Shoftim 5775


Today’s parashah is crucial. It is the foundation of modern civilization, both in the US and in almost any government elected by and from its citizens. It also teaches that humility is not a weakness, and forcefulness is not strength.

A few highlights from Shoftim is Hashem instructing Moses to set up tiers of judges and enforcers, essentially policemen. It tells of cities where people who accidentally kill someone can flee to. It tells us to help someone with their ox if that ox falls to the side of the road. These, and many of the other laws in this parashah relate to the dignity of each other and our community. Whether it is disciplining a child for not obeying their parents, regardless of the efficacy of that discipline, or taking the impaled body of a capital offender down at sunset, it affords dignity in seemingly odd places.

That dignity, though, must be backed up by its leaders. My friend and colleague, Kristin Barnes, teaches in her classes on how to communicate more effectively that one must “live it to give it.” She means that in order to convey your message, you must embody it. Hypocrites are eventually found out and crumble under their misleadings. Look at the Duggar family, of the famous show 19 Kids and Counting — they preached a seemingly wholesome form of family values which, in the end was revealed to be completely hypocritical as their adult son Josh was outed as molesting underage girls when in his late teens. He, a community leader, was also recently outed as being a member of a social website dedicated to adultery.

This shouldn’t be a surprise, as that very personality was a member of the Family Research Council. The Family Research Council, if you’re not aware, purports to uphold strong family values based on Christian beliefs. In reality, their core mission is to defame, hurt, and denigrate gay people through their myriad policies and lobbying efforts. They are so dedicated to this task that the Southern Poverty Law Center designated the Family Research Council as a hate group in 2010.

But this isn’t about the Duggars. This is about false prophets, like in chapter 18, verse 20 of Deuteronomy. This is about our kings being of our brethren, like in chapter 17, verse 15, and that king remaining humble, as in chapter 17, verses 18, 19, and 20.

Hypocrisy and opportunism are rampant in this world. I will be the first to admit that I am guilty of them, despite my best efforts not to succumb. It is a simple fact of life that we are driven to consume, to imbibe, and to take. We validate our existence in many ways, whether it’s through seeking thrills, seeking money, seeking fame, or, as I do, seeking recognition. Yes, speaking up here is a selfish act which I attempt to justify by giving inspiration and hopefully new insights. Regardless, I would be lying if I said that I did this purely to help others.

Speaking is a passion of mine. Leading people, inspiring them, and bringing joy makes me happy. Because that is my passion, people are drawn to it. Just as an enthusiastic artist will eventually find their audience given the proper exposure, a good leader, which I do not presume myself to be, will find their right team.

Kings and prophets are prime examples of leaders. They are people who can throw the entire balance of their followers into either prosperity or decay. They are people who, in a fit of anger, can ruin entire families or countries. Look at what happened with the sin of the golden calf: droves of people died because of the words of a few community leaders. Look at what happened with Pharaoh and Joseph: a country of people survived a famine because of the words of a prophet.

Shoftim, Deuteronomy chapter 17, verses 16 through 20, an entire four verses, tell us how that king is to remain in check. He is not to acquire or seek an excess of gold and silver, not to take up too many horses, not to take up too many wives, and not to send mercenaries to Egypt to pillage their villages. Even more, he is instructed to have his own copy of our Law, our Torah, written by the Levites. Heck, many commentators in the Midrash say that he was to write each letter himself under Levitic supervision. This Torah was to be with him always, and he was to study it daily so as to remain humble before all.

Humility is crucial. Without true humility, the kind where you realize that others build you up more than you do, one will get lost in their own bloviated ego. You can see this, today (preferably after sundown) with certain political frontrunners.

John Oliver recently exposed glaringly enormous loopholes in IRS code for churches, where televangelists bilked vulnerable people out of millions upon millions of dollars, perfectly legally. They bought houses and jets worth millions of dollars, and those houses were not taxed because they were designated as places of worship. They convince their followers to ignore cancer treatments, to ignore mounting debt, and to ignore their families all to send more money to their church.

These televangelists are getting away with something that we all know, in our bones, is completely wrong. Our Torah, which their beliefs are supposedly eventually based upon, outrightly forbids it. Perhaps that is why we don’t see Jewish televangelists — or perhaps it’s just a numbers game. Regardless, this is yet one more example of a religious leader and supposed prophet turning faith into poison.

But let’s look more into verse 20, in chapter 17. It reads “Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left…” Act haughtily. Act.

Studies show that behavior can influence thought and attitude just as thought and attitude can influence behavior. I could delve deeply into the studies, but talking about scandals draws people in more, mostly because we’re opportunistic. Regardless, one study showed that the mere act of exercising influenced people to eat better. Another showed that after people shopped at a store which specializes in organic and sustainable foods, they were measurably ruder to others as they felt they had already done their good deed for the day.

Behavior influences action.

Study influences thought.

Thought, when lead by ethics, leads to decisions. This is the core of a good leader.

I participated in a workshop dedicated to strengthening our strengths and reducing our weaknesses, to eventually be able to delegate our weaknesses to others on the team who specialize in what we don’t. It’s a brilliant idea, and you can build it easily into the very first line in Shoftim.

What we need for our leaders, whether it’s the President of the US, the Prime Minister of Israel, the CEO of WalMart, the owner of Bangkok Cafe on Speedway and Tucson Boulevard, or any person who has someone look up to them is these three things: acts of humility, willingness to learn, and the proper implementation and delegation of their actions. In other words, they must live it to give it.

My prayer is that we can take what is prescribed for the kings we choose among ourselves and bring it into our own lives. That when our attitudes sink, we act until they rise again. That we study so as to better learn. That we administer so as to relieve our burden. I pray that, whatever each of us wants in our heart, we live it to give it. Shabbat shalom.

Va’etchanan 5775


Sometimes it’s hard to get a bearing on why we have to do terrible things. It’s hard to understand the necessity of conquering, killing, and destroying a city just for us to inhabit it. Much like Pinchas ending the plague by killing Cozbi and Zimri, Canaan needed to be wiped out for their iniquities. Their sins of sorcery and idolatry were far different than the Pagan religions of today, which exemplify kindness over harm. Their sins were of sacrificing children, of hurting others, and of sexual transgressions.

But this is not a d’var Torah of pain or even of Canaan. This is a d’var Torah of comfort and consolation, something we need after Tisha b’Av.

Last week we remembered the destruction of our Temple, and this week in the Torah we’re watching Moshe look over the land his followers are about to take. He pleads with Hashem to go to the land and is continually shot down. In the end, his iniquities keep him from being eligible to enter Eretz Yisrael.

The problem is that the people love Moses. They’ve been following him through thick and thin; they’ve found communal peace through the government he set up; they’ve discovered levels of spirituality and connections with G-d they would not have otherwise had.

Moses was G-d’s protege and deeply entwined with the development of the nation and the people Israel. Without Moshe’s influence, the people would certainly devolve back into barbaric ways, so there needed to be a foundation for the government. Foundations for homes are usually poured concrete, the foundation for Israel was also to be stone. And we see these tablets of stone come into existence here.

It is with these tablets I want to build today’s words around. There are three commandments I will be talking about: the first, the third, and the tenth.

