Archive | D’var Torah

El Paso, Dayton tragedies overshadow Torah portion

Posted on 14 August 2019 by admin

I have been struggling all week with what to write for my column.
Note that I write my columns the week before they are published, so my struggles have been from Aug. 6 through 11 and the publisher is extraordinarily patient with how late I am, for which I am grateful.
This week’s Torah portion, Va’etchannan, is a gorgeous portion chockablock with possible topics for discussion:
Moses telling the people that he will die outside of the Land of Israel; a commandment to neither add to, nor take away from, the commandments as given; Moses blaming the people for his not getting to go into the Land of Israel; the second recounting of the 10 Commandments; the Shema and the first paragraph of the V’Ahavta.
This portion is so rich with possibility that you might think I’ve been indecisive and just couldn’t choose.
The truth is, though, that I have been consumed by the terror attacks in El Paso and Dayton and haven’t been able to concentrate. My thoughts are scattered. Or, perhaps, my thoughts have been like iron filings that no matter what direction they begin in, the attacks, like twin magnets, rearrange them within their magnetic field.
In any case, the only thing I’ve been able to write this week is the following, which I wrote to my own congregation on Sunday morning after I awoke to the news about Dayton following El Paso:
“Dear Friends,
“I no longer know how to feel. I feel sad and hopeless and frightened and overwhelmed. I am sad for those who were killed, those who were injured, their loved ones, for us all. I feel hopeless because I don’t see how to reduce, much less eliminate, these violent attacks. I feel frightened because I, too, could be among the next victims simply going about my daily life. I feel overwhelmed by Poway, Charlotte, Highlands Ranch, Virginia Beach, Gilroy, El Paso, and Dayton, all just since the end of April.
“I do find comfort in Psalm 13:
For the leader. A psalm of David.
How long, O Eternal One, will You ignore me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind, grief in my heart all day?
How long will my enemy have the upper hand?
Look at me, answer me, Eternal, my God!
Restore the luster to my eyes,
lest I sleep the sleep of death;
lest my enemy say, “I have overcome him,”
my foes exult when I totter.
But I trust in Your faithfulness,
my heart will exult in Your deliverance.
I will sing to the Eternal, for God has been good to me.
“King David himself felt sad and hopeless and frightened and overwhelmed, but overcame all to again sing for joy. We, too, will overcome the evils that we face. We, too, will again sing for joy.
“The only way I know to oppose evil is to do good, to act justly, to be kind, to help others, to walk in God’s path. But know this: we will get past this time we find ourselves in.
“In faith and hope,
“Rabbi Ben”
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and the vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Look inward to gain insight into deeds and misdeeds

