Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rosh Hashanah: In This New Year...

May you all have a Happy and Healthy New Year!

A year filled with joy, laughter, adventure, and many great photo albums on Picasa or Kodak Gallery filled with wonderful memories and experiences!

But also a year of insight, self-exploration, knowledge, and journeys to understand ourselves, and those around us, a whole lot better.

A year of peace, safety, security, and tranquility; for ourselves, our communities, and the countries we care about.

A year of stability, success, smart decisions, and increased confidence - as well as pride - in our bank accounts, our economy, and in each other.

A year of closeness. A year of spirituality and feeling that we are not alone. A year of prayer and activism for the people, causes, and things that matter.

A lot to hope for in just one year. But "just one year" is also enough time to get a lot started. I can't make promises about where we'll wind up, I don't know how this will end. But right now, we have a chance to decide how it begins. Look back at the list above. Anything else you'd like to add? Well let's get started!

CC image courtesy of Atli Harðarson on Flickr

Monday, December 20, 2010

Shemot: A Big Gift to Carry Around with You

Do you have a family tree? Is your family like mine, with that one relative who's REALLY into genealogy, who loves to figure out which famous people you're related to? What is our fascination with family trees anyway? With plotting ourselves on a big map of extended, distant, often-deceased relatives? I'm sure there are lots of possible explanations, but this week I would like to suggest that it has to do with context. We like realizing that each one of us has a place on a historic timeline, with a great ancestry laid out behind us, and endless possibilities unfolding before us.

Right now, we are beginning the Exodus anew. Our Torah portion is the start of the Book of Exodus, and we are once again introduced to Moses, Pharaoh, those kvetchy Israelites, and the wonders that occurred in the land of Egypt. Every year at the Passover Seder table, we tell ourselves that each Jew is obligated to view him or herself as if s/he was actually redeemed from Egypt. But most of us (thank God) have no idea what it means to be a slave. Most of us have never experienced Divine plagues, and most of us probably have never even been to Egypt! So how do we identify with the ancient Israelites? By seeing our lives in a context, and by realizing that we are links in a chain extending back to the stories we're reading about this week in the Bible.

Everyday life, however, isn't lived with a sense of context, with historical perspective. It generally involves things like taking kids to school, buying sushi for lunch (mmm, sushi...), and DVR-ing your favorite show to watch at some later date. Life is filled with mundane activities, and rarely do we reflect on our family trees or our connection to Biblical slaves. Yet if we could find some time - once a day, once a week, or even once a month or year - to live with perspective, it would truly elevate all of our experiences.

The central message of Jewish history is: Be kind to the stranger, the oppressed, and the underdog; because you yourselves were slaves in Egypt. And every, single Jewish educator since Moses has been trying to teach us to internalize that message. Life is about being good to others, and the Jewish proof of that statement is the Exodus.

In the American Jewish World Service's weekly Torah commentary, Rachel Travis wrote this week, "We learn from the Exodus story that freedom is not an end in and of itself but a gift that must lead to action." Freedom is indeed a gift. But I would also add that the Exodus story is itself a gift to us. It reminds us that there is more to life than our everyday experiences; that we are part of a greater context. The real question is, if you could incorporate these ideas, this family tree, into your everyday life, what would that look like? Something to think about, as we enter the season of New Year's resolutions...

Shabbat Shalom!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Thomas Duchnicki on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of joshuapaquin on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of oskay on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of danagraves on Flickr

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Va-Yechi: A Wise (and Melodic) Use of Our Time

We don't sing enough. Raise an eyebrow or roll your eyes at me if you wish, but the fact remains; in our everyday lives we simply don't spend enough time singing. Now I don't necessarily mean Mary Poppins-type theatrical singing while sweeping chimneys. Nor do I mean joining something like Improv Everywhere's spontaneous musicals (if you aren't familiar with their work, you should be. Watch this: I just think our lives aren't filled with enough joy, gratitude, and happiness, specifically expressed through song. And I definitely know that we don't spend enough of our time blessing one another. Which may, perhaps, seem like a very random comment, but not so much, in fact, if you are familiar with this week's Torah portion.

