Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Vayechi: The Year of the Tribes

Happy New Year, everyone! As I sit here on Wednesday, counting down the final hours of 2014, I find myself looking ahead to some 
exciting plans for 2015. But before I get to that, I just want to note that this year the cycle of Torah readings coincides nicely with the Gregorian calendar. This doesn't always happen, because the Jewish year shifts around a bunch, but right now we happen to also be concluding the Book of Genesis. The final Torah portion of 2014 is therefore Vayechi, meaning "And he lived." A very fitting, one word end-of-year blessing for us all, no? L'Chaim! As it also just so happens, the subject of our Torah reading this week fits perfectly in with my very exciting project for next year here at Ohev Shalom.

Chapter 49 of the Book of Genesis is sometimes referred to as "The Testament of Jacob." It consists of all the final blessings he offered to his twelve sons on his death bed. 
Perhaps unwittingly, the symbols by which Jacob blesses (and curses...) his sons are later solidified as the enduring images of the tribes of their descendants: The lion of Judah, the ship of Zebulun, the serpent of Dan, the deer of Naphtali, and of course, the wolf of Benjamin. They all became the family crests for their future tribes and remained so for centuries; and they were first spoken in this week's Torah portion by their father, Jacob. In 2015, Ohev Shalom is embarking on a major art project, commissioning twelve incredible portraits that will adorn the walls of our main sanctuary for decades (and centuries?) to come.

An incredible artist in Philadelphia, Heather Bryson, is working with a member of Ohev Shalom, Douglas Lieberman, to spend the next year creating depictions of the Twelve Tribes of Israel, based on the images described in Genesis and Deuteronomy. I want to take a moment to 
acknowledge Charlotte Snyder, who is underwriting this project. Without her generosity, none of it would have been possible. Not only will each picture be one-of-a-kind, but Heather and Dug are also inviting members of our congregation to help construct the different portraits. I myself have already participated in the assembly of the first piece, and it's truly an incredible experience. Not only will these magnificent images depict our ancient heritage, but will also represent our community through the efforts (and artifacts...) that we'll contribute to the project! I also know that it will educate our congregation about the symbols that Jacob bestowed on his children; making them come alive for us in a tangible, beautiful, personal new way.

Heather is already hard at work on the tribe of Reuben. If you would like to learn more about this amazing project, and/or would like to get involved, please let me know. Each piece 
will take a month or two to complete, and we'll be dedicating them in pairs every few months over the course of the next year. For now, I just want to share with you my excitement and anticipation for what lies ahead. It is true that rabbis often struggle to find ways of making the Torah come alive for congregants, grappling with how to make the text and imagery mean something in modern-day 2014... er, 2015. As I read Jacob's blessings this week, at the threshold of a new year, I cannot help but feel that over the next twelve months, it will be just a little bit easier to find meaning in the ancient Tribes of Israel.

Happy New Year!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Sketch of the oryx (?) of the tribe of Menashe by Heather Bryson
2. Sketch of the wolf of Benjamin by Heather Bryson

3. Sketch of the serpent and scales of Dan by Heather Bryson

4. One portrait completed! The olive tree of Asher by Heather Bryson. Can't wait to see it on our walls...

Friday, December 19, 2014

Shabbat Chanukah/Mikeitz: What the Glow of Our Candles Can Achieve

A few days ago, my daughter, Caroline, and I were getting home from our daily commute together. We carpool. As I lifted her out of the car, she looked up and exclaimed, "Moon!" We stopped for a minute to talk about the full moon, and to sing a couple of songs about it. And then, she reached up to grab it. Of course, she was unsuccessful, because, you know, it's the moon. But then 
she turned to me and said, "Daddy do it." I indulged her and tried a couple of times to nab it, but then explained to her how high up it is, and why we can't reach it. I'm not sure she got it. Later, after I recovered from this overdose of cuteness, I reflected on just how human she was being in that moment. Don't you think we all, as kids, at some point reached up and thought we could lasso the moon? Everyone learns it's impossible (without NASA), yet we ALL do it. It also occurred to me that this SHOULD happen. If, by some Chanukah miracle, I DID reach up and grab the moon, Carrie wouldn't think twice about it. She'd hold it in her hand, then eventually drop it like every other toy or novel shiny object. The fact that we can't reach it, that it's so high up and unobtainable, means it will remain mysterious to her. And hopefully, she'll keep reaching for things beyond her grasp, keep aspiring and trying, even when things seem totally inaccessible or impossible. And this, to me, is really the message of Chanukah.