In order to establish our nation, we had to completely break away from the polytheistic religions based on their senses. The old religions centered around what they could see, touch, taste, and smell. They were religions of objects and idols, of sensations and violence, of blood and fire. We are a religion of cerebral thought, of self sacrifice, and of discipline. This is one of the many reasons our sages believed we were always meant to be weaned off of sacrifices and why our prayers now take the place of the karbanot.

We’ve taken something physical and turned it into something cerebral. Something which requires a discipline.

This is the first commandment. It is often described as a preamble or an introduction to the remainder of the laws. I feel it is not, though. It reads, in English, “I am the Lord your G-d, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, the house of bondage.” That is not a preamble. It is not “I, the Lord, in order to form a more perfect nation…” it is a statement establishing Hashem as the god of Israel. That statement, which tells us who G-d is, is commanding us to acknowledge who he is.

The only reason there needs to be the second commandment, “You shall have no other gods beside me,” is because he has commanded us to accept him in his eminent position.

Our acceptance of him is the reason we are such a cerebral religion, who debate and expand our knowledge. In fact, Egypt is, only today, what we call the place we were taken out of. The Hebrew is Mitzrayim. The name, Mitzrayim, comes from the word m’tzarim, which meant “narrow straits.”

The narrow straits was both geographical, a place between land and rivers, and metaphorical, a place where we were restricted.

Accepting Hashem as G-d, as our G-d, and allowing us to shed the history of idols and sacrifices brings us to new avenues of thought and knowledge. Instead of relying on something we can see, a statue, rock, or celestial bodies, we are allowed to rely on theories, ideas, and studies. Instead of relying on objects to sustain our spirituality, we are free to explore and find it ourselves.

Moses was fundamental in this. Had Moses died in Eretz Yisrael, he would have undoubtedly been interred and we would likely have revered him as we do G-d. We would likely have resorted to iconography by worshipping him rather than Hashem.

Clearly we needed to sever ourselves from these past habits and, since we were to take back Canaan, we needed to clear it of people who would lead us astray, especially considering the plague from promiscuity we just overcame.

But Moses wasn’t allowed to enter. As I said earlier, had he entered the Land, there was too strong a chance he would have been elevated to the status of a deity, rather than the most elevated prophet. He was not a deity, of course, and his humanity was shown many times, such as when he infamously struck the rock out of anger to draw water.

The third commandment is the prohibition on oaths. It tells us not to use G-d as a vehicle for perjury. On page 1,011 of our Etz Hayim, chapter 4, verse 21, Moses tells Israel Hashem was angry with him on the people’s accord. As our chumash points out, this is seemingly inappropriate for a leader to do. Normally, saying that you were hurt because G-d was angry at someone else would be a violation of this commandment. It was necessary, though, as it set up his own sacrifice of himself for them. He let them know that not only was he not entering the land with them, but that if G-d would deny his best prophet access because of the iniquities of the people, then the foundation of laws to follow had better be adhered to.

Moses wanted nothing more to enter and see his people flourish. One might say he coveted the land they were receiving and their status of fulfillment in that land. In fact, I believe, since he was human after all, that he definitely did.

What’s interesting about the commandment not to covet is that it’s one of the few commandments that are about thoughts, rather than actions. We’re told keep the Sabbath holy, not to commit adultery, not steal, not bear false witness, not do false acts in G-d’s name, but these are all actions. Coveting is highly internalized. It’s intangible and often unavoidable. To be completely happy with one’s lot is an extraordinarily difficult mindset to obtain.

So why is this in here? I would argue that taking action on those thoughts is what really needs to be avoided. Falling into a depression because you can’t get what you desire is to be avoided. Wanton wanting, gluttonous or excessive thoughts of acquisition are what we must keep in check.

If you look at our haftorah this week, you’ll see it’s one of consolation. It is words from Isaiah telling us of how immense Hashem is. It tells us of all the good he creates, in stark contrast to the destruction we experienced last week. It tells us that we can be thoughtful, we can worship with our minds and hearts, rather than our senses and labors. It tells of all the good surrounding us that we are here to enjoy.

To covet is in our nature, it drives us as a species. But it must be checked and we must sometimes sacrifice what we want most for the greater good. As the Shema is in this parashah, with the binding of tefillin in chapter 6, verse 8, we can learn something. As Ashkenazim, we wrap our arm tefillin inward. While performing this extraordinarily holy act of davening with tefillin, turning our hands inward towards us only tightens our bindings, bringing us closer to Mitzrayim. Only by opening our hands to others are we truly comforted.

We were taken out of the land of narrowness and suffering and told to flourish and thrive. We were given a set of rules to facilitate thriving and to give us focus. The sacrifice of Moses was necessary, but we can show that same generosity by living well and opening up our hands to others.

Shabbat shalom.

Pinchas 5775


Last week, in Balak, we saw the prince of Moab attempt to undermine the people of Israel by hiring a well known prophet to curse them.

Prophets, as we now know, only see things, they can only relay ideas, actions, and consequences and try to influence change. They cannot directly alter the actions of G-d, turn blessings into curses, or turn curses into blessings. Only through how the people who listen to their prophesies act are the prophets able to enact change.

We remember Balaam being hired to curse the Israelites and watching that task turn against his employer, Balak, in a most glorious way. Instead of witnessing curses against whom he perceived to be his enemies, he saw them magnified in front of his own eyes.

Pinchas is a continuation of this theme. We remember last time I spoke about how the first verses of each book can influence every story we read and study. Numbers starts off with Hashem telling Moshe to take a census. If you also remember the alternate book proposed after the two inverted nuns in B’ha’alotkha, the first verse is the Israelite people complaining bitterly.

We see Pinchas, a man who is usually of calm demeanor, follow Zimri, the son of an Israelite chieftain, and Cozbi, the daughter of a Midianite chieftain whose name seems to establish a bizarre precedence for sexual immorality, into a tent, and slays them with a spear. Just as with the curse of Miriam, we have a lot of controversy around this seemingly large overreaction.

Many sages have even gone so far as to say that, while Pinchas was following halacha, had he gone to a tribunal with his actions, they would have told him that it was an outdated law no longer followed.

Our chumash’s commentary, on page 918, says some interesting things about these actions. The yod in “Pinchas” in verse 11 in the sefer Torah, so only in the scroll, is written smaller. It is diminished. The yod is understood to stand as a placeholder for the name of G-d and for y’hudi, or Jew. The commentary goes on to tell us that also, in the sefer Torah, the vav in “shalom” in verse 12 has a break in its stem.

While the yod represents Hashem, the vav represents something physical: spears and tent pegs.

Pinchas’ actions were extreme. They made him the subject of ridicule among the people. On the surface, our Torah seems to endorse these actions and G-d even seems to reward them. But let’s look a little closer.

There was already a plague going on due to the Israelite’s infidelities and immoralities. Moses was commanded to lead the people up against the Midianites, the aggressors by seduction. The Midianites were encouraged or ordered, depending on interpretation, to tempt the Israelites into sexual impropriety. Many of the Jewish men were, indeed, led astray, and both nations were suffering for it.

Pinchas was the only one who followed G-d’s orders to destroy the aggressors, and he started with Zimri and Cozbi. I feel he would have continued on had the effect of their deaths not stopped the plague as quickly as it did and had it not inspired Moshe to finally take arms against Midian.

