Thursday, July 28, 2011

Masei: Look How Far We've Come!

This week's Torah portion is the final section of the 4th Book of the Torah, and next week we begin the 5th, and final book. You might have thought that if the Five Books of Moses together tell us the story of the Exodus from Egypt to Israel, that we would naturally be 4/5 of the way there, with only 1/5 of the journey left until we reach the finish line. Well, you'd be wrong. The Israelites actually reach the end of their marching THIS weekend, and the 5th book is basically just Moses enjoying the sound of his own voice (no offense, Moses).

And as the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land, our reading this week looks back at their entire journey, and basically lists (in regrettably monotonous fashion...) all the places they've stopped. So what do we make of this travel log, this trip down memory lane shared between the Israelites, God, and the reader? Well, for one thing, it reminds us how quickly time flies.

Is it just me, or does it already feel like the summer's nearly over? How did that happen so quickly? How am I already preparing for the High Holidays, and we're all starting to talk about baseball playoffs? Because life does this to us. We blink too quickly, and suddenly seasons have passed, new neighborhoods have been built,

and children stare at us blankly when we make pop-culture references from our childhood. And apparently, the same predicament befell the Israelites. Right now they have stopped at the border to Canaan and are marveling at how far they've come, how many places they've lived in, and how distant slavery and Egypt have rapidly become. "Ah, it seems like only yesterday I tasted my first bite of manna... and now I swear I'll never look at the stuff again, the moment I set foot in Jerusalem and find a good shawarma place!"

In all seriousness, it is nice to see that even the ancient Israelites felt that time moved quickly, and that it was important to stop and take stock every once in a while. I have always loved the John Lennon quote, "Life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans." We do often get distracted by day-to-day minutia, and forget to look up and appreciate the world as it whizzes by us. But you know what? Summer isn't over just yet. Right now seems like a very good time to stop lamenting, enjoy the moment, and reflect on how far we've come in life. And for those of us heading off to Israel, it's also high time to find that really good shawarma place!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of ex_magician on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of adria.richards onFlickr
3. CC image courtesy of A l'origine on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Jeff Attaway on Flickr

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Matot: Both Within and Without Israel

In less than two weeks, I'll be flying off to Israel on a synagogue trip along with 29 members of our congregation. It's been four years since my last trip, and I'm very exciting to be going back. It truly is like no other place on earth; the food, culture, people, scenery, history - all of it is so unique to Israel, and you have to experience it for yourself to understand. I'm especially thrilled to be going with people who have never been before, and to vicariously see Israel for the first time through their eyes. It's going to be a wonderful trip, and I hope that this will only be the first of many Israel adventures together with members of Ohev Shalom.

But I will never be making aliyah. It might surprise you to hear me say that, because Jews often like to keep that door open. We may never seriously consider moving there, but we don't want to rule it out. You never know, right? Well, I've spent two full years in Israel, I've visited many times, and I have lots of family and friends there, and I can tell you

for certain that I am a solid Diaspora Jew. It has always amazed me how many people feel uncomfortable sharing my sentiment, at least publicly. What's wrong with knowing that I will never be an Israeli? For a healthy Israel to survive, there will always need to be a Diaspora community, just as the Diaspora has always needed, longed for, prayed for, and loved Israel. It is (ideally) a symbiotic relationship, and rather than working towards moving all Jews to Israel, we should be investing resources in improving relationship and understanding between these two essential components of the Jewish world.

This is not a new issue. The Diaspora itself isn't new, and neither are the tensions between Jews inside the Land and outside. In this week's reading, we are told that two tribes, Reuben and Gad (and half the tribe of Menashe), approached Moses to ask if they could stay outside Israel, and settle across the Jordan. Moses initially rejected their request, but then he acquiesced, provided they help their fellow countrymen conquer the land. They agreed, and the first Diaspora Jewish community was established. Ever since the beginning of our existence as a people, as a nation, we have had Jews living both within and without Israel... and the tensions between the two have existed just as long.

So what can we do? I doubt we can "solve" this 4,000-year old problem, but we can work on ourselves. Take pride in who you are, and where you live. You don't have to make excuses to anyone, and both communities are vital to the survival of the Jewish People. However, we also need to learn about one another. As Jews, we have a responsibility to know Israel, to spend time

there, to try to learn Hebrew, and to understand this amazing place where our story began. Your feet have to sink into the sand on an
Israeli beach, your forehead has to touch the stones of the Western Wall, and every one of your senses has to experience an Israeli shuk. Nothing you can ever learn or watch or eat in America will ever compare to actually being there.

