Shelach Lecha

By Max Bartell, 2011 USY Religion/Education International General Board

Regardless of whether or not he was Jewish, Theodore Seuss Geisel (better known as Dr. Seus) always seems to have something to say about the weekly Parsha. In my interview with him, Seuss had this to say when asked his opinion of the heroic actions of the spies Hoshea (later Joshua) and Caleb after returning from scouting out the land. “In the case of Joshua and Caleb, the case is simple, they should be who they are and say what they feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”

For those of you who actually think I interviewed Dr. Seuss, I’m sorry to say that in fact, I did not. However, this quote does have a lot to do with this week’s Parsha, Parshat Shelach Lecha. This Parsha is a prime example of people standing up and doing what is right, even though the results could be potentially harmful. It is in Parshat Shelach Lecha that God tells Moshe to send out 12 spies (one from each tribe) to scout out the land and come back with (hopefully positive) reports. However, upon returning to the rest of the Israelites, ten of the spies begin to spread how awful the land was, and how the Israelites had absolutely no chance of conquering it. However, Joshua and Caleb took a different approach, instead telling the people that the land can easily be conquered. However, after already having been riled up by the other ten spies, the people don’t exactly want to listen to Joshua and Caleb. They don’t want to hear what the two men to say so much, that they even threaten the lives of both spies. However, Joshua and Caleb still stand up for what the believe is right and share their positive views with the rest of the Israelites. Overall, it was important to both men that they leave a legacy of piety and respect for Moses and God.

It is only fitting that this week, my grandmother is doing something else to contribute to her legacy this Shabbat. My grandmother, who worked at Brookdale Hospital for fifty years, and along with my grandfather raised my father and my uncle, will complete a two year adult Bat Mitzvah class at my shul. My grandmother, Bubbe, who came to every single one of my shows in elementary school, cried at my birth, and partied for the whole night after my Bar Mitzvah, will be called to the Torah, not looking a day over twenty. My grandmother, the daughter of poor European immigrants will now share one more thing with her grandchildren, three of whom have already been called to the Torah. My grandmother, who has always led by example, story, and the occasional Jewish guilt, will do the same thing that Joshua and Caleb accomplished in speaking their opinions to the Israelites. In reading from the Torah, my grandmother will follow in the footsteps of Joshua and Caleb, and truly tell the rest of the Jewish people that in fact, the land is good to settle, and that we have nothing to fear.

The idea of doing what’s right no matter what holds true throughout the school year, but especially now, during the time when most schools are having finals. If the opportunity to get an answer from a friend or give an answer during a test arises, we should be strong enough to do the right thing. The time to help each other with answers is before the test, in study sessions or groups, not during the test itself. With that I will bid you adieu for the summer, keep an eye open for the next great Rel/Ed IGB product!

Beha’alotekha 5771

by Alex Hamilton, SWUSY 2011-12 Israel Awareness Vice President

So what does the Israeli Flag, the Thunder, the Sea, and tallitot have in common? They’re blue. Now when I was studying I came across the paragraph about making the Tallit. So I started wondering what does blue mean in Judaism. On the American flag the blue section or union is supposed to represent vigilance, perseverance, and justice. But after some of my research I realized that the blue in our tallitot aren’t reflective of anything even remotely American.

Now does anyone know the Hebrew word for blue? CaChol, that’s right. So if you will open up your siddurim to page 102 and tell me where in the paragraph that starts ,”vayomer hashem el Moshe Leymor” where is the word CaChol. Okay, that’s because it isn’t the regular blue. The blue isn’t actually blue, it’s the dye that was used called Tekhelet. The recipe for making Tekhelet came from an animal called chilazon, but sometime between the Byzantine and Islamic empires the recipe was lost. It is believed that the chilazon is the Murex truculus, a shellfish off the Lebanese coast. The same shellfish is also generally considered the same mollusk that produced the purple for the robes of the emperor of Rome. But recently it has been discovered how to change the naturally purple dye to blue. So hopefully we will be able to create the ancient recipe of Tekhelet once again.

But what does blue represent in Judaism. I looked up what blue in Judaism represents, I got that is the color of heaven, the color of HaShem’s throne, the color of the thread in many of our tzitzit, a feature on the tabernacle, and as a supernatural defense.

On the second day, HaShem created the two largest things, the sky and the sea, both are blue. So if you look to the sea, you see water and fish. The sea produces Tekhelet for one. The other is that water creates life. So blue would represent life and eternity. The one substance that HaShem didn’t create was water. Water was there, All HaShem did was separate the heavens and the sea. Maybe his blue throne was getting moldy. But furthermore, water is something that provides a sense of ecstasy. If one were to look at the water libation ceremony at the temple, one would really be dazzled. The idea was that on Sukkot to clean the alter. So after the alter was clean, there was a giant party, one that was said to rival all other parties.

