V’etchanan: Left behind

being left behindSometimes the relevance of Torah just looks you in the eye and says, “I’m here.”

“Let me, I pray, cross over and see the good land on the other side of the Jordan, that good hill country… but God ..would not listen to me…for you shall not go across.” (Deut 3:25..27)

People leave, and others cannot follow where they go, no matter how much we want to.  A friend died this week.  He had been ill, he struggled with the pain and the decline, until he couldn’t any more.  He was a man full of joy, and his family and friends feel the loss.

It’s hard to be left behind.  Moses not only knew he was never going to see the Land, but he knew he was going to die soon, too.  How does one face that?  God tells Moses, “Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage” (Deut 3:28)  The ones that are surrounded by such love and purpose are the ones who can leave behind the strength and courage needed for others to carry on.  We are imbued, we are given a gift of their strength.

Moses was left behind, never quite fulfilling his life’s mission.  Again, how does one face that? And again, Torah tells us to go back to the basics.  Later in this parasha, as Moses talks to the people, he revisits two moments in the life of the community:  the Ten Commandments and the Shma.  These are the core, the foundation, the basis for the entire community’s identity and the essence of what’s important.   The way to live and how to build a just and righteous society, followed by the reason we do so:  You shall love God with all your heart and soul and might.

Sometimes we feel we just aren’t going to complete what we set out to do in life.  Sometimes that life is too short, or ends too abruptly, without a chance to say goodbye.  Sometimes we simply run out of time.  But it does us well to remember that Moses’ life wasn’t about him getting to the Land, it was getting the people  to the Land, getting them ready to take the next step without him.  In that, he did accomplish his life’s work.  He gave them what they needed to carry on, just as my friend gave those lucky enough to know him.

Being left behind hurts the heart.  Remembering the important foundations, whether it’s  of a life well lived, a society well built, or a love well tended…these help ease the hurt a bit.  I hope Moses was comforted by that.  We are.

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Matot/Masei – changing the ending

the storyWe all make lists.  I think making lists is the most optimistic thing a person can do.  It’s like buying green bananas, or ordering an entire season of theater tickets.  The book of Bamidar is all about lists.  It’s even in the English translation of the book.  Bamidbar is “in the wilderness”  Numbers is ….lists. There are two full censuses in the book, listing everyone in the community, by tribe.  There is also, in this last parasha of Bamidbar, a list of places traveled over the last 40 years;  a triptik, for those of you old enough to remember what that is.

Mostly what Bamidbar is, however, is about boundaries.  We read about the camp -how it’s laid out, who camps where, how the Mishkan (Tabernacle) travels, etc.  We read about who comes in and who goes out. When you come in, when you have to leave, and when you’re allowed to come back in again.   Who lives on the edge – people like the Nazir and the Sotah, the accused wife.  What happens outside the camp – like the Red Calf.  All the other offerings that were made in the Mishkan by the Aaron and the priests, but not that one.  Pinchas’ shishkebab, when he skewered two people cavorting in front of God and everyone, was about people who crossed the line between acceptable behavior to God and wholly unacceptable behavior.  And, as Pinchas’ “reward”, he became High Priest, and received his own set of highly restricted behavior – very clear boundaries set up around him and his role in the community.

There are leadership boundaries.  Korach crossed the line, but Eldad and Medad (the two guys who prophesied back in the camp while Moses had the rest of the Elders all experiencing a communal God-experience), they didn’t cross the line. They were welcomed.  The most important leadership line that got crossed was that of Moses at Meribah.  It’s the tipping point of Moses’ journey, the point of no return.  He hit the rock, the people got their water, but from that point on, Moses was never to see the Land himself, and he knew he was forever in an outsider role.

There are boundaries around time. In Chapter 28 we read, “Be punctilious in presenting to ME at stated times the offerings…”  and we read about Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and Sukkot. And there was a very detailed list of what got offered up to God on what day. It was sacred time, separate from other time.

And of course, there are the boundaries with other people’s lands.  We move from trespassing God’s borders to other people’s borders.  Here, at the end of the wilderness, the end of the wandering , we get the travelogue of where we’ve been.

Finally, there are boundaries in the land that end the book of Bamidbar.  We are about to come into the Land, but it’s not empty.  There are other people who already live there.  What to do? We read of God’s last instruction to Moses, his last task to the people. Chapter 31:1 “Avenge the Israelite people on the Midianites, and then you shall be gathered to your kin.”  Finish this last war, and then you will die.   Here, God describes the perfect holy war and then commands the soldiers to go outside the camp, purify themselves, and then they can come back in.

But there are more changes to the narrative,  more challenges to the boundaries. Lland had been apportioned to each tribe.  Yet, the Gadites and the Reubenites now say, “We don’t want to come into the Land.  We like the land right here on the east side of the Jordan, and we’d like to stay here.”  Moses said, fine, but you have to fight with the rest of the Israelites in this last, epic battle; the Gadites and Reubenites agreed to come fight, after they’d built their houses and places for their animals, and got their families settled in.

