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Posted By The Stash

“A change is as good as a rest” goes the saying. This aphorism really resonates with the Simcoe Day long weekend at the height of summer when so many people find different ways of taking a break. Some people vacation in destinations near and far seeking novel experiences. For others, the cottage beckons. Others enjoy hopping into the car for a series of day trips or overnight stops at rustic local bread and breakfasts. Still others may find contentment closer to home—curling up with a book in their backyard.

But this week’s parasha, often read as part of a double portion and invariably read in the middle of summer, offers a stark rejoinder to equating change and rest. The beginning of the parasha is a lengthy list of Bnai Yisrael’s route map through their 40 year desert journey, read in the tune of the “travelling song” to accentuate the length of the journey. The narrative of the journey is interrupted by some mentions of key events that took place on the route. When reading the list, one cannot help but recall that the reason for this over-lengthy journey came from the nation’s refusal to believe that the land of Canaan was conquerable with the assistance of G-d. Only through change—the birth of a new generation and the death of all those born into Egyptian slavery—could the journey conclude with a victorious entry into the Promised Land. Thus the Torah teaches that geographical movement produces spiritual uplift.

In truth, there is a similar motif can be found in Abram’s journey to Canaan, in Moses’ journey through the Midianite desert to the Mountain of G-d at Chorev, and in Elijah’s similar pilgrimage when he felt defeated by the idol worshipping King Ahab. In some cases, the uplift is slow in coming. Jacob becomes Israel on his return to Canaan, but the renamed patriarch does not hurry to see his aged father. Yet, the fact of his renaming on this journey attests to a higher purpose—“you shall be called Yisrael, for you have struggled with G-d….”.

From this we see that the Torah does not associate change and rest. On the contrary, change is associated with movement both physical and spiritual. That is the approach of Maimonides who noted that Moses did not merely climb Sinai physically, but his soul ascended spiritually to directly receive inspiration from G-d. But we know that people cannot always be on the move and ever changing. How can they pause for refreshment? For us, the model of rest is found in the Divine cessation from creative work. “On the seventh day, G-d ceased from work”. Indeed, the verb “va’yishbot” –and [G-d] ceased—is the root of Shabbat. And that is the key point that we can draw from this mid-summer parasha: we rest by pausing and reflecting, not by doing something different. For Jews, whether we are in Toronto, Tucson, or Trieste, Shabbat is still Shabbat. And in a world that increasingly believes that we have to be on the move all the time, that is a refreshing message. Just today, CNN had an article on recognizing the sign of a phone addiction—the average person checks their phone 37 times per day. What’s the cure? “Try to put the phone away for 10 minutes, create a “no phone” area.” Good advice, but we Jews already have Shabbat—a cure for these addictions—a whole day of “no phoning”, of talking “face to face” with people the way it was done before Facebook. So, “make shabbat”: relax, daaven, eat, grab a drink you haven’t tried yet, talk to friends and make time for family, learn a bit, grab a Jewish book (fiction or non-fiction) and just “relax” for the 25 special hours of Shabbat. You’ll be glad you did physically and spiritually. Oh yes, you can still go away for vacation too!

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In the midst of our parasha we have one of the most mysterious passukim in the Torah. The tribes of Gad and Reuben inform Moses that they do not wish to inherit land on the western side of the Jordan, but would rather take possession of the land they occupied. Moses made them swear that these tribes would form the vanguard (chalutzim in Hebrew, from which we get the modern Hebrew word for “pioneers”) of the Israelite attack against the Land of Canaan, and would only be able to return to the land they requested after the conquest was complete. The only concession these tribes were granted was the right to leave their women and children behind.

During the course of their request, Gad and Reuben carefully list the extent of the land they wish to occupy on the eastern bank of the Jordan. “Atarot, and Divon and Yazer and Nimra and Chesbon and Elaleh and Sivam and Nebo and B’on.” This is seemingly a list of place names, similar in many ways to those in the first verse of Sefer Devarim. But Rabbi Kasher’s monumental Torah Shlema makes an interesting observation that runs as follows. There is a rule that everyone in shul during Torah reading would follow in a perfect world. In Brachot 8a, Rabbi Huna teaches that as the Torah is read, each person should follow along in the original Hebrew. Then they should re-read it in the original Hebrew and then in its Aramaic translation, that of Onkelos. But Rashi observes that Onkelos does not translate the words “Atarot and Divon” but leaves them in the original Hebrew. Nonetheless they must still be learned three times over. Why?

