Thursday, May 16, 2013

Parashat Naso - Moderation

            Judaism teaches about moderation. While many other traditions suggest you steer clear of worldly pleasures, and some others may allow complete gluttony, Judaism wants us to walk in the middle. This week’s Torah portion teaches the laws of the nazirite, someone who chooses to abstain from drinking wine, who does not cut their hair, and who has taken upon themselves to seek higher spirituality and holiness. Although the Torah does not give a suggested length of time for the nazirite to observe this state of heightened holiness, it does mention “the length of their naziriteship,” and gives the protocol for officially concluding that period, implying that even the Jews that do observe asceticism should only do so for short periods of time. In our Haftarah this week, the birth of Samson, a life-long nazirite, is foretold. By living in relative austerity for his whole life he was granted a special relationship with G-d and importance for the Jewish people, but it also opened him up to a much greater downfall when his nazirite hair is so unceremoniously chopped off.
            The Torah portion and much its commentary speaks specifically of wine, its potential to lead to harmfulness and reasoning for the nazirite swearing off it, as well as acknowledging that it is a part of the great world that G-d has given us and suggesting the nazirite’s abstinence is a sign of ingratitude. A Chasidic story from Reshimat Devarim illustrates the double nature of wine: “Once, in the early days of Chassidism, a learned Jew happened upon a Chassidic gathering. Taking in the sight of half-empty vodka bottles on the table, of Jews singing and dancing instead of studying Torah, he cried: "Jews! The Holy Temple is in ruins, Israel is in exile, and you dance and drink?!" Present at the party was Rabbi Dovid Ferkus, a senior disciple of the Baal Shem Tov, the founder of Chasidism. "I have a question for you," said Rabbi Dovid to the visitor. "In one place, Rashi writes that a nazir's vow to abstain from wine is an appropriate reaction for one who witnesses human weakness to give in to bad habits. But only a few verses later, Rashi quotes the Talmudic opinion which regards the nazir's abstinence as a sin. Which is it? Is drinking wine a positive or a negative thing to do? I’ll tell you the difference between the two cases," continued Rabbi Dovid. "The first statement by Rashi is addressed to one who 'sees an adulteress’s ruin.' A person who is capable of seeing the negative in a fellow Jew, had better not drink wine. Wine will agitate his heart, and he'll probably be roused to discover more failings and deficiencies in his fellows. But someone who is blessed with the ability to see only the good in his fellow, for him to avoid getting together with other Jews for a lechaim! is sinful. An infusion of wine into his heart will stimulate it to uncover the hidden good in the hearts of his fellows."”
            The same goes for other worldly pleasures and their purposes. To never watch TV or movies or play games and to spend all your free time only in academic pursuits, may cause you to burn yourself out. A little time to zone out and just be passively entertained is OK. But of course, to watch too much TV and play too many video games will rot your brains. The more studious and hardworking you are, the more you may have earned your down time, just as the Chassidic man with only joy and love for his fellow in his heart is more inclined to handle his wine better. If you are not naturally inclined to study or work hard, you might need more limits on the things that will further distract you, just as the negative man should steer clear of wine. A healthy, productive life is all about the balance of these things, and each of us has to find our own sense of balance. Despite all being equal and made in the image of G-d, we are each made with our own individual needs and inclinations and must work to find the balance that works for each of us. May you each find your own balance, a healthy, productive life, filled with the appropriate limits to fun and relaxation! Amen and Shabbat Shalom!