Posted on 07 August 2019 by admin

This Shabbat is named “Shabbat Chazon,” or “Sabbath of Vision.” It’s named for the Haftorah we read from Isaiah, envisioning the hope of reconciliation amidst a lot of evildoing on the part of the Israelites. For me, the only thing I’m envisioning is the 25-hour fast in 125-degree heat that directly follows Shabbat Chazon, marking the start of Tisha B’Av.
According to our rabbinic texts, God marked Tisha B’Av, or the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, as a day of sorrow. According to the Talmud, on that very day, the spies who were sent to scout out the land of Canaan came back with a sobering report. They doubted their ability to conquer the supposedly giant people who lived there. God reacted by saying, “You shed tears for nothing (this night). Hence, I will designate this night as the time for weeping for generations to come.” (BT Taanit 29a)
God decreed that the current generation (except Caleb and Joshua), who were unready for the responsibilities that accompanied true freedom, would therefore be condemned to 40 more years of wandering in the wilderness before they died. Their children would be destined to conquer the land without them.
Megillat Eicha, or Lamentations, attributed to Jeremiah after the fall of the First Temple and read on Tisha B’Av, also makes the claim that the people’s suffering is punishment from God for sin, namely, idolatry, bloodshed and sexual misconduct.
(Lamentations 1:14-15): “The burden of my transgressions was accumulated in His hand; they were knit together and thrust upon my neck — He sapped my strength. The Lord has delivered me into the hands of those I cannot withstand. The Lord has trampled all my heroes in my midst; He proclaimed a set time against me to crush my young men… ”
And once again, according to the Talmud (Taanit 29a), this set time was none other than the ninth of Av. The Talmud further states that the Second Temple was destroyed because of “sinat chinam,” or “senseless hatred” among the different sects.
Other calamitous events have occurred on the ninth of Av, including the destruction of both the First and Second Temples, the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, the beginning of World War 1 and the roundup of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka in 1942. Clearly, tragedy has followed our people on this fateful day.
I must admit, I am in great theological turmoil when it comes to accepting the traditional concept of a God who punishes us for our sins, not only in our time, but throughout the generations. Whatever the supposed cause — the spies’ report, immorality, idol worship, hatefulness — the punishment certainly affected those who were guilty and those who were not.
Perhaps, in a strange way, this cause-and-effect notion of “We sin, we pay, we deserve the consequences” is a comfort of sorts. But not for me. And, thankfully, I’ve discovered that I’m not alone.
In her book, “Jewish Pastoral Care,” Rabbi Dayle A. Friedman cites several rabbis who share a similar discomfort with these traditional approaches to sin and punishment. One of them is Rabbi Edward Feld, who, she writes, “Rejects the classical Jewish notions of a God who causes suffering, whether to punish people for their sins or lovingly to give them opportunities for growth, as unacceptable and insulting to the millions of innocent victims of the Holocaust.”
Rabbi Harold Kushner asserts that since God created a world run by the laws of nature, we cannot always avoid the consequences of those laws. Similarly, God also has also given us the gift of free will, and we must also live with the consequences that arise from the choices that we make when it comes to taking care of ourselves, or dealing with the planet and each other.
God can guide us toward the good, and give us the strength and comfort to deal with the bad that we must, in the course of our lifetime, inevitably face.
Rabbi Friedman concludes, “(These rabbis) share a common understanding of a God who is found neither in explanations for suffering nor in the ability omnipotently to stop the suffering. Rather, God is found in the human being’s ability to respond to suffering by seeking qualities that empower that person to grow: to give, to forgive, to learn and to transform. In this context, God is the power that offers redemptive resiliency in the face of pain.”
These rabbis give us another way to envision God’s role in our lives, not, perhaps, as protector or punisher, but as co-sufferer. I imagine that this concept of God can be a bit unsettling for those whose embedded theology has offered a more traditional view.
But this contemporary interpretation resonates with me. The idea that God is a partner with us in all things, in tikkun olam as well as in suffering, is profoundly comforting. I do think that so much of the suffering in this world is due to “sinat chinam,” causeless hatred of one another, but I don’t believe that God is the one handing down punishment for it. I think that we are doing a fairly good job of that ourselves.
I also believe that we make things worse when we choose to isolate ourselves from the suffering of others, refuse to accept some sense of responsibility in that suffering, or, simply, choose not to see it at all.
Shabbat Chazon compels us to open our eyes, look inward and reflect on how we might’ve played a part in our own, as well as each other’s, suffering, and to envision God’s place beside us as we strive to ease that suffering. Perhaps that is the ultimate message and lesson to be learned on Tisha B’Av.
Rabbi Marc Wolf states, “…at the same time, with all the grief and tears, with all the mourning and affliction, the month of Av is identified not solely by its formal title, but with the description menachem — consolation. So despite these calamities, we anticipate solace. Despite the destruction, we seek comfort.”
May the upcoming observance of Tisha B’Av help us to remember that although suffering is part of the human condition, the way we respond to that suffering can lead us on a journey with God as we seek the light of redemption, comfort and hope.
Sheri Allen is the part-time cantor of Congregation Beth Shalom in Arlington. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of her congregation.

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Examining the true definition of spirituality

