Friday, September 30, 2016

Rosh Hashanah: Embracing an Imperfect Process

On Sunday night, we begin the High Holiday season. Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkot, Sh'mini Atzeret, and Simchat Torah - it's a long series of holidays, and each offers its own set of intentions, kavanot,
for what we're trying to get out of the experience. Taken together, they are filled with awe, inspiration, fear, joy, song, dancing, chest-beating, sadness, reflection, vulnerability, strength, warmth, solitude, and celebration. We're all over the map!! One of the things this brings to mind for me is something I like to say to people with some regularity: The term "Organized Religion" is an oxymoron.

When we organize something and ritualize it, we make it work for a whole group of people. We give it structure, predictability, order. And the word "religion," to me, refers to each of our personal, unique, individual relationships with God. So they are sometimes quite contradictory. But sometimes we need one, and sometimes the other. When we come to shul on the High Holidays, we look for familiar tunes that we can all join in on - Avinu Malkeinu, Ki Anu Amecha, Ha-Yom - and we listen for prayers that tell us we're in the Days of Awe, like Kol Nidrei and Un'tane Tokef. But the Season of Repentance should also include moments of personal reflection, introspection, and remembrance of loved ones. We pivot back and forth between communal, public experiences, and quiet, internal contemplations.

There's no one, single way to do this. And there's no one, ubiquitous emotion you should be feeling right now. Perhaps this year you are more in the mindset of Simchat Torah, needing to dance, shout, and express joy. Or maybe you feel
moved by the Yizkor remembrances and the Eileh Ezkerah, which remind us of the pain of past generations of our ancestors. Or you're somewhere between those two. Regardless, your High Holiday experience isn't going to be exactly the same as the woman sitting next to you, or the man six rows behind you. And none of you, of us, may feel wholly transformed by the liturgy. That is all ok. Just find your place in the hubbub of it all, physically and emotionally. Reflect on where you yourself are right now, and where you might fall along the spectrum from "organized" to "religion," or from Rosh Hashanah to Simchat Torah. Somewhere in all of it, waiting to be discovered, is you.

May you find meaning in this Season of Repentance. May you experience peace, inside and out, and harmony among all the parts of yourself that are vying for attention. Allow yourself to accept that this is an imperfect process, simply because we are all imperfect, struggling, messy, improving, wonderful beings. Be compassionate with yourself, and kind and forgiving with others. Challenge yourself to be a part of something, to invest and commit; but push yourself also to make room for your own needs, as well as some alone time. And every once in a while, give yourself a "should-less" day. May you obtain all parts of our holiday greeting: a Happy, Healthy, and Sweet New Year.

Shanah Tovah!

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of יעקב קירש on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Geagea on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Itzuvit on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of "Co-exist" bumper sticker courtesy of Integral Church on Wordpress

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Ki Tavo: Mining the Curses for Hidden Blessings (guest-blog)

This week, my colleague and friend, Rabbi Kelilah Miller is guest-blogging for me. When life throws you curve balls, it's nice to know there are relief pitchers in the bullpen...

I want to thank Rabbi Gerber for inviting me to share some thoughts on the Torah portion as a guest blogger this week.  It is a special honor to be invited to guest-blog this week in particular, since it is on this coming Shabbat that Ohev Shalom will be officially welcoming Rabbi Gerber’s new son Max into the community and celebrating this new addition to the Gerber family!  Mazal Tov!

In keeping with the idea of celebrating new beginnings, this week’s Torah Portion is all about the privileges and responsibilities of (finally!) entering into the Land of Israel.  Also, in keeping with the hopes and anxieties of many parents (new and otherwise), this week’s Torah Portion contains a long litany of potential blessings and curses that await the People of Israel in the Land.

The blessings and curses of Parashat Ki Tavo are delivered in dramatic fashion, with half of the tribes of Israel shouting the blessings from one mountain and the other half of the tribes shouting the curses from another.  If the People of Israel observe God’s Covenant, they will be blessed beyond measure.  If they reject the responsibilities of the Covenant, they will suffer dire consequences.

It is interesting to note that this is not just another message that Moses delivers to the People as a “solo speech”. By having the tribes recite both the blessings and the curses, Moses forces the People to take ownership over what they are saying.  They have to own and acknowledge that they are not powerless victims of random fate or beneficiaries of blind luck.  They also have to recognize that they are not the sole masters of their fate.  Instead, they are partners with God in an effort to maximize blessing in the Land.  They are part of an integrated system of cause and effect, a web of ethical connection and Covenantal responsibility.

