Wednesday, May 21, 2014

B'Midbar: I Am Not Superstitious…Pooh…Pooh…Pooh! (Guest Blogger)

Hello everyone!
This Thursday, I am leaving for vacation; off to spend a week in Sweden visiting family. But I would hate to leave you without some words of Torah... even if they aren't mine. This week, I am pleased to welcome my colleague and friend, Cantor Steven Friedrich, to be a guest blogger on 'Take on Torah.' Enjoy, and I'll see you soon!

Rabbi Gerber

Contemporary Jews like you and me generally do not consider themselves to be superstitious. Such bubba meises are considered to be just Old Wives’ Tales, to which no modern, well-educated, liberal-thinking Jew would ever admit. Yet, superstitions prevail among us regardless of our denials. It’s not really all that surprising, as some of these superstitions go all the way back to Biblical times. I find myself falling into one of these ancient superstitions almost on a daily basis – that totally illogical Jewish tradition of ‘NOT counting’ people or things in a numerical sequence in order to forestall a plague or similar tragedy. As I count people who attend morning minyan, I find myself saying ‘NOT one, NOT two, etc..until I reach NOT ten. Only then do I know I have a minyan (quorum). But that’s not the end of it. As I wrap tefillin on my arm, I don’t count the seven windings of the strap. Instead I recite “Lcha Dodi Likrat Kallah, Pnei Shabbat N’kabbelah” saying one word for each winding rather than counting them ‘1, 2… and so on.

This is a particularly Jewish superstition whose source can actually be found in our Bible. As a matter of fact, it’s related to the census of the Israelites that we read about in this week’s Parashah, Bemidbar. Moses and Aaron are instructed three times to take a census (Nu 1:4; Nu 1:22; Nu 26:2). When you continue to read through the Book of Numbers, you find that there are three plagues that subsequently decimate the Israelite population while in the Wilderness (Numbers ch. 11, 17 and 25). Three countings of people followed by three plagues – there must be a correlation, yes? Aha! So counting people by number is some sort of sin. What could Moses and Aaron have done so wrong as to cause these plagues? There’s the answer, back in the Book of Exodus: “When you take the census of the people of Israel according to their number, then shall they give every man atonement for his soul to the Lord, when you count them, that there should be no plague among them, when you count them. They shall give, every one who passes among those who are counted, half a shekel…as an offering to the Lord.” (Ex30:12-13)

Well there’s our answer in plain sight: These plagues MUST have been caused by the counting of people WITHOUT the remittance of the half-shekel required by God earlier in the Bible. It is also not surprising to see that King David later tries to take a census of the Israelites in his kingdom that also leads to a plague. Clearly then, the Bible teaches us, that to count people in this manner is a sin punishable by a plague. It stands to reason, therefore, that to count anything by number in this manner is to invite horrible consequences. Why take a chance? And so, to this day we Jews invent different mnemonics for counting – such as my 7 word phrase above for putting on tefillin.

What? You don’t believe me? ACHOO!!! See? I sneezed – so it must be the truth!!!

Cantor Steven Friedrich – May 21, 2014

Friday, May 16, 2014

Bechukotai: #BringBackOurBlessings

I've been thinking a lot, these past few weeks, about the awful situation in Nigeria. Over 250 young girls kidnapped by a terrorist group, and no luck, thus far, in finding them. It has sparked international outcry, with
celebrities, politicians, and average people around the world all shouting the slogan, 'Bring Back Our Girls!' Over 1,000,000 tweets of the slogan as a hashtag, and pictures all over the internet of people holding signs. And back and forth the debate also rages, about whether slogans and hashtags achieve anything, or whether we should send in our military to solve this problem 'once and for all.' Looking at the blessings and curses listed in this week's parashah - shouted at us, in fact, by the Torah - has really left me thinking about this issue a great deal.

What is the solution? IS there a solution?? On the one hand, we have mobilized the world's attention. That is amazing. A few years ago, no one would have known about atrocities halfway around the globe, and surely no one would have reacted. Though on the other hand, what is this campaign achieving? If we really
CARED about these girls, wouldn't we DO something more active, more aggressive? The answer, I'm afraid, is never so simple as to hold the solution in one hand OR the other. Are we really so short-sighted as to believe that even our military intervention would SOLVE this problem? Are the members of Boko Haram the only terrorists out there, the only fundamentalist psychopaths who think God condones their horrendous treatment of women? It's painful to admit, but we cannot rid the world of evil; either by shouting, or shooting, it out of existence.

