Thursday, April 28, 2016

8th Day of Pesach: Meriting to Read from a Damaged Scroll

Are we allowed to read Torah from a damaged scroll? If you're a traditionalist, the answer is clearly "no." For a Torah scroll to be "Kosher" (in this case meaning "fit for use"... not "edible"), every letter
needs to be legible, clear, and free of smudges. Let me remind you, Torah scrolls are written BY HAND, in ink, using a quill, and many of them are 75 to 150 years old, so yes, smudging, cracking, and clouding IS a common problem. Letters fade and ink separates. And if even a single letter is erased, the entire scroll needs to be put away until a scribe can come and fix it. So again, the easy answer for many Jews is, "no, you cannot read from a damaged Torah scroll." But sometimes we might waver in our staunch positions, and the issue - like our fragile letters - can seem a little hazy.

Here at Ohev Shalom, we have a scroll that survived the Holocaust. Many people refer to it as our Holocaust Torah Scroll, though lately we've been trying to rename it the Loštice Torah, because it came to us from the town of Loštice in
Czechoslovakia. This weekend, we will be celebrating the origins of our scroll; talking about the town of Loštice, the Jews of that region of Moravia, and learning about some of the history and the practices of this lost Jewish community. If you're in the area, I hope you'll be able to join us on Saturday morning. When I first began preparing for this special Shabbat, I honestly never really much considered whether we could actually READ from the Loštice Torah; it was unimaginable!

It never occurred to me, quite honestly, because the scroll was in such bad shape. Where other damaged scrolls might sometimes require up to $5,000 worth of repairs, the Loštice Torah was evaluated closer to $20,000! It's well beyond our means, so I simply assumed we could never read from it. Except then I made contact with Rabbi Bruce Elder, whose congregation, Hakafa, in Glencoe, IL, also cares for a scroll from the same town in Czechoslovakia. And in Rabbi Elder's (Reform)
congregation, they DO read from it! I was surprised... and intrigued. It's more complicated for us, as a Conservative synagogue, but would it really be impossible? I wrestled with this issue for a while, and then ultimately decided on a little compromise. We will read the regular Torah reading on Saturday morning from ANOTHER Torah scroll, a Kosher one. And then, after our eight aliyot, honors, are done, we will read a SEPARATE section from the Loštice Torah. It doesn't constitute a violation of Jewish law, because we've already fulfilled our obligation to read from a Kosher scroll. At the same time, it will feel incredibly powerful and meaningful to bring this, in essence, Holocaust survivor back into our community. It has surely seen an incredible amount of things in its more than 150 years of existence! How could we say that it does not deserve to be opened and read from, here in Wallingford, PA, in the year 2016??

Like many things in Judaism, it isn't a simple question, and it certainly does not have an obvious answer. Jewish law tells us "no," we cannot read from it. But our hearts
and souls tell us we must. And so, as good Conservative Jews, we find a nifty compromise. Some day, I pray we will be able to fix all its damaged letters and sew up its broken seams - physically and spiritually - and read from it proudly as a repaired, whole, and Kosher Torah. But until then, we wholeheartedly accept it as is, with all its fire damage, water stains, discolorations, and faded letters. We welcome it into our community, and we celebrate the people of Loštice, whose story and legacy are now a part of us. May their memories always be for a blessing.


Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Rotatebot onWikimedia Commons
2. Image of the synagogue of Loštice courtesy of
3. Image of congregants from Hakafa in Glencoe, IL, reading from the Torah IN Loštice, during a congrational trip to the Czech Republic, courtesy of Congregation Hakafa
4. Image of the Ark in our Main Sanctuary, with the Loštice Torah (and its black Torah mantle) in the center.

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Pesach: Connecting to Our Heritage with a Nail and a Palm Branch

When I was in college, a roommate of mine introduced me to an interesting Jewish holiday ritual. After the festival of Sukkot concluded in the fall, he took the palm branch of the lulav and nailed it to the wall above the door of our college room. Ah, the college years...
Naturally I asked him what he was doing, and soon I was learning about the custom of using the lulav to kindle the fire in which we burn our chametz before Passover. As it turns out, many people save these palm branches for six months, so that they can fulfill multiple mitzvot with the same object, and thereby basically "honor" the lulav more than once a year. I thought it was a pretty nifty custom.So every year since then I save my lulav, hang it on the wall, point it out to people, explain the custom, get myself ready... and then promptly forget to bring it down to burn with my chametz! Some years I forget it for weeks or months, and other times I remember it 24 hours later. The last couple of years, I've been enlisting Ohev's Ritual Committee members to help remind me. So far, so good!

