Thursday, August 30, 2012

Ki Teitzei: A Chance Is Coming... But It's Also Going!

One of the prayers in the High Holiday liturgy that always gets the strongest reactions is called "Un'taneh Tokef,' and it includes the
famous (infamous?) line: 'Who shall live and who shall die?' It talks about people who will perish by fire or drought (which certainly hits home after the harsh weather we've suffered in this country throughout the summer), and people who will die by flood (which also seems particularly apropos...). It also indicates that God is sitting in judgment, deciding everyone's fate for the year to come. Let's face it; many people hate this prayer.

Now, I don't have any easy answers, and I'm not going to spend too much time defending this prayer... at least not right now. We'll talk more about it in High Holiday services next month, so please come and struggle along with me when we get there. But I will say that the liturgy is trying to provoke us to 
feel something. Some prayers are consoling and comforting, some are joyous and glorifying, some are dark and morbid - because we, the congregation, all of us sitting in that sanctuary, we are feeling different things. We aren't all in one mood, coming to services feeling one thing. Our differences are reflected in the prayer book; our multitude of emotions and challenges are mirrored in the words of different authors throughout Jewish history. 

We are now in the month of Elul, the preparatory month of repentance before the High Holidays. Interestingly, this week's Torah portion is called Ki Teitzei, meaning 'When you go out,' and next week's portion is called Ki Tavo, meaning 'When you enter.' It's like the Torah can't decide if we're coming or going! And these two readings are always read back-to-back, and always in the month of
Elul. So there is an element of confusion, of searching, of disorientation, and of journeying that is inherently a part of this season. Ki Teitzei features many laws about creating community, mainly civil interactions between individuals, and between the individual and the greater society. We are thus reminded that being part of a congregation means sacrificing SOME of your autonomy to help the group function as a whole. Our High Holiday Machzor, our prayerbook, is filled with readings and ideas that appeal to different people at various stages of life. In much the same way, our community has something for everyone, but a lot of it isn't going to resonate with you and with your life.

I'm just preparing you right now - the High Holiday Machzor is going to be filled with prayers that don't mean anything to you. It's ok! Start thinking, right now, about what you DO want to get out of the holiday season? What are you coming
to synagogue to change or to reflect upon? Don't worry about all the liturgy that isn't speaking to you, just as you also shouldn't worry about the people sitting next to you singing too loud or too soft, talking too much or too little, wearing the wrong thing or too much perfume. Spend the rest of Elul getting ready for the High Holidays by developing a personal plan of action. Otherwise it's just going to feel like a lot of going and coming, and getting angry at the same prayers that bothered you last year. Once you sit down in your seat and quiet down all those other voices, this is your chance to make real change and improvement in your life. Don't waste that opportunity!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of NASA Goddard Photo and Video on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of rennes.i on Flickr
3. Image courtesy of a very confused iPhone...

4. Image courtesy of an equally confused Machzor.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Shoftim: Have I Got A Job For You...

Being a prophet must be one of the worst jobs imaginable. If you study the words of the ancient prophets, you quickly start to realize that this was NOT a fun job at all, to say the least! Jeremiah hated it, Jonah couldn't get away fast enough (no, I really mean it. He tried to
run, but God caught up to him; he literally couldn't get away fast enough!). On the one hand, God is barking orders in your ear, telling you to convey messages of destruction, punishment, and doom, and on the other, your fellow humans yell back at you for chastising them. I mean seriously, who wants to hang around that depressing weirdo who keeps saying that God told him we're all going to suffer for our sins? This week, we're introduced to the concept of prophecy, but we are still left asking ourselves, what is the point of it all? Who are these unfortunate people saddled with THIS job, and what are we to make of prophecy in the Ancient World, and in our lives today?

