Thursday, June 28, 2012

Snakes on a Plane?

10 Tammuz 5772 / June 29-30, 2012

In this week’s action-packed portion, Chukat, we learn about the ritual of the Red Heifer (it’s amoosing) and the rules associated with purifying oneself after coming into contact with a dead body, Miriam dies, Moses and Aaron learn that they won’t be permitted to enter the Promised Land because Moses strikes rather than speaks to a rock which then produces water for the people, Aaron dies, the people mourn Aaron’s death (but not Miriam’s….), snakes attack (not on a plane), a couple of battles are fought with enemies, and there are a couple of interesting poems.

The prevalent theme through the portion though, clearly, is death.

For the first time, a couple of weeks ago, I had the experience of preparing a body for Jewish ritual burial.  Four of us cleaned the body of the deceased elderly gentleman, ritually purified it, dressed it in white linens, and laid it in the plain wooden casket, wrapped in a prayer shawl (tallit), as is tradition.  Dirt from Israel was sprinkled inside the casket, and pottery shards were placed over the eyes and mouth of the deceased (our tradition speaks of man as having come from the dust of the earth and as being molded from clay).

Needless to say, this was a different kind of experience.  This was my first time ever encountering a dead body.  I started to understand for the first time why the body has often been referred to as a vessel for the soul.

All too often, we feel invincible.  We ride bicycles without helmets, in cars without seatbelts, drink to the point of stupidity, and fail to take simple, yet lifesaving, precautions.  We take risks, sometimes calculated, but in the moment, often only think about how our decisions impact us, rather than how our decisions impact those around us.  You may be willing to take the risk of riding a bicycle without a helmet.  But are you willing to take that risk if you also factor in the impact that a closed head injury or premature death would have on your parents?  Your friends?

This Shabbat, reflect on the preciousness of life.

Recognize your own mortality, embrace the accompanying humility, and strive to make your time count.

Know that once you are gone, others here will take care of your body and mourn for you. 

In return, while you are here, commit to caring for the bodies of others, taking reasonable precautions to preserve your own health and safety, and to understand that your actions rarely, if ever, impact only you.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

I Love The Leader!

3 Tammuz 5772 / June 22-23, 2012

In this week’s portion, we find a revolt against Moses’s leadership led by a man named Korach, who with 250 prominent communal leaders by his side, challenged Moses (and Aaron) publicly.

In last week’s portion, Shlach Lecha, we read that the Israelites, despite being so close to the Promised Land, would not be permitted to enter it for 40 years – 1 year for each day the spies explored before returning with a fearful report.

Frankly, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Moses would face a challenge to his leadership at this point.  Moses's leadership had been based on his bringing the Israelites out of Egypt and to the Promised Land.  He had done the former (with Divine assistance), but now it appeared that he was unable to do the latter, given that towards the end of last week's portion, we read that the Israelites marched into battle as a means of trying to appease God and were "dealt a shattering blow."

The Israelites, through Korah's rebellion, were questioning whether or not Moses was really the best leader to get the job done.  They had just suffered a defeat at the hands of their enemies after refusing to accept that they would need to wander the desert for 40 years.  They attacked despite being told that if they attacked, they would lose.  While Moses’s prediction proved to be true, it wasn’t one that enhanced confidence in Moses's leadership abilities.  Frankly, I would struggle with my faith too at that point, much like Korach and his followers.

The narrative raises a number of significant questions:

What makes for a successful leader?

What does a successful transfer of leadership / power look like?

What makes you lose faith in a leader, and how do you respond to such feelings?

The reality is that sometimes leadership changes are necessary.  How they come about and how existing leaders are treated as they are replaced says a lot about an organization and/or community.

Many of us have leaders that we look up to in various areas of our lives, be they those running organizations, our rabbis, and even our elected officials.  My guess is there have been moments when you were disappointed in those leaders – disappointed to find out that they are humans who make mistakes, just like you and I, and as a result, had your faith in the system or institutions they represent challenged.  To feel such is natural.  The true task becomes how to rebuild trust.

