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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.

 

Making Everyone Count

 

Part of a yearlong Torah series on building and builders in Jewish spiritual life.

 

The book of Bamidbar (“In the Wilderness”) begins with instruction to take a census. Literally, the Hebrew instructs Moses to “Lift up the heads” of the whole community. (Well, sort of: the original instruction was to lift up the heads of men capable of bearing arms. Today we have different understandings of gender and who counts.)

“Lift up the heads” colloquially means to count people numerically, and also implies uplifting heart and spirit so that everyone counts and knows that they count. This twin meaning has profound implications for building the Jewish future.

In a physical building context, a general contractor must know how many people are on the build team. Even more, she needs to know each individual builder’s talents, and how to uplift each person to best deploy the skills most needed for each building task. It’s a simple pair of instructions that asks heart, care, and curiosity.  Who are our potential collaborators? What are their skills and gifts, their passions, the unique contributions to the work that each of these people is uniquely well-suited to make? How can we, in our build teams, “lift up each head?”

We have to really know each other to know what work will most inspire. Is my fellow builder someone who wants a discrete task, or will they best thrive with flexibility and latitude? How do they best communicate? What kinds of things do they like to do, and what kinds of tasks are likely to enervate them — or to energize?

One of Bayit’s grand experiments is a rotating leadership model, in which everyone takes turns serving as chair. This model was inspired by the story of Reb Zalman and the rebbe chair. Reb Zalman z”l used to teach from the head of the Shabbes or festival table — and then invite everyone to rise, move over one seat, and let the next person serve as the “rebbe.” In inviting everyone at the table to sit in the “rebbe chair,” Reb Zalman taught that leadership comes through us, not from us, and that leadership is temporary, not permanent.

We evolved our leadership model to uplift values of collective engagement and collective responsibility, balancing collaborative decision-making with clear channels of communication and responsibility. Each of us has the opportunity to step up and then step back. We also built into our system the assumption that folks can “pass” on serving as Board chair if their name comes up in the rotation at a time that doesn’t work well for them.

As we move into our second year of this leadership model, we’re discovering that it doesn’t work exactly as we anticipated. Some folks opted to “pass” on serving as chair for reasons we didn’t anticipate – not only for busy times in work or life, but also because not all of us have the spaciousness to develop the skills and passions to hold responsibility for the whole and help “lift up the heads” of others. Collectively, we recognized that sometimes our passions and talents aim in different ways.

Good leadership asks the person who is leading to really see the people she’s leading. It asks the person who is leading to hold leadership lightly enough that roles and responsibilities can be shared, and to hold leadership strongly enough to give others confidence that there’s a hand at the helm. It asks the flexibility to shift leadership plans and models in response to realities at hand. It asks inner flexibility to step forward decisively and gracefully, then step back decisively and gracefully.

Bayit isn’t alone in this leadership development journey. Every Jewish organization should ask itself hard questions about who should lead, how they should lead, and how best to lift others into leadership. And of course, leadership takes many forms. In a synagogue, for instance, there’s likely to be any number of roles – whether rabbi, cantor, education director, executive director, board chair, board treasurer, fundraiser, etc. — plus other roles that don’t necessarily have titles: community elders and sages, “den mothers,” angel donors, cleaning crews and more.

In Jewish mystical tradition, God is One and is manifest in the world through ten sefirot, qualities such as lovingkindness, boundaried-strength, and balance. Each of those qualities is different, and each one is necessary. What would happen if every Jewish organization approached organizational development through that lens — ensuring that every leadership structure has and balances a diversity of skill sets and qualities, each integral to the whole?

Moses knew that community leadership is also community service. He knew that community leadership requires really seeing the people whom one is privileged to serve. It’s easy to imagine leadership vertically — the leader is at the “top,” and everyone else is at the “bottom” — but the servant-leadership model inverts that hierarchy.

God’s first instruction to Moses this week is to take an accounting of who’s in the community, to uplift each soul for who they are and what they bring to the table. In the Jewish community and in the world, we need to recognize who each of us truly is and how each of us is best called to serve. That’s the only way to build a Jewish future stronger and more whole than the sum of its parts.

 

By Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. Sketchnote by Steve Silbert.