While perhaps not all of us subscribe to a literal understanding of God as an all-powerful (perhaps punitive) judge, we are becoming more and more aware of our interconnectedness as we confront a looming, multifaceted, and ongoing environmental crisis. As the scientific evidence piles up, it becomes clearer and clearer that we have a powerful opportunity to claim and shape our role as agents of either blessings or curses.  Just as the Children of Israel need to name the blessings and curses in this week’s Torah Portion, maybe we need to name the curses that we risk bringing upon ourselves as well as the blessings that might emerge from a community and culture that are grounded in the awe and wonder of Creation.

It just so happens that this Shabbat coincides with Interfaith Food Waste Weekend, when many religious communities are exploring the impact of food waste on our lives, on our communities,  and on the planet.  As Rabbi Gerber and I were discussing the Torah Portion this morning, he observed that the issue of food waste really encompasses both blessings and curses.  We are blessed by an abundance of food on our planet.  If we were to distribute that abundance justly and efficiently, no person would need to go hungry.  But we bring curses on ourselves when we waste the blessing of food.  And it’s not only the curse of hunger that we create through wasting food; the carbon footprint of food waste rivals that of some entire countries.  Our inefficient food systems actively contribute to the degradation of a livable planet.

But...just as blessings can be transformed into curses through carelessness or spiritual disconnection, curses can also be mined for blessings.  The precariousness of our ecological situation reveals awe-inspiring truths about our relationship to all living things and provides inspiration to act on a more powerful vision of the future.  In bearing witness to natural disasters and the injustice of hunger, we can become more keenly aware of the image of God in all people and discover commonalities that make us better allies to one another.

I hope that, as we enter into the High Holiday season, we find ways to take joy in the recognition of our partnership with God, and in the responsibilities and opportunities that go along with that relationship.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Ki Teitzei: Weighing In On Community

Sometimes, the fabric that holds our society together is pretty thin. We'd like to think it's incredibly solid, and that it cannot be broken.
We'd like to believe that even if something, or someone, chips away at the values and systems we hold dear, we can still survive, because we're bigger and stronger than that. And it can be scary to even consider the possibility that we're not that secure. However, the situation gets worse if we refuse to open our eyes to the problems and the challenges. Denial isn't going to help us, but there's something else that might...

This week, our Torah portion deals with several issues that can undermine an entire society. It addresses idolatry, slavery, honesty, and marital relations. And then we read a short section, right before the end of the parashah, that instructs Israelites to use honest weights and
measures. Is that a serious issue? How does that eat away at the fabric of community? Well, imagine a society that existed before currency. When you wanted to purchase products in the market, it was all done using weights and measures. If the merchant hollowed out a weight that was meant to balance out a product being sold, it misrepresented the mass of the item, and ultimately undermined the entire system. The Torah concludes this section by stating: "For everyone who does those things, everyone who deals dishonestly, is abhorrent to Adonai, your God" (Deut. 25:16). Not only is it offensive to God, it corrupts and distorts the way society functions. Look at Bernie Madoff and his ponzi schemes. They didn't just affect a few individuals or companies; they had disastrous rippling effects throughout the country and the world. We are all interconnected. A ponzi scheme is essentially the modern equivalent of a hollowed-out weight in the market place. And it does tremendous damage.

The verse before the one I quoted above adds another important dimension to this. Deuteronomy 25:15 tells us: "You must have completely honest weights and measures, if you are to endure long on the soil that Adonai, your God,
is giving you." This verse might make it seem like Adonai is going to throw us out if we violate this law, but I want to offer a slightly altered reading. God won't throw us out; we'll do the job ourselves. We cannot endure, we cannot survive, if we corrupt our communities. We see it happening in the news, with dishonest mortgage practices, predatory lending, and other variations on this same theme of cheating the system. However, it doesn't just apply to big companies and national scandals; even on a local level, we need to look at our own contributions and ways that we help or hinder our communities. We need to take responsibility, or we'll essentially be throwing ourselves out on the streets by destroying our systems.

In this month of Elul, leading into the High Holidays, it behooves all of us to examine our role in the world around us. We might not be hollowing out weights on a physical scale, or trying to scam people out of their money or their homes - but we live in fragile societies.
We exist and co-exist in congregations, neighborhoods, counties, states, and countries, and when we remove ourselves from these structures, or subtly undermine them, they begin to break down. As you prepare for the High Holidays, think about the impact you have on the people around you. You are important; we are all crucially significant in the infrastructures surrounding us. We all carry a lot of weight, and we can tip the scales for good or for bad. How do YOU measure up?

