Friday, June 15, 2018

Parashat Korah


            Shabbat Shalom and welcome to my favorite Torah portion. Parashat Korah is juicy and full of interesting points of view to consider. There’s betrayal and coup d’├ętat and the earth swallowing people whole! But I don’t want to talk about any of that tonight. I want to focus on one-line Korah utters when he is threatening insurrection against Moses. He says, “The entire congregation of Israel is holy, and HaShem is in their midst.”
The Midrash Tanhuma comments on that line, “Not only you heard at Sinai, ‘I am the Lord, your God’ - the entire congregation heard it. All of them heard [the] words [of the commandments] at Sinai from the mouth of the Almighty.” When we say that all the people of Israel heard the word of God at Sinai, even though that part of the Torah tells us the people were terrified at witnessing God and sent Moses up to finish the conversation on their behalf, is that as Jews we believe in the complete equality of all our people. When we say at Passover time that this “whole congregation of Israel” includes all Jews, past, present, and future, those who believe themselves to be descended from the 12 tribes and those who know they joined the congregation along the way, we’re reinforcing Korah’s judgement that no one should elevate themselves above anyone else. The entire congregation is holy, and HaShem is in our midst most when we recognize one another’s holiness.
Tonight, we at Ner Shalom welcomed in a new member of our holy congregation and God’s presence was a little nearer, felt a little fuller in our midst as our community grew. When we are open and welcoming, when we embrace one another fully, we let in the presence of God as well and increase the holiness among us. May you find the holiness in each person you greet, for the entire community is holy, and HaShem is with everyone.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Parashat Shelach and Intergenerational Trauma

Shabbat Shalom! Here are some fun old Yiddishisms for you I learned from The Five Books of Miriam:
The cat likes fish, but doesn’t want to get her paws wet.
The way you look at someone, so that person appears to you.
The smoothest way is full of stones.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shelach-Lecha, we learn of 12 Spies that Moses sends into the Promised Land to scope out how conquerable the land is, or if it is indeed what God has promised. They come back with a cluster of grapes so large they have to carry it on a pole between two men and tell the Israelite horde that indeed the land is plentiful, but the people who dwell in it are large enough to match these giant grapes. Those living in the land are described as giants, and it is hinted at that the Israelite spies possibly even see these giants as descended from angels. They have no faith in their abilities to conquer the land from these people. Rashi says that when the spies say, “We cannot attack that people for it is stronger than we”, they are even including God’s might in that “we”. It is not simply a lack of faith in God’s support for them that leads them to question their abilities, but that even God is not strong enough to overcome these semigod giants.
I think Rashi’s view, and the Bubbe-isms, are the common way to view this story. These are a faithless, lazy, incessantly whining people. More than once they suggest things were actually better in Egypt. They demand meat fall from heaven for them, even after all their basic needs are being taken care of. When thing get hard, they want to just give up.
However, it is important to remember that these are a people who have lived in slavery, and are descended from several generations of enslaved people. Where was God’s might during those 200 years under Egyptian hardship? Despite the miracles these people have seen with their own eyes, they are still carrying on their souls the 200 years of oppression and tragedy. When the people who are born in freedom merit to enter the Promised Land, we still see some of the vestiges of this faithlessness that God tried to stamp out by causing the generation of slaves to die in the wilderness. This week’s Haftarah comes from the Book of Joshua, and we see Joshua also sends spies into Jericho to scope out the best way to conquer the walled city. Later in the book, as the Israelites make their way from city to city conquering land and asserting their dominance, they are instructed to never take any booty from the cities they conquer. The plan is simply to establish that the land belongs to them and that the Israelites will be able to settle where God tells them to, so there is no need to cause excess harm to the people living in the land. According to the plan, God will aid their fight and ensure their prosperity. Yet, in one narrative in the Book of Joshua, someone steals some money from one of the cities, and again the whole community suffers the wrath of God. Time has passed, and they are ostensibly past the fear and faithlessness of their fathers born in slavery, but it’s clear that some Israelites still have trouble believing that they will always have the years of plenty God has promised.
The study of intergenerational trauma has stemmed from the study of Holocaust survivors and their families, so these behavior patterns might be familiar to us as Jews. The study has expanded and this sort of trauma is known now to occur in many types of communities, such as the Siberian Yupik peoples of Alaska, who were the focus of this week’s episode of Code Switch. The good news is, we don’t have to be stuck in these patterns. Despite their fear and faithlessness, God never gives up on the Israelites in the stories we read this week, and our people eventually prevail. Even as history has marched forward and other tragedies have befallen modern Jews, we continue to survive and thrive. Though I know many still carry the scars of their parents and grandparents, this field of study has opened up more awareness of how to break these cycles, learn about our histories in healthier ways, and focus on resilience and rebuilding. The idea that someone can inherit trauma may sound depressing, but this field of study can help turn us into an entire people of Calebs and Joshuas, a people with faith and hope, courage and strength, and a more acute sense of real dangers versus perceived ones. May you find your own faith, hope, courage, strength, and wisdom to help lead the Jewish people forward. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Friday, June 1, 2018

Parashat Beha'alotcha and Community

Shabbat shalom! A while back I wrote a drash about what a great leader Moses because he delegated. Yet in this week's Torah portion, Parashat Beha'alotcha, he expresses feeling overwhelmed again. The Israelites won't stop whining about how hard life in the desert is and blaming Moses for their difficulties.

