Thursday, September 22, 2011

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: What To Fill Your Heart With

This season sure is full of activity! Our Hebrew School is full of kids, our preparations for the High Holidays are in full swing, everyone's gearing up for a baseball postseason (hopefully...) full of success, and certainly in this part of the country the rain has been most plentiFUL. But let's stop for a second and examine that word, "full." It just so happens (strange coincidence indeed) that our new High Holiday prayerbook, our Machzor, is titled "Lev Shalem," which means "a full heart." Or does it?

The word for heart, "Lev" (and the Biblical form "Levav"), is straightforward, but the translation of "Shalem" is a lot more ambiguous. The phrase can actually be found in the Machzor itself, during the silent Amidah, where we read: “Put Your awe upon all whom You have made … let Your works revere You … and form one fellowship to worship you with a levav shalem.” But we still have to
ask ourselves, what is a "Lev Shalem," and how do we get one? In the most recent issue of the magazine CJ:Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Rabbi Elliot B. Gertel wrote an article examining the different potential meanings of "Lev Shalem." In it, Rabbi Gertel goes through possibilities like "a perfect heart," "a peaceful heart," "a complete heart," and "a full heart," and in the end rejects them all. He writes, "A lev shalem is a heart of integrity. It is a sincere, undivided heart." For Rabbi Gertel, the focus is on willingness to participate in community, to come to the High Holiday service with a desire to change, an openness to new perspectives, and an eagerness to serve and give back.

While I like his ultimate conclusion, and certainly agree that sincerity is crucial to this season of repentance and change, I find Rabbi Gertel's position to be too prescriptive. Why do we need to settle on a "correct" translation of this phrase? What I love about the title of our new prayerbook is precisely its ambiguity! I am drawn in by its mystique, its multifaceted potential. I may have a sense of what "Lev Shalem" means to me, but why can't it mean something else to you? Our hearts are the center of our emotional beings, and so the "type" of heart we bring with us to services reflects what's going on in our lives. Each person comes to services looking for something specific to him or her. When the Cantor begins to sing Kol Nidrei, we each, in a sense, hear something different, and our hearts are touched in unique ways.

Where are you this High Holiday season? In addition to a head covering, a tallit, and a new set of threads, what kind of heart will you be bringing with you on Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur? And by the way, "Lev Shalem" might refer to where we hope our hearts will be by the end of the High Holidays; it isn't necessarily referring to how you arrive. You may come searching for a "perfect heart," or longing for a "peaceful heart," and if that is the case, I sincerely hope you find what you're looking for.

In this week's Torah reading, Moses is quickly coming to the end of his life. He seems desperate to secure his legacy, and make sure the Israelites remain true to God and the commandments. What is Moses'
state-of-mind? Or perhaps more poignantly, what is his state-of-heart? Is he able to enter this period of his life with a "Lev Shalem"? Like Moses, we each have to come to terms with the choices we have made and the paths our lives have taken. The ability to look back at the end and say that life was lived to its fullest is not about the facts, not about the details of what happened and when. It's about perspective. It's about how we view life, and how we should strive to feel good, content, satisfied, and at peace. In short, it's about obtaining a "Lev Shalem."

Photos in this blog post:

1. Image courtesy of Ohev Shalom

2. CC image courtesy of garlandcannon on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of Ohev Shalom

4. CC image courtesy of quinn.anya on Flickr 

5. CC image courtesy of Naimi&virg on Flickr

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Ki Tavo: Lessons from a Desert(ed) Classroom

As the new school year begins, Ohev Shalom is once again filled with the presence of young people. From the infants and toddlers in Federation's Kehillah program, to religious school kids returning to their studies, our B'nai Mitzvah students, and the incoming Confirmation class; we run the gamut here inside our building. It is with that in mind that I look at this week's Torah portion, Ki Tavo. 

One question keeps popping back into my head as I read this parasha, how do we get people to buy in? How can you facilitate someone's Jewish journey, creating a positive and meaningful, fun yet educational, spiritual and historic, modern yet traditional, specific but not exclusionary, amazing Jewish experience??? Piece of cake, right? We have all these young folk scurrying through our building, and we want them to care about Judaism, we're just not always sure how to get there. We think we know. We know the approach we're going to take, and we know the SWBAT's (Students Will Be Able To. Thank you, MA in Jewish Education...) that we want to achieve, but there are no guarantees. It's frustrating. BUT, it's also nice to know that God and Moses struggled with the very same issues.

