“Peh El Peh”

Image may contain: cloud, sky, outdoor and nature

One of the many beautiful aspects of the Torah is its ability to pull no punches, so to speak. The Torah can tell it like it is, and we see a wide range of emotions and circumstances on display in this week’s parshah, B’haalot’cha. “And it came to pass in the second year, in the second month, on the twentieth day of the month, that the cloud was taken up from over the tabernacle of testimony” (Num. 10:11). Let us unpack this for a moment. The people of Israel have been at Sinai for ten months and nineteen days, and now the journey toward the Holy Land can begin. They have been gone from Egypt for over a year now. But, how did the people of Israel know that it was,indeed, the right time to set forth on this journey from Sinai toward Moab and the Promised Land? It turns out that the cloud that we just spoke of was how G-d manifested Himself as protector and guide over the Tabernacle. Numbers 9:17 tells us, “And whenever the cloud was taken up from over the Tent, then after that the children of Israel journeyed; and in the place where the cloud abode, there the children of Israel encamped” The people of Israel had G-d in cloud form telling them when they should pack up and travel, and also when it was appropriate to halt and set up camp. This is not the first time we have heard of G-d’s presence via a cloud. If we look back to Exodus 13:21, we remember, “And the Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to guide them…” The Torah also makes it clear that during the night, when clouds are generally not as visible, the Lord manifested as fire, perhaps a la the bush that Moses saw burning unconsumed. 

The Talmud tells us of glorious clouds that guided the people of Israel in the wilderness, raising the lowlands, lowering the highlands, and even killing dangerous animals such as scorpions and snakes on the road before them (Mek, Be-shallah, Va-yehi 1; Num. R. 1:1). The Aggadic writings talk of a beam of light issuing from the cloud, perhaps like lightning, which indicated the appropriate direction in which to journey next. Do any of us wish that we could have such a physical manifestation of the Divine’s presence in our own day-to-day lives? The cloud that guided the people of Israel through the wilderness–can we find a version of this Divinity in our own experiences? Do we seek the light of the Lord from outside of ourselves, within ourselves, or both? Sometimes, we can feel as if Divinity is with us, or that G-d is communicating with us, almost as Moses–”With him [Moses] do I speak mouth to mouth” (Num. 12:8). Mouth to mouth or face to face–”peh el peh” in Hebrew. Moses was said to speak to God in the most direct manner of all of the prophets–never actually seeing an image of G-d, but having the clearest communication of all. In other times we might feel as if we do not feel G-d’s presence with us at all.

As I alluded to earlier, the Torah has a unique ability to tell it like it is. Even with a Divine cloud guiding the way, clearing the path, and turning to fire by night, the people of Israel, for lack of a more appropriate term, began to “kvetch.” The people began complaining about the food: “we have nought but this manna to look to” (Num. 11:6). The Israelites even went so far as to reflect upon their days of slavery in Egypt with longing: “We remember the fish…the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic” (Num. 11:5). Moses himself, overcome with the burden of the people and the constant complaining, began to unravel a bit in this parshah. “Wherefore hast Thou dealt ill with Thy servant? And wherefore have I not found favour in thy sight, that Thou latest the burden of all this people upon me? (Num. 11:11). Even in the holiest of times, and amidst a direct line of communication with G-d, Moses has “had it” with the people, and is questioning his prophetic role. Even the seemingly steadfast Aaron and Miriam begin to show uncharacteristic jealousy regarding Moses. After suddenly complaining about Moses’ choice of a wife, they said, “Hath the Lord indeed spoken only with Moses? Hath He not spoken with us also?” (Num. 13:2). The Midrash tells us that Moses was too meek to stand up for himself, so G-d decided to defend him. Miriam became leprous, and with Moses’ help, she was eventually cured. “El na r’fah nah lah” or, “Heal her now, O God, I beseech Thee” (Num. 12:13). As a side note, you may recognize these words from a new song we have been introduced to that we might sing in place of the Mi Shebeirach on Friday nights. “El nah r’fah nah lah l’refuah sh’leimah”–”G-d please heal her, for a complete healing.” 

What to take from all of this? A direct sign of G-d’s presence and direction among the people of Israel still did not quell the very human feelings of unrest, hunger, idealization of the past, and jealousy. We see sibling rivalry, and eventually we return to Moses’ characteristic humility and caring for others, evident in his plea for Miriam’s life. Parshah B’haalot’cha feels almost like a microcosm of life itself. There are moments when we, in our own lives, feel guided along by the Divine presence, and we can remain flexible and willing to do what we feel called to do. We also face many moments of frustration, uncertainty, and even anger. There are times when we might feel G-d “peh el peh,” and moments when we just feel hungry for the earthly meat of Mitzrayim. Life can seem chaotic, troublesome, and full of trials and tribulations. At the end of B’haalot’cha, the Israelite people do make their way from Sinai and set up camp in the wilderness of Paran.

After all of the very human ordeals–the struggling with G-d (Israel), and with one another, G-d still leads the way from one place to the next, from one moment to another. We are human, and we are imperfect. It might be helpful to remember that even when we are busy being imperfect, the cloud and fire is always with us, guiding us along the way. We can miss G-d’s presence, especially if we are too busy looking down at earthly squabbles to notice. Our Mishkan T’Filah says, “Days pass, and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles…let there be moments when Your Presence, like lightning, illumines the darkness in which we walk. Help us to see, wherever we gaze, that the bush burns unconsumed” (p. 53). 

May we all be blessed with patience and perspective, so that we might have more beautiful moments of “peh el peh” with one another, and with our very own manifestation of the Divine.

Shalom,

Joshua

A Breath of Shalom

The Priestly Blessing - Mitzvahs & Traditions

Naso, the Torah portion for this week, comes at an extremely tumultuous and trying time in our country’s history. As we know, we are currently studying Bamidbar, or the Book of Numbers, in our yearly cycle of readings. As of right now, 100,000 people in the United States have died of COVID-19, with the numbers rising. There are currently protests of rage and anger taking place in cities across the country due to the racial atrocities that have been again amplified by the vile and senseless murder of a black man in Minneapolis at the hands of law enforcement. It seems appropriate that this week’s parshah is the longest in the Torah, consisting of 176 verses, since this week feels like it might never end in its consistent chaos. The number of human beings perished from COVID-19, and the number of people of color dead from being people of color: Too high. One is too many. The numbers are indeed scary.

When life feels overwhelming, we can look to the Torah. We might not find the answers we are looking for in the moment, but we can certainly glean Divine insight and historical parallel. In between discussion of Levitical counting, removal of unclean persons from the camp, and the gifts offered by tribal princes, we find what is perhaps the most beautiful aspect of this vast parshah. It also happens to be one of its most brief. Parshah Naso delivers to us the Birkat Kohanim, or the Priestly Blessing: 

“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee; The Lord make His face to shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee; The Lord lift up His countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Num. 6:24-26). In Hebrew: “Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha. Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom.”

