Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Shanah Tovah - A Message for the New Year

Greetings, friends.

I will not be writing a specific blog post for the High Holidays, though in the next couple of weeks I WILL be posting my High Holiday sermons. So keep on the lookout for those. In the meantime, I wanted to take a moment and wish you all a:

Image result for shanah tovah

So much has changed since last Rosh Hashanah; the world almost looks entirely different. And just in the last few weeks, we've felt the awesome power of nature in the form of hurricanes, storm surges, and earthquakes. We do not know what the year ahead will bring, but we pray fervently for peace, harmony, tranquility, courage, unity, strength, acceptance, and all good things. We cannot predict the future, but we can fortify ourselves for its inevitable challenges, and open ourselves up to its joys, blessings, and opportunities. Let us each work on ourselves a little bit more, and strive to love those around us with a bit more honesty, vulnerability, humility, and gratitude. 

Image result for ‫שנה טובה שופר‬‎

May it truly be a Shanah Tovah u'Metukah, a Happy, Healthy, Sweet, and Blessed New Year. 

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Jeremy Gerber

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Hiding Underneath the Diamonds

I love it when the Torah is cryptic. Most of the time, it just seems like any other book, especially if/when we focus on the English translation. But occasionally
we are given little hints and clues that it really is an ancient book, filled with mysterious, strange, and obscure details that are trying to tell us... something? This weekend, as we conduct the Selichot service on Saturday evening to officially begin the High Holiday season, and as we make final preparations for Rosh Hashanah, and as we also contemplate the many challenges we're facing around the world and in our country; one of those enigmatic little cryptic messages has leapt out at me. It's almost imperceptible, yet vitally important. At first glance, it is literally hidden between the lines of our text, yet upon further examination, we realize it's actually shouting a message at us that we simply can't ignore. I certainly won't.

Sometimes the mysteries can be found in odd word choices or peculiar phrases. Syntax errors and seeming grammar mistakes are actually messages with hidden meanings. Well, at least we can choose to read them that way.
And other times, the secrets are not concealed in meaning, but in the written text itself. For instance, a particular letter is written larger than the others around it, and every time new scrolls are commissioned, scribes know to print that unique letter in that special way. Tradition tells us it MUST be enlarged. Elsewhere in the Torah, a letter may be smaller than the "normal text," while another letter has an intentional crack in it. And believe it or not, ALL scrolls have these same "flaws." One of my favorite examples is a set of little diamonds. In just a handful of places throughout the entire Torah scroll, tradition tells us that a specific sequence of letters are to be written with tiny, black rhombuses added above them. Why? Your guess is as good as mine.

We don't KNOW, with any certainty, why they are there. They just are. But one thing is for sure, we (rabbis, mainly) use this opportunity to zero in on these letters and/or words and offer interpretations. Hey, it's what rabbis do best! I am, of course, mentioning all this now because this week's Torah portion offers a particularly
poignant example. In Deuteronomy, 29:28, the Torah tells us: "The secret things (?) belong to Adonai our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law." In that verse, the words "to us and to our children" - "Lanu ul'Vaneinu" - have diamonds over each letter... in EVERY Torah scroll around the world. Of course, we may also ask ourselves, what the heck is the text talking about here??? A fair question. I'll offer you my interpretation: Society can only govern behavior that is seen and known, or (if initially hidden) that ultimately comes to light. But we KNOW there's more going on behind closed doors or whispered off-camera. The Torah is saying that we are STILL responsible for those actions, and will eventually be held accountable. If, say, you pledge a donation but never make good on it, you might think no one will find out. But God will know... and there is reckoning to be had, even if it has to wait until we reach The Other Side.

But as ominous as that part sounds, I'm actually more concerned about the second half of the sentence; the rhombus-ed part. Why are these words, "us and our children" singled out? We can't control the secret "stuff" that happens. But we - and
according to the text, our children (and children's children, and so on) - are responsible for everything else. We must govern justly, and we must speak up against immoral behavior. God is "only" in charge of the unseen; we simply MUST take responsibility for ourselves and one another in our society. The text even puts an extra exclamation point on this lesson, with glistening (sort of) diamonds to make us pay attention! As we enter the holiday season, and sit surrounded by Jews and fellow congregants in the hundreds, we need to recognize the power we have as a community. We need to see ourselves as obligated to care for our neighbors and indeed our entire world, because NO ONE ELSE is going to do it for us. And there's no better time than the present. We need to step up, and we need to set for ourselves a gold standard. Or maybe it's a diamond-standard?

