Thursday, January 30, 2014

Terumah: Face to Face with an Angel

Judaism can be a pretty down-to-earth religion. Our services are mostly conducted in 'formal' sanctuaries, our prayers come from printed books, and our rituals and lifecycle events often follow a pre-scripted order. 
But it wasn't always like this. At a point in our history, the suit-and-tie, all business, formal types were duking it out with the all-you-need-is-love, pray out in nature, T-shirts in services folks, and the uptight-ers (called the Mitnagdim) won out over the laid back-ists (the Chasidim). And yet, the influence of the more mystically-minded groups couldn't be eradicated entirely. Especially in the texts of our tradition, we still find hints of superstition, magic, sorcery, and Divine beings that dwell in the Heavens above who are NOT God. Hard to believe, I know.

This week, in a Torah portion primarily focused on blue prints for a construction project (riveting, to be sure), I would like to offer a small nod to our mystical ancestors who are often not given their due. You see, right in the middle of giving Moses the instructions for building a Tabernacle (worship space) in the desert, God says: "Make two cherubim [Hebrew plural of 'cherub'] of gold... at the two ends of the [Ark] cover" (Exodus 25:18). 
And then God also says, "The cherubim shall have their wings spread out above, shielding the cover with their wings. They shall confront each other, the faces of the cherubim being turned toward the cover" (v. 20). What we've got here are angels. And a lot of commentaries I read about this focused on the etymology of the word 'cherub,' or on the purpose of having their wings face one another on top of the Ark (I'll get to that in a bit). But the part that really strikes me is the fact that God doesn't feel the need to explain to Moses what the heck a cherub is. Moses, and by extension the Israelites, seems to know it perfectly well. But what do Moses and the Israelites know of angels??

If I asked you to picture an iPhone, you'd all see it in front of you instantly. If I asked you the same question 30 years ago, most of you would think I was asking you to picture an eye... and then an old-fashioned rotary phone! Right?? It's all about context. So the fact that 
God could just say 'cherub,' and Moses was good to go, means that angels were a VERY early feature in our tradition. And these same cherubs, by the way, were also stationed at the entrance to the Garden of Eden, after Eve and Adam were rudely thrown out, in Genesis 3:24. There, the cherubim were a symbol of God's power and awe, and here too they serve the same purpose, since the Ark was not to be approached by most Israelites. Today, we imagine cherubs as cute babies with tiny wings, but the Biblical, prophetic, and rabbinic imagination pictured them much fiercer; with a lion's body, eagle's wings, and possibly FOUR different faces!

So what do we make of these scary angels; so well-known (and feared) to our ancient ancestors, but either forgotten or Disney-fied in our modern minds? One great interpretation that I found focused on the cherubim standing face-to-face - so explicitly stated in Exodus - and how it's a model for us to live by today. 
Rabbi Michael Gold wrote, "If we are to meet God anywhere, it is between two human beings who stand face to face." Making eye contact, giving another our full and undivided attention, these are challenging things to do. But right at the source of God's relationship with us, the Ark, are two imposing reminders that we MUST honor other people if we want to honor God. As our ancestor Jacob said to his brother Esau, after seeing him for the first time in 20 years: "To see your face is like seeing the Face of God" (Genesis 33:10). In today's analytical and sometimes cynical world, we often get distracted by TV, news, computers, and yes, iPhones. But our mystical ancestors, and their angelic (albeit terrifying) friends, also remind us to look up once in a while and see the Face of God in the wonderful people all around us. 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Plasmafire on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Lancastermerrin88 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Public Domain on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Robert Whitehead on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Mishpatim: A Surprising Biblical View on Abortion

I don't want to get too political, but... (which, of course, is inevitably the beginning of a blog post that DOES get political). So this is generally an area that I steer clear of, but I have to briefly dip my toe into a hotbed of political debate, because this week's Torah portion makes a pretty significant statement, and one that 
is often ignored. There are a lot of major controversial issues that are swirling around in the newspaper headlines these days, and many of them involve a (purported) clash between religion and politics, or what is often framed as the difference between Biblical and secular values. This is not the case. In fact, it is an endless source of frustration for many non-fundamentalists who consider themselves religious (e.g. ME!), that 'the Biblical perspective' has been co-opted by one side of the debate. You see, the Bible takes MANY positions, and is NOT monolithic on almost any subject. It is with that in mind that I venture (cautiously...) into the subject of abortion.

