Vayakel-Pikudei - Better to Give than to Receive

My mom always taught that it is better to give than to receive. Always better to be generous.

I remember once not wanting to go to a birthday party of a child I did not like. Son, it’s better to give… 

As a boy, I heard the words but I didn't take the message in for a long time. Because let’s face it - I really liked getting stuff -    who doesn’t? When I got my first Lionel Train set it was one of the best days of my little 8 year old life. 

I still enjoy being on the receiving end. It’s wonderful to read a supportive note, a beautiful father’s day card from my daughters, or to receive an unexpected bottle of exceptional single-malt Scotch from a friend. Why would it better to give than to receive? Surely, it’s just as good to receive as it is to give! 

I admit it - I’ve always been territorial. I like my quiet time. And when a particular neighbor comes barging into my house during dinner, (it feels like barging to me) I feel myself tightening and just wanting him to leave. I really like him, but do NOT enjoy his unannounced visits. I have to remind myself he needs the company. And I hear my mother’s refrain.

What does it mean to be generous? How naturally does that impulse come or not come to us? Perhaps we have given so much in our lives, we’ve forgotten about our own well being. My mother’s aphorism arose no doubt from the sad truth that, for many of us it is more difficult to give than to receive. 

This week we read about Moses asking for donations for the building of the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle that travelled with the people through the wilderness.

The words Mishkan and Shechina come from the same Hebrew root, שכן, meaning to abide, dwell, settle. Shechina is the immanent glory and Presence of God. The Mishkan is the earthly dwelling place for that divine presence. In Modern Hebrew, the word for neighborhood, shechuna, comes from the same root. Building the Mishkan is the physical act of making space in the neighborhood for God. As one of my teachers Rabbi Doctor Nehemia Polen teaches by quoting another of my favorite spiritual leaders, Mr. Fred Rogers, God is asking, “Won’t you be My neighbor?”

Why is the Mishkan placed in the middle of the Israelite camp? Nachmanides says the secret of the Mishkan is that it continually reminds the people of what they accepted at Mt. Sinai. It reminds them of the covenantal commitments that lie at the center — at the heart — of their sacred community.

Those commitments are expressed in a complex system of laws, ethics and morality. In 613 positive and negative commandments. But ultimately they come down to the simple truth captured in Hillel’s famous words:

What is hateful to you, do not do to others. That is the whole Torah; the rest is commentary. Go and study.” (Talmud Shabbat 31a)

In the Torah, the commitments that lie at the heart of the covenantal community are captured in three verses, each of which command us to love.

To love our neighbor. V’ahavta l’re’echa.

To love the stranger. V’ahavta et hager.

To love God. V’ahavta et Adonai elohecha. 

Speaking of the foreigner who lives among you, the Torah says, The stranger who resides with you shall be considered a citizen; you shall love him and her as yourself… (Lev. 19:34) וְאָהַבְתָּ֥ לוֹ֙ כָּמ֔וֹךָ. The Torah is demanding something very difficult of us. It goes against much of human nature. 

I once had a neighbor whose backyard abutted ours. An aspiring rock&roll artist, she rehearsed with her band late at night. (I never knew when it would happen - it drove me nuts) The bass would come through and lodge in my stomach, interrupting my sleep. If I could have, I would have built a wall so high and thick that no sound could penetrate. As the saying goes, “good fences make for good neighbors.” Loving her was the last thing on my mind! It got ugly. In the end, I went to speak with her. We worked it out. Each of us found a generosity of spirit that allowed us to live peacefully in the same neighborhood.

Ben Franklin said it best, Love thy neighbor, yet don’t pull down your hedge.” Torah commands us to love our neighbor, the stranger and God. It does not say we have to like them. Loving means opening our hearts and being generous; it means stretching ourselves and taking risks beyond what we think is possible. 

Moses asks the people to be generous and bring items that will be used to construct the Mishkan. Following God’s instructions he asks for  … gold, silver, and copper; acacia wood, … spices… and the list goes on. כל נדיב ליבו - let everyone whose heart is generous bring gifts for the Mishkan. (Ex. 35:5) And what happens? They respond with boundless generosity. So much so that  Moses has a proclamation made that the donations have to stop! (Ex 36:5-6). 

Torah is setting an example for us, an aspiration.

