Ki Teitzei, 5776


Ki Teitzei, 5776
Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19

This is not going to be a comfortable dvar torah. There are going to be parts of it that address some worldly ugliness which keeps rearing it’s head. There are adult themes in it which I will endeavour to handle as delicately as possible.

This is a parashah which is short on narrative and long on laws. Laws of sex, laws of helping others, laws of libel, laws of war, laws of refuge, laws of protection, laws of charity, and many more. We’re focusing, today, only on the first two I listed: laws of sex and laws of helping others.

Why? I could speak today about protecting current populations that are being turned into demagogues, though we have spoken out about that as a community. I could talk about giving to the needy and destitute, though I think we work well on that front and inspire others by our examples.

I want to talk about a shifting mindset in a fight that has been going on too long for too many people. I want to talk about how recent events should infuriate us and drive us to change how people treat something.

Deuteronomy 22:4 tells us that we should not pretend we don’t see our brother struggling with their donkey after it has fallen down. That we should help them out and pick up their load with them. Rabbi Yitzi Hurwitz in Temecula, CA, who is restrained in his own body by ALS probably knows how hard it can be to pick up your donkey alone — he is forced to record his words of wisdom using only eye tracking technology. He wrote something profound: that helping lift one’s donkey is a simple mitzvah, extending that to lifting one’s fallen spirituality is a deeper one.

He writes: “…Realize that it is his animal that has fallen—not him. His neshamah [soul] is pristine. He is essentially holy and wants to be G?d’s. It is only his ‘animal’—his circumstances, nature and upbringing that put him where he is today.”

This is simple: it is incumbent upon us to lift up our brothers and sisters who are are broken, who are weary, who are driven down. We get to determine who our brothers and sisters are: whether they’re fellow Jews, colleagues, or people with similar struggles. The bonds of sisterhood and brotherhood are bonds which we know can transcend genetics and familial lineage.

Let’s bring in the second part of this. Deuteronomy Chapter 22, verses 23-29 lists three very specific punishments for sex. The first is the death penalty for both a woman and a man sleeping together consensually if the woman is betrothed to another, the second is the death penalty for a man raping a woman betrothed to another, the third is a man being required to offer himself as a husband to a woman he rapes if she is not bethrothed.

First, I’m sick of the word “betrothed.” Let’s go with “spoken for.” Second, this could be the basis of a pernicious cultural phenomenon where men stop trying to pick up women only when they say “I have a boyfriend.” “No” should be sufficient, though this is not even a d’var Torah about that.

This is a d’var Torah about believing women, about consent, and about that big scary F-word: feminism.

Before I dive into this, let’s table the idea of virginity being a commodity and the one of the values a first-time bride brings to her husband. I have eight minutes, not an hour.

One of the most astounding things I see in almost every rape case is how much of an uphill battle it is for women to have their side listened to. People blame these horrific incidents on what these women are wearing, what they’re doing, whether they’ve been drinking, what situations are unfolding, but each one has one simple thing in common: a rapist.

The very first example I listed is a consensual encounter. We know this because only in the second example does it mention that she was overpowered. I am not advocating putting two people to death for getting it on when they shouldn’t; just drawing a distinguishing line of consent.

What strikes me is that our Torah, our truth, our book of life doesn’t tell us the hurdles a woman must jump through to prove a rapist. Its silence on that front tells us something incredibly powerful: the elders of our ancestors listened to women.

Time and again we see, hear, and find that the one thing women want in situations where they are left unequal, such as sexual harassment at work, sexual harassment in social situations, casual condescension, and so much more, is just to be believed. To have someone say “I believe you” without a “but…” to negate the entire statement.

Our ancestors listened. Which is more than what our societal peers are doing today.

Something which strikes me as a sad irony is that women are believed to do 75% of the speaking in co-ed situations. That if a man and woman are talking, men and women both believe women are speaking 75% of the time to a man’s 25%. In fact the literal opposite is true: men do 75% of the speaking to women’s 25%.

