Torah Sparks: Shabbat haChodesh—Time is relevant

The spiritual cycle of the Jewish year depends on an interaction among the flow of holidays, the marking of Rosh Chodesh (the new month) and the weekly Shabbat (Sabbath) observance. The holidays and fast days sometimes permeate the surrounding Shabbatot (plural of Shabbat) with holiday themes. These special Shabbatot may create the mood for an upcoming festival, reflect or enhance festival themes, or ease the transition from a festival back into the weekly flow of Shabbatot.

This Shabbat we celebrate Shabbat HaHodesh. Shabbat HaHodesh occurs either on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Nisan (this year on Tuesday) or on Rosh Chodesh itself. The traditional maftir reading is Exodus 12:1-20, which details eating the  Passover sacrifice, with “your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand”; eating bitter herbs and unleavened bread; and putting blood on the doorposts; and it lists the Passover laws.” The haftarah for our Shabbat, Ezekiel 45:16-46:18, describes the sacrifices that the Israelites are to bring on the first of Nisan, on Passover, and on other festivals in the future Temple.

The first day of Nisan is also important as the occasion for God’s commandment, sanctifying the new moon, which begins the additional Torah reading, “This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.” This commandment moved the determination of months from God’s agenda into the hands of the Jewish people–giving them control over time and the theological/liturgical cycle.  (Source: http://www.myjewishlearning.com/)

It is deeply significant that the first national mitzvah that God gave us, while still in Egypt on the very threshold of redemption, was to take control of our time. A slave has scant need for a calendar: he sleeps and wakes, eats and works, lives his entire existence, according to his master’s timetable. Only a free person can determine his own schedule, and only a free nation can determine its own calendar.

Anything that can be done at anytime by anybody will be done at no time by nobody.”

All major ideas of Judaism, even though they are intangible, are made accessible by being embedded in time. Therefore, it is of great importance that we mark our time, that we continue to be aware of our “Jewish time”, and not to get lost in the secular calendar. As Jews we give great space to the world around us, and we are even willing to embrace different traditions into our own.  This is good, and important. But we need to be careful not to become slaves again, slaves again of someone or somewhat who determines time for us. On our way to Pesach, it is not only of importance to clean out our cupboards, but also our calendars. Let’s make space for some more Judaism, for Shabbat, festivals and time with our (extended) Jewish family.

Shabbat Shalom Rabbi Adrian M Schell      

 

Parashat Naso: It’s not my fault!

by Monica Solomon

Being in business these are words I hear almost daily.  Certainly if they are not said, they are implied.  It seems that it is really difficult for people to own up to their mistakes, and to take responsibility for the consequences.  And when one tells the other what the result of their mistake is, ’sorry‘ still does not come easily.   And sometimes ’sorry‘ can be a painful word to say, depending on the severity of the result.

It’s the same in any relationship, whether business or personal.   No-one likes to admit they’re wrong because they feel that this somehow diminishes them, but if one doesn’t admit ones mistake life cannot go on with any normality.

There’s a children’s story entitled „The Hardest Word; a Yom Kippur story” which brings this point home in a beautiful way.  The story describes God commanding a giant bird to search the world for the „hardest word“ a person can say. In a first attempt, the bird proposes „Goodnight“ — since no child likes going to bed. God just smiles. Next, the bird suggests, „Spaghetti.“ Cute but wrong. Only later, after many unsuccessful guesses, the bird reflects on his own life, looks into his own heart, and realizes that the hardest word must be „Sorry“ (Jacqueline Jules, Kar-Ben, 2001).

The story rings true as much for us as it does for children „Sorry“ is indeed one of the hardest words we can say.  But when we do say ’sorry‘ and we do accept that we are in the wrong, we create a just society.  We remove blame from the other and both parties can be assured that even though a mistake has been made efforts have been made to repair the damage.

This weeks Parasha, Naso, reads in part   “The Eternal said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites: ‘Any man or woman who wrongs another in any way and so is unfaithful to the Eternal is guilty and must confess the sin they have committed. They must make full restitution for the wrong they have done, add a fifth of the value to it and give it all to the person they have wronged.“

Rashi commented that this injunction is similar to the one in Leviticus ch. 5.  He say that the words “and must confess the sin” stresses that repentance cannot be effective without a proper confession of wrongdoing.

