Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ki Tavo: Mining the Curses for Hidden Blessings (guest-blog)

This week, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Kelilah Miller is guest-blogging for me. When life throws you curve balls, it's nice to know there are relief pitchers in the bullpen...

I want to thank Rabbi Gerber for inviting me to share some thoughts on the Torah portion as a guest blogger this week.  It is a special honor to be invited to guest-blog this week in particular, since it is on this coming Shabbat that Ohev Shalom will be officially welcoming Rabbi Gerber’s new son Max into the community and celebrating this new addition to the Gerber family!  Mazal Tov!

In keeping with the idea of celebrating new beginnings, this week’s Torah Portion is all about the privileges and responsibilities of (finally!) entering into the Land of Israel.  Also, in keeping with the hopes and anxieties of many parents (new and otherwise), this week’s Torah Portion contains a long litany of potential blessings and curses that await the People of Israel in the Land.

The blessings and curses of Parashat Ki Tavo are delivered in dramatic fashion, with half of the tribes of Israel shouting the blessings from one mountain and the other half of the tribes shouting the curses from another.  If the People of Israel observe God’s Covenant, they will be blessed beyond measure.  If they reject the responsibilities of the Covenant, they will suffer dire consequences.

It is interesting to note that this is not just another message that Moses delivers to the People as a “solo speech”. By having the tribes recite both the blessings and the curses, Moses forces the People to take ownership over what they are saying.  They have to own and acknowledge that they are not powerless victims of random fate or beneficiaries of blind luck.  They also have to recognize that they are not the sole masters of their fate.  Instead, they are partners with God in an effort to maximize blessing in the Land.  They are part of an integrated system of cause and effect, a web of ethical connection and Covenantal responsibility.

While perhaps not all of us subscribe to a literal understanding of God as an all-powerful (perhaps punitive) judge, we are becoming more and more aware of our interconnectedness as we confront a looming, multifaceted, and ongoing environmental crisis. As the scientific evidence piles up, it becomes clearer and clearer that we have a powerful opportunity to claim and shape our role as agents of either blessings or curses.  Just as the Children of Israel need to name the blessings and curses in this week’s Torah Portion, maybe we need to name the curses that we risk bringing upon ourselves as well as the blessings that might emerge from a community and culture that are grounded in the awe and wonder of Creation.

It just so happens that this Shabbat coincides with Interfaith Food Waste Weekend, when many religious communities are exploring the impact of food waste on our lives, on our communities,  and on the planet.  As Rabbi Gerber and I were discussing the Torah Portion this morning, he observed that the issue of food waste really encompasses both blessings and curses.  We are blessed by an abundance of food on our planet.  If we were to distribute that abundance justly and efficiently, no person would need to go hungry.  But we bring curses on ourselves when we waste the blessing of food.  And it’s not only the curse of hunger that we create through wasting food; the carbon footprint of food waste rivals that of some entire countries.  Our inefficient food systems actively contribute to the degradation of a livable planet.

But...just as blessings can be transformed into curses through carelessness or spiritual disconnection, curses can also be mined for blessings.  The precariousness of our ecological situation reveals awe-inspiring truths about our relationship to all living things and provides inspiration to act on a more powerful vision of the future.  In bearing witness to natural disasters and the injustice of hunger, we can become more keenly aware of the image of God in all people and discover commonalities that make us better allies to one another.

I hope that, as we enter into the High Holiday season, we find ways to take joy in the recognition of our partnership with God, and in the responsibilities and opportunities that go along with that relationship.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Ki Teitzei: Weighing In On Community

Sometimes, the fabric that holds our society together is pretty thin. We'd like to think it's incredibly solid, and that it cannot be broken.
We'd like to believe that even if something, or someone, chips away at the values and systems we hold dear, we can still survive, because we're bigger and stronger than that. And it can be scary to even consider the possibility that we're not that secure. However, the situation gets worse if we refuse to open our eyes to the problems and the challenges. Denial isn't going to help us, but there's something else that might...

