You, no doubt, have noticed that life is not one uninterrupted ascent toward fulfillment and success. I'm stating the obvious here.
We don't live in straight lines. Rather, our journey in life tends to be a series of triumphs and defeats, advances and retreats, stumbles and awkward moments of brushing the dust off our bruised knees and resuming. That's how life works for me. You, too?
There is a Jewish word for this entire process of failing and trying again. We call it t'shuvah. It is a word that we associate with seeking forgiveness on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and we usually translate it as "atonement." But the Hebrew word has a slightly different nuance than the English. T'shuvah literally means "returning." We have fallen down, or gotten diverted onto the wrong path, we have recognized our error, made our amends, and returned to the right way. That is t'shuvah.
But life's stumbles are not always because of our errors, mistakes and sins. Sometimes — as the saying might go — "stuff happens." There are those moments when our lives go skidding off the road, not because of our poor driving, but because the road itself is hazardous. Surely, those are the moments when we can cry up to heaven and declare, "It's not my fault!" Right?
On the other hand, what good would that do?
When fate and the world conspire against us, and we fail as a result, the process is largely the same as it is when we are at fault. Instead of screaming, we recognize what has happened, we acknowledge any portion of the fault that is ours, and we return back to the path.
That is the process described in this week's Torah portion (Beha'alotecha) for people who, through no fault of their own, were not able to participate in the Passover ritual. In the time when the Temple stood, a person had to be in a state of ritual purity in order to offer the Paschal lamb and partake in the meal. A person who was in a state of ritual impurity because of contact with a dead body, was not permitted to perform this central ritual of the holiday.
This is what the Torah says about such a person:
There were people who were impure because of contact with a human corpse and they could not offer the Paschal sacrifice on that day. They appeared that day before Moses and Aaron. Those people said to them, "We are impure because of contact with a human corpse. Why must we be banned from presenting Adonai's offering at its set time with the rest of the Israelites?" Moses said to them, "Stand by, and I will hear what Adonai commands about you." Adonai said to Moses, "Tell the Israelites that anyone who is made impure by a human corpse, or who is on a distant journey at the time of making the Paschal sacrifice to Adonai, or if any of your future generations are in such circumstances, you shall offer it in the second month, on the fourteenth day of the month, at twilight. You shall eat it with unleavened bread and bitter herbs." (Numbers 9:6-11).
There are a number of things interesting about this passage that offers a "do over" for people who missed Passover through no fault of their own. First of all, it required a petition from those affected to establish the rule. When life throws you a setback, it is okay to advocate your cause and seek an equitable solution. But also notice that Moses asks the petitioners to wait — Moses literally tells them to "stand" while he seeks an answer to their question — and they obey in silence. Being wronged by circumstances does not excuse impatience or self-pitying complaint.
The second interesting thing here is that Moses does not know the answer to the petitioners' question. He has to ask God. According to a classical midrash (Sifre Shelach 113), this is one of the four occasions on which Moses' mastery of the law failed him and he had to consult with God for an answer. (The other incidents are concerning the inheritance of the daughters of Zelophehad in Numbers 27:5, the man who gathered wood on the Sabbath in Numbers 15:34-35, and the blasphemy of the son of Shelomith in Leviticus 24:12). There is something about faultless suffering that is hidden from human understanding. Only God knows why innocent people are punished by unfortunate circumstances, and only God can provide a solution to their plight.
I also am struck by the way that God's answer includes a situation not included in the question. The problem presented by the petitioners and by Moses only concerned people who missed the Passover offering because they were in a state of ritual impurity. God's solution, though, also includes people who were on distant journeys. God does not want us to think only about our own unfortunate circumstance, but also to have compassion for people who face different hardships. We should not plead our own case without considering those who face other difficulties.
Finally, it is interesting that the people who have been forced to miss Passover by an act of God have only one limited opportunity to make up for it. We might have expected God and Moses to say that they could offer their Paschal do-over as soon as they returned to a state of ritual purity, but that is not the case. They only can make the offering on one specific day, called Pesach Sheini
, the "Second Passover," that falls exactly one month after the first day of Passover.
