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Parshas Mattos-Masei: Refinement Through Travel

Parshas Mattos-Masei: Refinement Through Travel

It seems that we have spent most of our life on the road.  And although we have been parked here in Adelaide for a few years now and love it, we still make travel a part of our lifestyle.  Even if we can only take a day trip, or a trip for a few days, we love to travel.  Rabbi Ben and I each spent years traveling on our own before we met – and continued traveling after we got married.  Maybe it’s just ingrained. Maybe it’s just part of who we are.

Sadly, many people accuse chronic travelers of running away from something.  Surely we keep on the move because something is chasing us or because we don’t want to face reality!  Well our time in Adelaide has proven to us both a few fundamental truths – especially these: we are capable of facing “reality”… and we still love travel.

You see, travel is a process of internal refinement.  I remember my first solo journeys in Europe at age 19.  I stayed only in hotels or very nice hostels, places I felt were safe for a teenage girl traveling alone.  By the time I met Rabbi Ben 5 years later, I was a much more savvy world traveler.  Female and alone in South America, I didn’t book my hotels in advance. I stayed in hostels for $5/night, with no hot water and no heating, even in the bitter cold.  I had toughened up.

India, which I traveled with Rabbi Ben just a couple months after our wedding, is the ultimate destination if you are seeking personal awareness and growth.  Whatever your mishegas is, India will rub at your sore spot until it is red and raw, until you can stand it no more.  Even little aspects of your personality that you did not know about will surface, blazing, for the world to see.   If you want to know yourself and have the chance to grow as a person and work on yourself, I recommend you go to India.

So it is no surprise to me that this week’s parsha focuses on the journeys made by the Jews.  Travel is a process of internal growth and refinement.  The Jews spent 38 years in one spot – which means that in just 2 years, the Jews moved 41 times.  How grueling and uncomfortable that must have been! To pack and unpack, to wander in the desert, unsure of when and where you will arrive… and, once arriving, to never know when you will be told to pack up and hit the road!  Imagine how tired they must have been, hot and cold, hungry and thirsty from the way, the diverted routes, the lost luggage.  It sounds a lot like some journeys I have taken!

But imagine also how they must have grown.  Being tired, hot, and hungry, their worst middos would have surfaced, making them aware of their own limitations, pushing them to improve themselves.  So many times I have been in that position, hot and sweaty, tired, hungry, and thirsty, sitting on a dusty train or rickety bus, feeling grouchy, but consciously restraining myself from saying a mean word to a fellow passenger, or to my husband.  Noting my discontent and maintaining an awareness that I must not say what is on my mind because it is not rational, not fair, not just, and just plain not the Torah thing to do is the way I can grow as a person, improve myself, and stretch myself to higher spiritual heights.

Because that’s what personal refinement is, a working to become closer to G-d.  In Judaism our goal is to emulate G-d, to become more and more like Him, in whose image we are spiritually created.  It is striving to meet our potential.  But if we are never stretched, if we are never challenged, we will never know who we truly are deep inside, and so will not be able to overcome our own personal issues to become better people.

This week, let us all work on our own journeys of personal and spiritual growth.

Shabbat shalom!

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Gay Pride, Jewish Gay Pride and the Torah’s View

This week gay marriage was approved as a constitutional right in the United States.  Homosexual couples can now get married and divorced, adopt children, get tax benefits, and inherit from one another just like heterosexual couples. Reactions to this news have been mixed.  Many people are in the streets celebrating their “gay pride.”  Yet many people are also protesting and calling these same people sinners and abominations.

Judaism specifically prohibits homosexual acts not only to the Jew but to all mankind. It is one of the seven Noachide Laws, included under the prohibition immoral sexual behavior.

Consider that of all things G-d felt important for mankind to live by, a proper code of sexual conduct was one of them. The Noachide laws include: do not murder, do not steal, and do not be cruel to animals. Thus, from a G-dly perspective homosexuality is a serious issue.

However, in reference to gay acts the Torah uses the word toeva which means an abomination. The Torah also uses the same word referencing a man who divorces his wife of a second marriage and returns to marry his first wife – this too is an abomination to G-d. However, using only our own logic, we could say it is beautiful how he realized the depth of his love for his first wife and returned to her.

