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Posted By The Stash

One of the best known incidents in our parasha is that of Moses finally losing his temper at the Israelites. Moses was so incensed at the repeated complaints directed at him that, instead of speaking to a rock and commanding it to bring forth water, he struck it while exclaiming “listen you rebels! Do you think this rock will bring forth water?” The water springs forth, but Moses is rebuked by G-d and informed he will not lead the people into the Land of Israel.

A number of commentators have connected Miriam’s death to Moses’ outburst. Miriam’s death is reported very matter of factly, and the Torah narrative resumes immediately with the story of how thirsty the Israelites were. This prompted the famous Midrash that explains that a miraculous “Well of Miriam” followed the Israelites everywhere in tribute to her vital role. This well disappeared after her death, and thus suddenly the Israelites were thirsty and this led right to Moses’ anger and his over reaction.

We must ask, as does Rabbi Sacks, how deeply Moses’ personality was affected by Miriam’s death. The answer is obvious when we consider that she was the one who appointed herself as Moses’ personal guardian as his little raft drifted down the Nile, she led the women in song at the Sea, and she seems to have been in the background as an advisor throughout—even getting in trouble when she spoke against Moses’ second wife. Certainly she was a force to be reckoned with, and generally a positive one. Given what we know about how uncomfortable the introverted Moses was in his role, she must have been a great support. Is it any wonder that Moses succumbed to the pressure of leadership and lost his temper after her death? Perhaps, as Rabbi Sacks observes, “The story of Moses and the rock is ultimately less about Moses and a rock than about a great Jewish woman, Miriam, appreciated fully only when she was no longer there.”

Whether Moses appreciated his sister only after her death is a moot point in the text, but many of us know of situations in which we have failed to tell people how helpful they were to us, or how what they did mattered to us. A person doesn’t have to pass away for us to realize the value of acknowledging assistance, support, and the deep comfort of a listening ear when we need help. In our increasingly disconnected and depersonalized lives, scheduled time has become the new norm. No doubt you have heard the oxymoronic phrase “scheduled quality time”, which somehow assumes that if you put the family together between certain hours they will automatically bond in conversation, which of course ends as abruptly as it began when “time’s up”!

Seen in this context, Sack’s comment offers us a sobering reminder of how important unscheduled regular face to face human interaction of the non-Facebook kind is. We need to pause, talk, interact, laugh, listen, and cry with real people in “live time” so that we appreciate life to its fullest. Shabbat is a fine start to this, a time to turn off our electronic devices and talk to each other, especially when Shabbat summer afternoons are long and leisurely. Sitting on a deck while reading a book and sipping a drink, or talking with friends when work doesn’t threaten, the phone doesn’t ring, the Blackberry is off, is truly a “taste of the time of the Messiah”. Those iPhone-less Sages of Babylonia sure knew what they were talking about!!

Posted By The Stash

Our parasha chronicles a most serious rebellion against Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership. We are informed that Korach, Dathan, Abiram, and On the son of Pelet conspired against Moses. But when the rebels actually met with Moses to accuse him of usurping power for himself and Aaron, On’s name was absent. Where had he disappeared? The Talmud famously explains (Sanhedrin 109b): ““Rav said On ben Pelet, was saved by his wife. She asked him, `what difference does it make to you whether Moshe or Korach is in charge? In either case, you will be just a student.' He answered her, `But what can I do? I was in their council and I swore allegiance to them.' She replied, `I know that they are all a holy congregation, as it states ...the entire congregation is holy (Bemidbar 16:3). Turn back and I will save you.' She then served him wine. He got drunk and went to sleep. … By the time he awoke, Korach was dead.”

This midrash is but one example of how our Rabbis deduced the vital role of women in our religion. We have midrashim that give voice to voiceless women such as Sarah, Hagar, and Rachel. Midrashim attest to women’s role in resisting Egyptian slavery by beautifying themselves to encourage their husbands to keep fathering children, and then turning the brass makeup mirrors they used into the gigantic water container of the Tabernacle. Midrashim inform us that Rosh Chodesh is a holy day that commemorates women's role in our religion.

I write of this for two reasons. To remind us that our tradition of textual interpretation often gives voice to those the text leaves mute. To observe how the fate of Israel was influenced by women who at times were able to effectively wield influence in a patriarchal society. These midrashim portray women as defenders of Jewish identity and innovators of ceremonies or commemorations that will strengthen tradition.

