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Towards the end of this parasha, the Torah adds more details to the tasks of the Cohanim and Levi’im who serve in the Mishkan (the Tabernacle). In a summative verse Aaron is told (18:7): “You and your sons who are with you will perform all everything pertaining to your priestly offices, everything connected to the Altar or what is behind the Parochet (=the curtain dividing the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Mishkan; I will give you your priesthood as an avodat matana.”

What is an avodat matana? The Talmud in Yoma 24a states that this verse clearly confirms that the Cohanim hold the Divinely mandated monopoly to perform all the services in every part of the Mishkan—both inside the tent and in the courtyard immediately surrounding it. This charge is given to the Cohanim as “avodat matana” which Rashi renders as “a service of gift”. This sounds a bit jarring to our modern ears, which may better understand Ramban’s phraseology : “I have given your priest’s office to you not so that this will constitute a state of servitude like the service of slaves to a king, but rather I have given you a great service of gift for (your own) honor and glory…”

Yes, even Cohanim serving G-d in a holy place may become jaded and feel that, after a period of years, they are servants. True, they are important servants who serve the Ruler of the World, but they are servants nonetheless. This feeling may be enforced by the fact that the Cohen is assigned this job “by accident of birth”. Not everyone may have considered this job such an honour. Indeed, the High Priesthood was a dangerous job despite its honour, and the duties of a Cohen were physically and mentally arduous. Cohanim had an early retirement age for a reason.

In this light, the Ramban’s comment is instructive. A person who feels their work is drudgery will never truly do it with all their heart or attempt to improve their performance. Ultimately, whether a job is menial or “divine” is in the eyes of the doer. If we take Ramban’s approach to its logical conclusion we discover that even Divinely mandated work must be willingly accepted to be internalized and performed acceptably. I cannot overemphasize the importance of this idea for the Intelligent Jew. Only those who observe Judaism through love can truly serve. And that is why the Cohanim were required both to serve with love and feel that they were fortunate to be gifted with the opportunity to minister to their people.

The heavy hand of compulsion cannot coerce divinity from a resentful populace. “Seek G-d where G-d may be found” says the prophet. To find G-d, we must first discover and define our relationship with the Divine. We must make it positive—based on a desire to follow our tradition and to love the details of its performance. If we “do Jewish” with gratitude and joy—perhaps our descendants will as well. Or at least we may have a better chance of having descendants who know what Judaism means.

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This week’s Torah portion narrates the story of the 12 tribal chiefs sent by Moses to scout out the Land of Canaan and confirm that it was indeed the “land of milk and honey.” As you may recall, ten of these scouts were so discouraged by the fortified cities and the might of the inhabitants that they advised against attempting to conquer the Land. Only two scouts—Joshua and Caleb—urged the Israelites to fulfill G-d’s command and conquer Canaan. Surely, they argued, G-d would help those who helped themselves. But the Israelites didn’t listen, and ended up wandering the desert for 38 more years.

The Torah gives two versions of how this tragic story came about. Our account in the Book of BaMidbar (Numbers) indicates that G-d told Moses: “Send scouts if you feel you should.” But the parallel account in the Book of Devarim (Deuteronomy) states that Moses sent the scouts only after he was pressured by the people who did not believe, despite all the miracles they had witnessed, in the goodness of the Land of Canaan.

Which story is correct is less important than the lesson we can learn. It is clear that Moses was given the option of sending scouts, and he chose wrongly. In hindsight, it was easier to blame the people for “pressuring him” than it was to acknowledge that he would have done better to continue depending directly on the G-d who had guided the people through the desert with a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of fire by night. Why send scouts if there is a heavenly GPS? But Moses always, as a good leader should do, wanted to wean the people from over reliance on miracles. He knew, as did G-d, that Divine assistance would slowly fade and the Israelites would have to learn to fend for themselves. Perhaps it was best, therefore, if the Israelites themselves scouted the land and took some responsibility for preparing for its conquest. Moses’ reasonable plan turned into a serious miscalculation—and the text from the Book of Devarim reflects his resentment, anguish, and the all too human trait of blaming others for your own errors.

And this is the point the text seeks to make. As Nachmanides argues, Moses made a very serious error of judgment. And Moses, for all that he stood before G-d for 40 days and nights without eating, was still all too human when he descended from the heights. He wanted to deflect the error onto the Israelites. Are we any different? This is the reason the great women and men of the Torah have their humanity and fallibility painted in often upsetting detail. Unlike some religions, Jewish holy people live in this world and try to elevate its spirituality. They often succeed, but they still remain human. Moses may have climbed Sinai and spoken face to face with G-d, but when angry he struck a rock rather than spoke to it. The lips that spoke to G-d still stuttered. He remained far from perfect—and that was the reason for his selection as leader.

We are often too hard on ourselves. We are too worried about errors. We hover over our children and harass them with our “care” as we follow them to university entrance seminars and even job interviews. We need to step back and see what our children can do. True, like the Israelites in our Torah portion, they might fail to rise to the challenge, but how else will they learn independence? It worked for the Israelites then and still works now. We are judged by what we do most of the time for those we love. Our children remember when we yelled, but if we are good parents, the memories of those raised voices pale in comparison to the numerous happy times we shared. What matters are the qualities we deploy most often. So—as the summer days begin and life gets a little more relaxed—breathe, relax, stop reading “How to be a Perfect _____” books and just follow the maxim of our Rabbis: “greet each person cheerfully” and perhaps they’ll do the same to you!