I am not going to condone or condemn what Pinchas did. Saying he should or should not have done that is not the point of this parasha. There may have been other ways to calm the angst of the people, raise up their bitter complaints, and there may have not been other ways. Just as we see a contemporary pulling away from animal sacrifices, we see a moral pulling away from death penalties for aggressions such as these. Attempting to justify this in a modern light is nearly useless.

That said, Midian was an extremely profitable nation which brought in much from spice trading. Moab, the aggressors in Balak, were likely a part of the Midianite realm at this time. Not only were there religious and moral problems at stake with the fornication of two rival tribal chieftains’ children, but economic ones, as well.

So Pinchas did what he did to preserve not only the Jewish people’s moral safety, but to protect their economic standing.

This act had consequences, though. As we’ve seen, the spark of joy that G-d puts in everyone was diminished. The yud that is so prominent in his name, that is is the second letter has been shrunken down, as only an act of extreme violence can do. It is a diminishing within himself that he will carry for the rest of his life. The vav in shalom is broken. His spear with two bodies on it has broken a tent peg of the shelter of peace. Only by breaking that spear can we repair the glorious tents of the nation that inspired mi chamocha ba’elim, Adonai.

He was given an appointment to the priesthood, of course. But perhaps, as our chumash points out, it wasn’t a reward. Perhaps it was a way to help him rebuild himself. By studying, by teaching, by involving himself in scholarly affairs, maybe he could both get back that interjection of joy that he lost through his actions and strengthen the shelter of peace.

I haven’t yet touched on the final two parts of this three part parasha, though. And I will be quick about it.

After the plague is lifted and moral and economic security is restored to the Israelite encampment, a census is ordered. Yes, another census.

If we recall, Numbers starts off with our first official census. This is because we must be accountable for each other, we must make sure our brethren are with us and us with them. We can only stand as a people, and after facing what was surely a catastrophe in that time, our nations must be watched for, accounted for, and noted.

Our people needed to know what we would have available should Midian and Moab retaliate, as they were likely to do. Our people needed to know how many lives were dependent upon each other, our people needed to know the extent our nation was at risk.

Our festivals, with the sacrifices, rituals, and procedures, give us something to look forward to. I’ve spoken before about how the nature of sacrifice, taking something you’ve poured so much attention into, and watching it, often violently, leave you with no immediate tangible reward, can put your own life in perspective. These festivals bring us together as a people. They help us rebuild our nation, remember our struggles and, more importantly, our successes. Pesach is a celebration not only of our survival, but our elevation. Sukkot is a festival not only of booths and food, but of our journey. Shabbat is not just an observance of the end of the week, but a triumph over our work.

Pinchas is a microcosmic telling of our story. We had aggressors, we beat them, we accounted for ourselves, and we celebrated with G-d.

I have one final theme to weave into here, and it’s one that I feel we should be cognizant of today.

When the symbols of aggressors who have long been defeated try to come back and threaten your people, they must be taken down. In the fledgeling Israelite nation, that was the Moabite chieftain’s daughter. In this day, that symbol might be the flag of a secessionist faction that tried to split the country apart. Pinchas took down that symbol and his violence broke a part of us. His ascension to the priesthood was an attempt to repair his diminished soul.

Bree Newsome is a courageous young woman who climbed a flagpole and took down the symbol of an uprising which was defeated 150 years ago. This was the Civil War, where our own nation was fighting among themselves. Because of the economic and moral impropriety of the slave trade, which was vastly different from the economics of slaves in the Torah, those who stood for human rights stood against those who would continue to exploit the lives and dignity of others. Our nation had a faction that was just as seditious and terrible as the Midianites and Moabites, only instead of seducing people into sexual acts, they kidnapped people from other countries, abused them, and systematically oppressed them.

There are people who want to keep this symbol alive, purportedly as a reminder of the past. but it is, to colored minorities, literally equivalent of the National Socialist Party flag. It is a symbol not only of oppression and hate, but of very real pain, suffering, and irreparable displacement.

This young lady took down a flag. Many predominantly black churches have had heinous acts of arson committed against them recently. There are uprisings of racism against black, brown, and even Semitic peoples coming back because of this recent push to banish this symbol of hate and treason.

I pray that we find peaceful ways to uproot the aggressors of our nation and people, whether it is the internal ones of our United States or those in the Middle East that would do away with our people and land. I pray that we are able to put down our spears, keep our vavs intact, keep the yod influence strong within us, and build not just a shelter of peace, but a monument of it for all of humanity.

Shabbat shalom.

Beha-alotecha 5775


Last year, for this parasha, I spoke briefly about these two mysterious upside down nuns in Chapter 10, verses 35 and 36. About how Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the man who arranged, organized, and composed the Mishnah said that the text between these two nuns should be its own entire book, separating Numbers into two books, bringing the total number of books in the Torah up to seven.

Each of these books has a particularly strong lesson or statement within its first verses. I like to think of that lesson almost as a fugue, a musical term where one theme is expanded on by all the different parts of the orchestra. One of the most prominent examples of a fugue is Beethoven’s seminal 5th Symphony (if you’re reading this, say “da da da Dum” out loud — that symphony).

In this symphony, every group of instruments takes this four note theme and either rephrases it, rearranges it, alters it, or otherwise expands on it. This creates interweaving lines of these four notes, sometimes clashing against each other, sometimes lining up and creating shimmering beauty, sometimes allying to create an even more powerful statement. This musical mechanism drives tension, evolves into resolution, and produces a pattern that resonates in our minds and stays with us. How powerful is this musical tool? Powerful enough that just reading “da da da DUM” is evocative of the entire piece, and enough to get this well known composition ingrained in your mind.

Our Torah was composed in much of the same way. Just as Beethoven’s symphony has a four note theme that builds and grows through the movement, each book has a strong theme outlined in its first verses, which comes around into a fugue in various times. In Genesis, with the creation of the world, it was acceptance of the world and our drive to improve, punctuated with our follies. In Exodus, it was how quickly things can change, with the introduction of the new king who didn’t know Joseph. In Leviticus, it may seem esoteric, but the introduction of sacrifices and then two immediate deaths from the ever vague “strange fire” are merely the introduction of what to do and how not to go astray. Deuteronomy brings accountability.

It seems I left out Numbers.

The first verses of Numbers tells not how to count for each other, but that we should count each other. That we, a people and community, are exactly that. This is a context that is crucial through the entire book and, if you keep it in mind, it can change how you apply parts of the text.

If you take Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi’s suggestion and punctuate the Book of Numbers with this mysterious upside down nun interjection, you end up with two new books. Let’s take a quick look into that.

Between these two nuns is:

So it was, whenever the ark set out, Moses would say, Arise, O Lord, may Your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee from You.

And when it came to rest he would say, Repose O Lord, among the myriads of thousands of Israel.

The immediate book, with Moses proclaiming and, I believe, blessing the movement of the Ark, is so short that context is hard to establish. However, I feel it provides depth for the remainder of the books and for the remainder of the Torah.

Last year, I spoke of how I believed these two nuns represented Hashem serving us out of love, and it’s quite fitting that they surround this verse. The Ark was G-d’s dwelling place on Earth, it was where G-d met his people. I say “Moshe blessed”, because “May your enemies be scattered” sounds a lot like “May G-d keep you and protect you,” and many other fatherly biblical blessings.

