Monday, October 19, 2015

Siyyum: Masechet Sukkah - In Memory of my parents, Hannah and Kenneth Sterling

Note: I must begin this posting with Hakarat HaTov (a personal and profound statement of gratitude) to Mekor HaBeracha and Rabbi Eliezer Hirsch for allowing me to actually have a Siyyum celebration in honor of the memory of my parents on the occasion of the completion of Shloshim after they have both completed their sojourn in this world. Please know that there are Orthodox spaces in which women can participate actively in appropriate ways and how much these spaces and their spiritual leaders are appreciated. And now I begin…

I never stop to be amazed by the so-called magic of timing. As I often say, “A coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous or making us think we have some sense of agency in our lives.” We have just completed the cycle of fall Hagim, with its centerpiece of the observance of Sukkot. Simultaneously, I completed my learning of Masechet Sukkah in which I have been involved for the past few months. Additionally during this season of reflection, observance and celebration that is inaugurated with the advent of the month of Elul, both of my parents completed their sojourn on this earth, my dad leaving on Rosh Hodesh Elul and my mom on Shabbat Shuva. So how do we bring all of this together? No problem – Ribbonu shel Olam made it easy.

At a Siyyum of a Talmudic body of literature it is appropriate to learn the final section, so lets begin there. As we read on 56b in Masechet Sukkah,

[THE WATCH OF] BILGAH ALWAYS DIVIDED [THE LECHEM HAPANIM] IN THE SOUTH. Our Rabbis taught, It happened that Miriam the daughter of Bilgah apostatized and married an officer of the Greek kings. When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary,she stamped with her sandal upon the altar, crying out, ‘Lukos! Lukos! How long wilt thou consume Israel's money! And yet thou dost not stand by them in the time of oppression!’ And when the Sages heard of the incident, they made her ring immovable and blocked up her alcove. Some however, say that the watch [of Bilgah] was dilatory in coming and [that of] Jeshebeab his brother, entered with him and served in their stead… [after the imposition of the penalty, the course of] Bilgah always divided their shares in the south, while that of his brother Jeshebeab did it in the north. It is well according to him who stated that his course was dilatory in coming, since for this reason the whole course might well be penalized; but according to him who stated that it was Miriam the daughter of Bilgah who apostatized, do we [it may be objected] penalize [even a] father on account of his daughter? Yes, replied Abaye, as the proverb has it, ‘The talk of the child in the market-place, is either that of his father or of his mother’. May we then penalize the whole course on account of her father or mother? — ‘Woe’, replied Abaye ,’to the wicked, woe to his neighbour; it is well with the righteous and well with his neighbour; as it is said, Say ye of the righteous, that it shall be well with him, for they shall eat the fruit of their doings’.

Too often, I have been at a Siyyum where connections made to life and to the rest of the text are tenuous at best, so I would like to insure that the connection I intend to explain is successfully communicated. First a few details to provide context for the text are in order. This last part of the Tractate occurs within a larger discussion regarding extremely elaborate stage directions regarding the coming to and leaving of the watches, the families of Kohanim who were invested with the supervision and offering of sacrifices. The rotation of those who served the needs of the community is ever so carefully explained, as are the locations for various involvements. Bilgah was in the 15th of the 24 watches that were used in the rotation for the various worship and celebratory needs, specifically here the dividing of the Lechem HaPanim (ceremonial breads). For his watch, the dividing of the Lechem HaPanim was always to be in the south and not follow the normative rotations of this ritual practice, depending on whether one was beginning their watch in the North or ending their duties in the South, where they would exit. Further, each family of Kohanim had their own designated ring and storage for knives with which to offer their sacrifices, which were permanently closed for Bilgah. Why are these unusual arrangements, which were punitive, indicated?

Two explanations are offered in our Baraita to explain these indignities for Bilgah and his family. One is the lackidaisical manner in which some members of his family showed up, or did not, for their duties. When they were exceedingly late, other Priestly families had to take double shifts to make up for their lack of respect and regard. The second explanation for this shaming of the family of Bilgah is the action of daughter Miriam bat Bilgah who abandoned her religion, community and family and went off to marry a Greek officer. Further, when she returned to the Beit HaMikdash, she had only what appeared to be negative words of reproach and rejection for it.

If we are to understand that the children of Bilgah were not serious about their priestly duties, then the punishment, according to our sages, is appropriate as indicated, for they did not show themselves worthy of maintaining the honor of their watch. However, if all of this is due to the actions of one member of the family and her apostasy, then we have a problem. Namely, how do we come to terms with the entire family suffering due to the misdeeds of one member?

