Friday, July 21, 2017

Matot-Masei: I'll Annul My Own Vows, Thanks.

Oversimplification is a bad idea. And yes, I realize that even that statement was made categorically, so it kind of violates my own maxim. But in MANY situations,
when we try to simplify an issue and define it in terms of good vs. bad, right vs. left, correct vs. incorrect, we get in trouble. "All people in x demographic group feel this way..." "Anyone who says y is wrong." Life just doesn't work that way. There's complexity, grey areas, nuance. I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating. This week, in the Torah, women are the targets of this overgeneralization. As a rule, women simply don't know how to make good decisions for themselves. You see? Look how much trouble we are in already!

The first chapter of our Torah portion, Matot-Masei, begins by telling us that if a man makes a vow to God, he is obligated to fulfill it.
This could be in regards to a business transaction, an interpersonal relationship, a military duty; once he makes that vow, he's on the hook to see it through. If a woman, however, makes a similar vow, her father or husband can annul it on her behalf. Why? Because women (supposedly) make bad, rash, emotional - dare we say hysterical??? - uninformed decisions and "need" a man to decide whether the oath was valid or not. I hope I don't have to spell this out, but this argument is INCREDIBLY offensive. It's offensive to women, first of all, but really to everyone! To me, it's an example of the Torah narrative at its most antiquated, patriarchal, and misogynistic. In short, I don't like it. And the only way that it resonates with me, personally, is to see it as a challenge.

We can do better. We HAVE TO do better. No group - women, minorities, the LGBT community - should be defined with broad strokes and categorical statements. We all need to dig deeper, understand the nuance of individual people, families,
communities, and see the complexity that is so fundamental to all our lives. This isn't an ancient problem; it's going on around us RIGHT NOW! We judge and label "the Other" as suspicious, lazy, fake, corrupt, unreliable. And we then become desensitized to their story and the challenges they face. The Torah is goading us to disagree, and to push back: "No! I will not label ALL women, or ALL gays, or ALL foreigners in any one way!!" We need to cast off that yoke and refuse to accept that narrative. And that has to be a conscious, deliberate decision. Oversimplification and generalization creeps back into our minds, if and when we let it. "Those people always..." and "They never..." In a way, the Torah is actually reminding us that we can't let up, we have to remain vigilant and proactive.

Each of us needs to make a concerted effort to learn more, to embrace the nuance and "messiness" of life. Who is "The Other" really? What are the deeper elements in their story and how can I learn something new that I didn't know before?
The Torah provokes us by saying that women - in general - don't get to make decisions about their own actions. You don't agree? That makes you mad? Well, what are you going to do about it? It's not enough to be outraged and say the Torah is wrong. How are YOU going to change that narrative and help others see things differently? There is probably some area where you too make generalizing statements, even just to yourself, about some group of people. Maybe not women or Jews or gays, but SOME group. It is very humbling, and challenging, to confront those beliefs. But that is the work! That is what we have to do. Getting angry and feeling outraged is just Step One. What comes after that is the real question. And it's a hard one to answer...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Joowwww oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of New York Public Library on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of United States Armed Forces on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of LSE Library on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 7, 2017

Balak: Uh Oh, Your Core is Showing!

Being a human being is a complex endeavor. It's no simple matter. Each of us is the sum of so many parts; family history, individual experiences, traumas,
triumphs, loves, losses, genetic material, to name just a few. And as varied, intricate, and multi-faceted as we are, there is also a theme that runs through our lives. At our core, each of us stands for something - or some series of things - and even as we evolve and grow, that locus remains. I invite each person reading this to really think about what your own core might look like, and how it makes itself known in various ways throughout your life. Sometimes it's overt, and sometimes it's subtle and hidden. This week's Torah portion, mainly about enemies of Israel trying to plot our destruction, teaches us something interesting about human nature and how core traits make themselves known... no matter how hard we try.

The name of our parashah is Balak, from the name of a Moabite king who tries to curse the Israelites. But he isn't actually the main character; he tries to hire a prophet to do his dirty work, and that is the guy we are primarily examining.
Bilaam, son of Beor, seems to have been a BIG deal in the ancient world. We don't know much about him, but the fact that the Torah doesn't list his accomplishments is itself a clue that his reputation preceded him. In our text, even God seems concerned that Bilaam might curse the Israelites, which is a shocking concept as well! Bilaam appears to us very powerful, and in his own eyes, he certainly is mighty, important, and ferocious. But he is also petty and greedy. At his core, he is small and ignorant, and no matter how many bells and whistles try to hide that fact, or how many dignitaries pay him tribute, his pettiness comes through nevertheless. We especially see this in the way he treats those "beneath" him: For instance, a donkey.

