Thursday, June 30, 2016

A Blog Hiatus

Dear friends,
I am going to be on leave for the next few weeks, and will therefore not be writing my usual blog posts. Some of you already know this, but others may not; my wife is due to give birth - please God - sometime in the next week or two. My plan is to be on paternity leave for five weeks, though I may check in here once or twice with a photo, if I'm not too exhausted! I hope you'll rejoin me on the blog upon my return, probably sometime in mid-to-late-August. Take care, have a wonderful summer, and I'll see you back here soon.

Warmest regards,

Rabbi Gerber  

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Beha'alotecha: Go Away... but Stay!

The Israelites are angry. This week, we continue reading about their travels through the wilderness on the way to the Promised Land. You might have thought that the pervasive mood in the desert would be joy, considering the slavery they left behind in Egypt. Perhaps we'd even settle for "Wow, it's hot out here!"
But no, throughout most of the stories we read about the ancient Israelites and their Exodus, they're mostly just mad. The bulk of that ire is directed at Moses and God, and it slowly begins to dawn on us, the readers, that the people simply don't want to be here. It wasn't actually their choice to leave. They begged God for relief from slavery, sure, but mass-emigration? No way! Sometimes when we're really upset, we say hurtful things, just to make others feel as bad as we do. In this case, the Israelites say the most painful and mean-spirited thing they can think of to God. And it really does hurt.

It actually boils down to just one word. In chapter 11 of the Book of Numbers, the people have had it. They are tired, hungry, frustrated, and perhaps most of all, hungry. The desert is miserable. And then, they snap: "The Israelites wept and said, 'If only we had meat to eat!
We remember the fish that we used to eat - free! - in Egypt; the cucumbers, melons, leek, onion, and garlic! Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look at.'" (11:4-6) And I get it. It's rough terrain, and they weren't prepared for it. I can even accept that Egypt was (apparently) the Garden State of ancient empires; filled with glorious farmers' markets as far as the eye could see! But the real insult is the word chinam, "free." Can you imagine how utterly insulting it was for God and Moses to hear the Israelites depict Egypt as the place of freedom, juxtaposed with the SLAVERY of the desert?!?

This entire enterprise was all about rescuing the Israelites from bondage, from centuries of oppression. Yet already the people seem to have forgotten the whips, beatings, and back-breaking labor, and instead they describe Egypt as a summer camp cookout!
Needless to say, both God and Moses react with frustration, disappointment, and chastisement. But I actually want to pause the action for a second, and perhaps flip our understanding of what's going on. Change is hard. And breaking self-destructive habits can be BEYOND difficult; it can be excruciating. And our Torah portion reminds us that family, friends, mentors, and all those around us suffer along with us. We all experience this in life. From more mundane examples like training a rebellious toddler or living with a disgruntled and entitled teenager, to more extreme examples like helping someone overcome an addiction, leave an abusive relationship, or mourn a painful loss. We often reject change. We actively fight against it, and sometimes we even lash out at anyone and everyone nearby... even if they are standing so close because they are trying to help.

The Torah understands, this is painful for everyone. Heck, even GOD hits a breaking point with these defiant Israelites!! Family and friends have the power to heal us and talk us down off ledges. But they can also hurt us in ways much deeper than total strangers. And yet, we still need
to stand in that breach. The most important thing that God and Moses do is... stay. That, to me, is actually the lesson of our parashah. When done right, relationships make us vulnerable. We let people into our inner lives, and allow them to see our insecurities and idiosyncrasies. It can be really scary. But that also makes the bonds stronger, which we may need in times of trouble and sadness. The Israelites say hurtful things, because they themselves are hurting. We have to stick with them - like Moses and God do - because they're going to rebel a bunch more times before we're done reading the Torah. Instead of turning our backs or throwing our hands up, let's practice staying. It will make us feel closer to them in the long run, and will transform their story into ours. That's how relationships are formed, and that's how they endure. Stay, and you'll see what I mean.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Stas1995 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of North Market on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Ser Amantio di Nicolao on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Raz.sofer12 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 17, 2016

Naso: "Bless you!" "Who said that?"

I think it's safe to say that a lot of people struggle with the notion of God, and if/how that God plays a role in their lives. I would even
venture to say that many of you, reading this blog post right now, would include yourselves in that category. Is there a God? How do we know? And does God care about us, interact with us, bless us? Or perhaps curse us? We know so little, and are left feeling incredibly far from any relationship with a Divine Presence. But let's talk about this for a minute. Can we quiet down all the "noise" conveyed by others on this topic; all the "should's" and the "truths" peddled by talking heads on TV? Let's even remove the personal, named, famed Deity from this conversation as well. What, then, is left?