What?  The Land now includes what’s east of the Jordan?  And that’s ok with Moses?  Apparently it is.  Moses takes it upon himself to approve a major change to the initial narrative:  Go into the Land.  But some people didn’t want to.  So the goal was adjusted to reflect the wishes of the people.

In Bamidbar 33:52 Moses tells the people:   “When you cross the Jordan into the land of Canaan, you shall dispossess all of the inhabitants of the land, you shall destroy all their figured objects, you shall destroy all their molten images, and you shall demolish all their cult places.  And you shall take possession of the land and settle in it, for I have assigned the land to you to possess.  You shall apportion the land among yourselves by lot….But if you do not dispossess the inhabitants of the land, those whom ou allow to remain shall be stings in your eyes and thorns in your sides, and they shall harass you in the land in which you live…”

Extremely harsh.  And, to my thinking, not a great way to end the book. Or a great way to start in a new Land, with a new society.  But that’s not where it ends.  This is where the whole idea of boundaries gets a second look, through an old story.

Of all the stories in Bamidbar, the one that gets revisited is Zelophechad’s daughters. Back in Chapter 27, five daughters of Zelophechad approached Moses as he was giving instructions of land inheritance.  They said it wasn’t fair that just because their father died without sons, they would lose their whole inheritance.  And right there, right in front of God and everyone, the Law was rewritten to reflect fairness and the reality of life.  Moses checked with God, and God agreed.  The daughters were right, God was wrong.  The daughters got their inheritances (with restrictions, of course – they had to marry within their tribe, otherwise they’d lose the land), but the Law was changed to make things more just, because people pointed out the problem.

That’s the real lesson of how Bamidbar ends.  After the bloody, vicious, vengeful war and the instruction to dispossess and slaughter the people who were already living in the Land…we get a story of rewriting the Law to reflect justice. We couldn’t live at Sinai forever, it was an unrealistic place to live out the word of God.  We had to start putting all these things into practice, and once we did, we saw where they needed to be adjusted to fit humans, not God.  God may have defined the perfect holy war.  As humans, we know there is no such thing.  We don’t have to live with the vengeance and the slaughter.  We can change the ending.  We have to change the ending.




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Pinchas: the voice of the Urim today

people speaking“Moses spoke to the LORD, saying,“Let the LORD, 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 that the LORD’s community may not be like sheep that have no shepherd.”

And the LORD answered Moses, “Single out Joshua son of Nun, an inspired man, and lay your hand upon him. Have him stand before Eleazar the priest and before the whole community, and commission him in their sight. Invest him with some of your authority, so that the whole Israelite community may obey. But he shall present himself to Eleazar the priest, who shall on his behalf seek the decision of the Urim [breastplate of decisions] before the LORD.”  (Num 27:15-21)

I’ve been watching the nominating conventions these last couple of weeks.  Sometimes I think it would be so much easier if God picked the next leader.  Of course, over the endless primary season, many people who aspired to leadership thought God actually had chosen them, and as they put themselves forth as God’s gift to us, the drawbacks of that particular system were apparent.

Torah may deal in God-picked successors, but we don’t.  However, Torah gives us a glimpse as to how we function in the human realm:  the daughters of Zelophechad.  Earlier in Chapter 27 of Bamidbar, we meet the five daughters of Zelophechad.  They have no brothers.  Their father died in the wilderness, and he was a good man, “not one of Korah’s faction…Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son.  Give us a holding [of land] among our father’s kinsmen.” (Num 27:3-4)  The law was set as to inheritance, a group of people stood up and pointed out its obvious flaws and oversights, and the law was changed.

This was a huge step.  It was a time when the heavenly law of God was amended by the people, to meet the reality of human existence.  Zelophechad’s girls showed us what the next step was in the evolution of a people’s leadership.  Leadership is certainly inspired, by God or whatever spiritual source one may have.  True leadership takes, as we heard this week on a podium, “grit and grace”.  Human work and spiritual support.

We’ve been hearing a lot of speeches…plus balloons, bands, and banners.  And we will have a lot more over the next four months. We retain some of the same pomp and ritual that we see in this parasha, as we present new leadership possibilities to the country, and the world.  In November, we will see the chosen ones at all levels of government come before the entire community, after the decision is made by, not the magical “Urim”, but the voice of people, one by one making their choices.

The lesson is clear:  God cannot choose the next leaders for us.  God may provide the spiritual strength these leaders need, but in the end, it is the result of people standing up and pointing out the flaws and oversights of the current situation that will make the changes.  None of that happens without the “Urim” of those whom the laws affect.  None of that happens without individuals who are the victims of injustice, working together through peaceful means, to bring change.

