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Posted By The Stash

One of the numbers we hear most often is “613”—the number of mitzvot in the Torah. That is a large number to remember, so we need some help. The help is in the tzizit, the fringes on the corners of garments that the Israelites were instructed to create. The gematria, the numerical value of the letters, of tzizit is 600 and each strand has 8 strings and 5 knots—hence the mnemonic power of the tzizit in recalling the 613 mitzvot. Our Sages realized the educational value of visual aids long ago.

But there is a more interesting question to ask here. We are told that the tzizit will help the wearer “remember ALL the mitzvot of Hashem and DO them.” Quite frankly, this was never possible. Some of the mitzvot are gender based, so that even when the Temple stood those in Israel who observed all the requisite laws of the Temple and the land could never observe all the mitzvot. So how can the Torah command the impossible?

Note that the word “all” is linked to the word “do.” We are being told to do all the mitzvoth we can remember through the visual aid of the tzizit. That is, it is our duty to gradually increase the number of mitzvot we do until “all we can do” is as close to 613 as possible. This is not the spiritual equivalent of a hamster running on its circular treadmill and going nowhere. It is the duty of the Intelligent Jew to always ask, “is this All the mitzvot I am capable of doing?” knowing that there are many more still undone. At the same time, it is understandable for people who are gradually mastering more mitzvot to hit a temporary plateau in which they feel “these are ALL the mitzvot I am presently capable of doing.”

The word “all the mitzvot and do them” thus has a key element of elasticity built into it. At any one time, we may be doing all the mitzvot we are able to without ever knowing how many more we are still capable of doing. Because the concept of “all the mitzvot” is so deliberately nebulous, it compels us to keep striving upwards to seek the ultimate “all,” the maximum number we can do. Given the fact that no Jew can truly do all 613, this becomes a lifelong quest for maximizing our mitzva potential and actualizing personal change. And the more spiritual we become, the more conscious we become of how much more we can still do. A lovely story elucidates this. A skeptic in Czarist Russia once asked the Rav of Volozhin why he wore such a long tallit with even longer tzizit. “Surely Rabbi,” said the skeptic, “you have a great memory and it should be easy for you to remember the commandments. Why do you need such a long tallit?” To which the Rav replied, “I am but a poor Rabbi, I do not trust my memory, I need a large reminder.” If the Vilna Gaon’s greatest student could say this—what should we say? May we always strive to do more and never cease striving.

Posted By The Stash

Seventy men have just been selected by Moses to be the first Sanhedrin, a council of 70 elders that will assist him in running the Israelites’ religious lives. Two men, Eldad and Medad remain behind, having not been included in the group of seventy because they modestly refused to even get involved in the process of selection. Suddenly, they begin prophesizing in camp. The Midrash explains they foretold the death of Moses, the accession of Joshua as leader, and exactly how the Messianic Era would dawn.

Joshua, jealous for Moses’ honour, makes a shocking demand: “Moses, my Lord, destroy them.” Rashi interestingly interprets this expression in a manner completely contrary to its plain sense: “Moses, give these two men roles in government. The stress of dealing with leadership will quickly destroy them.” A very striking interpretation for sure—parallel to many of the Rabbis’ fears about being involved in governance, which they felt led to relentless pressure both from within and without the Jewish community that would lead to personal tragedy.

The truth of this is certainly borne out by the acute outbreak of politicians being accused of improprieties so serious that even the often cynical public is gasping with shock and rage. Whatever the truth of the latest accusations against Mayor Ford, they only reinforce the impression that he has become more of a public buffoon than ever. But what is saddest is how politics has now taken him away from coaching high school football, arguably the one volunteer position he passionately cared about and was successful at. Whatever Ford’s many other weaknesses and foibles, his affection for these young men had a tremendously positive effect on them—and on him. Now it is over—consumed by the fires of public office.