Kasher observes that the entire verse could be left out of the narrative without anyone realizing it was omitted. He cites this as the reason for why the verse must be learned 3 times. But this is unsatisfying—since by his own admission, not all the words are translated by Onkelos. Perhaps the answer is simpler and yet profound. It is obvious from the Talmud that the general population, like us, did not understand the Torah reading as it was read. They could read Hebrew but could not understand it. Perhaps they were told to read it twice for that very reason. Hebrew is lashon HaKodesh, the holy language—the very sound of it should become familiar to the Intelligent Jew. More than that: the Intelligent Jew should be able to hear many people on a TTC subway car speaking the languages of a polyglot GTA and identify the one who is speaking in Hebrew. That comes only with repetition, so that the ear becomes attuned.

Only then can the person turn the translation. And what will they learn from this verse? That the fact that it seems to say nothing of importance and speaks of some places that are impossible to explain or find should inspire us to keep searching for a meaning. We live in a fast paced society that quickly moves on. We often move almost dismissively through life. The message here is: wait….think…reflect. There is a tradition that there are no wasted words or letters in the Torah. Perhaps that is why we need to read, and reread, and understand the translation. Only then can we reflect meaningfully on the Torah’s message.

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A few months ago I read an interesting article about family-owned businesses and the challenges of succession. Considerable research indicates that it is very difficult for these firms to continue into a third generation because of succession issues. Sometimes the children or grandchildren are not interested in the business, or at other times they battle for control. All of these issues focus on the key role corporate leaders must take in writing succession plans and, more importantly, setting up mechanisms to ensure that they work. It almost goes without saying that at times, family members are not suitable for the business and outsiders must be brought in.

Moses was far from a corporate executive, but he certainly recognized the value of ensuring that proper leadership would continue after his death. To his great credit, he did not waste much time selecting the new leader after what must have been the shattering news that, because he (and Aaron) struck the rock instead of speaking to it in our previous parasha, he would not be allowed to enter the Promised Land. This decision alone reveals Moses’ great personal merit—he could subordinate the denial of his personal goal and 40 years of work to the need to ensure that the people were properly led. Truly an “organization man” on this score alone.

In selecting Joshua for leadership, Moses passed over his own sons. The text says nothing of this, but the midrash (Tanhuma Pinchas 11) bluntly states: “Moses requested one of his sons be appointed. G d responded, “Your sons sat and did not occupy themselves with Torah. Joshua, who served you, is fitting to serve Israel.” This is based on a careful reading. First of all, Moses’ sons are not mentioned after their return from Midian with their mother and grandfather Jethro. The Rabbis deduced their unfitness from an interesting verse, Bamidbar 3:1 “These are the descendants of Moses and Aaron…” but the verse only lists Aaron’s four sons. Where are Moses’ sons? They lost the right to be considered sons because they showed no interest in learning Torah—and presumably anything about governing the people. But then why choose Joshua? About him we read: “and Moses’ servant Joshua never left the tent” from which the Sages deduce that he constantly learned about Torah and life with Moses. It seems that children being uninterested in the family business is not a new phenomenon.

But even though Moses knew Joshua’s social and religious pedigree, he still asked G-d for advice and very specific advice at that. He wanted a leader who would “go before the people and behind them…so G-d’s nation would not be like sheep without a shepherd.” How moving in its detail. Moses understood that there was no predictability in life—a leader had to lead on the road forward and on the way back. Moreover, a leader had to be a shepherd, knowing when to be stern, when to cajole, when to urge, and when to lead soundlessly by example.

The Torah tells us all this for us to learn. Each of us are leaders and stewards of a proud tradition. The Jewish nation is formed from thousands of families, and each of us had a leadership role. Part of our role is to train those who come after us to face the challenges of Jewish leadership. For some reason, Moses failed in this mission. It is unfair to speculate over why—but the text does accuse him by omission. We must try to succeed despite the fact that sometimes parents don’t. The future of our people never was left to chance in the past—we can do no less in the present if we wish to secure the future continuity of our people.

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When the prophet Bilaam finally decided to bless the Israelites on his own volition, after discovering that it was impossible to fulfill his mission to curse them at the behest of the King of Moav, he uttered the famous line: “How lovely are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel.” Tradition has made this the first verse we recite when we enter a synagogue. Moreover, the Talmud teaches that a person is forbidden to use a room in which people pray regularly as a route from one place to the next without pausing for a moment to recite this verse. This has a very practical application: when we come to the shul office, we must walk through the sanctuary. We must pause for a moment and say this verse before going in—even to pay our dues!

