Friday, September 28, 2012


I spent about six hours yesterday helping my brother clean his apartment. He’s in the process of moving to Colorado, and needed help clearing out years of accumulated house goods in order to be able to move with as little as possible. As we were cleaning, we put on a CD by our favorite band, The Eels. They’re a strange alternative rock band and few of their songs are what you might call upbeat. This particular album we put on while cleaning, their first ever produced, is not as dark as their second, which happened to be our introduction to the band. Still, though, it is called “Beautiful Freak,” so it’s clearly not exactly standard love songs.
Our mom worries about our shared penchant for sad songs, or at least songs she frets will foster sadness in us or distort our views of life. Life, she says, is full of sadness and happiness. There are weird moments, and beautiful moments, and bittersweet moments, and our choices of art and entertainment should reflect that.
This week’s Torah portion is a song or at least poem (we’ve long since lost the tune), that encompasses all of that. It starts out powerful and pleasing declaring both the heavens and the earth should listen to this awesome song about to come forth. “My lesson will drip like rain, my word will flow like dew, like storm winds on vegetation, and like raindrops on grass” (32:2)– such imagery and mastery commanded with those words!
And then it gets dark. Actually, most of the parasha is pretty dark. G-d, through Moses’s voice, scolds the Israelites for all the ingratitude they showed and the faith they didn’t show while traveling through the wilderness. Verse five states that destruction is not of G-d, but man. Humans alone cause corruption and blemish upon the earth. Verses seven through thirteen get bittersweet as G-d recounts all the greatness bestowed upon our ancestors, things they should have been more grateful for.
But then it gets harsh again, which is still beautiful in its way, since it’s written poetically and the meanness of it is fully justified. The Israelites were totally ungrateful and did have a complete lack of faith. Whenever I have a meaningful connection with a stranger or am fortunate enough to catch a special moment in nature, I think, “Baruch HaShem, thank G-d for small miracles.” The Israelites that left Egypt, on the other hand, saw the Red Sea miraculously part, and still complained that they had been lead out of slavery only to die far worse deaths in the desert. When G-d tries to speak to the directly, they are too intimidated by Divine power and beg Moses to go talk to G-d on their behalf, and yet weeks later they are skeptical of G-d’s complete sovereignty and they built the golden calf.
So, in this poem, G-d is sternly explaining to the next generation of Israelites why their parents wandered for 40 years and will not be allowed into the Holy Land. It is a warning for the new generation, explaining to them that it is not too late, that G-d will always protect those that keep the Mitzvot in their hearts and teach the commandments on to their children.
“It is not an empty thing” (32:47), these sad songs which our parents could not understand. My brother and I found beauty, a way to grieve when we needed it, warnings, and life lessons from our songs, just as Jews have been gleaning from this song from the Torah for thousands of years. Sometimes our parents just can’t see the lessons the way we do; each generation has its own songs to teach it. But if we choose wisely, and listen with the right mentality, they should all give each of us basically the same lessons to live our lives well.
May each of us find the right song to help us remember to open our ears not only to the lyrics but also to G-d and to each other. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Monday, September 17, 2012

