Friday, July 29, 2011

Masei 5771

This week's parsha begins with a recapitulation of the journeys of the Israelites in the desert wilderness. "These are the journeys of the Children of Israel, by which they went forth out of the Land of Egypt…" Forty-two times the parsha reiterates "and they journeyed…and they camped."

Why does Torah use the plural form of the word "journey" and then reiterate 42 seemingly separate journeys and encampments?

It took forty-two stages for the Israelites to get from Egypt to Israel, over a period of forty years. Each stage of the journey was determined exclusively by Divine decree—42 times, the cloud which hovered over the Jewish camp began to move on when they were required to relocate. Sforno explains that G-d wanted to record in Torah all of the stops and starts in the wilderness to demonstrate the Israelites' faith in G-d and their readiness to travel at His direction regardless of the difficulties, or their lack of understanding the route.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that the forty-two stages from Egypt to the Promised Land are replayed in the life of each Jew, as our soul journeys from birth, to its return to its Source at death. Until we arrive at the ultimate goal, we are always in the process of leaving Egypt.

The Hebrew word for Egypt is Mitzrayim. Its root is tzar, which means "narrow" or "constricted" and it is related to the Hebrew word meitzar, which means "strait." Life is a succession of tight and narrow spots followed by relief and expansion. At every stage in our life's journeys, we face obstacles and tests. Through overcoming these difficulties and learning from their lessons, we become strengthened, and our awareness of G-d is expanded.

This parsha is always read during the three weeks of mourning that mark the tragic period of the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem by Babylonians and Romans thousands of years ago (the 17th day of the Hebrew month Tammuz, this year July 19), to the destruction of our Temples on Tisha B'Av (the ninth day of the Hebrew month Av, this year August 9.) This period also is known as bein ha-meitzar, which means "between the tragedies" or "between the straits or narrow confines."

As parents, when our journeys become difficult, when we are tested and challenged, especially when we face tragedy, we should remember that our journeys have a purpose. G-d directs us and leads us to an ultimate destination. In Torah (Exodus/Shemot 3:8), the Land of Israel is described as eretz tova u'rachava, a good and spacious land. The psalmist writes: "From the straits I call out to G-d and He answers me from the wide open spaces." (Psalms/Tehillim 118) Eventually, we all will arrive in the Land of Israel. Each of us will experience a personal redemption, and the entire Jewish nation also will be redeemed. May it be speedily in our days.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Matot 5771

In this week's parsha, the Israelites prepare to enter the Land of Israel. The tribes of Reuven and Gad, who are wealthy and own lots of livestock, request to settle on the eastern side of the Jordan River (just outside the land of Israel) where they see ample grazing ground for their livestock. "We will build sheep enclosures for our livestock here and cities for our children," they tell Moshe. When Moshe finally acquiesces to their request, he tells them, "Build yourselves cities for your children and enclosures for your sheep."

What is the significance of Reuven's and Gad's descendants mentioning livestock before children in their request, and of Moshe reversing the order in his response?

The Midrash says that Moshe's reversal is a rebuke. It is his way of pointing out that the two tribes seem to attach more importance to their possessions than to their children. Moshe warns that since they are so concerned with their material possessions, they ultimately will not be blessed. As it says in Mishlei (Proverbs) 20:21 about Reuven and Gad, "An inheritance gained hastily in the beginning will not be blessed in the end."

The descendants of Reuven and Gad give up living in the Land of Israel to settle in a place less holy. There are many mitzvot (commandments) that can only be performed within the Land of Israel. The two tribes separate themselves from the rest of the Children of Israel and live surrounded by foreign nations. The Midrash says that as a result of this separation, their connection to Torah weakens and their Torah observance decreases. Hundreds of years later, the tribes on the eastern side of the Jordan are punished by being exiled before those living in the Land of Israel. (I Divrei HaYamim/Chronicles 5:26.)

As parents, we need to get our priorities in order – family first and foremost. Longer hours at the office may indeed bring home extra money, but it means time away from our precious families. How will we use this money? Do we really need to buy and maintain all of this stuff? Must we have the bragging rights to the latest model, the most expensive name brand, the fanciest neighborhood? How quickly these material goods can all disappear! We should instead invest in things that last – for example, our children's Torah education, a family trip to Israel, or a home in a neighborhood that will strengthen our children's connection to Torah.


Friday, July 15, 2011

Pinchas 5771

In this week's parsha, G-d recognizes Pinchas for his zealous action (related at the end of last week's parsha.) Enraged that the Israelites turned to harlotry and idolatry, Pinchas kills Zimri, an Israelite who, in a flagrant breach of Torah law, takes a Midianite woman into his tent. "Pinchas the son of Eleazar the son of Aharon the Kohen has turned My anger away from the Children of Israel by his zealously avenging Me among them...Therefore, say, 'I hereby give him My covenant of peace.'"

What is the significance of the covenant of peace?

The Midrash says that because Pinchas brought peace between the Jewish people and G-d, Pinchas will be the harbinger of peace in the future.  He will live extraordinarily long and appear as the prophet Eliyahu (Elijah.)  it is perhaps with this understanding of shalom (peace) in in the sense of well being and longevity, that when a baby boy is brought for his b'rit milah (ritual circumcision), it is customary to recite the first three verses of this week's parsha.  Furthermore, it is customary to to place an honorary seat for Eliyahu at every b'rit milah because in Eliyahu's time, Israel stopped observing b'rit milah, and unable to bear this, Eliyahu left.  The Midrash says that G-d promised Eliyahu that Israel will not perform b'rit milah until Eliyahu sees it with his own eyes. Eliyahu is thus considered the messenger of the covenant.

Milah, known as b'rit kodesh (a sign of the holy covenant) is a sign of the morality in intimate affairs by which we are obligated to abide. By killing Zimri, who blatantly displayed immorality, Pinchas was able to end this wanton behavior and save the nation of Israel. At every b'rit milah, we renew our b'rit (covenant) with G-d and ensure the preservation of morality and modesty.  As parents who live in a world in which what once was X-rated is R-rated, it is critical to keep our interactions G-rated and transmit to our children values of morality and modesty.  

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Balak 5771

In this week's parsha, Balak, king of Moab, sends Bilaam to put a curse on the Israelites. G-d prevents Bilaam from uttering curses and instead causes him to issue blessings. "Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes...[and he said] How goodly are your tents, O Yaakov, your dwelling places, O Israel!"

What is the significance of Bilaam's blessing?

Rashi explains what Bilaam witnesses when he comes to the Israelites' encampment. "He saw that their entrances [the entrances to their tents] were not aligned opposite one another, so that one should not peer into the tent of his friend." Bilaam sees how the Israelites value the sanctity and modesty of Jewish life, and how they protect their family's privacy and are sensitive to the privacy of others. Moreover, the strategic placement of the tents' doorways ensures that the Israelites do not look into their neighbors' tents and become envious of their neighbors' possessions. Awed by their virtues, Bilaam can only praise the Israelites.

The world we live in does not value privacy, modesty or discretion. The media compete to reveal the juiciest gossip; underwear is outerwear; and people post their most private thoughts and intimate photos. Popular culture tells us "if you've got it, flaunt it" and we spend a great deal of time eyeing what others have, and making sure that we have it, too.

How can we, as parents, resist and counter the social pressures to see all, tell all and have all? We can take our cue from the Israelites, who with the positioning of their tent flaps drew clear boundaries between public and private life. They built strong homes, and within them inculcated critical values of privacy and modesty. As modern-day parents, we, too, must create a home environment in which our children can develop into decent and caring adults. As Bilaam found, the sanctity of our home life is the key to bringing down blessings.