Thursday, February 28, 2013

Ki Tisa: Stuck in the middle with You...

I want to begin by clearing something up right away. Last week's blog post - about sacrificing chickens in our synagogue parking lot - was a joke. It was not true. We are NOT planning any such bizarre and incredibly tasteless ceremony (combined with Bless the Pets? How heartless do you think I AM???), I made the whole thing up. As I've done
every year of this blog-writing-business, my post right before the holiday of Purim was akin to something you might read for April Fool's Day. It's a tradition known as 'Purim Torah,' and is meant in jest, to lighten the mood and go together nicely with Purim costumes and reenactments of the story of Queen Esther. Humor's a tough thing though, right? Sometimes it works perfectly, and sometimes it falls flat. Hopefully, my Purim postings landed somewhere between making you raise your eyebrows and getting you to laugh out loud. And as long as I did better than a certain offending New York state assemblyman, I'm pleased... 

This week, I want to switch gears a bit, and talk about the challenge of leadership. I've been following, with no small degree of fascination, the resignation today of Pope Benedict XVI. It may not come as much of a surprise to you that I'm not that familiar with papal procedures; though I do remember watching Benedict's election back in 2005. 
In his final speech on Wednesday, Pope Benedict spoke about the utter lack of privacy of his office, and how his life has been completely given over to the church and his 'flock.' Very often we hear similar statements from public figures and world leaders, yet for some reason it's always compelling to hear yet another person echo this sentiment. As with most things in life, there's a give and take, and a system of rights and responsibilities. Fame, fortune, and a spot in the history books always sounds SO enticing, but behind the scenes it may demand great personal sacrifice and even heartache that isn't always visible from the outside. 

One person who could certainly relate to what Benedict is going through right now is Moses! This week, we read about the terrible sin of the Golden Calf, where the people betray not only God, but Moses as well. And Moses is forced to play both sides and do a tremendous amount of damage control. He pleads with God to spare the people, and has to absorb the brunt of God's wrath. Meanwhile, he chastises the people for their transgression, while trying to slowly encourage them back to loyalty to God. People often imagine the primary role of a prophet is to predict the future. 
Or perhaps they think of them as yelling at the people for their sins, or comforting them after calamity has struck. But one of the main responsibilities of the prophet is what some call 'standing in the breach,' serving as the intermediary between God and the people. When neither can take the full impact of the other, the prophet serves as the filter, halfway between the two sides. And boy, is it a tough job! 

In his farewell speech, Pope Benedict lamented the state of the world, and all the pain, suffering, and scandals he had witnessed in his few years in the papacy: "there were also moments in which the waters were agitated and the wind contrary." And he couldn't help but wonder where God was in all of this, adding, "The Lord seemed to be sleeping." Not everyone can get away with accusing God of snoozing on the job... but not everyone feels it so personally, or has to make excuses for his 'Boss,' as the Pope does. Today's resignation reminds
us of the mixed blessing of leadership. It can be incredibly rewarding and fulfilling, but also heavily demanding and draining. Try and imagine what 'standing in the breach' might mean today? Do you ever find yourself there? Sometimes when we're able to picture ourselves in the shoes of another, and we can see the struggles and challenges they endure, we both appreciate how tough a time they have, and we value our own lot a little bit more. Might make you think twice about becoming a prophet, you know, if Someone ever made you the offer... 

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone (please don't tell Bev Weiner I killed her rubber chicken...)
2. CC image courtesy of Sergey Gabdurakhmanov on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Fauxlaroid on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of andrechinn on Flickr

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Tetzaveh: The Goats Love This Plan More Than Anyone...

By now, you're probably tired of hearing me yammer on about sustainability, CSAs, composting, and recycling. I hear you. I too would be pretty bored at this point if I were you (but luckily for me, I'm not). So out of respect to you, dear reader, I am going to continue droning on about sustainability, BUT please imagine me nodding sympathetically as I do. Your concerns are VERY important to me.

Anyhoo, many of you came to our Scholar-in-Residence weekend a few days ago, and had the pleasure of learning from Nigel Savage, the director of Hazon. After the weekend, I received tons of questions
from congregants about one particular story Nigel told us. In 2007, Hazon wanted to push people to really think about what it means to eat meat, and so they slaughtered three goats at their annual Food Conference. You can read all about it here. People at Ohev who heard this story seemed morbidly fascinated, and we got into lengthy discussions about how Hazon could do something like this. The only logical response I could possibly think of was, 'We should try it here.' So that is exactly what we are going to do.

