Monday, September 18, 2017

Rosh HaShanah 5778

            Shanah Tova! This morning, we have read the stories of our ancestors that the ancient rabbis decreed we should read on this day. We read some of the story of Isaac, and as I mentioned last night, we know his story is a difficult one. Sarah believed she couldn’t have children. She shows great faith in her husband’s relationship with God and does all she can to ensure his legacy and the Jewish people’s covenant. She is rewarded with her miracle baby Isaac. Though we know his life is a miracle and that he is the one prophesied to carry on the line of Abraham, we hear that God tells Abraham he must sacrifice Isaac and Abraham seems willing to do so. Thankfully, God interferes just in time, and we learn that the whole thing was a test. Abraham and Isaac show great faith that all will work out however it is meant to in the end. They all face adversity with strength and bravery, and are flexible as the situations shift.
            We read the story of Hannah, who, like Sarah, was a beloved but barren wife. Her husband also had children by a secondary wife, but Hannah desperately wanted to have a child of her own. She prays fervently at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, so emphatically that Eli the priest thinks she is drunk. When he sees that she is not and understands the depth of her prayer, he promises her that she too will have her miracle baby. Sure enough, she gives birth to Samuel. Samuel, like Isaac, must be given to God. Thankfully, unlike Isaac, it is not through near-sacrifice, but rather to serve God with life-long service. Again, though the challenges our heroes may not be experiences we’ve had, or their choices may not have been ours, we can see and learn from these stories, the way in which they were willing to pray and face difficulties with utmost faith in God.
            Another passage of our Tanakh that is traditionally read during Rosh HaShanah is from the book of the prophet Jeremiah. Though we won’t read it directly here at Ner Shalom, we can learn from that too. Jeremiah lived and wrote after the northern Israelite Kingdom of Samaria had been destroyed by the Assyrians and he saw that the Babylonians were coming to finish off the Israelites in the southern kingdom. He warned people that the Babylonians were coming because the Israelites had strayed from God, were worshipping idols, and were being unkind to one another. The Temple was being used to carry out business transactions among the wealthy and ruling classes while the poor, the orphan, and the widow, remained cold and hungry in the streets of the holy city. If the people continue to look away from God, Jeremiah warns, God will look away from the people.
Although this doesn’t come to pass in Jeremiah’s lifetime, he continues to prophesy beyond that and predicts what will come after the exile into Babylonia. He foresees that there will be those among the people of Israel who will stay strong and brave and survive the Babylonian attacks and oppression. These survivors will see the errors of their ways, will heed the warnings of Jeremiah. It will be too late for them to avoid the Babylonians or exile, but it is never, ever too late for Teshuvah. God will hear their prayers, their apologies, and God promises to lead the people back to the Holy Land. Jeremiah tells the people that God has appeared to him and reminded him of the “Everlasting Love,” Ahavat Olam, that God has for the people of Israel. He assures them that if they truly repent, even if it comes too late to avoid the destruction coming for them now, they will still be forgiven, and will surely one day replant the gardens of Samaria and the fields of the Judean hills.
