On Reconciliation, Building, and Bereishit

 

Yesterday was the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, commemorating the painful and tragic legacy of Indian Residential Schools in Canada. 140 such schools operated between 1831 and 1998. Over that time over 150,000 Indigenous (First Nations, Inuit, and Métis) children were taken from their homes and subjected to systematic erasure of their cultures, languages, and for too many, their lives. It is believed that more than 4000 children died. Among those who survived, many suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse at the hands of their “teachers.” 

Yesterday honoured the memories of the children who died, the survivors of Indian Residential Schools who carry these scars, their communities, and their families. As I stood on Parliament Hill on unceded Algonquin Anishinaabe territory, listening to the moving testimonies and calls to action of survivors of Indian Residential schools and Indigenous community leaders, I took in the collections of teddy bears and drawings, and hundreds of pairs of shoes — intimate and heartbreaking representations of children and childhoods taken away. Overhead, I kept looking up at the construction cranes and scaffolding flanking the Centre Block of the federal Parliament buildings. Their presence seemed especially fitting. 

The Centre Block is currently being taken down to the studs, to its very foundation, to be rebuilt for the needs of the future while maintaining its essential elements. Harmful and obsolete materials are being removed from within the building’s stone walls. It is the most significant renovation since the whole of Centre Block (save its Library of Parliament) was rebuilt after burning to the ground in 1916. It will take at least a decade.

True reconciliation in Canada, for the systemic harms and genocide committed and continuing to be committed against Indigenous peoples, will also take time. The very foundations of our country are in need of rebuilding and renewal. Systems — legal, educational, health and more — need to have their obsolete and harmful elements removed so that they can be rebuilt with the promise of the future.

Her Excellency the Right Honourable Mary May Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor General, emphasized the ongoing effort needed to achieve reconciliation:

Reconciliation requires effort every day, and this effort we must carry out for all time, for it has no end date or finish line. 

On this National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, I urge you to pause and reflect on Canada’s full history. Do it to honour those Indigenous children who experienced or witnessed cruel injustices. Many emerged traumatized, many still suffer pain. 

As we strive to resolve the tensions of the past with the promise of the future, we can stand together and move forward with grace and humility.

Make reconciliation a way of life.

On Parliament Hill, amidst the ceremony and the construction, I reflected on my responsibility to make reconciliation a way of life. My Judaism, particularly the arc of time from the month of Av in the summer through rebirth and renewal in Tishrei, gives me a frame for that.

The most recent events that led to the ceremonies on Parliament Hill were the discoveries of hundreds of unmarked childrens’ graves at various former Indian Residential Schools this past summer. This time corresponded with the months of Av and Elul. Av contains the spiritual low point of the Jewish year. On the 9th of Av we remember the destruction of the Temple, caused by sinat chinam / baseless hatred: the failure of people to see the fundamental holiness in each other. In Elul we focus on teshuvah, literally “returning,” repenting by acknowledging where we have missed the mark and taking concrete steps to correct past wrongs. 

The Talmud teaches that the Hebrew letters of the word Elul אלול represent the verse אני לדודי ודודי לי – I am my beloved’s and my beloved is mine (Song of Songs 6:3). At the core of the teshuvah process is a focus on connection and repairing relationships, with each other and with God. Yet before we are able to repair relationships and reconcile differences, we must first acknowledge the truth, the emet, of what caused brokenness or rupture in the first place. Only by facing the truth of what we have done can we embark on a journey of teshuvah, reconciliation and repair. 

This year, September 30th coincided with the end of Tishrei: a lived metaphor for how we embed the journey of emet to teshuvah in all aspects of our lives, year to year, cycle to cycle. It also coincided with restarting our Torah cycle with the first parsha, Bereishit, and its fundamental teaching that we are all created in the Divine image — all deserving of respect and love. 

As local Algonquin Elder Claudette Commanda emphasized speaking on Parliament Hill, creating space for truth and reconciliation, for emet and teshuvah is ultimately a gift to enable us to heal and grow: “Take this beautiful gift we are offering you; learn, listen and we will walk together to turn this country into a beautiful country for all our children.” Similarly, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s 2015 final report calls on us to work together “to transform Canadian society so that our children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace, and prosperity on these lands we now share.”

As I looked up at teddy bears and drawings and shoes and cranes and construction on Parliament Hill, all together, I wondered, will Canada rebuild in a way so that Indigenous and non-Indigenous children and grandchildren can live together in dignity, peace and prosperity? 

Our Sages taught that while it may not be upon us to complete the work, we are not free to desist from it (Pirkei Avot 2:21). It is aleinu, on us, to make that happen. And every year now, during our season of teshuvah surrounding the High Holidays and on September 30th. we will be able to take stock of our rebuilding and reconciliation together.

 

Resources:

 

And from work together this past summer with campers at URJ Camp George:

A land acknowledgment created and prepared by teen campers for camp. Inspired by a local indigenous name for the region, the background of the plaque evokes a glowing light.

a banner, on a background of orange handprints from all of camp, with the text “Every Child Matters” along with a quite from the Talmud (Berakhot 64a:14)- אַל תִּקְרֵי ״בָּנָיִךְ״ אֶלָּא ״בּוֹנָיִךְ״ – “Don’t call them your children, call them your builders,” which speaks to the fundamental role that our youth play in our present and our future. This quote from Talmud also inspired the name and mission of Bayit: Building Jewish!