This blessing is arguably the most widely known in all of Judaism. It was used in ancient times in the Temple in Jerusalem. It is used today in Israel during the repeating of the Amidah prayer. Parents bless their children on Friday nights using these words, and the celebration of festivals in the diaspora always contain recitation of the Birkat Kohanim. While the words themselves are beautiful and rhythmic, both in English and Hebrew, what does it all mean? I would like to touch on this, and focus specifically on the final word, “shalom.” Firstly, the singular “thee” or often “you” is used in this blessing. Perhaps this singularity is due to the fact that the people of Israel, and I would argue all people, should be blessed as one. We are humankind, and can strive to attain a oneness of human experience and caring for one another. The Lord can bless “thee” with material prosperity and with good health; He can also “keep” or “protect” “thee” against illness, poverty, and a multitude of hardship. When “The Lord make His face to shine upon thee,” it is thought that God’s face is turned toward us showering us with Divine love and adoration. When the Lord is “gracious unto thee,” we can look to the word chen, or grace, which speaks to morality and interpersonal relationships. We ask that God give us and others grace so that we can live harmoniously together (Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks). When the Lord “lift up His countenance…” he is attuned to us, and caring for us. The priestly blessing ends with, “and give thee peace.” The final word is shalom. We know that “shalom” is used as a greeting, a farewell, and also to mean “peace.” Hertz’s Chumash tells us that shalom is a word that encompasses a myriad of ideals that “peace” simply cannot cover. Security, health, welfare, tranquility; all of these are contained in the word. Rabbi David Zaslow talks of shalom more appropriately translating to “wholeness” in English. When two opposite poles come together, we have shalom. This polar connection is what makes “shalom” appropriate both for hello and goodbye: opposites. Zaslow believes that “shalom” unites individuals with differing views and opinions. This grants a person the gift of another perspective, which ultimately leads to wholeness. It should also be noted that peace, shalom, or wholeness does not indicate a passivity. Without social justice, ethical behavior, and the working toward individual and societal harmony, shalom will not come to be. 

The Book of Isaiah speaks of an aspirational shalom which includes all people, and even beasts, living together in wholeness. “The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, the leopard lie down with the kid…In all of my sacred mount nothing evil or vile shall be done; For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as water covers the sea” (Isaiah 11:6-10). The Book of Isaiah speaks of a world of complete shalom–a world where he who has been given the power of the wolf does not press his knee upon the neck of the helpless and handcuffed lamb. A world where the vile actions of predators do not quickly snuff out the lives of those simply grazing in the field. A world where evil inaction does not directly correlate to the loss of countless lives. A world where everyone can breathe. Acclaimed journalist and political analyst LZ Granderson recently wrote, “It’s intellectually dishonest to say we will return to ‘peace’…because this country has never been at peace. We’ve had moments of quiet…but never peace.” Granderson talks of how this country was built upon the backs of slaves and systemic racism. It is difficult to argue with his point, and if you feel inclined to do so, take Hillel’s advice, and “judge not your fellow man until you have been in his place” (Avot 2:5). 

There exists “A time to keep silence, and a time to speak” (Eccles. 3:7). The Talmud tells us that there exist times when we are rewarded for remaining silent, and other times when we must speak up in order to be rewarded (B. Zeb 115b, En Yaakov). As Jews, inaction is not an option. We must be silent only when we are listening to those whose voices have been silenced. We must be silent only so we can learn what to say when we speak up: And speak up we must for all of our brothers and sisters who share this earth with us. We must listen to the science and the experts. We must listen to our brothers and sisters of color. We must listen, and then speak. We must behave as if we were the channel through which God were to bless the people, all people, of this earth. 

Yes, it does feel like we are currently a nation at war, peoples pitted against a virus, and against one another. The Rabbis tell us, “Great is peace, for even in a time of war one should begin peace” (Perek HaShalom 1:14) Even during these times of illness, murder, and fire, we must aspire to shalom. The Lord will give thee peace. We are all Israel, and we all must be blessed. One day, “Lo yisa goi el goi cherev. V’lo yilm’du od milchamah–Nation shall not take up sword against nation; they shall never again know war” (Isaiah 2:4). 

May all those who feel unsafe be blessed with the Lord’s keeping. May all those whose voices remain in the shadows be blessed with the Lord’s light upon your face. May the Lord turn to those who feel that the Lord has turned from them. And may the Lord grant us “shalom”–wholeness. The work begins now.

“Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha. Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.Yisa Adonai panav eilecha v’yaseim l’cha shalom.”

Shalom,

Joshua

“Wherever you go, I will go”

The Hadassah Foundation: D'var Torah on The Book of Ruth

As we celebrate the pilgrimage festival of Shavuot this week, one of our traditions is to engage in the reading of The Book of Ruth. While a connection to Shavuot is not necessarily explicit in the text, our tradition gives many explanations as to why we read this particular book on Shavuot. The story is set during the barley harvest time, and Ruth is a direct descendant of King David, who is reported to have died on Shavuot. According to Rabbi Ze’era of the Talmud, The Book of Ruth does not give us any information regarding what is clean or unclean, or what is prohibited or permitted. Rabbi Ze’era claims that the Book of Ruth was written simply in order to teach us that there is great reward for those who engage in acts of kindness (Ruth R. 2.14). We see three major characters in this story; Ruth, Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi, and Naomi’s kinsman Boaz. What we read in this book is a remarkable story of two strong women, a rarity in many biblical writings, making their own way in a patriarchal and unkind society. It is said that the Book of Ruth took place during the time of judges. “And it came to pass (vayehi) in the days when the judges judged” (Ruth 1:1). According to Rabbi Eleazar, wherever the word “vayehi” occurs, woe lingers. We have much to learn from Ruth and Naomi’s behavior amidst trying times.

To give a brief summary of the story, Naomi and her husband Elimelech are living during these difficult times with their two sons in Bethlehem. Famine was rampant, so the family was forced to travel to Moab in search of greener pastures. While in Moab, Naomi and Elimelech’s two sons, Mahlon and Chilion, both marry Moabite women. Orpah and Ruth become part of the family through marriage. Very soon into the story all of the men die, and Naomi is left with her two daughters-in-law in the foreign Moabite land. Naomi decides to return to the land of Bethlehem, and tells her daughters by marriage that they should go back to where they came from. “Turn back, each of you to her mother’s house. May the Lord deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me!” (Ruth 1:8). Eventually Orpah decides to heed Naomi’s words, and it is said that she becomes an ancestor of the famous giant Philistine, Goliath. Ruth, however, shows an incredible amount of loyalty to her mother-in-law. Ruth famously says, “Do not urge me to leave you, to turn back and not follow you. For wherever you go, I will go; wherever you lodge, I will lodge; your people shall be my people, and your God my God (Ruth 1:16). Let’s circle back to that incredible display of loyalty in a moment. Eventually, Naomi and Ruth re-enter Israelite land wherein Ruth is gleaning in the field of Boaz. Boaz, who ends up being a kinsman of Naomi, takes a liking to Ruth, and the two eventually become married. Boaz is called the “redeemer” of the family of Naomi. Ruth and Boaz have a son named Obed, who becomes a direct descendant of King David. 

