities of past generations:  the destruction of the Jerusalem Temples, the Expulsion of the Jewish community in Spain, the Holocaust.  Knowledge of Jewish history will recall that these specific events are horrific representatives of other moments of loss and despair.  This year's remembrances are shadowed with the anxieties and uncertainties which are being experienced like wildfires in so many of the world's hot spots.

Built into the Jewish calendar will be sacred textual readings in the weeks ahead which will attempt to offer a reminder of that eternal promise:  a time which we hope will not be too distant for the Divine blessing of compassion and comfort. The darkest hours are often those before the blessing of a new day.  As the prayer book offers in a contemporary reading, "(We need to) pray as if everything depends on G-d, but act as if everything depends on us."

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Massey (Numbers 33:1-36:13).  This is the concluding parsha in the Book of Numbers and it serves as a recounting, a reflection, of the stages (massey) of the journey which took the Israelites from the enslavement in Egypt to the outskirts of the Promised Land.  These travels are written down by Moses (33:2) to serve as a memorial for future generations to see.  Moses wrote of "their goings forth according to their journeys...their journeys according to their goings forth."

Rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch (19th century) sees the mirroring of the phrase as an indication of the relationship between G-d and the people.  The first phrase (their goings forth according to their journeys) he sees as the way the Divine saw the stages of Israel's experiences in the wilderness while the second phrase (their journeys according to their goings forth) is how the people experienced their wanderings:  the same events perceived from different perspectives.

Perhaps there is also another way for us to understand the linguistical mirroring.  Each of us has a sense, perhaps even a plan, for our personal journey.  There are stages we envision which might include formal education, apprenticeship in a professional career choice and development toward career advancement.  This vision might also include the hope of finding another individual to share the journey, with the possibility of raising a family, being part of a community and experiencing the enjoyment of well-spent personal time.  We might call this "our dreams" or "our hopes."  Yet very often, that which we earlier envisioned changes as we advance along the different stages of life.

There is a Yiddish expression which is translated as "A person plans and G-d laughs."  What we envision and what we actually experience often are very different.  The Yiddish expression is not meant to suggest the nature of a malevolent G-d, but rather an insight into the stark reality that no matter how much we plan, our journeys will inevitably have unforeseen twists and turns, the unexpected challenges which we will need to address.

My daughter's professional journey as a social worker has taken her to work for the VA (Veterans Administration).  Her challenge is to help homeless veterans find housing and to make sure that they are getting the services to which they are entitled.  She told me about one of the first vets she met.  He is a Vietnam War veteran who has been in and out of homelessness for more than forty years.  When she met him he told her, "When I got drafted to serve I was just an eighteen year old kid.  I had hopes about things I wanted to do in my life.  I went to war to serve my nation and my life has never been the same since..."

This sense of what we envision and what we really experience is also at the heart of our communal life as well.  I have been thinking a great deal these past few weeks about what Golda Meir once said to the leadership of the Arab World, "We may ultimately be able to forgive you for killing our children, but we will never be able to forgive you for requiring that our children kill yours."

Seven decades later that admonition weighs even more heavily like a suffocating smog.  What Theodore Herzl dreamed, what David Ben Gurion envisoned, and what Golda Meir hoped for was not only the blossoming of the desert, but the creation of a safe haven which could be a model for all and a refuge for those fleeing hate and oppression.  I am not sure that they envisioned a nation constantly living in existential angst, a Promised Land still waiting to experience a normalcy with its neighbors, recognition and acceptance within the community of humankind.

What we envision and what we actually experience often are very different.  Yet, we must resist the demoralization which makes us want to give up dreaming and overcome the temptation to be less than we know we can be.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

Dear Friends,

Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Mattot (Numbers 30:2-32:42).  A significant aspect of this parsha deals with the nature of vows.  This is specifically emphasized in the narrative dialogue between Moses and the descendants of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh (chapter 32).

As the Israelite community approaches the Promised Land, the leaders of these tribes petition Moses to be able to settle the land east of the Jordan River because it is well suited for the raising of livestock (32:4). Moses, in response, raises the concern about how their request will impact on the rest of the community:  will the other tribes feel abandoned by the decision and will it undermine the communal resolve to inhabit the Promised Land (32:6-15)?

Understanding Moses' anxiety, they offer reassurance of their commitment to help secure the territorial integrity of the Promised Land for the children of Israel and only then will they return to the property they have requested (32:16-42).

I have been thinking a great deal this week about who are the spiritual descendants of the tribes of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh.  Jewish tradition offers that these tribes were part of the lost tribes of Israel who were scattered following the destruction of the First Jerusalem Temple in the 8th century BCE.  But certainly not all of them went into exile.  Perhaps some of their descendants are still living east of the Jordan today.  An interesting speculation to ponder is that maybe the Jordanians/Palestinians of present day Jordan are actually descendants of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh...

