Thursday, July 24, 2014

The Numbers Game - Reflections on Parashat Masei 5774

This week's parasha, Masei, is the last portion in the Book of Numbers. 

Numbers, numbers, numbers. I've been ruminating a lot about the numbers in the last few days, particularly in light of the three weeks, the nine days, and especially the ongoing Israeli campaign in Hamastan, now in its 17th day.

Last week, Israeli Economics Minister Naftali Bennett was ambushed by a shockingly hostile BBC news presenter who repeatedly accused Israel of a "disproportionate" response in Gaza. Since several hundreds of Arabs are dead, and only a score of Jews have died, ipso facto Israel's response is disproportionate. (I don't mean to single out the Bevin Broadcasting Corporation; the same sanctimonious mantra can be found on NPR, CNN. MSNBC, ABC; take your pick.)

Similarly, in the first days of the ground assault, the US Secretary of State was caught on a hot mike stating it was, "...a hell of pinpoint operation," saying that Israel had taken the military operation too far. After all, despite the launching of thousands of rockets against every part of Israel (which continue unabated at the time of this writing) there have miraculously yet to be any mass Jewish casualties.

The streets of London and Paris are ablaze from Arab and leftist protests, and the UN Commissioner on Human Rights wants Israel investigated for "war crimes." (I'd almost be disappointed if she didn't.)

So the media elites and most world governments are obsessed with the numbers, with proportionality. To them I must ask: if Israel has acted disproportionately, what manner of response would you deem to be proportionate? Inquiring minds want to know.

I will not enter into a discussion of whether Gaza Arabs are innocent civilians - people who freely elected Hamas/Muslim Brotherhood to rule over them because the PLO/Fatah wasn't extreme enough; people who have repeatedly endorsed their Jihadist beliefs; people who in 2005 burned down tens of millions of dollars in assets abandoned by the Jews and then gleefully peed on the ashes; people who willingly live in poverty and shanty towns (aka refugee camps), diverting the allocation of international aid away from housing, food, infrastructure and healthcare, towards missiles and armies for the ultimate Jihad against the Jews (Oh yeah, and the massive graft. I'm not sure which is the bigger kleptocracy - the PLO regime in Ramallah or Hamastan in Gaza. Tough call.) The Gaza Arabs are as innocent as the Germans who elected and sustained Hitler; show me a Jeffersonian Gaza protester and I'll show you a fat-free Big Mac.

But let's, for argument's sake, equate a Gaza Arab citizen with an Israeli citizen. We have been told that 700 dead Gazans to 35 dead Jews, a 20:1 proportion, is disproportionate. What proportion would make the world happy?

How about one dead Jew to one dead Arab? That sounds fair. But only last month, Hamas executed a cool, premeditated kidnapping and murder of three Jewish teens in the Gush Etzion.  The world reacted to this monstrous outrage laconically, with barely a mention in the international media. Tragically, after their bodies were found, an innocent Arab boy was cruelly tortured and murdered by a mentally deranged Jew in revenge. The world erupted in vituperous condemnation of Israel and the Jews on news of the Arab boy's murder. We learn from this that 20:1 is disproportionate, and 1:3 is still disproportionate, so clearly we need more dead Jews. Call central casting.

How about one Arab to 100 Jews? to 1000 Jews? How many Jews have to die before the BBC is comfortable with the proportionality of the response?

Here's the dirty little secret in the international Numbers Racket: it's a shell game, Jewish blood has no value at all. To the BBC and their ilk, seven million Israeli lives aren't worth the life of one Arab, or one Brit, or one Iranian. Europe can get rich trading with Iran, and all it has to do is be prepared to look the other way when Iran launches nuclear weapons at Israel. Sweet. They can build a new holocaust memorial from the profits.

In fact to the West, Jewish lives aren't even worth mere money: in 1944, the Nazis would have traded the lives of 100,000 Romanian Jews for 5 million dollars - $50 a life. There were no takers among the Allied Powers. Ah, for the good old days. So you see, any act that a Jew takes in self-defense is "disproportionate." 

The Ghetto Jew isn't supposed to fight back. The Ghetto Jew is supposed to thank his oppressor for beating him, humiliating him, robbing him, raping his wife and daughters - thank him, because the oppressor leaves him just enough breath in his lungs to survive. And that ghetto mentality is alive and well in the Jewish world - just open the Forward or Ha'Aretz, or google J-Street, the New Israel Fund or your local Federation leadership.

