Friday, August 29, 2014

Shoftim: Returning to the Torah's Wisdom on Human Nature

This past week, we began the Jewish month of Elul, which precedes the holiday of Rosh Hashanah. It is, therefore, a month of preparation and introspection to get us in the mindset and mode of the upcoming New Year. Every year, for the month 
of Elul, I receive a daily e-mail from a great teacher and musician in California, Craig Taubman, who invites inspiring people to write reflections on a particular Elul-related theme. If you'd like to receive these wonderful 'Jewels of Elul,' please click here, or write back and let me know. It's easy to sign up. (They even have an app!) This year's fantastic theme is 'The Art of Return,' and I want to share with you what that means to me.

In his introduction to the theme, Craig Taubman wrote, "As we prepare to move forward into the new year, the month of Elul is an opportunity to look back to the collective wisdom of our experiences as a guide for 
the future." Indeed, there is so much collective wisdom in the past, and we often forget to use that as a 'guide' for our own future. Perhaps we think that turning back means admitting fault; we should have done things better. But really, returning can simply mean learning from what was, to better understand what will be. Over the next few weeks, I want to look at our Torah portions from a different angle. Instead of focusing on the specifics of what's going on in the text, let's take a step back and learn from the tenor of what the Torah is trying to teach us. Let us return; and let us learn.

Our parashah, Shoftim, includes a lot of instruction on a variety of topics. But there's something interesting that unites all these different commandments. The Torah instructs the Israelites to appoint fair judges and officials; and then lists rules for their behavior. The text also insists 
that when a verdict is issued, it must be carried out 'scrupulously... you must not deviate from the verdict that they announce to you either to the right or to the left' (Deut. 17:10,11). Shoftim then includes an interesting section about what happens when the Israelites will insist on appointing a king over themselves. It is not something mandated by God... but the text seems to know the people will eventually want this. And when I look at these various instructions, I see that the Torah understands - in a very fundamental and deep way - the essence of human nature: Appoint fair judges... but know that you still need to govern their behavior. Trust people to carry out the law... but clarify what the letter of the law MUST be. And crown a king... but make sure they don't set themselves above the law. The Torah knows us, sometimes better than we know ourselves.

This is our task for the month of Elul: 1) Humbly realize that we don't know ourselves as well as we'd like to think we do. And therefore accept input from others, even when it's hard to do so, and maybe uncomfortable or awkward. 2) Take a step back and see the larger picture; what is the uniting theme between various situations, what 
brings them together, and what can we learn from it all? 3) Allow ourselves to return. But what does 'return' mean to YOU? Does it mean return to the Torah, to seek out its wisdom for life today? Or return to your own story, and learn from experiences past? Or perhaps return to your roots, to your tradition and family heritage, to better understand where you came from and the wisdom of your ancestors? However you choose to interpret this for yourself, I encourage you take on this challenge. In the month ahead, push yourself to explore what 'The Art of Return' might mean for you; and it will bring you into the New Year in a much more meaningful way. 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image 'Large Topaz Gemstones' courtesy of Michelle Jo on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Chris Kuehl on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Paul Mercuri on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Felix the Cassowary on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 22, 2014

R'eih: Being a Blessing in the Real World

This blog is called 'Take on Torah,' because it's my 'take' - my perspective, opinion, and thoughts - on the Torah. The title is also meant as an encouragement to you, dear reader, to engage with the Torah, to be in relationship with it. And it also happens to be a subtle reference 
to the Scandinavian 80's band, A-ha, and their hit song, 'Take on Me'... But I bring all this up because I want to highlight one of my opinions/thoughts on the Torah that you might not hear everywhere: The Torah doesn't focus on ideals; it emphasizes real life. Later prophets talk about utopian societies and world peace. The Torah doesn't really do that. The authors of the Torah ask us to look at who we are, what human behavior is like, what our weaknesses, flaws, and challenges are, and push ourselves to overcome them. I mention that today, because I think the Torah understands gun violence, racial tension, and clashes between police and citizens. This week's parashah appreciates, all too well, what we're up against.