What is really interesting to me is the choice of Hebrew for the word translated as gift.  There are many other words for gift in the Hebrew language, but here, Torah employs the word trumah. We hear it in the kaddish when we say, Yitbarach v’yishtabach, v’yitpa’ar v’yit——-rom——am;  May God be Blessed and praised, glorified and exalted…

Ibn Ezra of the 12th century agrees: those whose spirits and abilities moved them to contribute, had hearts that were exalted. Generosity lifts our hearts. It strengthens the generosity muscle. Why else would they have brought so much? Generosity begets generosity.

One wonders after all, did God really needs all this stuff? Surely the Master of the Universe could have said “don’t worry about the gold and acacia wood…. Poof - here’s My Mishkan. My gift to you.

It simply cannot be that easy. We are required to do the giving; to do the heavy lifting so that we feel invested in the system. The Torah asks something – demands something – of us.  We are asked to love, to open our hearts, to give.  Sometimes that may even mean giving something up - losing something precious to us. But then the Torah also reminds us that when we do so, we receive something very profound.  We ourselves are exalted.  We are lifted up. This is what my mother tried to teach me.

And now?

The tabernacle of the Wilderness disappeared into the mists of myth and memory. The First and Second Temples of Jerusalem were destroyed long ago. Where is the Mishkan now?  What does it have to do with us - here - today? Where is God’s holy place; the place where godliness will abide?

The Hasidic master known as the Sfat Emet says that the holiness created by the contributions and work that built the Mishkan is for the future! And how was this holiness created? Through the generosity of the people. He says in the future the Mishkan will not be built with building materials - but with generous and joyous hearts.

This is where we are now. Friends, we are the Mishkan. What kind of neighborhood will we create? 

Will it be one where we care for each other with open hearts? Will it be one where there is room for God to enter?        

In this world of globalization, the implications of being a neighbor go far beyond our towns and our borders. Our tradition teaches that the ger-toshav, our version of a green-card holder, or even a law-abiding undocumented immigrant, had all the rights of an ancient Israelite. There were no differences, except for one. The ger spoke Hebrew with an accent! 

Whom will we welcome into our own communities? Will we refuse our generosity to those suffering in Syria, Sudan and other war-torn and starving countries? Will we do what is necessary to build a more loving, compassionate and caring society and world? Will we choose to build bridges, or will we choose to build walls? Will we build, will we be the mishkan in our own generation?

As the Sfat Emet reminds us, the Mishkan will be built with generous hearts, open minds and an abiding sense of justice. These are our trumot, the gifts of exaltation that we can bring. In doing so, it is we who will be lifted up and transformed. We will receive far more than we could ever give.

And with your permission, may I say to my beloved mom, Mamma, I totally get it.

Shabbat shalom.

Vort on Counting the Omer - Tiferet sh’b’tiferet

Three weeks before the end of WWII, my father, Captain Abraham Friedman of the US Army, 101st Cavalry, was on a reconnaissance mission. He was riding on the roof of a lightly armored vehicle when it struck a landmine. It was the 17th day of the Omer - Tiferet sh’b’tiferet. 

My dad was a soldier and an artist, his preferred weapon, a paint brush dipped in acrylics. His tiferet survives in his evocative art and the tiferet he bequeathed to his children and grandchildren survives in their music, songs and spoken word. 

His ethics were incorruptible. Many of his friends called him honest Abe. This vort was completed last Friday, also the 17th day of the omer, serendipitously perhaps, but certainly in honor of his service.

Today marks the 23rd day of our wandering toward Sinai. The sefirotic configuration is gevurah sh’b’netzach. I see gevurah sh’b’netzach as the strength and discipline to endure- the active willingness to thrive, and the discipline, accountability and clear standards in that endurance -  which all come from gevurah. 

My father lived these qualities in many ways. He survived his injuries and went on to choose life. It was not an easy choice. The war was not the worst thing to happen to him. The loss of his 15 year old daughter, my sister Linda, was his gravest wound. So today, a little more than seventy-two years after the event, I’m thinking of his courage and endurance, which was and remains inspirational to me. 

A first generation American, son of two Jewish immigrants from Poland, he was the first in his large extended family to graduate college. At eighteen years of age he graduated from the City College of NY and earned a Master of Arts Degree from Columbia University by the time he was 20. A few years later, after being drafted into the army he rose to the rank of Captain, commanding his own troop. His superior officers recognized his intuitive leadership qualities and his quick and incisive mind. 

