Friday, March 27, 2015

Tzav & Shabbat Ha-Gadol: Pass It Along, Don't Just Pass-Over It

I would like to dedicate my blog post this week to my beautiful new nephew, Simon Carl Feinstein. Simon was born just last week, and a couple of days ago Rebecca (and Caroline) and I had the pleasure of celebrating Simon's bris (circumcision) with his parents, Gail and Jeremy. Baruch Ha-Bah, welcome, to Shalom Chaim, the newest member of our family!!

This week, we celebrate Shabbat Ha-Gadol, the fifth and final special Sabbath before Passover. The name, Shabbat Ha-Gadol, means "The BIG Shabbat," or even "The GREAT Shabbat." In the context of the 
liturgy itself, it refers to a term in the Haftarah that we read on Saturday, from the prophet Malachi, who speaks of "the coming of the awesome (Gadol), fearful day of the Lord" (3:23), probably heralding a Judgment Day when The Messiah will arrive. But we also use the term to refer to the BIG Shabbat right before Pesach, because a pretty major holiday is right around the corner! Back in the old days, rabbis would use Shabbat Ha-Gadol as an opportunity to remind people about the laws of Pesach, and how to clean their homes, buy proper foods, and really get themselves ready for the intensity of the festival. So what might be "Gadol," big, about this weekend, and this holiday, for you and me? 

I was recently reading a Torah commentary by the Chancellor of JTS (the Jewish Theological Seminary), Professor Arnold Eisen. Chancellor 
Eisen pointed out that for many Jews in America today, what is special about Passover, and specifically the Seder, is the very fact THAT is happens, not so much the content of the Seder itself. And I suppose we could just stop there. We could acknowledge how special it is that we DO all celebrate Pesach around the country (and the world), and simply leave it at that. But I really think we can challenge ourselves to do more, even if it's just a little bit more. We can push ourselves to incorporate "Gadol," the greatness of the holiday, and we could all work to include some learning and activities into our Seder experience.

Chancellor Eisen indicates how tough this can be, either because "there are small children present who cannot sit for very long or because there are grown adults present who cannot sit for very long"! Let's not pretend that we're doing a short, 30-minute (5-minute?) Seder for 
the kids, because THEY can't sit through anything more. So let's challenge OURSELVES to step up our game! Pick a section of the Haggadah, just ONE section, and invite your family members and Seder guests to engage in a discussion on what it might mean to each one of us. I look at my daughter, Caroline, and now my tiny nephew, Simon, and I see a new generation of Jews sprouting up right before my eyes! What is our responsibility to them? To the next generation, for whom we want this holiday and this heritage to hold meaning? I do not think it is enough to just say THAT we celebrate a Seder; if we want it to remain relevant and meaningful to them, we have to infuse it with that meaning. It needs to mean something to us as well.

That verse from Malachi, about the "awesome and fearful day," it has an enigmatic continuation. The next verse reads, "He [the prophet Elijah] will reconcile parents with children, and children with their 
parents." Huh? Judgment Day is coming - THE Judgment Day - and Elijah is going to focus on settling family feuds? Answer: Yes. If we want Judaism to survive, if we want our legacy to continue from generation to generation, we need to pass it on to our children with love, compassion, and excitement. We can't RAM it down their throats, but we also shouldn't hand down apathy and ignorance. At Passover, we have a chance to look our future in the eye, our Caroline's and Simon's, and think about what we want them to know, and what we want them to love. When we see it that way, how much more meaningful does the holiday instantly become? Suddenly, our Seder is transformed. It is awesome and huge; it becomes very Gadol indeed!

