CHERRY HILL, NEW JERSEY
SHABBAT SHALOM FROM TEMPLE EMANUEL
WE HOPE THIS WILL ADD TO YOUR FAMILY'S ENJOYMENT OF SHABBAT
Shabbat May 25, 2013 /16 Sivan 5773
Torah - B'haalot'cha Numbers 8:1 - 12:16
- This Shabbat our parashah begins with instructions for lighting the menorah.
- After the Israelites overwhelm Moses with their complaining about their desire to eat more than manna, God instructs Moses to appoint elders to share the burden of ruling the people and settling their many issues.
- The parashah concludes with jealous Aaron and Miriam badmouthing their younger brother Moses. As a result, Miriam is struck with a skin disease, manifested as white, itchy scales. Aaron appeals to Moses, who offers a prayer to God on his sister’s behalf.
- The shortest prayer in the Bible is the touching climax of this troubling scene involving our sibling antagonists: So Moses cried out to the Eternal, saying, “O God, pray heal her!” (12:13)
Whine Country by Lisa Edwards
Oy! There's a lot of whining in this week's Torah portion, B'haalot'cha. It has such a promising beginning-the training and blessing of the Levites for their special role among the people Israel, including the lighting of the golden seven-branched menorah; the poetic and comforting description of the cloud by day and fire by night that will signal when to make camp, and when to break camp and journey on; and the silver trumpets sounding to gather the people and God together in bad times and in good-"an institution for all time throughout the ages" (Numbers 10:8).
What happened? Why all the complaining? (Not that complaining is new to the Israelites.)
Some of the complaining proves legitimate. God appreciates it when some of the men, unable to celebrate the Passover sacrifice at its proper time, ask for another opportunity to do so. If the reason for delay is legitimate, says God, then offer it a month later on the same day of the month (9:6-13)-and the idea of Pesach Sheini is born, a second Pesach, this one, importantly, not imposed by God, but desired and requested by the people.
In this parashah the Israelites, at God's instruction, take their leave of Mount Sinai: "They marched from the mountain of God a distance of three days" (10:33). The commentator Rashbam (twelfth century, the grandson of the more-famous commentator Rashi) theorizes that the cause of the Israelites' complaining was the unexpected difficulty of the three-day journey. Given all the organizing beforehand, and the presence of the cloud and Moses to guide them, they were expecting an easier time of it.
It's such a wary time for God, for Moses, and for the Israelites. They want their bonds to deepen; they want all that comes next to go well. Yet they barely seem to understand one another. Some commentators suggest the Israelites ran from the mountain, eager to get away lest God give them still more laws to follow, "like a child running from school," says Ramban (Nachmanides, thirteenth century) leading him to wonder if the words, "they marched from the mountain of God," suggest a spiritual distancing in addition to a physical one (10:33).
It's one thing to remain close to people when you sit around a campfire together, but quite another when you are all spread out, following the same pillar of cloud perhaps, but traveling at your own pace, no human leader in sight, never knowing how long you'll be walking, how soon you might rest, or where you are going.
I can relate. I recently went on a journey with friends that included a four-day trek in the middle Himalayas of Nepal. I definitely thought it would be easier. After the first day of our trek we noticed our smart and exceedingly competent guide was deliberately short on information for us. Had we known we'd be walking eight hours that day, would we have continued or just sat down? It was a delicate balance for him-when to gather us together for a rest, when to let us spread out and keep walking. His nephew followed at the back of the group, making sure no one got lost or left behind. At the ready with a polite, "Do you need help?" he let us do it ourselves whenever we could. In our Torah portion, God assigns the tribe of Dan to this task (10:25), cryptically appointing them as "gatherers" (m'aseif)-perhaps of lost objects, stragglers, or morale. I can attest to the comfort of having a steady guide in front and a reliable gatherer in back.
But the Israelites weren't facing a four-day trek over known trails. When the travel got hard, they complained. Tired of trail mix (manna), no fresh vegetables in sight, they reminisced the delicious cucumbers left behind in Egypt (11:4-8). Frightened, weary, and anxious, the families stood, each one at the entrance of their own tents, crying out loud (11:10).
Can you blame Moses for not wanting to be the only leader? Signs and wonders may make for impressive visuals, but not necessarily soothing ones, or easy ones to follow. Moses had tried to get his father-in-law to go with them: "Please do not leave us, inasmuch as you know where we should camp in the wilderness and can be our guide" (10:31). Left to lead alone, Moses makes a shocking request of God: "I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me . . . kill me rather, I beg You," (11:14-15).
When Moses says "kill me," God responds, "Gather for Me seventy of Israel's elders . . . they shall share the burden of the people with you, and you shall not bear it alone" (11:16-17).