But innovation and change require exemplars, and that is the reason for this d’var Torah. You know that our congregation permits women to have aliyot with certain well publicized restrictions. Women may also recite most haftarot. I am delighted that this initiative has been successful and that many women have experienced their first aliya here. But women may also take out and put back the Torah, and lead the end of the service. No takers yet: and this is an area for improvement. I would be delighted if more women would come forward and claim what is halachically theirs! Otherwise they might, G-d forbid, lose this, just as was once done when women had aliyot and then the Sages suddenly came up with a concept called “the honour of the Congregation” and stopped honoring them for reasons that are still greatly disputed.

I look forward to hearing even more voices on the bimah on Shabbat mornings.

Posted By The Stash

The story of the scouts dispatched by Moses is well known. Twelve hand picked and seasoned leaders of their tribes left united to verify that Canaan was indeed “the land of milk and honey”. After 40 days they returned bitterly divided into 2 irreconcilably warring factions who supplied divided opinions on whether Canaan was conquerable. The Israelites lost their composure when they heard these opposing reports, and were eventually doomed to spend an extra 38 years in the desert.

How could such accomplished men become so deeply divided? Rashi famously observes that verse 22 is grammatically strange: “And they went up to the Negev, and he went to Hebron” and comments: “Caleb [one of the two scouts who would remain faithful in his belief that Canaan was conquerable] went to the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron and prayed that he not succumb to the pressures of the majority of the scouts.” In other words, these men were bitterly divided almost from the outset, and Caleb saw almost instantly that no good would come of it.

Caleb was correct both in terms of the immediate outcome of the story and its deeper consequence for Jewish legal history. Later in this parasha, G-d complains “how much longer must I put up with this evil congregation?” The word for congregation (edah) is associated with these ten men. The Talmud in Massechet Sanhedrin cites this example and its parallel narrative from Bereishit in which G-d could not find 10 good men in Sodom, thus sealing its fate as a “wicked city”. From these two stories, the Sages ruled that 10 men are the minimum number for a prayer quorum because the behaviour of ten is the minimum number that can influence an entire community’s fate.

I strongly identify with Rashi’s insight into the importance of community and how even great people endowed with leadership skills are far from immune from quarreling so bitterly that they destroy the community they are supposed to lead. In the three decades I have been involved at the Stash, I have been struck by its deep sense of community. Both the founding congregations sought to transcend the geography of a strange land by bonding with “landsleit”—people they knew from “der alte Heim” (the Old Country)—in a foreshadowing of the 1950’s adage “the people who pray together stay together”. Their small shuls served as an oasis in a cold and harsh land that had little love for Jewish immigrants. I came to understand that when many of these highly opinionated men and women yelled at me (which happened very often for the first 20 years), they were not re-enacting the internecine quarrels of this week’s parasha, but merely the voices of a community defining its ethnic boundary and marking its territory.

I am privileged to bear some responsibility for maintaining our founders’ legacy. But I don’t always use their methods to achieve similar outcomes. I prefer to emphasize our similarities rather than quarrel about our differences. I prefer to discuss rather than argue. And I want to hear what the stakeholders—the daaveners—have to say—it is OUR shul. I am proud that we have grown so much that we don’t limit membership to Stashover or Slipia ethnic boundary, but seek to attract all those who believe that shul should be an oasis of prayer, learning, happy children who feel “at home” here, good coffee, single malt Scotch, and passionate discussion about what insights about life we can glean from our tradition through reflection and interactive learning and listening. I am delighted that we leave politics to experts in Ottawa, Toronto, and City Hall-- it gives us the time to actually pray and learn.

The scouts hardly left home before they were divided and angry. We have been together for over 100 years and are closer than ever. Ken yehi ratzon—may this be God’s plan for us . Thanks for the privilege of participating…may our journey continue in good health.

Posted By The Stash

Last week I wrote about the importance of numbers when they are contextualized within a community. Mere lists of numbers are meaningless, but numbers of different family groups listed with their respective roles and designated places in the Israelite camp convey the importance of a people who took an active role in their religion. I also observed that the emphasis on the group rather than the individual starkly contrasts with the growth of self-centred narcissism we see today.

