Thursday, December 19, 2013

Sh'mot: Of Matrices and Smoldering Shrubs

One of my favorite movies of all time (and yes, you are welcome to make fun of me) is The Matrix. If you don't remember the film, or if you never saw it, it's basically a futuristic science-fiction movie about the search for a savior, a.k.a. The One. Ok, ok, 
I know it doesn't sound that terrific, but trust me, it's great! Anyway, one of my favorite scenes in The Matrix has our protagonist, Neo, who may be The One, visiting with an oracle to finally get some answers. And that scene reminds me an awful lot of Moses' first encounter with God in this week's Torah portion. That's right; I just compared Keanu Reeves to Moses, and the Divine encounter at the Burning Bush to a sci-fi movie about evil robots. I love writing a blog!

Alright, let me explain. Early on in the oracle's conversation with Neo, she says to him, 'know thy self,' and explains that no one can tell you who you are or what you're supposed to do, you just have to discover it for yourself. After that, she goes through a series of silly, fake 'rituals' (though at the time we don't know they're fake) and then she says: 'You know what I'm going to tell you, don't you?' And he responds, 'I'm not 
The One, am I?' And we, the viewers, spend most of the movie believing he's NOT the savior-to-be-named-later. I won't spoil the ending for you, but I will say that the reason I love that particular scene with the oracle is that she began with the most important piece of information he needed to hear: 'Know thy self.' In other words, nothing else I can say, or do, or predict, or decree is going to matter; you have to believe in yourself, and YOU have to think you're The One. The difference between greatness and mediocrity is only belief in oneself. That's it. And Moses too has to discover that the hard way.

When God first approaches Moses at the Burning Bush, Moses is terrified. FOUR times Moses tries to get out of the job, but God is relentless; you ARE going back to Egypt!! To give Moses confidence, God demonstrates three miracles that Moses can employ in his dealings with Pharaoh. Moses' staff turns 
into a snake (Exodus 4:2-4), his hand becomes diseased and then cured again (v. 6-8), and finally, he pours water on the ground and it turns to blood (v. 9). But to be completely honest, these are all parlor tricks. They're kind of ridiculous. Even when Moses eventually DOES try to use them, they don't really work. The snake trick impresses no one, the water-into-blood is only the first of ten plagues - nine more are needed before Pharaoh eventually relents - and Moses never even tries the weird-scary-hand-thing. So what was all that smoke-and-mirrors actually about?

That's where I see the connection to The Matrix. All that Moses - or Neo - really needed to know was stated in the first line: 'Know thy self.' Early on in the Burning Bush scene, Moses says to God: "Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and free the Israelites from Egypt?" (Ex. 3:11) And God never really answers him. God's immediate response is: "I will be 
with you; that shall be your sign that it was I who sent you." That doesn't really answer Moses' question, does it? God needs Moses to discover his greatness for himself; and that will only come with time. Even today, a lot of people ask why we don't hear God's voice. Why don't we get signs from Heaven? Why don't we see miracles happening, seas splitting, and fiery chariots descending from the sky? Why? Because all that crap is silliness. They're parlor tricks. They don't cut to the heart of what it means to live a life of meaning. How can we be great, and do great, in this world? How can we discover our destiny, and then spend our lives striving to fulfill it? It sounds so simply, but it's the only real message we need to hear AND do: 'Know thy self.'

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of David.Asch on Flickr Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Leon Brooks on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Sebastien Bourdon on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Vayechi: Jacob, Joseph, and Nelson

How do you leave a legacy of greatness? As we all mourn the passing of Nelson Mandela this week, and marvel at the impact one man had on his country, and indeed the entire world, we can't help but ponder this 
question. If you knew Nelson Mandela at age 4, or 14, or in prison at 44, do you think you could have imagined that he'd become such a world leader? As we watched his funeral this week, despite being distracted by handshakes, fake sign language, and selfies, we were all given an opportunity to think about what our own legacy will be - and could be - when we are someday remembered for the life we led and the choices we made.

Not surprisingly, our Torah portion this week gives us a similar opportunity to reflect on what people leave behind after they die. 
The parashah is fittingly titled 'Vayechi,' meaning 'And he lived.' In context, it is referring to the life of our ancestor Jacob, but indeed BOTH Jacob and Joseph die in this week's Torah portion, so we are afforded the chance to review the legacy of both men, and to compare and contrast the values that they represented.