But he did not have to go into combat. In fact, he was offered a cushy job in the Judge Advocate General’s Office, (essentially the attorney general’s office for the armed forces). We’ll train you to be a lawyer, they told him. You can sit the war out stateside and have a career within the armed forces with a comfortable retirement.

He turned them down. When I asked him why he said, because I wanted to fight Hitler. We knew the Nazis were murdering our people. I wanted to do my part. In late 1944, his company finally got into the fight. And he did do his part. They fought their way through parts of France and chased the German army into Germany. 

There he and his men began to see strange sights - emaciated and skeletal people wearing striped and coarse rags. 

My father’s first language was Yiddish. He spoke with some of these people. I always imagine and hope that many of the survivors he encountered found refuge in Israel. 

He and his men also took hundreds of German prisoners. I know it gave him a tinge of pleasure to give orders to the Germans in Yiddish. They knew I was a Jew as soon as I opened my mouth, he told me. He felt a sad sense of triumph in their knowing that a Jew had captured them and that no doubt they were scared to death to know their fate was in the hands of a Jewish captain. 

By this time, having lost too many comrades in battle, and seeing the living, walking evidence of Nazi war crimes, my father’s men were incensed and hungry for blood. 

It happened one day: a large number of his men came to him after having rounded up a new group of prisoners. They said to him - “let’s kill them Captain. These bastards deserve it. Look what they've done. C’mon Captain. Let’s shoot them right here.”

My dad says he looked at his men very slowly, thinking of what he would say while scanning the semicircle of faces that had formed around him. Finally he said, “No. We are not going to shoot them. If we shoot them we become the monsters that they are.” 

He was twenty-seven years old at the time.

In Acharei Mot (Vayikra 18:30) we read:

וּשְׁמַרְתֶּ֣ם אֶת־מִשְׁמַרְתִּ֗י לְבִלְתִּ֨י עֲשׂ֜וֹת מֵחֻקּ֤וֹת הַתּֽוֹעֵבֹת֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר נַעֲשׂ֣וּ לִפְנֵיכֶ֔ם וְלֹ֥א תִֽטַּמְּא֖וּ בָּהֶ֑ם, אֲנִ֖י יְהוָ֥ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶֽם׃

“You are to keep my charge by not doing (any of) the abominable practices that were done before you, that you not become tamei (impure, contaminated) through them, I am YHVH your God!”

Newton, MA, April 28, 2017, 2 Iyyar 5777, 17th day of the Omer, Tiferet sh’b’tiferet


Counting the Omer, A Most Valuable Practice

Becoming lost is a necessity of life. It is not pleasant, but it is inevitable. Finding our way through the disorientation, fear and vulnerability of new and painful experience is what builds us and makes us who we are. Such experiences are unpleasant “gifts” on life’s journey. Becoming comfortable with discomfort brings essential perspectives and skills.

Many years ago, during the summer in which we got engaged, Joyce and I decided to do a road trip out west which would include a five day hike in the Colorado Rockies. We eventually made it to Aspen where we found a purveyor of topographical maps. We asked his advice about finding a well-travelled route through the mountains. We were each carrying heavy back packs and wanted to achieve real altitude so we could both challenge ourselves and see the amazing vistas of the Rockies. 

Chief among our priorities was not to get lost. We’d heard tales of hikers disappearing up there. The outfitter said he had a great recommendation. I still remember his words. “This is a very well-travelled trail and you can do it in five days.” We went over the maps together. It looked doable. We were excited. Bear in mind that neither of us had ever used a topographical map. We studied it.

We saw no other people on day one or day two. Clearly, what the map-man meant by “well-travelled” was drastically different from any conception of ours. On day three we were climbing a steep trail looking for the mountain pass which the map indicated we needed to cross only to find a dead end. We hiked the long trail back down, consulted the map and began to ascend another long trail which led to another dead end. We hiked back down.

This was not fun. On the first trail, Joyce was crying and whining and I was her cheerleader. On the second pass, the roles were reversed. I know I cried and whined way more than she did. We felt completely lost in the middle of absolutely nowhere! We rested for a long time, contemplating next steps and adjusting to the idea of not being sure of what to do. 

