Saturday, May 23, 2009

When Numbers Count

"Its only a number".... as I move on in years I appreciate when people say that about age. And yet that implies that numbers, in themselves, are not quite real.

Yet we are living in a season where numbers are very real and indeed consequential. The book of the Torah we began last Shabbat is titled by our sages Chomesh Hapekudim, The Book of Numbers. After reading the opening Parsha we would have little question as to why. At the close of this week we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, a Yom Tov that does not arrive on the bases of a date on the calendar, but rather after the counting of the 49 days of the Omer.

We may debate how much numbers matter, but the act of numbering surely does.

It should not really surprise us. After all anyone who has worked on a personal issue can surely resonate with the importance of numbering. When we are trying to lose weight who has not counted the days they have been faithful to their diet, not to mention counting the pounds or kilos lost. If one goes to a meeting of those who have struggled with an addiction one hears with pride the recovering alcoholic, gambler or over-eater claim his/her days months and years in recovery. Counting is an important ingredient to succesfully making transitions to new behaviors. In counting we give measure to our success and use the measured sucess to propel us further in becoming who we need to become and doing what we need to do.

It is intriguing to note that in the counting to the chag of Shavuot we do not count down from 49 to 1 as we might imagine, since we are counting to the goal of the holiday and the giving of the Torah. We count from the offering of the Omer. What are we actually numbering?

The answer is that we, like those in recovery and those trying to lose weight, are counting our faithfulness to a new way of life. Having left Egypt we also left a lifestyle embedded in impurity. We embraced a commitment to kedusha. As a nation we resolved to serve Hashem.

Each day after the Exodus, we renewed our resolve and deepened it so that after 49 days we were worthy of receiving the Torah and as it were, becoming betrothed to the Divine.

Its not that we are counting to Shavuot. On the contrary Shavuot happened only after we achieved a certain level of national recovery, or what we might better call national teshuva, as reflected in the days of the count. Shavuot was not the goal of the count but rather its result. When the people of Israel had become who they needed to be through both effort and time they became worthy of the Torah and the special status as the goy kadosh, the holy nation of G-d.

That is why the counting is tied to the bringing of the Omer rather than the Exodus. Counting from the Exodus would seem to be counting from that which we had escaped. While escaping the impurities of Egypt is significant, recovery is not simply about counting the days from when you last acted-out.

Rather we count from the omer offering, an offering of the earliest grains to be harvested, the barley, as a gift to G-d. We can relate to that symbolically as we the people of Israel are called raishit tevuato, the first grains of the Divine, and now we devote ourselves to His service.

We count from the bringing of the Omer because that is the symbol that best epitomizes the work for us during this period of numbering, a work that each year leads to once again renewing our covenant with Hashem and Hashem once again giving us His Torah.

Counting can be helpful to us to shore up our personal resolve. We might help ourselves to watch what we say if we counted the days that we did not speak loshon hara. We might enhance our prayers if we counted the tefilot we said with kavana. We might better sustain our resolve to do chesed if we kept a count of the acts of kindness we did each day.

In counting we both bless our accomplishments and hold ourselves accountable. We have a way to measure who we are and what we have done.
When a number stand alone indeed "it is only a number". But when it reflects a work and a resolve numbers can bring us to the foot of Mt Sinai.

What do we need to start counting to sustain our resolve to better serve Hashem and His children? That's a good question to ponder as we await the chag which depends on the count.

Chag Samayach Shabbat Shalom

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Voices in the Wilderness

This week we begin a new book of the Torah. The opening pasuk says "And Hashem spoke to Moshe in the wilderness (midbar) of Sinai saying..." Its more than interesting that the Torah refers to the place from which G-d revealed Himself to Moshe. A number of the sages point out the irony that on leaving Egypt a year earlier the Israelites said at the sea " why did you take us out to die in the wilderness", as if the wilderness was only a place for death and destruction. Now the very wilderness that they saw as only a place for their demise turns out to be the source point for the great gift of Divine inspiration.

