Thursday, July 26, 2012

Shabbat Chazon: Finding the Rhythm of Tisha B'av

I always find it fascinating to think about which holidays have become wildly popular and which have fallen by the wayside. Looking back at Jewish history, certain holidays like Shavuot and Sukkot were essential in an agricultural society and/or during the time of the Temple, with it's wonderful array of colorful sacrifices. Others either
didn't exist yet, or they just weren't seen as essential. Today, holidays like Chanukah (gift giving), Tu Bishvat (environmentalism), and Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance), seem to be trending, because they connect to the modern values that prevail in our society. In a way, our holidays are a mirror back on our lives, they teach us to reflect on what we care about, and what interests us. So what do we make of the upcoming holiday of Tisha B'av?

Tisha B'av is really a day of mourning, when we lump together all calamities that have befallen us (destructions of Temples, Crusades, pogroms, etc) and spend the day in reflection and prayer. Well, that's the idea anyway. But very few people observe this day, or perhaps
even know that it is taking place. Yom Ha-Shoah, back in May, seems more relevant to us, because the Holocaust took place in our own communal memory. Furthermore, most of our fast days are followed by celebration, but Tisha B'av is not. Yom Kippur is followed by Sukkot and Simchat Torah, The Fast of the Firstborn is followed by Passover, and The Fast of Esther is followed by Purim. Tisha B'av used to be followed by a holiday six days later, Tu B'av, but it hasn't been celebrated in 2,000 years, so Tisha B'av just winds up seeming like the downer of all depressing holidays. 

I recently read a wonderful article by Nigel Savage, who is the founder of the organization, Hazon. (Incidentally, Nigel is going to be our Scholar in Residence in February, which promises to be a truly phenomenal weekend!) In his article on Tisha B'av, Nigel talks about 'the rhythm from mourning to joy.' He points out that we don't do this very well nowadays. 
We treat days of commemoration like 9/11 only with sadness, instead of letting the day transition from reflection and remembrance into joy and celebration of life. We need to follow the example of the other fast days in the Jewish calendar, and not let ourselves get too focused on the calamities that have befallen us. Our Jewish collective memory is incredibly strong. We still commemorate events that took place over 2,000 years ago. But the Jewish historian Salo Baron warned us about what he called, 'the lachrymose view of Jewish history,' where we see the Jewish past as merely a long collection of tragedies and woes. A strong connection to history can be good, but only if we use it as an impetus for improving the present and the future. 

This upcoming Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision. The name refers to a prophecy by Isaiah regarding the impending destruction but eventual redemption of the people. Fun
stuff. It is always the Shabbat right before Tisha B'av, and I think we can use this as an opportunity for growth. How do we envision the world around us and our role in it?  Where do we put our focus, our energy? And I also share with you some of Nigel's powerful questions: "What do we mourn? What are our destructions? And what, arising from the ashes, do we choose to celebrate?" The fact that some holidays become popular and others lose support isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's all part of our evolution. But history still has much to teach us, and both Tisha B'av and Shabbat Chazon offer us opportunities to reflect and evaluate that we really shouldn't pass up. Just remember not to be too lachrymose; I'm sure you hear that all the time... 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Ha-Wee on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Toni Birrer on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of CarbonNYC on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of rachaelvorhees on Flickr

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Matot-Masei: Your Voice

Every person has a voice. We each have the ability to affect, shape, and influence the world around us, and this is a truly precious gift. Whether we're talking about voting (and remember to register to vote and get a valid form of ID before November!), protesting, organizing, or just speaking your mind - it's important to acknowledge and celebrate this, especially considering that it wasn't always so. If you were - let's say - a woman, and were living - I don't know - in Biblical times, your voice would simply not be equal to that of your male counterparts. A 13-year old boy would have more clout and social standing than you. Something about that just doesn't seem right...

