D'vrei Torah by Rabbi Ellie Shemtov
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.
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.