It's a pretty straight-forward issue, right? The Bible says 'it's a sin,' and secular heathens say 'go ahead!' One side of the debate says that the Bible is 'unequivocal' on the subject, pointing to verses like the opening of the Book of Jeremiah, where God says, 'Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you; and before you were born, I consecrated you.' (1:5) 
It could be argued that this verse defends a pro-life position, where the moment of conception (or before) constitutes actual life. And the other side of the debate says we have to look to more modern sources than the Bible. So you're either for the Bible or you're against it. But what if the Bible has more to say about abortion than that? What if a case was presented, say, that took the OPPOSITE position, and did not consider a fetus to be a separate and 'full' life until birth?

In this week's Torah portion, we see the following story: "When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined..." (Exodus 21:22) When we read this verse, in the context of abortion, we could get distracted into talking about intentional vs. unintentional harm, the value of life vs. monetary compensation, and the difference between miscarriage 
and abortion. But what I DON'T want us to miss, is the fact that the offender is liable for damages and not murder. Whatever you think of the legal system of Ancient Israel, or the fact that the continuation of the verse talks about the woman's husband being compensated, it is really important to acknowledge that the Torah does NOT see that fetus as a separate human being (yet), for whom the man is guilty of murder. That's a really BIG deal, no? To be clear, I'm not suggesting the Torah is advocating or recommending abortions; I simply want us to recognize that Biblical law does not give an unborn fetus the same rights as an infant (or adult) who HAS been born. In other words, the Bible is not unquestionably, unequivocally, unmistakably pro-life. Life does not begin at conception, and (depending on how far along this Biblical woman was in her pregnancy) it may not even begin at 20 weeks or later. 

Look, this is clearly a very complex and nuanced issue. But it bothers me greatly when the Bible is touted as supporting one world-view and one set of beliefs, when the Torah quite regularly does NOT offer easy answers or rock-solid ideologies. The Bible is notorious for saying things 
like 'Don't murder,' and yet in a nearby passage instructs you to kill someone gathering sticks on the Sabbath, or stoning a rebellious child to death. And you're telling me the Bible offers crystal-clear positions?!? Like everything in life, there's more grey area here than black-and-white. Let us just stop for a moment and acknowledge that this is a clash of personal beliefs and opinions, but that BOTH sides can find support in the texts of our Tradition. We need to stop and listen to what the other side is saying, rather than denouncing them as 'heretics' or 'Bible thumpers.' Contrary to popular belief, the Torah takes a MUCH more nuanced approach, and so should we.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of John Collier on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Eternalsleeper on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Steve Evans on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Yitro: Still Snubbed After All These Years

If I asked you to name the most famous, significant, world-changing person in the Torah (and you can't say 'God,' because I DID ask for a person, remember? Sheesh...), I imagine many of you would say 'Moses.' Maybe not all of you, but Moses would at least make it onto most 
people's Top Five list. What do you think it was like being related to him? Moses is so high up on our pedestal (or mountain) of adoration, it's hard for us to tell, from all the way down here, what he was like as a person, or as a brother, husband, or even as a father. But I think it's crucial that we DO look at him as more than just a great leader or prophet. When we let Moses off the hook too much, we let ourselves off the hook as well. We need to focus on role models who were REAL people, so that we can be authentic and present and caring as well. And when we look at Moses' life as a real person, we learn some fascinating (albeit sometimes troubling) things that are absolutely essential for us to see.

And now that we're ready to focus on Moses, I actually don't want to talk about him at all. You see, this week's Torah portion contains the Ten Commandments, which is a pretty important moment for the Israelites, and for Moses as a leader and God-communicator. 
But at the start of our parashah is another significant, but short, story, which almost always gets forgotten; much like the characters in it. Moses has two sons. Did you know that? Some people MIGHT be familiar with Aaron's four sons, but they have rarely heard of Moses' two boys, Gershom and Eliezer. Perhaps that's because we know almost nothing about them. One was (briefly) introduced to us several weeks ago, but the other, Eliezer, was never even named until this week's Torah portion. And we only hear about them because Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, brings his daughter, Tziporah, and grandsons to see Moses in the desert. Suddenly, we realize that Moses' family missed out on EVERYTHING. They didn't see the plagues in Egypt, they didn't see the start of the Exodus, and perhaps most unfortunate of all, they missed the splitting of the Sea of Reeds.

