Thursday, January 23, 2020

Va-Eira: Hidden Meanings... Unless Ya Know the Territory (Spoiler Alerts!)

Yes, I'm still stuck on "The Music Man." In fact, we've REALLY kicked into high-gear now, with Opening Night just around the corner, on January 25th! But something
else has also evolved and grown over the time I've spent with this musical. When I was first introduced to it, and really started to understand the plot, I was - in all honesty - kind of shocked. A con-man swindles an entire town, he is discovered, and (spoiler alert) they let him off the hook. Ummm... what kind of message is this play teaching us all, anyway?!?! In speaking to a couple of my fellow cast members, we all agreed that Harold Hill did not, in fact, get what was coming to him, and the ending was unsatisfactory (from a morality and justice point-of-view). And then, wouldn't you know it - Jeely Kly and Ye Gods* - I've come to view the whole play in a new light.

There is, by the way, a fair amount of hidden meaning in our Torah portion this week too. Yes, the very FIRST thing God says in our parashah (or I'll eat hay with the horse!*) is that God never revealed the name "Adonai" to Abraham, Isaac, or
Jacob. Moses is hearing it for the very first time. This reading also divulges the names of Moses' parents and siblings, when these had all previously been anonymous characters. God and Moses hatch a plan to get the Israelites out of Egypt, while Pharaoh deceives Moses and Aaron each time he promises to let them go. Furthermore, watching plagues rain down on the Egyptians might not leave us feeling all that great about the means being employed to justify the ends. But sometimes you have to look a LITTLE BIT closer to discover the underlying meaning. And then, once you see it, why, it's staring at you, plain as a Quaker on his day off!*

I discovered two quotes in The Music Man that I love. They're subtle, and they fly by quickly, so you could be forgiven for missing them. But so it is with many, MANY things in life; the moral, the resolution, the central principle we are meant to learn does NOT come at the very end, right before the "Happily Ever After." It is instead
found somewhere else along the journey. Harold Hill, our spellbinding cymbal-salesman* of a protagonist, tries to coax Marian (the Librarian) to meet him at a romantic spot. When she gets cold feet and tries to stall, she tells him "some other time," which certainly we've all used on countless occasions in our lives. Hill responds: "My dear librarian, pile up enough ‘some other time’s and you'll find you've collected nothing but a lot of empty yesterdays." I found this to be such a compelling and thought-provoking way to put it. Setting aside the context of the show itself, this idea is really quite essential. We delay, and postpone, and put off, and drag our feet. But it may indeed amount to a lot of "empty yesterdays," if we aren't too careful. I think this is wise advice for all of us to consider.

And then Marian offers us important insight as well. Regardless of what Hill promised to deliver, what ACTUALLY happened? Was it all smoke-and-mirrors
from a swindlin' two-bit thimble rigger*?? When all the dust and the bluster settles down, Marian points out that the promise of lights, flags, colors, and cymbals WERE delivered, but in something more enduring than a few music lessons. It came, instead, "in the way every kid in this town walked around here the last three weeks, and looked and acted... and the parents, too." Even in our Torah portion, Moses and Aaron get very focused on the "parlor tricks" with snake-sticks and leprosy-hands that they can use to compel Pharaoh. But that stuff doesn't actually matter! The real shift comes in Moses' self-confidence, in the people believing they can be the masters of their own destiny, and in seizing the task of becoming their own agents of change.

I hope I haven't given away too much of the musical's plot. Seeing it is the REAL experience anyway. But I invite us all to take these lessons to heart. It's not about a trombone or a shofar, but about challenging ourselves to evolve and grow, and to seize every opportunity to live in the "Now." Real action is what matters; talk is cheep-cheep-cheep*.

