Thursday, July 18, 2013

Judaism's Essence in Six Words... Go!

This week, I'd like to take a slight departure from my usual blog posts here on Take on Torah. As you likely already know, the High Holidays are right around the corner, and most rabbis are already well 
into 'High Holiday mode,' writing sermons, planning services, and generally freaking out (more or less). So with that in mind, I have been working on my own sermons, and have been mulling over a particular question, which I also posted on Facebook. I would like to repost that question to you all here, but with the added bonus of sharing with you all the previous answers people have submitted (thus far).

So the next thing you'll be reading is the post I put up on Facebook, and then the wonderful responses I've received. I would like to invite you to do one of two things: 
A) Post your own response; after all, this IS Take on Torah (as in, what is YOUR take on the posts I've been writing?). Or B) Please feel free to comment on someone else's submission. Which ones resonate with you? Which ones (if any) do you find particularly poignant/beautiful/provocative? I'd love to hear what you have to say! So here goes: 

Ernest Hemingway is rumored to have authored a short story in just six words, and challenged other authors to do the same. His sad, little story went: "For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn." Tragic, but so powerful!

There are books on six-word memoirs; NPR launched a race card project, challenging listeners to express their thoughts on 'race' in just six words; and there are many others like this out there.

What about Judaism? Can you summarize what it means to be Jewish, to you, in six words? I've taken a crack at it, here are a few of my attempts:

1) Questioning is in our blood. Why?
2) Reinterpreting the Bible since 1,500 BCE.
3) We've got a holiday for that...

4) Ask good Jewish questions every day

And here are some wonderful submissions from other people:
5) Conceived 1939 Poland. Born 1939 Uruguay
6) We suffered, we survived, let’s eat!
7) Empty seats in the Sanctuary. Why?
8) Just like mom used to make
9) Try it, you may like it
10) Judaism is very much about food
11) Culture. History. Peoplehood. Books. Family. Food. (Feels a little weird excluding God…)
12) Make Judaism accessible to increase connections
13) I wouldn’t be alive without it
14) Hope to Realty, with God’s help (The author MAY have meant 'Hope to Reality,' but I kind of like it both ways! :-))
15) Do Good. The rest is commentary
16) In my blood. In my life
17) Wandering, wondering, seeking God and people
18) The Judaism is awesome to me
19) Knowledge linking past and future generations 
20) They attacked, we won, let’s eat
21) We are one. We are different 
22) Candles glow, tradition guides soul; nourished 
23) Two Jews, three opinions, chosen people 
24) Shema Yisrael! Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad (the 'original' response to this question! But yes, someone DID also submit it to me. Though luckily they didn't claim it was their original composition...)
25) Values that guide, community that sustains 
26) We kvetch and then God laughs
27) We know where we came from 
28) They tried, They failed, let's eat

Your turn. :-)

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of bark on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of One Way Stock onFlickr
3. CC image courtesy of Goynang on Flickr

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Devarim: Scary Devarim To Live By

It's hard to know what we're capable of doing. We often imagine that we know ourselves better than anyone else ever could, and if we say that a task is impossible, it truly is IMPOSSIBLE. And yet, we surprise 
ourselves all the time. We lose weight we never thought we could; we climb mountains (literally and figuratively) that once seemed thoroughly insurmountable; we finish courses of study that we thought we'd never even start; and we learn Hebrew, lead services, chant from the Torah, and even give sermons, when once we held the prayer book upside down for an entire service. How does this happen? And why does it seem to surprise us EVERY time?

This week, we begin the fifth and final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy. It is, in fact, Moses' Swan Song; consisting almost entirely of one, long soliloquy by Moses, filled with laws, warnings, pleadings, and advice for the people he's lead for 40 years to the border of the Promised Land. 
In Hebrew, this book is called Devarim, which we translate as 'words.' It is a truly wonderful title for this particular composition, considering that back in Exodus when God first tried to appoint Moses as the prophet to lead the people out of slavery, one of Moses' main objections was that he wasn't 'a man of words.' Forty years later, the guy can't STOP talking! I guess that's what happens when you spend four decades in a tough leadership role.