Water is also the cause of much destruction and chaos. Think of the Flood and Moses striking the rock for water. But what is really a huge issue is the Leviathan. A giant ugly sea creature that is just awful. Sometimes the Leviathan is portrayed as a whale, and sometimes as a fire-breathing dragon. It is seen as a genius of the abyss that dwells at the center of the sea. He causes the rolling of the sea and it takes the water of the mighty Jordan River quench this dragon’s thirst. And according to Talmud, my friend on right Michael and my friend on the left Gabriel are gonna fight and overcome the Leviathan. Or something called a Behemoth is going to kill the Leviathan. Either way, he is going to end up for dinner as the entrée at the messianic banquet.

As for the sky, it is always blue in Israel. Everything spectacular is in the heavens; HaShem’s throne for example. HaShem rides upon clouds. Angels manifest themselves as clouds. The Pillar of Fire guided our ancestors very poorly as they wandered in the desert for forty years. The divine feminine presence at the Temple Mount, called Shekhina, hovered over the alter in a cloud of glory.

The other reason I am not so sure of, but if you go to the wonderful pilgrimage city of Sfat, one will see everything covered in blue. Handrails, doors, gutters. They are blue for two reasons, one is that blue is the color of the Messiah, which is fitting because Sfat is where he is supposed to appear. The other is because blue is anti-demonic. Jewish demonology is very long complex and not something I know much about, but Ashmodai the king of the demons and his evil consort, Lilith have found their way into the nightmares of the children of the past.

So the blue has a number of meanings in Judaism. And maybe the reason our Tallit is supposed to be blue is to remind us all at once of the moods of the sea, the breadth of the heavens, the Messiah, or the evil of the demons. That only HaShem can protect us with His signs of wonders, and that if we don’t put our faith in Him, then he might unleash the power of the seas on us, or send Ashmodai to haunt our dreams, or even to have a simple puddle of rain get our socks wet. Let this be a constant reminder of HaShem and his mighty power over everything.

Beha’alotekha 5771

by Josh Seed, 2011 USY Religion/Education International General Board

A poor Jew went to his rabbi for advice. “Holy Rabbi!” he cried, “Things are in a bad way with me, and are getting worse all the time! We are so poor, that my wife, six children, in laws, five grandchildren and I all have to live in a one room hut. We get in each other’s way all the time. Our nerves are frayed and, because we have plenty of troubles, we quarrel all the time. My home is so terrible that I’d sooner die than continue living this way!”

The Rabbi pondered the matter gravely. “My son,” he said, “promise to do as I tell you and your condition will improve. Go home now and bring all of your animals into your house to live with you and God will help you. Keep them in the house for two days. At the end of the two days, let them go.”

The poor man was dumbfounded but since he trusted the Rabbi, he went home and brought all of the family’s animals into his house.

At the end of the two days, he let all the animals out of the house. A miraculous transformation took place. Not a day had passed before he came running again to the Rabbi. “Rabbi!” cried the poor man, his face beaming, “With all the animals out, the house is so quiet, so roomy and so clean! What a pleasure! My house is a treat. Thank you Rabbi you have made my life sweet.”

This coming Shabbat we will be reading Parashat Beha’alotcha. Among a number of topics that are discussed in the portion is B’nai Yisrael’s constant complaining. This can first be seen in the sixth aliyah. “The people took to complaining bitterly before the Lord. The Lord heard and was incensed: a fire of the Lord broke out against them, ravaging the outskirts of the camp.” (Bamidbar 11:1-2)

What were they complaining about? The commentators point us to the answer found just a few verses before. “They marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days.” (Bamidbar 10:33) It appears that B’nai Yisrael was complaining about this three day journey. If not for the prayers of Moses, God’s fire would have likely killed everyone.

The next incident of complaining occurs shortly after. The people begin to grumble that all they have to eat was manna. They reminisced about their time in Egypt when they supposedly had fish, cucumbers, melons, onions and garlic to eat. Their complaining again brings a punishment from God. Quail fell outside the camp and whoever ate of it was stricken and died.

As the poor Jew in the story realizes, things can always be worse. Your house could be smaller, a terrible fire could devastate your people and you could be eating nothing but quail instead of manna which supposedly tasted like anything you want it to be! Parashat Beha’alotcha serves to remind us that we should be thankful for what we have. At a time when there are many people throughout the world who don’t have enough to eat, we must always be sure to consider our blessings before opening our mouths to complain.

This week’s mitzvah is to learn Torah and to teach it. (D’varim 6:7) Although the holiday of Shavuot does not carry any particular mitzvot like eating matzah on Pesach and dwelling in a sukkah on Sukkot, the holiday is special nonetheless. Shavuot celebrates the giving of Torah to the Israelites and it is therefore customary to spend the holiday studying Jewish texts into the wee hours of the night.

