Friday, August 26, 2016

Eikev: Stuck Between Belief and Baloney

I'm having a fight with my Bible class. It's true! Well, maybe it's not so much a fight as it is a disagreement, or perhaps a recurring exchange with some mild pretend-frustration... but "fight" just sounds better.
Every Wednesday morning, I sit with a wonderful (but rowdy) group of congregants, and we dissect the text of the Torah. Now, I don't pull any of my punches. I studied at the Jewish Theological Seminary - home of source-critical, documentary-hypothesis, positive-historical, Wissenschaft des Judentums, scholarly study of Jewish text - so yeah, the class gets the unfiltered stuff. And as a result, we regularly wrestle with THE big question: "Who wrote the Bible?" And it's true, sometimes we fight. Sort of.

Several students in the class (who shall remain nameless), often ask variations on the same questions: "Is the text of the Torah TRUE?" and if it isn't, "Is all this stuff just made up?" Full disclosure; I can't easily answer either of those questions. We are MEANT to struggle with them. I hear my congregants
stating a black-or-white, either-or problem; either every word in the Torah is true and factual and Divine... or it's all just a bunch of baloney. And I just don't see it that way. This week, I believe the Torah agrees with my refusal to choose one or the other of these options. Deuteronomy, chapter 11 states (and I'm editing the quote a little): "Take thought this day that it was not your children, who neither experienced nor witnessed the lesson of Adonai, your God - God's majesty, mighty hand, outstretched arm, the signs and the deeds... what God did to Egypt's army... what God did for you in the wilderness... and to Datan and Aviram... - but that it was YOU who saw with YOUR OWN EYES all the marvelous deeds that Adonai performed" (11:2-7, all-caps my own).

Ok, so here's the problem: I wasn't there. Were you? We can, of course, wax poetic about our souls all being at Sinai, and that spiritually we are all interconnected with one another and with our ancestors. Yes, yes,
we get all of that. But I don't remember standing at Sinai. I don't feel like I, Jeremy Gerber, am IN this story. So I feel stuck. I'm not at one extreme end of the spectrum, wholeheartedly and cosmically connected to the Sinai experience; but I'm also not at the other end, dismissing the Torah's assertion as ludicrous or irrelevant. I WANT to make sense of it, to feel connected and represented, to believe that the text is speaking to me. I too want to be blessed by it! And maybe that, right there, is the key. My desire, my caring about the text and wanting to connect to it. That realization gets me just a little bit un-stuck.

This bit of insight - the importance of our own effort - is actually critical for the upcoming High Holiday season as well. You see, even the very first audience hearing these verses from Deuteronomy, they probably were living hundreds of years after the
Exodus as well! They had no personal experience of Sinai either. And yet, the Torah says "you were there!" But we suspend our disbelief, as they did. We accept the theatrics of it - even just for a little while - and we (briefly) let go of our skepticism. We have to make meaning of the text ourselves. When we WANT this thing, this Jewish enterprise, to work, we have to make it so. No one can make this meaningful FOR you. I can't assuage all the frustrations of my Bible class students. Meaning-making is very personal, it's unique and complex for each individual. What I want you to hear in that Biblical quote is not fact or fiction, but rather a yearning for relationship. A hand stretching out, desperately yet lovingly, for someone to reach back. Before you can do anything else, you have to let yourself SEE that hand... then the next move is up to you.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Evan-Amos on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of LI1324 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Mielon on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of James Hill on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Va-Etchanan: A Chatty Form of Prayer

I am not going to write about the Ten Commandments this week. Now, you might ask: "How can you NOT write about the Ten Commandments?!?", which would be fair to ask, since they ARE found in this week's Torah portion.
But that doesn't mean we always have to discuss them; there's A LOT of other great stuff in our parashah! I would also be in pretty good company, snubbing the Decalogue. I'm sure you're all familiar with our daily recitation of the Ten Commandments? Yeah, me neither. The rabbis notoriously and glaringly kept these famous Utterances out of our prayer service, and away from almost any holiday observance! "Why?" you ask? Another fair question... and I'll talk about that some other time. Like I said, I'm not writing about this topic right now. So what AM I going to talk about?

Our Torah portion this week actually includes the Shema prayer as well. I know, I know; it's a pretty star-studded parashah. Many Jews would probably say that the Shema is our most famous prayer. It is THE Jewish creed; our mantra, our code, our battle-cry! And that's
all true. There's only one, small problem. It isn't - technically speaking - a prayer. Generally speaking, we might say that a prayer should be phrased TO God? Well, "Shema Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad" essentially translates to: "Hear, O Israel, Adonai, our God, Adonai is One." (Deuteronomy, 6:4) It's speaking to the people, not God. The Shema is incredibly important, don't get me wrong. In six, simple words, it sums up that there IS a God; just ONE God; it's OUR God; and we, as a people, have a communal, yet personal, relationship with that God. But if you picture Moses standing atop a mountain proclaiming this manifesto, he would be facing back the other way, towards the people; he would not be addressing Adonai.

And there's something really fascinating to me about this realization - our most famous and significant prayer isn't a prayer at all. The most profound statement we make about our theology, is stated to one another, to our fellow Jews, and NOT to God.
I actually find this to be a very comforting thought. It is a reminder that community and inter-personal relationships are just as important as a connection with the Divine. Especially now, as we approach the Jewish month of Elul, leading into the High Holiday season, it is essential to remember that our connection to one another is just as crucial as our prayers to God. Sure, this fundamental verse focuses on God's relationship with Israel and God's Oneness... but it begins with a call from one Jew to another: "Hear, O Israel" - listen up, my friend! It isn't just about God in some vacuum or void; you and I are vital to this equation too.