It is also important to realize that G-d’s commandments are for us, not for G-d alone. What difference would it make to G-d if we stole from each other or killed one another?

If a person and animal are happy together, a brother and sister, parent and child, minor and adult, and any polyamorous relationships, it is easy to ask what harm is being done. Why can’t they be together if they love each other?

Also, why not allow death duels if both parties are happy? Who are we to intervene with intertribal stealing that has been going on millennia? Why should we stop someone from committing suicide? It’s their life after all!

But it is the deeper unseen realm that can have catastrophic effects on man, which only G-d can see. Sometimes what we see as progression is regression. We all want to believe we are living in an advanced society and no longer holding to backward codes of practice. We no longer stone criminals or conduct public hangings. But are we truly an advanced society when we can give a murderer like Martin Bryant a 1035 year sentence for killing 35 people and injuring 23 others in a shooting spree in Tasmania?  Maybe it’s a good thing people don’t live to a thousand years.

I’m not advocating we stone people or suggesting whether or not gay pride is going forward or backwards, but we must be aware how true our progressive thinking is.

So how should we as Jews handle the news from America?

There are several points to consider:

  • Science currently shows that homosexual attraction is biologically different in the brain.  Science suggests that like the color of one’s skin, it cannot be changed.  But unlike skin color, which has no bearing on anyone’s actions or nature, homosexual attraction can and does lead to homosexual acts, which are explicitly forbidden by Torah law.
  • In Judaism, we are meant to show compassion for others and to judge them favorably.  Yet, we must actively discourage Torah violations.
  • Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) teaches that we cannot understand another person’s struggles unless we have lived their life.

The conclusion we can draw from these somewhat conflicting points is that we can neither condone such behavior nor should we condemn the individual.  Judaism cannot endorse gay pride any more than we could endorse kleptomaniac pride.  Yet even while we are clear on our moral standards, we should approach gay people with compassion and a willingness to help them overcome their own personal challenges should they choose, just as we would with any individual, no matter what they feel challenged with.

In turn, homosexual Jews (and non-Jews) should not flaunt their homosexuality.  It is the difference between a Jew who says, “I eat pork even though I know I really shouldn’t,” and the Jew who says, “I’m a proud Jew attending a Yom Kippur Lunch where roast pig on a spit is being served.”

The problem with embracing and celebrating gay pride goes beyond just supporting others in their violation of a biblical commandment. Once we begin to actively support something that is morally wrong, suddenly other morally wrong actions don’t seem that bad.

Take this week’s parsha for example.  The Jewish men sin sexually with Moabite and Midianite women.  That seems bad enough, but they actually do it fully in public view – they are not ashamed.  From that immoral behavior, they then begin to worship other gods.  One act of immorality in which they took pride eventually led to other sins, as well as to a massive plague.

As Jews, it is our obligation to be a light unto the nations and sometimes that means standing up for what the Torah teaches is right even if the rest of the world is against it.

With the above all said, there is a deeper underlying issue which is not about gay pride celebrating their marriage rights. The question is, what does marriage mean?

One upon a time marriage was a sacred act performed as a religious ceremony. It still is today for many people in diverse cultures. But in the West, marriage for many has become more of a formality than anything else.

After we married in Israel and returned to the United States, rather than a lengthy and expensive process of translating our Israeli marriage certificate and going to court to have our marriage recognized, we paid a marriage celebrant in Virginia $50, and with a fifteen minute ceremony we were married again. If we were in Las Vegas perhaps we could have done it in five minutes at a drive through ceremony.

Perhaps what is going on is: those who see marriage as a sacred union under G-d between a man and a woman, are against gay marriage. Those who see marriage as a mere formality are fine with gay people marrying, and in a way they are right.  If two people regardless of their sex or sexual orientation want to inherit one another and receive tax breaks and the like then why not?

Please G-d may we merit divine revelation and truth in our time.

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Parshas Chukas: Putting Family First

Parshas Chukas: Putting Family First

Have you ever noticed that often the people who have the biggest problems in their own lives are the ones who spend their lives fixing other peoples’ lives?  Social workers, therapists, and psychiatrists have a reputation of having the most messed up relationships and families.

