There is probably only one synagogue in the world where the congregants have to bundle up in heavy coats and hats in order to attend services in the main sanctuary in the winter. I’d also imagine that there is only one synagogue in the world that is still lit exclusively by candlelight. But the one synagogue that has no heat and no electricity is not in the Arctic Circle, nor in the frozen tundra of Siberia, but rather in the modern sophisticated city of Amsterdam. 

I’ve been fortunate to pray in old synagogues all over the world, from the Altneushul in Prague, the oldest active synagogue in Europe, built in 1270, to the Touro Synagogue, built in 1763, and the oldest surviving synagogue in North America. In Israel, I’ve been to the Arizal’s Shul which dates back to the 1570’s and to the Kotel and Tomb of the Partriachs, which both are used as synagogues today, and date back over two thousand years. All of them have electricity at a minimum, and most of them have heat.

The Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, built in 1675 by Jews from Spain, refuses to modernize. They are holding onto their glorious past without so much as a glance at 350 years of global innovation. I’m not sure if their motivation is to avoid building a coat room, to prevent people from falling asleep during the Rabbi’s sermons in the winter, or to keep their carbon footprint down to nothing, but it sure creates a beautiful nostalgic experience.

The synagogue does have a smaller sanctuary used by members in the winter, and that has heat and electricity, but the massive sanctuary built using design cues from the Beis Hamikdash itself, is not planning on getting electricity unless the Third Beis Hamikdash is built using electricity. The floor is still covered in fine sand to absorb moisture, dust, and dirt, as it was when people were coming in off of dirt roads, and muddy paths. And before evening services, there are still deacons who walk around lighting the hundreds of candles that illuminate the sanctuary. 

The Portuguese Synagogue is a rare treat in a world of ever accelerating modernization, a place where you can see Jewish life as it was hundreds of years ago. Of course, as soon as we got there I snapped a bunch of pictures on my iPhone and blasted them all over the world seconds later… The collision of the modern and the ancient….

I was in Amsterdam a few years ago with a group of young Jewish professionals from the Metro Detroit area as part of our Amsterdam-Israel trip. In Jerusalem, we waded through the Gichon Spring waters, in a 1,700 foot long tunnel hewn from rock 2,700 years ago with nothing but chisels and hammers, by King Hezekiah and his men. An hour later we rode the smooth and silent GPS enabled light rail through the city of Jerusalem. The collision of the modern and the ancient…

In a way the whole trip was an attempt to blend the modern and the ancient. How do young professionals in today’s modern work environment bring the ancient wisdom of our people into their lives? How do we take the best of both worlds and bring them together to create the ideal life? How do we live a life filled with the fruits of technology, medicine, global commerce, computer science, and current events, while still reaping the benefits of our Divine tradition, a tradition designed by G-d to give us serenity, joy, meaning, fulfillment, and to challenge us to be as great as we can be? 

The answer I believe lies in the common denominator between the ancient and the modern, both of them were arrived at incrementally. The engineers and workers building King Hezekiah’s tunnels built it one hammer blow at a time, and the modern developments we have today are built one layer at a time on previous technologies. The people building the imposing Portuguese Synagogue didn’t try to build it in one day, they spent years on it, layering row after row of brick, and building pew after pew, one day at a time.

So too the scientists seeking stem cell therapy for ALS (I sat next to one of them on my flight back!), don’t walk into the lab one morning saying “I’m going to cure ALS today!” Rather, they spend years performing tests, each slightly different than the one performed the day before, tweaking the formula each time, pushing the envelope slowly forward each day, until the joyous day when they achieve the unthinkable. Every day the researcher comes into the lab, he has a list of the experiments he plans do that day. And while sometimes he may head down a false lead for a few months, the day after he realizes it he gets back on track, tweaking the experiments, adding a little more green fluid to this beaker, some more steam from the blue bubbling liquid, and soon enough the magic happens!

In order for us to be the heroes who can properly blend the ancient and the modern, without getting totally lost in one or the other, we need to walk into the lab that is our life each day with a plan. This is what I will be testing out today, this is how I plan to push the envelope today. It may work, it may not, but here is my plan. In the Path of the Just, one of the classical mussar (self-development) texts of the Ramchal, (Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzato, 1707-1746, Italy-Israel), the author encourages people to spend time at the end of the day each day, going over their day, and seeing where they were successful,  and where there was room for improvement the next day. Just as a storekeeper takes inventory at the end of the day to prevent slippage, so too the Ramchal tells us we must take moral inventory each day to prevent slippage. 

To take the Ramchal’s analogy further, just as the researcher plans his day out before starting work, and just as the sales team has their nine o’clock meeting to set the goals of the day, to make sure the day had direction and purpose, so too we should set for ourselves a goal each day for bringing the ancient wisdom into our modern life. 

Today I will work on appreciating my parents more (Ex. 20:12). 

Today I will work on seeing G-d in my daily life (Ex. 20:12, Deut 5:6). 

Today I will work on not bearing a grudge even when someone wrongs me (Lev. 19:18). 

Today I will work on not speaking negatively about anyone (Lev. 19:16).

Today I will work on giving charity according to my means (Deut 15:11). 

Today I will work on not eating or drinking more than I need. (Deut. 21:20).