One very famous Chanukah debate took place 2,000 years ago between two great rabbis, Hillel and Shammai. In short, Shammai wanted to light all eight candles on Day One and then diminish, while Hillel wanted to begin with one and increase. Guess who won. But I recently read a 
great interpretation of the underlying reasons for each rabbinic position. Both rabbis understood that it's hard to stay excited about the holiday for all eight nights. Let's face it: The first day is exciting, we sing the songs we've missed for a whole year with great gusto and enthusiasm. The presents are great, the latkes and donuts taste terrific. Flash-forward a week... the motivation's petered out. We're down to sock-presents, and the thought of more oily food is a little nauseating. And it's possible that (heaven forbid) some people "forget" to light them on the final night, or skip a couple in the middle. The point is, according to Shammai, let's have our Chanukiah reflect our current emotional state; I'm excited NOW, let's fire 'em all! But Hillel takes a different approach.

Hillel says we should push ourselves to grow in enthusiasm. We should reach for something that's a little harder to obtain. It's easy to get excited on Day One. But religion is really about challenging ourselves to do more, to be more than we are at 
this very moment. Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo writes: "[Hillel] believes that if we do not inspire man with his potential and give him a taste of what could be, he will not even strive to achieve higher goals." The Chanukiah is a symbol. Among other things, it represents the presence of miracles in our lives, but miracles WE must work to bring about. It's a reminder to us to bring light and goodness into the world. And we cannot just sit back and wait for it to fall into our laps; we need to strive and work hard for it to happen. 

JTS, my alma mater, writes about this as well. In a statement about healing in our community and Chanukah, they write: "As we celebrate Chanukah, we are reminded of the rabbinic instruction to increase the light over the course of the holiday. So too we need to increase the light 
in our communal lives so that we can see clearly the faces of our neighbors and public servants." It's hard to affect change. It's hard to imagine that some of the rifts in our country and in our communities can be healed. It's like reaching up for the moon; it's impossible. But can we stop striving? Can we really just give up, light all our candles right now, and finish the celebration early? No way. We need to keep pushing. We have to force ourselves to try harder, to care deeper, and to insist on change in our society. Chanukah is the festival of action, not just the festival of light. We should take that message to heart... and keep a lasso handy. 

Happy Chanukah!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of courtesy of Roadcrusher on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Roy Lindman 
on en.wikipedia
3. CC image courtesy of Trinitro Tolueno 
on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Djampa on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 12, 2014

Vayeishev: What's YOUR Story Doing Here?

When we, as Jews, pray, we like to identify ourselves to God. In part, perhaps, it is our way of saying to God, "Hineini," "Here I am - me, (insert name here) - ready to be in relationship with you!" But in part, 
it is also an opportunity to link ourselves back to previous generations of ancestors who we KNOW that God liked. So, by association, we are hoping that God will like us too. That may sound funny, but it's the truth. We begin the Amidah, arguably our most important prayer, by stating, "... our God, and God of our ancestors; God of Abraham, God of Isaac, and God of Jacob (and in many Conservative synagogues, including ours, we also add our matriarchs, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah)." Other prayers refer to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, yet others refer to King David, King Solomon, and Samuel. Basically, we're saying, "If you liked them (and heard their prayers), I hope you'll like me too (and hear MY prayers), because I'm related to them." And we know who our ancestors are, right? I mean, the Torah is pretty clear. Now, the Torah is ALSO quite clear about who our ancestors are NOT. And yet, it tells their story as well. Take, for instance, Joseph.

You and I, we are not related (by direct line anyway) to Joseph. His two sons were Ephraim and Menashe. Both became tribes in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, which was eventually defeated by the Assyrians. Everyone was dragged into slavery, and Ephraim and Menashe became two of the much-lamented
Ten Lost TribesThe rest of us - basically the over, overwhelming majority of modern-day Jews - are either descended from the tribe of Judah (merged with Benjamin and possibly Simeon) or the tribe of Levi (if you're a Kohen or a Levite). So that's a VERY brief history of tribal affiliation within Judaism, all meant to lead me to this point: The last 14 chapters of Genesis deal primarily with the story of Joseph. His is essentially the culminating story of the entire first book of the Torah, and he therefore appears to be the book's ultimate protagonist; 14 of 50 chapters deal with his story, more than a quarter of the book! And... he is not our ancestor.

I say this because our Torah reading this week, being the 2nd triennial cycle, is a brief break in the narrative of Joseph. We've been introduced to him, the plot has begun to heat up, we're enthralled... and right then the author detours. We spend an entire chapter on the story of Judah 
and his (sort of) daughter-in-law, Tamar, before eventually returning to the epic of Joseph. When you look at the flow of Genesis, B'reisheet, it feels like this Judah-story is indeed a deviation, a side-step. It's a literary technique to heighten the drama of Joseph, while the story of Judah itself is inconsequential. But it isn't really at all! Judah IS our ancestor!! He's the guy we should be focusing on. Moreover, this story adds a truly essential puzzle piece in our history, because it explains the birth of Peretz, who is the progenitor of King David! I mean, honestly, how could THIS story be inconsequential?!? (And if you'd like to learn more about this fascinating little tale, please join us on Saturday morning, Dec. 13th, at 10:00 a.m. for an in-depth discussion on Judah and Tamar over bagels and lox!)

