Message for the Week from Rabbi Stein

Names and Numbers

Rabbi Jay M. Stein

Thursday, May 25, 2017 at 12:00:00 am

The Levites, however, were not recorded among them by their ancestral tribe. (Leviticus 1:47)

The desire to be famous is something that has taken our society by force in ways other generations never dreamed possible. Because of the explosion of social media, people, in the hopes of gaining noticed, share aspects of their lives that were previously considered private.  The genre of reality television puts people in the spotlight; social media expands the definition of 15 minutes of fame to 15 gigabytes of greatness.

In this week's portion, we have a list of the heads of tribes followed by the number of people in each tribe.  The message is clear.  There must be leaders and there must be followers.  Each tribe has its purpose and members of each tribe have their roles.  The goal of this accounting is to assemble a lethal fighting force. As John Smith wrote in The History of Israel, Moses formed a tribal league with unprecedented military prowess.  It was this structure that successfully sustained our people as they wandered through the desert. We survived because each person understood their role irrespective of the notoriety they achieved.  Some were leaders and some were followers. All contributed to our survival.  


The Sound of a Driven Leaf

Rabbi Jay M. Stein

Thursday, May 18, 2017 at 12:00:00 am


The sound of a driven leaf will send them to flight. (Leviticus 26:36)

In 1939 Milton Steinberg wrote what was has become a classic of Jewish literature, As a Driven Leaf.  It is a historical fiction about Elisha Ben Abuya.  Elisha was considered a great scholar and head of the Sanhedrin.  As Chaim Potok wrote in his introduction to the book, "the novel was more than a mere story, that is a central drama  - a conflict between religious and pagan ideas, between faith and reason, between postulates of creed and science..." Essentially, it is a novel about how fragile faith is.

In this week's reading the phrase, "a driven leaf" comes to explain how easily we are frightened.  When we feel vulnerable, we latch on to anything that will promise us safety and security.  To which, I can't help but hear the words of FDR when he said, "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself."  President Roosevelt was telling the American people their fear was making things worse.  Instead of fear mongering, he was trying to set the mind of his people at ease. He goes on to say, “nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

We live in dangerous times.  With military attacks threatening, cyber attacks being executed we have reason to fear.  Yet, we have survived in the past.  We will survive again. The solution lies not in giving up hope but in reaffirming it.           


Sometimes We Must

Rabbi Jay M. Stein

Thursday, May 11, 2017 at 12:00:00 am

Rabbi Akiba explained, "must defile himself" - the priest is not merely permitted but required to take part in the funeral rites for the relatives mentioned. And so the law was decided. (Sotah 3b)

When I began working there were often tasks I disliked doing.  Whether I was a busboy, a paperboy, a stock boy, a waiter etc, there were always things that I preferred not to do and wished someone else would do them.  When I was an assistant rabbi, there were classes, services or visits that I evaded.  However, one of the presidents of a past congregation in which I served once said to me, “Cowboy Up!" Which meant sometimes you just have to do it.  Since that day, I understood some things cannot be avoided and I have tried to embrace the responsibilities even if, initially, I wanted to escape them.

The rabbis, in discussing the responsibilities of the priest with regards to burial of a loved one, teach us this very lesson. Rabbi Ishmael says that a priest can be involved with burial when it relates to his relatives despite the prohibition against a priest coming into contact with the dead.  Rabbi Akiba comments it is not permission that is granted, but rather, it is an obligation. 

I imagine there are many things in our lives we would like to avoid. But once we have done them, we feel better for having been involved. Today, there are many excuses for not attending a life cycle event.  Before we opt out of anything, we might consider how we might feel afterwards.