At this point as we try to get a handle on this, we want to look at three texts, two from the Hameshet Humshei Torah and one from Nevi’im (Prophets), each exhibiting a model of how to approach this dilemma:

Yechezkiel (Ezekiel) 18: 19 – 20 VaYikra (Leviticus)14: 33 – 47 Shemot (Exodus) 20: 1 – 4

If you want to find and read these texts, go to

So what have we here? On one hand, an individual’s actions should stand on their own, but on the other hand, we are told that for a misdeed no less than apostasy the punishment should be pervasive, extending for generations. In these texts, we have three approaches:

1. Yechezkiel’s model shows that each is rewarded or punished for his or her deeds. This is a fairly straightforward approach, though as we know, life is too often messy and complicated and not exactly straightforward or so neat and ordered.

2. In the text from VaYikra which Rashi uses to make his view known here in the Gemara, we see that an uncleanliness that is associated with serious mideeds can tarnish and have an impact that spreads aggressively. We know all too well how such problems as leprosy can spread and affect others. Anyone who just got a flu shot did so to avoid such spreading of disease. There are no questions here about the notion that one cannot drill a hole in his cabin in a boat and claim that it does not have an impact on others who are elsewhere on the boat.

3. In Shemot, as we look at the first Mitzvot of the Aseret HaDibrot, we are reminded the ramifications of denouncing God and not serving God’s purpose. Clearly this would appear to make sense as generations are affected by the wayward deeds and practices of one member of a family. Turning away from God hardly has to be addressed as a question of impact in our day and age in terms of the collateral damage for those around the person in their own generation and in those to come.

So which of these references help us understand the text at hand? Is it so clear how we should react to the actions of the sons of Bilgah who did not take their privileged station seriously or to his daughter Miriam on deserting her people? Is it ever such a simple and isolated dynamic? Clearly not!

The Lubavitcher Rebbe suggests, in what many consider to be a somewhat radical approach, that Miriam could be seen as basically “every Jew” who is Jewish and concerned for her people no matter how far away she may move from the observance and practice of her youth and upbringing. Here is a woman who apparently rejects the teachings of her family and marries a Greek, becomes Hellenized and returns to the Temple with what are clearly harsh words. But wait: are these words of blasphemy or words of reproach, not all that different than the Prophets who claim that the offerings and sacrifices from the most “devout” of Jews meant nothing if there was not proper treatment and concern for others? In this reading, the Lubavitcher Rebbe is teaching that her words and actions could be regarded as follows, as reflected by Rabbi Chaim Jachter.

Her actions are explained as examples of how, fundamentally, every Jew is committed to Torah and the Jewish people on some level. Hashem loves and cherishes every one of us, and we must remember that this connection is not so easily severed. It may indeed appear that she gave up everything, walked away from all that her people held dear; and that she’s now a Hellenist and married to an officer of the army that defiles the Beit HaMikdash.

But then when she reaches the sacrificial altar, something hits a raw nerve, she sees her fellow Jews suffering, and her deep pain and empathic nature could be what is exposed. It is in this moment of bitterness she cries out: “Wolf, wolf! You consume the Jewish people’s wealth, but you don’t answer them in their time of need!” She could be as distressed as was Hannah in front of Eli and cries “Hashem, how are You letting this happen that I cannot have a child?!” The Rebbe wants us to ask if this pain and response are that of rebellion or does it stress just how very connected she really was to Hashem and the Jews? She perhaps cannot bear what she perceives to be HaShem’s silence in the midst of such suffering, as we have seen in so many other generations of Jewish suffering.

Some would have us believe that Miriam bat Bilgah may very well have viewed herself as no longer Jewish, not interested in Hashem, intermarried with the enemy, Hellenized, a pagan. But in reality, this may have been but a superficial layer masking her true identity, as we have seen with Esther in the Persian palace. The Jewish soul can indeed be bound to Hashem regardless of its outer appearance.

Is Miriam bat Bilgah turning the mirror on us, on the hypocrisy of the observance of the ritual without commitment to its underlying principles, ethics and morals that are foundational to their practice? Could she be criticizing the lack of proper respect she found in her own family, through the disregard shown in their relaxed attitude towards their duties? These are, according to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, fair and necessary questions to ask.

Now, in thinking about the statement that ‘The talk of the child in the market-place, is either that of his father or of his mother,’ more questions abound. Do we realize that our actions do in fact represent our families, those who have reared and taught us? We know from elsewhere in our teachings, that Chazal discuss whether or not the student’s misunderstanding of what is taught him is the responsibility of the one who taught him or not. We consistently see instances in our lives today of individuals acting radically and inappropriately as a result of what they were taught or saw. What is our response to them? The Rebbe would have us practice the dictum of זכות לכף דן that is to “judge the other favorably.”

That being said, we do feel the impact of others and must acknowledge how we do the same to those whom we influence. Is it fair to say that a product of a household does act in a way that is reflective of what the teachers of that household taught that person? Are we as the teachers of that household aware of our own power and the responsibility that comes with that power as we influence those who look to us for guidance?