Jacob died with many regrets. He deceived his brother and his father; he favored one wife over another; then one son over the others; and he really struggled in many of his relationships with the people in his life. Even on his deathbed, many of the so-called blessings he offered his sons expressed disappointment, pent-up anger, and frustration. So much was 
unresolved for him, and thus his legacy is also turbulent and conflicted. Joseph, meanwhile, also made unwise decisions as a child. But, like Nelson Mandela, he grew and matured throughout the course of his life. Perhaps, just like Mandela, prison was a place for Joseph to take stock, to reevaluate priorities, and to really treasure all that life has to offer, and which most of us take for granted. At the end of Joseph's life, he asks only that his descendants bring his bones back to Israel when they someday leave Egypt. He has no other requests or concerns; lingering frustrations or gnawing regrets. Joseph dies at peace.

Perhaps the greatest lesson that each of us can learn from all three deaths is that anyone can leave a legacy of greatness. Jacob and Joseph were simple, humble people, living before any historical records were really kept. One poor decision, and either man might have been lost in the annals of time. And yet, 
we still read their stories today. Nelson Mandela, meanwhile, grew up tending herds as a cattle-boy, with two illiterate parents. Who could have imagined that any of these three individuals would become household names around the world? Their stories should inspire our own. We too can make a difference in the world, and leave our mark for people to talk about in generations to come. On some level, perhaps, all three were chosen by a Higher Power. But they also chose themselves. They made their own destiny. Now it's our turn.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of The US Congress on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Utilisateur:Djampa on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Liam Quinn on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Steve Evans on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Vayigash: Doing More Than Just Dreaming, To Ensure Plenty and Not Famine

Our Torah portion is missing something. In fact, all four Torah portions that focus on Joseph and his story are all missing the same thing. A major character in the plot, no less. 
But first, I give you the quickest recap of the Joseph story EVER: Father favors him; brothers hate him; sell him into slavery; Joseph interprets dreams; predicts REALLY bad weather; Pharaoh's impressed; Joseph runs Egypt (basically); family hit hard by famine; Joseph saves the day; moves everyone to Egypt. Sound good? So who are players in this story? Joseph, Pharaoh, God, Jacob, the other brothers. What's missing?

I'll give you a clue. This is what Joseph says to his brothers when he finally reveals his identity: "Now, do not be distressed or reproach yourselves because you sold me to this place; it was to save life that God sent me ahead of you. It is now two years that there has been famine 
in the land, and there are still five years to come in which there shall be no yield from tilling. God has sent me ahead of you to ensure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (Genesis, 45:5-7). Did you catch it? Did you see Joseph name the additional character who's in cahoots with him and with God to orchestrate this entire scenario? It's the very land itself. And indeed, throughout the Torah, the land is an ACTIVE player in the drama. In Leviticus, 18:28, the text says: "If you defile the land, it will spew (some translations even say 'vomit'!) you out, as it spewed out the nations that came before you." God and the earth are working together, in partnership, and you - we all - must recognize that the land is very much a participant in God's plan.

We read the story of Joseph, and we praise him for his dream-interpretation prowess, and then later for his ability to govern Egypt for Pharaoh, and keep the people fed during a devastating famine. But we fail to recognize how involved the land itself is in this story. Without the years of plenty, there would be nothing to store up, nothing to protect the people in the face of starvation. 
Right? If they'd only had seven years of pretty-decent-harvesting, there wouldn't be enough to squirrel away. And without the famine, we would have no story. Joseph's family wouldn't have had to come to him in desperation, utterly at the mercy of Egypt's grand vizier Tzafenat-Paneach (a.k.a. Joseph) (p.s. I really love his Egyptian alter-ego. More people should give their kids names like that...). The famine itself is ESSENTIAL to our story. The story of our people, the foundation of what it means to be Jewish, begins with us living in Egypt as slaves... and all that begins because there was a food shortage that forced our ancestors to move down to Egypt.