In Numbers, 22:21, we read a fascinating (and humorous) tale of Bilaam setting off to curse the Israelites for King Balak. God doesn't want him to go, and places an angel with a drawn sword along the road, to block Bilaam's access.
Only Bilaam can't see the angel (some powerful seer he is...); only his donkey can see it. The donkey three times attempts to veer out of the way, but Bilaam repeatedly tries to force the donkey back... and with each yank of the harness he also beats his poor, defenseless animal. Incredibly, God gives the donkey the power of speech, and when she asks Bilaam why he is beating her, he yells at her and says he wishes he had a sword so he could kill her! (v. 29) Putting aside all the fantastical elements in this little vignette, Bilaam is a bully. Compassionless, aggressive, pompous, and in his own estimation, always right. He tries to present himself in different ways in our story - to Moabite dignitaries, to Balak, even to God - but he cannot hide who he truly is on the inside. His core speaks for itself, and it isn't pretty.

We humans are indeed complex. But one thing that is particularly true is that we don't get to tell people who we are; we show them with our actions. Sure, we can redeem ourselves and make amends, we can change direction, grow, and
mature. But even then, we need to DEMONSTRATE our desire to change with our behavior, not with groveling apologies and grandiose promises. It is also true that we CAN choose to say one thing and do another. It's not physically impossible; people do it constantly. Each time, however, we undermine our own integrity, and we chip away at our credibility. There's only so long hypocrisy can persist. Again, think about your own core. Do you like it? Do you want that to be how you are known? Who we are is NOT about words or promises - Bilaam talked a VERY good game... and then he threatened to beat an animal to death. In the end, it's about action, behavior, and results. And I firmly believe it is also about compassion, kindness, and empathy - living those traits, not just talking about them. You can present yourself as the mightiest person on the planet... but if you're also kicking a (proverbial) donkey behind the scenes, then you really aren't so powerful at all.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Jopparn oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Pharos on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Winslow Homer on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gerrit on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 30, 2017

Chukat: This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You

You've probably heard me say this before: I really don't care for the expression, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."
I don't agree with it at all. And I have strong feelings on the subject, because not only do I think it's completely backwards, I also think it does us all quite a bit of harm. Bones heal. When someone is in a terrible accident - God forbid - their bodies do recover, either quickly or sometimes over a longer period of time and with the help of physical therapy. But the psychological and mental wounds often linger A LOT longer. In my time at Ohev Shalom, I have sadly seen many family rifts, where people have not spoken to one another for decades. Almost never did such a dispute begin with physical violence. Most of the time, it began with words... and it cut a lot deeper than a stick or a stone ever could.

Words are in the news a lot these days. Collectively, we parse the meanings of "bonafide" and "hope," and realize that even a single word can have many levels of nuance and tone; and sometimes people's lives hinge on those interpretations.
In looking at this week's Torah portion, I also find myself thinking about the use of words to attack other people, specifically with name-calling. Our parashah includes the particularly infamous story of Moses striking a rock to bring forth water for the thirsting Israelites. In doing so, Moses dooms himself to never set foot in the Land of Israel, as God vows: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers, 20:12). At first glance, it isn't clear exactly why Moses receives such a harsh punishment. It's not like he was doing anything new!

Back in Exodus, chapter 17, God told Moses specifically TO strike a rock to access water - so there was precedent. A few verses before this ominous incident, Moses' sister, Miriam, had just died, so emotion and grief could have clouded his
judgment as well. He'd also been leading the people for FORTY years, so his patience was understandably wearing a bit thin. On top of all of this, I want to add another possible explanation: His words. As Moses raises his staff to bash the stone, he calls out: "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock!?!" (20:10) Moses never called them "rebels" before; he never previously resorted to name-calling and insults. Perhaps that was the step over the line? Maybe that was God's indication that Moses no longer could do his job properly, and needed to be replaced by another.

