Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Mishpatim: Trusting an Imperfect Path

What does it mean to trust in a system? When do we accept that, even when we don't see positive outcomes 24/7, we're still on the right path, and setbacks don't mean we need to abandon the entire enterprise? It's a difficult thing to do. It's a question we can ask of the Torah, ourselves, our movement, our government, and God. When do you give up? And when do you "stay the course"? These are questions I would like to consider with you for a paragraph or six.

This week the Torah begins to lay out many of the laws that will come to govern Israelite society. Each law is unique and important, but over the course of the 53 laws in this week's parasha, we start to see a system taking shape. Some of the main principles of this system are: 1) Holiness, because we are made in God's image, and God is holy. 2) Mercy and kindness - taking care of the poor and underprivileged because we were once slaves in Egypt. And 3) Justice is essential, and justice is blind.

Now that last one I find fascinating. What do we really mean when we say that justice is blind. The Torah tells us, "You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong - you shall not perverse testimony in a dispute so as to pervert it in favor of the mighty - nor shall you show deference to a poor man in his dispute" (Exodus 23:2-3). Most of us agree that we shouldn't favor the wealthy and famous, because we see the unfairness there. And most of us might agree that we shouldn't favor the underprivileged even if they are wrong... but I think that in certain instances we may find ourselves ruling against our better judgment. Compassion kicks in, pity takes over, and we favor the underdog even when we know it's wrong. The Torah is trying to teach us something immeasurably important; sometimes you have to trust the system.

I look at the State of the Union address that was delivered this week, as well as the two responses that followed, and I worry that many of us are very quick to change our minds, to switch horses mid-race. I don't know if one party has the "right" answers, or if there are any completely right answers to be found at all! But constantly questioning decisions, shifting allegiances, second-guessing our leaders; it doesn't always lead to better results. Sometimes we have to trust a system. We give one philosophy and one ideology a significant amount of time to govern, and we see if it works. Right now, I see politicians on all sides undermining one another, and it makes us all question anything and everything remotely connected to politics. How is that helping us, and how is that getting this country back on its feet? The Torah reminds us that we aren't going to love every decision made, and we aren't going to agree with every procedure or outcome. If we're going to buy into a system and a society, that may be a reality we have to accept.

On a similar note, this week I've found myself confronted by an issue in the newspaper headlines. Several members of my congregation have asked me why Conservative and Orthodox Jews don't consider Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords Jewish. Our tradition, our history, our leaders, and our system have handed down to us through the generations that our Jewishness is established through our mothers. This isn't meant as judgment, it's simply a pillar of our law code. I think Congresswoman Giffords is an amazing role model. I am honored and proud that she considers herself Jewish, and I am happy that she has found a Reform congregation where she is accepted, where she can be an active and inspiring member, and where she has done a tremendous amount of good. That is one of the beautiful strengths of the Jewish world today; we have different guidelines for different movements, and anyone who wants to be a practicing and involved Jew can find the community that is right for him or her.

All of this does not change, however, the fact that Gabrielle Giffords is not Jewish according to halachic standards; a set of standards that we continue to uphold in the Conservative Movement. I still pray for her speedy recovery, and I still praise her for her bravery, even though I could not give her an aliyah in my synagogue. I may be frustrated that most Orthodox Jews would not consider me a rabbi and would question the Jewishness of many of my congregants, but I am not looking to be validated by someone else. I do not always see the logic in our commandments, and I do not love every Jewish practice (how many of us really love fasting?), yet despite these things, I trust in our system. Perhaps you agree with me, perhaps you don't. But I ask you to consider this question: what do YOU trust in? What system do you buy into? Being a skeptic is easy, tell me instead what you believe in.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Rob Hogeslag on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Valerie Everett on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Joi on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of tpower1978 on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Freedom to Marry on Flickr
6. CC image courtesy of skpy on Flickr

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Yitro: Tonight's Top Ten: (Insert Answer Here)

Long before it was popularized by David Letterman, the Bible came up with its own Top 10; the Ten Commandments! And just like the Late Show's daily list, this one takes a major current issue and highlights the most important or eye-catching ten points that you need to know... though with a little less sarcasm and canned laughter. But when you don't have a team of behind-the-scenes writers, how do you decide? Whose Top 10 is this?