Israel is supposed to be grateful that the Nations suffer her presence in their midst. The Nations created her in 1947, and so the Nations can, by right, determine her borders, expropriate her land to others, rewrite her narrative, dictate her defenses, her very viability; or, as they are now attempting, dismantle her altogether. The Jews might be allowed to survive, but they must on no account be allowed to prevail. That would be disproportionate.

Fortunately for us, the A-lmighty is the "Ba'al Milchamot," the determiner of war or peace, of victory or defeat. And Gcd uses a very different calculator to figure the odds in the Big Numbers Game. Keep the Covenant of Sinai and "...five of you will pursue a hundred, a hundred of you will pursue ten thousand; and your enemies will fall before you by the sword." (Leviticus 26:8)

No one wants war, but never again will we be complicit in our own murder to satisfy the world's twisted aesthetic, their sick sense of proportion. We would far prefer to live in peace, but if we must live in war, live we will.

Am Yisrael Chai - that the People of Israel Live - is not hollow sloganeering; it is the essential Divine promise.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Donkey Chatter - Reflections on Parashat Balak 5774

Every week, my Elianna asks me, "Abba (Dad), what does the parashah say about the news?" This is a very old and profound idea: hidden references to the week's current events can be found in the weekly Torah portion. Study the parashah diligently enough, we are taught, and Gcd can be heard whispering to us between the headlines. How does this week's parashah speak to current events?

This week, we read of the miraculous talking donkey who brays to the wicked Bilaam, "Why have you hit me these three times?" The Hebrew construction for the phrase 'these three times' is very curious: "Zeh Shalosh Regalim," literally, 'this three legs." Why the odd verbiage?

The Kli Yakar says that this is a not-so-veiled reference to the three pilgrimage festivals. Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot are collectively known as the three "Regalim," i.e. the holidays that we ascend by foot to the Temple Mount.

By using this odd language, the donkey is saying, in effect: "You endeavor to curse and thus destroy the people who celebrate the pilgrimage festivals; the very pilgrimage festivals through which all the nations of the world are blessed. Don't you see that In destroying them, you are destroying yourself? So...which one of us is the ass?"

The lowly donkey sees that to which the Great Seer of Visions is blind; the beast of burden speaks plain truth to the ersatz Prophet of Gcd. 

In another reference to our parashah, the Talmud in BT Taanit 20A says: better to suffer the curse of Ahiyah the Shilonite (who cursed the Jews by comparing them to reeds [I Kings 14:15]) than the blessing of Bilaam (who blessed us by comparing us to cedar trees.[Numbers 24:6]) Why? Because cedars, though tall, strong and proud, are susceptible to being uprooted by heavy winds and rain, whereas the reed bends to incredible force but never breaks.

The Torah calls out to the Arabs: don't you see that in attempting to destroy the Jewish people you will only succeed in destroying yourself? The donkey calls out to Iran: don't you see that a nuclear first strike against Israel will trigger a massive second strike which will most assuredly result in your annihilation? The A-lmighty will never permit you to succeed, because your success would herald oblivion for the entire world. 

We Jews are like the reed of the sea from which we emerged as a nation; we will bend to incredible pressure but never break. The dirt is still fresh over the graves of Ayal, Gilad and Naftali, the three teens murdered near Hevron. The entire Jewish people is numb from grief. But we nonetheless endure. Our enemies can kidnap and murder helpless children; a Cossack can rape, pillage and murder in a defenseless shtetl; an SS officer can shoot little children with one hand while playing Schubert with the other. But they will never prevail; they only bring upon their own heads the destruction they sought to inflict on their victims.

The most curious thing about this parashah? It never had to happen. The opening verse states that Balak ben Zippor, King of the Moabites, saw everything that Israel did against the Amorites." If true, he would also have known that we had no beef with the Amorites; we asked only to transit their country on our journey to the Land of Israel. They responded by attacking us. We defended ourselves in what turned out to be a miraculous conquest of their land, Six Day War style.

Balak could have learned from the Amorites' mistake and allowed the Jews to transit his land in peace. Instead, he chose to follow the Amorites' path in war.

