Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tzav: A Simple Question

For the past three years I've done four Passover Seders a season. If you lived in Israel, you'd do one. If you weren't a rabbi or an educator, you might find yourself sitting through two of them. But when you
work with a Religious School and do a Model Seder for kids, and when you actively partner with local houses of worship and do an Interfaith Seder; you do four of them in a year. But who's complaining? One of the fun traditions that we have for most of our Seders comes during the discussion about the Four Children. I have four different hats, each representing the Wise, Wicked, Simple, and Not-Sure-How-To-Ask-Questions Children. People get up and wear the hats/masks, and we all have a good laugh, even as we discuss the attributes of each character.

One of the children that we rarely spend much time discussing is the Simple Child, referred to in Hebrew as Tam. The Haggadah tells us that the Simple Child asks only, "What is this?" and that we should respond with simple, easy answers, to begin to explain to the child what Passover is all about. It's a funny word though, 'Tam.' I never really thought about it much, but as I was reading through this week's parasha, I happened to notice something intriguing. Our Torah
portion is all about the Temple service, focusing specifically on the work and clothing of the priests who served in the Temple. One particularly enigmatic detail comes in chapter 8, verse 8, where we are told that, "[Moses] put the breastpiece on him [Aaron], and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thumim." So what are the Urim and Thumim? Short answer: No one really knows. They seem to be some sort of stones of divination, used by the High Priest to discern the Will of God. Many scholars have written about them, and many authors of fiction have included them as objects of mystery and wonder. But basically, we have no clue what they were. 

What struck me, however, was the word 'Thumim,' which comes from the exact same root as the word for our Simple Child, 'Tam.' Yet most often when we translate the meaning of 'Urim and Thumim,' we don't talk about simplicity. We say that 'Urim' comes from 'Or,' meaning 'light,' and 'Thumim' comes from 'just' or 'right.' The Septuagint translates the names as 'brightness and perfection.' So how does that work? How can these two words - which come from the same root - have such vastly different meanings, 'Simple' and also 'Perfection'? 
It made me stop and think. What if perfection isn't about elaborate, complex, cerebral, intricate concepts? What if perfection can be found in simplicity? Certainly as we begin to clean our homes and our lives, preparing for this important festival, it would help to know that the goal of our cleaning isn't to achieve perfection through spotless, meticulous, flawless scrubbing. And it would also help to know (especially if you're doing this four times...) that our Seder is about getting into the right mindset; eating good food, spending time with family, having engaging and stimulating discussions, and connecting to the essential truths of our heritage and our culture. It isn't about reading the Haggadah cover-to-cover, or spending nine hours at the Seder table, or even about stuffing yourself with every holiday food imaginable. Remember the Simple Child...

Perfection is a tricky concept. We often strive to obtain it, but almost inevitably we fall short and disappoint ourselves. At the Seder table, we overlook this third child, because s/he seems almost TOO simplistic. We praise the Wise Child, we chastise the Wicked one, and
we coddle the fourth child who's STILL struggling to get out that first question. What if we are in the middle? What if the Simple Child is us? And just as we ignore this child during the Seder, we often miss seeing our own value, our internal worth. Understanding and appreciating ourselves is almost as hard to figure out as the Urim and Thumim! So this year, let's refocus back on simplicity. Don't overthink it, don't overanalyze it. Just start with a simple question: What is this? And let us strive to realize that perfection lies not in a fancy answer, but in accepting the beauty and the depth of a simple, wonderful question.

Photos in this blog post:

1. Image courtesy of Bonnie Breit from the Ohev Shalom Interfaith Seder 2012 with Christ Episcopal Church in Media and Trinity Episcopal Church in Swarthmore.

2. CC image courtesy of Mauro Cateb on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of queercatkitten on Flickr 

4. CC image courtesy of Eleaf on Flickr

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Vayikra: Why Is This Question Different From All Other Questions?

In order to avoid broken-record-syndrome (kids, ask your parents what a 'record' is, and what it would sound like if it got scratched), I
like to go back and re-read what I wrote on this blog in previous years, so I don't wind up repeating myself. I sometimes can't believe it myself, but I've been writing this blog for close to three years now; this will be my 140th posting, in case you're interested. So by now I've got at least a couple of articles on every parasha. But as I was skimming my two previous postings on Vayikra, this week's Torah portion, I had a bit of a realization.