 

 

Rabbi Dara Lithwick is on the Board of Bayit: Building Jewish. When not at work as a constitutional and parliamentary affairs lawyer, she is active as an outreach rabbi at Temple Israel Ottawa. Rabbi Dara is also chairing a Canadian Council for Reform Judaism group to develop a Tikkun Olam strategy for Canada and is the Canadian representative to the Union for Reform Judaism’s Commission on Social Action. (Find her whole bio on our Board page.)

Graceful Living / Graceful Masculinity: V’zos HaBracha

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

וַיָּ֨מת שָׁ֜ם מֹשֶׁ֧ה עֶבֶד־יְקוָ֛ק בְּאֶ֥רֶץ מוֹאָ֖ב עַל־פִּ֥י יְקוָֽק׃

And Moses, servant of Hashem, died there, in the land of Moab, by the mouth of Hashem.

Deuteronomy 34:5

 

Humanity comes into being with a breath from the Divine. The Torah begins the story of our interaction with a moment of intimacy between G-d and Adam, and its final verses of Deuteronomy with Mose’s death through a Divine kiss. These two events are deeply connected and an aspect of the relationship is alluded to in the verse 

וַיִּפַּח בְּאַפָּיו נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים וַיְהִי הָאָדָם לְנֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה

“and G-d breathed into his nostrils the soul of life; and Adam became a living soul”. 

In the Hebrew, the last letter of each word forms the phrase: “and Mose died” – וימת משה, another way of connecting the beginning and the end of the Torah.

In Sefer Yetzirah, the letter “ת” governs “חן” – grace, and corresponds to the “פה בנפש” – the mouth in the soul. The mouth is so powerful that King Solomon writes “Death and Life are in the power of the tongue – מָ֣וֶת וְ֭חַיִּים בְּיַד־לָשׁ֑וֹן”. The letter “ת” has a numerical value of 400, as do the words “יד לשון” – the power of the tongue. When a person misuses this power and speaks badly of another, literally a bad tongue, they are punished with the affliction of being a metzora, often translated as leprosy. Metzora – מצרע also has a numerical value of 400 and such a person is considered dead, until they go through the atonement process.

The Talmud further elaborates on the binary potential of the final letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the “ת”: Rav said “ ״תָּיו״ – תִּחְיֶה, ״תָּיו״ – תָּמוּת Tuv – will live – will die. However, even life and death turn out to not be a binary. For example, wicked people are called “dead” while they are still alive, while the righteous are called alive even after their souls are returned to their source. There is even a position in the Talmud that Moses never died. 

Moses is described as dying שם, there. The Talmud, using the exegetical principle of a gezerah shavah, connects the moment of Moses’ death to the moment when Moses received the Ten Commandments: “וֶהְיֵה־שָׁ֑ם וְאֶתְּנָ֨ה לְךָ֜ אֶת־לֻחֹ֣ת הָאֶ֗בֶן וְהַתּוֹרָה֙ וְהַמִּצְוָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֥ר כָּתַ֖בְתִּי לְהוֹרֹתָֽם – wait there, and I will give you the stone tablets with the teachings and commandments which I have inscribed to instruct them”. The Talmud continues: “Just as there, he was standing and serving [before G-d]; so too, here” after his death.

Rav Meir Simcha of Dvinsk explains that it is angels who stand in a particular spiritual place, while people have the unique ability to grow and transcend their current location. It is this constant striving for greater perfection that gives us spiritual mobility. King David describes it as “My feet are on a straight path. In assemblies I will bless G-d”. The mystics understand this to be a reference to תיקון זה סוד התי”ו – the redeeming of the letter “tuv”, that without the “foot” at the bottom left, advancing the cause, it would be the letter “ח”. 

This also speaks to the positive impact that we all want to have in this world. The world shouldn’t, and can’t, be the same without us. Our ability to make a difference isn’t limited just to the time we are alive. The Rabbis teach:  גדולים צדיקים במיתתן יותר מבחייהן the righteous are even greater after their passing than while they are living.

Perhaps this is why the order of King’s Solomon’s teaching places life after death: “Death and life are in the power of speech”. This follows the Talmud’s assertion:

דאמר רבי יוחנן משום רבי שמעון בן יוחי כל ת”ח שאומרים דבר שמועה מפיו בעולם הזה שפתותיו דובבות בקבר 

Rabbi Yochanan said in the name of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai: Every scholar whose Torah is recited, their lips move in the grave. 

It is possible that the Torah is emphasizing our ability to live on through our teachings and good deeds with the placement of this verse, as Moses dies, while eight verses of the Torah remain to be written.

Moshe was worthy of dying through a kiss from G-d because he sanctified his body as a vessel for Divine service. We are also able to live with a constant intimacy and closeness that offers us the opportunity to partner with the Creator in improving and enhancing this world, and the lives of those in it. As we look forward to reading Genesis next week, we recognize that beginnings and endings are fluid, and that a life lived with grace will always overflow the physical boundaries of time.

 

R. Mike Moskowitz is a founding builder at Bayit and scholar-in-residence at CBST

 

Graceful Bar Mitzvah / Graceful Masculinity: Nitzavim

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

רְאֵה נָתַתִּי לְפָנֶיךָ הַיּוֹם, אֶת-הַחַיִּים וְאֶת-הַטּוֹב, וְאֶת-הַמָּוֶת, וְאֶת-הָרָע.