I bring up this custom because of how it connects to the cyclical nature of our lives. Judaism has many rituals that emphasize this:
The full month of Elul used as preparation before Rosh Hashanah and the High Holidays, the ten Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the four (five?) special Shabbatot leading into Passover, and the 49-day Omer period between Passover and Shavuot. We do this a lot. We connect things, and we link together Jewish observances. Even at our Pesach Seder, we talk about connecting one Seder to another across time: "This year we are here, next year may we be in Jerusalem." We reflect on ancient Seders, medieval Seders, Seders from our childhood, and the future Seders where we will celebrate the arrival of the Messianic Era. One cycle after another; one cycle inside another.

At Ohev Shalom, we've been debating quite a bit about whether our Seder should be traditional - filled with all the practices, songs, foods, chants, and lame jokes that we're used to from so many past Seders - or whether it should be innovative - with new questions, modern
challenges, and experimental activities. And most of us answered that it needs to be both. Tradition helps link us backwards, to our ancient ancestors as well as our recently departed family members, and innovation helps propel us forward, inspiring our children and empowering them to keep these practices alive for future generations. This is a really important discussion, because we get so bogged down in day-to-day life, we rarely have opportunities to step back and reflect. Yet more than any other holiday, Passover is the perfect time for some reflection.

How was your Seder different this year from last? Who used to be there every year, always making the (insert special holiday food), but who passed away since last Pesach? Which nephew/niece/grandchild seemed to be an infant two minutes
ago, but now stands proudly on a chair and sings the Four Questions in Hebrew? Or now coaxes a child of his/her own to sing them instead? We compare foods, tunes, and stories to Seders of years and decades past, and we feel, in that moment, deeply connected to our heritage. And that is precisely why we think in terms of cycles. Reminding ourselves about the passage of time helps us appreciate this moment, right now. As we get ourselves (finally!) ready to jump on into Passover, I invite you to reminisce about what this holiday means to you, and how it can serve as a connector and a reminder in your life. To what and to whom is entirely up to you.

Chag Kasher v'Sameach - Happy Passover!

(This post is mainly a reprint of my Passover blog post in 2011. I've updated it and changed a few things, but I'm out of the office this week, so I'm reposting instead of writing something new. The photos are from that previous post as well. See you next week!)

Friday, April 15, 2016

Metzora (Ha-Gadol): The Meanings of Gadol

If you find yourself sitting in services here at Ohev Shalom, there are a few themes you may here me speak about from the bimah. It's true for pretty much every rabbi; we have certain "soap boxes" that we ascend, and we find different ways and methods of conveying basically the same message. In my case,
I often speak about "Rabbinic Math." I use this term to refer to the way our ancient (and not-so-ancient) rabbis have a habit of saying there are four instances of something... and then they name three. Or maybe five. Make no mistake - they are not BAD at math. It's a teaching tool, or a technique, that forces us all to think. We must ask ourselves, "How can I expand these three, so there really ARE four?" or "How might two of the five really be saying something similar, so the total number indeed is four?" It's very crafty. And this week, they're at it again.

Many of you have heard me talk about the Four Special Shabbatot before Pesach. Ever since the time of the Mishnah, nearly two thousand years ago, the rabbis spoke about four special Torah readings that
would help prepare us for Passover. And yet, there are actually FIVE of them! Well, sort of. The rabbis of the Mishnah did indeed list only four - Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, and Ha-Chodesh - but sometime in the Middle Ages, a fifth was added... but we still only refer to them as the Four Special Shabbatot!! Yay for Rabbinic Math... Now only the first four have special Torah readings, but all five have unique Haftarah texts, and all five have distinct names. Sooooo, why doesn't the fifth one count?!?! Silly rabbis... Yet I remind you again, it ain't because they were bad at math, or even too set in their ways. There's more here for us to learn and discover.