If we were to write down each day on a pad of paper near our bed what we plan on working on that day, and then come back that evening and evaluate how our day went, I’m very confident that within one month, anyone would see measured success, measurable increases in self-esteem and meaningfulness. It’s a simple equation for injecting our modern lives with the benefits of our people’s ancient wisdom. The collision of the ancient and the modern… it’s a beautiful thing!

Parsha Dvar Torah

Last week’s Parsha ended with the Midianites sending their women to seduce the Jews into immoral relationships, and from there swaying them to worship the gods of Midian. The prince of the tribe of Shimon led the way, publicly defiling himself with a princess from Midian. Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron (and great nephew of Moshe), saves the day in an act of zealousness for G-d’s honor, and puts the two of them to death. This shocks the people out of their temporary blindness and the sinning stops, as does (or did, depending on the tense you have chosen) the plague Hash-m had sent as punishment for their immorality and idol worship.   

This week’s parsha opens with G-d rewarding Pinchas. “Therefore say: Behold I have given him my covenant of peace.” (Numbers 25:12) Why does Pinchas get a covenant of peace specifically in reward for this act? (I probably would have just asked for a Corvette! No, no. That’s not going to look good. I probably would have asked for a Sefer Torah!) This question is strengthened by the fact that the Torah introduces his reward with “Therefore,” as if the reward is directly linked to the act. What is the link between the two?

There is much debate about how one defines him or her self. Some say, “You are what you wear.” Now, I know this is going to be controversial, but I believe that to a certain degree that is true. We do choose our clothing, and often we elect to wear certain clothing because we want to send a message of how we see ourselves in the hope that others will begin to see us in that way as well. Other people will tell you, “You are what you eat.” There is a little less truth to that statement, because if it were true I would be half wheat and half cow hooves (I just had a hot dog in a bun). 

In Judaism we believe that you are what you do. By nature, we may be languid, lazy, lackluster, languorous, and lethargic, but if we energize ourselves and become active people, then we have changed who we are and we are now   vigorous, vibrant and vivacious people brimming with vim and vitality. This is due to our actions entering our psyche, and transforming our very essence.

Using this line of reasoning, Pinchas, who had just committed a violent act, would become a more violent and aggressive person, no matter how noble his intentions. But G-d would never allow a negative result to be the outcome of a virtuous act,; therefore, G-d gave him a special covenant of peace to protect him from any character defects he may have acquired through his violent action. 

This idea is very empowering, as it allows us out of any box we may have placed ourselves in. So often, we live our lives believing that we are selfish, lazy, or disorderly. But we learn from here that all we have to do is to act selflessly, energetically, and in an orderly fashion and we will become different people! Most of you are probably thinking, “Sure, easier said than done!” but that is just the lazy part of you speaking. Instead, we must simply follow the Pinchas strategy, and get up and do, because that is what changes us. 

Parsha Summary

This week begins with the reward given to Pinchas for his glorification of  G-d by eradicating one of the leaders of the tribe of Shimon who was publicly committing adultery with a princess from Midian. The Midianite people had sent their daughters to seduce the Jews. At the moment of their highest vulnerability, the women would entice the Jewish men to serve the Midianite Gods. Pinchas, with his quick action, brought the people back to their senses. The reward Pinchas received was the ability to join the ranks of the Kohanim, the people whose entire raison d’etre is to bring people closer to G-d by cleansing them of the negative effects of their sins. After this incident, the Jews went to war with the Midianites, in retribution for the spiritual war the Midianites waged against the Jews.

As you probably recall, in the beginning of the Book of Bamidbar (Numbers), there was a major census taken of all the Jews. That was at the beginning of the Jews’ forty years in the desert. Now, at the end of their 40 year journey, G-d commands Moshe to take another census. Why was another census necessary? A number of 585reasons are given. First, just as a shepherd counts his sheep after a wolf attacks, so too, G-d, after forty years and a number of punitive plagues, counts the Jews to see how many remain. In addition, just as Moshe counted the people at the beginning of his leadership, now that his watch is about to end, he counts them again before returning his flock to their master. 

Another purpose of the census was to count the people by family, as this would determine their portions of land when they entered Israel. At this point, the daughters of Tzelafchad came before Moshe to make a request. They were from a family with only women, five of them to be exact. Their father had died, and they were concerned that with no men to represent them, their family would get no portion in Israel. Moshe, after a quick consultation with G-d, told them not to worry, as they would get a portion of the Land of Israel in lieu of their father. 

(Here is an interesting note: 2000 years ago, Jews were the most liberal nation in the world in regards to women’s rights. They gave women land, offered them many forms of protection in the case of divorce or death of a spouse, and gave them equal protection under law. Today, people look at Orthodoxy and claim that it represses women. It is important to try to understand the Orthodox position before judging them, in light of their record of being the foremost champion of women’s rights for thousands of years.) Once dealing with laws of inheritance, the Torah here summarizes the Jewish laws of bequest and inheritance.

The Torah, now close to wrapping up the narrative of the Jews’ desert experience, tells of G-d informing Moshe that he will die imminently and he therefore has to pass the mantle of leadership onto his principal pupil, Joshua. The Parsha then concludes with a list of the sacrifices brought on all the various festivals. That’s all, Folks!

Quote of the Week: Time is what we want most, but we all use worst. – William Penn

Random Fact of the Week: “Dreamt” is the only English word that ends in the letters “mt”. 

Funny Line of the Week: Money talks, but all mine ever says is “goodbye.”

Have a Noteworthy Shabbos,

R” Leiby Burnham


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