It turns out that I wrote about pretty much the same thing in 2010 and 2011 (so much for avoiding the broken record...), namely how difficult it is for us to find meaning in the Book of Leviticus. Because,
let's face it, it ain't easy to connect to laws of sacrificing animals, dealing with skin diseases and discharges, what happens when your ox gores someone, or how to handle your field at harvest time. Often we try to modernize the text and make the laws into metaphors for today (a la my postings from the last two years): How do YOU sacrifice of yourself? You may not leave the corners of your field for the poor to harvest, but what ELSE could you do for the very real poor people in society today? And this works; we are indeed able to manufacture meaning out of a text that was written thousands of years ago by interpreting, telling stories, and sometimes just outright ignoring some pretty icky parts.

In the end, however, when you sit down in the pew of your local shul and try to actually read the material in Leviticus, you're basically back to Square One in your frustrations with the text. And that is why I write about it year after year. That is why we never really 'answer' our discomfort with texts like "Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth," or the law about stoning a rebellious child to death. I can write about these upsetting laws in 2,000 blog posts, and preach about them year after year from the pulpit - and you might even feel better about aspects of them - but you and I and everyone else who reads the Bible will eventually have to come back to the gruesome text, and STILL feel queasy about it.

So why waste our time writing about these stupid laws? Why not just throw the whole thing out, or read different parts of the Bible? 
Abraham's a pretty fun-loving fellow, why not just read about him week after week? I guess because we're not meant to love everything we read, and we're not mean to feel satisfied, comfortable, and at ease all the time. At least not until we, as a planet, get rid of poverty, hunger, disease, war, and the mistreatment of others. These laws - and indeed much of the Torah - provoke us to think, feel, and react so that we never rest on our laurels and fool ourselves into thinking that the work is complete. 

In a couple of weeks, Passover will be upon us. 'Tis the season of questions: "Why is this night different from all other nights?" "What does the wise child ask?" "Who knows one?" "Why isn't this Seder 
over yet, and when do we eat already?!?" All good questions. And you may notice, the Haggadah doesn't really talk about answers, it talks about questions. Like the Bible, the purpose of the Haggadah is to start the conversation, get us thinking, and pull us into a dialog with our heritage and our ancestors. Why ruin a perfectly good question by answering it? The best questions aren't meant to be answered, they're meant to be discussed, challenged, and even agonized over. So get ready for Pesach, and get ready for Leviticus, and start formulating your next question! OK?

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of currybet on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of "G" jewels g is for grandma on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of --Mike-- on Flickr  

4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber (no Chumashim were harmed in the taking of this photo...)

5. Image of Japanese Haggadah courtesy of Rabbi Gerber

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Vayakhel-Pekudei: How Should We Purify Ourselves for Pesach? Don't Ash Me!

We are right now in the middle of a period known as the Four Special Shabbatot before Pesach (and, of course, there are five of them...).
This week is Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat of the Cow. Ah yes, it makes perfect sense. We talk about cows leading up to Pesach because on the Seder Plate we include the shank bone of a... lamb? Hm, well then it must be because at the end of the Seder we sing about Chad Gadya, a song focusing on a baby... goat? Ok, I give up. What's the deal with the cow, and how does it relate to Passover?

The answer, you see, is that Shabbat Parah focuses on a strange, ancient purifying ritual involving the ashes of a Red Heifer. I wrote about this Burgundy Bovine last year, so rather than repeat myself, I invite you to click here and be magically whisked away to the bygone year of 2011. Instead, I would now like to point out something that recently caught my eye regarding this ritual. In short, it only purifies you from contact with a dead body. The Red Heifer is often elevated
to the stuff of myth and lore; an ancient, long-lost ritual that would purify you of ANYTHING! When in reality, it 'only' affected people who dealt with the deceased. To be fair, in the Ancient World, most people died at home (or on the battlefield), and not in a hospital or in hospice care. So it was relevant to most people in a way that we can't fully appreciate. Nevertheless, the Red Heifer is NOT a magical cure-all. In an article written for JTS, Rabbi Len Sharzer writes, "there is no way to cleanse ourselves of the contamination of contact with the slavery of discrimination, of unfairness, of inequality." In fact, Rabbi Sharzer even argues that there NEVER was such a thing as a Red Heifer, even in the Bible! It was always just a hypothetical scenario; it certainly didn't purify you of everything and anything.