The obvious answer is: God's. But the Commandments are given to us, and we are meant to internalize them and observe them, so we still have to make sense of them. And in this week's Torah portion we are given ONE version of the Ten Commandments; another version with slight (but not insignificant) deviations is recorded in the Book of Deuteronomy. Furthermore, if I were to give you pen and paper, or (more likely) opened up a new Doc on your laptop or iPad, and asked you to write your own Ten Commandments, would you come up with these? Some of them perhaps, but aren't you likely to throw in one or two of your own? And I imagine that each one of us would come up with a different list of the ten essential issues in our own lives. So what do we do with the Biblical Ten Commandments?

To me, it's a symbol. It's about having a creed or set of values. In Judaism, these are our

communal Top 10, and we SHOULD learn about them, teach them to our kids, and carve them impressively somewhere on every new synagogue building. But we also need to figure out for ourselves, what are MY Ten Commandments. The Bible contains a whopping 613 different mitzvot, so if we try to take on all of them, we're more likely to get overwhelmed and frustrated and abandon the whole project. Life is the same way. We have many competing priorities and values, and we can't do everything. So we have to focus our attention on a single set of principles, and that will make everything else a little bit easier. It's not that these are the ONLY 10 Commandments; they just help ground us, and make everyday life a little more purposeful and decisive.

Right now, we're also celebrating the holiday of Tu Bishvat, Jewish Arbor Day. The rabbis tell us it's the New Year for the Trees, and in the last few years it has become a day to focus on environmentalism and preservation of the earth. It's a day, not only to appreciate trees and the benefits we receive FROM them, but to acknowledge what we are doing TO them in return, and indeed to our entire planet. But for a lot of people, environmentalism and reducing our carbon footprint seems daunting and complicated, or perhaps just tedious and insignificant. There are so many different things we could be doing greener, and so many ways to feel guilty about what we're currently doing. Yet in the end, most of us do very little. So instead of seeing it as an all-or-nothing issue, let's focus in on a smaller set of changes, a Top 10 of environmental improvements that we can each take on. Click here for one such list that might inspire you to make a change, compiled by But that's just one version.

Taking on obligations and responsibilities is always hard. It's easier to stick to the status quo, or

use the excuse that my small, insignificant, unnoticeable contributions won't actually change the world. If we don't start with our own lives, and our own environments, how will anything ever change? What are your Ten Commandments? What is your contribution going to be, and how are you going to make things better? You don't need 613 changes. Just start with a Top 10.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of sjsharktank on Flickr
2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPad
3. CC image courtesy of PinkMoose on Flickr
4. Image courtesy of Ohev Shalom clipart
5. CC image courtesy of rweait-osm on Flickr

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Beshallach: The Blessing of Our Generation

How strange it is that this weekend, which is called "Shabbat Shira" - "The Shabbat of Song," should coincide with the death this week of one of our greatest Jewish singer-songwriters, Debbie Friedman. If you aren't familiar with her work, please look her up online, go to her website, or read any one of the beautiful obituaries written about her. She was an amazing person, a wonderful educator and teacher, and an inspiration to all who heard her music.

I won't copy what others have written about her, though I really do urge you to watch this lovely tribute video about her life. Instead, I would like to share a couple of personal reflections with you. In 1994, my mother brought Debbie Friedman to our Jewish community in Stockholm, Sweden. My mother, then a teacher in the Jewish Day School and principal of the Hebrew School, had translated Debbie's songs into Swedish for years; lyrics that I still remember to this day. The songs themselves are all very catchy, but I was particularly inspired to see how Debbie was able to get all these timid, non-emotive Swedes to stand up and dance to her music! She just had an aura and a glow about her.

I'll freely admit that I have always been a fan of her music. Not perhaps a play-in-your-car-and-sing-along fan, but I still know many of the lyrics, and love the messages she conveyed. She is credited with bringing Hebrew back to Reform services, with her unique ability to weave together Hebrew and English within the same song. I particularly love "Lechi Lach," where she uses the feminine form of the command given by God to Abraham to "go forth." It is a brilliant adaptation of a Biblical quote, because it reminds us that Sarah, Abraham's wife, was just as commanded as he was to leave his home and become a new nation.