This weekend, at Ohev Shalom, is GreenFaith Shabbat. We are talking about the environment, we are learning about sustainability, and we are going to introduce a new Prayer for Our World into our service. Why? Because the planet is an active player in all our stories. We forget it all the time, and we instead focus on the human characters and maybe even on God. But we neglect the ground we walk on, and we surely neglect how crucial it is 'to ensure our survival on earth,' as Joseph put it. 
By working the land too hard, by pumping it full of chemicals, by fracking it for natural gas, and by ignoring the warning signals that it sends back to us; we are risking our survival on this earth. We keep assuming we're going to have years of plenty to cover us, should we happen to have a completely-accidental-totally-fluky-no-one-could-ever-have-predicted-it famine. But what if we CAN'T count on those years of plenty? Who will interpret dreams for us then, to help us discern what lies ahead? We don't have the luxury of a Joseph, to make plans for us and help avert natural disasters. We have to change course NOW, and start becoming the master of our own dreams and our own future. 

If you're in the area, please join us this weekend to learn how.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Holidays!!

Chaverim - Dear Friends,
I won't be writing a blog post this week, due to the Thanksgivukkah holiday. But I wanted to write quickly anyway and just wish everyone a wonderful holiday with easy traveling, a wonderful and peaceful time with family and friends, and a banquet of delectable treats to enjoy with them. Enjoy this most rare of convergences; the celebration of Chanukah and Thanksgiving together, and a time to really give thanks for being both Jewish and American.

Happy Holidays!

Rabbi Gerber

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Va-yeishev: A Three-part Thanksgivukkah Story

This weekend, we begin reading the story of Joseph, and we will continue to read about him for the next four weeks. At the same time, 
we are also about to celebrate the incredible convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving - something that hasn't happened since 1888, and may never happen again. On the surface, these are three stories with nothing in common: Dream-interpretation, eight days of oil, and turkey. But you and I both know we can do better than that. If we dig just a little further under the surface, we can indeed find some striking links between Joseph, the Maccabees, and the Pilgrims. And we might even be able to learn something important, which we can bring to this year's Thanksgivukkah holiday dinner table.

Let's work our way backwards. We know what Thanksgiving is all about; it's right there in the name: We give thanks. And no, it isn't about 
thanking turkeys or retailers with amazing, unbeatable, craaazy, (insert superlative) bargains. I think the 'thank you' that we're trying to express is actually two-fold. We thank our ancestors for their bravery in leaving behind oppressive governments, famine, and poverty to seek a better life on an unfamiliar new continent (whether pilgrims in the 1600s or shtetl-dwellers in the 1900s). And we thank God for helping direct their path, and for making all this possible. 

I think you can already see where I'm going with this. Chanukah celebrates pretty much the same things. The Maccabees threw off the yoke of their oppressors, the Assyrian-Greeks, and took back the Temple. We tend to focus on the miraculousness of the Chanukah story - which certainly emphasizes God's role in all the events - but none of it would have happened without 
some brave individuals standing up for freedom, and risking their lives to create a better future for their families and their people. Similarly, the story of Joseph highlights the Divine Providence of Joseph's ability to interpret dreams, endear himself to various people in positions of power, and help bring his family to safety (at least for a couple hundred years...) in Egypt. Once again, God does some of the directing and protecting, but the human being (Joseph) in the story is the one risking his neck and making extraordinary things happen on the ground, in the trenches. All three stories remind us of the partnership between ourselves and God.

All three stories also celebrate freedom, and the importance of feeling gratitude for what we have, and how far we've come. Appreciating the convergence of these three tales is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and so I encourage you to spend a few minutes at your holiday table talking about the lessons of this momentous occasion. Do we treasure the 
freedom(s) that we have? Do we give thanks enough for the bounty on our tables and the bounty in our lives? And do we know where to look to feel God's Presence, subtly hiding behind the actions of individuals all around us, and even behind the choices that we, ourselves, make every day? Yes, it's also a fun day, with new words like 'Thanksgivukkah' and 'menurkey,' and mixed menus highlighting latkes with cranberry sauce and pumpkin-filled sufganiyot. But let's also take advantage of the opportunity to really give thanks. And let us also appreciate the lessons that come from this truly unique holiday, which beautifully brings together the essence of what it means to be both American and Jewish. And then... let's eat!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image drawn by the incredibly talented artist, Julie Wohl
2. CC image courtesy of Stacy Spensley on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of hotzeplotz on Flickr
4. Image (once again) drawn by the phenomenally talented (check out her Etsy store page...) Julie Wohl

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Va-yishlach: How Do We Respond To Calamity?