This shows that if we are to be in a covenant with Hashem, like any functional marriage, it is a partnership. Hashem blesses us and we bless Hashem. If we are to meet G-d on Earth, as in the days of the Ark, we can expect G-d to enjoy our blessings, just as we enjoy his.

If we take this newly expanded relationship and color some parts of the next book with the context it provides, we see Hashem providing a more nuanced protection to Israel when putting words in Balak’s mouth to Balaam. Instead of what initially seems to be blatant manipulation, this context changes it to a gentle conversation in the only way that Hashem can get through to someone.

Even further, in Re-eh, Deuteronomy 13:2-8, ordering death to those that go astray from Judaic monotheism, it changes the context from a jealous god trying to protect what’s his to a cautious god trying to keep a nation from committing adultery against her.

So, if we take out these two bookended inverted nuns, we have a brand new book which can give the remainder of our Torah a different context. But what does that leave the remainder of Numbers, now split in two?

The first verses of this new Numbers 2.0 is of people complaining and Hashem hearing them. The foods they were accustomed to were no longer available and the infamous manna debacle ensued. They felt a terrible craving and those that fully gave into that craving died from its repercussions.

This seems like a fairly strong context for the remainder of Numbers: moderation and self control. We even have mitzvot laid out about taking care of one’s body. But self control goes past that, past food. Later in this very chapter, Miriam is inadvertently cursed, an unfair punishment, but her and Aaron lacked moderation and self control in their words.

Even as soon as the next chapter, we see the ramifications of a lack moderation and self control in the scouts, and how Moses is eventually barred from entering the Holy Land. While that is a drash for a different day, I challenge you to read ahead and see how this new context changes what could be read.

So what am I ultimately saying? There are three ways to read this. One is with the context of communal responsibility, looking out for each other, injected into everything. One is with the idea that we have a reciprocal relationship with Hashem for blessings further coloring how we read onward. Finally, one is with the continued idea that we must take personal moderation and self control to help protect our communities.

The next time we’re confronted with the monotony of manna, even though we may be filled in one way but lacking in another, we can gird ourselves against our nature to complain. We can look inward and figure out how to improve our situation ourselves, rather than complaining about how easy it used to be. The Israelites missed the variety of food and, no doubt, experiences they were used to in Egypt and let themselves go because of their misery. That misery, though, was brought about by losing focus on what was important and what was good.

I hope and pray that we can find the good in our lives, focus on it, and contextualize our experiences with blessings to and from G-d. Shabbat shalom.

D’var: B’Ha Alot’kha


Seven is the theme of today’s parashah.  Well, one of them.  Seven and love.

Today’s reading covers many things, among them are the building and lighting of the menorah lamps, hammered out of solid gold with each side facing the other.  It moves on to the purification and assignment of the Levites to protecting the people Israel from plagues resulting from coming too near the sanctuary.

One major part of our religion comes from Chapter 9, where Hashem set the rules for Pesach, including a secondary festival for those who may have become impure by helping with the dead during the first festival and, thus, been ineligible to participate.

We cover trumpets and traveling, troop movements and Tabernacle assemblies.  There’s manna which, according to Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz, fulfilled our people physically, but not psychologically due to its abundance.  Moshe saw the lack of morale in the tribes and Hashem had him bring 70 of the elders and leaders of the tribes to the Tent of Meeting to eventually show their folly in complaining about the lack of meat.

G-d brought in immense amounts of quail which some of the people ate so voraciously that they didn’t even cook it.  Hashem saw this, arguably rightly so, as indignation and second-guessing about having ever been taken out of Egypt, where meat was plentiful but manna was unavailable.  Those who suffered from this greed did not suffer much longer; Hashem put forth a plague which struck those who felt that way.

Finally, we have Miriam and Aaron talking behind Moshe’s back about how he married a Cushite woman and how they were jealous that Hashem spoke to Moshe directly.  Hashem called the three of them, Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, to the Tent of Meeting, and chastised the first two about speaking poorly of Moses.  He then put a temporary disease on Miriam which delayed the departure of the people from Hazeroth.

Amidst all this, it’s easy to miss one extraordinarily interesting part on page 826 in Chapter 10, verse 35.

Now, I can’t read Hebrew, but I’m pretty sure that Nun is upside down, and I’m also pretty sure the Nun at the end of the chapter is also upside down.

The Nun is, of course, the 14th letter of the aleph-bet.  It is one of a few letters written differently, depending on its position.  In the  beginning or middle of a word it’s bent while, at the end of a word, it’s straight.

Rashi explains that the difference between the two nuns represents people.  The bent nun represents a person who serves “bent over” out of humility and love.  At the end, in the World to Come, they will be able to stand tall.

What is between these two nuns?

“When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say
‘Advance, O Lord!
May your Enemies be scattered,
And may Your foes flee before You!’
And when it halted he would say:
‘Return, O Lord,
You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!’”

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the very man who compiled the Mishnah, thought that these two verses were their own book of the Torah unto themselves.  He further suggested the Book of Numbers should be divided into three individual books: the first 10 chapters, these two verses, and then the remainder of the Book of Numbers.  This would bring the full number of books of the Torah from the five that we know up to seven.

His view was even supported partially from Proverbs 9:1 “Wisdom has built her house, she has hewn her seven pillars.”

What makes these two verses so amazingly important that the very man who put together the text we, and all other Jews, read thought it should be its own book?  I think the answer lies in those two nuns.

Often, there will be an out of place letter, a line, or something different in the text to indicate something of extreme importance or grammatical imperfection.  I would posit that these two nuns are not bookends to something misplaced, mispunctuated, or misspelled, but to something that is so profoundly important to our relationship with G-d that we need to be reminded of it constantly.  In fact, we pray about it, we sing about it, and I’ve even mentioned it before in previous d’vrei Torah.

Hashem helps us not out of obligation or fear, obviously, but love and humility.  His anger has been the cause of many plagues and calamities, but his actions stemming from humility preserve us.

If a nun bent over represents our humility to G-d, would a nun descending bent represent G-d extending his own humility and love?  I think yes.  We can look up while he looks down; whether its all the way in the heavens or from a modestly raised pillar of cloud.

We don’t need pets, children, or friends to live.  They do, however, help us realize our humanity and purpose.  They extend meaning to our existence and, when we give them our love, it furthers the connections between every involved party and often ancillary ones.  Hashem doesn’t need us, but maybe our existence to Him inspires love, and maybe that love furthers tikkun olam.

Those two nuns demonstrate that during those two verses:

“When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say
“‘Advance, O Lord!
May your Enemies be scattered,
And may Your foes flee before You!’
And when it halted he would say:
‘Return, O Lord,
You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!’”

Hashem was protecting us and elevating us out of love.  It was that love which makes us his chosen people and, just like you’ll often hold the spouse you chose to a higher standard than the rest of the people out there, he holds us to that higher standard.

G-d loves us so much He gave us His one and only Torah.  He loves us so much that he protects us so that we may study it.  He loves us so much that He will help us gather our myriads, or, as an alternate translation, clans of thousands.

So, we have seven lights in the menorah in the beginning of the parashah.

We have four sets of seven in our two nuns dividing it.

We have 10 sets of seven in the elders that were punished afterwards.

We have seven sets of seven that just passed on Shavuot with the Omer.

