Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Rosh Hashanah: In This New Year...

May you all have a Happy and Healthy New Year!

A year filled with joy, laughter, adventure, and many great photo albums on Picasa or Kodak Gallery filled with wonderful memories and experiences!

But also a year of insight, self-exploration, knowledge, and journeys to understand ourselves, and those around us, a whole lot better.

A year of peace, safety, security, and tranquility; for ourselves, our communities, and the countries we care about.

A year of stability, success, smart decisions, and increased confidence - as well as pride - in our bank accounts, our economy, and in each other.

A year of closeness. A year of spirituality and feeling that we are not alone. A year of prayer and activism for the people, causes, and things that matter.

A lot to hope for in just one year. But "just one year" is also enough time to get a lot started. I can't make promises about where we'll wind up, I don't know how this will end. But right now, we have a chance to decide how it begins. Look back at the list above. Anything else you'd like to add? Well let's get started!

CC image courtesy of Atli HarĂ°arson on Flickr

Monday, December 20, 2010

Shemot: A Big Gift to Carry Around with You

Do you have a family tree? Is your family like mine, with that one relative who's REALLY into genealogy, who loves to figure out which famous people you're related to? What is our fascination with family trees anyway? With plotting ourselves on a big map of extended, distant, often-deceased relatives? I'm sure there are lots of possible explanations, but this week I would like to suggest that it has to do with context. We like realizing that each one of us has a place on a historic timeline, with a great ancestry laid out behind us, and endless possibilities unfolding before us.

Right now, we are beginning the Exodus anew. Our Torah portion is the start of the Book of Exodus, and we are once again introduced to Moses, Pharaoh, those kvetchy Israelites, and the wonders that occurred in the land of Egypt. Every year at the Passover Seder table, we tell ourselves that each Jew is obligated to view him or herself as if s/he was actually redeemed from Egypt. But most of us (thank God) have no idea what it means to be a slave. Most of us have never experienced Divine plagues, and most of us probably have never even been to Egypt! So how do we identify with the ancient Israelites? By seeing our lives in a context, and by realizing that we are links in a chain extending back to the stories we're reading about this week in the Bible.

Everyday life, however, isn't lived with a sense of context, with historical perspective. It generally involves things like taking kids to school, buying sushi for lunch (mmm, sushi...), and DVR-ing your favorite show to watch at some later date. Life is filled with mundane activities, and rarely do we reflect on our family trees or our connection to Biblical slaves. Yet if we could find some time - once a day, once a week, or even once a month or year - to live with perspective, it would truly elevate all of our experiences.

The central message of Jewish history is: Be kind to the stranger, the oppressed, and the underdog; because you yourselves were slaves in Egypt. And every, single Jewish educator since Moses has been trying to teach us to internalize that message. Life is about being good to others, and the Jewish proof of that statement is the Exodus.

In the American Jewish World Service's weekly Torah commentary, Rachel Travis wrote this week, "We learn from the Exodus story that freedom is not an end in and of itself but a gift that must lead to action." Freedom is indeed a gift. But I would also add that the Exodus story is itself a gift to us. It reminds us that there is more to life than our everyday experiences; that we are part of a greater context. The real question is, if you could incorporate these ideas, this family tree, into your everyday life, what would that look like? Something to think about, as we enter the season of New Year's resolutions...

Shabbat Shalom!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Thomas Duchnicki on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of joshuapaquin on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of oskay on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of danagraves on Flickr

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Va-Yechi: A Wise (and Melodic) Use of Our Time

We don't sing enough. Raise an eyebrow or roll your eyes at me if you wish, but the fact remains; in our everyday lives we simply don't spend enough time singing. Now I don't necessarily mean Mary Poppins-type theatrical singing while sweeping chimneys. Nor do I mean joining something like Improv Everywhere's spontaneous musicals (if you aren't familiar with their work, you should be. Watch this: I just think our lives aren't filled with enough joy, gratitude, and happiness, specifically expressed through song. And I definitely know that we don't spend enough of our time blessing one another. Which may, perhaps, seem like a very random comment, but not so much, in fact, if you are familiar with this week's Torah portion.