Let us focus for a moment on Ruth’s incredible personal journey. When she proclaims her loyalty to Naomi, remember she says that, “your God [shall become] my God.” Ruth is essentially telling us that she wishes to convert to Judaism! Rabbi Ze’er tells us of the “chesed” or kindness that is displayed in this book. Isn’t it interesting to find that an extreme act of loyalty between two strong women directly leads to the creation of the messianic line of King David? So often in Judaism, there exists the notion that conversion and intermarriage is something to look down upon, or that marrying a non-Jew is akin to slowly doing away with Judaism itself. The Book of Ruth appears to operate in stark contrast to this line of thinking. Ruth is an honorable and strong person who happens to be a non-Jewish woman. She decided of her own accord to become a Jewish woman, eventually marries a Jewish man, and is seemingly accepted by society. There is much to learn about our contemporary views from Ruth’s story. Ruth’s Judaism is present in her fierce loyalty and kindness to Naomi, and her devotion to God. What could be more Jewish than supporting one’s loved one during a time of strife? The Jews have always become stronger in the face of adversity, and Ruth displays this resiliency in spades. While Naomi is in a state of despair after the loss of so many of her family members, Ruth stays by her side, and both women appear to lift one another up. Naomi is so down when she returns to Bethlehem that she requests to be called “Mara,” meaning “bitterness” as opposed to her original name. Dr. Yael Shemesh of Bar-Ilan University brings up an interesting linguistic connection in the text. When Naomi is telling her daughters-in-law to leave her side, it is said, “But Ruth clung to her” (Ruth 1:14). The word for cling, “davak,” is reminiscent of a verse in Genesis: “Hence a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh” (Gen. 2:24). As opposed to a man leaving his parents, clinging to his wife, and becoming one flesh, we see similar language to describe two women, a mother and daughter, forming a bond of beautiful sisterhood. Their connection is strong and profoundly meaningful. In case you were still wondering about the gravity of Ruth’s presence and impact on not only Naomi, but the people of Israel, in 4:11, the people and elders of Israel say of Ruth, “May the Lord make the woman is coming into your house like Rachel and Leah, both of whom built up the house of Israel!” Ruth, a convert to Judaism, is compared to the matriarchs Rachel and Leah by Jewish elders. This is an important thought to keep in mind before looking sideways at conversion or intermarriage. 

While it would be easy to call the Book of Ruth a simple story about loss and redemption with two strong female protagonists, it would not be very Jewish of us to omit addressing some glaring concerns. We live in a contemporary world in the United States wherein women are not treated as equals to men. Astonishingly, women still only make 81 cents for every dollar that a man earns for performing the exact same job. While the number of women in CEO positions at Fortune 500 companies is at its highest rate in history, that number is still only 33. Our society still has quite a long way to go in many areas before we can consider ourselves truly equal. The same patriarchy existed in the time of Naomi and Ruth. Boaz, Naomi’s kinsman in Bethlehem, is termed “the redeemer” of Naomi’s family. Many people also find it hard to reconcile the fact that Naomi essentially tells Ruth to give herself to Boaz physically in order for them to be restored. Naomi tells Ruth, “So bathe, anoint yourself, dress up, and go down to the threshing floor…When he lies down note the place where he lies down, and go over and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what you are to do” (Ruth 3:3-4). While the methods of their rise in Bethlehem might be less-than-desirable, were these strong women working within the confines of the society that they knew was dominant? I believe it is important that we take note of the fact that Ruth and Naomi were living in a male-dominated society, and they operated knowing just that. Boaz does eventually tell Ruth, “I will do in your behalf whatever you ask…” (Ruth 3:11). Toward the end of The Book of Ruth, a rare biblical dialogue of a woman’s worth being equal to or greater than a man’s occurs. The women of Bethlehem said to Naomi in reference to her new grandson, Ruth’s child, “He will renew your life and sustain your old age; for he is born of your daughter-in-law, who loves you and is better to you than seven sons” (Ruth 4:15). Ruth is better to Naomi than seven sons. These are no miniscule words of praise for Ruth, whose name might mean “the one who fills to overflowing.”

The Book of Ruth, while told through the lens of a highly patriarchal society, does have much to celebrate. Naomi and Ruth share trials and tribulations of love, loss, uncertainty, journey, hunger, and ultimately great happiness and redemption. Perhaps Boaz was the male vessel that these strong women happened to use in order to fulfill their higher purpose. In the modern world, I will urge my own daughter, who is named for Naomi, to strive for the greatest heights no matter what society tells her she should do. Sometimes we work with where we are and what is in front of us, and as Jews, we know that the work is in progress, but not yet complete. This week, as we celebrate the revelation at Mount Sinai during Shavuot, I hope we can take some time to remember Ruth and Naomi. These two women exemplified strength, courage, and sisterhood in the face of the unknown, perhaps equivalent to Abram when he was told “Lech Lecha” (go forth) by God in the Book of Genesis. 

May our own country be blessed with a revelation wherein the powers that be correct the wrongs of generations. A dollar must become a dollar, no matter the gender. A marriage is a marriage, no matter the faiths, or even the genders. Flesh can cling to any flesh. Love is love, and loyalty is loyalty. 

May we all be blessed as the protagonists of our own stories, and the redeemers of our own souls. May we find within us the kindness or “chesed” which Ruth showed to Naomi; that which mirrors the covenant between God and the people of Israel that was forged at Mount Sinai. 

Chag Sameach.

Joshua

Strength in “Numbers”

Bamidbar 2014 – The Count : The Oisvorfer Ruv

Every year on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot, which commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, we read parshah Bamidbar. “Bamidbar,” Hebrew for “in the wilderness,” is commonly known to the English-speaking world as The Book of Numbers. The first parshah shares the name of the Book. As we have touched upon before, we currently live in a world rife with numbers in the place of human beings. Is it a coincidence that New York State has a plan to reopen from economic shutdown in 4 phases? The first three Books of Moses are Bereishit, Shemot, and Vayikra. The 4th book? Bamidbar, The Book of Numbers. That is just a bit of synchronicity to chew on for those who are interested in such things.

“‘Take ye the sum of all the congregation of the children of Israel, by their families, by their fathers’ houses, according to the number of names, every male by their polls; from twenty years old and upward, all that are able to go forth to war in Israel’” (Num. 1:2-3). G-d begins Bamidbar by asking Moses to take a census of all men who are of an age that is deemed fit for engagement in warfare. To make matters a bit confusing, the Levites, who are in charge of service to the Sanctuary, are left out of that particular count. Rashi tells us that the Levites are left out of the larger count to serve the Sanctuary. They are the “Divine King’s Legion,” and deserved a different census. With the counting complete, all “military-aged” males totaled 603,550, while all Levites who were at least one month old amounted to 22,300. The Hertz Chumash implies that one of the many possible reasons for the census-taking was simply discipline and organization. As the people of Israel trekked toward Canaan, G-d seemed to want them to appear as a solid unit, not as a disorganized conglomeration of runaway slaves.

As states across our own country begin to reopen, or wrestle with reopening, certain benchmarks and guidelines are being put into place. We hear of death rates, hospitalizations, available beds for the potentially ill, testing, and contact tracing. All of these categories must meet certain standards for New York State in particular to begin its phasing in of economic reopening. In other words, there is a lot of counting going on in order to organize. If we all just ran outside of our homes and out into retail stores, hair salons, and restaurants, the results would likely be dire. We trace and count methodically in order to maintain a semblance of discipline. This is a concept that is right in front of us in this week’s Torah portion. Counting people is nothing new, and we see the old become new again before our eyes. Everyone is given a task and a position in Bamidbar, just as we have “contact tracers” identifying the “position” of the infected and collecting information. Numbers and tracking have always been important.

