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Cantorial Comments - Parshat B'ha'alotecha                        June 22, 2019 - 19 Sivan 5779

06/20/2019 12:53:04 PM


“America is the first culture in jeopardy of amusing itself to death.”
Rev. John Piper (1946-), theologian, author

This past Sunday morning, as I waited in the seemingly endless line at the Yorkdale SportChek for Raptors Championship regalia, I realized that I had some time on my hands to think about this week’s Shabbat commentary.  Even for someone like me who doesn’t normally follow professional sports, I was still excited to own my own little piece of Raptor-mania.  More importantly, though, I was heading to Michigan to visit my little niece and nephew that afternoon, and I wanted to be the hero that brought them their very own authentic Raptors Championship t-shirt, making them the envy of all of their new friends on their first day of camp.

Unquestionably, it’s an exciting time to be in Toronto, and everyone just seems to be in a good mood – who could possibly complain?  But amid the good cheer, it is hard not to notice that there are more than a few people whose exuberance rises above the rest of us in a pronounced way.  One fan reacted to a CP24 reporter following the big win screaming about how hard “we” worked to achieve this victory.  The reporter replied, “Wow, I feel like I should be congratulating YOU!”.  Another fan cried as she recalled the 24 years of ‘heartache’ she experienced until the day came at last that the Raptors had won their first NBA championship.

Obviously, there have been people who have done considerably worse, such as damaging property and jumping on police cars (following the game 4 win), and we can all easily agree that that kind of behaviour is never acceptable.  But most fans aren’t causing damage of any kind, so what’s wrong with getting a little bit carried away with excitement every once in a while?  The trouble is just that… it IS possible to have too much of a good thing to the point that it can become physically, psychologically or spiritually damaging.

In this week’s parsha B’ha’alotcha, the Levites are officially consecrated to God as holy servants, but the Torah offers some puzzling commentary with no explanation.  “For all the firstborn among the children of Israel are Mine whether man or beast since the day I smote all the firstborn in the land of Egypt; I have sanctified them for Myself.  And I have taken the Levites instead of all the firstborn of the children of Israel.”

(Num. 8:17-18). Apparently, the first born of Israel were supposed to be God’s servants, but the Levites got the job… why?  The great 11th century commentary, Rashi, explains that the first born of Israel lost that privilege when they went overboard with their jubilation in committing the sin of the Golden Calf, and it is because the Levites who did not participate that they were chosen instead.  The rationale is obvious – don’t invest your money with a guy who has a history of gambling addiction.  It’s not that we don’t believe in forgiveness, it’s just that we want to trust the things that are important to us to those who have proven to be consistently responsible, people who have their heads screwed nice and tightly atop their shoulders, people who always keep things in perspective and don’t get carried away.

Midrashic literature illustrates this lesson through the story of Rav Mar Bar Rabinah at the wedding of his son.  When he saw that the guests were becoming overwhelmed with merriment, he brought out a very expensive goblet, smashed it before them, and their merriment was calmed (Midrash Ein Yaakov 5:2).  When we think about it, it’s quite relatable.  Haven’t we all been to a wedding where we have seen people getting a bit too carried away?  Rav Mar wasn’t trying to ruin the wedding.  He was just trying to get everyone’s attention, and tell them to ‘cool it’ a bit.

Of course there is nothing wrong with being happy.  Quite the contrary, happiness is a wonderful goal in life to pursue, and I for one certainly wouldn’t want to stand in the way of anyone’s happiness, so long as it doesn’t come at the expense of someone else’s.  That said, we owe it to ourselves to keep life in healthy perspective.  I’m proud of our team and our city, but my life-long happiness (or heartache) does not turn on the outcome of a basketball game – even if I am the one playing it.  Doing so cheapens the things in life that deserve the maximum expression of our jubilation – a friend battling cancer is told he is in remission, a couple who is finally able to conceive, a cantor who, at 37 years old, finds his beshert and marries her.  Our lives are made up of some wondrous stories, and the happiest wish I can think of is that we should all have the wisdom to be able to recognize them and celebrate them accordingly.

Shabbat Shalom,

Tue, February 25 2020 30 Shevat 5780