Is it any wonder millennial women are sick of this? They see the uphill battle their mothers and their mothers’ mothers have fought, they see the social media bullying, they see the gross sexualization, they see unfair uniform and dress codes that seek to undermine their autonomy and agency.

In an age where “boys will be boys” is no longer an excuse for childhood sexual harassment; in a time where rapists are still being let off easy because they’re star athletes; in an era where women still earn less than male counterparts, it’s time to end it. This is oppression, plain and simple.

Since we’ve acknowledged these problems ages ago, since we have the data, we cannot say it is accidental any longer. Any company which is successful knows its numbers and can easily see their data. Any company which acts in this manner has been complicit in their oppression. Any man who has been presented with these issues and who still hurts these people is complicit in his oppression of women.

This is the fallen donkey of all of our sisters. This is the fallen donkey of all of our sisters. This is the load which must be picked up. This is the burden which we must bear together until the next injustice is brought to light, and there will be more. There will always be more.

So what can we do? We can call others out. We can make them uncomfortable when they reinforce these stereotypes or when someone thoughtlessly dismisses a claim of casual sexism.

We’re all too familiar with what has come to be known as dog whistle racism, we experience it as Jews when someone talks about our people being cheap or thrifty. Our own Anti-Defamation League is excellent at calling people out and even gave a stern warning to a certain candidate who said he likes the people “counting his money to be wearing yarmulkes”.

When a woman comes forward it must become habit to support her. It must become as reflexive to give her ear and credence as it is currently to dismiss her.

President Obama’s staff has an unprecedented number of women on it. The women who make up his top aides have started a procedure they call “amplification.” When a woman makes a key point another immediately repeats it, says it’s a good point, and then credits the original woman who said it.

We must all be the amplifiers for our sisters. Their minds, experiences, and knowledge only enhance everything society is and can be. Their struggles must be validated, believed, and supported. I have to repeat this, their struggles must be validated, believed, and supported.

Just as the man whose spirit has fallen still has a pure neshama, soul, that wants to return to G-d, our mothers, sisters, and daughters just want to be accepted as fully autonomous, fully capable, fully human people.

As I close out, remember our prayer came from sacrifice. Literally: our prayer is meant to take the place of the energy and pain of animal sacrifices. So this prayer will take energy, focus, and time. It will take intention. That said, my hope and prayer is that we can influence our own actions, mindsets, and those of others to lift our women up to equality. That our sisters struggling with this donkey that fell so long ago will finally be able to pick it up. Shabbat shalom.

Monique Alvarez – a rant, a warning, and an open letter


It’s time to pull the curtain back on something.

A year ago I was approached with the idea of joining a mastermind group. Mastermind groups are a timeless idea given name by Napoleon Hill. They are a group of similarly minded people who can build each other up, help each other move forward, and coordinate business efforts.

Mastermind groups are about creating harmony and invigorating business. They’re about helping each other.

Sometimes an exceptional businessperson will start a mastermind and charge people to join. These are situations where someone has achieved astounding success and is selling their expertise to attendants.

Monique built up a mastermind group, a fantastic one. We helped each other out through many things. We formed incredibly deep bonds, built each other up, and helped each of us through incredible insecurities. All this took place in my office, which I opened up to her.

While all this was going on, Monique Alvarez was working behind the scenes to monetize this mastermind group. She charged three new attendants, who we found out were being charged after the fact. .

Of course, she was charging these new people while using my office. So she was charging people for the use of my office.

On top of this, she moved from Tucson, AZ to San Carlos, Mexico out of the blue and started having us remote her in to what were in-person meetings

Our group came to an end on a Tuesday. She let us know the associated Facebook group would be deleted that Friday as her business was evolving to support only female entrepreneurs. I’m cool with that — I’m all for minority support.

