Thursday, June 27, 2013

Pinchas: Tzey!

Oppression is nothing new. We've essentially been persecuting one another for as long as human beings have formed societies. It almost feels as if it's a defining feature of civilization; we NEED to divide ourselves into 'us' and 'them,' and then make sure the distinctions are clear to everyone by battling, conquering,  
and subjugating all those who are 'not-us.' But just as it's always been a part of our bloody history, it is ALSO true that rising above that urge is what makes us truly human. We are not merely evolved primates (though we are that as well), we are also made in God's image, and so we tear down boundaries, we educate ourselves about the 'scary' customs and traditions of other groups, and we strive to communicate and build understanding. This week, the US Supreme Court brought us all a little bit closer to our Divine image.

One of the great things about being a rabbi is that you can find SOMETHING in any Torah portion that lends itself to what you want to talk about. And if you can't find it in the Torah, the Haftarah usually comes to the rescue! In our case, the Haftarah does indeed have 
something to say about the recent court decision to strike down DOMA, which has moved us one step closer to marriage equality and equal rights for all members of the LGBTQ community. Our story comes from the First Book of Kings, chapters 18 and 19. We are told that the prophet Elijah is forced to flee for his life, because the evil king, Ahab, and his wife, Jezebel, are killing all the Israelite prophets. Elijah is forced to hide in a cave, and he laments to God that "the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant" (19:10). It is yet another example of the oppression of 'the other.' Ahab and Jezebel don't like what the prophets have to say, and so they kill them off, and for a while, it appears as though society condones, and even supports, their actions.

How fitting it is that when God comes to save Elijah, God declares: "Tzey!" - "Come out!" Whether from a cave or a closet, it is time to come out, and it is time to rise above the persecution that destroys our society. God's power is then demonstrated to Elijah. 
In a very famous scene, a mighty wind passes in front of the prophet, splitting mountains and shattering rocks, but it is merely the precursor to the Divine Presence. After the wind comes an earthquake and then a fire, and once again, they are each just the opening acts to what will follow. Finally, God arrives in "a soft, murmuring voice" (19:12). After all that pomp and circumstance, God's Presence is manifested in the form of speech; a symbol of our own ability to change the world through communication. 

What is real power? How do we affect change on a communal, national, or even a universal level? It is not through violence or intimidation, grandiose displays of power or the vanquishing of one's enemies. 
We bring about enduring transformation through education and dialogue, through gradual - yet resolute - insistence that we MUST change. In the terrific song "Same Love" by Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, the artist sings, "We press play. Don't press pause. Progress, march on!" This is it, right now. We are pressing play and continuing to move closer and closer to a society that is worthy of the designation, "Made in God's Image." Are we ready to 'Tzey,' to come out and do what must be done to ensure equality for everyone? We are getting there, slowly but surely. And I know Elijah would have been incredibly proud of us all.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of torbakhopper on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of mattbuck4950 on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Ardyiii on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Matt Erasmus on Flickr

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Balak: Squint, and You'll Miss It

The Torah is filled with terrific humor. We don't always see it, perhaps
because we aren't looking for it, but it's there. In some stories, the characters are intentionally funny, and in others they just happen to be, without even trying. This week's reading includes one of my favorite stories, inspired by the comedy of Laurel and Hardy.

The evil king, Balak ben Zippor, calls upon a powerful non-Jewish prophet (yes, the Biblical world had some of those) to curse the Israelites. The prophet, Bilaam, makes it ABUNDANTLY clear to Balak
that he can only speak the words that God puts in his mouth (i.e. 'I can't guarantee a curse'). And THREE times, Balak tries to bring Bilaam to various look-out points where he can see the Israelites. They offer sacrifices, they set the stage, and... each time, Bilaam offers a beautiful blessing. As you can imagine, Balak gets more and more furious every time. You can almost see the steam coming out of his ears, a la Oliver Hardy, as he looks ready to bark at Bilaam: "Well , here's another nice mess you've gotten me into!"