It is striking to see how the Torah can focus on Joseph over Judah. This book was eventually held in the sole possession of Judah's descendants, in the Southern Kingdom, and they could easily have rewritten the plot to emphasize Judah and demote Joseph. But they didn't. Because we don't only tell our own story. We give 
voice to Hagar, Esau, and Bilaam, all characters who are NOT directly in our ancestral line. They are sympathetic even; sometimes more so than our actual heroes! We hear them out, we add their history to ours. Today, we often struggle to do this. We like to hear voices that agree with us, that share our viewpoint. Why listen if we disagree? Why incorporate a perspective that differs, even clashes, with mine? But often, we must. Because their outlook will expand ours; their objections will force us out of our small box and actually make our own arguments more cogent, nuanced, and honest. To merit the legacy of our ancestors, to be able to truly say to God, "Here I am; hear my prayers!", we need to include Joseph's story in ours. Then God will hear us praying, and maybe we'll even hear ourselves better as well.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of the Hebrew word "Hineini," meaning "Here I Am."
2. CC image courtesy of Fraxinus Croat 
on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of ReubenGBrewer 
on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Mehmetaergun on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Vayishlach: I am Man, Hear Me Comment (repost)

If This American Life can do it, why can't I? This is a "rebroadcast" of a post I wrote on this week's Torah portion in 2010. Enjoy!

Is there a difference between how men think and how women think? Can we make such a broad generalization? This question has been
on my mind for a couple of weeks now, and I am finding that it colors how I read this week's Torah portion, and the direction I've chosen to take with my blog post. Whenever we read the Torah, we are also interpreting the text. There is no way of getting around it. We each have a generational bias, a religious bias, a cultural bias, a national bias... and we most certainly have a gender bias. This week, let's explore how our gender affects the way we understand our ancestor Jacob.

One of the most significant moments in Jacob's life comes when he is waiting to meet his brother after 20 years, and he is afraid that Esau is preparing for war. Jacob devises a plan to keep his camp safe, and he then finds himself alone at night, bracing himself for a clash with Esau. 
That night, the Torah tells us, "A man wrestled with him until the break of dawn" (Gen. 32:25). What does this mean? Who is this man, and why are the two of them locked in battle? Along with these questions, I also find myself wondering, what does it mean to wrestle? And here is where gender takes us in two different directions.

Dr. Ellen Frankel, in her book, The Five Books of Miriam: A Woman's Commentary on the Torah, asks, "what business do we women have doing hand-to-hand combat with supernatural beings? Could anything be more ridiculous than to imagine Leah or Rachel going to the mat with God?" This comment highlights two important ideas; both of which, I believe, reflect a feminine perspective. First, the question of whether fighting can resolve a conflict. In The Psychology of Men's Health, the authors tell us that, "the expression of rage if personal possessions or status is threatened, is seen not only as typically male, but in some situations encouraged and admired."Men might be more likely to resort to physical violence rather than express emotion or address underlying fears or insecurities. I don't think most women would agree that a fight can truly solve a conflict, and thus they choose not to interpret Jacob's encounter as a purely physical one.

Which leads to the second issue, namely the real vs. metaphoric understanding of this story. Women might prefer to interpret it as metaphor, e.g. when Nechama Leibowitz says that the "man" is Esau's guardian angel, coming to attack Jacob's spirit. Men, on the other hand, are often quite comfortable with the idea that Jacob was actually fighting with someone. Rashi, in a comment on this story, tells us that, "such is the manner of two people who make strong efforts to throweach other - one clasps the other and twines himself round him with his arms." And finally, in a new commentary called The Modern Men's Torah Commentary, Rabbi Peter Knobel writes, "when Jacob wrestles with a mysterious stranger who might be either angel or his brother... the supposedly unphysical Jacob demonstrates his physical strength. Jacob matures; he uses both his mind and his physical strength." Several female commentators understand the fight as a metaphor, which is why they accept that it leads to growth. Male commentators also see Jacob maturing, but do not find it strange that a physical fight could lead to maturity.

To me, it's simply fascinating to realize how much of ourselves we project onto whatever text weare reading. We cannot help but use our own experiences, memories, and predispositions as a lens and a filter onto the world. This is not a bad thing, mind you. The only problem I see is when we pretend this isn't true, when we delude ourselves into thinking there's such a thing as impartiality. As long as we can be honest in our own commentary, and accept that we constantly insert ourselves into the world, this can be a great thing. We learn so much about the commentators who came before us when we see their writings as a biography of their lives. 
How do you feel about my interpretations of Jacob's midnight mêlée? Do you agree or disagree, and would you prefer to talk it over or let your fists do the talking? Either way, and whether you want to or not, it might say more about you than you realize...

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Happy Thanksgiving!

Dear friends,
I will not be writing a blog post this week, due to the Thanksgiving holiday weekend. I hope you have a wonderful day with family and friends; a safe and easy travel if you're heading out on the open road; a delicious feast that leaves you satisfied but not too full; and a weekend filled with gratitude and humility for all of life's gifts and bounty. Happy Thanksgiving!