But one wonders if, despite its emphasis on the nation, there were still many individuals who cared more for themselves than society. After a number of complaints, Moses “burns out” (Rabbi Sacks) and declares angrily to G-d: ““Why have you brought this trouble on Your servant? What have I done to displease You that You put the burden of all these people on me? Did I conceive all these people? Did I give them birth? Why do You tell me to carry them in my arms, as a nurse carries an infant, to the land You promised on oath to their ancestors?” As Rabbi Sacks observes, G-d never told Moses to do this. So what is the source of this outburst?

Certainly the Torah provides plenty of evidence. In the immediately preceding narrative we have reams of complaints and, significantly, the death of Moses’ sister Miriam. Certainly she had a special relationship with the brother whose life she watched over since his birth. Her death must have been a great blow and robbed Moses of a close confidante.

But it is the selfishness of the outbursts that prompts Moses’ desperate language. The people complained that the manna was boring food, very different from the diverse diet they remembered from Egypt. And they complain they want meat!! It is all a bit much. Can they not be thrilled that in the midst of a desert, they miraculously have a food source that is there every day and somehow can be harvested in double portions on Fridays without spoiling? How can they speak of their diet in Egypt with such nostalgia—do they have similarly fond memories of building Pithom and Rameses, Pharoah’s storage cities?

Perhaps short term memories and a lack of appreciation for the good in their lives are not as modern an occurrence as we believe. Modern life features “helicopter parents” equipped with iPhones and Blackberries frantically scheduling their childrens’ lives and constantly guarding against any misfortune or misstep that could psychologically impact their young charges. This would have appalled Moses, who cannot imagine carrying these people “in his arms” and we can empathize. Israel’s desert experience was designed to mold a new people, a more self-reliant nation. But this does not happen. In fact, in our next chapter, the popular mood will continue to worsen, its symptoms being the revolt of Korach and the demand to send scouts to see if Israel was truly a suitable land. The tragic outcome of this incident would be a Divine consequence that recognized that those who were slaves could not be sufficiently rehabilitated, and a new generation bred in freedom would be the conquerors and possessors of the land.

Raising children and nations clearly requires instilling a sense of gratitude for the daily goodness of life and the ability to see the good in every situation.

Posted By The Stash

Much of last week’s parasha, and the first part of this week’s, are filled with numbers. Last week the tribes and Levites were enumerated, and this carries over into our parasha. After a while, the patterned enumeration sounds tedious—why did the Torah simply not list the names of each tribe or levitical family beside their respective populations?

It’s all in the context. Numbers on their own are meaningless—we need to know what they signify in order to assess their significance. Here, the fact that the Israelites census was recorded on the basis of tribal ancestry further subdivided by clans (family based units) is significant. This points to a society in which loyalty first went to one’s immediate family, then one’s clan, one’s tribe, and finally one’s nation. The clannish aspect of Israelite and Levite identity was emphasized over national identity. The tribes allocated land by family unit and the Levites’ duties were defined by their clans. It is not hard to understand why the Jewish kings later found it so hard to convince these people to shift their loyalty to a national level.

The other part of this census is its numbering of only the males who are fit for militarily or religious service, or both. We are told that only males between 20 and 60 are counted so that some can serve as soldiers (Israelites) and others religiously (the Priest and the Tribe of Levi). At one point the Torah even puts the terms of “army” (tzava) and “religious service” (avoda) together to indicate the mandatory nature of each for this age group. No mention is made of the women or minor children. Certainly they count, but in a different way that certainly jars the modern ear.

This census presents a number of fascinating contrasts to our modern ones, but space only provides room for considering one. The mandatory nature of Israelite self-definition contrasts with the voluntary nature of Jewish affiliation today. The Canadian census reflects this, listing “Jews by religion” and “Jews by ethnicity”. In the early years of the 20th century the numbers in each category were practically identical. Not so today. Jewish identity is no longer mandatory. A significant number of Canadian Jews seek new self-definitions of identity, and many markers of their identities are not traditional. Cultural Judaism is on the rise, along with out-marriage. Holy day attendance is down, yet other forms of Jewish identity are eagerly sought.

We are being challenged to both retain and redefine our Jewish identities. These twin challenges lie at the crux of Jewish survival. It is no longer a relatively simple issue of being counted whether we agree or not. But what does this mean? Must Judaism have “curb appeal” to survive? For now, any successful definition of Judaism we select must be coupled to the retention of Jewish identity in future generations. We cannot simply pick a set of practices that feel good to us—we must search beyond. And, in our self centred society, that is not easy. But it is the only successful way, as we shall see next week when we explore this theme further, as does the Torah.




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