In response, God gives the gift of prophecy to the 70 elders of the Israelites, those with whom Moses shares some duties. It is meant to be temporary but two men continue to speak in tongues after the Spirit of the Lord leaves from the others. Joshua is concerned, possibly jealous and threatened for Moses and for his future succession to Moses's legacy. But when he tries to interfere, Moses tells him to take a seat. "Would God that all the Lord's people were prophets!" Moses exclaims.

Moses has his moments where he gets arrogant and territorial of his role (as we shall see in just two weeks when we read Korach), but here we see the same humble, tired Moses who never wanted this job in the first place and needed his brother's moral support to get this project off the ground. Because change does not happen from one leader alone. It takes a village, as they say. We all do better when we lift each other up and support one another to each become prophets in our own rights.

There have been several opportunities in the last month for interfaith work. Since our panel on Abrahamic views of environmentalism here a little over a month ago, there was a mother's day event at the Masroor Mosque, which is also hosting a community iftar dinner next Saturday. Last night I attended a lovely iftar at Dar alnoor and reconnected with the pastor from the Manassas Presbyterian church, the elders from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and many other community leaders from around Prince William County. Yesterday afternoon I also met with someone who is in charge of the interfaith and adult ed at St. Margaret's. We all come from different backgrounds and may have different views on some things. But we all believe that our community is stronger together. We all know that each of us has a prophetic vision and voice that is important and worth listening to from different perspectives. I know I'm looking forward to more opportunities to spend time with and learn from our friends from other faiths as well as from the secular leaders in the community. I hope you will join us at these events such as next week's iftar and next year’s adult ed programs. And in the meantime, may you each find your own prophetic voice to share with others as well. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 11, 2018

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai

Shabbat Shalom! Together we count the Omer.

Baruch atah, Adonai Eloheinu, Melech Ha'Olam, asher kid'shanu b'mitzvotav v'tzivanu al sefirat ha'omer.

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments and commanded us in the counting of the Omer.

Hayom sh'nayim v'arba'im yom, sheheim shisha shavuot la'Omer.

Today is the 42nd day of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day is Malchut sheb'yesod, or the Majesty of Commitment. The Biblical woman associated with this day of the Omer is Tamar, the daughter-in-law of Judah. She stands up for herself against her father-in-law when he wrongfully accuses her of something. As a result, she merits to be the mother of Peretz, the eventual ancestor to King David (as we will see soon in the lineage at the end of the Book of Ruth, which we read on Shavuot). A simple poem by Kohenet Annie Matan for today's Omer count says, "Malchut sheb'yesod - Majesty of Commitment - Where the seed comes home (And creates the whole world)."


This week's Torah portion is Parashat Behar-Bechukotai, a double portion. The two halves have some differences, but they are both agriculturally focused. Parashat Behar focuses on the rules of sustainable farming and giving your land and workers some rests, whereas Parashat Bechukotai lets the Israelites know that the success of their farming and families will be dependent on them following all the rules. By taking good care of your families, your land and farms, and perhaps today we would also say your office or classroom environments, by being mindful of the rules and acting in ways that look out for others as well as yourself, you can find success in this world. It takes commitment to create this success, though. Commitment to the people you love to cultivate healthy relationships and successful families. Commitment to your gardens and farms to cultivate sustainable agriculture. Commitment to your passions and work ethic to cultivate good grades at school and a strong modern career. Commitment to Judaism to cultivate strong connections to God and community. Through this commitment, and perhaps with the help of Divine reward, we plant the seeds that create the world.

May we commit ourselves to these acts of cultivation and create for ourselves a reputation for steadfast honesty and integrity, like Tamar who acted with righteousness and stood her ground when she was in the right, and may we be reward with success, honor, and legacy as she was. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 4, 2018

Parashat Emor: Grandparents


            Shabbat Shalom! Shabbat Shalom! Together we count the omer.

BA-RUCH A-TAH ADO-NAI E-LO-HE-NU ME-LECH HA-OLAM ASHER KID-E-SHA-NU BE-MITZ-VO-TAV VETZI-VA-NU AL SEFI-RAT HA-OMER.
Blessed are You, Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, who has sanctified us with commandments, and commanded us concerning the counting of the Omer.

Hayom chamishah ush’loshim yom, sheheim chamisha shavuot la’omer.

