A friend of mine with whom I used to work at camp, taught me and our campers his family tradition. Every Shabbos, when he and his family sat down for the meal, they would share with each other a “Highlight of the Week.”* They would each share a highlight (followed by the classic “da na na, da na na”), and then they would enjoy Shabbos together. I am sure that many people have had similar weekly rituals--my family also had a similar ritual, though without a catchy theme song. These rituals enable our ability to enjoy the Shabbos meal in a transformed state. We often enter Shabbat rushed, tired, frustrated, hurt, etc. The world is a difficult place, and one cannot simply flick a switch that turns on our happy and spiritual selves. It takes focus and intention.
This week we read Parshat Hukkat and we are given the mitzvah of the Red Heifer/Parah Adumah/פרה אדומה. God commands Moses and Aaron (Num. 19:2), “This is a statute of the law that the Lord has commanded: Tell the Israelites to bring you a red heifer without defect, in which there is no blemish and on which no yoke has been laid/זֹאת חֻקַּת הַתּוֹרָה אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה ה’ לֵאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ פָרָה אֲדֻמָּה תְּמִימָה אֲשֶׁר אֵין בָּהּ מוּם אֲשֶׁר לֹא-עָלָה עָלֶיהָ עֹל.”
The Minhas Elazarꜛexplains that there is a connection between Shabbat and the Parah (Hamisha Ma’Amarot Parshat Hukkat:1). In the Talmud (BT Sanhedrin 56b) it is stated that The Israelites received several mitzvot when they were camped at Marahꜜ, the place of bitterness. Shabbat is one of the mitzvot given at Marah. The Minhas Elazar teaches that Shabbat was given in order to sweeten the bitterness through the sweetness of Shabbat. Rashi explains (Ex. 15:25) that Parah was also given at Marah. According to the Minhas Elazar, Erev Shabbat/Friday Night has the power to sweeten our realities and allow us to experience the rest of Shabbat revitalized. The Parah functions the same way, it turns the unready (impure) into the ready (pure).
The mitzvah of Parah reminds us that we need rituals to help us become ready to truly enjoy Shabbat. During Kabbalat Shabbat/Ma’ariv and Kiddush, if we focus and take a few moments to envision a world where harshness and judgement were lifted from this world^, then when we make Kiddush and bring in Shabbos in that image, we will be enjoying a different world, a transformed world, a world that is a taste of the World to Come/מעין עולם הבא. May we all enjoy the sweetness of our Shabbat tables.
*This was a take on the Sports Center segment called Highlight of the Night.
ꜛChaim Elazar Spira (December 17, 1868 – May 13, 1937) was one of the rebbes of the Hasidic movement Munkacz (pronounced Munkatsh).
ꜜEx. 15:25. This is when The Israelites complained about not having water to drink. Because of the bitterness of the water, the place was renamed Marah/Bitter.
^The Kabbalistic idea here is that Judgements/Dinin in our world can be elevated back to their source and thus sweetened.
The late Bostoner Rebbe Levi Yitzchak Horowitz shared this pithy story. A Hasid comes to the rebbe and says: ‘Rebbe, I dreamed that I became a rebbe,’ to which the rebbe replies: ‘Yes, but did any Hasidim dream it too?’ (Heilman, Who Will Lead Us, g. 92)
This week we read from Parshat Korah. Korah stages a rebellion and challenges the leadership of Moses and Aaron. The Parsha opens by telling us, (Num. 16:1-3) “Now Korah son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth—descendants of Reuben—took (ויקח) two hundred and fifty Israelite men, leaders of the congregation, chosen from the assembly, well-known men, and they confronted Moses. They assembled against Moses and against Aaron, and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! All the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. So why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?’” Soon after this, Moses rebukes Korah (Num. 16:9), “Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them/הַמְעַט מִכֶּם, כִּי-הִבְדִּיל אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶתְכֶם מֵעֲדַת יִשְׂרָאֵל לְהַקְרִיב אֶתְכֶם אֵלָיו, לַעֲבֹד אֶת-עֲבֹדַת מִשְׁכַּן ה’ וְלַעֲמֹד לִפְנֵי הָעֵדָה לְשָׁרְתָם?”
