Word for the Herd: Torah from your favorite teacher
This week's parsha, is Masei. It outlines what places the C-O-I (Children of Israel) traveled thru the desert and camped out in the desert, where the boundaries of the promised land were to be and where the C-O-I were to go as refugees. And I sure can relate to the subject matter this week on many levels.
Being a refugee is no foreign topic for the Jewish People. Today in Israel, many of my family and friends have been uprooted in these last few days. Those who lived in the South are spending their days in bomb shelters because they only get 15 seconds warning when there are terrorist rocket attacks... sadly that happens more than 30 times a day. Some of my friends have been drafted or called up from reserves to serve in the army again, so they are on the base. Some of my American friends were stranded in Israel when the FAA banned all flights to and from Israel this week. And of course, I feel for all the innocent Palestinian families who have had to leave their homes because of the war in Gaza and how unsafe Hamas has made Gaza for them to live in.
I can't help but even think of my great great grandparents as refugees from Europe when I re-read the parsha this week. My relatives on both sides of my family escaped the horrible persecution Jewish people faced in Europe in the late 1800's and early 1900's by either going to America or to Israel (well then it was called Palestine because Israel was founded in 1948). Lucky for my family, they managed to find a new home and jobs when they were on the run. History has taught us that most Jews on the run in the 1900's were trapped in Europe, leading to the death of 6 million of our people who had no place to go.
To be accurate, the refugee situation HaShem was talking about was a little different, though. They were actually for people who were accused of crimes and at risk of being judged before they had a trial.
What was HaShem teaching us about being a refugee? After listing all the different places the C-O-I camped for a small time, at most year or two, we all can relate to not having a home. We know how difficult it is to being on the run. We know how hard it is to have a homeland in site but not have it In some way, all Jewish people have been refugees. From Egypt. From Spain. Europe. Even cast out from eachother --- We've all been unfairly accused of something in their lives, driven out of their homes for no reason. HaShem was teaching us, that all of us have natural human rights. Even people who are accused of things, deserve a fair trial, and a safe place to be before they are judged. Part of being Jewish is understanding that judging someone should only be reserved for HaShem and our appointed leaders---and in the meantime we have to keep all people's rights sacred.
Speaking of understanding the importance of a homeland...... This parsha again lays out why it is so important that we have Israel. Israel is the only place in the world designated to be for the Jewish people. After listing all the places we had to trek thru to reach our precious land, we see another reason why the Israeli Army (IDF) is fighting so hard these last 18 days of Operation Defensive Shield. They have to protect Israel for all the inhabitants and Jewish people around the world. We have no other choice. We will not be without a home again.
The third sentence in this week's parsha is something that most of us try to uphold:
If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.
Didn't we already get an assignment like this from Moses when he gave the 10 commandments? How is that different 9th commandment "You should not lie?" Or even the 3rd "Don't take the Lord's name in vain?" And why is it in this portion?
For my understanding, the answer lies in what just happened to the C-O-I. In fact, in general lets say we should always look at what happened in the plot of the Torah to know WHY we were given our mitzvot. Ya gotta know where you came from to know where you are going.
The C-O-I broke rule numero-uno: they worshipped idols. It wasn't just a few of them, it was many of the most powerful tribesmen and leaders who betrayed HaShem. Those leaders may have "talked the talk" plenty of times when it was going to bring about some great benefit to them, but they didn't "walk the walk." And of course, talk is cheap, as far as HaShem is concerned. When he first gave the 10 Commandments, G-d made it clear that the words we say are important. If we curse HaShem it's a major offense. And if we tell a lie about our neighbor, also--forbidden.
But what if you speak something and don't follow with your actions? What if the words were right and the actions were either wrong or totally hypocritical? This is the latest way in which the Torah is teaching us to be better people.
Being a person of action is important. In fact, a mitzvah is a deed. The rule in Matot doesn't say we are forced to make promises, but it does say that we have to fulfill our pledges once we do. And in theory, I am sure we can all agree the Torah is right. But in practice, it is much harder.
There are things we push off because of time, or lack of interest, or simply forgetfulness. Sometimes we don't mean what we say. Sometimes we make promises to get things from other people. The amount of times I promised to be "slave for life" to one of my siblings if they shared food with me... oh boy. Now, we all say things like that. So what is the Torah trying to get us to do?
After the leaders break their dedication to HaShem, G-d is reminding all people that they made a Brit, or covenant, to honor and respect his rules. So they have to KEEP their word. Yes, reading this portion right after hearing about bad behavior of leaders can make us think of how our modern leaders (Mayors/Presidents/Principles Cough Cough) have disappointed us. They promise certain things when they run for office and then don't measure up. They don't deliver or worse do the exact opposite of what they said they would.
And then there are normal people who don't value the seriousness of a pledge. Sometimes friends promise to keep a secret, and they let you down with gossip. Or an older sibling promises to make time for you and then cancels. Or a boyfriend says he'll love you forever and then - well - you find out he doesn't. Sure, there are much more dramatic stories we've all been through, and if you know me, you've probably heard some doozies. The Torah is reminding us how to behave in the best of ways, both just for our relationships with each other, and to G-d, the Universe. Just do what you say you're gonna do, ok?
I leave you with this quote from Justin Timberlake:
"I know people promises all the time
Then they turn right around and break them."
..... He must have been at synagogue when he wrote that song.
I just got back from one of the most spiritual trips of my life to Israel and it makes little sense to know that the family and friends I visited with less than one month ago NOW have only 15-90 seconds to find shelter from falling rockets from Hamas. I was just in these cities praying, relaxing, shopping, touring and learning and now there is a war, where my relatives and friends are being called back up for service, are terrorized by alarms, sirens, and feel morbidly guilty for the loss of human life on the Palestinian side that is seemingly necessary to protect them from raining fire.
