Friday, March 28, 2014

Parashat Tazria

            This week’s Torah portion, Tazria, has some gruesome details, but the heart of it is the question: how do we deal with illness? In the Torah, it seems that the treatment plan for most medical emergencies, from childbirth to skin disease, is basically quarantine and a good bath. Today, of course, we have much more thorough and specific treatments for most illnesses. However, too often, the ill are still at least temporarily cut off from society. Sometimes it is necessary for someone who is contagious or has a very weak immune system to be quarantined for a short while for their own health and the health of others. Sadly, though, even when it is not necessary, people remain in the hospital or at their homes, sick, for days or even weeks or months, with few or no visitors.
            Our synagogue has made attempts to educate about the importance on Bikur Cholim, the Mitzvah of visiting the sick, and is starting to institute home visits for those who may feel as cut off from the community as those separated for their impurity in this week’s parasha. Even if those homebound live with family members, the family member caretakers might also feel cut off, alone, overwhelmed with their responsibility, and be in need a healing of spirit that can only be done with a visit from a friend. I myself have begun doing chaplaincy visits at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope, and it is clear that some people need a visitor more than they need their doctors and nurses. Often, the business of visiting the homebound, the sick, the lonely, is kind of serious work for adults. But it can start young! Kids, you too can complete the mitzvah of bikur cholim! If you notice that your friend or classmate is out sick from school, call him or her and ask what’s going on. If they aren’t too contagious, offer to bring them their homework or some chicken soup, and go visit them for a bit. If it isn’t possible for you to go visit them directly, you can still keep them company by phone. I suggest actually calling and talking to them, so that they can feel more connected to you, but obviously, if they’ve just had their tonsils out or something, texting might also be an option. The important thing is that you reach out.
            We no longer live in a society with priests who have the sole power to heal and purify. We live in an era of advanced modern medicine, and a cure for many major diseases. There is still only one real cure for sadness and loneliness, and that is love and support, company and kind words. May you find yourself in a position to offer that cure, and find it is easily offered to you in your own time of need. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Parashat Shemini - Silence is Golden

            This week’s Torah portion, Shemini, is disturbing. Two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, take into the tabernacle an unwanted sacrifice of strange fire, and G-d strikes them dead. Moses tells Aaron that their deaths were not only G-d’s will, but really what G-d wanted, and had said would be. Then Moses tells Aaron and his two remaining sons, Eliezer and Itamar, not to mourn for their recently deceased loved ones. And Aaron is silent. It is obviously tragic that Nadav and Avihu die. It is also upsetting that Moses’s response is so callous, and curious that Aaron is silent.
            When tragedy strikes, it is hard to know how to respond properly. A first instinct is to try to make sense of it and in a situation that is truly senseless, a rationalizing response (“This is what the Lord spoke”) could come out as offensive, even if that isn’t the intent. Similarly, it is hard to see those you love in pain, and another instinct might be to say, “Don’t cry, don’t be sad, let me help you move on.” Actually, it is good to cry and be sad sometimes. People need time to sit with their feelings and grieve before they can really move on in a healthy way. This is not only true after death, by the way. There are many types of loss, and even something which seems trivial to one person, may actually be really hurtful to another person. I try really hard not to get too attached to things, and if something were to happen to my Kindle Fire, I would probably try to pretend it was not a big deal. After all, it’s just a thing; it’s not anything like a death. In actuality, I would be devastated deep down about the loss not only of my device, but all the materials I have saved on it! It is okay to accept and express feelings of loss even over things that may seem silly. It is necessary to let your feelings out in order to healthily move on.
            However, in times of grief or extreme stress, there may be a tendency to lash out, and that is no good. We want to express our feelings, but we should be careful to express truthful feelings, and not simply lash out and project or be hurtful to those we think can handle it. Moses shares words with Aaron and his remaining sons that I think he means to be helpful. They sound not really so helpful. It would be understandable for Aaron to snap and tell Moses to shut up, but that would also be not really so helpful. It could damage Aaron and Moses’s relationship, which could mean losing a supportive family member (or at least a family member trying to be supportive), and actually make the healing process harder. Instead Aaron just remains silent. He accepts Moses’s advice, and understands Moses’s intent, and continues on with his duties. According to the Midrash Rabbah, it is as a reward for his holding his tongue that Aaron is able to actually have a one-on-one conversation with G-d in chapter 9, verses 8-11 (distinct from the rest of the Torah, where G-d speaks only to Moses or occasionally to Moses and Aaron together). Rabbi Nachman of Breslav said, “In youth, one learns to talk; in maturity, one learns to be silent.” It is not an easy lesson to learn, or an easy value to remember, but sometimes, silence is golden.
            I pray that you all have easy lives, with little tragedy, easy relationships, and an honest heart. However, life is not always easy, there are occasional tragedies for everyone, some relationships are difficult, and even the most honest person must learn what truths are better held close to one’s heart. When you find yourself in such a situation, may you remember Aaron’s silence, and keep to the old adage: if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Parashat Tzav - Inadvertent sins

