Parashat Sh’lach

June 17, 2017

When we read this week of the spies who returned from scouting the land of Canaan and spread negative reports, one of the remarkable things is that most of their report was an accurate representation. They spoke of the remarkable productivity of the land, and the powerful peoples who lived there. So what was so terrible about what they did? They were sent to scout the land and bring back a report, and that is exactly what they did. Where they erred is in their assessment that, “we cannot attack that people, for it is stronger than we.” It was true the land was filled with large, strong people in fortified cities, but the spies inferred incorrectly that this meant the Israelites were doomed to lose a conflict with them. The spies continued, describing the gigantic size of the inhabitants of the land. They said, “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves and so must we have looked to them.” Here again, they report accurately that they felt like tiny grasshoppers compared to the large inhabitants of the land, but they erred in assuming that the inhabitants of the land saw the spies way the spies saw themselves. They were projecting their own insecurities onto the inhabitants of the land, saying, “since we felt tiny and vulnerable, they must have seen us as tiny and vulnerable.”

This error, I think is the root of the whole trouble, which culminated in the Israelites’ refusal to enter the land, and resulted in that entire generation dying in the wilderness. They let their own fear and insecurity cloud their perceptions, assuming that others saw them the way they saw themselves. I think we are all occasionally ensnared by this way of thinking—if we feel like we’re unlovable, we perceive our loved ones behavior as evidence that they do not love us enough. If we feel guilty, we perceive accusations and recriminations where there are none intended. If someone’s actions or words hurt my feelings, I will assume their intent was to hurt.

And yet, our subjective feelings are a very poor guide to other people’s subjective perceptions. Just because I feel hurt by you, doesn’t mean you wanted to hurt me. Just because I feel inferior, doesn’t mean that I am. Just because I am afraid, that doesn’t mean I’m in danger. As individuals, when we can learn to experience own our feelings without letting them cloud our judgment about what is really going on, we will be able to cultivate healthier relationships and live up to our potential in a way that the generation of the wilderness was tragically unable to do.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Beha`alotekha

June 9, 2017

This week we read two verses that we say every time we read from the Torah.  Bemidbar 10:35-26.  When we remove the Sefer Torah from the ark we recite “Vayehi Binsoa` Ha’aron…When the Ark set out, Moshe would say ‘Arise Lord! May your enemies be scattered and may those who hate You flee before you.’”  And after the Torah reading when we return the Torah to the ark, we read “Uvenucho yomar…When the ark came to rest, he would say ‘Return, Lord, the thousands of myriads of Israel.”

Thus, there’s a certain parallel symmetry—we pray for God’s enemies to be dispersed, scattered, and we ask God return to us as a single people of thousands of myriads, gathered together.

The Hebrew root Asaph אספ, meaning to gather together, is a motif in the parsha, appearing a number of times.  We read about the people gathering quail, the gathering of 70 elders, the mysterious group of people called the Asaphsuph, Miriam being gathered back into the people after having been cloistered while she suffered from Tzoraat.  Throughout the parsha, there are gatherings for good and gatherings for evil.

When people gather together in a group, our power to do good increases exponentially–a community is greater than the sum of its parts.  Unfortunately, that’s also true when a people gather together to do evil.  This is why we plead with God to disperse His enemies.  A single wicked person is much less dangerous than an army of wicked people.  At the same time, this is also why we form congregations- because when we gather together to serve God, that power to do good is also amplified.  Prayer in a community, we are told, is preferable to prayer as an individual.

It’s also true that we are influenced by the people around us.  Any behavior I see in the people around me becomes normalized for me, so if the people around me are in the habit of speaking Lashon Hara, even though I know it’s wrong to gossip, I’ll wind up joining in, and I won’t even see it as that bad.  On the other hand,  if I surround myself people who engage in positive behaviors, engaging in hospitality to the stranger, praying together as a community, these behaviors that I might not have been inclined to engage in on my own, will begin to become my new normal.