Images in this blog post are all from our upcoming Music Man performance:

*I couldn't help throwing some Music Man lingo into the blog this week. If a phrase is confusing to you, it's probably a quote from the show. It's meant as an inside-nod to the cast, but if you come see our production, you too can get all the references! :-)

Friday, January 17, 2020

Shemot: What You're Hoping to Get Out of That Trombone

As you are probably aware - or should be by now - the Ohev Players are about to return to our synagogue stage, with a terrific production of Meredith Willson's "The Music Man." We're performing four shows on 1/25, 1/26, 2/1, and 2/2, and tickets are on sale
now. You may also be familiar with my own love of theater, and how much I am inspired to see people of all ages and stages of life come together to make this show happen. It is a true community-builder... and also, the music is great! In truth, I never really knew much about this particular show. I'd heard the name, but didn't know any of the music, and had *zero* sense of the plot. Playing a central character, the Mayor of River City, has certainly taught me a lot. And I thought I would dedicate a series of three blog posts (starting now) to some of the things I've learned, and hopefully you'll find them interesting as well.

I must say, I was already intrigued the moment I opened the script. The last page of the book's introduction, after the list of scenes but before "Act One" has even begun, the script presents a short note from Meredith Willson, who wrote the book, lyrics, and music for the show. I keep thinking about that statement,
both for my portrayal of Mayor George Shinn, but also as an important lesson about relationships in life. The letter reads as follows: "Dear Director: The Music Man was intended to be a Valentine and not a caricature. Please do not let the actors - particularly Zaneeta, Mayor Shinn and Mrs. Shinn, who takes herself quite seriously - mug or reach for comedy effect... The humor of this piece depends upon its technical faithfulness to the real small-town Iowans of 1912 who certainly did not think they were funny at all." I was captivated by this paragraph for a few different reasons.

First of all, humor is in everything. You don't need a laugh track or a punchline to be funny, and finding humor in something doesn't have to mean
you are mocking it. I feel this way about the Torah all the time. In this week's Torah portion, for example, there is an incredibly dark scene, where Pharaoh has commanded that all male Hebrew babies be thrown into the Nile. Nothing funny about this AT ALL. Pharaoh instructs two midwives, Shifra and Puah, to oversee the killings. They, however, are loyal to (our) God, and decide, at great personal risk, to defy this order. When Pharaoh questions why there are still babies alive, they tell him (essentially) that these crazy, wild, tough Israelite women just pop 'dem babies out before the midwives can even arrive!! No one is trying to "mug" or "reach for comedy effect," but the Torah is reminding us that humor has ALWAYS been a way we deal with tragedy *and* with simple, everyday, mundane real life.

I love the idea of faithfulness that Willson espouses. To preserve authenticity, see the beauty in everything - like the small-town, turn-of-the-century lives of good people in River City, IA - and to affirm the dignity of every individual.
Protagonist or antagonist, everyone is the hero in their own story, and each person is the "keeper of the flame" for some truth and essential principle that is vital to her/him. The key to relationships is to see the other person's narrative, and to honor it, even if (and when) you disagree. I can't say I'll be playing Mayor Shinn perfectly, but I do hope I do him justice. I like the character a lot, and certainly appreciate his increasingly frantic feeling that no one else sees what a swindling spellbinder this Hill-fella really is! Honoring Meredith Willson's wishes, in the end, isn't just about good (or faithful) acting, but it's a reminder about how to view the world, how to engage with others in relationship, and always, ALWAYS to see the humor all around us and be able to laugh. It's good for the soul.

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Cathy Baum on Facebook (picture of (nearly) our whole Music Man cast!)
2. Joe Haupt on Flickr
3. Ad Meskens on Wikimedia Commons (Hieroglyphs depicting birthing chairs in the period of Hapshepsut in Egypt)
4. Piqsels

Thursday, January 16, 2020

L'Chaim newsletter article, January, 2020 - Gotta Collect ‘em All

This year, Ohev Shalom is all about our Centennial. We look back at 100 years since our synagogue was incorporated in Chester, and ahead to (hopefully) another century or more of growth, spirituality, and forging deep, new connections. You may have already seen information about this, but I wanted to take a few minutes to highlight a participation opportunity that is about past, present, future, and connecting to something incredibly ancient and holy.