Moses appreciates the help. When others think that two of the seventy-Eldad and Medad-are "acting the prophet" and need to be restrained, Moses disagrees, "Would that all the Eternal's people were prophets" (11:27, 29).
And a little later when his sister Miriam is struck ill by God for seeking, with their brother Aaron, to set themselves on an equal level with Moses, Moses doesn't condemn them as upstarts, but simply prays for her recovery, using for the first time the oft spoken prayer for healing: El na r'fa na lah, "God, please, heal her please" (12:13). It's lonely at the top and he doesn't seem eager to do without his siblings.
Longing for what's gone, uncertain of the future, and expecting rough terrain ahead, the Israelites and Moses sometimes waver. But God, sometimes gently, sometimes fiercely, guides them again and again back toward each other.
It's no easy task, as our next few Torah portions will reveal.
Rabbi Lisa Edwards, Ph.D. is the leader of Beth Chayim Chadashim in Los Angeles.
Who Is Rich? Those Who Are Happy with What They Have by Richard A. Block
Parashat B’haalot’cha takes up the issue of the perils of materialism that Rabbinic interpreters found implicit in a verse from last week's portion, Numbers 6:24, “The Eternal bless you [with possessions] and protect you [from your possessions possessing you].” An incident occurring in this portion makes the point vividly. Complaining bitterly about the monotonous diet of manna that God has provided, the Israelites long for meat and wax nostalgic about “the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic” (Numbers 11:5). Such were the real, exaggerated, and imagined hardships of desert life that even slavery seemed like paradise.
The base ingratitude and ceaseless bellyaching angers God. Moses, too, is fed up. In frustration, Moses voices a complaint of his own against God, employing some of the Torah's most colorful, evocative imagery. “Why have You dealt ill with Your servant . . . that You have laid the burden of this people upon me? Did I conceive all this people, did I bear them, that You should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom as a nurse carries an infant . . .?’ Where am I to get meat to give all this people when they whine before me . . .?” (Numbers 11:11−14). Unable to carry the Israelites all by himself, Moses asks God to lighten his load or take his life. God responds by sending a storm of quail, strewing them some three feet deep and two days' walk across. The people gather and eat until the food comes out of their nostrils and becomes loathsome (Numbers 11:20). A severe plague ensues and people who had the craving perish.
Once again the Torah teaches that it is possible, even dangerous, to have too much of a good thing, a lesson we seem most reluctant to take to heart in twenty-first-century America, despite personal experience. Rarely does our newest possession fascinate us for long. Rather than satisfy our appetite, additional possessions seem to whet it, sending us forth in search of newer, better, more, but coming up empty. While contemporary culture may have elevated self-indulgence to an art, the problem is not new, as the Torah demonstrates. The noted Rabbinic sage Ben Zoma expressed a similar view. “Who is rich?” he asked, rhetorically. “Those who are happy with what they have” (Pirkei Avot 4:1).
Recognizing that our values are formed in childhood and that parents are their children's most impactful teachers, Jewish tradition urges us not to spoil children or accustom them to a pampered existence. A Talmudic passage urges, “Discipline your family to the simple needs of life. Hence the Torah teaches a rule of conduct—that parents should not accustom their children to meat and wine” (Babylonian Talmud, Chulin 84a). That is to say, by word and example, we should help our children learn to enjoy life's simple pleasures, accept and set limits, value what they have, and share with those in need.
Successful Jewish parenting is not getting easier. Our children are bombarded with distorted value messages from every direction and are subject to many influences beyond parental control. Still, we can and must fight back. My first full-time congregation was in Greenwich, Connecticut, a very affluent community. Soon, our two young sons were under the false impression that everyone in town except us was “rich,” that we were the only Greenwich household without a limousine and a French maid. My wife and I were alarmed and mortified. Thereafter, when one of the boys used the word “rich,” we would ask, “Are they happy with what they have?” or “Do you know the Jewish definition of ‘rich’?” This response rapidly became as tiresome as manna to our kids, but they understood our message. They are now adults with children of their own, but I hope and pray that they will never use or hear “rich” without remembering its true Jewish meaning, and where they learned it.
A tale is told about Rabbi Ze’ev Wolf of Zhitomer, the Zhitomer Rav. He was once walking with his son when they saw a drunken man and his drunken son stumbling into the gutter. “I envy that father,” said the rabbi to his son. “He has accomplished his goal of having a son like himself. I don’t know yet whether you will be like me. I can only hope the drunkard is not more successful in training his son than I am with you.”
