Monday, January 25, 2010

Beshallach: Never Say Never, Especially with a Prophet in the Room...

If you ever gave it much thought, you might assume that the biggest I-told-you-so's in all of history were the Biblical prophets. I mean, these people knew exactly what was going to happen, when it would take place, and what the outcome would be. Rarely were their warnings heeded, and so their predictions frequently came true. And how tempting then to stand on top of a rock, throw your hands in the air, and belt out with all your might, "I TOLD YOU SO!!"

Yet remarkably (and thankfully), they rarely took that approach. More often they saw it as a

failure in themselves, and repented along with the rest of the people. And if they did point out that they knew the future all along, they
probably employed a little more subtlety than what I depicted above.
And it's very possible that they learned the more humble approach from the Torah itself. This week, we see a very graceful (almost hidden) "I told you so" uttered by the Biblical narrative, and I think it teaches us something very valuable.

This week, the Israelites have escaped slavery! However, they may technically be out of Egypt, but they are not out of the proverbial woods yet. They are instead running for their lives; marching day and night to

escape the pursuing Egyptian army. It is
only when they successfully cross the Sea of Reeds (commonly, and erroneously, referred to as the Red Sea) that they taste true freedom. And at this point, the Bible states, "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels" (Exodus, 15:20). Since when is Miriam a prophetess? And why is she referred to as Aaron's sister, and not Moses' sister?? What's going on here?

Well, one possibility is that this enigmatic verse is meant to remind us of something that was only revealed in a midrash (rabbinic story), and not in the text itself. When Pharaoh, long before, first decreed to kill all male Israelite children, the parents of Miriam and Aaron decided to get divorced (or so the story goes...). "Why bring more children into this terrible world?" they asked. And Miriam, their daughter chastised them both. "You're worse than Pharaoh!" she proclaimed. "At least he only intends to kill the males, you want to end our people's story altogether!!" And then she added, "And who knows? Maybe the next child to be born will be our savior..."

And wouldn't you know it? They got back together and had one more

child: Moses. This is "only" a story, but it suddenly comes to life when we read that right at this moment, standing on the banks of the Sea of Reeds, the Israelites are FINALLY free. Miriam has finally become a prophetess, since she predicted that Moses would redeem them. And when she made that prediction, she was only Aaron's sister, because Moses had not yet been born. Subtly, gently, and with a hint of a smile, the Torah is saying: "See? I told you so!"

Right now, as we look at wars, destruction, and horrific earthquakes, we are tempted to think like Moses' parents. "How can we bring children into this world?" But we human beings are here for a reason. We are here to work towards repairing God's earth. To create a better, more harmonious place for all the people, animals, and plants that share this world. It is an

enormous task, and not one that can be done quickly. But who ever said it would be easy? All I know is, God gave us each the tremendous gifts of life and of ethical thinking. We must repay God by doing the most we can with it, and trying each and every day to make the world a better place. Who knows? Maybe one of us will merit to be the next Moses, charged with the task of leading an entire people to freedom. Moses was 80 years old when he first confronted Pharaoh, so you truly never know! And maybe, just maybe, one day I can turn to you with a hint of a smile and say, "See? I told you so!"

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Bo: A Different Way to Say Thank You

I wonder if it will ever stop amazing me how often the weekly Torah reading seems to coincide with events going on around the world. Once again, we find ourselves reading a (seemingly) random section of our Torah, and finding poignant connections to our lives today. I would like to highlight one particular theme which has jumped out at me from our Torah portion, Parashat Bo.

The reading this week picks up in the middle of the story of the ten plagues. Pharaoh continues to refuse to let the Israelites leave, and God continues to rain down devastating punishments. This week we see the last three; locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn. They are all horrible plagues, and many people read about the suffering of the Egyptians with a significant amount of discomfort. And especially right now, as we read about the utter devastation that has befallen Haiti, our uneasiness at reading about such mass destruction only increases.