There are Arabs who are willing to live in peace with Jews. I know because I've met them, worked with them. But they must be extremely circumspect, lest they are silenced, intimidated and murdered by the PLO, Hamas and Jihad Islami. 

Let us pray that our neighbors find within themselves the courage to ignore their blind leaders and pay heed to their talking donkeys.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, June 20, 2014

"Ism" You Is Or "Ism" You Ain't My Baby - Relections on Parashat Korach 5774

Professor Jonathan Goldstein has noted that the three great "isms" that dominated prewar Jewish European thought were the Romantic ideas of Pacifism, Communism and Zionism. Based on both this week's and last week's parshiot, I suggest that these ideals are much older than the 19th Century, and, to the contrary, were embedded in the Jewish psyche very early in our national consciousness.

Pacifism views the opposition to war or violence of any kind as the highest moral imperative. Many people are attracted to this noble idea, and I grant you, it's very compelling in the abstract. But if you actually think the concept through, pacifism means that there is no principle worth fighting for, no life worth defending, no ideal for which we are prepared to give our lives. Pacifism is capitulation to evil; it is venal cowardice cloaked in high-minded rhetoric. To paraphrase George Orwell, pacifism always rewards the aggressor.

Pacifism is at the heart of the crisis in last week's parashah of Shelach Lecha. The spies return with a "bummer report" that rationalizes their refusal to go up and fight for the Land. Their arguments are quite persuasive; their dramatic language is rich with hyperbole and outright lies, and is even interspersed with sarcastic barbs against Moses and Gcd Himself. Better, they moan, to return to Egypt as slaves than to take up arms to recapture the Land of Israel. 

We see a hint of communism in this week's parashah, in Korach's declaration that "that entire people are holy, and Gcd dwells in their midst; why do you (Moses) presume to set yourself above the proletariat?" Well spoken, Comrade Korach! Workers of the Party Unite! We don't need or want Moses and his leadership. Off with his head! And what of Aaron and the Cohanim? The proletariat declares: every person is his own priest, capable of bringing their own incense and offerings. As Huey Long's famous populist campaign ditty promised, "Every Man A King."

Of course, Korach was familiar with the verse that states: "Were it not for government, people would swallow each other alive."  Korach's secret plan was to dispatch the current Jewish leadership, allow the leaderless people to descend into the basest depths of human behavior (reference William Golding's Lord of the Flies) and then swoop in and rescue them from themselves. A Dictatorship of the Proletariat, with Korach in the lead (and only) role as Stalin. 

The Kli Yakar notes that the language of the Mishnah, "bolayah" to swallow each other alive, is the same language used in our parashah to describe how the earth swallows Korach alive. As always, the punishment fits the crime.

Like their modern counterparts, both these "isms" failed; and also like their modern counterparts, their lofty utopianism caused untold (and unnecessary) suffering and death. 

Rav Kook noted the disproportionate number of Jews at the center of the great Utopian movements of the 19th Century. He understood this phenomenon as follows: the Jewish soul naturally seeks to bring redemption to the world; to "prepare the world for the sovereignty of the A-lmighty." The proper way to accomplish this mission is through the study of Torah and the performance of its mitzvot. But when a Jewish soul is cut off from Torah and mitzvot, the impulse of the Jewish soul to perfect the world finds expression in these flawed and ultimately destructive Utopian fantasies.

And what of Zionism? The roots of Zionism are obvious and abundant in the Torah. It is the ephemeral yearning of the Jewish soul for the restoration of the Land; for the mystical reunion of the Land of Israel with the Torah of Israel and the People of Israel; a spiritual fusion where the whole is vastly greater than the sum of its parts. You can hardly read three verses in the Torah without tripping over Herzl and Jabotinsky.

All the "isms" of the 19th century were washed away by the blood spilled in the world wars of the 20th century. In one way or another, each utopia has proven to be a false and corrupt messiah. 

Except for Zionism. And so it is that all the modern-day "isms" stand in opposition to Zionism, the political movement of the Torah. The world begrudges the Jews, who constitute a mere 1/500 of the world's population, a tiny sliver of dirt 1/10,000 of the land mass of the world. 