The Sfas Emes* comments on this verse (Korah 5640). He notes that the phrase “Is it not enough for you/הַמְעַט מִכֶּם” can explain why Korah’s rebellion was so problematic. Taken on its own, “mikem/מכם” means “from you.” The Sfas Emes suggests that if the rebellion was just, the Torah would have said, “to you/lakhem/לכם.” Ultimately, Korah was attempting to seize power for himself so that he could take from the people (ויקח...מכם). Aaron understood why he was chosen as High Priest. He was chosen to serve; to receive holiness and help the people. Korah’s mistake was attempting to seize the office for his own personal gain.
As Jews, it is our charge to be a Kingdom of Priests/ממלכת כהנים. However the purpose of this role is to create connections between our world and worlds of higher spirituality. We are supposed to draw holiness into our world and help all those around us access it. Rabbi Irving Greenberg claims that we are “the vanguard of society” that should point towards redemption. We can only lead, if people follow. And they will only follow us, if we serve them. May this be a week of holy service to all those around us.
Shabbat Shalom and Hodesh Tov,
**Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter (15 April 1847 – 11 January 1905), also known by the title of his main work, the Sfas Emes (Yiddish) or Sefat Emet שפת אמת (Hebrew), was a Hasidic rabbi who succeeded his grandfather, Rabbi Yitzchak Meir Alter, as the Av beis din (head of the rabbinical court) and Rav of Góra Kalwaria, Poland (known in Yiddish as the town of Ger), and succeeded Rabbi Chanokh Heynekh HaKohen Levin of Aleksander as Rebbe of the Gerrer Hasidim.
I, like many others I presume, often find myself with many tasks before me. I usually have a sense of where I want to end up when I finish my tasks. I can see what my home is supposed to look like when Shabbat starts or I have a sense of what this project will be in the end. And yet, these tasks can often feel paralyzing. The end goal seems so far away from me, that I cannot do a thing. So, what do I do? In my case, I usually call my mom. If she senses my anxiety, which is one of her great skills, she will ask me about my current situation. Usually, by the end of the conversation, she will advise me, “What is the first thing you need to do? Just think about that. Don’t worry about the rest.” This usually refocuses my attention and helps me get started with the work ahead.
This week, we read from Parshat Shlach Lecha, in which we are given the mitzvah of fringes/tzitzit/ציצית along with the mitzvah of the blue cord/petil techeilet/פתיל תכלת. It comes in the verses we say twice daily during the recitation of the Shma. The verses read (Num. 15:37-38) “The Lord said to Moses: Speak to the Israelites, and tell them to make fringes on the corners of their garments throughout their generations and to put a blue cord on the fringe at each corner/וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ אֶל-מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. דַּבֵּר אֶל-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְאָמַרְתָּ אֲלֵהֶם וְעָשׂוּ לָהֶם צִיצִת עַל-כַּנְפֵי בִגְדֵיהֶם לְדֹרֹתָם, וְנָתְנוּ עַל-צִיצִת הַכָּנָף פְּתִיל תְּכֵלֶת.” In the Talmud (BT Menahot 43b), Rabbi Meir points out that the reason for the additional color of techeilet is that techeilet is similar to the sea, and the sea is similar to the firmament* and the firmament is similar to the Throne of Glory**.
The Noam Elimelekhꜜnotices (Parshat Shlach pg. 466) that Rabbi Meir’s point could have been much shorter. If the goal is for techeilet to eventually remind us of the majesty that exists under God’s throne, then why do we need the additional steps of the sea and the firmament? The Noam Elimelekh teaches that although it is our desire to be connected directly to God, it is not normal for one to just jump to that level of connectivity. One cannot just jump from one to ten. That is why the Sages set up this order for us, so that we could climb up steadily until we reach our destination. The “sea” is the Sea of Learning, the Sea of Torah. One needs to learn regularly in order to move through the world properly. The “firmament” represents a very spiritual level where one is cleaving to God. Then, one can get to the “Throne of Glory”, which is the highest level, where one’s soul is truly connected to the Throne. And now one can understand the purpose of the cord/petil, that it ties us to that which is above. It helps us climb up, little by little, to where we want to be.