We would like to differentiate completely between the two situations. Especially when certain public figures, like Pat
Robertson, make all religions look bad by linking the tragedy in Haiti with Divine retribution - we would much rather leave the comparisons far behind. And I do want to emphasize that I wholeheartedly disagree with Robertson's shameful assessment, but I cannot help but think of the Haitians when I read about the plagues in Egypt. I sympathize more with the innocent people in Egypt who suffered for their Pharaoh's terrible choices. I become painfully aware that a plague is not only the initial attack, but also the devastating aftermath that is left in its wake. I am also reminded how vulnerable we human beings really are; how exposed we are to the elements, and how we must help one another to recover once destruction hits.

I don't judge the Bible. Or God. For 3,000 years Jews read this story and rejoiced. How could we blame them? They were being oppressed by Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans, Crusaders, Spaniards, feudal lords, Russian Cosacks, and Nazis (to name a few), and each year when they read about the Ten Plagues they would wish the same fate upon their attackers. This story had a captive audience for millenia, and I acknowledge that as part of my heritage.

But I cannot share their sentiment. I read the story of the Exodus and I cringe at the hardening of Pharaoh's heart and the suffering of the Egyptian people. I imagine the devastation of flaming balls of hail crashing into the land, hordes of locusts eating the land bare, darkness so penetrating that you could touch it, and finally the death of the firstborn of all Egyptians, including animals! How can I rejoice when I read that?

Tragedies of mass proportion are sadly nothing new. Whether Divinely orchestrated or part of the randomness of our planet's natural forces, we have seen this kind of devastation before and

we may sadly see it again. I don't believe they all come from the same place, and sometimes even when they do, our evaluation of events changes over time. But right now - standing in the face of yet another disaster of unimaginable proportions - we have a job to do. We must band together, we must rise above it, and we must do what we can for the people of Haiti. I am tremendously proud of the work already being done by Israeli rescue workers in Haiti. But please consider your own part in this crisis. The main message of Exodus is: God saved you from slavery in Egypt and brought you to the Holy Land. Let us use this as an opportunity to say "Thank You" and to fight for another people to be redeemed from its horrible plight.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Bo (Sermon): Rights and Responsibilities – A Constant Journey

When I was eight years old, my family moved to Israel for a year. My father was learning how to be a mohel, to perform ritual circumcision, and the whole family relocated to Jerusalem for about 13 months. A lot of things that happened to me that year have stuck with me, even to this day. My ability to speak Hebrew, which is still quite good, I attribute to the foundation that was created for me that year. I still walk through the streets of Jerusalem with nostalgic memories flooding through my mind, and I can still picture our lives there when I walk through the neighborhoods of Backa, the Germany Colony, or Abu Tor, where we lived.

But one experience in particular will never ever leave me. My mother had discovered a fledgling movement that year, one which she joined and participated in quite regularly. One weekday, when I was off from school, she brought me along to a prayer meeting of the Women at the Wall.

As an eight year old, I barely knew where I was, much less how controversial it was for women to try and pray out loud by the Orthodox-run Kotel. But I learned pretty fast. It started out peaceful, but soon I saw Orthodox women yelling at the group, I saw a very short man, standing on a chair on the men's section, banging a folding chair against the mechitzah to try and silence the group. Eventually the women left the Kotel, and decided to pray elsewhere. But the attacks continued, and I remember seeing young Orthodox men throwing water at the group and yelling at them at they tried to get away. It was shocking and disturbing, but it truly implanted in my brain an understanding of the need for equality, and why women must have the same rights to pray out loud, read from the Torah, and wear tallitot.

