Thursday, October 25, 2012

Lech Lecha: What's In A Name?

One of my favorite Shakespeare quotes comes from Othello, Act 3, Scene 3:

Good name in man and woman, 
dear my lord,
Is the immediate jewel of their souls.
Who steals my purse steals trash; 
'tis something, nothing;
'Twas mine, 'tis his, 
and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me 
my good name
Robs me of that 
which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed.

I've always been intrigued by the importance of naming; both the names by which we call ourselves, and the notion of 'A Good Name,' referring to reputation and esteem. In fact, you could really study the entire Bible just from the point-of-view of naming, and discover an entire world of interpretation unto itself. Let's delve into that for a moment, shall we?

Right away in the first chapter of the Bible, in verse five of the story of Creation, God begins naming things. "Day" and "Night" are labels which God assigns to light and dark to make them known. And then,
as the world begins to develop, Adam takes over the role of naming, and passes on that privilege to his descendants. But as we are introduced this week to Abram and Sarai, two individuals named by their parents, we see God taking back control of human destiny, wanting to make these two the progenitors of a new people. In order to indicate a new beginning, God changes their names to Abraham and Sarah. The Biblical commentator, Nahum Sarna, informs us that the new names themselves aren't necessarily so significant, but rather, "The very fact of a new name distinguishes and even effectuates, to an extent, the transformation of destiny." So it would seem that BOTH Abraham and Sarah are heading towards a new future.

One thing that I don't see talked about too much is the fact that Sarah's name was changed as well. Nahum Sarna informs us that many other people were renamed in the Bible, including Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, the Judean Kings Eliakim and Mattaniah, and the prophet Daniel and his friends. 
But I can't help but notice that Sarah is the lone woman. What is her new destiny? Besides birthing Isaac in her old age... We learn so little about her life, yet surely there must have been more going on, since God took the time to rename her? By making the covenant with the two of them together, God has given us the potential for equality. Sadly, we are the ones who impose dominance and subservience on our relationships. Just last week, I was devastated by the news of a woman in Israel, Anat Hoffman, being imprisoned for chanting the Shema. How can we justify such behavior, when God's covenant was formed with BOTH Sarah and Abraham? 

There is a fabulous documentary on PBS called "Half the Sky," about the oppression of women around the world. It is absolutely incredible;
incredibly sad in its depiction of inequality worldwide, and incredibly inspiring with stories of women achieving great things and defying expectations. The story of Abraham and Sarah reminds us that we all have a name, that our names and destinies are incredibly precious, and that God's love and caring extends to ALL people. Continuing oppression is making the whole world 'poor indeed.' Naming that oppression and then starting to change it can truly help us all make a name for ourselves, and begin to build towards a better future.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of dullhunk on Flickr.

2. CC image courtesy of Alan O'Rourke on Flickr.

3. Image courtesy of Debbie Gerber. Photo taken during an attack on the Women of the Wall, 1988. 

4. CC image courtesy of John Loo on Flickr.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Noah: I Forgot What I Was Going To Say

Now that we're back at the start of Genesis again, we get to revisit all the wonderful, captivating, and entertaining stories that the first 
Book of the Bible has to offer us. This week, we learn once again about the Flood. And who could ever forget the dramatic and terrifying story of the massive deluge that once consumed the entire earth? Surely we all recall this epic tale of Noah and his family, along with an enormous amount of animals; the only creatures who survived to repopulate the planet. It certainly sticks in your mind... that is, unless you're God.