It is no wonder that I’m effected by the current Israeli-Hamas conflict that has erupted over the last few weeks. Just take a look at these pictures above. These are kids at their summer-camp, during a code-red siren, hovering on the floor, preparing for a rocket explosion. Some are pictures a friend of mine took of rockets in her backyard or right by her work. This is what the IRON DOME missile defense system looks like when it shoots down and intercepts Hamas missiles and rockets with direct precession. This is what an air strike looks like in Gaza.
Besides talking to my Israeli friends and family and trying to make them feel supported, loved and distracted from this intense situation, here in the USA I’m constantly talking about the news. My roommate listens to me tirade against the US leadership for pressuring Israel. My co-workers patiently listen as I explain the day’s attacks and developments. My mother and I post relentlessly on social media to help get the word out to Jews and Non-Jews alike about how Israel tries to preserve human life while Hamas’ goal is to destroy.
If you can’t serve to protect, you can help spread the truth and you can help make those under-fire feel like they aren’t alone.
Last night I spoke with an interfaith couple at an Upper West Side restaurant. They wanted to know what I think of everything going on with the Middle East, as I had just gotten back from the land and I’m a teacher. They both suggested that Israel should go into Gaza already with a full ground invasion and obliterate every last Palestinian. They are entitled to their opinion but they are of course wrong.
Israel is a Jewish Homeland. More than that, it is the only nation in the Arab Middle East that has religious freedom. It is a land full of secular and religious people, but built on the values of those who survived oppression and violence. Israel can and will do the right thing to win against terror…. Whatever it is, it will not just be to obliterate the Palestinians. Gaza’s population has a right to exist non-violently, and if we “kill them all” we will be just as bad as those who sought to wipe us off the planet. Israel will protect the land for the Jewish people, but that includes keeping the world opinion of Israel high. We must continue attempts to restore peace in the land.
I have grown my opinion about everything largely through my best friend, Noa. If you know me, you remember when I brought 20lbs of custom M&M’s to her wedding in Israel, of you’ve met her when she went to elementary school in the states or when she’s come to visit me several times. Noa is a brilliant, beautiful and patient woman. She is the daughter of an Ambassador in Israel’s Foreign Ministry and wife of a businessman who was immediately drafted to serve in Gaza again. She wrote me this:
“I think the main message is that although we are at war, civilians in Israel feel very protected. That’s why we continue our lives…. Go to work, Summer camps, weddings... everything is normal. This sense of protection is because the government of Israel and the IDF work non-stop to protect us. The Iron Dome is THE example for that: A project that took years to develop and now in real time, its saving our lives. The budget for the Iron Dome was given by the USA and that is why we need the continued support of our greatest ally. It is why the only tragic pictures are seen from the Palestinian side. Hamas is not protecting the Palestinians, only using them as human shields.”
Please do what you can to show your support. Am Yisrael Chai.
As my students know, when it comes to tapping into the Torah portion of the week, I'm normally pretty excited to find a modern explanation so that teens, tweens and kids alike can really relate.
In the Portion, Pinchas, there is a lot of problems for the Israelites people with their neighbors (uh... nothing new and sadly, nothing old). In fact, the Israelites are now in Midyan, where Moses had found his wife, and where just a few weeks ago, I snapped this picture of a man. Midyan is really modern day Jordan (and just so we are clear, we are on pretty good terms with Jordan now a days). But Midyanites back in the time of Moses had a mission to destroy our people. They knew we were powerful, numerous, and were set out to conquer our own land, In last week's parsha, a Midyanite prophet with a talking donkey tried to curse us to get us to go away. No such luck.
But the Israelites, like any people when on a long journey... strayed from the path of perfection many times. Sometimes they wouldn't care about the rules of the Torah, sometimes they would even "hook-up" with people of other nations. And the worst, of course, was if they were disloyal to G-d. While in Midyan, the Children of Israel (C-O-I) worshiped the Midyanite idol: Baal Peor. GURL--- were they in trouble. G-d brough a plague and started killing our nation because of our bad behavior.
Pinchas was Aaron's grandson (famous brother of Moses), was a loyal friend to G-d and was on a mission to get the C-O-I to knock it off. But he didn't do it by talking. He took action.
Pinchas entered a tent where an Israelite, Zimri, was having an affair with a Midyanite Princess, Cozbi. Pinchas impaled Zimri and Cozbi with his spear. Pinchas showed a true act of zealotry: fighting for a cause and was then rewarded with a new title and renewed relationship with G-d. Pinchas got the plauge to stop, but still, 24,000 C-O-I perished.
So, good story, but what's the point? Well, we can learn a lot from the punishment of Zimri and Cozbi. Why did Pinchas just kill them and not everyone? Well, some people say it's because Zimri came from a really important family, the tribe of Shimon, and when you act poorly and you are a leader, you cause an even bigger disgrace. A leader of a tribe is expected to act according to the rules. But Cozbi never claimed to follow our rules, so why did she get punished. Well, some rabbis say, those that try and convince others to break the rules, or participate in others breaking rules, are just as guilty as the rule-breakers. After all... if you are in school and you stand by while someone is being bullied, maybe you are as guilty as the bully. Cozbi did help Zimri do something wrong and so she had to face a harsh punishment. And the two of them served as examples for all the rest of the C-O-I. I know when I've seen friends suffer strict consequences I have been scared straight. Pinchas, working for Hashem, had the same idea.