Posts Tagged 'torah portion'

Talking Body

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read various stories regarding animals talking.   Long before we get to the climax of this story where Bilaam’s donkey talks to him, we meet Balak the son of Zippor  ( bird). Balak the king of Moav was afraid of the Israelites and  he sent messengers to Balaam. We wants this prophet to curse the Israelites.  And of course this story of a talking animal fits into the larger context of the book of Numbers where the people of Israel are acting like animals. We saw this last week from when they were being struck down by snakes and at the end of this week’s Torah portion when they succumb to animal-like sexual promiscuity.

In this context I have been thinking about Tove Lo‘s explicit earworm Talking Body. She sings:

Now if we’re talking body
You got a perfect one, so put it on me

I am not offended, by the lyrics ( the rest is even more explicit). In general I would argue that Judaism has a sex positive worldview. But still I would say that sex cannot be instead of other forms of communication. Rather, I would say sex should be the climax ( pun intended) of other forms of communication.  Similar to Bilaam being depicted as an ass by a talking donkey, we stand to regress to debase animals when we see sex as a stand alone form of communication. Talking bodies can have profound meaning in a broader conversation.



Work Life Balance: Lessons from Yitro

In Yitro, this week’s Torah portion, the nation of Israel received the Torah. The Sinai experience, arguably the main event in our history, is introduced by and names for Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, coming to visit. Most are quick to point out that Yitro is the consummate consultant. It his critique that seems to bring about the giving of the Torah. There we read:

And Moshe’s father-in-law said to him: ‘The thing that you are doing is not good. You will surely wear away, both you, and this people that is with you; for the thing is too heavy for you; you are not able to perform it by yourself. Hearken now to my voice, I will give you counsel, and God be with you: you will be for the people before God, and you will bring the causes to God.( Exodus 18: 17-19)

Seeing Moshe working himself to the bone, Yitro gives him a plan to organize the adjudicating of the law. In order for them to keep the law they needed a system for teaching the people the law. This is a natural progression to the people getting the Torah at Sinai.  Yitro is playing the role of a great consultant helping them operationalize their success, but I do not think that is the limit of his consultancy.

We should not forget what Yitro did right at the start of this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

Now Yitro, the priest of Midian, Moshe’s father-in-law, heard of all that God had done for Moshe, and for Israel God’s people, how that the Lord had brought Israel out of Egypt. And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, took Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, after he had sent her away, and her two sons; of whom the name of the one was Gershom; for he said: ‘I have been a stranger in a strange land’; and the name of the other was Eliezer: ‘for the God of my father was my help, and delivered me from the sword of Pharaoh.’ And Yitro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came with his sons and his wife to Moshe to the wilderness where he was encamped, at the mount of God. (Exodus 18:1- 5 )

It makes sense that in response to hearing about all of the trials, travails, miracles, and wonders that happened to his son-in-law that Yitro came to see Moshe. What is the value of bringing Moshe’s wife and children into the picture? Why is this the moment for  Moshe’s family reunion?

As a communal professional who works in the field of Jewish identity building it is safe to say that my personal identity is deeply invested in my work. While this is deeply enriching, it is also problematic. If I allow too much of my self-worth to be defined by my work as compared to my private life I might lose a sense of priorities. Yitro is the consummate consultant. When he shows up he did not just bring Moshe his family, but he put before Moshe a choice. Do you get your love at work or at home? I can relate to Moshe. We need to have systems in place to ensure that we are efficient and effective at work. We also need to model work-life balance or the whole project will fail.


– Interesting article on work-life balance

– Also see to Consummate Consultant : The Essence of Exodus and Being a Good Consultant

Food Kvetching

Yesterday my children and I were discussing the custom of eating milchigs on Shavuot.  The Mishna Berurah suggests that at the time of Matan Torah, the receiving of the Torah, the Jewish people became obligated in all of the mitzvot of the Torah (Mishna Berurah 494:12). As such, in order to eat meat, they would have had to follow the complex procedure involved in producing kosher meat. Because this procedure required time in order to properly prepare the meat, the only food items available immediately after Matan Torah were dairy products.  In talking with my children we got to talking about their impatience.  Why could they not wait for a nicer meal? They could not wait for a few hours to make a nice fleishig meal?

It is interesting to think about this in the context of the Original Sin? Despite the sexual reading of the Bible, the plain meaning seems to suggest it was simply that Adam and Eve ate of the forbidden fruit. While I am sure that the themes of sex and sexuality run throughout the Bible and human history, all too often they overshadow the similarly complex relationship we have with food.

