Monday, April 25, 2011

Kedoshim: The Hearter Things to Change in Life

The Torah never tells us the obvious stuff. Think about it. Nowhere in the Torah do you read, "Thou shalt eat when thou art hungry." Duh. "Remember to breath both in and out in order that thou might live and not turn blue in the face, keel over, and die." Thank you. Very helpful. Self-preservation, base instincts, and human nature are things that we don't need instructions in order to fulfill. You generally remember to hold your breath when going under water, and after putting your hand on a hot stove just once, you most likely don't need a second reminder to stay away.

Once you get to common sense and common decency, however, the Torah starts to give more explicit instructions, and for good reason. This week's Torah portion lays out a ton of laws that govern behavior... and throughout the course of human history we've broken pretty much every single one. Even the really big ones - commandments like "Don't steal stuff," "Don't kill anyone," and "Don't cheat on your spouse" - they make perfect sense to all of us, and we're not surprised to hear they are prohibited, yet people nevertheless break them all the time. Why is that? Why are we so good at taking care of ourselves, needing no help to stay alive and navigate life's individual challenges and pitfalls, yet we struggle terribly when it comes to creating a productive society, or even just following laws that are explicitly laid out for us?

We could rail about this for hours. We could point to societal ills, we could point fingers, and we could argue until we turned blue in the face (just don't forget to breath...). But let's ignore all that for a moment. Let's focus instead on one important lesson from our Torah portion, Kedoshim, which unfortunately is a lesson we might prefer to ignore. It's a concept that affects us all, that every, single person is guilty of, and that is excruciatingly difficult to change. In Leviticus, 19:17, the Torah tells us, "You shall not hate your kinsfolk in your heart." Now I'm not saying most of us hate our "kinsfolk," some of us might be very close with our family members. But the commandments we violate are not in public, not visible, not even expressed in words; they are the feelings in our hearts. Kedoshim governs not only the behaviors that others see, but also the subtle, hidden, private actions that are a big part of our lives: How much we give (or never give) to charity that no one sees, how often we say (or don't say) "thank you" to the guy who fills our water glass in restaurants, how often we change lanes on the highway without signaling, or how we react to the plight of people halfway around the earth. These little behaviors - on our own, in our homes, when no one is watching - they are the ones that can truly change the world.

Throughout our parasha, the Torah keeps repeating the phrase "I am the Lord," or "I, the Lord, am your God." For example, "Do such-and-such, I am the Lord," "Don't do this-and-that, I, the Lord, am your God." Why? Because God is with us every step of the way. God is not only the Lord of the Universe, God is also aware of each person's behavior. "I am your God," meaning that God is in relationship with all of us, with each of us, and at all times. Like recycling, every little bit makes a difference. Your choices may seem minuscule, but they aren't. Your actions affect the course of human history, and they can improve it if you set your mind to it.

I encourage each of you to read through this week's Torah portion here. Find just one behavior that you can work on, one challenge that you are willing to take on over the summer, leading into the High Holidays. I know it isn't easy. If it were easy, the Torah wouldn't need to tell us about them. But the Torah does tell us about them. These commandments are important, and in order to create a better future you too are important. Just take a peak. I'll never know if you looked, or if you decided to make any kind of change. In fact, no one else will ever know. Well, maybe Someone will know...

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of billaday on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of uncleweed on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Ellipsis-Imagery on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of The Local People Photo Archive on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of telepathicparanoia on Flickr

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Pesach: Connecting to My Heritage with a Nail and a Palm Branch

When I was in college, a roommate of
mine introduced me to an interesting Jewish holiday ritual. After the festival of Sukkot concluded, he took the palm branch of the lulav and nailed it to the wall above the door of our college room. Ah, the college years... Naturally I asked him what he was doing, and he told me that there is a custom of saving the lulav and using it to kindle the fire in which we burn our chametz before Passover. In doing a bit more research on the subject, I indeed discovered that many people save their lulav branches for six months, so that they can fulfill multiple mitzvot with the same object. In a sense, it is a way of honoring the lulav by using it for more than one mitzvah. I thought it was a pretty nifty custom.So every year since then I save my lulav, hang it on the wall, point it out to people, explain the custom, get myself ready... and then promptly forget to bring it down to burn with my chametz. Some years I forget it for weeks or months, and other times (like this year), I remember it 24 hours later. One day I'll get it right...