According to Jewish Tradition, the Torah contains 613 commandments. The book itself doesn’t list them by number (or provide a helpful index at the back…), but later rabbis and scholars counted them, and that’s the number we’re all going with. Many still apply today, though somewhere between 100 and 150 refer specifically to the Temple and sacrifice, so they are unfulfillable, at least until (God forbid…) we someday try to rebuild a Temple in Jerusalem. So, admittedly, none of us are aiming for a perfect score of 613, and yet I still want to tell you that the very last one, Commandment #613, is within your grasp right now, this very month at Ohev Shalom.

In Deuteronomy 31:19, just three chapters before the end of the whole Torah, God commands Moses to write “this” down. The original intent may be unclear, but this verse becomes the basis for the mitzvah, incumbent upon all Jews, to write their own Torah. Crazy, right? Handwritten, with a quill, ink, and parchment; it is ludicrous to think that each of us could EVER write such a thing!! But on Sunday, January 5th, and then again on Sunday, the 19th, Ohev will be hosting a sofer (scribe) who will be completing the writing of a Torah Scroll. And each of us can dedicate one or more letters, appoint the sofer to be our emissary, and thereby “write” a part of a scroll. I know it’s not the same as ACTUALLY writing it, but it’s pretty close, it fulfills the commandment, and with a scroll as precious as this particular one, I think you’ll agree that a professional really NEEDS to be doing all the writing!

You see, this is our Lostice Scroll, rescued from a small Czechoslovakian town and thus avoiding Nazi destruction during World War Two. The scroll itself is at least 150 years old, possibly 200 or more. It has been on permanent loan to Ohev for 40 years, and for four decades our community has yearned to make it kosher again, because the damage it sustained 70 years ago made it unusable in services. And who knows when it had last been cleaned or had letters corrected back in Lostice?! So the work we are about to complete now, in January, 2020, thanks to the incredible generosity of Phyllis and Alan Schapire, is likely a century in the making. Much like our Centennial.

I know I sound like an infomercial when I say this, but this kind of opportunity doesn’t come around very often! This is perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime deal!! You may not be holding the quill or putting the ink directly onto the parchment, but you would 100% be participating in a phenomenal mitzvah! It is Commandment #613, an ancient charge handed down l’Dor va-Dor, from generation to generation, for millennia. This is a scroll that was rescued from the horrors of the Holocaust, and is one of the last fragments of a community whose legacy is now our responsibilty to carry on. And the symbolism of rededicating such an invaluable piece of Judaica on this, our Centennial, seems to me like the most perfect embodiment of past, present, and future, of legacy and heritage, holiness and spirituality, and a chance to be part of something eternal and enduring.

And all this could be yours, for the low-low price of… :-) You’re not gonna want to miss this one, folks. I guarantee it.


Rabbi Gerber

Friday, January 10, 2020

Va-Yechi: A Grandfather, A Gabbai, and a Music Man

If you've been reading this blog for a while, or indeed if you're familiar with our congregation, Ohev Shalom, you know that every other year we put on a musical performance. I've written about Fiddler on the Roof,
the Wizard of Oz, and have referred to our Ohev Players troupe on numerous occasions. In just three, short weeks (yikes!), we will be performing The Music Man, and so I wanted to write and share some thoughts I've had about the themes in the show. But I'll start that next week. For now, I would like to focus on something more over-arching about staging musicals, and something that relates both to our parashah this week, AND to a special service we're holding on Saturday morning.

Ritual is important. So is tradition. Not *so* essential, in my opinion, that rituals and traditions can NEVER be broken, or that deviations from the norm should be treated like cardinal sins! But they help us create the structure and guidelines for society, our own lives, and even, sometimes, for our mental health. I venture to say
this is, in part, because we are communal creatures; we are social by nature and organize into groups on instinct. When I watch the Ohev Players' productions take shape, I always marvel at how critically important it is to have volunteers at EVERY level of the endeavor. Performers, directors, producers, choreographers, and music directors, sure! But also people to handle costumes, to design, build, and draw sets, to cover ticket sales, program books, and concessions, manage advertising, to pull the curtain and handle all things stage-crew-related. I mean, when you stop and think about it, it's really unbelievable! And each role has its own rituals and traditions that govern how IT functions, and how it fits into the larger whole.