A colleague and friend of mine, Rabbi Joshua Wohl, wrote a wonderful D'var Torah about how Moses was perhaps shielding his children from the misery of the Exodus. Moses didn't know that this story would end well, and if (God forbid) things turned ugly, at least his family would be 
safe back in Midian. But, says Rabbi Wohl, in the process of protecting his sons, Moses also robbed them of the experience of seeing God's grandeur and glory. If you think about it, the basis of all that it means to be Jewish comes from having been redeemed from slavery by God, with all the miraculousness and might that that entails... and Gershom and Eliezer missed it. Furthermore, we never hear about them again. It's not as if this week's parashah introduces them, and they then become major players in Jewish history. There is only ONE other mention of them in the entire Bible; in a small, inconsequential side note in the First Book of Chronicles, where we're simply told that they became 'regular' Levites, and not High Priests like Aaron's sons.

Perhaps Moses was too busy leading a nation to raise two boys. Perhaps Gershom and Eliezer felt too alienated from what could have been their people, because they had no shared experiences with Israel. All we know, is that we know nothing about them. 
It is an important reminder to us all to be present to our children (I know, I've been on a weird parenting kick in my blog posts these past few weeks, can't imagine why...), and to be mindful of the balance between sheltering our kids and allowing them to see the world for what it is. We shouldn't forget the story of these lesser-known Biblical figures. They too have important lessons to teach us. And like the rest of us, Moses and Tziporah didn't have all the parenting answers. But when we see our leaders for who they are, and acknowledge that they too make mistakes and just try to do their best, it can - and should - be encouraging. When we can be in honest relationship with Moses, even when his own sons could not, then he is truly Moshe Rabeinu; Moses, our teacher.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of ArtBrom on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of public domain on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Dr. Lidia Kozenitzky on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Greg Williams on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, January 9, 2014

B'Shallach: Why Our Birthday Party is Like the Exodus From Egypt

Last weekend, we got snowed out, and the synagogue had to cancel all Shabbat services and a good bit of our other weekend programming as well. This, of course, included the Kiddush luncheon we were going to hold in honor of my daughter, Caroline's first birthday. But, we remain 
undeterred! The luncheon has 
been moved to THIS Saturday morning instead (you're welcome to attend!), and Caroline, who didn't really know it was her birthday to begin with, will likely not even notice the scheduling shift. Plans change, you know? You can't be too firm about your original intentions, because there are ALWAYS forces beyond your control, hard at work making life a little more 'interesting.' Especially when your daughter is born in January, you probably have to start getting used to weather-intrusions... So the real question is (queue unexpected connection back to the Torah); is something similar going on in this week's parashah?

At the very beginning of our reading, we are told that God is NOT planning on leading the Israelites straight from Egypt to Canaan (a.k.a. The Promised Land). A direct, and somewhat brisk, hike across the desert would only have taken them a few days, regardless of how many Israelites we're talking about. And it CERTAINLY wouldn't have taken them 40 years! But from the get-go, the Torah tells us: "Now when 
Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although it was nearer; for God said, 'The people may have a change of heart when they see war, and return to Egypt.' So God led the people roundabout, by way of the wilderness at the Sea of Reeds" (Exodus, 13:17-18). So they were never going straight to Canaan. But the initial plan was almost certainly NOT to keep them in the wilderness for four decades; God had to be flexible and change the plan along the way. The people weren't ready to enter the land, not right away, and not even years later. It took a LONG time for them to get where God wanted them to go... physically AND emotionally.

Now, obviously the story of the Biblical Exodus from Egypt is a lot more complicated than planning a one-year old's birthday party. And it's quite different from almost any challenge you or I could face today. However, there are still some very important lessons we can learn from the story of the Exodus, and which really God and Moses should have learned at the time... but never really did. 
You see, a close reading of the text leaves you wondering whether the Israelites got more than they bargained for with God, and never really wanted to go on this long excursion in the first place! The Israelites certainly hated being slaves, and they DID want God to release them from bondage. I'm just not sure they wanted to LEAVE Egypt, or if they were really only looking for better wages and work hours. All throughout the wandering in the desert, the Israelites complain and try to turn around. After having witnessed massive plagues and clear demonstrations of God's omnipotence, the Israelites STILL don't trust in God when they're standing at the banks of the Sea of Reeds. Is it because they don't believe God CAN save them? No, I think they just don't really WANT God to take them out of Egypt. They want to go home.

