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

Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Blog Hiatus

Dear friends,
I am going to be on leave for the next few weeks, and will therefore not be writing my usual blog posts. Some of you already know this, but others may not; my wife is due to give birth - please God - sometime in the next week or two. My plan is to be on paternity leave for five weeks, though I may check in here once or twice with a photo, if I'm not too exhausted! I hope you'll rejoin me on the blog upon my return, probably sometime in mid-to-late-August. Take care, have a wonderful summer, and I'll see you back here soon.

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Gerber  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Beha'alotecha: Go Away... but Stay!

The Israelites are angry. This week, we continue reading about their travels through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. You might have thought that the pervasive mood in the desert would be joy, considering the slavery they left behind in Egypt. Perhaps we'd even settle for "Wow, it's hot out here!"
But no, throughout most of the stories we read about the ancient Israelites and their Exodus, they're mostly just mad. The bulk of that ire is directed at Moses and God, and it slowly begins to dawn on us, the readers, that the people simply don't want to be here. It wasn't actually their choice to leave. They begged God for relief from slavery, sure, but mass-emigration? No way! Sometimes when we're really upset, we say hurtful things, just to make others feel as bad as we do. In this case, the Israelites say the most painful and mean-spirited thing they can think of to God. And it really does hurt.

It actually boils down to just one word. In chapter 11 of the Book of Numbers, the people have had it. They are tired, hungry, frustrated, and perhaps most of all, hungry. The desert is miserable. And then, they snap: "The Israelites wept and said, 'If only we had meat to eat!
We remember the fish that we used to eat - free! - in Egypt; the cucumbers, melons, leek, onion, and garlic! Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at.'" (11:4-6) And I get it. It's rough terrain, and they weren't prepared for it. I can even accept that Egypt was (apparently) the Garden State of ancient empires; filled with glorious farmers' markets as far as the eye could see! But the real insult is the word chinam, "free." Can you imagine how utterly insulting it was for God and Moses to hear the Israelites depict Egypt as the place of freedom, juxtaposed with the SLAVERY of the desert?!?

This entire enterprise was all about rescuing the Israelites from bondage, from centuries of oppression. Yet already the people seem to have forgotten the whips, beatings, and back-breaking labor, and instead they describe Egypt as a summer camp cookout!
Needless to say, both God and Moses react with frustration, disappointment, and chastisement. But I actually want to pause the action for a second, and perhaps flip our understanding of what's going on. Change is hard. And breaking self-destructive habits can be BEYOND difficult; it can be excruciating. And our Torah portion reminds us that family, friends, mentors, and all those around us suffer along with us. We all experience this in life. From more mundane examples like training a rebellious toddler or living with a disgruntled and entitled teenager, to more extreme examples like helping someone overcome an addiction, leave an abusive relationship, or mourn a painful loss. We often reject change. We actively fight against it, and sometimes we even lash out at anyone and everyone nearby... even if they are standing so close because they are trying to help.

The Torah understands, this is painful for everyone. Heck, even GOD hits a breaking point with these defiant Israelites!! Family and friends have the power to heal us and talk us down off ledges. But they can also hurt us in ways much deeper than total strangers. And yet, we still need
to stand in that breach. The most important thing that God and Moses do is... stay. That, to me, is actually the lesson of our parashah. When done right, relationships make us vulnerable. We let people into our inner lives, and allow them to see our insecurities and idiosyncrasies. It can be really scary. But that also makes the bonds stronger, which we may need in times of trouble and sadness. The Israelites say hurtful things, because they themselves are hurting. We have to stick with them - like Moses and God do - because they're going to rebel a bunch more times before we're done reading the Torah. Instead of turning our backs or throwing our hands up, let's practice staying. It will make us feel closer to them in the long run, and will transform their story into ours. That's how relationships are formed, and that's how they endure. Stay, and you'll see what I mean.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Stas1995 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of North Market on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Raz.sofer12 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 17, 2016

Naso: "Bless you!" "Who said that?"

I think it's safe to say that a lot of people struggle with the notion of God, and if/how that God plays a role in their lives. I would even
venture to say that many of you, reading this blog post right now, would include yourselves in that category. Is there a God? How do we know? And does God care about us, interact with us, bless us? Or perhaps curse us? We know so little, and are left feeling incredibly far from any relationship with a Divine Presence. But let's talk about this for a minute. Can we quiet down all the "noise" conveyed by others on this topic; all the "should's" and the "truths" peddled by talking heads on TV? Let's even remove the personal, named, famed Deity from this conversation as well. What, then, is left?

Actually, quite a lot. Surprisingly. This topic is often dominated by questions about who or what is God. But honestly, if you instead boil it down to human emotions guiding these questions, what we're really asking is, "How can I feel
more safe?" "How can I feel less alone, and more like my life has meaning, purpose, love, compassion, and relationship?" For some people, "God" is enough of an answer, and for others "God" is at least part of the solution. But for a lot of people, God is NOT helpful. But you're still looking for answers to those questions, aren't you? You still want to feel safe and loved, cared for and in relationship with others?

