Thursday, August 29, 2013

Nitzavim-Vayeilech: Your A-ha Moment for Taking on Torah

This is going to be my last blog post for the pre-High Holiday season. I may try to post my Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur sermons at some 
point, in text and/or video format, but other than that, no new blogs. So as we wrap up our fourth year together (crazy, isn't it?), what else is there to say? We're finishing up a year of blog posts, we're finishing up the Torah reading cycle, and we're preparing ourselves for the end of the month of Elul, and thus the start of the High Holidays. There's got to be SOMETHING we can take away from the convergence of all these transitional moments???

As usual, Moses is the one who comes to the rescue, giving us the words to help focus our thoughts. "Surely, this Instruction which I enjoin upon you this day is not too baffling for you, nor is it beyond reach. It is not 
in the heavens, that you should say, 'Who among us can go up to the heavens and get it...?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, 'Who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it...?' No, the thing is very close to you, in your mouth and in your heart, to observe it." (Deut. 30:11-14) First of all, what is 'this Instruction'? Usually, we would say it's THE Torah, but here the Hebrew says 'Ha-mitzvah ha-zot,' this mitzvah. So it's really open for debate. And, in many ways, Moses' grand plea here is the same sentiment I've tried to convey throughout my four years of writing this blog.

It is all very close to you, close to your heart. What is YOUR take on the Torah? What is your perspective/opinion/reaction/thought on this Instruction that you see before you? Because, at the end of the day, it ain't about what I think, it's about what Judaism and the Torah and the High Holidays mean to YOU. 
And you don't have to be a scholar, rabbi, or cantor to offer an opinion; that's comparable to saying that all this stuff is somewhere up in heaven or across an ocean. And it isn't! It's yours for the taking as well!! So use the opportunity of these High Holidays, and this restarting of the Jewish year, to think about where you are. What does Judaism mean to you? What will your role be in your Jewish community? And how do these two questions impact your everyday life, at work, home, the gym, and walking outside in the street?

I've sincerely enjoyed writing this blog for over four years now and 200+ posts (how is that even possible??). And I also want to say 'thank you' to everyone who has sent me e-mails, stopped me in the hallway at Ohev, or commented in some other way on what I've been writing. But even 
here, on my blog, it shouldn't be all about me and my opinions. Do you have something to say? Either in a comment on a blog post, or in an e-mail to me about something you'd like to see discussed? Your input is welcomed - and HIGHLY encouraged - here at Take on Torah. Sometimes the Internet can make things seem really distant and remote. But I promise you, none of this is up in heaven or across an ocean. It's very, very close to you, and super-easy to access. As we head into our fifth year together, and as we all prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, as well as the new year ahead, maybe it's time for you to discover your very own Take on Torah?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Xose Arsenio Coto on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Skrewtape on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Torley on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Valerie Everett on Flickr

Friday, August 23, 2013

Ki Tavo: A Month of Mining for Jewels

Last week, I told you about a daily e-mail that I've been getting for the Jewish month of Elul, called 'Jewels of Elul.' As the month leading up to the High Holidays, Elul is a time of introspection and reflection, and the 
Jewels of Elul really help me do just that. Every year, these daily essays have a joint theme, linking them all together, and this year the theme is 'The Art of Welcoming.' And it's not an exclusive list! You're welcome to get the daily e-mail as well, if you sign up on their website. Earlier this week, I was reading two of these Jewels back-to-back, and they really gave me something to think about, especially in relation to this week's Torah portion AND in relation to the State of Israel.

I don't know if Craig Taubman, the Jewels-editor, put these two sequentially on purpose, but I couldn't help but think that perhaps he did. You see, on the 14th of Elul (August 20th) we were sent a piece 
written by Anat Hoffman, an activist with the Women of the Wall group who are fighting for equal rights to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. And on the 15th of Elul, we received an article written by Rabbi Yehoshua Fass, the co-founded of the group Nefesh b'Nefesh, which helps people make aliyah to Israel and become Israeli citizens. And though they both spoke incredibly lovingly about the State of Israel, they also live in VERY different worlds. 

Our Torah portion this week, Ki Tavo, includes the oft-quoted verse, "Blessed shall you be in your comings, and blessed shall you be in your goings" (Deuteronomy, 28:6). Thirteen verses later, we see the same phrasing used again, but this time turned on its head as it describes what will happen if the Israelites DON'T follow God's commands: "Cursed shall you be in your comings, and cursed shall you be in your goings!" 
I thought about these two Jewels of Elul, and how they challenge us to think about blessed comings and not-so-blessed goings. Rabbi Fass tells us the beautiful narrative we WANT to believe about life in Israel: "The Oleh [new immigrant] should feel proud of their decision, welcomed by their new neighbors, applauded for their courage, and honored for their brave and life-changing choice to come home." And I agree with Rabbi Fass. Two-and-a-half years ago, both my sister and one of my best friends made this very courageous decision to make aliyah. But it's also been eye opening - even for me, sitting all the way over here in Wallingford, PA - to see how tough it is for each of them to make a new life in Israel. By framing both the blessing and the curse in the same way, and putting them so close together, the Torah is reminding us that it can feel pretty precarious, and that the line between the two ain't as easily delineated as we might like...