Posted on 31 July 2019 by admin

Compassion and love of nature only scratch spirituality’s surface

“What does it mean to be a spiritual person?” I recently posted this question on Facebook after hearing people throw around the term (whether in praise or contempt) without stopping to define what they meant by it. The same goes for being “religious” — but that’s another conversation.
In addition to the anticipated comments, there were also some surprising explanations. One man tried to argue, for example, that being spiritual was synonymous with being compassionate. I replied that while compassion may be an aspect or trait of being spiritual, it certainly isn’t the defining feature. In other words, “spiritual people” are compassionate, but many individuals (even animals) display compassion without being considered “spiritual.” The same applies to a range of other emotions that are noble, but not necessarily spiritual.
Another answer was that to be spiritual is to enjoy being secluded in nature. Well, spiritual people may often be drawn to nature, but the natural and the spiritual are distinct areas.
In reviewing the relatively new usages of the term, I wondered why certain individuals tried hard to redefine the quality, stripping it of any specific connotation — claiming the quality of spirituality had nothing to do with the soul, with God, or an attraction toward mystical content. It seemed as if they wanted to take the “spirit” out of the spiritual.
For them, the characteristic was subjective. Hiking or playing golf could be a spiritual act, for example, if it made the person feel serene. If going to the opera was moving or inspirational, it too was “spiritual.”
Most comments on the post, however, were in line with what one might expect: In contrast to a “materialistic” character — someone who focuses on form over substance and pursues physical pleasures — a “spiritual person” has a keener interest in what lies beyond the visible here and now. He or she desires to unveil the mask of the material which obscures the soul. To be sure, everyone has the ability to be spiritual, but not everyone uses it — the same way we colloquially label certain individuals as being an “intellectual,” or “emotional” person or “philosophical,” because they exhibit certain behaviors, inclinations or mannerisms.
The spiritual and the natural
The above Facebook discussion prompted by the original post, and the suggestion that “spiritual people” are often drawn to nature, opened the door to another interesting point. Why does that seem to be the case? What is the connection between the spiritual and the natural?
A simple surface explanation is that nature is peaceful; it provides a place for reflection, free from the disturbances of the bustle of the city, an environment which soothes the mind and soul. Nature is also restorative and unchanging. The seas are forever. Mountains exhibit a majestic, fixed stillness. The forest is tranquil. Towering trees seem to carry an ancient wisdom and warmth. The heavens, stars and planets are massive and eternal. In a constantly changing and capricious world, the consistency of nature is reassuring and quieting. The blessing of being alive and free is more tangible.
This appeal of the natural may be true for anyone, even the person who isn’t “spiritually” inclined. For the spiritual person, though, that same calmness in nature offers an additional benefit: As the base energy and body is put at ease, the soul can get more in tune with the oneness within the natural order — “How numerous are Your works, O Lord! You have made them all with wisdom” (Psalms 104:24) — which then allows a person to contemplate the source: an infinite power beyond this universe.
This window to recognize the greatness of the Creator is why, in Hebrew, the word “nature,” teva, connotes an imprint or stamp. Each being has a distinctive form and behavior which conforms to the tailored divine life force inside it.
The consistency and perfection within nature enables a person to recognize the grandeur of the Creator. “So long as the earth exists, seed-time and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.” (Genesis 8:22)
Life as it should be
On a deeper level, it may also be because in nature there is an underlying sense that everything is exactly as it should be: the direction of the cool breeze, the sun setting and rising on time, the birds chirping, or the soft buzzing of background melodies created by a host of insects. Everything happens in harmony, just as it should be happening, without any desire for interference.
To be sure, nature can be hard and merciless. The golden fawn standing by her mother’s side, delicately nibbling on a leaf, is suddenly torn apart by a ferocious lion who’d been lurking nearby. The scene is neither subtle or kind — but it’s not evil.
In contrast, within the world we live — whether the external environment or our own mind — there is a pervading sense that things are not (yet) as they should be. Many thoughts and beliefs that enter our psyche have destructive results; they need to be refined and challenged. We are continually forced to make active hard decisions, and moral failure is always a possibility.
Free choice and repair
At the same time, it is within the tension of the fluctuating imperfect world — with all its pain, risks and disappointments — that complete spiritual accomplishment takes place. There’s an opportunity to steadily contribute to a community, to forge friendships, to create a welcoming home, and enable future generations to thrive — all with the goal of bringing an influx of light and meaning into the disorder. Life becomes more about finding the soul’s purpose than escaping struggle to nourish one’s frailties.
Being spiritual is largely a thirst for more light in a dim world, a desire to elevate or transcend. But without a proper guide, context or study, even the most rewarding meditation and powerful insights will inevitably lead to an endless maze, without a clearly defined path. And questions remain: what deeds are most desirable and healing?
And that’s where Torah guidelines come into play — to align with a system that enables one to navigate within the world. Tradition channels, checks and harnesses freestyle spirituality and gathers the momentum of the predecessors. As Ethics of our Fathers says: It is the mitzvah, not enlightenment or experience, that ultimately holds the greatest light.

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Planning for leadership succession