All of this counting, all of these years in the wilderness, and all of this preparation. Let’s reflect: If G-d was going to reveal the Torah to the people of Israel, why did He wait, and not just give Torah to them immediately upon their exit from bondage in Egypt? Why did G-d not lead the people directly to the Promised Land through Philistine Territory after exiting Egypt? According to the sages, and Rabbi Isaac in particular, perhaps G-d wanted to make sure the people were ready. I would like to share with you a very relevant parable from the Talmud, particularly the Aggadic writings. There was once a king’s son who had just recovered from severe illness. The boy’s tutor asked the king to let the boy go back to school. The king immediately said no, because the boy’s “look of good health has not come back to him.” The king commanded that his son be given proper food and drink for three months, allowing him to fully recover before returning to school. Like the king from this story, G-d knew that His children (of Israel) did not have their “look of good health” back after having been slaving away with clay and bricks in Egypt for so long. He wanted them to be given time to recover in the wilderness and be fed manna and have their thirst quenched for a while before receiving the Torah and eventually marching readily toward Canaan.

What do we take from all of this? Certain factors must “add up” before we act in haste. Today, most schools around the country are closed for the remainder of this school year, and will hopefully not reopen until time has sufficed for our society to recover enough to make a comeback safe and worthwhile. The king from the parable knew not to rush his son back as soon as possible. G-d knew not to thrust the Israelites into Canaan, or give Torah to a people who likely needed time to prepare for such profound responsibility.

The Torah, in all of its beautiful insight, makes sure to list the names of every tribe being counted. Would our current leaders take a different approach to “the numbers” if they were to see families and names attached to them? G-d knew of the importance of humanizing, and our Torah portion takes the time to do so. We can hope and pray that our current leaders are using the numbers well before asking us to return our children to school, our loved ones to work, and those who know not better into the crowded streets of a city or aisles of a shopping mall.

Parshah Bamidbar ends with a phrase related to the breaking down and moving of the Sanctuary. “But they shall not go in to see the holy things as they are being covered, lest they die” (Num. 4:20). “K’valah et ha’kodesh” or “as they are being covered” might translate better to “as the (Sanctuary) is being taken apart.” What of this final verse? Many believed that if people were to see the Sanctuary and all of its pieces being disassembled, they would lose the great admiration that they had for the Sanctuary. During the time of this virus, we seem to have been given a glimpse “behind the curtain,” so to speak. Our leaders appear more prone than ever, and their strengths and weaknesses glaring. As they count and plan, hopefully meticulously, we can look to our Mishkan T’filah once again for a short prayer:

“Grant our leaders wisdom and forbearance.

May they govern with justice and compassion.”

Our lives, and the lives of those we love must be protected as G-d protected our ancestors in the wilderness. The moment of truth is coming. History repeats itself. May we all travel safely in the wilderness–Bamidbar–thinking of our neighbors as our loved ones, and protecting the vulnerable with the spark of Divinity that eternally burns within ourselves. May the Shechinah rest within our midst as it did in the tents of our forebearers.

Shabbat Shalom.

-Joshua

Are We Listening?

What Is Shmita, the Sabbatical Year? | My Jewish Learning

God warns us of the consequences of not listening: “I will appoint terror over you, even consumption and fever, that shall make the eyes to fail, and the soul to languish…” (Lev. 26:16).

This seems harsh, but there are some issues that we desperately need to tackle as human beings and Jews. The Jew has never shied away from challenging discussion, and we certainly will not today. To begin, we have seen massive deforestation for purposes of creating timber, urban development and non-expensive agricultural use. It is thought by many scientists that human movement into wild territory might even have contributed to the spread of many viruses, including our current “consumption and fever,” COVID-19. As animals interact with one another and humans in an unnatural manner, the possibility for the emergence of foreign pathogens goes up. Climate change and the melting of the ice caps linger. The list could go on and on. Are there corners of the earth untouched by humankind’s arrogance? Human beings have stripped the gift of our earth to her very core, and she, being more powerful than we, will take back control. Also, it is estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization that 815 million people worldwide are the victims of food undernourishment. That is approximately one in every ten people, with most of these individuals living in what we refer to as “developed” countries. We see modern slavery in the form of human trafficking, forced labor, and domestic servitude. American wealth inequality is nefarious at best. To put it simply: earth and those that inhabit her are exhausted.

The ancients knew the risk of exhaustion. God himself rested on the seventh day and made it holy. In parshah Behar, we are exposed to the idea of the “Sabbath-year.” God said, “Six years thou shalt sow thy field, and six years thou shalt prune thy vineyard, and gather the produce thereof. But in the seventh year shall be a sabbath of solemn rest for the land” (Lev. 25:3-4). According to Perles of the Hertz Chumash, the freedom of the individual is a fundamental principle of the Torah, as is the freedom of the land from absolute ownership of man. God made it very clear that every seventh year, the land should be used primarily for the feeding of the poor who needed it, and the wild animals who would come across it. This is similar to our prior discussion regarding leaving the corner of the field unharvested, yet, in this case, an entire year should be dedicated to allowing the earth that God has given us to take a break from the strains that human beings put upon her. 

In Leviticus 25:23, God says, “…The land is Mine; for ye are strangers and settlers with Me.” We as human beings, contrary to how many would think and behave in the modern world, do not own the land. We have settled upon the land that has been provided to us by the Divine, and we must respect it, cherish it, and allow it time to reflect, recoup, and re-energize. As we force our way into the wilderness, are we doing so in order to take what we need to sustain us? Are we doing it out of greed? When smog lifts from a city after 7 weeks of semi-isolation to reveal a blue sky previously veiled, we know that the earth is feeling the negative impact of our presence. We pour salt in her wounds, and she is upset. We must listen.

We must remember the Sabbath-year. How can we be a partner in giving the earth a respite? What can we do? Perhaps we can be more mindful of where our food is coming from. We can reduce our emissions, and truly commit to protecting the land God created. Remember, the Torah begins with: “Bereshit bara Elohim et hashamayim v’et ha’aretz” In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. This earth that God created must be respected and protected. It is written that Flavius Josephus said of the Jewish people, “As for us we do not delight in merchandise, but having a fruitful country for our habitation…” (c. Apion. I. 12). We have been given all of the ingredients to survive and thrive here on earth…have we misused and abused this privilege for material gain? Why, with all of our technology and widespread overdevelopment, are 815 million people hungry in this world? Something is not right. 

We live in a country where the 400 wealthiest Americans own more of the country’s bounty than the 150 million Americans who represent the bottom 60 percent of the wealth distribution. Believe it or not, the Torah provides specific safeguards against exactly this. Enter the “jubilee year.” To put it concisely, God commanded that every fifty years, or after 7 cycles of Sabbath-years, all slaves would be freed along with their families, and property would return to its owner of origin. While some particular caveats existed, the jubilee year was meant to serve as a safeguard against crippling generational poverty, and to prevent the majority of properties from being monopolized by the hands of an elite few. The Talmud tells us very simply, “Wealth in abundance–bad; in moderation–good” (B. Git 70a), or “The more you get, the more you fret” (Avot. 2:7). Does this sound all too familiar? Too few seem to have too much, while most have too little. While human trafficking and egregious forms of slavery still exist in this country–what of the single parent working paycheck-to-paycheck who is underinsured, underpaid, and overworked? Is this not a form of slavery as well? 