The cases of Senators Wallin and Duffy underscore Rashi’s keen insight. Here are two seasoned journalists, both of who made their careers investigating scandals, falling into the traps commonly associated with those “venal politicians” they reveled in exposing. Certainly Senator Duffy, in his previous role on Powerplay, should have known better than anyone else in this country that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Instead, his seems to have used his vast knowledge of the federal system to insulate himself from the law and charm powerful connections into protecting him. At best, he has violated the spirit of the laws he used to take such delight in publically defending by exposing those who sought to act improperly.

But if the burden of leadership does this to good people, who should be the leaders? To understand the answer, we need to explore a midrash that states that the 70 Elders received the power of prophecy directly from Moses, but could only prophesize for a short while, while G-d directly gave the more modest Eldad and Medad a lifelong prophetic power. These two men were so humble that they never used their gift of prophecy as a tool for advancement, while their peers who had more power and larger egos, were like “candles lit by the flame of Moses” and ever conscious of their inferiority to him. Those who wield power most successfully need egos that are not easily bruised by tough decision making, but must remain ever conscious that they are all too humanly fallible. It is precisely this that distinguishes the morally upright politicians from those who stoop to abuse their power. Yet another reminder of the perilously difficult balancing act required for success in life.

Posted By The Stash

Many of you will recall the controversy over the Conservative government’s changes to the census that made the compulsory “long form” obsolete. Statisticians were rightly outraged at the loss of meaningful data about a host of important variables. As the results of the census begin to trickle out, that concern is certainly justified. Especially hard hit are the demographers of religion, who no longer will have hard numbers to track the growth or decline of many religious groups in Canada.

All of this controversy raises a question long discussed by our commentators: what is the difference between a divine and a human census? It is well known, and has been discussed in previous editions of this commentary, that the Rabbis had a deep mistrust of directly counting Jewish people. We still honour this tradition when we count a minyan, the requisite quorum for public worship, by reciting the blessing “Hamotzi” which has 10 words, while we point at the quorum members.

The first verse of this week’s parasha refers directly to the issue of how G-d counts the Israelites through its unique language. “Naso et rosh Bnai Yisrael, v’sa et mispar shmotam”—“lift the heads of the Jewish people and enumerate the numbers of their names.” This language, as unusual in Hebrew as in English, signifies that when Moses follows the Divine command to conduct this census, he will spiritually raise the profile of each Israelite through the process. It is as though each Israelite will be personally “numbered” by G-d as they are enumerated by Moses. It is precisely this language that makes the census of our parasha unique in the Tanach. Other censes use Hebrew verbs that connote actual counting; only here is the phrase “lift the heads” used. Indeed, many of our commentators have explicitly noted that the tribal census we read about last week in Parashat BaMidbar was specifically for military purposes. Certainly this was necessary. After all, military power was a factor in the Israelites’ success; after the miracle at the Sea of Reeds they were expected to fight and not merely rely on miracles.

But Judaism is about much more than simple military power. As the prophet Zechariah famously phrased in words that are read as the Haftarot of both Chanukah and Parashat Be’halotecha “not by might, nor by power, but through My spirit, says the L-rd of Hosts.” And this is the very point of this week’s census’ peculiar phraseology. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks observes “It should now be clear why the taking of a census is fraught with spiritual risk. The numbering of a people is the most potent symbol of mankind-in-the-mass, of a society in which the individual is not valued in and for him or herself but as part of a totality whose power lies in numbers. That is precisely what Israel is not. The God of Israel, who is the God of all mankind, sets His special love on a people whose strength has nothing to do with numbers, a people that never sets itself to become an empire, that is never commanded to wage holy war in order to convert populations, that was and remains tiny in both absolute terms and relative to the empires with which it was and is surrounded, standing as it does at the vulnerable crossroad between three continents.”

We are a people like no other, with a unique logic-defying history of survival, charged with emulating God on a human level. We are told in Psalms that God is capable of counting all the stars, yet giving them each a name. This does not refer to scientific enumeration—it refers to the ability of never permitting the anonymization of the individual. If God sees us all as unique and precious, despite being able to count the billions of people who make up this world, can we do any less? Teach us O Lord how to understand individuals, their needs, their hopes, their dreams, and their humanity, whenever we interact with them.