Bereshit – 2nd Day Rosh HaShaha

            The first trope, or chanting pattern, of the Torah is the pattern called tipcha, which is usually proceeded by a mercha, or sometimes other trope. It is rarely the first in a sequence. As I began practicing the chanting for today, it felt odd to begin a sequence with tipcha, much like trying to form a question without starting with “What” or “How”. The way I always learned the translation was, “In the beginning, G-d created the Heavens and the Earth.” Chabad offers a translation of, “In the beginning of G-d’s creation of Heaven and Earth.” Looking directly at the Hebrew, although my translation skills still need work, I’d have to say the translation I was taught is correct. Bara is a verb (“G-d created”) not a noun (“G-d’s creation”). But perhaps those at Chabad were reading into something about the trope given “Bereshit”, since their translation is not really a full sentence. Is this not really the beginning? Was there more to the sentence? Maybe in whatever came before, where we might have sung a mercha, it was explained who G-d is talking to; who is the “US” in, “Let Us make human in Our image.” There have been many experts who have tried to analyze the Hebrew phrasing in Genesis in order to determine what might be the best translation, and the jury is still out on that. I’m no linguist and I’m not going to try to go through all the possibilities, because in the end, I don’t think it matters that much. These are unanswerable questions that we need not consume ourselves with.
            You may have heard that the Torah begins with a Bet to signify that we should not go looking for answers about G-d before Torah. The Bet is shaped so that it is open to the rest of the text, but closed off to that which may have come before it, as well as on top or below. This was the sort of random information just thrown at me as a child without background, along with “Eat your vegetables, there are children starving in China.” So much like anyone looking to be a nutritionist would have to research why vegetables are good for you, or an international public health official might need to look into why children are starving in China, I investigated this Midrash and it appears to have come from Midrash Bereshit Rabbah. When we read the story of the creation of the world, many questions come to mind. What prompted creation? What preceded creation? What is the correct translation of this story? Tradition tells us that these are not questions that should be explored extensively. "Why was the world created with the letter bet?", asks Midrash Bereshit Rabbah, "Just as the bet is closed at the top and at the sides, so you may not investigate what is below, what is above, and what is before; only what is in front." 
            As we begin our new year, there may be many among us looking for a fresh start, a new beginning. One that may be marked with a Bet, so as to say, “Please, let this just be the Beginning, and do not ask me of what came before.” Although with G-d, we allow the Bet to be our barrier from questions that could never possibly be satisfactorily answered, with our fellow humans we can let that Bet be our barrier out of respect for someone’s privacy.
            This summer was a tough one for a lot of people back in my hometown, as we a lost a young member of our community, my brother’s best friend. At the wake my brother said he felt like he had put more effort into keeping his friend alive than he had ever put into anything else in his life. Since then, he hasn’t worked much or at all (he does promotional work for bands, and occasionally even books shows or puts events together, so his schedule is irregular anyway), and in the last few weeks has spent a lot more time with my parents and not with his friends. He seems to be sort of floating. He decided sometime in the last few days that he’s going to move to CO, where he hardly knows anyone, for at least six months. He’s been selling most of his possessions, and cutting back on his cigarettes in anticipation of the air change, and plans to have quit completely by the time he gets there. I will miss him when he goes so far away, but I hope that it will be the fresh beginning he needs. I hope he can move there with a metaphorical Bet and no one will need to know about what came before. I hope that he will meet new people, and not just new faces and names with the same old lifestyles.
            Conversely, as we approach Yom Kippur, and the days of atonement and forgiveness are upon us, I hope we all remember to allow fresh starts in our relationships with those who may have transgressed against us. Let us not hold grudges, or anger, or sadness of the past. This year, let us all allow ourselves and each other a new beginning, a fresh start, and no longer poke at what may have come before. Amen, L’Shana Tova v’Shalom. 

Friday, September 14, 2012

Nitzavim - Kehillah Kedosha

            There are often jokes made among young adult Reform Jews that though we spend the bulk of our childhoods in “Hebrew School” we don’t actually learn much Hebrew. True to this, when I was at Kutz Camp at the age of 16 I was hearing Hebrew outside prayer for the first time ever. One evening I walked into the main meeting hall on camp singing the words to a Danny Nichols song, Hebrew words I did not really know the meaning of. A haughty son of a prominent Reform Jewish leader, having just returned from a semester in Israel and feeling very confident in his Hebrew, said to me, “You know how stupid that song is? ‘If you are you, then we’re standing’. That is what you’re saying. The lyrics don’t make any sense!” Reasoning, that the sentence just said in English did not make any sense indeed, and that this boy was clearly much smarter and cooler than me, I made some embarrassed excuse, giggled nervously, slinked away to hide for the rest of the evening.
            Hearing the words now, in light of this week’s Torah portion, it doesn’t sound so stupid. Sure, “If you are you, then we’re standing,” still doesn’t make a lot of sense, but the line of the parasha is, “אַתֶּם נִצָּבִים הַיּוֹם כֻּלְּכֶם לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם” (You are all standing this day before the Lord, your G-d.) The lyrics are, “If you are Atem, then we’re nitzavim, we stand here today and remember the dream.” Moses stood before all the people of Israel on the day of his death, declaring them now officially a single nation, and telling them the time has come to commit themselves, and all the generations to come, to the covenant with G-d, as had our father Abraham. Dan Nichols stood before a large group of Reform Jewish teenagers and reminded us that we are all still standing, and must remember the covenant. Moses told the people that even the woodcutters and water drawers, who according to Rashi might actually be non-Jews subjugated to bad jobs, are now a part of this community. A community Dan Nichols calls a “Kehillah Kedosha”. “Each one of us must start to hear.  Each one of us must sing the song. Each one of us must do the work.  Each one of must right the wrong. Each one of us must build the home.  Each one of us must hold the hope. Each one of us, each one of us!”
            Moses reminds us the Word of G-d is not concealed from us:
12. It is not in heaven, that you should say, "Who will go up to heaven for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"