See, I set before you this day, life and goodness, death and evil. (Deuteronomy 30:15)

 

The word “HaYom” is famously understood to be an allusion to Rosh Hashanah – the day that humans were first formed and the birthday of the world where again it is held responsible for its actions. This is also true for “the day” that a Jewish boy is held accountable for his actions as a man. Psalms 2:7, the thirteenth verse in the book, is referencing this day of one’s Bar Mitzvah: אֲסַפְּרָ֗ה אֶֽ֫ל־חֹ֥ק ה’ אָמַ֘ר אֵלַ֥י בְּנִ֥י אַ֑תָּה אֲ֝נִ֗י הַיּ֥וֹם יְלִדְתִּֽיךָ׃ – I declare, as an obligation, that G-d said to me, My son I birthed you today.

An immediate consequence of reaching Jewish adulthood is that one can make new contributions to the spiritual collective. The Medreshcites the Prophet Isaiah”עַם־זוּ֙ יָצַ֣רְתִּ  – this nation I formed” as a nod to the shift from just being a person to being part of a people. ”זו – Zu”, the Rabbis point out, also has a numerical value of thirteen. These thirteen years also correspond to the Thirteen Attributes of Mercy. The joy of this day is deeply connected to the power of the covenant of peoplehood י”ג מדו”ת ש”ל רחמי”ם = שמח”ת ב”ר מצו”ה (the joy of the Bar Mitzvah = thirteen Attributes of Mercy), both equalling 1091. 

Being obligated in commandments is the Divine expectation of accountability for others. Mitzvah is a language of connectivity and attachment. Saying the Shema and accepting the yoke of heaven is the first Biblical Mitzvah that one is commanded as an adult, and is why it is the subject of the first Mishna in the Talmud. It also opens with the instruction to cleave to the oneness (אחד) of G-d through love (אהבה); both which have a numerical value of thirteen.

This day marks the beginning of the journey, not its completion. Each and every day consists of choices; actions and inactions. Those decisions, to various degrees, bring us closer or further away from our ultimate goal of a perfected and intimate relationship with the Source of All Good.  We all want to choose life, but we don’t always realize that the path to get there is paved, in fact, with good deeds.

The Talmud tells the story of the great Rabbi Alexandri who would, like a merchant selling their wares, declare in the street: “מאן בעי חיי מאן בעי חיי – Who wants life? Who wants life?” Folks would gather around shouting “הב לן חיי – Give us life!” to which the Rabbi responded “מי האיש החפץ חיים … Who is the person who desires life …ס֣וּר מֵ֭רָע וַעֲשֵׂה־ט֑וֹב בַּקֵּ֖שׁ שָׁל֣וֹם וְרדְפֵֽהוּ  Remove yourself from evil and do good, desire peace and pursue it.” It is accessible to everyone but we must want it. As King David wrote גְּ֭דֹלִים מַעֲשֵׂ֣י ה’ דְּ֝רוּשִׁ֗ים לְכל־חֶפְצֵיהֶֽם, “Great are the deeds of G-d, available to all who want them.”

One way to achieve clarity of direction is to see the benefits that come from the good choices we make. King Solomon wrote about the Torah’s teachings, “My son . . .they will be life to your soul and a graceful [ornament] for your neck.” The Malbim understands this guarantee to be manifested during the study of Torah, in that grace is generated in the pleasantness of the experience both among people and G-d. This is also found in the teaching from Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa who posits that “one with whom people are pleased (chein), G-d is pleased. But anyone from whom people are displeased, G-d is displeased.

It is much easier to prepare for a particular day, than it is to show up and be present every day. Rosh HaShanah is one day but it sets the tone for the whole year. A boy’s bar mitzvah celebration is significant in that it projects an image of the kind of life he chooses to live. It can be difficult to sustain one’s vision across the long experience of time. Finding the sweetness and blessing in the work makes it sustainable. 

The Sifrei compares the learning of Torah to the presence of טל Tal-dew: just as the whole world rejoices with dew, so too with the Torah. This can be achieved in seeing the value of the choices we make day in and day out. The word ביום – with the day, equals חן – grace. Seeing ourselves as truly a bar mitzvah, a master of our holy destiny, empowers us to choose the good life – through a life of good deeds. 

 

R. Mike Moskowitz is a founding builder at Bayit and scholar-in-residence at CBST

 

Graceful Masculinity / Graceful Building: Ki Seitzei

כִּי תִבְנֶה בַּיִת חָדָשׁ, וְעָשִׂיתָ מַעֲקֶה לְגַגֶּךָ; וְלֹא-תָשִׂים דָּמִים בְּבֵיתֶךָ, כִּי-יִפֹּל הַנֹּפֵל מִמֶּנּוּ.

If you will build a new house, you shall make a fence for your roof, so that you will not place blood in your house if one who falls, falls from it. (Deuteronomy 22:8)

 

Our bodies house our souls and this verse from Deuteronomy is understood as referring not only to a new physical home, but also to a newly repentant body. As we prepare for Rosh Hashana we are tasked with repairing the mistakes of the last year, and in doing so we are rebuilding ourselves and creating a new ideal home for our soul. Old habits are hard to break and our tradition encourages us to generate positive momentum, through good actions, as the easiest way to shift our routines in the right direction. 

Just before the mitzvah of fencing in one’s roof, we are taught of the commandment to send away the mother bird prior to taking her young. Rashi explains the juxtaposition as “one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah.” When we habituate ourselves to doing good, it seems we are granted more opportunities to advance that cause. “Mitzvah” is a language of connectivity and brings us closer to G-d, the source of all goodness, and also manifests the goodness of our soul into this world. As an example, the Ramchal frames our ability to overcome laziness in relationship to our recognition of how good G-d is to us. Being roused to passionate acts of holiness is the natural consequence of removing the obstacles to that awareness. 

