parshat shelach - The Power of Words

This post is dedicated in memory of Shlomo ben Aryeh Zalman. May it be an aliyah for his neshama.

By Shoshana Rosa
 taken from torahinmotion

In this week's Torah portion we find out why the Jews ended up wandering in the desert for forty years before finally entering the promised land. And it's not because men don't like asking for directions.

In Parshat Shelach, we learn about the importance of guarding one's tongue from evil speech. How? G-d sentenced the Jewish nation to thirty eight years in the desert for speaking badly about Israel. A four decade time out is not something to sneeze at. Why did G-d take such strong action against a few negative words?

At this point in the desert saga (two years after our Exodus from Egypt) the Jews had already received the Torah, built the mishkan (tabernacle) and  lived through the census: everyone was tensed for the entering into and conquering Israel. However, before Moshe could give the signal, he answered Bnei Yisrael's (the Jews') request for information first. Therefore, Moshe plucked, from the cream of the crop, meraglim (spies) for dealing with the task of stealing into the holy land and collecting tidbits on its topography, inhabitants and the defensive layout of its cities. "You shall see what kind of land it is and the kind of people who inhabit it: are they strong or weak? Are they few or many?" (Numbers 13:18).  

Forty days later, the meraglim returned to the waiting nation lugging a cluster of grapes between them as proof of the land's agricultural potential. A buzz of excitement went up betwixt the people who had been waiting for news. Then, something unexpected happened. Ten out of the group of twelve spies announced, "We have both good news and bad news. The land of Israel is indeed a place teeming with milk and honey. But the people who inhabit the land are mighty, their cites are strong and fortified. We saw the sons of the giants and in our eyes we seemed as grasshoppers next to them and so, it seemed, we appeared in their eyes" (Numbers 13:27-33). 

When the nation heard their ten tribal leaders' words, instead of shouting with joy over what they had assumed would be good news, they raised their voices and wept. 'If we had only died in Egypt. If we had only perished in this barren desert! It's not too late; let us reappoint a leader and return to Egypt!" (Numbers 14:2-4).

Joshua and Caleb, the two remaining spies, sought to placate the nation. Joshua reminded them that there is a G-d and He runs the show, "If the L-rd desires it, we will conquer the land." Joshua warned them, raising his finger, "Just don't rebel against Him and then you will have nothing to fear."  The Jews responded to this plea with threats and an offer to pelt them with stones if they didn't stop talking. Unfortunately, this reaction did not sit well with G-d and thus, the Jews were given their forty year timeout.

One of the running themes in the Jewish faith is the power of words. For instance, in last week's parsha, Moshe's sister, Miriam, gets struck with Tzara'as (roughly translated as leprosy) for speaking loshon hara (a form of none too complementary speech) about Moshe. These two events, that of Miriam's punishment and the admonition Hashem gave the meraglim in this week's Parsha, are written in direct sequence to show us the seriousness of embarrassing our fellow man etc.

In addition, although Moshe is known for being the humblest being who ever lived, he was called G-d's, the king's, servant, and since an insult to the servant of a king is tantamount to insulting the king, G-d reacted to Bnei Yisrael's behavior accordingly. This principle can also be applied to the land of Israel. Every country in the world is under the supervision of an angel. Israel, however, is guided by G-d. Anyone who rags on Israel is insulting G-d. Ah, now one can understand why a slight made against his family or friends would sting. Guide your words with care. 

Parshat Behaalotecha - Rectifying Past Mistakes

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By Shoshana Rosa

Taken from Menorah

This week's Parshat Behaalotecha touches upon many topics; however, one theme that stands out is the consequences  of the sin with the golden calf in Parshat Ki Sisa. The first born lose their chance to be part of the service in the mishkan. Instead, the service is given entirely to the Leviites. 

