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

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Noah: Divine Construction Work

Bang, bang! Dzzzzzzz! Thud. Whiiiiiiiirrr! Clank! Bang, bang, BANG!! 

The sweet symphony of construction noises has become the soundtrack of my life this week, thanks to a series of (supposed?) coincidences. First of all, we are right now in the midst of a massive roof renovation at Ohev Shalom, and this week's project consists of stripping the roof off right above our offices, making it quite challenging to work inside.
Amazingly, this is also the week when major renovations throughout our condo development have arrived at our home, and so there too we enjoy the soothing sounds of clanking, banging, and thudding. As if that wasn't enough, our local gym is doing some loud locker room renovations as well, so there's no escape anywhere. AND I was recently listening to Dan Savage's podcast, Savage Love, where he too was complaining about construction in his building. The noises of hammering could be heard behind him throughout the program. Like I said, it's everywhere! And of course, my natural response is to think about how I can include this in my blog post for this week. Clearly there MUST be some connection to our weekly Torah portion!

In a sense, this week's Torah portion DOES feature some construction of its own. (Hear me out.) We've arrived at the second Torah portion, and the story of Noah and the Flood. Last week's reading ended with an introduction to what was to come:
"Adonai saw how great was the wickedness of people on earth... and Adonai regretted having made them" (Genesis, 6:3-4). And this week continues with the story of God telling Noah to build an ark and save a bunch of animals, while everything else living on earth and in the air would be extinguished. On an objective level (if we can put aside, for a minute, our feelings about all the people, animals, and plants that were destroyed), this is basically a Divine construction project.

Even back in the first Torah portion, we actually saw TWO separate Creation stories. Compare Genesis 1:1-2:3 and 2:4-9; they seem to speak of two distinct versions of the creation of the earth. And many commentators, including the Kabbalistic mystics, imagined that God actually made several attempts at this whole creating-thing before finally settling on the version you and I are living right now.
Which, quite frankly, makes a lot of sense. This is certainly our experience. We don't get everything right the first time, we have to make a first attempt, see how it goes, then evaluate, recalculate, and make some adjustments at a later stage. Sometimes there were mistakes from the outset, and sometimes things that once worked really well start to break down, and even get corrupted. I like to imagine that part of the reason why God started creating worlds in the first place was to see what imperfection might look like. God alone is perfect (or so we imagine), but creating a world filled with creatures and plants and erratic weather - all with their own minds and interests and drives - that isn't perfect at all... but it's all the more interesting for it.

The story of the Flood is a good reminder to us all that we don't need to get it right the first time, we can keep trying and improving and changing. Even God struggles to get it JUST right, and has to keep coming out with Version 2.0, 3.0, and 7.0.1. But we keep going. At the end of the Flood story, God promises, "Never again will I doom the earth... nor will I ever again destroy every living thing" (8:21).
Which isn't to say it's now perfect; God is saying that DESPITE the imperfections, I'm not going to raze the building and start over from scratch. We too have to learn that flaws don't mean the whole project is a failure. There's much to be proud of, even when we need some new siding, showers, and roof-replacements. If God can accept the mistakes and errors in the Creation of our world, surely we can learn to accept our own glitches and challenges. God may have promised never to send another Flood, but every once in a while we still see some remodeling and renovations taking place. Such a perfectionist...

Photos in this blog post courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone, and the many construction sites that surround it this week.