This, I think is the root of the idea at the root of Moshe’s plea with God, which has become a part of our liturgy.  We ask God to disperse the wicked and to return to the myriads of Israel.  When we say kumah Hashem veyafutzu oyveikha–”Arise Lord and scatter Your enemies” we are asking God to please disperse those who would do evil so that they may not gather together and create a culture that normalizes wickedness. And when we say Shuva Hashem Rivevot Alphei Yisrael, we are asking God be present in our gatherings, that they may be gatherings that promote goodness and God-consciousness.

May the bonds of our community, this holy gathering of Jews be strong, may God’s presence rest upon us, and may our gathering be one of holiness and humility, kindness and justice.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Naso

June 2, 2017

This week we will read Birkat Hakohanim, the words that Aharon and his sons the priests were commanded to use to bless the people:

– May Hashem bless you and protect you
– May Hashem shine His face upon you and be gracious to you
– May Hashem lift up His face towards you and grant you peace

Indeed, when the Temple stood, the priests would bless the people with these verses each day, and some communities in Israel, they still do.  Even in communities like ours where the custom is for the priests to bless the people only on festivals, these verses are retained as part of our daily liturgy, spoken by the Shaliach Tzibbur, the prayer leader.

This idea of priests blessing the people raises a puzzling question: do mere human beings have the power to grant blessings?  Can the Kohanim, by simply saying these words as it were, control whether God will grant blessing or not?  Various commentators suggest that the priests are serving merely as the vessels, channeling blessings, which indeed come from God.  One commentator, Alshich, suggests that what the priests are really doing is preparing the people to receive the blessings that God  dispenses.  Sometimes, it would seem, God would like to bless us, but we are not prepared to receive  blessing.  It often happens in life that an amazing opportunity comes along but we pass it up because of fear, because of our lack of confidence, because we feel unworthy, or because we fail to recognize it as the blessing that it is.

May the words of the priestly blessing help remind us to always be open and ready to receive blessing, in whatever form it may take.

Rabbi Garth Silberstein

Parshat Bemidbar

May 26th

On Wednesday, we celebrated Yom Yerushalayim, commemorating our victory in a war that began with our enemies threatening to wipe the Jewish state off the map and ended with the reunification of Jerusalem.  It is truly a modern miracle that in a matter of days, we went from bracing for a second Sho’ah to celebrating with shofar blasts at the Western Wall.  This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of that miraculous victory, 50 years of a reunified Jerusalem.

This week is also the final week of counting the Omer, the 49 days from Pesach to Shavuot, 49 days of preparing to receive the Torah at Sinai on Shavuot, day 50.  According to the Chinukh, one of the reasons we count the days from Pesach to Shavuot is to remind us that God brought us out of Egypt only for the sake of giving us the Torah and establishing a covenant with us.  On Pesach, we were freed from slavery, and on Shavuot, 50 days later, we received the Torah.  We count the days in between to remember that God has performed miracles for us, saved us, and chosen us from among all the peoples, not because we’re inherently more special than anyone else, but only in order for us to fulfill the Torah.

Similarly, I would suggest, God reunited Jerusalem and brought us back to the Kotel, only for the sake of the Torah.  Our worthiness of that miracle corresponds to the degree to which we have brought Torah and Mitzvot to the Holy City.  Fifty years after the reunification of Jerusalem, we have much to celebrate in that department, as today the city is filled with kol Torah, the voice of Torah, with numerous yeshivot attracting Jews from around the world.  We have truly seen the fulfillment of the verse “Ki Mitzion Tetzei Torah, udvar Hashem Mirushalayim.  For Torah will go forth from Zion, and the word of Hashem from Jerusalem,” as students who have spent a year or a few years drinking in the city’s Torah, return to their home communities, bringing with them the light of the Torah that they have learned.

May the light of Torah continue to shine forth from the holy city of Jerusalem, and may all her inhabitants dwell in peace and security.

Chag Sameach!

Rabbi Garth Silberstein