Friday, June 13, 2014

Parashat Shelach-Lecha


            This week’s Torah Portion is Shelah-Lecha, the sending out of the spies. Moses sends out a scout from each of the twelve tribes to scope out the Promised Land and determine if it is inhabitable. The spies discover that it is indeed a land flowing with milk and honey (date honey, specifically, most likely), and that there is good fruit to eat there, including grapes so large it takes two people to carry the bunch! But they also discover that the land is already inhabited, and they view the inhabitants as large and scary, and they report back to Moses that they should not try to conquer the land. All but Caleb and Joshua prepare to elect new leadership and head back to Egypt. The work was hard and the pay poor (read: non-existent), but at least there were no giants! They even cry out, “Oh! It would be better to die here in the Wilderness than to die by the sword in the land!” So, G-d declares that that is precisely what will happen. In case you thought the Israelites wandered for forty years because Moses’s fragile male ego didn’t allow him to ask for directions, this parasha confirms otherwise (take that, gender stereotyping!). G-d commands that the Israelites should wander for forty years to allow for all the unfaithful to die out, as they claim would be better than trying to enter the land. Then, all the children who did not try to overthrow Moses’s leadership will be able to enter the Promised Land.
            Often, I disagree with the accepted view of our tradition’s so-called “villains”. I think Esau was misunderstood, Korah gets a bad rep, and even sneaky Laban who treated his children like his cattle was really only playing by the rules of his day and giving Jacob his comeuppance. However, I have to concede to our tradition that the ten spies and the people who sided with the them, are cowards and stupid. G-d has already performed great miracles for them, leading them out of Egypt, parting the Sea, raining down manna and quails so they have enough to eat in the wilderness, and making G-d’s constant presence known through the pillar of smoke by day and fire by night. How could these people still be afraid that the land G-d promised them will be somehow inaccessible to them? That they will all die by the sword fighting for this land? Did NO ONE even consider, that maybe there wouldn’t even be any fighting? I mean, I know I mentioned last week that there are parts of the Bible where G-d commands the Israelites to kill all the Canaanites, but I’m pretty sure that hasn’t happened yet when the spies are sent. Maybe there’s enough land for everyone and no one needs to fight over it!    Of course, we know, as wise Torah scholars, that they do need to fight over it, and probably the scouts knew that too, even before being told. Sadly, that’s the way society worked back then, and even more sadly, it is too often still the way things work. People conquer new lands, and push out the old inhabitants. I’m not advocating for this; I’m just acknowledging that it happens, and that these spies had every indication that their venture would be successful, in spite of the big scary giants that already lived in the land.
            Most of us probably have not seen any great miracles like the parting of the Sea or manna from heaven, and even if we are spiritual people that feel we can have conversations with G-d, probably have never really seen or heard G-d’s presence in such a direct way as the Israelites have, with their guiding pillars of smoke and fire, and their revelations on Mount Sinai. So, when faced with a difficult task, it’s far more reasonable for any of you to feel frightened or inadequate than it was for these spies. But if you know, deep down, that it is the right thing for you to do, then that it the same as G-d commanding you to do it. And even if it is daunting, do not shy away from your calling, or you will squander your life in the wilderness.

            I have encountered some difficult moments throughout the decade I’ve been on my journey toward becoming a rabbi, times when I was unsure I was doing the right thing or that I would be good enough at it. But all along, there was a tug in my soul letting me know it was what G-d wanted of me and for me; the rabbinate is my Promised Land. There have also been really wonderful moments, where I didn't need a tug in my heart or soul, because such joy was already right in front of me, and a lot of those moments have been here at Temple Beth Emeth, and especially with the Hebrew school and Youth Group. I want to thank you for being an important part of my journey, and leave you with a wish that you all find your calling and that you run toward it, not away from it. May it bring you a heart flowing with metaphorical milk and honey: joy, peace, and fulfillment. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Parashat Be’ha’alotekha - Welcoming the Stranger