Pretty soon we saw two young men, angels perhaps, coming our way. With their guidance we eventually found our way to a mountain pass at 15,000 feet! I can still see the snow-capped peaks that went on forever.

Listen - in Exodus 13:17 we read:

וַיְהִ֗י בְּשַׁלַּ֣ח פַּרְעֹה֮ אֶת־הָעָם֒ וְלֹא־נָחָ֣ם אֱלֹהִ֗ים דֶּ֚רֶךְ אֶ֣רֶץ פְּלִשְׁתִּ֔ים כִּ֥י קָר֖וֹב ה֑וּא כִּ֣י ׀ אָמַ֣ר אֱלֹהִ֗ים פֶּֽן־יִנָּחֵ֥ם הָעָ֛ם בִּרְאֹתָ֥ם מִלְחָמָ֖ה וְשָׁ֥בוּ מִצְרָֽיְמָה׃

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Phillistines, although it was nearer; for God said, “The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.”

So, just like the Israelites we went the long way around and we learned valuable lessons:

Study maps carefully —- then study them again…. and    it’s ok to get lost. Kvetching and moaning is part of the process. Trust yourself. Take help when it is offered and needed. You are not always in control. Sometimes your chosen destination is unattainable. Or you will find it in unexpected ways. Keep on walking even if it feels like you are walking backwards. You will eventually find yourself back home - transformed.

The idea of salvation in Judaism is not about everything coming up roses. Think about Passover. Yes, we are now free from the constriction of slavery - but what comes next is not contentment. It is anything but! Now we are in the wide desert where there are trials. Even as we move toward Sinai and Torah there is pain and hardship. Remember, they could have gone straight to the Promised Land. But first there were forty years of lessons waiting to be learned. This is how life really works. The trajectory is rarely a straight line. 

So welcome to the Wilderness! which is where we are now in the Jewish calendar - on our way to Sinai to receive our deployment and marching orders. The map we follow between Passover and Shavuot is mostly unknown in the liberal Jewish world. It is called Sfirat HaOmer - the Counting of the Omer.

In both Leviticus and Deuteronomy we are commanded to count 7 weeks of days. The Kabbalists add depth to the simple act of counting 49 days by making the counting into an inner topographical map. Seven emanations of God, known as sephirot, are mapped onto the seven weeks. Each week one sephirah is examined. Each day one of the seven is paired with the sephirah of the week and from these combinations we ourselves generate questions that challenge us to grow. 

We make everyday count by counting every day. 

Tonight begins the 11th day of the Omer. We have been wandering for a week and four days and are now at the intersection of the sephirot of netzach and gevurah. Gevurah corresponds to qualities of bravery, strength, discipline, and boundary setting. Netzach may be translated as endurance

Questions we might ask ourselves tonight and tomorrow: What are we saying yes or no to in our lives? Are our boundaries too strong, too weak? When I set them or when I make promises to myself or others, do I have the endurance to keep those boundaries and promises? How can I become more balanced in setting boundaries; in the use of my strength? Of course, many other questions can be generated depending on how we interpret each sephirah. 

The counting becomes a useful means of introspection through which no inner stone is left unturned. Use of this internal topographical map allows us to come to Shavuot, to Revelation - ready to stand at the mountain - open to listening —— hearing.

Like all of our holidays, it is not a matter of simply marking the historicity of an ancient event. Just as the haggadah tells us ‘b’kol for v’dor “ in every generation we must see ourselves as having been personally liberated from Egypt  - so too we are to see ourselves as personally and collectively walking toward Sinai. 

We can't know the physical, emotional, spiritual and intellectual resources we will need to draw upon at any given moment because no matter how much we think we might know, do we ever really know exactly where we are going or what is going to happen?   There are always detours. We get lost. We have to be prepared. This is why counting the Omer is an important practice.

However we do it, I bless us all that we stand together at the Mountain and comprehend to the best of our ability what it is that we need to hear. Meanwhile, let’s remember to be gentle with ourselves and each other when we are lost and when the inevitable pains of life leave us disoriented, frightened and bewildered. 

We have inner maps that can lead us home transformed. 

By the way, after our trek we went to visit the map man in Aspen. We asked him what “well-travelled meant.” “Oh,” he said, “around here that means about twelve people take the trail every year.” 

