Friday, July 31, 2015

Va-etchanan: The Eleventh Commandment

What is the Eleventh Commandment? This week, our Torah portion gives us the second iteration of the famous Ten Commandments, and though many of us may struggle to get them exactly right and in their precise order, we pretty much get the gist of what's in them. But if you had to add one more, what would it be? A lot of jokes have been made around this concept, like the infamous "Thou Shalt Not Get Caught," which has various attributions. It's also been used in political speech, like Ronald Reagan's famous version of the 11th Commandment, "Thou Shalt Not Speak Ill of Any Fellow Republican." The idea of adding one more to the famous Ten is that something is a value to ME, and to my community, and it's almost as important as the ten most significant principles in life. So what might YOU add?

I think it's also interesting to note, in the context of this conversation, what is NOT included in the Aseret Ha-Dibrot, the Ten Commandments. Nothing is said of keeping Kosher, for instance, which might seem surprising, and most Jews (and Catholics) would probably be shocked to learn that guilt is not explicitly commanded! Another big one for me is Israel, or some talk of a relationship to the Holy Land. None of the Big Ten talk about land, or even any laws pertaining to maintenance of the farmland, produce, animals, or anything along those lines. I'm certain that some people today would offer "dwelling in the Land of Israel" as a good candidate for 11th Commandment. Though, of course, that would be a little awkward for all of us Diaspora Jews who live elsewhere around the world, wouldn't it?

For me, at least, making aliyah and moving to Israel is not an option. I'm a proud Diaspora-nik. And yet, I still might want some mention of Israel to make its way into the top commandments; number eleven, if not into the main Decalogue itself. Because Israel is SUCH an integral part of what makes us Jews. We face Jerusalem in prayer; we express a longing to go there at the end of our Pesach Seder and our Yom Kippur services; and so much of our history, culture, legal code, theology, and identity is rooted in its soil. But it is also true that Israel is not entirely absent from this section of our Torah reading. Just a few, short verses after the Ten Commandments are spoken, God says: "I will speak to you the commandments, statutes, and rules which you shall teach them, that they may observe them in the land which I am giving them to possess" (Deut. 5:31). So perhaps Israel is not the "what" of the commandments, but the "where." It is the place in which to make the mitzvot come alive for our people.

This week, I'm traveling to Israel with a group of Ohevites. I'm not even sure how many times I've been to Israel at this point, well over a dozen, including two separate instances of living there for a year. I'm not going to make aliyah, but I can't even imagine understanding the past, present, and future of Judaism without connecting it to our Homeland? It may not be one of the Ten Commandments, and it may not even be the Eleventh, but I think Israel provides us with the context for ALL of it. I love bringing people there to experience it for the first time, or perhaps for the first time in decades. I look forward to sharing with you here some of the highlights from this trip, and perhaps to inspire you to come see it for yourself. What does Israel mean for you? Is it a commandment, a vehicle for observing the commandments, unrelated to the commandments, or perhaps even a violation of them?? However we relate to Israel, it is a part of who we are. I am so thankful for yet another opportunity to go there, and can't wait to write to you again from the Holy Land!

L'Shavua Ha-bah b'Yerushalayim - Next WEEK in Jerusalem!!

Friday, July 24, 2015

Devarim: Finding the Rhythm of Tisha b'Av (repost)

This week, I'm reposting something I wrote back in 2012 for this week's Torah portion (which also applies to Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision, and to the Fast of Tisha b'Av). Enjoy!

I always find it fascinating to think about which holidays have become wildly popular and which have fallen by the wayside. Looking back at Jewish history, certain holidays like Shavuot and Sukkot were essential in an agricultural society and/or during the time of the Temple, with it's wonderful array of colorful sacrifices. Others either didn't exist yet, or they just weren't seen as essential. Today, holidays like Chanukah (gift giving), Tu Bishvat (environmentalism), and Yom Ha-Shoah (Holocaust Remembrance), seem to be trending, because they connect to the modern values that prevail in our society. In a way, our holidays are a mirror back on our lives, they teach us to reflect on what we care about, and what interests us. So what do we make of the upcoming holiday of Tisha B'av?