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Gerber

Friday, November 21, 2014

Tol'dot: The Widening Chasm Between Esau and Jacob

There are no words. That may seem like a strange way to begin a blog post, especially since I am obviously about to try and use words to express my feelings. And yet the fact remains that there are no words to adequately describe how sad, hurt, frustrated, disappointed, angry, and appalled we feel at the latest tragic attacks that struck Jerusalem this
week. As I heard the news on the radio, Tuesday morning, about a synagogue in the neighborhood of Har Nof being attacked by terrorists during morning minyan, I was truly left speechless. What else is there to say? How much more grief can we feel; how much more despair at the prospect of peace; how much less hopeful can we get? And eternally we ask the question: When, oh when, will things improve in Israel? When will we see a breakthrough? And yet, we have no other options but to hope. Ultimately, when you boil things down to the bare facts, you simply have to acknowledge that we are there and they are there. Somehow, and at some point, all the people who live in and around Israel are going to have to find a way to live together. If I let go of that conviction, I don't know what I have left.

As we often do in Judaism, when we have nowhere else to turn for answers, we look to the Torah. It doesn't solve our problems, but it sometimes gives us historical precedent. We mine our history for nuggets of insight into what may be in our future. And I think our parashah this week offers us something to cling to. It begins with the story of Isaac, and then shifts its focus to Jacob. Throughout this reading, we see stories of contention
and peace. Last week, we read about Isaac's struggles with his brother, Ishmael, and yet that Torah portion ended with the two of them coming back together to bury their father, united and at peace. This theme continues in Tol'dot, where Isaac fights with the local population, the Philistines, over water. Isaac and his herdsmen dig wells, the Philistines stop them up and/or drive away Isaac's servants. There is so much fighting, in fact, that at one point Isaac digs a well and calls it "Esek" (Gen. 26:20), which literally means "Contention." But eventually, King Avimelech of the Philistines sits down with Isaac to negotiate a peace treaty. Despite their differences and despite their violent and antagonistic past, the two sides find a way to reconcile. The story concludes: "Early in the morning, they exchanged oaths. Isaac then bade them farewell, and they departed from him in peace." (26:31) Truly a hope for our day that we must never abandon...

Then, the Torah moves to the story of Jacob. Fighting, for Jacob, begins even before he is born. We are told that when Rebecca was pregnant
with twins, the boys struggled in her womb. The conflict continues in life, where the brothers steal from, deceive, and eventually threaten to kill one another. Today, we read this story with great sadness, as it seems to set the tone for an eternal relationship of strife and enmity. Not only arguing and fighting, but seemingly the total lack of empathy for the other. How could we possibly imagine sitting at a table and negotiating, when all we feel is hate and righteous indignation? It's THEIR fault, THEY refuse to talk or compromise. And our differences and grievances feel so ancient, so irreconcilable, as if they indeed have persisted since before we were in the womb.

And yet, Jacob and Esau DO find a way back to one another, to kindness. When Jacob flees his home in the dead of night, and Esau curses his brother's name and vows to kill him if they ever see each other again, it certainly feels like an irreparable breach. Nevertheless, somehow they mend. Is there then no hope for us? We feel like crying, these tragedies hurt so much.
We are like Esau, who cries to his father, when it seems he has no blessings left for him: "Have you but one blessing, father? Bless me too, father!" (Gen. 27:34) We have to believe there are blessings in our future. Despite all the evidence to the contrary. We simply have to. What else can we do? On Wednesday morning, in our own morning minyan at Ohev Shalom, we struggled to respond to the most recent attack in Israel. We turned, as we so often do, to the words of our tradition, to the prophet Jeremiah. "Hear the word of Adonai, O nations; spread the word in distant lands, and proclaim: 'The One who scattered Israel will gather them and protect them as a shepherd guards his flock'... Their souls will flourish like an abundant garden; they will grieve no more. Then shall maidens dance in delight, young men and old together, and I will turn their mourning into joy; I will comfort them and relieve them of their sorrow." (31:9-12) Kein Y'hi Ratzon - May it be God's Will for this to come true for us all... and soon.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of Israeli police in Har Nof synagogue courtesy of Reuters on
2. CC image from Hartuv cemetery courtesy of deror_avi 
on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of 
Øyvind Holmstad on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of the prophet Jeremiah courtesy of Inductiveload on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 14, 2014