But we do this, don't we? We look for magic bullets and potions, quick fixes and easy solutions. How great it would be if you could mix the ashes of a dead cow with water, dip a hyssop branch in it, sprinkle it on yourself, and be free of sin. 
(If I had a nickle for every time I've tried to reenact this ceremony...) That just isn't how life works. The 'contamination' of sin - whether it involves mistreating other people, bullying, lying, fudging a little on your taxes, or even talking about people behind their backs - none of these can just be washed away. Rabbi Sharzer reminds us, painfully: "The only way to be free of the taint of complicity is to be proactive in eliminating the source."

It is very appropriate that Shabbat Parah is one of the four (five?) weekends leading up to Pesach, because it moves us along in our preparations. Pesach teaches us about our history, how we were slaves who were freed from bondage. We were oppressed and we
were beaten down, and others were apathetic in the face of our suffering. Is that not also a sin? Does indifference not also 'stain' our lives? This is the season of cleaning our homes, our fridges, and our souls; and none of these comes with a miracle cleaner that purifies everything. Shabbat Parah reminds us of our tendency to wish away our problems, to look for simple answers to complex problems. That's why Shabbat Parah isn't the culmination of the season; Pesach is. Let us use this time, these weeks leading up to Passover, to think about what it might mean to truly purify ourselves. And then, let's get mooh-ving!

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Robert Couse-Baker on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of zeevveez on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of bjorn.watland on Flickr  

4. CC image courtesy of Greencolander on Flickr

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Ki Tisa: A Golden Opportunity

Don't you find the Golden Calf story inspiring? I think it is often misunderstood as an embarrassing blemish on our communal history, when really we should see it as an opportunity. Before Moses came
down the mountain to find the people reveling in their idolatrous worship of a giant veal, God had instructed Moses to take from each person a half-shekel as tribute for the building of the Tabernacle. Let's call that 'the Building Fund.' Each person was also told to pay a 'ransom,' which we'll call 'membership dues.' And after the Golden Calf incident occurred, Moses smashed the Tablets and returned back to the mountain to speak to God. At that point, God said to Moses (and I'm paraphrasing a bit), "Behold, this is a stiff-necked people... and they obviously have too much gold to play around with. Increase their dues!" This, to me, is an inspiring message for any synagogue to hear.

Here at Ohev Shalom, we have taken this to heart. However, rather than increase our dues directly, we thought we would explore an out-of-the-box alternative that will both increase membership participation and commitment, as well as the ransom... I mean, voluntary contribution, of individual member families. This will take place in three distinct areas:

1) Fee for services. Starting with the High Holidays next year, we will begin to charge for religious services, lifecycle events, and other similar synagogue offerings.
And I do think it's important to note that this includes ALL dealings with clergy members. Handshakes during Shabbat services will cost $1, conversation during the Kiddush luncheon will run about $5/90 seconds of listening, smiling, and nodding, and receiving a "Mazal Tov," "Yasher Koach," or "Shabbat Shalom" during services will cost $10; $18 if you'd also like some emotion and excitement. A list of additional exciting and reasonably priced services will be distributed over the summer.

2) 'Minor' penalty-fees for transgressions. I'm particularly excited about this one. I am confident that we will finally improve the level of Hebrew fluency, once we begin to charge $2 for every mispronounced word during services; $8 if you get a word wrong on the bimah. Synagogue meetings will become so much more efficient, after we begin instituting a $4 fee to offer a comment. Either we'll bring in a lot more money for the shul, or meetings will be over in 10 minutes; either way, the synagogue wins! Other religious infractions will be assessed in increments of $6.13, to remind you that you've been violating one of God's 613 Commandments. What a great way for people to remember how many mitzvot we have!

And finally, 3) Product placement. In an effort to bring in additional funds, the synagogue will now be showcasing some wonderful corporate sponsorships. Starting at the High Holidays, the rabb will be sponsored by Hebrew National hotdogs. My tallit will be embroidered with a tasteful 11x14 sign, with an ad for Hebrew National, featuring the tagline, "We answer to this guy!" The Cantor will be sponsored by Yahoo!, and will randomly be shouting out their famous catchphrase during every service. Soon you will all be able to look forward to our
new call to prayer, "Barechu-hoo!" And our incoming president, Matt Tashman will be sponsored by Mr. Clean. (They called us, actually) One major sponsor that we're all excited about is Apple, who will be replacing all our siddurim with the new iPad 3. As you probably know by now, the new iPad comes with an anti-sleep system, otherwise only found in the newest car models, but which will be tremendously helpful for keeping everyone alert and attentive during services.