Two months ago, a woman who was praying with that same group, the Women at the Wall in Jerusalem, was arrested for wearing a tallit. Her name is Nofrat Frenkel, and she was taken into custody and banned from the Kotel area for two weeks for her "offense." In addition, just 10 days ago, one of the founding members of the Women at the Wall, and a friend of my mother's, Anat Hoffman, was questioned AND fingerprinted by police. According to the Daily Jewish Forward, she was told by police that she "may be charged with a felony for violating the rules of conduct" at the Kotel, and that she was being "investigated for violating a decision of the Israeli Supreme Court that prohibits women from wearing prayer shawls at the Wall."

Think about this for a second. Could you imagine if a similar thing had happened anywhere else in the world? That a Jew was arrested or fingerprinted for simply wearing a tallit, or for wanting to pray out loud? The entire Jewish world would be in uproar! But because it's Israel, and we've become desensitized to the antics and the bullying of some ultra-Orthodox Jews, we somehow accept it.

The tallit is one of our most democratic symbols. Even in the Bible, all men were required to wear tzitzit, fringes, regardless of social stature. Rich or poor, learned or ignorant, young or old, religious or secular - all were required to put tzitzit on their four-cornered garments. Professor Jacob Milgrom writes, "The requirement of the blue thread - royal blue - is a sign that Israel is a people of nobility, whose sovereign is not mortal but Divine. But more than this: Israel is a 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex. 19:6). The tassels are a reminder of this holiness."

I would also add that praying with a tallit can be a transformative experience. When you come into synagogue and put on a head covering and a tallit, and on weekdays you add the tefillin, you are dressed to pray. You are wearing the uniform of a Jewish person, of all Jewish people, and are ready to give honor to God.

So now I turn this around onto you. I recognize that many people didn't grow up with this religious requirement. I know that it may seem alien to either put on a head covering, or a tallit, or tefillin. But I see this as vitally important to our community and our movement. I often use the term "Rights and Responsibilities." Most of us want to have an equal say in synagogue matters; whether it involves political decisions, religious equality, or budgetary issues. Even in society, we want the right to vote, we want to be able to own property, and we want to drive our cars. However, if we want the rights, we must accept the responsibilities that come with it. These involve paying synagogue dues, volunteering our time with the congregation, but also taking voting seriously and going
to the polls when it's time, taking care of our homes and our neighborhoods, and abiding by the laws of the road when we drive. Subsequently, if you want the right to pray in services as an equal, if you want an aliyah to the Torah, or if you want to lead services, you should take upon yourself the responsibilities of religious prayer.

It is just like the right to vote. We look at oppressive countries around
the world and we say, "We shouldn't take for granted our democracy, or our ability to choose our leaders without corruption or political pressures." So too we look at women in Jerusalem who consider it their obligation to wear a tallit but are forbidden to do so. Here you have the right! Here you can pray without fear of attacks, yelling, arrest, or fingerprinting. How can we not, all of us, take advantage of that right?

Now I want to emphasize something before I
conclude: I am not judging you if you choose not to. Maybe you don't believe me, that's ok. But I recognize that this is really unfamiliar to many people, and some of you aren't on board theologically. But a major principle of my rabbinate, and a theme for us as a congregation, is being on a journey. Don't leave here feeling like the next time you walk into the sanctuary or the chapel, I'll be expecting you to wear a tallit. I won't be. Just promise me that you'll think about it. If not for yourself, then for your daughters, granddaughters, and even great-granddaughters. I don't want them to grow up in a world where it's weird that women were tallitot or tefillin. Just like voting, I want them to assume that they're supposed to do it, and there's nothing unusual about it. I can't get there –
we can't get there – unless you join me on this journey.
I hope you'll give it some serious thought. And I'm talking to men as well as women! Please think about it for Nofrat Frenkel, Anat Hoffman, for our Conservative Movement and our congregation, and for the next generation of young Jewish women.

To read more about the Women at the Wall, please click on this link.

Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti: Reaching out to help

You may have heard me talk several times about the value of community. How we are here to pray, sing, learn, eat, and laugh together as a family. And this also means that sometimes we are also here to support one another through sickness, loss, and grief. But being part of a community means something else as well.