Full disclosure: I'm going to write about the typhoon in the Philippines this week. Many of you may know, my wife spent a summer in the Philippines just a few years ago, though not on the same island as Tacloban, where Typhoon Haiyan did the most devastating damage. 
Even though it was only one summer, we both now feel a closer connection to this exotic island nation, halfway around the globe. I visited her for a couple of days myself, right at the end of her 10-week stay, and it truly is a beautiful country. But I could also see, even then, how incredibly vulnerable the Philippines is to this kind of disaster; with so many people living in abject poverty in corrugated shacks, and such insufficient infrastructure and order. I want to talk to you about the Philippines, but I'm also aware (obviously) that this blog is called 'Take on Torah.' So what is the connection between our responsibility to help today, and the story of our ancestor, Jacob, that we read about in this week's parashah?

Our Torah portion doesn't speak of weather disasters or major calamities, but it DOES deal with vulnerability and uncertainty; and even, to some extent, with chaos and lack of structure. The first third of our reading (which, for those of us on a triennial cycle, is where we're at this year) primarily focuses on Jacob's encounter with his brother, Esau. 
Last they spoke, twenty years earlier, Esau vowed to kill Jacob, so naturally Jacob is nervous about this rendezvous. There's no police or political authority to which Jacob can turn; he is at the mercy of his brother, who is rapidly approaching with 400 men! Jacob fears the worst, and though he employs three separate strategies to try to avert disaster, ultimately, he knows that he is extremely vulnerable, and that disaster may indeed strike no matter how much he tries to prepare and plan.

First of all, Jacob sends a ludicrous amount of gifts ahead of himself, to try and 'soften' Esau's anger before the actual meeting. Similarly, when we first hear about a calamity like Typhoon Haiyan, we quickly make donations, trying to throw money at the problem. But the system gets clogged up with too much-too quickly. We care deeply for a week or so, 
and then forget entirely about the disaster. Perhaps it would be more helpful and effective to steadily make smaller contributions over a longer period of time? We also risk giving money to the wrong causes or places if we're not careful, and sadly, the aftermath of a horrible disaster is also the time when fake charities pop up to capitalize on other people's misery. Jacob also tries diplomacy, sending messengers ahead to negotiate with Esau and get a read on how upset he really is. And finally, Jacob divides his camp in half, so that if all else fails, and Esau truly is out for blood, at least half of the family will get away unscathed. After all other attempts are made, we all still need a Plan B for worst-case scenarios.

We too need multiple approaches when dealing with an unfathomable calamity like the typhoon in the Philippines. Yes, we should give money, and I've included a few reliable websites for donations below. But we also need to start thinking much more seriously about our relationship with the earth, and how we incorporate sustainability into our daily lives.
This cannot become our new normal, and only responding with money and sympathetic head nods won't make this problem go away. Our Torah portion is called 'Va-yishlach,' meaning 'and he sent.' We need to think about what we send into the world, and what the planet sends back at us when we don't treat it with enough respect. We cannot rid ourselves completely of uncertainty and vulnerability in this world; that is unfortunately always going to be true. But we CAN do our best to create several different strategies for how to improve our situation, and do what's best for people everywhere. We should begin by helping the people of the Philippines (see below), and by praying for their safety and recovery (see below). But then we also need to look more seriously at why these record-breaking storms keep occurring, or, like Jacob, we too will very soon be needing a much more dramatic Plan B.

Resources for donating to typhoon relief in the Philippines:
- Red Cross
- A list of other relief agencies offering help to typhoon victims.

A prayer for the people of the Philippins (by Rabbi Menachem Creditor):

Elohei ha-Ruchot, God of the Winds,
Fixated as we are by incalculable losses in our families, our neighbors, human beings spanning national borders, we are pummeled into shock, barely even able to call out to You.

We are, as ever, called to share bread with the hungry, to take those who suffer into our homes, to clothe the naked, to not ignore our sisters and brothers. Many more of our brothers and sisters are hungry, homeless, cold, and vulnerable today than were just a few days ago, and we need Your Help.

