Parashat Masei: The grass only looks greener from far away

Chaverim,

This week’s portion summarises the entire route followed by the Israelites from when they left Egypt until they were ready to enter Eretz Yisrael. The parsha begins, „Moshe wrote their going forth according to their journeys.“ At the end of that same verse this idea is repeated, but the words are reversed: „And these were their journeys according to their going forth.“ Why is the order switched?

The beginning of the verse expresses how God regarded their travels. Whenever God wanted them to go forth God wanted them to progress to the next step in the plan, to journey toward their destiny. Every stop was custom-made, tailored to help them towards their goal. Each place came with challenges developing the nation’s character. However, the second verse looks at the traveling from the nation’s point of view. The people saw things differently. It is human nature for one to think that he would be much happier and more productive if only he were somewhere else. They would journey simply to go forth, hoping it would be better in their next destination, hoping it would have more to offer, but not because they were thinking of reaching their purpose.

It is common to think, „If only I was in a different school, if only I lived someplace else, if only, if only, if only … I would be so much more productive.“ But, despite all its difficulties, the situation that you are in – right here and right now, is holy, and this is the time and place where you are able to grow. You don’t need to go anywhere else.

Furthermore, the grass only looks greener on the other side because you are looking at it from a distance. You don’t see any of the blotches and cracks since the grass is covering them. All you see is beautiful green grass. Therefore, let us embrace the place and the situation we are, and use them as a starting point to grow for our next step.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Eli Scheller)

Parashat Matot: Thought and action should be unified.

If a man vows a vow to God, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth. (Bamidbar 30:3)

Chaverim,

Speech is a defining human quality. The ability to articulate our thoughts into specific words is what sets us apart from the animals. Man is thus obligated by their words in a type of a social contract, a necessary institution for a cohesive society. In fact, the theme of the gravity and sanctity of human speech carries through the whole Torah — from the first “Hineni” – “here I am”, expressing Abraham’s willingness to follow God’s instructions to the words Moses is directing to the Israelites in the wilderness.

In our Torah portion, we are introduced to the topic of vows. A vow links words and action in a new way: It binds today’s speech with tomorrow’s action. This is explained concisely by R. Zvi Elimelech Shapira (1783-1841): A person does not feel tomorrow’s evil inclination today. Often, a person knows what they should do, or what they would like to do, and a vow helps them to overcome the human gap between thought and action. When one is unable to reach their intended goal today, they bind themselves to their ability in the future, which is as yet untainted by weakness or temptation. An everyday example is the person who knows he should start a diet; today, he is confounded by today’s yetzer hara, and declares, „Tomorrow I will begin.“ The vow helps defeat the yetzer hara of tomorrow before it rears its seductive head. By using words, which are themselves a Divine tool, man can bring God into the situation, make God an ally; hopefully, that will spiritually fortify the person and provide the strength needed to succeed. 

In other words: Thought and action should be unified. The purpose of a vow is to unite the inner thought, as expressed by words, with actions. When our thoughts become disconnected from our words, or words from actions, we are being dishonest. This dishonesty may or may not affect others in a particular instance, but it always impacts upon ourselves, upon our inner world. When we create consonance between our thoughts, words and actions, when we purposefully and steadfastly work to bring them closer together, we become more like God, whose words, thoughts and actions are one.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Rabbi Ari Kahn)

Photo by Sean Hurt

Pinchas: The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters

In this week’s Torah portion, the daughters of Zelophehad petition to inherit their father’s portion. The story  of Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah (Numbers 27:1-11) encapsulates the challenges that women faced and what they had to do in order to affirm their rights with dignity.

We might expect that women, heirs to Egyptian slavery and then put under law that frequently favours men, might react by keeping silent, by accepting as natural the rule decreed for them to follow. We might expect women in those days to stay close to their tents, remain out of sight, and not go far from their families.

However, this is not all that the five sisters do. First, they “go out” from their living place, from their social space, from the destiny imposed on them. The text states: “The daughters of Zelophehad … came forward. The names of the daughters were Mahlah, Noah, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.” Secondly they speak with determination: “Our father died in the wilderness. …  Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!”

How does Moses react? Moses discloses his inability to assess the claims of these sisters. He takes the case to God, who responds by clearly supporting the sisters’ demand and even by promulgating a new and permanent law to secure inheritance for any daughters in such circumstances. Thus, the sisters’ claim leads to the law of inheritance’s being changed forever.

The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now. In addition, however, the story of these five women offers a compelling lesson for all those who believe that their destiny is fixed or that divine justice has abandoned them.  It encourages us to think differently–and provides a message of hope for all those faced with obstacles. Perhaps the most important legacy of Zelophehad’s daughters is their call to us to take hold of life with our own hands.

– Rabbi Adrian M Schell

(Source: Rabbi Silvina Chemen, WRJ Torah Comment)

The Daughters of Zelophehad (illustration from the 1908 Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons)

 

Sh’lach lecha: See it with your own eyes

Chaverim,

Once a year, I travel back to Germany to see my family and friends, but also to see for myself how things are, back in Europe. Things have changed since I moved to South Africa, nearly five years ago. Of course Chayim tells me of his impressions, I read the news, see what friends write in their blogs and posts on Facebook, but I want—I need to feel it by myself.

Our Torah portion is titled “Sh’lach lecha”, which can be translated as “Send for yourself” scouts. It is, as God is telling Moses and the Israelites that reports and promises are not enough, that they need to feel the land.

It is my hope that I find Germany still in the way I left it, a stronghold against anti-Semitism and a place that was able to welcome refugees fleeing the civil war in Syria, despite the reports of a growing right wing movement. I hope that Europe still remembers the achievements that came with the unification, despite the polemics, thrown into the world as part of the recent election campaign and the Brexit.

It is my hope that I will be able to see the beauty and the possibilities, as Joshuah bin Nun did in our Torah reading, and that I will not be overwhelmed by the negativities as the ten scouts.

Wishing you all Shabbat Shalom and see you again in July.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell 

Torah Reading

Shabbat Sh’lach Lecha Numbers 13:1-15:41

Reading: Num 13:16-14:9

Maftir:Num 15:37-41

Plaut p. 979/990; Hertz p. 623/633

Haftarah: Joshua 2:1-24

Plaut p. 998; Hertz p. 635

Shabbat Korach Numbers 16:1-18:32

Reading: Num 18:1-18:10

Plaut p. 1008; Hertz p. 645

Haftarah: 1 Sam. 11:14-12:22

Plaut p. 1019; Hertz p. 649

Important Dates:

Tisha b’Av

11 August 2019

Shavuot: No shofar, seder, Chanukah candles or sukkah, but Torah – only Torah

Chaverim,

This coming Sunday we will observe Shavuot, the day we celebrate receiving the Torah. Unique among our holidays, it has no specific mitzvah associated with it. With no shofar, seder, Chanukah candles or sukkah, there is little to grab the attention of all but the most serious of Jews.

It’s precisely because Shavuot celebrates the gift of Torah that there are no specific mitzvot related to the holiday (outside of special sacrifices during Temple times, and perhaps eating cheesecake 😉 ). It is the Torah as a whole that we celebrate. Highlighting the overarching nature of the holiday is the fact there’s no specific date for it. We need specific times to focus on repentance, to celebrate our freedom and to recall our journey through the desert, but Torah itself is to be celebrated and observed every day.

Instead of a specific date, Shavuot is celebrated 50 days after Pesach, serving as the culmination of the Exodus and teaching us that freedom needs a framework so that any member of the society can enjoy it.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Shavuot Sameach

Rabbi Adrian M Schell