Let's recap what happened at the sin of of the golden calf: the Jews accepted the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Immediately after, Moshe ascended the mountain to receive further explanation. He left the nation with the directive: "Don't do anything stupid. I'll be back in forty days." Although we managed to stay on the bandwagon for the first thirty-nine, by day forty, we played into the Satan's hands. He convinced us to build a golden calf and then, talked us into worshiping it. It was a terrible mistake from which we are still suffering the after effects. 

Now, where does the theme of dealing with the consequences of one's actions have a voice in Behaalotech's Torah portion? To start: originally, every tribe's first born sons were given the honor of being part of the service in the mishkan. However, after the sin of the golden calf, this plan was rescinded. Instead, every role in the service was handed over to the tribe of Levi. Therefore, this week's parsha spells out the initiation of the son's of Levi into the mishkan service. Some of the first born among the other tribes must have looked on with cheeks glowing in shame and envy. 

Why not just forgive them, though? Isn't missing out on the temple service too great a price to pay? No, what they did was too serious. When the Jews worshiped the golden calf, G-d declared, "If the men in My nation are going to serve foreign G-ds, I am not willing for these same people to serve me in My earthly dwelling." 

There is one phrase in particular that hints at how the Levi'im were meant to atone for the first born groups. Moshe tells Aharon, "Take the Leviites from among the Jewish nation and cleanse them. ...Sprinkle them with the cleansing waters and pass a razor over all their flesh..." (Numbers 8:6-7). What's the correlation between shaving and atonement? Rashi, a famous commentary from the 11th century, answers, "A person who served idols was considered dead. It just so happens that one who was inflicted with tzra'as (roughly translated as leprosy) was also considered dead. Therefore, he had to be sent out of the encampments until he had healed (otherwise he'd infest everyone with his contagion). When he was ready he returned to the camps and was put through a purification process. This process included running a razor over his entire figure and therefore, we run a razor over the Levi'ites bodies to atone for the first born among Bnei Yisrael (the Jews') who sinned with the golden calf as well." 

We sinned with the golden calf after the Sinai event because we failed to perceive G-d's presence. G-d had shown us when He bequeathed us with His Torah, namely, that He is the ruling power and no one else. In the introduction to Mesilas Yisharim (path of the just), the author, the Ramchal warns, "Do not be like one who dances between two opinions." This means, do not allow yourself to become stuck between two contrasting ideals; it shows lack of clarity. When we worshiped an idol we became akin to one who dances between two opposing forces and in the end, we served that which is considered dead i.e. idols. 

How can one avoid this from happening? Integrity. Keep your word and the word will keep you. When we are careful with our speech, we are using our faculties as humans to live properly. Therefore, we will have an easier time placing our faith in G-d.           

EmunaDating: Don't Over Inflate

By Jackie Ross

We've talked previously about other character traits and how they are crucial for dating (or at least dating successfully). One under-appreciated character trait is that of being humble and not arrogant. The two are related, so let us explore them together.

There is a famous quote said by the Duchess of Windsor, "You can never be too rich or too thin." The Rambam, a well respected Torah commentator, would not agree with the Duchess. He wrote around 1,000 years ago that you should never be too extreme in any direction - with one exception. The only thing you can never be too much of is humble. His source for this is from the Torah (Bamidbar 12:3), which calls Moshe Rabbeinu 'very humble'. This doesn't mean not appreciating the gifts that you have and the unique impact that only YOU can have on the world. It means not having an over inflated sense of who you are. There is a story of a guy who complained to his rabbi that he felt that the other people in their shul were always stepping on his toes. The rabbi replied to him, "Check the size of your feet." It's only when we think we are more important than we are, that we can feel slighted or demeaned. This doesn't mean diminishing the greatness that each one of us possesses. One of the biggest Rabbis of the last generation, Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who was the last word on Jewish law has many stories told about him, where he was always patient and would answer people's questions, but on a few occasions people tried to outsmart him or otherwise make themselves seem like they knew more than the rav. In these cases he had no problem calmly saying, "You are wrong, I know what I'm talking about." That ended the disagreement because the other person was able to immediately realize they were wrong. If someone is humble, you can see their gifts clearly. As an example, if someone is 6 feet tall, they don't have to go around announcing it, people will see. But an arrogant person is one who is 5'2'' and goes around trying to convince everyone he is 6 feet. He is arrogant and of course no one will take him seriously. He is fooling no one but himself.

