Torah tl;dr–Beha’alotcha

Welcome to my podcast, Torah tl;dr. Oftentimes people will use “tl;dr”–which stands for “too long; didn’t read”–to indicate that what follows are highlights of something that is particularly verbose. Like the weekly Torah portion.

Torah tl;dr injects a little wisdom into your day, giving you a highlight of the Torah portion, in 60 seconds or less. New podcasts every Friday, just in time for Shabbat.

Parashat Beha’alotcha

Nachshon Moments, on Land as on Sea

The Israelites are on the move in this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, as they pick up their journey through the Wilderness to the Promised Land. It is quite a logistical ordeal, moving that many people along with all of their belongings, not to mention all of the communal property, primarily the Tabernacle, their central sanctuary which can be broken down and carried like Ikea furniture. The Torah goes into some detail as to how the tribes are to organize as they travel, and who is meant to carry what.

A long quote, but stick with me:

In the second year, on the twentieth day of the second month, the cloud lifted from the Tabernacle of the Pact and the Israelites set out on their journeys from the wilderness of Sinai. The cloud came to rest in the wilderness of Paran. When the march was to begin, at the Lord’s command through Moses, the first standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Judah. In command of its troops was Nahshon son of Amminadab; in command of the tribal troop of Issachar, Nethanel son of Zuar; and in command of the tribal troop of Zebulun, Eliab son of Helon. Then the Tabernacle would be taken apart; and the Gershonites and the Merarites, who carried the Tabernacle, would set out.The next standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Reuben. In command of its troop was Elizur son of Shedeur; in command of the tribal troop of Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai; and in command of the tribal troop of Gad, Eliasaph son of Deuel. Then the Kohathites, who carried the sacred objects, would set out; and by the time they arrived, the Tabernacle would be set up again. The next standard to set out, troop by troop, was the division of Ephraim. In command of its troop was Elishama son of Ammihud; in command of the tribal troop of Manasseh, Gamaliel son of Pedahzur; and in command of the tribal troop of Benjamin, Abidan son of Gideoni. Then, as the rear guard of all the divisions, the standard of the division of Dan would set out, troop by troop. In command of its troop was Ahiezer son of Ammishaddai; in command of the tribal troop of Asher, Pagiel son of Ochran; and in command of the tribal troop of Naphtali, Ahira son of Enan. Such was the order of march of the Israelites, as they marched troop by troop. (Numbers 10:11-28)

Quite a lot of detail; the Torah is into logistics.

In reading this description, one name might jump out: Nachshon son of Amminadab. Nachshon we are told is the leader of the tribe of Judah, and it is the tribe of Judah that is the lead tribe, the head of the processional as the Israelites march out.

The name Nachshon may be familiar because of a story found in the midrash (commentary) about the crossing of the Red Sea. Ancient midrash often time “fills in” gaps in the Torah narrative, or adds additional detail. In the Torah text, when we read of the Israelites leaving Egypt, the story tells how with the Egyptian army in pursuit, the Israelites come to the shores of the Red Sea. With destruction seemingly in front of and behind them, the Israelites cry out to Moses, and Moses in turn cries out to God. Nobody seems to know what to do in the moment.

In the Torah text, God instructs Moses to raise up his staff and part the seas for the Israelites to march through. But the midrash adds in a detail. Before Moses raises his staff, in the moments when no body seems to know what to do, the midrash describes how Nachshon jumps into the water. He is going to move forward towards freedom and away from oppression no matter what it takes, and it was his action, his decisiveness in a moment of indecision, that inspires Moses to act and the seas to part.

Nachshon, the one whose actions inspired the nation to move forward to complete the final act of liberation, is now the standardbearer at the front of the nation on its path toward normalcy.

Now granted the Torah predates the midrash by centuries, and it is possible (probable?) that the midrash tells the story of Nachshon at the Red Sea simply in order to explain why the tribe of Judah rose to prominence later on. But let’s read the stories in order and suggest the Nachshon’s high position is a reward or recognition for the risk he took earlier. His actions helped create a nation, and now he is honored for them. And Nachshon was able to transform his revolutionary act to established leadership.

In telling the story of Nachshon, we tend to focus on the shores of the Red Sea, on his first act. And we ask ourselves, what is our Nachshon moment? When are the times that we take a leap forward into the unknown, take a risk, move the bar, and do so without knowing what the outcome will be?

But what if, instead of thinking about the Red Sea, we focus on his second act in the Wilderness. And in regards to this we can also ask ourselves, what is our Nachshon moment? In other words, when are the times we were able to translate inspiration into actuality? When were the times we were able to lead not by leaps of faith, but by thoughtful planning and small steps? When were the times we were able to advance not because of an individual action, but by coordinated efforts, collaboration and deliberation?