יב. לֹא בַשָּׁמַיִם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲלֶה לָּנוּ הַשָּׁמַיְמָה וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה:
13. Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, "Who will cross to the other side of the sea for us and fetch it for us, to tell [it] to us, so that we can fulfill it?"

יג. וְלֹא מֵעֵבֶר לַיָּם הִוא לֵאמֹר מִי יַעֲבָר לָנוּ אֶל עֵבֶר הַיָּם וְיִקָּחֶהָ לָּנוּ וְיַשְׁמִעֵנוּ אֹתָהּ וְנַעֲשֶׂנָּה:
14. Rather,[this] thing is very close to you; it is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can fulfill it.

יד. כִּי קָרוֹב אֵלֶיךָ הַדָּבָר מְאֹד בְּפִיךָ וּבִלְבָבְךָ לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ:
Dan Nichols explains it’s all in “how we help. It’s how we give.  It’s how we pray.  It’s how we heal.  It’s how we live.” May you all remember our covenant with G-d and find your place in our KEHILLA KEDOSHA, KEHILLA KEDOSHAAAAA!

Friday, September 7, 2012

First Sermon of the New School Year!

Ki Tavo Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8

 This week’s Torah portion speaks about the expectations of the Israelites to maintain the covenant with G-d. We learn of the blessings we will receive if we keep to the ways of the Torah, and learn of the disturbing specificity of all the many, many curses we may incur for a variety of transgressions, including: (28:47). [B]ecause you did not serve the Lord, your God, with happiness and with gladness of heart, when [you had an] abundance of everything…

 I initially read this to mean that it is not enough to uphold our covenant with G-d, but we must also do this with a smile. Maimonides affirms my understanding: “Even though you served G-d, you did not serve him with joy -- that is the source of all afflictions”, but other great rabbis had other views on what this statement means. Rashi says the problem is that “you” forgot to serve G-d when you were happy with your lot, and turned to G-d only when you were in need (of guidance, forgiveness, etc). Maayanah Shel Torah plays with syntax a little: it was with happiness and with gladness of heart that you did not serve the Lord, which does indeed sound punishable. We all slip up sometimes, but to do so with glee signals intention, and depending on the transgression, that can be downright mean.

 This is a great example of the beauty of Torah study. This is essentially why we are so happy to be bringing in a new year of religious school. Why we are so excited to begin again teaching the next generation the complexity and richness of learning in our Jewish traditions. This is a three chapter Parasha, and here we can focus on just one little verse, with the help of three (among others!) great teachers. I could splinter off from here into three different sermons, because although my initial understanding of this line agrees with Maimonides, once reading the viewpoints of Rashi and the Maayanah Shel Torah, I can very much reread the Torah verse with their understandings in mind. It all fits! Now, I’m not going to go into all the great lessons we could learn from this one line from three different viewpoints, because it would take too long, but I invite you all to turn to each other, or approach me, after the conclusion of services and work out which lens you see this through. Because that’s why we’re here! To learn and pass on our traditions to a new generation.

 I am so excited to welcome all you students for a new school year. I hope you all come to religious school and Shabbat services throughout the year to learn and pray with happiness and with gladness of heart! Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and have a great year!