Friday, September 30, 2016

Parashat Nitzavim

          Shabbat Shalom! I regularly listen to a podcast called Judaism Unbound. It is a project of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and it is hosted by Lex Rofes, a rabbinical student with the Jewish Renewal movement, and Daniel Libenson, the founder and president of the Institute. The first few episodes went through the Books of the Torah and talked about current Jewish themes based on each one of those. The second section of the podcast was dedicated to New American Judaism: issues of intermarriage and new synagogue models, generational gaps and reimagining what it could mean to be Jewish today, specifically in the United States. Now, they’re on a stretch of episodes interviewing new Jewish artists and the very physical elements of the reimagining that they started to touch on a couple months ago.

          This week I was catching up on the last few episodes, and I listened to their interview of Nina Paley, which aired on September 9th. Paley is an artist and filmmaker, and a very secular Jew. Her current work in progress is called “Seder-Masochism” and it is, as you might have guessed, about the Passover story. She tells Dan and Lex during the podcast interview that when she was growing up, the only Jewish thing her family did was the Passover Seder. Her father was a fierce atheist, so they never went to synagogue and she never had any religious education. But they had a Seder. In working on her current film project, she says she has become a “born-again atheist” because she finds the story of the Exodus so horrendous and violent that she cannot accept a God that is so wrathful or a religion that celebrates such particularism.

          As you might imagine, as a rabbi and a person who does believe in a loving Judaism and has faith in God, a lot of her answers and the ferocity with which she said some of them were a little jarring to me. Many progressive Jews in the modern world don’t believe in a personal God or a benevolent deity that directly interferes with the lives of humans. I’ve known quite a few that were comfortable saying they didn’t really believe in God at all, but still identified strongly as Jewish. But there was something about her tone in the way she talked about being an atheist that suggested a strong feeling of separation between herself and the organized Jewish world. Nonetheless, she continues to self-identify unquestioningly Jewish in ethnicity and culture.

Then she said something about the Golden Calf story that really grabbed me. The Golden Calf story isn’t exactly a part of our Passover narrative, but shortly follows it in the wilderness of the Exodus book. She says she identifies very much with those characters that accept the Golden Calf. She sees her own rejection of Judaism and atheism reflected in that story, and remarks that “People like her” have been a part of the Jewish people from time immemorial and they still are. There is and always has been space for people like her in Judaism, no matter how much the Jewish establishment wants to pretend like there isn’t or wasn’t. And I really liked that, because I do think there’s room in Judaism for a broad spectrum of beliefs and identities and that someone who identifies that strongly with being Jewish in their families or at a Passover Seder, should see themselves reflected in our ancient texts.

Now, you might be wondering why I didn’t save this for Parashat Ki Tissa, when we read the story of the Golden Calf as part of our regular Torah readings. But during the podcast she also asks the question, “Where are we standing now?” She’s talking about the Exodus story and standing at Sinai and the heretics who stood before God and worshipped a Golden Calf instead. But this week’s Torah portion, Nitzavim, also is about standing before God. That’s how nitzavim is usually translated, in fact: standing. “You stand this day, all of you, before the Lord your God; your captains of your tribes, your elders, and your officers, with all the men of Israel.” Everyone is standing together at the precipice of entering the Promised Land. From the great leaders of the community, down to the water carriers and woodchoppers, they will all enter the Promised Land together, and they are all equally responsible for upholding the covenant. They are told that Torah is not far off, the covenant is not in heaven, a relationship with Judaism or God is not beyond the sea. It’s all right there with them, and it’s right here with us. Whether we read the Torah and self-identify with Abraham or with Lot’s family, whether we see ourselves as Levites or as the people who worship the Golden Calves. Whether we think we would have been allowed into the Promised Land or been in the generation that was forced to die in the desert, we are all here now. We all stand together here this day, wondering what it means to be a Jewish American in the world today.