Chag Kasher v'Sameach - Happy a Happy and Meaningful Passover!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Family pic #1. (Carrie's such a ham...)
2. CC image of a pretty HUGE Seder in the Philippines in 1925 (!), courtesy of Diego Grez on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of The Deceiver on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image of The Animated Haggadah courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone

5. Family pic #2 - Two Jeremies and a Simon! :-)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Vayikra: Sorry IF I Misled You

"I'm sorry if I hurt you." We hear this a lot. We say this to one another. It sounds like a sincere and genuine apology, for whatever might have offended. But it is not. Look at it again. 
"I'm sorry IF I hurt you." I'm not really taking responsibility for the offense; just acknowledging that you, the recipient, might have perceived offense, and if so - not definitely so, but IF so - then (I suppose) I apologize. We may not intend it that way, but it can still come across as such. How about, "I'm sorry THAT I hurt you," admitting that pain was, indeed, caused. Or perhaps even more simply, "I'm sorry." This week, we are thinking about whether our leaders can do this. Can they be repentant, can they acknowledge fault, and can they be vulnerable in public? And don't we NEED our leaders to have this ability?

We read the Torah portion of Vayikra, the very beginning of the third book of the Torah, Leviticus. I was reading a wonderful Torah commentary by Rabbi Shai Held, a former teacher of mine, entitled "The Fall and Rise of Great Leaders; Or: What Kind of Leader Do We 
Need?" In it, Rabbi Held focuses on a particular word in our parashah that speaks to our expectations of leadership, communally, religiously, and nationally. The text lists a series of sins that might be committed, and for each scenario uses the word "If" (Im, in Hebrew); e.g. "If x person sins" or "if y person sins," thus and such will happen. And then, all of a sudden, in Lev. 4:22, the text talks about the "Nasi," the chieftain, president, or prime minister, and it says "Asher" rather than "Im." It may be just a synonym - both words meaning "if" - but many rabbinic commentators see something else going. Perhaps it's just a slight rewording, meaning "in case." But it might also mean "when." In other words, it's not a question of IF our leaders will commit offenses, it's only a matter of time...

This may just seem cynical, but I think it's actually a really crucial point: How do our leaders behave when they mess up, and does it tell us A LOT about them in other situations as well? Or as Rabbi Held indicates: "The path fallen leaders choose... has vast implications not only for the leaders themselves but also for the entire society they lead." Rabbi Held quotes one 
of the greatest early rabbis, Yochanan ben Zakkai (YbZ), who ties the word "Asher" to the word "Osher," meaning "happiness" or "good fortune." Says YbZ: "Fortunate is the generation whose ruler brings a sacrifice for a sin he has committed unwittingly." What he means is, if we can trust our leader to admit a sin we didn't even know about, how much more so can we expect her/him to be open about mistakes that ARE known??? And, furthermore, we can (hopefully) rely on this person to be honest and forthcoming about other behaviors as well, not just errors and misdeeds. It is a litmus test of their character, in general.

Rabbi Held then pushes this idea one step further. He reinterprets YbZ's comments to instead read, "Fortunate is the generation which 
has raised people - and by extension nurtured leaders - capable of acknowledging their failures and asking forgiveness." It's not just a statement about our leaders; it's a statement about us. If we have leaders who lie and then cover it up, it's because they believe admitting fault will sink them. Constituents, voters, expect perfection and flawlessness; not penitence and excuses. So, in essence, we collectively cultivate leaders who deceive us. We almost expect it of them! Stated bluntly, we get the leaders we deserve. 

I think this is a reminder to us all, that criticizing our leadership is really a self-critique. And it should be! If we're shocked by who's in charge, we should reexamine ourselves 
and our communities, and think about what change could look like, what it SHOULD look like. And how do we apologize? Do we say "sorry IF I hurt you" or can we push ourselves further to admit guilt, even before all other options have been exhausted? Because it's not just our leaders who mess up; we do too. We are "Ashers" (when) and not "Ims" (if) when it comes to flaws, just as much as the folks in charge! When we change our attitudes and our own approach to forgiveness, then we can expect it of our leaders as well. And I do mean "when" we change; not "if"...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of N.J. Clesi on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of chemicalinterest o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dude7248 on Wikimedia Commons

5. CC image courtesy of Pimbrils on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 13, 2015

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Parah): Making No Sense of the Red Heifer

When a young child gets that whole language thing sorted out, s/he soon begins to ask questions about, well, everything. The inquisitive
mind churns away, and the child displays an insatiable desire to understand anything and everything. My daughter is on the verge of this state, and has taken to asking "What happened?" constantly, even when literally NOTHING has happened, and I have no idea why I'm being interrogated. Eventually, we stop being quite so nosy and curious, but in some cases we retain our desire to scrutinize, analyze, and evaluate. This, for instance, is where religion gets into a bit of trouble. Most religions ask us to accept SOME things at face value; to take a leap of faith and put our judgment and skepticism aside. This is very hard to do.