And what do we do when the one that we love most is to be betrothed to us?  We circle them seven times and share in a festive meal daily, for seven days, with seven blessings at each meal.

Maybe John Lennon was right when he said “all you need is love.”  Maybe not, though, as action is required on top of it all for tzedakah, tikkun olam, and other mitzvot.  Seven days of creation, after all, started with love but blossomed with action.  Shabbat shalom.

D’var Torah: Behar-Behukotai


I sat down with a man a few weeks ago. He’s a smart, ambitious man with a solid business, and he started talking to me about a major construction project which has been in the midst of some major controversy. I’m going to talk about this project, but I want to be clear that I am not endorsing any side, for or against it.

This project is the Rosemont Mine. A job creating, mountain moving, material sourcing, water scourging project. I knew that to speak ill of this project would grate against him, just as he knew that speaking ill of something I cared about would grate against me. There are major concerns, though, and some of them relate directly to this parashah.

The copper mine I mentioned is promised to use cutting edge technology to use less water and reclaim much of what is used. Arizona has a spotty history of making companies follow through on similar promises, and if they continue that track record, we can expect some problems. However, if they are adhered to, we may have a boon to our local economy at the expense of some gorgeous mountains. Is the tradeoff and risk worth it? I don’t know.

In the very beginning of Behar we read that land must lie fallow every seventh year, and it’s easy to see the establishment of highly practical crop rotation here. But if you continue to verse 23, past all the parts about vegetation, you’ll read “But the land must not be sold beyond reclaim, for the land is Mine; you are but strangers resident with Me.”

Sadly much of what we have done to our land is beyond reclaim, whether it’s been sold to utility companies or altered permanently. As California has mandatory water restrictions already in place, Arizona is gearing up for drought conditions that could be far, far worse.

Lake Mead, once this country’s largest reservoir, stores most of the water for the Colorado River. It’s lowest level has never dipped below 1,080 feet above sea level since the 1930’s, until two weeks ago, when it dropped just below that.

When January 1st comes around next year, if the level of Lake Mead is below 1,075 feet above sea level, there will be extreme water cuts to Arizona’s portion of that reservoir. According to the US Bureau of Reclamation, there’s a 33% chance of that happening this year, but a 75% chance of that happening by 2017.

This terrifies me because in our thirst for growth we are told in verse 17 not to wrong one another when selling land and what we claim from it. While wronging one another traditionally applies to just us Jews, I feel we should broaden the restriction to anyone. And us in the US tend to have a pretty interesting history of wronging each other when it comes to land rights. Whether it was the ousting and slaughter of indigenous populations to get their fertile land, then giving them the worst leftovers we were willing to part with. Whether it was supporting shady oil barons who smooth talked their way into purchasing huge swaths of land, then poisoning it and the surrounding area. Whether it is giant energy conglomerates that shoot pressurized chemicals into underground crevices to extract natural gas and, in the process, poison people’s water supplies.

If you continue to Behukotai, Chapter 26 in Leviticus, verses 18-20, you’ll see where we’re headed, and it’s not pretty. It reads “And if, for all that, you do not obey Me, I will go on to discipline you sevenfold for your sins, and I will break your proud glory. I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper, so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose. Your land shall not yield its produce, nor shall the trees of the land yield their fruit.”

We are seeing this. We are seeing skies as dry as hot iron in the sun. We are seeing land start to turn hard as we can’t nurture it. We are seeing a proud industry start to crack. Many farmers are having to leave crops in their fields, when they can even grow them in the first place. That is the very dire warning laid out with “so that your strength shall be spent to no purpose.”

So what am I saying?

We have a delicate world, and we’ve already dealt many blows to it. We’ve reduced big fish populations down to paltry numbers, we’ve made our oceans more acidic, we’ve stripped people and land of valuable resources. One of the main things Hashem wants us to do to honor Him is to treat each other, whether they’re our compatriots or our hired help, but especially if they’re a stranger, with respect.

Perhaps if we make a habit of dealing with others respectfully and without underhanded business motives, when we are faced with what NASA is calling a “megadrought”, we’ll weather it better.

I pray that as we pray for rain in Israel, we also receive it here and that we may make a world of peace between us and our land and us and each other. Shabbat shalom.

Benchcraft Company


Benchcraft Company.

The company that called me during a moment of weakness. That made me realize I really must stop taking people, especially those I don’t know, at their word. The company that lied to me so many times over the course of a few hours spread apart over a few days that it seems downright sociopathic.

First, what they do. They sell golf course advertising. In and of itself, it seems a great idea. It’s a passive advertising campaign into a demographic that fits exactly what I (and most other insurance agents) drool over: affluent, with some extra time, often with expanding families. There are a few problems with it, though, mainly that it’s completely passive and you’re putting yourself in front of them when they’re spending hours in the sun, possibly drinking, and just having a good time with friends. It leaves you pretty darn forgettable when you’re one passive sign among 17 others.

After the call I did about 45 minutes of cursory research, found the usual complaints you can find about any large company, and saw that they actually did what they did quite well.

So, I signed up for these guys during a moment of weakness. I was feeling down, looking for something new, and got a call out of the blue. Of course it was a hard sale, of course I shouldn’t have taken the guy at his word, and of course I should have known all the tricks. But I wanted and needed to believe. I needed something new.

I immediately felt a pang of regret. Two hours later, I had all the information to know that I really screwed the pooch on this.

Yes, I should have done more research; yes, I should have been more skeptical. We all have our moments of weakness, though.

I called back to cancel. They told me the contracts are non-cancelable and, indeed, the text as such was hiding in plain sight (fun fact: when you surround a paragraph with bullet points, people tend not to read the paragraph — look it up!). I escalated it up the chain of command and ended up leaving a voicemail for their head of sales guy. I wonder if he has consciously learned yet that that hard sales lead to hard cancels. Surely he knows it in his subconscious mind by now.

Once he got back to me is when the abuse started. He immediately tried to tell me that all I had was buyer’s remorse. Of course I had buyer’s remorse! I couldn’t simply say that, though, as his tone and context used it dismissively to belittle me. He was trying to diminish it into a small overcomable objection, like the kind of buyer’s remorse one gets after buying the $40 headset when you meant to get the $20 one.

We debated back and forth, I told him what I needed him to do, he said “I’m the guy you need to befriend to get anything done, so you shouldn’t tell me what ‘you need me to do.'”

Gotcha, you’re insecure. You can do everything I’m asking, but you have to put up a front and make it difficult. I referenced their Yelp and other industry reviews to bolster my case, he told me those reviews didn’t matter, which I found to be amusing.

Eventually, I told him I signed that contract under duress and, if they didn’t cancel it, I’d be pursuing “other avenues of restitution.”

He eventually acquiesced, but since reviews from other people said they were promised refunds that never came, I managed to not only get an email confirmation of the promised refund, but recorded (legally) the last part of the conversation.