Because again, the Torah understands YOU, and it understands me. One of the things I love about our text is that it ain't fooled by how we'd LIKE to present ourselves. We all present a good face, we talk ourselves up, and we put our best foot forward. But, says the Torah (and, let's face it, God): "I see you; I see who you really are, hiding behind that power tie, firm handshake, and winning smile." 
Our parashah states: "See, I set before you this day blessing and curse: Blessing, if you hear the commandments of the Lord your God that I enjoin upon you this day; and Curse, if you do not hear..." (Deuteronomy, 11:26). God says to us, 'It's a choice.' I can't MAKE you observe the mitzvot, be religious, or even be a good person. I can't make you do any of these things! You have to choose your path, but know that one of them holds blessings and one holds curses. Now, you and I (insisting on keeping up the charade of living in ideals) might respond that this is no real choice. Of course we'll all choose blessing, if those are our only options!! But that's not what actually happens. Life simply doesn't work this way. People choose the curses all the time. It is indeed a choice. And many people use their free will and personal autonomy to bring curses on themselves and on those around them.

This week, at Ohev Shalom, we erected a monument to bring awareness of gun violence. It's called a Memorial to the Lost, and it consists of 144 mounted T-shirts, each with the name and age of someone killed by gun violence in Delaware County in the last five years. The organization 
Heeding God's Call, a partner of ours, created this incredibly powerful memorial. At the dedication ceremony, I recited a prayer which I adapted from another beautiful invocation by Rabbi Menachem Creditor. It included the lines, 'We have so much accursed power,' and 'You have given us the tools of progress, and we wield them to hurt.' The full text of the prayer can be found here. This is what the Torah is talking about. God has given us free will, incredible brains, creativity, and a thirst for progress - and God is IMPLORING us to use these priceless gifts to bring more blessing into the world. But God can't make us do that. We still get to decide, and some people choose to kill other people with illegally purchased hand guns, and some police officers choose to murder unarmed teenagers. 

The Torah urges us to be honest with ourselves. Take on these issues, openly and vulnerably. It's nice to imagine how the world SHOULD be, and how people SHOULD treat one another, but it's also important to engage with our eyes wide open to how we ourselves, and others around 
us, act. That is the beauty of our Torah and our Tradition; it confronts all our insecurities and struggles, and - quite honestly - it loves us anyway. God knows all this about us, and still wants to be in relationship. That is an incredible thing to realize, and something we should never, ever forget. One more thing we mustn't forget: Each one of us DOES have tremendous power. We make choices about how to treat one another, and we make choices about acting responsibly or irresponsibly. Choose to be a blessing, wield your power for good. Lo tishkach - (please) don't forget.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of A-ha in concert courtesy of Romazan on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of U.S. Department of State on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of Heeding God's Call's Memorial to the Lost courtesy of Ohev Shalom
4. Image of Heeding God's Call's Memorial to the Lost courtesy of Ohev Shalom

Invocation at Dedication of Heeding God’s Call’s Memorial to the Lost - August 17, 2014

Eloheinu, Veilohei Avoteinu - Our God, and God of our ancestors,

We thank You for the opportunity to come together this day, from different backgrounds, different religions, different communities; and to stand here together as one.

We pray to You, O God, for the understanding and intelligence to learn well the lesson that the unity, closeness, and resolve that we all feel today must be lived each and every day of our lives. Help us recognize that all people are members of one human family, and that the goal is to lead good lives while dwelling together in peace.

As we dedicate this Memorial to the Lost, we too feel so lost. Our souls are burning with anguish. Until When, Adonai?! Until when, Dear God?!? How long must we live in fear?

You have given us the tools of progress, and we wield them to hurt.
Our plowshares have jagged edges, and children are dying.

We have sinned. As a community, as a nation, as complacent bystanders, we have ALL sinned. And we continue to sin. We have not done what we can. We could have saved precious lives by changing our ways, and we have not.

We ask You, O Lord, for the strength to face what numbs us, the strength to hear the screams, the resolve to not let our vulnerability make us feel powerless. We are not.

For we, Adonai, we are your images, and we are being erased.
We are erasing ourselves, and in so doing we are erasing You, O God.