This week, our Torah portion deals with several issues that can undermine an entire society. It addresses idolatry, slavery, honesty, and marital relations. And then we read a short section, right before the end of the parashah, that instructs Israelites to use honest weights and
measures. Is that a serious issue? How does that eat away at the fabric of community? Well, imagine a society that existed before currency. When you wanted to purchase products in the market, it was all done using weights and measures. If the merchant hollowed out a weight that was meant to balance out a product being sold, it misrepresented the mass of the item, and ultimately undermined the entire system. The Torah concludes this section by stating: "For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to Adonai, your God" (Deut. 25:16). Not only is it offensive to God, it corrupts and distorts the way society functions. Look at Bernie Madoff and his ponzi schemes. They didn't just affect a few individuals or companies; they had disastrous rippling effects throughout the country and the world. We are all interconnected. A ponzi scheme is essentially the modern equivalent of a hollowed-out weight in the market place. And it does tremendous damage.

The verse before the one I quoted above adds another important dimension to this. Deuteronomy 25:15 tells us: "You must have completely honest weights and measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonai, your God,
is giving you." This verse might make it seem like Adonai is going to throw us out if we violate this law, but I want to offer a slightly altered reading. God won't throw us out; we'll do the job ourselves. We cannot endure, we cannot survive, if we corrupt our communities. We see it happening in the news, with dishonest mortgage practices, predatory lending, and other variations on this same theme of cheating the system. However, it doesn't just apply to big companies and national scandals; even on a local level, we need to look at our own contributions and ways that we help or hinder our communities. We need to take responsibility, or we'll essentially be throwing ourselves out on the streets by destroying our systems.

In this month of Elul, leading into the High Holidays, it behooves all of us to examine our role in the world around us. We might not be hollowing out weights on a physical scale, or trying to scam people out of their money or their homes - but we live in fragile societies.
We exist and co-exist in congregations, neighborhoods, counties, states, and countries, and when we remove ourselves from these structures, or subtly undermine them, they begin to break down. As you prepare for the High Holidays, think about the impact you have on the people around you. You are important; we are all crucially significant in the infrastructures surrounding us. We all carry a lot of weight, and we can tip the scales for good or for bad. How do YOU measure up?

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Andreas Bohnenstengel on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of "A Dog Weighing an Elephant" courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of JM Staniforth's "Chuched Out" courtesy of FruitMonkey on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of "Co-exist" bumper sticker courtesy of Integral Church on Wordpress

Friday, September 9, 2016

Shoftim: Do we "Infuse" or "Refuse"?

The Bible can't seem to make up its mind. How do we interact with the people around us? How are Jews meant to deal with non-Jews, and, in particular, how do we navigate shared spaces and communities?
Sometimes, they are our friends. Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, is not only a non-Israelite, he is a Midianite PRIEST! And he gives Moses crucial advice on how to govern the people during the Exodus. We also read the story of Ruth, who was the great-grandmother of King David. She was a Moabite, from a nation that we are told several times, explicitly, to avoid. So sometimes we live WITH our non-Jewish neighbors; learning from them, sharing our lives with one another, and we even - yes, it's true - intermarry. And then, there are stories like the ones in this week's Torah portion.

Towards the middle of our parashah, the text gives us a pretty straight-forward commandment: "When you enter the land that Adonai, your God, is giving you, do not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations" (Deuteronomy, 18:9).
Ok, we get it. Don't follow the local customs. The text specifically talks about idolatry, sorcery, and soothsaying; that kind of stuff. We might, therefore, think that we can live in towns next to theirs, as long as we don't pick up any of their kooky rituals... That's when the text gets a little dark and violent: "However, in the cities of these people, that Adonai, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not let a soul remain alive" (Deut. 20:16). It's pretty bad. And again, it's also confusing. Some of the people we're talking about are the same, or virtually the same, as the ones who gave us Jethro and Ruth, along with others who played FUNDAMENTAL roles in our Jewish story. Where would we be without Moses or King David?!? So how do we make sense of all this?