Actually, quite a lot. Surprisingly. This topic is often dominated by questions about who or what is God. But honestly, if you instead boil it down to human emotions guiding these questions, what we're really asking is, "How can I feel
more safe?" "How can I feel less alone, and more like my life has meaning, purpose, love, compassion, and relationship?" For some people, "God" is enough of an answer, and for others "God" is at least part of the solution. But for a lot of people, God is NOT helpful. But you're still looking for answers to those questions, aren't you? You still want to feel safe and loved, cared for and in relationship with others?

Our Torah portion this week is Naso, and it includes a very famous blessing known as the Priestly Benediction (Numbers 6:24-26). The ancient High Priest, Aaron, blesses the entire Israelite nation with a three-fold blessing that focuses on God's Face blessing you, shining upon you, and granting you peace. That very same blessing - now
4,000 years old (or so) - is used throughout Jewish tradition, even today. So yeah, it's a big deal. And yet, the language uses a lot of God-talk, and also anthropomorphizes God (describes in human characteristics) in a way that alienates a fair amount of people. I'll remind you again; let's put aside the theological debate. Cover your ears from the droning of religious fundamentalist. What are YOU looking for? And can those desires/hopes/wishes be expressed as blessings? Because the language of blessing can be really powerful, even without using God-language. We can express gratitude for all life's gifts, even if our thanksgiving isn't directional. We are all, every one of us, still obligated to express thanks and humility for our blessings - and not take anything for granted or feel entitled - regardless of whether you are religious.

I don't believe the power of the Priestly Benediction lies in using the Name of Adonai. Lots of blessings invoke a Higher Power. The Priestly Benediction is still used, millenia later, because each generation of Jews used it to praise the next; communities offered it to welcome new babies; parents employed it to bless and protect their children; rabbis spoke it to sanctify marriages, etc., etc.
Blessings can be very powerful. And if God helps you feel that blessing even more palpably, great! However, if you don't, and invoking God leaves you feeling nothing (at best) or angry (at worst) then by all means take God out of the picture. Just know that it doesn't absolve you of feeling grateful for what you have in life, or release you from the obligation to help others and generally make the world a better place. We should all LIVE the Priestly Benediction; blessing one another and BEING a blessing in the lives of those around us. It's a 4,000-year old chain. Why break it now?

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of A. Potter on Pinterest
2. CC image courtesy of Gran on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Patrick Lentz on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image from my nephew, Simon's bris.

Friday, June 10, 2016

B'Midbar: The Meaning of, and in, a Flag

"I love it when a plan comes together!" I'm stealing this line from the old 80's TV show, The A-Team, because it just applies so well this week. Not only were we able to successfully complete our giant mosaic art project in the Main Sanctuary
of the shul just in time for our annual Congregational Meeting, but it also dovetails beautifully with this week's Torah portion. And the parashah connection was quite unintentional. To sum it up briefly, for anyone who SOMEHOW managed to miss the last two years at Ohev Shalom; the community worked with an incredible artist, Heather Bryson, to create large mosaics, depicting the banner flags of each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel (along with two additional panels). Incredibly, the choice of image for each panel came straight out of the Torah, this week's parashah in fact! Well, sort of.

As always, nothing is ever simple with the Torah. Jacob had twelve sons, right? And they seamlessly turned into the twelve tribes, correct? Nope, not so fast. That would be all TOO easy. One son never actually
became an "official" tribe, and another one received a double portion, for each of his two sons. So when we chose to make renditions of our ancient ancestors, we had to decide whether to portray the twelve children of Jacob OR the twelve tribes of Israel... because several panels would be different. Furthermore, this week's Torah portion does indeed tell us that each tribe had a flag. We read: "The Israelites shall camp each with his standard, under the flags of their ancestral house" (Numbers, 2:2). The problem is, the Torah never tells us what color or symbol was actually ON each flag. Again, much too easy for the likes of our Torah...

Instead, we look to rabbinic sources - written hundreds, if not thousands of years after the fact - to help us determine (or perhaps imagine?) what really happened.
In B'Midbar Rabbah, a rabbinic work that was possibly written as "recently" as the 12th Century, the tribal colors and symbols are enumerated. But again, that work was written nearly 2,500 years after the supposed Exodus took place, so how reliable a source is it really??? Even if it's quoting a rabbinic tradition that was 500 or even 1,000 years old, it's still pretty far removed from those ancient desert wanderings. Which is why, by the way, you can travel around the world and see a plethora of interpretations of what the tribal flags actually looked like... and no two depictions are exactly the same. Now, you might say: "The Torah is a pretty wordy book. It's not especially terse. Why didn't it just pause for 12 verses and describe each of these flags and save us A LOT of trouble?!?" A fair question indeed.