Shabbat Shalom. This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tzav. Last week, in Vayikra, Moses is told to speak to the whole community of the Israelites to explain the sacrifices, what they are for, what the people should bring forth for which sin, etc. This week, Moses is told to speak to Aaron and his sons, because only they need to know the proper way to actually go about performing the sacrificial rites. The Torah portion, much like last week’s, goes through each type of offering, and is repetitive and kind of gross. Finally, after all the instructions are given to Aaron and his sons, Moses pours oil over the altar and the priests to anoint them, to make them spiritually and ritually ready to begin the sacrificing. Curiously, before the sacrifice for ordination, before blood is smeared on Aaron and his sons to officially ordain them and their progeny for years to come as priests, Aaron’s first sacrifice is that of a sin offering.
            I think I like what this says about humanity. The sin offering, unlike the guilt offering, was for inadvertent sins. No matter how hard we try to be our best selves, we will inevitably miss the mark sometimes. Indeed, that is actually what “sin” means in Judaism – missing the mark. It’s not so much that you did something horrible or wrong or unforgiveable, but that you just didn’t quite get yourself where you were meant to be in some way. Sometimes, we might realize after the fact that we did something wrong and have a chance to really make it right. More often, though, probably we’ll never really know. Maybe you didn’t realize the thing you were doing was sinful, or maybe you did something so absent-mindedly that you didn’t even realize you did it.
Personally, I tend to replay situations over and over in my head and then worry about how other people might have read my tone and wonder if I absent mindedly missed the mark in that social situation. When I worked in a restaurant, we didn’t really do delivery, but sometimes my boss would send me to bring orders to local regulars while they worked. Once I ran next door to a clothing store to bring dinner to the cashier. I didn’t think to bring any cash with me for change, as it had never been necessary before. She handed me some amount of money that seemed like too much (I don’t remember how much now), and didn’t ask for change or anything. So I said, “Is that all?” meaning, is that all for this transaction or would you like me to run back with some change? She nodded and I walked away. After I had gotten back to the restaurant, it occurred to me, “Oh man, what if that sounded like I was asking is this was all I was getting for tip?! Now she thinks I’m stupid and greedy and maybe I made her feel bad, when it’s actually such a good tip I thought she should want change! What do I do to fix this? I don’t know if I even did anything wrong but it feels like maybe I did! Ahhh!” I don’t know if everyone does that, though, so maybe you’d be even less aware if you had inadvertently sinned.
            G-d understands. That is why Aaron was led to sacrifice the inadvertent sin offering first. Maybe his head was similarly filled with all the uncertainties of his day, how people heard what he said, how he could have been clearer, better. Maybe he was worried that those uncertainties could have been sins, and maybe he was worried he wasn’t pure enough to be ordained as High Priest. Maybe none of that, but G-d knew that Aaron had done some things that he wasn’t even aware of that made him not quite pure enough yet to be High Priest. So the first step in this ordination it the sin-offering, a wiping clean of the slate.
            You know, of course, we know longer sacrifice animals. Instead we pray. We pray that our words have been heard the way we intended them, and we pray that we always intend them for good. We pray that we can be self-aware and try our best in life, and that we have good people around to help set us right if we unknowingly miss the mark. We pray that G-d sees the good intentions of our hearts and not the mistakes in our deeds. We pray that G-d help us not make the mistakes in our deeds. May all these prayers come true, for all of us. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Parashat Pekudei - Playing the Sims 3