My favorite moment is right after Bilaam's first blessing. Balak is VERY annoyed, but he calms himself down and suggests moving Bilaam someplace else, to try the curse a second time. Balak, in true, pathetic, fall-guy fashion, states: "Come with me to another place from which
you can see them - you will see only a portion of them; you will not see all of them - and damn them for me from there" (Numbers, 23:13). How could Balak possibly have thought this would work? A different view of the Israelites is going to change things? Maybe if Bilaam only sees part of the encampment, and if he squints a little, he can 'fool' God and sneak in a little curse. How ridiculous is this suggestion?? But I think there's an interesting teaching that we can all learn from this rather silly moment in our story.

We do this too. We try to avoid facing reality, preferring to hem&haw, make excuses, deflect and deny, and maybe even squint a little to keep from staring the truth in the face. Bilaam's blessings aren't vague or confusing, or even generalized. He overtly and resoundingly praises the Jewish people, and he even - and this is really important - speaks directly to Balak, saying things like: "Up, Balak, attend, give ear to me, son of Zippor! ... My message was to bless; when God blesses, I cannot reverse it" (23:18,20).
The message is so obvious, it is almost ludicrous that Balak keeps trying to make this work! But sometimes it's hard to read the writing on the wall until you're hit over the head with it (very heavy letters...). Perhaps we all need prophets to scream the truth in our faces to see what must be done. What is your truth, that's waiting for you to stop avoiding eye contact? What will it take for you to abandon excuses? I can't answer this for you, and neither can Bilaam. But it may be time to open your eyes wide, cause it's hard to keep squinting all the time. It's exhausting, isn't i? And after a while, it can really start to hurt.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of twm1340 on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Rebecca Barray on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of _tar0_ on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of Delano on Flickr

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Chukat: Between Magical Wells and Breakfast Waffles

Oftentimes, we take for granted things that go well. Electrical appliances, cars, even our own bodies; when they do what they're supposed to and don't cause trouble or pain, we don't really notice them. Ideally, we'd like to be more grateful, but the reality is that we most often only notice something when it STOPS working. Only when there's a power outage do we really notice how much we take for granted throughout our homes. And so it is with so many things, and people, all around us; we forget to express our appreciation for the essential role they play in our lives.

That is why I would like to dedicate my blog post this week to an unsung hero in our Torah portion, and an unsung hero right here at Ohev Shalom. Our parashah, Chukat, tells of the deaths of both Miriam and Aaron, Moses' two siblings. And even though we mention Miriam from time to time, we really don't give her the credit she deserves. We tend to mostly remember her watching over her baby brother when his basket drifted down the Nile, and then we may recall her dancing with timbrels after the Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds (watch/listen to Debbie Friedman's fabulous retelling of this story here, or click on the picture below). 
Other than that, some people perhaps know that she gossiped about Moses and was punished for it, but were there no other contributions to the Jewish people?? This week, all of ONE verse is dedicated to letting us know that she died. However, it is immediately followed by a story of the people complaining of thirst, and so the rabbis of the Talmud imagined that the two stories were linked. In their creative minds, God fashioned a miraculous well that followed the Israelites throughout their time in the desert, and it was Miriam who oversaw the well. So once she died, no more well. 

It sounds like a somewhat fantastical (and not-entirely-believable) story, but I think there's an important lesson to be learned, from both this and the other stories of Miriam's life. Dr. Shira Epstein wrote a great Torah commentary on Miriam, in which she expounded on the 
contributions of Miriam. She talked about the Israelites' complaining about the lack of 'grain or figs or vines or pomegranates' (chapter 20, verse 4), indicating that Miriam's well also irrigated their crops. She also wrote the lack of creativity or independent thinking displayed by the people in not replacing their sudden lack of water. Dr. Epstein then writes, "Miriam added a dimension of creative thinking and artistic, active, joyous participation within the Exodus narrative." The story of her dancing and singing by the Sea shows her love of artistic expression, something these former slaves probably knew little of, and sorely needed. All of a sudden, they realized (and we do too) that Miriam had provided them with water, crop irrigation, creativity, and the joys of music and dance. So many things that they had taken for granted, that had all seemed ever-present and obvious... until they disappeared. I wonder if any of the Israelites ever thanked Miriam while she was alive.

