Thursday, May 30, 2013

Shelach-Lecha: A Stranger Way of Thinking

I'm in the fifth year of writing this blog now, can you believe it? Time sure does fly. And these days, when I sit down to write a blog post, I like to look back at previous years' installments of the same Torah portion (since we DO go around and around in a cycle; every year re-reading the same Five Books of Moses), to make sure I don't repeat myself. This week's Torah portion is Shelach-Lecha, and it contains the story of the 12 spies. Now, I'm not going to tell you about that story, because I wrote about it already... in each of the last three years! So if you're interested in three different perspectives on the same narrative, feel free to browse around my old posts.

This year, I'd like to shift our focus to something ELSE in our reading, namely the stranger in our midst. The Torah likes to talk about 'the stranger,' 'ha-ger'; either one who lives among you or just a passing
traveler. And it makes sense that the Torah would address this! We're given all these many laws, governing eating, praying, thinking, sacrificing, living - but to whom do they apply? Is it everyone living within our borders? Because presumably the Israelites are eventually going to conquer Canaan, and there will be non-Israelites living there (think, Arabs, Druze, and Palestinians in modern-day Israel...); so how much of this new law-stuff really applies to them? Or if a merchant on a business trip passes through on a weekend, does s/he have to abide by our laws of Shabbat and Kashrut? These are pretty fair questions, no? So what DOES the Torah say about all of this.

In the Book of Numbers, chapter 15, verses 14-16, we read: "And when, throughout the ages, a stranger who has taken up residence with you, or one who lives among you, would present a gift of pleasing odor to Adonai - as you do, so shall it be done by the rest of the congregation. There shall be one law for you and for the resident stranger; it shall be a law for all time throughout the ages. You and the stranger shall be alike before Adonai; the same ritual and the same rule shall apply to you and to the stranger who resides among you." And I purposely wrote out the whole quote for you, because I think it's significant that the same basic idea is repeated THREE times: You guys are the same! Don't treat non-Israelites any different. Don't keep one standard for Jews and one for non-Jews; don't discriminate between locals and foreigners; don't create a hierarchy within your community, where one person's donation/sacrifice/commitment is valued higher than another's. Don't do ANY of these things!!

Perhaps the reason we need to hear it repeated three times is because it's counter-intuitive. We LIKE to divide into categories, we like identifying an 'us' and a 'them.' It's human nature to create groupings,
and even to fear those who are different. So the Torah tries - desperately - to change our way of thinking. Whether it's the current State of Israel, the government here in the US, or even within our own Jewish communities; we struggle to implement this most essential of Biblical teachings: "You and the stranger shall be alike before Adonai." How can we make this our reality? And not just in society, but in our own minds and hearts as well; each one of us! Is there a way back, a chance that we can return to seeing everyone as equal, and to stop vilifying and demonizing 'the other' (whoever that 'other' may be)? We've got to keep trying, right? Eventually we're going to get it; I know the Torah certainly hopes so.

Maybe three times wasn't repetition enough?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Karen Apricot on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of sakocreative on Flickr

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Beha'alotecha: Filling the Pages of a Book About Prayer

How can we harness the Power of God? Is it even imaginable that such a thing could be possible, that we, as human beings, could control God's 
actions? To some extent, the whole purpose of prayer (or at least some prayers) is to compel God in one direction or another. We pray for God to bring good fortune, to avert disaster, to punish our enemies, and to heal the sick; all the while feeling as though these things are out of our control. And yet, we pray. Is there, therefore, a chance that our words and songs can move the Hand of God? Believe it or not, there is an entire book of the Torah that speaks to this very question.

Ok, so I should probably put the term 'book' in quotes. You see, in the middle of this week's Torah portion, Beha'alotecha, two verses (35 and 36) in chapter ten are considered by some ancient rabbinic sources to constitute an entirely separate book unto themselves! Before and after these two verses, our Torah text displays a mysterious backwards letter, the Hebrew letter 'nun.' The great rabbi Judah Ha-Nasi wrote in the Mishnah that verses 35 and 36 were therefore a book unto themselves. And you may, in fact, already be familiar with the words of this 'book,' because we sing them at the start of the Torah service every Saturday morning: "Va-yehi Binsoa Ha-Aron, Va-yomer Moshe..." But you may NOT have realized that these words spoke of compelling God to act on our behalf: "When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: 'Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You!' And when it halted, he would say: 'Return, O Lord, You who are Israel's myriads of thousands!'"

