Friday, October 30, 2015

Vayera: You Already Love This Blog Post (reposting)

Dear blog readers,
This week, I've been on vacation (and battling a sinus infection...), and so I haven't had a chance to write a new blog post. Instead, I am reposting something I wrote back in 2012 on our Torah portion, Vayera. I'll be back next week with a brand new post. Thanks so much! And Shabbat Shalom.


Rabbi Gerber

You Already Love This Blog Post
I love big, fancy words - especially ones related to Biblical scholarship. I don't know what it is about them, I just think they're terrific. Did you know, for instance, that a word that appears only once in the
entire Torah is called a 'Hapax Legomenon'? Now how could you NOT love a term like that?? Or the 'official' designation for God's holiest Name, the granddaddy of all God's titles - the one we pronounce 'Adonai' - which is 'Tetragrammaton.' Try sneaking that one into a cocktail party conversation... This week, I'd like to discuss another one with you, though you may already be familiar with it from other areas of literary scholarship. And it's one I've already (cunningly) employed in this first paragraph...

In the JTS commentary on our Torah portion, Vayera, one of my former Bible professors, David Marcus, writes about prolepsis. He defines prolepsis simply as 'anticipation,' or what movie-goers might know as 'foreshadowing.' Dr. Marcus gives us two versions of how this rhetorical device is employed in the Biblical narrative, and I'd like to briefly talk about both. 
When the Torah gives us information that it unknown to the characters themselves, that is one kind of prolepsis. For example, in Vayera the story of the Binding of Isaac is introduced with the phrase, "Some time afterward, God put Abraham to the test" (Genesis, 22:1). Right away, we know that this ordeal is 'a test,' and it assures us that all will end well. It instead becomes a thrilling story, as we follow Abraham up the mountain, watch him tie up his son, then bite our nails as he raises the knife in the air... and an angel stops him at the last minute. Incredibly dramatic stuff, to be sure, but all the while we, the readers, can rest easy knowing it's only a test. Thank you very much, prolepsis!

Another example of this technique is the use of seemingly unimportant details in one story, which will then later reappear elsewhere with greater purpose. For example, why did I refer to Adonai as the 'granddaddy' of Names at the start of this blog post? A peculiar choice 
of idiom, no? Or is it...When we are first introduced to Abram - whose name is later changed to Abraham - we might also be wondering why he has a name meaning 'Great Father.' It seems almost cruel, considering that he is child-less. But the name, of course, bears great significance, because he does indeed become the father of all monotheistic religions later on. However, the name is even more complex still. What kind of a 'Great Father' agrees to sacrifice his child? How are we meant to feel about his name while reading this terrible story about the near-sacrifice of Isaac? It seemed so innocent before, but now the name holds great tension for Abraham, for Sarah, certainly for Isaac, and for all of us as well.

At the end of his Torah commentary, Dr. Marcus shares a fabulous insight about prolepsis: "Too often we worry about the future, and about what can go wrong in our personal and professional lives... Instead of worrying about these matters, we might be well advised to adopt a proleptic technique. 
Let us envision success in our endeavors." Before starting a big business presentation, visualize being congratulated for 'nailing it.' Before swinging a golf club, picture the ball already in the hole. And hey, maybe when you place a vote in a ballot box, you can already picture your candidate delivering the acceptance speech! Prolepsis allows us to feel calm, because we already know things will end well. Why worry about failing when you've pictured yourself succeeding? Changing your outlook CAN transform your experience. All you've got to do is envision a positive end-result. I know you can do it, Daddy-O!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of DaveBleasdale on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of carulmare on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of FutUndBeidl on Flickr

Friday, October 23, 2015

Lech-Lecha: Expanding, But Not Removing, the Fence

In a few days, congregants here at Ohev Shalom will have a big decision to make. After a long process of deliberation - through living room salons, town hall meetings, and individual conversations - our synagogue leadership is putting forth a proposal to amend our constitution to allow non-Jewish family members of Jewish 
congregants to become full-fledged Ohevites. In and of itself, this is a big topic, and I look forward to a fascinating communal debate on November 1st to decide, ultimately, whether to make this change or not. At the same time, this one discussion has also opened up an entirely separate conversation about community boundaries in general. Who is "in" and who is "out," and who gets to decide? And if we allow non-Jewish individuals to (officially) join Ohev Shalom, who is left on the other side of our boundary... and why? The answer to that last question is of especially crucial importance.

