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.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Noah: Deciding How to Vote, Despite All the Babel

As Americans prepare to go to the polls, most of us have got politics on the brain. Whether it's the economy, health care, parties where people drink lots of tea, Israel, or national security; we're all trying to figure out how to vote. What are the issues? Where should the country be heading? And who should be taking it there?

With all this floating around in my head, it's probably not surprising that I saw a political connection in this week's Torah portion. The main focus of our parasha is Noah and his rain-proof Ark filled with animals, but before we conclude the reading, we also learn about the Tower of Babel.

The story is pretty simple; the people

of the world all speak one language, and they decide that the best use of their time and effort is to, "build a city for ourselves, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves" (Gen. 11:4). God doesn't approve of the building project, and makes them all speak different languages in order to create confusion, which in turn leads them to abandon their (apparently) blasphemous plan. So where's the political message?

The way I see it, you can actually read this story in two different ways, each at opposite ends of our political spectrum. If you lean one way, you might see this story as celebrating a free market economy. In the beginning, all people are forced to conform, to join together in a single project, and contribute to the common good, with no room for individuality or small businesses. God then comes down to break up this monopoly. God sends them in different directions, allowing them to pursue their personal hopes and dreams, free from the constraints of "big government."

On the other hand, if your political preferences

went the other way, you might perceive the people of Babel as only caring about materialism and not about one another. Our rabbis tell us that they lamented the loss of a fallen brick, but cared nothing about the death of a worker. God pushes them away from their self-centered, cutthroat ways, and reminds us all that Governmental (in this case with a capital "G"...) regulation is an essential part of any society.

This story lends itself to either interpretation, much as the current recession can be "blamed" on either party (or both), depending on whether you root for donkeys or elephants. Any story can be skewed to prove the point of the story teller, which is an essential lesson for us all to keep in mind as we head to the voting booths. We each need to make up our own minds as to what we believe, and not let ourselves be swayed by how others are voting, or who paints the scariest picture of our future. Decide what your personal values are, and vote with your heart and your (informed) mind. Remember that Noah kept both elephants and donkeys on that Ark, two of each just like the rest of the animals. The real question is, who do we trust to steer the ship?