However, there's something else interesting going on here as well. Like all of us today, Moses actually had it in him all along. He didn't need to endure the endless travails of the exodus to find his voice, it was something he was capable of doing 
right at the outset. He just didn't believe in himself. In a Torah commentary by Maureen Kendler, she points out that even way back at the start, by the burning bush, Moses said to God: "lo ish devarim anochi, gam mitmol gam mishilshom gam mei-az daberchah el avdechah - I am not a man of words, neither yesterday nor the day before - nor since You first spoke to Your servant!" That's a pretty eloquent and beautiful way to phrase an objection, isn't it? Pretty odd for someone who supposedly doesn't have a way with words... Kendler summarizes it for us: "His expressive answer somewhat undermines his own case."

And it ain't just true for Moses! Yes, we sometimes learn new skills. We find fresh motivation and we gradually build up to a level that was once unimaginable. But the spark, the seed, the impetus for our great achievements; they were in us 'gam mitmol, gam mishilshom - yesterday and the day before that.' Eleanor Roosevelt once said, 'Do one 
thing every day that scares you.' Part of what I hear in that wonderful quote is, you don't know yourself entirely yet, and you don't know the limits of your true potential. You might THINK it took Moses forty years to figure that out for himself, but Exodus reminds us that it was there pretty early on. And I would venture to say that by the time he bested Pharaoh, he knew he could do more than he'd first imagined. It's an important reminder to us all; never let words keep us from reaching for new heights and new achievements; not words from someone else, and definitely not our own words either. And if that sounds a little scary to you, well maybe that's the whole idea.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Andrea & Stefan on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of rkramer62 onFlickr
3. CC image courtesy of Kevin Shorter on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of lululemon athletica on Flickr

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Matot-Masei: How To Chop Down Peace

The fourth book of the Torah is almost over. We're in the last parashah before we turn to Deuteronomy (Devarim), which is basically Moses' long monologue before he dies and the people prepare to enter the Holy Land. You can almost picture this Kodak moment:
The traveling is complete. The people are standing at the border, about to cross into a beautiful land flowing with milk and honey, and they're looking out across this wide open expanse, unsettled and empty, peacefully waiting for them to take possession of it... Well, that's how many of us imagine it anyway. 

This is a really important myth that we must dispel. When the Israelites arrived at the border of Canaan, there were LOTS of people living there. Which is not to say that those people didn't displace OTHER people, or that the locals had a deed since the dawn of time giving them sole ownership of everything. 
But let's not fool ourselves into ignoring that our ancestors took this land by force, and had to battle other peoples to conquer every piece of land they settled. Our Torah portion may state: "when you enter the land of Canaan, this is the land that shall fall to you as your portion" (Numbers, 34:2), but that's quite frankly ridiculous! The land didn't 'fall' into our hands, like a gift from heaven. We seized it; and the fight hasn't really ended ever since.

I don't bring this up to judge or deny Jewish claims to the land of Israel (because people were constantly displacing one another in those days; who's to say that ANYONE was the rightful and 'original' owner??). I do, however, think it's important not to forget this part of our history - with all the violent, uncomfortable, gritty parts that go with it - because there really are OTHER players in this drama. We are not the sole actors, 
and sometimes we don't even seem like the protagonists! Palestinians, Druze, Bedouins - they are all citizens of that same piece of land and cannot be ignored. In his latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, Nathan Englander writes a series of short stories about being Jewish. One story focuses on the experience of pioneers in the Israeli settlements, and Englander offers a scathing critique of their way of life. At one point, an early settler decides to chop down an old olive tree on 'her' land, and a young Arab quickly shows up and demands that she stop chopping. "It's my tree, on my land, in my country. Mine to cut down if I please," she insists. "If it was your tree," retorts the young Arab, "I'd have seen you at my side last year during harvest. I'd have seen you the year before that, and ten years before that, and a hundred."

I cannot tell you that boy was right; who knows when his family actually arrived, or if he had any real claims to it. But it's the audacity, the chutzpah, of the settlers to claim a plot of land, chop down its trees, and insist that God wants you there; THAT is what's destroying the peace 
process. Sure, there are atrocities being committed on the Palestinian side as well. But let's stop pretending this land 'fell' into our ancestors' laps, and let's most certainly stop pretending we're the only ones with a claim to it. Until we can read the texts of our tradition with new eyes, and recognize all the people who ALSO share the Holy Land, nothing new is going to be accomplished. We can no longer stand at the border and pretend we see no one; it's WAY too crowded for that.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of PinkMoose on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Charles Williams onFlickr
3. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone
4. CC image courtesy of Ryan Tir on Flickr