Friday, February 27, 2015

Holiday Commandments? Pour-em Down On Me!!

With all the Guilt-Free Judaism and Accessibility and Warm-n-Welcoming and Relational Judaism that we've been promoting lately, I feel I haven't taken enough time to enforce some rules.
After all, Judaism IS a rule-based religion - we love our "Thou Shalt Not's..." - and I would be remiss if I didn't go over a few crucial commandments that everyone needs to be thinking about. This is especially true for the holiday of Purim that is just around the corner. I think it goes without saying that Purim is a holiday that demands respect, reverence, and awe. So with that in mind, let me draw your attention to some observances that I expect you'll all want to adhere to as carefully and meticulously as possible.

Fast of Esther - This is a minor fast that is observed because Queen Esther herself fasted in anticipation of appealing to King Achashverosh to spare the Jews. She also asked that
all Jews fast on her behalf. It is imperative that EVERYONE observe this fast. You may only break the fast when you've heard the Megillah read in synagogue, and if you are unable to attend on Wednesday night, you may break the fast at Passover. If you get dehydrated and absolutely MUST drink something, please only drink white wine (no red; definitely no rosé), and try to stick to Chardonnays and Rieslings.

Megillah reading & Groggering - All Jews are required to hear the reading of the Megillah. If you cannot make it to synagogue, you can download the reading as a scroll-on-tape and listen on your Kindle or
other iReader. If you do this, please do NOT listen with headphones. During the Megillah reading, everyone MUST grogger when they hear the name "Haman," BUT it is also essential that you hear every word of the Megillah out loud. So make sure you hear the name said out loud, then grogger loudly to erase the memory of having heard it, then complain to the Megillah reader that s/he forgot to say the name "Haman." If they try to say it again, grogger loudly and repeat. If you miss even one instance of the name, or if you cannot clearly hear the final 'n' in his name, restart the Megillah from the beginning. Go back as often as necessary until you've heard the whole thing.

Though most people are familiar with the groggering at Haman's name, many are not familiar with a lesser-known custom regarding the name Mordechai. In the 13th Century,
particularly pious Jews in Europe adopted the tradition that every time they heard the name "Mordechai" in the Megillah reading, they stood up and spun around once; counter-clockwise only. This is in honor of how quickly things "turned around" in the story, and Mordechai made everyone's heads spin. All are expected to observe this ritual at Ohev Shalom, and reading this blog post is considered a visually-binding contract that you too will observe this. Thank you.

Hamentaschen - Each member of your household is required to eat seven (7) Hamentaschen from the beginning of the Jewish month of
Adar until the day after Purim. If you eat one with poppy seed filling, it does not count towards this requirement, and you should probably apologize to someone for putting something so vile in your mouth. Hamentaschen may not contain more than one teaspoon of filling, but also no less than 3/4 of a teaspoon (some rabbinic authorities differ on the minimum, but all agree on the maximum allotment). All fillings must be made from a fruit or nut that grows on a tree, and only in the northern hemisphere. No exceptions.

Costumes - Ideally, everyone should dress in costume from 2:17 p.m.
on the evening of Purim and remain in that same costume (including sleep) until the following evening at 11:51 p.m. If you have to work that day, you may adorn your costume by 2:42 p.m. Acceptable costumes are: 1) Characters from the Megillah story, 2) All Kosher animals (except crickets), 3) Costumes that are puns or clever takes on news stories, 4) Batman. Jews and non-Jews who say the word "Purim" (or think it) are obligated to dress in costume.

Mishloach Manot and Matanot La-evyonim - The Megillah itself mentions the giving of gifts to one another, and the mitzvah of giving money to charitable causes on Purim. Before fulfilling either of these
commandments, it is first essential that clergy members are given expensive gifts. All are obligated. It is then also imperative that you not embarrass friends or neighbors when giving them your "Mishloach Manot" (or Shlach Manos in Yiddish), so religious Jews are expected to drop Purim gifts on one another's doorstep, ring the doorbell, and quickly run away. You may also throw your Mishloach Manot through an open window. Gift baskets must include three Hamentaschen, something organic, a toy of some kind, and at least one item that seems pretentious and too expensive for a gift basket. Also, keep it humble.

Hopefully, adhering to all these rules will make your Purim holiday joyous, festive, spiritual, and a little bit silly. All of these mitzvot are ancient in origin, quite serious, definitely NOT meant as satire or "Purim (joke) Torah," and very, very essential. And if you do indeed observe them all, please e-mail or call me, because I have a very lovely bridge I would like to sell you for a great price.

Happy Purim!!

Images in this blog post:
Various members of our congregation, dressed as the evil Haman. You are commanded to find this images scary and to boo out loud when looking at each picture. I am NOT kidding...

Friday, February 20, 2015

Terumah: Who's In Charge of Wonderland?