It's important to note, this is not a historical problem. We see Jewish communities today that try to isolate themselves from their non-Jewish neighbors, and who view all non-Jews as inherently suspect, untrustworthy, and "less-than." Sometimes we even feel that inclination
(a slight twinge perhaps) in ourselves... Right now - here in the United States in 2016 - we each have to make a choice about how we engage with the people around us, and decide whether to live WITH them or apart from them. The Bible is giving us some pretty extreme cases on either end of the spectrum, which I read as a challenge. The text is saying to you and me TODAY: "Where do YOU fall along this gamut?" Perhaps the most challenging question is, once we situate ourselves and figure out how we, individually and communally, feel about the people who live around us, how does that affect the way we live and what we do? Does that obligate us in some way?

This probably won't shock you, but I think it does. I believe we have a very serious and deep responsibility to help out in the world around us. It gets to the heart of what we call Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World.
It's not enough to say we've moved away from Deuteronomy's command to commit genocide; we obviously need to do much, much more. Here at Ohev Shalom, that means starting conversations on race and racism. We may not be the active perpetrators, but there's a deep rift and pain in our country, and we have an obligation to - at the very, very least - think about our own role in that dynamic. So far, we've started working on a cross-communal partnership called FUSE, which you can read about online at But we also need to talk some more, within our community. The Torah offers us many models, and some are purposely provocative to try and force us to engage with this issue. So let's engage.

If you're able to join me, we will be hosting our first internal Ohev conversation THIS Sunday, September 11th, at 2:00 p.m. at Ohev Shalom. We'll be doing more of these in the future as well. I also encourage you to respond here on the blog, or to me personally, if the subject of race, racism, and Jewish/non-Jewish relations strikes a chord in you. The Torah may not be able to make up its mind, but I think it's time that we did. What do YOU think?

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image of William Blake's "Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab" (1795) courtesy of Churchh on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Rui Daniel Barros on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Tony Webster on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image courtesy of Amy Pollack, a fantastic graphic designer (and congregant & friend), who made this incredible FUSE logo for us.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Re'eh: Too Quick to Judge a Slave

When trying to make sense of something, you really need ALL the information, don't you? The facts of the case, the context, the history, the players; everything can and should
contribute to your overall understanding. Too often in society, we see people making snap judgments about a myriad of things, or generalizing about other people, political parties, or stories they read in the news. In fact, I recently read a study that claimed that 6 in 10 people don't actually read the articles they share! They just see a headline and post it on Twitter or Facebook; that one line says all they really need to know. Or at least I think that's what the study said, I only read the first paragraph...

The Torah sometimes forces us to confront this problem. I know it's hard to believe a 3,000-year old text could have opinions about social media, but it's true! From time to time, the Torah will cover the same topic in several different places, but it either presents conflicting
information or leaves vital information out of one (or both!) of the sections. If you're familiar with the text, you sense that you need to dig a little to get a fuller picture. You need to make sure you've gathered all the information, compared and contrasted it, and identified the context, language, and history, along with various other factors that add essential details to our understanding. Snap decisions or drawing conclusions from insufficient data can get you in A LOT of trouble... and as we read in news reports from around the world, it often does!

Here's a very good example from this week's parashah: Deuteronomy, 15:12-18 tells us that a destitute Israelite can become your indentured servant, but you must release him after six years and help him get back on his feet. However, he may choose to remain your servant, at which point he is your property for the rest of your life... Wait, I don't get it.
Why would the servant CHOOSE to stay a slave, rather than become a free man? Our text doesn't say. But if we do a little digging, we might find an answer elsewhere. Back in Exodus, 21:2-6, we read the very same set of laws. In that instance, however, we ALSO learned that if the slave got married and had a family while in your service, the wife and children are NOT set free! You get to keep his family. But hey, at least he gets his freedom, right??? That section tells us the slave must make the following declaration to remain your life-long slave: "I love my master - AND MY WIFE AND CHILDREN - I do not wish to go free" (21:5). We are, perhaps, meant to understand this as an admirable proclamation of loyalty to his master; THAT'S why he wants to stay. Yeah, sure. I hear him saying something very different, don't you?