What might the world look like if we could do this, if we could urge God's Presence to advance every time our enemies threatened to attack? Or if we could rein in the destructive forces of nature before they devastated towns, like Moore, Oklahoma
What is this book trying to teach us about the relationship between human beings and God, and about the efficacy of prayer? The Etz Hayim Torah Commentary offers a provocative insight, noting the difference between prayers in times of tranquility and peace, and prayers when we are vulnerable or persecuted. Sometimes in life, our prayer is for God to 'Advance!' and attack our enemies. Other times we pray for return; whether it be the return of health, of strength, of family members who are distant from us in one way or another, or even just our own teshuvah, returning through repentance and asking forgiveness.

When we have the great fortune to live in a time and place where we can offer prayers of tranquility, we also shouldn't distance ourselves from our ancestors who suffered great persecution at the hands of their enemies. We may feel appalled to read medieval prayers calling on God to violently and utterly destroy our oppressors, but who can deny someone else the right to offer such a prayer, without knowing the pain they are suffering? And at various times in our lives, we too feel a desperate need for prayer to 'work,' for SOMEONE to answer our cries. In that moment, can we really say for sure that prayer DOESN'T shift the Divine decree? Perhaps the world would have looked very, very different if a certain prayer had not been uttered right when it was. This 'book,' "Va-yehi Binsoa," is indeed a book on the Power of God, and the power of prayer. It may seem like a short book, but it may just be leaving room for all of us to fill it with our prayers; to answer the author's question in a different way for each and every one of us. All of a sudden, that book doesn't seem so short after all.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Library and Archives Canada on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of bsabarnowl on Flickr

Thursday, May 9, 2013

B'Midbar: For Carrie

You know how some people have kids, and then that’s all they can ever talk about? It’s so annoying. And it’s true for rabbis and people who write blogs as well, and so I SWORE to myself that I wouldn't be one of those people! My daughter was born four months ago, and sure, my wife and I obsess over her every move and think each one is the most amazing thing that’s ever happened in human history; but who else wants to hear about such silliness? And that is why I am fully aware of the hypocrisy in my writing about my daughter in this week’s blog post.

But in my defense, I couldn’t help it! Our Torah portion, B’midbar, talks about babies, but manages to make some troubling assertions. These would have bothered me before (and did!), but I guess they just hit me harder than they have in previous years. It's also true, however, that 
it’s ALWAYS been incredibly infuriating that the Torah goes out of its way to insist that we’re talking about MALE children; females definitely and unequivocally don’t matter at all. And in the Book of Numbers, chapter 3, verse 15, we are told that the Levitical priests are counted, “from the age of one month up.” So what then of newborn babies BEFORE they are one month old? Don’t they yet count as human beings? Obviously, this sounds horrific to the modern reader. It is, however, important to see it in the context of the ancient world. Infant mortality was unimaginably high, and it would have been too painful to endure full burial practices and the recitation of Kaddish for EVERY infant that died before, during, or soon after birth.

It’s just that I can’t read these texts the same way anymore. Now that I have a daughter of my own, the constant references to the singularity of male children stings even more. And having watched a baby be born, then having sat up with her for endless nights, and now dedicating my life to helping this tiny, struggling personality discover its place in the world; it is unthinkable to me that she could ever not be considered a human being. And the text goes on to say that all firstborn children belong to God: “Every first-born is Mine. At the time that I smote every first-born in the land of Egypt, I consecrated every first-born in Israel, human and beast, to Myself, to be Mine, the Lord’s” (Numbers 3:13). What do we make of that? Especially since the beasts in question are sacrificed to God as a ritual offering!! The rabbis explain that the first-born children were originally consecrated to service, to serve God as priests in the Temple. So no killing. Later on, they created a redeeming ritual, called Pidyon Ha-Ben (still used in some communities to this day), which enables parents to ‘buy back’ their child, and pay the priests to serve in the Temple in their stead. 