As I have gone through the season of the Yomim Noraim and its self-reflection as well as the joyfulness of the season of Chagim and its constant reminder of our connectedness to each other, I am exceedingly aware of this balance and how we are the reflection of those who have taught us and in turn will become reflected in the actions and involvements of those we teach and parent. It is in this context that I think of my own parents who I know have taught me and all members of our family so many lessons of humility, honesty, respect and regard, accountability to ourselves, each other and God, and so much else. Most important I have learned and communicated to my children that there is no conflict between religious or ritual practice as such and how we go in the world. HALACHA is HALICHA – our Jewish law is reflected in the daily dealings and actions with which we walk around. Each one informs that other and one without the other is not, I believe, what God intended for us. It is these teachings that I hope all members of my family will continue to spread to all those with whom we come in contact and through the deeds in which we are involved. May we all be so blessed and may the watch of Bilgah and his family be healed, whatever the misdeeds of his family members were.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Lessons from the Men who married Wise Women and their own Legacies of Wisdom

Note: This writing was actually begun this past spring. However, given too many events in our lives, I never got back to it…. And now we are officially in the fall of 2015. And now, I will attempt to go back to the seeds that begin, well, everything!

Sometime during the early summer the following was written: I walked outside last week for the first time after being “confined to quarters” due to asthma and horrible allergies. I immediately noticed our house is at its prettiest time of the year, with all of the azaleas, tulips and other flowers beginning to bloom, while new annuals are planted. And then my mind turns to where it always does at such times…

We all have those adults in our lives who make indelible impressions on us and inform so much of our thinking. My Uncle Ben, my mother’s brother-in-law was just this person. He owned a grass and vegetable seed company and I remember well the stories in our family about how he would over calibrate the amount of seeds in each packet so that the customer would always receive what he paid for and never feel cheated. That is to say, if the package indicated that four ounces were contained, it would in fact be 4.x ounces of product.

When asked why he observed this practice, he gave an answer that has always stayed with me. He indicated that the seeds were put here by God as was everything and that it was up to us to always go the extra mile, so to speak, in practicing the dictated Mitzvah of “honest weights and measures.”

(And now I pick up and continue this writing.) In Masechet Berachot in our Talmud we learn that whatever one enjoys in any way must be blessed and acknowledged, for to do so is as if we are stealing from God, for all that we have, down to the little seeds that begin all types of life, come ultimately from God. We know all too well how basic it is to say blessings over our food, and over all things that come from the ground as well as all other phenomena in our lives. The Bracha (blessing) we say is this verbal acknowledgement. My Uncle Ben’s practice was our acknowledgement through deed, in this case in the very business through which he supported his family. What a wise man. Perhaps it is appropriate at this point to explain the title of this post. You see, the maiden name of my mother and her sister was Wise – so Uncle Ben married my Aunt Becky (nee Wise), while my dad married my mom, Hannah (nee Wise) – hence the Wise Women.

In our lives as we are too often so surrounded in our lives by news of people that are dishonest and do not accept that they are accountable to others, I often think of this simple practice as well as those of my dad, the accountant. My dad was always faultlessly honest, at times to his own detriment. If there was ever a question about a deduction, he would err on the side of paying the government, going above and beyond what others would do with such accounts. He did not ever want anyone to claim that he had taken what was not his to take; and he followed this practice for his clients as well as himself and his family. He died this past Rosh Hodesh Elul and my mom joined him on Shabbat Shuva. Throughout the intervening weeks we read about leadership, honest practices and scrupulous behavior in our weekly Torah portions. My dad and mom and Aunt Becky and Uncle Ben were important and pivotal role models in my life and that of our entire family regarding how we behave in our worldly and daily lives and how this is as much, many would say (and I would agree) more, important in how we conduct our lives outside of our place of worship then in our ritual observance.

Our Torah, our Prophets, our Rabbis and our teachers through the ages teach that it is hypocrisy to claim to be so blemish free in our ritual observance and to not care for those who need our caring, to not thank God for the many blessings God has bestowed upon us, and to not be profoundly appreciative for our very lives, showing appropriate gratitude. This GRATITUDE is a word that we often hear from our children and I am often struck how this is the most important legacy my parents and the other adults in their generation who had such a profound impact upon us left for us to continue. Thank you, Mom and Dad.

Most of us probably know some iteration of the story where several men go on a boat. One takes all of his money; one takes all of his jewels; the third man takes all of his material treasures, while the fourth does not take any material goods. The others are curious about this fourth man on the boat and ask what he brought. He replies, “The wisdom and teachings I have acquired during my life.” There is a terrible storm and the boat sinks and all of the men are fighting for their lives. At the end, the one who brought his money does not have it; the one who valued his jewels lost them, and the one who brought his most treasured material belongings has also been stripped of what he most valued. Only the passenger with his wisdom and teachings leaves the boat with what he came.

I know that the men who married the WISE women were wise themselves as well and it is this wisdom that stays with me and all in my family now that none of these important people in our lives share our earth with us any longer. Yes, Aunt Becky and Uncle Ben and Mom and Dad (and Aunt Mary and Uncle Melvin as well), we will all continue the important wisdom and legacy of your teachings that we still have with us and pass them on to our children. Thank you for this unsinkable gift of wisdom!