Friday, July 23, 2010

Eikev: All You Need Is... (sing it with me!)

Ok, so every once in a while I reserve the right to get a little touchy-feely in my blog. I know, I know, you're wrinkling your eye brows at me and making a face, but I don't care! This week I'm going to write about love, because it's a pretty prevalent theme in our Torah portion. I figure, if the Torah can do it, so can I. This won't be as eloquent or captivating, obviously, but here goes.

Reading through the parasha this week, I was really struck by how love came up six different times; twice God loves us, and four times we are expected to love God in return. Moses is in the middle of delivering his speech to the people, and he reminds them of everything God has done for them - often undeserved, and frequently reciprocated with complaints, whining, and even rebellion. Yet Moses continues to implore the people to love God.

So I decided to delve a little deeper into this concept of "love." Love is a tremendously powerful emotion - as Hollywood surely reminds us on a regular basis - and it is particularly appropriate in this context. The thing is, love isn't about convenience. If you fall in love, you have no control over it, and you can't turn it on or off when you feel like it. Our relationship with God is a fact, whether we acknowledge it or not. And more importantly, it perseveres, no matter what happens. It endures despite our worshiping idols and God's allowing the Holocaust to occur. Love isn't about perfection either. We acknowledge that God doesn't always get it right, and we certainly hope that God accepts our flaws and idiosyncrasies. Love also doesn't mean never criticizing the other party; sometimes God needs to hear our anger, our frustration, and our disappointment, and God has a right to discipline and chastise us in return.

But isn't that what love means between people as well? Hollywood confuses us with Disney-fied myths about love, but really it means so much more. It's more complicated, more intricate, and much, much more beautiful. We express love even when we're upset, and just because the one we love has let us down, we don't walk away. We stay and we fight for love!

That is what Moses demands of us. Because we all know that it's worth it. Despite the complexity, the heartache, and the steep learning curves, love is always worth it. I hope that when you finish reading this blog post you'll remember this: There's no one way, or a right and a wrong way, to express that love. When we bless our children at Friday nightdinner, when we recite Kaddish for a loved one who has died, when we join one of the synagogue's Social Action projects to show the wider community that we care, or when we visit someone who is sick; these are all expressions of love. We each find the way that is the most meaningful to us, and regardless of what we decide, they are all so deeply meaningful to God.

I warned you it was going to be a bit sappier than usual. But I feelstrongly that we need to talk about love. It isn't expressed enough, and it isn't displayed enough. I hope we can all put aside our cynicism and self-consciousness for a little while, and truly hear what the Torah is trying to tell us: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might" (Deut. 6:5). Of course, how you choose to express all that love is entirely up to you!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Vaetchanan (Nachamu): Finding Your Shema

The Jewish calendar is a funny thing. Most of the time it seems to just run along, following its own internal logic, and unrelated to the secular calendar, world events, or anything else outside itself. Yet every once in a while, the Jewish calendar can surprise us, and things don't seem so random and disconnected after all.

This week we're reading the Torah portion Vaetchanan, and it's also Shabbat Nachamu. "Nachamu" means "comfort," and it is always the first Shabbat after Tisha B'av, the day when we commemorate many major calamities throughout Jewish history. Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of Comfort, begins a series of seven weekends leading up to Rosh Hashanah, throughout which we read special texts relating to comfort and hope, building ourselves up after Tisha B'av and preparing for the beginning of the New Year.

Shabbat Nachamu always coincides with Vaetchanan, and clearly there's something very appropriate about reading this text on this special weekend.

Vaetchanan contains both the recitation of the Ten Commandments and the Shema. These are two of our most major texts; one outlines the most important mitzvot in the Bible, and the other declares our central creed as Jews. On this Shabbat where we seek comfort, where we are picking ourselves up after having revisited thousands of years of Jewish tragedy, we also proclaim the essence of Judaism.

With everything going on in Israel right now, I think we are all in need of a little comfort. We all could use some re-examination, and a return to focusing on our core values. It may not be that the Shema gets your heart racing, or the Ten Commandments fill you with awe, but they do remind us of something essential: What do we stand for? What is the central principle, or principles, that make life worth living? We each need to figure that out for ourselves, and for our communities, because that is what gives us comfort and strength. That is what will lift us up and urge us forward.

So I ask you this weekend, on Shabbat Nachamu, to answer this question
for yourself: What is my Shema? What is the guiding principle that I return back to, that helps me understand who I am and what I believe in? We've got seven weeks to prepare for the start of the new year, and I think answering that question will be a big step in the right direction in preparing for the start of the New Year.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Devarim: When Words Must Be More Than Words

Last week I wrote on the blog about the power of words, and how the things we say can cause damage and pain if we aren't careful. Sometimes, however, we would like our words to carry weight and power, but instead they seem empty and meaningless. If we don't follow up our words with action and resolve, they become as pointless as if they were never spoken at all.