The Torah portion Shoftim informs us, "I will raise up a prophet for them from among their own people, like yourself [Moses]: I will put My words in his mouth and he will speak to them all that I command him" (Deuteronomy 18:18). It sounds so easy, doesn't it? That's why we think it's a great job, and why we talk about 'modern-day prophets' like it's a good thing. It sounds powerful and influential. But what happens when the people don't like the message, and they won't
stop sinning? God keeps getting angrier, and the people - unwilling to change - tune out the prophet. Who gets squeezed in the middle? Mr. (or Ms.) Prophet. I guess I also find myself wondering why God doesn't just WRITE the message somewhere. Why not carve it, like the Ten Commandments, in stone, or iron, or gold (for that really snazzy look)? God could blast a message across the Great Wall of China, or write it on the moon, for goodness sake, so we'd all REALLY see it! Why force some shlemiel to be the bearer of bad news, especially when most prophets really weren't that successful in getting people to change anyway??? 

In his book, "The Prophets," Abraham Joshua Heschel attempts to answer this question. He writes, "The prophet is a person, not a microphone... The prophet's task is to convey a divine view, yet as a person he is a point of view. He speaks from the perspective of God as perceived from the perspective of his own situation." In other words,
it isn't about an objective message from God, that can be written in some inanimate, lifeless place. God wants us to understand that this is OUR world; WE need to fix it. The prophet is down on the ground with us all, in the trenches, and is speaking from a place of equality and understanding, not holier-than-thou judgment. No, it isn't easy being a prophet. It was probably impossibly hard - for Isaiah and Jeremiah... and for Martin Luther King and Gandhi as well. But what other choice is there? This is our world that we're destroying. Like a person in a boat trying to bore a hole under his own seat, unable to figure out why other people are yelling at him, we go about polluting our planet and looking for other people to blame.

We can't all be prophets though, right? Especially considering what a horrific job it is... But it IS an essential job. We couldn't survive without the prophets. And not because they stop God from punishing us, but because they remind us to look at ourselves. They teach us that things aren't great, that we can't stop growing or evolving, that there's more work to be done. Would we have a French Revolution
without prophets? Or Civil Rights? Heschel reminds us in a most powerful and eloquent way: "Prophecy is the voice that God lent to the silent agony, a voice to the plundered poor, to the profaned riches of the world. It is a form of living, a crossing point of God and man. God is raging in the prophet's words." Prophecy is indeed a form of living, perhaps even one we cannot live without. As we continue our journey towards the High Holidays, listen for the voices of prophecy around you. They have not quieted down; they have not disappeared. We may not be living in Biblical times, but the lessons of our prophets reverberate around us still. We just prefer to close our ears and our hearts. It's less noisy that way.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of secretlondon123 on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of andriux-uk on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Capt' Gorgeous on Flickr

4. Image courtesy of the Ohev Players' performance, 'Broadway Bound.'

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Re'eh: A Fiddler's Dilemma

It ain't easy being a Conservative Jew. I'm sure every denomination faces its own hurdles, and we have ours. For Conservative Judaism, the real challenge is straddling the line between tradition and change. 
The former head of The Jewish Theological Seminary (my alma mater), Chancellor Ismar Schorsch, called it "Polarities in Balance." We want to remain loyal to Halachah (Jewish law) and the spirit of an ancient legal system, while constantly taking on modern issues and dilemmas. It always kind of reminded me of the Fiddler on the Roof, who keeps playing his violin while trying to avoid falling to the right or to the left. I hear ya, my friend. No easy task. And this week's Torah portion makes it JUST a little bit more difficult.

A few weeks ago, right around the time we were reading the Ten Commandments, the Torah told us, "You shall not add anything to what I command you or take anything away from it, but keep the commandments of the Lord your God" (Deut. 4:2). And just in case we didn't fully get it, this week it's basically reiterated: "Be careful to observe only that which I enjoin upon you: neither add to it nor take away from it" (Deut. 13:1). 
Hm, tricky if you're in the business of trying to make a 3,000 year old text work in 2012... Though in all honesty, it wasn't much easier for the ancient Israelites. The Etz Hayim Torah commentary informs us, "Although this seems to be an all-encompassing prohibition, it could not have been meant that way. The Torah is not a complete code covering all areas of life. Important subjects such as commerce, civil damages, and marriage are covered incompletely or not at all, and further laws obviously were needed." But these two statements, in Deuteronomy 4 and 13 are still left ringing in our ears, as we try to deal with issues of gay marriage, the Internet, and gun control. The Torah told us we couldn't add or detract, didn't it? So what can we do?

