Metzora 5774: Lepers & Lemmings

How many of us remember last week’s sermon?  One from last year?  (It’s OK, you don’t have to admit anything out loud.)  Well, the idea for this post comes from a sermon I heard two years ago, delivered by Rabbi Marc Saperstein to the Cornell CJL (yup, Cornell alumni and native Ithacans, it was the Sermon Contest finale).

The four lepers in our HafTorah are literally (and, yes, figuratively), mi’chutz la’machaneh, outside the camp.  They are forced to sleep outside the city walls, in the midst of a wartime siege.  There isn’t a barn or hut or chicken coop safely behind the gate (and its armed guards) they are allowed to use.  Which means they owe their coreligionists nothing.  

Yet, when they find the Aramean camp abandoned, and with food and water, and even supplies, to help their besieged brothers, they decide – after some debate, yes – to alert the King and his guard (not to be confused with the Kingsguard GoT fans).  They decide, despite how they have been treated, despite the shunning and the exile, to act responsibly for king and country.  They forgive past sins and treat their countrymen as they’d have liked to have been.  

This is of course a great lesson for a metzora, someone who could not put others first and was willing to benefit from demeaning friends and hurting neighbors.  But it is also a lesson for each of us.  

There are times when to do what’s right, to stand on the side of good, means to do for another who’s an opponent, or to speak up for one we disagree with.  It means turning around and throwing your lot in with the folks who just tossed you outside the city gates and locked them behind you.

It’s hard to do in politics, it’s hard to do in our communities, and it’s hard to do at home.  That’s probably why the prophet teaches it.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha.   

Tazria/HaChodesh 5774: Leaving the Building

The whole concept of presidential transitions is strange.  It takes months to get sworn in with a skeleton government and cabinet.  Across the pond, a new prime minister is at 10 Downing within hours of election, usually with his or her shadow cabinet ushering out their colleagues of the losing party and taking their offices.  

This works on the way out as well.  Ex-presidents – at least since Harry S. Truman was so poor on leaving office that he was forced to move in with his mother-in-law – have enjoyed a cabinet secretary equivalent salary for life, as well as free postage, office space, and a US Secret Service detail.  Former prime ministers, if they’re lucky, become leaders of the opposition, and while every ex-president maintains the title for life, a former prime minister is just another MP (or MK, as the case may be).  

There’s a lesson here.  And it’s one we see in the Haftorah.  The prince, or king, is to enter and leave the Temple and its courtyard by the same gate.  Commoners are to enter in one direction, and leave on the opposite side.  People may be – and possibly should be – changed by life circumstance, by wielding power, and in this case, by interaction with the Almighty.  They are different when they leave.

But the message to leaders is that you should remember to be the same person you were before grasping the scepter, the sword, or the ceremonial pen.  It was a lesson in the Temple.  It’s a lesson for all time.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha

Shemini/Parah 5774: Dreams, Dreams & Reality

“Of all the lands there are for dismal scenery, I think Palestine must be the prince. The hills are barren, they are dull of color, they are unpicturesque in shape. The valleys are unsightly deserts fringed with a feeble vegetation that has an expression about it of being sorrowful and despondent. The Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee sleep in the midst of a vast stretch of hill and plain wherein the eye rests upon no pleasant tint, no striking object, no soft picture dreaming in a purple haze or mottled with the shadows of the clouds. Every outline is harsh, every feature is distinct, there is no perspective–distance works no enchantment here. It is a hopeless, dreary, heart-broken land.” - Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad

Whether he’d read it or not, when Mr. Tolkien looked for inspiration to describe Mordor, or even Rohan, he needn’t have looked further than Mr. Clemens.  The land was barren.

It was, in the words of the prophet, “the ruins to be built, and the desolated land to be tilled instead of being desolate in the eyes of every passerby…I will have rebuilt the ruins, replanted the wasteland.

And therein is the lesson.  Destruction can be reversed; desecration revitalized.   

Nations must know that no blow is too heavy.  They must know they can rebuild, replant, reform.  They can return.

And people must know this too.  In their lives, their livelihoods, and their communities.  

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Tzav/Zachor 5774: The Messenger Shoots

 It’s the job that’s never started as takes longest to finish, as my old gaffer used to say.” – Sam Gamgee, Lord of the Rings

By G-d’s command, it was the prophet Samuel who proclaims Saul king of Israel.  And by G-d’s command, it is the prophet Samuel who disproclaims him king.  The former is a direct challenge, and usurpation, of Samuel’s authority.  The second is worse.  Samuel’s life is in danger.  It’s no less treason just because you’ve got Divine right.  

And for reasons the prophet never fully lets on, he wants Saul’s rule to continue.  Samuel cries out to the Almighty the entire night, praying for a reversal.  

There are two lessons here.  One, even when a decision means personal gain – and no one had more to gain from a failed kingship than the prophet – if it is wrong for (pardon the pun) king and country, it is still wrong.  Leadership is deciding what’s best, not what’s in it for me.

And, a leader fights such decisions as forcefully as able.  

But, the third and final lesson is that when the decider has decided, and the order irrevocably issued, the servant must fulfill their charge.  Without delay.  Even at personal risk.  

That’s the lesson of Samuel, and of Zachor.  Those lessons ring as true in the Purim story as they did centuries earlier in the prophet’s times, and millennium later, in ours.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics and the parsha.

