Friday, June 27, 2014

Chukat: A 37-year Invitation

Every Wednesday morning, I teach a Bible study class. It's quite frankly one of the highlights of my week. The people who attend are terrific, the material we read is fascinating to read, discuss, and debate, and the experience is always energizing and spiritual. Join us sometime, won't 
you?? This past Wednesday, I had an epiphany that I wanted to share with you. Our class is studying Genesis right now, so nowhere near this week's Torah portion, Chukat, from the Book of Numbers. We were reading the story of Joseph, and specifically one of the most important scenes in all of Genesis; Joseph confronting his brothers, after they sold him into slavery more than a decade earlier. At a very tense moment in the narrative, the text says '[Joseph] turned away from them and wept' (Gen. 42:24). Immediately, five different people in the Bible class offered interpretations on why Joseph wept. And what do you think the answer was?

Well, the Torah doesn't tell us. We know only THAT he wept, we don't know WHY. And as we discussed it in class, we eventually came up with eight or nine (or more) reasons why: Anger, 
frustration, joy, homesickness, nostalgia, bitterness, love, pity, sadness, and, and, and. At that moment in our discussion, I stopped and thought, how brilliant is the Torah for NOT giving us the answer, and allowing us to have this debate??? How wonderful to FORCE us into relationship with the text, and afford each and every reader the chance to be a Biblical scholar and commentator, and offer his or her own explanation. Which leads me to this week's Torah portion.

Even though we are already midway through the Fourth Book of the Torah (of five), the Israelites are STILL at Mount Sinai, and only in the second year of their wandering in the desert. And then, all of a sudden, when we reach chapter 20 in our parashah, we suddenly find ourselves in the fortieth, and final, year of their wandering. Essentially, in the 
transition between one verse and another, the Torah has skipped 37 years forward in time. Clearly then, we must ask ourselves: What happened during all those intermediate years? We know the people sometimes moved around, and sometimes camped for longer periods of time. But other than that, we don't know much. And so once again, I submit to you that this is a wonderful tactic of the Biblical author! If the Torah just TOLD you what happened to them, it would perhaps be a great story (probably involving a lot more kvetching...), but you and I wouldn't feel too involved. It wouldn't really invite interpretation, and wouldn't draw us in. Instead, this is now a mystery. What happened to them? Why don't we hear about it? Where are all those stories?

Take a moment, and just close your eyes. Picture the Israelites in your mind. Lots of sand, a bunch of tents, bleating sheep, and only manna to eat. Can you see them? Can you transport yourself back to them? Now ask yourself, what happened in 
those in-between years? How did they go from a rag-tag band of runaway slaves - with no unity, no self-confidence, no real faith - to becoming a feared army of powerful, confident warriors? After chapter 20, we hear about people after people who are afraid of the Israelites. SOMETHING changed. To me, that is the brilliance of the Torah. The extended hand, the open invitation, the tantalizing mysteries that draw us in and provoke us to react, to respond. I could tell you what I think happened, but that isn't the point, is it? The open invitation isn't just there for me, it's for you too! Care to respond? 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of Gustav DorĂ©'s 'Joseph Makes Himself Known to his Brethren,' courtesy of Ragesoss on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Christian75 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of russavia on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of russavia on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 20, 2014

Korach: Battling Plagues in the Torah and Today

This week, I would once again like to dedicate my blog post. Unfortunately, this is not the joyous dedication of last week, when I was thanking everyone who helped celebrate my fifth anniversary at Ohev 
Shalom. I would instead like to dedicate my thoughts (and prayers) this week to a good friend who is just beginning a long battle with cancer. Staci Zemlak-Kenter is married to my college roommate and colleague, Rabbi Eytan Kenter, and three weeks after giving birth to their first child, Boaz, Staci was diagnosed with cancer. These past few days, I have been marveling at her strength and bravery, while also wrestling with how something so unfair could be happening. And so, with that in mind, and with much love, care, and praying going out to Staci, Eytan, and Boaz, I would like to share with you a thought on this week's Torah portion:

Ours is a parashah of struggles. Several rebellions and coups are launched against Moses and Aaron, and the reading is filled with strife and antagonism. Yet even as we feel frustrated with the entire Israelite 
community, when they simply REFUSE to accept God's power, or God's choice of Moses as their leader, we might also feel some disappointment in God for being unable - or unwilling - to reason with them. It all feels so heavy-handed. When the people rebel, God threatens to wipe them out, twice! And when Moses and Aaron intercede on their behalf, God instead strikes the people with a plague, killing scores of Israelites. Looking at the story before us, I feel lost and overwhelmed. I feel saddened. Everyone here SHOULD be working towards the same goal, and yet there is no communication, no compassion. And then, a plague.