But let us also not turn on one another, and decry or belittle someone else's efforts to connect to this painful tragedy. Who's to say what will
work and what won't? Even Sister Rosemary Nyirumbe - a renowned activist from Uganda, who works every day with girls like those kidnapped in Nigeria - told Stephen Colbert in a recent interview that we need to 'shout as loud as we can,' and that the hashtag campaign is indeed putting pressure on the Nigerian government AND on the terrorists themselves. Every effort to affect change, and to combat evil, is helpful and productive. There is no 'easy' solution out there, so it helps no one when we turn on each other.

Our parashah outlines a series of blessings for observing God's commandments, and then a long list of curses for rejecting or ignoring those same mitzvot. Faithfulness will lead to self-confidence and military prowess: "Five of you shall give chase
to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword." (Leviticus 26:8) The absence of faith, however, will lead to the exact opposite: "The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight. Fleeing as though from the sword, they shall fall though none pursues." (26:36) The difference between a blessing and a curse is only perspective; self-confidence or a lack thereof. So too in today's world, with the plague of terrorism and fundamentalism that we all endure. Eradicating evil may be more than what any one of us can accomplish alone. But standing together, voicing our outrage, and yes, sometimes uniting together in military action, is no small achievement. And we have to believe in our own ability to affect change.

Maybe it's not enough to hold up a sign. But for the sake of our families,
our own daughters, and for our humanity, we still must do SOMETHING! And taking action, in any form, can change our perspective, and hopefully - please God, soon - lead to us removing the curses of hate in our society, and replacing them with a life of blessing for us all.


Photos in this blog post:
People holding up signs as part of the 'Bring Back Our Girls' campaign: Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, Sean 'P. Diddy' Combs, Amy Poehler, and me.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Behar: This Ain't Yours!

The Torah proposes a difficult concept for us to swallow. In fact, some might consider it more Buddhist-like than Jewish, but nevertheless, it's right there in the Bible. Hard as it may be to accept, says the Torah, you don't really possess anything. 
There's no such thing as ownership, for anyone but God. We read in Leviticus 25:23: 'The land must not be sold permanently, for the land is Mine [God's]; you are but strangers residing with Me.' Take a moment and think about your home, your car, your jewelry, your clothing, even your food, and ask yourself if you - generally speaking - consider these things to be yours, or if you're ok with the idea that you don't own any of them. My guess is, you'd like to show God some credit card receipts and mortgage statements, and ask (respectfully) whose signature appears on all those dotted lines...

Nevertheless, this is a prominent theme throughout the Bible. When we see ourselves as owners, we feel rooted, settled... and complacent. We take possessions for granted, and we feel entitled to all that we have. We look at people around us who DON'T have, and we feel no sympathy, because we obviously worked harder than those lazy bums! If they 
didn't want to go without, they should have made wiser choices in life. And so the Torah reminds us - again, and again, and again - that our assumptions simply ain't true. We have all been incredibly lucky to get where we are today, and we should ALL feel incredible gratitude for each and every moment of happiness we get to experience. One strategy that the Biblical author employs to try to convey that message is to remind you that you own nothing. It could all disappear in the blink of an eye, if, God forbid, disaster should strike or luck should change. We don't LIKE to think of ourselves as strangers and squatters in our own lives, but permanence is truly an illusion. And as unpleasant as it is to be reminded of it, we sometimes NEED that reminder, because it teaches us to be grateful and appreciative. Better to learn that the easy way than the hard way...

It is indeed difficult to think of our possessions and homes as fleeting, but it is all the more unthinkable to consider this same concept regarding the people in our lives. And yet, they too are not immune. There is an incredibly heart-breaking rabbinic story about the famous rabbi, Rabbi Meirand his equally famous 
and learned wife, Beruriah. On one particularly fateful Shabbat, both their sons died while Rabbi Meir was away. When he returned, and Beruriah revealed to him what had happened, she spoke about the need to return two precious gems to their original owner. They had merely been left with the devastated couple for a short while, for safekeeping. I don't like this story, and I don't want to accept this reality... but I must. We don't get to decide how long we live, or long our lives will be graced by the beautiful people around us; we can only make the most of the precious moments that we have, and give thanks constantly for the moments and the memories.

