I love spending time in Israel. It is pretty much my favorite place to be on the planet. And over the years, I have grown particularly fond of Jerusalem. Not just as an ideal or a mystical place, but as a real place that I have lived in. During my third year of rabbinical school, I spent six months living in Israel. After a month of studying Hebrew at the University of Haifa, I spent five months living in Jerusalem. While I lived in Jerusalem for a year after I graduated from high school, this time it was different. I really felt connected to the real live city with real people and developed relationships that are still very special to me.
While I miss my friends and family, and I long to return and study Torah in the Holy Land, when I reflect on the things that I miss most about spending time there, I find myself missing some of the little moments. I miss Sammy, the waiter at one of my favorite restaurants. We would hug every time I would come and we would chat about his family. He gave me his cell phone number just in case I was going to bring a big group, and he would make sure we got a table. I miss the young man from whom I bought spices every week. We would share a little bit about our week and what we were cooking. He would let me taste some new tea he had put together and explain some of his tactics in selling to tourists in the market/shuk.
And I can occasionally return there for an instant. If the right blend of spices is in the air. Or I eat a certain dish that my wife cooks, or I hear certain music playing, I am momentarily transported to the place that I yearn to be. While it never lasts for that long, it is enough to remind my body and soul of the holiness that I have touched, and it recharges me moving forward. I am sure many people can think of things that through the different senses bring them to another place and time. We can’t be anywhere but where we are, but we can brush our dreams with our fingers for a few moments with the right inspiration.
In this week’s Parsha, Pinhas, we are given the specific sacrifices that we are to offer of Shabbat and other holidays. When the Torah describes the continual offering, it is stated that it was offered on Mt. Sinai/עולת תמיד העשויה בהר סיני. The Sfas Emes teaches that the verse mentions Sinai to remind us that during the time of the Temple, just as on Sinai, these offerings were a way of actually reaching new spiritual heights. These acts brought us spiritually closer to God through a real physical act. What do we do now without the Temple? The Sfas Emes explains that God has hidden treasures for us all over the place, and that if we look carefully, we can find them and they will briefly remind our souls of the heights we can achieve.
On Shabbat for example, our prayers include mention of the sacrifices during the Musaf Amidah. While we do not offer these sacrifices anymore, our mentioning them with great focus can bring us to another place and time.
This week, I want to challenge all of us to look around us for those hidden treasures that God has graciously given us. And when we find them, let’s notice where they take us, and how it feels. And then share it with a friend. For what good is a treasure if you cannot share it with those you care about.
As a young child growing up in the frozen tundra of Winnipeg, I knew that there was one thing that I needed to do to fit in with my Canadian friends. In order to be a normal Canadian, I had to play hockey. However, playing hockey was not a simple activity for me to sign up for. First of all, the games were on Shabbat. And furthermore, games were on Shabbat morning during services. My father was a congregational rabbi (still is), and I was expected to come to shul and keep Shabbat with my family and my community. So, for my first five years living in Canada, I could not play hockey and I had to find other ways to fit in.
But one, year, when I was in grade two (as they say in Canada), the league moved the games for my age groups to Saturday afternoon. This was finally my chance. My father agreed to let me play that year. He would hurry through kiddush after services and we would walk together carrying my hockey bag (he did most of the carrying if I am being honest) all the way from shul to my house and then to the rink. And then, I would play hockey with my friends.
Week after week, my father and I would do this, and while I was having fun, my father was a little sad. He saw that after the games, all of my friends went out to eat together or bought food at the rink, which we did not do on Shabbat. One week, he felt bad and finally, after the game, he turned to me and asked, “Do you want some hot chocolate?” I turned back to him and I said, “But Abba, it's Shabbos?!?!” Of course, as I would later find out, my father had intended to walk home and make Shabbat friendly instant hot chocolate with me, but he often tells this story as a sign that we were really on the same page with how important Shabbat was to us both. We could turn to each other and embrace our relationship and rest together from our weekly actions during the Holy Sabbath.