When I was a student at Columbia University, a large number of Jewish
students would gather on Saturday evenings for prayer, some food (obviously), and to sing Shabbat songs. It was a wonderful experience for me, and I learned some terrific tunes there that I often wish I had more opportunities to sing. One of those comes from this week's Torah portion. It is a beautiful piece of poetry, uttered by Jacob when blessing his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. The text itself is very powerful, and combined with a lovely Shabbat melody it becomes truly unforgettable. If you're interested, you can hear everyone's favorite Yeshiva University a capella group, the Maccabeats (of "Candlelight" fame), singing their version:

The words are: "The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who

has been my shepherd from my birth to this day - the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm - bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth" (Gen. 48:15-16). It is a beautiful blessing of protection, hope, connection to history, and closeness to God. I don't know if Jacob conjured up this blessing on a moment's notice, and I don't know if he actually sang it to his progeny, though I'd like to think that he did. What I do know is that it's heartfelt, it's touching, and it's inspiring.

I think it is a stirring reminder that we should bless each other more often. We should bless our children, our parents, our siblings, our friends, and yes, even our pets. We cannot take anything for granted in life. For someone who's family members were too close for comfort in the recent suicide attack in Stockholm, Sweden, I am more aware of this now than I would like to be. Life is tremendously precious. Why waste it being stressed out, angry, frustrated, tired, bored, or irritated. Value the people around you, cherish the time you have with them, and make sure they know it! And if the mood strikes you, why not even sing about it once in a while?

Shabbat Shalom!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Loren Javier on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Jorbasa on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of wrestlingentropy on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of greeblie on Flickr

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Va-Yigash: Feeling Called to Action... With Some Healthy Hesitation

One of the most uncomfortable, yet true, sayings is, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." It's uncomfortable, because we would like to think that if our heart is in the right place, and our motivation for trying to do something is correct, then how could we do more harm than good? It is, however, also a true saying, because regardless of the purity of our objectives, sometimes things simply don't work out the way we planned.

Right now in our Torah reading cycle, we are very busy cheering on Joseph, our hero. He rose from ashes to authority in record time; he got revenge on his wicked brothers for selling him into slavery; and except for Pharaoh himself, Joseph is basically running the show throughout all of Egypt. Because we're so busy celebrating, we often "forget" to read about how Joseph actually went about his business. Sadly, when we read this week's Torah portion, we discover that Joseph used a devastating famine as a

tool for bringing the entire Ancient Near East into subservience to Pharaoh! The Torah lays out Joseph's multi-stage plan, and then concludes by informing us that, "Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh" (Gen. 47:20). Obviously, Joseph's original motivation was only to help Pharaoh, the man who had saved him from prison, and to help his own family survive and prosper. But somewhere along the way, things just took an ugly turn.

This past week, Israel suffered another punishing disaster, though instead of famine it was fire. And once again, in the aftermath of the catastrophe, we discover that the best of intentions still don't guarantee a positive outcome. This week, Rabbi Richard Hammerman wrote a letter in the New Jersey Jewish News, entitled "Burning Questions," where he challenges many of our assumptions about tree-planting in Israel. Rabbi Hammerman asks, "In recent years, has the Jewish National Fund lost site of their primary mission: being stewards of Israel’s trees and guardians of its forests? Has their work in creating roads, infrastructure, building community centers, and other projects diverted funds necessary to assure that the forests and the land of Israel be preserved for future generations?" Later on, Rabbi Hammerman also poses the

challenging question: "Should Tu B’Shevat, as Israel’s Chief Forester has now suggested, be turned into a day to uproot and thin out and properly space trees to prevent future tragedies rather than plant again and compound the errors of the past?" There is no question that JNF always had the best of intentions for replanting Israel's forests. Nevertheless, more is not always better, and in this case we must seriously rethink strategies before launching back in and making the same mistakes once again.

At the same time, fear of blundering should not cripple us into inaction. Like Joseph, we need to seize the moment and try to affect positive change on a difficult situation. But we must also implement a better system of checks and balances, and when we donate money to the relief effort, we need to be responsible and invested donors, who make sure our money is being used to help, and not harm, the situation. Our gut reaction may be to donate immediately, with no hesitation. I encourage you, however, to instead consider doing just a little bit more research, both in this case and in every instance where we feel called to action. Make sure that your money represents you well, and that the end-result does justice to those noble intentions which spurred you on in the first place.

Here are a few great organizations helping the relief effort (...but please read about them before contributing!):

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of PaysImaginaire on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Diana Parkhouse on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Sputnik Mania on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Neubie on Flickr

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chanukah: Bringing Real Light Into the World

Obviously, since we are celebrating Chanukah this week, that would be a logical topic for me to write about here. The only problem is that I've had something else on my mind for a while now, so I'm just going to use Chanukah to springboard into my main topic. Perhaps I shouldn't have admitted that to you up front, but you're smart people. You would have figured it out pretty quickly.