Shanah Tovah u'Metukah - I wish you all a Happy, Healthy, (Revealed), and Sweet New Year!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Mizunoryu on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Lokal Profil on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of Deut. 29:28 (Blue arrow indicates where the "diamonds" begin)
4. CC image courtesy of Wiktor Brodzki on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, September 8, 2017

Ki Tavo: God. And You?

Let's spend a little time talking about God. One of the things that I, as a rabbi, hear most often is that we don't talk about God enough in Judaism. Or at least not
in the Conservative Movement. Sure, we pray to God all the time. But do we TALK about God? Or perhaps the question should really be, vulnerably- and intimately-speaking, do we talk about our own, personal, unique, relationships with God? With the High Holidays around the corner, and with some seemingly conflicting God-references in our Torah portion, it seemed to me like the perfect time to chat about the Creator of the Universe. So let's start with an interesting question: Where is God?

Our parashah, Ki Tavo, knows the answer. It begins by instructing the Israelites that, when they enter the Holy Land (in the very near future), they are going to have
to bring sacrifices to God. The text tells us: "you shall take some of every first fruit of the soil... put it in a basket, and go to the place where God has chosen to cause God's Name to dwell" (Deut. 26:2). What does that second half of the verse even mean? God's Name is a "thing"? It has its own address? The Torah seems to be saying that God doesn't live there - in the Temple - it's "just" the place where God's Name resides. But then later in this same section, we are told that the priest puts the basket "in front of the altar of Adonai, your God." (v. 4) And soon after, the text adds, "You shall leave it (the offering) before Adonai, your God,  and bow low before Adonai, your God." (v. 10) So is God in the Temple or not?!?

To confuse us further, our parashah adds, just a few verses later, that the Israelite worshiper should add this blessing: "Look down from Your holy abode, from heaven, and bless Your people Israel..." (v. 15)
So God is IN the Temple, but not in the Temple, also in heaven, and only God's Name dwells in the Temple, but God is everywhere. Good, I'm glad we cleared that up. I guess one thing that may be comforting about these mixed messages is that our ancient ancestors were as ambivalent about God as many of us are today. Sometimes we feel God's close, intimate presence... and sometimes God is as far away as can be; if we even feel that God exists at all. Our High Holiday liturgy (also arriving in the very near future...) reflects this tension, when we first sing "Ki Anu Amecha, v'Atah Eloheinu" - "You are our God and we are Your people," which exuberantly lauds our close bond with Adonai! Then, on the very next page, we beat our chest and declare we have sinned and are far, far removed from the Divine. Back and forth we go, in an endless roller-coaster ride of emotions.

I began by asking about the personal relationships we each have - or don't have - with God, and I want to come back to that. What complicates this so much is that it's deeply personal and hard to change. If you feel God's Presence in your life,
you just do! And if you don't, it's incredibly hard, I would even say impossible, for anyone else to persuade you, or to somehow prove something incontrovertible about God. But I would also say that faith can be like any other muscle in our body. If you don't exercise it, you almost don't even know it's there. So have you tried flexing your faith muscles lately? Have you asked yourself these challenges belief questions, and opened yourself up to the possibility that you COULD have a relationship with God? In our parashah, we get lost in all the location-confusion, but at its core, our text is about gratitude. We are thankful to be alive, to be in good health, and to have sustenance for which we can be SO appreciative. And sometimes our utterance of "thanks" can be directional - TO God - and sometimes it's just expressed out loud, to no one in particular. As you prepare for this High Holiday season, try a little light stretching of a "muscle" you might not have used in a while. Is there room in there to talk about God, and maybe even to say a prayer or two? I guess we won't know until you try. It's time to start warming up...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Stebbes87 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Gila Brand on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Boris23 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Sumita Roy Dutta on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, September 1, 2017

Ki Teitzei: We Can't Sweep It Under the Carpet...