            Shabbat Shalom. I have a little bit of an embarrassing confession for you all. I am 26, and I still love playing the Sims. Some Youth Group members know that we have Sims3 on the PlayStation at my home, but I don’t think even they know that I also have Sims3 – plus five expansion packs – for my pc. I’m not sure how the Sims Free Play or Sims Social app versions of the game may be different, but in the computer game, you can create your own people, design their look, and create relationships. Then you can create your own home, design the blueprints and decorate it to look however you want, especially if you know the money cheat code and money is no object. Once your family and home are completely made you can “start” playing (as though this act of creation doesn’t count as playing). I love the actual “playing” of Sims3, and often go through three generations of the same family before I get bored and want to start over. Many, however, have expressed supreme boredom with this part, saying they’ll play with a family for a few hours, maybe spread over a couple of days, but then they’ll go back and create a new family and house. The creative act is the fun part of the game for a lot of people.
            I remember a few years ago, my cousin was telling me about the family she had been babysitting, and the game that the kids were playing (first version the Sims), and she described the game as “playing G-d.” At the time, that seemed like a fair way to explain the Sims and a close enough approximation to my understanding of G-d. Let’s look at this week’s Torah portion, though, and we see a view of G-d that doesn’t fit the “Sims mold” so well. The past few weeks have been about the building of the Tabernacle, culminating in this week, when G-d finally settles in into this new Divine Home. G-d commands Moses to tell the people to bring forth anything they have that will be useful in building the Tabernacle. G-d appoints Bezalel and Ohaliab to be the head architects. G-d puts the creative act onto the people to build. G-d does not construct the perfect home for G-dself like a game of Sims. G-d appoints us, humans with free will and minds of our own, to create something for G-d. In the wilderness, in the Torah, it is the Tabernacle. Today, it is our community.
            We are not Sims. G-d may be watching, and G-d may be sending us messages, and there may be some grand Divine plan to the universe, but we are not being directly controlled by an unseen force like a person sitting and clicking away at the various templates on a computer game. We know this because if we were being so controlled, would the Israelite people have built and worshipped the golden calf and angered G-d, only a short time before building G-d this beautiful home? As I said last week, we are humans, each with our own unique skills, talents, needs, and interests. We each bring something important and specific to build the Tabernacle, to build our community. It is up to each of us to be ourselves, to work together to the best of our abilities, to bring our community to life, to have a beautiful space to dwell in, because there is no computer program making these decisions for us, building our houses and clicking “Go to School” or “Express Fondness” for us to make sure we do what we’re supposed to do.
            So I play the Sims a lot, maybe specifically because real life is so not the Sims. In the Sims, you can have complete control over the universe you create, and that is comforting. But the real universe would be boring if we could do that. Although it is sometimes hard to deal with the unknowable and the uncontrollability of life and community building, we know from this week’s Torah portion that that is what G-d wants of us. For us to deal with the unknown and uncontrollable, to create, to work together, to figure it out for ourselves as we go along. It is hard, but it is far more rewarding than a happy Sims family. May you all find the patience and self-confidence required to go out in life and deal with the unknown and uncontrollable, to create art, community, and holy spaces. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Parashat Vayak’hal