And Anat Hoffman's piece - placed as close to Fass' article as the proximity between the blessings and the curses - reminds us of the complexity of Israel, and the struggles that are fought there every day. Hoffman tells us: "Reform and progressive Jews in Israel have become accustomed to living in metaphorical handcuffs... second class Jews in the eyes of the State for so long that we have learned to function this way." 
Fass shows us the ideal, but (sadly) Hoffman speaks of the unfortunate reality for non-Orthodox Jews who which to express their religious identity. But we are in control! All of us have the ability to separate between blessings and curses, even when they seem so close together. This month, Elul, calls for us to search our own lives, as well as the life of our community and our people, and think about what needs to change. And Elul urges us to have the courage to MAKE that change a reality. Jewels aren't stumbled upon; they are mined and polished, and that is the work we all must do as this new year is about to begin.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of tom chandler on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of David Holt London on Flickr
3. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber, from his friend (the new oleh), Eric's wedding. Mazal Tov!!
4. CC image courtesy of .v1ctor Casale on Flickr

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Ki Teitzei: A Welcome Way To Help Yourself

Why do we offer help? If and when we step outside of our own little universes, and we extend a hand to make someone else's life a little easier; why do we do it? Is it for reward or praise? So that someone
else will see how righteous, kind, and selfless we are? In the field of Anthropology, there is a constant debate about the subject of altruism; can you ever help another purely for selfless reasons, or is there always some underlying personal benefit that you hope or expect to get out of it? This subject is touched upon in our Torah portion this week, but perhaps more importantly, it is something we all should consider in this month of Elul; the month preceding the High Holiday season.

Our parashah, Ki Teitzei, continues the theme from last week, listing various laws that govern society. One, small section talks about harvesting, and how you should leave some of your yield for the orphan, 
widow, and poor. But we are given TWO distinct justifications for why we should do this. Deuteronomy, chapter 24, verse 19 tells us the reason for our kindness is 'in order that the Lord, your God, may bless you in all your undertakings.' And three verses later, after repeating the obligation to leave some for the underprivileged, we are adjured to 'always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.' So why are we supposed to help the people around us, so that God will reward us or as a sign of our gratitude for God's saving us from slavery?

You think I'm going to say that the answer is 'both,' don't you? Well, sort of. It's actually MORE than both. I don't believe that Deuteronomy 24:19 is really about God blessing us for good behavior. God's blessing 
is not an objective reality; it's a perception, an experience. You will FEEL blessed, and your life will be filled with more meaning, when you treat other people this way. Similarly, we are meant to remember the slavery in Egypt, not because of some debt we owe God, but because it will soften our hearts. When we remember the pain and suffering we experienced as the lowest caste members in society, our eyes and souls will open up to the pain of the other in our society, and we WILL help them.

And this is the lesson of Elul, leading into the High Holidays. Every day in Elul, I get an e-mail from Craig Taubman in California, entitled 'Jewels of Elul.' He's been compiling these for years, and I encourage you to sign up as well. This year's theme is 'The Art of Welcoming,' and in his introduction, Taubman writes: 'welcoming is more than just the way we greet people, it is a way of life. Welcoming is the attitude with which 
we respond to people, ideas and the world around us. It’s not just about opening our doors but also opening our hearts and our minds to that which is new and sometimes even frightening. Only when we overcome our fears and choose to trust can we be welcoming in the truest sense of the word.' When you think of being welcoming, you may think of how it affect someone ELSE. But it affects you as well. It makes you a better person, softer and more open, kinder. It's not something you do out of obligation or debt, or to receive praise from an onlooker. It is truly its own reward. And so it is with preparing for the High Holidays. Don't do it out of guilt or obligation, or to be more pious than someone else. Start to think about the upcoming season (and indeed this season of preparation RIGHT NOW), because it will enhance the quality of your life. So maybe it isn't entirely altruistic; I'll give you credit for it anyway.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of eyecmore on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of U.S. Department of Agriculture on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Kirsten Skiles on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of per egevad on Flickr

Friday, August 9, 2013

Shoftim: Priorities in a Time of War

Sometimes we lose track of what really matters. Other 'stuff' gets in the way; whether it's mundane distractions like everyday work, e-mail, and 
Facebook, or temptations like money, fame, and power. Or it could even be disastrous events, like accidents, illnesses, or war. And it's ok to get distracted for a time, but the work that we all must do is to bring ourselves back to our core values. The Torah reminds us of this in an interesting passage in this week's Torah portion.

In this case, the distraction in question is war. A reality for Ancient Israel as it (sadly) is still for us today. How do you behave in war time? What are the responsibilities of the community, as well as those of the individual? In the middle of these combat laws, the Torah talks about 
mobilizing your troops for war. And while the officials are gathering together men who can fight, they are required to make the following proclamation: "Is there anyone here who has built a new house, but who has not yet dedicated it? Let him go back to his home, lest he die in battle and another dedicate it (instead of him)." (Deut. 20:5) The proclamation continues by asking if anyone has planted a vineyard, but not dedicated it, betrothed a women but not yet married her, or ultimately if anyone is just too afraid or disheartened to march into battle. What is this section meant to teach us?