Chayei Sarah: My Name is Not Eliezer

Around the synagogue, you'll sometimes hear me say, "Why ruin a perfectly good question... by trying to answer it." I use that a lot in my Bible class, it makes its way into sermons and discussions on Shabbat, and surprisingly, I find myself saying it in other contexts as well. So what does it mean? Well, pretty  
much exactly what it sounds like. To me, questions are MUCH more interesting than answers. Questions make you think, make you wonder; they may even open your eyes to new possibilities, new avenues of consideration. Answers end discussions. They produce finality: "Ah, now I get it. Oh well. Let's move on to something else." Questions force you to stay, to grapple, to ponder. And sometimes I really don't want to lose that wonderful wrestling match, that delicious enigma, by trying to offer a simple and conclusive answer. Exhibit A: Our Torah portion this week tells a lengthy story about Abraham's servant, but NEVER gives the guy a name. In fact, it goes out of its way NOT to name him, even though he is clearly the protagonist in our story. Why? Ok, I'll tell you why. Here's the answer:

Nope! Fooled you. No answer here. Come on, people! What did I JUST finish saying?!? Now, mind you, there is no shortage of OTHER Torah commentators who will answer this question for you. They will tell you 
that his name is Eliezer, because we see elsewhere in Genesis that Abraham had a servant by that name. They will tell you that it isn't necessary, because it's assumed. Or maybe it's irrelevant. But I purposely don't want to turn to such easy, simple, straight-forward answers. Let us, for just a few moments, sit with the discomfort of simply not knowing. I feel we MUST stop and acknowledge that the text of the Torah purposely creates awkward sentences, bends over backwards, and goes out of its way to leave this servant unnamed. Why would we ruin that by simply calling him "Eliezer," or shrugging our shoulders and saying "Who cares?" I care. And, if you're still reading this, I suppose you do as well.

I imagine - though I'm not certainly not positing a conclusive answer - that the Torah text is trying to deemphasize his role in this saga. The servant is an instrument, a tool, 
a vehicle for delivering a message from God. Abraham sends him to find a wife for his son, Isaac, and God directs his path. Perhaps if we named him, we would also want to give him credit for his incredibly successful mission? And the text is trying to suggest this was all pre-ordained. Rebecca was destined to marry Isaac, she just needed to be located, be made aware of her fate, and be brought to her intended... and "Someone" made all that happen. P.s. it's God, NOT the human in the story...

But this all could have happened in many, many other ways. Why the need for an anonymous character, and why be so EMPHATIC about his anonymity? Again, I don't want to answer this question. I want us all to consider it, to ruminate on it. Are you and I 'the servant'? Should we be 
viewing ourselves as vehicles of God, working to make the world a better place on behalf of the Almighty? Is it meant to remind us of the Unseen Hand of God that permeates all our lives? Or at the very least, all the stories of the Bible? Perhaps we can read this as telling us to look for God in unexpected places, to see the Divine in the people around us, because anyone and everyone COULD be a Messenger of God. They just don't know it themselves. Maybe. Or maybe you have your own suggestion, and perhaps you can share it with me? Just remember, we aren't looking for The Answer. We aren't searching for solutions. That would ruin this perfectly wonderful question. And I know that would make our friend, the servant, "Eliezer" very unhappy.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Martorell on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of File Upload Bot (99of9) 
on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Unipro on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dellex on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 7, 2014

Vayera: A Lot to Embrace

Sometimes the Torah knows us better than we know ourselves. I don't (necessarily) mean each of us individually, but the Torah DOES understand the human psyche... and often better than the rest of us. 
I think we see this especially when we realize that the stories in the Torah aren't really about the people in the Torah. We frequently get caught up in the details, focusing on Abraham's near-sacrifice of Isaac, or Moses' style of leadership, or God's choice to punish or praise. We spend so much of our time deliberating about the specifics, when really the text is trying to reach out and connect to each of us, right here, right now. Maybe it's just accidental that we miss this point... or maybe we genuinely DON'T want to hear what the text is trying to tell us.

I've been wondering about this in regards to this week's Torah portion. The narrative of our parashah switches back and forth between two protagonists, Abraham and his nephew, Lot. One story depicts 
Abraham welcoming in guests, the next shows Lot (sort of) doing the same. Abraham argues with God; Lot argues with God. Abraham makes questionable decisions as the head of his household; Lot - ditto. So I feel it's quite clear that the text wants us to juxtapose the two of them. It almost URGES us to do so. But it is perhaps less clear that the text is also, somewhat unsettlingly, looking PAST these two characters, and kind of staring right at you and me. We are still meant to compare and contrast them, but we are also invited to see them as aspects of ourselves. 

Abraham is the hero. He's the guy we want to be. He has perfect faith (most of the time), he is hospitable, he is (sometimes) noble, and he demonstrates other admirable qualities as well. But he IS also flawed. Just flawed enough that we feel we can identify with him and consider ourselves humble in doing so. The Binding of Isaac was a bad decision, 
right? See! He makes mistakes too. He is human. We can all aspire to be Abraham, because he sometimes falters but gets back up; he loses faith but regains it and keeps moving forward. He is, in many ways, an accessible role model. But we've got Lot in us as well. That's the part we don't like to see. Lot is cowardly. He makes horribly bad decisions, like offering his two daughters to an angry mob instead of his visiting guests. We can't really make sense of Lot. We can't excuse his behavior, and if we're even willing to read his story and discuss his choices, we reject them. But we are, perhaps, so angry with Lot and so condemnatory precisely BECAUSE he represents an ugly and unpleasant side of ourselves. Who wants to face that?