Friday, May 10, 2013

Parashat Bemidbar – My Bat Mitzvah2

                Today I am a man. Wait a minute that’s not right. Today I am a woman in the Jewish community, a Bat Mitzvah doubled. On June 3rd, 2000, I became a Bat Mitzvah, and earned my right of passage by chanting these very words I have just chanted for you today – Parashat Bemidbar. In it, a census is taken, and the tribes of Israel start to take on their own identities. They are not slaves any more, and they are not just a muddled mass of Israelites. The age at which men will take up arms in a defense military is determined, so that those of proper age are prepared to defend the tabernacle in case of bandits, and a census taker is assigned from each tribe, to count the tribes, and G-d assigns a side to for the tribes to camp on to always keep the Tabernacle safe in the center of the mass of Israelites as they travel across the desert toward the holy land.
            Only one tribe is not counted in the same way. The tribe of Levi, the priestly tribe. They are not considered a part of the census and they are not given a side to camp on, as they will remain in the center with the tabernacle. G-d declared that all first born Israelite sons be consecrated in exchange for the 10th plague in Egypt but then says that the Levites will serve in place of the first born. All Levites will be consecrated to serve G-d in the Tabernacle, and later, the Temple. The other tribes are told to stand on the east, west, north, or south side of the Tabernacle, but the Levites get a whole host of demands. They go from being as much a part of the muddled mass of Israelites as the other tribes to being the pillars of the community. From zero to hero, if you will. The other tribes, on the other hand, seem to be going through a sort of adolescent phase of identity development. They’ve only really gone from zero to human, from slave to West Side Camper. The rest of their identities remain to be seen.
            Being told who you are and what to be might not be fun if you don’t agree with the assessment given you. Maybe you think you’re someone else and you want to do something totally different. But it also can cut down on a lot of confusion and angst if you’re not yet sure who you are or what you want to be. In the year 2000, I don’t think I knew yet who I was or what I wanted to be. Although I was able to dig out my old cassette tapes with my Hebrew school tutor chanting the Torah and Haftarah portions and blessings for my Bat Mitzvah, it seems my folder with my speech and other such papers is long gone. Being adolescent, I probably didn’t have the courage to say, “I don’t know who I am or what I want to be,” and I know I didn’t yet have any thoughts that I, like the Levites, would serve G-d and the Jewish community. So I have no idea what I might have written then. But it’s a great Bat Mitzvah portion, because it is so easy to project those early teenage feelings onto the newly counted tribes of Israel who do not yet have their own identities. I was unusual to have found such a sincere calling to the rabbinate only a few years after my Bat Mitzvah, and now, 13 years later, find myself very much entrenched in fulfilling a longstanding dream. Most people struggle much longer to find a passion and an identity like that. I’m not saying it was never a struggle for me, or that I haven’t ever had to ask myself since I was 16, “Who am I and what do I want to do?” But I think I have to recognize how lucky I am to have found a passion at 16 that I am still passionate about at 25 and a dream I will likely see realized by 30.
            For the rest of you still looking for that, it’s important to not feel alone or discouraged. An old Chassidic saying points out the great paradox to be learned and appreciated from the census of this week’s parasha: “On the one hand, it implies that each individual is significant. On the other hand, a head-count is the ultimate equalizer: each member of the community, from the greatest to the lowliest, counts for no less and no more than "one." G-d repeatedly commands Moses to count the Jewish people to emphasize both their individual worth--the fact that no single person's contribution is dispensable--as well as their inherent equality.” You are all unique, and you will find your passion, your identity, your calling, your proper service for G-d and your fellow man, and in the end, we are all simply B’nai Yisroel – that muddled mass of Israelites. May you find joy as you go on your life’s journey and peace when you find your own callings. Amen and Shabbat Shalom. 

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Parashat Behar-Bechukotai: Shmittah Year and Rainbow Day