Our Torah reading highlights different approaches that Moses and God tried to take in order to get the Israelites to subscribe to the new Exodus Agenda (my title). The people are at the border of the Promised Land. The goal is simple: Get in there, sweep away idolatry, create a country with new cities and towns, build a Temple, and establish a new religion, culture, and society. Yikes! Understandably, you need people to subscribe to your philosophy, and get really excited about it, or this enterprise is going to be awfully short-lived... I read a wonderful Torah commentary this week by Shira Epstein, a professor in Jewish Education (and former teacher of mine) at JTS in New York. 
Dr. Epstein points out different "modalities," ways to educate, that are used in our parasha. Moses goes back and forth between praising, admonishing, teaching, preaching, and encouraging the people to feel connected. They are given "activities" to create a connection to God and the land, and they are chastised for bad behavior they may be tempted to engage in sometime in the future. Dr. Epstein writes, "each of the activities Moshe describes is what educators might view as a 'scaffold' to help the people ultimately feel invested in both venerating their lineage and their land, and thus, preserving the laws that guide their everyday communal practices." 
Our biggest problem with this Torah portion, however, is the lengthy list of curses, known as the Tochecha, that Moses launches against the people. What kind of an educational model is that?!? But as any parent or teacher will tell you, there's the ideal... and there's reality. Like stubborn and insolent children, the Israelites only occasionally respond to reward and encouragement; sometimes they also need reprimands and a timeout in the corner. And like with parenting, we often have comments and "helpful" suggestions for other parents; we just never want that well-intentioned advice ourselves! It's easy to judge how Moses handles the Israelites, and point out the flaws in his leadership style. As we get closer and closer to the High Holidays, let's not forget to look back at ourselves, and the relationships we've created with children, students, and peers. Or even parents, teachers, and colleagues. Imagine for a minute how hard it would be if you yourself were in Moses' sandals!

Instead, let's put aside the judgment, yet hold onto the underlying lesson: How do you create buy-in? What gets someone excited and enthusiastic, and how do you empower him or her to take ownership? These were the questions facing Moses and God, and they continue to challenge us to this day. But wrestling with this challenge does remind us we're still on the journey, and we're still engaging with Judaism and caring about the next generation. And that truly is half the battle right there.

Photos in this blog post:

1. Image courtesy of Ohev Shalom

2. CC image courtesy of ewige on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of Anthony Shemmans on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Ken Wilcox on Flickr 

5. CC image courtesy of emdot on Flickr

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Ki Teitzei: In Tragedy, A Lesson On Limitless Love

I really don't like writing about the same things year after year. Some Torah portions have prominent stories that lend themselves particularly well to interpretation and commentary, but I get tired of focusing on the same stuff over and over. I like searching for fresh angles and new insights, different ways of looking at the same text. Sometimes, however, a new insight finds me.

One of this week's big stories deals with the law of the stubborn and rebellious child. According to our parasha, if a set of parents have a defiant son, described as a glutton and a drunkard who does not heed their words, they should bring him to the city gates for a public trial. There, if he is found guilty, "the men of his town shall stone him to death" (Deuteronomy 21:21). The Bible concludes this disturbing instruction by informing us that, "Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid." This teaching has always troubled me, as I'm sure it does you. The rabbis try to mitigate the severity of this law by limiting its applicability; declaring ultimately that no child could be liable for this sentence. Of course, that only makes me feel slightly better; I've still always been appalled that the Torah could ever suggest this type of punishment in the first place. But this week, I gained a new perspective on this teaching.

