Month: May 2018

B'haalot'cha | Numbers 8:1−12:16

Success is not a zero-sum game. While theoretically we might understand that “a rising tide lifts all ships,” we tend to fall prey to jealousy when we see another succeed — be they foe or friend, rival or colleague. Instead of celebrating and sharing in their accomplishments, we resort to belittling the character of good people, tarnishing the reputations of the famous, and trying to make the great seem small. Bachya Ibn Pekuda, in Duties of the Heart, offers this important psychological insight as commentary on this week’s Torah portion: "Should one of your colleagues be superior to you, his deeds better than yours…your evil inclination will seduce you and say to you: his greater efforts to achieve moral perfection only throw into relief your faults.”

When Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, speak out against him (seemingly without cause), their words come off as embittered. Many commentators read the lack of context given by our sacred scripture as a commentary upon itself, modeling for us the prohibition against disparaging others by leaving out the hurtful words. Before we lash out against the success of others, Bachya and Torah tell us, we would be well reminded that we are “commanded to love and to honor those who honor God.”
-Rabbi Aaron Meyer

Parashat Naso - Numbers 4:21−7:89

Upon first glance, this week's parsha, Naso, could appear to be a somewhat dry account of an Israelite census. The opening chapters of the book of Numbers retell the Israelite people's self-organization and preparation for the trek into the Promised Land. Not only do they face the challenge of traveling in a group in excess of two million, but they must do so while maintaining a proper relationship with God (and by extension, each other). As anyone who has ever led a field trip, or even a family vacation knows, the former is no small feat, and the ladder may sometimes feel impossible.

This segment of their journey begins then, as does any sound journey, with an accounting-for of all the souls who were to travel together. A veteran chaperone of many a field trip with young people, I have myriad first-hand experience with this exercise of roll-call. As a staffer of young adults, I've tried counting people off, so as to expedite the on-and-off boarding process from buses and at group meeting points. But our parsha does not use any of the Hebrew words for "counting," as it retells the way in which the Levites took census of the Israelite people. Rather, God tells the Levites to, "naso et rosh," "lift the head" of each of the people present.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that this choice of language and instruction illustrates a revolutionary idea: that each person should be seen as an individual, human, single, and valued and not just a part of a mass, or a number in a tally. This census reveals a "supreme religious principle," that people aren't just numbers. In the priestly act of lifting each head, looking each individual in the eye, and counting their personhood amongst the Israelites, we learn that we are as important as we make other people feel; that by acknowledging one's humanness we inherently acknowledge both their independence and our interconnectedness.

Rabbi Callie B. Schulman


Parashat B'har - B'chukotai | Leviticus 25:1-26:2 / 26:3-27:34

Fairytales and stories are replete with perfect worlds where ideals are made manifest: ideas of beauty, concepts of justice, and the like. We call these imaginary worlds utopias, from the Greek meaning “no place,” because they are so far from our lived reality as to seem fictional. The Book of Leviticus, torat kohanim, sees things differently. At regular intervals — every seven days, every seven years, every seventh seven years (as we read in this week’s Torah portion) — Rabbi Jonathan Sacks suggests we are to perform a dress rehearsal for the Messianic Age, living the ideal in the hear-and-now. These Shabbatot — for the economy, the land, and for ourselves — serve as the perfect amuse-bouche, whetting our appetites for what could be and reminding us why we need to continue the work to merge our two realities.


Parashat Emor | Leviticus 21:1−24:23

We know that words have the power to hurt and the power to heal, and we also know that sometimes, we speak without thinking. In fact, some of us need to talk things through in order to think (one definition of an extrovert is a person who needs to "think out loud" in order to process). Our parsha this week begins and ends with a focus on speech, its power and the dangers thereof.
Parshat Emor (literally "say") continues the guidelines of the Holiness Code (Leviticus 17 - 26) from last week's parsha, and then covers a lot of ground from there. We move from instructions regarding the sanctity of the priests and sacrificial offerings into the notions of sacred time (shabbat and festivals in this parsha in particular), which pertain to all Israelites, and finally, to a curious episode regarding blasphemy. The only woman to be named in the entire book of Leviticus appears here, Shelomit bat Divri, and it is her son who commits the crime of speech.
No name should go un-dissected in Torah, and it is quite striking that the woman whose son trespasses the bounds of sanctity by the use of words should have a name so associated with speech herself. "Divri," means "speaker" or "to speak" and Shelomit, of course, is related to the word "Shalom" - peace or wholeness. While it's too complex a problem to suss out in these 2 minutes of Torah, I suggest that our parsha is once again, at both its opening and its closing, adjuring us to pay attention to our words, and to the power of our speech.
-Rabbi Callie Schulman