The question is, what does this have to do with dating? I will answer this with another question, as is the Jewish way. What do the first two of the Ten Commandments mean for us today? (For those who need a refresher, they are: I am G-d who took you out of Egypt and You are not allowed to have any other god.) A Rabbi once explained it to me like this, what the first two commandments are saying is, "I am G-d, you are not." It's about our ability to recognize that we are not everything in life. This is why the Torah says that one who is arrogant has no room for G-d. If you are so filled with the idea that you know everything, where does that leave room for G-d? Here we find the answer we've been looking for. If a person is arrogant, there will be no room for a relationship with anyone else, be it G-d or a spouse. The other person is at best a prop not a partner, some sort of accoutrement that enhances the status of the haughty person

If you think you know more than anyone else, you will be missing out on the many opportunities G-d gives us every day to grow and learn. This is also considered to be why Rabbi Akiva's students died during the period of time we have already discussed, Sefirat Haomer. Relationships are about two people coming together to become a couple, a new entity and something greater than the sum of its parts.

So how do we find people without arrogance and with humility? Avoid anyone who spends too much time talking about themselves and their accomplishments. Anyone trying to make themselves seem like they are more than they really are. Arrogant people may seem charismatic at first, and you'll feel special that they want to spend time with you, but this is inevitably unsustainable. Eventually you'll recognize they aren't as great as they think they are, and then you're stuck in a relationship that will be uncomfortable to get out of. Don't automatically dismiss people who aren't focused on being the center of attention or self-promotion. What may seem boring at first, could, upon deeper inspection be a quiet confidence, which is easy to admire and lasting. It's not always easy to find, but when you do, you won't have to look any longer.

Shavuot: Crossing the Finish Line

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah                                                               for her neshama.
By Shayna Hulkower

Shavuot, taken from United with Israel
After 38 consecutive days of successfully remembering to count the Omer, I dropped the ball. I didn't just drop the ball, I punctured a hole in it - two nights in a row I forgot to count. I had prided myself for disconnecting from my cellphone - two whole days away from it! What I neglected to take into account is that it also meant two days away from my alarm reminding me to count. Dejected, I decided to put the whole omer counting thing behind me, and just wait for its climax, Shavuot. After a day or two, something started to gnaw at me - was it really appropriate to just give up? If we spend seven weeks counting up to the holiday, was there still something I could gain from continuing to count, even if it didn't 'count' anymore?

Shavuot means 'weeks', which would seem to imply that on this day we are celebrating the previous seven week count-up - Sefirat HaOmer. During this period the Jews in the Midbar were trying to break free from their slave mentality of the Egyptian Exile. For 49 days they worked on themselves in order to be able to receive the Torah, the wisdom within it, and really become Am Yisrael. As you'll recall from everyone's favorite Pesach Seder song, Dayeinu, it ends with "If He had brought us to Mount Sinai without giving us the Torah, it would have been enough." Every year I'm left skeptical and slightly cynical - after all the work the Jews put in to being able to receive the Torah, it would have been cool if it never happened? In addition, Rav Dessler says that receiving the Torah was not merely a one-time event. Rather, every generation receives the Torah anew. In fact, every person every hour is capable of experiencing their own Mattan Torah. I wasn't sure how to reconcile these two ideas.

I started to think about what it means to work on yourself in order to be fit to receive the Torah. Shavuot isn't given a specific date as other holidays are. It is simply referred to as '50 days after Pesach', further implying that these intermediary days are significant. What is it that the Jews were working on during this period? We've already said that it was to be comfortable with the idea that they were a free people, but anything that has occurred in the Torah is applicable to us today, so I started to think about what that means in modern terms. There are a million ways this could be interpreted, but I like to think it means a remembrance that we aren't slaves to our bad habits and addictions - the things we think control our lives. 