These commandments map our path of existence and accompany us along the journey. The Medresh applies the verse “for they are an adornment/accompaniment (לוית) of grace” to the mitzvah of building a fence on one’s parapet. King Solomon, the author of Proverbs, could have simply stated that the Torah guides us on our way –  what role does grace play in it?

In the mystical tradition, a person’s head corresponds to G-d’s Name, the shem Havaya and is alluded to in the fence, גגך, also having a numerical value of 26. Just as a person on the top of a building needs protection from falling, so too the Divine presence resting atop a person’s faculties also needs to be guarded.  

This natural resting place of the Divine was lost after the sin in the garden, but is restored through repentance. We now must be proactive in preserving this aspect of the Alufo Shel Alom, The One Source of the World, represented in the Aleph א of Adam אדם. The letter א is made up of two yuds “י” and a vuv “ו”, equalling 26. The mystics read this verse as a warning to protect our holiness or risk losing the aleph and again descending “to have blood” – dam דם – adam without the aleph.

The Medresh tells the story about Adam’s ability to name all of the animals, based on their essential identities. After proving his skillset, G-d asks Adam: “And what is my name”? Adam answers with the Shem Havya as it says אֲנִ֥י יְקוָ֖ק ה֣וּא שְׁמִ֑י – I am Hashem, that is my name – because it is what Adam called me.The Medresh concludes by explaining that this name provides the condition for us to be in a relationship with G-d through the commandments.

This is the function of being guided by grace. When we move with the intention of healing the brokenness of the world, we are presented with a G-dly partnership to repair it all. King David writes יְחׇנֵּ֥נוּ וִיבָרְכֵ֑נוּ יָ֤אֵֽר פָּנָ֖יו אִתָּ֣נוּ סֶֽלָה May G-d be gracious and bless us, may G-d illuminate G-d’s countenance with us. It has been observed that G-d shines “with us” (אִתָּ֣נוּ), not “on us”. Grace is first given to us, and then we are blessed with the hidden light of the Torah to renew our body and spirit.

 

R. Mike Moskowitz is a founding builder at Bayit and scholar-in-residence at CBST

 

Graceful Acceptance / Graceful Masculinity: Chukas

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה, אֲשֶׁר-צִוָּה יְהוָה לֵאמֹר:  דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין-בָּהּ מוּם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ, עֹל.

This is the statute of the Torah, which Hashem has commanded saying: Speak to the Children of Israel and they shall take to you a perfectly red cow, which has no blemish, which hasn’t had a yoke on it. (Numbers 19:2)

An interesting, if counterintuitive, aspect of the laws of the red heifer is that while the ritual of sprinkling its ashes purifies one who is impure, the pure person performing the ritual becomes impure. The Talmud (Nidda 9a)  asserts that even King Solomon, the wisest of all people, was baffled by this law. The verse “All this I tested with wisdom, I thought I could fathom it [through wisdom], but it eludes me – כּל־זֹ֖ה נִסִּ֣יתִי בַֽחכְמָ֑ה אָמַ֣רְתִּי אֶחְכָּ֔מָה וְהִ֖יא רְחוֹקָ֥ה מִמֶּֽנִּי” is understood by the Tamud as King’s Solomon’s acknowledgement that wisdom alone could not assist him to comprehend these precepts.

We often have a hard time understanding identities or experiences that are not our own. The rabbis observe this lack of first person engagement as an inhibitor to completely grasping Torah concepts.  A person doesn’t understand words of Torah until they have stumbled [in them] – אין אדם עומד על דברי תורה אלא אם כן נכשל (Gittin 43a).

The Ohev Yisrael explains that we naturally think of ourselves as having a proper perspective on things and therefore assume we are going on the right path. However, when life happens and we fall down, we have an opportunity to acknowledge our mistakes, in light of the revealed truth of the matter, and to reorient accordingly. This is particularly true of folks who see themselves as “having no blemish.”

This, says the Chozeh Lublin, can only happen when a person “hasn’t had a yoke [of Torah] on them”. In other words, only a person who is unaware of the work that needs to be done in the world, and their role in it, can think that they have attained perfection.

Simply learning about a concept or idea doesn’t necessarily deliver the impact or proximity as a heart connection to those affected by the teaching. This is alluded to in the verse (Psalms 119:165) “There is an abundant peace to the lovers of your Torah, and they don’t have a stumbling block – שָׁל֣וֹם רָ֭ב לְאֹהֲבֵ֣י תוֹרָתֶ֑ךָ וְאֵֽין־לָ֥מוֹ מִכְשֽׁוֹל.” There is a particular grace and care that is achieved through the love that one has for another as a result of the investment of deep listening and learning. 

In Hebrew, the word for ear is ozen / אזן which has the same numerical value as grace, chein / חן  (AriZ”l). Listening is essential in learning the oral law and by toiling in it, we can broaden and develop our sensitivities to society. The role of grace in this is alluded to in the number of chapters of Mishnayos, 524, equaling the full spelling of the two letters in grace -חן-chein: חי”ת נו”ן. Additionally, תלמוד בבלי – Babylonian Talmud also has the numerical value of 524 (Seforim Hakedoshim). Through a deep engagement with the oral law, we train ourselves to listen carefully and internalize teachings, even when we do not completely understand them.