The most important contribution parents and grandparents can make to children’s personal and moral development is leading a life worthy of emulation. Kids are extremely keen observers and discern instinctively contradictions between our words and our deeds. If we want them to grow into compassionate, generous, socially concerned adults, rather than materialistic, stunted, self-absorbed people, we need to be concerned with the implicit message conveyed in our own lifestyle choices, avoid undue emphasis on the acquisition of material things, devote meaningful measures of our time and resources to helping others, and emphasize that which is “priceless” rather than what is merely expensive. Our prayer book reminds us, “Days pass and the years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”2 How much better off we and our children and grandchildren will be if we teach them to experience fully the pleasure of what we already possess, if we do not need a thing until we already have it, and if we focus on pursuing what contributes most to happiness and wellbeing: loving relationships, honest work, good health, supportive communities, and service to others.
Rabbi Richard A. Block is senior rabbi of The Temple – Tifereth Israel in Cleveland, Ohio.
Greed Is Good by Dan Moskovitz
Yasher Koach to my colleague Rick Block on so beautifully articulating the message parents have been telling their children since, apparently, the days of Moses. Yes, we should be happy with what we already have. I agree, we probably all agree, and yet who among us eats the same meal everyday for months on end without complaint?
Compared to the suffering of slavery, manna for breakfast, lunch, and dinner seems a small price to pay for freedom; and yet our biblical ancestors kvetch, they want more. Why? Because they are finally free. Slaves don’t complain—not out loud—for fear of punishment, and because they know they have no power to change their circumstance. But free people have freedom of mind and thought, wants and desires that are at the core of human achievement.
Rabbi Block argues that this human desire for more is the root of many of our problems, but our rabbinic tradition says it is actually the source of much of our achievement.
The Midrash teaches, “Were it not for the evil inclination, a person would not build, would not marry, would not have children, and would not engage in business. And so Shlomo said (Kohelet 4:4): “(all work comes from) man’s jealousy for his neighbor” (B’reishit Rabbah 9:7). Being dissatisfied is what motivates humankind. To paraphrase the fictional Gordon Gecko, “Greed [with moral grounding] is good.” The Torah and our Jewish code of law, properly understood, provide the moral grounding.
I’m glad our biblical ancestors looked at their manna and remembered longingly the modest but relatively gourmet food of slavery; if they hadn’t wanted more, life would be as bland as their food.
Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea, a Reform congregation in Tarzana, California
More than Enough by Eric Jay Siroka
B’haalot’cha is punctuated by an episode of the Israelite people “complaining bitterly before the Eternal” (Numbers 11:1). The riffraff were concerned about not having rich and diverse food to eat. They said they were better off as slaves in Egypt.
Our human nature leads us to remember things as if they were better than they actually were. Ah, the good old days! We tend to exaggerate our life stories. Our egos get in the way of reality. We even claim to have a better personal history than we really do. I imagine that we can all think of examples of this phenomenon from our own lives: the tiny fish we caught soon becomes a whopper that took a crane to lift above the dock; the amount of weight we hoisted above the bench press was incredulously impressive; the number of suitors we had in our youth multiplies each time we reminisce. Again, we ask ourselves, why do we want more than we have, whether it’s toys, friends, money, or whatever?
True contentment is an elusive feat for us to achieve. Shouldn’t it be enough to have a loving family, a safe roof over our heads, and the opportunity to wake up every day and do something of worth and value with my life? The answer is certainly. However, it’s hard to keep these things in mind all the time. It can be easy to fall back on thinking about those issues of dissatisfaction or incompleteness. We all struggle with overcoming this notion of emptiness. The ancient Rabbis offered timeless wisdom. They taught us, “Who is rich? [It is] the person who is content with what he [or she] has” (Pirkei Avot 4:1). When we remember this simple formula, when we overcome our penchant to be miton’nim, “complainers,” we too can be content with our lot.
Eric Jay Siroka is the rabbi at Temple Beth-El in South Bend, Indiana
A wise-beyond-her-years college friend once said to me, "Everyone's worst problem is just as bad for them as your worst problem is for you-and vice versa." I can't remember what problems we were talking about, but I do remember that her wise words put things into perspective and that everything eventually worked out just fine.
As a parent, a spouse, and a teacher, my friend's insight has been a big help to me. I've found that most of the trying situations in life boil down to the fact that people have their own problems and are all trying to solve them at the time. More often than not, each individual feels as if the problem at hand is the worst: the worst in his or her life, the worst that anyone in the family or group is facing. This is particularly true of my two sons, ages twelve and seven, who often seem either to be from two entirely different planets or to belong to two distinct species. The times when I feel most incompetent as a parent are when every member of my family, adult and child, is immersed in his or her own worst problem. At those times, I admit to having had the thought-fleetingly, to be sure-that it might have better if I had never become a parent. What in the world was I thinking?