God hears the cries of the oppressed, even if they themselves are not free of sin. God hears the weeping of those who know they’ve done wrong and want to make it right. God hears those who yearn to make the world a better place. A famous line comes from this haftarah which tugs at my heartstrings every time I read it. Jeremiah 31:14 says, “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping; Rachel weeping for her children, because they are not.” Rachel is the matriarch of the exiles because she is the only one of the Matriachs and Patriarchs not buried with Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, and Leah at Machpelah. Rachel, like Sarah and Hannah, was the favored wife but had difficulty having children. After her own fervent praying, she gave birth to Joseph, whose story I’m sure you know. We are not told if there is more praying or how she gets pregnant the second time, but we are told she dies while trying to give birth to Benjamin. Jacob gives her a hasty burial at their encampment near Beer-Sheva and continues on his way. She is separated, left to haunt the roadway between the land of Israel and the East, crying for her children. Her weeping is silenced by God, through Jeremiah’s promise to the sinful people of Israel: your emotional labor will be rewarded. After true teshuvah, the children of Israel, Rachel’s lost babies, will be spared destruction and they will follow her callings home.
Jeremiah’s message is clear: there is always hope. There is no sin too great for God to forgive, it is never too late to turn back. In the wake of recent events, I’ve been hearing more and more about the former white supremacists who have seen the error of their ways and now make it their purpose in life to reach out to young white men at risk of being sucked into neo-Nazi groups. For some of these men (and they seem to all be men, since racist and sexist ideologies often go hand in hand), they found their ways out of the cult-like communities of white nationalists by finally meeting a Jewish person or person of color and seeing that people who seem different in some ways are really still just people, similar to themselves in so many other ways. To be the Jewish person or person of color (or someone is both) that takes on educating someone convinced to hate you requires an immense amount of emotional labor and could even be physically dangerous. I wholeheartedly commend those who have done that to start this wave of reformed white nationalists, but I also recognize the greater importance of the reformed white nationalists carrying on the work. They can reach the key demographic much more easily and safely and make the important connections that allow someone doing this sort of soul searching to meet us safely. In doing this kind of work, they are doing real teshuvah, and truly making amends for their pasts. No matter what hate they’ve spread already, in turning away from it now, I truly believe they can help undo some of that damage. In helping others undo it, they are showing us they are worthy of our forgiveness and our help, and I’m certain that God will inscribe them in the Book of Life this year.
Whatever guilt you carry in your heart now, let it go. Have hope in a brighter future. Know that there is no sin too great, no time too far past to apologize, repent, and turn toward goodness. This new year, have faith in your own strength to face the difficult situations that true teshuvah requires. Know that God wants you to be dedicated to righteousness, whatever it takes to get yourself there. Follow the callings of Rachel, believe in the promise of Jeremiah, and take to heart the resilience modeled for us by our ancestors. I’m certain you, too, will find your way home and be inscribed for blessing in the Book of Life.