We always read and study this portion in preparation for the saddest time of the year, the three weeks leading up to the destruction of the Temple. Our rabbis teach that the Temple was destroyed, and we remain in exile, because of sinas chinam – meaning hating people without reason. One of the lessons from studying a law that we can’t understand, but nevertheless accept, is that it models how to do the same with people. 

We don’t need to understand another person in order to accept them. One shouldn’t have to get to know someone, and then find something positive in them to justify caring about them. We don’t need reasons to love people. G-d’s love for us isn’t dependent on anything. The unconditional love that G-d has for us as children should motivate us to extend that ahavas chinam – free love – to all of our siblings.

That which is seen as perfect, perhaps conveys impurity to remind us that our path towards perfection necessitates struggle, and that struggle is itself purifying.

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Takings / Graceful Masculinity: Shlach

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

שְׁלַח-לְךָ אֲנָשִׁים, וְיָתֻרוּ אֶת-אֶרֶץ כְּנַעַן, אֲשֶׁר-אֲנִי נֹתֵן, לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  אִישׁ אֶחָד אִישׁ אֶחָד לְמַטֵּה אֲבֹתָיו, תִּשְׁלָחוּ–כֹּל, נָשִׂיא בָהֶם.

Send forth for yourself men and let them spy out the Land of Canaan that I give to the Children of Israel; one man each from his fathers’ tribe shall you send, every one a leader among them. (Numbers 13:2)

 

Before Moses sent the scouts to report back on the land of Israel there was a sensitivity training of sorts, on the proper way to speak. Rashi observes that the spies are sent right after the incident of Miriam, who was punished for the way she spoke against her brother. Rashi notes, “these wicked ones saw [what happened to her] and yet didn’t learn from it.” The phrase that Rashi uses to describe their failure is the lack of “taking mussar-וְלֹא לָקְחוּ מוּסָר”, often translated as rebuke, and speaks to one’s capacity to become more aware of a better way of being and to then to grow into that better person.

Our ability to break cycles and patterns of negativity is generally contingent upon our optimism and hopefulness in achieving a different outcome. If we can’t see the positive potential that exists, it is much harder to try and actualize it. Lashon hara, speaking badly about another, at its core is highlighting the worst, and not the potential for improvement. 

The Talmud, Arachin 15a, offers the incident of the spies as the prooftext for the severity of lashon hara. “If one who defames the wood and rocks [of Israel] received such [a severe punishment], then one who defames another person, all the more so.” From the Talmud’s perspective, it seems that we are meant to learn from speaking badly about the land, that doesn’t have feelings or a soul, to know not to treat people that way. However Rashi, quoting the Medrish, blames the spies for not learning from speaking badly about a person to apply it to the land. The punishment of wandering in the desert for forty years seems quite excessive for not being about to intuit this a fortiori!  

Nachmanides implies that the essence of the sin of the spies was a lack of faith in G-d providing safe passage. Rashi (in Deuteronomy) explains that before this sin, they could have gone in peacefully without weapons and settled the land, but because of their lack of faith, they would eventually need to engage in the natural way of fighting for the land.

Indeed the word “שלח” “sh’lach” is an anagram of חלש meaning weak. They only needed to scout out the land because their faith in G-d’s ability to guide and protect them was deficient. They couldn’t imagine a different version that prioritized the spiritual over the physical. 

When they spoke out about the land, they could have focused on the positive, but chose not to. This is no different from the root of Miriam’s claim to Moses, assuming that he was like other prophets and therefore should have remained married. 

Rabbi E. B. Finkel points out that Rashi understands the problem with the spies not as one of a technical issue of speaking badly, but for not learning the lesson and working on themselves. A person, who speaks lashon hara is negatively affected when they diminish the Divine image in another person, and even the holiness of an object. He quotes R’ Chaim Shmuelevitz that the punishment of 40 years is not for the one moment of speaking badly, but for the entire 40 days where they were carrying these negative views. 

Perhaps this is why Rashi uses the language of “taking mussar.” It is not enough to learn or study in a proscriptive way, but a person needs to proactively deliberate and take the lessons, even if no one is giving them, to best know how to act. The Medresh (Mishlei 22:1), teaching about the value of חן, explains that the source of good, in grace, is in taking a truth and applying it to new situations.

We find similar advice in the Sefas Emes (Parshas Noach) who encourages us to guard and protect against anything that comes to minimize the Divine Image in humanity, because it is that image that produces grace. G-d’s expectations of us extend beyond our actions, to the root of our desire to learn from the world around us. Being able to appreciate the holiness of the land requires us to first be sensitive to the even greater holiness of people, and the potential for a peaceful coexistence.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

The Graceful Lightness of Being / Graceful Masculinity: B’ha’alot’kha

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְהוָה, לָמָה הֲרֵעֹתָ לְעַבְדֶּךָ, וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן, בְּעֵינֶיךָ:  לָשׂוּם, אֶת-מַשָּׂא כָּל-הָעָם הַזֶּה–עָלָי.

Moses said to Hashem: “Why have you done evil to your servant, why haven’t I found favor in your eyes, that you place the burden of the entire people upon me?” (Numbers 11:11)

 

When we sense G-d’s closeness, our struggles feel holy, not heavy. As the clarity of our purpose increases, the internal resistance decreases – until the only opposition is coming from outside of us. When Adam and Eve were first created there was no doubt about who they were, in relationship to G-d. Then the snake came along and deceived them. By ingesting the forbidden fruit, they internalized the evil inclination and then needed to battle within themselves, to purge that voice of distraction that tries to divert our power away from goodness.