Rabbi Gunther Plaut, in the Reform Movement's Torah commentary, explains that these various commands 'follow an order of even greater anxiety: the home builder, the farmer (who works four years before harvesting), the newly married, and lastly the coward.' Personally, 
think it's a bit harsh to call the poor guy a coward, but I think we all see his point. Plaut also suggests that the anxiety felt by any and all of these individuals could 'prove infectious,' and would affect company morale. He also refers to a commentary by Gerhard von Rad, where the author posits that 'it was believed that someone who had to dedicate a thing was threatened by demons who were dangerous for others as well.' I would like to add another interpretation to these various thought-provoking ideas.

It's about priorities. The Torah knows that war is important, or at least necessary. Yes, in this very moment, the battle is vital and a matter of life and death. But in the grand scheme of things, there are OTHER things that matter more: Creating a home, providing sustenance for self and others, love and family, and even emotional health and stability. 
The Torah isn't just ranking these in order of greater anxiety, it's also listing them in terms of more significant core values. And by proclaiming these out loud to the ENTIRE army, you are both exempting those who have immediate needs to which they must attend, but you're also reminding EVERYONE of what it is we're fighting for. You are letting them know that yes, we must fight today, but let us never battle just for the sake of waging war. And let us work tirelessly to ensure that war is a temporary reality; never a permanent one. Sadly, we still have trouble learning that last lesson. There are more important values out there, in each of our lives, and in the community as a whole. We lose sight of them sometimes, but hopefully never for too long. We simply can't afford it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of FindYourSearch on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Moyan Brenn onFlickr
3. CC image courtesy of Michael Hodge on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Howard Lake on Flickr

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Re'eh: Just help.

What does the Torah mean when it tells us to help other people? Or perhaps more specifically, WHO does the Torah mean that we should help? This is not a minor question, because it speaks to our philosophy as a society. When we can't help everyone in the entire world, and we have
to make choices, whom does the Torah want us to help? Some people think this is a no-brainer. We help other Jews, of course! We help our own first, and only later (as if we're SO close to solving all the problems in the Jewish community...) we'll help others outside our community. Other people might say we should help where it's needed the most. Focus on the places and people who are the most desperate, or put your money and effort where it will make the greatest difference. And yet other people might respond that it's up to the individual. It's YOUR money, you decide where to use it, if at all. So I return to my original question; what does the Torah say about all of this?

As you can imagine, the answer is: "It's complicated." In this week's Torah portion we read: "There shall be no needy among you" (Deuteronomy, chapter 15, verse 4). Simple enough, right? Except, who is the 'you' we're talking about? Is it your Jewish congregation? The entire Jewish people? The city you live in? The country? Or 
humanity??? We're back where we started!! A few verses later, the Torah helps us out (somewhat...), by clarifying that we're talking about the needy 'among your kinsmen.' So it's referring specifically to fellow Jews. Except in other places in the Torah, we learn about helping the poor, the orphan, and the widow. And we're taught to love our neighbors (and again, we can ask what the Torah means by 'neighbor'...) as ourselves. So sometimes it seems insular and particularistic, and other times the Torah is open-minded and universal. I'm so confused! 

Sadly, we see that same confusion all around us in society, in the form of disregard for those outside our own groups. I myself experienced this lack of kindness during my vacation in Israel last week. Rebecca and I attended a wedding where the Orthodox Rabbinate badgered the couple for weeks, trying to force them to conform to a harsh, unyielding Orthodox standard. They even threatened to send a spy to observe 
the wedding, to really make sure everything was done according to their expectations! And on our way back to Ben Gurion airport, our cab driver was pulled aside at a checkpoint and forced to wait for 20 minutes for no reason other than the fact that he was an Arab. No one checked our car or our credentials, they just made us sit and wait, purposely trying to inconvenience the driver, deter his passengers from choosing an Arab taxi, and deliberately keeping him from returning home to conclude Ramadan after a full day of fasting. Where is the care for 'the other' in either of these stories? 

I think the Torah gives us conflicting advice to COMPEL us to think more consciously and intentionally about these crucial issues. Giving us one, authoritative answer doesn't kick our brains into gear, and we MUST use our brains, our hearts, AND our souls when we're talking about helping make the world a better place. Sometimes we need to 
devote our resources to our own community, or Jews somewhere else in the world. But sometimes we need to focus on Delaware County, or people in Africa, or animals, or the environment. There isn't ONE answer for everyone, and there isn't an answer that applies all the time. But when we think in absolutes, bad things happen. We need to remain open to learning new things, to seeing the pain and the need in others, and to the nuance that permeates our world. We ask the Torah, 'whom should we help?' And the response back is, 'It doesn't matter. Just help. And be filled with kindness, mercy, and compassion while you're doing it. The rest is commentary.'

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of quinn.anya on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Wesley Fryer onFlickr
3. CC image courtesy of Joe Goldberg on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Norlando Pobre on Flickr