Think of the weirdest, most bizarre, most unusual prayer experience you've ever had. That is, assuming you've had strange prayer experiences at all. Well, if you have (or haven't), I think we can top it. This Shabbat
morning, February 21st, you should come to services at Ohev Shalom. It is our USY (United Synagogue Youth) Teen Shabbat, and it is a themed service. This year's theme: Alice in Wonderland. Have you ever wondered what it would feel like to shrink in the middle of services? Or spontaneously grow incredibly BIG? Has it ever seemed like you were at the end of services even though it was only just beginning, or you got to the conclusion but it felt like it was just about to start? And all this surrounded by people in zany costumes! This Saturday is going to be a really unique experience, dream-like perhaps, while still REALLY challenging us to think about prayer and God. Let me give you just a taste, right here in my blog:

I like working with teenagers. No, no, I really mean it; stop laughing! They ask tough questions that adults are too nervous to ask. Adults are often jaded, cynical, apathetic, or think they know it all, and they don't get to the really challenging issues. Our teens at Ohev came up with a 
really great idea for this Shabbat service, and they pushed the envelope even further by asking an incredibly difficult question about God. BUT, then they got cold feet and were worried it went too far, so they asked me to bring it up instead. And, because I think they're terrific kids and I'm a pushover (oh, and I like to push YOU, here on my blog...), I went for it. So here goes: Are you familiar with Alice in Wonderland? Do you remember the Queen of Hearts? She is an evil, sadistic tyrant who orders beheadings at the drop of a hat. She has loyal subjects who worship her, but often it seems they do so out of fear rather than love or respect. Could it be, asked my teenage congregants, that the Queen is a metaphor for God?

I mean, that's a really harsh question, no??? But is it unfair? I'm not so sure. The God of the Torah certainly mandates capital punishment for a whole host of offenses. And in this week's Torah portion, Terumah, God begins to give Moses the instructions for building a Sanctuary, a MikdashLet's face it, it's an ornate, 
labor-intensive, expensive, complicated structure, the sole purpose of which is to worship and give thanks to God. The Queen of Hearts would be jealous. Ok, so still pretty harsh, and you may not agree with this characterization (in fact, I hope you don't!), but let's think about it for a minute. Can we ignore the violence that is perpetrated in the Name of God, with scriptural prooftexts to back up every action? How about discriminatory laws regarding abortion, the LGBTQ community, and many other issues, both in the US and abroad? Millions of people around the world DO view God as basically an evil tyrant who yells "off with their heads!", and they flee organized religion because of it. And you and I read the same headlines they do; can you blame them?

But it doesn't have to be this way. I don't think you can ever really talk about change if you don't first address the barriers that exist, which is why I'm talking about this here on my blog. I KNOW why people see God this way. I get it; I really do. But again, it doesn't have to be this way.
 We don't have to let religion be hijacked by people who pervert its teachings - who turn their God, OUR God, into a horrible Queen of Hearts caricature. There is no objective reality when it comes to God, you really can't talk about what God IS, at least not from a human point-of-view. We talk only about what God is NOT... but we also talk about the kind of God we WANT to worship. It is a choice, not a requirement. If you leave God as a menacing playing card, of course you'll want to flee! But flip the script. Change it around. If you make a conscious choice to see God differently, it can change your entire perspective on religion. And you can start that process right now, this weekend, by coming to the most flipped-around, topsy-turvy, backwards service you can imagine! It may just be the very thing we all need, to start seeing God in a new light, and to put some joy and silliness back into religion. So, is it time for you to take a look down the rabbit hole?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of 17Drew on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of De Disney on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of HumMelissa Glee o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Anetode on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 13, 2015

Mishpatim: Can we "Voir Dire" Outside the Courtroom?

Earlier this week, I had the great privilege of participating in the American judicial system by spending a day in jury duty. I did not 
ultimately get picked to serve on a trial, but I did spend several hours in a court room, answering questions along with forty other potential jurors. I'll admit, the process was tedious at times, and I was glad I brought along a good book and some snacks. But I also found the whole process fascinating, and I really DID feel honored to participate and to gain some insight into our legal system. How appropriate it seems, then, that our Torah portion this week is called Mishpatim, meaning "laws," and it actually includes a similar voir dire process to the one I experienced in a Delaware County courthouse.

A word that jumps out at me in both scenarios is "trust." Without it, the systems break down. In Exodus, chapter 23, we see the following statements: "You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness: You shall neither side with 
the mighty to do wrong... nor shall you show deference to a poor person in his/her dispute" (Ex. 23:1-3). In the Ancient World, you had to trust people's word. They didn't have DNA evidence, they didn't have surveillance cameras; they were forced to rely on the testimony of witnesses and people's ability to look at "just the facts" and not the status of the person/people in the case. Despite all our technological advances and scientific forensics, the voir dire process I experienced still showed me that our legal system depends on our honesty. Certain details of the criminal case in question were explained to us, and we were asked, point blank, if we could be objective and fair. Could we ignore personal history, bias, race, gender, and stories we might have heard in the media, and exclusively judge based on the facts of the case?