I asked if it would be cool with her (out of courtesy, because I’m going to do what’s right for my friends and colleagues) if I started a second mastermind group. She gave me her blessing to do so. I immediately created the supplemental Facebook group and started to coordinate new meetings. I knew there would be some scheduling changes as there was some insinuation that some of the female members would be continuing with the new iteration of the group.

Fine, no problem. We’ll take a break and coordinate plans to move forward. That’s not a problem.

A couple days after doing all this, the Thursday before the original group was to be shut down, I let Monique know what we were doing. Again, this was out of professional courtesy. I expected a “Thank you for letting me know! Best of luck continuing with each other!”

Here’s what was actually said. My text is in blue, her’s is in green.

Me: I wanted to give you a heads up. We’re continuing the Tuesday group with a few modifications. Thank you so much for your guidance and wisdom the past…three quarters? Year? I don’t remember the length, but it’s been amazing. 
And happy anniversary. ? 
Monique: You realize that I’m continuing my Tuesday group right? Are you asking people to not continue with me in order to be in your group?
What do you mean? Everything we heard was that the Tuesday group was ending and the facebook group was being shut down Friday.
I said I am continuing Holistic Mastermind on Tuesdays. Two changes going forward. 1. It’s for women. 2. It’s a virtual meeting.
I also outlined it in the group.
Once again thank you all for a spectacular journey for the last 10 months. I have created a affiliate program for Holistic Mastermind, Total Wellness Retreats and e~Courses. I pay 30% commission for referrals to all my services and products. Here is the direction Holistic Mastermind is going and when the next round will start. 
I’ll close this group down on Friday so if you want to download worksheets etc please do so by then. Thank you for being part of my life and business. Here’s to the next chapter! ?
The men felt left in the lurch and without any group, so we took the initiative to try and create something. We’re not trying to hijack anything nor are we trying to compete. We’re just trying to create something that works for us.
You only asked the men to join you?
I created a group with people I trust and have grown close to with plans to continue meeting.
I know.
I would have contacted you privately about this if the tables were turned. Out of respect.
I have no idea what you’re upset about. The group is coming to an end, you’re creating a new one, and I took initiative on a deadline to maintain some sort of meeting. As this meeting wouldn’t include you, or any virtual connections, there wasn’t really any reason to reach out. I wanted to officially let you know out of respect.
Who did you approach about the group? Did you approach<redacted>?
You approached my clients.
I approached my friends and colleagues, some of whom may be your clients. There is not a set meeting time, date, or format. As such, I shall endeavor to set it so there is no conflict with your continuing group.
Those of us who are not a part of your continuing group will be working to set that time.
This is where she unfriended me like a middle school drama queen. Yes, really.

She couldn’t handle actual conversation about a misunderstanding so she disconnected, ran off, and hid. She told other people that I violated the terms of our group by creating another. She claims that I tried to get her clients to leave her.

Let me be clear: I didn’t care one whit who her clients were. I just wanted to keep the band of colleagues we had together. We all knew that we were going to be finding a new time so those who wanted to stick with Monique Alvarez’s “Holistic Mastermind” could do so. That they could stay with the group they wanted AND stay with us.

Did I approach her clients? Absolutely. I approached them because they were my friends and trusted colleagues.

Did I try to get them not to continue with her continuing group? Emphatically no. Let me rephrase that, if you don’t understand “emphatically.” Hell no.

Let me reiterate: I did not try to get them to end their relationship with Monique’s continuing group.

We demanded no exclusivity whatsoever. We didn’t even expect, encourage, or think about it. Group exclusivity had exactly as much space in our minds as the mating habits of seahorses (which, incidentally, is far more interesting than hoarding group members for yourself).

Okay, so let’s recap so far: Monique charged people to attend an event at my office without asking me about compensation to build a business inside my walls and she then moved away and made us video chat her in.

What am I missing?

Oh. Right. She used our mastermind group, where we were incredibly vulnerable and open with each other, to recruit new clients for her husband’s web design company.

