Thursday, May 26, 2011

B'midbar: Learning to Count... In More Ways Than ONE

On Wednesday night, Cantor Friedrich and I saw a pretty unbelievable game of baseball at Citizens Bank Park. It started out as a Phillies' fan might expect - the Phillies came out strong and then kind of petered out as the game went on - but it ended up being a 19-inning marathon, that lasted over six hours, and was the longest game ever played in that ballpark! It also included some pretty funny numbers, like a relief pitcher throwing 73 pitches over five innings, a second baseman pitching a scoreless 19th inning, and 16 pitchers used between the two teams. Baseball is always a game of numbers and statistics, but it seemed a lot more evident last night than usual.

And as we begin the fourth Book of the Torah, known in English as The Book of Numbers, I

couldn't help but stop and think about the significance of numbers. Now the Biblical book doesn't get its name from statistics or scores, but rather from a census; the physical numbering of our people as they proceeded on their 40-year march through the desert. But numbers play a very significant part in Judaism, like the Passover song "Who Knows One?" which lists 13 different important figures in Jewish tradition. Or the mystical tradition of Gematria, Jewish numerology, which assigns numbers to each letter in the Hebrew alphabet and comes up with all kinds of calculations throughout the Bible, the Talmud, and indeed all of Jewish history.

Our lives are filled with numbers; you may even have digits which are special to your family, either because of birth dates, lucky lottery numbers, or milestones in your life. Notice also how significant numbers and counting are to our English language: Counting can refer to something being important, "it's gotta count for something," or it can mean dependability, "You can count on me." We learn to count at a young age, which might imply its a simple skill like tying shoelaces or telling time, yet mathematics is one of the most complicated sciences, and it is even referred to as the Universal Language.

Numbers have always played a vital role in Jewish history, since the time of

the Bible and even before. Yet through it all, the most important number has always been 1; our foundation as a monotheistic religion believing in ONE God. In the face of all the other overwhelming numbers in Judaism - from "millions" of Jews leaving slavery in Egypt to millions of Jews killed in the Holocaust - the Oneness of God has kept us grounded. It is a constant in a sea of change, and a comfort through all life's insecurities. Do I have any proof that God exists, and that there is only one? Nope. None whatsoever. It is simply a leap of faith.

In our discussion here of the Book of Numbers, we have come to realize that "counting" is a metaphor for dependability and significance. How much of our lives aren't spent searching for just these two elusive qualities? So much so that some people sacrificed all they had, and suffered great ridicule, because one person said he had "calculated" that the world would end on May 21st, 2011... We all search for something to rely on, and something that holds great meaning. Think about the numbers that are important in your life. What do they say about you, and what meaning can you derive from them? And how can you use that information to make your life better than it is today? Whenever a congregant celebrates a birthday in our synagogue, I read aloud a blessing from the Rabbinical Assembly's Rabbi's Manual which includes the following line: "People may count the days of their life, but a person of wisdom makes every day count."

As we begin to read the Book of Numbers, let us all use this opportunity to figure out what "counts" in our lives; whether its math, faith, or baseball... or maybe a little of each.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Burger Baroness on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of timsamoff on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of woodleywonderworks on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Rishabh Mishra (possible248) on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Lord Jim on Flickr

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bechukotai: A Tough Gift To Give

I just want you to know, I think you're doing a terrible job. You're making HUGE mistakes right now, and if you don't change your behavior, shape up, and stop being so self-destructive, bad things are going to happen to you.

This, of course, is a good example of how NOT to rebuke someone, if you disagree with how they are behaving. I imagine the paragraph above was a bit startling to read; I can tell you it was even a bit jarring to write. But what happens if this is how you feel? What if these are precisely the sentiments you WISH you could share with someone, but you are worried that it might come out as harsh as my introduction? Or worse, you'll find a way to say it sensitively, but the recipient will hear it the wrong way, be horribly offended, and it will ruin your relationship. We all have opinions. Sometimes they are good opinions, and they come with the best of intentions, yet the reality is that most people do not handle rebuke very well.