In B'haalot'cha, we see a striking difference between the kvetching of the people, who behave like children, and the torments of their leader, who feels as if he is the parent of an entire family of screaming brats. During the Israelites' trek through the wilderness, both the people and their beleaguered leader, Moses, experience what they feel are their worst problems. The people repeatedly encounter thirst, hunger, and most of all, fear. Moses continually confronts the overwhelming feeling that he is inadequate to the task that God has assigned to him. At nearly every turn, God must intervene to help Moses meet the people's needs and to deal with their behavior.
According to the Torah text, the troublemakers-hasafsuf, translated as "riffraff," to recall the Hebrew noun's onomatopoetic quality-try to incite nostalgia for Egypt by conjuring up images of tasty, varied foods, in contrast to the bland diet of manna. Are the people truly suffering from hunger? Harvey J. Fields, in A Torah Commentary for Our Times, cites Rashi, Nachmanides, and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch to explain what this kvetching is all about.
Rashi says that the people are simply exhausted and upset. Their whining is like that of children, and their complaints are really just a call for comfort that, in the wilderness, is hard to come by. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees the Israelites as suffering from boredom; God provides all their food and water, Moses makes all the decisions, and thus the people themselves have no real goals or challenges. Their problem isn't hunger, Hirsch contends, but monotony.
But these aren't the Israelites' real problems, according to Nachmanides. Rather, self-pity and lack of faith are the issues. Instead of showing gratitude for their redemption from slavery, the people gripe about minor daily discomforts. Instead of trusting in Moses' leadership and God's power-despite plenty of evidence of both-the people whine about the menu. The most self-centered and vocal among them selfishly stir up discontent and impose their unhappiness on everyone around them.
Tired, upset, uncomfortable, bored, and self-centered-if these words don't describe children at one time or another, what does? In B'haalot'cha, God responds to the people's complaints with anger, sarcasm, and real punishment. "You shall eat [meat] not one day, not two, not even five days or ten or twenty, but a whole month, until it comes out of your nostrils…" (Numbers 11:19-20). This is similar to the threat of an exasperated parent: "You want to cry? I'll give you something to cry about!" What parent hasn't lost patience with a wailing child? What parent hasn't regretted speaking harsh words when hugs were probably called for? What parent hasn't wished the child would simply grow up-and then realized that growing up is precisely what children are in the process of doing, every moment of their existence?
Moses is truly at the end of his rope when he feels like a parent of the immature, unruly, ornery Jewish people. And God responds to Moses without a rebuke for what might seem an outrageous plea: that God kill Moses to put him out of his misery (Numbers 11:15). Without hesitation, God helps and guides Moses by instructing him to delegate some of his responsibility as leader (Numbers11:16), a lesson first taught to Moses by his father-in-law, Jethro, in Parashat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-27). God also promises to share with the seventy elders Moses selects the ruach (spirit) with which God has endowed Moses and to meet with them all. God's words to Moses are encouraging and soothing: "V'lo tisa atah l'vadecha-you shall not bear [your burden] alone" (Numbers 11:17). Even when Moses questions God's ability to provide the quantity of meat needed for 600,000 adult men [and their families], God doesn't criticize Moses in his distress. "You shall soon see” (Numbers 11:23) is God's reassuring reply.
The kind of help that God provides for Moses is not beyond the reach of parents today. We are all aware that too many children are hit and hurt, emotionally and physically, by adults who let their focus on their own worst problems get in the way of their sacred task of nurturing and protecting their children. Parenting is a challenge that many adults share, and there are plenty of veteran parents who are willing to encourage, support, and sympathize-if only the parents in distress are willing to voice the very real, very common frustrations of parenthood appropriately.
With the job of being a parent comes the responsibility to seek out those who can serve as "elders" in our lives. No one can do a perfect job of parenting. Sometimes small problems can mount up and become the worst situations imaginable-situations in which we wish we weren't parents at all. But there are friends, neighbors, and teachers who have been through it with their own children and know how bad we feel when we just can't seem to manage our children's needs and moods. There are social workers, psychologists, and medical doctors who can understand and help. When Moses shows God that he is overwhelmed by the task of carrying on as leader, God doesn't berate him or tell him he's doing a lousy job. God immediately sets about providing support. So, too, will many people around us who appreciate the challenges of parenting, if we call upon them when we need them.
Your Focus is Your Freedom by Adam Lieberman
How in the world could a group of people who had just been freed after years of slavery, been shown miracle upon miracle, and have every one of their needs provided for, still somehow manage to complain about nothing? The answer lies in the extraordinary way in which God "designed" us.