There is a wonderful Medrash that follows up on this point. By analogy it shows the midbar, wilderness connection we have with Hashem was no accident. The medrash tells of a prince who wanted to come visit his subjects. He went from one settlement to another and everywhere he went the people fled from him. Finally he visited a place devastated and in ruin. There everyone came out to greet him. The prince said "if that is the case here I will build my home, here I will make my capital, from here I will rule my land."

While a nice story, we might well ask why did the people of the inhabited cities flee the Prince?And why would those settled in the ruins come to greet him? And what connection does the analogy have to explain the presence of the Divine in the wilderness as we find in the parsha of this week.

The answer I believe is quite simple. When the prince went to visit the cities of settlement no one wanted to have their lives interrupted. They liked their existence and did not want anything changed. They feared his arrival would bring about upheaval in their lives. They preferred not to see him so as to avoid having to alter the lifestyle they knew.

But in the devastated city the life of the inhabitants was in shambles. They hungered for change and hoped for a new tomorrow. They welcomed the intervention of the Prince whose presence offered hope that they might yet find a new beginning.

Indeed the story aptly fits the reading of this week. Hashem comes to us in the wilderness of our lives. When all is going well, when we feel settled and secure we often really don't want to see Him. We don't want any new directions or challenges to disturb the peace we have made with our existence. We prefer to avoid the intimacy with the Divine for fear the truth that will be revealed to us will require us to do a make-over we have no desire for.

But when we feel ourselves in the midbar, when we feel our lives are in disarray, when we feel we have lost our bearing and know not where to go or who to be, then then we yearn for Hashem, then we seek Him and welcome His presence, then we are open to an encounter with the Divine as a source of hope that we may yet rebuild.

That is why, like the Prince in our story, Hashem makes the wilderness, the place of devastation his home. From the midbar of our lives we are far more likely to hear His call then from the times in our lives when we feel settled. In fact settledness causes us, whether we acknowledge it or not, to flee the true intimacy with Hashem. We don't want to have to change. But the times of upheaval, when we feel most empty and in ruins, in those times we yearn for Hashem and will make any change to foster hope and salvation. Those times Hashem feels wanted. And in those times he makes a home with us who yearn to receive Him.

The midbar of our lives, while so painful and difficult hold a potential for spiritual transformation as no other time. Are you in a midbar now? Will you be in a midbar soon. When next you are there listen for the voice of Hashem. For indeed it is from there that He will speak to you. And more importantly from there you will have have the heart to hear Him.

Chag Samayach on Yom Yerushalayim! Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

A Time of Miracles

I recall as a boy going one weekday morning to minyan with my dad. We lived in a Long Island suburb then, where there were few observant Jews.Minyan had a limited attendance and every person counted. Prior to the davening beginning my father bent over and whispered to me, "See that man over there...He is a baal t'shuva" saying it as if he was showing me a rare and precious find.

Indeed he was. That was in the mid-fifties. Jews seemed to be quickly disappearing. Any Jew who observed was no doubt an FFB (frum from birth) and even they, all too often, were sadly surrendering the observance of their family of origin for the promise of the American dream.

Baal T'shuva was something found in the pages of the Talmud not a living breathing human being. It was startling to think then that someone actually gave up the investment in the American dream for a commitment to Torah lifestyle.

My how times have changed, thank G-d. The renaissance of the Jewish spirit has been as remarkable as it has been unpredictable. An uncle of mine, a prominent Conservative rabbi, made the prediction with a gloat to my father that in fifty years there won't be any Orthodox Jews in America. That was in 1955. Fifty years later, v'nahapoch hu, the opposite is true. Its the liberal branches of Judaism that are on the ropes and facing extinction. And BTs are every bit as common, and in some circles more common than FFBs. Who would have guessed.