From my perspective, we NEED to maintain a boundary. I'll talk in a minute about who is on the other side, but even before I get there, I want to emphasize the importance of A fence, SOME fence, to indicate where the borders are. I say this because some people don't think we should have ANY borders. Creating barriers is, to them, inherently 
discriminatory, exclusionist, and possibly even racist. I wholeheartedly (and respectfully) disagree. The existence of perimeters helps us identify, clarify, and solidify who WE are. I fundamentally believe that I need to know MYSELF first, and be proud to speak about who I am and what I stand for, and then I can engage with, and get to know "the other." A lack of boundaries doesn't help communication or bring people closer; it just creates confusion and chaos. Strong identities - partnered with openness to others, willingness to learn and listen, and commitment to reciprocity and sharing - lead to good and healthy relationships. We need that fence to help us know, truly, who we are. Now it is also true that fences get abused, and people DO use them to hide racist intent. But the boundaries themselves are not automatically and eternally wrong. We should absolutely look to expand our fences - as we're considering doing right now - to make sure we're inclusive, and that our perimeter reflects who is actually (and already) part of our congregation. The markers should be reevaluated from time to time, without question, but that still doesn't mean that all separations should be removed.

With that in mind, let's consider the borders that will still remain (IF we make this change on November 1st...). The biggest category of people who would still not be eligible for membership (and about whom we've so far received the most amount of questions and raised eyebrows) is Messianic Jews. Sometimes also called "Jews for Jesus," these Messianic Jews consider themselves Jewish, but also believe that Jesus was the Messiah and/or the 
son of God. But more than just a separate religious group, like Muslims, Christians, Hindus, or even atheists, many Messianic Jews actively proselytize among Jews, and frequently use subversive tactics to bring people to their congregations under false pretenses. They are NOT just another denomination of Judaism. You can read a lot more on a Jewish website called "Jews for Judaism," created specifically to counteract the messages and methods of these groups. I feel it is important to highlight this difference, because it is very significant. As "Jews for Judaism" expresses on their site, Buddhists, atheists, and many others respectfully hold different views from Jews and Christians. They do NOT suggest that the best way to express your Christianity is to become a Buddhist. Or that the highest form of Jewish living is to become an atheist! Jews for Jesus try to prove their validity through disproving ours. Individuals may obviously choose to be Messianic Jews; I wish them no ill will. But there is also no question for me that theirs is a community outside my border.

I didn't want to conclude without a reference to this week's Torah portion, Lech-Lecha (this is, after all, a Torah-based blog...). Our parashah focuses on the early years of our ancestors, Abraham and Sarah. And indeed, they are the ancestors of ALL people who consider themselves to fit under the umbrella of the Abrahamic faiths
This week's reading begins with God's grand blessing for Abraham: "All the nations of the earth shall bless themselves by you" (Gen. 12:3). And despite this, we are not one, big, happy family. We strive to get along, sometimes more successfully than others, but we DO have divisions and subgroupings. We have distinct religions and cultures, and we can all still bless ourselves by Sarah and Abraham. Our boundaries help us know who WE are, and what makes us distinct. Though it can be uncomfortable, it is often helpful to know who is "not-us" to see ourselves more clearly. And even as we work to expand our fence, it is always good to remember that the fence itself is there to protect (and challenge) us, and it too can be a source of blessing.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Rama on Wikimedia Commons

2. CC image courtesy of Haiku2 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Liftarn on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Spacebirdy on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 16, 2015

Noach: Fellowship Amidst All the Babble

The final section of our Torah reading this week teaches us the infamous story of the Tower of Babel. We may ask ourselves, what is the purpose of this peculiar little tale? It reminds us not to challenge God, through our haughtiness and puffed-up sense of self-worth.
It also provides the Biblical reader with an explanation as to why there are so many languages spoken throughout the (known) world. If you think about it, this is a fair question. Why DON'T we all just speak the same language? Doesn't it just make communication and understanding THAT much harder? Well, agree with it or not, the Tower of Babel fable explains how this cacophony of speech came about. Yet another purpose of this story is to serve as a critique (or even ridicule) of the Babylonian Empire. The Torah is basically telling us that their whole, glorious civilization - and their beautiful capital specifically - started with people angering God and disobeying the Divine will. Also, the origin of their name is silly; just a bunch of "babbling" fools...

But the story has more to teach us still. To me, it's also a lesson on teamwork and partnering. We CAN work together; that is not inherently a violation of God's plan. But what we DO with our resources, our effort, and our collective power, THAT is the real question, and the real test.
The Tower of Babel shows us how powerful - but nefariously so - we can become, and how it can lead us to challenge God's very authority over us. The rabbinic commentators tell us that when the people in our story said to one another "Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves" (Gen. 11:4), they were really trying to "storm heaven." They were attempting to dethrone God. Clearly, this is not good... not to mention a little megalomaniacal and insane. But again, that doesn't mean ALL efforts to work together are bad, or that all will end in the same fate.