One answer is that the text is really quite limited in its scope, despite the seemingly universal application. Both chapters in Deuteronomy are actually talking about idolatry, and what Moses tries to convey is
that you have to be extremely careful about how to handle idol worship. Don't become overzealous, but don't be too lax about it either. Certainly when it comes to modern day religious observance and relating to God, this is very much still a concern. It sometimes feels like all we've got are extremes; fundamentalists on one hand and atheists on the other. Isn't there room for anything in the middle?? When God implores us not to add or detract, what we're really talking about is the fiddler on his tightrope again. It's about balance and understanding, and trying to avoid getting carried away to one extreme or the other.

I want to highlight something else as well. What does it say about the text when God says, "Don't add or take away," but then gives an incomplete set of laws? It's like God is playing a joke on us: "Here's a new game. I'm calling it chess. White pieces move one way, black pieces the other, and one of you wins at the end. Now don't add or take away any of my rules!! Enjoy!" How on earth are you supposed to make that work??? 
The Torah functions the same way. We HAVE TO add and take away, we don't have a choice. The world changes, WE change, and everything evolves. The Torah is challenging us to pick up the mantle of responsibility. We MUST take ownership of this system and these laws, otherwise we'll be left with utter chaos. Blind observance is impossible, but so is total rejection of the system. If we're going to make heads or tails (or knights) out of this chess game, we've got to add rules, and we've got to force this game to make sense. Is it an easy task? No, of course not. But what other choice do we have? You think playing a violin on a rooftop is any easier? Good luck.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of libertygrace0 on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of @jbtaylor on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Jem Yoshioka on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Muffet on Flickr

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Eikev: It's Too Hot to Change!

Did you know that last month, July 2012, was the hottest month on record in the United States? I'm not talking about the past year or the past decade; last month just 'dethroned' July 1936 as the month with
the hottest average temperature (77.6 degrees) across the 48 contiguous states since this sort of thing was first kept track of in 1895! Sixty-three percent of the country was experiencing drought-like conditions a week ago, and that number has increased since. That's almost hard to believe, the numbers are so staggering. So where is God in all of this? I'm pretty sure I'm not the only person asking that question, especially since this week we read the infamous passage about God withholding rain if we disobey the commandments. Right about now, a lot of people are probably wondering; is 63 percent of the country displeasing God? And what's it going to take to turn the heavenly faucets back on? 

The offending section of this week's parashah is also the second paragraph of one of our most well-known prayers, the Shema. It includes the following statement: "Take care not to be lured away to serve other gods and bow to them. For the Lord's anger will flare up against you, and God will shut up the skies so that there will be no rain and the ground will not yield its produce" (Deuteronomy 11:16-17). I've quoted to you before in this blog from Siddur Eit Ratzon, a modern prayer book that reinterprets this paragraph as saying that if we turn away from God's commandments, we will be turning away from the proverbial rain, and won't experience the goodness in our lives. Everything will seem/feel/appear less blessed. In other words, God isn't taking away; we just aren't receiving. 

I like that interpretation a lot, and most of the time it works for me. Right now, however, it certainly feels as if the sky has been literally shut up, and the effects aren't 
so metaphoric. Yet even as I am tempted to turn to God for answers, I am also reminded of the direct translation of the Hebrew word 'to pray' - 'le-hitpalel.' It's a reflexive word, it turns inward. It urges us to look at ourselves before, during, and after we ask God to answer our prayers FOR us. Even with something as seemingly uncontrollable as a drought, it may not be all God's 'fault.' In fact, there is a VERY human element to this disaster; most scientists posit that this is another sign of global warming.We are essentially heating our own planet, and then complaining about the temperature increase. What's wrong with this picture?