When it comes to our daily thoughts - which are the precursors to all of our actions - God wired us in a fascinating way. Our minds easily and naturally focus on what we're lacking. This bears repeating. Our minds will easily and naturally focus on what we do not have. It takes actual effort for us to think about the blessings of what we do have.
Our mind can be likened to a garden. The soil will bring forth most anything you want to plant. But ... if you don't plant anything, you won't have any crops and you'll get weeds growing instead. Without the seeds, the land doesn't just remain barren - weeds will grow in abundance.
This analogy is a true gateway to understanding why most people walk around unhappy and with absolutely no zest for life. Unless you make a conscious decision to focus on something positive, then by default your mind will simply and easily drift towards negative and unproductive thoughts.
The Jewish people had been given everything from God - their lives, their freedom, and all of their physical needs were provided for with little or no effort. But instead of being overjoyed beyond belief, (by focusing on what they now had), the Jews allowed their minds to remain barren whereby they "naturally" complained about all the things didn't have.
Because they didn't focus on what they had, God knew that there was no way He could ever make them happy, and the wrath of God flared greatly. There's no amount of blessings that could ever make someone happy if he chooses to not think about them. Everything God gave the Jews made them ecstatic for a day and then their focus switched from elation to what's now lacking. Their entire well-being and attitude diametrically changed as soon as their focus changed.
Imagine that you spent hours cooking a loved one a ten-course meal complete with all of his favorite foods. While eating this meal, he's certain to show you much appreciation. But how would you feel if the very next day he called you and complained that there weren't any strawberries on top of his pie for dessert? How crushed would you be? Is there NO making this person happy? How eager would you be to cook an elaborate meal for this person again? But ... if he was truly appreciative and thanked you for all you did, you would be only too eager to do it all over again.
And this is the powerful life-changing lesson for all of us. For a life of peace and blissfulness, it's absolutely mandatory to take time each and every day to really and truly think about the blessings God showers you with. Remember, a lack of appreciation and awareness is the first step towards unhappiness.
Take the time to really thank the One who gives and gives and stop focusing on the things that at this moment you don't have. Fill your mental garden with only the right kind of thoughts and watch in amazement how you'll have more and more to be thankful for.
Another D'VAR TORAH
A Chasidic rebbe, in discussing Parashat B’haalot’cha, once told his students this parable: There was once a king and queen who brought forth to this world twin boys, heirs to the throne. The two boys grew up together and were precious to their parents. On the day of the twins' fifth birthday, a gang of thieves broke into the palace and abducted one of the princes. The twin that was kidnapped somehow managed to escape misfortune but was forever lost and never found his way back to the palace. Still a young boy, he was adopted by a family of beggars. Eventually he forgot that he was really a prince. He grew up destined to be a very good beggar.
On the other side of the kingdom, in the palace, the beggar’s twin brother became king upon the death of his father. But he became violently ill, and he too ultimately died. Just before his passing, the king reminded his staff that there was another heir to the throne: his twin brother. Soldiers were ordered to search the entire kingdom for the twin brother. After months of searching, they finally found the identical twin, the next king.
When they informed the beggar that he was, in fact, royalty and would live out the rest of his life as king, in a palace and in luxury, he began to weep. When asked why he was so upset, he replied, "All my life I only had to beg for myself and my family, but now that I'm the king, I have to beg for an entire kingdom!"
In this parable the beggar represents the Children of Israel. Having been freed from a life of groveling, the beggar can’t even conceive of doing anything else but begging. He doesn’t understand that he is royalty. So too, the Israelites, born into slavery, couldn’t see themselves as anything but slaves. Slavery was all they knew. Now, a year after their redemption, the tribes try to adjust to a life of freedom. But just as the beggar is upset because of his inaccurate perception, so too the Children of Israel get upset and cry out. Their slave mentality causes them to crave the same things they had in Egypt, even at the cost of violence and hardship. They still perceive themselves as slaves.
In Or HaChayim: Commentary on the Torah (Jerusalem, 1995), Rabbi Chayim ben Attar takes note of the specific demand for meat. He asks, "Didn’t the Israelites already have numerous flocks and herds?" Certainly if they wanted meat, they had plenty. So what were they really asking for? Verse 5 gives us more of a clue. The Israelites recall that the fish that they would eat in Egypt was “for free” (chinam). Rashi asks, "What does it mean, ‘for free’”? Are we to believe that Egypt, which wouldn’t even give them straw to make bricks, would really give them fish for free? Rashi explains that “free” really alludes to the mitzvot. The Israelite slaves had no obligation to perform the commandments while they were in servitude and therefore ate fish without the condition of performing the mitzvot.