To be Jewish is to understand that we are to work with the precious earth we have been given, not against her wishes. We must find a way to provide the earth with something akin to a Sabbath-year again, even in our own micro fashion. We must also look to our neighbors and how we are treating them. Even the slave of the Torah was treated with more respect and dignity than some of our modern workers. In God’s eyes, we are all “…servants, whom I brought forth out of the land of Egypt” (Lev. 25:42). We do not own the earth or her people. Hunger must cease, the earth must rejuvenate, the wealth be distributed, and the modern slave be freed.

As we are currently forced to give the earth her Sabbath, we must reflect upon these challenges in order to improve. What we were doing before was not working–has God responded? How will we answer? As our Mishkan T’Filah says:

This is the hour of change, and within it,

we stand quietly

on the border of light.

What lies before us?

Shall we draw back, my brother, my sister,

or cross over?

Shalom,

-Joshua

Souls, Not Data

Jews Mourning in a Synagogue', Sir William Rothenstein, 1906 | Tate

“Our thoughts turn to those who have departed this earth: our own loved ones, those whom our friends and neighbors have lost, the martyrs of our people whose graves are unmarked, and those of every race and nation whose lives have been a blessing to humanity. As we remember them, we meditate on the meaning of love and loss, of life and death” (Mishkan T’Filah). 

It is impossible to be alert and alive every single day and not hear about death. We hear about death on our television screens, and we read about it on whatever news websites we choose to consume our onslaught of information from. We hear stories of those we know who have lost loved ones, neighbors, and friends. Perhaps we have lost someone, or a multitude of people. We are all experiencing death as a society in a way that is difficult to compare to anything else (at least in my lifetime). There are those who have lived through the horrors of war, and recall death counts on nightly news stations, and this is apparently reminiscent. Talk of death permeates our current air and airwaves. 

It is now that I believe we have run into the problem of data. We hear and read about numbers. Mortality rate, case fatality rate, rate of infection, active cases, recovered cases, hospitalized in critical condition, simply hospitalized. As of this moment, some experts have projected 3,000 deaths a day by June, and a total of over 230,000 deaths by the end of August. These are horrific numbers. What is even more horrific? The prospect that we become completely desensitized, and the numbers become just that—numbers.

Every single case, every recovery, every fight for life and breath, and every loss is a human soul. We are not losing numbers–we are losing mothers, daughters, fathers, sons, cousins, friends, neighbors. It is vital that we not let go our sense of humanity in the midst of the latest day’s numbers, projections, or models. We can maintain our own sense of well-being without forgetting the uniqueness and singularity of every life that is lost to this pandemic. Judaism teaches us to value life, and is seemingly much more focused on life than on its varied views of death. Deuteronomy 6:2 promises that if one keeps the commandments and the statutes, “…that thy days may be prolonged.” Deuteronomy 5:30 tells us that, “Ye shall walk in all the way which the Lord your God hath commanded you, that ye may live, and that it may be well with you, and that ye may prolong your days in the land which ye shall possess.” What do we gather from these verses? It seems that from a Jewish perspective, our reward for living well is in the here and now, not in the promise of an unknown afterlife. To put it simply–We want to live. 

Inevitably, our time does come, and sometimes it comes in an abrupt manner. We see that right now with much ferocity in the face of COVID-19. As we experience, either directly, or vicariously, so much suffering and death, it might be comforting to remember that while Judaism focuses much on life, it is likely due to the fact that we can never truly be departed, and the legacy that we leave here lasts forever. This is reminiscent of the moment of Jacob’s death in Genesis. Knowing that he is living his last moments, Jacob blesses his sons and says, “I am to be gathered unto my people; bury me with my fathers…” (Gen. 49:29). During Jacob’s last moments, he speaks of being with Abraham, Sara, Isaac, Rebekah, and Leah. WIll Jacob see his ancestors in some sort of afterlife, or is he only giving explicit directions regarding his literal location of burial?  According to Ecclesiastes 12:7, “The dust returns to the earth, where it once was, and the soul returns to God who gave it.” Remember Genesis, which tells us that man was born of “ha’adamah,” which is literally “earth” or “dust.” Perhaps we return to the place from whence we came to be with those who came before us. Perhaps we are not sure. What we do know is that we remain a part of those who come after us. The soul of every person is unique and beautifully important. Perhaps this is another aspect of what made the Holocaust so egregious. Numbering the arms of the Jew, who is anything but able to be categorized numerically is contrary to reason. The treasure of life is one that is passed down, living and breathing in every moment that comes next. 

It is important that we mourn these earthy losses, as perhaps even God does. According to the Talmud, and Rabbi Joshua ben Levi in particular, The Holy One summoned an angel and asked of them, “When a king of flesh and blood loses a dear one and he wishes to mourn, what is customary for him to do?” After telling God that “He hangs a sackcloth over his door,” God agreed to do the same: “I clothe the heavens with blackness, and I make a sackcloth their covering” (Isa. 50:3). We are all kings of queens of our own flesh, and it seems as if this verse could apply to any person. Maybe, right now, the heavens are clothed with a blackness, and we are a group of souls who are mourning with God, not in spite of Him. 

Most of us know of the Mourner’s Kaddish, which, according to the Shulchan Aruch, is to be recited for 11 months after the death of a parent, and 30 days for a spouse, child, or sibling. If one looks at the English translation of the Kaddish, you find nothing about grieving or death. We find the exaltation and praise of God’s name instead. It is considered a great deed to recite the Kaddish for one who has passed on. By saying these words, we are conveying a trust in God’s greatness, and His ability to do what is good. We honor those who have passed by honoring God, and realizing that, perhaps, we are all part of the Divine. Again, we focus on life and legacy, living a life in a present and future that is represented and flavored by the deeds of the past and those who have gone before us. We light candles on deceased loved one’s yahrzeits, and take part in yizkor ceremonies. If someone is truly gone, why do we honor them? It seems that we honor them because they are never truly gone. I was once in a synagogue with a non-Jewish visitor. After seeing the numerous Yahrzeit plaques encompassing the sanctuary, they asked me, “is Judaism very focused on death?” They seemed to feel as if the whole thing was a bit morbid. I mentioned the joy in remembering, and explained what had been told to me by a rabbi: Remembering who they were keeps them alive and a part of who we are. In Judaism, death seems to be only a continuation of the celebration of life. So, yes, Judaism is focused on some aspects that surround death such as burial location, and the reciting of the Mourner’s Kaddish, and the Yahrzeit plaque. What Judaism is not focused on is death as finality. Judaism is to live on always, and that is more powerful than any virus or even death itself. 

As we continue to read the papers, listen to the news, and learn of the inevitable death that is to come, it is important to remind ourselves that it is okay to mourn. God is not distant because we are grieving, but likely grieving alongside us as we all experience a difficult time on this earthly plane of existence. It is more important than ever to live Jewishly in our deeds and actions, and not to become a victim to the numbers game. Death can be viewed as a continuation of life, and is certainly treated that way in Judaism. Every action we take, every moment we have with those around us, molds us into who we are, which becomes who we were, and finally, who they are. 

To those who have gone before us, due to COVID-19, or for any other reason, we say–

”Zichronam liv’rachah.” May their memories be for blessing.