As G-d spoke this world into existence, through different utterances, the verses confirm “and it was so” “כן”, except for the creation of light where the word “כן” is missing. The rabbis explain that G-d was concerned that the light would be misused and so although G-d said “Let there be light”, G-d concealed and separated it for the righteous in the future (Chagigah 12a). This primordial light finds expression when Aharon lights the menorah and it is marked with the word “כן” (Emunas Eticha).

In the Genesis narrative, the word “light” (אור/ohr) is mentioned five times in the process of its formation. As a reference to that hidden light, we also find the word “ohr” five times in this week’s Torah portion. The light of the menorah also represents the light of the Torah and its wisdom, as the Talmud says: “the one who wants to be wise should face south” (Bava Basra 25b) for that is where the menorah was placed (Maharsha).

This wisdom, a consequence of the original light, is alluded to in the letter aleph (HaTzvi V’ Hatzadik) as the verse says (Job 33:33)  וַאֲאַלֶּפְךָ֥ כְמָֽה. The letter aleph “א“ is formed with two pairs of a yud and a vuv – יוי – one on top and one on the bottom (Megaleh Amukos 164) having a numerical value of 32 and corresponding to the 32 paths of wisdom and the heart (lev לב), the source of this understanding.

Moses had a light that shone from his face, and according to Tikunei Zohar (Genesis 36b), it originated in the light from the garden. Moses achieved this by correcting the sin of Adam and replacing the ohr (skin עור) with ohr (light אור) restoring the prelapsarian partnership with G-d. 

The Israelites had also acquired an elevated level, above the natural physical order, and were sustained by the mana. However, when they asked for meat, they no longer wanted to subside in such a spiritual plane and desired more physicality. They lowered themselves and created a separation from G-d, just as Adam and Eve did in the garden; desiring the desire for choice.

It is in this moment that Moses, as their teacher, feels the absence of this light and the subsequent weight of carrying the people without the same Divine assistance (R’ Vulli). The word for “found” in the phrase “Why haven’t I found favor in your eyes –וְלָמָּה לֹא-מָצָתִי חֵן בְּעֵינֶיךָ ” is missing the aleph (Iben Ezra). It was the people’s desire for meat that once again forced the exchange of the light for skin, and is alluded to in the word following “grace” “eynecha” literally “your eyes” but also meaning “your letter ע” (Yeytev Lev).

Having grace makes it easier for others to become close to us, and for us to be close to others. Knowing with certainty that G-d expects us to take care of one another, makes the desire for anything else no longer an option to choose from. While the work is still challenging, it is not burdensome. Feeling this partnership with G-d reminds us that with G-d’s help, nothing is impossible.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

Graceful Flags / Graceful Masculinity: Bamidbar

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

אִישׁ עַל-דִּגְלוֹ בְאֹתֹת לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם, יַחֲנוּ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:  מִנֶּגֶד, סָבִיב לְאֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יַחֲנוּ.

The Children of Israel shall encamp, each man at his banner according to the signs of their father’s house, at a distance surrounding the Tent of Meeting shall they encamp. (Bamidbar 2:2)

 

Our collective pursuit of unity requires the expansion of our individual identities, not an erasure of them. These forty nine days of counting the Omer correspond to the forty nine different ways that Moshe expounded on the Torah and encourage us to harvest the good that exists in the paths of others as a way of advancing our own development. The Medresh (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:3) finds support for this from the verse (Song of Songs 2:4) “[G-d] brought me to the banquet room and [G-d’s] banner of love was over me -הֱבִיאַ֙נִי֙ אֶל־בֵּ֣ית הַיָּ֔יִן וְדִגְל֥וֹ עָלַ֖י אַהֲבָֽה׃”. Banner / ודגלו has a numerical value of forty nine, an allusion to the various pairings of attributes – מדה – (also 49) with each other.

We are taught (Sanhedrin 90a) that all of G-d’s attributes are applied measure for measure – Midah K’neged Midah שכל מדותיו של הקב”ה מדה כנגד מדה. The Code of Jewish Law, (428:4) instructs us to always read this portion before Shavuot and it is seen as part of our preparation for the annual re-experiencing of Mt Sinai. The Munkatcher Rebbe points out the word “Neged” is a reference to the giving of the Torah (Exodus 19:2) where Israel was “opposite the mountain.” Neged is a contranym, a word that has contradicting meanings, and here means both corresponding to and also in opposition.

We first find this when G-d forms a “helpmate” – ezer k’negdo – for Adam (Genesis 2:18). The Talmud (Yevamos 63a), sees this strange phrase as conditional: if one is worthy, then they will have a partner; if not – an opponent.

Rashi also deploys this word “k’neged’ to describe the arrangement of the different tribes that Bilam observes when he comes to curse the people of Israel (Numbers 24:2). However, when he sees “the openings of the tents were not aligned/k’neged to each other” (and therefore there is privacy between them) he offers the blessing of Ma Tovu – “How goodly are your tents.”

R’ Asher Rapshitz (Ohr Yeshie) explains that each one of us has a unique “opening” to spiritual practice. He understands the obligation to ask ourselves “when will my actions reach those of my ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob?” (Tana D’bei Eleyahu) not to mean that we should try to imitate our ancestors and simply act as they did, but just as our forefathers were each unique and brought new attributes to Divine service like kindness and strength, so too should we bring a new blend of ourselves.