            Next week is Rainbow Day. I imagine most of you, like myself, did not know this was a thing. Rainbow Day is a time to celebrate the diversity of life on Earth, and to remember our role in God’s covenant. It is a time to remember that the first covenant was not with human beings but with all living things, a chance to reflect on the deep spiritual and religious meaning of diversity, creation, and our role as part of creation and partners with God. This is a special time in human civilization when we need to reflect on the rainbow covenant and our place in sustaining a world where “sowing and reaping, cold and hot, summer and winter will not cease,” except perhaps the sowing and reaping will cease every seventh year, as is commanded in this week’s Torah portion. Rainbow Day is always the 42nd day of the Omer, the day after Yom Yerushalayim. This year, Rainbow Day will begin Monday night and continue onto Tuesday until sunset. It commemorates when Noah, his family, and all the animals that were with them left the ark, on the 27th day of the second month. Exactly one lunar year and ten days before—one complete solar year—the flood began on the 17th of the second month, the day before Lag B’Omer. When Noah and his entourage went out from the ark, God made a covenant, with the people and with all the animals, that there would never be again be a flood of water to destroy life on Earth.
            But just because God promised not to destroy life on Earth, doesn’t mean all humans are committed to the same thing. Both Rainbow Day and Parashat Bahar have a lot to teach us about environmental stability and how we can do our part to stop destruction of life on Earth as well. In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are commanded to let their lands lie fallow every seven years. Although they don’t have lands yet, as they are still wandering the desert at this point, G-d is reminding them that in the future, they will enter the land of Israel, claim plots, plant farms, and till their own soil. But every seven years, they must stop tilling. They don’t plant, tend, or harvest the farms. What continues to grow of its own accord must be allowed to grow wildly, and fruits will be allowed to fall to the ground. Elsewhere, the Torah commands that people leave the corners of their fields unharvested so that the poor can come and eat without having to ask for charity, which damages their pride. But here, the Torah commands that on the seventh year, everyone, poor and wealthy alike, will eat right off the field, from any part of the field. The landowners do not harvest and sell, and the poor may eat of the best fruits, not just what is left in the corners. Further, animals, both domestic and wild, are allowed to come and eat from the fields on these seven days. It is a Shabbat for farmlands, but it is also a prehistoric environmental practice. Overworking the fields dries out soil and makes it so nothing will grow. By leaving the land alone every seven years, the soil is able to refresh itself. By letting fruits fall right off the trees, vines, and bushes, the soil is getting all natural compost for itself.
            After seven times of these seven year cycles, the 49th year, there is a big jubilee. Land that is rented reverts back to the owners, debts are forgiven, and servants are set free. Again, although the Torah presents this as a Shabbat of Shabbat, and a great rest and relief for everyone, it is also important to note its revolutionary social justice consequences. By instituting a reprieve every 49 years, it would be impossible for any family to fall too far into debt that it could never get out, or any family to gain such wealth off the misfortune of others. It ensures that nobody is ever enslaved for life, and that in the end, we are all equal, because after all, we are all children of God, and everything we have really belongs to God.
            However, we don’t currently hold such a practice. We live in a society where people do own land and work it continually, without stopping every seven years to rest it. There is not a reprieve every 49 years, and some people do amass ridiculous amounts of wealth, while others fall deeper and deeper into debt. Although servitude and slavery is not legal in our society in America, we do support other societies that allow it, as much of our stuff – iPhones and Nike shoes and many other products – are made at the hands of labor practices we would never allow in the US. But by buying such products, are we really disallowing it (and I admit that I myself would be probably lost without my own iPhone!)? And lastly, despite all our own strides toward social justice in the U.S., besides issues of wealth, not all families are treated equally here. Although Rainbow Day is about the rainbow in the story of Noah, and connected to environmental sustainability, I feel I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that in today’s society, to many people, the rainbow is also a symbol of gay pride. Can we talk about Rainbow Day and social and environmental justice without acknowledging that, while we live in a state with marriage equality, our federal government is still as backwards in its view of LGBT rights as it is in its ability to address the issues of class equality and food distribution?
            Living outside the land of Israel, we are not required to observe a Shmittah year – that seventh year of rest for the land – nor are we bound to the jubilee year. Those commandments are seen as specific to the Holy Land. However, as Jews, we are required to work toward a world where the Earth is treated well, where everyone has equal access to healthy fresh food, where financial imbalance is not allowed to get so out of control, and where all of humanity is seen and treated as equals. That’s a lot of work to be done, and as Rabbi Tarfon taught in Pirke Avot, “You are not required to finish the task, but neither are you free to withdraw from it.” May we all make steps toward repair the world, and perhaps even see pieces of the task finished in our own lifetimes. Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and happy Rainbow Day!