Pekudei 5774: By Any Other Name

Honor made you leave, and honor brought you back. – Jeor Mormont, Lord Commander
My friends brought me back. – Jon Snow
I didn’t say it was *your* honor. – Jeor Mormont

(Game of Thrones, George R.R. Martin)

The prophet writes of Solomon’s dedication of the Temple, which is known to historians as Solomon’s Temple.  But Jewish tradition knows it by another name: that of King David.  

Solomon built it.  He negotiated the labor contracts (or more likely, conscripted the men), hired the project managers, arranged the environmental impact studies, and approved the architectural plans.  Still, the rabbinic teaching is that he was fulfilling his father’s dream, giving life to his father’s hope.  That is a great honor a child affords a parent.  But it is the parent’s honor.  And, we are taught, this is David’s honor, not Solomon’s.  

Sometimes a decision is made, a policy enacted, or a road taken that belongs to another.  Despite that the person who makes the call, and who does bear responsibility for its ultimate success or failure, may not get the full credit.  It may be another’s.  

But no matter whose honor it is, ultimately, we should make decisions based on what is right, and not who gets the publicity.  

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Shekalim 5774: Double Duty

In case you wondered how they counted coins in the Lord’s House, the prophet is here to tell us.

Whenever the contribution box near the alter became full, the priests would bring it to the treasurer. He and the High Priest would then count the money.

If you can’t trust the High Priest and the Temple Treasurer, there’s more to worry about than a few pilfered pennies. Who would dare to accuse these men of stealing?

But the prophet, and indeed the Temple aren’t dealing in ideals. They’re dealing with reality. And in reality, there’s a need for transparency.

Because “a” high priest if not “this” High Priest, or “a” treasurer if not “this” Treasurer could steal. And of course, they could steal more easily if they did it together.

Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

Vayakhel 5774: “Ceiving” Looks

The prophet describes in great detail the precious metals used to create the Temple’s utensils.  There was no holding back, and no expense spared.  The Temple would be beautiful.

Solomon understood that looks matter.  How the Temple looked, its grandeur, would both be a tribute to the Almighty but also would help visitors to feel the necessary awe to connect appropriately.  Yes, you can find G-d in a small wooden shack, but it’s harder.  

Visiting the Western Wall today, one can see the painstaking care to make the Wall and the plaza a thing of beauty, as much as possible, remnant though it is.  

Beauty to help people connect, and to help them visualize what once was and what will be.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

In memory of Rabbi Meir Schuster, zt”l, who understood the beauty of the Kotel, and the power it held for all.

KI Tisa 5774: Carry Your Own Water

Like the weekly portion itself, where Moses, returning to the camp to see the Golden Calf, rallies those still loyal to G-d with the call, Mi L’Hashem Eylay, the HafTorah too features Elijah chastising the people to choose a side.  If to Baal, he suggests, then worship Baal, but if you are serving the Lord, then serve the Lord.  

Elijah, in readying his challenge to the idol worshipping priests on the hilltop at Carmel goes a step further.  He has the people themselves pour the water to soak the wood for his altar.  

When G-d inclines to Elijah and his pleading prayer with a consuming fire from the Heavens, the people know this is real.  They know it because it was they who poured the water on the wood, not once, or twice, but three times.  No one could say it was the prophet’s trick, a wizard’s slight of hand.  

Too often, we do not let citizens take the reins.  We let government do for them, or worse, do to them.  But in order for people to believe in their government, they must see it.  Now, the average citizen can’t pilot an F-16, or craft education reform legislation.  They can’t police our streets or issue court rulings.  But today especially, in the age of instant interconnectivity, they can see the results.  

Governments, businesses, community organizations, all need to be more transparent.  We need to see with our own eyes what they have wrought.

Words to consider.  Ideas to ponder.  Politics, prophets, & the parsha.

Tetzaveh 5774: Dreamcatching

“In Israel, in order to be a realist you must believe in miracles.” - David Ben Gurion

At this moment in time there is nothing that seems as unlikely a dream to come true as a rebuilt Temple.

The Temple absent the Heavenly presence – and protection – will soon likely be destroyed.  The Jewish people are threatened with a deathblow defeat by their enemies.  And the prophet Ezekiel is given a vision.  

Assemble the architects, hire the urban planners, obtain the governmental permits and licenses. Prepare the materials.  There will be another Temple, and Ezekiel is given it’s dimensions.

At moments of maximum impossibility, a true leader provides vision.  A path forward, a way out; a light in the night, a flare in the sky.  

Israel faces exile, but even at that moment they dream to return, and rebuild.

They dream of better days  ahead.  That’s the lesson of Ezekiel.

Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

In memory of Yitzchak ben Tzvi haLevi, who always believed in a better tomorrow for his children and grandchildren, on this, his 23rd yartzheit.

Terumah 5774: Taxing Persona

“I have no help to send, therefore I must go myself.” - Aragorn

Solomon is building his (as in His) Temple. He taxes the people to contribute in a somewhat unique way, especially to modern sensibilities. He conscripts from the citizenry 30,000 men, in companies of 10,000 each. They leave their homes, their livelihoods, and go north for a month at a time to hew lumber and transport it to Jerusalem.

The King asks for no coin, and no physical treasure. He asks instead for willing hands and able backs.

Sometimes there’s no need to cut a check. But there’s still a need for a different, and possibly even more critical type of, buy-in.

Nations know this, especially in times of war, disaster, and crisis. And it is, or should be, no different in times of peace and plenty. Nor should this lesson be lost on businesses or families.

Words to consider. Ideas to ponder. Politics, prophets, and the parsha.

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