What could this teach us? Perhaps it reminds us that we do not get to make up our own rules when we perceive that the rules have failed us. Life is not always fair, but that does not excuse us from acknowledging that we still have an obligation to live within boundaries.
We do get second chances in life. The Torah recognizes that, whether we are at fault or not, we all need to be able to brush ourselves off when we hit setbacks, and to try again. Even more, we should not hesitate to seek a fair resolution when life treats us unfairly. Yet, the Torah also insists that life's setbacks should not dampen our resolve to act with patience, acceptance, compassion, integrity and self-discipline. Even a do-over must be done well.
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Adult B'nei Mitzvah students make the blessing for putting on tallit before Shabbat morning services last week. (photo: Steve Rozansky)
Tonight begins the forty-ninth day of the Counting of the Omer, seven weeks. It is the day of the divine quality of Malchut within Malchut, Nobility within Nobility.
This is the last of the forty-nine gates we must pass through before entering Shavuot, the festival of the giving of the Torah. It is the day that asks us to confront the most deeply held questions about our identities: Are you living a life in which you constantly strive to take the next step in your own growth? Are you the champion of your own life?
It seems deeply appropriate to me that this week has been bookended by people who show the qualities of intentional growth and heartfelt conviction. Last Shabbat morning, twelve adult men and women from Temple Beit HaYam stood before the congregation as b'nei mitzvah—adult children of our tradition. This coming Friday night, ten young people will lead our congregation's service at their Confirmation. I have worked with both groups over the course of the last year. Although the two groups are separated by a lot of years, and by significantly different motivations, they have in common the quality that I call Jewish heroism.
A Jewish hero is not necessarily a person who scores the winning point or who runs into a burning building to save a life. In Jewish tradition, a hero is, most importantly, a person of conviction—a person who lives his or her life with dedication to doing what is right and with deep understanding that a meaningful life is spent in service to something beyond self. A Jewish hero is a person who becomes the champion of his or her own life. This is the quality of the last day of the Counting of the Omer, and it is the quality I have seen in our adult B'nei Mitzvah students and in our Confirmation students.
That's what I heard on Saturday morning as one man described how becoming a bar mitzvah was a way of fulfilling a promise he had made to himself decades earlier, when he felt inadequate to the task of saying Kaddish for his father. It is what I heard when a woman in our class talked about her grief after the murder of her son, how she was not able to recover until she learned to let go of anger and rediscover faith.
It is what our congregation will hear this Friday night from our Confirmation students. Each of them will stand before the congregation with personal statements that announce what it is they intend to confirm about themselves. Here is a small preview:
• "I would like to confirm that I will stay true to the Jewish dream. I will not let anyone tell me or make me do something that I don’t wish to."
• "I would like to confirm my place is in not just in the Jewish community, but the world. I wish to change things."
• "I am a Jew, and all of Jewish history is part of my identity. By learning our history, I confirm myself. This is who I am."
These fourteen- and fifteen-year-olds are heroes, too. They are a model for us all of living a life of conviction and spirit. As we await the giving of the Torah tomorrow night, we are encouraged to take up the challenge, as they have, to live as the heroes of our own lives.Other Posts on This Topic:Counting from Freedom to Covenant: NobilityKi Tetze: Each of Us Fights a Battle
Tonight begins the forty-eighth day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and six days. It is the day of the divine quality of Yesod within Malchut, Foundation within Nobility. Leadership should be an experience that connects one person to another. Does your authority over others keep you distant from them, or does your authority continue to emerge from connection to others?
Tonight begins the forty-seventh day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and five days. It is the day of the divine quality of Hod within Malchut, Humility within Nobility. It is difficult to remember to lower your ego when you're in charge, but it is what makes for good leaders and good leadership decisions. Do you allow authority to feed your arrogance, or are you humbled by the responsibilities of leadership?
This is the sermon I gave tonight at Temple Beit HaYam in Stuart, Florida.
Tonight's service is joyful and full. I don't want to prolong it unnecessarily, but there is something I have to talk about tonight because of what happened in Israel this morning. It was an event that marks an important shift for Israel, and perhaps for the Jewish people.