            This week’s Torah portion is Vayak’hal, in which Moses assembles the whole people of Israel and tells them that it is time to begin building the Tabernacle, the transitory sanctuary in which G-d will reside as they wander through the wilderness. Moses tells the people to bring forth gifts for building materials, and they do so freely and abundantly. The Torah refers to them here as being “generous-hearted” and “wise-hearted” for being so forthcoming with the gifts. This week’s G-dcast, the weekly cartoon interpretation of Torah stories and occasional other Bible or holiday stories, is a beautiful song about this act of generosity and G-d’s promise to dwell among the people if they build this holy space. I highly suggest you all look it up.
            Once the materials are brought out, not everyone among the people is an architect or building contractor or construction worker or artist. Two men in particular are singled out to do the physical work of building, Bezalel and Ohaliab, and they call for other skilled workers to help. In the end, though, almost all of the building is attributed to Bezalel alone. The Midrash Tanhuma, an old book of stories explaining plot holes in the Torah, says that Bezalel simply worked harder than any of the other wise men, so the work is all attributed to him, and the others are all but forgotten.
            That may be so, but isn’t that still kind of demeaning for the others, particularly Ohaliab who is also singled out by name by G-d? We all have different skills, talents, endurance levels, were raised with different work ethics and beliefs regarding with and art. It isn’t particularly fair to hold up one wise man against another. I think we all do it a little bit, at least subconsciously. We get used to a certain level of intelligence, a certain style of art, a certain expectation of work, and when someone doesn’t meet that, we’re disappointed. When someone exceeds that by too much, we feel insecure or threatened, and may even accuse them of being show offs. When someone expects more of us than we are used to or possibly able to achieve, we feel overwhelmed and frustrated with ourselves. When someone expects way less of us than the level we know we can achieve, we feel belittled and patronized. All of those feelings are normal, but they aren’t particularly pleasant and they aren’t particularly fair to any of the people involved. Everyone should be equally recognized for the particular skills and talents they do bring to the project, and conversely, no one should ever be made to feel embarrassed or shy about letting their superiority at a particular skill shine. It’s great that Bezalel was so talented and such a hard worker. He was absolutely correct to embrace that and throw himself whole-heartedly into the work, even if it meant leaving the others in the dust. It’s also fine that the others did what they could and what was asked of them, even if it didn’t quite earn them the recognition it earned Bezalel.
            I hope all of you appreciate your own talents and skills. I hope you find something you feel called to, as Bezalel was called to build the tabernacle. Maybe it will just be a hobby, maybe it will be your favorite subject in school, maybe it will be a job someday. In any case, may you feel comfortable enough with the activity and with yourself to throw yourself whole heartedly into it, and measure yourself by your own improvement, rather than how you compare to others. May you be recognized for your talents and skills and whatever you bring to any particular effort you strive for. And most of all, may those talents, skills, or endeavors bring you happiness. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Parashat Tetzaveh - Dress Codes

            Quick Poll: How many of you need to dress in a uniform or according to a dress code for school or work? How does that make you feel? [I’d like some real answers here – is it comforting to know that you are dressed appropriately or does it feel oppressive and confining? Or something else entirely – maybe you don’t even think about it.]
            In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, G-d describes, in great detail, the proper uniform for the Temple Priests that Moses is to have made. This was not a simple dress code to promote modesty or professionalism as we know it today. This was a very specific uniform, that not only described the tunic (equivalent perhaps to a suit), but also included specifications for underwear and accessories. Imagine if your school dress code included mandatory jewelry and a particular pair of underpants. That seems a little absurd, doesn’t it?! I don’t think I would want to live in that world.
            But for the Israelite priests, the dress code was important to set them apart. To show to the rest of the people that these were the leaders to whom the Israelites could take their ritual and spiritual questions. While we can be very grateful that however restrictive our uniforms or dress codes they don’t specify every single article of clothing we wear, we can also learn from this week’s Torah portion the useful significance of uniforms or dress codes. Your clothes should never be what define you, but they do help to identify you to others.
            Think about this: you’re in a store and you can’t find what you’re looking for. You know to ask the person in the identifiable store uniform for help. Your doorbell rings, and you don’t like to open the door for strangers. But you can see that the person at your door now is wearing a UPS uniform, so you know it is ok to open the door and sign for your package. At school, students should all be treated as equals, and uniforms or dress codes help to establish an even footing for all students. Depending on the strictness of the dress code, clothes can still be used to help identify common interests. If you were the new kid at school and you saw someone wearing a t-shirt advertising your favorite band or movie, giving you a quick and easy way to start a conversation and make a new friend.
            The debate about uniforms and dress codes vs. clothing as an expression of free speech has always been interesting to me, because both sides of the argument are so valid. It is nice sometimes to express yourself through your fashion, and to be able to identify potentially like-minded people through clothes, and a strict uniform might prohibit that. However, a uniform would help to identify your position, job, or place, and equalize people whose fashions might reflect their economic status and cause tension or distraction in school or the work place. This week’s Torah portion illustrates the importance of clothing and of identifying ourselves to others. If you already live in resentment of your existing dress code or uniform, use this Torah portion and learn to appreciate how much more oppressive it could be, and at least you have weekends to wear whatever you want. May we all find ways to express ourselves regardless of how we dress, and appreciate whatever clothes we have. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.