Every time we put in the tiniest amount of effort to break free of these habits, we are improving ourselves just as the Jews in the desert were. Whether it's refraining from speaking gossip, passing on that extra cookie, or refraining from lighting a cigarette, we are reminding ourselves that we are in control. It is through these actions that we assert our freedom and our ability to do what is right, even if it's hard.

I finally felt like I understand what it all means. It wasn't the receiving of the Torah that was the main event, it was the effort put into being fit for receiving it. It's about the effort we put into ourselves, not just during the Sefirat HaOmer, but every day of the year. The little changes in our behavior slowly add up, until before we know it we quit smoking, lost 10 lbs, or broke free of whatever vice we were enslaved to. Now, as a non-smoker, we are different people, and as a different person we are able to appreciate the Torah in a different way - to see insights we skipped over before and to otherwise appreciate the same words with a new set of eyes.

With this in mind, I resumed my count. It's not about the fact that I dropped the ball, it's about having the strength and determination to pick it back up, to keep running until I cross the finish line, even when I know that I'm out of the running (or mixing metaphors). Shavuot is about celebrating the clarity that comes when you know that you're free. With this realization, I finally got that line from Dayeinu - with this freedom it would have been enough. We didn't have to receive the Torah because we accomplished what we needed to, But that fact that we did, well I think that calls for a celebration.

Shavuot: Pulling an All-Nighter for the Right Reasons

This post is dedicated in memory of Etya Sarah bat Yitzchak ha-Levi. May it be an aliyah for her neshama. 
By Samantha Hulkower

Most Jewish holidays have some odd custom that perhaps we don't understand, but aren't really weirded out by it enough to not do it (such as eating a fish head on Rosh Hashana). 
Hag HaKatzir (harvest festival)
Shavuot has a custom that is more familiar to college students than the rest of us - staying up all night learning. This was first done by Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai over 2,000 Years ago and then gained popularity again 400 years ago when the practice was resumed by the famed Kabbalist of Tzfat, the Arizal. Their motive was to make amends for (known as a Tikkun in Jewish parlance) the fact that the Jews overslept the morning they were supposed to receive the Torah. 
How could 3 million Jews just oversleep like that, especially after they had been preparing for this the past 49 days?! There are numerous explanations given, but there is one that especially resonates with me. Not only had the Jews been preparing themselves to receive the Torah in the weeks since they left Egypt on Passover, but those efforts were put into overdrive when Moses told them that in 3 days time the big day was going to happen. He also gave them a few extra tasks to do to help get ready. The Jewish people had been working so hard for so long, that when the day finally came, they overslept. Hasn't that happened to most of us? We spend so much time working on a report, or getting our house ready for guests, or some big, exciting event, and when we get a second to recoup, we crash. 

Life is often compared to a marathon, something we have to learn to pace ourselves in order to get through. If you're sprinting every time you have a big project in front of you, especially if you try to cram everything in the last few days before it's due, you're likely to collapse the second you stop running. You might want to give your all in order to have the best power point, or most delicious spread for your dinner party, but if you're too exhausted to give the presentation to your boss with enthusiasm, or to make it through dinner without yawning at your guests, was all that sprinting worth it? Shavuot is a reminder that the quality, and not just quantity, of preparation we do is important. It's especially easy before a big Jewish holiday, so when the time comes we're too tired to really enjoy what is going on around us.

This week, take some time to consider how you might fall into this trap, and ways to avoid it. It might seem like more time and effort to plan things out, but in the end, you'll have more time and energy for your project. And who knows, with enough preparation, you'll be able to join your friends staying up all night to learn, and not fall asleep in your cheesecake!

Yashar LaChayal

The majesty of the Western Wall

Nefesh B'Nefesh