Tisha B'av is really a day of mourning, when we lump together all calamities that have befallen us (destructions of Temples, Crusades, pogroms, etc) and spend the day in reflection and prayer. Well, that's the idea anyway. But very few people observe this day, or perhaps even know that it is taking place.Yom Ha-Shoah, back in May, seems more relevant to us, because the Holocaust took place in our own communal memory. Furthermore, most of our fast days are followed by celebration, but Tisha B'av is not. Yom Kippur is followed by Sukkot and Simchat Torah, The Fast of the Firstborn is followed by Passover, and The Fast of Esther is followed by Purim. Tisha B'av used to be followed by a holiday six days later, Tu B'av, but it hasn't been celebrated in 2,000 years, so Tisha B'av just winds up seeming like the downer of all depressing holidays. 

I recently read a wonderful article by Nigel Savage, who is the founder of the organization, Hazon. In his article on Tisha B'av, Nigel talks about 'the rhythm from mourning to joy.' He points out that we don't do this very well nowadays. 
We treat days of commemoration like 9/11 only with sadness, instead of letting the day transition from reflection and remembrance into joy and celebration of life. We need to follow the example of the other fast days in the Jewish calendar, and not let ourselves get too focused on the calamities that have befallen us. Our Jewish collective memory is incredibly strong. We still commemorate events that took place over 2,000 years ago. But the Jewish historian Salo Baron warned us about what he called, 'the lachrymose view of Jewish history,' where we see the Jewish past as merely a long collection of tragedies and woes. A strong connection to history can be good, but only if we use it as an impetus for improving the present and the future. 

This upcoming Shabbat is called Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision. The name refers to a prophecy by Isaiah regarding the impending destruction but eventual redemption of the people. Fun stuff. It is always the Shabbat right before Tisha B'av, and I think we can use this as an opportunity for growth. How do we envision the world around us and our role in it?  Where do we put our focus, our 
energy? And I also share with you some of Nigel's powerful questions: "What do we mourn? What are our destructions? And what, arising from the ashes, do we choose to celebrate?" The fact that some holidays become popular and others lose support isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's all part of our evolution. But history still has much to teach us, and both Tisha B'av and Shabbat Chazon offer us opportunities to reflect and evaluate that we really shouldn't pass up. Just remember not to be too lachrymose; I'm sure you hear that all the time... 

Photos in this blog post:

  1. CC image courtesy of Ha-Wee on Flickr 
  2. CC image courtesy of Toni Birrer on Flickr
  3. CC image courtesy of CarbonNYC on Flickr
  4. CC image courtesy of rachaelvorhees on Flickr

Friday, July 17, 2015

Matot-Masei: A Tough Border to Cross

It's hard to put ourselves out for someone else. We do it occasionally, and for small, measured amounts of time, effort, and money, but it can
be really tough to go a step further. We need a vested interest, a stake, a carrot; some reason to make it worth our while to help another. And quite honestly, the Torah knows this. It understands human nature, even when it's uncomfortable for you and me to admit this out loud. The Torah doesn't shy away from saying so. It sometimes speaks in terms of ideals and lofty goals, but it also isn't afraid to get down in the trenches and shed light on the real, base, imperfect, and selfish emotions that make us human beings. So let's go there for a minute, shall we? Let's follow the Torah down one of those rabbit holes and talk about what selfishness looks like.

In our Torah portion, the final one of the fourth Book of the Torah, Numbers, Moses faces a challenge. The leaders of two-and-a-half tribes (the Torah never explains why Menashe split in half; just go with it...) approach Moses and ask for a
BIG favor. You see, towards the end of the wanderings of the Israelites through the desert, they have found themselves now inside modern-day Jordan, preparing to cross the famous river and conquer the Holy Land. And Reuben, Gad, and 50% of Menashe don't want to cross the Jordan. They like the land on the other side; they want to stay there. Moses is incensed! "Are your brothers to go to war while you stay here???" (Num. 32:6) Moses HATES this idea. It's selfish and self-serving. We've only been wandering for 40 years for this EXACT purpose, to conquer Canaan; sure, just give up when we're right at the border!!

