D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Count Your Blessings
I often note how easy it is to count our blessings when things are going well, but how difficult it is when times are tough. It’s definitely a challenge to notice the good existing in the world when we are distracted by our problems. This is a bit of a conundrum though, since it becomes much more critical to cultivate gratefulness and count blessings when life throws us a curve. Finding blessings in the midst of tough times can help us cope and give us hope.
This week’s Torah portion Bamidbar, is the first portion in the Book of Numbers also called Bamidbar in Hebrew. Numbers would seem to be an appropriate name for this portion since it begins and ends with a census. It begins with a counting of the Israelite males over the age of 20 who are able to bear arms and ends with a counting of Kohathite males between the ages of 30-50. The Kohathites were essential workers in the Tabernacle. They were tasked with the dangerous job of taking care of the vessels and objects within the sanctuary, all the while knowing how any contact with those vessels could lead to their death.
While counting might appear to be a somewhat boring and tedious task, taking time to count each person can indicate the importance of each individual. In Num. 1:2 the phrase, שאו את ראש [si’oo et rosh], is often translated as “take a census” but literally means “lift the head.” Being counted means being uplifted and according to the Ladino Torah commentary Yalkut Me’am Lo’ez, something that is counted cannot lose its identity.
These past few months the notion of counting has become a daily ritual; counting the number of deaths, those who have tested positive, those who have recovered; and the number of people gathered in one place.
But despite the setbacks and challenges, the inhabitants of planet Earth have not only been able to count on each other, but have made it so very clear that each individual counts-- from our modern day Kohathites working on the front lines, to each individual sheltering in place; to each one of us wearing a mask; and each of us practicing social distancing.
In addition, similar to the Israelites who were counted for the census, we can and should count our blessings – that is to say our family, friends, neighbors, acquaintances, community, colleagues, essential workers, scientists and many of our leaders. We thank you all as we count our blessings.
Let Go and Let God
Progress not Perfection -- Emor 5780
None of us is perfect, but really, should perfection be our ultimate goal? If we make an honest attempt to overcome our flaws, at the very least we can grow and move one step closer towards perfection. But if our goal is to truly be perfect, there’s a good chance we will miss the mark and in so doing, experience shame and guilt or consider ourselves to be failures.
This week’s Torah portion, Emor begins by focusing on the particular instructions the priests had to follow in carrying out their duties. Because of the special role they played in Israelite society by performing sacred tasks associated with sacrifices and rituals, priests were required to abide by certain rules the rest of Israelite society did not have to follow. They were not for example allowed to have contact with the dead; marry a divorcee; or tear their garments in mourning.
But it wasn’t only about what Priests could and couldn’t do, it was also about who could become a priest.
אִ֣ישׁ מִֽזַּרְעֲךָ֞ לְדֹֽרֹתָ֗ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִהְיֶ֥ה בוֹ֙ מ֔וּם לֹ֣א יִקְרַ֔ב לְהַקְרִ֖יב לֶ֥חֶם אֱלֹהָֽיו
Whoever he is of your seed in their generations who has any blemish, let him not approach to offer the bread of his God. (Lev. 21:17)
According to this verse, a priest could not have any blemishes. It appears the Torah did indeed require them to be perfect.
Today, we frown on discriminating against those with certain blemishes or defects. In fact, we have laws that protect one from this type of discrimination. Yet the desire and the pressure we place on achieving perfection while not established as law, is no less prevalent as in the days of the Kohanim—the pressure to be thin, the pressure to have a perfect nose, the pressure to be wrinkle-free.
The rabbis like to explain away this section of Torah by reminding us that the Kohen not only represented the people to God but God to the people. In presenting God to the people it was essential that the priest be perfect both spiritually and physically.
Maybe, but I believe we 21st Century Jews hear a different message. God doesn’t demand we be perfect. God demands instead, we be the best we can be-- no more no less. Truthfully, being our best every day is hard enough let alone striving to be perfect. Better to focus on progress rather than perfection.
Denial is not a river in Egypt but you can drown in it
Being in denial is a natural part of the grieving process, but the longer we stay in denial the more likely it will lead to self-sabotaging behavior. While in denial mode we hide our feelings, are unwilling to acknowledge the bad things happening in our life, and downplay the possible consequences of our circumstances. A classic example is an active alcoholic who denies having a drinking problem, noting how well they function in their job and relationships. A topical example might be those who are in denial about the coronavirus oddly declaring, my body my choice as they gather together in a crowd.
Acharei Mot, the first of this week’s double Torah portion Acharei Mot/Kedoshim, describes the ritual of the Azazel goat. The ritual involves two goats. One is offered as a sacrifice on the altar while the other, the Azazel goat has the collective sins of the community placed on its head. It is then let go out into the wilderness along with the sins of the community, a process that has become known as scapegoating. Through this process the Azazel goat becomes the “scapegoat” for the people’s sins.
Today the term scapegoat has a much more negative connotation, meaning someone or something blamed for all that goes wrong. We blame someone else and are then able to relinquish our own responsibility for our problems.
Some typical scapegoats might be our families, our jobs, or the things that are missing in our lives. Denial may be a natural part of the healing process but If we wait too long to overcome it, we will find that denial may not be a river in Egypt but you can drown in it.
This too, shall pass.
When things gets tough it’s easy to feel overwhelmed and wonder why life is so difficult. During those tough times it can feel as if our serenity, our contentment is inversely proportional to our expectations. The higher our expectations, the lower our serenity, the lower our contentment. But, if you feel like life is down in the dumps, a Zen proverb reminds us to keep going no matter how bleak things might look – This too shall pass. Until then, fetch wood, carry water, walk the earth.
This week’s double Torah portion Tazria/Metzora, focuses in part on the laws of tzara’at. Tzara’at is often translated as leprosy but can also be interpreted as a plague that afflicts people, as well as garments and homes. According to the Torah, when a priest determines that an individual is afflicted with this condition:
וְהִסְגִּ֧יר הַכֹּהֵ֛ן אֶת־הַנֶּ֖גַע שִׁבְעַ֥ת יָמִֽים
The priest shall isolate the affected person for seven days. (Lev. 13:4)
After the seven days are up, the priest is instructed to conduct another examination. Isolation is continued until the priest determines the patient is cured. The isolation is a necessary step not just as a cure but as a precaution against spreading an illness often associated with lashon ha-rah-- evil speech or gossip, to others in the community. For the one afflicted and for the community, this too shall pass.
As we enter our second month of staying at home and social distancing, we are all finding ways to manage each passing day. Whether we distract ourselves with work, school, TV, movies, books, jigsaw puzzles, house cleaning, walks, or Zoom events, each of us in our own unique way, is adjusting and adapting to this new mode of living. But, as we walk around our neighborhoods, watch TV and read the newspapers, we are also continually reminded exactly what is at stake – the lives of millions of people.
The future may be unclear, but like the example in this week’s Torah portion isolation isn’t a permanent condition. It is however a necessary one. In any case, this too shall pass.