Tag Archives: Behaalotekha

Tapping into gratitude as summer begins

5 Jun
Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg with her husband, the late David Goldberg

Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg with her husband, the late David Goldberg

Another school year is in the books. At this time of year, children exhale a massive sigh of relief as they begin summer vacation. Summer is a wonderful time for relaxation, adventure, travel and renewal. From the perspective of a parent like me, we get a bit of a break from the grueling car pool schedule (the flip side is that by August, we’ll be itching for the kids to get back to school and into a regular routine).

It’s funny that the image of children eagerly leaving school is invoked by one of the major commentators of this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotekha. This portion introduces a profound shift in the tone of the fourth book of the Torah, Bemidbar. The first ten chapters paint a portrait of order and structure in the camp. In chapter 11, everything starts to unravel, and the rest of the book portrays the tension between the stiff-necked people of Israel and Moses, their increasingly impatient leader.

According to Ramban  (Nachmanides), the transition from order to chaos hinges on a single verse, 10: 33: Vayis’u me’har Hashem derekh shloshet yamim, they marched from the mountain of the Lord a distance of three days. Ramban says: “They fled the mountain like a child running from school” lest God give them any more commandments or prohibitions. The Israelites couldn’t wait to go on summer vacation from God. They sought a spiritual, emotional and physical distance from Mount Sinai. It’s precisely at this moment that the book of Numbers spirals from order to chaos.

A few verses later, chapter 11 opens Vayehi ha’am k’mitonenim ra b’oznei Hashem, the people complained bitterly in the ears of God. At first, we’re not even told what they were complaining about—just that they were complaining. Only a few verses later the Israelites wept and said mi yaachileinu basar? “Who’s going to feed us meat?” No wonder God was holding His ears, as it were—the people were complaining about God’s cooking—the miraculous manah that rained down every day was not good enough for the people. They were sick of Tofu-like imitation meat; they demanded the real thing. And so it goes throughout the rest of the book: complaints and challenges to authority. They depart Mt. Sinai, and rather than have a peaceful summer vacation at a desert oasis, all Hell breaks loose. It is remarkable how quickly the people have forgotten the Exodus from Egypt and their salvation from God.

A lesson from Bemidbar is that when we lose our sense of gratitude for life’s greatest gifts, our world turns into disarray. Ironically, all too often it is people who suffer adversity who teach us the greatest lessons of gratitude for what really matters. A case in point is Sheryl Sandberg. Until recently, she might not have been the poster child for adversity. In fact, she is the COO of Facebook and the best-selling author of Lean In, an analysis of women in the workplace in the 21st century. Her husband, Dave Goldberg, was the founder and CEO of Survey Monkey. He was respected in his industry and adored by all who knew him. Then, last month tragedy struck. Dave Goldberg was working out in a gym while on vacation in Mexico. In a freak accident, he suffered a severe head injury and died. Their family had it made. Both husband and wife were captains of industry—the high tech industry. Moreover, they had a beautiful family rooted in Jewish values. They had it made.

One can hardly imagine the emotional toll this tragedy has taken on Sheryl Sandberg. And yet, this week she published a moving and courageous essay on the occasion of the shloshim, the end of the formal thirty days of mourning since her husband’s death. Here are some excerpts :

Sandberg writes:

Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.

I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.

I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.

I am truly grateful to the many who have offered their sympathy. A colleague told me that his wife, whom I have never met, decided to show her support by going back to school to get her degree—something she had been putting off for years. Yes! When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in. And so many men—from those I know well to those I will likely never know—are honoring Dave’s life by spending more time with their families.

Sheryl Sandberg somehow mustered the strength amidst her agony to produce this gem. She taps into her pain to articulate some of life’s most important lessons, and on top of that she grounds her reflections in a Jewish framework. Over the next few weeks, as we encounter once again the wayward Israelites in the desert crying out to God and Moses with their constant complaints, let’s recall Sheryl Sandberg’s counterpoint that we must pause to appreciate the things in life that really matter.

School is over, summer begins. Let this be a summer in which we are mindful of God’s blessings to us.

Happy Summer.

 

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“You’re Not Special”

6 Jun
David McCullough, Jr.'s commencement address in 2012 in which he told high school seniors, "You Are Not Special."

David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement address in 2012 in which he told high school seniors, “You Are Not Special.”

“You’re not special.” That’s what high school teacher David McCullough, Jr. told students two years ago in a commencement speech at a Wellesley High School outside of Boston. He thought his audience was the graduating class, but the electronic world was eavesdropping. The 12-minute speech went viral. Suddenly he received emails from around the world, and networks wanted interviews. McCullough’s speech startled many because his message to the students was: “You’re not special.” He criticized well-meaning but micro-managing parents for the intense pressure they put on teenagers to excel. He argued that students are so afraid of failure that they miss the opportunity to make and learn from mistakes, and ultimately could miss out on having a fulfilling, happy life. McCullough recently developed his speech into a book titled, “You Are Not Special: …And other Encouragements.”