The main plot line of Chanukah is the victory of the

Hasmoneans (a Jewish family led by Judah Maccabee) over the Greek-Syrian Seleucid dynasty around 167 BCE. The Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, had turned our Holy Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan shrine to Zeus, and he demanded that pigs be sacrificed there. The Hasmoneans refused. They believed that you have to stand up for what you believe in, and fight for your principles and your values. Oppression cannot be tolerated, and if we have the ability to do something about it, we must act on it. There simply is no alternative.

This week, as we celebrate our Festival of Lights, I would like to reflect on another fight being waged in this country: The struggle for equality of all LGBT Americans, especially teenagers and young people. Ever since Rutgers' freshman, Tyler Clemente's suicide in September, this issue has been on my mind. This past week, I saw Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert interviewing Dan Savage, who created a website called The interview emphasized the importance of support and openness, values which are also central to the current debate surrounding the Pentagon report about repealing "Don't ask, don't tell."

It also made me think about the level of sensitivity in our community. Do we make sure that

everyone feels included and welcome, accepted and not scrutinized? What are we doing to project this message, to make it obvious before anyone has to ask? We proudly display Chanukiot in the windows of our homes so that everyone will know we are Jewish, but do we also display symbols of tolerance and inclusion? I worry that we don't make it clear enough - both to children and adults - that it is a Jewish responsibility, a mitzvah in fact, to be open-minded and accepting. The Torah teaches us that all human beings are created "Be-Tzelem Elohim," "In the Image of God," and we are therefore obligated to treat each other with respect and dignity.

As winter approaches, most traditions and religions have a Festival of Lights. But light is also a symbol of knowledge and tolerance, the root of the word "enlightenment." Just as we light one candle on our Chanukiah, and use it to light all the others, so too we must pass our values from one person to another. I think I'm a tolerant person. I hope that you feel the same about yourself. But the real question we must each ask ourselves is, how do we show it to the people around us? What symbol will you display to show the world what you stand for, and how will you yourself become A Light Unto the Nations?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of AndrewEick on Flickr
2. clipart
3. CC image courtesy of _MissAgentCooper on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of PugnoM on Flickr
5.. CC image courtesy of iTux on Flickr

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Va-Yeishev: What Weave Learned From The Torah

Why does the Torah tell us these particular stories? Most of the time we simply read the Bible and discuss its sagas, but do we ever stop and ask ourselves if these tales come with a motive, a hidden agenda? And if so, who's agenda is it, and what are we meant to learn? We know some of the Torah's objectives - like belief in one God, and remembering the Exodus from Egypt - but when you dig a little deeper, there's so much more going on under the surface...

This week, we're beginning to learn about Joseph. He is the new hero in the Torah; carrying on the legacy of his forefathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The interesting thing is, he's not OUR ancestor. We cheer for him, sure, but we're not descended from Joseph, or his son's Ephraim and Menashe, so it's actually somewhat surprising that he's the protagonist... except for one thing: we're not the intended readers of these stories. In fact, we're living quite a few millenia after the first people who read this as their story. Even though this is never stated in the Torah, most scholars believe the Israelites living after the rule of King David and King Solomon were really the first ones to hear these tales. We also know that after Solomon's rule the kingdom split in half, with two rival countries; the northern kingdom of Israel (a.k.a. Ephraim, or Joseph) and the southern kingdom of Judah. And since both peoples were reading these stories, we find hidden rivalries embedded in the narrative of the Bible.

If you were living in the northern kingdom of Israel, you were probably thrilled that Joseph was the hero after his father, Jacob! At the same time, we also find hints inside the story of Joseph that allude to Judah's prominence, which would have been significant to Joe Shmo Israelite living in the southern kingdom. In the beginning of this week's reading, Judah is described as trying to dissuade the other brothers from killing Joseph. Later on, an entire chapter is devoted entirely to Judah, where he is depicted as forgiving, willing to admit fault, and a good and just leader. Even later in the Joseph story, we see Judah speaking on behalf of all his brothers, even though he was only the fourth-oldest. Joseph is certainly still the principal star of these stories, but someone was also making a strong push for Judah to win Best Supporting Actor.