            This week’s Torah portion, Be’ha’alotekha, is a full one! The menorah lampposts are built in the Tabernacle, the Priests are further purified, their orders to serve Aaron the high priest in his service to G-d is further explained, silver trumpets are made in case there is ever need for a rallying call in time of war, and marching orders are determined. Then, of course, there’s the small and uninteresting parts where G-d makes it rain poultry, and strikes Miriam with white scales covering her skin.
            In all this mayhem, it may be easy to miss a very short scene, four verses long, between Moses and his father-in-law. Remember, Moses married a Midianite lady while he was in hiding after killing the Egyptian task master. The ancient rabbinic commentators claim that her father had “converted,” and began praying to Adonai even before Moses found his encampment, but in the Torah itself, we have no proof how much Tzipporah and her family blended in with Moses and his people. So when Moses asks his father-in-law to come with them to the Promised Land, it’s a strong statement about inclusivity for that time. The land of Israel in the Bible is promised to the Israelites, not to Midianites. There are even disturbing and problematic parts where G-d commands the Israelites to kill everyone already living there when they enter. So it is significant that Moses near begs the Midianite priest to join them. When he insists on needing to go home to Midian, Moses says, “Please do not leave us… if you come with us, we will extend to you the same bounty that the Lord grants us” (10:31-32).
            It’s a little bit of the inverse of Ruth’s pledge, which was read just this past week for Shavuot. After the husband and sons of Naomi die, she tries to send away her now widowed daughters-in-law. One is quick to take Naomi’s advice and goes home to her family of birth, but Ruth sticks to Naomi’s side, saying, “Where you go, I will go; your people will be my people, and your G-d my G-d.” Ruth is often treated as Judaism’s first convert, and taught as a story about welcoming new people into our communities, but we see in this week’s Torah portion, she is hardly the first. She just might be the most important, since she is the great-grandmother of the great King David, who is thought to be the line from which the Messiah will eventually come. But since Reform Jews believe in creating our own Messianic Age through Tikkun Olam, that all seems unimportant.

            What’s important is that between the Megillah read this past week for Shavuot, and this week’s Torah portion, we see an ancient and living value of treating the “others” in our midst with respect. These acts of acceptance are small forms of Tikkun Olam, and contribute to our own building of the Messianic Age, so we won’t need Ruth’s great great great great great grandchild to come redeem us. We accept newcomers to our communities and families; we  love them; we revere the wisdom they have to teach us, and soon enough, forget that they were ever “others” in the first place. True acceptance means those who seek to be truly blended, as Ruth did, are indeed blended. And those that want to keep their individual and original identity, as Jethro/Reul did, are indeed accepted as friends and family, regardless of their Jewish/Israelite status. May you all find acceptance when you need it, and always be accepting to others in your community. Amen and Shabbat Shalom! 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Parashat Naso - The Suspected Adulteress

