Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Holidays!!

Chaverim - Dear Friends,
I won't be writing a blog post this week, due to the Thanksgivukkah holiday. But I wanted to write quickly anyway and just wish everyone a wonderful holiday with easy traveling, a wonderful and peaceful time with family and friends, and a banquet of delectable treats to enjoy with them. Enjoy this most rare of convergences; the celebration of Chanukah and Thanksgiving together, and a time to really give thanks for being both Jewish and American.

Happy Holidays!

Rabbi Gerber

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Va-yeishev: A Three-part Thanksgivukkah Story

This weekend, we begin reading the story of Joseph, and we will continue to read about him for the next four weeks. At the same time, 
we are also about to celebrate the incredible convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving - something that hasn't happened since 1888, and may never happen again. On the surface, these are three stories with nothing in common: Dream-interpretation, eight days of oil, and turkey. But you and I both know we can do better than that. If we dig just a little further under the surface, we can indeed find some striking links between Joseph, the Maccabees, and the Pilgrims. And we might even be able to learn something important, which we can bring to this year's Thanksgivukkah holiday dinner table.

Let's work our way backwards. We know what Thanksgiving is all about; it's right there in the name: We give thanks. And no, it isn't about 
thanking turkeys or retailers with amazing, unbeatable, craaazy, (insert superlative) bargains. I think the 'thank you' that we're trying to express is actually two-fold. We thank our ancestors for their bravery in leaving behind oppressive governments, famine, and poverty to seek a better life on an unfamiliar new continent (whether pilgrims in the 1600s or shtetl-dwellers in the 1900s). And we thank God for helping direct their path, and for making all this possible. 

I think you can already see where I'm going with this. Chanukah celebrates pretty much the same things. The Maccabees threw off the yoke of their oppressors, the Assyrian-Greeks, and took back the Temple. We tend to focus on the miraculousness of the Chanukah story - which certainly emphasizes God's role in all the events - but none of it would have happened without 
some brave individuals standing up for freedom, and risking their lives to create a better future for their families and their people. Similarly, the story of Joseph highlights the Divine Providence of Joseph's ability to interpret dreams, endear himself to various people in positions of power, and help bring his family to safety (at least for a couple hundred years...) in Egypt. Once again, God does some of the directing and protecting, but the human being (Joseph) in the story is the one risking his neck and making extraordinary things happen on the ground, in the trenches. All three stories remind us of the partnership between ourselves and God.

All three stories also celebrate freedom, and the importance of feeling gratitude for what we have, and how far we've come. Appreciating the convergence of these three tales is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and so I encourage you to spend a few minutes at your holiday table talking about the lessons of this momentous occasion. Do we treasure the 
freedom(s) that we have? Do we give thanks enough for the bounty on our tables and the bounty in our lives? And do we know where to look to feel God's Presence, subtly hiding behind the actions of individuals all around us, and even behind the choices that we, ourselves, make every day? Yes, it's also a fun day, with new words like 'Thanksgivukkah' and 'menurkey,' and mixed menus highlighting latkes with cranberry sauce and pumpkin-filled sufganiyot. But let's also take advantage of the opportunity to really give thanks. And let us also appreciate the lessons that come from this truly unique holiday, which beautifully brings together the essence of what it means to be both American and Jewish. And then... let's eat!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image drawn by the incredibly talented artist, Julie Wohl
2. CC image courtesy of Stacy Spensley on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of hotzeplotz on Flickr
4. Image (once again) drawn by the phenomenally talented (check out her Etsy store page...) Julie Wohl

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Va-yishlach: How Do We Respond To Calamity?