He says that if kids hear that they are more important than others and deserving of accolades, that puts a lot of pressure on them. Far too many kids are absorbing the message that the purpose of the endeavor is praise—pleasing Mommy or Daddy, for example. They learn that the purpose of activities is the accolades they will receive rather than the pleasure of doing something.

David McCullough, Jr.’s insight could have been inspired by an episode in this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotekha. We are introduced to two characters, Eldad and Medad, about whom, we are told, vayitnabu ba-mahane, they prophesied in the camp. What led to this, and what happened as a result? In chapter 11, Moses complains to God that he can’t bear the weight of the people by himself, so God commands him to appoint 70 elders to enter the Tent of Meeting to assist him in the official leadership of the people.

The Torah then reports the following: Moshe gathered 70 of the people’s elders and stationed them around the tent. Then God came in a cloud and spoke to Moses, drawing upon the spirit that was on him and putting it upon the 70 elders. And when the spirit rested upon them, they prophesied, but did not continue. It turns out that these seventy elders were not so special, after all. Two men, Eldad and Medad had remained in the camp; yet the spirit rested upon them– they were among those recorded, but they had not gone out to the tent–and they prophesied in the camp. A youth ran out and told Moses saying, ‘Eldad and Medad are acting the prophet in the camp!’ And Joshua…spoke up and said, ‘My lord, Moses, restrain them!’ Joshua believes that prophecy is reserved for special people, and others dare not encroach on this endeavor. But Moses said to him, ‘Are you jealous on my account? If only all of the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put His spirit upon them!’
The Talmud (Sanhedrin 17a) records two opinions interpreting what happened. The first says that essentially, Eldad and Medad missed the cut. God commanded Moses to choose 70 elders. Moses cannot figure out how to select the men in a fair and representative way. If he picks five from each of the twelve tribes, he will have only 60. If he picks 6 from each tribe, he will have 72–too many, for when God says 70, it means 70. If he picks five from some tribes and six from others, he will foment jealousy and rivalry among the tribes. So he picked six from each tribe and put 72 pieces of paper in a ballot box. On 70 of them he wrote Elder, and two he left blank. Eldad and Medad were the random two who picked the blank ballots and did not make the cut.

A second view in the Talmud is that all 72 were chosen, but that Eldad and Medad did not feel worthy of the task and stayed behind. God rewarded them for their humility by granting them permanent prophetic abilities, while the prophetic abilities of the 70 elders soon came to an end.

These two interpretations both reflect important statements of Rabbinic values about leadership. The first emphasizes the point that the people must feel invested in the system in order for it to work. They need to feel represented. They need to be engaged in the process of determining their destiny.

The second interpretation emphasizes the value of humility in leadership. Eldad and Medad, because of their modesty, are rewarded with increased spiritual access to the divine presence. In the midrash, they emulate the modesty that Moses displays in the Biblical text itself. Moses is not afraid of other Israelites engaging in prophecy, even if they are not official leaders. Rather, he embraces such an opportunity. Moses knows that despite his spiritual gifts, there are other Israelites with unique gifts who can help bring God’s presence into their midst. As far as our lives are concerned, every one of us has within us a spark of the divine, and it is up to each of us to harness it for the benefit of the community.
The message of the Torah portion is that bringing God’s presence into the community requires a team effort. No Jew in our history, not even Moshe Rabbeinu, could ever claim a monopoly on holiness and access to God’s presence. Eldad and Medad’s prophecy and Moses’s deference to them, show that all of us have the potential to be touched by God. In other words, the seventy elders were not special. Eldad and Medad were also capable of prophecy. If they can experience closeness to God so intensely, then the rest of us can as well.

The episode of Eldad and Medad is a paradigm that each one of us has the potential to carry within us God’s spirit. They call upon us to engage in meaningful Jewish experiences not to bring us accolades but because we will feel closer to the divine in our midst.

Let me close with a prayer that Parashat Behaalotekha will inspire each of us to search for that divine spark within ourselves and that we may have the strength and courage to share that spark with our friends, neighbors and loved ones that will in turn bring about tikkun olam, repair of our world.

#TieBlog #Behaalotekha

6 Jun
Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the Menorah.

Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the Menorah.

Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the lights of the Menorah in the Tabernacle. In addition, the haftarah (prophetic reading) is taken from Zechariah and contains the prophet’s vision of the Menorah. This same selection is repeated on Shabbat-Hanukkah. The text of the haftarah inspired the lyrics of Debbie Friedman’s classic song: “Not by might, and not by power. But by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.” May the light of the Menorah inspire all of us to such a vision.

#TieBlog #Behaalotekha

22 May

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Parashat Behaalotekha begins with instructions to Aaron to light the lights of the Menorah in the Tabernacle. In addition, the haftarah (prophetic reading) is taken from Zechariah and contains the prophet’s vision of the Menorah. This same selection is repeated on Shabbat-Hanukkah. The text of the haftarah inspired the lyrics of Debbie Friedman’s classic song: “Not by might, and not by power. But by spirit alone shall we all live in peace.” May the light of the Menorah inspire all of us to such a vision.