Today is the 35th day of the Omer. The mystical realm of this day is Malchut sheb’hod, which is majesty within glory or the nobility of humility. The Biblical woman Rabbi Jill Hammer associates with this day is Achsah, the daughter of Caleb. Caleb is one of the 12 spies that Moses sends to scout the Promised Land, and he and Joshua are the only two to come back ready to conquer the land. Because of this, they become leaders of the conquest. While Joshua is the commander-in-chief, Caleb remains pretty important and in a position to divvy up land at his discretion, within the confines of the tribes God assigns to specifics large territories of the Promised Land. So when he marries off his daughter Achsah and she asks for a dowry of land with plenty of water, he is able to accommodate her and her new husband with property on the wellsprings of the Judean Hills. A midrash tells us that Caleb was Miriam’s husband, and Achsah her daughter. When she asks for water resources, she is really asking to security to be able to pass down to her own children her mother’s legacy of providing water to her people. It is important for Achsah’s children to know about their grandmother and have this connection to her, even though she has passed away in the desert before the land conquest. Achsah prioritizes her lineage and legacy over all other concerns and shows us a great humble nobility in her dowry request.
            This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Emor. Many laws are given in this portion, including the basic commandments to observe Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot, but many are specific to the Kohanim. One such kohein-specific law is to stay away from dead bodies and cemeteries. The only exceptions the Torah names are for the parent, sibling, or child of the Kohein. My second graders at Gesher asked this week, “Why not grandparents?” I answered what I usually do, that grandparents are generally excluded from traditional laws around mourning for immediate family members because when these laws were written, people didn’t live as long so grandchildren didn’t have as much time to form a strong bond they know to grieve over by the time a grandparent passes away. But as I’ve thought more about it this week, I’m not sure that’s right. People also had children younger, so it seems that grandchildren and grandparents would have some time together even with lower life expectancies.
So, I decided to look more into it. There doesn’t seem to be a satisfying halakhic reason that grandparents are not included in the list of immediate family members in this week’s Torah portion or in the rules around traditional shiva practices. However, there is precedent to believe that indeed, the bonds between grandchildren and grandparents have been cherished and valued throughout Jewish history. On the topic of mourning, there is a brief story in the Talmud, Moed Katan 20b, of a man named Amemar who rent his garments and sat shiva for his grandson. The story is used as reasoning for the halakha that mourners must stand when performing kriyah, so the element of grandfather-grandson relationship is not dwealt upon. It is significant though, if we as Reform Jews look at the Talmud as a source of all traditions of the past and remember to look there when the time comes for reconfiguring some tradition of the present.
Further, another section of the Talmud, Kiddushin 30a, tells us that a grandparent has as much duty to teach Judaism to their grandchildren as do parents to children. The rabbis base this on a quote from Deuteronomy, not far from our V’Ahavta verses, that says “You shall teach these words to your children and to your children’s children.” The Talmud teaches, “The children of our children, we consider as our children,” and the halakha around that is codified by both the Mishneh Torah and the Shulchan Aruch. From this teaching, we have derived an understanding in some Jewish circles that a marker of successful Jewish parenting is having a Jewish grandchild.
Of course, the relationships between grandparents and grandchildren is different that between parents and children, but not any less important and valuable. We carry on our grandparents’ legacies and learn so much from them. Although she never lived there herself, my grandmother was a connection to an old world that was destroyed and I longed to know more about. I loved when she would tell me the stories of her own parents and their escape from Vilnius, how they spoke so many languages and she regretted how much Yiddish she lost. When I took a January Term Yiddish class my last semester in undergrad, I would call her every day after class to tell her what we learned that day. Sometimes it would jog her memories, other times she would say she didn’t remember anything from that vocab list, and other times she would correct my pronunciation. When I visited Vilnius the following fall, I thought of my grandmother at every turn, the beautiful sights she would appreciate, the friendly people she would enjoy socializing with, the pathetic excuses for memorials to our people she would mourn over. She was not one for travel, and I know she had a lot of vicarious travel anxiety for me while I was there, but I know when I came back she was so happy I could bring her pictures and souvenirs of the place her parents came from. Throughout the next year, I had dinner with her every Wednesday night and learned more about her life, her childhood, and her years with my grandfather, who died before I was born, than I had ever known. When I moved to NYC for rabbinical school, it was harder to see her as much, but I would call her most Saturdays on my walk home from shul. A half an hour was about as long as she could talk before she tired out, and my shul was a mile from my house, so it was perfect for an ambling walk conversation. When she died, the walk home became so lonely. I started calling friends and using that time to catch up with others who lived far away, but it wasn’t quite the same. She wasn’t a shul goer herself, and I don’t think she ever quite understood my drive to be a rabbi, but she was a proud Jew and a proud grandmother, and if she had lived to see me ordained, I think Ner Shalom would have one more regular viewer on our livestream.
Grandchildren, call your grandparents this Shabbat. Grandparents, call your grandchildren this Shabbat, if they are old enough to come to the phone. If not, maybe FaceTime or Skype your children so you can see your grandbabies and they can see you. The time shared between grandparents and grandchildren is invaluable. May we cherish the moments we have in these relationships, and pass on the legacies we inherit from them. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.