Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Chukat: How It Feels to be Homeless in the Desert

This week I will be flying home to visit my family in Sweden. Even as I wrote that last sentence, I paused before typing the word "home." I haven't lived in Sweden in 12 years, and there's a good chance I won't be moving back there ever again, yet somehow it still feels natural

to write that I'm traveling "home" when I visit there. The only family member still living in Stockholm is my father, and no Gerbers have resided in my childhood apartment on Karlavagen 101 for years, so it really is hard to put a finger on why it still feels like home. Perhaps that is why so many songs have been written about that word, because "home" is often something intangible, subjective, fluid, and emotional. And this week, home is very much on my mind.

Let's begin in this week's Torah portion... surprising, I know. In our parashah, we read about the devastating incident that led to Moses being barred from the promised land. The people were thirsting for water, and when God instructed Moses to speak to a

rock, he instead struck it with his staff, and out poured cool, refreshing water. To which God declared, "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers 20:12). There are a lot of issues we could focus on in this story, but for now, I would like to talk about the granting, and denying, of access to home.

For Moses, home was a place he had never been, but to which he longed with all his heart. It was the one place that represented security, independence, empowerment, belonging, and acceptance. Most of us cannot even imagine how Moses felt; what it meant to him to remain in the wilderness, in limbo, languishing without a home. But for many people living in the US today, Moses' story is all too familiar.

Last week there was an amazing article in the New York Times Magazine, written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Jose Antonio Vargas, where he revealed that he himself was an undocumented immigrant in the US. He had never before shared this information publicly. Vargas has also created a website, Define American, which challenges us to think about

belonging... and home. In his New York Times article, Vargas writes, "I grew up here. This is my home. Yet even though I think of myself as an American and consider America my country, my country doesn't think of me as one of its own." He also talks about fellow illegal immigrants as "members of the 21st Century Underground Railroad," referencing the fight against slavery. I very much agree with him, but I also think of these individuals as members of the 21st Century Exodus, people who started a journey towards a home, but - like Moses - are not allowed to finish it.

Sometimes Sweden still feels like home. But I am also constantly aware of, and tremendously grateful for, my American citizenship. I love where I live. I love my community, and I love feeling a part of it, and feeling like I belong. How can I deny someone else that same right? How can I force other people to remain in limbo, to feel the heartbreak of Moses who was barred from his home... or Jose Antonio Vargas, who feels like his home does not accept him? Please click on the links above. Read the articles, ask yourselves the questions that Vargas poses, and think about what home means to you, and what it should mean to everyone. This week, leading into the 4th of July, I am reading the text of our Torah from a very different perspective, and I encourage you to do the same.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. Siblings in Stockholm, 2000.
2. CC image courtesy of Rich Man on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Steve Snodgrass on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of ilovememphis on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of katerha on Flickr

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Korach: The Challenge of Feedback Continues

One of the hardest gifts to receive is critique. We talked about this a few weeks ago, when I wrote that Tochecha, rebuke, is a present that we give one another, that can help us learn, grow, and improve. But unfortunately, it's never as easy as that. Feedback gets taken the wrong way, someone feels offended, and relationships end in the blink of an eye. And so rather than dealing with the perilous realm of critique, we keep our mouths shut.
That was my blog post from a few weeks ago. This week, I would like to explore the other side of the same issue; the person refusing to accept the feedback. What if we're not the person trying to make a "friendly" observation; what if we're the one being observed? We need to ask ourselves: Am I willing to be open to comments, even if they're painful and might require serious introspection and maybe even change? In our current Torah portion, we see that even Moses - one of our greatest leaders - struggles with this very question.
At the start of the parasha, we are told that a relative of Moses, Korach, "betook himself... to rise up against Moses"(Num. 16:1-2). Together with his band of rebels, Korach declares, "You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" (16:3) The attack is directed squarely at Moses, and his role as the leader of the Israelites. Yet in Moses' response to the attack, he amazingly redirects the criticism, stating: "Truly it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?" (16:11) Aaron? Why does Moses claim the attack is against Aaron? Or against God? Could it really be that Moses thinks Korach is angry at both God and Aaron, yet not angry at him??? I am amazed at how Moses deflects the issue and paints himself as a mediator on the sideline.
But don't we ourselves act the same way? When someone tries to criticize us, we too find reasons why it isn't really applicable. The person was rude or crazy; the comment was unwarranted or unfair; we tell ourselves that other people do the same thing, so why was I being singled out for criticism??? We'll jump through endless hoops to avoid having to confront the possibility that we aren't perfect. How differently might this Biblical feud have ended if Moses had sat down with Korach and tried to understand his issues? Feedback, critique, even criticism; they all open the door for new opportunities. They give us a chance to grow and become better people.
The rabbis of the Talmud ask and answer an important question: "Who is wise? One who learns from all people" (Pirkei Avot, 4:1). Note that it says, "from all people." It's easy to learn from teachers, scholars, even an occasional rabbi. It's harder to learn from someone who is offering rebuke; though perhaps there is all the more to learn from that person. If/when you are feeling attacked, try to take a step back and not lash out right away. And don't deflect their observations. Be curious about your own emotions, allow yourself time to reflect on what they are saying, and try to seize the precious opportunity to learn something. You may be surprised at what you discover, and you may even wind up thanking them... well, maybe eventually.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of erika g. on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of paradiseranche on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of barry.pousman on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Kissimmee - The Heart of Florida on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Lazurite on Flickr

Monday, June 13, 2011

Sh'lach Lecha: Getting It Right The First Time

Sometimes in life, we don't get second chances. It may surprise you that I am saying this, because so often in Judaism we talk about repentance, forgiveness, and change. Indeed, our High Holidays are all about second chances, where we espouse the notion that God is always ready to receive us; always willing to take us back, to forgive our offenses, and wipe the slate clean. And all that sounds really, really great... but sometimes life just doesn't work that way. Even though it's hard to accept, an important lesson we must learn is to make the most of the time we have on this earth, to appreciate those around us, and not waste our lives... because sometimes, you just can't get it back.