Posted on 25 July 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Pinchas, has in it a very interesting and somewhat surprising section. Specifically, God tells Moses: You really have to go up the mountain here, because the view of all Israel is a killer. For you, Moses, literally — because this is the end of your road. You’ve been leading the Jewish people for 40 years, and it hasn’t always been the easiest job in the world, you know, to lead Jews. I’ll let you see the Land of Israel, but you don’t get to finish the journey.
I want you to take a moment and think of the reaction that you would have if God said you would die just short of completing a 40-year journey. How would you feel? Disappointed? Angry? Resigned? Chagrined? Would you bargain for just a little more time? Would you beg?
Here’s what I think is so oddly interesting and surprising about this section — Moses’ reaction. “Let the Eternal, Source of the breath of all flesh, appoint someone over the community who shall go out before them and come in before them, and who shall take them out and bring them in, so the Eternal’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”
Moses has just been told he’s going to die, and his first thought was: Well, I had better make sure that there’s someone to take over for me. It is a sign of good leadership to make sure there is always someone in line to take over, just in case. But, personally, I would have been a bit more concerned about the dying part.
Another aspect of this week’s Torah portion that I find oddly interesting and surprising is that the Torah doesn’t end here. God said to Moses, go up the mountain, take a peek and then, well, you know… But we’ve got two more Torah portions in the Book of Numbers and the entire Book of Deuteronomy before we get to the end of Moses’ life and the end of Torah. And Moses spends that entire time giving last-minute instructions to the Israelites: Make sure you sacrifice every day with this much flour and that much wine. Follow this rule, follow that law, etc., etc., etc. I suppose this could have been a very early form of filibuster; the longer Moses spoke, the longer he had to live. But I don’t think that’s it. I think that Moses was overwhelmed with everything that had to get done and he was worried that it wouldn’t be finished in the time that he had left. I know that’s what I worry about: There is so much work to be done, how can I ever finish it all?
What we must realize, and this is really hard to accept, is that in the time we are given for life, we cannot accomplish all that there is to do. We cannot see all that there is to see. We cannot experience everything there is to experience. Rabbi Tarfon, as quoted in Pirkei Avot, puts it best:
“Lo alecha ham’lacha ligmor, v’lo atah ben chorin l’hibateil mimena.”
You are not required to finish the work, but neither are you free to leave off from it. Yes, Rabbi Tarfon is telling us, there is more to accomplish than we ever could, more to experience, more to do. So, don’t be discouraged when things get left undone, sights go unseen, experiences missed. But knowing that there will be work left undone, sights unseen and experiences missed is not an excuse to slack off. We must strive to do what we can with the time that God grants us.
We are — all of us — threads in the tapestry of history. We learn from this oddly interesting and surprising portion to make sure that when the thread of our life is broken, another thread is woven in to continue the tapestry. We learn that while we will never see the tapestry complete, we must never leave off contributing to our portion of the greater picture.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Seeing the world as it is: the importance of honest sight

Posted on 22 July 2019 by admin

There is a classic Jewish joke that begins with a psychiatrist saying, “I’m afraid, Mrs Goldstein, that your son has an Oedipus complex.”

“Oedipus schmoedipus!” comes the response. “What does it matter, as long as he loves his mother?”

It makes me laugh, not only because of the truth it carries about Jewish mothers, but because of the obtuseness that we live out in our everyday lives, for better and for worse, sometimes consciously, sometimes not.

Oedipus as a story, written by Sophocles and performed in the mid-fifth century BCE, describes Oedipus, who has become king and fulfills numerous prophecies. One such prophecy is that he kills his father and marries his mother. As he seeks to find out who killed his father, everyone is aware of the murderer, except for Oedipus. It is only later he sees the truth, and gouges out his eyes in despair. It is a tragedy of the worst kind when we fail to see what we know to be true in our hearts.

This notion of seeing and not seeing is profoundly played out in Greek comedy/tragedy style in Balak, our Torah portion for this week. As the Moabite King Balak “sees” the Israelites assembled nearby, he becomes frightened and summons the great seer Balaam to come and curse the Israelites, to defeat them in battle. Balaam, for his part, sees this request for what it is: folly, as one cannot curse that which God has blessed. Balaam initially refuses the king’s request, but eventually agrees. As Balaam begins his journey, God places an angel in front of him and his donkey, effectively stopping them from continuing. Balaam, the great seer, can’t see the angel, but the donkey can. Balaam continues beating the donkey in an attempt to move her forward. And finally, the donkey speaks to Balaam, asking him why he is beating her. Only then does Balaam realize what is really going on, as God uncovers Balaam’s eyes to reveal the truth. No matter how hard Balaam tried not to see what he was really doing, he could not hide from the truth God revealed to him.

This is case with King Balak, as well. Instead of seeing the Israelites as a potential ally, he sees them through his fears and biases, and thus sees them as an enemy. Balak, too, can’t see what Balaam was trying to tell him; his insistence on seeing things the way things aren’t meant to be seen will cause disaster for him and his community. Ultimately, Balaam cannot curse the Israelites and proclaims one of the Torah’s more beautiful blessings, “Ma Tovu ohalechah Ya’akov, mishkinotecha Yisrael — How fair are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, Israel.”

Parashat Balak uses some form of the words seeing, saw, revealed or uncovered 21 different times. This points to the truth we sense in our hearts but cannot always understand; that what we need to see isn’t always what we choose to see and the different ways we try to block things from view. Whether those things are personal, about business or our community, our country or our world, we fall victim to wanting to see one thing, doing everything we can to avoid seeing what we need to see. The Torah’s point is clear: As uncomfortable as it might be to see the world as it is, the world needs brave seers. We need to be unafraid and, like Balaam, to bless that which needs blessing and curse that which needs cursing.

May God grant us that vision every single day.

