Thursday, May 31, 2012

Naso: Feeling the Loss of God's Face

This week, Ohev Shalom lost a truly special and wonderful individual. Henry Dickson was an invaluable member of our synagogue community; a board member, interim Executive Director, regular service attendee, and all-around knowledgeable and dedicated congregant and friend. Earlier this week, Henry died after a long battle with cancer. Among his many accolades, Henry was a beloved teacher in our Religious School, and when I first started writing this blog, Henry would print it out and discuss it with his students. It gave me a lot of confidence in my writing, and in my use of this format, and so I would like to dedicate this week's blog post to him. Henry, we miss you terribly already. May you rest in peace.

Our Torah portion this week is Naso, the second parasha in the Book of Numbers. One of the most famous sections in Naso is the Priestly Benediction, which still to this day is used by many parents to bless their children at the Friday night dinner table, and is also included in many lifecycle  

events. The Etz Hayim Chumash translates the Priestly Benediction as follows: "Thus shall you bless the people of Israel. Say to them: 'The Lord bless you and protect you! The Lord deal kindly and graciously with you! The Lord bestow His favor upon you and grant you peace!'" (Numbers 6:23-26) Now, Henry would have looked at that translation and said, "Is that REALLY what the Hebrew text says?" And of course my answer would be, "No." The Etz Hayim translators would probably argue that they're giving you the figurative meaning of the text, but personally, I like the literal meaning. And Henry was one of many people who, like me, wanted to know what the words were literally saying, and then he could make up his own mind about the interpretive meaning. So let's delve, shall we?

I'm ok with the first line, it is indeed talking about God blessing and protecting us. So far, so good. But the second and third lines have a fascinating wording that provokes a very different theological understanding: 

"May God shine God's Face upon you and be gracious to you! May God turn God's Face toward you and grant you peace!" Are we uncomfortable with the notion of God having a face? Is that why we gloss over this with a figurative translation? Let's instead sit with the challenge of this wording for a minute. What does it mean to see/experience/feel/know God's Face? And even if you don't believe in an anthropomorphic God (a tangible, human-like Divine figure), isn't there something we can learn from the concept of God turning towards us, rather than just asking God to show us favor?

One idea that jumped out at me comes from the Book of Genesis. After not having seen his brother, Esau, for nearly 20 years, Jacob is reunited with his sibling once again. As he tries to offer his brother a caravan filled with gifts, he  

exclaims, "Accept from me this gift; for to see your face is like seeing the Face of God, and you have received me favorably" (Gen. 33:6). To me, what Jacob is saying is that good fortune in life, special joyous occasions, and moments of thanksgiving - they are all LIKE seeing the Face of God. The Divine Countenance is also discussed in the Book of Psalms, a book filled with every human emotion across the spectrum. In at least ten different Psalms, the theme of God's Face features prominently, either as a Presence strongly felt (and therefore the source of joy, confidence, and safety), or a gaping void (and thus the source of agony, sorrow, rejection, and defeat). And it is the central focus of the Priestly Benediction, which has remained one of the most well-known Jewish prayers for over 3,000 years.

God's Face is not theologically problematic to me. Because whenever good things happen in life, it can indeed feel as if the Face of God is shining on us all. And when we are alone in our grief, mourning the loss of wonderful people, it certainly can feel as if God's Face is hidden, and the world is just a little bit emptier. 

The people who bless our lives with their presence, they are the embodiment of God's Light shining in our lives. And knowing that the light can come and go forces us to cherish them while they are around. So make sure to identify the people who represent the Face of God in your life, who light up your existence and spread warmth, joy, comfort, and positivity. Treasure every precious moment that you have with them, and be grateful always.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of the nifty take-picture-of-your screen feature on Rabbi Gerber's iPad.
2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone on a gorgeous afternoon.
3. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone... but the gift courtesy of Ohev Shalom's awesome Confirmation Class 2012!
4. CC image courtesy of The California National Guard on Flickr

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Shavuot: The Rise and Fall (and Rise?) of a Holiday

Shavuot is a little bit like the ugly step-child of our Jewish holidays. Ok, that might sound a bit harsh, but I don't think it's undeserved. Let's face it, if you had to list the Top Five Jewish holidays, would
Shavuot make the cut? How about on your Top Ten? It doesn't have a Passover-like family feast, it doesn't have Chanukah-style gift giving, and it doesn't even have the 'fun' fasting and chest-beating of Yom Kippur (and who doesn't love a little self-flagellation?). For those reasons and more, it has kind of fallen to the bottom of the totem pole. But don't count out Shavuot just yet!