Full disclosure: I'm going to write about the typhoon in the Philippines this week. Many of you may know, my wife spent a summer in the Philippines just a few years ago, though not on the same island as Tacloban, where Typhoon Haiyan did the most devastating damage. 
Even though it was only one summer, we both now feel a closer connection to this exotic island nation, halfway around the globe. I visited her for a couple of days myself, right at the end of her 10-week stay, and it truly is a beautiful country. But I could also see, even then, how incredibly vulnerable the Philippines is to this kind of disaster; with so many people living in abject poverty in corrugated shacks, and such insufficient infrastructure and order. I want to talk to you about the Philippines, but I'm also aware (obviously) that this blog is called 'Take on Torah.' So what is the connection between our responsibility to help today, and the story of our ancestor, Jacob, that we read about in this week's parashah?

Our Torah portion doesn't speak of weather disasters or major calamities, but it DOES deal with vulnerability and uncertainty; and even, to some extent, with chaos and lack of structure. The first third of our reading (which, for those of us on a triennial cycle, is where we're at this year) primarily focuses on Jacob's encounter with his brother, Esau. 
Last they spoke, twenty years earlier, Esau vowed to kill Jacob, so naturally Jacob is nervous about this rendezvous. There's no police or political authority to which Jacob can turn; he is at the mercy of his brother, who is rapidly approaching with 400 men! Jacob fears the worst, and though he employs three separate strategies to try to avert disaster, ultimately, he knows that he is extremely vulnerable, and that disaster may indeed strike no matter how much he tries to prepare and plan.

First of all, Jacob sends a ludicrous amount of gifts ahead of himself, to try and 'soften' Esau's anger before the actual meeting. Similarly, when we first hear about a calamity like Typhoon Haiyan, we quickly make donations, trying to throw money at the problem. But the system gets clogged up with too much-too quickly. We care deeply for a week or so, 
and then forget entirely about the disaster. Perhaps it would be more helpful and effective to steadily make smaller contributions over a longer period of time? We also risk giving money to the wrong causes or places if we're not careful, and sadly, the aftermath of a horrible disaster is also the time when fake charities pop up to capitalize on other people's misery. Jacob also tries diplomacy, sending messengers ahead to negotiate with Esau and get a read on how upset he really is. And finally, Jacob divides his camp in half, so that if all else fails, and Esau truly is out for blood, at least half of the family will get away unscathed. After all other attempts are made, we all still need a Plan B for worst-case scenarios.

We too need multiple approaches when dealing with an unfathomable calamity like the typhoon in the Philippines. Yes, we should give money, and I've included a few reliable websites for donations below. But we also need to start thinking much more seriously about our relationship with the earth, and how we incorporate sustainability into our daily lives.
This cannot become our new normal, and only responding with money and sympathetic head nods won't make this problem go away. Our Torah portion is called 'Va-yishlach,' meaning 'and he sent.' We need to think about what we send into the world, and what the planet sends back at us when we don't treat it with enough respect. We cannot rid ourselves completely of uncertainty and vulnerability in this world; that is unfortunately always going to be true. But we CAN do our best to create several different strategies for how to improve our situation, and do what's best for people everywhere. We should begin by helping the people of the Philippines (see below), and by praying for their safety and recovery (see below). But then we also need to look more seriously at why these record-breaking storms keep occurring, or, like Jacob, we too will very soon be needing a much more dramatic Plan B.

Resources for donating to typhoon relief in the Philippines:
- Red Cross
- A list of other relief agencies offering help to typhoon victims.

A prayer for the people of the Philippins (by Rabbi Menachem Creditor):

Elohei ha-Ruchot, God of the Winds,
Fixated as we are by incalculable losses in our families, our neighbors, human beings spanning national borders, we are pummeled into shock, barely even able to call out to You.

We are, as ever, called to share bread with the hungry, to take those who suffer into our homes, to clothe the naked, to not ignore our sisters and brothers. Many more of our brothers and sisters are hungry, homeless, cold, and vulnerable today than were just a few days ago, and we need Your Help.

God, be with us as we utilize every network at our disposal to support each other.  Be with First Responders engaged in the work of rescue as they cradle lives new and old, sheltering our souls and bodies from the storm.  Be with us and be with them, God.