So this week is Shabbat Ha-Gadol; that fifth, anomalous, outlier of a Sabbath. If you search through rabbinic sources (or, to make life easier, ask Siri or search on Google...), you'll find at least EIGHT different reasons why this Shabbat is called "Ha-Gadol."
And whenever you find that many explanations for something, you know it means no one knows the ACTUAL reason. What we do know is that it is always the last Shabbat before Pesach. The Haftarah reading comes from the Prophet Malachi, and concludes portentously by speaking of God sending Elijah the Prophet to herald the Messianic Era, just before the coming of "the Gadol and fearful day of the Lord" (Malachi, 3:23). So what does "Gadol" mean here? Maybe it's a "great" day? Or perhaps "fearful"? Those two are pretty different, no? Indeed, if you look up synonyms for the word "great," to try and see what "Gadol" could mean, you get an incredible array of options, and any one of them could be the "correct" translation of this word. It's a critical question too, right? If this is Shabbat Ha-Gadol, shouldn't we know what "Gadol" means, so we might know how to feel or behave on this Shabbat???

I'll give you a few options: Absolute, Awesome, Boundless, Complete, Cool, Enormous, Immense, Magnificent, Profound, Serious, Terrific, Terrifying, and Unlimited. So where am I going with all of this?
I think that each of these are also emotions we could feel about the Passover Seder, and potentially about cleaning for Pesach, or even about being Jewish and/or observing Jewish rituals and laws in general! Perhaps Shabbat Ha-Gadol isn't one of the four Shabbatot that prepare us for Pesach, because the lead-up is over; the holiday is upon us! Shabbat Ha-Gadol is essentially part of the holiday observance itself, and each of us has an opportunity to decide - with the Seders just a few days away - how to feel about Pesach. Is it great and profound, or is it terrifying and unending? The wait is over, the preparation is behind us. NOW it's time for Pesach, and it's time to connect with our history and put ourselves back in the story of our people. But we each get to decide how we do that, and what emotions we will bring to this experience. It's definitely going to be Gadol, we know that much. But what "Gadol" is going to mean - this year, in this place, at this moment - is entirely up to you.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of GorillaWarfare onWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Soulbust on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Ofir 1970 on Wikimedia Commons

Behar: Renter's Delight

A colleague of mine recently posed a question on our rabbis' listserv. He shared with us a conversation he had with a B'nai Mitzvah student, where the child was trying to understand a major concept in this week's Torah portion. The student was upset about a certain verse, and my colleague was curious to hear how we might respond to him. Our parasha is called Behar, and among other things, the reading contains the famous verse, "You shall proclaim liberty throughout the land for all its inhabitants" (Lev. 25:10), which is inscribed on the Liberty Bell. But that is not the passage that was causing the Bar Mitzvah boy great consternation.

Instead, the student was troubled by the requirement to return land to original owners every 50 years. According to the Bible, land was assigned to certain individuals, in certain tribes, and even if a person was forced to sell his/her land (because of poverty, natural disaster, death), it should always be returned back to the original owner during the Jubilee Year, which occurred every 50 years. Land is an eternal

possession. The child was upset, however, because it seemed that a comparable situation in his world would be buying a toy, and being forced to give it back after a certain period of time. How is this a fair system?? And indeed, I can see his point. The purchase was completed, fair and square, and now the new owner is being "punished" for something entirely out of his/her control. What I would say to this child, however, is that we are coming at this issue from the wrong angle. Ownership is honestly a figment of our imagination.

Judaism teaches us that God is truly the owner of everything. We are stewards of this earth, charged with the task of caring for the planet, managing all aspects of life and logistics, and ensuring that it's still here for the next generation to take over. In a sense, we are renting land, just as we are actually renting our clothing, our homes... and even our family members. None of these things are ours for eternity. When we are done with clothing, we have the obligation to clean it, fold it, and pass it along for someone else to use. Eventually we all move out of our homes, and pass them along to new owners. And someday our loved ones will die. We shake our fists at the sky and cry out loud that this is unfair and unacceptable, yet it is ultimately out of our hands.