Our Torah portion this week, Va-Yechi, concludes the Book of Genesis. And we see Jacob preparing for his death, but first wanting to bless Joseph's sons (and his own grandsons), Menashe and Ephraim. The Torah puts forth the choreography for this moment, in chapter 48, verses 5-22, and we are led to believe there is a correct and incorrect way to handle this moment. But Jacob intentionally deviates from the tradition, and blesses the younger son before the
older! And on one level, I marvel at this moment too. Because the Torah has built and built to this scene, with everything that led Joseph to Egypt, and then the family to follow him down there. So many people and forces and drama and super-natural phenomena went into this rising crescendo... only to have Jacob break from the norm at the very last second. And the Torah WANTS it to be so, wants us to see the pattern and the ritual that was... and to highlight those moments in life when we need to veer sharply off to one side or the other, and make a stark, but necessary change.

This Shabbat, we are celebrating the "stage crew" of our synagogue services. Nothing functions on a Saturday morning without the care and commitment put in by our Gabbaim. Part usher, part greeter, part sexton, part prayer leader, and part Levitical priest; the people who volunteer to be Gabbaim enable everything to run smoothly. They give out honors throughout the service, they oversee the Torah reading, and they make sure congregational norms and practices are adhered to...
but with a smile and a gentle demeanor. This Saturday morning, I would like to thank all our Gabbaim for their phenomenal service, and then also discuss and unpack some of our rituals, so that new people may perhaps feel empowered to themselves serve as Gabbai in the future. If you're even a tiny smidge interested, please come! To me, each of these three examples highlights how everyone has a role. There is a part for every individual in a family, a system, or a musical production. But it is also essential to remember that one's small(er) part in the whole does not preclude a person from individual thinking, critical analysis, feedback, or even from occasionally upending the status quo to demonstrate something valuable. What are the rituals in *your* life? What helps create order, structure, and habit for you... and when (if ever) have you broken out of that routine for a (potentially) greater purpose? It's time to examine these things, and to challenge yourself to take an active role AND to sometimes push back against it when necessary. Oh, and it's also time to buy your Music Man tickets! See you on stage!!

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Renee Grant on Facebook
3. Mosaic Panel in Ohev Shalom's Main Sanctuary - Ephraim
4. Mosaic Panel in Ohev Shalom's Main Sanctuary - Menashe
5. Mnavon on Wikipedia

Friday, December 20, 2019

Va-Yeishev: Feeling a Little Unsettled

Earlier this week, at a synagogue board meeting, I gave a brief D'var Torah about this week's Torah portion. I observed to the board members that a major "character" in our Torah portion, more central and crucial than we often realize, is the very land
itself. Like his ancestors before him, Jacob attempts to settle in Canaan, and put down some roots. So much so, in fact, that the name of the parashah, "Va-Yeishev" *means* "And he was settled" (Gen. 37:1). But the Torah sure does love its irony, and the entire portion is about anything BUT being rooted, stable, comfortable, or settled. Not only is Jacob's "favorite" son, Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers, who then deceive Jacob by telling him Joseph has been killed by a wild animal! But their very lives are threatened by a devastating famine, forcing them to seek food elsewhere. Remaining "settled" in Canaan is no longer a viable option. Food insecurity was a vital concern back then, and it still is to this day.

I would even go so far as to say that we ignore the role of the land itself in our Biblical stories at our own peril. God repeatedly
threatens us, saying that if we do not care for the land - abusing it or the other inhabitants with whom we share it - the land will "vomit" us back out! (E.g. Leviticus 18:28) God doesn't like to mince words. Time and again, our texts emphasize famines, floods, fires, plagues, and various other instances where the land - and our stewardship of it - are of PARAMOUNT importance. One of the things that's crucial, yet painful, to realize, is that the responsibility is on national governments, local municipalities AND every individual person alive today. There are big-scale problems that need addressing, and there are small-scale ones. When you start to think about this issue at length, you see hints and warning flags all around.

