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.