Thousands of years have passed, and still society depends on the honesty of its individual members. We continue to be today, as the Torah was so long ago, distressed by the concepts of corruption, bribery, and legal systems where citizens CANNOT expect to get a fair 
trial. A few verses later in chapter 23, the Torah declares: "Do not take bribes, for bribes blind the clear-sighted and upset the pleas of those who are in the right" (v. 8). I often encourage congregants to view the Torah as if we were sociologists: It tells people not to take bribes... because they WERE doing it! This rule needs to be emphasized because people were breaking it. I hear the author of these verses pleading with the Israelites to pursue justice and fairness... unlike what they are currently doing. The author threatens God's wrath if these laws are not upheld, but were these ultimately anything more than intimidations?

Thousands of years ago, the leaders were essentially at the mercy of their constituents. If people didn't observe the laws, didn't participate honestly, kindly, and fully, they had no real recourse. Have things changed all that much? The term 
"voir dire" purportedly comes from a Latin oath that jurors would take, called "verum dicere," meaning "to say what is true." I wonder if voir dire could and should play a greater role in our lives, even OUTSIDE the courtroom. I don't think any of us would describe ourselves as liars, but there may still be room for more truth from time to time. An experience like serving jury duty really highlights how society relies on ME fulfilling MY role, and reminds me how important each individual is to the success of the whole. Perhaps we can all take the messages of "trust" and "truth" a bit more to heart, and live each day with a little more voir dire in our lives.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Beinecke Library on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of EFF-Graphics on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of Djembayz o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of John Morgan's painting "The Jury" courtesy of Swampyank on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 6, 2015

Yitro: Striving to be "Dad"

It's been a while since I wrote something from a parenting perspective. Since this week's parashah contains the Ten Commandments (and there's something in there about moms and dads...), I thought I'd seize the opportunity to revisit the topic. 
Don't worry; this won't all be about my daughter. Most people know that the Ten Commandments contains a parenting law, but I'm not sure everyone is aware of what the wording actually says. Commandment #5 reads, "Honor your father and your mother" (Exodus 20:12). It is interesting that the law isn't to love your parents or even obey them; it very intentionally says "honor," and nearly every single translation renders it the same way. What's the difference?

God doesn't command love. Well, unless it's towards God, I suppose. In Deuteronomy, in the chapter that later famously becomes the Shema prayer, it says, "You shall love Adonai, your God, with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might" (Deut. 6:5). But other than God, we 
cannot be commanded to love other humans. And it's a hard thing to speak about, but we all know that there are some terrible parents out there. Heck, we've got some rough examples of that in the Torah itself! How can you FORCE children to love their parents, when said parents might be abusive, exploitative, or in a myriad of other ways harming their offspring? And the same thing with "obey." The rabbis debated this question thousands of years ago. What if a parent tells a child to steal something? Or, God forbid, to kill someone? Is this a direct clash between two of the Ten Commandments, to not steal/kill and to honor your parents? If the rule was "obey them," maybe. But no matter what your parent tries to tell you, it does NOT honor him/her to commit a crime on his/her behalf.

But parenting is tough. Who among us can say, with total certainty, that they got it "right"? I recently read in parenting book: "Perfection is just a word in the dictionary." 
We are not perfect. Being a parent comes with PLENTY of mistakes, losses of tempers, saying of things we did not mean, and other regrets along the way. I've especially found that now, when I am trying this role on for myself, I appreciate (or understand at least) my own parents a lot better. When you're a child, you idolize your mom and dad. As a teenager, everything they do is terrible. Then you make your peace with them and accept them as regular people. And now, as a parent, you see how tough it really is. It can even be restorative; repairing relationships with the previous generation through new ones formed with the next generation. In a sense, that is how we honor our parents, by learning from their successes and failures and trying it on for ourselves.

There is even something oddly satisfying about knowing my child isn't commanded to love or obey me. It's true, she has no choice but to honor me; I am her father. But I need to EARN her love and respect, it 
isn't due me simply because I carry the title "dad." We work tremendously hard, as parents, to get it right, to be the best parents possible. We fall short. Then we try again, and we hope to get it right the next time. Ultimately, I think commandment #5 is really cleverly worded: The text supports our efforts, while also challenging us to keep striving to be better. The Torah will reward us when we succeed, but really the reward comes in the parenting experience itself. And so, when Caroline said "I love you, daddy" for the first time, unsolicited, the feeling was truly indescribable. Honor is nice, but man, that love is something else!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Electron on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of Undead Warrior o
Wikimedia Commons
4. Silliness. :-)