One of the things I love about Shavuot, like most of our holidays, is that you can see a fascinating progression and shape-shifting of the festival throughout our history. It has evolved and been reinvented to suit the values of the time, and it gives us an intriguing insight into the
past... and possibly even the future. First off, Shavuot is meant to celebrate the giving (or really the receiving) of the Torah on Mount Sinai. So the holiday really does take us AAALLLL the way back to our very first roots as a people; hanging out with Moses in the desert. Later, Shavuot evolved into one of the three most important holidays (along with Pesach and Sukkot), because of its agricultural connection. While we were in the desert, this wasn't such an important value. However, once we entered the Holy Land and established a nation, our lives revolved around harvest seasons and Shavuot became the Festival of First Fruits. And that's not a mystical or allegorical title; it was literally the holiday when the first yield of your harvest would appear, you would bring that to the Temple as an offering, and you would ask God for a blessed and successful continuation to the harvest.

Yet as we moved away from farming, Shavuot lost some of its meaning. Other holidays were reinvented, while Shavuot began to fall by the wayside. We tried to revive it by refocusing on the whole God-gave-us-the-Torah-today concept, but it still lacked pzazz. 
Sure, we gave it its own book, but Ruth was never as entertaining as Esther. We gave it a holiday food, but I guess cheesecake and blintzes could never really hold a candle to latkes and hamentaschen. Shavuot was still losing traction. In the Middle Ages, the Kabbalists and other Eastern Europe Jews began a new tradition of studying together all night long; a symbolic gesture to remind us of the eagerness of the Israelites on the night before receiving the Torah at Sinai. Still today, this is a popular custom in many congregations (including ours, Saturday night, 5/26 @ 8pm, in case you were interested...).

So where will Shavuot go from here? I really don't know, but I'm excited to find out! We are all part of Jewish history; the next link in an unbroken chain that came long before us and will go on long after us. But for right now, the religion is ours, and we have the right (perhaps even the obligation) to mold it carefully to fit into our lives. 
Will Shavuot one day take on a sustainability theme? Or a greater message of equality and inclusion? Perhaps we'll come up with entirely new practices inspired by the Book of Ruth, or we'll discover the health benefits of cheesecake (I wish...). Our holidays speak volumes about us and our values, and Shavuot is no different. Some day maybe you'll tell your grandchildren about how their favorite holiday, Shavuot, used to be entirely unknown, and they'll respond, "Really? I can't believe it! Now please tell me more about that holiday, Chanukah, that apparently used to be such a big deal..."

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Gord Bell on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Living in Monrovia on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of _rockinfree on Flickr

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Behar-Bechukotai: The Loudest Still, Small Voice

This week, we have returned back to a section of the Torah known as the 'Tochecha.' It's basically a long tirade in which God elaborates on all the horrible things that will happen if we transgress God's  
commandments. I guess it's what Frank Costanza, from 'Seinfeld,' might call 'The Airing of Grievances.' Though in Seinfeld the Costanzas were primarily dealing with past offenses, whereas God is warning us against possible future transgressions, and just refreshing our memory as to how bad things can get if we mess up. It's a tough part of the Bible to have to listen to every year, so the rabbis tried to come up with a way of making it less painful... or did they?

