Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Masei: The Journeys (and Rest Stops) That Define Us

When you read the Torah in (what's known as) a triennial cycle, as we do at Ohev Shalom, you only read one third every three years. There are two ways to employ the triennial system: You could take three weeks to read the first Torah portion, Bereisheet, then three weeks to read the second portion, Noah, and so on and so forth. That way, you wind up 
somewhere passed the middle of Exodus (the second book of the Torah) after year one, close to the middle of Numbers (book four) in year two, and you only actually complete the Torah at the end of year three. The other way to employ a triennial cycle is to read the first third of Bereisheet in week one of year one, move on to Noah on week two, but again only read one third of it, and read one third of each portion weekly, so that you at least get to the end of Deuteronomy every year. In the first year, you read the first third of each parashah; in the second year, the second third; and in the third year, you complete each Torah portion. Makes sense? Sort of? Well, at Ohev we employ the second method, and this year we're reading the first third of each portion. And this week, our section is really boring.

It's boring at first glance anyway. More interesting material appears in the last two-thirds of our parashah, but I'll be writing about that next year and the year after. This year, however, we are basically given a recap list of all the reststops along the Israelites' 40 years of wandering in the desert. Verse after verse 
states: 'They set out from Libnah and encamped at Rissah. They set out from Rissah and encamped at Kehelath. They set out from Kehelath and encamped at Mount Shepher...' (Numbers, 33:21-23) For almost an entire (long) chapter. It is somewhat interesting to note that the Torah lists 20 places covered over 38 years of their sojourn; which reminds us that the Israelites did NOT wander constantly throughout the 40 years. When we imagine the Exodus, we sometimes picture constant marching and moving, when in reality they averaged 2 years in each encampment, each oasis in the desert, before setting out on the dusty road yet again. 

But it is also true that if you dig a little bit deeper, the meaning behind this text isn't boring at all. The Israelites had been wandering for 40 years. FORTY years!!! That's a tremendous amount of time, and it's an incredible accomplishment. Stopping for a minute to list every single stop along that way is valuable. It's an opportunity to take stock and 
appreciate the journey, not just the destination. If you were to take a few minutes right now and write down every place you've lived in your life, I'm sure each would bring back a flood of memories, some good and some not-so-good. To anyone else, you've only produced a 'boring' list of cities from around the country or the world. To you, each name connotes meaning and reminiscences; people you met along the way, as well as successes and disappointments that marked your time in each place. For the Israelites, this is not just a list of names. Each spot reminds them of God's miracles that kept them alive (manna, water, quail, etc.), as well as enemies defeated and obstacles overcome. And standing on the other end of this odyssey, the Israelites have now become a united, strong, cohesive nation; and that could only have happened because of the journey they undertook together.

It's important for us all to remember that our history shapes us. Good or bad, fun or depressing, everything we've been through has contributed to make us the people we are today. We should each remember to take time and look back at where we've been and how far we've come. 
Perhaps more importantly also, we should feel, maybe even state out loud, how grateful we are for the experiences that influenced our lives. Say 'Thank you'! No matter how long you have lived or what you have seen or done, you have been through a journey as well. We each have a history that is meaningful to us. This week, as we read the travels and travails of our ancestors, let us remember that their story is ours as well. We wouldn't be here if it weren't for them. And so even a simple list of all their pit stops is actually incredibly significant. It reminds us where they began, what they went through, and who they had become when it was all said and done. We carry their story with us as we now continue, with gratitude and humility, to write our own.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Iago One on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Schwede66 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Julian Lim on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of mjrmtg on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Matot: Why More Women Should Be In Charge

This week, our Torah reading addresses the very serious issue of women not understanding the consequences of their actions. A major concern, I'm sure you agree. The first chapter 
of our parashah, chapter 30 in the Book of Numbers, talks about fathers and husbands annulling the vows of women in their households. And as I read this section - especially in the light of horrific news from around the world about women's rights - I kept asking myself what it is about women that seems so threatening? Why is the subjugation and silencing of women such a recurrent theme in human history? I find it mystifying. 

This year alone, we've heard news about hundreds of women kidnapped by terrorists in Nigeria, sexual abuse plaguing women in India, and even ludicrous issues like women in Iran forbidden to watch soccer in public spacesNot to mention all the mind-boggling struggles in the US, 
regarding birth control, abortion, and just this past week, a FEMALE congresswoman, Renee Ellmers, urging male colleagues to bring policy issues 'down to a woman's level.' So we look at our Torah portion, and we'd like to think that it's a symptom of an ancient, patriarchal society, when really there are plenty of examples of such offensive idiocy persisting today. What I find particularly ironic about all of these cases is that the societies in question are always worse off for it. War, lack of education, food shortage, illness; they are all problems that are REDUCED when women are empowered. The Global Fund for Women's website references studies by both the World Bank and the United Nations that show that investing in women leads to an increase in education for both girls AND boys, reduces malnutrition, curbs overpopulation, and substantially increases economic growth!