As the months unfold, and as we get closer to the elections, the blending of spiritual and social, between God choosing and the people speaking, must be our guides to choosing our next leader.  Not just the one at the top, but all those down the line, who need to hear our voices and get our votes.  We are the Urim of decision today.



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Balak: Blessings from outside the camp

balaam and balakThe story of Balak and Balaam is one of the few parashiot (Torah portions) that are named after non-Israelites.  It’s a strange one, to be sure.  Right in the middle of the wilderness, we get our own version of Shrek.

A talking donkey is a better prophet  than the greatest seer in all the land, Balaam.  Balaam is so great that the Moabite ruler, Balak,  hires him to curse the Israelites, a people who have grown so much in number that they are a threat.  Moses doesn’t appear in the story, and the Israelite perspective is absent.  In fact, the Torah would go on just fine without this story. Still, there must be something we can learn from it.

God speaks to a non-Israelite, repeatedly, and with authority; the greatest authority, in fact, in the story.  God will speak to those who are ready to receive the Divine inspiration, no matter who they are, or where they come from.  No one, the story teaches, can claim to be the sole recipient of God’s inspiration.  Only a few chapters before this tale, we read of Eldad and Medad.  They had remained in camp when Moses had gathered the seventy elders of the community who experienced God’s spirit.  Yet they , too, experienced God’s spirit:  “yet the spirit rested upon them” (Num 11:26)  Joshua, Moses’ second-in-command, is indignant.  “My Lord, restrain them!” (11:27)  But Moses says no, “Are you wrought up on my account?  Would that all God’s people were prophets, that God would put God’s spirit upon them!” (11:29-30)

Moses knew then, and Balaam knows here that no one owns God’s wisdom.  Today, many claim to be the ones to whom God speaks only, and those who do so in the political realm, in the areas of social policy, and legislation.  They think they are speaking for God, that they know what God wants, that they are the only ones who know what God wants.

God spoke to Balaam and refused to curse an entire people, just because a leader was threatened by their presence.  God didn’t speak to the ones who were afraid of others, who wanted to destroy the “other, but who because of their wealth and power, expected their wishes to be obeyed.

God spoke to Balaam so that God’s blessings would be heard.  We must keep our ears open for blessings coming from places we may not expect, by those who might be  “outside the camp” but hear God’s voice.

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Shelach L’cha: Lessons for a wedding

To the groom!  To the bride!  We have a wedding this weekend, and that’s pretty much what’s on my mind.  The whole family is coming in from all over the world. We’re all very excited to be gathering for such a simcha, a happy event.

Naturally, I turn to this week’s parasha; lo and behold, it’s Shelach with one of the greatest stories from the wilderness, the story of the spies.  God tells Moses to gather a representative from each tribe, send them on a recon mission to the Land, and report back.  Moses wants to know very specific things, “See what kind of country it is. Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many?  Is the country in which they dwell good or bad?  Are the towns they live in open or fortified?  Is the soil rich or poor?  Is it wooded or not?” (Num 13:17-20

The spies head on out, traverse the land, and come back to tell Moses it’s not good. The odds are against them.  Two, however, Caleb and Joshua, have the faith in God to know it’s going to be fine, they will prevail.

Moses needs to know what they’re about to face.  He asks very real, very practical questions.  Practicality is really important, but what wins the day is faith, faith that everything is going to be ok.  God rewards Caleb and Joshua by making sure they are the only two of the original generation who live long enough to enter the land, 38 years later.

My nephew and his beloved (who has become beloved by us all), these two wonderful young people are facing a new land together.  It’s important to plan for the future, to assess it with practicality, see what kind of country it will be, whether the land will be fruitful and welcoming to their hopes and dreams, or will it be dry and arid.  But what wins the day for them, too, is faith. Faith in each other, love for each other, and hope for that future together.

Caleb and Joshua were ready to face challenges, sometimes even overwhelming odds.  They showed courage, belief and determination, with an eye toward a share future.  The loving bride and groom may face challenges, and it will take all the courage, belief, and determination they have to find that land of milk and honey.  They will.  It’s a sweet land they’re headed to, worth the journeying.




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B’ha’alotcha: The heaviness of leadership

two roads divergedWe hear a lot about leadership these days – who’s got it, who doesn’t, who’s prepared for it, and who isn’t.  We talk a lot about our country’s leadership – what does it mean to be prepared to lead?

It only takes one or two episodes of West Wing to realize that those who lead are constantly and consistently  under pressure to answer their peoples’ needs.  It gets hard.