When I was a student at Columbia University, a large number of Jewish
students would gather on Saturday evenings for prayer, some food (obviously), and to sing Shabbat songs. It was a wonderful experience for me, and I learned some terrific tunes there that I often wish I had more opportunities to sing. One of those comes from this week's Torah portion. It is a beautiful piece of poetry, uttered by Jacob when blessing his grandsons, Ephraim and Menashe. The text itself is very powerful, and combined with a lovely Shabbat melody it becomes truly unforgettable. If you're interested, you can hear everyone's favorite Yeshiva University a capella group, the Maccabeats (of "Candlelight" fame), singing their version:

The words are: "The God in whose ways my fathers Abraham and Isaac walked, the God who

has been my shepherd from my birth to this day - the Angel who has redeemed me from all harm - bless the lads. In them may my name be recalled, and the names of my fathers Abraham and Isaac, and may they be teeming multitudes upon the earth" (Gen. 48:15-16). It is a beautiful blessing of protection, hope, connection to history, and closeness to God. I don't know if Jacob conjured up this blessing on a moment's notice, and I don't know if he actually sang it to his progeny, though I'd like to think that he did. What I do know is that it's heartfelt, it's touching, and it's inspiring.

I think it is a stirring reminder that we should bless each other more often. We should bless our children, our parents, our siblings, our friends, and yes, even our pets. We cannot take anything for granted in life. For someone who's family members were too close for comfort in the recent suicide attack in Stockholm, Sweden, I am more aware of this now than I would like to be. Life is tremendously precious. Why waste it being stressed out, angry, frustrated, tired, bored, or irritated. Value the people around you, cherish the time you have with them, and make sure they know it! And if the mood strikes you, why not even sing about it once in a while?

Shabbat Shalom!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Loren Javier on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Jorbasa on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of wrestlingentropy on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of greeblie on Flickr

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Va-Yigash: Feeling Called to Action... With Some Healthy Hesitation

One of the most uncomfortable, yet true, sayings is, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." It's uncomfortable, because we would like to think that if our heart is in the right place, and our motivation for trying to do something is correct, then how could we do more harm than good? It is, however, also a true saying, because regardless of the purity of our objectives, sometimes things simply don't work out the way we planned.

Right now in our Torah reading cycle, we are very busy cheering on Joseph, our hero. He rose from ashes to authority in record time; he got revenge on his wicked brothers for selling him into slavery; and except for Pharaoh himself, Joseph is basically running the show throughout all of Egypt. Because we're so busy celebrating, we often "forget" to read about how Joseph actually went about his business. Sadly, when we read this week's Torah portion, we discover that Joseph used a devastating famine as a

tool for bringing the entire Ancient Near East into subservience to Pharaoh! The Torah lays out Joseph's multi-stage plan, and then concludes by informing us that, "Joseph gained possession of all the farm land of Egypt for Pharaoh, every Egyptian having sold his field because the famine was too much for them; thus the land passed over to Pharaoh" (Gen. 47:20). Obviously, Joseph's original motivation was only to help Pharaoh, the man who had saved him from prison, and to help his own family survive and prosper. But somewhere along the way, things just took an ugly turn.