I bring up this custom because it reminds me of the cyclical nature of our lives. Judaism has many rituals that emphasize this: The full of month of Elul used as preparation before Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays,

the ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the four special Shabbatot leading into Passover, and the 49-day Omer period between Passover and Shavuot. We do this a lot. We connect things, and we link together Jewish observances. Even at our Pesach Seder, we talk about connecting one Seder to another across time: "This year we are here, next year may we be in Jerusalem." We reflect on ancient Seders, medieval Seders, Seders from our childhood, and the future Seders where we will celebrate the arrival of the Messianic Era. One cycle after another, one cycle inside another.

At Ohev Shalom we've been debating quite a bit about whether our Seder should be traditional - filled with all the practices, songs, foods, chants, and lame jokes that we're used to from so many past Seders - or whether it should be innovative - with new questions, modern challenges, and experimental activities. And most of us answered that it needs to be both. Tradition helps link us backwards, to our ancient ancestors as well as our recently departed family members, and innovation helps propel us forward, inspiring our children and empowering them to keep these practices alive for future generations.

We get so bogged down in day-to-day life, we rarely have
opportunities to step back and reflect. Yet more than any other holiday, Passover is the perfect time for some reflection. How was

your Seder different this year from last? Who used to be there every year, always making the (insert special holiday food), but who passed away since last Pesach? Which nephew/niece/grandchild seemed to be an infant two minutes ago, but now stands proudly on a chair and sings the Four Questions in Hebrew? We compare foods, tunes, and stories to Seders of years and decades past, and we feel, in that moment, deeply connected to our heritage. And that is precisely why we think in terms of cycles.

Reminding ourselves about the passage of time helps us appreciate this moment, right now. As we continue on with the last five days of Passover, I invite you to reminisce about what this holiday means to you, and how it can serve as a connector and a reminder in your life. To what and to whom is entirely up to you.

Chag Kasher ve-Sameach - Happy Passover!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of sandy.zieba on Flickr
2. Image courtesy of my iPhone
3. CC image courtesy of Suzie T on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of telepathicparanoia on Flickr

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Acharei Mot: Focusing on the After

"How do we face the reality of death?"

That line begins a reading that I include in nearly every funeral or unveiling that I perform. Though it later goes on to speak beautifully about cherishing our loved ones while they're alive and honoring the memories of those who have died, to me, the importance of this poem is in the very first line. Death is indeed a reality that many of us have trouble facing. We joke about death, we trivialize it, we ignore it, or we keep ourselves busy to simply avoid it; but ultimately, we don't like acknowledging the inevitable reality of death. Why?

Perhaps it represents chaos, standing as the definition of what we cannot explain or fully understand. It also may symbolize finality, after which we cannot resolve disputes or disagreements, say "I'm sorry" or "I love you." For many, it is even the embodiment of sadness and fear. So why would anyone want to talk about it?? Because it is a reality, and it is an important part of life. We appreciate living when we acknowledge dying; we treasure family, friendship, and love because they do not last forever. Even in other areas of life, the same is true, though we may not always recognize it. Food and drink taste better when there's a final bite waiting and we can see a bottom to the glass.

This week's parasha is called Acharei Mot, and it begins by telling us about what happened to Aaron and Moses after the deaths of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu. But the two most important words of the entire portion are the ones that give it its name: Acharei Mot - After the death. These words remind us that there IS something that happens after someone dies, even (and especially) when the death was a horrific tragedy. Yes, death represents a finality for those who died, but the living must go on! Death cannot become crippling; locking us into a spiral of grief and lament. Aaron was surely devastated after his sons died, but this week we learn that he moved on. Life continued.