God, be with us as we utilize every network at our disposal to support each other.  Be with First Responders engaged in the work of rescue as they cradle lives new and old, sheltering our souls and bodies from the storm.  Be with us and be with them, God.

Be with those awaiting news from loved ones, reeling from fire, water and wind that have crippled cities, decimated villages, and taken lives. Be with all of us, God.

Be with us God, comfort us, and support us as we rebuild that which has been lost.

May all this be Your will.


Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. From an island resort off the coast of Mindanao, and the city of Davao.
2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. View of corrugated shacks from the window of a taxi.
3. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. View of the beach from our hotel.
4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. Standing next to a giant sculpture of an eagle, inside a Davao city park.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Va-yeitzei: Naming Leah's Important Lesson

The Torah can be very subtle, crafty even. It employs many different techniques to get a message across, to convey an experience, or to express an emotion. One of my favorites (and about which I've spoken here several times before) is 
the use of naming. On the surface, it seems as if we're only talking about personal names; who names whom in the Bible. But when we dig a little deeper, we realize that the naming of people can sometimes really be about the naming of situations and feelings; an outlet for uttering an otherwise unspeakable state of mind. And I believe that this is precisely what is going on in this week's Torah reading, in the story of Leah.

There are many examples of naming in the Torah: God renames both Abraham (from Abram) and Sarah (Sarai), and later renames Jacob as well, though his new name - Israel - doesn't entirely 'stick.' Whereas Abraham and Sarah are never again referred to by their old names, the Torah goes back and forth between saying Jacob and Israel, seemingly defying God's decision to change his name. But I digress. This week, 
we read about mothers naming their children, and specifically the battle between Jacob's (Israel's?) two wives, Leah and Rachel. We aren't explicitly told much about the relationship between the two women, but subtly the Torah hints at the tragedy of their lives through the naming of their sons. Rachel remains barren initially, while the same can certainly NOT be said about Leah. She has her first son (of six), and calls him Reuven, meaning either 'Adonai has seen my affliction,' or 'Now my husband will love me.' What a terribly sad sentiment! We experience such pain for Leah, and for how unloved she feels in this moment. Rabbi Shai Held, who writes about Leah as well, states: "The text's silences speak volumes: Leah expresses a heartfelt hope for love, but Jacob is simply nowhere to be found."

Rabbi Held picks up on the silence in between the naming. No emotion is expressed, no response given to how others understood Leah's odd choice to name her firstborn son. She is so invisible, so forgotten by her husband, Jacob, and even her own sister. We ache for her. Her next two sons are given names meaning "...Adonai heard that I was unloved and gave me this one also" (Simeon) and "This time my husband will become attached to me..." (Levi). 
Yet, nothing changes for Leah. Jacob still barely notices her, except when they share a tent. And then something shifts. She gives birth to yet another son, but this one she names, "Now I will praise Adonai" (Judah). No longer is she lamenting her sad situation (though it hasn't really improved). She instead chooses to change her mindset; in a sense, to name her experience and then take ownership of it: To heck with my jerk-husband, and his pathetic favoritism! Besides which, she's got four rambunctious sons to care for, she no longer has time to feel lonely...

But Leah's story is a crucial reminder to us all. We tell ourselves narratives, stories, that seem true to us. We get depressed and stuck in a rut. We imagine that our challenges and obstacles are insurmountable obstacles, and we feel lost. 
But we must NAME our situation, give it 
words and labels and describe it clearly to ourselves. Then it isn't so scary anymore. It ceases to be a face-less, name-less shadow that haunts the periphery of our minds. We may not often find ourselves naming other human beings, but we can still name our own situation, as well as the challenges we face, and the ways we hold ourselves back from success and happiness. When we peek under the surface of the stories in our Torah, we indeed find inspirational tales and advice for how to live our lives. It seems as though the Torah is being so subtle, but there's much that we can learn... we just have to name it!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of jetteff on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of LouisDavid on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Boston Public Library on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of wolfgangfoto on Flickr

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Tol'dot: A Fresh Look at (Ancient) Mom and Dad

We don't get to choose our parents. There are a lot of things in life that we can control (or believe we can...), but one of them is NOT lineage. Nevertheless, our relationship with our folks can be turbulent. As 
children, we idolize our parents; 
as teenagers we're constantly embarrassed to be associated with them; and as adults we both discover how much we are like them, and we learn to respect their choices and challenges. But it can be a difficult relationship. Sometimes the patience and understanding we have for other people is hard to extend to family members. Our issues (and theirs) are just too close and too personal; we can't look at them objectively. All of these realizations that I've listed can also be transferred to our ancestors, our parents' parents a hundred times over. Usually, we don't know that much about these REALLY distant relatives... but then, of course, there's the Torah.