In essence, the Israelites aren’t really complaining about the lack of Egyptian delicacies. They are griping about their newfound freedom and all the responsibilities that go with it. As a child grows to adulthood, he or she soon realizes that along with the freedom of leaving the parental home comes the responsibility to take care of one’s own day-to-day needs. While the child wants the independence of adulthood, at the same time he or she craves the luxury of innocence. In the same way, the Israelites have difficulty with their transition from slavery to freedom: from back-breaking work to the performance of mitzvot.
Looking further, in 11:6 we hear the desperation of the Israelites’ cry. They say, “Now our gullets are shriveled.” The Hebrew term is nafsheinu y’veishah; literally "our souls are dry." How did they go from complaining about food in one verse to exclaiming that their souls are dry in the next verse? It seems like a big leap from the material to the spiritual. But that is exactly the point: the complaints don’t have their source in the material. Rather, the complaints stem from the fact that the Israelites can’t perceive the spiritual source of their experience. Instead of marveling at manna and the mitzvot, they complain and crave cucumbers.
In his book, Twerski on Chumash (Brooklyn: Shaar Press, 2003, p. 298), Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., diagnoses the Israelites’ condition as Spirituality Deficiency Syndrome. Someone with this syndrome is not attuned to the divinity that is found in the world. Twerski explains that it is the observance of the commandments that prevents one from becoming “spiritually dry” or being spiritually deficient. Mitzvot are the tools that help us sharpen our awareness of the Divine. When we enrich our lives with the performance of sacred deeds, whether they are ethical or ritual, we increase our perception of God’s presence in the world, we become spiritually efficient, we have souls that are not dry.
May we in our daily strivings become increasingly aware of the presence of divinity in our lives. And just as Shavuot follows Pesach, may we understand that with redemption and freedom comes responsibility: commandments. May the mitzvot we embrace deepen our experience of God and give meaning to our days.
THE WAY WE WERE, ARE, AND HOPE TO BE by Mark L. Winer
When we remember the past, we so often forget the worst and recall only the best: "When I was a boy…" "Once upon a time…" Americans wax rhapsodic about the frontier values of the Old West. Israelis love to recall the idealism and enthusiasm of the chalutzim, the pioneering kibbutzniks of the early twentieth century. Englishmen shed copious tears about "having lost the Empire."
At synagogue meetings throughout the world, someone almost invariably compares today's difficulties unfavorably with the way "we used to do things around here." In retrospect, we long for the simpler Jewish identity of our immigrant antecedents and old-country ancestors. Shtetl life was poor in material comforts but rich in family strength and religious tradition. In so remembering the past, we forget the negative aspects of the way it was. We so easily forget the anti-Semitism that was so much worse years ago. We forget the authoritarianism and sexism within the Jewish community. We forget the insecurity of being a Jew after World War II. We forget the fears for Israel's survival before the Six-Day War in 1967. The theme song from the film The Way We Were says, "Memories may be beautiful but yet, what's too painful to remember, we simply choose to forget.… So it's the laughter, we will remember, whenever we remember the way we were."
In this week's Torah portion, B'haalot'cha, our ancestors voiced similar nostalgia: Zacharnu et hadagah asher nochal b'mitzrayim, "We remember the fish that we ate in Egypt." (Numbers 11:5) They forgot the lashes and oppression, the humiliation and the slavery. But, oh, the fish!
I cannot count the times I have heard people talk about the good old days when there were real Jewish neighborhoods; when there was a true and vital Jewish community; when Jews were real Jews; when there was not so much assimilation, not so much intermarriage; when families were truly committed to Jewish practices and observance.
Such Jewish nostalgia for the olden days forgets the "chrein" and remembers only the "gefilte fish." Things may have been simpler from a Jewish perspective, but they were by no means better. With all of our problems, I still choose today. The difficulties we contemporary Jews encounter in building as vibrant a Jewish community as we might like are our problems. They are not the problems imposed upon us by an anti-Semitic world or by the poverty and poor education of our fellow Jews. Almost no Jews in the world today live under totalitarian regimes, unable to move to Israel or to America or to Great Britain or to other places that grant Jews freedom.
As a Jew, I choose today. I have always been a Reform Jew. Reform Judaism is so much more vibrant today than it was when I was a child growing up in the 40s and 50s in Utah, Indiana, and Texas. So many more Reform Jews know much more about Judaism and practice Judaism much more seriously and read Hebrew far more fluently. In my view, we are, frankly, more authentically Jewish, even as we are better integrated into modern life, without compromise or apology.
As good as today is, I deeply believe that tomorrow will be even better. Since I like today far more than yesterday, I choose tomorrow for my children and grandchildren. I'm not sure how we will solve today's problems, but we will solve them. That is my faith. And that is my trust in Jewish destiny and in the Covenant established by our ancestors with God at Sinai. Just as they had to overcome their nostalgia for the past to move on toward tomorrow, the dynamism of our Jewish Covenant with God demands no less of our generation.
