D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
Nothing changes if nothing changes
For some change can be scary and unwelcome, while others welcome change with open arms. But even if we want to change or know we need to change, fear of the unknown can result in hanging on to the status quo no matter how bad it might be for us. Remember those pesky Israelites who with the memory of slavery still fresh in their minds, longed to go back to Egypt-- where they could eat their fill of bread (Ex. 15:3)? As the old saying goes-- better the devil we know than the devil we don’t.
In this week’s Torah portion Pinchas in the Book of Numbers, five gutsy sisters -- Zelophehad’s daughters Mahlah, Noa, Hoglah, Milcah, and Tirzah--challenge the laws of inheritance after their father dies leaving no sons. They could have settled for the status quo which did not allow them to inherit their father’s land and reconciled themselves with the notion their father’s lineage would be lost just because he had no sons. Instead, they saw an opportunity to change their lives and the lives of other women. Pleading with Moses who then pleaded with God, a new inheritance law was instituted benefiting daughters in cases where there were no sons.
אִ֣ישׁ כִּֽי־יָמ֗וּת וּבֵן֙ אֵ֣ין ל֔וֹ וְהַֽעֲבַרְתֶּ֥ם אֶת־נַֽחֲלָת֖וֹ לְבִתּֽוֹ:
If a householder dies without leaving a son, you shall transfer his property to his daughter (Num. 27:8)
Even when motivated by economics or the desire to get our lives back on track, change is hard because it takes us out of our comfort zone. But, as the example of Zelophehad’s daughters suggests, change is possible when we are able to move beyond our comfort zone and do what is necessary to implement that change. On the other hand, if we can’t or won’t do what is necessary then nothing changes if nothing changes.
Is your program powered by will power or a higher power?
How often have we thought to ourselves – if only I had more willpower, then I would eat better, exercise more regularly, stop procrastinating and in general, achieve so much more in my life. In reality, it isn’t too difficult to be successful at exerting willpower over ourselves. But that success is often short lived because sustaining willpower over long periods of time is at the very least, mentally exhausting. Will power might do it in the short run but perhaps there is another place to look for help in the long run.
In this week’s Torah portion Chukat/Balak, we find the story of Balak the king of Moab and an oracle named Balaam. To stave off an attack by the Israelites, Balak summons Balaam and his skills as an oracle to curse the Israelites in order to either keep them at bay or defeat them.
Ultimately agreeing to do as Balak wishes, Balaam hops on a donkey to make his way to Moab. Suddenly, in the middle of the journey the donkey spots an angel standing in the middle of the road and swerves into a field to avoid it. Unaware of the angel’s presence, Balaam beats the donkey wishing only to get back on to the road and be on their way. But the donkey continues to see what Balaam doesn’t see or refuses to see, and each time Balaam uses his will to force the donkey to obey. Finally וַיְגַ֣ל יְיָ֘ אֶת־עֵינֵ֣י בִלְעָם֒, God opens up Balaam’s eyes and at long last, he sees the angel standing in front of him.
By relying solely on willpower Balaam, unable or unwilling to grasp what is directly in front of him, is determined to have his way. Although his way works for a little while, it is physically demanding—until at long last, God opens Balaam’s eyes.
Applying willpower is much like swimming upstream with chains on our legs. We can do it but it takes a lot of focus and energy and eventually we are worn down. Better to swim downstream free of chains. Once Balaam’s eyes are opened he is able to do just that. He is able to see the barrier in front of him and realize an easier way forward-- by powering his program not through willpower, but through a higher power.
Before engaging your mouth, put your mind in gear!
Shammai used to say: ….. speak little, but do much... (Pirkei Avot 1:15)
Speak little? For many of us this is easier said than done. How often have we found ourselves saying something—saying anything—in order to fill the silence in the room or because saying anything feels better than staying silent? There are of course many times when speaking up is the natural thing to do. But even then, it’s best to be cautious and make sure to think before you speak. We all know what’s it’s like to instantly regret the words that have just come tumbling out of our mouths. To prevent that from happening, we should always be aware of the impact what we say, how we say it and when we say it, can have on others. Words have power.
In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’alotcha, Moses’ brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam spoke:
בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָֽאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח
against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married (Num. 12:1).
To put it more bluntly, Aaron and Miriam gossiped about their sister-in-law, the Cushite woman. God of course hears what they say and sticks up for Moses by dressing down the two siblings. God then withdraws and as punishment for her harsh words, Miriam is stricken with leprosy. Aaron however, seems to get off scot-free—but that’s a topic for another day. Then despite his siblings’ gossip, Moses does his Moses thing and prays for Miriam to be healed.
We may have opinions about what someone should or shouldn’t be doing. We may even be very eager to express those opinions verbally either in person or behind their back. But just remember, before engaging your mouth put your mind in gear.
Many of you are familiar with the Serenity Prayer-- God, grant me serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference. What you may not know is that there is a longer version of this prayer that includes the following: patience for the things that take time, appreciation for all that I have, and tolerance for those with different struggles. These past few months the pandemic has required us to be patient and more than ever, appreciate what we have. But this last week or so it is tolerance for those with different struggles, or more to the point, intolerance and racism-- that has taken center stage.
This week’s Torah portion Naso, begins with God instructing Moses to take a census. The instruction begins with the phrase Naso et rosh-- literally “lift up the head,” but translated as “count” or “take a census.” It’s interesting to note that although there are several words in biblical Hebrew that mean to count such as lifkod, the Torah chooses to use Naso et rosh, lift up the head.” One explanation for this comes from Genesis:
וַיִּבְרָ֨א אֱלֹהִ֤ים ׀ אֶת־הָֽאָדָם֙ בְּצַלְמ֔וֹ בְּצֶ֥לֶם אֱלֹהִ֖ים בָּרָ֣א אֹת֑וֹ
So God created man in God’s own image, in the image of God did God create him. (Gen. 1:27)
In other words, the Torah tells us that each of us is like God and so it follows that each of us counts and each of us should be able to walk with our heads uplifted. Of course not all societies buy into that belief. Some would sooner see heads roll than heads lifted. But, as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: the notion that לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ It is not good that man should be alone (Gen. 2:18), signaled one of the defining tensions of all human life—while we may be independent, we are also interdependent. Our thoughts and feelings belong to the “I” but much of our existence depends on being part of a “we.”
In the Torah what matters is not how we see ourselves but how we see, treat, and behave toward others. If we can open our hearts to see beyond the “I” and embrace the “we,” we will find a world filled with uplifted heads. We can have that world because after all, God doesn’t make junk.
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.