Earlier this week, I participated in a new partnership here in Delaware County, called FUSE. The acronym stands for "Fellowship of Urban and Suburban Engagement," and consists of a host of Christian, Jewish, and Muslim groups in our area getting together to form
strong(er) partnerships. Why FUSE? Because most people live, work, and socialize only with people who look and think like they do. We don't actively and regularly interact with other people, and we don't learn about them and their lives (nor they about us), which - I believe - is to the detriment of all of us. Perhaps we're worried that if we worked too closely with one another, we'd run the risk of building another Tower of Babel, physically or metaphorically. But we NEED to form these partnerships. We live our lives incredibly siloed, and it is hurting our community... and arguably the entire world.

Of course, FUSE isn't going to solve all our problems. But those of us who organized it believe it's a step in the right direction. On Columbus Day, we brought together close to 50 people from all walks of life, and we all debated tough issues facing our community (like violence, education, racism, and healthy living). We are now working on forming
action groups to turn some of our conversations into projects, though FUSE is also VERY MUCH about continuing the dialogue itself as well. Just putting ourselves back into a single room, and resolving to work together and learn about one another, is - in and of itself - a major achievement, and a primary goal of FUSE. Sometimes it can feel like the Tower of Babel; our cultural differences leave us babbling AT one another. But the ancient story also reminds us what immense power exists in coming together and organizing our efforts. When used for good, in partnership with one another, and in the spirit of our shared religious teachings, our collective energy may just be the spark - the "fuse" - that lights our way to a better future.

If you're interested in getting involved in FUSE, or just learning more, please let me know. Thanks!

Photos in this blog post come from our FUSE gathering in Marcus Hook, PA, on Columbus Day

Friday, October 9, 2015

Bereisheet: Letting a Snake Get You Into Trouble...

Welcome back to the beginning! The High Holidays are behind us, we concluded the Book of Deuteronomy, with the story of Moses and the Israelites, and we have returned back, again, to where it all started. 
This week, God creates our world, and our saga begins. Some of you heard me say this in services over the High Holidays: I love the story of Creation! It is teeming with mysteries and enigmas; you almost can't read a single verse without being perplexed with the Torah's depiction of the Genesis of it all. Every year, I feel torn about where to focus our attention. There is so much to talk about!! But, as always, I must choose. And so this year, let's zero in on the Garden of Eden, and more specifically, the snake.

Is there a more confounding character in the whole Bible? In the very first verse where the snake makes his entrance, the Torah tells us: "The serpent was the shrewdest of all the wild beasts that Adonai, our God, had made" (Gen. 3:1). And already, we must pause. "Shrewd"? 
Is that the opinion of the narrator or a fact? How is a creature of God's making even able to BE shrewd, if it is not God's will? As the story unfolds, the snake subtly (and yes, slyly...) asks the Woman, Eve, if God has allowed the humans to eat of all the trees in the Garden. Of course, he already knows the answer, and when she tells him there's one tree, the fruit of which they cannot eat "lest you die," he poo-poos her answer! "You are not going to die, but God knows that as soon as you eat of it your eyes will be opened and you will be like divine beings who know good and bad" (Gen. 3:4-5). Wait a minute, wait a minute! HOW does the snake know this? Where did he acquire such information? We just accept these stories at face value, mainly because they've been in our cultural consciousness our entire lives, but you've got to admit, it's strange.  

Somehow, the snake is shrewd. And for some reason, he knows ESSENTIAL information about how the Garden of Eden is constructed, and shares it with this woman for reasons that are never revealed to us. But perhaps my biggest question surrounding all of this is, how is it possible for us to read this story without 
challenging it? It is almost impossible to accept this narrative account as written, without SOME more information, some scrutiny and unpacking, and yet, we do. If you ask most people about the Garden of Eden story, I am certain they will say "the snake is the bad guy." And I'm not saying he's a good guy! I'm just incredibly curious about how he manages to be an independent contractor, with insider trading info, and a really healthy dose of skepticism and cynicism... in a world where God is (supposedly anyway...) in complete control. Part of the answer - for me anyway - is that the snake is NOT working on his own. God knows exactly what he's up to.