So many wonderful new innovations and improvements, all inspired by the Golden Calf! Clearly this is a story that should be celebrated and praised, rather than denounced and forgotten. Especially on a holiday like Purim, which it coincidentally happens to be today (how fortuitous...), where everything is turned upside down and the world seems to go a little crazy; what a perfect opportunity to reread the Golden Calf incident, and thank it for all the 'golden' opportunities it is giving to our community.

Chag Purim Sameach - Have a wonderful holiday! (That greeting will cost you $10, just make it out to the 'Rabbi's Indiscretionary Fund'...)

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of jasonlam on Flickr

2. CC image courtesy of Aidan Jones on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of kristin_a (Meringue Bake Shop) on Flickr  

4. Image courtesy of Schulsinger Judaica.

Monday, March 5, 2012

A Purim Sermon on Evil Foods...

Last Saturday, I delivered a special Purim-related sermon during Saturday morning services. A few congregants asked if I would put the sermon online, so I decided to post it here on the blog. A short disclaimer: If you have a weak heart, or are sensitive to strong words, be warned! There's some pretty powerful stuff in here, and I don't want you to fall off your chair. This is a topic that affects me quite deeply, a terror that I believe is destroying the Jewish community, one unsuspecting holiday celebrant at a time. If we truly want to embody the phrase, "you are what you eat," it's time we wake up and smell the Kosher-for-Passover-fair trade-organic-non-terror-supporting coffee. You've been warned. Here goes:

Saturday Morning D’var Torah – Parashat Tetzaveh (Shabbat Zachor) 5772

Last year, right before Purim, I felt it was my duty to warn you about something horrific happening in our community. Unfortunately, no changes have happened since last year, so I feel a need to repeat myself, which I hate doing. A need to repeat myself, which I hate doing…

As you know, recently I’ve started promoting better eating habits, better choices of quality food, and a healthier approach to consumption in general, here at Ohev Shalom. Well, this issue which I would like to present to you this morning flies DIRECTLY in the face of this new campaign of ours. Last year, I spoke to you about the dangers of one particular food: Poppy-seed Hamentaschen, better known as Muhn. Even the name is gross… Yuck!

I don’t want to go into too much detail, but basically, before last Purim I told everyone to STOP eating Muhn Hamentaschen. In short, they’re the worst. Why?
o   First, they get stuck in your teeth, which looks disgusting.
o   Second, they grow poppies in Afghanistan to make a drug called ‘opium,’ so when you eat Muhn Hamentaschen, you’re basically supporting terrorism. I hope you're happy...
o   Third, if you eat too many and then go driving and get stopped by the police, you could test positive for drug use, again, because of the poppies!!
o   And fourth, did you ever see the movie, “Wizard of Oz”? Well the Wicked Witch used poppies in the field to put Dorothy and her friends to sleep, because poppy is also an ancient sedative, so by eating Muhn Hamentaschen, you’re basically saying that you’re friends with the Wicked Witch. Shame on all of you!!

Now I don’t want to go on too long about Muhn, because instead I would like to move on to another scourge in our community, another evil food ruining everything that is good and pleasant and holy. This, ladies and gentlemen, is the second installment in my annual Pre-Purim sermon series, which I am calling “Munch n’ Burn!: Foods that Corrupt and Destroy.” You 'munch,' and I BURN with disappointment...

MACAROONS! The silent, but deadly, killer. ‘What’s wrong with my macaroons,’ you say? ‘How could anything so small and tasty be terrible?’ Well, first of all, they’re not tasty. You are mistaken, if you think so! Also, did you know they were made with coconut??? NO ONE likes coconut! I know, I’ve asked around. I asked myself, I can’t stand coconut… and who else really matters?

For those of you who are already on board, I applaud you. Good job. Stay away from wicked-coconut and nefarious-macaroons, and tell your friends. But if you’re one of those weirdos who still thinks coconut tastes good, and macaroons ain’t that bad, everyone’s doin’ ‘em, what’s the harm? Well, listen up!

Evil #1 – History. According to many historians, an Italian baker invented the cookies in medieval times. The name comes from a Neapolitan word, maccarone, which means “fine paste.” (By the way, macaroons don’t exactly look like a ‘fine paste’ to me, so they're ALREADY deceptive with that fake name. Unbelievable…) During the Renaissance, the recipe found its way to France (by way of Catherine DeMedici’s chef), where the cookies became immensely popular.