Now obviously, killing a goat would be cruel. Instead, we are going to slaughter a few chickens. As you know, we are about to begin working with a CSA (Community-Supported Agriculture) called Red Rock
Farm. Even though we are primarily using the CSA for your run-of-the-mill farm items, e.g. vegetables, fruits, eggs, yogurt, and soda, they have graciously offered to provide us with three chickens for this once-in-a-lifetime experience! Isn't that great?? We haven't decided on a date yet, but it would seem most logical to combine it with our Bless the Pets event, sometime over the summer. It also occurred to me, as I was planning the event AND the subsequent menu, that we should combine it with a lesson about Ancient Israelite worship.

This week's Torah portion (didn't think I'd be making a link to our parashah, did you?) deals with the rituals of the High Priest and his sons. We never really  get an opportunity to  experience what this was all about, so when we undertake this highly-tasteful-and-not-at-all-inappropriate ritual slaughter, we are also going to bring back some of the rituals performed by the Kohanim in the Temple!
David Pollack and Ruth Kaplan, two congregants descended from the priestly tribe, have offered to officiate at this ceremony, which will take place in the synagogue parking lot (you'll understand why in just a minute...). It involves following the procedure described in Exodus, 29:20: "take some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron's right ear and on the ridges of his sons' right ears, and on the thumbs of their right hands, and on the big toes of their right feet; and dash the rest of the blood against every side of the altar round about." I'm VERY excited about this plan! (Please note: Some of the blood might splatter, so make sure to bring a rain coat, and one that washes out tough stains easily...)

What a unique opportunity this will be for Ohev Shalom! We get to learn about the ancient, nitty-gritty rituals of our ancestors; we get to
eat a wonderful chicken dinner together; and we get to be sustainable and animal-friendly in the process. How could it get any better?? I am certain that you have many questions and one or two minor concerns, but primarily I'm sure you're just as THRILLED about this as I am. And I think you'll especially agree that this whole plan is particularly appropriate for this weekend's holiday celebration...

Happy Purim!!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of uncle.capung on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Muffet on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of BarelyFitz on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of fairfaxcounty on Flickr
5. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's very confused iPhone... (Is that edible?) Chicken generously donated by Beverly Weiner, lovingly chosen from her flock for just this purpose.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Terumah: The Pattern of Holiness

"A picture is worth a thousand words." Familiar saying, right? The meaning of which is that you can describe something endlessly and try to convey all aspects of it, but ultimately a single picture could do 
a better job. A gorgeous sunset over a breathtaking valley; a child greeting a parent at the airport (especially after a military tour); the final 'out' when your team wins the World Series - how many of us wouldn't prefer to see it in just one image, rather than trying to read about it in a thousand, or more, words? Interestingly, the same seems to be true for Moses in the Torah.

This week, Moses is given the daunting task of starting to build God's Tabernacle. A sort of precursor to the eventual Temple in Jerusalem, it was a portable structure that the Israelites brought along throughout their Exodus from Egypt. A student of mine once
described it as a 'synagogue-on-the go.' And as God lists all the specific items that Moses must construct - the menorah, the ark, the lampstand, the curtain, etc. - God repeatedly reminds Moses to follow the instructions 'I have shown you.' Three times, God says this. Not 'as I have instructed,' or 'as I've requested,' but SHOWN. What does that mean? What did God provide for Moses on top of Mount Sinai to help clarify the precise look of this Tabernacle? Did Moses receive blueprints? I like to imagine a laser three-dimensional model, suspended in mid-air, straight out of the best science fiction movie! The great Torah commentator, Nahum Sarna, suggests also that it might be referring to God's Temple in heaven. The prophet Isaiah speaks of seeing a Divine Temple above in one of his visions, and many later rabbinic sources talk about there being a 'Temple on High' to mirror the Temple we constructed down below. So maybe Moses was offered a glimpse of the Big House 'upstairs,' though I can't even imagine how much MORE daunting it must now have seemed to try and recreate such a thing in the lowly desert...