You see, when we get to the Tochecha, Leviticus, 26:14-45, the Torah reader is meant to chant this section in a softer - yet speedier - tone. Just blow through it quickly and quietly, and maybe no one will even notice we did it. The Etz Hayim
Torah Commentary tells us: "In many synagogues, it is customary to read the Tokhehah [sic] in an undertone, perhaps because its vision of disaster is so frightening." While I understand the reasoning behind this, it also always bothered me. Aren't we supposed to hear this? Sure, no one likes the idea of lengthy punishments and calamities, but that is precisely why we DO need to hear it! We should listen carefully, so that we don't make the mistakes and take ourselves down that evil path. Wouldn't we be better off reading it loud and clear, so we'd know exactly what to watch out for, and what to avoid?

And that's where the genius of the rabbis kicks in. By reading it softly and quietly, people often do take notice. They stop, they pay
attention, and they actually listen in silence, because of the unique way the Torah reader is chanting this section. The rabbis manage to BOTH indicate how unpleasant the reading is AND get people to listen carefully and pay special attention! Once again, I am impressed by the rabbinic brilliance that manages to kill two birds with one style.

In fact, there's even something else we can learn from this same concept. In the First Book of Kings, chapter 19, verses 11-12, Elijah the Prophet encounters God. The Bible tells us, "the Lord passed by
[Elijah]. There was a great and mighty wind, splitting mountains and shattering rocks by the power of the Lord; but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind - an earthquake; but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake - fire; but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire - a still, small voice." Sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that more - not less - is more. Everything is about a lot of pomp and circumstance (which reminds me: Congratulations, Class of 2012!!). Rather, we can actually convey great power and sincerity by speaking softly. When we don't try to overpower others or yell over a crowd, but instead use confidence, poise, and control to express meaning, we can often achieve so much more. 

Even when it comes to the Tochecha, beating people over the head with it won't work. People shut off, they tune out, and they ignore you. But if you lower your voice and just use your tone to express
urgency, people might actually listen. Now here's the really hard part. The Tochecha isn't just a section of this week's Torah portion. It's feedback we try to give one another, it's constructive criticism that's hard to hear, and it's all the tough conversations we need to have with family members, friends, and coworkers. It's all Tochecha, and it's all vitally important... if we're willing to stop and listen to the power and holiness of these softly spoken words.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of iBjorn on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of Allio on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Senor Codo on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of NazarethCollege on Flickr  

5. CC image courtesy of ky_olsen on Flickr

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Emor: Don't 'Just Do It'

I love questions! Specifically, I love engaging with people who have questions/thoughts/musings/challenges regarding Judaism, and who
strive to understand something a little bit better. When I get to take part in that process, I'm overjoyed!! This week at our morning minyan, we had a fabulous discussion about one particular word, found both in this week's Torah reading and throughout our liturgy. The word is 'Shamor,' with all its many variations, and quite frankly it is a very tough word to translate and/or define.

One of this week's Torah readers, Stephen Lehmann, started off our discussion by asking about Leviticus, chapter 22, verse 31, which the editors of the Etz Hayim Chumash have translated as, "You shall faithfully observe my commandments." The problem is, a more literal translation might instead yield: "You shall (Shamor) my commandments, and observe them." So what does 'Shamor' mean? And how is it different from observing or fulfilling God's commandments? Well, first of all, the word 'Shamor' either means 'to protect,' 'to keep,' to preserve,' or 'to guard.' But it seems that every time the word appears - whether in the Torah or in our Siddur, it is translated differently. 
  • In the Ten Commandments, we are told that we must 'Observe (Shamor) the Sabbath day and keep it holy" (Deut. 5:12). 
  • In the Tachanun section of our prayer book, we sing a song called 'Shomer Yisrael,' which is usually translated as 'Guardian of Israel.' 
  • In the Priestly Benediction, we chant, "Yevarechecha Adonai, ve-yishmerecha," and we generally translate that line as asking God to 'bless and keep you.' 
So which one is it?