This Shabbat, reflect on those leaders you most admire.  Note the character traits that resonate with you.  Strive to incorporate those traits into your own character.  Recognize we are only human.  Strive to rebuild trust with those who have let you down.  When it comes time to lead, do so with passion.  When it comes time to step down, do so with dignity.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

40 Days and 40 Nights

Shlach Lecha
26 Sivan 5772 / June 15-16, 2012

In this week’s portion, Shlach Lecha, Moses sends 12 spies (one from each tribe) into the Promised Land in order to scope it out.  After 40 days, the spies return and share that the land is indeed flowing with milk and honey.  However, 10 of the 12 spies continued to share that the land is inhabited by giants, and that those living there are much more powerful than the Israelites.  This resulted in an outcry by the Israelites, questioning Moses’s leadership and God’s involvement, exclaiming that it would have been better to die in Egypt than to die by the sword while trying to conquer what was perceived as unconquerable. 

As punishment for their lack of faith, the Israelites are condemned to wander in the desert for 40 years – one year for each day the spies had been in the Promised Land.

I want to draw attention to the number 40.

Forty is a significant number in our tradition, and it often is used to symbolize significant spiritual cleansing.

In the Book of Genesis in the narrative of Noah’s Ark, when the world was flooded, it rained for 40 days and nights.

In the Book of Exodus, Moses went up to Mt. Sinai for 40 days and nights in order to receive the Torah.

Now in the Book of Numbers, we find that the spies scoured the Promised Land for 40 days and nights before returning with their report.

The traditional ritual bath, the mikveh, which we use to purify ourselves, traditionally contains 40 se’ah of water (there are about 5 gallons in a se’ah).

Similar to our Israelite ancestors, so too do we sometimes feel that it would be easier to give up than to try and tackle our perceived uphill battles.  We may call out in frustration, whine about it and even conclude that the particular task is unworthy of our efforts. 

Going forward, I challenge you to dedicate 40 days to tackling any particular obstacle before giving up.

In our world of hyper-connectivity and instant gratification, I know that 40 days seems like an eternity.  However when considered in the broader context of the days of your life, 40 days is just the tip of a fingernail as compared to your body.  And yet, despite the relatively short period of time, our tradition makes clear that 40 days is time enough to be life altering. 

Face each challenge head on, devote yourself to the steps necessary to overcome it, and after 40 days, take note of where you were, where you are, and how far you’ve come.  It’s just up to you to make the time.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Returning (to Detroit)

19 Sivan 5772 / June 8-9, 2012

This week’s portion, Beha’alotcha, contains two of the better-known verses from the Torah:

“When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: ‘Advance O Lord! May your enemies be scattered, and may your foes flee before you!’”

“And when it halted, he would say: ‘Return, Oh Lord, unto the ten thousands of the families of Israel.’”

You may be more familiar with theses verses in their original Hebrew, as in traditional synagogues, these verses have been built into the liturgy recited when taking the Torah out of the ark and when returning it to the ark after reading it.

What is it to return after setting out?

For me, returning is a loaded term, but a timely one, given that I learned this past week that work would allow me to relocate – rather, return – to the Metro Detroit area; to my community and my home – to my ark.  

I find myself part of a growing Reverse-Exodus of those who have left the Detroit area only to return to our arks after some time away.  As we set out to explore the greater world around us, I’m confident that our loved ones wished for our enemies to be scattered.  So too, it is comforting to know that when returning, there are myriad families waiting for us with love and open arms.

There simply is something special about home, and about the process of returning.

The Hebrew word for repentance, “teshuva,” literally translates to “return.”  From a traditional standpoint, when we’ve done something wrong, the need exists to return to the proper path, which can only be done by making amends for our transgressions.  While I’m not going to suggest that moving away from home was inherently a transgression, there are absolutely people I need to reach out to and make amends with, as it is possible that they internalized my decision to leave last August as a negative reflection on them.

Just because we view our decisions through a certain lens does not mean that others view those decisions through the same lens.  Just because we don’t know that we’ve somehow hurt others does not mean that we haven’t indeed hurt others.  Whether or not you return to your origin after embarking, know that it’s possible there are some remaining behind who may be pained by your departure, and who it may be worth reaching out to.

This week, whether you’ve recently set out or returned already, think about those in your ark you can reach out and express gratitude to.  Don’t take the open, loving arms for granted.  And once you’ve returned, be sure to extend your arms to others as well.