But Sarna also suggests another possibility, echoed in the Torah commentary of Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz. God tells Moses to recreate the 'pattern' (tavnit) that has been shown to him. 'Tavnit' can also mean 'model' or 'image,' and both Sarna and Berkowitz imagine that God is modeling behavior, and asking Moses to imitate it
in the world below. Rabbi Berkowitz describes it as, 'a metaphor for bringing holiness and goodness into the world at large.' Which, of course, then begs the question, does that make it more or less daunting for Moses to have to recreate?? A picture may indeed be worth a thousand words, but what if we are meant to BE that picture? We, as human beings, are not just made in the image of God, we ARE that image, and we have to live our lives as such. 

Sadly, we see role models falling from grace every day. Inspirational athletes, political figures, and world leaders who disappoint us and reveal serious character flaws and poor judgment. Because it's hard to
be that 'tavnit'!! A single picture or a bunch of words might ultimately have been easier than being commanded to live a life of honesty, integrity, and kindness. But that is our task. That is what it means to be human, and to keep striving to be a better person. God has to remind Moses THREE times, because it's a lot to internalize. We cannot demand it of our leaders if we don't first model it ourselves. And to truly be a 'tavnit,' we must use all three - our words, our pictures, AND our behavior - to inspire and influence those around us. Let us all strive to make that the pattern of our lives.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of The National Guard on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Todd Ehlers on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of blprnt_van on Flickr

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Mishpatim: (Flexible) Rules to Live By

I'm back! After four weeks on paternity leave, I have returned to work at the synagogue. It's amazing how fast four weeks FLIES by. I find it difficult already, having to be away from my new daughter and my wife, but life has to be a balance, right? We cannot spend our lives on parental leave; it would most likely lose its appeal (I guess...). Perhaps the fact that it was just four, short weeks long is precisely what made it so precious, so special. But it's never easy when you have to change course so abruptly, and you feel yourself pulled in many conflicting directions.

Which leads me, perhaps not so surprisingly, to this week's Torah portion. It's called Mishpatim - meaning 'laws' - and it begins a new section of the Torah, where the narrative takes a back seat (fully strapped in, of course), and we begin to list all the commandments
that God has handed down to Moses. We learn about civil laws, liability laws, criminal laws, ritual laws, financial laws, and family laws. And quite frankly, it's a bit overwhelming. In this particular moment in my life, it reminds me of the tension and challenge of parenting. Lord knows, there are literally THOUSANDS of books out there about how to parent; and they all give conflicting advice. 'Make sure not to overfeed your child. But definitely don't underfeed either!! Give precisely enough, but every few days (or hours...) you need to increase that amount. Feed at precise times, but be flexible. Let your child guide the process, but establish a schedule and stick to it...' And so on, and so forth. It's all trying to be helpful, but it winds up making things more difficult and confusing. 

So who are we supposed to listen to? And how do we know when we've done the 'right' thing? This is true for both parenting and the laws of the Torah. Our commandments can be confusing as well. The rabbis pose a dilemma, asking what a child should do if his/her parent asks the child to steal. 
On the one hand, obeying our parents is one of the Ten Commandments. But on the other, so is the prohibition against stealing. Or what happens when the Torah tells us to preserve life above everything else, but then instructs us to stone to death a stubborn and rebellious child??? I think both the Jewish mitzvot and the 'commandments' of parenting come with a VERY steep learning curve. And they also require some trial and error. How will you know what your standard of keeping Kosher will be, if you haven't experimented with it, tested it, pushed its boundaries, and challenged yourself to be more observant? 

I suppose one of the main realizations I've come to - regarding both Judaism and my new-found career as a father - is that there's a lot of on-the-job training. You learn as you go. As long as you insist that it's
a theoretical issue, you're never going to learn as much as you would 'down in the trenches.' Jump in, get your hands dirty, and see what it feels like. We learn so much more through DOING than we do through just thinking or talking. A good friend recently put my mind at ease about all the mistakes I'm probably making with my child. He said, 'by now, four weeks in, I have no doubt that you and your wife are the foremost experts on YOUR child.' I certainly don't feel like much of an expert, but I'm definitely learning. And I'm doing my best not to feel overwhelmed. 

As I look at this week's parashah, I'm beginning to realize that the same is true for Judaism as well. I'm not an expert (but don't tell my congregants...), and I'm constantly learning. I've just been doing this for a bit longer than I have parenting. Sometimes the learning curve still feels pretty steep though...

Photos in this blog post:

1. Image courtesy of Caroline Dena Gerber, almost fully strapped into her car seat.

2.CC image courtesy of glen edelson on Flickr

3. CC image courtesy of Timitrius on Flickr