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Once again the Israelites are complaining. In truth, their complaints haven’t changed much since they left Egypt. At first they complain about “being sent to die in the desert” when they see the Egyptians pursuing them. In this week’s parasha, they complain of the tiresome diet of manna, and they nostalgically reiterate the varied diet they consumed as slaves. We would expect that Moses, who has heard this all before, would be well practiced in how to quell these rebellious and ungrateful words. But instead, surprisingly, Moses responds with a bitter tirade directed at G-d: “What have I done to displease you…why have you placed the burden of these people on me?”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks draws on the work of Professor Ron Heifetz, who specializes in analyzing public leadership. Heifetz distinguishes between “technical challenges” and “adaptive challenges”. The former occurs when “you have a problem and someone else has a solution.” Your car is broken, you go to the mechanic who can determine what is wrong with it. Follow the instructions—the problem is solved. But adaptive challenges are different. Here the person’s problem can only be changed by changes in their lifestyle. For example, you are told that you have a medical condition that can only be helped by changing lifestyle and diet. This will require adaptation, and is therefore much more difficult than simply “popping a pill”.

Sacks cogently argues, based on Heifetz, that in the Book of Exodus, the generation that had left Egypt had to simply learn how to be free. Moses concentrated on repeating his solutions to their problems and was not frustrated that people so recently removed from slavery were so full of complaints. But by the time the narrative has reached our parasha, Moses believes that the people need to be preparing to enter the land. After all, they have been in the desert for close to two years and are drawing near the borders of Canaan. Moses now needs to provide adaptive leadership to ready the people for taking possession of the land. They must become active agents in their own redemption rather than passive observers and beneficiaries of Divine miracles. But the people—as next week’s parasha that narrates the tragic incident of the spies reveals—have not changed and refuse to. This realization shatters Moses’ belief in his own leadership—hence his bitterness. Sacks points out that Moses was actually fortunate: many adaptive leaders (Gandhi, Lincoln, Sadat, Rabin) were assassinated by the opponents of change.

As always, Torah teaches us powerful lessons. Change and tradition both play vital roles in our daily lives. But balancing them is difficult psychologically. But the perils of being locked into a modality of behavior are even greater. Let us pray that we will be given the strength to see ourselves honestly, or to be blessed with friends who can advise us through constructive criticism. And, perhaps most importantly, let us hope that we can take advice from those who love us and urge us to change.

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Three consecutive topics of this lengthy parasha, the Nazir and the Sotah, and the Birkat Cohanim (the Priestly blessing) apparently have no connection with each other despite a rabbinic dictum that there is a connection between consecutive passages. Let’s investigate. The Nazir is a person who takes a vow of abstention from alcoholic spirits and from socializing. They retire to the outskirts of the camp to meditate alone for a fixed period of time. On their return they bring two offerings, one of which is a sin offering, though the Torah does not specify their sin. The Sotah describes the ordeal of a woman suspected by her husband of adultery. She is made to drink a potion by the priest in front of the tabernacle. The key ingredient in this potion is a parchment upon which the name of G-d is written that is subsequently crumbled into the liquid.

Both these ceremonies share a key idea: there is a limit as to how far a person may stray from relating with others. The Nazir sincerely believes that quiet contemplation will lead to a religious experience, and well it may. But Judaism has been a social religion since its inception. The Nazir cannot simply leave behind hearth and home indefinitely even for so lofty a purpose as serving G-d. Remember that the 10 commandments mandate that interpersonal relationships are as holy and vital as those with the Divine. So, the Nazir’s term of abstinence is limited, and they bring a sin offering, according to many commentators, because they arrogantly believed that G-d could only be found away from “the maddening crowd”.

Similarly the Sotah, a woman put through a terrible ordeal by her husband because he is jealously suspicious of her marital fidelity. The ceremony, says Isaac Arama, metaphorically means that G-d’s name—G-d’s presence—is erased in order to create the potion that will prove the woman’s innocence. Indeed, Yohanan b. Zakkai terminated this ceremony at the first opportunity—immediately after the destruction of the Temple, on the basis of the grief it caused in marital relationships. Here again, what generally proved to be a husband’s unfounded suspicion upset a peaceful marital relationship that is one of the foundations of Jewish life. His consequence: he cannot ever divorce the woman who is found innocent, and must somehow rebuild the relationship.

And that is why the Birkat Cohanim, with its promise of Shalom—making whole—creating Peace—immediately follows the accounts of the Nazir and Sotah. Shalom is one of G-d’s name, and bringing peace between people is a commandment. Both the Nazir and Sotah test the limits of peace in the community and family. The Cohanim thus bless the entire community—“so shall you bless the People of Israel”—and the last lingering word of their blessing is “Shalom”.

All of us know that from time to time, the peace of our homes is challenged. We know the pain of arguments, of harsh words flung back and forth, of going to bed sad, or waking up feeling anxious. Many arguments are based on love; sometimes two people who care deeply for each other have very different views of how to handle a situation, and in their passion, clash over these methods. That’s fine because they are still shalem, in synch with each other. The Cohanim offer us a blessing for peace against those occasions when true anger, hate, rebelliousness, or jealousy fuel bitter domestic dissension. This parasha teaches that unless the parties seek conciliation, they will pass beyond the pale of shared values, and their peace will never come. We pray that we will always know when to stop disagreeing with those we love.




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