The Torah sees things we don't want to see. But they are there, nonetheless. And rather than trying to vanquish that which makes us uncomfortable, we might consider embracing it instead. I'm certainly 
not saying this is easy to do! Yet the Torah is willing to present Lot as a part of our story, just as much as Abraham. Are we able to do the same? Can we contain Lot's difficult emotions, tendencies, ethics, and choices, and learn to be kind and caring to that side of ourselves as well? When we relegate our inner Lot to the recesses of our psyche, it festers. We need to shine a light on it instead, and accept that we too have the capacity for Lot-ness. But we CHOOSE not to act on it, and push ourselves to be better. Let us work hard to accept ALL parts of ourselves - the heroes, the villains, AND the pitiful nebuchs (losers) - and strive for greater harmony and wholeness. I know it'll make us all understand ourselves a whole LOT better.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Aavindraa on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of "The Parting of Lot and Abraham" courtesy of Leinad-Z
 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Dodgers91501 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Mysid on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lech Lecha: It'll Just Cost You Your Soul...

In honor of Halloween, I thought I'd write a slightly spookier post than usual. That's right, even though I'm both Jewish AND a rabbi, I can still say the pagan/Christian/heretical/scandalous/evil word "Halloween" without melting. Personally, I don't subscribe 
to the Jewish poopooing of Halloween; I think it's as American as the Fourth of July, Memorial Day, New Year's Eve, and Superbowl Sunday. And as American Jews, we should embrace it. (Except the horror films; those freak me out...) Or, if it makes you feel better, think of it as a Purim celebration in the Fall, perhaps. Either way, it ain't anti-Jewish. And so, let's move on to our scary-themed blog post:

This week, we are introduced to Abraham (or "Abram," as he was originally called before God renamed him). For a short while, and rarely the parts we talk about in Hebrew School, we get to see him as a young, vibrant guy. He's a pretty fearless military leader, and in our
parashah he takes on several menacing kings, and beats them all!! He rescues his nephew, Lot, from captivity, and seizes a sizable fortune from his enemies. When he returns from battle, a group of OTHER kings, his allies, come out to greet him (and take their share of the wealth...). It is at this moment that we see a fascinating, and eery, sentence in our text. The king of Sodom (and yes, we ARE talking about one half of Sodom and Gomorrah, and we know what lovely people THEY were! Keep that in mind for this scene...) approaches Abram and says, "Give me the persons [you captured] (i.e. slaves), and take the possessions for yourself" (Genesis, 14:21). But that is just the English translation. The Hebrew text is much more ominous and terrifying.

The actual words spoken by the king of (awful) Sodom are: "Give me the soul, and keep the possessions for yourself." It doesn't even say "souls," plural, but just "soul." Whose soul is he asking for? I hear 
the king saying: "Become my ally. Align yourself with me, my people, and our way of life; sell your soul to me, and I'll make you wealthy." I think Abram hears it this way too. It's not that the king is offering to split the spoils with him, he's offering a deal that would make Abram indebted to him, and Abram will never get out of it. Which is indeed why he sharply refuses. He knows he would be making a deal with the devil, so to speak. It sounds so innocent at first, until you really read what is being offered. Then it is haunting and terrifying, and sends a shiver down your spine.

Because we're not just talking about Abram, are we? Looking at our Jewish history, we have often found kings and rulers making us this 
offer. "Sell your allegiance to God, abandon your traditions and restrictions, and you'll become wealthy." Or we can even look at our own lives. Are we sometimes tempted to abandon morals or overlook the wrongdoings of others, for personal gain or just to avoid making waves? In your life, has someone come to you with this kind of offer? Inviting you to share the riches, and perhaps only later do you realize they were actually asking for your silence/agreement/vote/endorsement/acquiescence - your soul - in return? Halloween can serve as a reminder that sometimes things that appear scary are really harmless, while other things (or deals) seem innocent and simple at first, but are actually frightening and damaging under the surface. The trick is to learn from Abram and determine when someone is really wearing a mask. Or perhaps it's the ones NOT wearing masks you truly have to watch out for...

Happy Halloween!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Crakkerjakk on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Megistias
 on Wikimedia Commons (Yes, I know this is not likely what Abram/Abraham looked like in battle, but it's an ancient soldier (Greek, maybe) and it's probably not TOO dissimilar, so LAY OFF!! Sheesh...)
3. CC image courtesy of Jujutacular on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Lyd0286 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 24, 2014

Noach: What Hollywood can Teach Us about Good Stewardship

Earlier this year, Hollywood came out with a movie about the ancient story of Noah and his Ark, starring Russell Crowe, Jennifer Connelly, Anthony Hopkins, and Emma Watson. I thought it was an entertaining, and particularly intriguing, interpretation of the Noah story. 
The creators of the film definitely read Genesis, and had good Biblical scholars advising them, because I was struck by how carefully the storyline either stuck to the Torah text directly or created fascinating midrashim (interpretive stories) to answer some tough questions. The critical point to remember here - both about Noah and really any and ALL stories in the Torah - is that you cannot create a depiction that is 'just' literal. It simply doesn't work. Interpretation is always essential.

