Friday, July 29, 2016

The Most Unique Shabbat

Parshat Pinchas describes the sacrifices offered on special days. Concerning the special Mussaf korban on Shabbat, the Torah tells us:
Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato
The Sacrifice of each Shabbat must be offered on that Shabbat. 

The Medrash explains that I might have thought that all Shabbatot are the same, and if I miss bringing the sacrifice this week then I’ll just bring it next week. The verse comes to teach us Olat Shabbat BeShabbato- there is no make up. 

As the Siftei Chachamim explains, every Shabbat is a unique gift. We may seem to do the same things each week, but in fact any given Shabbat can never be replicated. 

Although we no longer offer sacrifices today, this Midrashic idea finds expression today in the halachot of the Mussaf prayer that we recite each Shabbat. The Halacha is that if you miss one of the prayer services, you can make it up by saying two Amidas the next time (miss Shacharit, say two Minchas, etc). This is called Tashlumin, based on the "make-up" possibility that existed by certain korbanot. However, the Halacha is that there is no Tashlumin for Mussaf. Once Shabbat ends, there is no makeup. Not Sunday, not the next Shabbat. I missed out and I have to live with that fact.

Judaism believes strongly in second chances: sometimes referred to as teshuva. But the Korban Mussaf in this morning’s Parsha reminds us that contrary to popular belief, there are some things in life that cannot be replicated, cannot be made up, and if you miss them you’re out of luck. 

This is especially relevant with the moments of our life. Time can never be made up (even for drivers who speed the last half of their trip to "make up the time".) We can’t go back in time. (we have yet to discover the flux capacter or generate 1.21 jigawatts). Each moment is unique, each Shabbat is unique.  With the help of the lessons of Korban Mussaf – Olat Shabbat B’Shabbato- let us better appreciate those things in life that cannot be replicated.

Friday, July 22, 2016

The Challenge of Changing Course

Remember when you were a child, and you were involved in something that was wrong or detrimental? It was pretty easy for someone to tell you to change course. You might not have listened to that person (usually an adult authority figure.) But the message was clear and the changes needed were made explicit. But then we grow up. As adults we are expected to be responsible for our own actions. Telling an adult that s/he is doing something wrong is generally frowned upon as infringing on others. People don’t want to tell us that what we’re doing is wrong. And most adults are not interested in hearing about our faults or shortcomings. We are all too often defensive, and it often sounds like the person offering advice is doing so in a smug and condescending manner (whether that is the case or not). The result is that many adults continue down the road of bad choices and bad behavior as if compelled to do so.

This is how I understand the story of Bilam, as described at the beginning of our Parsha. King Balak seeks Bilam’s help in cursing the Jewish people. Bilam agrees to do so. The Torah makes clear that God thinks this is ill advised for Bilam to do. And God makes this clear to Bilam, but it is done in a way that maintains Bilam’s free will, which creates some ambiguity and resistance on Bilam’s part. The first way that God hints at His critique of Bilam’s behavior is by asking a rhetorical question:
God came to Balaam and said, "Who are these men with you?"

טוַיָּבֹא אֱלֹהִים אֶל בִּלְעָם וַיֹּאמֶר מִי הָאֲנָשִׁים הָאֵלֶּה עִמָּךְ:
God knows all, so why is He asking this question? It seems to be God’s way of alerting a person to his/her bad decision while providing them with the space to make amends.  I can think of two instances in Bereishit where we find this technique. First in the aftermath of the sin of Adam and Eve:
And the Lord God called to man, and He said to him, "Where are you?"

טוַיִּקְרָא יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהִים אֶל הָאָדָם וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ אַיֶּכָּה:
10And he said, "I heard Your voice in the garden, and I was afraid because I am naked; so I hid."

יוַיֹּאמֶר אֶת קֹלְךָ שָׁמַעְתִּי בַּגָּן וָאִירָא כִּי עֵירֹם אָנֹכִי וָאֵחָבֵא:
11And He said, "Who told you that you are naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?"