It isn't, but it sure feels like this week's Torah portion is the story of Noah and the Biblical Flood. The utter destruction and devastation of Hurricane Harvey seems to exceed the predictions and fears of nearly everyone. It's been called a "one-in-one-thousand-year flood event." And I recently heard one Texas-politician say that he
didn't want to describe Harvey as being of "Biblical" proportions... so instead he just called it "apocalyptic." I feel like I'M reeling from this horrible disaster, and I don't really have a personal connection to Houston; I cannot imagine what people there are experiencing, or what it will look like to piece their lives back together. Thinking back once more to Noah and his deluge, it always seemed so fictional, so other-worldly... yet here we are, with a real-life example of something almost Biblical in its magnitude. For the people who lived - and will continue to live - through it, I'm sure it feels every bit as annihilating as if they were watching from inside an Ark, as their communities were demolished by rain and wind. But our parashah is not Noah. So what messages might we glean from this week's reading, in the wake of Hurricane Harvey?

I want to offer one message, but it's a tough one to hear. I found myself reading Ki Teitzei, our Torah portion, with an eye towards Harvey, and as a result, I noticed something I haven't really reflected on before.
We read a long series of laws that specifically deal with community relations, and with interpersonal behavior that helps govern society. As you can imagine, the Torah also offers some extreme examples, where actions are so egregious that their penalty is death. The part I hadn't previously stopped to consider is how the Torah repeats a particular phrase almost every time the verdict is execution for a member of the Israelite community. Whether it's a stubborn and rebellious child, an adulterer, or an idolater, the punishment is public stoning, and the text follows up the issuance of each decree with the phrase: "Thus you shall purge the evil from your midst." In our Torah portion alone, this phrase is repeated FIVE times (Deut. 21:21, 22:21, 22:22, 22:24, and 24:7)! And it's employed many other times throughout Deuteronomy as well. So what do we make of this phrase, and what's it got to do with Harvey?

The word that really stuck with me is the Hebrew "bi'arta," which may mean "to purge" or "to sweep away." The Hebrew root is the word "burn," but it also yields
words like annihilate, exterminate, destroy... you get the picture. As I write this, there are indeed fires and explosions plaguing Houston, while flood waters continue to punish the coast; "sweeping" away homes, cars, and, heart-breakingly, people's entire lives. But they - the people - are not evil. I want to be REALLY clear about that. We cannot accept the notion of Hurricane Harvey as punishment, just as we refused to see Hurricanes Katrina or Sandy as retribution for bad behavior. But there IS an evil here, and there IS a lesson that we MUST learn from this type of devastation. Our Torah portion presents many, many different laws, and we may fundamentally disagree with their execution (literally...) of those laws, but the over-arching message is: We are interdependent. We need to take care of one another, and we need to work hard to protect our societies and our countries, because complacency and callousness leads to disaster... for EVERYONE!

In the case of Hurricane Harvey, the "evil" we must recognize is the betrayal of our environment, on two levels: 1) We ignore climate change warnings to our own detriment. How can we say that Harvey is an anomaly - that comes once a millenium - when it's the THIRD (at least) major natural disaster in just over a
decade??? How many more calamities like this must we endure before we acknowledge that it's the new normal, and that WE have caused these things to happen?? And 2) This might sound strange, but we must heed a warning from Joni Mitchell's old song "Big Yellow Taxi": "They paved paradise to put up a parking lot." I truly don't mean that in a flippant way. Parking lots, strip malls, convention centers, and the constant growth of Houston meant that flood water had nowhere to go! Marshland and swamps are nature's way of absorbing rainwater, and when we encase the earth in a hard shell, the water just sloshes around looking for somewhere to go. And the biggest curse of them all comes when we don't learn from past mistakes. Let us not repeat and repeat the same errors, refusing to see the underlying problems that got us here.

We pray fervently for the safety of our sisters and brothers in Texas and Louisiana, and we send our support to help them rebuild and grow stronger. But also, we send prayers of wisdom and thoughtfulness, urging them to demand more care and consideration from their leaders and developers. It is scary to say, but we, all of us, are being swept away; purged off our land for ignoring these concerns. Let's not keep repeating and repeating these mistakes... at our own peril.

To read a beautiful prayer, to help us take stock in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, please click here to read the writings of my colleague, Menachem Creditor. I've also posted the prayer on this blog, you can read it here.