Dear Lord, this hurts so much. Teach us; guide us; make us save each other.

Dear vulnerable images of God, here and everywhere,
We pray that you, in God's Name, and in the name of those souls we have lost, remember that comforting each other might come first, and dedicating monuments IS important, but the need will come again if nothing changes. We can master this evil.

May this world know no more hatred and violence. May people live in peace.

And let us now, together as one, all say: Amen.

(Adapted from 'A Prayer in Response to Gun Violence' by Rabbi Menachem Creditor)

Friday, August 15, 2014

Tendinitis Trouble...

Chaverim - Dear friends,
I will not be writing a blog post this week, for which I apologize. It seems I have developed a case of tendinitis in my right wrist, and it's pretty painful to keep typing for an extended period of time. I'm taking some medication, and I'm wearing a brace (pictured below, for proof!), so I should be up and running again soon.

But for now, no blog post, I'm afraid. As a small consolation, I'm sharing a link to my post on this week's Torah portion from TWO years ago, focused on environmentalism and climate change:

Apparently, we had a really hot July that year, so this is also a nice chance to reflect on how lucky we are this year (in Pennsylvania, at least) to have had a mild and lovely summer. BUT climate change is still a problem! Anyway, I hope to see you all again next week, with a healed wrist. Until then, Shabbat Shalom and have a wonderful weekend.

Warm regards,

Rabbi Gerber

Friday, August 8, 2014

Va'etchanan: Feeling (a small twinge of) Moses' Pain

On August 20th, in less than two weeks, I was going to be leading a group of 28 people on a trip to Israel. I am very sad and disappointed to share with you that our trip has been postponed. Not canceled, mind 
you, but put off for a few months, possibly even a year. We held out as long as we could, monitoring the situation in Israel carefully (as I know many of you are as well), and weighing all our options. In the end, however, we decided - as a group - that now is not the time for mainly first-timers and families with young children to travel to Israel. Making this decision was very painful, personally. And yet, the rabbi in me cannot help but see so many learning opportunities in this experience.

First of all, the whole ordeal has given all 28 of our travelers a small glimpse into what life in Israel is really like. Each rocket fired across the border worried us a little more than usual; each attempted cease fire and truce was first heartening... and then disappointing when it was broken 
once again. We always sympathize with what's going on in Israel, but now it felt so much more personal and intimate. That alone was worth everything we've been through. But it has also been an oddly team-building experience! Earlier this week, we all sat around a living room and discussed our feelings and disappointments about canceling our trip. It was a very emotional and sad evening, but also inspiring and bonding, and I have no doubt that when we DO go next year, it will be all the more powerful and meaningful. We will have overcome adversity, and stubbornly insisted on making this trip happen! When we get to Passover, in the Spring, we will each surely say 'Next year in Jerusalem' at the end of our Seders with A LOT more fervor and passion!

We are not alone in this experience. A simple Google search shows how many people have had to cancel their Israel trips in recent weeks, and have then written about it on one Jewish website or another. 
A particularly touching article was written by Rabbi Joshua Hammerman on the Times of Israel blog, about his synagogue's cancelled trip. His account really hit home for me, because it was an incredibly similar experience to what we've just been through. Rabbi Hammerman's travelers felt a similarly bonded result of their shared struggles, as the rabbi declared that this was 'the best group I never traveled with.' In my case, however, it's not the best group I 'never' traveled with; it's the best group I almost-went-with-but-then-had-to-wait-an-extra-year-to-travel-with-but-we-got-there-eventually... it just doesn't sound as catchy.

