Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Noah: What Happens When The Flood Stops?

Do you know which expression I've always found kind of creepy? (Appropriate to the week before Halloween, I suppose.) "Be careful what you wish for... because it might come true." It's not that I disagree with it, in fact it's more the opposite. Having seen this expression play out perfectly, I'm bothered by how accurate it is, and how hard it is to learn from it. Most things in life have the potential of becoming double-edged swords, where there are both advantages and disadvantages lurking around the corner. The lesson is to be aware of both, to live life in moderation and with careful planning, and to still, despite the risks, keep on wishin'.

This week, we read about Noah and the Flood. You may already know the basic story: The world is wicked; Noah is a good guy; God has Noah build an ark to save himself, his family, and a whole boat-load (literally!) of animals; everyone else is wiped out and the world starts again with Noah. Well, at the end of the story, something in the text caught my eye. After Noah leaves the ark, God proclaims, "Never again will I doom the earth because of man, since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done" (Gen. 8:21). Phew! Thank goodness, right? That's it for devastating floods that wipe out life on earth. We're saved!!

Ah, but don't forget: "Be careful what you wish for..." It's true that God won't ever destroy all life on earth, but that also means that if we descend into lawlessness, we're on our own! Look at the above verse again: "since the devisings of man's mind are evil from his youth." God is reminding us that even though we still have the capacity for the kind of pre-flood evil we had previously perpetrated (think Nazism, genocide, etc.), God won't intervene. It is now up to us to save the planet, or in the words of Gandhi, it is up to us to be the change we wish to see in this world.

In fact, we even learn this in the very next scene in our Torah portion. Noah leaves the ark, plants a vineyard, and promptly gets himself drunk as his first act of new life on earth. A proud moment for
humankind... Avivah Zornberg, a phenomenal Torah commentator, writes about how Noah is actually a second Adam. She points to several interpretations that suggest the "fruit" Adam and Eve sinned with was actually grapes; and that Noah "proceeds to make exactly the same mistakes that the first Adam made." This time, however, God says nothing. God does not intervene. The repercussions for our actions are now in our own hands.

It sounds ominous, I know. But it doesn't have to be all that bad. Just like our creepy expression at the start of this post, the answer is not that we should stop wishing. We just have to be more careful; realize that everything in life involves cause and effect, as well as advantages and disadvantages. Sure, we're on our own, and God won't rescue us if we mess up the planet. But this also represents the birth of free will, one of our most prized possessions as human beings. God is actually giving us an unbelievable gift; the ability to mature, to learn from our mistakes, and to strive, together, to make this world a little bit better. Is it scary? Yes, I would have to say so. Daunting? For sure. But it's also exhilarating, because it is truly the chance of a lifetime. So who needs God to wipe the slate clean?? We've got all the tools we need right here to do it ourselves. So let's move beyond wishing, and let's get to work!
Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Guitarwarlord on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of Ken's Oven on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of
U.S. Embassy New Delhi on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of ideacreamanuelaPps on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of flattop341 on Flickr 

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Bereisheet: The Need to Redeem

Change happens pretty fast sometimes. You think you know something, you've just gotten used to the fact that it's always going to be like that, and all-of-a-sudden, change! It's a fast-paced world, and you've got to stay pretty alert if you want to keep up. For five years, we prayed for the release of Gilad Shalit, and Israeli soldier captured by Hamas. For five years, it seemed like he was lost, and we feared the worst. And then, out of nowhere, we found out that a deal was being negotiated. Before we even had time to process that revelation, videos were up on Youtube showing him hugging his family after five, long years.

Change does indeed happen rapidly... and it's often just as fraught with complexity. What happens now? How will this affect the hope for peace in the Middle East? Was this a step in the right direction... or the wrong one? When will we know? There are no easy answers to these questions. The more you read about the prisoner exchange, the more difficult it is to decide (if there even is such a thing as a final decision) whether this deal should have been done or not. 
And in the future - whether days, weeks, months or years from now - we may feel quite differently than we do now. Today we see Gilad hugging his family. Today we are reminded of the Jewish value of Pidyon Shvuyim, the releasing of captives. We recall the words of Maimonides, who said that one who ignores ransoming captives is guilty of violating essential commandments such as: “you shall not harden your heart”; “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother”; and “you shall love your neighbor as yourself.”And today we also remember that the Israeli government considers redeeming captives to be a paramount principle; maintaining that if an Israeli soldier sees that the State will not redeem its soldiers for a high price, they will retreat from the battlefield instead of facing the enemies and risking capture.