Now, we are about to enter the High Holy Days. We have already begun our season of teshuvah by standing together as a single unit and saying some selichot prayers. Sunday evening begins Rosh HaShanah, and we might find ourselves asking, “Where are we standing now?” Are we standing at Mount Sinai, receiving the Ten Commandments? Are we dancing with the Golden Calf? Are we standing at the precipice of the Promised Land? Are we burying ourselves in a wilderness of idolatry and mistrust? On Yom Kippur morning, we will read this portion again, “Atem Nitzavim hayom culchem lifnei Adonai Eloheichem,” You are all standing here this day before the Lord your God. May we find ourselves at that time standing exactly where we want to be, with a clean heart and a purified soul.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Parshat Ki Tavo

          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, continues Moses’s reminders to the Israelites to obey the commandments in order to be blessed. The Israelites are told that they are about to enter a land flowing with milk and honey, and that they will have success in their early agriculture. In return, they must bring their first fruits, the finest of their labor and toil, to offer as sacrifices to God. They are commanded to serve God with joy and with a sincere heart. Maimonides comments on both of these commandments. On the first, he extrapolates that in a time with no Temple, when we no longer offer physical sacrifices to God, we must still do anything we do for the sake of God, with a sincere heart, in joy, and to our fullest. “When one builds a house of worship,” he says, “it should be more beautiful than their personal dwelling. When one feeds the homeless, it should be the best and sweetest of their table. When one clothes the naked, it should be the finest clothing.” On the second commandment, when the Torah says we should do these things with a joyful heart, Maimonides adds, “For even though you served God, you did not serve in joy, and that is the source for all your afflictions.”
          I think RaMBaM’s commentaries on this are linked, that we can serve God by serving each other, and we must continue to do both with gratitude and joy. But I think we can take away from these related comments two distinct lessons. The first is the most important and the most in our control. When giving tzedakah or doing community service, doing a small amount only when it is convenient does not accomplish much. Giving away torn and worn out clothing that is hardly wearable anymore doesn’t help those poor and the homeless that much. Feeding the hungry tasteless or low nutrient food isn’t real chesed. I’m not saying everyone should go broke giving tzedakah or quit their jobs to start cooking full time for the local soup kitchen. But, we should all be willing to set some time and money aside to share our blessings in a meaningful way. This is the way we can give modern day sacrifices and serve God in a modern context with no Temple or physical offerings.
          If we do this with gratitude for all that we have and with the knowledge that it is a righteous act, it can be a pleasant experience. If we appreciate the opportunity to meet new people in our community and to learn from someone whose life has been very different from ours, it’s a joyful and holy experience.  If you do so grudgingly and miserably, it will not be fun, you will not appreciate or be able to learn from the new people you meet, and you will be more likely to notice the money you are losing by giving tzedakah or the time you are spending not doing something you’d rather be doing. We can’t always help what mood we’re in at any given moment, but I think this is what Maimonides meant when he said serving God joylessly is the source of afflictions. A negative attitude can be cyclical, and dragging our feet to accomplish important and holy tasks will only make them harder and less pleasant.
          Don’t hesitate to serve God, to serve your community, to pray for a better world. Go through as much of life as you can with a positive attitude and finding the good in small things. And may doing so bring you peace, joy, and God’s blessing. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, September 16, 2016