The reality is, we don't know the true origin of these stories. We can't trace each story back to the start, and we certainly don't know how conflicting loyalties got intertwined into one, single narrative. What we really should learn from this realization is that the two WERE co-mingled, despite their differences. After King Solomon, the two nations were truly alienated from one another. There was no love lost between them, and they no longer felt like one people, with one shared heritage. It would seem, then, that the Torah was an attempt to bring the two sides closer together. It contains elements of each, interwoven into one story, with the ultimate goal of returning the people to a united cohort of Israelite tribes. The Torah itself reflects a desire to bring the Israelites back together. By its very existence, it proclaims unity, mutual understanding, and open dialogue.

Could you ever imagine a book today combining Democratic and Republican stories? Or Palestinian and Israeli stories? Are we, today, able to share our narrative, accept the narrative of The Other, and weave the two together into one story? If your answer to those questions is what I think it is, then I just have one more question: Why not?

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Va-Yishlach: I am Man, Hear Me Comment

Is there a difference between how men think and how women think? Can we make such a broad generalization? This question has been on my mind for a couple of weeks now, and I am finding that it colors how I read this week's Torah portion, and the direction I've chosen to take with my blog post. Whenever we read the Torah, we are also interpreting the text. There is no way of getting around it. We each have a generational bias, a religious bias, a cultural bias, a national bias... and we most certainly have a gender bias. This week, let's explore how our gender affects the way we understand our ancestor Jacob.

One of the most significant moments in Jacob's life comes when he is waiting to meet his brother after 20 years, and he is afraid that Esau is preparing for war. Jacob devises a plan to keep his camp safe, and he then finds himself alone at night, bracing himself for a clash with Esau. That night, the Torah tells us, "A man wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Gen. 32:25). What does this mean? Who is this man, and why are the two of them locked in battle? Along with these questions, I also find myself wondering, what does it mean to wrestle? And here is where gender takes us in two different directions.

Dr. Ellen Frankel, in her book, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah, asks, "what business do we women have doing hand-to-hand combat with supernatural beings? Could anything be more ridiculous than to imagine Leah or Rachel going to the mat with God?" This comment highlights two important ideas; both of which, I believe, reflect a feminine perspective. First, the question of whether fighting can resolve a conflict. In The Psychology of Men's Health, the authors tell us that, "the expression of rage if personal possessions or status is threatened, is seen not only as typically male, but in some situations encouraged and admired."

Men might be more likely to resort to physical violence rather than express emotion or address underlying fears or insecurities. I don't think most women would agree that a fight can truly solve a conflict, and thus they choose not to interpret Jacob's encounter as a purely physical one.

Which leads to the second issue, namely the real vs. metaphoric understanding of this story. Women might prefer to interpret it as metaphor, e.g. when Nechama Leibowitz says that the "man" is Esau's guardian angel, coming to attack Jacob's spirit. Men, on the other hand, are often quite comfortable with the idea that Jacob was actually fighting with someone. Rashi, in a comment on this story, tells us that, "such is the manner of two people who make strong efforts to throw

each other - one clasps the other and twines himself round him with his arms." And finally, in a new commentary called The Modern Men's Torah Commentary, Rabbi Peter Knobel writes, "when Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger who might be either angel or his brother... the supposedly unphysical Jacob demonstrates his physical strength. Jacob matures; he uses both his mind and his physical strength." Several female commentators understand the fight as a metaphor, which is why they accept that it leads to growth. Male commentators also see Jacob maturing, but do not find it strange that a physical fight could lead to maturity.

To me, it's simply fascinating to realize how much of ourselves we project onto whatever text we

are reading. We cannot help but use our own experiences, memories, and predispositions as a lens and a filter onto the world. This is not a bad thing, mind you. The only problem I see is when we pretend this isn't true, when we delude ourselves into thinking there's such a thing as impartiality. As long as we can be honest in our own commentary, and accept that we constantly insert ourselves into the world, this can be a great thing. We learn so much about the commentators who came before us when we see their writings as a biography of their lives.

How do you feel about my interpretations of Jacob's midnight mêlée? Do you agree or disagree, and would you prefer to talk it over or let your fists do the talking? Either way, and whether you want to or not, it might say more about you than you realize...

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Vayeitzei: How Could It Be Wrong, If It Worked For Jacob, Joseph, and Cliff Huxtable?