And yet, all around the world, we still see women oppressed and attacked, simply because of their gender. The Torah gets a lot of things right, but this simply isn't one 
of them. The Torah takes the position that women can get emotional, hysterical even. They are ruled by feelings, and therefore cannot be trusted to make decisions over their own lives, or make choices about vows or obligations. I don't really like to criticize the Bible, but this seems like such a ridiculous argument. Why then are men, who are supposedly LESS passionate and emotional, responsible for so many wars and so much sexual violence??? 

So the elephant in the room right now might be the fact that I'm not a woman. Perhaps you weren't expecting a man to write like this. Let me offer two responses: First, as I mentioned above, empowering women helps EVERYONE in society. So it's actually a selfish argument when I say that more women should be world leaders. Men aren't doing 
a good job, for anyone! Maybe we should try letting women annul the vows of some men for a change... And second, we need to learn to take up one another's causes. We expect gay people to support marriage equality; we expect Jews to support Israel; and we expect family members of someone with a devastating illness to support that cause. But for real change to occur, more needs to happen. We need to care, even when we don't have a vested interest. We need to be sensitive to others' struggles, and see - every day - the humanity in everyone around us. We should vow to make that kind of change a reality... and then no one will be able to annul it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Trish Steel on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of internets_dairy on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Mimooh on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of the marriage equality symbol courtesy of hrc_logo.svc on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 11, 2014

Pinchas: Can Peace Come From Violence?

Generally speaking, I try not to repeat myself in my blog posts. If I've covered a certain subject within a Torah portion before, I look for other angles to pursue in subsequent years. But this week, I can't help myself. 
Two years ago, I wrote about Pinchas' (questionable) 'covenant of peace,' and given the situation in the Middle East, I feel I must venture back into these troubled waters and speak about Pinchas yet again. You see, the Torah works pretty darn hard to present balanced perspectives, filled with grey areas and subjectivity. That is, perhaps, surprising to hear, because people often think of the Torah as hard-lined and straightforward; filled with 'thou shalt not's and a plethora of stone-able offenses. But I actually disagree. I think the Torah strives - constantly - for nuance and perspective. And this week's 'covenant of peace' is a great example.

The nuance isn't always obvious; that's where the Torah so often gets misunderstood. This week, we read about Pinchas, Aaron's grandson, who is rewarded by God for his zealous act of impaling an Israelite who publicly flaunted his relations with a Midianite (non-Israelite) woman. 
And God is unequivocal (maybe) about rewarding Pinchas. On the surface, Pinchas' actions are clearly praised and held up as a communal example. And yet, several signs point to the author's (and later, the rabbis') unhappiness with Pinchas' rash, violent, and rogue behavior. In Numbers, 25:11, Pinchas' name is written in Hebrew with one letter significantly reduced in size. It is the letter 'yud,' which often also symbolizes God. The implication being that God's Presence was minimized in the actions of Pinchas. Furthermore, two verses later, the term for 'covenant of peace' is 'Brit Shalom,' and the word 'Shalom' is written with the letter 'vav' severed. It has a slit in the middle of its spine. Again, many commentators interpret this to mean it is a broken peace, a covenant born of violence and destruction. 

This leads me to our (always) turbulent situation in the Middle East. Sometimes it feels as if we've run the word 'peace' into the ground. Everyone says it. Everyone claims to want it. Everyone's highest ideal,
ultimate goal, and most cherished wish is to achieve peace in the region. And yet, is anyone really working actively towards it? Rockets from Gaza rain down on all parts of Israel, with greater force, accuracy, and capacity to do harm than ever before. At the same time, reports surface that Israel's government knew the three teenagers were dead the day after they disappeared, and yet allowed a world-wide campaign to go on anyway. Who is working for peace? It feels as if our leaders, on both sides, believe they are Pinchas, and that acts of violence will somehow eventually lead to peace. And it is breaking our spines.