It means that we unite our efforts to help the world around us. As individuals, we don’t always feel the impact of our deeds, but as a community we can do so much more. As most of you know by now, the island of Haiti was struck by a terrible earthquake on Tuesday.
Buildings crumbled, hospitals collapsed, and even the Presidential palace fell. Today, countless people dig through rubble with their bare hands, looking for any trace of loved ones.
Please help us respond to this terrible tragedy with a donation to any one of these worthwhile causes:
Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund (Please write “Haiti Relief Fund” on the check)
In addition, one of our upcoming B’nai Mitzvah students, Kaitlin Graham, is devoting her Mitzvah Project to helping the people of Haiti. Kaitlin will be collecting any cash or check donations outside the synagogue on Sunday morning, January 17th, before religious school starts.
If any other B’nai Mitzvah students would like to join Kaitlin in this important project, please speak to her about it on Sunday.

We pray for the safety and well-being of all the people of
Haiti. May the rescue efforts be successful, and may God protect and sustain them as they rebuild their country and their lives.
Rabbi Gerber

Monday, January 11, 2010

Va-Eira: The Difference Between Hard and Heart

One of the real joys I experienced as a rabbinical student was the privilege of watching great rabbis at work. Most people only get to see a couple of rabbis in action in their lives, but as a student, I was able to shadow a whole host of different rabbis, and I carry many of their teachings with me to this day.

One such lucky occasion involved accompanying a good friend who serves as a full-time chaplain in several hospitals. In addition to learning from the terrific work that he does, I also gained several insights from our conversations, and one of them comes to mind right now, as I read through this week's Torah portion, Va-era.

We are learning about the beginnings of the Exodus, and about Moses' first meetings with Pharaoh. Many of you are probably familiar with the notion of the "hardening of the heart," referring to Pharaoh's unwillingness to let the Israelites leave, even after suffering God's wrath in the form of the 10 plagues. And it is often pointed out that God actually does some of the hardening, it's not just Pharaoh's fault! Yet half of the 20 times the Bible talks about Pharaoh's stone-cold heart, it is Pharaoh himself who is responsible. So what do we make of this metaphor - the hardening
of the heart - and how does it relate to chaplaincy?

One day in the hospital, my good friend told me about his favorite

work of art, Michaelangelo's "David." He talked about its great
beauty and timelessness, but then quickly pointed out that it's a marble statue, and thus it's as cold as can be. Flawlessness, perfection, and immortality are qualities we praise, but it is indeed the flawed imperfection of humanity that truly allows us to be caring, compassionate, and loving. Pharaoh ignored the suffering of his own people because he was too busy proving a point. Where is the honor in that? We look at the story in the Bible and we accuse God of forcing Pharaoh's hand. But notice that God only causes the hardening of the heart, it is in Pharaoh's hands to soften it, and he chooses to do nothing.

Most of us aren't faced with the choices of Moses and Pharaoh. But we DO choose to harden our own hearts to those less fortunate in society. Or we harden our hearts when someone tries to apologize and we aren't ready to forgive them. We often harden our hearts when other people annoy us, misbehave, lose their temper, or don't learn from their own mistakes. I urge us all to leave numb, insensitive, callousness to marble statues and Biblical antagonists. We are made of flesh and blood, let's act like it!

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Shemot: The Theme of a Lifetime

Is there a theme to your life? A common thread or a recurring narrative that you can trace
throughout many (if not most) of your experiences thus far? You may think that this is just a rhetorical question, or a nifty way to start a blog post. But it really isn't. I'm genuinely curious, and if you have an answer, I invite you to write a comment on the blog, send me an e-mail, or even stop by my office. A theme can be something that has defined who you are or that has guided you along life's path. I believe that we begin to understand ourselves better when we identify, and begin to own, our individual themes.