Shalom

-Joshua

Save a Corner

On One Foot - Jewish Stories

This week’s parshah, Kedoshim, is possibly one of the most significant in the Torah. Not only does this parshah signify the middle section of the Book of Leviticus, but it is also considered by some to be the “heart” of the entire Torah, Pentateuch, or Five Books of Moses. In this parshah, we are reminded of the ever-so-important commandment, “thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself” (Lev. 19:18). There is a famous Talmudic story that tells of the great Rabbi Hillel conversing with a potential convert. The intended-convert approached Rabbi Hillel and said, “Teach me the whole Torah while I stand only on one foot.” Rabbi Hillel responded quickly, “That which you despise, do not do unto your neighbor. This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary. Now go and learn.” While Rabbi Hillel was not undermining the value of the vast remainder of the Torah not mentioned, this reductionist comment seemed to be driving home the fact that the essence of Judaism is the ability to relate to other human beings in a positive way, full of good will. If we cannot treat our fellow human beings with respect, we are not setting ourselves up for spiritual success in any fashion. 

Of particular interest in parshah Kedoshim is the consideration for the poor. In Leviticus 19:9-10, we read: “And when ye reap the harvest of your land, thou shalt not wholly reap the corner of thy field, neither shalt thou gather the gleaning of thy harvest…thou shalt leave them for the poor and for the stranger.” The Torah tells us that when we are gathering our bounty, we should refrain from stockpiling crops from a corner of our field. We are also encouraged not to pick up the gleaning, or fallen crops, from the ground. 

Even the gathering of our food is a task which contains holiness. “kadosh” is holy, and “kedoshim,” the name of the parshah, roughly translates to “holy ones.” Let’s run with that translation.

We can be “kedoshim” by always leaving a little for someone who needs a bit more than we do. The challenge is certainly not always in the giving, but it is in the giving for the sake of giving, and not for the receiving of any attention. How can we truly aspire to altruism? Notice how the Torah asks us not reap a “corner” of the field. This “corner” is different from the “center” of the field, in that it allows for privacy. We should perhaps feel compelled to give without causing undue embarrassment or shame to one who is in need. There is a story of Rabbi Yannai who once saw a man giving a shekel to a poor man. This giving was done in the presence of a large group of people. Rabbi Yannai approached the man who gave, and said: “It would have been better not to have given it to him than to have given it and put him to shame” (B. Hag. 5b). The Talmud also asks us “Which kind of charity saves a man from death? Charity given without knowing to whom it is given…” (B. BB 10a). It seems we should aspire to charity for the sake of holiness, not for the sake of the public square’s affirmation. 

What “gleanings” can we leave behind for those who need it? When we think of “helping the poor,” money is often the first thing that comes to mind. But, are there other ways to give? How can we part with some of the “gleanings” in our lives? In other words, what do we have enough of, that were it to fall from our possession, we could still survive and thrive? Yes, we can give money to the poor if we are in a financial place to do so. But, we can also give some of ourselves in a myriad of ways. Especially in these trying times, a little means a tremendous amount. When we feel as if we have even a modicum of kindness to spare, we can share it. What of a phone call to a friend or family member with whom we have fallen out of contact? How about a nice card or even a kind email to someone whose spirits seem low? Kadosh is in gesture and the intention. Holiness is the smile that alters an entire day. Kadosh is leaving a care package (while socially distancing) on the doorstep of a friend. As our own Mishkan T’Filah Tell us, “entrances to holiness are everywhere.” If our eyes are open, they certainly are. 

Rabbi Hillel has made it clear that the Torah, in all of its beautiful verses and analyzed texts, can be summarized as the way to learning to treat others with kindness, dignity, and respect. Would you want it done to you? If not, then do not do it to someone else. Sir Moses Montefiore, the famous Jewish-English public welfare devotee, said that from the Jewish perspective, the person who gives to the beggar should thank the beggar for the opportunity that has been given him to give. What kind of world would we live in if we all strived to comprehend this unique perspective? Perhaps a world free from selfishness, harshness, and cruelty. One day, when we ourselves are in need, we need not announce our temporary plight in the center of someone else’s field, but simply take from the corner, as we will do for our fellow human beings again when we are able.

I wish to leave you today with a few questions. Do you reap your entire field, leaving not a corner of it unharvested? What areas of your life can you afford to give a bit of yourself without expecting to receive any recognition or attention? If we are to live Jewishly, it seems that we must look at the self-satisfaction gained from giving as we would an idol. “Turn ye not unto the idols…” (Lev. 19:4). “Idols” in this case would literally mean non-entities, or things that do not exist. Pay no mind to the idea of rewards gained from kindness. Leaving a corner of our field, and that which has fallen, or the glean, for others, is the very essence of treating others with kindness, dignity, and respect. The way to “kedusha,” or holiness, is in the manner in which we treat our fellow human beings: the wealthy, the poor, the neighbor, the stranger. 

We have a responsibility: “Ye shall be holy; for I the Lord your God am holy.” (Lev. 19:2). Remember those entrances to holiness as existing in all things. May we all be blessed to leave the corners of the fields of our souls rich with the bounty of a life lived in search of the holiness that is intrinsic in all things. 

Shabbat Shalom.

-Joshua

A “Clean” Soul

8 Lepers in the Bible (and Midrash) - What Do You Think? - Parshah

This week, we delve into two parahshot that are mostly famous for their dealings with the condition known as “leprosy.” The Torah describes a very specific protocol for how to identify, treat, quarantine, and eventually purify someone who has been afflicted with “tzaraat.” Leviticus chapter 13, verse 2 says, “When a man shall have in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it become in the skin of his flesh the plague of leprosy, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or unto one of his sons the priests.” There is certainly a great deal to unpack regarding the attention given to “tzaraat” in the Torah, and how we, as moderns, can consume and digest this ancient information in a meaningful way. 

When reading through the Torah’s chapters on “tzaraat,” one could take all of the information and prescriptions quite literally. A person afflicted with “tzaraat” was considered physically impure and was thus barred from entering the Sanctuary. In fact, someone who was affected was largely considered dead to the people of Israel until they were deemed to be cured. Talmudic Rabbi Yohanan even once said that a person should be forbidden to walk four cubits to the east of a leper. Rabbi Yohanan’s colleague Rabbi Simeon, not to be outdone, said that one should not walk even one hundred cubits east of a leper. It turns out that both were in agreement, but Rabbi Yohanan was referring to a time when the wind was not blowing. It seems that the Torah and the scholars of the Talmud were in agreement that something was quite amiss when “tzaraat” had been inflicted upon an individual. 

There are some issues to explore before we move any further. What was once called leprosy is a diagnosable medical condition called Hansen’s Disease, and it is actually quite difficult to transfer from one person to another. The CDC makes it clear that Hansen’s Disease transmission from person-to-person requires prolonged exposure to an infected person over many months, and many of the signs and symptoms are not quite consistent with what is described in the Torah. The word “tzaraat” that is so often translated to mean “leprosy,” is a questionable translation that likely has its roots in the Septuagint, or “Greek Old Testament.” When being translated into Greek, ‘tzaraat” was replaced with the Greek word for “scaly,” which is “lepra.” Talk about an affliction that was likely lost in translation.