This week, we continue to march towards Passover. We read a special accompanying reading, along with our Torah portion, that marks our journey leading up to Pesach. It is a highly peculiar passage from the Book of Numbers, about the ritual of the Red Heifer, and so this weekend is traditionally known as "The Shabbat of the Cow." 
A most a-moooo-sing name, I know! :-) So what is this ritual? In short, a blemish-free, lazy ("on which no yoke has been laid," 19:2), red cow is slaughtered, and all parts of the animal are turned into ashes on the altar. Then, when someone in the community has come in contact with a dead body (rendering them ritually "impure"), the ashes of the cow are mixed with water and sprinkled on the person, so that they can become pure again. We may ask: Why are THESE particular ashes so powerful? Why is the ritual performed just so? Why do we read about this ritual every year, so long after the institutions of Temple and sacrifice have been abolished? All really great questions... and all unanswerable.

So this is where I get back to the question of taking a leap of faith. Do all religious practices need to make "sense"? How important is it to learn that the laws of Kashrut have health benefits, or that resting every seventh day is good for you? The rabbis were very wary of trying 
to PROVE value in religious observance, because religion ain't science. It is also an illusion that we could ever possibly understand everything in life; some things are simply unknowable and/or cannot be quantified. Of course, there is a difference between a leap of faith and blind faith. We all see the terrible and destructive consequences of blind faith, where groups like ISIS or fundamentalists in pretty much ALL religions justify horrific behavior because "God [or my holy text] says so." Yes, we can take it too far, and people constantly do. But the opposite extreme - of constant scrutiny and total lack of faith - is damaging as well. In our efforts to run far away from extremism, we sometimes distance ourselves from the great value and beauty in religion. And we cannot let the fundamentalists "steal" away our faith.

Now you may be wondering, is the Red Heifer really the issue we go to bat for? No, probably not. I'm not looking to resurrect sacrifices or impurity laws. But to me, this bovine is a symbol. It's an example of a law that makes no sense. So what? We can read it, and value it, anyway. Do we need to observe 
EVERY minor aspect of Passover cleaning and preparation? Do we need to perform every Mitzvah with exact precision, painstaking detail, and total adherence? Maybe not. It is quite unlikely that God will be upset if you miss something, or fall short of your own ideals. But religion should challenge us. It is not here to (only) bless and sanctify the easy things we already do, and it does not need to stand up to our scrutiny or standards of logic, science, and reason. I get it: You don't plan on accepting things with blind faith. Great! I agree. But how about considering a LEAP of faith? Can you let religion in to your life a little bit more, and with a bit of acceptance that some things just are, without explanation? Food (or ash?) for thought, especially with Pesach lurking just around the corner...

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of Caroline discovering Vietnamese flat noodles, courtesy of my iPhone.
2. CC image courtesy of Dovi on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image, "The Leap of Faith," courtesy of Superscramble o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of Bernard Picart's "The Search for Leavening" courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Ki Tisa: A Seat Among Vulcans and High Priests

A quick disclaimer: I want to clarify that last week's blog post "Holiday Commandments? Pour-em Down On Me!!" was a joke. It was "Purim Torah," and meant to be humorous, extreme, and even a bit ridiculous. This year, it didn't seem like too many people misunderstood that, but I've experienced some confusion in previous years of Purim Torah blogging, so I just wanted to make that perfectly clear. Thanks!