Verbal abuse and personal attacks are low tactics to employ in a confrontation. They divert attention away from the real issue(s) at hand, and turn everyone's focus onto the poor choice of wording. And it doesn't achieve anything either.
The Torah demonstrates how Moses' slander backfired, and ultimately wounded him more than it did the people. It is a good reminder for all of us that what we say - and how we say it - matters. A lot. It can do tremendous harm, and cause pain that lasts a very long time. Words often hurt much, much more than just stones and sticks. Here's the thing; Anger is an important emotion. It can be uncomfortable, and it sometimes blazes uncontrollably, and we don't know how to rein ourselves in. So instead we try to ignore it or stuff it away... but we can't. We need to acknowledge anger and bring it in, compassionately, to our lives. However, that doesn't mean we have license to injure others with our rage, or say whatever we feel like and expect it to be forgiven later. Remember the case of Moses and his name-calling. Meanness sometimes backfires, and injures the person trying to cause harm. Even when we just hear others employing verbal abuse, when we're "only" the bystanders, it can still hurt. Chukat offers us a cautionary tale; and it should trump our desire to attack others, with sticks, stones, tweets, or words.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of cogdogblog oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Zach Dischner on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Michael Griffin, US Army on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 23, 2017

Korach: I want more, more, MORE!!!

This week, I find myself asking the question, "When is it enough?" I would argue that this query can be applied to A LOT of stories in the news these days. The healthcare debate certainly brings up questions of who gets more, who gets less,
and why. There are also stories about the ride service company Uber that might cause us to ask this same question. Though I especially found myself wondering about "enough" in regards to the commerce giant Amazon purchasing the grocery chain Whole Foods. There is an accepted "wisdom" among tech companies that I think is inherently flawed and generally problematic, and interestingly enough, we see people yelling about this very same issue in the Torah right now.

Moses is under attack. At least two different uprisings are launched against him, and, if nothing else, it forces everyone (including us, the readers) to examine the direction in which the Israelite nation is heading. Are they moving towards
a better place, and are they led by the best people for the job? Korach, the primary would-be usurper, along with Datan and Aviram, question whether Moses should be in charge, and whether the tribe of Levi should be managing the sacrificial rite under the authority of Aaron, the High Priest. Interestingly, the first attack they hurl at Moses and Aaron is: "You have gone too far!" In the Hebrew, the phrase is, "Rav Lachem," which could also be translated as, "You have too much!" Maybe it's too much power, too much influence, too much exclusive access to God's (proverbial) Ear. Whatever it is, I find the statement itself - the accusation - so fascinating... and so current.

Amazon purchased Whole Foods so they could expand (further) into the food industry. Why? Because everybody knows: If you aren't growing, you're dying. Obviously, being the best in ONE particular industry
isn't enough. Obviously, companies need to offer photo storage and video streaming and music players and clothing and gardening equipment and furniture and pharmacy products and E-readers and, and, and... It feels like a battle for world domination. Every company wants to be the sole retailer for their customers, and everyone wants to pioneer the newest market for... whatever; flying or self-driving cars, fancier smartphones, homes that think for themselves. When do we all get to collectively rise up and scream: "YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR!!!"

To me, these races between Google, Amazon, Netflix, and any number of other companies highlight a real problem in society. Fierce competition doesn't always lead to bigger, better, newer, smarter. And trying to destroy one another and swallow up every other industry and competitor seems not only foolish but
dangerous. Korach and his associates raise some genuine issues with Moses and Aaron, but the antagonism and the toxicity of the debate lead only to destruction and chaos. It's not constructive or productive. And I fear that society today faces a similar problem. It may be a good mantra for all of us to hold in our heads - when is it "Rav Lachem"? When is it simply "too much" and we need to scale back? Four verses after Korach's attack, Moses throws it back in his face. He uses the same phrase, "Rav Lachem," about Korach's audacity, his chutzpah. Indeed, it is a question that EVERYONE needs to consider, on a global, societal, and individual level. Sometimes we all could use a reminder that "less is more." Now how do we get that message over to Amazon?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Kcida10 oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Michaeldsuarez on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Infrogmation on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of FotoDawg on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sh'lach Lecha: Feeling Low Like a Locust (Guest Post)

Hello everyone! Last week, I was on vacation, so you didn't get a blog post. This week, we have unfortunately had several deaths in the congregation, though we're also joyfully celebrating a Bar Mitzvah; but all of it means I'm swamped! Luckily, my colleague, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, offered to "guest blog," and so here is her terrific post for this week's Torah portion:

I am honored to be invited to be a guest blogger this week - thanks to Rabbi Gerber for sharing this platform so generously. Before I get into this week’s parashah, I
want to come clean about something - I spend more time than I would like worrying about what other people think. How I look, how I come off in conversation, how my voice sounds on a given day. When I wear my kipah in public, I wonder what people think about that, too. What’s funny is that when I receive information (positive or negative) about how others do perceive me, I tend to only “hear” the part that confirms my own sense of self.  If I am feeling low about myself, I am more likely to take criticism as fact, or I might even imagine that others are observing me critically.. On a rough day, this can turn into a problematic feedback loop.  