Andrew Paley is the senior rabbi of Temple Shalom in Dallas and a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Making vows involves ongoing dialogue with God

Posted on 11 July 2019 by admin

In this week’s Torah portion, Chukat, we find three spectacular images tied to the three towering personalities: the clouds of glory attributed to the merit of Aaron, the “Well of Water” to the merit of Miriam, and the manna to the merit of Moses. The “Clouds of Glory” and the “Well” disappeared with the passing of Aaron and Miriam, but they were later restored in the merit of Moses (who broadened his leadership role).
One of the distinguishing qualities of Aaron, recounted in Pirkei Avot, was that he loved beriyot (creatures) — even those people who had no other apparent virtue other than being “creatures [of God].” Thus, it is said of Aaron alone that “the entire house of Israel mourned Aaron for 30 days.” (Numbers 20:29) That is also the deeper reason why the “Clouds of Glory” came by virtue of Aaron — for, as the Talmud explains, everything follows the principle of “measure for measure.” Just as he loved all beings without distinction, so he elicited the “Clouds of Glory” which encompassed each member of the community equally.
But these clouds of glory, which had surrounded and protected the Jewish people, temporarily disappeared with Aaron’s passing. It was then that the nations who had been observing what was happening within the camp of Israel smelled opportunity — they figured that the Israelites were now vulnerable. One nation, located closest to the south of the land, decided that it was an appropriate time to attack.
Picking up on a detail in the verse, the biblical commentaries relate that this nation was, in fact, Amalek, the archenemy of the Jewish people, who approached them in disguise: “The Amalekites changed their language and spoke in the language of Canaan, so that the Israelites would pray to God to deliver the Canaanites into their hands, and [since] they were not, in fact, Canaanites [the prayers of Israel would have no effect]. Nevertheless, Israel noticed that they were dressed like Amalekites…”
Amalek first took a Jewish maidservant captive. One child seized from the Jewish community was enough to prompt the entire Jewish people to wage war. And before setting out to battle, they made a vow to God, saying, “Vayeedar Yisrael neder … if I’m able to be victorious over this people” — it said “this people,” instead of specifying, because the identity wasn’t yet clear — “then I will consecrate their cities.” The Torah continues that “God listened to the voice (i.e., the vow) of Israel,” accepted the prayer, and delivered the Amalek people into the hands of Israel. And after the people were destroyed, the possessions in the cities were all dedicated to God, given to the Temple.
The power of speech
In Judaism, making a vow to God is a solemn act. This power that a person has in his or her mouth is more intense than many may realize. There is a type of neder, vow, that is unilateral — things that a person verbally resolves to do or refrain from doing. In Jewish law, such a vow can even make certain items holy, or off-limits, for an individual. Then there’s the type of vow mentioned in the above verse, which is more like “making a deal” with God. It usually arises in a dangerous situation, when a person is feeling helpless and pleads that “if You, God, will help me, then I’ll do such-and-such for You.”
This phrase “he made a vow” appears only three times in scriptural narratives: The first mention is with our forefather Jacob while he was traveling down a precarious and dangerous path to Haran, where he would find his soulmate and build his home. After the mysterious dream where he saw the ladder reaching up to heaven, he made a vow and said “If God will be with me, and He will guard me on this way…and He will give me bread to eat and a garment to wear, and if I return in peace to my father’s house…this stone, which I have placed as a monument, shall be a house of God, and everything that You give me, I will tithe to You.” (Genesis 28:20-22)
The second place this phrase, “Vayeedar neder,” occurs is in this week’s portion, when Israel (Jacob’s proper name, now used for the Jewish people) made a vow. The third and final time appears in the Book of Judges, Chapter 11. But in the story of this final mention, making a vow degenerated into a tragic situation wherein the general, Yiftach (Jephthah), didn’t take into consideration what could possibly evolve from his deal with God.
Should we make deals with God?
The subject of making vows is a complex topic to consider, including whether such promises are recommended or discouraged. On one hand, we see from the verses of Jacob and Israel’s vow that there is a precedent for making deals. On the other hand, the concept of making vows to God can be dangerous. There are those who argue that, as a rule, all decisions and promises should be kept in one’s heart rather than expressed in words. The most basic reason is that we lack foresight and cannot consider all factors — a person never knows whether they will be able to follow through with the vow. (In the spiritual realm, just as in the financial, it’s always preferable to receive a gift or an investment in your venture than to take a loan, even an interest-free loan.)
The mystical teachings point out that whenever the story of a vow appears, the Torah uses the words, “Vayeedar neder.” This phrase possesses the same numerical equivalent, 474, as daat — ”knowledge” or “consciousness.” Perhaps the deeper message here is that the ability to make a vow, in the optimal sense, requires a high level of knowledge. In other words, if a person has higher consciousness, the ongoing awareness that God is the only true reality guiding the outcome while everything in this world, “below,” is relatively naught — then his or her vow will be solid. If, however, the vow is made from desperation, a lower-level consciousness, it is unwise.
This does not mean, however, that in one’s private communion with God, one should refrain from declaring positive resolutions. After all, the effectiveness and fruits of prayer are largely about effort and personal change. When you change, so does your judgment and fate. Likewise, to make room for blessings, it is always helpful to express a firm commitment for the future — but without promising (in Hebrew, “bli neder”). The ideal approach is to make the commitments regardless of any outcome.
The theme from all the above is internalizing how improving our relationship with God is more than refining our attitude toward the events in our lives — it involves an ongoing dialogue. Sometimes, the impetus to get closer stems from “an initiative from above.” For example, because something good happened to us, we feel inspired to make a positive change as a way to show gratitude. Other times, we make the change first — do a mitzvah, or pray — and then look for reciprocation. And there are times when, under pressure, we feel compelled to call out for help and we lay out the terms — “If You do this for me, then I’ll…”
Either way, we learn from the Torah that our words make an impression.
Rabbi Dan Lewin is director of the nonprofit Maayan Chai Foundation. For information, visit

