Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Purim: Ohev Shalom's Mysterious Swedish Past...

I was recently sitting with some of our "minyannaires," our congregants who come to our daily morning service, during our post-service breakfast, and we were having a very interesting discussion. We were talking about the history of Ohev Shalom, and they were telling me stories from Chester, Mispallelim, and "the good ol' days" in general. After our conversation, I found the synagogue's Dedication Book from 1965, and I decided to read a little more on my own. I was intrigued to read about the different families who helped form the first congregation, B'nai Israel-Beth Phillies (the second part was later dropped), in 1891; the Wolsons, the Sapovitses, the Levys, and the Blumbergs, among others. But one family name in particular caught my eye.

It seems that one of the oldest families in Chester at the time was a family named Gerberson. I was surprised to see that name, since it sounds so much like my own, but the book didn't say much more about them. They were mentioned as one of the first families in the area, among the "tydable" (taxable) Jewish families who had come over from Upland, Pennsylvania, along with the Jacobs and Herman families. Well, now I was really intrigued, because Upland is also the name of a province near Stockholm, Sweden, where I grew up.

Many of you are probably aware that my family resided in Sweden for generations. We originally came over from the Ukraine, where the family name had been "Garbati," but in Sweden it was changed to "Gerberson" to fit in with the Ericssons and Svenssons who lived around them. In those days, you weren't allowed to work in Sweden unless your last name ended in "son," and my family was eager to set up the family business of Swedish Chefs. Now here's where it gets really interesting. One branch of the family actually came over to the US in the 1600s. There was a meatball and herring shortage in Sweden, and they couldn't take it anymore. They came over with the very first settlers of the New Sweden Company in the 1640s. I never heard any more about them, but I decided to go to the American Swedish Historical Museum near Citizens Bank Park to do a little research. It turns out that when the first Swedes founded Fort Christina, in present-day Wilmington, they didn't want the Jews living in the same town, so they sent them up north to build a settlement of their own.

The small Jewish group, including my relatives, the Gerbersons, helped found a town called Tjänster (pronounced "Shen-ster"), which means "services," as in religious services. Later they changed the spelling to make it more American, and it became Chester. And lo and behold, it turns out that my family helped establish the first congregation in Chester! In other words, even though Rebecca and I are new residents in the area, it would seem that my family is one of the oldest in the community!!

So why am I telling you this now? Well, the holiday of Purim is upon us. And on Purim we eat Hamentashen, which have hidden fillings inside them, much like the hidden story of my long-lost relatives (though back home our Hamentashen were usually filled with lox). It is also a holiday of merriment, fun, silliness, and imaginative stories. We read the Megillah and we learn about how our ancestors were able to defeat Haman and save the day. But what most people don't know is that Mordechai and Esther had ALSO originally emigrated from Sweden, and had ALSO helped establish their Jewish community, much like my ancestors here in Tjänster... I mean, Chester.

And finally, I would like to remind you not to always take what your rabbi says too seriously. Purim can make a rabbi write some pretty peculiar things... ;-)

Happy Purim, everyone!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Terumah: How We Should Construct Ourselves

Last week, we started a new phase in the Biblical narrative, where the stories about people's lives start taking a back seat, and we focus our attention instead on laws, instructions, and guidelines. Even though we will still hear quite a bit more about the Exodus, our interest has primarily shifted elsewhere. And this week, we begin to learn about the construction of the Tabernacle; the portable proto-Temple that the Israelites carried around with them for 40 years in the desert.

So for those of us who aren't standing with our tool belts and power-saws at the ready, not particularly interested in building a new Tabernacle (or a new Temple for that matter...), what can we learn from this section? Is there a message hidden somewhere inside the Tabernacle's building blocks, waiting for us to discover it? Why yes, I believe there is!

One of the things we read about is how many of the Tabernacle's components were made out of pure gold; taken from Egypt when the Israelites broke free from captivity. But one interesting thing to note is that several of the most important objects - including the Ark which housed the Ten Commandments, the poles which carried the Ark, and the central table inside the Tabernacle - were all made of acacia (pronounced a-KAY-shuh) wood, and only COVERED with gold. Other, less important, objects were made of solid gold, but the most important things had wood inside, and only a thin layer of gold on top. Why is that?

The gold was an impressive and flashy material, but it was also cold and hard. Wood, meanwhile, comes from a living thing; it represents humility and simplicity, but isn't necessarily as impressive to look at. By having parts of the Tabernacle fuse the two elements together, the Torah is teaching us about life. Indeed, God is telling us something about how we should construct ourselves.

There can be objects and possessions in our lives which are expensive and glitzy. But they may also be cold, devoid of internal, deeper meaning. We ourselves, and the way we live our lives, must have a core that focuses on humility and preserving life. Yet I will also say that this isn't meant as a diatribe against materialism; after all, much of the Tabernacle WAS made out of gold! Caring about our outward appearance is valuable too. The rabbis emphasize something called “Hiddur Mitzvah,” beautifying our commandments, and taking pride in making them as impressive and awe-inspiring as possible. Aesthetics and wealth are not inherently false pursuits, but they must also hold a deeper meaning behind them. Are we also caring about our fellow human beings, and using our abilities to improve the world??

The Torah is encouraging us to look inside ourselves, and to ask the tough question, "What am I made of?" As we look ahead to the festival of Purim, and we prepare to put on masks and costumes, take a second to think about the person hiding underneath that mask. Judaism isn't just about the observance of holidays, or the building of sacred buildings, it also cares about who we are as people - like the Tabernacle - both inside and out.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Mishpatim: If You Don't Seek, How Will You Ever Find?