In this week’s Parsha, Balak, Bil’am is told to curse the Israelite nation. But after seeing our beautiful camp, he instead proclaims. “How goodly are your tents Jacob, your encampments, Israel/מַה-טֹּבוּ אֹהָלֶיךָ, יַעֲקֹב; מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶיךָ, יִשְׂרָאֵל.” On the surface, this is a fairly odd blessing. It is a compliment to our structural planning, but is there something more going on here?
The Sfas Emes teaches that the blessing is really about two different things. It is about our work during the week, and our rest on Shabbat. Our tents are pegged into the ground. We are firmly planted in this world and in the material world during the week. However, as we learn in Pirkei Avot, if you eat of this world, you merit a place in the world to come. The encampments are the world to come. Shabbat, as we traditionally say, is a taste of the world to come. It is where we are separated from this world and it is a unique day for us. The Sfas Emes explains that Shabbat is the time when the following verse is fulfilled, “And I will turn to you/וּפָנִיתִי אֲלֵיכֶם”. He explains that God rests from all work and actually turns to face us and relate to us. And on Shabbat, it is our responsibility and joy, in return, to turn and face God.
Shabbat gives us the opportunities to put our weekly selves and work away and turn towards those we love to be in a relationship with them with no distractions. May we all have a peaceful Shabbat where we turn and see God and many loved ones looking back at us.
Early in my career as a Jewish Educator, I was applying for a job at the camp that I grew up at and I felt that I deserved it. I had worked hard, shown my dedication, and grown as a person and as an educator over the early years of my career. I was waiting and waiting and waiting to hear back from my boss and mentor, and he kept me waiting for quite some time. Finally, he called me to tell me that I was not going to receive the job that I wanted and it was largely a product of group dynamics. He did not think that I was going to work well with some people and that those people were going to be negatively affected by me. He spoke about the potential for roles elsewhere and what I might do to repair some of the relationships in the leadership group. And then the phone call ended.
I was truly devastated by this phone call. It was one of my earliest professional disappointments. I called my mother for support--and usually this is her strong suit--but this time, she decided to add things to the list of traits that I needed to work on. I did not respond well to that rebuke. In retrospect, both my boss and my mother were right about their observations. My boss was also probably right about his decision. But it was the process that bothered me. Nothing in the process let me know that these decisions were partially for my own good and they were made because they cared for me. The product made sense, but I had a hard time dealing with the process.
In this week’s parsha, Hukkat, Moshe is punished and not allowed to enter into the Land. Rashi attributes this to Moshe’s decision to hit the rock to receive water rather than heeding to God’s word by speaking to the rock. Rambam holds that Moshe was punished for rebuking the people and calling them “rebels.” However, The more I have thought about this episode, the more I am intrigued by Rav Shach’s interpretation. He teaches that “Moses may have been justified in rebuking the people, but he erred in the sequence of events. First he should have given them water, showing both the power and providence of G-d. Only then, once they had drunk, should he have admonished them.” Rav Shach is talking about process.
These Israelites were not ready to hear Moshe and what he had to say. And Moshe was not able to pick up on this. He was unable to see that in the people’s desperate state, they could not handle such a deep message. And as a leader, one must understand where the people are and how much one can hear and process at any given moment.
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks notes that Moshe is amazing with respect to historical memory. He writes that “The remarkable fact about Moses and the rock is the way he observes precedent. Almost forty years earlier, in similar circumstances, G-d had told him to take his staff and strike the rock. Now too, G-d told him to take his staff. Evidently Moses inferred that he was being told to act this time as he had before, which is what he does. He strikes the rock. What he failed to understand was that time had changed in one essential detail. He was facing a new generation.” The Sfas Emes notes this too. The previous generation had seen God “eye to eye” at Sinai and had developed a stronger sense of trust and belief. He did not see that this was a different group with different needs. He needed to think about what they needed in order to hear him, not just that they needed to hear him.