I've always struggled to understand Isaac. He seems to have no identity besides being the son of Abraham and the father of Jacob. He's a placeholder, a bench warmer. Overwhelmingly, the stories of our ancestor Isaac involve action that happens TO him or around him. 
He's never the active DOER, he never takes control of his life and his fate. Look at what we know about him: He is nearly sacrificed by Abraham; Sarah and Hagar fight over him; A wife is found for him; His wife and son trick him. Even in the stories of his interactions with the Philistines, we hear of him digging a well and being chased away by bullies, only to dig another one and be driven away again, and then a third time as well. What is the point of Isaac? What purpose does he serve?

But then I have to stop myself. We do this to people in our lives a lot, don't we? Think about whether they do or don't serve a purpose in OUR lives? We criticize who they are, encourage them to be 'better,' challenge them to shape up, and eventually try to threaten them into changing. 
And all because they don't look/act/speak/behave the way WE want them to. Maybe we're embarrassed that Isaac is our ancestor? We like strong leaders, like Abraham, Joshua, and David. But that is precisely why we have to remind ourselves that we don't get to choose our ancestors. We don't pick our parents, and we cannot force someone else to conform to our ideals or expectations. Isaac is a human being. In fact, I'm more certain that he was a real person than many other Biblical figures, because I doubt anyone would purposely write an imagined character this way! Just as we need to, in life, transition from eye-rolling teenagers to respectful adults, here too we need to accept Isaac for who he is, and strive to understand and make our peace with him.

So now that we're ready to take a fresh look at Isaac, what do we see? First of all, we surely underestimate the strength it took to survive the incident with his father on Mount Moriah. What must it have taken to persevere and recover from nearly being sacrificed on an alter by your parent? With no psychologists to help you process, and no prescription medicine?? He stayed in the land 
during a famine - a true test of faith - something his father was unable to do. Eventually, Isaac decided to become a farmer, a profession about which he knew nothing, and he became incredibly successful and wealthy. And perhaps the greatest lesson we learn about Isaac is that he was a man of peace. Despite provocations from Philistines, and strife between his children, Isaac remained a diplomat and kept his cool. And we miss all these things, because it's just so hard to admire Isaac when we're too busy judging him, and comparing him to other ancestors. Sometimes our emotions and our tightly-gripped grievances cloud our vision, and make it hard to appreciate traits that really are impressive and laudable. We just need to take a step back and open our eyes (and hearts) to really see that. What an important reminder to us all, whether we're talking about ancient forefathers or present-day fathers. 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Sam Hames on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Pimkie on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Jeff Sandquist on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of roberthuffstuffer on Flickr

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Chayei Sarah: The Legacy of Our Foremother

This week's Torah portion starts out with a seemingly cruel little morbid joke. The first significant words in our parashah are 'Chayei Sarah,' meaning 'The Life of Sarah,' and so 
you might think you're about to learn of Sarah's childhood, her relationship with Abraham, her experience of motherhood, and maybe the challenges, successes, hopes, and dreams that all contributed to making her the woman that she was. Sadly, the very first sentence of the Torah portion informs us of Sarah's death. Seems a little inappropriate, no? Is the Torah trying to make an off-color joke, at Sarah's expense? Or perhaps there's something much more significant going on under the surface.

What does the Torah mean by 'The Life of Sarah'? In context, it seems mainly to be referring to age, to the years of her life. That first sentence just tells us that she was 127 years old when she died. But we've read 
about LOTS of other people dying in the Torah, and the text never otherwise uses the term 'The life of (so-and-so)' in this way. Earlier in Genesis, we were told that various people 'lived' - 'va-yechi' - to a certain age, and we also saw that 'the days of' (kol yamei) a person's life were counted. Later, when Moses died at the end of Deuteronomy, we were told that he was a hundred and twenty years old when he died (34:7), but even then, the term 'the life of' was not used to describe Moses' death. So clearly something ELSE is going on in our text. 