We do see this in the world though, don't we? Violence, shouting, bullying; and often between people who should be on the same side, who should be supporting one another. And we also see plagues and illnesses, inexplicably devastating the ones 
we love. The Torah purports to explain these things with simple cause and effect solutions: The people rebel, so they get punished. There are good guys who thrive, and bad guys who suffer. If you're battling a disease, it means you did something wrong. Easy, right? But it isn't that straightforward at all; in fact, it never, ever is. Life is murkier and more complex, filled with unfairness and unanswerable questions. And even the Torah knows this to be true. In reality, the Torah is actually challenging us to look deeper, to NOT accept the surface-level reading, but be more discerning. Go beyond.

First of all, savor and value every precious moment in life, because no one is immune, no one is impervious. You can choose to let this fact depress you, or you can let it inspire you and compel you to make the most of each and every second, and treasure the people around you. And second, sometimes adversity brings out the best in people. 
Moses and Aaron, in the midst of being attacked by the Israelites, continue to defend the people and beg God to forgive them... even when their own lives are being threatened. If that isn't leadership and self-sacrifice, I don't know what is!! And sometimes when a friend is battling cancer - at a moment in life when she should be allowed to just celebrate, and maybe worry, as a new parent, about getting more sleep - it is awe-inspiring to see her community rally to her side. Letters, calls, and posts filled with encouragement, care packages, incredible contributions to help her family prepare for the long journey ahead, and just so much love and support. It is still a sad situation, and we all feel sympathy and pain. But it also demonstrates our ability to care and nurture, to step up and be better. 

Eil Nah, R'fah Nah Lah - Please, God, heal her - please (Numbers 12:13).

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image courtesy of Staci Zemlak-Kenter. You can read her story, and contribute if you wish, on her CaringBridge site:
2. CC image of Botticelli's 'The Punishment of Korach' courtesy of Attilios on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Lawrie Cate on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Wellcome Trust on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 13, 2014

Sh'lach L'cha: When Not to be a Tourist

I want to begin this week's blog post by thanking all those who have celebrated my milestone of five years with Ohev Shalom. I honestly can't believe I've been here for so long, but I suppose writing my 252nd (!) blog post should have been my first clue. So many people have called and sent e-mails; and then 90 people came to Thursday night's annual meeting, where I was incredibly touched by all the beautiful sentiments shared. I received an incredible album of vignettes, quotes, and photos from the past five years, and Rebecca and I will truly cherish that book - and of course all the memories - for a long, long time. Whether you are part of the Ohev Shalom community, or the community that has developed around this blog; thank you for all your kindness, inspiration, and support. Here's to many more years together!

And in that same spirit, I would like to dedicate this week's post to all of you.

A year ago, Rebecca and I (and Caroline, but she was too young to remember) had the pleasure of spending a Shabbat with our friends and congregants, David and Amy Pollack in New York City. Among other things, we went to services at a hip, new congregation on the Upper West Side, called RomemuAmidst all the singing and dancing and 
spirituality, something the rabbi, David Ingber, said really stuck with me, and I still think about it to this day. Rabbi Ingber spoke about this week's Torah portion, and the famous (infamous?) story of the 12 spies who scout out the Land of Canaan. Ten of them bring back an unfavorable report about the land. And even though the other two, Caleb and Joshua, try to convince the people that they can capture the land, it's too late. They're negative, they rebel against Moses, and God eventually 'sentences' the people to spend 40 years in the desert before they can ultimately try to conquer it again.

Rabbi Ingber focused on the first verse of our parashah, and the word 'to scout,' as in 'scout out the land.' The word in Hebrew is 'la-tur.' Somewhat amusingly, it sounds a lot like the English verb 'to tour.' 
Says Rabbi Ingber, the spies saw themselves as tourists, outsiders, not really part of the story, and not really invested in the success of this mission. You see, there is something about being a tourist that is rooted in the transient, fleeting experience. You come, you see, you buy a T-shirt, you leave. And that was where the spies went wrong. They couldn't see Canaan as THEIR land, and they couldn't imagine themselves being a part of God's intended story.