Even the Jewish holiday that is about to begin, contains an environmental message hidden within it. We don't often think of Chanukah as focusing on sustainability.
Yet, when you look past the military victory, the dreidel-spinning, the latkes-eating, the candle-lighting, and the Temple-rededicating - it is, in fact, right there! Our ancestors were certain they *needed* a certain amount of oil. Keeping the Menorah lit without it was simply impossible. Nevertheless, somehow, miraculously, the small jug of oil lasted long enough for new oil to arrive. So maybe we all need to reassess this notion of "need." Can we make do with less? Can we put less food on our plates, use less water to clean our dishes and our bodies, and extract less resources from our earth to fuel our civilizations? You don't notice it at first, but when you shift your perspective to notice this aspect of the Chanukah message, it seems plain as (organic, home-made, vegan...) pie.

To add one more layer to this conversation, I was reminded of a (rare) positive headline in the news lately, namely that Greta Thunberg was named Time Magazine's Person of the Year. In my mind, this story brings all these narratives together. She has become a household name,
and a role model to so many of us, because of the climate crisis we are currently in. Like Jacob's story, land - and our stewardship of it - is a central part of the issue; it fundamentally reshaped the world millennia ago, and it is changing our lives just as much today. In Genesis, Joseph becomes the young, upstart, unlikely hero, who gains fame by speaking truth to power. Generations later, Judah Maccabee is the young, upstart, unlikely hero, who also becomes a hero for battling greater forces and winning against all odds. Today, I venture to say that Greta Thunberg embodies that same spirit. She should inspire all of us to realize that WE can be change-makers. Anyone can make a difference, and the responsibility to try and do so is EVERYONE'S! As you light your Menorah, remember all these stories. And as we look ahead to the start of a New Year, let us all be fueled by their messages, and inspired to affect change for ourselves, our community, our country, and our world. Don't get too comfy; we've got work to do.

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Michael Levine-Clark on Flickr
2. Ebrahim on Wikimedia Commons
3. Mariamichelle on
4. Streetsblog Denver on Flickr

Friday, December 13, 2019

Va-Yishlach: Seeing You Again is Like...

I want to invite you to ponder something with me. The Bible is full of expressions - much like we have in society and in regular speech today. Sometimes they make total sense, even millennia later, and sometimes they don't.
There are no correct or incorrect answers here. I would even argue, the question of what something means, or sometimes HOW something means, is not even meant to be answered at all... but really pondered. So, our ancestor Jacob makes a statement in our parashah, and I want to share with you what previous generations of rabbis posited about his intent, and what I think he might have meant... but before we do any of that, I want you to just consider what YOU believe Jacob was trying to say. Again, no "right" or "wrong" answers here. Jacob says to his brother, Esau: "... accept this gift from me, for to see your face is like seeing the face of God, and you have received me favorably." (Gen. 33:10) What does he mean?

Ready to read on? Ok, but first promise me that you thought about it for yourself first!! I'm trusting you... Fine, then let's continue. The context of Jacob's statement is that he's meeting Esau again, for the first time, after 20 years! And last they met,
Esau swore to kill his brother for stealing his birthright and their father's primary blessing. But immediately upon reconnecting, Esau kisses his brother, embraces him, and seems to have forgiven everything. The rabbis, however, aren't so certain, which I think also reflects a suspicion and wariness on Jacob's part, hinted at in the text itself. Rashi, one of the all-time great commentators, suggests that Jacob slips in a reference to God, to inform Esau that just before they met up, he wrestled with an angel (in Genesis 32)... and won! Says Rashi: "In order that he (Esau) should be afraid of him saying, 'He has seen angels and nevertheless escaped safely! Now, certainly, I shall be unable to overcome him.'" I'm guessing that's not where you, in your own interpretation, went with it, is it??