This week's Torah portion, Matot-Masei, talks about making vows. I'm guessing you don't think too much about swearing oaths these days, but trust me when I tell you it was a big deal in the Ancient World, and it was a big deal to our rabbinic forbearers. You were, in effect, dragging God in as witness to your claim, and if you failed to live up to what you promised, God would look bad. 
And for whatever (chauvinistic) reason, women were seen as less reliable in making vows than men. A father could cancel out a vow his daughter tried to take, and later in life, a husband could do the same to his wife. The Reform movement Torah commentary by Rabbi Gunther Plaut summarizes this issue, stating: "While the Torah records a number of laws in which men and women are treated equally... it is on the whole male-oriented. The male has rights the female does not enjoy. She is to be wife and mother, invested with inherent dignity, to be sure, but by law and social order relegated to a second-class status comparable to that of minors." I'd like to think that we've come a long way, but the reality is that this statement could easily be talking about some cultures around the world TODAY, including certain sects within Judaism.

It's an ancient problem, but that doesn't make it any less relevant right now. I can't help but ask the question; what is it about the relationship between men and women, that men have tried to silence women since the dawn of time? And Plaut agrees with my earlier statement about the 13-year old boy (not that I'm trying to pick on Bar Mitzvah kids...): "To this day the signature of a youthful male is valid on a document while that of a mature woman is not." And when we get to Yom Kippur (in just a few short weeks... oy), and we sing the haunting Kol Nidrei about dissolving vows - are women even included in that? Should it mean anything to them, or are we really just still talking to all the men (and boys) in the room? Where are the female voices - as authors, participants, or addressees - in our liturgy?

The point of this rant is not to decry the Torah. It was speaking to an audience in a time and place where this was pretty normal. However, we need to determine whether this makes any sense whatsoever for us today. And when we open our eyes and realize our values have evolved (thank God), and we DON'T think like this anymore, what do we make of the Torah? Or Kol Nidrei? Do we throw it all away? 
Do we boycott services and/or Judaism and/or God? No. At least not in my opinion. Instead, we must bring our tradition with us, update the English translations, and help our values and our heritage make peace with one another. If we stopped reading this section in our Torah cycle, we wouldn't have the opportunity to have THIS conversation, right now. We might forget that it's still a problem around the world, and that we need to use our voices to speak out against the inequality we see around us. There are pay gaps, violence against women, and so many issues that still plague our society. Let's fix those, THEN we can talk about whether to change our Torah reading choices! For now, treasure your voice. It is yours. It is a Divine gift, up there with free will and love, and no one can take it away from you. But it also comes with responsibility. Don't waste the opportunity to stand up for what you believe in. Make it a voice that inspires, that heals, and that demands justice. VOICE your opinion now.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Carl Lender on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Adam Jones, Ph.D. on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Katie Tegtmeyer on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of soukup on Flickr

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pinchas: Repairing the Peace of a Letter

I've said this before, but the Torah really does have an amazing amount of different ways of getting a point across. This week, we see a few of those crafty techniques at work, yielding some fascinating subtle messages embedded within the text. These lessons are especially crucial for us to take to heart today, as we think about issues like violence, reward and punishment, passion, and that most important of pursuits, peace.

The rabbis who divided up the Torah into weekly portions, parshiot, were usually very good at keeping stories intact; breaking up the narrative so that a single story played out in one portion and didn't 
get split up awkwardly. Knowing that, we already see something strange going on in the story of Pinchas, the grandson of Aaron. Last week, we were introduced to him as he violently and passionately killed an Israelite and his Midianite female companion, as they brazenly violated the law against idolatrous interfaith cohabitation in front of everyone. That Torah portion ended abruptly in the middle of the story, AND it ended on a negative note, which the rabbis almost always try to avoid doing: "Those who died of the plague numbered twenty-four thousand" (Numbers 25:9). The End. Lovely...

This week's reading is a continuation of that story, where we are told that Pinchas is rewarded for his actions (!). God declares that Pinchas will receive a "Brit Shalom," "A Covenant of Peace." Now if we stop here for a moment and examine this story a bit more closely, we see some of those 'crafty techniques' I was referring to earlier. 
First, we are puzzled by the splitting of the story into two sections, and more specifically separating the action itself from its reward. Looking at this particular issue, the 13th Century commentator, Moses of Coucy, notes that this teaches us not to rush to reward extremism. Second, our parasha contains two additional hints that something is 'off' in this story. The name 'Pinchas' is written - according to tradition - in chapter 25, verse 11 with a miniature Yud. 
That letter, often representing God's Presence, is reduced in size in every Torah scroll, perhaps to indicate that Pinchas' violent actions have diminished the experience of God in his life. The term 'Brit Shalom,' which means "Covenant of Peace' sounds unequivocally positive for Pinchas, no? Well, similar to our Yud-issue above, every Torah scroll contains a 'broken' letter in the word 'Shalom.' The Etz Hayim Torah Commentary explains the broken letter as indicating that, "the sort of peace one achieves by destroying one's opponent will inevitably be a flawed, incomplete peace."