Our Torah portion this week is Naso, and it includes a very famous blessing known as the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26). The ancient High Priest, Aaron, blesses the entire Israelite nation with a three-fold blessing that focuses on God's Face blessing you, shining upon you, and granting you peace. That very same blessing - now
4,000 years old (or so) - is used throughout Jewish tradition, even today. So yeah, it's a big deal. And yet, the language uses a lot of God-talk, and also anthropomorphizes God (describes in human characteristics) in a way that alienates a fair amount of people. I'll remind you again; let's put aside the theological debate. Cover your ears from the droning of religious fundamentalist. What are YOU looking for? And can those desires/hopes/wishes be expressed as blessings? Because the language of blessing can be really powerful, even without using God-language. We can express gratitude for all life's gifts, even if our thanksgiving isn't directional. We are all, every one of us, still obligated to express thanks and humility for our blessings - and not take anything for granted or feel entitled - regardless of whether you are religious.

I don't believe the power of the Priestly Benediction lies in using the Name of Adonai. Lots of blessings invoke a Higher Power. The Priestly Benediction is still used, millenia later, because each generation of Jews used it to praise the next; communities offered it to welcome new babies; parents employed it to bless and protect their children; rabbis spoke it to sanctify marriages, etc., etc.
Blessings can be very powerful. And if God helps you feel that blessing even more palpably, great! However, if you don't, and invoking God leaves you feeling nothing (at best) or angry (at worst) then by all means take God out of the picture. Just know that it doesn't absolve you of feeling grateful for what you have in life, or release you from the obligation to help others and generally make the world a better place. We should all LIVE the Priestly Benediction; blessing one another and BEING a blessing in the lives of those around us. It's a 4,000-year old chain. Why break it now?

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of A. Potter on Pinterest
2. CC image courtesy of Gran on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Patrick Lentz on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image from my nephew, Simon's bris.

Friday, June 10, 2016

B'Midbar: The Meaning of, and in, a Flag

"I love it when a plan comes together!" I'm stealing this line from the old 80's TV show, The A-Team, because it just applies so well this week. Not only were we able to successfully complete our giant mosaic art project in the Main Sanctuary
of the shul just in time for our annual Congregational Meeting, but it also dovetails beautifully with this week's Torah portion. And the parashah connection was quite unintentional. To sum it up briefly, for anyone who SOMEHOW managed to miss the last two years at Ohev Shalom; the community worked with an incredible artist, Heather Bryson, to create large mosaics, depicting the banner flags of each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (along with two additional panels). Incredibly, the choice of image for each panel came straight out of the Torah, this week's parashah in fact! Well, sort of.

As always, nothing is ever simple with the Torah. Jacob had twelve sons, right? And they seamlessly turned into the twelve tribes, correct? Nope, not so fast. That would be all TOO easy. One son never actually
became an "official" tribe, and another one received a double portion, for each of his two sons. So when we chose to make renditions of our ancient ancestors, we had to decide whether to portray the twelve children of Jacob OR the twelve tribes of Israel... because several panels would be different. Furthermore, this week's Torah portion does indeed tell us that each tribe had a flag. We read: "The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the flags of their ancestral house" (Numbers, 2:2). The problem is, the Torah never tells us what color or symbol was actually ON each flag. Again, much too easy for the likes of our Torah...

Instead, we look to rabbinic sources - written hundreds, if not thousands of years after the fact - to help us determine (or perhaps imagine?) what really happened.
In B'Midbar Rabbah, a rabbinic work that was possibly written as "recently" as the 12th Century, the tribal colors and symbols are enumerated. But again, that work was written nearly 2,500 years after the supposed Exodus took place, so how reliable a source is it really??? Even if it's quoting a rabbinic tradition that was 500 or even 1,000 years old, it's still pretty far removed from those ancient desert wanderings. Which is why, by the way, you can travel around the world and see a plethora of interpretations of what the tribal flags actually looked like... and no two depictions are exactly the same. Now, you might say: "The Torah is a pretty wordy book. It's not especially terse. Why didn't it just pause for 12 verses and describe each of these flags and save us A LOT of trouble?!?" A fair question indeed.

Earlier this week, my colleague here at Ohev, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, used a technical term from the world of pedagogy, which actually answers your query perfectly. She referred to "a provocation to constructivist play," and that, my friends, is EXACTLY what the Torah is doing.
"Constructivist play" means essentially learning through personal discovery and exploration. The Torah is provoking us to make meaning of the text. It doesn't want to GIVE you the meaning, it wants you to create your own meaning. And indeed, our new mosaic panels truly reflect our congregation and this specific moment in time, just as much as they do the ancient Children of Israel about whom we read in the Bible. So no, the Torah never makes it too easy for us, and most often challenges us to form our own opinions. And yes, that can be pretty frustrating sometimes. But it can also lead to some amazing interpretations, and every once in a while, it can also produce some pretty breathtaking artwork.

Photos in this blogpost taken by Rabbi Gerber, showing the conclusion of our Children of Israel Collection.
1) Seven panels on the left side of the Sanctuary
2) Seven panels on the right
3) Plaque showing the dedications of each panel
4) Plaque in memory of Charlotte Snyder, who made this project possible