Of course, this is really hard for us to imagine. Why would anyone want to return to slavery??? But again, it's not the slavery they miss, it's simply the familiarity. The 'comfort' of knowing your place in society; even when it's at the bottom of the totem pole. This new life is hard! They are given new commandments to live by, they have to work together to form an army, and then they're asked to conquer land. 
This freedom-business is rough! I think there are terrific lessons in here for all of us to learn. From God's point-of-view, if we're organizing a group, we need to make sure all members of the group are on board, ready to participate, and can be team players. Otherwise, 40 years of misery awaits... And from the perspective of the Israelites, it's an important reminder that most things worth fighting for take effort, dedication, and resilience. It's easier to be a follower, to remain passive, and not to stick your neck out to help anyone else or care about anything. But history is made when we get involved, allow ourselves to feel, and stand up for what we believe in. And regardless of where you are in the hierarchy, always remain flexible, and prepare for the unexpected. You never know when the next Polar Vortex is right around the corner...

 Photos in this blog post:

1. CC image courtesy of Tudokin on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Ori229 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Mattes on Wikimedia Commons

4. CC image courtesy of Leoboudv on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Bo: Reflections From A Dad

My daughter, Caroline, turns one year old this week. Just typing that sentence kind of freaks me out. Hey, I'm just being honest with you. One year into this whole parenting thing, I still can't believe it sometimes. My wife and I just look at each other, and then we look at this babbling, squirming, crawling, smiling, beautiful little kid, and we simply can't 
believe that she exists. Ok, ok, I'm not going to bore you all with gushy stories and anecdotes, or waste your time talking about how she's the most incredible child ever, and no little girl is as amazing as her (though if you WANT to hear about why she is, indeed, the most incredible child ever, and there truly is NO other girl as amazing as her, please do let me know... :-)). But with her first birthday almost upon me, and looking at this week's Torah portion as a parent - for the very first time - I cannot help but reflect on some aspects of our text that I never saw before, or probably could have seen, if it weren't for my new (and incredibly important) title of 'daddy.'

One thing that has really struck me about parenthood, and which Rebecca and I talk about from time to time, is how you can't hear stories about OTHER kids the same way ever again. Hearing news stories about children being abused, or sick, or dying hurts now in a way that it never did before. A new instinct - and with it, a vulnerability - has started growing in me that I never could have 
anticipated before. When our Torah portion tells us of the final three plagues that struck the Egyptians, I don't think I ever before appreciated the utter devastation caused by the last, and most painful plague; the death of the first-born. Oh sure, I knew it was bad. But now, when I read in chapter 11, verse 6 of the Book of Exodus, right after God tells Moses of the impending tenth plague, that 'there shall be a loud cry in all the land of Egypt, such as has never been or will ever be again,' I feel it in a new way. That cry sounds louder than ever before. The idea of all parents, throughout Egypt, human and animal, suddenly losing something as precious as a child, and the first-born no less - the one that first opened your eyes to the absolute miracle of Creation, and enabled you to truly see that we are all God's partners in this world - is now unfathomable to me. Something has changed in me, and I simply can't read these stories the same way ever again.

And in a very different (yet somehow also similar) way, I also hear God's threefold instruction to pass the remembrance of this day on to our children with changed ears. First of all, it stings when the Torah says, 'you shall explain to your son on that day, 'It is because of what Adonai 
did for me when I went free from Egypt'' (Ex. 13:8). I've always thought of myself as a pretty egalitarian guy, but it somehow hurts more now to hear the Torah speak to MEN only, and speak of teaching Judaism to just their SONS. My passion for equality feels fierier now, for some inexplicable reason (see photo to the left). And second of all, despite the gender-bias, I feel that God is speaking directly to me now, in a way I didn't before. The concept of 'from generation to generation' means something totally new, now that the next generation is crawling around my feet, and holding out her arms for me to pick her up. A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post (which you can find here) about what our children are REALLY asking us at the Passover Seder, and I now find myself re-reading that message with greater intention and sense of obligation.

In short, parenthood changes you. Sure, there's sleep-deprivation, stains on your clothes, toys littering your floor, and a lot less money in your bank account, but the change is deeper still. 
The world looks different, newspaper headlines hit harder, and the same text you've read a hundred times before now offers a new message. It's an interesting reminder - and not just to me, or to other parents out there, but to EVERYONE - that we are all constantly changing. When it looks like it is the world that has evolved, or our childhood neighborhoods that have transformed, or the people around us who are different; we sometimes forget that, in fact, WE have changed as well. That is why our ancient rabbis remind us to re-read the texts of our tradition over and over. They will seem different to us as we evolve, and they will have new lessons to teach us with the passage of time. And lemme tell you; if I didn't realize how true this was before, I sure see it now!

Photos in this blog post all depict one Ms. Caroline Dena Gerber. She gave me permission to post the pictures here. I promise.