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


            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.