If you have ever stood at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, you know it is a place that has an intense, quiet power. Standing in front of those immense stones, some of which date back more than two thousand years to the days of the Second Temple, one feels awed. We recognize that the Wall marks a place where Jews have come to seek the closest presence of God since the time of King Solomon, three thousand years ago.
The Western Wall belongs to the Jewish people. It might, actually, be more accurate to say that every Jew belongs to what the Western Wall represents—our history, our tradition, and our search for the God who, in turn, seeks us. In all the diversity of the Jewish people — religious and secular; Reform, Conservative, Orthodox; Jews by Birth and Jews by Choice — there is not one Jew who does not share in that heritage and spiritual connection.
You probably know that the Western Wall, which should be a place that unites the Jewish people, instead has been a focus for controversy and division within the Jewish people. This morning in Jerusalem, the Western Wall again became a center of controversy as 500 women from the organization Women of the Wall came to pray at the Wall, and more than 5,000 Ultra-Orthodox Jews came to protest their presence.
First, a little history:
In 1967, Israel took control of the Western Wall during the Six Day War. Soon afterwards, A transformation began in the Wall's meaning and use. A permanent mechitza was put up to divide male and female visitors who came to Kotel, as it is called in Hebrew. Slowly, the Kotel was changed from an area of national gathering into a de facto Orthodox synagogue. A dress code was enforced at the Kotel to ensure that all men kept their heads covered and that women showed no bear shoulders. The Kotel was turned into a place where non-Orthodox Jews had to conform to somebody else’s idea of being Jewish.
Since 1988, Women of the Wall has sought to allow women to pray aloud together, read from the Torah and wear tallit at the Kotel. They do this out of conviction that they are demanding nothing less than their rights as Jewish women who live in a free society, and that they should be free to worship on sacred ground on the same equal basis as Jewish men.
For its part, the Orthodox establishment in Israel has strenuously opposed Women of the Wall, decrying that the group is primarily motivated by political opposition to the rabbinate, and not by any sincere desire to pray to God, to fulfill their religious duty, or to seek spiritual nourishment.
The conflict has made its way into debates at the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, and has prompted two decisions from the Israeli Supreme Court. In 2003, the Court gave a ruling that was interpreted as a ban on women reading from a Torah scroll or wearing tallit and tefilin if these practices constituted a threat to public safety and order. The ruling stipulated that the government should create a separate space at the nearby Robinson’s Arch, which is also part of the ancient Temple platform, at which Women of the Wall could pray.
Women of the Wall rejected that ruling, saying that it granted women only a second-class status at Judaism’s holiest site. Since then, Women of the Wall has gathered at the Kotel on Rosh Chodesh, the holiday that marks the beginning of each Jewish month, to worship together, to read publicly from the Torah and to wear talit, just as Jewish men do at the Kotel every day.
Several members of Women of the Wall have been arrested at these worship services, some for doing things that appear to be within the bounds set by the Supreme Court ruling. In 2009, Nofrat Frenkel was arrested for wearing a talit under her coat and holding a Torah scroll. Anat Hoffman, the president of Women of the Wall, has been arrested, fingerprinted and interrogated several times for her participation in women-led services at the Kotel. She also has been fined thousands of shekels and banned from appearing at the Kotel for periods of time. In recent months, several other women have been arrested at Women of the Wall services, including two American rabbis.
At each of these events, ultra-orthodox protestors have appeared to shout down the Women of the Wall worshippers, to throw rocks at them, and to call them every vile name that is usually reserved for Israel's worst enemies. The police generally sided with the protestors, allowing their abuse while arresting members of the Women of the Wall.
One has to ask: Who in this conflict has lost track of what Jewish tradition teaches? Who are the righteous and who are the ones who are truly desecrating God’s name at Judaism’s holiest site?
Last month, however, there was a watershed moment for Women of the Wall. A Jerusalem district court ruled that there was nothing in the 2003 Supreme Court decision that prohibited the services led by Women of the Wall at the Kotel. The court ruled that the women had every right to worship and should not be arrested. Rather, the court ruled, the police had an obligation to restrain and, if necessary, to arrest ultra-orthodox protestors who harassed Women of the Wall worshippers.