There are no certainties in life. We spend our lives working hard, raising children, buying property, and then a natural disaster hits - like the flooding that has decimated the lives of our neighbors in Alabama, Mississippi, and Tennessee - and all our hard work is lost. That too is horribly unfair,

and we are left feeling utterly powerless. All we can do is make the most of life while we can; enjoy the possessions we own, the people who brighten our lives, and the land we spend our days cultivating. One day it will be gone. We cannot eliminate the ending, and we cannot change the fact that we are all renters, not owners. But so what? There is so much that we CAN change every, single day of our lives. Don't worry about what will happen in the 50th year; delight in being a renter right now, and enjoy all of the wonderful blessings that enrich your life today.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of zoonabar on Flickr
2. CC image courtesy of loveloveshine on Flickr
3. CC image courtesy of GoTRISI on Flickr
4. CC image courtesy of au_tiger01 on Flickr

Friday, April 8, 2016

Tazria: Bring It In, Lepers!

Earlier this week, I pretended to be a jet setter for a day. I just "hopped" on over to Chicago for a single night, to attend a conference - a think-tank of sorts - for a small group of rabbis. One of the main 
topics of conversation was something called Keruv (pronounced "Kay-roov"). I suppose you could roughly translate it, from Hebrew to English, as "inclusion." It comes from the word karov, meaning "close by," and centers on ways to bring other people in and make them feel part of our community. By no means is this a revolutionary concept, and yet when we actually think and talk about specific ways to do this, it can make people uncomfortable and uneasy, and it challenges our status quo. So let's talk a little bit about keruv, and especially how it's essentially the opposite of what our Torah portion suggests this week.

Tazria, our parashah, focuses on the unpleasant subjects of skin disease and impurity. It outlines the rituals for declaring a person, a garment, or even a wall to be "stricken" with an ailment that renders these things impure, and offers ways to bring them back to a state of purity again. We cringe at the topic of 
bodily functions and discolorations, but we also cringe because of the Torah's treatment of these issues and these individuals. It feels - shall we say - less than compassionate. It doesn't employ much sensitivity or delicate subtlety, and it does not feel kind. It also doesn't feel inclusive or welcoming. It seems instead to push people further away, to create categories of who's "in" and who's "out," and to label people in a way that suggests their skin disease entirely and exclusively defines them. Keruv flexes a different muscle. It challenges us to see the nuance and totality of other people, and to welcome and accept them as multi-faceted, complex beings; just as we ourselves would want to be treated. Keruv is about opening up our own narrow definitions of what's "pure" and what's "impure," and learning to see things in new ways. 

We could be talking about interfaith families, and how to make our congregation more welcoming, accepting, and supportive of people of all faiths (and no faiths). We could focus on LGBTQ engagement, and how to be more sensitive in our language, our building, and our 
understanding of how families are "supposed to" look. We could also discuss wheelchair accessibility, dietary considerations, and a whole host of other topics where we sometimes don't take the time to be more sensitive and thoughtful. Keruv can even be a reflexive challenge to the self; finding ways to both push ourselves to get more involved, and also carefully consider what we say and to whom in an effort to be more inclusive. This may seem like a particularly modern concern, but in fact it can be traced right back to our Torah portion, Tazria. 

We imagine that the Torah is exclusionary; labeling people as "pure" or "impure," essentially "clean" or "unclean." And yet, our parashah is really all about how to bring those people BACK into the community. These labels are not permanent, and the people who are afflicted should not be indefinitely saddled with the stigma of their illnesses. 
Oddly enough, the Torah is actually trying to teach us how to see these people as MORE than just their maladies. We can, and should, go the next step, which is to stop seeing individuals and concepts that are different as repulsive. We still sometimes treat The Other as a leper, and we should be able to do better, to have evolved in the millenia since the Torah was written. One thing the Torah definitely can teach us, is that keruv, inclusion, isn't even really about that other person. It's about me and you, and pushing ourselves to change our mindset and be open to change, difference, and non-traditional... WHATEVER! We need to stop pushing The Other away, and retraining ourselves to do the exact opposite; to welcome, to embrace, and to "l'kareiv," to draw close.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Kitt Hodsden onWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of National Library of Australia on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of ANGELUS on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Petteri Sulonen on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 1, 2016