I feel reasonably safe admitting this because my guess is that I am not alone.  I think that it is easy for many of us to spend a lot of our mental and emotional energy trying to figure out what others think, and we also tend to filter our understanding of how others see us through the lens of our existing self-image.

The good news is that our tradition is very clear about the fact that this is an error, and we are warned against letting this kind of cycle run away with us. One of the most colorful warnings comes from this week’s parashah.  
Our Torah portion deals with a secret spy mission into the Land of Israel - the spies are sent to determine whether the Land is as bountiful as God had promised, and they are also told to report on the military defenses of the people who already live there. When the spies return from their mission, all except two of them declare that the cause is hopeless. They report “There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come from the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:33). This assessment of the situation leads the people, as a whole, to rebel against God and Moses, asking (once again) to return to slavery in Egypt rather than die by the sword. God declares the People unready to enter the Land, and they must wait another 40 years before making the attempt again.

While the 40 years of wandering is certainly framed as a punishment in the Torah, I also like to think that God (like any good educator) is also offering a teaching
through the form of the consequence imposed. When the People of Israel are stuck in a feedback loop of self-judgment and despair, God forces them to stop, step back, and take more time before acting. This is, in fact, good advice for all of us who may find ourselves in this situation from time to time. As we spend this Shabbat in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, I want to offer the practice of Shabbat rest as an opportunity to stop, recalibrate, and get grounded in a sense of real self worth - the self-worth that comes from honoring our common humanity, and not from how we look, what we achieve, or how we think others might judge us.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Margareta Gaik on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Deepugn on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Bidgee on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 2, 2017

Naso/Shavuot: All in this Together...

I've been thinking a lot about communal responsibility lately. I find myself focusing on the idea that everyone has to do his/her part; everyone has to contribute to
make things - ALL things - work. It's true on a local level, and it's certainly essential on a global scale. Our Torah portion this week, Naso, spends a fair amount of time stressing this point. In fact, the longest chapter in the entire Torah, Numbers, chapter 7, is entirely dedicated to emphasizing precisely this concept. Also, Ohev hosted an incredible program a few days ago, which demonstrated our own commitment to communal responsibility and the importance of building a shared future, where we all take care of one another. Maybe THAT'S why this notion has been so central for me this week...

Naso informs us that Moses finished building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, which was the portable worship and sacrifice space that the Israelites brought with them
throughout the Exodus. Once it's been dedicated, all the tribes bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle. And the Torah lists, in perhaps painful detail, EVERY item brought by EACH tribe; something that is especially surprising because they mainly bring the same "stuff." And yet, the Torah wants to be explicitly and unequivocally clear that EVERYONE contributed. They were all invested in this shared enterprise, and they had an agreement - like an accord - that bound them all together. It takes 89 verses to fully elucidate this ritual, making chapter 7 fully TWENTY verses longer than any other chapter in the Torah! The point is made really clear: We all need to do our part, and we all need to make sacrifices (sometimes literally!) to our shared, common goals.

On Tuesday night, Ohev hosted a program for the holiday of Shavuot. But this year was unlike any Shavuot event we've done before, and without question different from any Shavuot I've ever experienced.
You see, this year, Shavuot coincides with the Muslim month of Ramadan. AND it's the week of Pentecost for Christians. So we brought together a panel with representatives from the Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim communities, to dialogue with me about the concept of Revelation in each of our faiths. Over 110 people came, which made the evening all the more impactful for everyone present. After our panel discussion, people broke into small, diverse groups to continue the conversation. The Muslim group then broke their fast of Ramadan, chanted for us their Call to Prayer (which was amazing), and then held their own prayer service in a room in our building. When was the last time you heard of a Muslim group praying in a synagogue??! And finally, we shared a meal (complete with blintzes and cheesecake for Shavuot!) together. It was a night few of us will ever forget.