The final part of the conversation:
Sales lead: …It’s just me having a conversation with you to get to the root of what your real issue is and overcoming that.
Me: The root of my issue is that I feel like I made a rash decision with my money and I need to have it back.
Lead: Okay, so I can’t do that. However, if it makes more sense and you can at least see it as a meeting of the minds and that I’m willing to take a step toward you. We don’t make money on first year advertising, even when they pay in full we don’t make money. We’re a renewal business, like trailers in your business, right [note: trailers are something to insure when you park them or hitch them up, not residual income]? Imagine you didn’t get money up front, but on that 13th month you got paid…
Me: I get both renewals and up front commission, so that’s completely not analogous… (yes, I know where he was going, but in a power play you can’t acquiesce)
Lead: I understand that, I’m just drawing a parallel so you can imagine we don’t make money off of first year advertisers. So, my suggestion…
Me: I haven’t even submitted anything yet, so there isn’t even any money to lose.
Lead: There is, but once again I won’t tell you, even though I know the industry you’re in, how your business model works, but ours the majority of our costs are up front which means the day you agreed to the ad the salesman got his bonus immediately [95% chance a lie, from industry insiders], the retainer fee on our artists got her money, or him, there’s 22 of them back there. So you’re accountable to find someone that got compensated immediately. Why do we compensate them for artwork they haven’t touched yet? Because they need to push out a hundred pieces of artwork a day to keep up with the amount of volume of business we do [1. Then why is my tiny, single account so vital to you? 2. Ha! Phrasing it like that makes it sound like each of those 22 people has to push 100 pieces of art copy daily. I call shenanigans.]. Alright, so you pay them upfront and have a certain deadline to get it done. Which means they’re also reaching out to you saying “Hey, Eddie, I need a business card, man, let’s do this”. So that you feel good about the fact that the artist wants to complete your artwork. Okay?
We don’t make money [Seriously, again with the first-year-woes?] the first year; we break even. You renew your ad with us, bang immediately we turn a profit, and this case, what I would suggest, because I know it’s money and it’s just buyer’s remorse, in reality, is let me take the loss on the first advertisement you have with us. I’ll write off the balance you owe, you’ll still get the ad…
Me: I need that $200 back.
Lead: Okay, well I can’t return that to you, I apologize.
Me: I need that $200 back. I’m not getting off the phone until I get confirmation I’m getting that $200 back.
Lead: M’kay. I’m not gonna sit here in silence with ya…
Me: So I’m going to be…we’re either going to have this amicably resolved, like this, or I can start a social media campaign, I can…
Lead: A social media campaign?…
Me: I’m talking right now, k? I can go onto Facebook, I can go onto industry websites (lead attempts to talk over me)… I can go onto industry websites. I can file with the BBB, I can file with Yelp, I can file with glassdoor, I can talk about this on insurance specific forums, I can talk about this on other industry specific forums.
Lead: You should spend that time making money, Eddie [what should have been a 30 minute call to recoup $200 and venting with other agents about terrible vendors is kind of non-analogous].
Me: I can also call up El Dorado [the golf course my sign was supposed to be at] and tell them that this company has led me astray. I can…
Lead: Here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to go ahead and call the golf course right now and I’m going to send them a copy of the contract that you agreed to, okay? And I’m going to send them your response, okay? And this buyer’s remorse is what you got two hours later you got our request, they know our policies. Um, so I guess you’re going to want to do a campaign against the golf course, too, at that point?
Me: I honestly don’t care about the golf course. I’m simply…
Lead: I’m just trying to help you to not waste your time. I’ll send them the info for you.
Me: So, you are not going to help me out at all about this, are you?
Lead: Um, I’m trying to be rational. I offered to take a loss on your account and…
Me: That loss will not equal the loss I’m having right now [That’s right, sales lead, I can interrupt like a jerk, too]. You need to refund that money…
Lead: You’re having a loss because you’re having money issues [He said this because I split up the payment, half on the business credit card — for the protections they offer — and half on the business debit card]. But you want to blame us for that. You want me to take a full loss on the account because you have buyer’s remorse.
Me: I’ve taken plenty of full losses on people who have had Geico come back to them and rewrite them as a new client, so that’s just the nature of the game. So, I need you to take a loss on this and refund this money.
Lead: Alright, I’m going to go get the sales rep, okay? Because he’s gonna eventually basically gonna have to pay for the ad…
Me: That’s fine [Seriously, it was fine, I don’t mind telling someone why I’m canceling. That’s just professionalism, instead of ad hominem attacks.]
Lead: I want you to tell him that you don’t care that, that he has to take food off his table.
Me: Okay, so you’re basically…you want me to tell him that I’m not willing to give up food off my table…
Lead: [Again, with the interrupting!] What’s his name, Riley? I want you just say “Hey, Riley, I’m sorry, I have buyer’s remorse, I understand that it’s company policy there. Um, there, I’m wanting to overturn that company policy which I understand is going to make you pay for the ad and when that happens…”
Me: There’s not even going to be an ad! There’s not even going to be an ad.
Lead: Eddie, I’m trying to explain this to you and, for some reason, I feel like you’re either just not listening because you just want your money back or you’re not listening because I’m not communicating properly to you and, if that’s the case then I’ll take responsibility. [I’m listening to you say irrelevant things and try to sidestep around your idiotic company policy.] What I’m saying is there is money that is spent already [really, after 24 hours?]. When I go get the rep and make him come in here and talk to you, it’s just so…so…so when he says “Why are you making me pay for this?” he doesn’t think I’m the prick. Because…
Me: Alright. Bring him in. If you’re telling me to apologize that he’s paying for the ad when, in reality, there’s not even an ad going up.
Lead: Okay, well he’s paying for what you paid that you’re getting back, or are attempting to get back. [Wait, what?]
Me: Alright.
Lead: What are you going to say: “Sorry, man, I changed my mind,” “Sorry I cost you $395,”?
Me: Bring him in. I’ll tell him that. [I honestly didn’t mind taking the personal hit. It’s called being courteous and professional, plus it would have made his work environment easier].
[Long pause]
Lead: Wow. You know what, Eddie? I’m going to give you your money back. Um, and I’m gonna do everything I can right now not to insult you [really, after you insinuated that I was a prick, A+ job]. Um, but, like I said people do funny things when they’re broke, I get that, k? I’m gonna give you your money back (goes into the specifics of the refund). I’m not surprised that money’s an issue [Oh? I have a scratch insurance agency just on the cusp of starting its second year. Things are notoriously tight for the first two-three years of an agency’s growth, so your attempts at making me feel crappy are falling on unsympathetic ears.] but we don’t want your business. [That was made abundantly clear when you first treated me like garbage.].
Me: Alright.
Lead: You’ll sleep well tonight, I’m sure…
Me: I will sleep great, I will sleep…
Lead: …it’s not gonna affect you at all…
Me: …wonderfully next to my wife and dog…
Lead: …and you’ll probably rip someone off tomorrow, too. I’m going to refund your money.
Me: When can I expect to see that?
Lead: It’ll be done sometime this week, it won’t post to your account immediately, so give it time to actually get into your account, okay?
Me: Alright, so I can expect to see it by the end of the week?
Lead: No, you can expect to have us press the refund button by the end of the week. I don’t know when it’s gonna show up into your account. I can’t control the banking system. But…
Me: Okay.
Lead: …if you call them, I’m sure can tell them about your social media campaign and maybe they’ll be quicker. [Great callback! You should join an improv troupe.] In the meantime, I can only do what we can do, and that’s pushing a button for you. Okay?
Me: Alright, I appreciate that. And I do hope that…
[Lead hangs up]

Here’s the thing. If they had refunded my money and said “No problem, let’s talk in the future,” I would have definitely talked with them in a year or two. Since they were such jerks, I won’t ever talk with them again.