The verses of Psalm 83 ring in my ears:

Hashem, don't keep silent,
Don't hold your peace, and be not still O Gcd.
For behold, your enemies are in an uproar,
They that hate you have lifted up their head.
They plot conspiracies against your people,
And hold counsel against your treasured ones.
They say: Come let us obliterate this nation,
That the name "Israel" never be uttered again.
They have united in this common goal,
Against You they have made a covenant.
The tents of Europe and the Arabs, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia,
Gebal, Ammon and Amalek, Palestinians and the residents of Lebanon.
Iran and Iraq are also joined with them, they have enabled the others, selah.

Do to them as you did to Midian of old,
As to Sisera, as to Yavin at battle of the Kishon Brook,
Who were destroyed at Ein Dor, their blood soaked into the earth.
Make the fate of today's haters like the fate of the leaders of old,
Who said, "Let us despoil the Jews, and take the habitations of Gcd.'
O my Gcd, make them like the whirling dust, like stubble before the wind.
As the fire that burns down forests and sets mountains ablaze,
So pursue them with your tempest and affright them with your storm.
Fill their faces with shame, that they may do teshuvah and seek out Your Name.
But if not, let them be ashamed and scared forever, and let them perish,
That they may know that it is You alone whose name is Lord,
The Most High over all the earth.

One week ago, three teenage boys were kidnapped at a "trampiada", a bus stop, in the central Gush Etzion. Their only crime was that they are Zionists; of having the temerity to be Jews, living unabashedly as Jews, in the Jewish Land. No word has been heard from them since; nor any message or ransom demand from their barbarous kidnappers. 

Please, please pray daily for them until they are safely returned to the bosoms of their families and the hugs of their mothers.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 23, 2014

The Pause that Refreshes - Reflections on Parashat Bamidbar 5774

This week's parasha, the opening of the fourth book of the Torah, describes the census of the Jewish People taken at the foot of Mount SInai, just prior to our headlong thrust to claim our inheritance, the Land of Israel.

Census-taking. Number crunching. Head-counts. The material is...well...a bit dry; slim pickings, homiletically speaking. Pulpit rabbis are saved by the fact that, in most years, this parasha immediately precedes Shavuot, so there's lots to talk about there: the Shloshet Y'mei Hagbalah, the three days of preparation  prior to the giving of the Torah, etc. 

But not this year. We are compelled, by the calendar as it were, to spend time reflecting on Parashat Bamidbar on its own terms. Here's some food for thought.

This census was taken on the 1st day of Iyar in the second year of our departure from Egypt. In those 13 months, we had come a relatively short distance, but a very long way. 

We departed from Egypt as an undisciplined rabble; it was a scene of barely controlled chaos. One can imagine the frenzy of the departure: people running, screaming, arms waving wildly in the air; the strong moving faster, the weak falling behind, parents desperately trying to keep their families together amid the balagan; mules, camels, wagons, the nobility all moving at their own pace. The Torah states that the cowardly Amalekites attacked the stragglers: the oldest, weakest and most tired of the pack. 

Fast forward to our parasha, the 1st of Iyar, barely a year later. We have received the Torah from Gcd at Mount Sinai - an ethical/legal code unparalleled in the history of human civilization. We have a functioning judiciary. We have an executive triumvirate in the form of Moshe, Aharon & Miriam. 

We have an established an orderly community: three concentric circles composed of the Mishkan/the Tabernacle, surrounded by Machaneh Levi'im/the Levite encampment surrounded by Machaneh Yisrael/ the Israelite encampment, organized by tribe, clan and family, each with its own standard fluttering proudly in the breeze.

We have an order of march - never again will the the weak and the stragglers be left behind. We have an efficient system for disassembling, transporting and re-assembling the Mishkan, itself a marvel of engineering. We have a system  of communications with the shofarot and the silver trumpets.

And most important of all, we have the Shechinah, the palpable presence of the A-lmighty dwelling in our midst, with a pillar of cloud to lead us by day, and a pillar of fire to lead us by night.

We've come a long way, baby. 

Our work at Sinai is now completed. In the space of a year, we have imposed order on the chaos and built a functioning society. We are ready to go, to begin our campaign to reclaim the Land of Israel. But before we move out, we take stock. We do a head count; we take a moment to reflect on where we've been before we write the next chapter of the history of the Jewish people.

Sometimes life is not all about the next achievement, the next milestone, the next sales goal. It's important once in a while to take a step back and look at where we've been. If you don't know where you've been, how can you know where you're going?

