Friday, February 26, 2016

Ki Tisa: Why Children Aren't Impressed by Golden Calves

It's been a little while since I wrote a blog post from the perspective of a parent, but this week I have two reasons for talking about children and young people. First of all, this Shabbat is Teen Shabbat here at Ohev Shalom, and services on Saturday are being run by our USY group, WOhev (the W is for Wallingford, as well as for "Woh! 
Our teens are amazing!!"). For the third year in a row, they are adding a theme to our Shabbat services; this year is "The Wizard of Oz," and if you're anywhere in the area, I encourage you to come. Last year, our Teen Shabbat service earned WOhev the international USY award for religious and educational programming, so yeah, they're pretty "Woh!" And I'm also in young-person-mode this Shabbat because of a tiny little announcement I'd like to share with you.

You may already know that my wife, Rebecca, and I have a daughter, Caroline. Well, now we're looking to grow the flock, as it were, 
with another little baby! God willing, he (yup) is due in July. Hooray! So anyway, with kids on my mind this week, I want to offer a little rabbinic reading of this week's Torah portion, paying special attention to the choice of words of our Torah text. You see, this week we are reading Ki Tisa, which includes the infamous story of the Golden Calf. Moses is up on Mount Sinai, receiving God's laws, and the people grow restless and demand that Aaron, the High Priest and Moses' brother, build them a "new" god in the shape of a young bull. Now read carefully with me:

"Aaron said to them, '[You men], take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.' And all the people took off the gold rings that were in their ears and brought them to Aaron. This he took from them and cast in a mold, and made it into a molten calf" (Ex. 32:2-3). 
I want to add a little midrash here, a little rabbinic story or interpretation. Aaron asks for the jewelry of the men, women, and children, but only gets back the jewelry of the adults; why? Perhaps because the kids refused to participate. As the story goes on, we hear nothing about children or young people participating; the offense was committed by the adults alone. Indeed, when Moses later calms God's anger towards the people, he reminds God of the covenant, not just with our ancestors, but with "their offspring" (32:13), and God - recognizing the innocence of the younger generation - is mollified.

I am fascinated by the decision of the children to remove themselves from this sin. I also wonder, how did the parents explain this embarrassing incident to their kids? After all the miracles they had seen, and all the loyalty they had pledged to God, how could they back-peddle and now claim that this random golden object was ACTUALLY 
their god? As most of us know, children, from toddlers to teens, easily see through the inauthentic behaviors of adults. Surely this whole ordeal would have seemed fake, bewildering, and perhaps even a bit pathetic to the Ancient Israelite youth. The young people remained loyal to God, and it was ultimately our saving grace. It is a reminder to us all to refocus on our young people, and the gifts they can bring to us all. Whether you're about to have a baby (yikes!), or are listening to teenagers in costume explain why the Wizard is actually God, take some time to hear what they have to say. You might be surprised by what you'll discover...

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of me getting ready for Wizard of Oz Shabbat...
2. Family pic from January, 2016. 
3. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of the Wizard of Oz courtesy of The Man in Question on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 19, 2016

Tetzaveh: A Different Way to Attack a Problem

Sometimes things that seem so simple are far more complex under the surface. It's true in our modern world, and it was also the reality in the ancient world of the Bible. I'll use one example that clearly bridges 
the gap between our ancestors and today: politics. In our Torah portion, we learn of the installment of the High Priest, Aaron. He was the top religious leader in the community, but also a political player in the community. Our Torah portion clearly states, "You [Moses] shall bring forward your brother Aaron, with his sons, from among the Israelites, to serve Me as priests" (Exodus 28:1). It also follows this up by saying, "The sacral vestments of Aaron shall pass on to his descendants after him, for them to be anointed and ordained in" (Ex. 29:29). Pretty straight-forward, right? You avoid conflicts by making it SUPER clear who the leader is and who shall be the successor - there's nothing there for anyone to challenge, right? Wrong. Of course wrong...

