Bemidbar ~ Counting On

We are in Numbers 1:1-2 and the Israelites are in their second year in the wilderness and G-d says “count”.  Oy vey is there counting.  Count the adult men, count the tribes, count the sons of Levi, count the first born males.  And so forth and so on.  This portion also details the duties of various muckety mucks, but that is for another blog.

There are many phrases and adages regarding counting.  For example, we “number our days” and we “count our blessings” and we “count to ten” before we speak in anger or frustration.  We say its the “little things that count” and “don’t count your chickens”.

Why did G-d instruct Moses to do so much counting?  Perhaps it was to ensure that everyone, in their wilderness community was accounted for.  Isn’t that what we are really doing when we “count” things in our lives, we are making sure they are all there, all in line, all accounted  for.  And for wandering Jews I imagine it would have been easy to lose track of people, wilderness being what it is.  When we count the number of our friends on Facebook are we assessing our community? Accounting for the people we care about?  Making sure we don’t lose track?

Counting gives us comfort, lists give us structure, assessing gives us security.  But honestly, doesn’t it work in the opposite in some ways?  When you number your days are you making them count?   Or worrying at how few they are.  When we count to ten before we speak are holding back angry inappropriate words, or are we failing to speak the words that count,  the truth.  When we say its the little things that count are we discounting the big, important things?  Because often it is the very very big things that count.  When we say don’t count your chickens are we simply saying don’t hope for things that count.

I don’t know the answers, I think each of these things can be seen in either way, from both sides.  The one that I only see one way is to count my blessings.  When I number my blessings, I can’t see the losses.  When I number my blessings, I don’t wallow in the painful.  When I number my blessings I am doing G-d’s work.

Shabbat Shalom

Re’eh ~ Giving Is Its Own Punishment?

This Torah portion is the longest in Deuteronomy.  And it is full of all manner of things.  Re’eh means “see” and as with so many Torah portions it is the first word that is the title.

See, I set before you good and evil.  The good is the doing of good deeds and obeying the “rules”.  We Jews believe that giving rewards the giver more than the recipient. But here is where I get confused, there are awful punishments in this portion, particularly the pinning of a person to a wall or door with an awl through the ear.  We are admonished here to remember that we once were slaves but the treatment of servants here is not wonderful.

This portion contains the rules of kashrut, kosher eating.  It also contains the rules for Passover and Sukkot. So needless to say it is a jam packed parsha.  But for me, it is the core concept of giving and remembrance are the most important.

According to Maimonides the second to the highest level of “charity” is anonymous giving to anonymous recipients; the highest being helping someone to make their way through employment, loans and other forms of assistance.  So remembering we once were slaves, extending a hand of help to pull others out of poverty, oppression and enslavement should be one of the highest forms of help.   But many American Jews are on the immigration bandwagon, demanding the deportation of honest working people, the breakup of families.  Do we have a need for immigration reform? Sure we do.  But aren’t we the ultimate immigrants, from leaving Egypt to the formation of Israel we have wandered the earth unwanted, turned away?

So shouldn’t our remembrance, as in our repeating the story of our exodus at Passover, extend to giving? Shouldn’t memory require action?  Keeping the memory of wrong alive is only meaningful if we ensure that wrong, that evil, does not flourish. Should we not treat others as we would have wished to be treated? Isn’t that what we learned in kindergarten?

We are further obligated to action by everything in our tradition. Everything, we are taught, especially in Reform Judaism, s about social action, about tikkun olam, repairing the world. I am grateful that my tradition and belief allows me to interpret Torah as it applies to my life and times and as I personally read it.  And so I take from this portion the good and release the confusing and punishing. Doing good should, always, be its own reward.


Va’etchanan ~ Sh’ma redux and redux

I wrote this two years ago, and since I have been laid up and didn’t write this week, and because I like this, here it is again.

People often talk about Deuteronomy as the “laws” book, and there is a lot of that.  But Leviticus is all about rules too.  In fact, much of the Torah is really two strands, the historical saga and the rules.  These are always intertwined.