So does the Torah support Pinchas' actions, or denounce them? Why the disparity between overt praise and subtle critique? Several commentators also point out that his 'reward' is to become the new High Priest - a job filled with rules and regulations, scripted actions and rigid limitations. Maybe it's not so much a reward as a vehicle for teaching the 'hot-headed' Pinchas how to play by the rules of society? As is often the case, we're left with more new questions than
answers. But it's still a crucial lesson for us today, as we too struggle with how to respond to extremist violence and uncompromising leadership. The Torah advocates balance, but sometimes it doesn't hit us over the head with that lesson by stating it outright. It drops small hints to help us get there on our own. If we are ever going to achieve a 'Brit Shalom' of our own, it can't be manufactured or forced - that will only lead to more broken letters and broken dreams. And if we ever want to increase the size of that Yud - the Presence of true Divine peace in our lives - we have to first notice that it's diminished, and only then can we start doing something about it. There are many ways to learn from the story of Pinchas; let's broaden our minds to learn from them all.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of MojoBaer on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of marianne muegenburg cothern on Flickr.
3. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone and one of Ohev Shalom's very photogenic Torah scrolls.

4. Image courtesy of the same iPhone and camera-friendly Torah scroll as above.

5. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's computer.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Balak: The Damaging Intention of a Curse

This week's Torah portion has the wrong name. Well, at least you might think it has the wrong name, judging by the subject matter. 
Our parasha focuses on the non-Israelite prophet, Bilaam, who tries to curse the Israelites three times, but is constantly thwarted by God, and instead winds up blessing them each and every time. Before he sets off to proclaim his 'curses,' we also read an amusing story about Bilaam's talking donkey, who upstages Bilaam, and - quite frankly - makes him look like an (another word for donkey)...

Yet our Torah portion isn't named after Bilaam, this week's main character. It's named after Balak, the king of Moab, who tried to commission Bilaam's unsuccessful curses. Balak, however, is the
patsy, the fall-guy, the straight-man in this story, NOT the center of attention. So why is our parasha named after him? To answer that question, I think we need to look at the concept of objective. This story isn't about action, it's about intention. It doesn't include any instances of violence; no one is attacking anyone else physically, the Moabites aren't trying to ambush or entrap the Israelites, and Bilaam isn't being asked to rain down plagues on Balak's enemies. It isn't about physical aggression... but rather something potentially much, much worse.

The tale of Balak and Bilaam reminds us of the power of words. It highlights the fact that not all damage is done with a sword, a gun, or a bomb. Propaganda, slander, and the perversion of truth can be just as harmful as assault, if not more so. Looking back at our history as
Jews, we see that indeed the most damage done to us came from blood libels, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and other malicious stories told to incite violence against Jews. They cause more harm than inquisitions or pogroms, because the tales themselves never go away. Hundreds of years later, they can resurface again and continue to cause great pain and suffering. That is also why the primary nemesis in this story is Balak, the incitor, rather than Bilaam, the emissary. Throughout our history, the masterminds of anti-Semitism were not the peasants, Cossacks, or Nazis perpetrating acts of violence; the worst villains stood behind the scenes, secretly inflaming more hatred with their words.

It's easy to read this Torah portion and think the name must be wrong. The story primarily focuses on Bilaam, so why is it called 'Balak'? Because Balak is a metaphor for the larger problems of
society. We tend to squabble over small issues, fight over details, and focus on petty bickering. But there are real problems that need to be dealt with - whether we're talking about national politics, Israel, congregational life, or family feuds. Let's not allow ourselves to be distracted by talking donkeys, highfalutin language, or fancy titles. Let us instead push ourselves to identify the real problems at hand, and face them head on. That must surely be the first step towards turning life's curses into blessings.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of moose.boy on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of shioshvili on Flickr.
3. CC image courtesy of drmikeevans on Flickr.

4. CC image courtesy of spencer77 on Flickr