At first glance, this doesn’t seem to make sense.  But then again, maybe it does.  After all, aren’t we all better at giving advice than taking it?  We have a better vantage point from farther away: When we are outside of the relationship, family, or life, we can tell what needs to be done.  The general finds it easier to lead his troops if he is watching the battleground from up above on a hill than if he is down in the fray.   But when we are the soldier down in the battle, we do not have the same clarity of vision to know what to do next.

Therein lies the solution to the “parah adumah” paradox.  The parah adumah is the red heifer whose ashes remove spiritual impurity from one who has had contact with a corpse.  Ironically, these same ashes render the priest who administers them spiritually impure himself.  It doesn’t make sense that something should purify one person but render another person impure.

But if we view it as a metaphor for the purity of our relationships with one another, it begins to make more sense.  A psychologist, for instance, can view another person’s relationship, identify the problems, and tell how to fix them.  But in doing so, the psychologist takes on a bit of those problems himself.  The stress of curing other peoples’ problems constantly can place a big strain on a person, leaving no resources left over for dealing with his own problems at home.

Perhaps this is why the rabbis had to specify an order for the giving of tzedaka (charity), starting with one’s own family and radiating out from there.  Often it is tempting for us to use our far-away vantage point to place all our energy into helping others, while neglecting the problems that are, literally, right under our noses.

Pirkei Avos tells us to bring the poor into our home.  But if we neglect our own families in order to help others, we will find that we become the poor ones.  Always remember, tzedaka begins in the home.

Shabbat shalom!

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Parshas Vayera: Don’t Look Back

Parshas Vayera: Don’t Look Back

Change is hard.  Most of us are comfortable in our lives and our lifestyles.  It is no wonder that we find it hard to leave things behind.  A cruel boss, a toxic friendship, and a bad habit are all things we need to cut out of our lives but find hard to.  But even on a simpler level, we find it difficult to walk away.  How many times has a conversation with a group of friends turned to gossip or another subject that makes you uncomfortable, but you found yourself unable to turn around and walk away?

Change is really important for progress, advancement, and growth.  But that doesn’t make it easy to let go of the past.  Usually, when we make a change, whether it is breaking off a bad relationship or walking away from a conversation, we find it hard to sever our ties completely, even though that is the best thing to do.

In this week’s parsha, Sodom and Gemorrah are destroyed.  Of the two cities, the only people to survive are Lot and his family.  As they fled, they were given but one instruction: Don’t look back; you can never look back.  Nevertheless, Lot’s wife gave in to temptation and turned around to look back. As a result, she was turned into a pillar of salt.

How often are we turned into pillars of salt?  How often do we decide to make a change, only to turn back and end up feeling uncertain, rooted to the spot in a pillar of indecision?  This is not the way to make a change.

When we make a change, we must do so wholeheartedly.  We have to decide the best course of action, the right thing to do, and then pursue it with our whole selves.  We must flee Sodom without ever looking back.

This week, think about something in your life that needs to change.  What action can you take to make it happen?  Then take it! And, most importantly, keep your eyes on the prize, on your destination, and never look back.

Shabbat shalom!

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Parshas Lech Lecha: Everything in Life is a Test

Parshas Lech Lecha: Everything in Life is a Test

There once was a very wealthy, charitable, and highly respected man who would travel once a year to see his rebbe and get his blessing.  Every year on that Shabbos, everyone would treat him with the utmost respect and he would always get the most honored aliyah in the Shabbat service.  However, he was not just treated with respect because he was such a giving man; he was also treated with respect because people were a bit afraid of him, for he had the reputation of having a very bad temper.

One year, he went to his rebbe and said, “Rebbe, I have a problem and I need help. I have a problem with anger, and I cannot control my temper.” “There is no problem,” his rebbe replied. “But Rebbe,” he asked, “isn’t it considered very bad under Torah law to be angry? And I am always getting angry.” “It is not a problem,” his rebbe said again.  So, confused though he was, the man left his audience with the rebbe and trusted in his words.