But Aaron's sons did not die in last week's portion. It happened three weeks ago, and two other portions came in between, reminding us that moving on with life does not happen instantaneously. It takes time. There is a beautiful story about King Solomon, which I will happily share with you if you're interested, that teaches us the invaluable phrase, "This too shall pass." When we feel overcome by catastrophe, we must remember that things will, eventually, improve. Aaron needed time to grieve and mourn, but he also needed to begin to live again, and honor the memory of his two sons by moving on with his own life.

"This too shall pass" also applies to the good times in life. They won't last forever, so savor and appreciate joy as long as you can. Holding on to the wonderful memories and moments we have experienced gives us strength to face whatever lies ahead. Ultimately, life is a roller coaster with highs and lows. If we face it honestly, acknowledging that life will contain both joy and sadness, opportunities and challenges, then we will truly get the most out of every moment, and live life to its fullest.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of spisharam on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of pink_fish13 on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of scragz on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Sister72 on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of aprilzosia on Flickr

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Metzora: An Appeal to My Fellow Lepers...

Who is in and who is out? Who gets to remain inside the camp, and who has to wait outside? When you come right down to it, that is the subject of this week's Torah reading. On the surface, we are continuing the topic of ritual purity and impurity which began in last week's reading. A major part of this week's parasha describes how an "afflicted" and "impure" individual must remain outside the Israelite camp, and only once they have become pure again may they reenter. Even once they're back with the in-crowd, sometimes they must actually remain outside their own tents for seven additional days!

With this week's reading, it's easy to get bogged down in talking about disease and uncleanliness; but again, to me it's really more about who's in and who's out... and who gets to decide. Just like in ancient times, today we still judge one another, creating divisions rather than dialog. Within the Jewish world, we often feel the need to measure up to a standard of holiness or perfection, jumping through hoops to appease those considered more "pure" or "righteous" than us. When it comes to aliyah, conversion, marriage, and prayer (among other issues), one group makes all the decisions, and pushes everyone else around. Today I would like to add my voice to those who push back.

I was inspired by two recent articles: "Toward a more assertive liberal Judaism" by a former professor of mine, Alex Sinclair, and "Warning: Fundamentalist Morass Ahead" by the Executive Director of the Masorti Movement in Israel, Yizhar Hess. Both authors indicate that Israel is turning into a fundamentalist state, where the Orthodox agenda dominates all aspects of political, social, economic, and military life. And they warn that this crisis is quickly (and

somewhat quietly) swallowing up the entire country. Sinclair writes, "It is Orthodox Judaism that is the main force leading to the destruction of the Jewish people's unity," and he goes so far as to compare liberal Jews (that's us!) to abused spouses who allow the Orthodox authority in Israel to insult us, refuse our conversions, take our money and give nothing back in return; and yet we don't speak up because we don't want to disturb the status quo.

Hess writes, "When a full 13% of all 18 year-olds declare that Torah-learning is their life's work, and as a result the army must cut back on the number of pre-academic programs and public service programs it supports because there are not enough soldiers, something is rotten." There is a line being drawn of who is in and who is out. The Orthodox leadership in Israel is trying to muscle out everyone else; turning us into lepers waiting outside the camp, hoping and praying that we will "fit in" to their rules and be allowed to come home. Why? It is our country as well, and we need to speak up, loud and proud, if we want there to still be a homeland for us to return to.

Towards the end of his article, Sinclair writes, "we liberal Jews must be more prepared to dispute the fundamentalist orthodox position in our dialogues [sic] with orthodox friends and colleagues." In order to dispute, we must know. Please think about these questions: If you're a liberal Jew, do you know why? If you care deeply about Israel, but have no intention of making aliyah, can you defend your position

with pride and confidence? Sitting idly by is not an option, because the situation is devolving quite rapidly. Israel is our country as well. We are not lepers, and we simply don't have the time to wait for a priest to come and declare us pure. We are pure right now, let's get up and tell someone.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Gabe Photos on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Alasdair Middleton on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Simply Boaz on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of leah.jones on Flickr
5. CC image courtesy of Jewishfan on Flickr