Here at Ohev Shalom, little happens in our facility without our maintenance supervisor, Steve Smith. Steve is sometimes our own magical well; making the facility and all its events and programs run smoothly, often with little notice or fanfare. Luckily, many people DO stop and acknowledge Steve, and this weekend (Saturday, June 15th) two congregants have generously decided to sponsor a Kiddush 
luncheon in his honor. Please join us, if you're around. The reality is, many of us make this mistake. We forget to say 'thank you' in the moment, either because it just slips or mind or because we think it's implied. But not all our leaders stand up on stages or in front of TV cameras. Many of them work behind the scenes to make our lives a bit easier or better, and they deserve just as much credit. This weekend we are honoring Steve, and deservedly so. There are also others we could recognize - here in our community or in each of our own lives - who don't always get recognized when they should. So don't wait for the next thunder storm; say something today!

P.S. Thanks for everything, Steve!!!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Video courtesy of rememberingdebbie on Youtube
2. CC image courtesy of Kecko on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Uberto on Flickr

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Korach: And On That Farm He Had Some... Harmony!

Our Torah portion this week, Korach, begins with dissension, mutiny, and fighting. Several people challenge the authority of Moses and Aaron, and the entire fabric of Israelite society begins to unravel. Even after 
multiple rebellions are put down, there is still a feeling of unrest lingering in the community. And so we ask ourselves, what is the solution? What will calm the fiery temperaments, and (hopefully) lead to long-term harmony? This question is essential, primarily because it isn't limited to a nomadic community living 3,500 years ago; it is a relevant - and necessary - question to ask ourselves today as well. When we feel distant from one another, and when it seems that nothing could possibly bring us back together, what do we do? Is healing possible?

And the short answer is... giving. I need to give of myself and allow myself to be vulnerable, EVEN when there's no guarantee that anyone on the other side of the divide will do the same. Someone's gotta take that first, scary step. Our Torah portion, as I mentioned, begins with fighting, but it ends with charity and kindness. At the very end of our parashah, we are taught about the law of tithing, giving one tenth of the yield of our fields (or, in modern terms, our annual earnings) to charity. The Torah makes it clear that tithing teaches us to revere God, and the Etz Hayim Torah Commentary adds that, 'tz'dakah nourishes the soul of the donor even as it sustains the recipient.' To me, the message is clear: When we give, we step outside of ourselves and our personal needs. We see the world around us and all its inhabitants, and we start to see our own problems and gripes and frustrations as just a little bit smaller and less-significant than before.

This week, Ohev Shalom is launching a CSA, community supported agriculture. For the next 22 weeks, members of the CSA will be getting locally grown produce from Red Earth Farm in Lancaster, PA. We now have a relationship with a farmer, his farmer's wife, and all the people who will be growing the 
food that we eat. And we will also be donating a full share, every week, to Wesley House Emergency Shelter in Chester, PA. In addition, members can contribute produce from their own share to Wesley House, which, in a sense, works as a means of tithing. All in one, we are eating more locally, we are supporting our local farmers, we are feeding the hungry in our community, AND we are giving ourselves the opportunity to tithe. The architect/developer Michael Corbett once said: "You know you're on the right track when your solution to one problem accidentally solves several others."

I KNOW that we are on the right track. Our Torah portion reminds us that when we connect to the earth and to our community - through tithing or any other form of tzedakah - we can ALSO help cure the strife and enmity that festers in society. It sounds incredible simplistic: Eat locally grown swiss chard and you can solve the problems of violence in the world. I hear how it sounds. But let's face it, many (if not most) of the strategies we're currently trying aren't exactly working either, are they? And at least this way, you'll also be eating healthier and keeping a neighborhood farm in business. After all the fighting Moses had to endure, I am certain he would have been thrilled to try ANYTHING! Isn't it time you (en)dive right in?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of malczyk on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of Uberto on Flickr