So what is the take-away from all of this? Gratitude. When we remind ourselves of the infant mortality we all had to suffer at one point in our history; when we recall the devastation 
of the tenth plague in Egypt; when we try NOT to think about the practice of child sacrifice among the heathens surrounding Israel; and when we pay a small amount (as if raising children doesn’t already cost enough…) as a gift of thanksgiving to God – all of this reminds us of how precious life really is. On this weekend of Mother’s Day, hug someone you love. Child, parent, sibling, friend, partner, spouse, it doesn’t matter. Remember that life is fragile, and life is precious. Every day we should give thanks for the people who bless our lives and make it all worthwhile.

And yes, as sappy and annoying as it may be, I dedicate this post to the newest shining little light in my life; my daughter, Caroline.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Caroline Gerber and her rockin' sun hat!

2. Image courtesy of Caroline Gerber in a sleepsack from grandma.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Behar-Bechukotai: The Different Pieces of Peace

There is a great quote, by a rabbi with a terrific name, that I find myself coming back to every once in a while. Ben Bag-Bag (yes, that was really his name) is quoted in Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of Our Fathers), as saying "Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it" 
(5:22). He was referring to the Torah, and the fact that you can read, study, chant, pray on, and debate any passage, and yet somehow you KEEP finding new insights. As often as I think I've read a particular line, I marvel at how new insights just seem to jump off the page at random occasions. And this week, I'd like to share one of those with you from our Torah portion.

In the middle of talking about the Land of Israel, God makes a statement that has found its way into our Shabbat morning service. As we chant aloud the Prayer for Peace, we all recite together: "I will bring peace to the land, and you shall lie down and no one shall terrify you. I will rid the land of vicious beasts, and it shall not be ravaged by war" (Leviticus 26:6). And because we've read this line in our congregation so many times, I guess I just took it for granted. I haven't had an opportunity to look at it again with fresh eyes, and so I appreciated this week reading a Torah commentary by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, in which Rabbi Berkowitz asks the question (and I'm paraphrasing), 'why is this passage so redundant?' I never really noticed it before, but he's right! Why didn't God just say "I will bring peace to the land"? That says it all, doesn't it? Why the need for three more elaborations and repetitions of that same notion? Is it not enough to know that the land will be peaceful, must we also hear that we will be able to lie down unterrified? Or that the land will contain no vicious beasts (read: terrorists)? Or that it won't be wrecked by devastating wars? FOUR times we are given this same concept... and I cannot help but wonder why this is so.

Rabbi Berkowitz quotes a famous medieval commentator, the Bechor Shor, as saying that 'God’s promise is twofold: it is about physically dwelling in peace, and feeling secure psychologically.' I think this is such a crucial insight. The Torah doesn't just give us ONE iteration of peace, because there are MANY different kinds of peace. Peace isn't necessarily an objective reality, it's incredibly 
subjective. You may have a home, a stable career, a loving family, and secure finances, and still feel incredibly anxious, unsettled, unhappy, and restless. You could live in abject poverty with no hope of improving your situation, but be incredibly content and satisfied nonetheless. I have presided over funerals for very wealthy people who lived lives filled with regret and disappointment; and I've officiated at funerals of very simple, unassuming people who felt like the wealthiest, luckiest people on earth. And one person's peace is another one's torment. There most certainly is NOT one, universal, all-encompassing definition of peace.

In part, this makes God's promise all the more incredible and wonderful. ALL these obstacles and challenges will be removed. External threats and internal terrors; foes, fears, and physical harm alike will all disappear. But it is also a reminder to each and every one of us to both work on all aspects of our own lives, and not to judge the situation of another. We should remember that our own happiness is NOT dependent on monetary success or international fame; the key to happiness is satisfaction and contentment, not the accumulation of 'stuff.' And similarly, we cannot look over the fence and assume that someone else is happy, just because they seem to be, or that our neighbor must surely be miserable on the basis of such-and-such indisputable evidence. We cannot take anything for granted - whether it's a prayer we've read a thousand times, or the private lives of the people all around us. We must continuously approach situations with fresh eyes and a desire to learn and discover. That is the key to genuine peace... but don't take my word for it.

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

2. CC image courtesy of AshleyEustice on Flickr