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 »

Shavuos all Over Again

May 17, 2018
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Shavuos all Over Again

Yankee Hall of Famer Yogi Berra was renown for his unique and often comical manner of turning a phrase. One phrase that has become part of the American lexical tradition is “It’s like déjà vu all over again.” Déjà vu of course is that sensation we sometimes get that we’ve been here before – that what we are experiencing in some mysterious way has already happened.  If only we could experience the reality of the Scriptures in that way – but we can’t – or can we? People who think they were with Moses at Sinai, the event that is celebrated at Shavuos, are generally not allowed to walk the streets unattended. Still as we open Torah each week we do so in a manner that would suggest that we are receiving the Holy One’s instruction and gift anew on Mt. Sinai. On Shavuos this feeling should only be intensified.

There are many believers in Yeshua who understand their own experiences to be precisely the same as what his original followers experienced, complete with all the miraculous outworking.  They will often call this experience Pentecostal after the events that are described in Acts 2 of the Besorah. But to fully understand this phenomenon, I think it would be best for us to first understand the nature of the event in question. Read more »

Bamidbar – Wildfire, Water and the Wilderness

May 14, 2018
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Bamidbar – Wildfire, Water and the Wilderness

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This week we embarked upon our annual reading of Bamidbar.  The fourth book of the Torah is so named since it begins “Vay’daber Adonai el-Mosheh b’midbar Sinai (And the LORD spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai).” Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar both asks and answers, “Why does Hashem gift the Torah in the Wilderness?”  It goes on to explain that Torah is given in fire, water and wilderness. This is to teach us that just as each of these are free, so the learning of Torah is given freely.

Another approach to the Midrash is to understand fire, water and the wilderness as forces within man. Rabbi Shmuel Bornstein, for example, in his Shem MiShmuel, writes that fire refers to man’s heart, the inner fire that aspires to reach God, water refers to his mind, which adds an element of patience and reason in approaching the divine, and the wilderness refers to the renunciation of worldly pleasures which interfere with one’s spiritual pursuits. All three elements, he writes, are necessary for the study of Torah. I would like to extend this metaphor to both examine the potential hindrances to our growth and more importantly our capacity to endure and overcome these obstacles. Read more »