Chukat – Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and A Perpetual Living Stream

June 19, 2018
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Chukat – Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and A Perpetual Living Stream

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Parashat Chukat is among the most enigmatic in all of Torah. While it gives closure to the lives of Moses siblings, it opens three new mysteries in the fabric of Israel’s, story, a peculiar ordinance, an odd deliverance, and a strange brand of justice. Though I won’t discuss them in this order, the following mnemonic title, “Three Children of Amram, Two Strange Cows, and a Rock with a Perpetual Living Stream” should help with the process of remembering the odd thematic happenings in parsha Chukat. Read more »

Korach – You Say You Want a Revolution

June 12, 2018
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Korach – You Say You Want a Revolution

Do you ever have a really bad day, when it seems like everyone and everything is working against you? Moses sure did.  In fact it must have seemed to him like he had fourteen thousand and six hundred days like that and most of them are recorded in the book of Bamidbar.  This week’s parsha Korach, records a mutiny of sorts which becomes the arch-type for rebellion in Judaism, and could also have been the standard for a really bad day but for the intervention of Hashem.

For those of us who are Americans, we do not feel that uneasy about the concept of challenging of authority. In fact this is a country which was birthed out of an act of rebellion.  America is a culture where you can sprawl graffiti upon the wall that reads “Challenge Authority” and another person will cross it out, subsequently challenging your authority! So when we hear of elected officials evoking executive privilege we collectively get nervous. In general there has been a public distrust of governance in the last several years. In the parlance of the sixties, “Don’t trust the Man” Read more »

Shelach Lecha – Monsters, Giants and Other Formidable Obstacles

June 4, 2018
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Shelach Lecha – Monsters, Giants and Other Formidable Obstacles

 In the spring of 2002 I went to an art exhibit that was featuring a grouping of pictures painted by a good friend who was beginning the process of leaving the safety of a career as a commercial artist and pursuing an art form that was uniquely his own.  The collection was entitled quite simply, “Monsters”. I was not prepared for the transition in his work. My friend’s commercial work had always been clean, crisp and professional and uncluttered. His new art was dark, convoluted, layered and primitive, obscuring warm colors with dark shadows.

What my friend had done was to take his seven-year-old son’s crayon drawing of monsters and reinterpret them in a more adult, almost surrealist genre. The oil re-creations hung next to the crayon originals in this sophisticated Massachusetts gallery. Though there was no written explanation of the work, it communicated to me an honest, yet often ignored reality of life.  The fears, horrors, and insecurities of our childhoods do not disappear with time as we might imagine, but rather remain buried deep in our psyche only to reemerge in more sophisticated genres and expressions. Unless we deal with, slay., shrink or unmask the monsters and giants of our past, they make a subconscious home next to our “child within.” Read more »

B’halot’kha – Salvation On Trial

May 29, 2018
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B’halot’kha – Salvation On Trial

This week parsha will introduce a theme that will characterize much of the remaining narrative of Bamidbar. Chapters 11-25 contain a series of refusals on the part of Israel to accept authority. In chapter 12 even Miriam challenges Moses’ authority. In chapter 11 the people grumble about the unpleasantness of their journey contrasting it with all of the nostalgic pleasantries of slavery in Egypt, exasperating both God and Moses. Moses’ increasing frustration will later culminate with the incident of his striking the rock in chapter 20.

From a slightly different perspective though it is not the authority of God that is on trial in the wilderness, rather it is His salvation. While still in Egypt Jacob’s progeny were concerned as to whether, Israel’s God could and even more importantly would deliver them. Even after the miracles wrought by Moses humbled Pharaoh and his court, our people still doubted by the banks of the Reed Sea, and despite the parting of the sea, the drowning of their pursuers and their own preservation they continued to have doubts. Could they really have continued to question the power of God to deliver? Perhaps, but more likely they were uncertain of His desire to sustain and protect them, after all the pantheons of the ancient world were capricious and the perils of life were uncertain. Read more »

Haftarah Nasso – Leaders We Deserve

May 24, 2018
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Haftarah Nasso – Leaders We Deserve

I certainly do not want to retell the story of Samson in detail. You know it. You’ve heard it before. You may have even seen or heard any number of dramatizations. Of course, there is the famous 1949 Cecille B. Demille film starring Victor Mature and Hedy Lamarr (that’s Hedy not Headly!). This version was nominated for 5 Academy Awards and won 2 (probably for “most over-acted”).  Subsequent versions abound (1984, 1996 and yet another version expected this year).  George Fredrik Handel, Newburgh Hamilton, Camille Saint-Saëns, and Ferdinand Lemaire all compose operas and librettos themed around this story.  Most bizarre is the 1963 Italian film mash-up Hercules, Samson and Ulysses, where Samson is helped by the Greek/Italian mythological characters fighting the Phoenicians (Phoenicians, Philistines, what’s the diff?). https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=gxni6VZd4II Read more »

Nasso – Bless is More

May 22, 2018
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Nasso – Bless is More

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This week’s parasha contains one of only two prescribed blessings in all of Torah, the Birkat Kohanim. This blessing is so familiar to us, it is part of the morning shacharit, and is traditionally chanted by the Kohanim on Yom Kippur. Parents also say it over children on Erev Shabbat. I find it so meaningful that at Congregation Shuvah Yisrael it is our minchag to have a Kohen deliver this blessing every Shabbat at the end of mussaf.

This blessing is a cleverly crafted gem, which becomes particularly evident when studied in Hebrew. The blessing contains an increasing pattern of words on each line (three, five, seven) and an increasing pattern of both consonants (fifteen, twenty, twenty-five), and syllables (twelve, fourteen, sixteen). The very wording therefore creates a sense of meter, order, climax and completion.

What is ultimately apparent in the recitation of this blessing is that the Kohen serves an appointed and vital, yet limited role. He is not a magician generating magic, the Kohen is but A channel for blessing to pass through on the way from the HOLY blessing One to the Jewish People.  For that reason, each line begins by mentioning God as the active agent, and the last line explicitly states the words of Hashem, “I will bless them.” Read more »