Earlier this week, my colleague here at Ohev, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, used a technical term from the world of pedagogy, which actually answers your query perfectly. She referred to "a provocation to constructivist play," and that, my friends, is EXACTLY what the Torah is doing.
"Constructivist play" means essentially learning through personal discovery and exploration. The Torah is provoking us to make meaning of the text. It doesn't want to GIVE you the meaning, it wants you to create your own meaning. And indeed, our new mosaic panels truly reflect our congregation and this specific moment in time, just as much as they do the ancient Children of Israel about whom we read in the Bible. So no, the Torah never makes it too easy for us, and most often challenges us to form our own opinions. And yes, that can be pretty frustrating sometimes. But it can also lead to some amazing interpretations, and every once in a while, it can also produce some pretty breathtaking artwork.

Photos in this blogpost taken by Rabbi Gerber, showing the conclusion of our Children of Israel Collection.
1) Seven panels on the left side of the Sanctuary
2) Seven panels on the right
3) Plaque showing the dedications of each panel
4) Plaque in memory of Charlotte Snyder, who made this project possible

Friday, June 3, 2016

Bechukotai: Is It True?

Picture it: It's the end of the Torah service on Shabbat morning. We have just chanted the eighth, and final, aliyah, known as the Maftir. An honoree, called the Hagbah, is invited onto the bimah to hoist the Torah into the air. While s/he holds the scroll aloft, we all sing
together, "v'Zot Ha-Torah asher sam Moshe lifnei B'nai Yisrael, al pi Adonai, b'Yad Moshe" - "This is the Torah (Teaching) that Moses set before the Israelites; from the Mouth of Adonai, through the hand of Moses." The first part of this quote comes from Deuteronomy, 4:44... which is NOT found in our Torah portion. But I mention it here because many of you are probably familiar with the song, and because the last verse of OUR Torah portion - which happens to also be the last verse of the entire Book of Leviticus - echoes a very similar sentiment. Both verses are daring us to ask the question, "Is it true?"

Leviticus ends with the following statement: "These are the commandments that Adonai gave Moses for the Israelite people on Mount Sinai" (Lev. 27:34). It is also stated OUT of context, by the way, which also invites us to ask what it's doing there. The previous verse
concluded a short section on redeeming and substituting tithes for the Temple, and then all of a sudden the text blurts out: "These are the commandments...!" Soooo, is the sentiment true??? Did God really give us all the commandments, and were they given on Mount Sinai via Moses, and were they literally spoken out loud for Moses to jot down? Honestly, who knows? Can one entirely - with 100% certainty - rule out the possibility that the text is reporting a factual occurrence? No, I suppose not. But I will tell you this; I don't believe it. I don't personally believe that God spoke these words to Moses on Sinai, and that our Torah, our ancient Teaching, comes directly from God. There, I said it!

Luckily for me, I'm not alone. In the back of our Conservative Movement Chumash, the Etz Hayim, there is an article written by Jacob Milgrom, in which he indicates that as far back as the Talmud, two thousand years ago, rabbis questioned whether the WHOLE Torah was written by Moses. Throughout our history, religious leaders
and scholars have identified contradictions, inconsistencies, and ethical problems in the text that make it hard to accept the assertion that Moses literally wrote it all down, and/or that every word of the text comes directly from God. But I also encourage us to wrestle with the word "true." It doesn't have to be a synonym of the word "factual." I don't believe God would command stoning a rebellious child, subjugating women, or permitting slavery, so I cannot accept God's authorship of the text. BUT I also believe the Torah reflects the human desire to feel God's imminent Presence. It reflects the morals of the time, and a desire to find God in everything that we do. And in that sense, the text definitely can be - and to me IS - true. It is culturally true and valid and inspiring and essential... but still not fact.

At the end of his essay, Milgrom writes, "Revelation was not a one-time Sinaitic event. It behooves and indeed compels each generation to be active partners of God in determining and implementing the divine will." And this, dear reader, is why we can still sing "v'Zot Ha-Torah..." at the end of the Torah service!
Because we aren't making a statement of fact. We're acknowledging that ours is a legacy of engaging and dialoguing with God that goes back millenia. We are still engaged, today and tomorrow, in figuring out what God wants of us; it is an eternal partnership. When we can see it that way, we realize the facts don't actually matter. Sinai doesn't need to be a physical place where SOMETHING happened, and the "commandments" that God gave Moses are the values, ethics, and mitzvot that we continue to re-understand and redefine all the time. That is how we continue to be God's partners in creation, and that is how we can continue to experience Revelation in every generation. Really and truly.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Adiel lo on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of "Moses on Mount Sinai" by Jean-Léon Gérôme courtesy of KenjiMizoguchi on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image courtesy of
4. CC image courtesy of Sterkebak on Wikimedia Commons