Thursday, October 29, 2009

Lech Lecha: Faith As Dialogue

One of the central values in any religion is faith. Personally, I don't think faith should be limited to religion, because you really do need a great deal of faith regarding science, politics, or economics, but not everyone would agree with me on that. Religion, however, is constantly forcing us to practice, question, and wrestle with our faith.

In our Torah portion this week, we see one of the quintessential models in this regard, our patriarch Abraham. Now you might say that Abraham is our quintessential believer because when God tells him to "Go forth" he does it. And later on, at 100 years of age, he will circumcise himself (yikes!) at God's command. And even later on, he will nearly sacrifice his son, Isaac, because God instructs him to do so. Whether we agree with his all of his actions, he certainly is a man of faith!

Well, I'm not so sure. I don't mean to question Abraham's willingness to follow God, but I DO question the way we view Abraham. It comes down to a basic question, what do we look for in a role model? Do we want a flawless person, nearly God-like in their perfection and unquestionable morals? Or do we want somehow who struggles as we do, but who ultimately makes the right choice? I'll let you stew on that one for a second...

God does in deed instruct Abraham to "Lech Lecha," "Go forth." And Abraham does pack up his belongings and his household and set out on a journey with an undisclosed destination. Soon enough, he does arrive in Canaan, and he settles there. But just a few verses later, a famine strikes the land, and Abraham leaves! He packs up his things and skedaddles! He heads for Egypt, where there is food. Where's his faith now?? Why doesn't he trust God to provide for him?

But this is my whole point. This is the model we are looking for. First of all, it's hard to constantly trust in God, sometimes our confidence falters. Abraham tries to maintain his reliance on God, but he's scared for his family. How will he provide for them in times of trouble? Today, many of us struggle with the same difficult questions.

Even more important, however, is that religion may focus on the issue of faith, but it is not blind faith. I believe wholeheartedly that God expects us to be engaged partners in the world. God starts Abraham off on his journey, but the road was never meant to be easy. Abraham cannot expect to show up in Canaan and find a banquet set out before him every day. If we want the land to flow with milk and honey, we have to start raising some cows and cultivating some bees! Abraham knows this, and so when famine besets the land, he leaves (temporarily, of course), and takes control of his own destiny.

Abraham is a wonderful role model for us. But to me, his greatness lies in his questioning and his partnering with God. Only when we have faced tests in our lives and struggled to find our way can we truly proclaim that we have faith. That is the example set for us by Abraham, and that is the true teaching of religion.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Noah: Withstanding the Flood

If you've studied the Torah portion Noach, which deals with Noah and the flood, there's a good chance you've come across the big question of how righteous Noah really was. The reason for the discussion comes at the start of this week's parasha, where it says "Noach Ish Tzaddik, Tamim Haya Be-dorotav" - "Noah was a righteous man; he was blameless in his generation." So why does the Torah tell us he was blameless in his generation? Would he not have been a righteous person in a different generation?

The Etz Chayim Torah commentary states the question as follows, "is [this] a true compliment or qualified praise"? Is the Torah trying to tell us that in a time of complete corruption and debauchery, Noah was as good as it gets? In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is Noah? OR, are we praising him to the skies, that with so much lawlessness around him, Noah remained honest and continued to walk with God. Anyone could be righteous living in a time of peace, tranquility, and affluence! But only someone as amazing as Noah could keep it going even while surrounded by crooks and criminals.

In writing this post, I actually discovered something I'd never seen before in this line. There are two parts to the statement! "Noah was a righteous man... he was blameless in his generation." This age-old debate might be as simply resolved as to say that the second half of the verse is only further demonstrating his righteousness. Noah was a good person, AND he took no part in the evil that surrounded him.

But if you were to demand of me that I take sides in the debate (which wouldn't be very nice of you, I don't like being bullied!), I would have to say that I see it as a true compliment, and NOT qualified praise. Noah was surrounded by total corruption and chaos! It's amazing to me that he was able to maintain any sense of dignity and honesty, and how can we chastise him and say he should have done more?? Could most of us survive in a society of evil and still remain good? Could we challenge the ubiquitous status quo and remain faithful to God and to our own sense of morality?

The story of Noah teaches us that we cannot hide behind peer pressure, or the prevalent attitudes of society around us. We all know of examples of heroism, where individuals went with their gut feelings, their internal compasses which told them what was right and wrong, and who did not bow to the will of the corrupt majority. May we all find such inner strength, and become righteous people in our own, and in any generation.

Shabbat Shalom!

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Bereishit: A Very Good Place to Start

God is portrayed in many different ways throughout the Bible. Sometimes God is jealous, other times vengeful, loving, judgmental, parental, or regal. I imagine that these different images mirror who we are, and how we ourselves relate to God. But throughout it all, God is portrayed as omnipotent - all powerful and in control. Or maybe not...

Why does it take God six days to create the world? Might one not think that if it's God, who is able to do anything, that the world could be created in an instant; fully functional and flawless? Why the slow, gradual approach to creation (that is, of course, if you accept that creating the sun, the moon, and all the stars in one day is slow and gradual)?

And even after God employs this incremental strategy, the result STILL isn't perfect! Next week we'll read about the story of Noah, and how God was displeased with the world, and decided to start over again after the Great Flood. Does this really mean that God made a mistake, that God is fallible?