I was thinking about this in reference to BeHalotecha, this week Torah portion. There we read:

1 And the people were as murmurers, speaking evil in the ears of the Lord; and when the Lord heard it, God’s anger was kindled; and the fire of the Lord burnt among them, and devoured in the uttermost part of the camp. 2 And the people cried to Moshe; and Moshe prayed to the Lord, and the fire abated. 3 And the name of that place was called Taberah, because the fire of the Lord burnt among them. 4 And the mixed multitude that was among them fell a lusting; and the children of Israel also wept on their part, and said: ‘Would that we were given flesh to eat! 5 We remember the fish, which we were wont to eat in Egypt for nothing; the cucumbers, and the melons, and the leeks, and the onions, and the garlic; 6 but now our soul is dried away; there is nothing at all; we have nothing save this manna to look to.’ 7 Now the manna was like coriander seed, and the appearance thereof as the appearance of bdellium. 8 The people went about, and gathered it, and ground it in mills, or beat it in mortars, and seethed it in pots, and made cakes of it; and the taste of it was as the taste of a cake baked with oil. 9 And when the dew fell upon the camp in the night, the manna fell upon it. 10 And Moshe heard the people weeping, family by family, every man at the door of his tent; and the anger of the Lord was kindled greatly; and Moshe was displeased. 11 And Moshe said to the Lord: ‘Wherefore have You dealt ill with Your servant? and wherefore have I not found favor in Your sight, that You lay the burden of all this people upon me? 12 Have I conceived all this people? have I brought them forth, that You should say unto me: Carry them in your bosom, as a nursing-father carries the sucking child, unto the land which You didst swear to their fathers? 13 Whence should I have flesh to give unto all this people? for they trouble me with their weeping, saying: Give us flesh, that we may eat. 14 I am not able to bear all this people myself alone, because it is too heavy for me. 15 And if you deal thus with me, kill me, I pray of You, out of hand, if I have found favor in Your sight; and let me not look upon my wretchedness.’  (Numbers 11:1-15)

The Manna is described in contrast to the nation’s desire for “real food”. Moshe expresses his frustrations as leader, and God promises to send quail to satisfy the people’s desire for meat. In all things it seems that we as human beings are not happy with what we have and desire the forbidden or that which is out of reach. So maybe this is not so different then how we talk about our sexual desires.

In Michel Wex’s Born to Kvetch, he defines a kvetch as a declaration of unhappiness that identifies the complaint. He goes on to write, “ Had Isaac Newton been struck by a potato kugel instead of an apple, the whole world would now know that for every basic kvetch there is an equal and opposite “counter kvetch”, a retaliation in kind provoked by the original complaint”. Their kvetching for meat gets the “counter kvetch” of way too much quail and for dessert they get a plague. As the adage goes, “May you get what you want and want what you get.” What are the best ways to deal with our kvetching? What are the best models for consequences that can be measured out kvetch to “counter kvetch”? As a parent I think about this all the time with my children. And at this stage of their lives most of this happens at the dining room table. One is eating like a Chazir, another is taking food of a siblings plate, and a third I cannot get to eat for the life of me. But who can complain on Shavuot, all of my kids were happy to have ice cream for dessert.

A Language for Jealosy: Rethinking Sotah

In Nasso, this week’s Torah portion we read about the case of the Sotah. In the case in which a husband was suspicious of his wife’s fidelity the Torah outlines a process for determining her guilt. Evidently asking her was not a possibility.  If she was unfaithful the potion would do her in, and the other possibility was that she was innocent and he was just jealous and insecure . There we read:

 or if the spirit of jealousy come upon him, and he be jealous of his wife, and she be not defiled; then shall the man bring his wife unto the priest, and shall bring her offering for her, the tenth part of an ephah of barley meal; he shall pour no oil upon it, nor put frankincense thereon; for it is a meal-offering of jealousy, a meal-offering of memorial, bringing iniquity to remembrance. ( Numbers 5:14-15 )

While it clearly speaks to a patriarchal society, it also speaks to a society in which men and women do not know how to communicate. It seems so strange with all of these magic potions, but is it so different from our society?

It is hard to read this part of the Torah the same way after the events of the recent shootings in Isla Vista. A young man sat in his car and outlined his jealousy toward the women in his life and his plans to kill them. Unable to communicate in normal ways he put this video on YouTube and actually went through with the heinous crimes. I think we need to look in the mirror and realize that while killing is not normal, the inability for people to communicate might be the new normal.

