Friday, June 19, 2015

Korach 5775, June 2015; Limits and Achievements

There's a well known old joke about a man who goes to a rabbi and demands, "Rabbi, I'll donate $1,000,000 to your synagogue if you'll make me a Kohen." The rabbi explains he can't do that. They argue back and forth. Finally the rabbi asks, in frustration, "Look, sir, why is it so important to you out of everything that I could do to teach you about your Jewish heritage that I make you a Kohen, anyway?" The man replies, "Well, my father was a Kohen, his father was a Kohen…"

It's actually a historically derivative joke. We're told that a non-Jew came to Shammai, requested that he be made a Jew, and demanded that he also be made Kohen Gadol. Shammai chased him off. The man went to Hillel and he accepted him as a student. Shammai went to Hillel and asked how he could possibly accept the man with the conditions he set, and Hillel explained that the man would begin at the very beginning of learning Torah, and as he went on he would develop understanding that G-d has set the conditions of the world and that one who is a convert simply cannot be Kohen Gadol by the nature of things.
They're all in the same group, within a couple of years of
each others' ages. But the smallest just can't reach what the
tallest can sometimes, and she's not going to win a race
against her. That's simple reality. They're still all great friends.
In this week's parsha, Korach, a great, wealthy, powerful, imposing leader among the Jewish people, demands to be made a Kohen rather than a Levi as his birth properly provided. No argument could deflect his compulsion to be other than what he was. Moshe spoke to him gently, reminding him that just as G-d had made night and day and they were separate and not equivalent or interchangeable, so the various positions of people by birth within the Jewish nation are each necessary, valuable, but not alterable (Bamidbar Rabbah, Rashi).

There were many possible good, holy reasons for the desire to be a Kohen: the opportunity to offer korbanos directly to G-d, to perform holy service, to lead the Jewish people.  However, unlike among the other nations in which there were many temples and anyone could become servants or priests within those temples, G-d had directly designated the Kohanim as his priests and the Leviyim as their servants (Bamidbar Rabbah).

We do all have limitations. Some of us are only ever going to be so intelligent, intellectual, wealthy, handsome. We may never have the opportunity for the learning we want. We may not be the person we wish we were.
He has significant disabilities. But he can cook
great steak for dinner and hopes to become a
world famous chef someday with his own restaurant.
He accepts he has certain limitations but still has
plans to accomplish all that's within his possibilities.
Yet there are some things we can change, and some we just cannot. When things are truly beyond our ability to alter, to affect, we must accept them and remember that everything G-d does is for the best. If we have a disability of any kind and it keeps us from performing duties or embracing opportunities we otherwise might have had open to us, there is a reason and it is not a reason we can alter intellectually or through our own devices. At the same time, we are required to do everything we can within our own abilities to perform mitzvahs, to achieve tikkun olam, to bring peace to the world. We must be all we can be, yet reconcile ourselves to being only that tiny sliver of creation which we are within G-d's complete creation. It's a very hard concept to intellectualize and to get right yet it is the key to learning who we really are and what our job in the world might be.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Parshas Shelach Lecha 5775, June 2015; Finding Self Transformation

This parsha as we all know begins with the story of the Jews sending spies into the land of Canaan in preparation for invasion. G-d did not suggest nor command this, Moshe Rabbeinu did not; rather the people petitioned Moshe to request of G-d to permit them to do this (Yalkut Shmonei).  They made excuses as to why it would be beneficial. It was obviously unnecessary as they had G-d's protection and Cloud of Glory proceeding them throughout their travels. They even tried to justify their zeal to find fault in the land by twisting halachah, claiming they needed to be able to destroy all idols, as if that wouldn't be possible if twelve men didn't try to spy out all the land, as if twelve men would locate every single idol everywhere in the region (Midrash haGadol).

We all have our own biases, difficulties, tendencies to justify our own actions. Yet this week's parsha also teaches that we are responsible not only for our own actions but for our very thoughts. It is stated in this parsha that it is forbidden to associate with one who scorns G-d's word; and also that even thoughts about immorality are forbidden. To the extent that we are at all in control of our environment and our mind, we must keep them moral and productive at all times, consistent with growing in Torah.

I will digress here into a story of self-transformation in my ten year old Gilad. He seems to be very mildly in the grouping of a developmental condition his oldest sister and oldest brother have. No geneticist ever put a name to it, just said they seem to have features of various things and have varying combinations of congenital brain damage, mental illness, developmental and/or intellectual disability, sensory dysfunction, non-verbal learning disorder. Gilad also has a severe speech impediment; several teachers (not Israeli ones but American ones!) have had such a hard time understanding him in class that his friends appoint a "translator" to tell the teachers what he's saying. He's been having speech therapy weekly for years, naturally.