Indeed, it is often by these Nachshon moments–the ones on land rather than those on sea–that we are able to affect real and lasting change.


The Mission Does Not Take Care of Itself

This is the season of graduation.

Last week I was honored to attend the graduation ceremony of my rabbinical school, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, as a board member of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association. Ozi had his graduation exercises from middle school earlier today before all the eighth graders went off to Wild Waves. And this coming week I will have my own graduation ceremony.

This past year I was fortunate to study at the University of Washington School of Professional and Continuing Education, where I participated in the Certificate in Nonprofit Management program. From September through June I went up to Seattle every Wednesday to study with close to 30 other students all working to learn more about the nonprofit sector. My last class was last week, and this coming Wednesday is the graduation ceremony for all the certificate programs. And while it is optional, I do plan to go because, well, I like ritual.

The learning was wide ranging, and I did learn a tremendous amount. I learned about budgets and legal issues. I learned about leadership roles and supervision. I learned about overused words and fundraising appeals.

On the last day of class, our instructors asked us to take a moment and write one thought, one idea, one takeaway from the class. When confronted with this type of exercise I either come up with something right away or a draw a blank. This time, luckily, it was the former, and I went up to the white board and wrote:

the mission

In last week’s Torah portion, Behaalotcha, there was a poignant moment. The Israelites, after a long sojourn at the foot of Mount Sinai, are preparing to begin their journey to the Promised Land. A lot has changed: the group of former slaves liberated from Egypt have become a full-fledged community. They received the Torah and laws, organized themselves into tribes and hierarchies, build the Tabernacle, established norms and rituals and a cohesive communal identity. This transformed group is now ready to move forward on their journey.

As they are about to do so, Jethro makes an appearance. Remember Jethro? He is Moses’s father-in-law who welcomed in Moses when he fled Egypt the first time, before he returned to liberate the Israelites. But what was even more significant is when Jethro then showed up after the Israelites crossed the Red Sea to provide some practical advice on how Moses should run the community:

Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening. But when Moses’ father-in-law saw how much he had to do for the people, he said, “What is this thing that you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people stand about you from morning until evening?”  Moses replied to his father-in-law, “It is because the people come to me to inquire of God. When they have a dispute, it comes before me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make known the laws and teachings of God.” But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you! You represent the people before God: you bring the disputes before God, and enjoin upon them the laws and the teachings, and make known to them the way they are to go and the practices they are to follow. You shall also seek out from among all the people capable people who fear God, who are trustworthy and spurn ill-gotten gain. Set these over them as chiefs of thousands, hundreds, fifties, and tens, and let them judge the people at all times. Have them bring every major dispute to you, but let them decide every minor dispute themselves. Make it easier for yourself by letting them share the burden with you. If you do this — and God so commands you — you will be able to bear up; and all these people too will go home unwearied.” (Exodus 18:13-23)

And now, as the Israelites are about to depart, Moses turns to Jethro and says, “We are setting out for the place of which God has said, ‘I will give it to you.’ Come with us and we will be generous with you; for God has promised to be generous to Israel.” (Numbers 10:25) Jethro, however, declines and says, “I will not go but will return to my native land.”

This is a significant exchange, considering the role Jethro played in the development of the Israelites. Moses remembers the important role Jethro and his advice played in the life of the Israelites. Moses through his leadership out of Egypt and as the receiver of the law on Sinai represents the mission of the Israelites. What Jethro represents therefore is the need to impose practical advice and structure in order for the Israelites to fulfill their mission.

After the Israelites left Egypt, the idea of freedom, the idea of a new home, the idea of Torah, is not enough. In order to make the transition, the Israelites needed a new norm to help hold them together and make those ideas a reality.

In other words, the mission will not take care of itself.

Through taking this class at UW, I feel I actually deepened my work as a rabbi. For how can I implement the mission and vision of building sacred community, of creating opportunities for personal transformation, of having a base from which to do the work of tikkun olam and social justice, without the practical guidance and structure of the synagogue to support me? Our synagogue mission, my rabbinic mission, will not take care of itself. We need a strong institution and structure to support it. This takes personal effort as well as practical knowledge.

This is why I am grateful the Temple Beth Hatfiloh Board supported me in pursuing this education. In order to help facilitate our development as an organization—for synagogues are a form of nonprofit organization—we agreed that it would be helpful if I increase my knowledge and broaden my skill set. This way I can help the Board in fulfilling our congregation’s mission.

And while education programs come to a close, and we have graduation ceremonies, we must remember that learning and guidance is on-going.

Moses recognizes this too. After Jethro announces his departure, Moses pleads with him to stay—the need for practical guidance in fulfilling one’s mission is not finite. The Israelites will need both Moses and Jethro. So too with us. While we need to be clear on our missions, we also need to be clear on the means to attain that mission. We too will always need both Moses and Jethro.