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Follow leaders who advocate for just causes

Posted on 03 July 2019 by admin

It is ironic that we read Parashat Korah this week, the week of July 4. On July 4 we celebrate a rebellion against unjust rule and our hard won independence. Parashat Korah details an unjust rebellion against legitimate leadership.
Korah, Moses’ cousin, organizes a rebellion against Moses and Aaron, accusing them of self-aggrandizement: “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Eternal is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Eternal’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3) In reality, this is a plain and simple power grab from people who feel slighted, that feel they should have top leadership positions.
Moses defends himself to God in Numbers 16:15: “Moses was much aggrieved and he said to the Eternal, ‘Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.’” Moses’ response implies that Korah also accused him of theft or misappropriation of wealth for himself, but none of the charges are legitimate.
There are three ways that God confirms that Moses and Aaron are the legitimate leaders of the Jewish people. First, God destroys Korah and the leaders of the rebellion through divine fire. Second, Aaron stops a divine plague from spreading throughout the Jewish people. Third, when representatives of every tribe put their staffs into the Tent of the Pact, only Aaron’s staff miraculously sprouted blossoms and almonds. After all of these miracles, God wants the rebellion to be put to rest (Numbers 17:25): “The Eternal said to Moses, ‘Put Aaron’s staff back before the Pact, to be kept as a lesson to rebels, so that their mutterings against Me may cease, lest they die.’”
During the American Revolution, there were no divine miracles to confirm the justice of the Revolution, so in the Declaration of Independence our Founding Fathers enumerated the legitimate reasons for overthrowing English rule. “…let Facts be submitted to a candid world,” they declared. Korah had nothing more than vague accusations and personal grievances. I would like to think that it was the legitimacy of the Founding Fathers’ grievances that led to their ultimate success and the illegitimacy of Korah’s grievances that led to his failure, but that would be wrong. We see too often people with legitimate grievances lose their cases, while self-aggrandizing dissemblers succeed.
What we can see is that when we follow people like Korah, it ultimately leads to our own ruin. Good causes don’t always win, but bad causes inevitably lead to ruin. It was true at the time of Korah, it was true at the time of the American Revolution, and it continues to be true today. We must be careful, for our own sake, to follow only leaders who are true and advocate for just causes.
Rabbi Benjamin Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano and vice president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Don’t blame the messenger; rather, embrace him (or her)