For the record, they sat on “pushing the button” for a full 10 days. That’s two business weeks, and decidedly longer than “by the end of the week” that they had promised.

Faith, Family, Business: A Rant


“Faith, Family, then Business”

That’s the credo of many motivational speakers, company leaders, and frontmen. It is also phrased as “G-d, family, then work.” It is how they tell you to prioritize your life in order to achieve success.

I have to disagree, though. If your faith is more important than your family, that’s your business. G-d gave me my wife, and honoring her honors G-d. Without her, faith is diminished; without her, I have no business. Surely I can’t be the only one in this boat.

Empirical evidence points to anyone employing the slogan of “faith, family, then work,” being full of hubris and poison.

Who has employed this slogan? Among the offenders are:

  • My district manager at AFLAC
  • Most of the speakers Farmers brought in
  • Every single speaker AFLAC had
  • The (now deceased) owner of Spa One, which closed without warning leaving about 70 people unexpectedly unemployed
  • Three other speakers who championed this phrase whom I had the “pleasure” of listening to, while they skewed data for their purpose

The companies that endorsed this phrase have, in my experience, by and large, been perpetrators of lies. They have hurt both clients and employees, people and their families.

I think the problem comes from people who wear their adherence of faith as a token of validity. The problem is people eat this up and think “Hey, I want to live like that,” and don’t think about repercussions. Putting your family second can leave them feeling unloved and backburnered.

Hell, if I was too sick to take care of myself and my wife wanted to go to Synagogue, I would feel jilted. I know she would feel the same.

My proposal for all my workers will be “Physical needs, spiritual needs, then work.”

Take care of yourself and your loved ones, then take care of your heart and mind, then your business. That will let you live more strongly, sustainably, and ethically. I just can’t be aligned with the hubris and lies that “faith, family, then work” has shoved at me.

D’var B’reshit


Professor Ido Kantor, of Bar-Ilan University, teaches such things as condensed matter physics, phase transitions, theory of neural networks, and quantum spin systems.

These are all things which deal with Bereshit. From the explosion of creation of the light and dark from the Big Bang to the creating and trickery of how we think. From the G-d’s voice creating everything, to how something may appear out of seemingly nothing.

Professor Kantor wrote, in 2003, about the missing samekh in Bereshit. Every letter of our aleph-bet is accounted for in B’reshit’s first chapter except for the samekh, which doesn’t show up until Chapter 2, in verse 11.

Of this interesting phenomenon, he wrote:

The samekh is a geometrically closed letter,[3] as hinted by the word sagur, “closed”, which itself is spelled with samekh and by its first appearance in the Torah, in the word ha-sovev, “surrounding”.

As we know today, based on cosmological studies, the universe is spreading, expanding in all directions at every moment, and it may even continue to expand forever.[4] Therefore the world created by G-d could not have been created in an enclosed space, and this is hinted at by the absence of the letter samekh in the text of the creation.

I will conclude with the somewhat obscure words of the Sforno, which, however, seem to allude to a similar idea about an expanding universe:[5]

And the earth was desolate and void – That earth, which was created, was an amalgam of primeval matter called tohu and primeval form called bohu, for it would not be suitable (possible) for primeval matter to exist without being clothed in some form. This, then, was the first amalgam perforce [or necessity], of matter and substance (form). The Torah is explaining that primeval matter was a totally new creation (there being no matter preceding the world’s creation). The matter in this initial amalgam is called tohu for it only possesses potential but no actuality, as it says ki tohu hema “for they are vain” (I Sam. 12:21) that is, something not existing in reality, only in the imagination. The form of that initial amalgam is called bohu for in it the tohu is found, in actuality.[6] The prophet calls avne bohu “stones sunk in the primeval mire” (Is. 34:11), any object which does not remain in a given form for an appreciable period of time, just as we call the initial form bohu which immediately clothed itself in a variety of forms (namely the four elements).

Wow. That’s pretty thick for three paragraphs, but I’ll sum it up.

Obadiah ben Jacob Sforno says we have tohu and bohu. Tohu is the potential of something. Bohu is the realization of it.

Traditional Chinese thought sees matter and energy as the same element, the same stuff. Matter, to Chinese traditionalists, is just the corporeal, solid version of energy.

In other words, tohu is G-d’s intentions manifested through what we come to think of as his voice. Bohu is what we are walking on, what we are breathing, what we swim in, and what we cook with. Bohu is the elements which we use, tohu is the inspiration which we fashion with.

Moving on, one beautiful thing we have in our religion is the knowledge that we will never fully understand Torah. Even so, Torah and science must not contradict each other. Science is truth, as is Torah. Our understanding of each is limited, but as we proceed with either, new avenues of thought, knowledge, and opportunity open up to us.

We ate from the tree, yes. Perhaps, as I believe, we were always supposed to. We suddenly gained knowledge of our own mortality and the workings of the world. We suddenly gained knowledge of right and wrong. We gained knowledge of vulnerability.

Our own Etz Hayim, in the commentary for Chapter 3: verse 22, on page 23, says that “it has been suggested that the tree of life represents the force of instinct, whereas the tree of knowledge of good and evil represents the force of conscience. Once our ancestors acquired a conscience, they could no longer eat of the tree of life, that is, live instinctively, doing whatever felt good to them. People ever since have sought … to return to the days of childhood before they knew that certain things were wrong; but the way is barred.”

This brings me to my final point.

I don’t believe Adam and Eve’s sudden discomfort with nakedness was of the flesh. I think it was something far deeper than that. Nakedness of the flesh is one level, but we always delve deeper than one level.

To be naked is to be vulnerable. It is to have no shielding or shell outside of your skin. It is to be exposed, literally to the elements. Psychologically, though, nakedness is to have your vulnerabilities on display.

In 2011 Wired magazine wrote an article on how nakedness changes our perceptions. They cited a study from the American Psychological Association, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, and crafted from researchers from the University of Maryland, Northeastern University, and Harvard Medical School. This was a big study from big minds, which confirmed something many of us already know.

That something: people’s perceptions of what others are capable of or how well others should be treated are altered by how much skin the one being judged is showing. A woman in a bikini or a man shirtless was viewed as being capable of more licentious acts than they are of mindful acts. Conversely, cutting their body out of the photo made viewers see them as capable of more agency, or mindfulness, than experience, those aforementioned licentious acts.

Adam and Eve had thoughts they hadn’t had before. They suddenly knew that they were capable of more than just existing and eating what was provided. They were capable of creation, themselves; certainly not on the scale of Hashem, but on a scale which is not insignificant. They were capable of fashioning tohu, their visions, into tangible things with bohu.

They suddenly saw themselves and each other as beings who could enjoy things, whether the wonderful crispy yet pulpy texture of a persimmon, or the flavor of a leaf of mint. Whether the touch of your other half’s fingers on the nape of your neck, to the fullness of emotion that a loving, sexual relationship can bring.

Adam and Eve suddenly saw these nuances and this potential. They became embarrassed, not because of what they were or were not wearing, but because they were exposed and had not yet accepted each other for these new, glorious potentials. The potential to enjoy art, to enjoy food, to enjoy company, to enjoy creation, to enjoy movement, to enjoy companionship…to just enjoy.