Interestingly, requiring confession from the guilty seems to have been one of Rashi’s particular concerns. Elsewhere, in his Talmud commentary, Rashi writes that a person cannot achieve true repentance without admitting guilt: “One does not offer compensation or a sin sacrifice without making confession” (Rashi on Babylonian Talmud, Bava Kama 108b, s.v. m’shalem keren).

So our Parashah teaches us that, just like there is belief that Israel and Palestine can only live peacefully with a two state solution, justice can only be achieved by a two step solution: when the guilty party makes confession and then follows this with restitution.

Admitting guilt is a sacred act.  It’s difficult but in order to repair the world it is necessary.  Maimonides wrote a lot about the concept of confession going so far as to say that confession should be a public act.

At the end of The Hardest Word, the giant bird reflects on recent events and remembers when he “accidentally” fell from the sky and destroyed a vegetable garden beside a synagogue. He determines that he will return to the scene of the crime bearing a basket of fruits and vegetables from his own garden because, „It was time to say the hardest word.“

It’s time for all of us, to learn how to say the hardest word too.

Torah Reading Shabbat Naso

Numbers 4:21—7:89 Reading Num 6:1-27

Plaut p.928; Hertz p.592

Haftarah Judges 13:2-25 Plaut p.947; Hertz p.602

In our Torah portion:

*A census of the Gershonites, Merarites, and Koathites between the ages of thirty and fifty is conducted and their duties in the Tabernacle are detailed.

* God speaks to Moses concerning what to do with ritually unclean people, repentant individuals, and those who are suspected of adultery.

* The obligations of a nazirite vow are explained. They include abstaining from alcohol and not cutting one’s hair.

* God tells Moses how to teach Aaron and his sons the Priestly Blessing.

* Moses consecrates the Sanctuary, and the tribal chieftains bring offerings. Moses then speaks with God inside the Tent of Meeting.

 

 

 

Parashat B’midbar: We count!

Incredulous! That’s how I felt, after requesting and then learning my Uber passenger rating. You see, drivers get to rate and rank you too.

„4.8! That’s it?“ I thought. „I’ve never been impolite or unfriendly. I never cancel a request after submitting one. What reason could there be for denying me a full five stars?“

Once again, here was one small example of the many ways each of us is reduced to numbers as we go about our post-modern lives. The world knows us by our ID Numbers and PINs. Job performance and health are quantified and compared. We rank and rate universities, restaurants, wine, cars, and even dates.

It goes without saying that qualification makes large amounts of data easier to categorise and understand. But it also has the effect of obscuring beauty, individuality, and difference. We have only to think of the Nazis‘ practice of tattooing numbers on our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents and we shudder with horror.

Perhaps, the dehumanising quality of quantification is the reason Jews have generally frowned on counting people. I remember counting students for a minyan whispering, „Not one, not two . . . “ In fact, this concept goes back to the Babylonian Talmud where Rabbi Isaac taught, „It’s prohibited to count the Jewish people, even in order to do a mitzvah“ (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 22b).

Then again, in this week’s Torah reading, Parashat B’midbar, God instructs Moses to, „Take a census of the whole Israelite community by their clan, by their ancestral houses, according to the number of names of every male, head by head“ (Numbers 1:2). The parashah goes on to count and compare the male populations of the various Israelite tribes.

In Rashi’s commentary on this parashah, Rashi turns the whole idea of taking a census on its head. For him, this isn’t an act of bureaucratic expediency. Rather, he writes, „Out of God’s love for them, he counted them often“ (see Rashi on Numbers 1:1). For Rashi, counting doesn’t dehumanise or obscure, it’s an expression of love and care — one manifestation of God’s protection and devotion to God’s precious treasures.

We don’t normally experience counting in this way. More often than not, to be counted is to feel more like digits and ratings — robbed of our identities. Yet, Rashi’s interpretation of our parashah, reminds us what we all know deep down: We are much more than the numbers assigned to us. We are much more than ones and zeroes and Uber rankings. We are all precious treasures, worthy of love and affection.  We count! 