It is both difficult and anxiety ridden to think about getting to our end goals. Of course, I want to be closer to God. But how can I achieve something so amazing as that? This week, let us look at the techeilet for guidance. What is the next thing that we need to do? Let us just focus on that. One step at a time. Learn. Pray. Reflect. God willing, we will get to where we need to be when we need to be there.
*For our purposes, firmament=the sky/heavens
**For prooftexts, he combines two verses, (Ex. 24:10 “Under His feet there was something like a pavement of sapphire stone, like the very heaven for clearness”, and (Ezek. 1:26), “there was something like a throne, in appearance like sapphire.”
ꜜElimelech Weisblum of Lizhensk (1717–March 11, 1787), a Rabbi and one of the great founding Rebbes of the Hasidic movement, was known after his hometown, Leżajsk (Yiddish: ליזשענסק-Lizhensk) near Rzeszów in Poland. He was part of the inner "Chevraya Kadisha" (Holy Society) school of the Maggid Rebbe Dov Ber of Mezeritch (second leader of the Hasidic movement), who became the decentralized, third generation leadership after the passing of Rebbe Dov Ber in 1772.
Jerry Seinfeld once joked about health clubs. “You see all these people, and they are working out, and training, and getting in shape. But, the strange thing is, nobody is getting in shape for anything. The only reason you are getting in shape is that so you can get through the workout. We are working out to be in shape when we have to do our exercises.” Essentially, as his joke states, you do the workout, only so that you can keep doing the workout or do it again next time.
This week we read Parshat B’Ha’alotcha. The Parsha begins with God telling Moses to instruct his brother, Aaron the High Priest, how to administer to and light the Menorah. Then, the Torah tells us (Num. 8:3) “And Aaron did so/וַיַּעַשׂ כֵּן אַהֲרֹן.” Rashi explains that the Torah tells us this to emphasize that Aaron did not deviate from God’s word in his performance of this mitzvah and is worthy of praise.
In Pirkei Avot (4:2), the Rabbis tell us the reward for performing a mitzvah is a mitzvah. The Me’or Einayim* explains that the real reward for performing a mitzvah is hidden in the word itself, and should be understood through the Aramaic word of unity/b’tzavta/**בצוותא. He teaches that through the performance of mitzvot, one joins in union with God.
Is that all it takes? Really? I imagine that many of us can recall performing mitzvot, such as lighting Shabbat candles, or praying, or giving to charity, etc. and we felt nothing at all. Certainly, we did not feel cosmic union. I think I would remember that! The Me’or Einayim knew very well that it takes more than the mere performance of an act to bring about such an awareness. For him, we need to unite body and mind in order for this to work. If we do a mitzvah without proper intention/kavanah/כוונה, then that is like a body without a soul. But, if I can properly focus on the meaning of the mitzvah and what I am trying to accomplish, then, I have united body and soul and can then, in that moment, be rewarded with divine union.
Working out without concentration will generally not lead to desired results--I remember an old workout buddy of mine always telling me to focus on the muscles I was trying to strengthen, the muscles wouldn’t grow themselves from sloppy motions. The same is true for our performance of mitzvot. It is a challenge to maintain focus during the many many mitzvot that we as Jews are commanded to do. This week, let us try to have extra kavanah for just one mitzvah that has become rote in our lives. May this week be one of mitzvot and their rewards.
*Rabbi Menachem Nochum Twersky of Chernobyl (born 1730, Norynsk, Volhynia - died 1787, Chernobyl, Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth) was the founder of the Chernobyl Hasidic dynasty. He was a disciple of the Baal Shem Tov and the Maggid of Mezritch, and published one of the first works of Hasidic thought.
**Mitzvah (מצווה) and B’tzavta (בצוותה) share letters and sound similar.
Rabbi Ezra Balser has been the rabbi at Temple Beth Sholom since July 1, 2016. He received his “smicha” (ordination) in June 2017 from Hebrew College while also earning a Master’s Degree in Jewish Studies. He has also received the iCenter's Certification in Israel Education.