Every Friday evening on my walk to Kabbalat Shabbat, I try to reflect on the week that was. And we have a little custom in our family that during Shabbat dinner, before we sing, even before we share words of Torah, we go around the table and everyone shares at least one good thing that happened to them this week.

So perhaps the message of Bamidbar is to take time out once in a while (maybe once a week? - hint hint) to reflect on our successes and and setbacks, and thus prepare ourselves for the great things that are no doubt coming our way.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Truth or Consequences - Reflections on Parashat Bechukotai 5774

If Flannery O'Connor, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King had a baby, and that guy set out to write the saddest, most blood-curdling story ever, it would read a lot like this week’s Torah portion. Called in Hebrew the “Tochachah” or Admonition, we are warned in the most graphic terms what will happen if we Jews abandon Gcd and His Torah – seven escalating stages of war, plague, famine, paralyzing fear, exile and painful death. Ouch.

The punishments are balanced by rewards. Happily, the beginning of the Torah portion begins with the flip side – the good stuff that will happen if we cling to Gcd and Torah. Excellent. Lovely. There’s only one problem with this whole setup. We are taught elsewhere in the Torah that we don’t know the rewards for obedience to Gcd’s will, or the punishments for rebellion. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot states: “Be as careful with a light mitzvah as with a serious mitzvah, for no one knows the reward for either.” (2:1) Well which one is it?  It seems like a pretty serious contradiction.

In truth, the Mishnah is bang on: we have no clue what is defined as a big mitzvah or an insignificant mitzvah, or what the eternal reward is for any mitzvah, or even its opposite, Gcd forbid. Therefore, it follows that Bechukotai is not about rewards and punishments for deeds or misdeeds. It can’t be. In fact, (brace yourself, I’m about to say something very bold here) I don’t think Gcd punishes us at all.

What? No punishment? Ka-ching. Correct. Gcd, who is utterly and completely good; Gcd, who is the font of all goodness in the universe; Gcd, who wants only good for all of His creations; Gcd, whom we address with the title of “Goodness” three times a day*; that Gcd doesn’t punish us for our misdeeds. He doesn’t have to; we punish ourselves.

Bechukotai is not about reward and punishment, but it is all about actions and their consequences.  Good consequences naturally flow from good acts. The consequence is embedded in the deed itself, encoded, as it were, in the DNA of the mitzvah. And of course, the opposite is also, tragically, true. 

Gcd built the universe on cause and effect.  The universe is not random, and that is a very good thing. But that is also why the vast majority of the pain in our lives is self-inflicted: our pain stems from the consequences of our less-than-ideal choices.

Let’s say a person does something really heinous, like premeditated murder, and then does teshuvah – a very real, gut-wrenching penitence, meaning confession, regret, amends, resolve, etc.; a sincere teshuva that shakes him to the core of his being. Through his teshuva, he may be forgiven for the murder in the next world, the world of true reward and punishment; but even a genuine penitent must still deal with the consequences of his old ways in this world. You can fish the pebble out of the pond, but you can't take back the ripples.

The problem is that we don’t always see the fallout from our behavior right away; sometimes it takes years for the chickens to come home to roost. The heart attack at age 57 started with the daily ration of bacon and eggs at age 7. Folks live on the couch, eat plastic food for decades and wonder why they have cancer, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. Then we start taking meds to correct these problems, and more pills to counteract with the side effects of the other pills…a downward spiral, kind of like the seven levels of the Tochachah. 

Comes Bechukotai to remind us of the ineluctable causality between action & consequence, even if the cause and effect are separated by decades. And maybe that's why this section is called “Admonition” and not “Punishment”. 'Pay heed,' the Torah is saying, 'crises don't arise in a vacuum. Connect the dots and you will arrive at the correct conclusion.'

So the silver lining in this very sobering parshah is that, through our decisions and actions, we are (at least in some measure) in control of our own destiny. That is very empowering. We are not victims of capricious, cruel fate. Next, popping up a level, the aggregate of our individual choices determines our national destiny, and by extension the destiny of the world. Hashem desperately wants us to choose properly, as does any parent who wishes to see their children spared of unnecessary pain.

In the run up to Shavuot, the festival of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, let us pray for less hurt, more healing, and perhaps...better decision making.