Oh man, I’m sorry. I should have put it in quotes.
*air quote* “web design company” *air quote*

His websites are bad. However since I don’t have firsthand experience and expanding on this more would violate the confidentiality of my group and colleagues, I’m keeping it there. But man, it’s like WordPress and Geocities had a premature baby in the early 90’s.

Recruiting for further services from a group of vulnerable people is the stuff of Scientology and Jonestown. Not business groups. Not masterminds.

So Monique built a business within my walls and didn’t let me know she was using my office to generate actual revenue. She asked me to open up on Mondays so she could run a second group (which I was not part of), which I did because I’m like that — helpful to a fault. I just learned she was making money off that group, too. She then has the gall to say that I approached her clients.

Let me be clear: I now care who her clients are. I want her to lose every single one of them. I want her business to crash and burn, and it’s not from spite. I want it to fail because she believes her wanderlust is due to a nomadic nature. It is not. Her wanderlust is there because she uses up her resources in one place, then moves to another. She is the personal equivalent of the logging company in Fern Gully. She moves through area after area feeding on the emotional resources of everyone around her. Once she’s exposed, she disappears and moves on.

She then posts triumphant blog posts about how life works in her favor and she makes the most of situations.

That’s not untrue: she does make the most of situations. But it’s as a narcissistic opportunist, not an adaptable entrepreneur.

So now she’s told people that I violated my agreement with the group after I talked with myfriends and tried to find a new time to meet so we could continue boosting each other. She accused me of hijacking the group and poaching clients. She made money while using my space and didn’t give a cut to the person who made it possible, even when they opened up for a meeting they weren’t a part of.

So if you’re considering doing business with this woman, let me illuminate what you’re signing up for:

  • She’ll take your deepest, darkest secrets and use them against you to make a point
  • She’ll go after more than just your presence in the group and try to get you to use their sub-par webdesign and advertising services
  • She’ll cut you off as soon as you hint that your funds for her are limited
  • She’ll dismiss you after bringing up constructive criticism
  • She’ll listen only as long as it suits her own motive
  • She’s on your side only as long as your position helps hers

Look at her again. Google her. Check her company out on Facebook. Look at her website.

Take note of how there are absolutely no places to leave unbiased reviews. The only reviews available are testimonials from her webpage. They’re highly censored and wholly crafted.

I promised an open letter, here it is.

Dear Monique,

For the better part of a year I gave a lot of time, energy, and attention to the Mastermind Group. From the outset we came to decisions democratically, by popular agreement, and we soon decided to stop meeting at coffee shops and meet at my office. This was wonderful.

We expanded, and you apparently started charging new members. You brought someone in who somehow got inside information on each of us, and had her say extraordinarily personal things under the guise of “intuitive evaluations.”

When you ended it and went against everything we started as, you hurt all of us. When we took the initiative to make things right and fix it, you went off and chastised us. No, you didn’t chastise us, you unloaded on us. When we tried to give constructive criticism, you played the victim and dismissed any concerns.

We’re tired of it, Monique. We’re tired of seeing this crap and we’re tired of the drama you keep injecting. We’re tired of how you keep stringing along the people we’re close with and have grown to love.

Yes, love.

As you gallivant around the Americas pretending to find yourself we’re here working on our businesses. I’m lucky in that I never entrusted you with my operations, but those who have definitely regret it.

The great irony is that our businesses are built on honesty and service while yours seems to be built upon deception and empty promises. That’s okay, though, because the fire of deception powers the furnaces of strength and resolve.

Most of us (save for one former member — you know who she is) are better off for having been through the group. You started the group and made it feel like ours. At the beginning of the last quarter you revealed that you didn’t feel like it was truly our group, but your group that we were all members of.

Monique, I would beg of you to change how you operate. The problem is that you don’t see it as a problem. It’d be like asking a tornado to back off into a breeze or an adder to make its venom weaker. You are who you are, and that’s unfortunate for the people who get trapped in your charming web.