He's being blackmailed! He wins his freedom, but he has to leave his wife and children behind! The text, in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, claims the slave is choosing to remain in bondage, but I don't think it's a choice at all. And I think many of you would agree with me.
But again, we might not have fully understood the emotional ramifications and the context of his declaration, if we only had the passage from Deuteronomy. This should leave us with two important realizations: 1) Don't make snap judgments. Things are rarely black-or-white, and don't have simple answers. Look for the nuance and the subtly in all areas of your life. And 2) Always put humanity and compassion first. Whether someone is a slave or a world leader, an ally or an enemy, don't reduce them to an object or a caricature. They, like you and me, have more depth and detail. The truth, in all its complexity and intricacy, is worth the extra effort. Do a little digging, read articles before you share them, and I think you'll find the reward is worth the hard work.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone (screen shot from Facebook)
2. CC image courtesy of lchor202 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Hanay on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of Lincoln caricature courtesy of ken g6 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 26, 2016

Eikev: Stuck Between Belief and Baloney

I'm having a fight with my Bible class. It's true! Well, maybe it's not so much a fight as it is a disagreement, or perhaps a recurring exchange with some mild pretend-frustration... but "fight" just sounds better.
Every Wednesday morning, I sit with a wonderful (but rowdy) group of congregants, and we dissect the text of the Torah. Now, I don't pull any of my punches. I studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary - home of source-critical, documentary-hypothesis, positive-historical, Wissenschaft des Judentums, scholarly study of Jewish text - so yeah, the class gets the unfiltered stuff. And as a result, we regularly wrestle with THE big question: "Who wrote the Bible?" And it's true, sometimes we fight. Sort of.

Several students in the class (who shall remain nameless), often ask variations on the same questions: "Is the text of the Torah TRUE?" and if it isn't, "Is all this stuff just made up?" Full disclosure; I can't easily answer either of those questions. We are MEANT to struggle with them. I hear my congregants
stating a black-or-white, either-or problem; either every word in the Torah is true and factual and Divine... or it's all just a bunch of baloney. And I just don't see it that way. This week, I believe the Torah agrees with my refusal to choose one or the other of these options. Deuteronomy, chapter 11 states (and I'm editing the quote a little): "Take thought this day that it was not your children, who neither experienced nor witnessed the lesson of Adonai, your God - God's majesty, mighty hand, outstretched arm, the signs and the deeds... what God did to Egypt's army... what God did for you in the wilderness... and to Datan and Aviram... - but that it was YOU who saw with YOUR OWN EYES all the marvelous deeds that Adonai performed" (11:2-7, all-caps my own).

Ok, so here's the problem: I wasn't there. Were you? We can, of course, wax poetic about our souls all being at Sinai, and that spiritually we are all interconnected with one another and with our ancestors. Yes, yes,
we get all of that. But I don't remember standing at Sinai. I don't feel like I, Jeremy Gerber, am IN this story. So I feel stuck. I'm not at one extreme end of the spectrum, wholeheartedly and cosmically connected to the Sinai experience; but I'm also not at the other end, dismissing the Torah's assertion as ludicrous or irrelevant. I WANT to make sense of it, to feel connected and represented, to believe that the text is speaking to me. I too want to be blessed by it! And maybe that, right there, is the key. My desire, my caring about the text and wanting to connect to it. That realization gets me just a little bit un-stuck.