The position of High Priest was hotly contested and bitterly disputed throughout all the centuries that the Temple stood. Even Moses' leadership was questioned, as we know from the attempted coup d'├ętat of Korach in the Book of Numbers. 
And throughout the Bible, we hear frequent stories of kings appointing their own High Priests, and prophets denouncing the new appointees. It all seemed so simple in our Torah portion; what went wrong? Well, for starters, it was a position of tremendous power. If you know anything about human beings, are you at all surprised that an influential, well-respected, (most likely high-paying) job was coveted by so many? It is also a stark reminder to us all that we, as a species, simply don't know how to disagree. 

Arguments are tough. We spend a large amount of time, throughout our lives, avoiding conflict like the plague. It's uncomfortable, 
it's messy. What if someone gets mad at me? What if someone HATES me? Instead of talking through our problems and learning to appreciate the positions and opinions of others, we either just walk away and shut down emotionally... or we go to war - either way, we've avoided talking about our feelings. This cycle can continue throughout our entire lives. But we can also choose to stop it. We can end all the conflict-avoidance and the broken relationships, and instead step INTO the discomfort and grow as people. It's a novel concept, I know.

This week, a minor holiday was observed, but probably missed by most of us. The 9th of the Hebrew month of Adar commemorates an infamous day in Jewish history, when two schools of religious scholarship, Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel - that were otherwise known for their peaceful disagreements - literally went to war over several legal disputes. According to Tradition, 3,000 students were killed! Again, we might ask, what went wrong? 
There is a Jewish organization that was inspired by this question, and they have appropriately called themselves "The 9Adar Project." In short, the 9Adar Project aims to create "constructive conflict," where people learn to argue in a more productive way, and to disagree while remaining in relationship. My colleague, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, just recently introduced me to this fascinating organization. I encourage everyone to learn more about the 9Adar Project along with me, and perhaps more generally to think about how YOU react in conflict situations and deal with tension and disagreement. Feel free to write a comment on this blog post about how you are challenged by conflict, or how you handle these kinds of difficult situations. The answer isn't to attack one another, or to stage coups to seize power. Our Torah, and our Jewish history, is trying to subtly teach us how to disagree more agreeably, and find better ways to fight. Can you take the hint?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of SteinsplitterBot on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Daniel Ventura on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Bifalcucci on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image of the 9Adar logo -

Friday, February 12, 2016

Terumah: How We Should Construct Ourselves (Repost from 2010)

Last week, we started a new phase in the Biblical narrative, where the stories about people's lives start taking a back seat, and we focus our attention instead on laws, instructions, and guidelines. Even though we will still hear quite a bit more about the Exodus, our interest has primarily shifted elsewhere. And this week, we begin to learn about the construction of the Tabernacle; the portable proto-Temple that the Israelites carried around with them for 40 years in the desert.

So for those of us who aren't standing with our tool belts and power-saws at the ready, not particularly interested in building a new Tabernacle (or a new Temple for that matter...), what can we learn from this section? Is there a message hidden somewhere inside the Tabernacle's building blocks, waiting for us to discover it? Why yes, I believe there is!

One of the things we read about is how many of the Tabernacle's components were made out of pure gold; taken from Egypt when the Israelites broke free from captivity. But one interesting thing to note is that several of the most important objects - including the Ark which housed the Ten Commandments, the poles which carried the Ark, and the central table inside the Tabernacle - were all made of acacia (pronounced a-KAY-shuh) wood, and only COVERED with gold. Other, less important, objects were made of solid gold, but the most important things had wood inside, and only a thin layer of gold on top. Why is that?

The gold was an impressive and flashy material, but it was also cold and hard. Wood, meanwhile, comes from a living thing; it represents humility and simplicity, but isn't necessarily as impressive to look at. By having parts of the Tabernacle fuse the two elements together, the Torah is teaching us about life. Indeed, God is telling us something about how we should construct ourselves.

There can be objects and possessions in our lives which are expensive and glitzy. But they may also be cold, devoid of internal, deeper meaning. We ourselves, and the way we live our lives, must have a core that focuses on humility and preserving life. Yet I will also say that this isn't meant as a diatribe against materialism; after all, much of the Tabernacle WAS made out of gold! Caring about our outward appearance is valuable too. The rabbis emphasize something called “Hiddur Mitzvah,” beautifying our commandments, and taking pride in making them as impressive and awe-inspiring as possible. Aesthetics and wealth are not inherently false pursuits, but they must also hold a deeper meaning behind them. Are we also caring about our fellow human beings, and using our abilities to improve the world??