I think we're really talking about Sarah's legacy. Our parashah primarily focuses on her son, Isaac; the beginning of his story, and the record of his family. We never really learned much about Sarah in earlier stories. 
We knew she lived most of her life childless, and it seemed to be a source of great consternation for her. It seems plausible to assume that she feared no one would pass along her values and ideals. For her, Isaac represented the future, the endless possibilities of generations of descendants, still talking about her millennia later. And indeed, here we are. In that way, our Torah portion truly does BEGIN - and not end - the story of the life of Sarah.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about vision and long-range planning. Conversations have begun, here at Ohev Shalom, about what we're doing, where we're going, and how we'll get there. What is community all about? What do people want to get out of their membership, and what can, and should, we be doing for them? We tend to let ourselves get 
distracted by problems that exist right now, and which may seem urgent and pressing. But that also gives us a free pass to stop thinking about bigger pictures, meta-levels, and mission statements. And I'm not just talking on an organizational level. What about YOU, and your own life? Do you have a vision for where you'll be seven years from now, twenty years from now, maybe A HUNDRED years from now?? You may want to respond, 'that's crazy! Surely I won't be alive in a hundred years!' Except that shouldn't really limit you, should it? I mean, it didn't stop Sarah. Every moment of every day, your legacy is at stake. It's time to think big, to dream big! What do you want your descendants to say about you; what do you want them to LEARN from you? Thinking about these types of questions is truly the difference between just living, and having our entire existence celebrate the idea of being alive. Here's to Sarah: L'Chaim!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of quinn.anya on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of moonlightbulb on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of m-louis on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of gruntzooki on Flickr

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Vayera: Time To Argue With God

Sometimes, things catch your eye. You don't really know why they do, you can't necessarily explain it or justify it, they just do. This happens to me sometimes when reading from the Torah. 
Some minor story or side note, passing reference or remark, is mentioned by the narrator, and it just seems odd or out of place, curious and mysterious; I can't help but take note. Oftentimes, however, I can't quite make sense of it or figure out how to turn it into a sermon or blog post, so I just file it away; letting it simmer in the back of my mind, to be analyzed and discussed at some later time. One of those quirky little stories, from this week's Torah portion, has percolated back up to the surface, after years of laying dormant, and I'd like to take a look at it with you and see if we can make some sense of it.

Just a few weeks ago, we read the story of Creation; how God was busy creating the world, the entire universe, really. Three Torah portions later, God finds the time to squabble with individual people in seemingly meaningless conversation. That's a pretty big leap in a short amount of time! In our Torah reading, God comes to visit Abraham and Sarah, disguised as three passing travelers. 
Abraham sees through the ruse, and invites them in. One of the guests lets Abraham know that in one year, Sarah will have a child. Sarah overhears the conversation, and laughs at this 'crazy' prediction. By now, they are both senior citizens, and it's a ludicrous suggestion that she'll finally have a son, after being childless her entire life! Many commentators fixate on a wonderful little tactful misquote that takes place at this point in the story. Sarah chuckles to herself, and wonders how she could have a child, what with Abraham being such an old fogey. God hears Sarah's comment (obviously), and asks Abraham: "Why did Sarah laugh, saying, 'Shall I in truth bear a child, old as I am?'" (Genesis 17:13) The rabbis praise God for sparing Abraham's feelings, by telling a small, white lie: She was concerned about HERSELF being old, not Abraham. Nice save, God!

But that's actually NOT the part that catches my eye every year. The part of the story that I really love (but previously couldn't explain) is the next line. God - seemingly a little annoyed at 
Sarah's lack of faith - reiterates the promise that she'll be pregnant in a year. Then we read: "Sarah lied, saying: 'I did not laugh.' for she was frightened. But God replied, 'no, you did laugh.' (Gen. 17:15) What is going on here? A little he said/she said (or really, she said/God said)? 'No, I didn't!' 'Yes, you did!' God creates planets, for heaven's sake! (and heavens too!) Why does it matter if Sarah is scared, and tries to back away from a foolish comment? One that she DID try to say just to herself, assuming no one else would know? Why is it worth God's time, and a whole verse in our Torah (which never wastes words), to stand firm on this matter?