In fact, later in our Torah portion, we see a surprising recurrence of this same verb. A paragraph in chapter 15 (verses 37-41) would eventually become the well-known third paragraph of the Shema prayer, where we 
kiss the tzitzit (fringes) on our tallitot (prayer shawls). In that paragraph, God says to Moses that the people should not follow/be seduced by their eyes and their hearts, but should instead look at the tzitzit and remember all of God's commandments. The Hebrew word for 'follow' or 'be seduced' is 'ta-turu,' again, from that same root. The superficiality of being a tourist, of not really caring deeply, of not feeling invested, leads us astray. It steers us away from purpose and meaning, and leaves us apathetic and indifferent.

On Thursday night, I introduced next year's High Holiday theme for my sermons. I'm not going to share it with you here; you should have come on Thursday! :-P But it had to do 
with mindfulness and presence, of challenging yourself, ourselves, to be rooted in the here and now, and experience it fully. Don't let opportunities and precious moments pass you by. The summer is upon us, and we may find ourselves being tourists away from home. But don't be a tourist in your own life. Cherish every second, because five years can sure fly by in an instant! Savor it, and be thankful for it, and be present - every day - in your own life.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of MAD Magazine on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Paul Morrison on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of DRosenbach on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Geekgirly on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 6, 2014

Beha'alotecha: A History of Symbols

Did you know that the Star of David isn't really a very Jewish symbol? Surprising, I know. For most people, if you ask them to picture/draw/articulate a single image that represents Jews and Judaism, they are likely to give you a Magen David, a Star of David. 
It's the central symbol on the Israeli flag, it's the name of the Israeli version of the Red Cross, Magen David Adom, and of course, it was painfully forced upon us in the Second World War. The yellow patch that all Jews had to wear on their clothing, and which brought them ridicule, shame, and violence, was indeed a six-pointed star. And yet, when you look across the span of Jewish history, the Star of David is surprisingly absent from the list of images and religious symbols that were used to identify Jews. Who knew?

At the start of this week's Torah portion, we read about the detailed construction of the lampstand, the Menorah, which stood in the Tabernacle during the Exodus from Egypt, and later also in the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Now THAT was a Jewish symbol! In ancient ruins, in books and manuscripts, and - famously (or infamously) - on the Arch of Titus being carried away by Roman conquerors; we see the seven-
armed candelabra that we all know so well. Before the last two centuries, or so, most people would NOT have pictured the Star of David as representing Judaism, they would likely have chosen the Menorah. And yet even the Menorah is actually kind of a surprising choice of artifacts to represent the Jews. Why, among all the items in the Temple, did the candelabra become so important? That same sacred sanctuary also contained a bronze laver, an elaborate table to display bread, a crucial altar for burning offerings, and of course, the Ark of the Covenant, for heaven's sake! Several of these were directly linked to either God's commandments or the sacrificial rite which was absolutely essential to Israelite worship and identity. In comparison, what was so special about the Menorah??

Nevertheless, the central Jewish image - even in the time of the Torah - was the seven-armed lampstand. Perhaps because it reminded us of the Divine Light shining on God's people and on the world. Or perhaps the Menorah ensured that we always remember to be 'a light unto the nations' (Isaiah, 42:6 & 49:6). 
But I began this post by writing about the Star of David, because I think it's interesting to consider how these things evolve. We started off with a symbol from the Temple, but after it was destroyed, we moved away from the concept of ritual sacrifice on an altar. Using an artifact from that place, and that era, felt outdated. Jews everywhere needed something new. Still today, we change, we grow, we develop. It's true for us an individuals, and it's true even for an ancient, seemingly unchanging religion like Judaism.

I've been thinking about this right now, because I just came back from visiting my family in Stockholm, Sweden. Ok, so not a particularly obvious connection to stars and candlesticks, I'll admit, but here's my reasoning: As we grow up, and we move to different places, change jobs, expand our families, and watch our tastes and preferences shift; the 
symbols that represent who we are evolve as well. The Swedish flag always felt like a symbol that was part of me growing up. However, now that it's been fifteen (oy) years since I lived there, that same flag feels more like history and nostalgia than identity and belonging. That is just one example. We can each name other symbols that once were prominent in our lives, but may have become less significant with the passing of time. This is not a bad thing. It's life. And I think it's great to be able to look back and reconnect with our history, and see it for what it is. It helps ground us in the present, and strengthens our identity in the here and now. Yesterday, the Ancient Menorah. Today, the Star of David. Tomorrow? We can only image-ine...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Magen David Adom on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Gunnar Bach Pedersen on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Alex Proimos on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone. The Swedish flag that hangs in my office, right next to a painting of a man blowing a shofar. Two images living in harmony.