Erev Rosh HaShanah: What does our Trope teach us?

            Shana Tova. As some of you may know, the Torah trope is different for reading the High Holy Day portions than it is for our regular weekday Torah reading. Even when we read these exact same words, as we will in a little over a month’s time, the sounds are different. What do the different intonations teach us?
            The terms trope, cantillations, or ta’amei hamikra all refer to the musical notes used to read Tanakh. There is a set of notes for weekly Torah reading and a different system for reading Torah on High Holy Days. Haftarah, the weekly readings from the books of prophets, has its own set, as does Megillat Esther, read on Purim. There’s another set of cantillations for reading the book of Lamentations on Tisha B’Av and another set for reading the scrolls of Ruth, Song of Songs, and Ecclesiastes for Shavuot, Passover, and Succot, respectively. All six systems of cantillations have the same symbols and names, but the musical notes that each symbol is meant to convey changes between each of the six versions. The written symbols were established in the early 10th century by rabbis who were largely responsible for physically writing and widely distributing the Tanakh and other important Jewish texts that had previously been orally passed down. The sounds predate the written symbols, though we don’t know for certain how early they were established and how much they have changed over the years. Each of the six systems have different sounds depending where in the world they are taught and Torah is learned, seemingly developed from the same source but evolved according to the sounds of the non-Jewish music of the communities Jews have lived alongside. The sounds were once taught using hand motions and were a means of helping words of Torah stick in memory, but they became so central to Torah study and public reading even after written Tanakhs became available, that Abraham ibn Ezra, a 12th century rabbi, declared that any Torah recited without the proper cantillations would be better off going unheard.
            Music can communicate so much. Not too long ago, Philip and I were arguing about the acting strengths of musical actors. I am a fervent lover of musicals and defender of the hard-working triple threats that people pay lots of money to see on Broadway. Philip would rather see non-musical dramas. But he did make a good point that I tried to argue against at the time, and the more I’ve thought about it, the more I think I have to concede his point. He suggested that actors who perform in musicals, especially my beloved Les Misérables or any of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s rock operas in which there is no unsung dialog, don’t have to work as hard to communicate the subtle human emotions of their characters because the music carries the intended sentiments. Sometimes the tune of a song can tell us a as much as the words themselves.
            In the case of these words of Torah that we will read in the morning, the meaning is the same now as it will be in six weeks, but the emotions we bring to them are slightly different, and the differences in Trope sounds carry that. While Sarah’s for her miracle baby may be relevant at any time for some, at this crossroad between years, we can all relate to a yearning for something meaningful and different to happen in the new year ahead. Hagar’s heartache and fear after being cast out of her home without the resources to care for her baby may or may not seem a common danger to many of us in our comfortable day-to-day lives, but as we reflect on our year past, we can more likely relate to her worries over how she ended up in such a place. I would certainly hope no one can directly connect with Isaac’s near-sacrifice, but perhaps your New Year’s resolution this Rosh HaShanah require a similar level of resolve and courage and faith. Whereas the weekly Torah reading trope has a kind of whimsical tone to it, the High Holy Day trope sounds the aching longing for the imminent miracles, the necessary life changes. It helps even those who don’t relate to the characters’ particular goals or struggles understand the underlying message: Anything can happen this year, if you will it so.
Each of these characters were willing to accept seemingly disastrous fates, had faith in the ultimate Divine plan, and made their attempts to make the best of the situations at hand. In reward, there situations were vastly improved: Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Hagar and Ishmael were able to find the resources necessary to survive the desert, and Isaac was spared by an angel and a ram. If they had sulked or turned their backs on God, who know how their stories would have turned out. But they each showed great resolve and trust, and they rolled with the punches, each resulting in meaningful change. I think even the flourished sound of the end of the aliyot intimate the triumphant results of the trials and tribulations, and can further inspire us to do like our ancestors did. I hope tomorrow you will listen carefully as I sing these stories, listen to the sounds you hear, to storytelling even if you can’t understand the words. Can you hear the heart-aching determination, can you feel the inspiration for faith and courage?
As you listen to these sounds tomorrow, as you hear the stories of our ancestors on our Days of Awe, I encourage you to ponder: in this year to come, what meaningful change are you looking for? What are you willing to sacrifice for it, how hard will you work at it, how long will you keep your belief in the end result in the face of adversity? May you find the music that speaks your truth, the notes that push you forward. May you be like Sarah, Hagar, and Isaac: resilient, faithful, and ultimately successful. May you have a good and sweet year. Amen, and Shana Tova.

Parashat Nitzavim-Va-yeilech

Shabbat shalom!  In this week's double Torah portion is Parashat Nitzavim-Vayeilech, Moses starts to wrap up his Deuteronomy-long speech to the Israelites, recapping the events of the Exodus and reminding the people of the 613 commandments they must promise to fulfill after entering the Promised Land. Along with the reminders of what they must do come the warnings of what will happen if they don't. Among these warnings is God's ominous promise, "And I will surely hide my face that day" (Deuteronomy 31:18). 

I don't believe that God really interferes in our lives as directly or tangibly as is depicted in the Torah, so for us, when God hides God's face it's not necessarily a direct punishment the way this line is intended to communicate. But I do believe there are times we can feel God's presence more fully, and times when we don't. For me, the question isn't so much why has God's face become obscured to us, but rather, what will we do in each situation? 

The Chasidic Masters of 18th/19th century Eastern Europe say that "there are times when God hides God's face. But then there are times when God hides God's face and we don’t even realize that The face is hidden; we dwell in darkness, and think it is light." I think there are also times when we feel that God's face is hidden but we're just missing the signals. 