How did we get here?  Clearly the use and abuse of technology, pornography, and social media has played a role, but how do we undo these things? What do we need to do get us out of this problem? We need to change our very language and how we talk about each other. The next generation needs us to do some hard work on this. We need to teach our sons and daughters how to see each other as people to communicate with and to be intimate with rather than simply seeing each other a sexual objects to own and use. We need a language to communicate jealousy.

Blind Taste Test

In Toldot, this week’s Torah portion, we read about Yakov’s deception and act of stealing the blessing from his brother Esav. This story starts off with a blind Yitzhak growing aware of his age. He calls Esav. There we read:

Now therefore take, I pray of you, your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and take me venison; and make me savory food, such as I love, and bring it to me, that I may eat; that my soul may bless you before I die.’ ( Genesis 27: 3-4)

Rivka overhears this plan and tells Yakov to intervene and to follow her plan. There we read:

Go now to the flock, and fetch me from two good kids of the goats from there; and I will make them savory food for your father, such as he loves; and you shall bring it to your father, that he may eat, so that he may bless you before his death.’ ( Genesis 27: 9-10)

At the core of this deception is the issue of perception. Yitzhak is blind so he cannot see the food or who is bringing it.

This reminds me of the final chapter of Malcolm Gladwell‘s Blink. There he writes about how orchestras hold “blind” auditions where musicians literally play behind a screen. So-called expert judges are able to hear with “just their ears” rather than look first and, in that blink of an eye, make instant (often unfair) assumptions based on what they see. A tiny woman, for example, could never be a great French Horn player because she couldn’t possibly have the strength or lung capacity. Gladwell writes,“Until they listened to her with just their ears … they had no idea she was so good.”

This seems to be the case with Yitzhak as well. He says that he wants venison because it tastes savory, but in the end he gives the blessing to the child that brings him the goat meat instead. Until he tastes with his mouth and not with his eyes he did not realize what he truly really wanted. His blindness was like a screen, helping him blink and reveal the right savory taste. But why did he think he wanted Esav’s dish?

In last week’s Torah portion we read about Esav and Yakov as children . There we read:

And the boys grew; and Esav was a cunning hunter, a man of the field; and Yakov was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Now Yitzhak loved Esav, because he did eat of his venison; and Rivka loved Jacob. ( Genesis 25:27-28)

Yitzhak saw in Esav a virile masculine outdoorsy child. Yitzhak is drawn after the memories of Esav’s venison which blinds him to the gifts that Yakov has to offer. Ironically it is his actual blindness that helps him see. We are all blinded by our assumptions.

I was thinking about this when reading  of the Gur’s ban on soy products. According to a report in BaOlam Shel Haredim based on a HaMevasser report, Gur has now banned soy products like veggie hot dogs from its yeshivas due their Rabbis’ fears that the hormones in soy foods will cause the bodies of young teen students to become feminine in appearance and thereby cause their rabbis and older students to become sexually aroused seeing them. They are worried that soy will damage the spirituality of its yeshiva students by accelerating their sexual maturity. Doctors and scientists find no scientific evidence to support Gur’s decision to ban what is the cheapest – and, probably, the healthiest – protein available. They, like Yitzhak, seem to be blinded by their perception that venison is more masculine.

We all make assumptions that cloud our vision. It is sad to realize how we are overlooking the gifts of so many people by holding fast to these assumptions. You would think that we, the descendents of Yakov, would advocate to put up the screen so we could have a better sounding orchestra and more savory meal.

Leaving The Nest

In Ki Tetzei, this week’s Torah portion , we learn about the prohibition of Shiluach haken. There we read:

If a bird nest happens to be before you on the road, on any tree or on the ground- young birds or eggs- and the mother is roosting on the young birds or the eggs, you shall not take the mother with the young. You shall surely send away the mother and take the young for yourself, so that it will be good for you and will prolong your days.”( Deuteronomy 22:6-7)

It is clear that this practice is one that is meant to inculcate us with compassion. While we understand that we have a need to take the egg or young bird from it’s nest, we want to do that without the mother present. It is hard to read this section without reflecting on the similar prohibition to not boil a kid in its mother’s milk( Exodus 23:19, Exodus 34:26, and Deuteronomy 14:21). They are both seem to rooted in the same desire to create a compassionate context for our consumption. The interesting thing is less the similarities than the differences. In the prohibition of milk and meat the Rabbis expanded it to extend to our plates, cutlery, sinks, dish washers, cutting boards, waiting between meals, ovens, etc. To the best of my knowledge there is no legal expansion of law of Shiluach haken. Why not?