“Moses heard the people weeping, ….each person at the entrance of his tent. Adonai was very angry, and Moses was distressed.  And Moses said to Adonai, ‘Why have You dealt ill with Your servant, and why have I not enjoyed Your favor, that You have laid the burden of all this people on me?  Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, “Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant, I cannot carry all this people myself, for it is too much for me….If You would deal with me thus, kill me rather, I beg You, and let me see no more of my wretchedness.”  (Num 11:10-15)

Moses’ meltdown.  You have to feel for the poor guy.   This people are pretty tough to lead, and he just had gotten to a breaking point. The whining. The complaining. The distrust and betrayal.  Enough!

The Hebrew in the verse above, “it is too much for me” is k-v-d, heavy, the same word used for Pharoah’s heart; it was k-v-d, hardened.  So here are two versions of a leader, with the same word used for their leadership in a crisis.  Pharoah’s hardened/heavy, k-v-d heart takes his people to destruction, because his focus was all about him.  Moses’ heavy/k-v-d heart takes him a different direction.  At God’s suggestion, Moses gathers the elders and relies on them to  take care of the people’s needs.  One path led to people dying violently in the wilderness,  the other to a people carrying on through the wilderness to a new land.

What does it mean to be a responsible leader for a people?   How do you handle the k-v-d-ness?  You can either be hardheaded/hardhearted like Pharaoh, thinking only of yourself, whose pride and selfishness outweighs the suffering of his people under endless plagues, or you can broaden the base and lighten the load, thinking of the people first and figure out how to help them.  Granted, Moses had  his meltdown, but he wasn’t alone – God was with him, and God told him to rely on his trusted advisors, and turn his attention to getting his people cared for.

What does it mean to be responsible for a people?  It means your role as leader is not about you, it’s about the people you lead.  It means you haven’t chosen hubris over your heart.  It means after a meltdown between you and your “top advisor”, you regroup and choose the people.


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Bamidbar: Words create worlds

wordsBamidbar. In the wilderness.  We are at the beginning of the book of Bamidbar, starting with the first parasha, of the same name.  We’re beginning the quintessential journey, the defining environment of our entire history.  We are in the middle of nowhere .  A lot happened in the wilderness.  A bunch of nobodies, we learned to be somebodies.  In the middle of nowhere, we learned to focus on a place to go, yet we weren’t ever to be confined and defined only by that place.  We’re still amassed at the base of the mountain, the one where an entire crowd of people each had a singular experienceBamidbar – the wilderness – we are in the place of “daber”, speaking.  As with Creation in the Beginning, language was a creative force. Words created people, and later, a people.

I just experienced the power of words, words that created entire worlds in 12 minutes.  I was honored to be a member of the spring cohort for ELI talks (ELI = Engagement, Literacy, Identity).  They are a sort of Jewish TED talks, short bursts of creativity and passion for our community.  There were 16 of us, different genders, denominations, stylesof Jewish practice, jobs, perspectives, etc.  One thing brought us together: we had an idea about Jewish life that might inspire or encourage other Jews to think, explore, go deeper, go wider, just …..go.

How do the Mishkan and Solomon’s Temple provide metaphors for how we approach the working poor?  How does making a cup of coffee bring new meaning to ritual and how does ritual heal?  How do we manage culture and content in our community leaders?  When is good, good enough?  What’s the soundtrack of the Torah, and what’s the magic marriage word in Genesis?  What do you call God?  How does Torah make you laugh? My own talk was about finding the model for a relationship between me and my adult kids.

What struck me beyond the sheer breadth and passion each speaker had was how many of us referenced Bamidbar in one way or another.  Whether it was the mountain, the leaders, the followers, and those in between, the journey, or the Tabernacle, so many of us used this foundational experience as the core of our talks.  Some of us referenced Moses, the same Moses, yet took his influence in completely different directions, finding inspiration in so many aspects of his life and leadership.  Some of us talked about the Mishkan, and again, took the story of its existence to different places.  We touched the same kite string, and soared to many different places in the sky.

Rich is the tradition, deep is the story that inspires such varied lessons.  What a blessing it is to continually drink from the unlimited Torah-well.  The wilderness is a nourishing place, and it continues to be that every single day.

Our ELI talks will be online in the next couple of months; keep checking the website.  The coaches, crew, production staff, everyone connected with this process were astoundingly caring and capable.   We all took a journey of our own, learning and exploring personally, communally, and professionally.   We all come from a place of passion.  We all love this crazy community deeply yet critically.  We came from our own places of wilderness, and met at the mountain to make something remarkable happen.

In Bamidbar, it will be time to leave the mountain and begin the rest of the journey. What happened there will sustain the people on the trek ahead.  What happened this week in Skokie IL sends us on our way too, with new ideas, new friends and colleagues, and our shared, though personal, wild-place-experiences.   In a couple of days, we’ll be meeting again at Sinai, so before we take off into the great unknown Midbar, land of words and ideas, let’s stick around a little to rejoice at the base of the mountain.   See you at Sinai.

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