Mark L. Winer is the senior rabbi of the West London Synagogue of British Jews.
KVETCH, KVETCH, KVETCH by Elliot Strom
The new arrival at the monastery is told he is welcome but since he has come to a place that is pledged to silence, he may speak no more than two words every ten years. After ten years he says: "Bed hard." After ten more years he says, "Food bad." Finally after ten more years he says, "I quit." To this the abbot responds, "I'm not surprised. You've been complaining ever since you got here."
Our lives can sometimes be trying and difficult. At one time or another, we all experience privation, pain, and loss. Sometimes we rise to meet the challenging problems head-on. At other times, feeling frustrated and defeated, all we can do is complain bitterly.
It's no wonder that the Israelites in this week's portion, Beha'alotecha, are complaining. After all, they've been in the wilderness for what seems like an eternity. They find themselves alternating between hunger, thirst, anxiety, and uncertainty about whether they will ever reach the Promised Land. They criticize Moses and Aaron's leadership. They even begin to wonder out loud if they were not better off as slaves in Egypt! So it comes as no surprise when we read: "The people took to complaining bitterly before Adonai." What is surprising is the second part of this verse: "Adonai heard and was incensed: a fire of Adonai broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp." (Numbers 11:1)
How are we to understand this? Why should God be so angry with people who are just voicing legitimate concerns about their welfare and survival?
Pinchas Peli in his book Torah Today reminds us that this is not the first instance in which the Israelites complain to God in the wilderness. Peli cites an earlier example, in Exodus 16:3, when the people cried out: "You have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death!" God responds to their loud and strident complaints not with anger but with a shower of manna from heaven!
And that's not all. When the people complain at Rephidim that they are dying of thirst, God responds not with fury but with water issuing from a rock. (Exodus 17) And when they complain at Marah that the water that God has provided them with is bitter and undrinkable, God doesn't become enraged but instead tells Moses how to make the waters sweet and potable. (Exodus 15:23-25) Why did God respond with generosity and understanding in these instances whereas now, in this week's portion, God responds with a plague of fire?
Peli suggests that perhaps the answer can be found in the Hebrew text itself, which reads: Vayehi ha'am kemitonenim. While the Jewish Publication Society translation of 1985 renders this, "The people took to complaining bitterly," a more literal translation is, "The people were like complainers." Peli takes this to mean that the people were not complaining about specific problems that had potentially specific remedies but were merely murmuring "like complainers," grumbling simply to "let off steam" and foment rebellion.
Now we begin to understand why God responds so differently in this week's portion. When the people made reasonable complaints about immediate needs, God responded with kindness. But here, when they are merely grumbling "like complainers," God becomes incensed, lashing out in disappointment and anger.
The lesson is clear. When we face moments of difficulty in our own lives, we need to reach out to others and ask for their help and support. But if all we are doing is kvetching, we may succeed in effecting catharsis for ourselves-we may even be the recipients of kind words and expressions of genuine sympathy-but we will accomplish nothing concrete to resolve our problems. And when we are in need that is always the first and most important order of business.
FROM THIS WEEK’S TORAH PORTION FOR PARENTS AND KIDS
Do you know there are two Passovers every year?
Well, originally there weren’t. But back when the Jewish people were traveling in the desert having left Egypt, there was a group of people who, through no fault of their own, weren’t able to participate in the Passover offering ceremonies that God had asked everyone to do. Even though they had a good excuse and weren’t required by Jewish Law to do it, they didn’t
rely on their excuse, rather they came to Moses and asked, “Why should we have to miss out on this special opportunity to come closer to God like everyone else?”
Moses asked God what to do and God proclaimed the special mitzvah of Pesach Sheni (the second Passover) one month after the first for those who missed out, to get another extra special chance.
These Jews had shown that they weren’t happy with the opportunity to get out of an obligation, but really wanted to do what God asked of them and so they were rewarded with a second chance.
We can learn from here that when we want to do something worthwhile but are prevented from doing so, we shouldn’t necessarily give up. If we persist, we will often succeed in unexpected ways.
In our story, a boy doesn’t give up easily in his efforts to do good, and is glad he didn’t.
By Nesanel Safran
Dave really loved riding his bike. Sometimes he almost felt like he was flying as he whizzed past the fields, meadows, and cozy houses that dotted Farmdale, his hometown.
Today he had set out extra early to meet up with his friends from the soccer team. They were meeting at Coach Waldman’s house all the way across town.