This week's Torah portion is an ominous one, where 12 spies scout out the Promised Land in preparation for its conquest. But ten of the spies bring back a report that it's unconquerable, and only two, Joshua and Caleb, say that God's mission can be accomplished successfully. The people, of course, side with the pessimists and attempt to rebel against Moses and God; wanting instead to turn

back to Egypt. Naturally, God is furious with their lack of faith, and if Moses hadn't calmed God down, all of the Israelites might have been wiped out on the spot. However, it is at
that moment that God declares that we will wander the desert for 40 years before making a second attempt to conquer Canaan. All the members of the older generation must first die out before the new and improved Israelites - Version 2.0 - are allowed to leave the desert and enter the Holy Land.

Now this part rarely gets talked about: After the Israelites hear God's proclamation, they quickly change their minds and get ready to march into Canaan. But the moment has passed! God is no longer on their side, and even though they have (seemingly)

regained their courage, the opportunity came and went, and there is no way they can change their fate. As the foolish Israelites prepare to attack, Moses chides them, "Why do you transgress the Lord's command? This will not succeed. Do not go up, lest you be routed by your enemies, for the Lord is not in your midst" (Numbers, 14:41-42). There is no going back. The Israelites realize they were wrong, they acknowledge that they sided with the wrong spies, and they see that if they only had faith in God, the mission would be successful, no matter how powerful the opposition. But it's too late. They rush up to attack their enemies... and they are defeated.

In Judaism, we like to talk about repentance. Often in life we can change our ways, and we can

improve the way we live. But we also cannot use repentance as an excuse for making poor choices right now. Time and again the rabbis remind us that Yom Kippur is not an invitation to live a life of sin, dishonesty, and dishonor for an entire year, only to have everything washed away and nullified just because we dress in white and fast for a day. Yes, God accepts our penitence, but we are also strongly encouraged to get it right the first time so we don't have to repent!

Don't rely too heavily on the High Holidays. Life is lived every, single day, and we are held accountable - to ourselves, to our family, friends (even those on Facebook...), our community, and certainly to God - for everything that we do. Yom Kippur reminds us of the path we should be walking, and how to get back there if we've gone astray. But why not look for that path today, and start figuring out how to stay on it and avoid future temptations to get lost? You may not get a second chance, so why wait till you need one?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Alyssa L. Miller on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Robbo-Man on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of The National Guard on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of MinivanNinja on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Todd Barnard on Flickr

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Beha'alotecha: When Divine Spirits Won't Help You Decide

This week I am writing my 100th blog post. It's hard to believe that I've already written 100 of these things; it doesn't seem so long ago that I sat down to write post number one. Thank you, everyone, for reading my blog. Your comments and feedback have been invaluable, and I truly consider Take on Torah to be a collaborative project. And I can promise you this, as long as you keep reading and commenting, I'll keep writing. Thanks for all your support! ...And now, on to this week's post!

Leadership is tough. It may seem like a lot of fun, but once you take on that mantle, it ain't easy! Public scrutiny, little praise yet LOTS of blame, and a good number of people who think they could do your job better than you can. Thankfully, I'm not speaking from personal experience, but rather from this week's Torah portion, which shows us some of Moses' greatest challenges during the Exodus. As usual, the people are complaining. This time the manna isn't enough for them, they want meat! In addition to all the kvetching, Moses loses one of his favorite advisers, his father-in-law, God scolds him, and worst of all, he faces a coup from his own siblings! The job is getting the best of him, and he is forced to ask God for help.

God acquiesces to Moses' request, and instructs him to pick 70 elders who will be imbued with the Divine spirit, and who will share the burden of leadership. What follows is a fascinating scene where two elders seem to be receiving this Calling in an unsanctioned manner, and Moses' advisers fear it will undermine Moses' authority. They beg him to stop these "rogue" elders, but Moses surprises them by declaring, "Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord's people were prophets and that the Lord would put His Spirit on them!" Moses isn't looking for more control, he's looking for less, and he would happily give it all away in a heartbeat!

Now, I feel kind of bad criticizing Moses - after all, the guy has had a rough couple of years. But the notion of every Israelite being a prophet, being a leader, is pretty frightening. Whether you like it or not, leadership is necessary. Without it, you're going to end up with anarchy and chaos. Someone needs to make decisions, and yes, someone needs to be accountable and listen to people's kvetching. Moses selfishly hopes to relinquish control, even though clearly God considers him the best person for the job. In our lives, we too must strive to figure out what our greatest potential is, and do everything we can to live up to it. Not everyone is meant to be a leader or a prophet, but we all have limitless potential.

The Talmud teaches us, "In a place where there is no leader, strive to be a leader." We should seek out opportunities to be at our best, chances to make the world a better place for the people around us. But what happens in a place where there already is a leader? There is still a role for us to play, and many ways we can help out and do our part. One of the reasons the Israelites struggled so much throughout their time in the desert was because Moses never became comfortable in his role. Sometimes we don't get to choose where life will take us, but we can always affect our own lives, and make the most of every situation. Don't wait for the "Spirit of God" to come down and anoint you a leader. Follow instead those most wonderful words of Mahatma Gandhi: "Be the change you wish to see in the world."

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of My Buffo on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Ian W Scott on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of St_A_Sh on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Ben Sutherland on Flickr