After years of being puzzled, but amused, by this line, I think I have an interpretation (and I welcome your feedback and/or own reflections!): I think God wants Sarah to take responsibility for her thoughts and her actions. 
God isn't looking to punish her for not believing; it wasn't some horrible offense to God. But Sarah - and all of us - SHOULD own up to her feelings and beliefs. We don't have to hide from God. Our anger, our frustrations, our disbelief; all of these things that can seem 'heretical' are not at all an affront to God. God is only seeking relationship, no strings attached. Even if we think our thoughts are 'bad' or 'wrong,' there's no need to feel ashamed or afraid. God is urging us to take responsibility for ourselves, including our actions AND our thoughts, no matter what we discover. God wants to help us own our experiences, and be present to who we truly are. And surely THAT is worth every moment of God's time.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of mararie on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Ethan Prater on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Jimmy_Joe on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of popofatticus on Flickr

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Lech Lecha: Start here.

Life is filled with transformative moments. We don't always see them while they're happening. We don't have the presence of mind, the objectivity, or sometimes the energy/time/strength/wherewithal to stop and say, 'Wow! It's happening RIGHT NOW!! I'm being transformed!' 
But nevertheless, they happen. Graduations, weddings, divorces (sometimes), childbirth experiencing breathtaking nature, surviving an illness or accident, overcoming major obstacles - all of these can be seminal moments in our lives. Most importantly, when it DOES happen, we have to be willing and ready to let the full magnitude of the experience wash over us. In our Torah portion, Abraham has just such an experience. And this past week, so did I.

Out of the blue, Abraham is told 'Lech Lecha' - 'Go. Get Up! Leave your home.' It's so abrupt. What aren't we being told about this story? Did God and Abraham have a prior relationship? Had Abraham heard the voice of the Divine Creator of the World whispering in his ear before? 
Where is Abraham when this happens to him, and how did his family feel about his decision to heed God's command? We aren't told. We don't know. And maybe it isn't as relevant as we'd like to think. Abraham quiets down all those voices that tell him 'no, don't do it. It's too scary.' He resists the urges to scrutinize, criticize, and skeptic...ize. Instead, he follows his heart. God doesn't tell him WHERE he's going either: 'To the land that I will show you' (Genesis 12:1). It's the ultimate leap of faith. Just get going, and God will direct you along your path. Pretty terrifying, you might say. But humbling as well... and filled to the brim with spirituality and purpose.

If we're being honest with ourselves, it's not as if Abraham's the only one who's been through this. Sure, most of us don't hear the whole Divine-voice-thing, but we too have experienced the commencing of journeys with undecided endings. 
Choosing which college to go to, picking a profession, heck, getting married and having children! These are all 'Lech Lecha'-moments, when we just start walking down this fundamentally new and scary road, with no definite sense of where it will lead us. Nevertheless, we walk.

Earlier this week, I attended a conference for (relatively) young rabbis across the denominational spectrum. It was a new program called CLI (Clergy Leadership Incubator), run by a very forward-thinking organization called CLAL. Without overstating it, I would have to say that it was one of the most transformative experiences of my 
nearly five-year rabbinic career. Just about all of my assumptions about leadership were challenged. Our prayer experiences were filled with spirituality, our conversations were electrifying, and the lectures truly expanded our minds and shifted many paradigms. I know I'm being enigmatic about what ACTUALLY happened at the conference, but there's simply no way to summarize it here before the end of my fourth paragraph (and my blog posts NEVER exceed four paragraphs!). Let's just say that I've started a new 'Lech Lecha' journey, where the beginning is known, but the road ahead is not. You are very much invited to join me. We begin with a new phrase: Intentional Spiritual Community. What does it mean? First, we must unpack it, and make sense of each of those three words. So let the journey begin! And, hopefully, the transformation as well.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of the most beautiful child ever born EVER courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone (not that I'm biased...)
2. CC image courtesy of Art4TheGlryOfGod on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of i_yudai on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of h.koppdelaney on Flickr