Friday, June 27, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Chukkat

If Moses could come back and review his life for us, he might say that this week’s Torah portion, Chukkat (Num. 19:1 – 22:1) recounts the hardest times he ever had.  The opening verse of chapter 20 brings news of the death of his sister Miriam and verses 25 through 28 of that same chapter tell about the death of his brother Aaron, high priest of the Israelite people.

It is heart-rending to lose a brother or sister, but Moses has lost more than that.  He has lost the members of his team in the leadership of the Israelites. Miriam has been looking out for Moses from his babyhood, following his progress down the river in the basket of bulrushes to be sure that he lands safely in the arms of Pharaoh’s daughter, and she is with him as he brings the people out of Egypt through the sea of Reeds.  Aaron took care of the spiritual needs of the people as Moses tended to their strategic and political needs.  Now Moses must look to the next generation for his partners.  In the final verses of the chapter, God commands Moses to take Aaron and Aaron’s eldest son Eleazar up Mount Hor, strip Aaron of his priestly vestments and place them on Eleazar.  Aaron dies on the mountain and Moses and Eleazar descend together.  How must it have felt to Moses to see his nephew in the holy garments that he had always seen Aaron wearing?  And how must it have felt to Eleazar to wear them, knowing that the responsibility was now on him?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Seriously, You Have To Love Elizabeth Gilbert

 “This is for all the late-bloomers in the world. Writing is not like dancing or modeling; it’s not something where if you missed it by age 19 – you’re finished. It’s never too late. Your writing will only get better as you get older and wiser. If you write something beautiful and important, and the right person somehow discovers it, they will clear room for you on the bookshelves of the world – at any age. At least try.” ~Elizabeth Gilbert

BTW:  Elizabeth Gilbert writes novels, biographies, essays, memoirs and short stories.  Her 2006 memoir "Eat, Pray, Love" spent weeks on the New York Times Best Seller list and was made into a film.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Korach

This week’s portion, Korach (Num. 16:1 – 18:32) presents the most serious challenge to Moses’ and Aaron’s leadership of the Israelites.  Korach, their first cousin, challenges Aaron’s exclusive right to the priesthood.  At the same time, Dathan and Abiram question Moses’ leadership ability.  The two incidents lead to a rebellion.  Moses orders Korach’s would-be priests to bring their firepans and offer incense along with Aaron before God in the sanctuary.  God punishes Korach and his followers by “opening the mouth of the earth” which swallows them, and all their possessions.  “And a fire went forth from the Lord and consumed the two hundred and fifty representatives offering the incense” (Num.16:35).

After this incident, God commands Moses to order Eleazar, the son of Aaron, to collect the firepans out of the ashes because, having been used to make a sacred offering, they are now sacred.  Eleazar molds the firepans into copper plating for the altar, at God’s command.  Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, as quoted in the Etz Hayim Torah commentary, taught that the holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary role played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy.  

Judaism has, and should always, encourage sincere questioning and challenging of the status quo. And the fact that these firepans of the rebels become a part of the sanctuary illustrates our desire to imbue every human act, positive or negative, with God’s stamp of holiness.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

I walk

About two years ago, I was diagnosed with a pancreatic neuroendocrine tumor.  Five weeks later, I underwent a Whipple procedure to remove it.  I was in ICU for four days.  On the first day that I was transferred to a telemetry unit, my surgeon told me that he wanted me to start walking around the unit three times a day.  So I walked.  With my heart monitor in one hand and my spouse holding my IV pole, I walked.  With complications which required another surgery, I was in the hospital for just under one month.  Except for the day of the second surgery, I got up and walked around the unit three times a day, every day.  

When I got home, I had serious digestive difficulties.  My cousin, an EMT, told me that walking was very good for digestive problems.  So I walked.  First I walked, shakily, forty feet to the mailbox and back to the house, with a friend watching anxiously from the doorway.  When I accomplished that, I walked to the end of the street and back.  Then I did that three times a day.  By the time my recovery was complete enough for me to go back to work I was walking two miles a day.

 When I was a patient, I found the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network helpful and supportive.  Now that I am a volunteer, I am able to take part in Purple Stride, the annual walk-a-thon which provides patient support, legislative advocacy and research dollars to conquer pancreatic cancer.  I have been lucky to survive and thrive.  So I’ll walk.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Shelach Lecha

In this week’s Torah portion, Shelach Lecha (Num. 13:1 – 15:41), God tells Moses to send scouts to the land of Canaan to find out what the land and its inhabitants hold in store.  Moses sends twelve men, one from each tribe.  When they return, they say that the land is productive and fertile but the residents are strong and well-defended.  As they speak, ten of the scouts transmit their panic and despair to the people of Israel, who, once again, regret leaving slavery in Egypt for this existence.  

An essay in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary cites an explanation in the Kli Yakar, a 17th century Polish commentary, which makes note of the two Hebrew words which begin the portion: “Shelach lecha”, literally “send for yourself”.  The Kli Yakar derives that the Israelite men in the wilderness hated the land of Israel, from the verse, “Let us go back to Egypt”, (Num. 14:4) but that the women loved it, based on the words of the daughters of Zelophehad, “Give us a holding in the land [of Israel]” (Num. 27:4).  If God had chosen the scouts, reasons the Kli Yakar, they would have been women.  But since God said to Moses, “send for yourself”, leaving Moses to make the choice, he chose to send men.