I’m proud to be detested by you. You called many of us “your haters” when everything happened after the dissolution of the group. We never hated you. We loved you. We accepted you. It was only when you turned your fury against us and revealed yourself to be blind to our actions and reasons did we crave disconnection from you.

I don’t hate you. I have no reason to. Hating you would be like hating the ocean for a tsunami. The only problem I have is how to warn the ships in the harbor about the impending inevitable storm.

You might actually read this someday. If you do, I know beyond the shadow of a doubt that you’ll get angry. I also know that the reason you’ll get angry is because I have struck a nerve of truth within you.

What you do with that nerve is entirely up to you.

With love,

I don’t know how you, fair reader, will react to this. But I do hope you take some of these things into consideration before considering working with her. There are better mastermind groups one can join at her price. There are better local ones you can join and, if there aren’t, then you can easily make one.

You don’t have to rely on her for her ideas, as she’s really only recycled others’ ideas and labelled them as hers. Be cautious of who you open up to, because there are vampires out there who want everything you have.

In the ending words of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. “I’m finished.”

mic drop

VaYishlach 5776


VaYishlach is Genesis 32:4-36:43

Many of the more important parshot of our Torah have a genealogy in them. Whether the portion is outwardly important, such as Shemot with the 10 plagues having Moses’ genealogy in the middle of it, Bereshit with the lineage of the very first people, or Noach with the listing of Noah’s descendents and the consequences for the descendents of his sons which violated him.

Similarly, this parashah ends in a genealogy of sorts. This tells us that it is not a light parashah, like any of them, really. It indicates there is more to look at than just the texts and outward facing ideas. It tells us that the actions performed inside affect all our descendents, just as the actions of Moshe affects all his descendants.

So what is it that happened? What do we need to learn to protect our future families from our actions today?

The first lesson we must learn is how to make the difficult apology. The apology for transgressions we feel guilty about, even if they were made before we knew better or weren’t fully our fault. Jacob knew Esau felt jilted from the favor he received growing up. He also knew of Esau’s tendency toward displays of strength and obstinance as a hunter and not an intellectual. With both of these pieces of knowledge, he rightly feared for his people when his long estranged brother, Esau, responded to his apology with a force of 400 men.

Jacob panicked, and we know he’s strong because of this panic. Not only was his life threatened along with his people, but his wives, children, and other loved ones were at stake. Yet he pressed on and did what he knew was right.

He did the most Jewish act of not only preparing for the worst by separating his camps into two groups so one could get away should the other be attacked, but by praying as well. Action combined with prayer is a wholly Jewish concept, just as the fledgling Israelite nation fleeing Pharaoh walked into the Red Sea before it split, just as Esther and Mordecai took action to preserve the people before they prayed for assistance. Jacob is a member in a long line of Hebrews who take action along with prayer.

Of course, Jacob was well rewarded with his actions. Whether the prayer was needed, whether the additional gifts presented to Esau were needed, whether the preparations were needed is all immaterial. What matters is that he was rewarded for doing the right thing. By facing the hardest apology he ever had to make, the one where if it was refused, he and his people could (note: I said could, not would, as we don’t know Esau’s intentions) be exterminated.

So why did Esau come with so many people? The easy answer, and the one I’m inclined to go with, is because of family history. Any time Esau put himself out there, usually while hunting for the family, Jacob, through his own initiative or another’s, took something from him. The most notable of this was the birthright of the first born. Esau received a message saying Jacob wished to gain favor from Esau and Esau, growing up the less intellectual and more gullible, feared it was a trap.

We know, through the narrative, that Jacob had no intention of setting up a trap. Esau did not have the luxury of two kinds of text (Hebrew and English, written down) to tell the story that we have. He was going into this blind, so of course he needed to take a protective detail. He wasn’t stupid, just less politically inclined in his youth than his brother.

