Friday, April 24, 2015

Tazria-Metzora: Are You Ready for an Upgrade?

In Judaism, we love rituals. I mean we really, REALLY love rituals! Those of us who recently got through Passover can certainly attest to that. Jewish law doesn't just formalize all aspect of the Pesach meal; it also scrutinizes the house cleaning, the food disposal and purchasing, 
and the utensil-switching-over-ing. And that's just the start! Our Halachah, our legal system, also examines lifecycle ceremonies, Shabbat observance, eating standards, etc., etc., ETC... But let's put all that aside. Let's just talk about the concept of "ritual" in our lives, and not just the religious ones. We all have them. Even if you're not observant - in ANY religion - you still ritualize your behavior. All the steps you take before going to bed, your lunch habits at work, the rapport you have with friends and family; we each do it differently, but essentially we're all creating order in the chaos of life. I just don't think we pay much attention to ourselves WHILE we're doing this. And I think we should.

Our Torah portion this week is a weird one. It's arguably the weirdest, most uncomfortable one all year long. It talks about skin disease, mold, discharges, and all manner of not-fit-for-cocktail-party-conversation topics. Besides just talking about 
all this "fun" stuff, the Torah also REALLY formalizes our behavior around it. Every action and motion is prescribed. I'll give you an example. In Leviticus, 14:16-17, we read: "And the priest shall dip his right finger in the oil that is in the palm of his left hand and sprinkle some of the oil with his finger seven times before the Lord. Some of the oil left in his palm shall be put by the priest on the ridge of the right ear of the one being purified, on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot." You see what I'm saying? I'm surprised the Torah doesn't also mandate what BRAND of oil they need to use!

Again, let's put all that aside. Just focus on the idea of ritual. Their version sounds really ancient while ours seems modern, but ultimately we're all trying to figure out how to make sense of stuff that makes us uncomfortable, or lifecycle occasions that bring big changes into our lives, or figuring out how to deal with stress, anger, anxiety, and shame. 
Reading about these crazy Biblical practices should merely serve as a springboard for conversations about ourselves; how am I taking care of myself, how am I creating order in the chaos of MY life, and how am I contributing to making the world a better place? The Torah is basically trying to tell us to treat ourselves well and to be mindful of our behaviors. It just has a funny way of getting there. Rabbi Elliot Dorff, in a Torah commentary on Tazria-Metzora, expresses a similar sentiment: "So today's Torah reading can serve as one example of a broader Jewish theme that we have the duty to engage in proper diet, hygiene, exercise, and sleep so as to preserve our bodies so that we can serve God." 

Rabbi Dorff's quote also brings me to my final point. What does "serve God" mean? We get so focused on the language of ritual and worship, we miss the real point of all this. Serving God is, at its core, about being the best versions of ourselves. It's about striving 
to live a full and rich life, filled with kindness and generosity, compassion and love. Even this gross stuff about leprosy is REALLY trying to remind us to give thanks for the goodness in our lives, and to be deliberate and intentional in EVERY thing we do. So take a moment to look at the rituals in your life. Be grateful for your ability to do them, and think about how you are (or could be) working towards becoming an even better version of yourself. You don't even need to make big changes; just living a bit more mindfully will open your eyes to your own life, and to the world around you. It will create more gratitude and appreciation, and right there, you're already on the road to the new and improved, You2.0! 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Bill Branson on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of BAIA on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of AzaToth on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image (including the Hebrew word "Todah," meaning "Thanks") courtesy of 
נטע on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 17, 2015

Shemini: For Jacob and Ethan.

I know this may sound strange, but I am going to talk about a Holocaust survivor and a Bar Mitzvah boy. The connections may not 
be obvious at first, but please bear with me. I mention this at the outset, because both of these incredible individuals are on my mind right now... but that doesn't mean the two stories are being equated. I am NOT comparing them in all things, and so I hope you'll appreciate where there are similarities, and where those similarities end. Having said that, both men have truly inspired me this week.

As you may know, this past Thursday was Yom Ha-Shoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day. At Ohev Shalom, we were tremendously honored to have Jacob Farkas, a Holocaust survivor, come and tell his story. As if his life wasn't remarkable enough, we were all blown away to learn that this was the very first time he had EVER shared his experiences. 
Even his children and grandchildren had not yet heard all the details of his survival from Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration camps. And it was quite an unbelievable story that he had to tell! To give you one example: One day, in Birkenau, he was moved to a barracks that was set to be "liquidated," as he put it. And the inmates knew it. Refusing to submit, refusing to accept his fate, Jacob climbed into the rafters, 20 ft. up in the air, out onto the roof, and jumped to the ground. The fall alone could have killed him. Instead, he survived, but fell right on a Nazi guard, who beat him and sent him back inside. Incredibly, Jacob once again scaled the bunks, climbed out, jumped, and yet again was beaten and returned to meet his fate. And astoundingly, Jacob ventured up a THIRD time - and jumped a third time! - and finally managed to escape. Unquestionably, his was a story of perseverance, of unrelenting refusal to die or succumb. What an inspiration!