After he left, the rebbe called in the gabbai of the shul and told him that instead of his usual honor, this man should receive the “honor” of tying the cover on the Torah scroll, something that children usually did. The gabbai was afraid and knew that the man would be very angry, so he thought he had better warn him.  He called him in and told him what the rebbe had said was to happen during the Shabbat service.

During the Shabbat service, everyone in the shul gasped when this prestigious man was passed over during the aliyot.  They all looked at him, expecting him to be furious, and were surprised to see him smiling serenely.  And when he was given the “honor” of tying up the Torah, everyone looked to him again, expecting him to be insulted, but he did his job with a smile.  Everyone was very surprised.

After the service, the rebbe came over and asked him how it was he managed not to get angry over this slight. “Well, Rebbe,” the man replied, “I knew you were just testing me!” “Ah,” said the rebbe, “so you see that your anger is not a problem, for everything in life is just a test!”

In this week’s parsha, we see some of the many tests given by G-d to Avraham.  The tests begin with him being told to leave his home, family, and friends, and to go into the unknown with no destination named, not an easy feat for an old man! And when he finally does arrive in Canaan, he is beset by famine.  The Egyptians capture his wife, Sarah, and then Avraham has to go to war against several kings. And the list continues on.  Yet, Avraham never wavered in his steadfast obedience to Hashem. He did not lose heart. He was not depressed. He did everything cheerfully.

So, too, is every difficulty in our lives a test.  We do not have to be a righteous tzaddik or a wealthy patron for G-d to care about us.  Just as a parent loves his/her poor child as much as his/her wealthy one, G-d loves each and every one of us, no matter what our faults may be.  And just as we challenge our own children to broaden their horizons and we give them opportunities to show how they have grown, we too are given tests by Hashem, in order to help us demonstrate our growth.  So this week, if temptation or difficulty comes your way, rise to the challenge. Meet it head-on, with a smile. Remember, it’s only a test!

Shabbat shalom!

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Parshas Noach: Shabbat – A Lifeboat for All of Us

Parshas Noach: Shabbat – A Lifeboat for All of Us

This weekend we will be participating in The Shabbos Project.  This is a grassroots attempt to get Jews worldwide to experience the magic of the Sabbath, just once.  Last year, it happened in South Africa, where almost every single Jew participated – even if they were not at all religious! That’s because you don’t have to be “religious” to participate in Shabbat.  Shabbat is not some sort of punishment, it is a gift, given by G-d to all Jews, religious or not.  There are some special aspects of Shabbat that have actually been studied and advocated for by scientists!  You don’t have to be religious to appreciate that having the whole family sit down for dinner together once a week is proven to be good for family unity, or that putting down phones, computers, and all other screens for a 24 hour period is great for improving relationships with your children and spouse.

In this week’s parsha, Noach was faced with a world of decadence and decay – sadly, not that much different from what we experience today.  We open our email and find obscene spam, we turn on the television and see scenes of murder, and we turn on the radio and hear foul language.  Shabbat is our chance to turn off all the garbage and focus on what is good and meaningful in our lives – our real-life, face-to-face relationships.  Just as Noach had to build an ark and G-d had to wash away the garbage that the world had become, so too we can build ourselves an ark in time and each and every week wash away the mundane so we have space to illuminate the spiritual.

This week, we have many opportunities to connect to this precious gift of Shabbat in a community setting.  Unlike Noach, we don’t have to go it alone on our arks. We can keep ittogether!  Women can join the Rebbetzin for a challah bake on Thursday night, one of the special mitzvot for ladies.  And everyone is welcome to join in the community celebrations of Shabbat over the weekend: community candle lighting on Friday night, followed by kabbalat Shabbat services and a delicious dinner at the Shul; Saturday morning services led by visiting Rabbi Heilbrunn from Melbourne, followed by a Kiddush and then community lunch at the Rabbi’s house; and finally, a havdallah ceremony, concert, JAZY performance, and kumzitz sing-along at the Shul.  Let’s build our ark and keep it – TOGETHER!

Shabbat shalom!

(To indicate participation in the Shabbos Project, please feel free to tag photos and videos of your involvement with #shabbosproject and #keepingittogether !)

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