As always, the Torah somehow miraculously speaks to the emotion we're feeling right now. Our Torah portion is Va'etchanan, which includes the Ten Commandments. But before that, we also hear Moses once again beg God to grant him entry into the land. Moses' request is denied. In fact, God even gets angry at him and declares, "Enough! Never speak to me of this matter again!!" 
(Deuteronomy, 3:26) We hear the pain in Moses' plea, and today, we also feel his frustration and disappointment at never getting to set foot in the land he so desperately pined to enter. We can, however, take comfort in knowing that ours is a temporary setback. We are neither Moses - forbidden from EVER entering Israel - nor are we the Jews who lived pre-1948, who sang 'Next year in Jerusalem' at their Passover Seders with tears in their eyes for two thousand years, knowing it would not happen in their lifetimes. It is true, our decision this week was painful and disheartening. But it has left us feeling more connected, to Israel AND one another, and it's made us more determined and resolute: Next year we WILL stand by the beaches of Tel Aviv and bless our arrival; we WILL travel to goat farms and chocolate factories and see the best of what Israel has to offer; and yes, we WILL stand by (the egalitarian part of) the Western Wall and know that we did, indeed, fulfill our Passover dream. We made it to Jerusalem.

Kein Y'hi Ratzon - May it be God's will.

Photos in this blog post come from Ohev Shalom's Israel trip in 2011:
1. A group photo of everyone who came on the trip.
2. The breathtaking Baha'i gardens of Haifa.
3. Reading Torah atop Masada.
4. Cantor Friedrich praying the shacharit (morning) service from our hotel balcony in Tel Aviv.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Devarim: Live Fearfully Courageous

Fear is an uncomfortable emotion. It doesn't have to be, but I think it often is for a lot of people. In part, I suppose, it's because we are constantly told NOT to be afraid. 
'Live Fearless' is a popular (albeit grammatically incorrect...) slogan, and there are endless amounts of songs, movies, and books that remind us not to be afraid of, well, anything. And our Torah portion this week, Devarim, seems to echo that sentiment. In speaking to the Israelites about establishing fair courts and unbiased judges, Moses tells them: 'You shall not be partial in judgment: hear out low and high alike. Fear no person, for judgment is God's' (Deut. 1:17).  But there's a problem here.

If these are the people issuing verdicts, what does Moses mean when he says that 'judgment is God's'? And how is this verse meant to be understood? Is it supposed to comfort the judges, knowing that God 
has got their back, and they therefore need not fear any mere mortal? Or is this a warning? Rabbi Shai Held, in his commentary on this, writes: "[this] could either mean that the judges should not fear the powerful because God will protect them, or, more likely, that they ought to fear offending God more than they fear offending any human.' This, by the way, is why I wrote above that our parashah 'seems' to echo the 'live fearless(ly)' idea. In truth, Judaism does not teach that we shouldn't fear anyone or anything; rather, we should fear God.

This too can be an uncomfortable topic. A lot of translations will render 'yirah' as 'awe' rather than 'fear,' because it's easier to talk about being awed by God rather than fearing God. But why should we shy away from this? It's ok to feel fear, to worry about what the future holds, to be concerned that we could be doing more with our lives, and to not make careless, foolish mistakes that could be dangerous to ourselves and/or others. Fear also gives us 
some good, healthy common sense sometimes... The Book of Psalms teaches us: 'Fear of Adonai is the beginning of wisdom' (Ps. 111:10). Conversely, courage isn't always great. One could argue that terrorists/suicide bombers have tremendous courage, and certainly no fear, and they use both to do immeasurable damage. Courage isn't about having and living with no fear, but perhaps, as Rabbi Held puts it, 'courage... is not fearlessness, but rather a refusal to be governed by our fears.' Courage is the embracing of ALL of our emotions - living as a whole person - and using the completeness of our emotional range to make the best decisions.

I believe that fear of God can focus us. It reminds us of the consequences of our actions. It achieves BOTH sides of what Moses was trying to teach the judges: it emboldens us to know that when we respect, honor, 
and yes, fear God, God in turn protects us, by giving us the courage and strength to do what is right. And it also keeps us honest (hopefully...), knowing that there ARE repercussions for corruption, bribery, and fraud. Fear can be good. It shouldn't be irrational, crippling, or rule our lives. But the fear of Heaven, of Adonai, can motivate and bolster us. Strange as it may seem, it can be the very thing that makes us courageous, and leads to a life more wholly in touch with all our emotions.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Geof Sheppard on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Storye book on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of LibraryBot on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of MarmadukePercy on Wikimedia Commons

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