For some of us, this kind of self-exploration and introspection may lead us to
the surprising realization that the theme isn't what we expected, or wanted, it to be. One person might have set out hoping to emphasize family, whenultimately life became bogged down with work. Another wanted to fill life with travel and exotic exploration, but in the end the theme was obligations, illness, or obstacles. But for some, life maybe began with shyness and exclusion, but triumphantly turned to performance, success, and accomplishment. We all have a theme and a story, even if it wasn't the one we set out to tell when life began.

This week, the Torah begins to tell its central narrative: The
Exodus from Egypt. Learning about our patriarchs back in Genesis was really just setting the stage for this, our most important collective memory. And through the story of the Exodus from slavery to freedom, we can find the main theme of the Bible, and perhaps the theme that has defined all of Jewish history. So what is that theme?

Some might say it's God's Greatness. God redeemed us from

Egypt, brought us to Mount Sinai, gave us the Ten Commandments, and took us to the Holy Land... But personally, I think the theme is more human than that. The cynics may say the theme is ritual obligation, mitzvot (commandments), and subservience to God... But I think Jewish history has shown that we can be more than just the sum of our laws. No, I think the theme may actually surprise some of you.

The Torah, and without a doubt all of Jewish history, I believe has centered around the theme: "Take care of the foreigner, because you were foreigners in Egypt." Our story of bondage and redemption teaches us to treat all people equally. Having suffered oppression, we can never turn a blind eye to the plight of others. God saving the Israelites also teaches us the power of religion and faith, and it should inspire us to observe the mitzvot, not so much out of obligation to God, but out of love, gratitude, and admiration. Everything that we as Jews believe in - faith, equality, Social Action, commandedness, peace, connection to the Land of Israel, keeping the Sabbath as a day of rest - all of these can be traced back to caring for the foreigner because we were foreigners in Egypt.

Even as we became exiles again after the destruction of two Temples, we continued to care for

others around us. Jewish history has often been a story of Diaspora, of expulsion and readmission, and everywhere we went we fought for workers' rights, immigrants' rights, and freedom for all. And this too comes from the teachings of the Torah.

We each have a theme in our own lives. But we also have a communal theme as Jews, as well as communal themes as Americans. And as we all strive to be the next link in Jewish history, carrying on the legacy of our ancestors to the next generation, we should ask ourselves how we are embodying this Jewish theme. How can we continue to promote it today and every day, so that the narrative of Jewish history will live on forever through all of us?

Shabbat Shalom!