Another later medieval commentator, Sforno, connects our text to a passage in Exodus (23:15), where the Israelites are told not to appear before God empty-handed. Naturally, says Sforno, when you're granted
an audience with someone important, you bring a gift! So Jacob is flattering his brother, treating him like a big Muckety-Muck, or even (nearly) as significant as God! I loved reading these commentaries (and others)... because that's not what I saw in the text AT ALL. I thought that Jacob - perhaps earnestly, perhaps for sentimental effect - was saying that after twenty years apart, seeing you again is nothing short of miraculous. E.g. "I no sooner expected to see God's Face than I did yours, and it has just filled me with such tremendous joy and contentment to see you again; please accept this gift." But I certainly could be wrong, as could Rashi and Sforno... I just don't think any of this is about being "right" to begin with.

No, instead, I think the point is to imagine ourselves in this story, as one of the characters, perhaps, or even as a bystander, but one who can perceive the emotions and tensions that are passing back and forth. Is Jacob sincerely elated
to see Esau... or is he being courteous, yet vigilant? And what might it mean to see the Face of God - or perhaps more pertinent to both this story AND to our own lives, what do we mean when we use an expression like, "seeing you is like seeing the Face of God"? I don't think it's meant so much as a theological or existential question, but rather a relational and emotional one. I always enjoy seeing what our ancient and medieval ancestors saw going on in the text, and then juxtaposing it with our perspectives. They are often so vastly different, which is sometimes surprising... and frequently terrific! I like it so much, in fact, that you might even say it's like.... (insert expression here).

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Jespa on Wikimedia Commons
3. Joint Base Andrews
4. Ben Pollard on Flickr

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

L'Chaim (newsletter) article - December, 2019: Merry… Everything!

They don’t line up every year, but once in a while it happens: The Clash of the Titans! At the end of this month, the two “biggest” holidays on the Jewish and Christian calendar will fall at the same time - Chanukah begins on Sunday night, December 22nd, and two days later, it’s Christmas Eve. Not only that, but Chanukah ends on December 30th, one day before New Year’s Eve, so this year we’re “battling” a major secular (Gregorian) holiday as well! War of the Winter-festivals indeed…

It feels like this sometimes, doesn’t it? Like some people imagine our holidays are pitted against one another, somehow in conflict because they fall at the same time. Jews will often roll their eyes and point out that Chanukah isn’t our #1 holiday; it isn’t even in the top tier! Ironically, religious Christians will roll their eyes right back at us, and point out that Easter is actually a much more significant holiday to them as well. So much for the Duke-Out in December…

But I think what bothers me even more than feeling misunderstood, more than having to explain year after year that Chanukah is NOT a focal point of the Hebrew calendar, is the unfortunate idea of the two “clashing.” I know that for some interfaith families, celebrating both CAN present additional challenges… but luckily Chanukah is eight days long, so you don’t necessarily HAVE TO observe both on the same day. Or - heaven forbid - what if an interfaith family brought a Menorah to Christmas dinner, and lit candles and sang the blessings AT THE SAME OCCASION?!?!

My point is, even though the High Holidays (our ACTUAL main observances…) are far behind us, I hope we can all hold onto a notion I shared, namely being “Jewish and…” We are not in conflict; no one needs to “win,” because there’s no real dispute. I much prefer the image of a children’s birthday party: When we explain to children (or adults) about Christmas and Chanukah (and Diwali, and Kwanzaa, and…), we can describe it like attending someone else’s birthday party. We all sing, don’t we? We wear party hats (if that’s still a thing), give presents, and send birthday cards. I can celebrate, even though it’s not MY birthday! No one imagines that attending someone else’s milestone celebration undermines one’s own!! So why might we feel so besieged by our neighbors throwing (essentially)  a serious birthday bash?

“Jewish and” can sometimes be difficult. Our gut instinct tells us to defend and protect, to not give an inch! But practicing “Jewish and” might instead yield a stronger self-confidence in our own traditions. An ability to say “Merry Christmas” to someone, without worrying they might think you are therefore a co-celebrant, or that your holiday doesn’t matter. Ultimately, we are not in battle at all. We’re all just slightly-chilled homo sapiens, spreading some light and warmth at a particularly dark and cold time of the year. We just use different imagery to do so, and we sing slightly different songs. Oh, and the party favors look pretty different too!


Rabbi Gerber

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