Friday, April 25, 2014

Kedoshim: What a Relationship with God Can (and Cannot) Do

This Saturday morning, at Ohev Shalom, is our USY Teen Shabbat. I really love when our teenagers take an active role in services; especially when they run the whole thing, and the Cantor and I get to sit back and 
relax! But the reason I ACTUALLY enjoy it so much is because they bring a very fresh, different, and energetic perspective, and the teens often challenge me to look at what we're doing in a new way. This Shabbat, for example, our services are going to have a unique theme: the Academy Awards. I've been impressed with what our USY board has come up with, to not just make it a kitschy theme, but actually a morning of substance, exploration of our prayers, and personal introspection. I was especially fascinated to hear what our USY president, Talia Kaplan, was planning to say in her D'var Torah (I got a sneak-peak. What can I say? It's a perk that comes with the job...). And I'd like to briefly touch on something she said (or is going to say), which inspired me in writing this week's blog post.

I'm hoping you'll be able to join us on Saturday, so I don't want to give away too much. But basically, Talia ties together the Academy Awards theme, the experience of being a teenager, this week's Torah portion, Kedoshim, AND she even gets to Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is coming up on Sunday night. Truly 
impressive! Again, not wanting to reveal too much of Talia's topic, I'll just mention that she cleverly spins the name of our parashah, 'Kedoshim,' which we translate as 'holy,' and explains how it can also refer to those who die for Judaism, i.e. the six million victims of the Holocaust. On the surface, the Torah portion focuses on holy behaviors that we engage in to emulate God; treating others fairly, paying workers a decent wage, and rendering just legal decisions. But in the shadow of Yom Ha-Shoah, we cannot help but remember those millions of Jews who were VERY faithful to Judaism, and DID observe God's laws, and yet they died in a most brutal way. In fact, they died BECAUSE of their loyalty to God. How do we reconcile this challenging tension?

There is no easy answer. We cannot explain away the Holocaust with a simple reading of Scripture. Our parashah does indeed lay the groundwork and basis for a life of holiness, but all the while with the knowledge that it cannot protect you from the chaos of the world, and from other people's bad choices and destructive behaviors. It cannot 
avert disasters like the shooting in Kansas City, or the looming fears of escalating anti-Semitism in the Ukraine. But living a life without structure, without morality, and without holiness doesn't help us avoid tragedy either. In fact, when tragedy strikes, we are instead left with no support system or way to process what has happened, and that, in turn, leads to more chaos and fear. So the holiness code of our Torah portion does give us SOMETHING to hold onto, and something to connect to.

And though the theme of this week's reading seems obvious, based on the name, Kedoshim, 'holiness,' I would actually argue that a more significant theme is 'Relationship.' More specifically, a relationship with God. The Torah portion is short, only two chapters long, but it still 
manages to list a ton of laws and ethical behaviors. And after almost each one, we see one of two phrases. Either we see 'Ani Adonai' (I am Adonai), or 'Ani Adonai Eloheichem' (I am Adonai, your God). Each phrase appears ten times in just two chapters, so TWENTY instances in total. Over and over, the reason given for why we should be holy in our behaviors is because Adonai is our God. It may not seem like much of a reason, but I think it's about relationship. When we act holy, when we make our lives holy and sanctified through our actions, God will be with us. It isn't a promise that no harm will come - and with Yom Ha-Shoah around the corner, we know and remember this all too well - but it IS a powerful reminder that through it all, the good and the bad, God will be there. And knowing that can be an incredibly inspiring force in each and every one of our lives.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Travis on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of U.S. Navy on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image courtesy of Google
4. CC image courtesy of Mike DelGaudio on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 18, 2014

Chol Ha-Moed Pesach: Some Unrestricted Thoughts from Inside the 'Freedom' of Passover

It feels somewhat ironic, I think. Almost humorous. We celebrate Passover, the Festival of Freedom, by being as restrictive with our food 
and our homes as we possibly can be. How does it feel 'free' to cover our counters, replace all our dishes, and eat cardboard sheets instead of bread for EIGHT days? The prayer service throughout the week of Passover highlights that this is 'Chag Ha-Matzot,' the 'festival of Matzah,' and it always comes with the epithet, 'Z'man Cheiruteinu,' the 'season of our freedom.' And yet, I don't feel very free. I feel decidedly NOT free, and I think my stomach would agree with me...

So is this just a joke? Is it tongue-in-cheek? Especially if you take the idea one step further. During our Seder table dinners, we spoke about being redeemed from slavery, in Hebrew 
'avdut.' And this 'avdut' was backbreaking and exhausting and forcefully imposed upon us by the Egyptians. And then? God brought us out with 'a mighty hand and an outstretched arm,' and took us into... more servitude. We didn't really go from slavery to total freedom, to a hedonistic, self-centered, care-free lifestyle, did we? We were brought into the desert, to Mount Sinai, to receive the Ten Commandments and the Torah, which dictated a whole new system of laws and obligations that we were to undertake. Even today, we have repurposed the word 'avdut' to mean 'prayer.' Our synagogue slogan is 'Torah, AVODAH, G'milut Chasadim,' meaning 'Learning, prayer, and deeds of lovingkindness.' But it's the same word. Service to the Egyptians - harsh, imposed, and evil as it may have been - is now service under another ruler.