Posted on 27 June 2019 by admin

One lesson of Shelach, this week’s parashah, is: “Don’t shoot the messenger.” This expression dates back to ancient history, and can be found in Plutarch’s “Life of Lucullus.”
When Rome was on its way to attack the kingdom of Tigranes the Great, the messenger who informed Tigranes of the oncoming army was beheaded for his pains. Consequently, no one else wanted to bring Tigranes any other intelligence. Without it, Tigranes sat while war blazed around him, giving ear only to those who told him what he wanted to hear.
Whether at war or not, it’s hard to hear the truth. Our first impulse when it comes to bad news is to shoot, or blame, the messenger. However, the Torah teaches that truth must prevail, even when it’s hard to hear.
In Shelach, Moses sends out 12 spies to the land of Canaan, to determine if it can be conquered. Ten of the spies return and tell the Israelites that the land cannot be conquered. But Caleb and Joshua, the two remaining spies, believe the Israelites can conquer Canaan. The Israelites then threaten to stone Caleb and Joshua — the biblical version of shooting the messenger. But what was it about their message that was so hard for the Israelites to accept?
HaAmak haDvar, a 19th-century commentator, suggests that the Israelites might have believed that Caleb and Joshua were trying to drag the Israelites into a dangerous war. The battle was going to be tough, with real losses taking place. The Israelites were unwilling to take this risk. They were trying to protect themselves.
Unlike the Israelites, Caleb and Joshua weren’t afraid of the battle, because they believed God was on their people’s side. They also believed in the people. By telling them to conquer the land, they were telling the Israelites that they were capable and strong. The truth they delivered was a message of encouragement and empowerment: “We can do this!” Many times, being reminded of our own competence is the most frightening message of all, because it means we have to strive to fulfill our potential.
Eighteenth-century commentator Be’er Mayim says that it’s possible the Israelites wanted to stone Joshua and Caleb, because they preferred to return to Egypt, and to serve God there. While Egypt had been awful for the Israelites, it was, at least, a known situation. More than once in the Torah the people ask to go back to Egypt, which can be explained as a form of regression. The Israelites didn’t want to face new challenges. They wanted to repeat old patterns. The Israelites, like most of us, like things to be familiar and easy even if they aren’t good.
Caleb and then Joshua told the people a truth they didn’t want to hear, that it would be difficult to conquer the Land but that they could do it. The hardest truth to hear is sometimes that we’re up for the challenge.
The gift this parashah offers us is, when the Calebs and Joshuas in our lives tell us that God has a plan for us, and that we are capable of accomplishing something hard, we should overcome our fears and reject the idea of returning to our personal Egypts. Instead of shooting the messenger, we must acknowledge our own potential, and try to overcome the obstacles that will bring us to our own Promised Lands.
Rabbi Elana Zelony is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Torah in Richardson. She is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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Torah portion notes the presence of inequalities

Posted on 20 June 2019 by admin

This week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, has several key references to prophecy, noting that Moses, the greatest of all prophets, was “exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth” (Bamidbar 12:3). In addition to prophecies, the reading also touches on equality. Specifically, inequalities exist, even among the prophets.
Digging somewhat deeper, it may be a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” when it comes to rights, such as being treated in the same way according to the same law, regardless of their circumstances. However, it is also blatantly apparent that human beings are inherently different in their capacities and talents. They are unequal in attractiveness, intellectual aptitude, business acumen, athletic prowess and more.
Support for the idea of inherent equality can be found in a more mystical concept: That people are created in the image of God, receiving a divine soul. So, despite the fact that people don’t appear equal, there is something equal within.
But even in the spiritual department, there are marked differences in capacities. A pervading principle in Judaism is that certain people can rise above the usual human level of functioning to reach a broader consciousness. As Maimonides states in his first section of his comprehensive book of laws, “Fundamentals of Torah,” “God bestows certain individuals with prophecy.”
When defining the parameters of prophecy, Maimonides (and previously, the Talmud) elucidates the specific qualities necessary to reach this higher state — wisdom, strength, self-control, broad and accurate mental capacity, and others. Such an individual realizes that he or she is gifted and privy to certain insights unavailable to the average person, even the most intelligent.
The nature of inequality in a variety of contexts sets up situations in which certain people possess things that others need. This provides opportunities to give — whether financial assistance, relationship and business advice or emotional support. The giver-and-receiver relationship, and the virtue of choosing to give, plays out in all aspects of life.
In most cases, giving entails sacrifice, relinquishing something of value for the sake of another. This is certainly true with spending one’s time and money. Spiritual transmission too comes with some loss to the giver. We find this concept in the famous exchange between Moses and Joshua, where God says: “You shall bestow some of your majesty upon him.” Here, the transfer of “majesty,” a spiritual gift, is explained with an analogy of pouring liquid from one container to another.
Moving back to the general relationship between giver and receiver, there are those who opt to give in the most convenient and least demanding manner. In Jewish ethical works, however, it is not simply the gesture or result of giving that matters, but the attitude of the giver. Emphasis is placed on finding the most dignified path for the recipients, so that they not feel embarrassed or not be put in the uncomfortable setting of needing to ask for assistance.
Another important aspect considered is the long-term impact, the ability to give with wisdom and empathy — being able to place yourself in the other’s situation and consequently, understand the big picture. In such a case, the giver not only offers a quick and immediate solution to soothe the other’s plight, but enables the recipient to eventually become self-sustaining. When it comes to giving financially, for example, Jewish laws discuss eight paths of tzedakah (charity). The greatest level is to support someone by endowing him with a gift or loan, entering into a partnership, or finding the person employment, “in order to strengthen his hand so he will no longer need to be dependent. . .”
Similarly, there are degrees of giving when it comes to counsel or spiritual guidance. Certain guides are emotionally removed from the recipient — their advice is more like a cold diagnosis — under the guise that being involved will affect their ability to remain objective or to be effective. Often, however, this lack of empathy is more related to character. The giver may have the right answer and be willing to share it, but generosity and care are kept on a tight leash. Or, their style of service often makes the recipient feel inadequate and dependent on their guide’s expertise as they come back for more answers, yet the guide falls short of building the recipient long-term. A wise giver acts naturally, keeping things low key, and empowers a person to become independent.
Returning to Bamidbar, the opening verse focuses on the concept of lighting and lifting. On the equality front, there are those who light and lift, and those who are the recipients of being lighted and lifted. “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him when you light the lamps…” The verb behaalotecha is usually translated as “kindle” the lamps. Literally, however, it means “to lift up.”
The commentaries dealing with the literal meaning are bothered by the unusual expression — describing kindling as “lifting” — and explain the instruction to mean: “light (each candle) until the flame rises up by itself.” The Torah’s language is thus an efficient way to communicate the act of holding one candle against another. But there is also a deeper layer of meaning:
In Jewish literature, a lamp or candle is often used as a metaphor for the soul (“The candle of the Lord is the soul of man” [Proverbs 20:27].) The mystical sources further explain how the seven branches of the menorah refer to the seven general “soul types.” The instruction to light the candle conveys that the responsibility of a central Jewish guide (in this case, Aaron) is to light the soul of each person they encounter.
What does it mean to “light” someone’s soul? Simply put, when a person is lost, or going through a difficult time, the flame of the soul is constricted, buried within and barely flickering — but unable to expand. At that point, the task of the giver is to kindle the flame, see how to uplift the person so that the soul can shine openly. A higher level is to “lift the flames until they can burn on their own.”
In summary, inequality isn’t necessary a poor thing. A true leader creates other capable leaders, not blind followers. A good educator means not only being a talented orator, giving a great lecture that wows the listeners, but also providing the recipient with skills — teaching how to think critically. In the context of counseling, this means giving the patient tools to help themselves, rather than the desire to run back into the office every time a crisis occurs. And, for a Jewish spiritual guide, this means inspiring someone and enabling them to gain knowledge to later pass on to future generations.