Like many customs, this is but the tip of an iceberg of important practices that celebrate the “holiness of a synagogue”. There are other customs and ordinances to ensure that the purpose of the synagogue—no matter how plain or ornate—is not diminished by familiarity. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch of Rabbi Ganzfried (which was aimed at a non-scholarly audience) also mentions that it is improper to use a synagogue as to shelter from rain or snow. Similarly, if one comes to the synagogue to pick up their friend, they should first recite a least one verse from the siddur or learn a mishna before socializing. Ganzfried also mandates cleaning clothes and even shoes from dirt when entering, forbids eating and drinking (except for ritual purposes), and inveighs against idle talk and gossip; both are to be minimized.

What we can learn from this is that even though we should feel comfortable in shul, it is “not our home” in the sense that we can relax. The holiness of the shul is based on the Torah’s injunction “you shall fear my sanctuary” which the prophet Jeremiah extended beyond fear and awe for the Temple to the reverence we should feel in the synagogue, which he calls a “beit mikdash me’at”—“a miniature version” of the Temple both architecturally and in matters of holiness. What makes our people truly holy, as the prophet Bilaam realized, was our ability to feel comfortable in shul and yet retain our sense of reverence for the place and its function. It is perhaps no accident that we read this parasha in the summer when we all feel more “laid back” and life slows down. This serves as a reminder to us that there is still room for awe and reverence side by side with everyday life. I am reminded of the story of Levi Isaac of Berditchev who was once summoned by an angry congregant who pointed to a man wearing tefillin and greasing his wagon before beginning a day’s peddling. Without missing a beat, the great Rebbe said: “How great are your people O G-d, they praise your Name even while they work in the dirt!” We need to find the balance between reverence and comfort in shul, between a few quick comments about the weather to our neighbours and singing along with the congregation. Let us pray that we find that balance, so that casual observers will exclaim joyfully about our prayers and behavior in the same way Bilaam praised the Israelites in this week’s parasha.

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Our Sages famously warn that people should be careful of “how much they spend, how much they drink, and how angry they get.” But that does not mean that anger is a forbidden emotion. In Sefer Devarim, Moses recalls that when he descended from Mt. Sinai with the two tablets of the law in his hands and saw the people consumed with passionate worship of the Golden Calf, “I took the tablets that were in my hands, and I shattered them at the foot of the mountain.” Moses was not punished. In fact, many commentators praise his well directed anger, seeing it as an act of necessity and even teaching the people that their behaviour has gone beyond all limits. But, in this week’s parasha, when Moses angrily strikes the rock at Meribah instead of speaking to it he is immediately banned from entering the Land of Israel. Why was this incident different?

Let us consider the Meribah incident in a bit more detail. Next year we will try to understand why Aaron was punished when only Moses actually spoke and struck the rock. But consider the text. We are told that Moses and Aaron were required by G-d to assemble the argumentative people in front of a rock where “you will speak to it and it will yield its water.’ When the people were assembled, Moses abruptly spoke: “Hear now, you rebels! Shall we bring water forth to you from this rock?” Moses then struck the rock and water flowed out—as did the immediate Divine consequence.

It is now clear that while Moses’ angry flinging of the tablets was just as spontaneous as his outburst of angry words, there is a crucial difference. True, G-d had warned him that the people were busy worshipping the Calf, but the text states: “and Moses came down from the mountain and he saw the idol and the merriment….” What Moses actually saw was far worse than the Divine description. His subsequent anger was a natural outcome of what he saw. Not so in the Meribah incident. Moses had already seen water flow from a rock after he had struck it almost 40 years earlier. He and Aaron were therefore specifically told to “speak to the rock”, yet he could not control his anger. How do we know? From his words: he called the people “rebels”. As Hirsch points out—Moses was frustrated by their stubbornness in always returning to idol worship, and therefore engaged in hyperbole. No matter. The damage was done.

Anger has its uses, states Maimonides. It is right to rebuke a student verbally when one knows they are capable. One may even get angry at them for the sake of teaching them Torah. But pointless anger only produces the opposite reaction. How many students have been turned off by teachers who are always so angry that their emotions obscure learning? How many times do we go overboard in hurling angry words at our loved ones just because we are angry? Too often. This is perceived as “dishonest anger”, not really connected to the event in question, and it leaves the subject smarting and looking for a vengeful reply, or nursing a deep grudge. But “honest anger”—grabbing your child when they dash madly after a ball into a road just as a car comes by when they should know better—is vitally useful. The subject of the anger should be able to see immediately that they are being yelled at for their sake-- for their physical and/or psychological well being. This is effective anger, but it is challenging to master its deployment.

Too often we see anger used manipulatively. For that matter, too many of us use many emotions in a manipulative manner far too freely. Let us pray that we use our emotions honestly in our relationships with others. Many of our prayers teach us about mastering our emotions. The mitzvot serve as powerful tools of discipline. Discover some that speak to you and consider using them consistently to build self-discipline.




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