Rabbi David Greenstein’s tenure as spiritual leader of Congregation Shomrei Emunah started not with a bang but a silence. A sanctifying silence. On his first Shabbat on our bimah, in August 2009, he introduced us to the practice of maintaining absolute silence until all congregants finished reciting the Amidah to themselves. No kibbitzing with your seat-mate about afternoon plans. No rabbi moving on to the next reading once most of us were seated. At every Shabbat and holiday service for the next 13 years, if anyone was still praying, the rest of us held the silence. In time, the silence itself felt like prayer. It was an early lesson from our new rabbi in achieving communal holiness, not through words or deeds but through respect. A community of all for one, as well as one for all.
Rabbi Greenstein announced upon his arrival that his greatest value was building Jewish community. And in a recent conversation, that is how he looked back on his years as our rabbi: “I tried as hard as I could to share my love for living a Jewish life, for studying Torah, for connecting people, to be there for people. That’s what I tried to do.”
There are so many threads in our Torah portion that we can try to tie together!
Our text tells of the spies sent by Moses to scout the Promised Land that the Israelites were about to enter. They spend 40 days on their mission. But, at their return they literally destroy all hope in the hearts of the people. They refuse to enter the land. In fury and disappointment, God decrees that the entire adult population shall wander in the wilderness “until all of your carcasses are finished in the wilderness. According to the number of days that you scouted the land – forty days – one day per year – shall you bear your sins – for forty years, so that you will know My opposing Will.” (Num. 14:33-34)
Parashat B’ha`a lot’kha
When I was much younger, I occasionally went to the opera to hear singers I admired. On my limited budget, I bought the cheapest “Standing Room” tickets. One evening I went to hear a renowned tenor sing the male lead in Verdi’s Aida. The tenor had been singing for many years and was in the twilight of his career. I wanted to catch him before he retired. His great aria, “Celeste Aida,” comes right at the beginning of the opera and we greeted the opening music with anticipation. But we were sorely disappointed when the tenor was unable to sing the high B-flat at the end of his aria on pitch. Everyone’s heart sank. But even more memorable to me than the great singer’s failure was a remark made at intermission by one of the “mavens” up in the cheap-seat gallery. Acknowledging everyone’s deflated spirits at the fall of this singing legend, he instructed us, “It is always better to hear a singer past his prime than to hear a singer who never had a prime.” If the aged singer was no longer able to muster the energy needed to hit that high note, he was, nevertheless, able to sing with an intelligence and wisdom gained from years of artistry and even from years of coping with his failing powers.
Once again, I would like to pay attention to one of the most precious parts of the Torah, the Three-fold (- Priestly) Blessing, found in our Torah portion. (For previous treatments see Sparks for the years 2010, 2011, 2012.)
These short statements are first called “blessings,” given by the priests: “Thus shall you [- the priests] bless the Children of Israel.” (Num. 6:23) The words of blessing follow. But the concluding sentence of this text shifts the description of these words. They are characterized by God as mere utterances of the priests, who “place My Name upon the Children of Israel.” But the true act of blessing is done by God, alone: “And then I will bless them.” (v. 27)
This coming week, as we celebrate the Festival of the Giving of Our Torah – Shavuot – we will recite a prayer reserved for special days in our calendar, the prayer Ya`aleh v’yavo. With this prayer we ask that our remembrance (zikaron) and our being accounted-for (piqadon) may arise and arrive before God. “To account for – p-q-d” is a term that used a lot in our Torah portion. The Fourth Book of the Torah opens with God commanding that we account for all the able-bodied men in Israel so that they will be ready for the next xhallenges facing them as they embark toward the Promised Land: “Count – tifq’du – them in all their multitudes.” (Num 1:3) The tallies that are reached are called “p’qudeihem – their accountings.”
This Torah portion includes one version of the horrible section called “ha-tokhehah – the Admonition” (translated in our Etz Hayim volume as ‘The Execration’). (Lev. 26:14-45) Another version is included in Moses’ own review of the Torah, in Deuteronomy (28:15-68). Twice the Torah seeks to frighten us into obeying God’s commandments by threatening that terrible and gruesome tragedies and sufferings will befall us if we do not heed God’s word. Yet, these repeated threats have been to no avail. We have endured these predicted catastrophes again and again and seem to never learn our lesson. Continue reading
Our Torah portion sets forth much of the instruction regarding observance of the Sabbatical Year and the Jubilee Year, which follows after seven Sabbatical Year cycles have been counted. This year is a Sabbatical Year and its advent was duly recognized in Israel. But we have long ago lost the practice of keeping track of the Jubilee Year. The Rabbis explained that the Jubilee Year disappeared with the disappearance of the Ten Lost Tribes, almost a thousand years before their time.
Our Torah portion, Emor – Speak, is the third in a series of portions whose names, strung together, form a classic Jewish joke – “Aharei mot (- After the death), Q’doshim (- Holy Ones) , Emor (- Speak)- After death, ‘Holy’, is what we should say about them.” In other words, no matter what kind of life a person lived, after they die, we strive to make them into saints. This observation is usually spoken with a sardonic tone and a kind of wink of the eye. Continue reading
This year we read this Torah portion right after we have heard that the Supreme Court of the United States is seriously considering overturning the established right of women to decide for themselves whether they should have an abortion. Should that happen, the results for the health of many women, as well as the health of our society, will be catastrophic. A gigantic step forward will have been reversed.
Parashat Aharei Mot
Philosophers have wondered about the necessity for a scriptural component to a religion. If what the Torah, for instance, tells us comports with our own moral judgments, then those human conceptions of morality should be sufficient without a redundant expression in a text. What is added by the Torah telling us not to steal when we know this is wrong already? Indeed, wherever the Torah deviates from our moral convictions we feel compelled to find a way to get the Torah to align with our values. Our own reason seems to be the authority, not the Torah’s revelation.