This weekend we celebrate Mother's Day. And inevitably, you know someone who will say 'I love my mother EVERY day, why do I need one special day to say so???' And the answer is that every reminder helps. Every opportunity to stop, to acknowledge blessings, and to give thanks, 
is good. It's hard to be grateful all the time; we take a lot for granted. But when an opportunity comes along to truly FEEL that gratitude? Take it. I hope this blog post hasn't come across as depressing; that wasn't my intention at all. We don't like to be reminded that we're all really just tenants and outsiders, but we NEED this wake up call to make us more sensitive to new people in our community, to those who don't always fit in, to those less fortunate around us; to EVERYONE. We need the reminder, even if it's uncomfortable, even if it's tough to accept. And if you hear that message - and I hope that you do - it will make you more grateful. And then you'll hug someone this weekend and tell them how great they are. And it will all be worth it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Noblestrawberry on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Leixure on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of The Mighty Tim Inconnu on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 2, 2014

Emor: How Experiencing the Ripples Makes Us Stronger

I often wonder what life was like in the ancient world. The Book of Leviticus gives us many of the laws of that time period, but we don't 
hear any emotion in the text, we don't know how the people actually FELT carrying out these commandments. This week, I find myself thinking about this a lot; in part because of odd verses in the text, and in part because of recent events here at Ohev Shalom.

Our Torah reading begins by talking about the duties and restrictions of the priests in the Temple. They have to cut their hair in a specific way, they can only marry certain individuals, they can only mourn family members in a particular fashion, 
etc., etc. And then we read the following: 'When the daughter of a priest defiles herself through harlotry, it is her father whom she defiles; she shall be put to the fire' (Lev. 21:9). How did this play itself out in the ancient world? And, perhaps more importantly, whom are we punishing here? It's mainly the daughter, of course, but the father's position in society seems to make her punishment more severe, and surely he - AND the girl's mother - are being punished as well with the death of their daughter. And does the priest have any say in the matter? Could the High Priest, one of the most important men in society, stop this horrific decree from taking place? I really can't help but wonder how this all unfolded in Ancient Israel, and how everyone actually felt about what the Torah was telling them to do. And here's why this is on my mind.

This past Sunday was Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. At Ohev Shalom, rather than focus our evening program on the story of a survivor, we invited a guest speaker to share a slightly different tale. Trudy Klein Gompers was born in Austria in 1937. Most of the story 
she told was about her parents' surviving the war, and the few memories she herself had from years of turmoil and escape. Our program was called 'The Rippling Effects of the Holocaust,' and mainly centered on the experience of SECOND generation survivors, people who grew up with a parent who was a Holocaust victim. Trauma is not limited to the person who experiences a terrifying ordeal; it does indeed have rippling and lingering effects on children and grandchildren (and even, as our Torah portion reminds us, on parents and other family members). Mrs. Klein Gompers shared an incredibly compelling story that illustrated just how true this is.

And so I look back at our Torah portion, and I see children whose lives are affected by the choices of their parents; and even parents punished for the poor decisions of their children. In talking about the responsibilities of the priests, the Torah doesn't just say 'tell all the priests,' it says 'tell Aaron and his sons...' 
In fact, it speaks of Aaron and his 'sons,' his 'offspring,' and his 'descendants,' several times in our parashah. The hereditary nature of the priesthood is clearly very significant. Our lives, as parents and as children, are intertwined. What happens to us happens to our family members as well. We are not only as vulnerable as we ourselves want to be, or allow ourselves to be; we are also at the mercy of those closest to us. We let them into our hearts, and it leaves us open to pain. And yet, oddly enough, it is also a sign of love, and a sign of strength. Our vulnerability also allows us to experience affection, warmth, connection, and togetherness. We become compassionate, empathetic, and maybe even more moral and kind. Our lives may indeed be intertwined with others, and sometimes that can be risky business. But I think it also makes us better people. 

In the midst of a painful story about family relationships, the Torah is (subtly) reminding us to infuse law with emotion, and to make religion a living, breathing, FEELING thing. And in doing so, we make it, the Torah, stronger as well.

Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Mattes on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Roger McLassus on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Carulmare on Wikimedia Commons