Be with those awaiting news from loved ones, reeling from fire, water and wind that have crippled cities, decimated villages, and taken lives. Be with all of us, God.

Be with us God, comfort us, and support us as we rebuild that which has been lost.

May all this be Your will.


Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. From an island resort off the coast of Mindanao, and the city of Davao.
2. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. View of corrugated shacks from the window of a taxi.
3. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. View of the beach from our hotel.
4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber. Standing next to a giant sculpture of an eagle, inside a Davao city park.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Va-yeitzei: Naming Leah's Important Lesson

The Torah can be very subtle, crafty even. It employs many different techniques to get a message across, to convey an experience, or to express an emotion. One of my favorites (and about which I've spoken here several times before) is 
the use of naming. On the surface, it seems as if we're only talking about personal names; who names whom in the Bible. But when we dig a little deeper, we realize that the naming of people can sometimes really be about the naming of situations and feelings; an outlet for uttering an otherwise unspeakable state of mind. And I believe that this is precisely what is going on in this week's Torah reading, in the story of Leah.

There are many examples of naming in the Torah: God renames both Abraham (from Abram) and Sarah (Sarai), and later renames Jacob as well, though his new name - Israel - doesn't entirely 'stick.' Whereas Abraham and Sarah are never again referred to by their old names, the Torah goes back and forth between saying Jacob and Israel, seemingly defying God's decision to change his name. But I digress. This week, 
we read about mothers naming their children, and specifically the battle between Jacob's (Israel's?) two wives, Leah and Rachel. We aren't explicitly told much about the relationship between the two women, but subtly the Torah hints at the tragedy of their lives through the naming of their sons. Rachel remains barren initially, while the same can certainly NOT be said about Leah. She has her first son (of six), and calls him Reuven, meaning either 'Adonai has seen my affliction,' or 'Now my husband will love me.' What a terribly sad sentiment! We experience such pain for Leah, and for how unloved she feels in this moment. Rabbi Shai Held, who writes about Leah as well, states: "The text's silences speak volumes: Leah expresses a heartfelt hope for love, but Jacob is simply nowhere to be found."

Rabbi Held picks up on the silence in between the naming. No emotion is expressed, no response given to how others understood Leah's odd choice to name her firstborn son. She is so invisible, so forgotten by her husband, Jacob, and even her own sister. We ache for her. Her next two sons are given names meaning "...Adonai heard that I was unloved and gave me this one also" (Simeon) and "This time my husband will become attached to me..." (Levi). 
Yet, nothing changes for Leah. Jacob still barely notices her, except when they share a tent. And then something shifts. She gives birth to yet another son, but this one she names, "Now I will praise Adonai" (Judah). No longer is she lamenting her sad situation (though it hasn't really improved). She instead chooses to change her mindset; in a sense, to name her experience and then take ownership of it: To heck with my jerk-husband, and his pathetic favoritism! Besides which, she's got four rambunctious sons to care for, she no longer has time to feel lonely...

But Leah's story is a crucial reminder to us all. We tell ourselves narratives, stories, that seem true to us. We get depressed and stuck in a rut. We imagine that our challenges and obstacles are insurmountable obstacles, and we feel lost. 
But we must NAME our situation, give it 
words and labels and describe it clearly to ourselves. Then it isn't so scary anymore. It ceases to be a face-less, name-less shadow that haunts the periphery of our minds. We may not often find ourselves naming other human beings, but we can still name our own situation, as well as the challenges we face, and the ways we hold ourselves back from success and happiness. When we peek under the surface of the stories in our Torah, we indeed find inspirational tales and advice for how to live our lives. It seems as though the Torah is being so subtle, but there's much that we can learn... we just have to name it!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of jetteff on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of LouisDavid on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of Boston Public Library on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of wolfgangfoto on Flickr