In times of crisis, we might ask ourselves, what were the clues we missed, the darkness we ignored, before we reached this zenith. But rather, let us ask ourselves, where is the light we are missing in this dark time? Where are the glimmers of God's face, the Divine Spark in the people that carry us forward out of crisis? How can we help to spread that spark further? 

On this Patriot's Shabbat, we honor all first responders and leaders in our community who have helped others in times of crisis, who are ready to continue shining light in darkness in the future, and we remember those who have lost their lives as well in their attempts. May we all find the faith to keep looking for God's face even when it is hidden, and yet the courage to face the darkness when it falls. May we all know how to recognize when God's face is truly hidden from us, and be the lights of peace that rekindle the Divine Sparks in those around us. Amen, Shabbat Shalom, and thank you again for joining us this Patriot's Shabbat.

Parashat Ki Tavo

Shabbat Shalom! I'm spending this Shabbat in Portland as I visit for a friend's wedding, so I'm not delivering a d'var Torah this week. Here's just a little taste of Torah for you anyway.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Ki Tavo, includes a warning to the Israelites to always follow the rules of Torah, as they have promised to do. The people stand on a mountain of blessings and a mountain of curses. They hear called out from one mountain all the good things that will befall them if God is pleased with them and they respond "Amen Amen Amen!" They hear from the other mountain all the terrible things that will befall them if they displease God. One of the curses given is: "Because you did not serve G‑d with happiness and with gladness of heart, in abundance of everything, therefore you shall serve your enemies . . . (Deut. 28:47–48)". 

On this, RaMBaM (aka Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon aka Maimonides) comments: "Even though you served G‑d, you did not serve Him with joy—that is the source of all afflictions." This struck me because in Maimonides' Ladder of Tzedakah, he says it is a greater mitzvah to give less than the proscribed 10% of your net income if you give joyfully, and less of a mitzvah to give more than is necessary but begrudgingly or only after being begged for it.

Obviously, it would be impossible to go through life with an endlessly joyful heart. All people have sorrows. But, there seems to be some consistency in RaMBaM's teaching to try your best to stay positive and grateful. Take joy in any good that you do, commandments followed or tzedakah given, because spreading joy is itself an act of tzedek, righteousness. Doing these things together exponentially magnifies the effects, and it reflects back onto you. Allowing yourself to feel good about your own ability to spread happiness adds to your own joy, making it easier to carry forward, and so on. Looking at all mitzvot, including tzedakah, as a chore, makes it harder to do them, and depletes your own energy each time you try.

May you find pride in your random acts of kindness, may you spread some joy today, and may we all emerge from the Shabbat ready to do tzedek, justice, with a smile.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Parashat Ki Teitzei: Religion Shouldn't Hurt

Shabbat Shalom!

My mother taught me: Religion shouldn't hurt.

This week's Torah portion, Parashat Ki Teitzei, doles out many, many mitzvot, some of which don't make a lot of sense at first glance. One of these commandments is cited as the source for Elisha ben Abuyah's apostasy. It is said that he saw a young boy shoo away a mother bird before collecting the eggs to feed his family, as is specifically commanded in this Torah portion. But the Torah concludes these directions with the promise, "that you shall have long life," and yet the boy shooing the mother bird from her nest fell from the tree branch and died. The idea that following Torah would still lead to the boy's death broke Rav Elisha's brain and he left Judaism, becoming haAcher, the Stranger. Because Rav Elisha knew, Religion shouldn't hurt.

This Torah portion also includes some outdated and uncomfortably misogynistic laws regarding marriage and divorce, including that a raped virgin must marry her rapist, a man but not a woman can initiate divorce, laws of adultery that only apply to women, the high importance of a woman's virginity, etc. It's full of hurtful laws for women. Religion shouldn't hurt.