The Torah is encouraging us to look inside ourselves, and to ask the tough question, "What am I made of?" As we look ahead to the festival of Purim, and we prepare to put on masks and costumes, take a second to think about the person hiding underneath that mask. Judaism isn't just about the observance of holidays, or the building of sacred buildings, it also cares about who we are as people - like the Tabernacle - both inside and out.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Mishpatim: The Wait is Over (Sort Of...)!

It's hard to wait. When you want something very, very badly, it's hard to accept that it can take time, or that you need to be patient. In our Torah portion this week, we see the Israelites standing at the foot of Mount Sinai. In last week's reading,
they received the Ten Commandments, and now they are basking in the Glory of God, and looking forward to receiving more laws and Instruction (in Hebrew, "Torah") from On High. The people famously shout out "Na'aseh v'Nishmah," "We will observe [the mitzvot] and understand," meaning essentially that they will faithfully commit to these laws, even before they comprehend their meaning. And we also see a beautiful scene at the end of our parashah, where Moses, Aaron, Aaron's sons, and seventy elders eat and drink before God, and (according to the text) literally "behold God" while they feast. Truly the relationship is strong and filled with holiness in this moment. So what went wrong?

As our Torah portion closes, Moses ascends the mountain to receive more laws, and he is gone for 40 days. The people grow impatient and antsy; they assume he must be missing or dead, and they eventually turn to idols and create the infamous Golden Calf. The waiting was
too hard. It was too painful. They wanted more, and they wanted it RIGHT AWAY, and the reward for patience was outweighed by the clamor for immediate gratification. We can relate. These days, we often feel that our struggle for equality and fairness - in religion as well as society at large - is too slow. Change must happen NOW! Inequality has festered for too long already, we simply cannot wait any longer. And yet, if and when we are able to be more patient, all the while maintaining our resolve and firm dedication to our convictions, it is amazing what can actually be achieved.

This past week, there was a significant breakthrough in religious equality in Israel. An agreement was reached that I sincerely hope will lead to redefining the relationship between religion and state. For the first time in Israel's history, in the holiest of places of the Jewish people - the Western Wall - the non-orthodox denominations triumphed in attaining formal status.
It was not a complete victory; it was an acknowledgment of Robinson's Arch, a prayer space further down the southern end of the Western Wall, as a formal and legitimate part of the Kotel site. Perhaps somewhat more significant, this will allow for more change to happen in the future. Solutions to issues of religion and state will be able to rely upon a new legal anchor. As the Masorti (Conservative) movement writes on their website: "From today, every solution to every dispute must give expression to the simple, basic and natural fact that there is more than one way to be Jewish. We did not achieve everything that we wanted, but this day is a day of celebration for Jewish pluralism in Israel. Conversion. Marriage and Kashrut."

At the same time, Phyllis Chesler, one of the founding members of Women of the Wall, recently wrote a passionate article about how this "victory" is entirely a compromise. It IS frustrating to still feel bullied in a place that SHOULD be open to all. As many of you know (in part
because I've written about it extensively here on the blog), my mother was heavily involved with Women of the Wall when it began in 1988, so I have a strong personal connection. I hear, and feel, their disappointment. And yet, this is also a significant step in the right direction. Ultimate goals cannot be achieved without small victories along the way. I still remain hopeful. Just as we all stood together as one at Sinai and shouted "Na'aseh v'Nishmah," some day we will again be able to speak in one, united, Jewish voice. But it won't be because all denominations have been stamped out, or differing opinions quieted. Our diversity is undeniable. Judaism is a coat of MANY colors! Our struggle for equality continues, but let us also celebrate the milestone that will allow us to forge ahead stronger, more resolute, and with hope for the future. We will win this battle in the end. I have faith.

Pictures in this blog post come from our Gerber family archive -
Photos of Women of the Wall from 1988.
1) Opening a Torah scroll by the Western Wall. An illegal practice (for a woman) in Israel today.
2) Waiting to pray (My mother is in the white-gray jacket, on the right in the front)
3) What it USED to be like; police officers dragging Women of the Wall participants off to jail.
4) An ultra-Orthodox woman attacking my mother, and specifically trying to throw her ("unclean") prayerbook to the ground.