Shabbat Shalom.

* We say in the Amidah, "...Your Name is "Goodness" and to You praise is befitting."

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Petit Mort of Tumah - Reflections on Parashat Tazria 5774

A very dear elderly woman cornered me one Shabbat morning at kiddush. "I was taught from an early age that women are forbidden from ever kissing the Torah Scroll because we may have our period and be unclean."  She said it stoically, but the hurt of it lived in her eyes.

I confess that upon hearing this revelation, I almost choked on my pickled herring.

To those not steeped in the world of Talmud and Halachah, the concepts of "tumah" and "taharah" developed in this week's parashah are perhaps the most misunderstood in the entire Torah. A veil of superstition has enveloped these concepts, and it must be said that these misunderstandings have distanced many people from their Creator. It is a very, very deep and complex subject, and cannot possibly be adequately explained in a brief blog post. 

Daunted as I am by the complexity of the topic, I would nevertheless like, in the words of H.L. Menken, to 'unscrew the inscrutable' and attempt to offer a little clarity to this confused topic. So buckle your belts, here we go.

First, nomenclature: the word tumah (noun) or tamei (adjective) is usually translated into English as spiritually unclean/impure/defiled. Conversely, taharah (noun) or tahor (adjective) is rendered as clean/pure/holy. Here we encounter the heart of the difficulty; these English words carry with them connotations which simply do not exist in the Hebrew, so let's just agree that there is no good way to translate them. As we shall soon see, I shall propose an alternative framework with which to define these terms.

We have to begin our analysis of tumah/taharah by thinking about the concept of mitzvah/fulfilling the commandments of the Torah, and chet/violating or blowing off the commandments listed in Torah. Carrying out the commandments is positive and meritorious, and is the very definition morality and goodness, while violating them is the exact opposite. These concepts are crystal clear: mitzvah - good; chet - bad.

Having said that, I can think of mitzvot that by definition put us in a state of tumah, for example burying the dead. I can also think of mitzvot that can only be performed in a state of taharah, like bringing a Temple sacrifice. In fact, let's get all Cartesian here, and think of mitzvah/chet on a vertical axis and tumah/taharah on a horizontal axis like so: 

Since burying the dead is an act that is both a mitzvah and makes us tameh, that deed would be charted in the upper left quadrant. Bringing a Temple sacrifice would chart in the upper right hand quadrant. Murder would chart in the lower left. Get the idea? You could probably chart every mitzvah in the Torah in this way. 

Now let's take this idea one step further, as in our case of burying the dead. Gcd Himself commands us to perform this good deed, therefore Gcd is commanding us to enter a state of tumah, as it were. So if doing Gcd's bidding puts us in a state of tumah, how can tumah mean something dirty or defiled or unholy or impure?  It just can't be.

Unlike the vertical axis which represents good and evil, tumah and taharah refer to states of being. There is no perjoration attached to being tameh, nor is there any particular merit attached to being tahor. We make active choices to do good or evil, but in many cases, we are thrust into a state of tumah involuntarily. And unlike the good/evil axis, being tamei doesn't feel any different from being tahor.

Therefore, a more exact (if more clunky) rendering of tumah/taharah is a relative weakening/strengthening of our life force. OK...what the heck does that mean?

Just this: Gcd is the source of life, the eternal, constant vivifying force to all living beings. Thus Gcd is completely tahor. At the other extreme, the ultimate, mother-of-all-tumahs is a corpse. Death. The total absence of the vivifying life force and the polar opposite of both Gcd and everything godliness represents.

So where do humans fit into this scale? Somewhere in the middle. We cycle between states of tumah and states of taharah; that is the human condition. We are strong and then we weaken; we awake and then we must sleep. In fact, the Jew ritually washes his/her hands upon first arising to symbolize the "shaking off" of the tumah of nighttime, of the petit mort of surrendering our life force for a time while we sleep. But Gcd? The verse states: "Behold, the Guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." Trying to avoid tumah is kind of like resolving to never sleep - it's just not possible for us lowly humans.

Why is a woman tamei after giving birth? Because the life that was within her is now external to her; she has experienced a relative diminution of her life force. And FYI: a man enters a mild state of tumah after a seminal emission, and for the same reason. It's not bad, it's not good; it just is. 

