An Offer They Couldn’t Refuse

Allow me to return to last week’s Torah portion, a perfect one for our Retirees Shabbat. The generation of Israelites who had been brought out of slavery are given an offer they couldn’t refuse: to wander aimlessly for forty years in the desert until they die off and a new generation will take over. Because the spies were in the desert for forty days, the people were punished a day for a year, bearing the burden of their iniquity for forty years.[1] Not exactly the cheeriest picture. Imagine if you knew you were going to wander from place to place for thirty-eight years, not finding rest or meaning in it until reaching your final resting place in the desert. I’m guessing you would think “What’s the point?” or bitterly “What did I do to deserve this?”

Why should the Israelites as a whole have been punished for the bad reports of the spies, the many punished for the deeds of the few? Aren’t we against collective punishment? Rashi emphatically states that we are not, asserting תשאו את עונותיכם, “you must bear your sins” (as a nation), continuing שתי עונות-של עגל ושל תלונה, “two sins: that of the calf and that of the complaint.”[2] Yet why does the entire nation of Israel have to bear these sins? The classical answer given is that the entire people were stilted by being slaves in Egypt so a new generation which had never known slavery had to emerge in order to conquer the Promised Land. Is this accurate however? Certainly there were Israelites who were glad to be free and moving towards their own land.

Kli Yakar asserts that the spies were only punished for forty days but that it was one day per year (Tisha B’Av), stretching out that punishment over forty years.[3]  On Tisha B’Av the Israelites dug their own graves and lay in them, with many not waking up the next day. After forty years they all woke up and realized that the punishment was over. Not the most appealing image.[4] Nowadays we punish ourselves on Tisha B’Av by fasting, wearing sackcloth and ashes, reading kinot (dirges) and lamentations.

The answer that I prefer, however, is from Tosafot Yom Tov,[5] who asserts that the forty years was actually an act of kindness. After all, G-d said to Moses אכנו בדבר ואורישנו, “I shall smite them with the plague and annihilate them.”[6] Moses pleaded with G-d, which caused G-d to have mercy and allow our ancestors to live for forty more years. Each individual twenty and up died at age sixty (now an age at the prime of one’s life-makes us feel grateful for our length of years J).

Today we honor our retirees, many of whom are working part-time or full-time as volunteers for the Jericho Jewish Center, attending minyan, planning programs and serving on our Board of Trustees. Research demonstrates that retirees who stay busy doing what they want to do tend to have greater longevity and greater health. As a matter of fact, the Lubavitcher Rebbe viewed retirement as worse than death, stating “I don’t understand the word ‘retirement;’ it’s not in my vocabulary,” and “How can a person even think of retiring from life?”[7] That’s why so many of our retirees stay busy doing things that they enjoy, and the Jericho Jewish Center is one of the many beneficiaries.

Thank you to all our retirees who make JJC into the strong, enriched place that it is. We are so grateful that you joined us for this Shabbat and wish you a summer filled with only warmth, joy and spiritual fulfillment.

[1] Numbers 14:34

[2] Rashi on Numbers 14:33 ד”ה ארבעים שנה

[3] Kli Yakar on Numbers 14:34 ד”ה יום לשנה

[4] Eicha Rabba Peticta 33.

[5] Tosafot Yom Tov Sota, Chapter 1 Mishna 9

[6] Numbers 14:12

[7] Joseph Telushkin, Rebbe: The Life and Teachings of Menachem M. Schneerson, the Most Influential Rabbi in Modern History (New York: Harper Collins, 2014), p. 129.

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The Next Generation

Why do we do half the things we do? Whatever the answer is, it changes when we have a child. At that point it’s no longer about “me myself and I” but rather about raising the next generation. Today we are blessed with a triple baby naming and I’d to illustrate the blessing of new life by means of a story.

The doorbell rang when the obstetrician was not at home. His five-year-old daughter answered the doorbell. “Is your daddy in?” asked an excited stranger. “No, he’s gone,” the little girl replied. “When will he return?” ” I don’t know. He’s out on an eternity case.” Rabbi Sidney Greenberg writes: “The birth of a child is such a commonplace thing. It happens 200,000 times a day. And yet each child is an original, altogether unique and so enormously special. Each child is a miracle, a tiny bundle of infinite possibilities, mysterious and unpredictable.”[1]

Often we’re told that we are a product of nature vs nurture, that our genes and our upbringing combine to mold us into who we are. Yet which dominates? If nature, then one can exonerate him/herself from wrongdoing, simply saying “It’s my nature.” If nurture, one can blame their upbringing for who they have become and never truly experience growth.