Monday, January 4, 2010

Va-Yechi: A Sermon for the New Year

Happy New Year!
This whole New Year thing, it really leaves me very confused and filled with mixed emotions. We become very reflective, as we look back and ask, "2009: That Really Happened"? Yet at the same time we also stop and look ahead, wondering what awaits us in 2010. We also try to make new resolutions to improve ourselves for the New Year, but we do so knowing that we aren't likely to keep them all… if indeed any. And for now, for this one day, we stop and reflect on the crossroads in our lives, but by tomorrow we'll be back to business as usual, and we'll start counting down the days till summer and then to next New Year's Eve.
I look at all these conflicting feelings, and not surprisingly, I see them reflected in our Torah portion this week. As a congregation, as a Torah-reading-community, we are at a crossroads ourselves; we have come to the end of the 1st Book of Moses, and we await the start of the next book in one week's time. We conclude the story of Abraham's family, and begin the story of the Israelite people. But the similarities between New Year's and Va-yechi don't end there. Not only are we at a major milestone in the yearly Torah reading cycle, but we also see a lot of the same mixed emotions within the parasha itself.
In last week's blog post "Learning How to Forgive," I wrote about Jacob lying on his death bed and instead of offering each of his children a blessing, he rebuked them for their misdeeds, and left them with a sense of bitterness and lasting grudges. Yet just a few chapters later, after Jacob's death, the brothers come to Joseph with a message from their father beyond the grave: "Forgive, I urge you, the offense and guilt of your brothers who treated you so harshly" (Gen. 50:17).
Another interesting inconsistency is when the Torah tells us how impressive it is that Joseph survived to see children of the third generation of his son Ephraim, presumably his great-grandchildren. But in the very next verse, it says that on his deathbed he spoke to his brothers! So as awed as we're supposed to be at Joseph's old age, shouldn't it be more amazing that his OLDER brothers are still alive?!
Finally, we see that Joseph and his brothers go out of their way to bury Jacob back in Canaan in the ancestral plot. They take a big, long day-trip back to their homeland to bring Jacob's body back to the Cave of Machpelah. Yet when Joseph dies, it only says that he asked to eventually be brought back to Canaan, when the Israelites one day return there. Why couldn't they bring his bones up to Canaan like they did with Jacob? Why wait?? Perhaps Joseph wanted to stay with his people – BOTH the Israelites and the Egyptians – as long as they were in the land. Ultimately, he wanted to be with his ancestors, but while the Israelites continued to live in Egypt, he wanted to remain with them.
So we see that there are many contradictions in our parasha, as well as these strong emotions: forgiveness, questions at the end of life, and maintaining connections to one's people and ancestors. And the Torah portion leaves us much the same way the New Year does, with a lot of uncertainty and hope for the future, because the Torah portion ends on a positive note – with Joseph being buried and the Israelites at peace in Egypt – but also with a hint of foreshadowing for the future. We read that Joseph was buried in an Egyptian coffin, which might conjure up images of the oppression of the Israelites yet to come, and the coffin-like basket that the infant Moses is placed in as he floats down the Nile River. A positive ending, yet uncertainty ahead.
But, the point isn't to leave you on a negative note. Along with insecurity in front of us come promise, expectation, adventure, and limitless potential. That is certainly how we approach our future, and how we view the joy of New Year's Eve.
And I want to point out something else as well. Out there in the black hole that is the year about to begin is always the Hand of God. We don't always feel it, and we certainly don't always know how to identify it even if we did see it! Often we have to wait and look back and reflect on it, but God's Presence does follow us around.
I read a fascinating observation connected to our Torah portion, which I would like to share with you. As a Conservative Jew, I tend to support the notion that the Torah was written by human authors, and that's authorS, plural. BUT, a major part of Conservative theology is the idea that the Torah is Divinely inspired. That the Hand of God, as it were, guided it throughout human history. And the observation that I read caught something interesting the text.
Our Torah portion, and thus the entire Book of Genesis, ends with the word "Mitzrayim," "Egypt."
  • The second book of the Torah, Exodus, ends with the word "Mas-ey-hem," "their journeys."
  • The third ends with the word "Sinai."
  • The fourth ends with the word "Jericho."
  • And the fifth ends with the word "Israel."
  • Put them together: Egypt, Journeys, Sinai, Jericho, Israel.
Well these five words, in a way, neatly summarize the story that the Torah tells, i.e. the Israelites in Egypt, journeying by way of Sinai, to the border into the Holy Land by Jericho, and finally into Israel. Sure, it might be a coincidence, or perhaps even the intentional design of a very skilled author. But I also see something beautiful, significant, and holy about this. It is a minor detail, hidden to the unwatchful eye, yet somehow brilliant when focused on.
To me, that is the role of God in our lives. We're all independently working on our own lives, folks! There are no certainties. God isn't going to overtly point us to the "right" path in our lives; it didn't happen last year and it's unlikely to happen in the year ahead! But we can still feel God's Presence, whether it's in the strange contradictions in the Joseph story, hidden clues throughout the Torah, or in our own reflections on 2009, the year that really happened.
I pray that the year ahead brings us all safety, happiness, prosperity, and joy… and maybe even a little glimpse of a Divine Hand, offering us comfort and purpose for 2010. Shabbat Shalom and Happy New Year!