A lot of the misogyny is addressed in the Rabbinic literature that follows the Tanach in the building of contemporary Jewish law. It's not all "fixed" by the Codes of Law widely accepted by the spectrum of halakhic Jews, but it's certainly improved. Women can issue divorces, men can only marry one person at a time (thus becoming accountable to adultery laws), raped virgins/their fathers can deny the marriage of the rapist but still collect the bride price, virginity remains important but becomes more accepted without invasive proof. But many of the Rabbinic rulings still hurt. Religion shouldn't hurt.

In The  Five Books of Miriam: a Woman's Commentary on the Torah, it offers this:
 Our Daughters ask: Are the Rabbis' rulings better or worse for women? 
Lilith the Rebel answers: They never asked us - but now that we're pulling up a chair at their table, we can make up our own minds. 

Religious shouldn't hurt. The Torah is meant to give us guidelines to live better lives, not be taken so literally for thousands of years that it ends up ruining lives. The Rabbinic commentaries are meant to help us understand the Torah so that it can be a useful guidebook for our lives, not be taken so literally for hundreds of years that we let dead old men ruin our lives. We must keep interpreting it, each person is invited to pull up a chair to the Rabbinic table and chew on this Torah with us, so that we can continue to find meaning and lessons and spiritual fulfillment in it. If you think about the world in which the Torah was written in, even some of the misogynist laws were progressive for their time and place. The rabbis, still living patriarchally, at least sought to better the situation further, and even sometimes included the voices of their wives and daughters. Now it's our turn to keep making it better, more progressive, more accepting, more enriching. May we create a Judaism that never hurts.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Parashat Shoftim and Entering Elul

            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Shoftim, which is mostly about the ancient Israelites’ justice system, at least on the surface. It tells of judges, laws, rules of warfare, and the like.
            However, Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen, a 17th century scholar and sage of Jewish law from the Pale of Settlement in Eastern Europe, offers an interesting drash on the first line. The Torah tells us: “You shall set up judges and law enforcement officials for yourself in all your cities that the Lord, your God, is giving you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with] righteous judgment.” On this, Shabbatai ben Meir HaKohen comments: “The human body is a city with seven gates—seven portals to the outside world: the two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and the mouth. Here, too, it is incumbent upon us to place internal “judges” to discriminate and regulate what should be admitted and what should be kept out, and “officers” to enforce the judges’ decisions.”
            Now, as I was reading commentary on this week’s parasha, I was also cooking chicken parmesan, with lots of extra cheese, which is neither Kosher nor good for me. So coming across this was a good reminder to maybe plan for some healthier, holier dinners in the coming week. This past week, we entered Elul, the month leading up to the High Holy Day season, which begins with the first of Tishrei. It is traditional to blow the Shofar everyday throughout the month of Elul and start preparing oneself for the season of atonement and renewal. It’s a good time to pause and look at one’s life, to start thinking about what New Year’s Resolutions we should make this Rosh HaShanah and what we need to ask forgiveness for this Yom Kippur, including what we need to forgive ourselves for and what we need to turn to God for.
            This may well include, asking your body for forgiveness for putting too much delicious, gooey cheese into it, which you know your cholesterol medication can only do so much to combat, and pledging to have more discerning judgement in what you eat in the coming year. Just, you know, for example.
            This may mean taking stock of your words, what you’ve allowed to escape from the mouth-gate of your body-city, considering how you’ve hurt others, and pledging to judge your words more wisely in the coming year.
This may mean realizing you are not doing all you can to appreciate the world around you. Maybe you are working yourself too hard and you need to stop and smell the roses, literally and figuratively. Maybe you are reading too many reports of tragedies you are powerless to stop and you need to take a break to read some poetry or a good trashy novel.
Whatever it is, now is the time to do it. Notice in the coming month what you are taking in and what you are putting out into the world. How reliable are the judges at your gates? What do you need to do to strengthen them, to feel healthier and more satisfied with both your input and output? If you take this spiritual assessment here in Elul, your Tishrei will be much more successful.
May you have a blessed Elul, may your judgement be strong and righteous, and may your bodies be healthy and happy.