Friday, May 29, 2015

Naso: Using Words Before Goats

Next week, I am going to be away. I will be participating in a Conservative Movement Mission trip to visit Jewish communities in Budapest, Paris, and London. I will most likely not be writing a blog post, but will then be back in the swing of things again the following week. Enjoy this week's post, and I'll speak to you all again soon!

A big theme here at Ohev Shalom this past year has been relationships; how do we create a more Relational Judaism? This isn't just an institutional or leadership-focused question, it's a personal one, and an interpersonal one, as well. How do I connect more with the people around me? How do I expand AND deepen my concern for others, both within and outside my community? Our Torah portion this week, Naso, deals with this same question in a very interesting way. It starts out with a goat and a priest, but really it's looking much, much deeper, at questions that affect how you and I live our lives here today.

So the animal sacrifice and the Temple priest are part of an elaborate ritual to apologize for something. "When a man or woman commits any wrong toward a fellow man... and that person realizes his (or her) guilt, he shall confess the wrong that he has done, [and] he shall make restitution in the principal amount... in addition to the ram of expiation with which expiation is made on his behalf" (Numbers, 5:6-8). So the 
last line of that ritual tells us that the offender must bring a sacrifice to the Temple... but it's interesting that he FIRST needs to confess what he's done and make restitution. In other words, the Torah is making sure that you and I know that you can't beg God for forgiveness when you've wronged another person. The sacrifice is not a magical get-out-of-jail card that helps you avoid the awkward moment of apologizing; that "sorry" is still very much needed. And it must be directed to the right person.

In a great Torah commentary on this subject, Rabbi Shai Held highlights several interesting points. First, he quotes Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler, who emphasizes the importance of actual words when you're trying to improve yourself. You can't just THINK about changing, "because when one adds speech to thoughts and feelings, they become firmly established in one's heart. 
The spiritual level one attains through repentance is thus finally established and determined by speech." Rabbi Held then connects this notion to my original point, relationships. He challenges all of us by comparing what it means to "feel sorry" and to SAY "I'm sorry." Rabbi Held writes: "When I regret having treated someone poorly, my regret is, at first, purely internal: It is about me and my relationship to my own character and actions. It is only when I express my regret - when I apologize - that I create a relational space between me and the person I have wronged."

On the one hand, we all know the power of words. Yet, on the other, we still try to find shortcuts, or we think things will be "easier" if we leave them unspoken. Confrontations, apologies, calling someone out; these can all be uncomfortable, awkward, or even hurtful. But they're also 
necessary. We cannot be in authentic relationship with one another without expressing our feelings and our pains. You may not be using a goat or an ancient ritual, but I challenge you to think about times in your life (or in the past week!) when you've tried to move past a difficult situation without directly confronting or addressing the person you REALLY needed to speak to. I'm guessing it's not just me... So let's resolve to try and push ourselves to speak freely and openly a little more often. It will lead to better relationships with all the people around us, but it will also improve our sense of authenticity within ourselves. And let's give the sacrificial (scape) goats a little rest, shall we? They've been through enough...

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of Relational Judaism, by Dr. Ron Wolfson, courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone.
Clipart image
CC image courtesy of junkyardsparkle on Wikimedia Commons
CC image of William Holman Hunt's "The Scapegoat" courtesy of Dmitry Rozhkov on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 22, 2015

B'Midbar: Don't Run From the Wilderness!

Interesting things happen in the wilderness. I'm not necessarily referring only to the Bible, but if we stick with the Torah for now, you can certainly see plenty of examples of this. Abraham travels through the wilderness, at God's command, to find his new home; he sends a servant back through the desert to find a wife for his son, Isaac; Jacob disappears off into the outback to go live with Laban; Joseph is sold into slavery somewhere in the fields; Moses flees from Pharaoh's wrath into the hinterland; centuries later, King David escapes various plots by hiding in the wilderness, and on and on and on. Of course, the entire story of the Exodus is itself about life "in the desert," "B'Midbar"! As a theme, a literary device, the wilderness serves a crucial function, and not only for our Biblical ancestors, but for you and me as well.

The wild is vulnerable, it's dangerous, it's unknown. And yet, it also represents opportunity, excitement, plot development, and - perhaps most importantly - a clean start. Time and again, our ancestors travel into the bush to reset, to shed an old life and begin again. For Abraham, Jacob, Moses, and 
indeed the entire population of the Children of Israel, they go into the wilderness one way, and come out the other side changed, evolved, matured, and enlightened. Well, that's the hope anyway... This week, our Torah portion is called B'Midbar, as it is the first parashah in the fourth Book of the Torah, which is also called B'Midbar in Hebrew. The entire book focuses on the life of the Israelites in the desert over the course of their forty years of wandering. In addition, this weekend we celebrate the holiday of Shavuot, when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai... in the wilderness. Shavuot is the holiday when we read another story from our ancient tradition, namely the Book of Ruth. And Ruth ALSO has a story about beginning her life anew by sojourning through the desert.