This bit of insight - the importance of our own effort - is actually critical for the upcoming High Holiday season as well. You see, even the very first audience hearing these verses from Deuteronomy, they probably were living hundreds of years after the
Exodus as well! They had no personal experience of Sinai either. And yet, the Torah says "you were there!" But we suspend our disbelief, as they did. We accept the theatrics of it - even just for a little while - and we (briefly) let go of our skepticism. We have to make meaning of the text ourselves. When we WANT this thing, this Jewish enterprise, to work, we have to make it so. No one can make this meaningful FOR you. I can't assuage all the frustrations of my Bible class students. Meaning-making is very personal, it's unique and complex for each individual. What I want you to hear in that Biblical quote is not fact or fiction, but rather a yearning for relationship. A hand stretching out, desperately yet lovingly, for someone to reach back. Before you can do anything else, you have to let yourself SEE that hand... then the next move is up to you.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Evan-Amos on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of LI1324 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Mielon on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of James Hill on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Va-Etchanan: A Chatty Form of Prayer

I am not going to write about the Ten Commandments this week. Now, you might ask: "How can you NOT write about the Ten Commandments?!?", which would be fair to ask, since they ARE found in this week's Torah portion.
But that doesn't mean we always have to discuss them; there's A LOT of other great stuff in our parashah! I would also be in pretty good company, snubbing the Decalogue. I'm sure you're all familiar with our daily recitation of the Ten Commandments? Yeah, me neither. The rabbis notoriously and glaringly kept these famous Utterances out of our prayer service, and away from almost any holiday observance! "Why?" you ask? Another fair question... and I'll talk about that some other time. Like I said, I'm not writing about this topic right now. So what AM I going to talk about?

Our Torah portion this week actually includes the Shema prayer as well. I know, I know; it's a pretty star-studded parashah. Many Jews would probably say that the Shema is our most famous prayer. It is THE Jewish creed; our mantra, our code, our battle-cry! And that's
all true. There's only one, small problem. It isn't - technically speaking - a prayer. Generally speaking, we might say that a prayer should be phrased TO God? Well, "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad" essentially translates to: "Hear, O Israel, Adonai, our God, Adonai is One." (Deuteronomy, 6:4) It's speaking to the people, not God. The Shema is incredibly important, don't get me wrong. In six, simple words, it sums up that there IS a God; just ONE God; it's OUR God; and we, as a people, have a communal, yet personal, relationship with that God. But if you picture Moses standing atop a mountain proclaiming this manifesto, he would be facing back the other way, towards the people; he would not be addressing Adonai.

And there's something really fascinating to me about this realization - our most famous and significant prayer isn't a prayer at all. The most profound statement we make about our theology, is stated to one another, to our fellow Jews, and NOT to God.
I actually find this to be a very comforting thought. It is a reminder that community and inter-personal relationships are just as important as a connection with the Divine. Especially now, as we approach the Jewish month of Elul, leading into the High Holiday season, it is essential to remember that our connection to one another is just as crucial as our prayers to God. Sure, this fundamental verse focuses on God's relationship with Israel and God's Oneness... but it begins with a call from one Jew to another: "Hear, O Israel" - listen up, my friend! It isn't just about God in some vacuum or void; you and I are vital to this equation too.

This weekend is also called "Shabbat Nachamu," "The Shabbat of Comfort," which always follows the observance of Tisha b'Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. The Haftarah, from the Prophet Isaiah, speaks words of comfort and reassurance that God has not forgotten us in exile, even though our Temple was destroyed.
Faith has indeed kept us going as a people through every oppression and persecution - but so have our bonds between fellow Jews. WE have sustained one another, and together preserved our Jewish heritage. At the heart of our religious faith is our one, true God, Adonai. But at the core of our peoplehood, our culture, our history, is Israel. With the High Holidays just over the horizon, let's remember to focus on our community, and our connection to all those around us. It is certainly a season of repentance and speaking to Adonai... but it's also ok to turn around every once in a while and check in on the congregants sitting around you. Yes, it's true, that is also a form of prayer. And an important one at that.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of the Providence Lithograph Company on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Rabanus Flavus on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Ranveig on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Geerd-Olaf Freyer on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, August 11, 2016