Before we descend into a theological crisis here, I'd like to digress for a moment. More than teaching us about the nature of God, I think the Bible teaches us about humanity, and how WE imagine God, how WE imagine creation. And therefore, the story of creation teaches us patience and trial & error. Even God created one thing at a time, made sure that it worked, and then moved on to the next stage. We too should learn to not expect to accomplish too much at once, and not be impatient with progress or development. We have to allow things to move along gradually, and sometimes even accept failure, as well as the need to start over again from square one.

When we allow ourselves to let go of the infallibility of the Torah and the flawlessness of our perception of God, we approach the texts of our Tradition with greater integrity, honesty, and with our eyes wide open. The Torah is teaching us about life! Let us embrace its lessons and shed our preconceived notions and expectations. Today we begin with the first page of the Torah, so let's set off on our journey with a fresh start.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Simchat Torah: Why You Should Be Dancing

As I'm sitting here writing this blog post, it is mid-afternoon on Wednesday, October 7th, 2009. What was I doing on October 7th, 2008? Probably getting ready for my Yom Kippur sermons, since Kol Nidre was October 8th! But I also remember that the full extent of the financial crisis hadn't hit yet, we did not yet know who would be the next President of the United States, certain people in my life were still alive, others not yet born, and I hadn't even heard of Ohev Shalom in Wallingford, PA! What a difference a year makes...

Judaism tries to give us many opportunities to reflect on the passage of time. We need these constant reminders because we're so bad at doing it on our own! Most of us just let time pass without giving it much thought, and in the meantime life quickly flies by. If we appreciated the little things in life more, if we savored precious moments with loved ones and the truly joyous occasions that come and go, we might live our entire lives with more happiness and thankfulness.

So why am I talking about this right now? Simchat Torah is one of those opportunities to reflect on the passage of time. We are concluding the reading of the Torah, the Five Books of Moses, and we are immediately restarting with the first chapter of Genesis. We complete the entire cycle every year, but it is still a major achievement to get through the entire Torah, and so we celebrate. We take out all the Torah scrolls from the ark and we dance around the sanctuary. We invite everyone to receive an aliyah, an honor to the Torah, and we even give an honor to all the children who are not yet Bar Mitzvah age. It is a wonderful celebration of the Torah, of our relationship with our heritage, and with God.

But we also celebrate our community. We acknowledge that we are still here; that we are a vibrant congregation with a rich history, full of members who have spent their entire lives in the same shul. We celebrate for those who are no longer with us, for those who have not yet arrived, and for everyone who has ever been a part of our community. Who knows where we will be in 2010? When we get back to Simchat Torah in a year's time, who will still be here? And where will the world be? With concerns about Afghanistan, a nuclear Iran, and the ever-present conflict with the Palestinians, we cannot help but speculate where the Jewish community, Israel, and the world will be a year from now. We hope and pray that we will all be in a better place than where we are today.

We have so much to be thankful for, yet so much to pray for that lies ahead. I encourage us all to take this opportunity to stop and reflect. Look around you and tell your friends and family how much they mean to you. Enjoy every moment, give thanks to God, and then come and dance at Simchat Torah services!

Chag Sameach!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

A Sukkah Transformation

We talked a lot over the High Holidays about boiling down our holidays to their essential messages. What is Rosh Hashanah all about? What is the main theme of Yom Kippur? Sometimes in the shuffle of the holiday season, between praying, fasting, singing, discussing, and eating, it can be hard to find time to really reflect on what this whole High Holiday thing is all about.

But what about Sukkot? Is there more to this holiday than just setting up a canvas-walled booth, decorating it with plastic fruit and drawings the kids made 10 years ago, and sitting in it? Sure, we're reminding ourselves of the Exodus from Egypt, when the Israelites lived in these huts (though probably without the plastic fruit...), but what else can we take away from this holiday?

I would like to reflect on a commonality between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, and I think this might help answer the question. Yom Kippur teaches us a little about human frailty, and how we start to get weak, sluggish, irritable, and cranky after only missing one or two meals! Fasting shows us how dependent we are on food and drink, and gives us a brief moment to realize how vulnerable we really are. This should hopefully also compel us to feel compassion for those who truly lack food, and who feel that hunger all the time. How can we hold onto our experiences at Yom Kippur and become better, more caring and socially aware people in the year to come?

Similarly, I think Sukkot teaches us about human frailty as well. We are meant to eat, sleep, and live outside in rickety huts for eight days, to remind us of the Israelites in the desert. But it also forces us to confront our own dependence on heat, the almighty coffee maker, and a soft bed. One week without these creature comforts and we're a mess. Most of us only venture out into the Sukkah for a couple of meals during Sukkot, too scared to get too close to our own vulnerability. And again, this should challenge us to reach out to those less fortunate, who spend their whole lives in Sukkot, and who lack the amenities we cannot imagine our lives without.

The main purpose of the holidays is indeed to affect an internal change, but one that will force us to look outside ourselves and seek to improve the world around us. Yom Kippur may have ended, but the holidays go on, and so do the messages we are meant to take with us. This season, how can we let ourselves be transformed, so that we will become better people, and so that others will benefit from our transformation as well.

Chag Sameach!