As some of you already know, during the past week at Ohev Shalom we held a memorial service for a 21-year old young man who died tragically and suddenly. It was, and is, a horrific situation, and the more I learned about this individual and his family, the more upset I became. There are no answers to a tragedy like this one, no explanations or excuses that will make us feel alright with the world for allowing this to happen. And there were many things that were also heart-breaking about the struggles and challenges that he faced his entire life. But what dawned on me in thinking about our Torah reading, is that his parents never, never gave up on him. It was terribly sad, yet somehow also beautiful, that throughout all his difficulties, everything he had to face and which he sometimes couldn't beat, his parents were his greatest cheerleaders. They were proud of him, they encouraged him, they did everything humanly possible for him, and even when it became clear that it wasn't enough, they never stopped trying.

Unlike our Torah portion, the memorial service this week taught me about how unconditional and endless love can be. Our parasha talks about giving up, but sometimes love reminds us not to. When we get to the High Holidays in a few weeks, we will once again focus on teshuva, on repentance and forgiveness. We remind ourselves that God never gives up on us; that God waits till the very last moment - and sometimes even beyond - to let the repentant sinner turn around and be forgiven. If God can do it, so must we. I am once again bolstered in my rejection of this law of the stubborn and wayward child. This week, in the midst of tragedy and heart-wrenching grief, I learned a valuable lesson about the endless power of love.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of loufi on Flickr.

2. CC image courtesy of zakwitnij on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of Ravenscar on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Nisha A on Flickr

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Shoftim: Refusing to be Undermined by God

Leadership needs to be clearly established. It can't be dubious, tenuous, or unstable, because it leads to chaos. There can certainly be changes of leadership, but when that happens, it needs to be done well, or we're back to the chaos we were fighting to avoid in the first place. The Bible recognizes this, but quite honestly struggles to figure out how to make it work. It's as if God is kind of new at this whole human-beings-with-free-will gig, and is learning over time. Sometimes even God needs a learning curve.

The beginning of our Torah portion tells us, "You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your
tribes, in all the settlements that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice" (Deut. 16:18). We are also later given the laws of how to choose a king, and how that king should rule, as well as various legal statutes to help govern our society. But there's one problem that persists, one pretty major player who threatens to ruin the entire system: God. As long as there is a Divine voice telling us what to do, there is no way that a human court can succeed. Just ask Moses how easy it was to lead the Israelites through the desert...
The problem is, we always want God to tell us what to do. It's true, we like the idea of a court of human judges, but only right up until the moment they hand down an unfavorable verdict. When that happens, we try to appeal to a higher court, then an even higher court, and eventually we demand that our case go to the Highest Court: the one in heaven. It undermines the entire system! There is a wonderful rabbinic midrash (story), wherein a group of rabbis were arguing about how to rule in a particular case. One rabbi, Rabbi Eliezer, held the minority opinion, and he called upon God to display miracles to prove that he was right. Miracle after miracle indeed appeared to show that he was correct, but the other rabbis refused to change their minds, until ultimately Rabbi Joshua looked upward and yelled out, "Lo Bashamayim Hi," "It is not in heaven!" God cannot step in and decide for us, or we will never trust ourselves to make choices, stand by our opinions, or build up a functional society.

Today, you often hear people say that God told them to do one thing or another. I respectfully
disagree with them, because I don't think God speaks directly to individuals, telling us to do, say, or believe anything. God endowed us with free will in order to make those decisions for ourselves. The first time that God actually steps in and tells you what to do, you'll never trust yourself to make another decision again. "Do I want waffles or pancakes for breakfast? Eh, I can't decide. God, a little help please?"
We don't hear a Divine voice the way people did in the Bible, because God finally realized that intervening cripples us. God tried to step in with our ancient ancestors, but eventually realized it was preventing them from ever truly becoming independent and self-reliant. God's heavy-handedness doesn't help us along, and it doesn't solve any of our problems. We need to make it work on our own. That doesn't mean, however, that God is absent in the world. God is always there - always - to offer support, comfort, strength, courage, and a proverbial shoulder to cry on. Sometimes even a punching bag when life treats us unfairly or when tragedy strikes and all we want to do is yell at the world. But in the end, we all have to figure out our own path to walk, and then just start walking.

hotos in this blog post:

1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Gerber.

2. CC image courtesy of Valerie Everett on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of the prodigal untitled 13 on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of TheCulinaryGeek on Flickr

5. CC image courtesy of anna gutermuth on Flickr