But he's also very, very shy and socially awkward. He would much rather curl up by himself and be left alone than interact with others (sound familiar?).  Since he was two teachers have been recommending as many play dates as possible.
The last few years at the community swimming pool he refused to even go if his older brother Sachy didn't come to play with him, and then he interacted only with Sachy.
This year his little sister Adele who is very social and interactive decided to join the beginning diving team and Gilad decided he'd join too. Within two weeks, this child who wouldn't jump into deep water unless I was there nearby is throwing himself into the deep end. He's diving forwards and backwards off the diving board, which he'd never even approach before 3 weeks ago. But not only that--he's going to the pool 2 hours before practice, finding other kids his age, older, and younger to play with, and only coming back to me for snacks briefly before running off to play again, even if his sister is with other children. Last year he just tagged along after her. I have never, ever seen such a blossoming in such a short term.
My point in telling this story is that it is our choice at every moment to rally for Torah and personal development or to retreat. A child like Gilad has only limited understanding and ability, both in developmental and Torah expectations (he's still several years before bar mitzvah).  Yet in taking a positive risk he found a tool which has changed his life. At every moment we have these opportunities available to us if we only seek them out. We can choose to join the rabble, defame the holy land, and spend 40 years in the desert; or we can choose the opportunities G-d puts in our lives for self-transformation and come closer to H-m by changing ourselves and learning from what G-d has created all around us as a gift.  The holiness of the land is the holiness of every Jew coming closer to Torah, learning how to be part of the holy kehillah of B'nai Yisroel, and learning how to approach new challenges in our lives, as everything G-d does is for the best.

Friday, June 5, 2015

Behaaloscha 5775, June 2015; Hindsight and Forethought

This is such a beautiful parsha. We have the kindling of the menora bringing physical light into the Mishkan to remind the B'nai Yisroel allowing Aharon and all of the Jews to be elevated spiritually (Bamidbar Rabbah).  We learn of the great love of the Jews for the chagim such that they request an opportunity to celebrate Pesach Sheini for those who might not have been able to participate in the mitzvahs of Pesach at the proper time but who long for the chance to fulfill G-d's word. The greatness of the generations of the desert, the holiness of Moshe's trumpets, Moshe's great tefillos, even what many consider an entire separate book of the Torah (Rokeach, Shabbos Katan).

Yet many approach this week's parsha with a feeling of dread, not elevation. We see not the glories and beauties, but the horrors; the demand for meat, the rushing away from Har Sinai (Ramban, Shabbos Katan), and moreover the upcoming parshiyos recording the incidents of the Spies and the rebellion led by Korach, which have their roots in the complaints of the Airev Rav and the elevation of the Leviyim. Had not the nation believed the spies, they would not have had to remain in the desert for 40 years (Tosefai HaRosh, Yevamos, Mefarshim, Rokeach l'fi Rashi). Had Korach not looked for every opportunity to take offense at Aharon and Moshe's doings, the great rift and horrors of his rebellion and the following attacks by other nations would not have occurred.

This is a reminder that we must both look ahead and do our best to see only the good in all things and remove as many stumbling blocks as we can to prevent others from seeing things negatively. While this may seem a ridiculous burden, it can come back to benefit us ourselves in the end. At the same time, while it is patently forbidden to try to analyze why G-d might have caused certain things to occur in our lives (and certainly we shouldn't see things as punishments as everything G-d does is for the best, even though lacking Divine wisdom and complete comprehension we have no way of seeing how many things might be for our own benefit), we can look back and try to find the root causes of things which don't turn out as we wish. Over time, this can help teach and remind us that everything we do has consequences, and sometimes they are not ones we expected nor ones we would have wanted to happen.

Moshe and Aharon elevated each Levi according to G-d's command. They shaved them, anointed them, and waved them exactly as they were told. Korach behaved as he did due to his own failings and evil. The good which came from the event (the initiation of the Leviyim for all time) far outweighed the evil which followed (Korach's rebellion). Yet still we see that even from great good sometimes comes true bad, and we must learn to separate ourselves from it and even try to avoid it or prevent it if we can. Certainly in our every day doings, when we don't have direct instructions from G-d as did Moshe and Aharon, we must examine our actions thinking forward and backward, and doing all we can to ensure no harm comes from our choices.

My beautiful nephew Logan. He passed
away last week, at the age of two,
through no fault of anyone.
No one could have prevented his death, no
one is responsible. Yet how could we have
looked forward and seen this to come?
Looking backward we see only all the love
everyone felt for him at all times.