To make a contribution to Hurricane Harvey relief, click here, or contribute to any number of (reputable, established, safe, honest) charities and organizations that seek to help at this most trying time. Thank you!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of European Space Agency on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of John Fielding on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Agence Rol on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Victorgrigas on Wikimedia Commons
5. CC image courtesy of Rocket000 on Wikimedia Commons
6. CC image courtesy of CFCF on Wikimedia Commons

A Prayer During and in the Aftermath of a Devastating Storm (by Rabbi Menachem Creditor)

for all those affected by Hurricane Harvey 
by Menachem Creditor, Congregation Netivot Shalom, Berkeley, CA

Elohei haRuchot, God of the Winds,[1]

Fixated as we are by incalculable losses in our families, our neighbors, human beings spanning national borders, we are pummeled into shock, barely even able to call out to You.

We are, as ever, called to share bread with the hungry, to take those who suffer into our homes, to clothe the naked, to not ignore our sisters and brothers.[2] Many more of our brothers and sisters are hungry, homeless, cold, and vulnerable today than were just a few days ago, and we need Your Help.

We pray from the depths of our souls and we pray with the toil of our bodies for healing in the face of devastation. We join our voices in prayer to the prayers of others around the world and cry out for safety. We look to the sacred wells of human resilience and compassion and ask You for even more strength and hope.

God, open our hearts to generously support those determined to undo this chaos.

God, be with us as we utilize every network at our disposal to support each other. Be with First Responders engaged in the work of rescue as they cradle lives new and old, sheltering our souls and bodies from the storm. Be with us and be with them, God.

Be with those awaiting news from loved ones, reeling from water and wind that have crippled cities, decimated villages, and taken lives. Be with all of us, God.

Be with us God, comfort us, and support us as we rebuild that which has been lost.

May all this be Your will.

[1] Numbers 27:16 [2] adapted from Isaiah 58:6-7

Friday, August 25, 2017

Shoftim: Owning Your Own Season of Repentance

Well, we're back here again. The Jewish month of Elul began this week, which means we're officially in the Season of Repentance, which will lead us straight into Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur in a few, short weeks.
Much as I find this season intimidating (and I do...), I also like that we begin the preparations for these MAJOR services a few weeks early, and start thinking about the holiday themes before the big day is actually upon us. One of the central things that Elul invites us to do is to stop, look around, and think about where we're going and how we feel about it. Are you pleased with the trajectory of your own life, and/or are there changes that can - and should - be made? Looking further around, how is your community doing? And your country? And if you've got some concerns, what does that mean to you, and what happens next? All of that is wrapped up in Elul, so I thought it might be a good time to spend a few minutes talking about these issues.

Our Torah portion, Shoftim, has a couple of interesting opinions on the subject, and one in particular comes from a slightly new reading of a verse that I thought I'd already understood fully. I had not. But first, let me begin at the start of the Torah portion.
The very first verse tells us: "Shoftim v'Shotrim Titein Lecha b'chol Sha'areicha." "You shall appoint magistrates and officials FOR YOURSELVES in all your gates" (Deut. 16:18). I put "for yourselves" in all caps for a reason. It is true that the community needs leaders, and every community and country has a process for how those leaders come to power. But the verse could easily have just said "appoint them." But the word "lecha," "for yourself," which is actually stated in the singular, means that each person has to decide who s/he considers to be a leader. You may win an election, but you can't mandate that people will see you as a leader. Honor, respect, and trust are earned. You cannot threaten, cajole, or bully people into believing in you and wanting to follow your leadership style.

Which brings me to my re-reading of another verse. Soon after the parashah opens, we read a famous call to social justice: "Tzedek, tzedek tirdof," "Justice, Justice, you shall
pursue!" (16:20) I recently read a commentary on this line, which changed its meaning slightly. Instead of seeing the doubling of the word "justice (or righteousness)" as merely being a strengthening of its importance, we might see the second word as an adverb instead. This renders the quote as: "Justice you shall pursue righteously." In other words, the ends do not justify the means. You can't pursue justice in an unjust manner. You have to use righteous, compassionate, kind, and thoughtful tools in your pursuit of justice. You can't raise pitchforks, shields, and torches, and threaten violence, and believe that these can be wielded as tools of "tzedek." It doesn't work that way. The means need to mirror the end; the methods need to be just as moral and empathetic as your intended goal.