This coming Sunday, Mary and I will attend the ordination at Yeshivat Maharat, an Orthodox seminary which trains women in Jewish law and leadership.  Essentially, they are trained to be rabbis, lacking only the title.  From the ancient words of Torah to the Kli Yakar’s four hundred year old interpretation, to the living Torah that will come from the work of the ordinees of Yeshivat Maharat, may we continue to find value in the contributions of both men and women to the Jewish past, present and future.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Torah Thoughts on Beha’a lot’cha

This week’s Torah portion, Beha’a lot’cha (Num. 8:1 – 12:16) speaks about Pesach sheini, “The second Passover”.  In chapter 9, Moses instructs the Israelites to commemorate the events of the exodus from Egypt, which had occurred exactly one year earlier, on the fourteenth day of Nisan.  However, there were some men who were impure because they had come into contact with a corpse, and they could not offer the Pesach sacrifice.  They came to Moses, who consulted God, and God responded that anyone who was unable to offer a sacrifice on the fourteenth of Nisan might offer it one month later, on the fourteenth of Iyar.  

In the Etz Hayim commentary, Rabbi Harold Kushner reflects on this interaction, “To the sincere individual, life often does offer second chances for spiritual fulfillment that may have been missed when the opportunity first presented itself”.    How many times have we looked back on an opportunity not seized, on something prized that we were not able to grasp?  Rabbi Kushner uses this verse to provide both a comfort and a challenge.  The comfort is that the chance may likely come again.  The challenge is to look out for it.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Life Lived In The Library

From the Huffington Post 

Checking Out the Meaning of Life From the Public Library

by Mary Walker Baron

Posted: Updated:

I love libraries. Throughout my life I have supported my local public library with my tax dollars, with my contributions, and with payment of my frequent past due charges. Libraries are places of solitude and comfort and inspiration and magic. Our society needs its public libraries.

I could barely read when I got my first library card. I still have that card and imagine going back to that little Arizona public library and using it to check out a book. Chances are it expired decades ago. My first foray into that library was the small room for children. There couldn't have been more than two hundred books on those shelves. I studied medicine with Sue Barton. I solved mysteries with Nancy Drew. I experienced wonderful adventures with The Bobbsey Twins. That small room also introduced me to Charles Dickens and Lewis Carroll and Mark Twain. Then the day came when I couldn't find a book on those shelves that I hadn't already read. I despaired of ever reading again until I looked out the door of that little room and saw the rest of the library. I was stunned and gradually absorbed the realization that in my lifetime I could never read every book ever written.

That moment of insight became part of my life's narrative. I really won't read every book ever written and that's okay. Nor, I now realize, do I want to read every book ever written. Beyond that, though, I won't even get to read every book I want to read. That's okay, too. And yet this obvious limitation has never stopped me from reading. Thus the first library metaphor might be to never give up on our life goals just because indications are we won't achieve them.

There's another even more compelling metaphor I learned from the library. We have to return the books by a certain date. Sure, we can renew the books but ultimately we have to give them back.

There were no bookstores in the small town of my youth. The first book I saw for sale was inexplicably propped up in the window of the drug store. Curious, I asked about the book and when I found out I could buy it immediately began saving my weekly allowance. I visited the window regularly and on occasion was allowed to hold the book. I worried that someone would buy the book before I had saved enough. It was an anxious time especially since there did not appear to be any other books for sale in the entire town. It took months to manage the price of the book but at last I became the proud owner of Angel Unaware by Dale Evans Rogers. Looking back on that purchase, I have no idea why the book appealed to me. Perhaps it was because I had never heard of a blue baby or maybe I just wanted it because it was there. I suspect it was in the window to begin with because the owner of the drug store read it and had no further use for it or received it as a gift and couldn't wait to get rid of it.

Since that original purchase the size of my library has ebbed and flowed depending on my income or the size of my home or on my willingness to stack, store, box, sell or donate. I have lost books and missed them desperately. I have loaned books never to get them back. I have borrowed books never to return them. I say I won't buy any more books and then, of course, I buy a few more books.

My library contains books trashed with my own notations and drawings and doodles, books treasured with the notations and drawings and doodles of people dear to me, books I inherited, books I bought, books considered classics, books read for fun, books read for study and many, many books not yet read.

With all of those books surrounding me and especially with all of those yet to be read books waiting on my shelves, I still frequently visit my local public library. Mind you, I don't just visit that library. I go there and I check out books which I bring home and read and really try to get them back to the library before their due date so I can check out more and repeat the cycle all the while aware of the unread books in my own library.

That moment back in the library of my youth when I realized I would never read all of the world's books also marked my beginning awareness of the limitations of mortality. I couldn't keep the library books forever. They had a due date. The yet to be read books patiently waiting on the shelves of my personal library don't appear to have a due date by which they must be read and returned. I'm a more efficient reader when I check books out of the library. I know I have to finish them by a certain date so I read with pleasurable intention.

Of course by embracing this logic I begin to see that while my own unread books have no due date, I do. I can only live my life until a certain date and as far as I know I won't be able to request a renewal. Unlike my library books, though, I don't know my due date. That complete lack of information makes it all too easy to pretend there is none.

Just as I read library books with greater focus because of the due date, I know that I do most other life chores most effectively and efficiently when they have a deadline. A dead line.

Using the public library as a metaphor for how I want to live my life, I'm going to try to be more aware of my own deadline even if the date remains unknown. Just as I read library books with more focus and intention because of their due date, I will try to live my life with similar focus and intention because I, too have a due date. Perhaps I'll start by reading some of the books in my own library.