After her father-in-law and her husband both die, Ruth leaves her home in Moab, and sets forth with her mother-in-law, Naomi, to make a new life in Canaan. Along the way (in the wild...), she basically converts to Judaism. There is much we could focus on in this story, but for our purposes here, let's just acknowledge the significance of the journey itself. Ruth has a transformative experience of traveling through no-man's land and emerging on the other side a changed 
woman. What happens to her in the desert? What happens to ALL our ancestors when they disappear off into the sandy, desolate, sun-baked unknown? I'd like to suggest a couple of things. First, it's quiet. All the other voices in our lives, the narratives we hold onto, the "should's" and the "must's," they all melt away. Alone with our own minds and hearts, we can achieve some clarity, and perhaps see a new path forward that was much too obscured before. Second, it's vulnerable. This seems like a bad thing, but it really isn't. We strip away all our securities and the guarantees we tell ourselves we MUST retain, and something amazing emerges. All the "stuff" we held onto, that we were certain we couldn't live without, really wasn't so essential after all. Not only that, it might have actually been holding us back!

In the desert, we rely on ourselves. An internal strength and bravery arises that we never knew existed. Our eyes open up, our hearts expand, and our lungs breath new air that seems fresher and sweeter. But again, the wilderness is scary, it's risky. There are no assurances, and the dangers are real. Yet somehow, for every, single one of our ancestors - from Abraham, to Ruth, to her great-grandson, King David - it was worth it. The reward of 
self-discovery and a life of purpose and meaning was precious enough that they were willing to take that first daunting step off into the unknown. I'm sure you've figured this out by now, but the wilderness is a metaphor. For us it can be a scary, lengthy trip abroad, a silent retreat, transitioning to a new job, contemplating having a child, entering the housing market as a buyer OR seller; whatever it might be, there ARE wildernesses in our lives today. The desert is the journey, NOT the destination. Don't focus on the end result; the thing you're working or moving towards. Instead, look at that step (or steps) in between. What does THAT look like? And what could it look like for you? There is so much we can learn in there - in that awkward, risky, unpredictable middle stage - after we've taken the leap but before we've landed. Don't let that opportunity go to waste. Spend some time in the wilderness; you never know how it might change you.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Yuvalr on Wikimedia Commons
CC image courtesy of brewbooks on Wikimedia Commons
CC image courtesy of Jim Padgett on Wikimedia Commons
CC image of Fyodor Kamensky's "First Step" courtesy of Stebanoid on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 15, 2015

Behar-Bechukotai: What the Leaves are Trying to Tell Us

Last week, it was 90 degrees here in Philadelphia. In early May. I'm a big fan of warm weather, and I'm definitely excited for the pools to open, the barbecues to come out, 
and the sunscreen to get slathered on; but I also can't deny that 90 degrees in May seemed excessive and early. Tropical storms in the south, drought in the west, snowfall in the north - something is clearly going on. Interestingly, our Torah portion speaks to environmentalism and climate change, and I believe it offers us some important insights into what's happening to our planet, but also our own individual role in this shifting reality.

This week's parashah includes a series of blessings and curses, God's responses to us depending on whether we observe or ignore the mitzvot, commandments, in the Torah. The second half of our reading 
begins, "If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant your rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit... you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land" (Lev. 26:3-5). Conversely, if/when we choose to forsake God's stipulations, the Torah tells us "I will make your skies like iron and your earth like copper" (Lev. 26:19), which I think is a very striking image. Sandwiched between iron and copper, with no food, no rain, no soil; how would we survive? The list of curses gets pretty detailed and graphic, but an image that I also think is memorable and significant comes in chapter 26, verse 36, when it says: "The sound of a driven leaf shall put them to flight, fleeing as though from the sword." Again, an important reference to nature.

On the one hand, you can see it simply as a metaphor. The people will be so filled with terror, so psychologically destroyed and vulnerable, that the sound of rustling leaves will send them into panic and retreat. Tiny, innocent, trivial 
things will seem to them like scary monsters and goblins. But I would also argue, on the other hand, that the actual leaf itself can be a poignant symbol as well. Because a fallen leaf in the wrong season IS scary. Barren trees when they should be lush and green, that is a legitimately terrifying image. Very often, we focus on the connection between these Biblical blessings and curses and things like idolatry, Shabbat observance, and keeping Kosher. But we shouldn't miss the ecological imagery that is so deliberately chosen in these passages. Rain and fruit will turn into iron and copper - that truly IS a frightening admonition.