Surprisingly, we find in chapter 8, verse 1, after water had consumed everything for 40, and then another 150, days: "God remembered Noah and all the beasts and all the cattle that were with him in the ark..." Not only was Noah stuck on this boat with thousands of animals for the better part of a year, but GOD FORGOT HIM!! 
How do you lose track of the ark? It's not like there's so much else going on at that time. The Etz Hayim Torah Commentary tries to redeem God, by saying that, "'To remember' in the Bible is not to retain or to recall a mental image. It is to focus on the object of memory that results in action." So it's mainly about taking action, that God was done flooding the place; now it's time to start rebuilding. But I found myself dwelling on that word, 'forget,' and thinking about other instances in the Torah where God, or people, forget and then remember again. God 'takes note' of Sarah, and remembers the promise to Abraham that they would have a child. Jacob is 'forgotten' in prison (though by one of Pharaoh's servants, not God). Genesis ends with Joseph telling his progeny that God will 'take note' of them and bring them up from Egypt. The Book of Exodus begins with the enslavement of the Israelites. Two chapters later, we are finally told that, "God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob." 

Later on in the Torah, we also see forgetting and remembering used for both positive and negative commandments. 'Remember' the Sabbath Day (Ex. 20:8), yet we are also commanded to BOTH 'Remember' AND 'not to forget' to wipe out the Amalekites for what they did to us during the Exodus. It's almost an entire Biblical theme unto itself, who remembers what and when. But as the Etz Hayim
points out, there is almost always a connection between recalling and DOING something. It's not merely passing reminiscence; it's an alarm bell going off in your head, imploring you to take action. The Noah story teaches us so much about destruction and rebuilding. It's certainly true in our lives, isn't it? How much easier is it to break something down than it is to recreate it? Whether we're talking about physical construction, severing a relationship and trust, or tearing down someone's reputation and good name; they are all so much easier to ruin than repair. 

Even God became distracted by all the chaos of the Flood. Perhaps there was a moment, nearly 200 days into all the destruction, when God finally realized it was time to start again. How daunting! 
200 days is NOTHING compared to the millenia it would take to build up civilization again. And what if God was worried about once again getting emotionally invested in humanity, only to see them plunge themselves into corruption, evil, and hate once again? No wonder God preferred to keep the rain going and postpone Noah's triumphant return to dry land. It was certainly easier to just let it keep raining... But we all must learn God's lesson. Eventually, the chaos must end. We must all take responsibility, put both feet on the ground, and remember our obligations to ourselves, to others, and to the entire world. Yes, it can be scary. But there's no other alternative; we must do it. Don't forget!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Sister72 on Flickr.

2. CC image courtesy of Wootang01 on Flickr.

3. CC image courtesy of leventali on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of garryknight on Flickr.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Bereishit: How Could We Resist?

We have once again returned to the beginning, literally the Genesis of it all, with the very first Torah portion of the Bible. With new beginnings come fresh starts and clean slates... and right away, the humans start committing sins! 
And not just some little tiny ones either, but THE Original Sin, at least according to Christian doctrine. So let's talk about that for a minute. What's the deal with our very first egregious sin, the Fall of Adam, the eating of the forbidden fruit, leading to the expulsion from Eden? Was it really so terrible? I'll give you one guess as to what my answer is going to be...

As the story goes, God tells Adam and Eve, the first two humans, that they can eat anything in the Garden of Eden except the fruit of the 
tree of knowledge of good and evil. How surprising, then, that they eventually eat it. Those of you who are parents know that if you tell a child, "I'm planting something very special, that looks really tasty, in an easily accessible spot in the MIDDLE of our garden... and I'm leaving for a bit - but don't eat it!!" they usually listen to you, don't they? Adam and Eve are SUCH disappointments...

I hope you realize I'm being sarcastic. How could they resist?!? And what was God's purpose here anyway? Why place the tree in the garden in the first place, and why was God trying to keep these human beings - who clearly had been singled out to be different from the animals - from becoming more
Godlike? I think one potential answer can be found in analyzing this tempting and 'dangerous' Tree of Good and Evil. What does its fruit REALLY allow us to do? I read a fascinating Torah commentary by a favorite professor of mine, Dr. Richard Kalmin, who writes about how the tree enables humans to deceive and be afraid (something they were previously incapable of doing), BUT it also allows them to be creative, to take initiative, and to question. Dr. Kalmin writes, "Before the snake enabled them to acquire the knowledge of good and evil, they just did what they were told; now they have something of God's creativity in them." So it truly is BOTH good and evil, it opens up to us a world of complex emotions and experiences, morals and consciences, that were previously non-existent. 