So, what to make of “tzaraat” in the Torah? I am inclined to agree with 19th century German Rabbi, Samson Raphael Hirsh. According to Rabbi Hirsh, the scripture only mentions treatment of “tzaraat” by kohanim, or priests, and no medical experts or healers are mentioned at all. So… 

Perhaps “tzaraat” should be examined as a physical manifestation of a malady of the soul. 

According to the tradition of the Rabbis, a person who has been infected with “tzaraat” is known as a “metzora.” This word, “metzora,” is a Hebrew contraction of the words “motzi” and “ra,” and translates to “a person who spreads slander.” Hertz’s commentary mentions how the Rabbis actually referred to “tzaraat” as a punishment for tale bearing or slander. Essentially, a person who talks about others, spreads falsehoods, and does damage by lying and deceiving, should be removed from the people of Israel. When we are talking about ailments of the soul and spirit, kohanim, or priests, being the primary caretakers begins to make sense. “When the plague of leprosy is in a man, then he shall be brought unto the priest” (Lev. 13:9). Notice how the plague is in a man, and not on a man. Interesting wording for a skin disease, no?

We do damage to ourselves and others when we act as a “metzora.” The Torah talks of raw flesh rising, boils, and white spots of infection. Physical manifestations of what our soul might go through when we slander others, or act selfishly. We all know people who we deem to be “toxic.” we can have toxic friends, toxic family members, and toxic co-workers. Intimate relationships, and even marriages can become what we refer to as toxic. Do we imply that the relationship is literally poisonous? Of course not. When we are involved in toxic situations or with toxic people, it leaves us feeling drained, stressed, anxious, and even sick. People who act in a toxic way tend to bring those around them down as well, and the contagiousness of their toxic behavior can sometimes only be avoided by creating distance. Sometimes we must quarantine ourselves emotionally and spiritually from the toxic person or situation. This is not a COVID-19 type of quarantine, but one of the soul. As Jews, we make up only about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Our communities are often small, and it is easy for a toxicity of behavior to disrupt the well-being of an entire community. The Torah makes it clear that the plague can infect ourselves, our homes, even our garments. No area of our life is untouched by one who acts with toxic intentions. “This is the law of the plague of leprosy…” (Lev. 13:59). “The law,” referring to the prescription of how to remove “uncleanliness” from the people of Israel.

It is important that we look at not only who we choose to surround ourselves with, what relationships to nurture, and what situations to attend to–but also that we look inward and reflect upon our own behaviors. How can we lift people up instead of putting them down? Are there any toxic behaviors or tendencies that we can work on rectifying? Is my soul bogged down with “tzaraat?” The next time we act, perhaps we should envision that the intentions of our actions will manifest themselves on our skin. What kind of beauty or boil would my actions create on my outer-self? If our answer does not satisfy, perhaps it is time to isolate and destroy the toxic “tzaraat” in our souls. And then, “…after that may [we] come into the camp” (Lev. 14:8) and rejoin our people, who need us to have a clear mind with good intentions. 

May we all be blessed to “clean” up our own toxicity, and to remove the “tzaraat” from our daily lives. We, as Jews, must always be looking to improve and lift up the world and those who inhabit it. 

Shalom.

-Joshua

For Yom HaShoah

7 Ideas for Observing Yom HaShoah from Home | ReformJudaism.org

As we observe Yom HaShoah, or Holocaust Remembrance Day on a yearly basis, we are told the stories of death and the stories of survivial in the midst of the most tangible evil imaginable. The 6 million Jews who were murdered, and also the millions of others killed, can never be forgotten, lest we allow this evil to rear its head once again on this earth. As famous survivor and eventual “Nazi hunter” Simon Wiesenthal once said, “For evil to flourish, it only requires that good men do nothing.” I would alter that to say “good people.” In the Talmud, Rabbi Assi said: “At first the impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer, but in the end it is as thick as a cart rope” (B. Suk 52a).

What do we make of Rabbi Assi’s words? Let’s examine for a moment. The gut-wrenching scenes of death, murder, and genocide that were left in the wake of Nazi Germany’s “Final Solution” did not happen overnight. The seeds of all hatred and evil are sown and take time to grow. They need to be nourished, watered, and given sunlight in order to blossom into the full-fledged and realized nightmare that was the Holocaust. “At first the impulse to evil is as thin as a spider’s gossamer…” The evil impulses that sparked the Shoah or any other hate-filled evil campaign likely began as what one might call a series of microaggressions. A microaggression can be something as seemingly miniscule as a dirty look or an off-color comment. “They are all like that, or, “Those people all do that.” Have we ever seen someone cross the street to avoid even passing by someone who was perceived as different? An eye roll, a rude sigh, the feeding of a stereotype–all of these microaggressions are the ammunition that can ultimately culminate in actualized shots fired.

We must ask the question–How do people get to a place where others are perceived as somehow less than human, or how does the spider’s gossamer become as thick as a cart rope, as Rabbi Assi would say? Psychology tells us that the group that is being dehumanized is first categorized, not as human at all, but as beast or sub-human. The Nazis were well-known for propaganda that crudely depicted Jews as rats and parasites. The categorization, along with vivid imagery and metaphor are meant to evoke an emotional reaction from the dominant group. If a rat is perceived as dirty and needing to be exterminated in someone’s mind, how does one convince them to feel the same way about a Jewish person? The Jew is described, depicted, and compared to something less-than-human, and becomes, over time, in the mind of those who are being fed the information, less than human. The screams of a Jew exiting a train at Auschwitz, or being ripped from their homes and families, become nothing more than the equivalent of the squeals of a rat caught in a trap.

This process is systematic and sneaky. This is why a microaggression is never “just a comment,” or “just an isolated incident.” There is not “just,” and there never can be, if we wish to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust from ever happening to the Jews, or any other marginalized group, ever again. We must cut the gossamer long before it ever becomes a cart rope.

We know that we must remain vigilant, remember, and continue to teach the horrors of the Holocaust to future generations. But, what about G-d? Perhaps we have heard people question the existence of G-d altogether based upon the Shoah. “How could G-d let this happen?” or, “If G-d exists, wouldn’t He have stopped such horrific things from occurring?” While these questions are large, and perhaps mostly unanswerable, it does not mean we should avoid broaching them. Remember, “Israel” quite literally means to wrestle with G-d. Jews do not have to be wary of questioning. Rabbi Nahman of the Talmud brings up an interesting scriptural insight into man’s capacity for evil. In reference to Genesis 2:17, Rabbi Nahman points out how the Hebrew word “Va-yitzer” is spelled with two yods. “Va-yitzer” translates to “He formed man.” Why are the two yods in the word? Rabbi Nahman attributes this spelling to the fact that G-d created two “yetzers,” or “impulses” in man. One impulse was created to good, and the other to evil (B. Ber 61a). The good impulse is referred to as “yetzer hatov,” and the evil as “yetzer hara.” The Talmud tells us that the evil yetzer hara can be reined in completely by yetzer hatov.