So where does that leave us? Time and again, the Torah tries to speak to the individual - to YOU and ME. It isn't speaking in generalities, and it isn't speaking to ancient ancestors. It applies to us today - just look around at the weather forecasts in YOUR area - and change can, and must, be affected by every individual. Even if we said, for argument's 
sake, that our fate was inevitable, and your individual contributions couldn't avert the impending disaster. Don't you still have an obligation to try? How does ANYTHING happen on a mass scale, before one, single person decides to change his or her behavior? Please take an inventory. As we might have an annual financial conversation around tax time, or an annual spiritual accounting before Yom Kippur, we should also do a personal environmental examination on a regular basis. We sometimes call it a "carbon footprint," which really just means we look at the impact we, as individuals, families, organizations, nations, have on our earth. Perhaps you can take this opportunity to sit down - maybe outside with sunglasses on and some powerful sunscreen protection - and look at what you recycle, if you compost, what lightbulbs you use, and how you run your heating and AC. 

We're only stewards of this earth; we don't own the place. And if we're going to shift our curses back to blessings, and prosper together with our planet, we need to pay a little more attention to the sound of the rustling leaves. 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Stevekc on Wikimedia Commons
CC image courtesy of JaneArt on Wikimedia Commons
CC image courtesy of Alex Proimos on Wikimedia Commons
CC image courtesy of Notnarayan on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 8, 2015

Emor: Art That Sanctifies

Before I "officially" begin this week's segment, I want to acknowledge something: This is my 300th blog post. I find it incredibly hard to believe it myself, but it's true. And after nearly six years, and an astounding 75,000 pageviews (well, 73,841, but you know what I mean...), I am so grateful to all of you for sticking with me. I still enjoy writing these (which is also a minor miracle), and I hope you enjoy reading them. I look forward to many more years here together, but I also like to stop and voice my gratitude and appreciation for milestones when they occur. So thank you. And now, Parashat Emor...

If you're gonna do something, do it well. If it's worth your time/energy/money/effort, then make it really count, and go the extra mile to achieve a sense of genuine gratification and satisfaction. 
I hear this message in our Torah portion, loud and clear, and I think it's an essential one in our lives today as well. From the Torah's point of view, it's about God. All of this - being Jewish, observing the laws, treating others with kindness, etc., etc. - is for God, so do it with passion and care. For you and me today, God is sometimes still the motivating factor. But we don't have to hear "God" in the text for the message to be meaningful. Ultimately, I think the Torah is still saying "CARE about what you do!" Take pride in your effort, get emotional about what you do, and invest in your projects, even if there's risk of failure, disappointment, and dejection. Elsewhere, the Torah tells us to "Love God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your might" (Deut. 6:5). What would our lives look like if we placed THAT kind of effort into everything we did?

Our parashah is mainly interested in sacrifice and holiday observance. Technically speaking, it isn't addressing other aspects of life or how we should care about ALL that we do. But we extrapolate; that's what it means to interpret Torah and make it meaningful in our lives. 
So when the Torah says, "When you sacrifice a thanksgiving offering to Adonai, sacrifice it so that it may be acceptable in your favor" (Lev. 22:29), how do we understand the term "in your favor"? I think it's saying that the sacrifice will speak well of you, before God, IF you demonstrate that it's important to you. If you think you can get away with giving the crappiest animal in the flock, or the rotten apples you weren't going to eat anyway, it won't work! And not because God demands high-quality produce, but because it says something about YOU when you pull these kinds of stunts! You're showing how little you care, so your minimal investment will pay minimal returns. It won't help you, because YOU won't help you.

This weekend, at Ohev Shalom, we're embarking on a major art endeavor. Over the course of the next year, we are installing fourteen beautiful, incredible mosaic panels in our Main Sanctuary, depicting 
the Twelve Tribes of Israel, as well as a thirteenth for the Levitical priests, and a fourteenth for Jacob's daughter, Dinah, to break up the testosterone-overload. The first two panels are being dedicated this weekend; the tribes of Reuben and Naphtali. The panels are amazing, just from an artistic point-of-view. And they have added meaning, because embedded among the tiles are personal artifacts from members of the congregation; so the panels tell OUR communal story as well. But I also think the project, as a whole, says something larger about us as an organization.

A traditional, even Biblical perspective would say we're doing this for God; "l'Sheim Shamayim," "for the sake of Heaven." By making our prayer space, our sanctuary, a more beautiful and spiritual place, we 
are elevating our worship and creating new and (hopefully) profound ways to connect with prayer. And I don't disagree. Our Torah portion tells us, "that I may be sanctified in the midst of the People Israel; I, the Lord, who sanctifies you" (Lev. 22:32). God may be the One who does the blessing, but we bless God right back! And yet, it isn't just a theological thing. Prayer, in Judaism, 
is bi-directional; it goes out and it goes back in, inside ourselves. We elevate and sanctify ourselves with this project. The process, the journey, the togetherness it creates, and the investment of resources from SO many people; all these things create holiness. I, for one, am very eager to see how our Children of Israel Collection will unfold. And I'm excited for the plethora of ways in which it will enrich our community. Once the panels are in our midst, I know we will be "mekadishchem," "sanctified by them." 

