Friday, May 23, 2014

The Pause that Refreshes - Reflections on Parashat Bamidbar 5774

This week's parasha, the opening of the fourth book of the Torah, describes the census of the Jewish People taken at the foot of Mount SInai, just prior to our headlong thrust to claim our inheritance, the Land of Israel.

Census-taking. Number crunching. Head-counts. The material is...well...a bit dry; slim pickings, homiletically speaking. Pulpit rabbis are saved by the fact that, in most years, this parasha immediately precedes Shavuot, so there's lots to talk about there: the Shloshet Y'mei Hagbalah, the three days of preparation  prior to the giving of the Torah, etc. 

But not this year. We are compelled, by the calendar as it were, to spend time reflecting on Parashat Bamidbar on its own terms. Here's some food for thought.

This census was taken on the 1st day of Iyar in the second year of our departure from Egypt. In those 13 months, we had come a relatively short distance, but a very long way. 

We departed from Egypt as an undisciplined rabble; it was a scene of barely controlled chaos. One can imagine the frenzy of the departure: people running, screaming, arms waving wildly in the air; the strong moving faster, the weak falling behind, parents desperately trying to keep their families together amid the balagan; mules, camels, wagons, the nobility all moving at their own pace. The Torah states that the cowardly Amalekites attacked the stragglers: the oldest, weakest and most tired of the pack. 

Fast forward to our parasha, the 1st of Iyar, barely a year later. We have received the Torah from Gcd at Mount Sinai - an ethical/legal code unparalleled in the history of human civilization. We have a functioning judiciary. We have an executive triumvirate in the form of Moshe, Aharon & Miriam. 

We have an established an orderly community: three concentric circles composed of the Mishkan/the Tabernacle, surrounded by Machaneh Levi'im/the Levite encampment surrounded by Machaneh Yisrael/ the Israelite encampment, organized by tribe, clan and family, each with its own standard fluttering proudly in the breeze.

We have an order of march - never again will the the weak and the stragglers be left behind. We have an efficient system for disassembling, transporting and re-assembling the Mishkan, itself a marvel of engineering. We have a system  of communications with the shofarot and the silver trumpets.

And most important of all, we have the Shechinah, the palpable presence of the A-lmighty dwelling in our midst, with a pillar of cloud to lead us by day, and a pillar of fire to lead us by night.

We've come a long way, baby. 

Our work at Sinai is now completed. In the space of a year, we have imposed order on the chaos and built a functioning society. We are ready to go, to begin our campaign to reclaim the Land of Israel. But before we move out, we take stock. We do a head count; we take a moment to reflect on where we've been before we write the next chapter of the history of the Jewish people.

Sometimes life is not all about the next achievement, the next milestone, the next sales goal. It's important once in a while to take a step back and look at where we've been. If you don't know where you've been, how can you know where you're going?

Every Friday evening on my walk to Kabbalat Shabbat, I try to reflect on the week that was. And we have a little custom in our family that during Shabbat dinner, before we sing, even before we share words of Torah, we go around the table and everyone shares at least one good thing that happened to them this week.

So perhaps the message of Bamidbar is to take time out once in a while (maybe once a week? - hint hint) to reflect on our successes and and setbacks, and thus prepare ourselves for the great things that are no doubt coming our way.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Truth or Consequences - Reflections on Parashat Bechukotai 5774

If Flannery O'Connor, Edgar Allen Poe and Stephen King had a baby, and that guy set out to write the saddest, most blood-curdling story ever, it would read a lot like this week’s Torah portion. Called in Hebrew the “Tochachah” or Admonition, we are warned in the most graphic terms what will happen if we Jews abandon Gcd and His Torah – seven escalating stages of war, plague, famine, paralyzing fear, exile and painful death. Ouch.

The punishments are balanced by rewards. Happily, the beginning of the Torah portion begins with the flip side – the good stuff that will happen if we cling to Gcd and Torah. Excellent. Lovely. There’s only one problem with this whole setup. We are taught elsewhere in the Torah that we don’t know the rewards for obedience to Gcd’s will, or the punishments for rebellion. The Mishnah in Pirkei Avot states: “Be as careful with a light mitzvah as with a serious mitzvah, for no one knows the reward for either.” (2:1) Well which one is it?  It seems like a pretty serious contradiction.

In truth, the Mishnah is bang on: we have no clue what is defined as a big mitzvah or an insignificant mitzvah, or what the eternal reward is for any mitzvah, or even its opposite, Gcd forbid. Therefore, it follows that Bechukotai is not about rewards and punishments for deeds or misdeeds. It can’t be. In fact, (brace yourself, I’m about to say something very bold here) I don’t think Gcd punishes us at all.

What? No punishment? Ka-ching. Correct. Gcd, who is utterly and completely good; Gcd, who is the font of all goodness in the universe; Gcd, who wants only good for all of His creations; Gcd, whom we address with the title of “Goodness” three times a day*; that Gcd doesn’t punish us for our misdeeds. He doesn’t have to; we punish ourselves.

Bechukotai is not about reward and punishment, but it is all about actions and their consequences.  Good consequences naturally flow from good acts. The consequence is embedded in the deed itself, encoded, as it were, in the DNA of the mitzvah. And of course, the opposite is also, tragically, true. 

Gcd built the universe on cause and effect.  The universe is not random, and that is a very good thing. But that is also why the vast majority of the pain in our lives is self-inflicted: our pain stems from the consequences of our less-than-ideal choices.

Let’s say a person does something really heinous, like premeditated murder, and then does teshuvah – a very real, gut-wrenching penitence, meaning confession, regret, amends, resolve, etc.; a sincere teshuva that shakes him to the core of his being. Through his teshuva, he may be forgiven for the murder in the next world, the world of true reward and punishment; but even a genuine penitent must still deal with the consequences of his old ways in this world. You can fish the pebble out of the pond, but you can't take back the ripples.

The problem is that we don’t always see the fallout from our behavior right away; sometimes it takes years for the chickens to come home to roost. The heart attack at age 57 started with the daily ration of bacon and eggs at age 7. Folks live on the couch, eat plastic food for decades and wonder why they have cancer, heart disease, arthritis and diabetes. Then we start taking meds to correct these problems, and more pills to counteract with the side effects of the other pills…a downward spiral, kind of like the seven levels of the Tochachah. 

Comes Bechukotai to remind us of the ineluctable causality between action & consequence, even if the cause and effect are separated by decades. And maybe that's why this section is called “Admonition” and not “Punishment”. 'Pay heed,' the Torah is saying, 'crises don't arise in a vacuum. Connect the dots and you will arrive at the correct conclusion.'

So the silver lining in this very sobering parshah is that, through our decisions and actions, we are (at least in some measure) in control of our own destiny. That is very empowering. We are not victims of capricious, cruel fate. Next, popping up a level, the aggregate of our individual choices determines our national destiny, and by extension the destiny of the world. Hashem desperately wants us to choose properly, as does any parent who wishes to see their children spared of unnecessary pain.

In the run up to Shavuot, the festival of the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, let us pray for less hurt, more healing, and perhaps...better decision making.

Shabbat Shalom.

* We say in the Amidah, "...Your Name is "Goodness" and to You praise is befitting."