This is the first lesson we must learn from this parashah: not only must we face down our fears from our most humiliating transgressions — those we made before we knew better yet still cringe at when we think of them –, we must prepare ourselves from the fallout should that apology bring unintended consequences.

This is simple, though. And it’s something taught to us constantly through our history, so much so that it’s ingrained in not only our culture and heritage, but our literal DNA. Our ideals of doing the right thing, even if it might backfire, has gotten us in trouble more times that we can count, yet we still do it.

So there’s a second part to that first lesson: when someone who has hurt us makes an apology, we must hear it. That’s the absolute minimum we have to do, listen. Only after we listen and observe are we able to determine whether we are able to bring them back into our fold and, if so, the degree we are able to do so.

That is the full lesson of this first part: we must make apologies when warranted and listen to them, despite the ramifications.

The second lesson is harder. It involves something none of us like to think of. What happens when we do something that’s horrible, that we know that we shouldn’t do. What do we do if it’s not us, but someone we’re accountable for who does that horrible act?

Of course, I speak of the rape of Dinah.

This is not an easy part to understand. Dinah is violated in the worst way imaginable, something far too many women and men deal with. Not only was Dinah violated, but Jacob’s sons, in the lust for vengeance, performed the same violence, without the sex, to the villagers. Jacob, upon hearing about this, is upset only that his sons made him look bad.

G-d is silent through this ordeal. While the Torah makes it abundantly clear the rape is to be condemned, it doesn’t comment on the violence brought by Jacob’s sons. In fact, it doesn’t even comment on the fact that Jacob’s sons used Shechem’s desperation to force the village to perform one of our most sacred mitzvot, the brit milah.

The first section of this parashah had G-d directly interfering, telling Jacob he was on the right path when the angel wrestled with him. This section has G-d being suspiciously silent. Why? Is it implicit agreement? Is it resolute disdain? Is it embarrassment? Perhaps Jacob has seen enough that he no longer needs G-d to tell him when he’s on the right track. Perhaps Hashem bowed out because Jacob either didn’t pray or didn’t earn favor with these actions.

I think, for the purpose I’m looking at this, G-d’s silence is pensive acceptance. It’s him standing back, letting us realize something profound. Out of the darkest moments, out of our deepest despair, we can still create something good. Even our lowest, most painful moments can lead to holiness.

It also shows us that we must make actions for transgressions we knowingly commit. The first part of this parashah is about the pain we cause others when we don’t know better, this one is when we do know better, but still do it anyway. It’s an apology which requires preparation, sure, but also a different kind of fire in ourselves. Instead of wanting to fix the past, it’s wanting to face your current fear, the one that’s fresh in your mind and dragging you down. The one that self reinforces and scares you, deep in your core.

Shechem circumcised himself, along with his village, because they knew that not only blood, but a punishment of their transgressions was the only way to move on. It was fitting, really, because what he took from Dinah, he had to take from himself and was ultimately taken from him by force.

Finally, we come to this genealogy. It’s a significantly shorter genealogy than many of the others, but it’s still a listing of the descendents. It tells us the names of the people affected by this — the amount of the people affected by the abusive violation of one single person. It tells us how much of the future was at stake simply with Jacob’s apology to Esau.

It wasn’t after wrestling with the divine being that Jacob was given the name Israel, “he who wrestles with G-d”, but after witnessing his daughter go through the worst moments of her life and how his sons came to her defense, how he wrestled with his own emotions and morals.

We weigh our fears against our comforts every day, every hour, every minute. We form our lives, our hopes, and our actions on our history and our wants. Overcoming those blocks and doing what’s right, not only in the eyes of G-d, but in vein of what’s true to ourselves is the divine fight we each deal with.

I hope and pray that we take this fight with enthusiasm and tact. That we humbly accept our wins and we graciously accept our losses, but that our measured end does not affect the passion and enthusiasm with which we engage the struggle.

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.