It may surprise you that you'll not only learn to love Israel, you'll feel greater pride in your own community, and most importantly, it'll strengthen the bond between the two. No matter what anyone says, it is your land. Even if, like me, you are "just" a Reubenite...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of ChrisYunker on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of The Jewish Agency for Israel on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Andries3 on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of JMRosenfeld on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Marion Doss on Flickr

Friday, July 15, 2011

Pinchas: In Search of a Happy Childhood

This week, the theme word for my blog post is "youth." I attribute this theme to two recent trips; one last week, when I spent time with my wonderful nieces in Sweden, and one earlier this week, when I visited synagogue kids at Camp Ramah. Summer is truly the season of youth, and as I turned to this week's Torah portion, I was quite surprised to discover that this is also the parasha of youth. Let me show you what I mean.

Usually when people read the Torah portion Pinchas, they focus on the man himself, Pinchas, who impetuously kills a fellow Israelite flagrantly violating a commandment in front of the community. Readers may also focus on the daughters of Zelophechad (say that five times fast...), who appeal to Moses for equal inheritance rights after the premature death of their father. But I guess I never stopped and took a step back, realizing that throughout the parasha we keep coming back to one example after another of youth taking leadership roles; sometimes successfully... and sometimes tragically unsuccessfully. Here are the main instances:

- We begin with Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron, who acts with great passion, and is rewarded by God, but who truly represents youthful overzealousness, a shoot-first-ask-questions-later mentality.
- Our parasha also gives an account of all males 20 years and older, and informs us that all of them will perish in the wilderness... to make room for younger blood and new leaders.
- We learn of the daughters of Zelophechad, young women who show that the next generation

will not only consist of strong men, but also powerful women who can take initiative, hold their own, and fight for what they believe in.
- We are reminded of Nadav and Avihu, two of Aaron's sons who offered "strange fire" to God and were killed for their transgression. This serves as another example of young people trying too hard and sometimes paying the price.
- This Torah portion also includes the selection of Joshua to take over after the death of Moses; a final reminder of the changing of the guards, and the new generation that will lead Israel into the Promised Land.

I think that you may now agree that this week's reading truly focuses on youth, and the issue of young communal leaders. But we are given both positive and negative examples, reminding us that young people don't always have all the answers (though you'll never hear them admit as much...). Life is about balance; maturity and wisdom paired with fresh perspective and youthful vigor. And most importantly, we should all strive to achieve that balance in ourselves. Wherever you are in life, it is always healthy to afford some time to be playful and even silly, while also knowing when to employ patience and perspective. Most of us fall on one side of the spectrum OR the other, but struggle to incorporate both, and thus never achieve an ideal balance.

A good friend recently quipped: "I may be growing older... but I don't plan on growing up!"

Or to put it another way, "It's never too late to have a happy childhood!" Have a great week, and please make the most of this wonderful summer weather!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Louis Stesis. Campers at Ramah Poconos, 2011.
2. CC image courtesy of Wesley Fryer on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Amir Farshad Ebrahimi on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Fidenaut on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Luciano Meirelles on Flickr

Friday, July 8, 2011

Balak: Svenskt Perspektiv på Samtal

Well folks, I made it here to Sweden, as you can see from the pictures in this week's post. And to answer the question you are all wondering, no, I will not be writing this blog post in Swedish... I thought about it briefly, but the number of readers who would understand anything is minimal, so the gimmick would wear thin pretty quickly. But having spent a few days now back in bilingual-mode, constantly switching between Swedish and English, I will admit that the subject of language has really been on my mind.
Language and communication feature heavily in this week's Torah portion as well, so I couldn't help but focus on it in my blog. In our parasha, Bilaam, a powerful non-Jewish prophet, is summoned by King Balak to curse the Israelites. Bilaam, however, tries to tell Balak that he can only say whatever God wants him to say; he can't decide to curse Israel against God's will. Balak doesn't get it, the two of them continue to talk past one another, and throughout the Torah portion misunderstandings abound. At one point we even witness a talking donkey speaking to Bilaam; seeing and understanding things that Bilaam himself can't (or won't) perceive. Language sometimes highlights for us all the things we don't understand, even more than the things we do.
While I'm here in Sweden, I will also be visiting my new niece, Tamarah, with whom I will probably have great difficulty communicating, given that she is ten days old. And my sister-in-law's family is from Italy, so once again language is usually a bit of a barrier. Yet we are all family, and somehow when we get together it truly feels like family. Speaking is only one way to relate to people, and when it is taken away, you find others. This is even the message of our Torah portion. Last week, we read about the rebellious Israelites, and how God was angry with them. Communication between the two sides might even have ceased for a time. But this week, in a story all about lack of understanding and absence of speech, the main message is that God still loves and protects the people.
Life is about relationships, and speech is only one way to build - or destroy - those relationships. You may not be bilingual, and you may not have a family spread across several continents or speaking multiple languages, but barriers, obstacles, challenges, and miscommunication are all still major risks and common pitfalls. Sometimes we feel like Bilaam, trying to get through to a stubborn King Balak. Sometimes we're Balak, trying to get our way, and foiled at every turn. And yes, sometimes we're also the donkey.