I recognize that this is an awkward transition, but this week, Jacob's was only one of two stories that inspired me. You see, we are also celebrating a most amazing and special Bar Mitzvah on Saturday evening. A young man in our 
congregation, Ethan Chalker, has worked tremendously hard to prepare for his special day. Ethan has a rare neuro-genetic disorder called Angelman Syndrome. Among other things, Ethan is mostly non-verbal. But through the magic of technology, Ethan is going to lead services and have an aliyah to the Torah, through the use of an iPad, and with the incredible help of his family members and aides. I cannot fully describe to you how much work Ethan, his mom, Sharon, and everyone involved has put into making this day possible. It is going to be a very emotional service, and I am so excited to celebrate this milestone with Ethan.

While all B'nai Mitzvah celebrations are special, this one is clearly unique. In large part because Ethan WANTS this very, very much. Watching him overcome obstacles, push through challenges, and all with a huge smile on his face, THAT is what religion and Jewish identity is all about! And without trying to equate the two situations, 
or draw too many parallels, I still want to acknowledge how both Jacob's and Ethan's stories are about the triumph of the spirit. Each of them demonstrates to us the importance of living life to its fullest, and not taking things for granted. And having heard Jacob's remarkable story, in the context of all our ancestors and relatives who survived the Holocaust, I feel that Ethan's ability to celebrate his Bar Mitzvah is an extra-special triumph. It is such a poignant reminder that today we are living free, able to celebrate our religious beliefs, and that we are able to take a symbol of modernity and the secular world - the iPad - and use it as an integral tool for religious observance. Truly, Am Yisrael Chai - the Jewish people are alive!

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of our Ohev Shalom sanctuary.
2. CC image courtesy of Julia Seeliger on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of Tom Morris on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Hovev on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Eighth Day of Pesach: Why Am I Still Eating Matzah?

Guess what? It's still Passover. The last "goat song" at the end of the 2nd Seder was sung on Saturday evening, and yet, one week later, the 
holiday continues. Friday night and Saturday, THIS week, constitute the final day of Pesach, so the end is in sight. Every year, I find it challenging to remain motivated through the end of the chag. There's so much excitement and build-up for the first two Seders and that initial bite of matzah; but how do we stay energized for days 6, 7, and 8? And why was the holiday this lengthy in the first place??

The Torah tells us to celebrate for seven days, and when the Jewish community moved out of Israel, two thousand years ago, Diaspora Jews added an eighth day. So the Torah 
tells us THAT we keep Passover for a week, but it doesn't really help us determine WHY we do. I could talk about Temple sacrifices or the length of time it took to travel to Jerusalem, but that's ancient news... literally! Here are three, more contemporary thoughts on possible reasons for an extended holiday. First of all, if you're gonna switch over your dishes, clean out your fridge, cover your countertops (if that's your thing), and go through that whole pomp and circumstance; is it all worth it for a ONE-day holiday??? Even two doesn't entirely justify all that futzing and fussing...  

Second, I think the lengthy holiday reminds us that we are Jewish... ALL the time. If it were just a festive meal, or even two, then we might feel connected to our religion and our people only at the Seder table. We certainly feel Jewish there! But packing up leftovers and eating them at 
work, obligating ourselves to these Passover restrictions in our everyday lives, THOSE things reminds us that we're Jewish 24/7! But for the record, I don't think we need to think about Judaism every second of every day. I remember an Orthodox friend of mine, when we were kids, who would look for Jewish adages in EVERY movie we went to see in the theater. It drove me crazy! Sometimes I just want to watch a James Bond movie, ok? I don't need to think about what Rabbi Akiva or Maimonides would have said about it... We can be Jewish in synagogue and in our homes on Shabbat. And yet, sometimes it's nice, like on Pesach, when Judaism peaks its head into our workspace and our school lunchrooms.

And finally, I think an eight-day holiday is just enough time to create a reset. It's long enough to start a routine, so that when you then switch your home BACK, everything seems kind of new again! Eight days allows us to create a little distance from our regular lives, and then look at ourselves, our homes, and our existence with a slightly refreshed perspective. Pesach, therefore, isn't just 
valuable in and of itself, it also affords us the opportunity to appreciate the rest of our lives anew. Leavened products seem so luxurious again (if only for a fleeting second...). The convenience of all our kitchen equipment and the plethora of food options in the grocery store feel almost overwhelming! When the holiday eventually does end, hold on to that moment for a bit longer, and really acknowledge it. That feeling of appreciation is so precious, and sadly, so rare. Pesach allows us to feel grateful for everything we have in our lives, and to see it with new eyes, at least once a year. I don't know if that will be enough motivation to keep you excited for more matzah on day eight, but hey, I gave it a shot! :-) And don't worry, the holiday will "pass over" soon enough...

Chag Sameach!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of O'Dea on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Uwe a on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of BocaDorada on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Ralf Roletschek on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 3, 2015

Happy Passover!!

The house has been cleaned, the chametz (leaven) has been sold or burned, the charoset is being made, and perfect hiding places for the Afikoman are being scouted out. In other words, we're ready for Passover! If you, dear reader, are celebrating the holiday, I wish you a "Chag Kasher v'Sameach," a Happy and Kosher Holiday, in whatever sense the holiday feels "Kosher," spiritual, and meaningful to you. If you are not a Passover-celebrant, I wish you a wonderful Easter or simply a beautiful spring!

Wherever we are, whatever we're doing, I wish for us all peace and freedom, the true underlying hopes, prayers, and dreams of this season. May we remember and celebrate the things that unite us, and "pass over" all the things that divide and distance us. I hope you have a wonderful, tasty, and enjoyable Seder. And most importantly:

Warm regards,

Rabbi Gerber