The serpent represents something. He did back in ancient times, and he continues to do so today, in 2015. We don't, and cannot, live our lives entirely as rule-followers. There would be no evolution, no invention, no science, medicine, art, literature, or most of the things that make us human beings. We would build homes. We would go to work. We would eat, sleep, procreate, and exist... but we would not truly be alive. We need that "shrewd" little voice whispering in our ear: "Really? You're not 

even going to take one LITTLE taste?" And we shouldn't just be taking the snake's advice, we should be viewing the snake-character as an opportunity to use our brains. The Torah is BEGGING us to say, "wait a minute, wait a minute! Huh???" The whole existence OF the snake in this story is calling out to us for questions, challenges, and disagreements. And this is only the very first parashah! But there is no question in my mind that the text is speaking to ME, and you, to all of us. We need a little more "snake" in our lives, and we need to open our eyes and minds to the growth opportunities that come when we listen to the serpent's cunning temptations. You can read this story and see only Original Sin. Or you can see it as the beginning of humanity, and the evolution of our species. Either way, don't let others tell you what's going on the text; make a decision for yourself to read it, understand it, and make sense of it for YOU. Then it will be the Genesis of something positive in your life. And that's a very good place to start.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Doewiets on Wikimedia Commons

2. CC image courtesy of Jim Padgett on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, October 2, 2015

Chol Ha-Moed Sukkot: Why It's Ok That Our Sukkot Are Drenched

This year's celebration of Sukkot has been a particularly rainy one. It seems somehow ironic that the East Coast had been particularly dry all summer, only to become a water-logged puddle just in time for us to sit
outdoors in open-topped huts. On the one hand, it's frustrating and unfortunate, since many of our intended activities had to be moved indoors, and our enjoyment of the holiday was somewhat diminished. And yet, on the other hand, it is a good opportunity for all of us to focus on the message of vulnerability that is so intricately tied together with the festival of Sukkot.

We tend to take things for granted. Not only do we feel entitled to all the comforts in our lives, we sometimes convince ourselves that we - alone - are the architects of our own successes. It is an especially American sentiment to emphasize what I, myself, have accomplished, and how I, on my own, pulled myself up by my (metaphorical) boot straps and provided for my family.
With an entrepreneurial spirit and a little can-do attitude, I made all this happen! And this, unfortunately, is a pretty un-Jewish attitude. We are interconnected beings. Judaism stresses - time and again - the importance of community and family, and especially a sense of humility and gratitude. Perhaps above all else, Judaism urges us to recognize that God is in charge, and much of our success and fortune is a result of MANY factors that are out of our control. It is scary to acknowledge our powerlessness, but nevertheless we must. And the rabbis use the holiday of Sukkot, and the precariousness of the Sukkah in particular, to underscore this message.

In a Torah commentary this weekend, Rabbi Ayelet Cohen quotes the medieval scholar, Rashbam, as saying: "Do not say to yourself, 'My own power and the strength of my hand have won this wealth for me' (Deut 8:17); remember that the Eternal is your God who gives you strength to
achieve wealth. Therefore, at the season of the harvest, people leave their homes, which are full of everything good, and dwell in Sukkot, as a reminder that in the wilderness we had no possessions and no homes in which to live. For this reason, the Holy One established Sukkot at the time of the harvest, that the people should not be overly proud of their well furnished houses." (Rashbam, Leviticus 23:43) The Sukkah is a reminder of our vulnerability. As warm and cozy and dry as our houses are, it takes only one meal outdoors, in a drenched and precarious little hut, for us to feel exposed and dependent. So many people around the world live like that every day! It is imperative that we stop for just a moment and acknowledge how fortunate we are to have what we have, and that it was NOT our own power and strength that gave us all our bounty.

In her article, Rabbi Cohen goes on to talk about the importance of welcoming in guests, and sharing our holiday and our joy with strangers. This too she links back to the Sukkah itself: "Of course, being an outsider is a quintessentially Jewish experience, so in case we have forgotten, on Sukkot we make ourselves a little less comfortable, and try to feel what it is like to be the stranger."
The Sukkah stands as a reminder to us all to give thanks for what we have AND make sure to help others around us. Even when we can't physically sit in the Sukkah, because it's too cold or wet, let's not forget what it represents in our lives. Some amount of discomfort IS good. You don't have to endure sleeping in a soaked Sukkah to internalize this message, per se. But I do invite all of us to think about how to welcome in, not just guests and strangers, but a little bit of discomfort and A LOT of gratitude and humility into our rickety, unpredictable lives. If we can learn that lesson, I guess this rainy holiday will prove valuable after all!

Photos in this blog post:
1. The Ohev Shalom (water-logged) Sukkah
2. The inside of said soaked Sukkah
3. Thursday's Lunch n' Learn (with over 35 congregants!) that SHOULD have taken place in the Sukkah, but was moved to our auditorium with a nice view OF our Sukkah...
4. The Gerber family Sukkah, before the rains.