This is also alluded to in the Talmudic principle (Succah 11b) of תַּעֲשֶׂה וְלֹא מִן הֶעָשׂוּי – We should prepare [the sukkah], and not just use that which has already been prepared (Rav Tov). A posture of creative production is not unique to building a sukkah, rather it generates the holiness of our spiritual contributions. They are offerings of our unique makeup.

Exploring who we are and how we are meant to be in the moment is the core of being human. Asking oneself “what is the right thing for me to do now?” is essential in creating the best outcome, particularly for a pleasant coexistence. The word for encampment – machene – is composed of the words מה חן ma chein, “what” and “grace.” Understanding what makes us different allows us to relate appropriately and come closer to each other as our distinct selves.

The way G-d spoke to Moshe at the burning bush was different from the way G-d spoke to all of Israel at the giving of the Torah. The Sifra (Parshat Vayikra), in comparing and contrasting the two languages, says that we can learn the teaching from the hermeneutical exegesis known as a binyan av. These thirteen Midos, or principles, correspond to the thirteen Midos HaRachamim, or Attributes of Mercy. According to Reb Lev Yitchak of Berditchev (Kidushas Levi Exodus Ki Sisa) the binyan av corresponds to chein – grace. When we can learn from each other and incorporate that knowledge into building better relationships, we develop more gracefulness. 

Each one of us has our own flag and special purpose in this world. Sometimes it is to be in support of those around us, and other times it is to be in opposition. The important lesson is to be thoughtful and deliberate in harnessing what is unique about us to improve the world for everyone. 

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

 

Graceful Fluidity / Graceful Masculinity: Behar

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 

אֶת-שַׁבְּתֹתַי תִּשְׁמֹרוּ, וּמִקְדָּשִׁי תִּירָאוּ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה.

My Sabbaths shall you observe and My Sanctuary shall you revere – I am Hashem. (Leviticus 26:2)

Shabbat is in invitation for a time of deep and personal intimacy with G-d. It is also a time of great expansiveness to support the multifaceted spectrums of connectivity. We are told that on the shabbat we are given an additional soul to accommodate the soul’s dominance over the body, particularly in an arc of gender sensitivities.1

Although there is a dispute about which day of the month the Torah was given, “According to everyone it was given on the shabbos.” Shavuot is seen as the wedding between the Jewish People and G-d, that we prepared for by counting seven weeks from the blood of Passover (Zohar).  The two tablets were given to affect the kiddushin under the chuppah of Mount Sinai (Haflah).  Tradition also teaches that this is re-experienced every week with the shabbat (Igeres Hatyul). The Ari Z”l says it is reflected in the unique blessing in the Friday night prayer “Atah Kedashta” – which can either mean “you sanctified,” or “you betrothed.”

G-d’s identity in this relationship, like the People of Israel’s, is gender fluid. We find the Jewish people as a bride אֲרוּסָתוֹ שֶׁל הַקָּבָּ”ה יִשְׂרָאֵל – G-d’s bride is Israel (Rashi Exodus 34:1), and the tablets are the Shtar – marriage document (Baal Haturim Exodus 19:4) to the bride. Even the standard structure of the wedding blessing today, “Who sanctified your people Israel though chuppah and kiddushin,” is referring to the wedding between us and G-d at Sinai (Sheta Mekubetzes).

We also find that the Jewish People are referred to as the groom, marrying the Torah (Pesachim 49b), where G-d is the father of the bride (Shemot Rabbah 33:1), and the Mikdash – sanctuaries that we are commanded to build – are quarters for G-d, as G-d is our in-law who just wants to be close to us, wherever we are.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon is short lived. Just forty days later, we sinned against G-d in an adulterous act with the golden calf (Rashi Exodus 32:20 and Avodah Zarah 44a). G-d’s identity as the Creator necessitates our exclusivity in faithful monotheism. It also translates into the validation of this identity through the celebration of the Sabbath. The Rabbis go so far as to equate observing the Sabbath as a fulfillment of the entire Torah (Ohr Hachaim 26:2).

Maimonides, in concluding his laws of forbidden relationships, writes that “the greatest antidote to acting inappropriately is to turn oneself and one’s thoughts to words of Torah and immerse their mind in wisdom, because inappropriate thoughts do not rule in one’s mind except in the mind of one whose heart is turned away from wisdom. Regarding wisdom it is said, ‘It is a beloved hind, arousing grace. . . You shall be obsessed with her love (Proverbs 5:19).”

The Talmud (Eruvin 52b) explains the comparison teaching that “matters of Torah are cherished by those who study them each and every hour like the first hour.” Each part of this verse, according to the Vilna Gaon, refers to one of the four layers of the Torah’s פרדס – Pardes, and their corresponding levels of physical, and intellectual, intimacy.

One of the consequences of the breaking of the first set of tablets, at the sin of the Golden Calf, is the necessity for the oral law (Shar Yissaschar). The Torah is referred to as both  male and female, even in the same verse (Exodus 12:49). It is also understood that the written skews masculine while the oral towards the feminine (Kiddushin 2b Ben Yehoyada). Reb Tzadok (Dover Tzedek) teaches that, although the entire Torah is from G-d, the written represents G-d’s wisdom while the oral is from Israel’s. The Zohar’s (3:73a) famous teaching that G-d, Torah, and Israel are one, can be understood as the process of G-d and the Jewish people sanctifying their union at Sinai through the written Torah, and then, coming together with the Oral Law (R’ Eliyahu Baruch). 