            This week’s Torah Portion, Naso, continues the census began in last week’s portion, the beginning of the Book of Numbers. It then continues by explaining the laws regarding the suspected adulteress, a woman accused of going astray in her marriage. It may not surprise you to know that the laws regarding the sanctity of marriage are rather problematic to our modern sensibilities. They deal only with a woman whose husband is suspicious and jealous of her, because men were not bound by the same rules of marriage that women were. They involve a situation in which there is no evidence the woman has done anything wrong, and in which she is subject to public embarrassment, and forced to drink a concoction of water and dirt from the floor of the Tabernacle, as well as the paper on which a spell is written to cause the woman to get sick if she did indeed break her husband’s trust. If she is innocent, G-d will protect and she will not get sick, and the husband will know he was wrong. If she gets sick, then everyone in the community will know that she was “bad”. The drink sounds disgusting, like it might just make someone sick anyway, like this is similar to the witch trials of colonial America, where if a girl could swim they would know she was a witch and burn her but if she was innocent she would just drown.
            This week, I joined Twitter specifically so that I could follow more closely #YesAllWomen, a trending hashtag that is in many ways the current face of the modern feminist movement, at least for those with access to social media. With the release of a violent Californian’s 140-page rant about how women’s autonomy is unfair to him, a recent fresh wave of India’s violence against women, and the Nigerian schoolgirls still in the hands of their kidnappers, it’s much easier to remember that Yes All Women have had unpleasant experiences because of male dominance even today than it is to read our own ancient tradition of this week’s parasha through forgiving eyes. Obviously, without a Tabernacle or priest, the adulteress’s trial we read about this week is not at all still practiced. However, Jews are not necessarily any more advanced than other people when it comes to the treatment of women, and we can’t ignore the hard parts of our tradition.
            What we can do, is learn from them. This week’s Torah portion isn’t just about the harsh trials of a woman; it’s about what happens when people can’t trust each other. Say the woman was innocent, and G-d did protect her, and she didn’t get sick, and she was allowed to go back to her husband. How happy do you think that relationship would be after he has subjected her to public humiliation like that, instead of just talking through his suspicions and jealousies with her as a fellow human, a partner? The Hebrew word for “man” is “ish,” aleph-yud-shin and the Hebrew word for “woman” is “isha,” aleph-shin-hey. One of the Hebrew names for G-d is Yah, yud-hey. If either member of the couple forgets that the other is made in the image of G-d, and leaves Yah out of their relationship, they are left with just the aleph and shin from “ish” and “isha.” Aleph-Shin spells aish, fire, and it will burn up the love and respect that was once there. If they leave in Yah, they can remain man, woman, and G-d.

            That’s not just for romantic couples or between men and women, by the way. That’s just how the fun wordplay works. Anytime you disrespect another human being, publicly shame them, and/or refuse to simply treat them like equals, even, or especially, when feeling disrespected yourself, you cause painful disruption in society. Whether it’s ruining someone’s reputation and making them gag in front of all their friends and family, or it’s really physically harming them, it is not okay. People are people, just like you, even if they don’t look like you, sound like you, or think like you. Even if they don’t have the same rights legally or if you see other people treat them differently, that doesn’t mean it is acceptable for you to treat them poorly too. Remember what Hillel says: that which is hateful to you, do not do to others! And may you always leave Yah in your relationships. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

Parashat Behar - Shabbat



            This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Behar, tells us that not only should every person observe Shabbat, but everything, even the dirt, gets a Shabbat, a sabbatical, a reprieve. It happens to be a healthy environmental practice to let the land lie fallow one year in seven, giving the soil time to recharge, letting trees and plants already standing continue to bloom on their own, letting the fruits fall naturally, decompose back into the soil. But that really isn’t the point for the Torah. The point is that everything needs a Shabbat.  The Torah portion also teaches about ethical treatments of workers and fair wealth distribution practices. In the jubilee year, the seventh cycle of the seven-year cycles of halting work on the land (that is, every 49 years), lands are redeemed by previous owners forced to sell them in times of financial trouble, debts are forgiven, and people are equalized. Everything is turned back as it should be, the refresh button is hit, G-d blows a wind of relief for everyone to breathe in.
            The laws themselves only apply in the land of Israel, and there is, of course, more than one way to interpret what the laws mean. One very simple reading is the importance of Shabbat, of rest, of taking some time separate from the rest of your week, or year, to stop and rest. For us, as Reform Jews, maybe that means being here on Saturday mornings, then going home for a Shabbat nap or a walk in the park or family time. For some, it means a complete unplugging. For some, it means no cars or money handling, no talking about business. For some, it doesn’t even mean Saturday. Shabbat can be any number of things, as long as it means something different than your everyday routine. Havdallah, the service at the end of Shabbat, means separation, so we know that Shabbat and the rest of our week should be separate, different. Shabbat, whenever and however you mark it, should be holy and restful, a time to recharge yourself, a time to reflect on your week behind you and the week ahead without stress about what you did wrong or what you need to do next. The sabbatical year for the farmers of our Torah was the same thing. Although they also probably did not farm on Shabbat, one day of rest in a week does not really mean anything for the slow, cumulative work of commercial farming. So every seventh year, they stop for the whole year. The farmers need a long Shabbat; the soil needs to regain its nutrients. Every 49th year, lands are redeemed; the poor and the indebted get a chance to regain what they need. Everything needs a Shabbat.
            Tonight when the sun goes down, the twenty sixth day of the omer begins. The Sefirah for the 26th day is “Hod shebeNetzach,” “Humility in Ambition”. As I said last week, ambition is important. Without it, we would have no drive to make ourselves or our world better, we would have no interest in providing and caring for ourselves, and we would waste away physically, mentally, and emotionally. However, in our ambition, we sometimes lose sight of why we are working toward whatever end goal we have in mind, and we sometimes fail to recognize our limits. Humility in Ambition is recognizing that everyone has limits, everyone needs a break sometimes, and often we need help from others. Humility in Ambition is remembering that it will be better for your long term goals if you take the regularly scheduled time to stop and rest, reflect and look around. Take a deep breath, rest your body and your fields, reach out to someone in need, or accept help yourself if you need. Take a Shabbat. It will make your work that much more productive when you return rested.