This is our community. In a sense, it's our world. And we do not live here alone. Like our ancient ancestors, we each need to bring ourselves to the shared table, and we need to invest in one another and commit to our common goals. Shavuot celebrates our receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, but the Torah was never meant
to exclusively benefit the Jewish community! On Tuesday, we shared with over 100 people OUR Torah, here at Ohev Shalom. We demonstrated what we stand for by opening up our doors and our hearts, and by celebrating all the things we have in common with others, and honoring our differences as well. It isn't just about one special night either. We've been doing this for a couple of years now, with programs like FUSE, which has the same goal. And I know I can't pretend that everyone shares these values. But I also can't worry about what's going on in the rest of the world. Our Torah and our ancestors teach us to partner with others in our community, and build a better future together. So that is what we are doing; I hope you'll join in and do your part. Thank you.

Photos in this blogpost are from the event on Tuesday evening (before sundown...), courtesy of Amy Pollack.

Friday, May 26, 2017

B'Midbar: Who's Ready for Another Annual Tradition??

I like rituals. Maybe you already knew that about me. Sometimes I enjoy the ancient ones, other times I prefer modern alternatives, and I ESPECIALLY love
helping create new rituals and ceremonies! For example, there's our "Lostice Shabbat," where we're trying to solidify an annual Ohev tradition of celebrating the Czech community from which we inherited a Torah scroll after the Holocaust. I've also helped create a yearly interfaith Thanksgiving service in our region, as well as a tradition of biennial theatrical Ohev Players' performances. Oh, and we try to run a trip to Israel every few years (with yet another one coming up in the fall of 2018...). What can I say? Creating new traditions helps us keep the concept alive, and makes us active participants in the various cycles of our own lives. It's meaning-making at its finest! Sooo, is there room for yet another annual event in our congregation? I sure hope so...

Over the last 2-3 years, you've heard me speak a lot about an incredible art project in our Main Sanctuary, called the Children of Israel Collection. Well, the project is done. There are no more panels to create, no more
facets of the endeavor to explore. The final pieces were hung on our walls, and our "formal" dedication ceremony took place last June, in 2016. So we're done, right? Nothing left to talk about. Well, except that artwork isn't ever really meant to be background noise. Certainly not sanctuary art, anyway! These panels represent the Ancient Tribes of Israel, but also the modern Children of Israel, i.e. YOU AND ME!! Our ancestors' stories are our stories; and ours represent vital links in the ever-growing chain of Jewish history. Creating new traditions and fusing them onto existing ones is a great way to bind together our individual and collective narratives to those of the Jewish people everywhere! And this Shabbat is the perfect weekend to bring together the Biblical text and our modern artwork.

Our parashah this week begins the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah. The Israelites are preparing to continue their march through the desert, and the reading begins with a census of all the Israelite tribes; who are the tribal heads, and how many people are marching under the FLAG of each group. And it was
from this Torah portion, B'Midbar, that we drew the inspiration for our mosaic art collection! Our panels are hanging in the exact order listed in Numbers 1:5-15. I also believe that connecting an annual ceremony to THIS particular parashah helps us identify some important lessons that we can all learn. Before the people can set off on their Exodus, they need to know who is present. Each person and each tribe needs to essentially declare "Hineini!" - "Here I am!" It is as if they are saying: "I matter! I am important, and my narrative is crucial to the story of my people. And we are stronger when we bring all our tales and myths and legends together into one." So let us celebrate, and let us, perhaps, call this our "Peoplehood Shabbat."

What, then, is our focus and our objective? Unity and diversity. Our mosaic art collection reminds us to bring together all our myriad cups, keys, shards, and jewelry, and respect others' family lore while giving voice to our own.
Hidden behind the artwork and the tribal names are also many different narratives that are sometimes ignored or unknown: Ethiopian Jews claim descent from the Tribe of Dan; the Bnei Menashe in India from the Tribe of Menashe! Furthermore, our panels highlight a gender disparity, and challenge us to think about ALL groups within the Jewish community today. The "Peoplehood" question may prompt us to consider who is "in" and who is "out," and where & when we engage with non-Jews, both inside Ohev and in our surrounding area. The blog is too short a space to dig much deeper, but I'll end by just encouraging you to think about the power of ritual, both ancient and modern. And also to URGE you to see your personal story as vital to the history of our people. Only when we can firmly declare "Hineini!" and feel rooted in knowing who and where we are, can we then go out and engage with the world around us and learn from one another. Sometimes it takes a collection of artwork to keep that message in focus.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. The Tribe of Asher (The Olive Tree) - The first mosaic panel we made.
2. The Tribe of Zebulun (The Ship) - One of my personal favorites
3. Seven panels along one wall of our Sanctuary
4. The Tribe of Menashe (the Oryx/Mountain Goat)