Shabbat BaMidbar

Shabbat Candles - Friday, May 18th @ 7:49pm
Shavuot Candles - Saturday, May 19th @ 8:45pm
Shavuot - Sunday, May 20th and Monday, May 21st
Services Sunday and Monday @ 9:30am

We start the fourth book of the Torah Bamidbar (The Desert) optimistically with preparations to invade Canaan. But sadly, the Children of Israel are turned back to spend forty years wandering in the desert. Those forty years are passed over very quickly with little comment. There are several lessons. In life one often faces setbacks. Things do not always work out the way we expect. But if we maintain our vision and long term goals, spending time rebuilding our confidence may be painful, but the process can be curative. We should not despair. Even setbacks, or periods of retrenchment, that seem negative, can be beneficial in the end. Whether the challenges come from our own failings or from irrational hatred and prejudice, even if the whole world seems to be against us, a period in the desert, BaMidbar, may do us a lot of good.

Shavuot, like all Biblical festivals, has three levels of meaning. The first is the agricultural, the harvest festival and first fruits which played such an important part of ancient life. But are just as important nowadays in providing us with food. Even if we ‘rich world’ city dwellers take it all for granted and have little idea of what farm life is really like. One is at the mercy of nature. Good harvests may be followed by terrible ones. That is why the need for spiritual support becomes crucial. Both in the hopes of avoiding disaster and in praying for nature to function normally. We take all this for granted most of the time.

Secondly, there is the national dimension. Shavuot is the anniversary of receiving the Torah on Sinai. Regardless of when or how it happened, it is our constitution. Our contribution to the world. Our lifeline as the core of our Jewish identity.

And finally, the personal, the need to value every moment of our lives. To be aware, alert and proactive. We have counted 49 days since Pesah, seven weeks. Self-awareness, by making every day count, every day of our lives important, to grow as people, to strive to be better. This is why counting the days to Shavuot is a discipline that helps train us to think more. This is Shavuot’s message as well.


Shabbat Behar & Behukotai

Candles - May 11th @ 7:42 pm
Havdalah - May 12th @ 8.38pm
Mevarhin Rosh Hodesh Iyar

This week adds a new ethical imperative, a law against hurting other human beings. The prohibition of Ona’ah. Making someone else suffer either through actions, unfair business activities or abusive language. Both in this regard and in last weeks “Love Your Neighbor As Yourself” the sentence concludes with the declaration “I Am God.” In other words, we should do something that is right because God said so, not because we think so.

Why and how do we decide that something is right?

Two English thinkers, Jeremy Bentham and John Stuart Mill developed the idea of Utilitarianism, that seeking good for a society requires that something, some action will benefit the greatest number within a society. But in his book “Utilitarianism” Mill goes further and says that those actions are right in the degree to which they promote happiness. And wrong if they tend to produce the reverse of happiness. Happiness is intended to give pleasure, and the absence of pain; and unhappiness is pain, and the denial of pleasure. This was how the American Declaration of Independence came to include the words"Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

But what is happiness? Many people interpret it differently. And sometimes doing the right thing does not make one happy. Like visiting a sick person in a hospital. And if we take avoiding pain literally we will never have an inoculation or an operation. As for pleasure, some take pleasure in harming others. Should we go by what the majority wants? That too can be dangerous. Most Germans were in favor of killing Jews barely 80 years ago. What about those who think it is good to destroy Israel? This why many thinkers tried to modify utilitarianism to talk about benefit rather than pleasure. But then who decides on benefit? Stalin? Mao? Pol Pot?

This why the Torah says that loving one’s neighbor and not oppressing another human should not be done because they make sense, or benefit us in return. But because there is an objective code, from a force greater than human beings and what humans think is right. We need God. We need a standard that cannot be fiddled with.


Shabbat Emor

Candles - May 5th @ 7:35pm
Havdalah - May 5th @ 8:31pm

Morning Service @ 9:30am
Mothers Day parents and children Shabbat
lunch (11:45am) and play

The part of the Torah we read this week is also the one we most commonly have on festivals. It contains is the most comprehensive of all the lists of festivals in the Torah.

The list of festivals starts off with Shabbat. But the Torah also calls all festivals a Shabbat. Yom Kipur is Shabbat Shabbaton, the Shabbat of all Shabbatot. The Jewish calendar is marked by months and years. But also, by weeks and days. The list includes the command to count the days and weeks of the Omer from Pesah to Shavuot which we are in the middle of now. Seven weeks, forty-nine days.

Each festival brings a new experience. Just as Shabbat is a break in our weekly lives, so festivals introduce some new seasonal or historical experience. Concerned with recognizing nature and our historical tradition. The Omer is clearly agricultural, seasonal. The time from the barley harvest till the wheat. But why is it so important today?

I think it is because the Omer introduces us to another layer of spirituality. There are the big events, the major festivals. In between, we mark the months. All of this s to make us more aware, of nature, our lives and the need to break routines. But how do we measure our days? Shabbat is important to ensure that we have one spiritual day in our weeks. What about every other day? Isn’t every day important in its own way? The whole business of counting, every evening for forty-nine evenings, forty-nine, days reminds us to remember and to value our days, every day.

As with most things, we know it all in theory. The Torah pushes us to do something to show we know, we care and we value. Every little day. Not just the big ones.

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