Throughout the Book of Genesis, the theme of family takes center stage. Not necessarily in a life-is-grand, they-all-lived-happily-ever-after, Cosby-family sort of way, but rather in a more troubled and complex form, much more similar to our own lives. Abraham had to navigate jealousy and rivalry between his two wives Sarah and Hagar, and Isaac had to contend with three family members scheming and plotting around him. We now move on to Jacob, who truly has the toughest time of all... but also has the most to teach us about family relations.

To begin with, Jacob meant to only
marry one woman, but somehow wound up with her (Rachel), her sister (Leah), her hand-maiden (Bilhah), and her sister's hand-maiden (Zilpah). Now here's where the "fun" really begins. For nearly a full chapter of the Torah, we never see any of the characters interact in a loving or even mundane way. All we hear about are struggles for Jacob's affection, and the birthing of children as pawns in a chess game. The wives even go so far as to name their children according to their emotions at that moment, starting with Leah's son, Reuven, meaning, "Now my husband will love me" (Gen. 29:32). Yikes!

Our Torah portion spans 20 years, and we hardly hear of any positive interactions between anyone; the wives don't speak to one another, the children don't speak to one another, and Jacob barely talks to any of them. Things aren't looking good for this rapidly expanding family, but then something changes. There is a moment when Jacob seems initially to be speaking at his

wives, perhaps delivering some sort of sermon, as he waxes poetic about his relationship to God. But as it turns out, he is asking them for advice. And not only do they tell him what to do, they speak in unison, which indicates that they might be getting along again. They are no longer talking past one another; they are communicating.

As the family saga progresses from here, we see that they hit major road blocks whenever they don't talk to one another. A generation later, Jacob's sons loathe their youngest brother, Joseph, and feel tremendous rage and jealousy towards him. The Torah tells us, "they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him" (Gen. 37:4). When they communicate, however, problems are resolved. We are constantly reminded throughout Genesis, and specifically in the lives of Jacob and his son Joseph, that silence leads to trouble and distrust, while open dialog resolves conflicts and strengthens bonds.

Isn't this true for us today as well? Our lives aren't much like the Cosby Show either, but practically every episode of every sitcom on TV starts out with someone telling a lie, getting in trouble, and gradually realizing that telling the truth solves all their problems. It's a good plotline, because it has made sense to audiences since the time of the Bible, and it still resonates with us today. Communication and open dialog are the first (and

sometimes only) tools that help us resolve the sticky situations we get ourselves into. Family dynamics are fraught with challenges; just ask our patriarchs and matriarchs! But the Torah also gives us the means to solve problems and see the blessings in our lives, we just have to be open to hearing that message. Are you?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Tol'dot: It takes two... and one of them is YOU!

"A great empire will be destroyed."

If you're a military leader about to head into battle, receiving such a prophecy could be terrific news! ...or it could be horrible. That was certainly the case for King Croesus of Lydia, who consulted the famous Oracle at Delphi about whether he'd be safe to wage war against Cyrus of Persia. He received this very prophecy, and decided to attack. Sure enough, a great nation DID fall... except it was his own! Pretty tricky, that Oracle.

So why am I bringing this up? Well, a teacher of mine, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond, recently made me

aware of a very similar delphic prophecy in this week's Torah portion which I had never noticed before. Our reading introduces us to the notorious sibling rivalry of Isaac's two sons, Jacob and Esau. Before they were even born, still in their mother's womb, the two of them battled it out. God declared to Rebecca, "Two separate peoples shall issue from your body; One people shall be mightier than the other, and the older shall serve the younger" (Gen. 25:23). Based on this proclamation, Rebecca favors her younger son, Jacob, and helps him "borrow" (I'm trying not to say "steal"...) his brother's intended blessing.

Rabbi Diamond points out, however, that the phrase, "The older shall serve the younger," is actually quite ambiguous. There is a Hebrew word, difficult to translate, which helps distinguish the subject from the object, and it is missing in this prophecy. If it had said, "Rav Ya'avod ET Ha-tzair," we would know for certain that the older was destined to serve his brother. But as is, it could be read, "The older, the younger shall serve." Hmm, like the Oracle, the Bible has a few tricks up its proverbial sleeve.

The lesson we learn here (besides a healthy distrust of oracles) is the importance of a

partnership between God and human beings; between destiny and action. Part of our fate is decided, but a significant part is left up to us. We make choices every moment of every day, and these affect the way our lives play out. God told Rebecca that one child would dominate the other, but she took charge of her own life, and the lives of her sons, and made that prophecy come true the way it made sense to her. We must do the same for ourselves.