There is no grace like the fulfillment of the Torah – אין חן כקיום התורה (Shevet Mussar). However unlike the Shabbat, that comes every 7 days with or without us, we are responsible for showing up to do our part in furthering the acceptance, understanding, and production of Torah. The more we revisit it, the newer, deeper, and more personal it becomes. As we prepare for Shavuot, let us feel empowered and embodied to expand our connectivity to it beyond just our lived experience, by experiencing it as part of the collective whole. 

 

1. [See Shabbos as an All Gender Experience]

By R. Mike Moskowitz.

Graceful Progress / Graceful Masculinity: Emor

Part of a periodic Torah series on graceful masculinity and Jewish values.

 וּסְפַרְתֶּם לָכֶם, מִמָּחֳרַת הַשַּׁבָּת, מִיּוֹם הֲבִיאֲכֶם, אֶת-עֹמֶר הַתְּנוּפָה:  שֶׁבַע שַׁבָּתוֹת, תְּמִימֹת תִּהְיֶינָה.

You shall count for yourselves, from the morrow of the rest of the day, from the day when you bring the omer of the waving, seven weeks, they shall be complete. (Leviticus 23:15)

 

We find the “Exodus of Egypt” mentioned fifty times in the Torah (Gra), just as the world was created with fifty gates of wisdom (Rosh Hashanah 21b). We also find that when the Israelites left Egypt they were on the 49th level of spiritual impurity (Zohar P’ Yisro) and on the brink of reaching spiritual annihilation.  Remarkably, only 7 weeks later when they stood at Mount Sinai, they had reached the 49th level of holiness. (Rokeach

Every year we re-experience the transition, from going out of Egypt to receiving the Torah, by counting the 49 days of the Omer. It is intended to be a deeply personal and individualized process of really working on one’s own evolution and development. The Talmud (Menachus 65b) understand the word “לכם” you, as “each and every one” shall count for yourselves. 

These seven weeks are described in the verse as temimot, perfect and whole. Rashi explains temimot as meaning complete, in that we must begin counting on the second night of Passover, so that the first day of counting isn’t deficient. The midrash though understands temimot not as a technically complete count, but as complete in a spiritual sense. The midrash explains:

אֵימָתַי הֵן תְּמִימוֹת? בִּזְמַן שֶׁיִּשְׂרָאֵל עוֹשִׂין רְצוֹנוֹ שֶׁל מָקוֹם 

“When are these [seven weeks] complete? When Israel is doing the will of the G-d”. 

Clearly something about the verse is bothering the midrash that it was moved to reframe it. What does doing the Divine will have to do with counting to 49? Additionally, the task of this period of time is specifically to shift the negative into the positive. Rav Vachtfolgel Z”tl observes that this is why the word “שבתות” Shabbats are used as opposed to shavuot, meaning weeks – because it is about sanctifying oneself like the shabbos. How then are we meant to see the past as perfect if we are invested in changing it for the future?

The Ksav V’kabala explains temimut as an indicator of quality, not quantity. When a person is focused on doing their best, whatever that might be, it is called complete. It is so specific to the moment that even the same person should be seen differently, depending on where they are holding. 

Our rabbis also see an allusion, in the verse, to Abraham who is told lech-lecha, go for yourself. The midrash points out that G-d said those words to Abraham earlier in his spiritual journey, when he first left his father’s home, and again many years later, when he is commanded to sacrifice his son Isaac. The midrash continues by saying “and we don’t know which was a greater test.” An explanation is given, by the Slonimer Rebbe, that both of these tests were equally challenging because they reflected where Abraham was at the time. Comparing the two doesn’t help in evaluating the degree of difficulty of the moment.

We find a similar framing of the tam, the “simple son” in the Haggadah. The Vilina Gaon sees him as the counterpoint to the wicked son in that they are each equally focused on either coming closer or further away from G-d. Jacob too is described (Genesis 25:27) as a “simple man who sat in tents.” Jacob was simple in that there was no complexity of competing interests besides just doing the right thing.

Perhaps this is what the midrash is coming to answer: How can you claim that the seven weeks are tam – pure, perfect, and pristine – when it is clearly a work in progress? The important lesson being taught here is that the ideal is in flux. As we do our best to grow and change, every point along the way is tamim, or perfect. As we grow, so does the goodness, but those advancements don’t minimize or cancel the past.

It is for this reason that we find in Psalms (84:12) “Grace and glory does Hashem bestow; G-d withholds no goodness from those who walk in perfect innocence (בְּתָמִֽים).” Two people can do or say the same thing, but it can land very differently (Pele Yoetz). Chein, grace, is the difference in the way the action is perceived and it is determined by the intention and effort of the person in the moment.

If we can’t appreciate the changes that we are making for the good, because the comparison to the past highlights our shortcomings, we inhibit and deter future development. In repenting for unintentional transgressions we acknowledge that “had I known then what I know now, I would have acted differently.” When we are trying as hard as we can to develop into the best version of ourselves each moment, we immediately come to learn that the ceiling quickly becomes the floor. In reflecting back on earlier times “when we just didn’t know any better,” we need to be critical of society and the factors that contributed to that environment, but knowing better, and acting differently because of that wisdom today, is a holy accomplishment.

 

By R. Mike Moskowitz.