Yet even as we keep reminding ourselves to be introspective before blaming God for the world's problems, it just always seems easier to accuse someone else of wrong-doing. It's much harder to look at this situation and say, "Ok, it's time to make some changes to how I live my life." We try instead to convince ourselves it shouldn't matter. 
What I do in Wallingford, PA, shouldn't have an impact on corn growers in Iowa. But sadly, it does. Our prayers remind us that we cannot remain isolated and think that our actions affect no one else. Look at the Shema again: The first paragraph is addressed to each person: "You (individual) shall love the Lord, your God..." (Deut. 6:5). But the second paragraph is speaking to us all, in the plural: "If, then, you ALL obey the commandments..." (Deut. 11:13). I can't do this alone, and neither can you. Change has to happen on a societal level, a national level, and yes, a global level as well. Each of us has to start with our own lives, but we need to work together to affect change on a larger scale. Maybe then we'll really start to feel the rain in our lives again, and we can stop breaking records at the upper end of the thermometer. And if that doesn't work, I guess we could always go back to blaming God.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of zoonabar on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of jczart on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Genista on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of cwwycoff1 on Flickr

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Vaetchanan (Nachamu): Words of Comfort at the Olympics

I hope that you've been enjoying this past week of Olympic sports as much as I have. Lunch break viewing on an iPad, less-than-stellar NBC coverage in the evenings, conversations with friends, family, and congregants; all have been dominated by the 2012 Olympic Games in London. And if every car manufacturer, insurance company, and fast-food chain imaginable can use ridiculously tenuous links to the Olympics to try and sell us their commercials, why can't I do the same?

The Olympic Games offer us rare insight into some of the most powerful human emotions and attributes, both good and bad. 
We see triumph, honor, glory, team work, tenacity, and sportsmanship, but also devastation, heartbreak, dishonesty, anger, jealousy, and cheating - and all on prime-time television in front of 6 billion people. This Shabbat, known as Shabbat Nachamu - the Shabbat of Comfort - reminds me of how we agonize along with our young athletes; many of whom will need a great deal of comfort and support when this is all over. (I told you it was tenuous...) 

Ok, so I know it's not the most air-tight connection, but I really DO see some similarities. The Torah also displays the best and worst of humanity, and we root for our heroes and jeer their rivals as if they too were trying to win the 200-meter breaststroke. Shabbat Nachamu gets its name from the Haftarah, a reading from the prophet Isaiah offering comfort to the exiles after the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Yet there are
others who need comfort as well this week, as our Torah reading opens with Moses talking about how God refuses to let him enter the Promised Land. I recently read a Torah commentary by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, where he asks why it is that Moses so desperately wants to enter the land. His answer: "Moses is disheartened as he understands that the fruition and realization of Torah may only fully happen in the land gifted to the people." While I see his point, I think we can draw out a much more universal message from the story of Moses' exclusion from Israel. It's true that his punishment is a BIG deal, but I also feel an urge to say to Moses: "You saw the Ten Plagues rain down on Egypt, you witnesses the splitting of the sea, you spoke to God on Mount Sinai, and you received the Ten Commandments. Isn't that enough??? Nobody gets EVERYTHING they want, buddy, and I think you've done pretty well!!" (Is that too irreverent? Maybe a little...)

Everyone has dreams and aspirations. Moses wants desperately to see the Promised Land; the exiles in Babylon want desperately to return to Israel to rebuild their Temple; and we too have hopes and ambitions that we spend our lifetime pursuing. For some people it's a destination, for others it's the top spot on a podium with a new shiny necklace around your neck and a familiar anthem playing in the background. But we don't
always get all the things we hope for. (Try being a fan of the Swedish Olympic team, and you'll see what I mean.) Life is about the journey, about striving towards meaningful goals and wanting more out of life. When we don't achieve everything, does that mean the whole process was for nothing? No. Shabbat Nachamu doesn't judge or set objective standards of what is worth pursuing. It reminds us to offer everyone comfort, to be supportive, and to cheer one another on, no matter what we are aspiring to do. Happy endings aren't about getting everything you ever hoped for in this world; they are about living meaningful lives filled with purpose and intention. Maybe that doesn't help me win a gold medal, but I guess I can live a pretty good life anyway. That's comforting to know.
Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Kenski1970 on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of marcopako on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Ivy Nichols on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of { Queen Yuna } on Flickr