Thursday, August 26, 2010

Ki Tavo: A Change Will Do You Good

Right now, we are in a transitional period. (dramatic pause...) I'm going to let that sink in for a minute, because I'm pretty sure that phrase means something different for each person. Are we talking about the Jewish community, Pennsylvanians, Americans, human beings, or TV fans waiting for the new season to begin?? Everyone reads something different into the word "transition," but we definitely all have one thing in common - we're going through changes.

When I first chose to focus on this topic, I was actually thinking about the seasonal shift; moving from summer to fall. But as I thought about it more, I realized the same thing is true for all kinds of transitions. We rarely see them as they are going on, we just realize it after the fact. Where did summer go? Weren't we just in the middle of it, and now it's nearly OVER?? At the same time, that's life. "Sunrise, sunset, quickly fly the years..." We see this happen over and over again. We cannot avoid or ignore these changes, we simply have to figure out how to respond to them, and how to move forward. That certainly is a central theme for the High Holidays; coming to terms with all that happened in the year that passed, and beginning to make plans for what lies ahead.
Just as the word conjures up different realities for each of us, so too we each have to figure out our own way of working through transitions. How do YOU face changes and incorporate them into your life? This week's Torah portion reminds us to stay rooted in the Jewish tradition and in our faith; that to face the future we must bring the past with us. But that might not be the
ideal solution for you. Perhaps you prefer to compose to-do lists or make resolutions. You may face every challenge differently, or you approach them all in mostly the same way. The only real mistake is pretending it isn't happening. Too often we numb our senses, focus on a symptom rather than the real issue, lay blame, or simply imagine the change isn't happening. Life is about facing our challenges and moving through them.

The fall is coming. The High Holidays are upon us. And the networks are getting ready to pitch their new shows. How are you preparing yourself? What is your strategy for the year ahead, and how will you remain flexible to face new challenges that may arise? I don't mean to sound alarmist, I just know that change can be frightening. If nature is teaching us anything right now, it's that change is inevitable. As we all move into this new season (of what we must each answer for ourselves), let us be as prepared as we can, and face the future with renewed energy, enthusiasm, and great optimism!

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Ki Teitzei: Broad Insights from Traveling Abroad

Hello again, everyone!

Last week I was on vacation and didn't write a blog post, mainly because I was out of the country. I spent three days in Davao City, the Philippines, where my wife was finishing up a summer internship, and then we spent five days together in Hong Kong before returning to the US. It was a terrific trip, but it's GREAT to be home!

One of the things I always love about travel is the opportunity to see how other people live, and to gain a little insight into how they view the world. This was particularly true last week, as I was visiting a region I had never been to before, and one that is nearly half-way around the globe from Wallingford, PA. Experiencing a vastly different culture can open your eyes to something unfamiliar and exotic. Most importantly, however, it sheds a little light back on your own life, and allows you to see yourself with a new degree of objectivity and understanding.

A news story that really caught my eye while I was away was the controversy over the proposed Islamic center near Ground Zero in New York. I was surprised to find that people abroad aren't nearly as upset as many Americans about the idea of something Islamic being built two blocks away from the 9/11 site. Now neither country we visited is predominantly Muslim, so that doesn't account for the discrepancy. And places like Davao are certainly no strangers to religious clashes with Muslim groups! So I wonder why Americans react so strongly to this controversial project. Perhaps it's specific to 9/11, but then I read about the Pew Research Center's new poll saying that 31% of Republicans still think President Obama is a Muslim. I wouldn't necessarily mind that so much (though the persistent ignorance of some people is truly disconcerting), except the poll also showed that more people who disliked the president believed he was a Muslim. Why are the two linked together? writes that, "people who disapprove of Obama’s job performance are more likely to consider him a Muslim." What does that say about us, and our feelings about Islam?

This week, our Torah reading talks about returning lost property to our neighbors; essentially telling us to help the people around us who are in distress. The Torah specifically says, twice in fact: "Do not ignore it!" We know what it means to be oppressed, to have others criticize us and view us with distrust, simply because we are Jews. How can we do the same to someone else?

I felt very lucky, blessed in fact, to be able to travel half-way around the world and to see several different cultures, societies, and ways of life. We all have different ways of expressing ourselves religiously, politically, and emotionally (and don't even get me started on different foods!!), and if we want others to respect our rights to do so, we have to respect theirs as well. Each of us has to take responsibility to promote trust and communication, rather than suspicion and prejudice. And you don't even need to get on a plane, get vaccinated, or put up with jetlag for that insight. You'll just have better pictures to show for it!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Re'eh: The Israelites and Hong Kong

There are certain themes that I like to write about, and to which I return on a regular basis. I have quite a few of them, as evidenced by the list of "Labels" included over on the right side of this blog post. One of the themes that I feel has fallen by the wayside of late is the notion of being on a journey. Perhaps it's because the Israelites at this point in the Torah are near the end of their Exodus, or because I myself have been somewhat stationary, but for whatever reason, I haven't written about journeys in a while.

Yet it is true that even though the Israelites are at the border of the Promised Land, the

toughest part of their trip is really just beginning. In the Torah portion this week, we read about many of the laws they are expected to observe when they enter the land. Moses tells the people that when they settle the land, "You shall not act at all as we now act here, every man as he pleases" (Deuteronomy, 12:8). He gives them a list of Holy-Land-specific mitzvot, like destroying idolatrous altars and images, establishing a place of worship, celebrating feasts, bringing sacrifices, offering tithes, taking care of the Levite-priests, and following certain laws of keeping Kosher. The Israelites have a lot of expectations hanging over their heads as they enter this new place!

Now if I'm going to be totally honest with you, the reason why journeys are on my mind right now is probably because I am about to embark on one of my own. I'll be leaving for the Philippines and Hong Kong on Sunday, to reunite with my wife who has been working in the Philippines all summer. And indeed, the biggest part of the journey was the 9+ weeks we spent apart, much like the Israelites' trek through the desert. The hard part should be over, but some of us have territory to conquer and Temples to erect (the Israelites, not me), while others have 16-hour flights to Hong Kong to endure (that one's me). Even after odysseys have been completed, there are often challenges remaining and tests to complete. We all go through this in our lives, whether metaphorically or quite physically, on Continental Airlines.

I imagine, though, that despite all their fears and concerns, the

Israelites were also quite exhilarated. New experiences come with both ups and downs, advantages and disadvantages, and the only real mistake is not taking the plunge and trying out something different and exciting. So now it's my turn to put this into practice, as I fly off to South East Asia. Next week I'll report back on where my journey has taken me, and we'll see if the Israelites can keep up!