This week we read Parshat Naso. The parsha describes the dedication ritual of the Mishkan. Each tribe brought its offering to the mishkan which the Torah describes in detail. In fact each offering was exactly the same and many of the commentators deal with the reasons as to why the Torah in fact describes each tribe’s offering if they are all the same as opposed to describing the offering only one time and saying that this is the offering that each tribe brought. One of the explanations is to highlight the importance of the individual; that each person counts.
Even before the dedication ritual is described, the Kohanim are instructed to bestow upon the Jewish people a blessing. It is probably one of the more famous, if not the famous, blessings known.
“HaShem spoke to the Moshe, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, so shall you bless the Israelites: May HaShem bless you and keep you; May HaShem shine His face on you and be gracious to you, May HaShem life His face to you and grant you peace’”
This blessing, Birkat Kohanim , comes from HaShem through Aaron and his sons, the Kohanim. Today the blessing is recited by the Kohanim in synagogue on the Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. In Israel, the Kohanim recite this blessing over the people every day. This is also the blessing which parents give their children on Friday nights.
The idea of giving another a blessing is interesting. What exactly are we expressing when we “bless” our children for example? According to Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin (1749 – 1821), the prime student of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu ben Shlomo Zalman, 1720 – 1797) who writes in his classic work Nefesh haChaim, a blessing connotes the idea of an increase. Gematriya is the system where each letter has a numerical value. If we take the Hebrew letters of the root to bless, the Bet equals 2, the Kaf equals 20 and the Raish equals 200. The word itself points to an increase, that we are blessing the individual with a increase in something, whether it be a blessing for a livelihood, for health, or more globally for peace.
A blessing, for our children, or for anyone, is a liturgical device to build that up both emotionally and spiritually. When we bless our children we are expressing our desire, our hope, that their talents and their potential increases.
At noon today, the school year comes to an end. It has been a wonderful year. Our students are not the same as they were when they walked through our doors back on September 2. They have grown, physically and in every other way. I thank all the parents for entrusting us to care for and educate your children. I thank all the teachers who come every day and work hard to facilitate that growth in the 97 children that transverse our halls. My blessing (if I may be so bold) to them is a wonderful, restful, peaceful summer.
I thank Mr. Smolen for having enough faith in me to give me opportunities to take on more responsibility in GBDS and helping grow (I hope) in my administrative role. I additionally thank the teachers for their confidence in me this year as they accepted me in this position. I pray I was worthy.
I thank everyone for reading these Divrei Torah each week. If I was able to provide some insight, some inspiration from the weekly Torah portion, dayenu. That should be my reward.
Wishing all a wonderful summer.
This week we begin to read the fourth book of the Torah. As Parshat Bamidbar opens, the Israelites are in the wilderness in the second year of what will become, unbeknownst to them, a 40 year sojourn through that wilderness towards the Land of Israel.
The parsha begins with Moshe being commanded to take a census of the people. This is in fact the third such census in a year. Two questions: First, why the need for a census, wouldn’t HaShem already know how many people there were? Second, why three in a year? Rashi’s explanation can answer both questions, saying that the command to count the people was to demonstrate Divine love for the people. Like a collector will count those items he collects because those items are dear to him, so too, the Israelites were dear to HaShem and as such the people were counted, and counted a number of times.
There is something significant to Parshat Bamidbar other than being the opening parsha of the book itself. It is very often read on the Shabbat prior to Shavuot, the holiday on which we commemorate the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai. Both the parsha and the giving of the Torah take place in the wilderness. The midrash gives several explanations as to why the Torah was given in the wilderness. One is that the wilderness is an open place not owned by any one person, and therefore anyone can come into it. In that same vein, the Torah is open for all, meant for anyone.
Seven weeks ago we were at the seder table drinking four cups of wine and eating matzah. Pesach celebrated our physical redemption from slavery. But what was the purpose of that redemption? Shavuot is the culmination of Pesach, the two being connected through the counting of the Omer. It is not enough to be freed from something. There must be a reason for that freedom in order for that freedom to have meaning. The ultimate goal of the exodus from Egypt was to bring the Jewish people to Sinai to receive the Torah which gave the people a framework for life, to live as a special nation connected to the Divine. It is the Torah that binds us together with a common history, a common destiny, and through the covenantal relationship that exists, a common responsibility.
The wilderness in which the Israelites found themselves had its challenges, as very often, life itself. Just as the Israelites had the Torah to give them direction, a Divine scaffolding to face those challenges ahead and to live a life infused with the sacred, so too, we have that same Torah.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Samayach.
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.