We ask God for direction, not because God is in the driver seat, but because God provides the best GPS on the market! We still have to make the right choices in order to get from point A to point B. Prayer works the same way. Rabbi Diamond says, "When I ask God for wisdom I am not asking for God to miraculously transform me into a genius or a sage. I ask for the wisdom to see the ways in which God has already placed before me opportunities to become wiser, whether they lie within or around me."

How do you pray? What do you ask for in your prayers? If you've

asked God for a sign, or a message, I would still recommend exercising caution. You may get a response, but YOU are still going to have to figure out how to interpret that sign for yourself. Taking it at face value could wind up getting you in trouble. Just ask King Croesus...

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Chayei Sarah: A Scaaaary Conversation about Death

As we approach the end of October, the next major holiday that will soon be upon us is obviously... Halloween! I always find this a bizarre and fascinating time; when people decorate their lawns with fake tombstones, telephone poles are littered with accident-prone witches, and TV channels all show marathons of horror movies. It seems appropriate then that our Torah portion this week should also focus on death. Even though our parasha is called "The Life of Sarah," it actually contains the passing of Abraham, Sarah, and even Ishmael. So quite the morbid title, to be sure!

Halloween fascinates me, because I see it as secular society's attempt to process death. We make light of it - and hang ghosts on our porches - because it scares us; and humor is a way to drive away our fears. Everyone processes death differently, and Halloween suits some people quite well. Others find their own way of coming to terms with dying, often as they try to accept that it is a part of life. In the Bible, our ancestor Isaac truly seems to struggle with his own grief. Some commentators believe that ever since Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, nothing has been the same. The trauma of that event has marred all their lives. Aviva Zornberg, in her book The Beginning of Desire, writes, "there is, after all, a tragic residue of the Akedah [near-sacrifice] in Abraham's family."

Isaac, in particular, is covered in residue, and he is traumatized by the experience. After his mother's death, we never hear him speak in our Torah portion. Everything happens to him, he is never the doer or the actor. We can almost imagine him: consumed with grief and unable to

seek comfort from his father, since Abraham was the one who nearly sacrificed him on the altar. Even today, many people are crippled by grief, unable to find a way out of the void and the darkness left by the death of a loved one. We cannot free ourselves from our depression, we need someone to intervene.

The medieval commentator Rashi tells us that the word for comfort, "nechama," can be explained as "machshava acheret," "a different thought." We need to shift our focus away from our sadness, find something new and different to draw away our attention. In Isaac's case, he meets his eventual wife, Rebecca, and she brings him comfort.

We know that Isaac not only loved Rebecca, but was finally able to process the death of Sarah, because the Torah says, "Isaac then brought her into the tent of his mother, Sarah, and he took Rebecca as his wife. Isaac loved her, and thus found comfort after his mother's death" (Genesis 24:67).

Death is indeed a part of life. And as

such, there's nothing wrong with having a holiday that focuses on the occult, and caters to those people who love horror movies (weirdos...). Our Torah portion reminds us that death happens, and that many people find it hard to process loss. Our job, as a community, is to be there for one another, to not judge how other people choose to grieve, and to help those we care about move on with their lives once they have had time to mourn. Death is truly a mystery, and it is intriguing to see how people find different ways to cope with that great Unknown. I am glad that this season, and this week's reading, each give us an opportunity to reflect on death, and to acknowledge - uncomfortable as it may be - that death is always nearby.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Va-Yeira: Have You Asked Any Good Questions Today?

This week, I begin my blog with a shoutout to my new Confirmation class. On Wednesday we had our very first get-together, with a nice mix of 8th, 9th, and 10th graders. We began our evening eating pizza, discussing the woes of wearing braces, and comparing science teachers; and finished up with citing movie quotes, eating jelly beans (it was a very health-conscious evening...), and me lamenting all the new stains on my carpet.

Somewhere in between all of that excitement, we learned how to ask rabbinic questions: What can we learn from the Biblical stories? How do we understand them, when our own values keep changing and evolving? And what does the Bible have to say to me about my life? Using examples from politics, movies, literature, and junk mail, we explored the importance of asking questions. Right on queue, this week's Torah reading contains perhaps one of the most disturbing Biblical stories, and one that provokes a myriad of complicated, and sometimes unanswerable, questions.