No offense to Christian theological doctrine, but I never understood why 'Applegate' constituted Original Sin. Dr. Kalmin points out that this 'sin' didn't make us fall away from God; it actually brought us much closer to the Divine. We gained the ability to love, fear, empathize, and innovate. These are essential drives that make us
human. Now, the tragic reality is that these urges have also allowed us to do terrible things throughout human history. Perhaps that is why God was trying to shelter us from them. But that is our greatest challenge as human beings - to rise above our animal instincts, to focus on what makes us Godly and holy, and to FORCE ourselves to be good and not evil. We shouldn't pretend that we are incapable of evil, we are! But thanks to Adam and Eve (with a little 'friendly' nudge from a wily serpent...), we are also capable of tremendous good, and beauty, and creation. Makes you wonder if that wasn't God's plan all along. It WAS a pretty strange place to put something so important, wasn't it? Strange...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of NeoGaboX on Flickr.

2. CC image courtesy of Abode of Chaos on Flickr.

3. CC image courtesy of a-small-lab on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of pasukaru76 on Flickr.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: How To Search For Holiness

Where is holiness? Where can you locate the essence of what it means to be holy, and if you actually saw/felt/heard/experienced/sensed
holiness - would you know it? We've just been celebrating a whole slew of holidays, and I can't help but wonder about what it's all for. We talk about preserving traditions to connect to our ancestors (ancient and recent) as well as to pass something on to future generations. And that makes a lot of sense. But we also talk about God, spirituality, and holiness, and I think THESE concepts are a bit more difficult to grasp. Oftentimes we'd rather just not address these tough questions at all... so let's delve right into them, shall we?

Holiness, in particular, is such an elusive thing, isn't it? We talk about pursuing it, trying to obtain it, but do we really know WHY holiness is special, or what it would feel like to be filled with holiness? I think
the High Holidays attempt to help us search for holiness through many different prompts and paths. But I purposely say they help us 'search for' holiness, because they don't hand us answers on a silver platter, and we may never find holiness on our own. And the holidays - as well as our prayer books, our traditions and rituals, our special foods, and our clergy members - cannot make holiness suddenly appear (or make us understand why it's special to begin with...). So where is the holiness of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Sh'mini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah - these special days that make up our High Holiday season?

We begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also supposed to be the day on which the world was created. Rosh Hashanah teaches us that spirituality and holiness come in ancient packages, and we can access them when we connect to our heritage. Then we move to Yom Kippur, which is all about self-examination, forgiveness, and repentance. This holiday teaches us about the self, both in terms of my relationship to ME and my relationship to God, but also about how holiness is in the spirit. It's a somewhat esoteric
holiday, related to the mind, the soul, and the intangible relationships between people and God. Sukkot then jumps into the mix with a giant cannonball-splash, reminding us of the joy of physicality. We build Sukkot, huts, with our own two hands, we grab branches of palm, myrtle, and willow, and shake them together with a lumpy, yellow, lemon-like fruit. It's a holiday of the body, in contrast to the spirituality of Yom Kippur and the history of Rosh Hashanah. So now we are thoroughly confused; which one of these helps us find holiness??

The answer is, all of them! Holiness doesn't come in one form, one package, or one recipe. We seek holiness to access God, to understand where we came from and what we are meant to do on this earth. And each holiday speaks to someone, or speaks to us at different times in our lives. So I return to my
original question, would you recognize holiness if it showed up at your proverbial doorstep? Not every moment of every holiday speaks to all of us, but when we know ourselves better, and understand that we are more historical, or spiritual, or physically-minded, then we know where to look for MY personal holiness. And lo and behold, when you know where to look, you may just find what you seek. 

Chag Sameach - Happy Holidays!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of _Kyriakos on Flickr.

2. CC image courtesy of redrachel on Flickr.

3. CC image courtesy of ladybugbkt on Flickr

4. CC image courtesy of Karlz2010 on Flickr.