This morning was the first time that ruling was put to the test. Five hundred Women of the Wall came for services to mark the beginning of the Jewish month of Sivan, which began last night at sundown. In anticipation, two ultra-orthodox leaders, one of them a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, called upon ultra-orthodox women to come to the Wall to block out Women of the Wall. While these leaders called for peaceful protest, the scene at the Kotel this morning was anything but peaceful. Protestors threw rocks and spit upon women praying in their talitot and reading from Torah.
This time, the police acted differently. They formed a human shield to keep back the protesters and to protect the Women of the Wall. When the protestors threw trash, water bottles and chairs at the women, three ultra-Orthodox men were arrested for disorderly conduct.
How does this all play out in Israeli society? It’s hard to say. Most secular Israelis don’t care one way or the other about who gets to pray at the Kotel or what they are allowed to wear. However, Israeli society seems to have reached a saturation point regarding the license the Orthodox rabbinate has enjoyed for 65 years to control the lives of the non-religious. Israelis are sick of a rabbinate that controls their weddings and funerals. Also, most Israelis are disgusted by the fact that ultra-orthodox men are exempt from army service on the pretext that they are serving the nation by studying Torah. Israelis are ready to change the power that the rabbinate and the ultra-orthodox have over them. The recent district court decision in favor of Women of the Wall likely is a result of the shift in power and greater public disapproval of the ultra-orthodox.
And what does this tell us about the way religious zealotry and liberty plays out in our American society? We, too, live in a country in which a minority claims the right to control the lives of others based on their fundamentalist religious beliefs. Whether it is over the issue of reproductive rights, same-sex marriage, or prayer in school, we, too, live in a society in which some people use their religion as a cudgel against others.
Perhaps we need to spread the message of Women of the Wall here. When others speak about promoting “religious views” on current social issues, we should be ready to say, “We are religious people, too, and our views are also ‘religious views.’” That is part of what it means to live in a free society.
Bravo to Women of the Wall for their courage in fighting for their religious rights and their rights as human beings at the Kotel, at the Western Wall. They stood up against a fundamentalist religious establishment and insisted that they are religious people, too, and they have the right to be the kind of Jews they want to be.
And bravo to us, too, when we stand up for our religion and insist that no one should tell us what we must believe or do to fulfill our obligations to God as we see them. We will keep saying that our vision of Judaism is strong. It commands us to see each person as being created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and it commands us to see men and women created as equals, with dignity and freedom for all.
Tonight begins the forty-sixth day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and four days. It is the day of the divine quality of Netzach within Malchut, Endurance within Nobility. The most important leadership we exercise in life is our leadership over our own lives. Be courageous! Strive unceasingly to reveal the highest within yourself!
Tonight begins the forty-fifth day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and three days. It is the day of the divine quality of Tiferet within Malchut, Balance within Nobility. Rising to our highest selves requires discernment, self-reflection and balance. Is there balance and harmony in the way you lead others? Are you clear with people about what you want from them? Are you clear with yourself about your vision and goals?
Tonight begins the forty-fourth day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and two days. It is the day of the divine quality of Gevurah within Malchut, Discipline within Nobility. All forms of power and authority require the rigorous application of self-discipline. Do you guard against misusing your authority as a parent, a teacher, a supervisor, and as a leader? Do you help others develop their own leadership potential by restraining your use of power?
Tonight begins the forty-third day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks and one day. It is the day of the divine quality of Chesed within Malchut, Love within Nobility. It is not possible to truly preside a meeting, teach a class, organize a community, or run a company without some measure of loving the people you lead. Ask yourself: Am I gracious and caring for others in the ways I exhibit leadership? Do I use authority in ways that nurture compassion?
Tonight begins the forty-second day of the Counting of the Omer, six weeks. It is the day of the divine quality of Malchut within Yesod, Nobility within Foundation. It is in our relationship with others that we find our own highest self. Are all of your relationships dignified? Do they enhance your ability to take ownership of your life? Do you draw the highest qualities out of others?