So the macaroon comes from Medieval Italy and France, BOTH places that were terribly anti-Semitic in medieval times. When you eat macaroons, you are supporting people who hated Jews several hundred years ago. Nice, really nice…

Evil #2 – Coconut oil. It is filled with saturated fat, which is bad. The Food and Drug Administration warns AGAINST use of coconut oil in cooking. Now some crazy people say, ‘no, no, not all fat is bad. Some tropical cultures have used coconut oil for centuries, and they do ok.’ Well, it just so happens that most coconut oil in stores is hydrogenated, which means trans fat, which everyone agrees IS bad! Take that!! (Yeah, that’s right, I did my homework…)

Evil #3 – Some strange people like to eat macaroons on Passover, because a lot of ‘traditional’ desserts are off limits. Well, coconut flakes look an awful lot like rice to me, if you think about. …And maybe if you squint. And rice, according to Ashkenazi tradition, is NOT permitted on Passover. So somehow we’ve allowed coconut to sneak its way into our Pesach food, even though it looks suspiciously like another food that some people irrationally forbid on the holiday. Very sneaky, those macaroons. Not to mention the fact that they come in like a thousand different flavors -  Vanilla, Chocolate, Rocky Road, Almond, Cookies and Cream, Wasabi (probably, I don’t care) – which means that they ‘pretend’ to be something else. You think you’re eating something WITHOUT coconut, because it says ‘Rocky Road,’ and then you have a very unpleasant realization when you bite into it. So I’m told, I'm not speaking from personal experience…

Evil #4 – How do you open them? It’s impossible! You could try a hammer, a chisel, a hacksaw, a power drill, a machete, NOTHING works! And the whole time, that coconut is just laughing at you, mocking you for not being able to figure it out. That’s sick…

Evil #5 – Coconut milk! Well, actually I can’t say anything bad about coconut milk, I actually kind of like the stuff. It’s a good alternative to dairy milk, and it’s particularly good in Thai food, especially Thai curries. But sometimes the food is TOO spicy. Even when you ask them to make it milder, it STILL comes out too spicy, and I blame the coconut milk! So THAT’S Evil #5; poor temperature control and bad customer service!

Evil #6 – Even the Marx brothers movie, “The Cocoanuts” from 1929 isn’t one of their best. At all. It was their first, sure, but so what? One reviewer on IMDB said,” The story is flimsy and the supporting cast is awful.” That’s tragic! They made so many fabulous films, but the one named after this awful nut/fruit had a review that included the word ‘awful.’ The coconut just ruins everything…

I hope that you have now begun to realize the sinister type of mind we are dealing with here. You think you’re just chowing down on an innocent cookie, when really it is A) Filled with coconut… yuck, B) ‘pretending’ to be Kosher for Passover, when who really knows? C) silently, but deliberately filling you with trans fats, in gross violation of the advice of the FDA, and D) making you think ‘oh, I could make one of these, it’s easy,’ when really it’s much tougher than it looks, the recipe is confusing, the flavors never come out right, and you always burn the whole batch… or so I’m told. Again, I’m not speaking from personal experience or anything…

We NEED to be much more vigilant about the foods we eat. This weekend is Shabbat Zachor, and we already talked about how the Maftir and the Haftarah remind us to wipe out Amalek, the ancestor of Haman. Well, the Hebrew word for coconut is ‘kokos.’ And the numerical value of ‘kokos’ is exactly the same numerical value as ‘Amalek.’ EXACTLY THE SAME!! (Well, actually they’re off by 32, one was 272 and the other 240, but it was actually A LOT closer than I expected when I first planned to make that joke…) But the point is, coconut is the new Amalek, and we need to wipe it out, just get rid of it altogether. Like Muhn Hamentaschen, coconut is the worst.

So take care, everyone. There are dangers all around us. This Purim, STAY AWAY from the Muhn Hamentaschen, and later, during Pesach, avoid, AT ALL COSTS, any and all macaroons that try to approach you or sneak up on you. Because it WILL happen… And remember, the purpose of this Munch n’ Burn sermon series is to protect you and to protect our community. It is definitely NOT meant as Purim Torah, as fake, humorous sermons right before the holiday of Purim. Not that at all. Just making sure we were clear on that, so there are no misunderstandings.

Shabbat Shalom, and Chag Purim Sameach!