I thought about this as I looked at the parsha, or to be more exact, the second parsha we read this week. In it we find the tochacha, the admonition given by Hashem to Israel of the consequences of there choice to either follow the Torah and keep the mizvot or G-d forbid, stray.

If one looks at the horrific punishments in store for Israel should they fail to keep the Torah and mitzvot, he should not make the mistake of thinking that G-d is simply getting even with us. On the contrary G-d loves us even when we fail Him. Over and over in the reading G-d says " if you continue to stray and distance yourself from me then I will add to your punishments..." clearly indicating that the punishments in the first place were brought on Israel to foster their return to Hashem.

And perhaps it has been true, that when things were bad for us as a people we sought G-d and looked for His deliverance. After all isn't it that way in our individual lives. When things are good we are often casual about G-d and lax in observance. When things go awry, like when someone we love is sick or in need, or when we find our situation desperate, our prayers become passionate and we practice the mitzvot with more mindfulness. Bad things tend to bring out the latent yearning for G-d and His rescue.

Yet that is not the backdrop for the renewal we have seen in our day. Surely the Jewish people in America in the 50's were in need of some stimulation to bring them back to the faith of their fathers. There were few Yeshivot and Jewish Day Schools.Few adults were learned. Observance was declining with little hope for a reversal. One might have expected, in accord with the tochacha of this week's parsha that some evils befall the Jewish people so they might turn to Hashem for His deliverance. But no evils came. Renewal yes! But without the punishments.

What is this?

In the prophet Amos we read "Behold the days come, saith the L-rd Hashem, that I will send a famine in the land, not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of Hashem".

Those days have come. Hashem has seen fit to bring us back not through abstinence and deprivation, as in times past, but through plenty. We have bread. We have water. All our physical
needs are met. We lack for nothing of consequence. And yet we feel the void, a painful void, a void made all the more undeniable precisely because we can't distract ourselves from it with the pursuit of needs not met, since we do have it all.

In this time of plenty we feel a hunger that cannot be sated and a thirst that cannot be quenched. With all the promise of America now realized, with all the material blessings at our door we are lacking. In this world where nothing is denied us we feel an absence . The absence of divrai Hashem, the words of Hashem.

Our world is full of so many words, so much hype, the world is full of glitter and sound. Media is the god of the secular. Yet the renewal of the spirit is born precisely at the apex of the influence of media. Never have we been more inundated with sounds and sites. Media made a furious effort to earn our allegiance to the values it represents, the values of shallow beauty and transient pleasures. Yet in the end the emperor has no clothes. We listen but feel empty. We look but feel unfulfilled.

It is not the divrei of television or the divrei of the latest pop cd or the divrei of a fashion magazine that we seek...No it is the divrei Hashem, the words of G-d we yearn to hear. Words that will sate us and bring us the peace. Words full of meaning. Words enduring. Words that speak truth eternal. Words that link us to the transcend ant. Ironic that with all the noise in our world its words we feel most deprived of.....words of Hashem.

Its the hunger for those words that fostered the movement of renewal we experience in our day. And while many Jews sadly remain lost to our faith, one cannot help but marvel at the miracle of rebirth that fills us with hope.

Indeed these are the times Amos was referring to so many years ago. How privileged we are to live in them. May the renewal be complete and full so that all of the prophets vision be realized.
As he concludes "......And I will plant them on their land and they shall no more be plucked up out of the land which I have given them, saith Hashem Elokim".

Shabbat Shalom

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Those Who Are Not Right

My younger brother is brilliant, intense and spiritual. He is a kind soul, always willing to do a favor. He is also mentally ill and has been for much of his life. It was not easy to grow up in the religious world with undiagnosed mental illness. In the yeshiva elementary school where he attended he was forever thought to be resistant to learning, disrespectful, and worst of all bad.
In the shule many people saw him as unusual and rejected him...distancing him from the community. He grew up feeling misunderstood and scorned, cast out, and rejected. He was a Jew without a home.