I do not think I have a good answer for this question, but there is one thought I wanted to add. This summer we sent Yadid away to overnight camp for the first time. He had a great time and we are thrilled. I went to pick him up from camp and that got me out of having to take him to the bus to send him to camp. Camping is my profession and because of that I think I might just know too much of what is going on there at camp. Because of this I was really very happy not having to be there as our child went away for the first time. In our nature parents have a profound sense of connection to our children. Separating from them is just hard. So in response to my question, I do not think that the Rabbis needed to expand on the simple meaning of the law of Shiluach haken to help us be more compassionate and relate to the bond between a parent and a child. But I still think that my question is much better than this answer.

The Alpha Nail

In Balak, this week’s Torah portion, we read of Balak another stock character in our history who wanted to kill our people. This Antisemite hoped to exterminate the Israelites by getting the prophet Balaam to curse us. Balaam was reluctant to go, but eventually conceded to meet with Balak.  God was not happy that he was going, but clarifies that Balaam would only be allowed to say what God instructed him to say. With God’s permission Balaam was already out the door getting ready to do Balak’s bidding. His readiness to serve Balak angered God and he sends an angel to block his ass as he traveled. There we read:

And the ass saw the angel of the Lord standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. Then the angel of the Lord stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord, and she thrust herself into the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again. And the angel of the Lord went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. And the ass saw the angel of the Lord, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff. And the Lord opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done unto you, that you have hit me these three times?’ ( Numbers 22:23-28)

For being such a great prophet, it is surprising that Balaam could not see God acting in the world around him. Balaam is a model of the human penchant toward being stubborn. When we have something in mind it is hard not to see something that is right in front of us.

Recently saw an amazing video that has been circulating that connects in an interesting way to our Torah portion. If you have not seen it please watch ” It’s Not about the Nail“. Here it is:

This brilliant video plays with the tension between the Fix-It-Alpha-Male and the Lets-Talk-About-Feelings-Female. While these typologies need not be gendered, it is interesting to reflect on the conflict between these two ways of seeing the world. Like Balaam, sometimes there is something right in front of us that needs to be dealt with and other times there are things that demand our reflection and emotional connection. As a self realized Alpha Male, my tendency is to run to deal with life’s impediments. Lets identify the challenge and fix it. I am an eternal optimist. There is always a solution to every problem. In the case of the video, how can we just remove the nail?

Different people need different things. Sometimes people are not looking for solutions. These people just need us to feel comfortable sitting with their pain. As she says,” Don’t try to fix it. I just need you to listen.” Over time I have been humbled to realize that there are certain problems that do not have solutions. The only thing we can offer is our empathy. If I do not recognized people’s feelings as unseen impediments I too will be nothing more than an  ass. And if I think there is a solution other than just listening I am nothing more than Balaam.

The Art of It All

In Chukat, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the continued travails of the Israelites in the desert. Here we learn about a plague of poisonous snakes. To save the people Moses makes a  Nehushtan or נחש הנחושת, a bronze snake upon a pole. There we read:

And they journeyed from mount Hor by the way to the Red Sea, to compass the land of Edom; and the soul of the people became impatient because of the way. And the people spoke against God, and against Moses: ‘Wherefore have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness? for there is no bread, and there is no water; and our soul loathes this light bread.’ And the Lord sent fiery serpents among the people, and they bit the people; and many Israelites died. And the people came to Moses, and said: ‘We have sinned, because we have spoken against the Lord, and against you; pray to the Lord, that  God might take away the serpents from us.’ And Moses prayed for the people. And the Lord said to Moses: ‘Make a fiery serpent, and set it upon a pole; and it shall come to pass, that every one that is bitten, when he sees it, shall live.’ And Moses made a serpent of brass, and set it upon the pole; and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he looked at the serpent of brass, he lived. (Numbers 21:4-9)

So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. What was the medicinal power of looking at it? The Mishna in Rosh HaShanah asks the same question. There we read:

But could the serpent kill or could the serpent keep alive? Only whenever Israel looked on high, and subjected their heart to their Father in heaven, were they healed; but if not, they perished. ( Rosh HaShanah 3:8)

As the Mishnah depicts it, it was not the bronze snake itself that saved them. Rather, looking at this piece of metal crafted by Moses inspired them, and that inspiration itself was what saved them.