Photos in this blog post:
1. The Tribe of Asher (olive tree) - mosaic panel to be installed later this summer
2. Past presidents of Ohev Shalom, David Pollack, Bruce Godick, and Frances Sheehan, working with me on the Tribe of Reuben (mandrake flower).
3. Members of our USY youth group working on The Tribe of Naphtali (deer). Danielle Berman, Shannah Stone, Leah Cohen, Jordyn Kaplan, Julia Katcher, Carly Paul, and Sarah Lieberman.
4. Reuben, the panel completed!
5. Naphtali, the panel completed!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: Judging Between the Torah and a Podcast

It's funny sometimes, what comes out of your mouth. Do you know what I mean? You think you're going to answer a question one way, but then you hear yourself say something entirely different. Or you're asked to respond quickly to a question, and the reply surprises even you. 
This happens to us occasionally, and I think it's an opportunity to introspect, and hopefully understand ourselves a little bit better. This was my experience earlier this week. You may have already seen me post about this on Facebook, but on Tuesday I was a guest "expert" on Dan Savage's podcast (radio show), "The Savage Lovecast." Dan Savage is an activist, writer, media pundit, and journalist, and he puts out a weekly podcast with relationship and sex advice. Not, perhaps, the obvious place to hear a rabbi weigh in, but I'm a big fan of his show. It's a really well-done podcast, and Dan Savage deals with human sexuality - and MANY other topics - in a way that you simply don't hear anywhere else. And he invited me on the show to comment on a call from a Jewish listener.

The details of the call aren't my focus here. What I wanted to unpack with you on the blog were some of the things I, myself, said! The show was recorded ONE day after I received the invitation, so I was still only processing that I would be on the air at all; I was pleasantly surprised to discover I spoke in coherent sentences!
When I eventually listened to the podcast, days later, I found that I had chosen to speak about judgment in the Torah. Despite all its "Thou shalt's" and "Thou shalt not's," I actually 
think the Torah is a pretty accepting document. It's sometimes facetious, even playful, in the midst of laying down the law(s) that we must live by. I'll admit, it can be hard to see it, but I feel quite certain it's there, hidden in the text. Let me give you an example: When, in this week's parashah, we are told NOT to worship idols, it sounds so simple and straightforward. But it's not the only time we hear this commandment. It is repeated over and over, throughout the Torah and into the books of the Prophets. Soon you start to realize, no one is listening to, or abiding by, this rule! You hear something once, and it's a law. You hear it SEVEN times, and now you realize it's a law being ignored...

What I said to Dan Savage was, the Torah is not such a black-or-white document. We pretend it's a book of rules, with clear guidelines and parameters for behavior, but it really isn't. 
One minute it tells you that preserving life - pikuach nefesh - is the single MOST important law... then it tells you to stone someone to death if they break a commandment! The Torah is not a law code; it's a document about humanity. It depicts our heroes, like Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, as really flawed individuals, and sometimes portrays our enemies (Esau, Bilaam) as decent guys. It puts forth a lot of suspect behavior (for example, in the realm of sex, which is how it came up in conversation with Dan Savage), and doesn't necessarily tell us how to feel about it. Some things just ARE; we are the ones who add judgment, labels, bias, and prejudice.

So how do we push ourselves in the opposite direction? Towards greater acceptance? Perhaps we can redefine some of our standards. The second half of this week's Torah portion is called "Kedoshim," meaning "holy": "Kedoshim tihyu," "You shall be holy" (Lev. 19:2). 
What does it mean 
to be holy? I think we need to move away from the standard understanding, which focuses solely on law-abiding, prudent, keeping-up-appearances type behavior. What about integrity and honesty? Staying true to ourselves and our internal moral compass? The ancient prophets and rabbis understood this, and they railed against hollow practices, where people superficially observed the rules, but did so without passion, commitment, or intentionality. There is a way to marry these two issues - being holy in God's eyes AND in our own. But the answer is unique to each one of us; you have to find that balance for YOURSELF, just as I need to find it for me. We can, however, start by letting go of judgment and guilt. Let go of it in yourself, and stop ascribing it to the text of our ancient tradition! If you open your eyes, truly, you'll see that the Torah isn't judging our behavior. It's hard to believe, I know. But it really isn't. So, why should we?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Magnus Manske on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Oren neu dag on Wikimedia Commons

3. CC image courtesy of Herostratus on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Rocket000
 on Wikimedia Commons