What can we take from this? Good can overcome evil, and the light of our deeds and mitzvot will outlast the darkness of evil. We can garner evidence of the ability of good to overcome evil directly in the Torah. In Genesis 8:21 G-d says: “…for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth.” If evil is the original dominant impulse of man, how does there exist so much good in the world? How could Anne Frank write in her famous diary at such a tender age that, “Despite everything, I believe people are really good at heart.” Perhaps it is because G-d is in Anne’s diary. Even as Anne and her loved ones faced unimaginable hardship and death, Anne saw the overwhelming and unflappable goodness of G-d in humankind. G-d is in even what seems like the smallest act of tzedakah, or the seemingly flash in the pan mitzvah. If a microaggression is the seed of the flower of terrible evil, then the smallest act of good is the seed of an entire tree of kindness, good, and righteousness.

We see the good among evil in our world right now. How many beautiful acts of kindness do we see in response to the current and brutally unforgiving pandemic? We hear stories of selfless heroism in the form of “essential work.” When hope appears hard to come by, it does seem as if people really are good at heart. Yes, the yetzer hara exists, and it is our job to make sure that yetzer hatov addresses evil impulses and then exiles them into oblivion. It is our job to do good. The Mishkan T’Filah says “Pray as if everything depended on G-d. Act as if everything depended on you.”

The presence of evil in the world does not imply that G-d does not exist, it proves that we still have work to do.

We must “overreact” to words, actions, and hints of hatred and evil. We must cut the rope of evil while it is in its gossamer-like infancy, never letting it reach the actualization of a sturdy rope. The snowball of hate is like a thief in the night, so we must keep the lights on at all times, remembering that evil has happened, but G-d has given us all the blessing of preventing it from ever happening again. We are armed with knowledge, tradition, and awareness. We must never forget the 6 million Jews of the Shoah. Their memories are even more than for a blessing, but also an impulse to do good now and in the future–the breath of yetzer hatov.

I would like to close with the prayer El Malei Rachamim (God Full of Compassion)

Fully compassionate God on high:

To our six million brothers and sisters

murdered because they were Jews,

grant clear and certain rest with You

in the lofty heights of the sacred and pure

whose brightness shines like the very glow of heaven.

Source of mercy:

Forever enfold them in the embrace of Your wings;

secure their souls in eternity.

Adonai: they are Yours.

They will rest in peace.

Amen.

Joshua

Please Take Off Your Shoes

Printable Please Take Off Your Shoes Sign – Free Printable Signs

I think it is safe to say that we are all currently worried, if not preoccupied, about germs, viruses and bacteria. We live amidst constant reminders that the world is not safe, and that we are in danger. There is a new hand-written sign outside of my house directly adjacent to our mezuzah that says, “Please take off your shoes.” Oh, how we have always blamed those shoes for tracking in a myriad of creepy crawly microscopic bacteria. If science tells us anything, taking our shoes off before entering a home is certainly an idea based in sound logic. With a newborn safely inside, and Covid-19 rampaging outside, taking off our shoes seems like the least that can be done in my own home. After some consideration, I have realized that this sign, which was constructed by my wife, could also be interpreted as something rooted in the Divine. 

I am proposing that we all take off our shoes–but perhaps not only to reduce the spread of germs and bacteria. Remember that G-d said to Moses: “…put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground” (Exodus 3:5). While it might be easy to continue reading the Torah, and sort of ruffle through that whole bit about footwear, a closer look is certainly required. I was reading through the Book of Joshua a night or two ago, and this whole shoe (or sandal) issue came up again. “The captain of the Lord’s host answered Joshua, ‘Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy” (Joshua 5:15). While there are many commentaries and interpretations regarding why G-d asked this of two of the most famous prophets, Martin Buber gives a simple and beautiful explanation. In Buber’s “Ten Rungs,” he tells us that G-d has commanded Moses to take off his shoes due to the fact that there exists no rung of being on which we cannot find the holiness of G-d everywhere and at all times. 

G-d is not only everywhere, but always there. While we are confined in our homes, G-d is there as much as G-d is in our synagogues or with us as we travel. G-d is there. I remember eight-plus hour days at work–wearing shoes from the early morning until late in the evening. My feet would be tired and suffocated, seemingly longing for the glorious freedom of the floor. Since we are all better off being home now, it might be the best time to “take off our shoes,” if even in a spiritual way. In Bereishit we are told, “Vayitzer Adonai Elohim et ha’adam, afar min ha’adamah” or, “And the Lord G-d created man, of the dust from the earth” (Genesis 2:7). Since we have come from dust, perhaps we should embrace some of it with our own feet. Do we not put shoes, or barriers, between ourselves and G-d all the time? 

I know that I am guilty of this myself. I have a beautiful newborn baby, but do I ever miss a moment when her incredible blue eyes are open to read the latest news about the spread of Covid-19? I am sure I do. How can we live in this moment without shoes? We use them to complete an outfit, to make us taller, to give us status. Now is the time we are permitted to let those pressures fade away. While we are all required to be barefoot, should we not take some time to really feel our feet on the ground? The hustle and bustle of our routine lives requires us to wear many pairs of shoes. Now, we can take time to wiggle our toes in the sand of our spirits, and find something holy in everything. Happiness, which is such a packed term, can perhaps be located within what we view as the minutiae or humdrum of our own homes. Martin Buber said that, “Happiness settles the spirit, but sorrow drives it into exile.” Sorrow is around us, and the challenge is to find G-d, holiness and happiness in an uncomfortable and new setting that is void of footwear. 

If we are having trouble finding beauty and the Divine in our homes, it is perhaps helpful to recall that G-d did not first appear and speak to Moses as some majestic gesture in the sky, but in the form of a simple bush that was burning unconsumed. How many bushes on the ground do we miss while always looking up and searching for glorious redwoods? Our tradition tells of Rabbi Joshua ben Korhah, who replied to a question regarding why G-d chose a bush instead of a grander sort of tree to communicate with Moses. Rabbi ben Korhah replied that no matter what kind of tree, be it a sycamore or a carob tree, the same question would still have been asked. He said that G-d used the bush to show us that no place on earth, even a bush, is devoid of G-d’s presence. (Exod. R. 2:5). Perhaps we can take the time to notice the bushes a bit more as we walk barefoot for the foreseeable future.

As my family got home from a quick drive around town (we stayed in the car, I promise), I took off my shoes before entering the house as the sign commanded me. I was holding my large five-year-old boy, and it would have been easy to wince and complain, but I decided to root myself in bushes and bare feet. How blessed am I that my son still wants me to hold him? After the world became quiet with sleep, my newborn daughter and I were left awake. I found myself smiling, and putting my hands upon her, her big blue eyes wide open, saying these words that I wish to share with you today as well:

Y’varech’cha Adonai v’yishm’recha.

Ya-eir Adonai panav eilecha vichuneka.

Yisa Adonai panav eilecha

V’yaseim l’cha shalom.

May G-d bless you and keep you.

May G-d’s light shine upon you, and may G-d be gracious to you.

May you feel G-d’s presence within you always, and may you find peace.

She quickly stared at me and burped. I laughed, felt my bare feet on the floor, sensed the happiness Buber described, and attended to this bush-like moment. 

May you all be blessed to feel the ground beneath your feet, and to feel the presence of the Divine in your own homes as we inhabit them more often than we usually do. If you begin to feel overwhelmed with fear, or out of touch with that which grounds you in joy and happiness, Remember that you can always rely on a seemingly simple act rooted in the Divine. Please take off your shoes–for you are standing on holy ground. Always.

Shalom.

Joshua