In her song, "To Build a Sukkah," she reviewed the requirements of making a Kosher Sukkah, but with a fun tune and light-hearted lyrics. She wrote an Aleph-Bet song to teach the Hebrew alphabet, and it's truly one of the best versions out there! She wrote an adorable song about Thanksgiving; showing that pride in our American heritage is as important as pride in our Jewish one. And who could forget her "Mi-she-beirach" song? Her gorgeous prayer of healing which hundreds of congregations, including Ohev Shalom, sing every week; asking God to heal their loved ones, and which we all sang last week on Debbie's behalf. Debbie Friedman opened up our minds to new insights and perspectives, and she enriched the entire Jewish community, across movement lines, gender lines, and around the world.

In this week's Torah portion, we read the Song of the Sea (which is why this weekend is Shabbat Shira...), a famous 18-verse song about God defeating the Egyptians and hurling them into the Sea of Reeds. Yet we also read a second, much shorter song, known as the Song of Miriam. Like most material about women in the Bible, it was vastly overshadowed by Moses' Song of the Sea for thousands of years. But Debbie Friedman changed all that. She wrote a song about Miriam dancing with the other women, and to many of us, that song is as well-known as its Biblical "older brother," if not more so. That was the power of Debbie Friedman.

This week we dedicate Shabbat Shira to the muse of our generation. In "Lechi Lach" she sang to us that, "on your journey I shall bless you, and you shall be a blessing." She has truly blessed all of our journeys, and she was a tremendous blessing to us all. She will be missed.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Limmud on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Aka Hige on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of zeevveez on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Bo: Teach Them To Your Kids

It's really amazing to me how much of our religious observances center on children. We create rituals, songs, and observances to include them; we cook foods and desserts that will entice their taste buds, and leave them longing year after year; and every holiday and Biblical character comes with stories, legends, and myths that appeal to kids, and make them love being Jewish.
In this week's Torah portion, we discover where our focus on children first began. Towards the end of the story of the ten plagues, as the tenth one is about to hit, God decides to tell the Israelites about the laws of Passover. We learn about Matzah, we learn about Chametz, we even learn that the holiday is seven days long (God obviously meant 8 days if you live outside Israel...). Most importantly, we learn about the Mitzvah of teaching your children about Pesach. God says to Moses, "And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the passover sacrifice to the Lord, because God passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt when God smote the Egyptians, but saved our houses.'" (Ex. 12:26-27)

Hang on a minute. We know that the children are there! This Passover sacrifice isn't being offered only by adults. So if the kids are present, why would they have to ask about the meaning of this ritual? It's because the commandment isn't just on Joe the Slave, who was literally saved from bondage. The Torah is speaking to all of us. God is instructing the Israelites on that day, but God is also addressing every single reader of this book. In every generation, children will ask about the crazy rituals and customs we observe because we are Jews; and we are all obligated to come up with answers.

But Judaism is a tricky religion. On the one hand, we are given a staple answer to give our kids: God saved ME from slavery. But we all know how woefully inadequate that answer is. Why? Because our children KNOW we weren't there! They know we didn't live through slavery in Egypt, and they're pretty certain we didn't trek through the desert for 40 years. So now we've got two options, and the reality is that our obligation as Jews incorporates both of them. First, we should imagine ourselves as having been redeemed from Egypt. We eat bitter herbs, we eat Matzah, and we generally recreate the story we're reading this week in the Torah, so that we'll all feel like we're actually there, and thus the story includes us as well.

More crucially, however, we are also meant to come up with our own answer to our children's questions. What are they really asking us? They want to know: "Why do you care?" They are trying to understand WHY Judaism is meaningful in our lives, and why they should make any effort to be Jewish. So what's the answer? Why read about the Exodus, why celebrate Pesach, and for goodness sake, why be Jewish at all?!? And the answer is... well, you tell me.

Shabbat Shalom!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of zeevveez on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Sam Felder on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Clarkston SCAMP on Flickr

4. Photo taken by Rabbi Jeremy Gerber, 12/26/06
5. CC image courtesy of danagraves on Flickr