D'varim and Tisha b'Av: Choosing a Vision of the Future

Greetings everyone!
I last wrote to you here on the blog on June 30th. I told you then - prophetically, as it turns out - that my son was hopefully going to be born soon. Well, he arrived the very next day! :-) Max Brian Gerber arrived on Friday, July 1st, (thank God) in perfect health. Here's a picture of my son and me, hanging out on a blanket in his room. :-)

I've been on paternity leave ever since, but am now back in the office, and looking forward to getting back to blogging. Without further ado, here goes:

I would like to start my blog, after such a long hiatus, with a positive and upbeat post. That makes sense, right? And it would appear that the Torah portion this week is on my side. After all, this weekend is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision. How perfect! I just had
a new child, the new Jewish year is about to begin, the weather is lovely (albeit a little hot in Philly right now...); what a great time for a Shabbat of vision, hope, excitement, and anticipation. There's only one problem: The name - Chazon - comes from Isaiah's "vision" of the imminent destruction of the city of Jerusalem. Shabbat Chazon always precedes Tisha b'Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when we commemorate the destruction of both Ancient Temples (in 587 BCE and 70 CE), as well as several other calamitous events in Jewish history. So much for restarting the blog on a high note...

Sometimes it feels as though Tisha b'Av has lost its relevance. We grieve atrocities that befell us 2,500 years ago, or even 1,000 or 500 years ago, and they simply don't feel current or apropos. Though we do mourn the victims of the Holocaust on Tisha b'Av as well, we also have a separate day just for that remembrance, Yom Ha-Shoah.
It's hard to "sell" a day like Tisha b'Av to congregants, at least compared to - say - Chanukah or Purim, or even Pesach. Tisha b'Av is also a fast day, and I think the lack of food is a deal breaker for some people as well... What kind of a Jewish holiday has NO food?!? The truth is, however, I think it's a shame that more people don't observe Tisha b'Av. Our service begins at nightfall, and we chant a special book, called Eicha. The chanting is haunting and beautiful, and the whole service has a powerful, reflective, even cathartic feel to it. And let's face it; everyone could use a good cry once in a while. I truly don't mean that facetiously; we often ignore the healing and restorative powers of sadness and grieving. Tisha b'Av CAN add something very meaningful to our lives... if we let it.

We focus so much of our energies on trying to be happy all the time, but that isn't real life. And with all the uncertainty in the world these days - with unsettling elections, terror threats, Zika, and racial tensions - we NEED to address our fears and concerns. But in a healthy and restorative way. We need to help one another process what's happening in the world today, and find ways to still feel hope and optimism in the
face of our challenges. To me, that is why Tisha b'Av is actually a holiday filled with hope, just hidden under the guise of sadness. We are MEANT to misinterpret Shabbat Chazon, because it starts as a vision of destruction... but we, the readers, are meant to transform it into a vision of faith, optimism, and rebuilding. Our ancient rabbis tell us that the Messiah - should that person choose to some day show up... - will be born on Tisha b'Av; thus turning a day of national mourning into great joy and celebration.

But you and I can't make the Messiah appear. Not by Saturday evening anyway. And I, for one, am not going to waste even an ounce of energy on the hope of a personified, individual, savior-Messiah. That just ain't my religion. That doesn't mean that all of us, here today, are powerless to affect change. On the contrary;
in the absence of external salvation, WE must be the agents of change. No one else is going to solve this for us. No one else is going to fix the world on our behalf. We cannot acquiesce responsibility and think that somehow the work will still get done. It won't. So even though we begin Tisha b'Av in sadness, and mourn destructions both ancient and modern, it is ultimately a holiday with a firm focus on the future. The prophet Isaiah's Chazon, his vision, was in the past. You and I can make our own vision for this generation and the one(s) to come. But sometimes that needs to start with a really good cry.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Ariely on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's woodcut, "Lamentations of Jeremiah" (1860), courtesy of McLeod on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Sagtkd on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of Leopold Horowitz' "Tish'a B'av" (1887), courtesy of Robert Prummel on Wikimedia Commons