יאוַיֹּאמֶר מִי הִגִּיד לְךָ כִּי עֵירֹם אָתָּה הֲמִן הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר צִוִּיתִיךָ לְבִלְתִּי אֲכָל מִמֶּנּוּ אָכָלְתָּ:
(Adam squanders this opportunity by blaming everything on Eve)
A similar technique is utilized by God in the aftermath of Hevel’s murder at the hands of Kayin:
And the Lord said to Cain, "Where is Abel your brother?" And he said, "I do not know. Am I my brother's keeper?"

טוַיֹּאמֶר יְהֹוָה אֶל קַיִן אֵי הֶבֶל אָחִיךָ וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא יָדַעְתִּי הֲשֹׁמֵר אָחִי אָנֹכִי:
Again, God is asking Kayin a question, even though He knows the answer. Here, too, God’s question is an opportunity for the person to change course, fix the situation, repent.
God asking humans these types of questions is like when a friend tries to warn you about something by saying, “Are you sure you want to do that?” Or when a spouse says, “Are you sure you want to wear that? / have that second piece of cake?”

Even when God gets angry at Bilam for ignoring his “questioning” He does not force Bilam to change course:
God's wrath flared because he was going, and an angel of the Lord stationed himself on the road to thwart him, and he was riding on his she-donkey, and his two servants were with him.

כבוַיִּחַר אַף אֱלֹהִים כִּי הוֹלֵךְ הוּא וַיִּתְיַצֵּב מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה בַּדֶּרֶךְ לְשָׂטָן לוֹ וְהוּא רֹכֵב עַל אֲתֹנוֹ וּשְׁנֵי נְעָרָיו עִמּוֹ:
Yet even now, not only does Bilam ignore the warning signs- he does not even see them (the donkey sees what Bilam cannot/ will not.)
Bilam is blinded by his bad choices (see 24:3, and Rashi there: Bilam has vision problems). As a result, Bilam gets trapped:
The angel of the Lord continued going ahead, and he stood in a narrow place, where there was no room to turn right or left.

כווַיּוֹסֶף מַלְאַךְ יְהֹוָה עֲבוֹר וַיַּעֲמֹד בְּמָקוֹם צָר אֲשֶׁר אֵין דֶּרֶךְ לִנְטוֹת יָמִין וּשְׂמֹאול:
The story of Bilam is a cautionary tale of the challenges that adults face in changing course. Who will tell us that we need to change? Who are we willing to listen to? How will we get the message? Let us learn from Bilam’s mistakes, and realize that even though it may seem as if our decisions have caused our options to become limited, it is never too late to change course in some way.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Being Something Vs Doing Something: A Response to Korach

Parshat Korach opens with a complaint that Korach and his crew raise against Moshe and Aharon. Rashi quotes the Midrash as to how the complaint was formulated for public consumption: Korach asked Moshe if a completely blue tallit requires a string of blue on one of the tzitzit. Moshe answered yes. The Midrash goes on with a second challenge: Korach asked whether a room full of Sifrei Torah required a mezuzah, which contains a small parchment with a few lines from the Torah. Here again Moshe answered in the affirmative. Korach jumped on Moshe’s answers and declared that they make no sense, and Moshe must have made up these laws.

There are many different interpretations as to what exactly Korach’s challenge and problem were. I would like to focus on Moshe’s response. I think that the Halachot that Moshe quoted speak to the difference between “being something” and “doing something”. A completely blue tallit and a room full of Torahs represents “being something”. They are impressive visuals, yet they may have come about without any effort on my part. By requiring us to nonetheless place a blue string on the tallit/ a mezuzah on the door, the Torah is reminding us of the importance of “doing something.” That action may seem less impressive and less significant. But the fact that it comes about through our own initiative and effort, and done purely in the service of Hashem- make such actions meaningful and powerful.