This past week, Israel suffered another punishing disaster, though instead of famine it was fire. And once again, in the aftermath of the catastrophe, we discover that the best of intentions still don't guarantee a positive outcome. This week, Rabbi Richard Hammerman wrote a letter in the New Jersey Jewish News, entitled "Burning Questions," where he challenges many of our assumptions about tree-planting in Israel. Rabbi Hammerman asks, "In recent years, has the Jewish National Fund lost site of their primary mission: being stewards of Israel’s trees and guardians of its forests? Has their work in creating roads, infrastructure, building community centers, and other projects diverted funds necessary to assure that the forests and the land of Israel be preserved for future generations?" Later on, Rabbi Hammerman also poses the

challenging question: "Should Tu B’Shevat, as Israel’s Chief Forester has now suggested, be turned into a day to uproot and thin out and properly space trees to prevent future tragedies rather than plant again and compound the errors of the past?" There is no question that JNF always had the best of intentions for replanting Israel's forests. Nevertheless, more is not always better, and in this case we must seriously rethink strategies before launching back in and making the same mistakes once again.

At the same time, fear of blundering should not cripple us into inaction. Like Joseph, we need to seize the moment and try to affect positive change on a difficult situation. But we must also implement a better system of checks and balances, and when we donate money to the relief effort, we need to be responsible and invested donors, who make sure our money is being used to help, and not harm, the situation. Our gut reaction may be to donate immediately, with no hesitation. I encourage you, however, to instead consider doing just a little bit more research, both in this case and in every instance where we feel called to action. Make sure that your money represents you well, and that the end-result does justice to those noble intentions which spurred you on in the first place.

Here are a few great organizations helping the relief effort (...but please read about them before contributing!):

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of PaysImaginaire on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Diana Parkhouse on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Sputnik Mania on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Neubie on Flickr

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Chanukah: Bringing Real Light Into the World

Obviously, since we are celebrating Chanukah this week, that would be a logical topic for me to write about here. The only problem is that I've had something else on my mind for a while now, so I'm just going to use Chanukah to springboard into my main topic. Perhaps I shouldn't have admitted that to you up front, but you're smart people. You would have figured it out pretty quickly.

The main plot line of Chanukah is the victory of the

Hasmoneans (a Jewish family led by Judah Maccabee) over the Greek-Syrian Seleucid dynasty around 167 BCE. The Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, had turned our Holy Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan shrine to Zeus, and he demanded that pigs be sacrificed there. The Hasmoneans refused. They believed that you have to stand up for what you believe in, and fight for your principles and your values. Oppression cannot be tolerated, and if we have the ability to do something about it, we must act on it. There simply is no alternative.

This week, as we celebrate our Festival of Lights, I would like to reflect on another fight being waged in this country: The struggle for equality of all LGBT Americans, especially teenagers and young people. Ever since Rutgers' freshman, Tyler Clemente's suicide in September, this issue has been on my mind. This past week, I saw Comedy Central's Stephen Colbert interviewing Dan Savage, who created a website called The interview emphasized the importance of support and openness, values which are also central to the current debate surrounding the Pentagon report about repealing "Don't ask, don't tell."

It also made me think about the level of sensitivity in our community. Do we make sure that

everyone feels included and welcome, accepted and not scrutinized? What are we doing to project this message, to make it obvious before anyone has to ask? We proudly display Chanukiot in the windows of our homes so that everyone will know we are Jewish, but do we also display symbols of tolerance and inclusion? I worry that we don't make it clear enough - both to children and adults - that it is a Jewish responsibility, a mitzvah in fact, to be open-minded and accepting. The Torah teaches us that all human beings are created "Be-Tzelem Elohim," "In the Image of God," and we are therefore obligated to treat each other with respect and dignity.

As winter approaches, most traditions and religions have a Festival of Lights. But light is also a symbol of knowledge and tolerance, the root of the word "enlightenment." Just as we light one candle on our Chanukiah, and use it to light all the others, so too we must pass our values from one person to another. I think I'm a tolerant person. I hope that you feel the same about yourself. But the real question we must each ask ourselves is, how do we show it to the people around us? What symbol will you display to show the world what you stand for, and how will you yourself become A Light Unto the Nations?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of AndrewEick on Flickr
2. clipart
3. CC image courtesy of _MissAgentCooper on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of PugnoM on Flickr
5.. CC image courtesy of iTux on Flickr