Fig leafs created a cover for them. Fig leafs were the bohu for the tohu of reflexively wanting protection in this new state. True protection, though, comes not from what we wear, not a bow tie, suit, dress, or coat, but how we act. Accepting each other for what we are, all we are, and who we are is the best fig leaf for our mind and heart.

Torah and science both confirm it.




This is the text of the d’var Torah I gave for Shabbat Chazon on 8/2/14.

Rabbi Levi Yitzchak says of Shabbat Chazon, the “Shabbat of Vision”, each and every one of us is granted a vision of the third temple.

Both temples were destroyed on Tisha b’Av and, this year, it looks like our enemies are still at it.

Devarim is an extremely interesting parsha, as it is the very text where G-d commands us to take our domain which he has promised.  We journeyed in the last parsha and found our land, now we need to take it.

It’s also interesting that, in Chapter 2, verse 23, we are commanded to take control of Gaza.  It reads “and the Avvim, that dwelt in villages as far as Gaza, the Caphtorim, that came forth out of Caphtor, destroyed them, and dwelt in their stead.”  We have another important and telling link to the number 23: Psalm 23 which is one of the most famous of David’s songs.

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.

Yet twice, we rejected his gift to us.  His gift was a divine presence here on earth.  A place where he could live.  A place where we could transcend ourselves; a place where we could experience his glory as best as our mortal bodies were able to.

His temples were destroyed because we turned our backs on the prophets he gave us.  We rejected the tenets He put forth and He could not dwell among us anymore.  Prophet after prophet warned us, most notably Jeremiah.

He makes me lie down in green pastures: he leads me beside still waters.

We journeyed from camp to camp, across desert climes, through valleys, rocks, dirt, and grass.  Floors were the ground, and the best floor we would have had then was grass.  Even more than that, He promised us fertile land.  Land which we could inhabit and which would support our fledgeling, but blessed, nation.

He restores my soul:

Even though we neglected and continue to neglect Him.  Even though we neglect ourselves.  Even though we continue to transgress, hurt, and distress others.

Why would he restore our souls when we do so much bad?

Because we can do so much good.  Because we love.  We are able to build, learn, and teach.  We are able to nurture things large and small, from a single cell up to restoring an entire endangered group of animals.

Shabbat Chazon is traditionally the “black Sabbath.”  The darkest, saddest Shabbat because we are about to relive the destruction of two temples.  Hold onto this particular Mizmor l’David, though, and see that we can make it to Shabbat Shuvah, the “white Sabbath,” right before Yom Kippur.

He leads me in the paths of righteousness for His name’s sake.

He helps and guides us for his reputation.  He promised us that he would take care of us, and gosh-darnit, he’s doing his best.  We complained about being taken out of Egypt, we complained about the giants the spies reported to us, we even had the chutzpah to complain about manna.  I mean, manna.  You could starve out here and davka you complain about being nourished?!

Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death.

We constantly walk through this valley.  Sometimes the walls are higher than others.  Sometimes the shadows stretch farther than others.  Occasionally, the sun dips below the lips of the valley and we are entrenched in darkness.

Somehow, we have always come out stronger and more resilient.  Perhaps us Jews are the rubber of religions: trials by fire harden our resolve and make us bounce back just as sulphur and heat vulcanize rubber.  Perhaps we are the result of a promise someone who loves us made.

I will fear no evil, for you are with me.  Your rod and your staff comfort me.

Why should we fear evil?

Hashem gave us tools to defend ourselves.  He gave us our hands to build tools, our world to supply our needs, and our minds to conceive and plan.  Whether it was a pillar of cloud defending us from the encroaching Egyptians or Operation Pillar of Defense defending us from Hamas rockets, Hashem needs us for his reputation just as we need him for our survival.

He isn’t content with just our survival, though.  He wants us to be taken care of.  We have some of the smartest minds, whether they’re shomer, non-practicing, or anywhere inbetween.  We have created fabrics, machines, and chemicals which help us live better.

Without Hashem’s backing, we would not be able to do this.

You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies.

This, for me, is the strongest part of the shepherd metaphor.

If Hashem were sadistic, he would only let us eat when we were among enemies.  Sheep, however, are always surrounded by predators.  They are essentially walking, baa-ing hulks of delicious meat.

Hashem knows that the land, technology, and culture we have are constantly threatened.  Even just the past two weeks we have seen previously hidden anti-Semitism rage back into the spotlight.

We, indeed, have a table prepared for us, in the presence of our enemies.

You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.

We are the chosen people of Hashem.  We have been anointed.  The problem is that it’s often lonely at the top and, once at the top, it’s really easy to fall.

Today’s haftarah talks about that fall.  Isaiah condemns the Jewish people for violating everything good that was set out for them.  Everything that was given to us and everything we worked for was thrown away by neglecting our own communities and G-d.

Hashem has been shocked by his people just as a parent would be shocked when it is exposed that their child is a criminal.  We are told that we’re on the same level as Sodom and Gomorrah, that our nation has become like a harlot, and that we are dumber than an ass.  He tells us that our sacrifices mean nothing to him if they are performed out of habit and not with intent to show gratitude.  He tells us that we can still do better.

He tells us our crimson sins can be washed clean as snow and that the red tapestry of our iniquities can be unspun into fleece.

We are living in a red tapestry right now.  The blood of our own and the blood we are forced to spill defending ourselves thickens every day.

Hamas, is an organization named for the Arabic word meaning “zealotry.”  What are they zealous of?  Destroying us.  Destroying G-d’s promise.  Destroying not just the country Israel, but the people.  Me and you.

Likely not coincidentally, “hamas” is a Hebrew word meaning “violence.”

We are walking through a new valley with the shadow of death enveloping us.  Yet we fear no evil.  We know what we must do and our enemy continues to, literally and figuratively, dig themselves into a hole.  Even just yesterday, our own president finally unequivocally condemned Hamas for violating a cease fire that ended up lasting 90 minutes.  It is a welcome reprieve from the constant condemnation.

This parsha is right on time.  It reminds us that Gaza is not something we should be walking gingerly around but is a territory that has been through the hands of countless conquerors and needs the right tenants, just as a shelter dog is looking for his “forever home.”  Gaza, since biblical times, has been no stranger to conflict, both internal and external.

We, however, need not be afraid of our conflicts, for justice and peace are on our side, though they may seem fleeting.

Back to Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev for a minute.  He shared a story about a father and his son.  This father prepared a beautiful suit for his son to wear.  The son, however, neglected to take care of this suit and it soon was in pieces.  The father made his son a second suit which quickly suffered the same fate.  After some thought, the father decided to make his son a third suit, but he never gave it to his son.  On special occasions he would show the suit to his son and remind him that once he learned to appreciate it, it would be given to him.  The son was inspired to improve his behavior little by little, anticipating the day he would be worthy of that suit.

That suit is the third temple.  The place where Hashem can dwell among us.  The arrival of Moshiach.  Shabbat Chazon is the time when we’re called to action not to be afraid of this valley of the shadow of death.  We are assured that as long as we keep doing what we know is right our cunning, our strength, and our compassion will finally bring the subject of Chapter 2, verse 23 in line with the ending of Psalm 23.

May only goodness and kindness follow me all the days of my life.
May I return to the house of the L-rd, forever.

Shabbat Shalom.