In the words of the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, this week's reading, "centers on a brief but eloquent promise of blessings for those who follow God's ways and a lengthy and chilling series of curses for those who reject God's ways." It is chilling indeed, with graphic and intricate descriptions of how bad things will get if we don't follow God's commandments. This section is known as the "Tochecha," meaning "Reproach." But reproach isn't just between God and us; Tochecha is also something we offer to one another. When we feel strongly about how someone

else is acting - perhaps hurting themselves or their loved ones, perhaps making bad choices that they will sorely regret later on - we can offer them Tochecha to encourage them to rethink their behavior. God may choose, in these instances, to use Fire and Brimstone to get the message across, but we generally need something more subtle, like love, support, sympathy, and understanding.

A very good friend and mentor of mine once described feedback as a gift we give another. It is the gift of insight, to help them see something objectively when they were too wrapped up in it to notice the problem themselves. It is a most precious gift, because it is really, really hard to give it properly. It takes courage on the part of the giver, and openness on the part of the receiver. It requires trust and love on both sides, and it can be emotionally and spiritually exhausting for everyone. In short, it ain't easy! But that is precisely why it is so vitally important. It is a gift we cannot afford to withhold. Generation after generation, God sent prophets to rebuke the people and try to get them to change their ways. It was painful for God to chastise the Children of Israel - God's children - over and over, but it was imperative.

Is there room for Tochecha in your life? Think about this for a minute, because there are lots of

possible answers. Is there someone you need to confront? Is someone trying desperately to confront you, even though you don't really want to hear it? Every year in our Torah reading cycle, we read this and two other similar sections of the Bible that rail at us for disobeying God's laws. It's no picnic, and it isn't fun to have to read. But it's important. It is a gift that God is offering us, and a gift that we can offer one another. We just have to be willing to see it as a gift. Are you?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of gideon_wright on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Ernst Vikne on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of quinet on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Tony the Misfit on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Mykl Roventine on Flickr

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Emor: Raising the Level of Our Humanity

It ain't easy being an ancient priest. I'm not speaking from personal experience, mind you, but I'm pretty sure I'm right about this one. In this week's Torah portion, we read about all the restrictions imposed on the Kohanim in the ancient Temple: they were not allowed to be near a dead body, they had shaving regulations, marriage restrictions, physical limitations, and even rules imposed on their family members. They were expected to be societal role models, and as such they were put on a pedestal and became too holy to approach; the model of perfect behavior, but totally inaccessible to the average person.

This must have been especially tough considering the other cultures surrounding Israel. Many other groups practiced
hedonism, idol worship, sexual promiscuity, and had no rules about interpersonal behavior. In a sense, we are looking at two extreme ends of human behavior, and neither extreme is ideal. Even today, we are tempted to stray too far one way or the other, when really we must strive to find a balance somewhere in the middle.

Right now, our sense of balance is really being put to the test. How did you feel when you heard about Osama Bin Laden's death?
More importantly, how did you behave? On one end of the extreme, we saw people cheering his death in the streets, singing "Hey, hey, goodbye," as if he were a basketball player who just
fouled out of a game. Along with this,

we have the upsetting, though perhaps not surprising, line of merchandise that has emerged already, marking the death of Bin Laden. I certainly acknowledge that he was a horrific person, a mass murderer and a terrorist, and I will even go so far as to say that I am relieved that he is dead. But how are we better than our enemies if we cheer the death of another human being, wishing we had photos of his demise so that we could revel in it even more?

At the same time, however, I don't want to take this to the other extreme. I won't pretend that Bin Laden might have repented, that forgiveness, or even negotiation, was an option in this situation. The Book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there IS a time for war; we do need to defend ourselves and our citizens, and we do need to show our enemies that we too are strong and capable. But isn't there a balance? Isn't there a way to be grateful that Bin Laden can terrorize us no longer, without wearing a T-shirt ridiculing him?

Part of our task as human beings is to rise above our natural instincts. I'm not saying we don't have crass, violent instincts,
or that we should somehow get rid of them entirely. I'm saying we need to accept that we do have them, but recognize that we need to elevate our behavior; we need to be better. The Bible teaches us about being a role model.

We may not accept the ancient priesthood as our ideal today, but that's just because society has changed, it has evolved. Our model is much more approachable today; we all can be role models to one another, if we set our mind to it. But in order to do so, we must be better than our enemies. We need to show them, and the rest of the world, a different model, and lead by example. It may not be easy, but if we are serious about defeating Bin Laden, not just the individual, but everything he stood for, there is no other choice.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Mik Hartwell on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of bloomsberries on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of davem_330 on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of alancleaver_2000 on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of sagriffin305 on Flickr