From their herd mentality, to running after sex, to only thinking about food, throughout the book of Numbers we see the Israelites acting as animals. In this case they were complaining about their food and God sends snakes to stop their kvetching. As if to say, ” If you are going to act like animals, you can die like an animal”.  It is only the inspiration of Moses sculpture that saves them. In appreciating the human capacity to create art they rise above their simple basic animal tendencies. Life is not measured simply by the quality of the last meal you ate.  It is realizing this creative capacity that reminds us that we alone are created in image of the Creator. Art itself is our saving grace.

I was reminded of this recently when watching this TED talk.

Here we see human technology, innovation, design, and artistry imitate the natural world. As we see this robotic bird take off over the crowd we get a glimpse into what the Israelites felt when they peered at Moses bronze snake. Wow, if you can make that, what should I aspire to do with my God given talents? We should all take a moment to think about how we might tap into what makes us human to find new ways to soar above to ensure that we are all living inspired lives.


When we think of leadership we often run to the image of Nachshon ben Aminadav. According to the Midrash, Nachshon initiated the splitting of the Red Sea by walking in head deep. Going it alone is clearly one style of leadership, but I think Shelach, this week’s Torah portion, offers us another important model for bringing about change. Here we see the twelve spies return to give their report about the Land. After ten give a negative report, we read, ” And Caleb stilled the people toward Moses, and said: ‘We should go up at once, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.'” ( Numbers 13:30) At this point the other spies shout Caleb down and instill a deep fear into the people. In response to this we read that:

And Joshua the son of Nun and Caleb the son of Yefuneh, who were of them that spied out the land, rent their clothes. And they spoke to all the congregation of the children of Israel, saying: ‘The land, which we passed through to spy it out, is an exceeding good land. If the Lord delight in us, then God will bring us into this land, and give it to us–a land which flows with milk and honey. Only rebel not against the Lord, neither fear you the people of the land; for they are bread for us; their defense is removed from over them, and the Lord is with us; fear them not.’ But all the congregation bade stone them with stones, when the glory of the Lord appeared in the tent of meeting unto all the children of Israel.” ( Numbers 14: 6-10)

While it took a certain kind of bravery for Caleb and Nachshon to put themselves out there, it takes another kind of leadership to follow. Recently a colleague shared with me a wonderful video that highlights the importance of being the first follower. Please watch:

In another post I will explore this issue through the lens of the character of Yehudah who both Caleb and Nachshon are  decedents, but for now I want to end by saying that it is noteworthy that it is Joshua and not Caleb who goes on to succeed Moses as the leader of the people. There is what to learn from other styles of leadership. We need to move away from just talking about leadership and also start talking about the significance of followership.

To Love or to be Loved

In VaEra, this weeks Torah portion, we read,” And God spoke to Moses and said to him” I am HaShem. I appeared to Abraham Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai, I did not make Myself known to them by My name HaShem”( Exodus 6:2- 3) Did the Patriarchs have a limited relationship with God compared to Moses? Rashi (Premiere Medieval Commentator) explains this in terms of  God’s having not fulfilled the mission of giving the people to the land of Canaan. In so doing El Shaddai would be realized as being truth- HaShem. But Moses neither sees the Truth of God bringing them in to the land or ever seeing/ knowing the unknowable Hashem. So I wanted to offer another reading of this apparent inequality of relationships.

It might be likened to lovers who are in love at first sight compared to the rest of us who need to work out our relationships. By and large the Patriarchs seem to be in covenantal relationship with God,  where as Moses and in turn the Israelites are in a dynamic relationship with God. But what is the quality of being in relationship with HaShem?

A number of years ago I worked as a chaplain in a hospital in New York City. There I met a lovely elderly French Jewish woman. During our conversations she asked me a profound question, “Is it better to be loved or to love?” While being loved is comfortable, it is not as rewarding or as risky as the proposition of being in love. We might feel that God is very distant from our lives, but maybe that theology itself is us expecting to be loved.  Where might me find the presence of God in our lives? Might it be better (even if riskier) for us to articulate where we want to see God in our lives.  Clearly few of us has a romantic relationship with God as might the Patriarchs, but the first step is recognizing what it is we are looking for. El Shaddai might not have a different type of relationship, it was the one the heard our cries. What are we crying for today? I am fearful, that we have all grown too apathetic to cry for anything any more.

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