All of this circles back to the month of Elul. Each of us needs to choose "for ourselves" the kind of leaders, methods, and community structures that we want to see in the world. We need to hold ourselves AND our magistrates & officials to a higher standard,
and we need to expect more of all of them. It also can't be all talk. We can't shout "Justice, Justice!!" and not employ just and ethical tactics in bringing those values into being. So take this time to start to ask yourself (and others) some tough questions. You still have a whole month before Rosh Hashanah (thank God!). But it comes faster than you'd think... With the start of a new year looming around the corner, how will you seek to make change and embody the values that you uphold? No one else can make these changes FOR you. You have to select them "Lecha," "for yourself." And consider holding up verse 20 as a mantra for Elul, in BOTH its meanings: We should double our efforts to seek peace and justice, AND we must do so in a righteous and compassionate way. Let the Season of Repentance begin!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Gilabrand on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Alaney2k on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Boris Orel on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Martin Kozak on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 18, 2017

R'eih: Helping to Bend the Arc of the Moral Universe Just A Little Bit

We should be able to expect progress. When we look back at the lengthy span of human history - and realize that our species has evolved from primates to ancient discoverers of fire, nomadic shepherds to primitive civilizations, feudal societies to modern cities - I think it's fair to hope, and even expect, that things would improve.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, quoting Theodore Parker, a 19th Century Unitarian Minister: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Let's face it: We've had a really rough week. The violence in Charlottesville was still reverberating in our minds when yet another terrorist used a van to attack innocent people in Barcelona. Right now, that arc is feeling longer than ever, and it doesn't feel like it's bending towards justice as much as we desperately need it to. And yet, our Torah portion tells us we have a choice.

Parashat R'eih begins with Moses declaring to the Israelites: "See, I set before you this day blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai, your God, that I command you today, and curse, if you do not obey the commandments..." (Deut. 11:26-28)
God isn't going to FORCE us to make good decisions. If any of you out there are parents, you know what I'm talking about. You can teach your children, you can encourage them to make good choices, and you can even punish them when they make bad ones. But at the end of the day, you cannot MAKE them behave a certain way, and neither can God. But God isn't even interested in TRYING to compel us! I believe God truly wants us to figure this out for ourselves, and learn from the consequences and repercussions of both the good AND the bad decisions we make. Right now, we are all watching how terrorists - domestic and international - feel brazenly emboldened to spread fear and hate. In the absence of clear condemnation and the firm drawing of lines in the sand, violence persists. But we SHOULD be able to expect something else.

Just a few verses later in our Torah portion, Moses reminds the Israelites of an important change that is coming: "[When you enter the land] you shall not act at all as we now act here, every individual as s/he pleases, since you have not yet reached the resting place and the inheritance that Adonai, your God, is giving you." (12:8-9)
Standards changed. Once they entered the land, they had to abide by new rules. And later in our history, Temple sacrifice ended and synagogues took over. The world changed too! Slavery ended, suffrage happened, and civil rights were enacted. As the arc of human history keeps bending, the stakes get higher and we must emphatically insist: You can't keep acting in these old ways. We all have a choice, sure. And we believe wholeheartedly in the freedom of speech. Some people will continue to choose curses, and pick hatred and violence over love and peace. But the rest of us need to keep insisting on society evolving; the arc must continue to bend.

So now that same choice is placed before all of us. Right now, at this moment, we are each staring at a crossroads; with blessing on one side and curse on the other. Standing still is not an option. The Israelites couldn't remain in the desert, and we don't get to wait on the sidelines any longer.
Not when there are tiki torches and rental vans being wielded as weapons to try and force us into silence and terror. I can't tell you what that choice looks like for you. But one thing I'll say is that we should all refuse to accept the new normal, where excuses are made for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members. This is NOT normal, and we must REFUSE to go back to a time when it was. It may feel like progress is slowing down right now, at this moment in our history. But never forget that our history is long, and it WILL keep bending in the right direction. And as it continues to do so, we all need to make sure we're on the right side of history... and maybe help the arc bend just a little bit.

On a related note, I offered an invocation at an Interfaith service last week, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville. Click here, if you'd like to read my invocation. Thanks!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of Antoine Bourdelle's "Herakles the Archer," courtesy of PierreSelim oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of T at English Wikipedia on Wikimedia Commons