How often do you stop and take an overview? Of your life, your job, your relationships, your community, your theology, or anything really. Most of us get stuck in the day-to-day, nitty-gritty, sweating the small stuff, and we forget to take a step back once in a while and survey the lay of the land. But I think it's essential that we do. Every so often, we should ask ourselves: what's the main goal that we're working towards? What are the core values that guide our lives? And are we staying true to the objectives, ideals, and creeds that matter most? Think of it as your own personal Strategic Plan; and if you haven't begun one, or checked in with it recently, maybe that's something to consider doing... and I wouldn't wait too long.

A similar approach is really crucial when it comes to the Torah. An occasional overview helps us understand the Bible better in general, and it also allows us to hear the clear voice of the Biblical narrative, especially when we might get sidetracked by other things along the way. This week, we find one such major distraction. The Torah portion is Mishpatim, and true to its name (which means "laws"), it contains a tremendous amount of legal precepts (53 to be precise), including civil laws, liability laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws. One of the most famous - or probably infamous - of these is "lex talionis," or "eye for an eye." Critics of the Torah will point to lex talionis as a demonstration of the Bible at its most barbaric: if you poke out someone's eye, your eye shall be poked out as retribution. Though in truth, for the past 2,000 years (or more), we've understood this as monetary compensation for damages.

Now we can get bogged down (or blogged down!) in debating the specifics of these laws, but my whole point at the start of this post was to focus our attention on the overview. What do we learn, as a more overarching rule, from all these regulations? And I think there are some very important lessons here indeed.

First, most other religions at the time had an understanding of what their gods demanded of them, but it all centered on how the people were to worship and pay tribute to that god. Our God, however, demands that we treat one another well also. God is concerned with all aspects of our behavior, not just how we interact with the Divine. Second, we see a lot of our legal system emphasizing the rights of the defenseless; the widow, the orphan, the slave, and the minor (and every once in a while women's rights are passingly considered...). We learn about how to treat our slaves, when to free them, and what happens if they are injured. To be sure, the Biblical laws aren't nearly as fair as ours today, and there is a clear distinction between the status of a "regular" Israelite and a slave or a minor. But the fact that they are treated as anything other than possessions should really not be understated.

When you focus on the wording of the Biblical laws, you may not like what you're reading, and you may not feel any meaningful connection to our ancient ancestors. But take a step back for a minute. Recognize that their law code was a vast improvement on anything else that existed at the time, and that our modern sensitivities in many ways would not have existed were it not for the precedent set by our forebearers. As a whole, the Bible is a book that cares about human interactions. It tells us that God wants us to treat each other well, to live lives of piety, consideration, and moderation, and to thereby be successful and prosperous.

To me, that is a recipe for contentment in general. If we can find a way to seek for ourselves what God wants us to find, we will indeed obtain true happiness. But sometimes we don't see that right away. Every once in a while we have to read a list of 53 ancient laws before we look up and realize what life's all about. But hey, as long as you get there somehow, right? Now you just have to ask yourself, what will it take for you to look up?

Have a great week, everyone!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Yitro: A Lesson from the Midianites

What does it mean to cooperate and compromise? How do two people (or two organizations, religions, or political parties) work together when they don't see eye-to-eye? When you think of the word "compromise," what comes to mind? I ask this because I don't think people ever really stop and define this notion for themselves, and I especially don't think a lot of people know how to put the theory of it into practice. When have you truly compromised in your life? And by compromise I mean that you got some of what you wanted, but not all of it. You weren't thrilled with the outcome, but you were satisfied.

If we look at the world of politics, President Obama recently held his State of the Union address. In it, he used some pretty tough language aimed at Republicans, especially when talking about the lack of bipartisanship. Among other things, he said, "Just saying no to everything may be good short-term politics, but it's not leadership." Two days later, he followed up by speaking directly to House Republicans at their conference in Baltimore, and again he said (in reference to a job package), "just the fact that it's my administration that's proposing it shouldn't prevent you from supporting it."

It's clear to me that neither side feels the other is willing to compromise. Working together has become taboo, regardless of the issue, and it's disheartening to watch. In this week's Torah portion, we see perhaps the world's first interfaith dialogue, and I pray that our politicians soon learn to follow this Biblical model.

We continue our reading about the Exodus, and at the start of our parasha, Moses' father-in-law Yitro (or Jethro, in English) comes to visit. Now Yitro isn't an Israelite, he's a Midianite. And a priest no less! So he's a full-fledged subscriber to the idolatrous practices of the Midianites. When he first arrives, we see the following powerful scene: "And Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, brought a burnt offering and sacrifices for God; and Aaron came with all the elders of Israel to partake of the meal before God with Moses' father-in-law" (Exodus, 18:12). Do we imagine that the Israelite elders and this Midianite priest were in total agreement about issues like religion, culture, politics, or lifestyle? Most likely they were not. Yet they sat together, sharing a sacrificial meal (Kosher certification from Hebrew National? I don't think so.), and without judging one another or arguing.

The most important line, in my opinion, is "before God." This was a Divinely approved gathering, conducted with God's full blessing. Not many other meals in the Bible are described this way; with God having a place-setting at the dinner table. The Torah is telling us that when we work together, accepting one another's differences and learning to co-exist, God will bless our endeavors.

At the end of his State of the Union Address, President Obama said, "And what the American people hope – what they deserve – is for all of us, Democrats and Republicans, to work through our differences; to overcome the numbing weight of our politics." Sometimes our differences can indeed seem numbing and heavy. And when they do, we forget the meaning of the word "compromise." I pray that all of us, politicians, congregants, co-workers, and family members, can all learn to accept people with whom we disagree, and start finding ways to work together. Then we will truly be creating holiness, and we will feel the Presence of God blessing the work of our hands.