But the tribes remain undeterred. They offer a deal to try and persuade Moses. They'll leave their families and flocks in Jordan, but will send troops to fight with their brethren and conquer the land. Only when
everything has been captured will they then return home. Moses (surprisingly) agrees. And what's even more astonishing (in my opinion anyway...) is that God is never consulted. God makes no appearance in this confrontation. I guess the text is telling us this is primarily a human issue. And I think you and I can truly relate. We too are tempted to put our families and our finances ahead of the interests of the collective good. And, conversely, we get angry - like Moses - when we see others acting this way. Ultimately, the main challenge for us all to consider is whether we could repeat the two surprising behaviors demonstrated by these tribes.

First, would you be able to see yourself as honestly as they do? They don't deny Moses' accusation. They don't protest. "Yeah, you're right. Our request IS self-serving. You caught us." They accept, as we all should, that OF COURSE they put their children and their own interests first. Admitting that allows you to
move to step two with greater honesty, integrity, and self-understanding. And step two, obviously, is challenging yourself to rise above that. As we approach the High Holidays, look back at the year that was, and ask yourself if you ever really put yourself out for someone else. Did you focus on the needs of another before your own? Let's face it: That is not our natural way. And that's ok. But we can PUSH ourselves outside our comfort zone and be just a little bit more inconvenienced. The Torah, and God, sees us for who we are. But it also sees what we COULD be, and has great hopes and dreams for all of us. The trick is, are we willing to see those things too? Are we willing to see what we look like, down in the trenches? And then - perhaps scarier still - are we willing to picture what we could become? Two tough questions we each must answer for ourselves.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Rowanwindwhistler on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC photo "Jordan and the Promised Land" courtesy of Dzlinker on Wikimedia Commons
CC image courtesy of Matanya on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Matanya onWikimedia Commons

Friday, July 10, 2015

Pinchas: Five Women Who Challenged God

I'm sure you're familiar with the Fabulous Five in the Torah, aren't you? The five women named Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and 
Tirtzah? Of course you are! Who doesn't know Talcum, Mona, Challah, Milky, and Myrtle? Wait, did I get that right? Sorry, I had to look up the names, so I might have messed up the spellings just a little... You see, the thing is, we SHOULD be familiar with them, but most of us aren't. They are some of the most proactive, fearless, equality-seeking, gutsy women in the Torah... and we rarely, if ever, talk about them. What gives?

This week, we read their story, so I thought we could talk about them for a minute. These five women are the daughters of a man named Zelophechad. The father is deceased. And the women come to Moses to complain, because all their father's holdings are now going to pass over 
to the closest MALE relative, and the five daughters will be left with nothing. This can't possibly be fair, can it? They assert: "Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!" (Numbers 27:4) They are all young and not yet married (which makes their confronting of Moses all the more impressive), but they feel justified in saying that this system is flawed. And, incredibly, when Moses brings this concern to God's attention, God responds: "The plea of Zelophechad's daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father's kinsmen; transfer their father's share to them." (Numb. 27:7) And this then becomes the law of the land.

Now, this didn't make everything perfect. I wish I could tell you that Machlah, Noa, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirtzah paved the way for full women's rights and equal pay. These five women still had to split ONE share, and they were required to marry men from within their clan or the holding would remain with the ancestral tribe. 
So not (yet) utopia. But it sets a precedent, right? It creates a tiny crack in the male-dominated hegemony of the ancient world, and it DOES feel like a pretty major victory. So why don't we hear about it more? Well, I think we all know the answer to that. When the (male) Israelites spent 40 years in the desert complaining about, well, EVERYTHING, and acted like entitled, spoiled, self-centered children, these Fabulous Five put them all to shame with one, single request. And that might have been hard to take for the priests, prophets, rabbis, and teachers of the subsequent millennia of Jewish history.

But so what? To heck with them! You and I are here now, and there's no time like the present. Let's talk about... Noa and her sisters, 
and let's celebrate their victory as our own. Ultimately, it IS impressive that the Torah shares with us their story, and then repeats it again ten chapters later, in case you missed it the first time. The Torah is not embarrassed to highlight strong women, and we shouldn't be either. In fact, we should learn from their example to speak up when we see injustice, and to question the establishment, even when we don't think it will affect change. Surely, we tell ourselves, someone else has already asked the question. But maybe no one has. And maybe someone should. And maybe, just maybe, that someone is you.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Slowking4 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Quinn Dombrowski on Wikimedia Commons
CC image courtesy of Parrot of Doom on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of a family with five daughters, courtesy of Co9man on Wikimedia Commons