The plots have gaps in them. Who helped Noah build an Ark large enough for all those animals? Or if he worked with only his sons and his wife, how long did it take him? 
One of those questions MUST be answered, and the Torah doesn't offer us explanations. So again, interpretation is required. And the movie does just that. Some religious fundamentalists around the world have questioned the director, Darren Aronofsky's choices, but that, to me, is beside the point. The Torah doesn't give enough information to create a full and complete story, so his proposed solutions are just as valid as yours, or mine, or those of ancient and medieval Biblical commentators who were ALSO confused by the text. I would like to highlight for you one example of Aronofsky's close, close reading of the text.

The movie, "Noah," takes a dark turn, in which the protagonist, Noah (Russell Crowe) imagines that God is done with humanity, including the survivors inside the Ark. Their only purpose, he now believes, 
is to help bring the animals on the ship to dry land, and then humans are meant to die out. No more procreating, no more homo sapiens interfering and ruining creation; just get the animals safely off the Ark, and then slowly fade from existence. I told you, dark. And I was confused about where Aronofsky got this idea. What was he basing it on? But then I read this week's parashah, and I found the following - previously unnoticed (by me) - passage: "God spoke to Noah, saying, 'Come out of the Ark, together with your wife, your sons, and your sons' wives. Bring out with you every living thing of all flesh that is with you: birds, animals, and everything that creeps on earth; and let them swarm on the earth and be fertile and increase on earth.'" (Gen. 8:15-17) Do you see it? The moment where the movie's midrash takes shape?

Several verses later, in chapter 9, God finally invites Noah and his family to also "be fertile and increase." But in chapter 8, God instructs the humans to make room for all the other creatures and let THEM procreate and fill the planet, but NOT humans. That is where Aronofsky's Noah got his inspiration.
It is, perhaps, a minor point, but I was impressed with Hollywood's close reading of the text! Because it IS a curious distinction. And perhaps it should, at the very least, serve as a reminder to us all. We are not the only creatures on this planet, and certainly not the only ones that matter. I do believe we have a purpose, and we CAN be a force for good (though I won't give away whether Noah comes to a similar realization in the film or not...). But we can also be terribly destructive, and have been throughout our species' time on earth. We need to learn - and this is true for EACH individual, not just world leaders and environmentalists - how to step aside and let nature flourish and rejuvenate. We are not only partners with God, we are partners with our planet and our neighbors who share the space with us. That message is in our Torah; sometimes we just need Hollywood actors and directors to point it out for us.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Liviu368 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of 
GelpgimLa22 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of Leandro Bassano's "Animals Entering Noah's Ark" courtesy of Vert on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of Simon de Myle's "Noah's Ark on Mount Ararat" courtesy of Botaurus on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 17, 2014

Bereisheet: Caught Between Dust and Spirit

Welcome to 5775! The new Jewish year has begun, we're still over 3,700 years ahead of the secular calendar (they are NEVER gonna catch up...), and our annual cycle of Torah readings has started over yet again. And so, we return to the 
creation of the world. I like to reiterate, every year, that the Creation story in the Torah is NOT meant to compete with Darwinism or science. I think that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of this story in Genesis. I firmly believe it is a poetic rendition of the origin of human beings - with special emphasis on our rights and responsibilities on this earth - and is in NO WAY trying to compete with Big Bangs or the evolution of the species.

And if you agree with me about the real purpose of the Torah's description of Creation, then you actually witness, in the very first MOMENT of God forming Adam, our rights and responsibilities 
laid out before us in the text. Nothing that God makes is created from something ELSE. God says "Let there be light," and POOF! Light. God decides to make great sea monsters; they appear. Ex nihilo - creating something out of nothing. That is, until God fashions the first human being in Genesis, 2:7. The text informs us, surprisingly, that God: "formed man from the dust of the earth. God blew into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living being." All of a sudden, God CHOOSES to produce a being, a human, out of something else. And it IS a choice, because we know God has no trouble creating anything and everything out of thin air (or less). So what does this teach us?

It can be, for us, a source of great pride or great humility. The Biblical scholar Nahum Sarna declares that: "solely in the case of man is the material from which he is made explicitly mentioned, [which] implies emphasis upon a unique position for man among created things and a special relationship with God." 
We have the Breath of Life, God's spirit, exhaled into us, unlike all other animals, which makes us really, really special. And yet, we are also formed of dust, NOT simply by Divine Word like the rest of creation, so perhaps we're not so impressive after all. The medieval commentator Rashi says: "The human being is a combination of the earthly and the Divine," which is why our bodies are buried in the ground, returning to their source, and our spirits return to God. However you want to view us, it is clear that the Torah purposely separates us out from all other creatures. Ours is a special and complicated relationship with God, and our task on this earth requires some serious contemplation.