Women are not Calcutta lepers during their period; Gcd forbid anyone should harbor such a horrible misconception! Nor is there an ancient, backward  "blood taboo" in Jewish law, as pseudo-intellectuals would have us think. A menstruant is merely a drop less alive than before she shed an ovum, the potential of a new life. Again, it's not bad, it's not good; it just is. 

It is natural to desire life and eschew death, both physically and spiritually, as reflected in our innate yearning to connect with Gcd, our wanting to be tahor. But we are not angels, we are humans, and confronting our own mortality from time to time is part of the human experience. That is the objective reality of the state of tumah. And if you think about it, tumah is actually a gift - a time of refraction and introspection. Later, when the time is right, the Torah provides a means of restoration to taharah, allowing the cycles of our lives to begin anew.

The Torah Scroll is impervious to tumah, and both men and women share the common need to connect with Great Wellspring of Life. And so to my dear kiddush friend I say: Kiss Away.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 28, 2014

Sticktoitiveness - Reflections on Parashat Pekudei 5774

A striking characteristic of this week's parasha is the repeated phrase "As the Children of Israel were commanded by Gcd through Moses, so they did." 

Now, OK, I get it: the parshiot of Trumah, Tetzaveh and half of Ki Tissa were the instructions, the engineering blueprints, if you will, for the construction of the Mishkan, the portable desert tabernacle. And Vayakhel & Pekudei describe the actual execution of the plans and the construction of the Mishkan. Yet it seems that with every cut of the saw, every bang of the hammer, every stitch of the embroiderer, the Torah reminds us that (you guessed it) "as the Children of Israel were commanded by Gcd through Moses, so they did."  What are we supposed to learn from all the repetition?

The Kli Yakar and other commentators teach that this phrase is employed to punctuate the completion of each component of the Mishkan. Its appearance again after the Mishkan is completed suggests that the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. 

Here's another idea: there is a quote that is variously attributed to either Mahatma Ghandi or that ancient and prolific poet, Anonymous (I love that guy!):

Thoughts become actions,
Actions become habits,
Habits become character,
Character becomes destiny.

True dat! No matter who wrote it, this is a very Jewish idea. Tiny actions, consistently performed, become habit; our habits come to define our character; and over time, our character, what we call in Hebrew 'Middot', ultimately determines our destiny. 

In other words, Destiny doesn't care what college you attended, or how sweet your ride is, or your good looks, or your wealth, or the designer label on your jeans. Your destiny - what you ultimately accomplish in your life - is determined by your inner character traits: honesty, integrity, industry, frugality, humility, alacrity, equanimity, deliberate speech, etc.

Unfortunately, the incident of the Golden Calf graphically demonstrated how the opposite is also true: an errant thought led to a tragic deed, compromising our character and almost dooming our national destiny.

Since, in the view of most commentators, the Mishkan was the corrective for the Golden Calf, this repetition of "ken asu" (thus they did) underscores the contrition, the willing hearts and hands, of the Jewish People in the aftermath of the Golden Calf debacle. The Jewish People were sincerely penitent (the thought); what the parashah is showing us is the next step: consistent, steady action solidifying into firm habit. This consistency, over time, repairs our national character and thus our destiny as an Am Segulah, a Nation Set Apart.

The Mishkan is also intimately connected to the Sabbath. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised to find a hint of this idea in the Lecha Dodi, the ultimate Sabbath hymn, sung on Friday evening, as we "rush out to the fields" to greet the Sabbath Queen. The stanza says that even though the Sabbath was the last of Gcd's creations, it was foremost in the Divine Consciousness: "sof ma'aseh, b'machshavah tchilah" (last in deed, first in thought.) But this stanza can also be understood to mean "thought precedes action."

To embrace our personal and national destiny, we must begin by changing ourselves. One resolution, leading to one seemingly trivial deed, performed consistently over time, can come to change the world. Do mitzvot, good deeds, even if you don't feel like it. Make them a habit, and their meaning will become clearer in the doing. Pretty soon, you won't be able to wait to do that mitzvah again. This is the meaning of the gemara which states that a mitzvah done for the wrong reason will ultimately come to be performed for the right reason. (Pesachim 50b).

May the day soon dawn when we as a Nation, as a Community of the Faithful, be able to declare in unison "ken asu."

Shabbat Shalom.