Right now we are beginning the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. In Hebrew, the

title of the book is "Devarim," which translates to "words." It's a logical title for the book, because it primarily consists of Moses speaking to the people; offering his final soliloquy before he dies. It's basically one long monologue, and I submit to you that if the people had ignored what Moses had to say, if they didn't take his charge to heart, Deuteronomy would certainly have become empty words on a page. As a people, we could never have survived, and someone would one day dig up a copy of Deuteronomy and put it in a museum, as a last remnant of a long-since dead civilization.

But the Israelites did NOT ignore Moses' advice. They turned his "Devarim" into the "Aseret Ha-Dibrot," the "Ten Commandments." The two words come from the same root, and indeed the Ten Commandments are "just" words until we put them into action. Instead of dying out, Judaism became a religion of doing, a people of doers, who put the Torah at the center of their existence. And as a result, we have remained as a people for over 3,000 years.

In every generation we need to remind ourselves of these "words," because we are constantly facing new threats. Today is no different. Right now, we must raise our voices toward Israel, and turn our words into action by speaking up against injustices committed against non-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and subsequently throughout the world.

The Knesset is about to pass the Rotem bill, which further solidifies the Orthodox courts' monopoly on religion in Israel, by stating that all conversions fall under the authority of the Orthodox courts. Furthermore, this comes only months after a woman was attacked for wearing tefillin in Beer Sheva, and days after another woman was arrested for carrying a Torah near the Western Wall.

How can we tolerate these things? We must speak up. We must force the Israeli government to realize that many within the ultra-Orthodox community are vicious bullies who must be stopped. Our words can become as powerful as Commandments, if we act upon them. Please join this essential campaign, and make your voice heard as well. Here's how you can get involved:

- Click on the links in the text above to learn about the latest issues.
- Click here to sign a letter and send it to Prime Minister Netanyahu
- Join a conference call at 11 a.m. eastern time on Friday, July 16. Rabbi Steven Wernick will speak about ongoing developments. The call-in number is 712-432-0075 and the participant code is 558680. (Please note that this is a toll call, and standard long distance rates apply, but it's to western Iowa, not Israel.)

Thank you for your support!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Matot-Masei: How Could Sticks or Stones Ever Compare to That?

It may seem like a million years away to you, but for those of us doing a lot of the prep work, the High Holidays feel just around the corner. The summer is prime time for writing sermons, planning out services, preparing readings, and picking tunes. And it was in the middle of outlining the High Holiday services that I discovered an interesting link to this week's Torah reading. It has to do with the power of speech.

We are all familiar with the children's rhyme, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me!" Well, I'm going to take a scandalous position here, and say that I think the kids have it all wrong. Based on what we read about at the end of the Book of Numbers, I think it should probably be restated as, "Sticks and stones only break my bones, while words can truly hurt me." In the long run, most of us know that physical wounds heal, but malicious slander and verbal abuse often cut so much deeper, and take longer to repair... if at all.

Our Torah reading begins by talking about people who make vows

or oaths to God, and how they must always keep them. This is what reminded me of the High Holidays, because the famous opening of the Yom Kippur evening service is "Kol Nidrei," which basically talks about the nullification of vows and oaths. This seems foreign and irrelevant to us today, because vowing and taking God's name as witness to our promises is not common practice. However, as the parasha continues, we see that there is more to it than just a simple vow or oath.

Further along in the reading, we also learn about the promises made by Israelite tribes to fight on behalf of one another. This leads us to contemplate honor and loyalty, and what it means to give your word to someone else, especially in times of war and hardship. Finally, our reading ends with the establishment of Cities of Refuge, where people can

go if they have accidentally killed someone. This sounds odd, but the Torah is worried about blood feuds, where one family swears to avenge a slain relative, and then the enemy-family makes a similar declaration, and pretty soon entire clans are wiped out. Once again, we return to the issue of honor and code, and the power of the spoken word.

Later on in the summer, I would like to write more about the power of

prayer. For now, I think we can acknowledge the lesson of our Torah portion, which is that words work. Whether uttered in anger, love, support, or spite; or whether mumbled quietly to oneself or shouted from mountain tops seeking a response from God - we are able to change ourselves and the people around us using only the words that come out of our mouths.

At the beginning of the Amidah - a series of prayers recited three times a day - we silently declare to ourselves, to God, and to anyone standing close enough to listen: "Open my mouth, O Lord, and my lips will proclaim Your praise." Every time we speak, we have the power to inspire or to injure, to help or to harm. How could sticks or stones ever compare to that?