            Shabbat Shalom. This week at Gesher Jewish Day School, I was tasked with teaching 2nd graders about this week’s Torah portion. The goal according to the curriculum map is to teach to the students that this week’s portion is about respect: respect for women, captives, the world order, parents, the dead/life, property and ownership, animals, safety, nature, dignity, marriage, family relationships, cleanliness, the poor, the orphan, the widow, and the stranger. And for sure Parashat Ki Tetzei touches on all those topics, but they are not all so easy to talk discuss with 2nd graders. The curriculum I was given has very little in the way of materials and the materials I found elsewhere, from G-dcast and Chabad, focuses on the respect for animals.
            I mentioned in passing last week that Parashat Shoftim expresses concern for nature, and tells us not cut down fruit-bearing trees belonging to the city with which we may be at war. This week’s Torah portion continues telling us to be concerned with the natural world, and tells us not to be cruel to animals. Even an animal belonging to a potential enemy should not be forced to suffer. If we see an animal bearing too great a load, we should unburden it. In using animals for farm work, humans should never pair two animals who are so disparate in size that the smaller will suffer to keep up with the speed and strength of the larger. Animals should not be muzzled with working on a farm, but should be allowed to eat while they work. The second graders understood all of these concepts, why they show respect for animals, and why it is important for humans to take good care of animals and not abuse them. They had slightly more trouble understanding the commandment in this week’s parasha telling us that if we need food and we come upon a nest of an edible bird, we must shoo the mother bird away from the nest first and only take the eggs. The students said, “The mother bird will be sad when she returns and sees her babies are gone!” But eventually they came to understand even this concept that the care for the already living is more important than the potential life of the egg, and the mother bird can always lay more. But if the eggs are hatched after we eat the mother bird, the chicks will not be able to survive. For such young students, whose diets are almost entirely decided by adults, they had an impressive grasp on concepts of ethical and sustainable food choices and the balance between respecting the natural world and maintaining a nutrient-rich diet.
            Explaining the connections in the Torah portion to respecting humans was harder. Parashat Ki Tetze starts off with explaining the proper rules of war, including taking captives. It says that if a soldier kidnaps a beautiful woman from enemy territory, he must wait a month before taking her as his wife. For the time in which the rule was written and enacted, it’s clear to see its progressivism. If the man is displeased with her, he must set her free. He is not to sell her to another man or treat her as a slave. However, it doesn’t not specify if he must properly divorce her and give her any compensation for kidnapping her. It’s also pretty hard to believe that she’d be super into marrying this guy who took her as booty from her home which he and his cohort ransacked and conquered, likely killing her male relatives in the process. There are a lot of uncomfortable unanswered questions about the scenario, and teaching it to 2nd graders was daunting. Instead, we discussed in a general way the importance of showing respect to every person, even if you think they are your enemy, and going into war with an intention of mercy.
            The truth is, that’s what this rule was meant to convey for the time. When we read the Torah, it is sometimes difficult to place ourselves in the time period for which it was written, and this parasha is full of such moments. It’s important we understand the context, the civilizations that surrounded the ancient Israelites, and see where our ancestors tried to move their society forward. We learn from this to continue to do that work. Our great sages of late antiquity and the early middle ages knew we can’t really stone to death rebellious children, though that too is a commandment in this week’s parasha. As I said last week, they went to great lengths to ensure justice was always carried out with the least amount of bloodshed possible. Killing an angsty teenager for disobeying his father flew in the face of everything they knew to be holy, despite the fact that our holy Torah says to do so. We know that we need to be able to read the Torah with a critical eye and try to understand the commandment’s purpose for its own time, so that we might understand how it is we should live today.
Lest you get too down on Parashat Ki Tetze and vote it out the Torah entirely, it does also have plenty for us to be proud of. This portion tells us to be kind to animals, even that of our enemies. To lend money to our friends, family, and neighbors, interest-free. To leave the corners of our fields so that the poor may eat without begging. To care for the stranger, the widow, and the orphan. To care for runaway slaves and not return them to their masters. To keep our promises. To not play favorites among your children. To pay your workers on time. I think from all that, and more, it’s clear that the Torah is deeply concerned for treating people, animals, and our environments with kavod.
The Torah is a Tree of Life, and its mitzvot are meant to guide us toward righteous living, but sometimes it’s the thought process or the intention behind the mitzvah rather than the rule itself that we must learn from and adapt to modern times and our own life situations. Of course, this is no easy task. It involves a lot of gut-checking and a strong moral compass. But if we support each other and make clear our expectations for a healthy community, a respectful society, and peaceful relationships, we can work together to ensure that all people are treated as they want to be treated. May we all find our own path through the minefields of the Torah, to pleasantness and peace. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.