(I would like to dedicate this post in memory of Leonard Nimoy - Mr. Spock. Though more of a "Star Trek: Next Generation" fan as a kid 
than a devote of the original Kirk-and-Spock series, I still appreciate how significant he was to a lot of people, and how he really stood out as a role model, especially within the Jewish community. He will be missed; Live Long and Prosper!)

I thought of Mr. Spock this week, because we're reading the story of the Golden Calf. Perhaps the connection is not so obvious, so let me explain. As I reviewed my previous (FIVE!) years' blog posts on Ki Tissa, I found that I've thus far covered this embarrassing incident from the 
perspectives of Moses, God, and the Israelites. But one account I have yet to discuss is that of Aaron, Moses' brother and right-hand man. Hence the Spock connection, as he was the second-in-command to Captain Kirk. Aaron is actually a very significant player in this particular drama. When Moses disappears up the mountain to converse with God, Aaron is left in charge. And after 40 days, the people get restless and appeal to Aaron to build them a replacement god (which raises the question; who are they replacing?). Incredibly, Aaron offers NO objection; he asks them for their gold and jewelry, and goes about making an idol for them! And in fact, he is the one who chooses the calf as a model for their impostor-deity.

As if things weren't bad enough already, when Moses DOES return and becomes enraged at their disgraceful idolatry, he turns to Aaron to try and make sense of how this could happen. Aaron accepts no responsibility for his actions. First, he blames
the people ("You [Moses] know that this people is bent on evil," Ex. 32:22), and then he utters one of my FAVORITE excuse-lines in the entire Torah: "They gave it [their jewelry] to me and I hurled it into the fire and out came this calf!" (32:24) Incredible! Aaron somehow tries to suggest that he's innocent, because he simply tossed gold into the fire and out POPPED a golden idol; it's a miracle!! The rabbis, of course, try and sympathize with Aaron, imagining that he was either forced to do the people's bidding on threat of death, that he was trying to stall for time by slowing down the work, or that he was subtly still loyal to God when he declared "a festival to the Lord" (32:6) in front of the idol. I'm not convinced. Let's face it - the evidence IS pretty damning...

Which brings me back to Mr. Spock. What does it mean to be second-in-command? It's a tough role. You don't really get the "glory" of being in charge, but you still take all the flack for being part of "The Man." 
And I also often imagine there's pressure to eventually, at some point, assume the mantle of leadership. Somehow we imagine that that's everyone's aspiration, but that's a shame really, isn't it? Not everyone is cut out to be in charge. There are SO many crucial roles in a leadership structure, and within a community, and every role requires different talents and skills. Why must everyone covet the top spot in the hierarchy? What if your personality and abilities lend themselves better to be a treasurer, or an adviser, or a nuts-and-bolts worker... or a right-hand (wo)man? Nevertheless, our culture teaches us to strive to be top dog. And the end result is the (in)famous Peter Principle: "managers rise to the level of their incompetence." Eventually, most people wind up in over their heads; kind of like Aaron.

Again, I don't say all of this to absolve Aaron of any guilt. In my mind, he messed up... big time! The incident does, however, highlight for me that Aaron was never meant to be in charge. He made poor decisions, he couldn't take responsibility, and he blamed everyone else around him. 
And for those of you who are "Trekkies" out there; would Mr. Spock have ever made a good Captain? No way. But Aaron and Spock were BOTH great in their positions as #2! I think we are all much happier in our lives when we know ourselves well; when we can accept our strengths AND our weaknesses, and find our most optimal role in a group. I recognize that I'm venturing dangerously close into Socialism here, but I hope you see my point. The alternative is a dog-eat-dog system where everyone secretly wants to be in charge - even when they would be TERRIBLE at it! The Captain's chair is certainly alluring, but it simply doesn't suit everyone. Where do you think your optimum seat is, and how close are you to sitting in it? Finding that spot, the one that really suits you best, truly is the key to happiness. And it will most certainly allow you to: Live Long and Prosper!
Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of We hope on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of Daniel Case o
Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Nevit on Wikimedia Commons

5. CC image courtesy of SunOfErat on Wikimedia Commons