Va’etchanan – pleading. As with other parshat, it comes from the beginning of the portion where Moses tells of how he pleaded with G-d  to be allowed to enter the promised land, to be told no. He is only to see it from a mountaintop. The notion of pleading with G-d is interesting.  How often have you tried to bargain with your G-d, for relief from a behavior, redemption from a wrong, freedom from an addiction, life or peace for a suffering loved one?   Just as Moses was told no, so I think are we; I just don’t think it works that way.  [tweetshare tweet=”I struggle to pray for grace, dignity, courage, strength, serenity and love and for the same for those I love.  The G-d I understand is more likely to help me to find those things than to grant specific wishes.  As usual, however, I digress.” username=”IyXDESKC7WZImwBH2rIY3LE^gzyLO&v):1:1″]

I learned something new last week, because I am a Torah rookie. The Sh’ma has more verses than we normally presume, one of which is the v’ahavta prayer.  In this Torah portion the Sh’ma in all its glory and verses is repeated by Moses as an exhortation to the people.  What it is, really, is another “pleading” to retell our story, to remember the rules that make us Jews, to remind ourselves and our children in our homes and all the time what we believe.  As with so much in the Torah and our tradition, we are ever reminded of where we came from, we are encouraged to cry “never again”, we are instructed to teach our children well.

Whether you take a literal view of the Torah, or, like me and many reform Jews, a more expansive and interpretive view, everything you need to know about living in the world at peace and without anarchy, is contained here.  As is, again, our central prayer, the verse that binds all Jews, everywhere, of every kind, together.  And so we should plead with G-d for that, for a world in unity, at peace and without anarchy.  Isn’t that a vision of the world redeemed some day? And why we pour a glass for Elijah, on the off chance.  Shabbat Shalom



Oops again – I posted this in the wrong place! Tetzaveh – Exodus

Tetzaveh – Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
February 8, 2014 — trienahg | Edit

This Torah portion is primarily about the priestly vestments, clothing, adornments and the altars. Two things struck me particularly. The commentaries point out that in the Torah portion Moses’ name is not mentioned at all yet the “directions” are to him. So it is selfless and ultra present at the same time. Moses said to G-d that he would be nameless in the Torah as a result of the people sinning with the golden calf. The ultimate selflessness, to remain nameless in the holiest of holy works. And yet, he is in this most intimate relation with G-d in this portion, G-d providing him with the instructions required for the priests to maintain the relationship between G-d and the people. Which directs my attention to the tzedakah question – nameless? I think so. We as Jews talk about tzedakah, about charitable good works, about tikkun olam, all the time. There are those who do many good works but feel it necessary to be recognized as often and as publicly as possible. How close to G-d does that put the person? The good is the good but I think the desire for a “return” undermines the value of the good. Sometimes the recognition, the price to the recipient, is too much. There are those who do small good works but do them anonymously. How close to G-d does that put the person? Much closer I think. It is much more intimate an act to do small acts of kindness and charity without hope of reward. Not to say that there aren’t those that do great works without the need of public reward.

The other theme in this portion that struck me is that of the “everlasting” light that is supposed to burn from morning until night. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? All the time versus some of the time. I loved a commentary I read which is essentially that this contradiction is a metaphor for the contrast between the perfect and the imperfect. That it is our job to find a relationship between the divine and the human, the eternal and the temporal. And isn’t that the meaning of our lives, the striving for a perfection that we know perfectly well is unattainable, yet we continue to strive. And as with tzedakah, doesn’t the striving for the unattainable put is in a more intimate relationship with g-d. And this is not the same as striving for “success”. It is striving for the divine; the perfection of our selves. Ironically striving to attain the perfection of our human selves is by definition to only attain a better imperfection!

Ultimately in this portion, both themes that spoke to me are about doing the best we can not because it is asked of us, not because it will gain us material goods or rich recognition, but because it brings us closer to the divine. They are both about improving our relationship with G-d and what is best in us; in having a more intimate relationship with G-d and with ourselves.