Rabbi Adrian M Schell  (Source: Joseph A. Skloot)

 

Behar – Bechukotai: Walking upright and unafraid

In our parashah, God vows to enact a series of blessings and curses for the Israelites—blessings if they observe the commandments, and curses if they do not. In her interpretation, Rabbi Lisa Exler explains that the blessings are “curiously framed” by the image of walking.

Walking is, for many of us, our most basic vehicle for navigating the world. Yet we probably don’t put much thought into it. We’re more concerned with where we’re going than how we’re getting there; and unless we’re on a hike, we rarely think of walking as an end in itself, or count it among our blessings. Our biblical passage opens with God stating the condition for receiving these blessings:

Im bechukotai teileichu—If you walk in accordance with My laws and observe and do My commandments.” And the section concludes with God’s promise to walk, in return: “V’hithalachti b’tochechem—And I will walk in your midst, and I will be your God and you will be My people.”

The section of blessings could have ended there, with the final inspiring blessing being one of reciprocal relationship and intimacy between God and the Israelites. But it doesn’t. Instead, it ends with the following verse, a seemingly superfluous description of God’s role in the Exodus, which, significantly, also includes the image of walking:

I am Adonai your God who took you out from the land of Egypt, from being their slaves, and I broke the bars of your yoke and made you walk upright—va’olech etchem komemiyut.

A midrash explains that the word komemiyut, upright—which appears only this once in Torah, means “with a straight spine and unafraid of any creature.” In other words, God reminds the Israelites that they are no longer oppressed slaves living in fear; but rather, dignified people who can stand tall and walk proudly and are free to choose their own paths. The Israelites’ ability to walk upright, which they attained through their experience of the Exodus, was the necessary precondition for the other “walkings” described previously in the text—walking in accordance with God’s laws and God’s reciprocal walking among the people, bestowing upon them the blessings of rain, food, peace and fertility.

May we continue to be blessed to walk upright and to share our blessings with those in need. Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat and a meaningful week.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell

 

Parashat Emor: Making the Holy One, holy.

The point of being Jewish is to have a relationship with God. Yet, a relationship implies a certain give and take, and there is little in the Torah that talks about what we have that God could possibly need. What can we give to God? That doesn’t mean we don’t have a whole section on sacrifice in this week’s portion, Emor, and throughout the Book of Leviticus. But, it does mean that there really isn’t any indication that our actions here on earth affect God in some way that is bounded by the relationship.

And then, for one precious moment, our portion steps aside from the questions of sacrificial rite and priestly purity to ponder this question: how do we make God holy? In Leviticus 22:32 we read: „You shall not profane My holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelite people-I Adonai who sanctify you.“

Translation issues become important here. The text says v’nikdashti, „and I will be made holy“ amidst the Children of Israel. Or, in other words, „You will make Me holy just as I, Adonai, have made you holy.“ Here, for a moment, there is a relationship. We do something for God in response to what God has done for us. The only problem with this magic moment of relationship is that it makes no sense. How can we profane God’s Name or make God Holy? How can our human acts help, in any way, to make the Holy One, holy?

Perhaps the most intriguing response of all the classical commentaries can be found in P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, one of the oldest collections of midrash and commentaries on the Torah. The P’sikta teaches: “Thus said Shimon bar Yohai: „If you are my witnesses then I am the One, the first One, neither shall there be any after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God.“ (P’sikta D’Rav Kahana, 12) In the context of the Torah, our lives, our very existence as a people, are dependent on the actions of God. And here for this one shining moment, the Torah teaches us that God’s Holiness, God’s Presence in the world, is dependent upon us.

Having a relationship with God is a feathery thing. One never really knows what God is thinking, when God is present, and how we can truly bear witness to God’s will in the world. And yet, through prayer we are reminded of all that is Holy in our world and in ourselves, and through this we form a bridge of connection. We become partners with God in the perfection of this world. It is then that we can truly make God holy. By repairing the brokenness in ourselves, by repairing the brokenness of our world, we repair the brokenness that has resided within God since the first moment of creation and in this way we can indeed make the Holy One, whole once again.

Wishing you a wonderful Shabbat and a meaningful week.

Rabbi Adrian M Schell (Source: Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport)