Friday, December 18, 2015

Vayigash: Feeling Plagued by Famine and Apathy

Last week at Ohev Shalom, we celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of Spencer Schwartz. I mention this, because something that Spencer said in his D'var Torah really stuck with me, and especially the force and conviction 
with which he delivered the message. He was focusing on the story of Joseph, who interprets Pharaoh's dreams to mean that a famine is coming. Joseph also suggests that Pharaoh collect food from all Egyptians before the famine strikes, and then sell it back to them in the lean years. Spencer said this was "terrible" behavior, and chastised Joseph for being "power hungry." In light of many things going on around the world, in our community, and right outside our very doors, I would like to agree with Spencer and add yet another reason why Joseph's behavior is, indeed, terrible.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post on this same Torah portion, Vayigash, focusing on how the land itself is a player in our story. We often talk about Joseph, Pharaoh, and God in this drama, but we don't see the planet, the physical ground as a character in the Torah as well. 

Still today, we disregard the vital role that the earth plays in determining our future, and we pretend not to see the signs all around us that climate change is a significant problem. Recently, statements issued by Pope Francis and then the summit in Paris demonstrate how world leaders are (finally!) realizing that change MUST happen. We all need to open our eyes - wide - to this issue, and we especially need to accept our own responsibility in it. This brings me back to Spencer's D'var Torah.

It isn't just that the earth is a player in our lives, it's how we interact with it as well. The plan that Joseph suggested to Pharaoh in Spencer's parashah gets implemented this week, and we see how the palace gradually takes possession of people's livestock, land, and then their autonomy. 
Indeed, as Spencer suggests, this is terrible. In a time of 
famine and starvation, Joseph takes advantage of the vulnerability of the people, rather than trying to help them take care of themselves. Not only that, but this attitude is actually damaging to our entire planet. In his papal letter, "Laudato Si," Pope Francis writes: "Those who possess more resources and economic or political power seem mostly to be concerned with masking the problems or concealing their symptoms." Around the world today, leaders are realizing that their inaction, apathy, and disinterest - especially regarding the environmental disasters in poorer parts of the globe - has already led to greater climate destruction. We cannot behave like Joseph, and think we won't suffer the repercussions of oppressing others. We are all interconnected, and we need to take care of our planet together.

This weekend, we will be joined at Ohev Shalom by Bill Haaf. He represents an organization called Climate Voices that seeks to bring climate scientists to communities to engage in dialogue. This will be our opportunity to bring science and religion together (what could possibly go wrong??). 
The data may be 
pretty bleak, but there are also many things that we can each do to take greater responsibility for our community and our world. But first, we must admit that we are Joseph in this drama. We CAN make a difference, and we CAN alter our behavior to influence those around us and even people across the nation and beyond. On the surface, we often think Joseph is just taking care of himself and his family, and we praise his behavior. But, in fact, we all need to realize that caring only for those in our closest circle is simply not enough. I hope you can come on Saturday to hear our Sustainability talk, and I hope you will take a good look at your own life and your behaviors, and make a change. Our ancient ancestors were lucky, and seven years of famine were followed by bounty yet again. Can we afford to gamble on the same being true for us? 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Robertsan1 onWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Olivier LPB on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image, "Famine in India: Natives waiting for relief in Bangalore," courtesy of Adam63 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Nigelj on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 11, 2015

Mikeitz/Rosh Chodesh/Shabbat Chanukah: The December Di...scussion

A few years ago, in the late fall, we invited congregants to an open discussion here at Ohev Shalom called "the December Dilemma." I suppose it seemed edgy at the time. I remember feeling good about my own willingness to discuss with congregants, family members, and anyone who felt affected, the challenges of navigating Chanukah and Christmas within our homes and among our neighbors. 
Looking back, it sounds pretty naive, and maybe even a little presumptuous. Indeed, I learned a lot that day. Many people came and spoke about how, for them, it wasn't really a dilemma at all. Each couple, and each family, navigated the holiday season in its own way, and generally people felt pretty resolved and at peace. The dilemma was more mine than anyone else's in the room! This Shabbat, we read about Joseph in the Torah, and we also continue to celebrate Chanukah; in both instances, we see our Jewish ancestors wrestling with their own assimilation dilemmas. What can we learn from examining our intercultural questions today, in the context of stories from our ancient tradition? Let's shed some light on the subject. 

Joseph, this week, is living the sweet life in Egypt. He's no longer in prison; he's the right-hand man of Pharaoh; he has a beautiful new wife; he amasses wealth and fame - life is good. In the midst of this Hollywood-style, rags-to-riches storyline, Joseph reveals an 

underlying discomfort with his situation. In naming his two sons, we see that Joseph is indeed struggling with assimilation and the memory of his Israelite roots: "Joseph named the firstborn Menashe, 'For,' he said, 'God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father's household.' He named the second Ephraim, 'For,' he said, 'God has made me fruitful in the land of my affliction'" (Gen. 41:51-52).  Look closely at what Joseph is saying here. On the one hand, he's purposely moving past his roots and the bad memories of his childhood. He's also thanking God for making him prosper in his adopted home. And yet, on the other hand, he refers to Egypt as "the land of my affliction," and he offers both prayers to "Elohim," the God of the Israelites, and not to any Egyptian deity. Joseph is indeed grappling with his own "December Dilemma."

The story of Chanukah is another similar tale. We often over-simplify the story, portraying it plainly as Jews defeating Assyrian-Greeks. It's the victory of Jewish culture, heritage, and practice over Hellenistic influence. 
In reality, the battle 
was most likely waged internally, between various Jewish factions. Some pushed for more Greek influence, others rejected it entirely. But most scholars agree that Chanukah represents a struggle over assimilation, and that most Jews at that time were trying to maintain a delicate balance of the two cultures. Each person and each community had to figure out how much Hellenism they wanted to bring in and still feel like Jews. Rarely, if ever, is the answer "all" or "nothing"; 2,200 years ago, this was a different iteration of our people's "December Dilemma." 

In my opinion, there are two major elements to consider. One is the importance of balance. Neither extreme is good; life is lived somewhere in the middle, always needing to make choices and decisions about where we fall on the spectrum between religious observance and secular living. And two, it is crucial to feel at peace with your decisions. 

Many of us feel guilty about how we live our lives. We're too American, not Jewish enough, and we make too many concessions. OR we are too insular, too focused on the needs and expectations of the Jewish community. We obsess, we agonize. The stories of Joseph and the Maccabees remind us that we've ALWAYS had this struggle. We are not the first Jews striving to find the "right" balance, and certainly not the only ones to feel like we're failing at it. It IS tough. As we finish up the celebration of our own Winter Festival, and then find ourselves immersed in the holiday songs, images, greetings, and foods of Christmas, let us be mindful of the delicate balance. If you haven't already, find your own spot along the spectrum... and then be at peace with your decisions. December can be a time for us to celebrate our individuality AND our relationships with other religions and traditions. It doesn't have to be a dilemma at all; it can be a time of festive joy, plain and simple.

Happy... Everything!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of a "Chrismukkah" tree courtesy of Kumar McMillan on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image, "Joseph Set Over Egypt" (by Adolf Hult), courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image, "Ritual at Thessaloniki Hellen Temple," courtesy of Wyhiry on Wikimedia Commons
4. An American-Israeli Flag Pin

Friday, December 4, 2015

Va-Yeishev: Which Way Are You Heading?

Where do you come from, and where are you going? In my case, I grew up in Stockholm, Sweden, as many of you know, and gradually made my way to Wallingford, just outside Philadelphia, PA. My rabbi 
growing up, Morton Narrowe, grew up in the Philly area, and became the Chief Rabbi of Sweden. I like to jokingly say that Rabbi Narrowe and I did the reverse commute and switched places. I mention this in order to invite you to contemplate your own journey through life, and also to highlight a similar situation in the Torah. I want to share with you a connection between two, seemingly disparate, stories, that I read in a wonderful Torah commentary this week, and it opened my eyes to something new and fascinating.

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, in writing about our parashah for the Jewish Theological Seminary, begins by noting something strange in Joseph's dreams. Joseph, a young shepherd living in Canaan, has two unusual dreams at the start of our Torah portion; one involves sheaves of wheat bowing down to a single sheaf, 
and the other has the sun, moon, and stars bowing down before Joseph himself. Rabbi Berkowitz quotes another author, Leon Kass, who asks, "What kind of a shepherd dreams of sheaves of wheat?" Shouldn't he be dreaming of sheep? Furthermore, why does Joseph brazenly tell his brothers the dreams, fueling their hatred of him? His behavior seems foreign, alien, to Jewish values. It is, perhaps, as though he's already exhibiting Egyptian traits. In next week's reading, Joseph will tell Pharaoh to gather up wheat from all of Egypt, and then sell it back to the people during the impending famine. Again, are these values we admire in him?

The text may already be foreshadowing Joseph's journey down to Egypt, and his transformation into Tzafenat-Paneach, the right-hand 
man of Pharaoh himself. Long before he made the move, he was already becoming an Egyptian at heart. Conversely, Rabbi Berkowitz mentions Moses, who will be introduced to us in a few weeks, when we read the Book of Exodus. Moses grows up in Pharaoh's palace, yet cleaves to the Israelites when he sees a taskmaster beating an Israelite slave. The two men, Joseph and Moses, are switching places, doing the reverse commute. And while Rabbi Berkowitz uses this image to urge us all to be more like Moses than Joseph, I would instead like to say something about journeys.

It is interesting to see where each of these leaders winds up, and how far away it is from where he began. So too in our lives, we sometimes look back at the path we've taken, and are simply surprised at just how long a trek it's been. We might also be surprised to discover how different an odyssey it was than what we imagined at the outset. 
What emotions does that conjure up? Do you feel content, frustrated, filled with regret, elation, disappointment, or joy? Or maybe a combination of all. It is important to remember that all our experiences, together, formed who we are today. We would not be here, at this very moment, reading this blog, were not for each and every step we've taken up until now. I do agree with Rabbi Berkowitz that our Torah gives us two inverse models in Moses and Joseph, and we DO get to choose which one to follow and emulate. I also think it's important to give thanks for the journey itself. Stop occasionally along the way and be mindful of what came before, where you are right now, and what may lie ahead in the future. And if you also have a sense of the direction in which you're heading - and you know what your commute looks like - that helps too.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of the inside of the Great Synagogue of Stockholm (my shul growing up)
2. Image of the tribal flag of Issachar (the sun, moon, and stars), as depicted on a mosaic art panel in our synagogue sanctuary; picture courtesy of Allan Baron.
3. CC image courtesy of Daderot on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Hekerui on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 20, 2015

Va-Yeitzei: What Bleaching Can Teach

As you've probably figured out about me by now, I love names in the Torah. The Bible uses names for humor, poignant lessons, social critique, sarcasm, and backhanded 
insults. And perhaps all of these features are on display in this week's Torah portion; in our antagonist, our adversary, the "bad guy" of our parashah, Laban. To set the stage: Jacob has fled from his home, where his brother, Esau, threatened to kill him. He seeks refuge with his uncle, Laban, because family is always there to protect and care for us, right? What could possibly go wrong?

Well, as you may know, Jacob spends a couple of tough decades with Laban. He works for seven years in order to marry one daughter, but is tricked into marrying the other. He must then start working seven MORE years for daughter #2. Time and again, Laban changes his wages, cheats him, and basically tries to keep him as an 
indentured servant for as long as possible. When Jacob finally does break free, and literally flees with his family in the night, Laban chases him down and accuses him of stealing. When he can't prove Jacob's guilt, he begrudgingly lets him go, but not before declaring, "The daughters are my daughters, the children are my children, and the flocks are my flocks; all that you see is mine!" (Gen. 31:43) Laban is greedy, manipulative, power-hungry, domineering, and aggressive... which is why it is terrific that his name, Laban," comes from the Hebrew root "L,V,N," meaning "white," "pure," or even "kind." Perfect, don't you think?

On one level, we can view this as sarcasm. Laban was clearly anything BUT "pure"! This same word can even mean "to clarify," which again seems almost comical, considering what a charlatan and scoundrel he was. But, as we know, the Torah also operates on many levels. 
Laban, "whitey," might be a Biblical joke, but the character also likes to present himself as honest and upstanding; he likes to "bleach" his reputation, and "whitewash" all his actions. Even in English, you can see how the word can mean many things, and often evokes several sentiments at the same time. Laban surely perceived HIMSELF as pure, and probably even wore his name with pride... even as he acted dastardly at every turn. It's a good reminder to us all, that everyone is the protagonist in their own story. We sometimes cannot imagine why someone acts the way s/he does, and believe it MUST BE for nefarious reasons. Yet most of the time, in their own minds, they are the good guy, standing up for some value or principle that no one else will protect.

As we go deeper still into the text, we also realize that Jacob learned a lot from Laban. Not all good things, perhaps, but he became a stronger, more resilient, tougher person, in part because he was forced to "survive" living with Laban. Many times, we look at our own lives and lament all the trials and tribulations we've endured; only to realize they actually taught us SO much. Good things come from our struggles, 
even when those silver linings are VERY hard to spot in the moment. I wonder if, despite everything, Jacob could still bless his decades with Laban, and feel gratitude for all he gained; not the least of which were wives, children, livestock, and wealth. The word "Lavan" can ALSO mean "to make bricks," oddly enough. Laban was an entrepreneur, a builder, a doer! These qualities too were passed on to Jacob, and so Laban DID, on some level, "build up" Jacob as a person as well. Our ancient rabbis teach us: "Who is wise? One who learns from all people." The key word here is "all." It's easy to learn from people we trust, or love, or respect. But even the "Labans" in our lives have something to impart. That doesn't mean we have to believe all their "bleached" stories; just look for the "bricks" hiding under the surface. Add them to YOUR story and be built up by them. It may give you more "clarity" than you could have possibly imagined.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Eviatar Bach on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Adina Firestone on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Tasja on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 13, 2015

Tol'dot: Love is Not a Commodity

"In truth, the whole Book of Genesis is the story of the disastrous consequences of treating love like a zero-sum game." 

I read the above quote in a Torah commentary by Rabbi Adam Greenwald of the Ziegler Rabbinical School in California. 
I was really struck by this categorization of Bereishit, the Book of Genesis, and of course, I agree. Starting with Cain and Abel, and continuing through Joseph's relationship with his two sons, we indeed see that the Torah depicts love as a finite resource. Each person only has so much love, blessing, favor, and kindness to give, and once it's used up, it is gone. How can that be? What does the Torah mean by describing it this way, and how does Bereishit help shape how you and I view love today?

Our parashah this week, Tol'dot, is a prime example of the zero-sum game. Two parents, two children; each parent picks one kid to love, and Isaac, the father, has but one blessing to give to ONE son. The story is told so compellingly that we are tempted to argue over who is right and who is wrong. We pick sides. We defend. 
And yet the saddest thing of all in this story is the heartbreaking premise that love is a shrinking commodity. We somehow accept that Isaac can love EITHER Esau OR Jacob, but clearly not both. Sure, many parents today will admit that they gravitate towards one child over another (or others). Yet surely ALL parents will also insist that when a second child is born, the heart seems to grow and develop new reservoirs of love, seemingly out of nowhere. Our ability to care is limitless; there is no maximum capacity. Furthermore, deepening one relationship can actually BENEFIT another, it does not detract. The incredible writer, Dan Savage, rails against the notion that it's selfish to spend time with a spouse, instead of devoting all time to one's children. Time and again, Savage says in his podcast (and I'm paraphrasing): "It is in your child's best interest to keep the two of you connected!" More love benefits everyone.

While this may sound so obvious, it is nevertheless difficult to implement. Rabbi Greenwald quotes Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, who, in his book Honey from the Rock, reinforces this same idea: 
"Is this not the great childhood problem-- and therefore the great human problem: To learn that it is good for you when other people love other people besides you? That I have a stake in their love? That I get more when others give to others?" In my High Holiday sermons earlier this year, I focused on the concept of "Ahavah" - "Love," and how challenging it ACTUALLY is to bring more love into our lives. This is a great human problem. We do not feel that we have a stake in others' relationships, or that it benefits us generally when there is greater compassion, kindness, and care swirling around us. As hard as this is to learn, it behooves us all to make it a greater priority.

Bereishit, and it's emphasis on the zero-sum fallacy, demonstrates how damaging it can be to trivialize love. It has long-term repercussions and can be incredibly traumatizing. Isaac's treatment of his sons leads to Jacob's favoritism of Joseph. Joseph treats his own children the same way, and the cycle perpetuates generation after generation, l'Dor va'Dor. But we CAN change it, 
we can alter the way we view love and relationships. But it must happen deliberately; no one is going to accidentally trip over a new style of parenting, or chance upon a new way of thinking about love. It takes hard work, and we're likely to fall back into old patterns, time and again. Nevertheless, this is an essential struggle. We owe it to our children, to our spouses, and to everyone we relate to on a daily basis. Love is decidedly NOT a zero-sum game, and I encourage you to examine ways in which you might still be treating it that way in your own life. And if indeed you are able to discover how you've been viewing it that way, I urge you to push yourself towards change. With Chanukah around the corner, we can borrow the image of candle lighting as a metaphor for love. When more is added, light and warmth are increased, and the original candle is in no way diminished. So too it is with Ahavah.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Daniel Case on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Nevit on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Kulshrax on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Slick on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, November 6, 2015

Chayei Sarah: Remembering Rabin, Between Abraham and King David

Our ancient rabbis offer us lessons from the Torah in SO many different ways! Not content to just TELL us what they want us to know, they often employ clever, intricate, sometimes even sneaky ways to get 
their messages across. As any good teacher really should, don't you think? This week, I want to highlight a rabbinic tactic, related to our Torah portion, that's a little bit different, and which I think is particularly appropriate to Veterans' Day, being observed on Wednesday. I also think it is poignantly relevant to another anniversary, which took place just last week.

Our Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, highlights a shift in generations. First we read about the deaths of Abraham and Sarah, then we begin to learn the stories of their son, Isaac. The parashah ends serenely, informing us that, "Abraham breathed his last, dying at a good ripe age, old and contented; and he was gathered to his kin. 
His sons, Isaac and Ishmael, buried him in the cave of Machpelah" (Gen. 25:8-9). Essentially, Abraham lived a good life, and at the end, his sons came together, in peace, to bury their father. A beautiful image... And right here, the rabbis take advantage of the opportunity to teach us something. Every Torah portion is accompanied by a Haftarah, a parallel text from SOMEWHERE else in the Bible, which the rabbis felt was appropriate to read with this particular Torah reading. And to Chayei Sarah the rabbis assign a Haftarah from the First Book of Kings, chapter 1, verses 1-31. It is the story of the death of King David, so on the surface it's a "simple" parallel - the death of one great leader (Abraham), and the death of another, centuries later (David).

David's death, however, is nearly a polar opposite to that of Abraham's. Our Haftarah depicts David's sons fighting for his throne, scheming against one another, and deceiving their father to get what they want. 
Soldiers are enlisted in this battle between siblings, and even though David DOES choose a successor - Solomon - before dying, the reader is left, at the end of the story, anticipating war and continued fighting. All has not been resolved or settled, not by a long shot. And indeed, we can add a layer of interpretation, and say that David, a man of battle with much blood on his hands, dies similarly unresolved and embattled. Subtly (though not even really), the rabbis are making a statement about war and fighting: If you live a life of struggle, your end will be the same. Abraham makes peace, for himself and between his sons, and so he dies content. A strong reminder to us all, to strive to live our lives like Abraham and not like David.

This week, as we observe Veterans' Day and give thanks to all our servicemen and women, we also must remember to constantly strive for greater peace in our world. Though they do what must be done - here, in Israel, and around the world - the long-term (sometimes life-long) impacts on the lives of individual soldiers is irrefutable. 
Just like King David, those who fight in our military today are left with deep scars that cannot be undone. We must do everything we can to help them, through non-profits like the Wounded Warrior Project, but we absolutely must also continue to work tirelessly towards peace. A few days ago, on November 4th, we commemorated the 20th anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister, Yitzchak Rabin. Rabin was truly a pursuer of peace, who despite a long military career and decades of fighting Israel's enemies, knew that the only true way forward was through peace. On the very night he was assassinated, Rabin was standing on a platform in Tel Aviv, singing a song called "Shir La-Shalom," "A Song of Peace." It includes the line: "Don’t whisper a prayer – sing a song of peace in a loud voice." That night, he was doing just that, and in his (painful) absence, we all must do the same.

Our Torah portion - along with its Haftarah - sets before us a choice: 
live like Abraham or live like David. The memory of Yitzchak Rabin makes it clear just what is at stake. On this Veterans' Day, even as we take care of our soldiers and help them reenter society, let us resolve to make this world a better place, so that some day - God willing - there will no longer be veterans who need our help.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Circuit-fantasist on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of a burial cave in Israel, courtesy of Deror-avi on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Stan Shebs on Wikimedia Commons
5. CC image of Yitzchak Rabin offering a prayer at the Western Wall, courtesy of Matanya on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 30, 2015

Vayera: You Already Love This Blog Post (reposting)

Dear blog readers,
This week, I've been on vacation (and battling a sinus infection...), and so I haven't had a chance to write a new blog post. Instead, I am reposting something I wrote back in 2012 on our Torah portion, Vayera. I'll be back next week with a brand new post. Thanks so much! And Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Gerber

You Already Love This Blog Post
I love big, fancy words - especially ones related to Biblical scholarship. I don't know what it is about them, I just think they're terrific. Did you know, for instance, that a word that appears only once in the
entire Torah is called a 'Hapax Legomenon'? Now how could you NOT love a term like that?? Or the 'official' designation for God's holiest Name, the granddaddy of all God's titles - the one we pronounce 'Adonai' - which is 'Tetragrammaton.' Try sneaking that one into a cocktail party conversation... This week, I'd like to discuss another one with you, though you may already be familiar with it from other areas of literary scholarship. And it's one I've already (cunningly) employed in this first paragraph...

In the JTS commentary on our Torah portion, Vayera, one of my former Bible professors, David Marcus, writes about prolepsis. He defines prolepsis simply as 'anticipation,' or what movie-goers might know as 'foreshadowing.' Dr. Marcus gives us two versions of how this rhetorical device is employed in the Biblical narrative, and I'd like to briefly talk about both. 
When the Torah gives us information that it unknown to the characters themselves, that is one kind of prolepsis. For example, in Vayera the story of the Binding of Isaac is introduced with the phrase, "Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test" (Genesis, 22:1). Right away, we know that this ordeal is 'a test,' and it assures us that all will end well. It instead becomes a thrilling story, as we follow Abraham up the mountain, watch him tie up his son, then bite our nails as he raises the knife in the air... and an angel stops him at the last minute. Incredibly dramatic stuff, to be sure, but all the while we, the readers, can rest easy knowing it's only a test. Thank you very much, prolepsis!

Another example of this technique is the use of seemingly unimportant details in one story, which will then later reappear elsewhere with greater purpose. For example, why did I refer to Adonai as the 'granddaddy' of Names at the start of this blog post? A peculiar choice 
of idiom, no? Or is it...When we are first introduced to Abram - whose name is later changed to Abraham - we might also be wondering why he has a name meaning 'Great Father.' It seems almost cruel, considering that he is child-less. But the name, of course, bears great significance, because he does indeed become the father of all monotheistic religions later on. However, the name is even more complex still. What kind of a 'Great Father' agrees to sacrifice his child? How are we meant to feel about his name while reading this terrible story about the near-sacrifice of Isaac? It seemed so innocent before, but now the name holds great tension for Abraham, for Sarah, certainly for Isaac, and for all of us as well.

At the end of his Torah commentary, Dr. Marcus shares a fabulous insight about prolepsis: "Too often we worry about the future, and about what can go wrong in our personal and professional lives... Instead of worrying about these matters, we might be well advised to adopt a proleptic technique. 
Let us envision success in our endeavors." Before starting a big business presentation, visualize being congratulated for 'nailing it.' Before swinging a golf club, picture the ball already in the hole. And hey, maybe when you place a vote in a ballot box, you can already picture your candidate delivering the acceptance speech! Prolepsis allows us to feel calm, because we already know things will end well. Why worry about failing when you've pictured yourself succeeding? Changing your outlook CAN transform your experience. All you've got to do is envision a positive end-result. I know you can do it, Daddy-O!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of DaveBleasdale on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of carulmare on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of FutUndBeidl on Flickr

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lech-Lecha: Expanding, But Not Removing, the Fence

In a few days, congregants here at Ohev Shalom will have a big decision to make. After a long process of deliberation - through living room salons, town hall meetings, and individual conversations - our synagogue leadership is putting forth a proposal to amend our constitution to allow non-Jewish family members of Jewish 
congregants to become full-fledged Ohevites. In and of itself, this is a big topic, and I look forward to a fascinating communal debate on November 1st to decide, ultimately, whether to make this change or not. At the same time, this one discussion has also opened up an entirely separate conversation about community boundaries in general. Who is "in" and who is "out," and who gets to decide? And if we allow non-Jewish individuals to (officially) join Ohev Shalom, who is left on the other side of our boundary... and why? The answer to that last question is of especially crucial importance.

From my perspective, we NEED to maintain a boundary. I'll talk in a minute about who is on the other side, but even before I get there, I want to emphasize the importance of A fence, SOME fence, to indicate where the borders are. I say this because some people don't think we should have ANY borders. Creating barriers is, to them, inherently 
discriminatory, exclusionist, and possibly even racist. I wholeheartedly (and respectfully) disagree. The existence of perimeters helps us identify, clarify, and solidify who WE are. I fundamentally believe that I need to know MYSELF first, and be proud to speak about who I am and what I stand for, and then I can engage with, and get to know "the other." A lack of boundaries doesn't help communication or bring people closer; it just creates confusion and chaos. Strong identities - partnered with openness to others, willingness to learn and listen, and commitment to reciprocity and sharing - lead to good and healthy relationships. We need that fence to help us know, truly, who we are. Now it is also true that fences get abused, and people DO use them to hide racist intent. But the boundaries themselves are not automatically and eternally wrong. We should absolutely look to expand our fences - as we're considering doing right now - to make sure we're inclusive, and that our perimeter reflects who is actually (and already) part of our congregation. The markers should be reevaluated from time to time, without question, but that still doesn't mean that all separations should be removed.

With that in mind, let's consider the borders that will still remain (IF we make this change on November 1st...). The biggest category of people who would still not be eligible for membership (and about whom we've so far received the most amount of questions and raised eyebrows) is Messianic Jews. Sometimes also called "Jews for Jesus," these Messianic Jews consider themselves Jewish, but also believe that Jesus was the Messiah and/or the 
son of God. But more than just a separate religious group, like Muslims, Christians, Hindus, or even atheists, many Messianic Jews actively proselytize among Jews, and frequently use subversive tactics to bring people to their congregations under false pretenses. They are NOT just another denomination of Judaism. You can read a lot more on a Jewish website called "Jews for Judaism," created specifically to counteract the messages and methods of these groups. I feel it is important to highlight this difference, because it is very significant. As "Jews for Judaism" expresses on their site, Buddhists, atheists, and many others respectfully hold different views from Jews and Christians. They do NOT suggest that the best way to express your Christianity is to become a Buddhist. Or that the highest form of Jewish living is to become an atheist! Jews for Jesus try to prove their validity through disproving ours. Individuals may obviously choose to be Messianic Jews; I wish them no ill will. But there is also no question for me that theirs is a community outside my border.

I didn't want to conclude without a reference to this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha (this is, after all, a Torah-based blog...). Our parashah focuses on the early years of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. And indeed, they are the ancestors of ALL people who consider themselves to fit under the umbrella of the Abrahamic faiths
This week's reading begins with God's grand blessing for Abraham: "All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (Gen. 12:3). And despite this, we are not one, big, happy family. We strive to get along, sometimes more successfully than others, but we DO have divisions and subgroupings. We have distinct religions and cultures, and we can all still bless ourselves by Sarah and Abraham. Our boundaries help us know who WE are, and what makes us distinct. Though it can be uncomfortable, it is often helpful to know who is "not-us" to see ourselves more clearly. And even as we work to expand our fence, it is always good to remember that the fence itself is there to protect (and challenge) us, and it too can be a source of blessing.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Rama on Wikimedia Commons

2. CC image courtesy of Haiku2 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Liftarn on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Spacebirdy on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 16, 2015

Noach: Fellowship Amidst All the Babble

The final section of our Torah reading this week teaches us the infamous story of the Tower of Babel. We may ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this peculiar little tale? It reminds us not to challenge God, through our haughtiness and puffed-up sense of self-worth.
It also provides the Biblical reader with an explanation as to why there are so many languages spoken throughout the (known) world. If you think about it, this is a fair question. Why DON'T we all just speak the same language? Doesn't it just make communication and understanding THAT much harder? Well, agree with it or not, the Tower of Babel fable explains how this cacophony of speech came about. Yet another purpose of this story is to serve as a critique (or even ridicule) of the Babylonian Empire. The Torah is basically telling us that their whole, glorious civilization - and their beautiful capital specifically - started with people angering God and disobeying the Divine will. Also, the origin of their name is silly; just a bunch of "babbling" fools...

But the story has more to teach us still. To me, it's also a lesson on teamwork and partnering. We CAN work together; that is not inherently a violation of God's plan. But what we DO with our resources, our effort, and our collective power, THAT is the real question, and the real test.
The Tower of Babel shows us how powerful - but nefariously so - we can become, and how it can lead us to challenge God's very authority over us. The rabbinic commentators tell us that when the people in our story said to one another "Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves" (Gen. 11:4), they were really trying to "storm heaven." They were attempting to dethrone God. Clearly, this is not good... not to mention a little megalomaniacal and insane. But again, that doesn't mean ALL efforts to work together are bad, or that all will end in the same fate.

Earlier this week, I participated in a new partnership here in Delaware County, called FUSE. The acronym stands for "Fellowship of Urban and Suburban Engagement," and consists of a host of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups in our area getting together to form
strong(er) partnerships. Why FUSE? Because most people live, work, and socialize only with people who look and think like they do. We don't actively and regularly interact with other people, and we don't learn about them and their lives (nor they about us), which - I believe - is to the detriment of all of us. Perhaps we're worried that if we worked too closely with one another, we'd run the risk of building another Tower of Babel, physically or metaphorically. But we NEED to form these partnerships. We live our lives incredibly siloed, and it is hurting our community... and arguably the entire world.

Of course, FUSE isn't going to solve all our problems. But those of us who organized it believe it's a step in the right direction. On Columbus Day, we brought together close to 50 people from all walks of life, and we all debated tough issues facing our community (like violence, education, racism, and healthy living). We are now working on forming
action groups to turn some of our conversations into projects, though FUSE is also VERY MUCH about continuing the dialogue itself as well. Just putting ourselves back into a single room, and resolving to work together and learn about one another, is - in and of itself - a major achievement, and a primary goal of FUSE. Sometimes it can feel like the Tower of Babel; our cultural differences leave us babbling AT one another. But the ancient story also reminds us what immense power exists in coming together and organizing our efforts. When used for good, in partnership with one another, and in the spirit of our shared religious teachings, our collective energy may just be the spark - the "fuse" - that lights our way to a better future.

If you're interested in getting involved in FUSE, or just learning more, please let me know. Thanks!

Photos in this blog post come from our FUSE gathering in Marcus Hook, PA, on Columbus Day

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bereisheet: Letting a Snake Get You Into Trouble...

Welcome back to the beginning! The High Holidays are behind us, we concluded the Book of Deuteronomy, with the story of Moses and the Israelites, and we have returned back, again, to where it all started. 
This week, God creates our world, and our saga begins. Some of you heard me say this in services over the High Holidays: I love the story of Creation! It is teeming with mysteries and enigmas; you almost can't read a single verse without being perplexed with the Torah's depiction of the Genesis of it all. Every year, I feel torn about where to focus our attention. There is so much to talk about!! But, as always, I must choose. And so this year, let's zero in on the Garden of Eden, and more specifically, the snake.

Is there a more confounding character in the whole Bible? In the very first verse where the snake makes his entrance, the Torah tells us: "The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that Adonai, our God, had made" (Gen. 3:1). And already, we must pause. "Shrewd"? 
Is that the opinion of the narrator or a fact? How is a creature of God's making even able to BE shrewd, if it is not God's will? As the story unfolds, the snake subtly (and yes, slyly...) asks the Woman, Eve, if God has allowed the humans to eat of all the trees in the Garden. Of course, he already knows the answer, and when she tells him there's one tree, the fruit of which they cannot eat "lest you die," he poo-poos her answer! "You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad" (Gen. 3:4-5). Wait a minute, wait a minute! HOW does the snake know this? Where did he acquire such information? We just accept these stories at face value, mainly because they've been in our cultural consciousness our entire lives, but you've got to admit, it's strange.  

Somehow, the snake is shrewd. And for some reason, he knows ESSENTIAL information about how the Garden of Eden is constructed, and shares it with this woman for reasons that are never revealed to us. But perhaps my biggest question surrounding all of this is, how is it possible for us to read this story without 
challenging it? It is almost impossible to accept this narrative account as written, without SOME more information, some scrutiny and unpacking, and yet, we do. If you ask most people about the Garden of Eden story, I am certain they will say "the snake is the bad guy." And I'm not saying he's a good guy! I'm just incredibly curious about how he manages to be an independent contractor, with insider trading info, and a really healthy dose of skepticism and cynicism... in a world where God is (supposedly anyway...) in complete control. Part of the answer - for me anyway - is that the snake is NOT working on his own. God knows exactly what he's up to.

The serpent represents something. He did back in ancient times, and he continues to do so today, in 2015. We don't, and cannot, live our lives entirely as rule-followers. There would be no evolution, no invention, no science, medicine, art, literature, or most of the things that make us human beings. We would build homes. We would go to work. We would eat, sleep, procreate, and exist... but we would not truly be alive. We need that "shrewd" little voice whispering in our ear: "Really? You're not 

even going to take one LITTLE taste?" And we shouldn't just be taking the snake's advice, we should be viewing the snake-character as an opportunity to use our brains. The Torah is BEGGING us to say, "wait a minute, wait a minute! Huh???" The whole existence OF the snake in this story is calling out to us for questions, challenges, and disagreements. And this is only the very first parashah! But there is no question in my mind that the text is speaking to ME, and you, to all of us. We need a little more "snake" in our lives, and we need to open our eyes and minds to the growth opportunities that come when we listen to the serpent's cunning temptations. You can read this story and see only Original Sin. Or you can see it as the beginning of humanity, and the evolution of our species. Either way, don't let others tell you what's going on the text; make a decision for yourself to read it, understand it, and make sense of it for YOU. Then it will be the Genesis of something positive in your life. And that's a very good place to start.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Doewiets on Wikimedia Commons

2. CC image courtesy of Jim Padgett on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 2, 2015

Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: Why It's Ok That Our Sukkot Are Drenched

This year's celebration of Sukkot has been a particularly rainy one. It seems somehow ironic that the East Coast had been particularly dry all summer, only to become a water-logged puddle just in time for us to sit
outdoors in open-topped huts. On the one hand, it's frustrating and unfortunate, since many of our intended activities had to be moved indoors, and our enjoyment of the holiday was somewhat diminished. And yet, on the other hand, it is a good opportunity for all of us to focus on the message of vulnerability that is so intricately tied together with the festival of Sukkot.

We tend to take things for granted. Not only do we feel entitled to all the comforts in our lives, we sometimes convince ourselves that we - alone - are the architects of our own successes. It is an especially American sentiment to emphasize what I, myself, have accomplished, and how I, on my own, pulled myself up by my (metaphorical) boot straps and provided for my family.
With an entrepreneurial spirit and a little can-do attitude, I made all this happen! And this, unfortunately, is a pretty un-Jewish attitude. We are interconnected beings. Judaism stresses - time and again - the importance of community and family, and especially a sense of humility and gratitude. Perhaps above all else, Judaism urges us to recognize that God is in charge, and much of our success and fortune is a result of MANY factors that are out of our control. It is scary to acknowledge our powerlessness, but nevertheless we must. And the rabbis use the holiday of Sukkot, and the precariousness of the Sukkah in particular, to underscore this message.

In a Torah commentary this weekend, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen quotes the medieval scholar, Rashbam, as saying: "Do not say to yourself, 'My own power and the strength of my hand have won this wealth for me' (Deut 8:17); remember that the Eternal is your God who gives you strength to
achieve wealth. Therefore, at the season of the harvest, people leave their homes, which are full of everything good, and dwell in Sukkot, as a reminder that in the wilderness we had no possessions and no homes in which to live. For this reason, the Holy One established Sukkot at the time of the harvest, that the people should not be overly proud of their well furnished houses." (Rashbam, Leviticus 23:43) The Sukkah is a reminder of our vulnerability. As warm and cozy and dry as our houses are, it takes only one meal outdoors, in a drenched and precarious little hut, for us to feel exposed and dependent. So many people around the world live like that every day! It is imperative that we stop for just a moment and acknowledge how fortunate we are to have what we have, and that it was NOT our own power and strength that gave us all our bounty.

In her article, Rabbi Cohen goes on to talk about the importance of welcoming in guests, and sharing our holiday and our joy with strangers. This too she links back to the Sukkah itself: "Of course, being an outsider is a quintessentially Jewish experience, so in case we have forgotten, on Sukkot we make ourselves a little less comfortable, and try to feel what it is like to be the stranger."
The Sukkah stands as a reminder to us all to give thanks for what we have AND make sure to help others around us. Even when we can't physically sit in the Sukkah, because it's too cold or wet, let's not forget what it represents in our lives. Some amount of discomfort IS good. You don't have to endure sleeping in a soaked Sukkah to internalize this message, per se. But I do invite all of us to think about how to welcome in, not just guests and strangers, but a little bit of discomfort and A LOT of gratitude and humility into our rickety, unpredictable lives. If we can learn that lesson, I guess this rainy holiday will prove valuable after all!

Photos in this blog post:
1. The Ohev Shalom (water-logged) Sukkah
2. The inside of said soaked Sukkah
3. Thursday's Lunch n' Learn (with over 35 congregants!) that SHOULD have taken place in the Sukkah, but was moved to our auditorium with a nice view OF our Sukkah...
4. The Gerber family Sukkah, before the rains.