This week let us think about those around us, what they need to hear and we can help them get ready to hear us.
When I was in middle school I had a science teacher with a very strict rule. She said on the first day of school in seventh grade, “Anyone who is caught cheating will fail that assignment. And so will the person sitting next to them.” I remember thinking that that seemed extreme. I do not know if she assumed the neighbor was in on the scheme, or this was supposed to be a deterrent. Regardless, we got the message. If you do something wrong, there is a ripple that affects those around you.
The Mishna states in regards to adjacent stones, some of which are afflicted with plague, “Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor/אוי לרשע אוי לשכנו.” Dr. Josh Kulp explains that in addition to purification rituals, “There is also a moral lesson to be derived here. Since the rabbis believe that negaim come as a punishment for the evil tongue, they can add “woe to the neighbor” of such a person. Slander and gossip negatively affect one’s community, and this is ritually symbolized by the requirement that the neighbor of a person affected by a nega must also remove his stones.”
The Midrash goes far enough to say that the reason for the eventual downfall of Datan and Aviram (coming soon, sorry for the spoilers!) is that their position in the camp was next to our Parsha’s villain, Korah. So why did they suffer? Because, as the Midrash quotes, “Woe to the wicked, woe to his neighbor/אוי לרשע אוי לשכנו.”
Many of us are used to hearing the importance of being upstanders and not bystanders. This is a common message that can always use repeating, but it is not new to most of us. We know that if we do not stand up for what is right it will allow what is wrong to flourish around us. But we often see that negative force spread without consequence to ourselves. If I do not stop my friend from spreading gossip, somebody else will get hurt. If I do not stand up for other’s civil rights, then they will continue to be oppressed.
The beauty of this Midrash is that it goes further. If I allow my friends to gossip, something bad actually happens to me. I begin to get swallowed up by evil and I change for the worse. That is why it is “woe to the neighbor.” In a world in which there often seems like too many large things going on around us to stop them on our own, let us start with the little things. Let us gently correct our friends and ask them to not gossip or slander in our presence. This coming week, let us each be the reason that inspires those around us to make the right choices. Blessed are those that do good, blessed is their neighbor.
For many years, Camp Ramah, where I work, has given out T-Shirts to its staff and campers. On a very simple level, these shirts help identify us. They identify our roles within and outside the camp. As a staff member, it functions as my work uniform. But when we go outside of camp, it is so much more. It lets me and others know that I represent something greater than myself. I am part of a Jewish community that believes in striving for holiness. One could ask, “you are getting all of this from a bright neon shirt?!?”
Of course we know that clothing tells us something about the person who wears it. However, we usually think of those as superficial traits. We likely think that material objects, especially clothing, have very little to say about our essence. I certainly think that is true for many of the clothes that I own. My jeans do not tell you a whole lot about me. I like the way they look. But that’s about it.
Yet we Jews have been gifted with an amazing garment that allows us to access so much more than mere externalities when we wear it. Towards the end of this week’s Parsha, Shlach Lecha, we are given the mitzvah of wearing fringes/tzitzit. This is the third paragraph of the Shema that we recite twice daily.
“Light is sown for the righteous/אוֹר זָרֻעַ לַצַּדִּיק;” (Ps. 97:11--which we say on Friday nights). The midrash teaches us that The Holy Blessed One planted Torah and commandments/Mitzvot in order to bestow them upon Israel. Divine light is planted in this world so that we can make our lives holy. The Sfas Emes understands the Divine light to be planted not just in the world, but within each and every one of us. And when we fulfill a mitzvah we allow that light to shine through to those around us. Our bodies are essentially a garment for Divine light. And when we wear a tallit and tzitzit, that reminds us that we are each special creatures endowed with divine light and purpose.
The tzitzit gives us a tangible opportunity to acknowledge the potential greatness that we have inside of us. May this week be a week where we can turn our potential into a reality.
Have a Sweet and Peaceful Week.
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.