Before we count the Omer together I’d like to close with words from Joseph Campbell: “We have not even to risk the adventure alone for the heroes of all time have gone before us. The labyrinth is thoroughly known. We have only to follow the thread of the hero path. Where we had thought to find an abomination we shall find God and where we had thought to slay another we shall slay ourselves. And where we had thought to travel outward, we shall come to the center of our own existence. And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

Shabbat shalom.

April 21, 2017, 26 Nissan 5777, כ’א בעומר


Parshat Korach, Who is Satisfied?

Rabbi Lev Friedman

It’s not always easy to be content with who we are and what we have. Envy has the potential to be a highly destructive force. In this week’s parsha we find just that: Korach, a distant cousin of Moses and Aaron proclaims that all the people are holy, and that God is among all of them. Therefore, he challenges Moses and Aaron with וּמַדּ֥וּעַ תִּֽתְנַשְּׂא֖וּ עַל־קְהַ֥ל יקוק? Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation of Y-H-V-H?”

As you know, Aaron’s line is given the Priesthood. They perform sacrifices and have access to the holiest sites. Korach and the other Levites serve in a capacity that allows the Priests to do their work. They are caretakers, managers, AND — singers of Psalms. But, alas, Korach and company are not content with this.

I must admit that I have an affinity for Korach. His challenge appears boldly democratic. His name means bald. As a bald man, had I been there, and had Moses looked anything like Charlton Heston with that thick head of illuminated hair, I might have been more reactive and envious than I needed to be. 

His question is reasonable. Why do you raise yourselves above us? The simple answer is that he misunderstands. This is the way God ordains it. As far as I know, there are no self-starters in Torah! God decides - period. The failed rebellion is a reinforcement of the given Laws.

So, why do Korach, his followers and their families end up getting swallowed up by the earth? And burned in a consuming fire? The punishment seems a bit disproportionate for the crime, no? But this is Torah, and it reflects the complexity and occasional traps our egos set for us.

The metaphor is powerful: When we allow powerful negative emotions to take hold they can swallow us whole or burn us up. When we are overtaken by feelings of inadequacy and want to be someone else, we get swallowed by anxiety, desire, self-hatred, or worse.

Further on there is a fascinating shamanic event. After the rebellion is squelched, God instructs Moses to have all the chieftains of the tribes bring their staffs to him. They are to inscribe their names upon them and leave them along with Aaron’s staff. In the morning they find that only Aaron’s staff “… had brought forth sprouts, produced blossoms, and borne almonds.” (17:24)

Concerning the blossoming staff, The Ishbitzer Rebbe (19th c. Poland) says, “God commanded the chieftains to take their staffs. Why? Because in the future God will show each one that he will arrive to his rightful place, to her true portion of (eternal) life and no one will desire the portion of another. When it is NOT clear to a person what their portion is, then they long for that of their friend. When we are unable to comprehend our uniqueness, we look elsewhere. 

Korach represents this type of disorientation and envy. And the Ishbitzer goes on to say, Even though Torah says that only Aaron’s staff blossomed, actually all the staffs blossomed. Only Aaron’s had almonds because that was his moment, his time. But each will have their moment and their time. Another’s staff may even be more valuable than the Priesthood.” Only time will tell.

In the context of the parsha, the Ishbitzter is saying that while Korach was being rebellious in saying, All the people are holy; Why do you raise yourselves above the congregation; his words ring true. We are all holy in the portion we receive, especially when we understand what that portion is.

One of the unstated, implicit messages of this narrative is, we are enough as we are. In Mishnah Pirke Avot, (4:1) we read, 

אֵיזֶהוּ עָשִׁיר

Who is considered wealthy?

, הַשָּׂמֵחַ בְּחֶלְקוֹ,

One who is happy with her portion,

 שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר יְגִיעַ כַּפֶּיךָ כִּי תֹאכֵל אַשְׁרֶיךָ וְטוֹב לָךְ.

as it says, "When you eat [from] the work of your hands, (from that which is meant for you to do) you will be happy, and it will go well for you" (Psalms 128:2). 

It’s Shabbat. All is perfect. Let’s revel in our enough-ness!

Shabbat shalom!

Lev Friedman, Newton, MA, June 11, 2018, 30 Sivan 5778