Two anecdotes, one from this week’s parsha the other from next week’s, illustrate the debate between nature vs nurture. This week we learn about the מרגלים, the spies who gave bad reports, not believing that G-d could help them conquer the land of Canaan. As a result, an entire generation had to be wiped out, making way for a new generation who had never known slavery to emerge. Yet this new generation was very different from the previous one. Whereas the previous generation had been afraid to move forward, their children did so with ease, conquering the entire land of Canaan. If nature predominates, then they should have been genetically predisposed to the same fear as their parents. Yet with Joshua as their general, they proceeded forward with unabated vigor.

For those who think nurture is more of a central focus, we need to look no further than Korach in next week’s portion to see that it is not necessarily the case. Korach challenges Moses and Aaron’s authority as leaders of Israel. He went to them with three other leaders and 250 priests and basically said, “What am I, chopped liver?” stating רב לכם כי   כל העדה כולם קדושים ובתוכם ה ומדוע תתנשאו על קהל ה  “It is too much for you! The entire nation is holy and Hashem is in their midst. Why do you lift yourselves up over Hashem’s congregation?”[2] Moses could not believe his ears, proceeding to fall on his face. After all, we learned two weeks ago that he was the humblest of all people[3] and yet he was accused of taking too much for himself.

Korach’s punishment for his incitement was to be swallowed up alive, going into the underworld of Sheol.[4] However, Deuteronomy states ובני קרח לא מתו, the children of Korach did not die.[5] As a matter of fact, they became the משכילים, or enlightened ones, who wrote psalms, including the one we say every Monday.

How could it be that Korach had such great hubris, challenging G-d’s appointment of Moses and Aaron as the spiritual heads of Israel, while concurrently having children who were G-dfearing and who wrote psalms used in the Temple? If he was so self-serving, how did his children turn out to be mentschim? Clearly, nurture, or learning by example, is not the only way in which we are shaped. Rather there is a balance between our genetic predisposition and what we learn from others, most notably our parents.

Jennifer and Daniel, Lauren and Ben-as parents you are bound to make mistakes. As a result, you may lose your temper, have regrets, worries, frustrations and anger. Having a child however causes us to strive to modify our behavior, as we know that our children emulate us. You have brought beautiful little Lilah, Ellie and Ryan into the world, with so much potential and excitement, wanting only the best for them. Having children is such a wonderful privilege and causes us to try to do the best we can in raising them, making them as calm, confident and worry-free as possible.

My prayer for you, Jennifer and Daniel, Laruen and Ben, is that no matter what bumps in the road you face, you always strive to be present and mindful of your children, giving them the best of everything you have to offer. After all, it’s all about what we can do in raising the next generation in the fullest sense. Mazal Tov on reaching this joyous day! So that we can celebrate together, let us turn to Page 840 and read the sections designated for us.

[1] Rabbi Sidney Greenberg’s book Lessons for Living, page 89.

[2] Numbers 16:3

[3] Numbers 12:3

[4] Numbers 16:32-33

[5] Deuteronomy 26:11

Asking the Clergy: Why (or how) are the faithful called to help the poor?

Rabbi Ben Herman Jericho Jewish Center

The Torah contains numerous verses on our duties toward the poor. As the Torah teaches, “If there is among you a needy person, one of your brethren, within your gates, you shall not harden your heart nor shut your hand from your needy brother.” (Deuteronomy 15:7) How is this done? Through working at soup kitchens to ensure that people have food, through working at homeless shelters to ensure they have a place to sleep and (most importantly) working to eradicate poverty.

The ideal state is a few verses before this one: “There shall be no needy among you.” (Deuteronomy 15:4) The reason given for this can be problematic: “For God will surely bless you in the land which God gives to you as an inheritance as long as you observe and do all the commandments that I command you this day.” (Deuteronomy 15:5) As there is no shortage of poor people in our midst, does that mean they (or we) are being punished for forsaking the commandments? Rather than examine from that perspective, I prefer the approach of what we can do, moment by moment and day by day, to create a world in which there will be no poor people. One must also note the myriad times in which the Torah asks us to help “the stranger, the orphan and the widow,” imploring us to protect the most vulnerable members of our society. We are implored to remember when we ourselves were vulnerable and exploited, most notably as slaves in Egypt (mentioned 36 times in the Torah) and thus must ensure that we protect those who are vulnerable and in need today.