I didn't actually say this outright in last week's blog post, but I think it was clear in the message: We are asking the wrong questions. We get fixated on trying to determine who is to blame. We ask ourselves which side is more righteous and noble, who has the more corrupt leaders, how justifiable are each side's claims  
to the land. Does this get us anywhere? Should we not instead be asking, who is willing to make hard, tough, painful decisions to eventually lead us to peace? Last week, we also read an incredible story about Israelis visiting the family of the slain Palestinian teenager. To me, that was the opposite of Pinchas. Both sides had to step WAY outside their comfort zones; the Israelis for showing up, the Palestinians for accepting their gesture. It was a small step, but a significant one, and those kinds of acts might possibly lead us to a long-lasting and meaningful 'covenant of peace.' If that's truly what we want, not just what we talk about wanting, we need to work HARD to see the humanity in the other. Then, maybe, our spines can begin to heal. 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Bob Peace on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Dan Pelleg on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Matanya on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Timboliu on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Balak: Enough of Tears and Bloodshed... and Cursing

If you wanted to, you could read this week's Torah portion as having a great sense of humor. It tells the story of a non-Israelite king, Balak, who intends to curse his enemies, 
the Hebrews. He enlists the help of a renowned prophet, Bilaam, who is spectacularly unsuccessful in his attempt to curse the people. First, the Torah tells of a donkey that has greater insight and vision than this supposed prophet, and then, when Bilaam attempts to speak curses three times, God instead has blessings pour out of his mouth each time. Our enemies are left looking ridiculous and incompetent, and Israel - naturally - looks indestructible and triumphant. You COULD indeed see all the wonderful humor in our parashah. And yet, in light of recent events in the Middle East, I can only read our Torah portion as incredibly tragic.

It is the story of enemies. And it portrays what a lack of communication and diplomacy looks like. Balak cannot, or will not, see that there is anything blessed about Israel. They represent only evil to him. 
And the Israelites are notably silent throughout our Torah portion as well, equally unable, or unwilling, to negotiate or sympathize with the opposition. I think, historically speaking, we are meant to read our parashah as lauding Israel's might, and demonstrating the futility of our enemies' slander and provocations. But who wins? Who benefits from this kind of hatred, or utter lack of conversation between people who inevitably MUST share this section of God's planet. We have nowhere else to go; none of us! And yet, no one is willing to budge, and no one is willing to put down weapons or building plans or UN resolutions or curses in the interest of compromise. No one. So here we are.

Lives are being ruined. It was true when the Israelites first conquered Canaan and fought with every neighbor in the region; and it remains true today, where peace is a rarer commodity than water. Three 
Israeli teenagers were brutally murdered in cold blood, and retaliations have led to at least one Palestinian teenager being equally brutally murdered; and countless others - on both sides - suffer today, tomorrow, and for years to come. There are no easy solutions, and that sometimes leaves us speechless, unable to think about anything at all, least of all peace or negotiations. But it is also true that no one is going anywhere. Israelis and Palestinians both consider this same plot of land home; so who is supposed to leave and set up camp elsewhere? We ignore this truth, and instead invest in the latest technology to hurt one another. It began with the greatest cursing-prophets money could buy, and has evolved (devolved?) into tanks, concealable explosives, and anti-aircraft missiles.

Tragedies always have two levels to them; the personal and the universal. In this case, the personal level is the devastation we feel for the families of Naftali Frankel, Eyal Yifrach and Gilad Shaar, whose lives will never be the same. Please click on this sentence to send a condolence letter to the families of Naftali, Eyal, and GiladThey are victims of 
a terrible war being fought on TWO sides, and by two peoples who often refuse to see the humanity or rights of the other. And on a universal level, we have to keep asking ourselves - and refuse to STOP asking - how this can ever end. It's not by fighting harder, or pummeling the enemy more resoundingly, or by refusing to apologize or back down. It's hard to hear in the aftermath of such terrible tragedy, but we must work WITH the Palestinians, even in a moment like this. As President Obama said in a speech to young Israelis in Jerusalem last year, 'we must try to see the world through the eyes of the other side. That does not mean accepting their narrative and abandoning our own. But it does mean abandoning the “we’re always right and they are always wrong” view of the conflict and trying to find a solution that begins with mutual compassion.' 

Otherwise, I can't see any way out of this conflict. Without understanding or admitting fault, we're all just donkeys cursing one another blindly, hoping it will somehow lead to real results. And on one level, it's almost comedic to see us going around in circles over and over. But in reality, it's just one of the saddest things imaginable.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Adamt on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of MaikMeid on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of the three Israeli teenagers who were killed - May their memories be for a blessing, and may they rest in peace.
4. CC image courtesy of דוד on Wikimedia Commons

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