But there IS a substantial difference. Obviously. Judaism gives us a heritage, a culture, a sense of belonging, a family, and of course foods, songs, jokes, and so much more. We call it 'Avodat ha-Lev'; still service, yes, but 'service of the heart.' And so looking back at the celebration of Passover, and the sense we might have right now, in the midst of it, that we're more restricted than ever on this, our festival of freedom. 
We actually realize TWO things: 1) This ain't so bad. We complain about it, but really we feel a sense of connection and community with Jews everywhere who open up lunch boxes at work to find matzah pizza and gefilte fish instead of PB&J's. We like the complaining, and it forms kinship. Even the cleaning can be therapeutic, and once a year the house looks sparkly and shiny again (and yes, I DID do a lot of the cleaning in my house!!). And 2) (And this is REALLY the point I wanted to make) Eight days away from our normal lives, our regular routines, and our old habits, actually is just enough time to really miss them, and to appreciate them again when they return. The freedom of Passover, in many ways, is actually achieved just as the holiday ends, and our 'normal' foods taste so exotic and wonderful again, even if just for that first, glorious bite. THAT is the taste of freedom!

Fasting works the same way on Yom Kippur. We complain about it, we get annoyed, we sit and compare foods we miss. And yet, it both creates kinship, and then it makes you appreciate your food and drink that much more when you have it back again. Sometimes 
depriving ourselves temporarily can make us more appreciative all year long. How would or could you appreciate freedom if you never knew any different? No one savors Democracy or the right to vote so much as the person who never had it before, and then finally gets to cast their very first free vote ever. When we take something away from ourselves - which we have the freedom and luxury of being able to do - and then we give it back, it teaches us appreciation and gratitude that's otherwise hard to come by. It may not feel like it right in the moment (like now, with four more days of Passover to go...), but I truly believe this is freedom. We remove it briefly, and then reintroduce it again. And then, for just a moment, it tastes SO sweet.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Kosherstock on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of EncycloPetey on Wikimedia Commons (No, that's not my arm, but thank you! I'm flattered.)
3. CC image courtesy of Bdcousineau on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of DVIDSHUB on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Acharei Mot: Important Accidental Lessons

I apologize for not writing a blog post last week. I had every intention of writing one, but I think you'll see in a minute why it just didn't happen. Nevertheless, I'm sorry. Thanks for your understanding; enjoy this week's post, which is partially what I was going to write a week ago anyway!

Last week, I was in a car accident. That's probably not the best lead-in to sharing that information, but I don't really like to beat around the bush. Long story short: On Monday, I was exhausted after driving home from a wedding in New York, 
and dozed off driving to the synagogue for a meeting. I hit a rock and a pole, but thankfully no one else was in the car, and no one else was injured. The car's a bit beat-up, though hopefully fixable, and even though my steering wheel airbag deployed, I'm doing pretty well. Minor headaches, but they've mostly passed by now. In the wake of a pretty scary accident, I find myself taking stock and really experiencing a lot of gratitude for life's gifts that we often otherwise take for granted.

First of all, I'm VERY grateful it wasn't any worse. It happened on a small, neighborhood street, I wasn't going very fast, I didn't veer into traffic, I didn't do any damage, I didn't hit anyone (thank God!), and no one else was in the car. Even the weather was nice that day! Second, I'm very grateful for kind people who are willing to help out. Andy Albert, 
whom some of you know, was driving by at that very moment, and not only stopped to help, but stayed with me for over an hour. And Marcy and Irv Beerson, who happened to live just next to where my accident occurred, were also incredibly helpful, both at the time of the accident and later with the towing of my poor, little car. And Bonnie Breit very graciously drove me to the ER that evening, and has been a tremendous support throughout. I feel very blessed to be a part of this wonderful community, and to everyone who has reached out since the accident; I thank you all for your concern and encouragement. (And I also appreciate your sharing your own accident stories; it makes me feel less embarrassed...)

When I was going to write about the accident last week, I thought of something I wanted to connect it to in the Torah portion. The wedding we were returning from in New York was my sister-in-law's, and her new husband (whose name, incredibly, is ALSO Jeremy!) gave a little teaching right before the ceremony 
at the Groom's TischThe parashah last Shabbat was a weird one, about skin diseases and mold on the walls of people's homes, and all these maladies had to be examined and inspected by the ancient High Priest. But my new brother-in-law offered a terrific little insight on the role of the High Priest, saying: '[sometimes] other people are better able to perceive afflictions and imperfections than the person himself.' Last Monday, I ignored an awful lot of signs that I was too tired to drive, including other people trying to warn me. We're often overly self-reliant, and we're 100% positive that we know ourselves best. But sometimes other people have insightful things to say, and good observations that we're perhaps too subjective to see on our own. 

And this week's reading begins by reminding us of the death of Aaron's two sons, which we read about a few weeks ago. God gives Moses a series of instructions to convey to Aaron, specifically in the wake of this 
tragedy, perhaps to structure his time. It gives him other things to focus on, rather than the chaos of pain, loss, and grief. Now, I'm certainly not comparing my (relatively) minor car accident with Aaron's indescribable loss. I simply mean to point out the importance of leaning on other people. Not only are we overly self-reliant, but we also try to 'go it alone,' and recover quietly without anyone else's help. Perhaps it's just me, but I imagine this rings true for at least some of you as well. It's not easy to be vulnerable, to admit limitations, or to have flaws and mistakes be witnessed so publicly. But it's also a good lesson in humility. 

Sometimes things just happen that allow us to take a moment and feel grateful. I would have preferred to receive my lesson a bit less dramatically of course, but looking back, I appreciate the lesson nonetheless. Today, I feel very grateful and blessed, and yes, even lucky. And I thank God for giving me the opportunity and the ability to learn those precious lessons.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Arpingstone on Wikimedia Commons (Yes, this did happen in my car. No, this is not a picture FROM my car.)
2. CC image courtesy of Tom Harpel on Wikimedia Commons (Nope, still not my car.)
3. CC image courtesy of Google Cultural Institute on Wikimedia Commons (Not from the wedding I performed in New York, sorry.)
4. CC image courtesy of Frederick Walker on Wikimedia Commons