The boys had grown to love the coach who had patiently taught them valuable lessons about soccer and about life. And now that he was moving out of town they jumped at the chance to help him pack his belongings and be together with him one last time.
Dave, about half way there and making good time, took a sharp turn at the intersection by Fisher’s Pond Road when he was caught by surprise at the sight of a family of ducks crossing the road. Reacting quickly, he swerved his bike onto the shoulder of the road to avoid hitting the birds. Suddenly he heard a popping sound coming from his front tire followed by a steady hiss.
Dave glanced down and his worst fears were confirmed. He had run over a broken bottle and his tire was rapidly deflating. “Now what?” he thought.
At first he considered walking home and forgetting the whole project. “After all, I have a good excuse. No one would blame me,” he told himself. But then he realized how much he wanted to show his appreciation by helping his coach and how even the best excuse was no substitute for actually doing it.
So bravely he decided to continue on to his destination, only now at a snail’s pace as he walked with his limping bike at his side. What seemed like an eternity later, Dave finally arrived at Coach Waldman’s house. He groaned as he noticed all his friends jumping on their bikes getting ready to leave.
One of the boys looked up and noticed him. “Hey Dave, you lucked out,” he quipped. “We just finished. Your flat tire saved you from a lot of hard work,” he added, wiping his brow to emphasize his point. The boys chuckled but Dave didn’t smile. All he could think about was how much he had wanted to help out his coach and now it looked like he had lost his chance.
The boys returned to their small talk as Dave walked past them, pushing his bike right up next to the fully packed orange U-Haul moving van, where he found the coach doing some last minute arranging. As Coach Waldman turned around, he caught sight of Dave and, glancing at the broken bike, got the picture right away. “I’m … I’m sorry coach,” stammered Dave. “I really wanted to help. It’s just that my bike, you see…”
But the good-natured coach waved him off with his big hand. “No problem Dave,” he said with a smile. “I can see your flat. You have a legitimate excuse. It wasn’t your fault you were late. Why don’t you fix your tire at the gas station across the road and ride on home with your friends?” The coach was about to turn back to his task when Dave took a step forward.
“But coach,” he said firmly. “I didn’t come here to make an excuse, I really want to help. Isn’t there still something left for me to do to help you? Anything at all?”
Coach Waldman looked down at the boy. He studied the expression on his face and realized that he really meant what he was saying. He paused for a moment and thoughtfully scratched his beard.
“Well,” he said, “there is one thing. I wasn’t planning to ask any of the guys to help me with this. I wanted to do it myself -- but I still haven’t packed up my trophy case. I saved it for last. Over the years we’ve been blessed with a lot of success and memories. Do you think you could stay on a little while and help me with it?”
A broad smile flashed across the boy’s face at the special honor. As he raced to follow the coach into the almost empty house, Dave felt really glad he hadn’t given up so easily in his desire to help.
Q. How did Dave feel when his tire went flat?
A. He was upset that he might not be able to help the coach. Even though he had a good excuse not to, he wanted to help anyhow.
Q. Is it okay not to do something we should when we have a good excuse?
A. Sometimes we really can’t help it, but it’s better to keep trying and not rely on our excuse.
Q. When Dave’s bike got the flat tire he could have easily given up and gone home. Why do you think he didn’t?
A. The thought crossed his mind. But he remembered why he had started out in the first place, to do the worthwhile task of helping his coach. He was able to persist and not give up by focusing on his goal even when it became difficult to accomplish.
Q. Would it have been wrong for Dave to have turned back? After all, he did get a flat tire.
A. It wouldn’t have really been wrong. He had good intentions when he started out, and the flat tire wasn’t his fault. Still, when he was able to persevere despite a good excuse not to, he did something great. Not only did he win his coach’s respect and special attention, but he developed himself into a stronger and more successful person.
Ages 10 and up
Q. In your opinion, if a person sincerely attempts to do something worthwhile, and is stopped by forces beyond his control, are his efforts worth just as much as if he had succeeded? Why or why not?
A. Any effort we put into doing something worthwhile has tremendous value, even when circumstances beyond our control prevent us from achieving our goal. We are responsible for sincerely trying our best, but the actual outcome is in God's hands. By keeping this in mind, we can remain motivated to persevere, and not be discouraged by setbacks.
Q. Why do you think that the coach “rewarded” Dave for coming late by allowing him to assist in packing the precious trophy case?
A. The coach accurately perceived something extraordinary in the boy. Dave persisted in asking to help even after he was told that the job was done, and even when it was obvious that he had a good excuse, the flat tire, for coming late. This revealed to the coach how sincere he was in his desire to help and made Dave worthy in his eyes of the honor of assisting him with his trophies. Far from rewarding Dave for being late, the coach rewarded him for being great.