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Familiar verses of the Priestly Benediction interpreted

Posted on 14 June 2019 by admin

This week’s portion, Parashat Naso, includes a section that I’ll make a bet everyone reading this column has heard multiple times before: the last six verses of Numbers, Chapter 6, the Priestly Benediction.
In my own translation it says: “God said to Moses: say to Aaron and his sons: ‘Thus shall all y’all bless the Children of Israel. May God bless you and guard you. May God’s face radiate upon you and be gracious to you. May God’s face be lifted up to you and put upon you peace.
“That way, they will put My name on the Children of Israel and I will bless them.’”
Note: “all y’all” may be a Southernism, but since ‘you’ in English can be either singular or plural, it’s actually very useful to use “all y’all” to indicate “you” plural, just as it is indicated to be plural in the Hebrew.
This blessing is a specific formula for the priests to use, and to this day in a traditional congregation, anyone who is a Kohen will come to the front and recite this blessing in a ceremony called duchening. It is from the ceremony of duchening that Leonard Nimoy took his “live long and prosper” hand gesture. The hands are spread like the letter shin — standing for “Shaddai,” a name of God — and the blessing is given.
The first blessing is: “May God bless you and keep you, guard you, protect you.” This is where my translation is a little squishy. But then again, all translation is interpretation, so we should expect a little squishiness. There’s a sense, though that God will make sure bad things don’t happen to you. The only question is, what bad things — and how will God make sure those bad things don’t happen?
The second blessing is: “May God’s face radiate, shine upon you and be gracious to you.” I have a sense that having God’s face shine on you is pretty good, but again, I don’t have an exact idea what a shining face is supposed to be.
The third blessing is: “May God’s face be lifted up on you, favor you, think you’re special and give you peace.” Clearly there’s a difference between God’s face shining on you and being lifted up on you, but what that difference is exactly, isn’t always clear.
The part that I’m really interested in is the last sentence that isn’t spoken: “They shall put My name on the Children of Israel and I shall bless them.” Think how extraordinary that truly is. The priests put the name of God on the people, and then God will bless them. God blesses the people through the action of the priests. God acts through human action. We act in God’s name and God’s blessing comes forth.
When we help people and protect them from harm, God blesses that action. When we bring light to people’s lives — dispelling the darkness of despair and pain — God blesses that action. When we lift people up out of the depths in which they are mired — when we restore people to a sense of wholeness and peace — God blesses that action. When we act in God’s name, God blesses us all. Our hands are God’s hands, bringing blessing to the world.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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