Naso 5771

by Jordan Bailey Brandt, Seaboard USY 2011-12 Regional President and 2011 Religion/Education International General Board

This shabbat, we read Parshat Naso, the longest parasha in the Torah. It covers various topics including a second census of the Israelites, the laws regarding a female adulterer, the laws of the nazir, and the identical sacrifices given by each tribe in honor of the mishkan. Even though this parasha covers a lot of topics and there are tons of commentaries and midrashim on it, I had a lot of trouble deciding on a topic … but then it hit me.

In Naso, we read, “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman explicitly utters a nazarite’s vow, to set himself apart for the Lord’” (Bamidbar 6:1-2). The nazir may not drink wine even eat anything from grapes, is not allowed to cut his/her hair, may not be near a dead person, and must give special sacrifices. I have taken multiple classes that have discussed the topic of the nazir and still and not sure if I fully understand the concept because I have the same reoccurring question. How is the nazir so incredibly holy when he completely separates himself from the community?

I am currently taking a class where we are discussing modern Jewish theologians like Abraham Joshua Heschel, Mordecai Kaplan, Neil Gillman, and Arnie Eisen who all stress the importance and holiness of community. Obviously, these are modern theologians and we no longer have nazirim, but the importance of community can’t possibly have changed very much.

As I was doing some research trying to find an answer to a question that seemed impossible to answer, I found some hints in the commentary of the Etz Hayim. “Is he or she a saint, aspersing voluntarily to higher levels of holiness, or a person with trouble controlling his or her impulses, who therefore has to impose limits on beyond what normal people do?…[Rambam], uncomfortable with the nazirite’s enthusiasm, urged the path of modernation in food, drink, and other matters.” While this isn’t the most straight forward answer, it did satisfy me for now. I completely understand Rambam’s perspective, which also ties in well with Conservative Judaism today.

We struggle between Torah/halachah and the modern world. Just like Rambam suggests, it is about moderation and striking a balance between the two. As for whether the nazir is truly holy, that is something you will have to decide for yourself.

Shabbat shalom!

Behukotai 5771

by Max Bartell, 2011 USY Religion/Education Vice President International General Board

“And yet for all that, when they are in the land of their enemies, I will no reject them, neither will I abhor them, to destroy them utterly, and to break My covenant with them; for I am the LORD their God.” (Vayikra 26:44) You’ve really got to love it when no matter what, God has our back. Shabbat Shalom USY. In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Bechukotai, God really struck me as a typical Jewish parent. We all know the feeling of being constantly loved and cared for, while at the same time being scolded or reprimanded (lovingly) for doing something small. This really seems to be the overarching theme in this week’s Parsha. As part of the book of Vayikra, laws are a very common occurrence. In fact, there are Parshiot which consist only of laws. However, this week the way that these laws are given out is a little bit out of the ordinary.

God proceeds to give out a large group of laws, ranging from Shmitah (resting the fields), to taxes that must be paid to the Temple, all the way to a repetition of the Ten Commandments for the entire nation. While it may seem strange that the Ten Comandments were recited for at least a second time, many scholars see it as a logical event. It also signals that the Israelites were growing exponentially. Because of their rapid growth, there were many people who were not present in person at the first recitation, and therefore must hear the commandments at this point in order to be familiar with everything that is going on. As the clear parent figure in this situation, God wants to make sure that everyone knows exactly what is going on.

However, after the blessings and commandments are given, God feels that it is appropriate to inform the Israelites what will happen if they do not follow God’s laws and commandments. Some of the punishments are pretty graphic, but they clearly make their point. The Israelites do not disobey God’s laws. It seems like this is exactly the way that a loving and caring Jewish parent would act. In fact, I had a very similar experience with my own parents just this past weekend at my installation as Chazak Divisional President.

When I was informed that my parents were coming to my installation, I was really excited. As soon as they arrived, I left the room to see them, and was greeted by hugs and showered with compliments and congratulations (blessing part). However, the moment they finished, they began fixing my suit, tie, and hair. You know, normal things that parents do. While this may not have been anywhere near the punishments that God promised the Israelites, you get the point.  While it may sound a little odd, I think that God and my parents felt pretty much the same way. They were both very proud of their respective “children’s” goals, but at the same time they were a little hesitant. They were hesitant to let what they had worked so hard to cultivate, grow up. God was afraid for the Israelites and my parents for their son. Both my parents and God had that sense of anxiety that comes with not being able to control what happens next. Even though they didn’t know what would happen next, both my parents and God still had to let go, and hope for the best. Shabbat Shalom USY, have a restful and peaceful Shabbat 🙂

Behar 5771

by Josh Seed, 2010-11 ECRUSY Religion/Education Vice President and 2011 Religion/Education International General Board member

In today’s world of routine, we can sometimes forget the one responsible for the everyday miracles in our lives. The concept of bitachon, or trust in God, plays a critical role in Jewish thought. Just as a person should strive to observe the mitzvot, they should also try to develop a consciousness that God is actively involved in everything that we do.