Shemini: Sometimes You Just Can't Take It Back

I want to begin my blog post this week with an apology. Last week, I wrote at length about people writing "G-d" instead of "God," and I focused my (let's be honest) ire on a blessing card that was sent out with our Ohev Shalom Mishloach Manot for Purim. I neglected to say two very important things, and in doing so, I hurt the feelings of several people. First of all, our Mishloach 
Manot this year were AWESOME! Members of our Sisterhood, together with Hebrew School families and other volunteers, put a lot of work into procuring items, packing the boxes, and sending them out, and it was insensitive of me to focus all my attention on a silly card. I want to publicly thank Sisterhood & Co for all their hard work, and again acknowledge what a wonderful gift box they assembled and distributed. Second, I should have emphasized that Sisterhood was NOT to blame for choosing to send those blessing cards. We sent the same cards last year, and I never noticed the error! And who would think that a Judaica website would do such a thing?? My blog post embarrassed some people, and for that I truly apologize. I was trying to use the blessing card as a teaching opportunity - and I still stand by my comments about "G-d" in general - but I also hurt the feelings of some people that I truly respect and admire. Thank you again to Sisterhood for all their hard work and dedication, and I am sorry for not focusing on that the first time around.

As I try not to be too awkward in my pivot to this week's blog post, I do want to remain on the topic of regret. In this week's Torah reading, we see one of the more upsetting and confusing stories in the Torah; and that's really saying something! The Book of Leviticus focuses heavily on the service of the High Priest in the ancient Tabernacle, and the worship and responsibilities of the other Levitical priests. 
Our reading describes the installation of these priests, paying special attention to Aaron, the first High Priest, and his four sons. In the middle of this inaugural ceremony, two of Aaron's sons, Nadav and Avihu, approach the altar with their fire pans, and "they offered before Adonai alien fire which God had not commanded them to do" (Lev. 10:1). In an instant, fire blazes forth and kills them, to the shock and horror of their father, Aaron, their uncle, Moses, and surely every Israelite eye witness present. When I've spoken about this sad and strange story in the past, my main questions have been, what happened and why? 

We certainly can spend our time debating these valid questions. Various rabbinic sources suggest they were worshiping foreign idols, they were drunk, they were trying to seize power, or they were just being impetuous kids. As I mentioned earlier, however, right now I have been thinking about a different issue, namely regret. 
Sometimes we can take back what we say. We can correct mistakes quickly, we might even be fortunate to catch ourselves in the act and reverse course even before we've gone too far in the wrong direction. Occasionally, "sorry" is enough. If we truly did not offend or err on purpose, and can be appropriately and wholeheartedly contrite and remorseful, an apology MAY suffice. Here on the blog, I've also written in the past about avoiding phrases like "IF I offended." When we say, "I'm sorry IF I hurt you," we're really distancing ourselves from the apology, and not owning the hurt we've caused. No, pain WAS inflicted; whether on purpose or not. The question we should be asking now is, "How can I help make it right?" 

Our parashah, Shemini, however, comes to teach us a much more painful lesson. Sometimes it's too late to say "I'm sorry." We could spend hours, and pages and pages, trying to understand WHY Avihu and Nadav were killed, but we would be missing the point. 
Some mistakes are irreversible, and some are permanent. Drinking and driving, or even texting and driving, are just two examples that come to mind. There are countless situations we may find ourselves in, where we use poor judgment or someone ELSE does, with disastrous consequences. There are many, many good reasons to apologize; it's the right thing to do, it's mature, it's compassionate. But we rarely talk about the value of apologizing for two OTHER important reasons. 1) We should be grateful for the times when a "sorry" will suffice! Sometimes the hurt is too deep, and no amount of penitence can rectify a situation. 2) Apologize while there's still time. Who knows what will happen tomorrow? You cannot know if you'll get a second chance, and you simply cannot afford to wait and take that chance. None of us can.

Our lives can become filled with regret. Let us value the opportunities that are given us to make something right! Apologizing can be hard to do. It's easier to come up with 
excuses, to get defensive, to distribute blame, or to flat out deny, deny, deny. But saying "I'm sorry" can be cathartic, and it is a gift we give another AND ourselves. Rather than focus on the sadness of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, we should read the text as a reminder and a caution. Don't wait! Try to live a good life, but acknowledge that none of us are perfect and we ALL make mistakes. Errors are opportunities for growth, self-realization, and humility. Learn to say "I'm sorry" a little more often and a little sooner, and perhaps you can live life with a little less regret and a lot more peace and harmony.

Photos in this blog post:
2. CC image courtesy of Junkyardsparkle on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of RogDel on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of BlairSnow on Wikimedia Commons