Posted By The Stash

It is widely known that our Sages arranged the weekly Torah reading cycle so that Parashat Bamidbar, a word meaning “desert” is always read on the Shabbat preceding Shavuot, which commemorates Mattan Torah at Mount Sinai. Much has been written about this connection. I would humbly like to add a layer of interpretation.

Passover, which marks Redemption, is connected to Shavuot commemorating Revelation by the 49 days of the Omer. These are counted meticulously, thus reminding us, according to Kabbalistic wisdom, of the ascent in holiness needed to rise from the level of mere physical redemption from slavery to the level required to receive Divine Revelation directly at Sinai. It is not coincidental that our first experience of the emotional, physical, and spiritual changes associated with the shift from Redemption to Revelation took place in the desert.

The desert forms a stark landscape. It is often rocky and barren, swept by winds and flash floods that turn dry wadis into raging torrents of water in minutes. As we are reminded by Moses, it is a land of snakes and scorpions and water that is found tantalizingly close to the surface. It is a place of climatic and geological extremes that dwarf the humans who traverse it. And, above all, it is silent. And it is this silence that provides the proper environment in which physical freedom could be blended with the theophany of Sinai to rekindle the barely glowing embers of faith in the G-d of Abraham that had barely withstood Egyptian slavery.


Posted By The Stash

I firmly believe that Intelligent Judaism is a search for holiness. The holy person controls their thoughts and speech, knowing that what they say impacts this world, and what they think affects their future. They strive to minimize their egos, the better to listen to the cries of souls around them. This lifelong quest requires many media: song, speech, the stamping of feet, the swaying of bodies at prayer, the resonance of a text chanted in a language more remembered than understood. But the quest for holiness also requires study and contemplative silence. This was the key medium provided by the desert. And it is precisely this quality that most lacking today. A fellow teacher wrote a post this week about “iPads in education” in which he told of how he uses various computer media to teach Hebrew, grade his class, and facilitate conversations. But he never allows these to substitute for “I teach sitting with my class around a nest of tables, over a printed text. A book. Paper. And that for me is the authentic model of Jewish learning…the medium, a static page, begs for them to interact with each other and with me.”

I deeply cherish contemplative silence. Much as I love the hubbub of daily life, some of my most pleasant memories centre around sitting and learning in one of the University of Toronto’s libraries. Whenever I pass Robarts Library, I still feel a physical twinge, savouring the memory of 5 lovely years in “the stacks”: reading, writing, talking with professors and peers about matters academic. I still recall how I looked out the windows of my carrel at the bustle on the street below and counted myself blessed that I was fortunate enough to just ‘sit and learn.’

I suppose that, in addition to acquiring a degree that is becoming professionally necessary, is why I am so excited about taking an entire year off beginning in September to return to school at York University’s Faculty of Education. The freshness of the first week in school, which I will again experience as a student, and the prospect of sitting once again in a university library and studying, will be deeply motivating. The chance to interact with students the same age as my children will probably remind me once again of the endless optimism of youth, and, unfortunately, the omnipresent hand of social media that will challenge me afresh to balance socialization with silence.

My life experience leads me to believe that the silence of the desert allowed the Israelites time for thought, for interaction, and for trying to comprehend the meaning of physical and spiritual freedom. For us, contemplative silence gives us the opportunity for dialogue with learning, for moving closer to being the people we want to be, and for finding ways to communicate with the Divine. As we are about to receive the Torah afresh, I urge you to find quiet time on a regular basis to think about the miracle of being alive, and to open a Jewish book and read contemplatively. In many stories of Revelation, G-d is only found in the “still, small voice.” Without silence, we will not hear G-d’s call—how then can we continue on our quest to be holy? May our words be well chosen and our silences significant.



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