But what I think was more on my mind as I reflected on this week's parsha, was my recent visit to Israel with my daughter.  We arrived in Israel the day the bodies of the three Israeli boys were found and our scheduled departure was on the day that the rockets began to hail upon the civilian population of Israel.  We did a great deal of walking in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem.  We spoke with Israelis and with Palestinians we encountered in their stores, in restaurants, during taxi rides and on the streets as we journeyed from one destination to the next.

They were open about their lives, their hopes and their dreams.  We didn't personally encounter those of spoke of vengeance and we stayed clear of areas where the vitriol of revenge and anger flared into violence.  Rather, our encounters were with those who were just struggling to live normal lives.

I have visited Israel numerous times as a student, both in undergraduate school and in rabbinical school, and as a rabbi leading congregational trips and attending rabbinic conferences.  But this time I was simply an individual, a Jewish individual with his adult daughter exploring and relearning about a domain which holds a sacred place in my heart and mind.

This week as I was reflecting on the vows of Gad, Reuben and Manasseh, I was thinking of my obligations:

I am not an Israeli for I live outside of the Land.

I am not even a Zionist because, as I learned directly from David Ben Gurion more than 40 years ago, standing before him with a group of fellow college students when he spoke to us at his home in Sde Boker, telling us that only those who "cross the river," settle in the Land, and make it their home are really Zionists.

But I am a Jew.  I am motivated in my thoughts, feelings and actions to affirm the Talmudic injunction that "all Israel is responsible for one another," while attempting to balance that sentiment with Hillel's quintessential adage, "love your neighbor as you would wish to be loved and all the rest is simply commentary."

Our brief, beautiful and meaningful visit to Israel made me realize that even on this side of the Jordan I still have vows to which I am committed:  the well-being of those who live in the Land and the hope for peace, understanding and reconciliation for all who are created in the Divine Image.

Shabbat Shalom,

Hesch

 


Dear Friends,
          Our Torah portion this Shabbat is Chukkat (Numbers 19:1-22:1).  It begins with the laws regarding the Red Heifer and the purification rituals which transform that which is clean to unclean and the opposite.  The heifer is sacrificed and its body consumed in flame.  The remaining ashes are mixed with water and fragrances and used to purify individuals who have come in contact, both directly and indirectly, with the dead.  The clean person who helps cleanse someone who has become unclean becomes unclean and must go through his own ritual cleanse (19:1-19).  Sound confusing?
 
The individual deemed clean and untainted who takes the ash remains of a red heifer (which was chosen for sacrifice because it was pure and without blemish and creates a curative to restore others to a status so that they may be released from their tainted state and return to full participation in the community) becomes through his help to others, tainted, bruised.   His status now is in need of transformation.   As the Torah tells us, this is a perpetual reality (19:21).  Yet, how are we to understand this reality?
 
Last evening, I served as a facilitator at a "talk back" following a performance of “The Events” during the International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven.  “The Events” focuses on the struggle of an individual in the aftermath of a mass shooting in which she is the lone survivor.  She is changed by the events which have transformed her life, robbed her of those with whom she had identified herself.   Her status changed in the brief moments that the horrors unfolded and each attempt to return her to a former normalcy triggers memories which cannot fully be washed away.
 
Our parsha deals with the nature of how we see ourselves and how others see us as we confront (come in contact with) death.  Our bereavement reflects our changed status.  We are not the same person as before we were faced with our loss.   In the face of intimate suffering when a loved one dies or communal suffering (mass murders, genocides, random acts of violence in our cities, towns and neighbors), we are transformed.  We feel different and see the world around us differently. As others attempt to provide us with comfort and as we try to comfort one another, we become aware that we stand on shifting sands.  We are unsure of our next steps, unclear about the journey ahead.
 
With all good intentions there will be some who will encourage us in our moments of mourning “to just get on with it.”  Perhaps out of their own fears or uncertainties those “encouragers” wish to move beyond the sorrow to return to the false status of “pure and unblemished.”   But in reality, life is a blemishing.   It is a journey of discovery in which we hopefully can learn to appreciate just how fragile life is.  Each day we are transformed, but not every day do we allow ourselves to be aware of these changes.  The rituals of life can either lull us into a false sense of “all is right with the world,” or they can make us aware of the ever-changing nature of our lives.
 
At a communal interfaith memorial which followed the Newtown murders, I offered a public prayer invoking the hope that we would not allow ourselves to become numbed by the frequency of these tragic events, rather that we would be moved through our discomfort to work toward changes in our society, to find ways to transform ourselves and bring renewed health and mending to our brokenness.
 
 While there is much which is often beyond our control, the willingness to reach out to others, the ability to help in the healing is within each of our grasps.  If you ignore this responsibility we, as the Torah warns (19:13), cut ourselves off from the very communal interconnectedness we so desperately need.
 
Shabbat Shalom,   
Hesch
 
PS:   I will be taking a two-week hiatus from writing these D’vrei Torah and will be reflecting with you again with Parshat Mattot.  Thank you for the connections we share as we continue to learn to “number our days that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12)