I would also like to add that our being formed FROM the earth gives us some responsibility towards it. Back in Genesis 1:28, God said that human beings were meant to "fill the earth and master it." The word for "master it" in Hebrew is "kiv-shu-ha." For most of human history, people understood that word to mean "do with it as you please," and 
we certainly did just that. And yet, in recent decades we've learned that our actions had (and have) lasting repercussions, not just for the land itself, but for us, living on it, as well! Perhaps we should have understood kiv-shu-ha to mean "stewardship" or "guardianship" instead? After all, we were created from this very earth, we are a part of it, and our fate is intertwined with its survival. The Divine Spirit breathed into us undoubtedly makes us unique. But it does not only give us special rights; it demands of us certain responsibilities as well. For we were also formed from the dust of this planet. The name "Adam," comes from the Hebrew word for "earth," "Adamah." We are literally OF this earth. The Torah may not be competing with science, but its lessons should surely bring us closer to a partnership WITH science, to do everything we can to be better stewards of our world. That, to me, is what God had in mind when we were created. It's time to take that message to heart.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of VectorOpenStock on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Chixoy on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Afrank99 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Nanoworld on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: A Booth Filled with Meaning

What do you think of, when you picture a Sukkah? This week, we begin the holiday of Sukkot. At Ohev Shalom, we've built our community Sukkah. In my backyard, I too have built a Gerber family Sukkah, and I imagine that at least some of you reading this have built your own as
well. When you hear the word, "Sukkah," do you picture the one in your backyard, the one built when you were a child, the huts built by the Israelites during their exodus from Egypt, or do you picture something else entirely? I'd love to hear from you, so please write a response on this blog, e-mail me personally, or stop me in the hallway and share. Our Jewish Tradition is actually filled with lots of references to Sukkot, but there are some interesting conflicts and contradictions between them, which leads me to believe that even our Biblical and rabbinic ancestors had lots of different images of Sukkot in their heads when they heard the word. So which one is it?

Underlying this question is a fundamental disagreement about the nature of the Sukkah. Is it a symbol of stability or of fragility? We see both images in our liturgy, so it's kind of confusing. A colleague
of mine, Rabbi Julia Andelman, wrote about this for our shared alma mater, JTS. She pointed out that, on the one hand, we refer to God as "Ha-Poreis Sukkat Shalom Aleinu," (the One who spreads over us a shelter of peace), but on the other hand, the Birkat Ha-Mazon (the Grace after Meals) on Sukkot includes the line “Harachaman Hoo Yakim Lanu Et Sukkat David Ha-Nofalet” (may the Merciful One establish for us the fallen Sukkah of David; based on Amos 9:11). So we see that the Sukkah is either (both?) the powerful protection we get from God, as we did during the Exodus from Egypt, or it's the Temple in Jerusalem that was destroyed first by the Babylonians and then the Romans.

Yet, in some ways the Sukkah really is both. It reminds us of the fragility of our lives, and how much we're dependent on heat, refrigeration, plumbing, and a good night's sleep. Stepping outside our
comfortable homes for just a short while in the Sukkah makes us VERY grateful for what we have, and perhaps reminds us to do more for those who live everyday in a Sukkah of insecurity, without a roof over their heads, without enough food, and without the ability to improve their situation. At the same time, the Sukkah also persists. Like the phoenix, it is destroyed and rebuilt, over and over. Even when it rains or snows, or the wind blows, the Sukkah either survives it all, or we wait and reconstruct it after the weather has passed. Either way, it's an eternal symbol of our people, and a constant reminder that despite our fragile beginnings in the desert of the Exodus, and all that our people have endured throughout the ages, we are still here; and so are our Sukkot!

I have many memories of this holiday, and this silly little hut: Snow-covered Sukkot in Sweden; rooftop Sukkot in Israel; the largest Sukkah in North America (for over 200 people), in New York City; and the first Sukkah I assembled on my own, that I built for my wife and daughter,
here in Wallingford. For me, the Festival of Booths is very much about BOTH the fragility and the stability. We need the humility of the Sukkah to remind us to care for others, and to feel gratitude for the blessings in our lives. We also need the flimsiness of the Sukkah to see how tied we are to the earth, and to our task of caring for the environment and living our lives in greater harmony with our planet. At the same time, the Sukkah is a powerful and enduring symbol, reminding us of God's role in our lives as well as the tenacity and resolve of our people. But it also can and should mean something different to each person. So my question again is, what does the word Sukkah mean to you? I look forward to hearing what you have to say.

Chag Sameach - Happy Holiday!

Images in this blog post:
1. Gerber Sukkah 2012
2. & 3. Gerber Sukkah 2014
4. Caroline enjoying her first Sukkah!