In Genesis, chapter 22, God decides to "test" Abraham by asking him to take his beloved son, Isaac, and bring him to a place where he will "offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains" (22:2). Let's ignore for a moment the fact that Abraham and Sarah had been childless for literally 100 years, and that giving birth to Isaac was supposed to be the fulfillment of God's covenant to make Abraham a "great and populous nation" (Gen. 18:18). How could God ask this of Abraham? How could Abraham go through with it? Ultimately, the story ends with an angel stopping Abraham right before the fatal blow, but personally, this "happy ending" doesn't leave me feeling much better about the whole ordeal. Not in the slightest.

In every generation, Jews have questioned this story, and created midrashim, rabbinic stories, to try and make sense of what they were reading. But every generation has different questions. What confounded one rabbi in Egypt in the 1100's was not what bothered another rabbi in Lithuania in the 1600's, and probably isn't my main issue in Wallingford, PA in 2010. The stories themselves speak to us differently, based on the questions we pose. In fact, our questions will actually frame the

way we understand these stories! And as I told my Confirmation class, the same concept applies to political mud-sling... I mean, ad campaigns, and to information we learn in school, in newspapers, and in witty, well-written, yet humble, blogs.

The ability to ask questions is one of our greatest gifts as human beings. This is especially important when the Torah challenges us with stories that shatter our beliefs about theology, morality, and trust. You simply cannot read this story and accept it at face value. It demands to be challenged and refuted! It forces us to think about our own value systems, and to outline what religion should, and definitely should not, expect of us. Hm, it's almost as if the Torah planted this story to provoke a reaction... Makes you wonder - and question - doesn't it?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Lech Lecha: The Occasional Use of a Compass

Sometimes it's difficult to explain to people why I believe in God, and sometimes it gets a lot easier. After natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina or the earthquake in Haiti, or even man-made disasters like the Holocaust or 9/11, many people question the existence of God, or worse, they question whether God is good. I certainly understand why they might feel that way, but I often wish that I could point out to them more examples of God's righteousness intervening and improving the world. Enter the incredible story of the 33 Chilean miners.

Of course, you don't have to look at this story and see the Hand of God at work. You might instead say that human beings devised the tunnel that sent food, clothing, medicine, and other supplies
down to the trapped miners. Rather than praise God, you might prefer to challenge God, demanding to know why God would allow these men to be trapped 2,400 feet below ground for 69 days!! To me, however, this is an opportunity for us to feel God's Presence,
rather than once again pushing God away. God didn't trap those men inside the mine; other people chose to ignore the warning signs, and decided not to create a safe working environment for their employees. God doesn't force us to make good choices rather than stupid, greedy, unsafe ones. We, as human beings, have to take responsibility for the circumstances we create on this planet. And we have to force ourselves to care about the security and well-being of the people around us.

God, in turn, helps us out along the way. God gives us confidence,

support, encouragement, hope, and the energy to keep going. For some of us, it's the strength to keep working every day to provide for our families. For others, it's the hope and courage to survive for two and a half months trapped underground. How can we possibly imagine what these people endured? Yet somehow they persevered. They demonstrated how unbelievably strong individuals can be, and what a group of people working together can truly accomplish. And anyone who watched the scenes of families being reunited was filled with a sense of warmth, spirituality, and overwhelming joy. Seeing couples hug or parents kissing newborn children was pure life on display!

In services on Thursday morning, we decided to read Psalm 130 in honor of the rescued miners. The psalm begins, "A song of ascents. Out of the depths I call to you, Adonai. Adonai, hear my cry, heed my plea." I thought it expressed a fitting emotion for this occasion. People may have built the machines that drilled the holes, provided aid, and ultimately rescued those workers. But permeating all the work of human hands, all the love and support poured into TV monitors, and the letters sent down through "pigeon" tubes; that is where we find God.

Peter Hitchens, brother of famed atheist

Christopher Hitchens, recently said in an NPR interview that religion is like the magnetic north on a compass. Rather than relying entirely on our own sense of morality to guide our lives, sometimes we need a more objective measure - like a compass. I like that image. Most of us may not deal with compasses too often. We use GPS, or we just stay in the same places we know, and don't ever look for help with directions. But when we reach out to ask for help, and when we look to find our way, a compass can indeed help point out where we need to go. In Chile, I saw the compass in action, and I watched people following where it told them to go. And I was deeply, deeply moved.