This weeks Parsha speaks of another Jew without a home and tells a tragic story. The story is of the blasphemer, one who cursed the Divine, and the consequences which saw him put to death by stoning. According to tradition (though nowhere found in the text) the man who blasphemed was a man rejected, scorned and alienated. He was born of an Israelite mother and an Egyptian father (this is in the text) . According to Rashi he converted to Judaism (since before the Torah membership in the community of Israel was based on the father not the mother as is it now). He wanted to be a Jew. He also wanted to be a member of a tribe. He made effort to settle with the tribe of Dan, from whence his mother came. But they refused him permission arguing that since his father was Egyptian he had no business settling among their tribe.

If that were not enough, their are sources in the medrash that say members of the tribe of Dan ridiculed him. They were the ones who informed him that his father was not only not a Jew but in fact he was the one killed by Moshe for beating an Israelite. When he came to resolve his dispute with the tribe of Dan in the court of Moshe his claim to belong was rebuffed. He was left an outsider, no father, no community, no home, and not even the sympathy of the Jewish authorities.

My brother wanted so much to be accepted. He was not. In response he felt angry at the Jewish community of his birth and went seeking a religious community that would accept him, with his problems. Unlike the blasphemer, thankfully he did not curse the Divine. But tragically and in many ways understandably he did reject the faith whose members found him unacceptable.

And my brother is not alone. If one checks out the journey of Jewish drop-outs who have been attracted to many expressions of spirituality over the years, a spirituality not ours, one finds that so many have a similar story to tell. They so often talk of having been estranged or worse from the community of their birth and mostly for reasons invalid.

No one is questioning the correctness is of the blasphemers position. The Torah is clear. Tribal affiliation is based on the father. And surely my brothers behavior was at times inappropriate and needing correction. We cannot change the law to accommodate the would be drop-out.

But that is no excuse to tease, ridicule or reject s/he who comes with an honest yearning to belong. Halacha applies to situations, hesed applies to persons.Please understand, I am not excusing the blasphemer, not by any means. But his reprehensible behavior should not cause us to over-look the situation that fostered it. I mean would it have been so awful for the tribe of Dan to allow him to live with them? Would it have violated any Torah law had they dealt with him with kindness? And even if the court had to rule against this man, could it have shown compassion to his painful circumstances?

This is personal to me. In truth I searched every commentary I could find to see if anyone wrote in a reflective way about the hurts inflicted on the blasphemer and the achrayut of community to care for its marginalized. But I found only condemnation of the blasphemer.
No one saw fit to ask "why was he hurting so badly as to curse the Divine?"

So I am left alone to raise the issue. But I must. I have seen my brother suffer. And there are many like him. There are many a community who reject and cite halacha to sustain there attitude. But too often without compassion.

My favorite Hassidic story is one told of Rebbe Yisroel of Rizhin. He told of a young Hasid who had to promise his father-in-law, a mitnaged, that he would no longer visit his Rebbe as a condition of being supported by him. Well some time after his wedding the Hassid had terrible longings for his Rebbe and against the condition set by his father-in-law he went back to learn with the Rebbe.
On hearing this the father-in-law cut off the young hassid's stipend. He was left with no source of income. He became malnourished, and then sick, and soon enough, he died.

The Rizhiner said that when Mashiach comes the young Hassid will come with a complaint over his circumstances, that they had been entirely unfair. Mashiach will go to the father-in-law and ask him how could you have done this? And the father-in-law will say " I consulted the Rav and he told me what I did was right". And then Mashiach will go to the Rav and ask him how could you have done this. And the Rav will say " I consulted the shulchan aruch and it told me my decision was right". And then Mashiach will go and kiss the Hassid on his forehead and say " the father-in-law was right, and the Rav was right and the shulchan aruch was right. But I, I come for those who are not right".

Those who are not right need and in many ways deserve the compassion. Its a shame they may have to wait till Mashiach comes to receive it.

Shabbat Shalom!