Tomorrow we may regret these sentiments. We are already terrified that the price has become too high, that we've incentivized future kidnappings. But what was the alternative? What else could have been done? Again, there are no easy answers. I doubt many of us would want Bibi's job right about now; no matter how sweet it is for him to have brought Gilad back from captivity. We cannot know
the future, we can only hope and pray that this deal leads to peace and dialogue, progress and reconciliation. It requires a leap of faith. It requires that we not only trust the Israeli government, and their ability to make good decisions, but that we also trust the people on the other side of the fence. And that is hard, for some almost impossible, to do. We even need to have a little trust in the world community, and that hasn't always worked out well for us either. But what else can we do? 

Our Jewish tradition tells us that, "He who saves one soul, it is as though he has saved an entire world." Today, it almost feels as if this is more true than ever before. One life has been saved, and a nation celebrates. Now there is a chance that worlds can be saved as well. Will it happen? Who knows? But I hope and pray that we have taken a step in the right direction. And not just a step... a leap of faith!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Israel Defense Forces on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of Wesley Fryer on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of
Israel Defense Forces on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of woodleywonderworks on Flickr

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sukkot: Sermons, videos, and (lighter than usual) blog posts for the holidays

Chag Sameach - Happy Holiday!

The greetings change, but the holidays continue. Now that Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are both behind us, you might have thought that the holiday season was over. You'd be wrong! In fact, on Wednesday evening we launch into another holiday, Sukkot. We now move the party outdoors, and settle into the Sukkah (outdoor hut), for a little communing with nature. It also brings us back to the days of the Exodus, wandering in the desert (fall weather, be damned!) and living in nomadic, temporary dwellings. I guess they too hung up paper chains and plastic fruit, and had to contend with tarp-issues; my, how little has changed in 4,000 years!

Anyway, the celebration of yet another festival has made it challenging to get back into the normal weekly routine. Therefore, in lieu of a "regular" blog post, I will be offering you another set of High Holiday videos on our synagogue website. Unfortunately, the new videos are not yet available, but will be on the website by Monday, October 17th. Once they're there, I would like to draw your attention to the final sermon, and in particular the story that I shared at our Neilah services at the end of Yom Kippur. The Day of Atonement may be in the past, but the messages of the season remain. On the Shabbat of Sukkot, we will be reading selections from the Book of Ecclesiastes, or Kohelet in Hebrew. It is indeed quite appropriate to be reading this book on Sukkot, because it reminds us of the fragility of life, the importance of living in the moment, and the idea of making the best of every minute of every day. Spending time in a Sukkah, especially during rain, wind, and sometimes even snow (try growing up in Sweden, and you'll understand...), definitely helps you focus on the precariousness of life. And this is also the message of my final High Holiday sermon.

Thank you for sticking with my blog during this trying holiday season. I promise to get back into the regular swing of things soon enough. In the meantime, enjoy the string of holidays ahead, don't eat too much, pray just enough, and I'll see you on the other side.

Chag Sameach!

Images courtesy of Rabbi Gerber and Congregation Ohev Shalom.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Rosh Hashanah: Happy New Year and G'mar Tov!

Shana Tovah - Happy New Year!

I apologize for my absence from the blogging-world last week, but as you can imagine, I've had my hands quite full with the High Holidays. I am still very much in the midst of holiday preparations and sermonizing, so I will not be writing an official blog post once again. Being that this is the season of atonement and apologizing - Sorry.

However, in case you are curious about what I've been up to, and what I've been writing, you can actually watch my sermons yourself. If you're interested, I have recorded my three Rosh Hashanah sermons for your viewing pleasure. After Yom Kippur, I will attempt to put those speeches up as well. Furthermore, if you are planning on joining us at Ohev Shalom for Yom Kippur, you may want to peruse these recordings, because all my sermons are actually linked together. As I told the Jewish Exponent in last week's paper, my sermons this year are all about "a sense of community," and each sermon will contribute another piece of the puzzle through to the end of Neilah on Saturday night.

So I apologize again for no blog post, but if you DO check out the videos, please write and let me know what you think. Thanks so much!

Even though it is still a New Year, the greeting we offer one another changes for Yom Kippur. We now offer each other a G'mar Chatima Tovah (say that five times fast...), which means, essentially, "May you have a good end to this season, and may you be sealed in the Book of Life." Or you can also shorten it and just say:

G'mar Tov!

Photo in this blog post courtesy of Ohev Shalom.