This weekend is also called "Shabbat Nachamu," "The Shabbat of Comfort," which always follows the observance of Tisha b'Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar. The Haftarah, from the Prophet Isaiah, speaks words of comfort and reassurance that God has not forgotten us in exile, even though our Temple was destroyed.
Faith has indeed kept us going as a people through every oppression and persecution - but so have our bonds between fellow Jews. WE have sustained one another, and together preserved our Jewish heritage. At the heart of our religious faith is our one, true God, Adonai. But at the core of our peoplehood, our culture, our history, is Israel. With the High Holidays just over the horizon, let's remember to focus on our community, and our connection to all those around us. It is certainly a season of repentance and speaking to Adonai... but it's also ok to turn around every once in a while and check in on the congregants sitting around you. Yes, it's true, that is also a form of prayer. And an important one at that.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of the Providence Lithograph Company on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Rabanus Flavus on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Ranveig on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Geerd-Olaf Freyer on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, August 11, 2016

D'varim and Tisha b'Av: Choosing a Vision of the Future

Greetings everyone!
I last wrote to you here on the blog on June 30th. I told you then - prophetically, as it turns out - that my son was hopefully going to be born soon. Well, he arrived the very next day! :-) Max Brian Gerber arrived on Friday, July 1st, (thank God) in perfect health. Here's a picture of my son and me, hanging out on a blanket in his room. :-)

I've been on paternity leave ever since, but am now back in the office, and looking forward to getting back to blogging. Without further ado, here goes:

I would like to start my blog, after such a long hiatus, with a positive and upbeat post. That makes sense, right? And it would appear that the Torah portion this week is on my side. After all, this weekend is known as Shabbat Chazon, the Shabbat of Vision. How perfect! I just had
a new child, the new Jewish year is about to begin, the weather is lovely (albeit a little hot in Philly right now...); what a great time for a Shabbat of vision, hope, excitement, and anticipation. There's only one problem: The name - Chazon - comes from Isaiah's "vision" of the imminent destruction of the city of Jerusalem. Shabbat Chazon always precedes Tisha b'Av, the saddest day on the Jewish calendar, when we commemorate the destruction of both Ancient Temples (in 587 BCE and 70 CE), as well as several other calamitous events in Jewish history. So much for restarting the blog on a high note...

Sometimes it feels as though Tisha b'Av has lost its relevance. We grieve atrocities that befell us 2,500 years ago, or even 1,000 or 500 years ago, and they simply don't feel current or apropos. Though we do mourn the victims of the Holocaust on Tisha b'Av as well, we also have a separate day just for that remembrance, Yom Ha-Shoah.
It's hard to "sell" a day like Tisha b'Av to congregants, at least compared to - say - Chanukah or Purim, or even Pesach. Tisha b'Av is also a fast day, and I think the lack of food is a deal breaker for some people as well... What kind of a Jewish holiday has NO food?!? The truth is, however, I think it's a shame that more people don't observe Tisha b'Av. Our service begins at nightfall, and we chant a special book, called Eicha. The chanting is haunting and beautiful, and the whole service has a powerful, reflective, even cathartic feel to it. And let's face it; everyone could use a good cry once in a while. I truly don't mean that facetiously; we often ignore the healing and restorative powers of sadness and grieving. Tisha b'Av CAN add something very meaningful to our lives... if we let it.

We focus so much of our energies on trying to be happy all the time, but that isn't real life. And with all the uncertainty in the world these days - with unsettling elections, terror threats, Zika, and racial tensions - we NEED to address our fears and concerns. But in a healthy and restorative way. We need to help one another process what's happening in the world today, and find ways to still feel hope and optimism in the
face of our challenges. To me, that is why Tisha b'Av is actually a holiday filled with hope, just hidden under the guise of sadness. We are MEANT to misinterpret Shabbat Chazon, because it starts as a vision of destruction... but we, the readers, are meant to transform it into a vision of faith, optimism, and rebuilding. Our ancient rabbis tell us that the Messiah - should that person choose to some day show up... - will be born on Tisha b'Av; thus turning a day of national mourning into great joy and celebration.

But you and I can't make the Messiah appear. Not by Saturday evening anyway. And I, for one, am not going to waste even an ounce of energy on the hope of a personified, individual, savior-Messiah. That just ain't my religion. That doesn't mean that all of us, here today, are powerless to affect change. On the contrary;
in the absence of external salvation, WE must be the agents of change. No one else is going to solve this for us. No one else is going to fix the world on our behalf. We cannot acquiesce responsibility and think that somehow the work will still get done. It won't. So even though we begin Tisha b'Av in sadness, and mourn destructions both ancient and modern, it is ultimately a holiday with a firm focus on the future. The prophet Isaiah's Chazon, his vision, was in the past. You and I can make our own vision for this generation and the one(s) to come. But sometimes that needs to start with a really good cry.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Ariely on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's woodcut, "Lamentations of Jeremiah" (1860), courtesy of McLeod on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Sagtkd on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of Leopold Horowitz' "Tish'a B'av" (1887), courtesy of Robert Prummel on Wikimedia Commons