The instance that really caught my eye, and which I think is the key to helping us make sense of this word, can be found in the second paragraph of the Shema. The middle section of the Shema is infamous for talking about God withholding rain and punishing us for our sins. 
The paragraph actually begins with blessings, and the phrase that indicates the transition from blessings to curses is, 'Hishameru lachem,' translated as 'take care.' In Siddur Eit Ratzon, Joe Rosenstein offers a fascinating interpretation of this paragraph. It's not that God will withhold rain from you, it's that, "if YOU turn away from My commandments, then YOU will also turn away from my rain; you will no longer be aware of this blessing and its source, so that, for YOU, the rain will no longer exist" (emphasis my own). So God isn't changing anything; the difference between blessing and curse is up to us. 'Shamor' is what you make it.

It's about intention and commitment. 'La-asot' represents the action itself. But contrary to Nike's philosophy, it's not enough to 'Just Do It.' We have to also put some meaning and heart into it. You can just
observe the commandments by rote, devoid of feeling or emotion. OR you can put your heart and soul into it and create rituals filled with spirituality, kavannah, and holiness. Perhaps that is why 'Shamor' has so many different translations. Sometimes we are guardians, other times we're keepers or protectors, observers or caretakers. Whatever we are, it shouldn't remain static; it needs to evolve and develop all the time. So next time you're doing something out of habit - whether a religious commandment or something personally meaningful - don't 'Just Do It,' throw a little 'Shamor' in there as well!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Clarkston SCAMP on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of JillK61 on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of yanivba on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of AisforAmy91 on Flickr 

Friday, May 4, 2012

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: A Tale of Two Titles

I love the process of rabbinic interpretation! Let's face it; if there's something you, the Biblical commentator, want to say, you can 'magically' find a way to see it in the text. And one wonderfully sneaky
method the rabbis employ to do this is looking at just the titles of Torah portions. Never mind the context of where something is written, never mind the intention of the original author. For the purposes of what I would like to say here and now, the title hangs in limbo, ready for interpretation. So let's see where this rabbit hole takes us...

This week's parashah is a double-portion, so we are reading both the section known as Acharei Mot and the section called Kedoshim. Acharei Mot literally means 'After the death(s),' and for our purposes we are ignoring what the text is actually talking about. (If you want to read it for yourself, the English translation can be found here.) 
Kedoshim means 'holy,' as in: 'you shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.' (Sorry, that was too much context. I said we were going to ignore that. My bad.) I was reading a Torah commentary on the AJWS website, written a few years ago by Sam Berrin Shonkoff of Stanford University's Hillel. Shonkoff looked at these two titles, and noticed something fascinating when you read them in relationship to one another: 'After death, holiness.' He talked about how darkness can be followed by luminescence; how sometimes tragedy and joy come close together. Death and sadness do not have to be an ending, creating total finality, but rather they can be a beginning, a low point that leads to growth, rejuvenation, and happiness.

This past week, I led a Lunch n' Learn session on God in Medieval Jewish Philosophy (you know, a light and breezy little subject...). We talked about the philosopher Saadia Gaon, who lived in the early 10th Century in Babylonia, and wrote about free will and suffering. 
Saadia suggested that pain and suffering were actually to our benefit as human beings; because they are opportunities to make changes in our lives, to improve our relationship to God, and to lift ourselves up and celebrate life. In the moment of experiencing grief and tragedy, it's obviously hard (if not impossible) to see this, but I think that over time we come to discover that it is true. If everything were perfect all the time, we might lose our appreciation for it, and we could take life for granted. Acharei Mot-Kedoshim - After death, holiness. When we are brought low, that is when we can begin to rise up again, striving for holiness and peace.

We each have the power to reframe our lives. We can allow hardship and adversity to knock us to our knees and leave us decimated. But there is also another possibility: Acharei Mot-Kedoshim. Where is
the potential for holiness in such a moment? Are we able to see it? Do we know how to reach out and grab it, how to pull ourselves up and become the active agents of improvement and sacred change in our own lives? Sometimes the answers are hidden. Like when the titles of two, separate Torah portions seem so far apart, and so unrelated to one another. But when we bring them together - when we, ourselves, bring them together - it's amazing what new insights we can discover, and what new opportunities suddenly come into view.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of garlandcannon on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of vestman on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of jpockele on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Wolfgang Staudt on Flickr