            May you all have a restful Shabbat today, however you observe, and may you return to your work week refreshed and full of humble ambition! Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Emor/Omer

            Kabbalah, Jewish mysticism, is often misunderstood in today’s society. You may have some sort of association between it and some red string around Madonna’s wrist. There is much more to Jewish mysticism than that. There are ancient and medieval writings on which Kabbalah is based, and there are different ideas and ways to incorporate mysticism into normative Jewish practice. According to Kabbalah, there are ten parts of G-d, called Sefirot. They represent different holy aspects of G-d: strength, wisdom, loving kindness, etc. Each of these has special significance for each day of the Omer, the time between Pesach and Shavuot.
            This week’s Torah portion commands us on our holidays and holy days. Parashat Emor is one of the multiple places in the Torah that reminds us to keep the Shabbat. It tells us how and when to celebrate Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot. It tells us to count each day of the seven weeks between Passover and Shavuot, and G-d offers little explanation why. We do this because we are commanded to, because it adds holiness into our celebrations of holidays and links the time of our Exodus from Egypt (Passover) to the day we received the Torah on Sinai (Shavuot). This is the time we are in now. Today is the 18th day of the Omer (out of 49, in case you missed the math). Today’s attribute of G-d is Netzach shebetiferet, Ambition in Harmony.
A Hasidic story goes that a royal caravan was traveling through the desert, and the prince became very thirsty. Although the nearest village was not so far, the king decided time and resources would be better spent building a well rather than going to fetch water. He told his son, “Although you could perhaps satisfy your thirst faster and easier by sending a servant to get you water from the nearest town, it would only help you now. If you or another traveler found yourself on this way again, thirsty, with no one to send to the nearest town, you would wish there was a well right here for you. Since we have the time and resources to build one now, it is our responsibility to do so.”
The story is meant to show why G-d commands us to celebrate the holidays. It would have been enough to take us out of Egypt once, and to give us the Torah once, like it would have been enough to send a servant to fetch the prince some water. But by giving us the holidays to celebrate each year, by building a well, we remember every time we pass that marker that Someone wiser and stronger than us helps us not only at the milestones, but whenever we find we need it. That is the intended lesson of the story. However, the idea of using one’s time and resources wisely, thinking for the future and for those without your time and resources, also ties into today’s Sefirah, Ambition in Harmony. Ambition is important; we should always strive toward a goal, whether a personal goal of self-betterment, a career goal, a financial goal, a good report card goal. But we should always be mindful of what paths we take to get there, and what we do with our reward when we’ve reached that goal. Amibition in Harmony is being ambitious with mindfulness of the consequences of all your actions, and weighing your own self-gain with the overall good.
Even if you have no interest in Kabbalah, and/or do not personally count the Omer, these weeks between two important Jewish holidays are a good time to pause and reflect on what it all means. Having just celebrated Passover, what does it mean to be free? As we approach Shavuot, what does it mean to be free Jews, given the Torah? As each day of the Omer ticks by with their assigned Sefirot, what attributes do we associate with G-d? How can we better model ourselves after them? May you find for yourselves answers to these questions, ambition in harmony, and, as always, peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


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.