This idea can be seen in this week’s parashah of Behar. The beginning of the portion reads, “The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them: When you enter the land that I assign to you, the land shall observe a sabbath of the Lord. Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield. But in the seventh year the land shall have a sabbath of complete rest, a sabbath of the Lord: you shall not sow your field or prune you vineyard.” (Vayikra 25:1-4)

Much of the parashah is devoted to a description of laws concerning shmita, or the sabbatical year, which takes place in the Land of Israel every seventh year. During shmita, the land is left to lie fallow and all agricultural activity is forbidden. In Biblical times, debts were also cancelled on the shmita year, and servants were set free.
The mitzvah of Shmita begs a very important question: What food will we eat during this seventh year of rest? God, however, assures us not to worry. “And you should ask, “What are we to eat in the seventh year if we may neither sow nor gather in our crops?” I will ordain My blessing for you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop sufficient for three years.” (Vayikra: 25:20-21)

The promise that God makes is very much like the double portion of manna that would fall before Shabbat or a holiday. In this sense, the shmita years mirrors Shabbat whose major function is to remind us that it is God who created the world and continues to maintain it. Although we all live very busy lives, we must always take a moment to stop and appreciate the miracles that we are blessed with every single day.

Emor 5771

by Nathan Dinitz, 2010-11 New Frontier USY Religion/Education Vice President

As I was reading parashat Emor, one pasuk stood out from the rest. It isn’t about the kohanim, nor the holidays, nor the man who blasphemes. It was about two mitzvot that are easily overlooked.
“When you reap the harvest of your land, do not to finish off the corners of your field when you harvest it, and do not gather up the gleaning of your harvest; for the poor and for the convert you must leave them; I am HaShem, your God.” (L. 23:22)

This verse is about two mitzvot: peah, leaving the corners of your field unpicked; and leket, not picking up the crops that drop when you harvest. We don’t get to keep it all. Instead, God commands us to leavepeah and leket for the poor to collect. This verse seems out of place because it interrupts the description of the yearly cycle of holidays. Shabbat, Pesach, waving the Omer, counting the Omer, Shavuot — next should come Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot — but before those holidays we get these harvest rules — leave the corners, and anything that drops, for the poor. What is this verse doing here?

Of course, I am not the only one who has noticed that this verse stands out. Even though this pasukmight look misplaced, several commentators say it belongs here for a reason.

Ibn Ezra (Rav Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra; 1089-1164 Spain) suggests that this pasuk belongs here, between the descriptions of the spring holidays and the fall holidays, because you need to remember about peah and leket — these harvest laws — during the summer. The summer is when you will need to observe them. We learn them here to help us actually remember to leave the corners and the dropped produce when we harvest — and not forget these mitzvot. If you don’t remember that this is the time to do these mitzvot, you might not do them.

Rashi (Rav Shlomo Yitzchaki 1040-1105; France) quotes the Tanna, Avardimas ben Yossi, who says that observing the harvest mitzvot of peah and leket is equivalent to building the Bet HaMikdash, and then offering all the korbanot of all the holidays of the whole year inside it. So, by leaving this food for the poor, one is serving God as if one had brought offerings to the Temple. We serve God by serving other people. According to Avardimas, these mitzvot are here — among the Korbanot of the holidays — to show that peah and leket are just as valuable as the whole community bringing all the holiday Korbanot.

Finally, the Meshech Chochma (Meir Simcha haKohen of Dvinsk 1843–1926; Latvia) connects Avardimas’ comment to a pasuk from Mishlei — the book of Proverbs:

“One who gives graciously to the poor makes a loan to God, and God will repay him (Proverbs 19:17).”

Building on Avardimas and Meshech Chochma, I think that the pasuk is here to remind us that because peah and leket have no shiur — no maximum amount — we should be generous in leaving the corners and dropped produce for the poor, because the poor who are going to take it might not have anything — not even enough to eat. This verse comes after the section about Shavuot — on which we read about how Boaz told his reapers to deliberately drop extra leket for Ruth to collect — and before Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur — when one is judged by HaShem. As the Meshech Chochmah reminds us, our generosity is a loan to God, and God will repay.

How can we in USY apply peah and leket? How do we share the benefits we reap from our work with those less fortunate around us? As we give to the poor, how can we remember that we’re making a loan to God? Can we be extra generous with this mitzva?

An Example: Giving to tzedakah before lighting shabbos candles each week.
Another Example: Bringing SA/TO funds to conventions with more intention and generosity.

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