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image courtesy of Andreas Bohnenstengel on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of "A Dog Weighing an Elephant" courtesy of Fae on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of JM Staniforth's "Chuched Out" courtesy of FruitMonkey on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of "Co-exist" bumper sticker courtesy of Integral Church on Wordpress

Friday, September 9, 2016

Shoftim: Do we "Infuse" or "Refuse"?

The Bible can't seem to make up its mind. How do we interact with the people around us? How are Jews meant to deal with non-Jews, and, in particular, how do we navigate shared spaces and communities?
Sometimes, they are our friends. Moses' father-in-law, Jethro, is not only a non-Israelite, he is a Midianite PRIEST! And he gives Moses crucial advice on how to govern the people during the Exodus. We also read the story of Ruth, who was the great-grandmother of King David. She was a Moabite, from a nation that we are told several times, explicitly, to avoid. So sometimes we live WITH our non-Jewish neighbors; learning from them, sharing our lives with one another, and we even - yes, it's true - intermarry. And then, there are stories like the ones in this week's Torah portion.

Towards the middle of our parashah, the text gives us a pretty straight-forward commandment: "When you enter the land that Adonai, your God, is giving you, do not learn to imitate the abhorrent practices of those nations" (Deuteronomy, 18:9).
Ok, we get it. Don't follow the local customs. The text specifically talks about idolatry, sorcery, and soothsaying; that kind of stuff. We might, therefore, think that we can live in towns next to theirs, as long as we don't pick up any of their kooky rituals... That's when the text gets a little dark and violent: "However, in the cities of these people, that Adonai, your God, is giving you as an inheritance, you shall not let a soul remain alive" (Deut. 20:16). It's pretty bad. And again, it's also confusing. Some of the people we're talking about are the same, or virtually the same, as the ones who gave us Jethro and Ruth, along with others who played FUNDAMENTAL roles in our Jewish story. Where would we be without Moses or King David?!? So how do we make sense of all this?

It's important to note, this is not a historical problem. We see Jewish communities today that try to isolate themselves from their non-Jewish neighbors, and who view all non-Jews as inherently suspect, untrustworthy, and "less-than." Sometimes we even feel that inclination
(a slight twinge perhaps) in ourselves... Right now - here in the United States in 2016 - we each have to make a choice about how we engage with the people around us, and decide whether to live WITH them or apart from them. The Bible is giving us some pretty extreme cases on either end of the spectrum, which I read as a challenge. The text is saying to you and me TODAY: "Where do YOU fall along this gamut?" Perhaps the most challenging question is, once we situate ourselves and figure out how we, individually and communally, feel about the people who live around us, how does that affect the way we live and what we do? Does that obligate us in some way?

This probably won't shock you, but I think it does. I believe we have a very serious and deep responsibility to help out in the world around us. It gets to the heart of what we call Tikkun Olam, Repairing the World.
It's not enough to say we've moved away from Deuteronomy's command to commit genocide; we obviously need to do much, much more. Here at Ohev Shalom, that means starting conversations on race and racism. We may not be the active perpetrators, but there's a deep rift and pain in our country, and we have an obligation to - at the very, very least - think about our own role in that dynamic. So far, we've started working on a cross-communal partnership called FUSE, which you can read about online at But we also need to talk some more, within our community. The Torah offers us many models, and some are purposely provocative to try and force us to engage with this issue. So let's engage.

If you're able to join me, we will be hosting our first internal Ohev conversation THIS Sunday, September 11th, at 2:00 p.m. at Ohev Shalom. We'll be doing more of these in the future as well. I also encourage you to respond here on the blog, or to me personally, if the subject of race, racism, and Jewish/non-Jewish relations strikes a chord in you. The Torah may not be able to make up its mind, but I think it's time that we did. What do YOU think?

Photos in this blogpost:
1. CC image of William Blake's "Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab" (1795) courtesy of Churchh on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Rui Daniel Barros on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Tony Webster on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image courtesy of Amy Pollack, a fantastic graphic designer (and congregant & friend), who made this incredible FUSE logo for us.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Re'eh: Too Quick to Judge a Slave

When trying to make sense of something, you really need ALL the information, don't you? The facts of the case, the context, the history, the players; everything can and should
contribute to your overall understanding. Too often in society, we see people making snap judgments about a myriad of things, or generalizing about other people, political parties, or stories they read in the news. In fact, I recently read a study that claimed that 6 in 10 people don't actually read the articles they share! They just see a headline and post it on Twitter or Facebook; that one line says all they really need to know. Or at least I think that's what the study said, I only read the first paragraph...

The Torah sometimes forces us to confront this problem. I know it's hard to believe a 3,000-year old text could have opinions about social media, but it's true! From time to time, the Torah will cover the same topic in several different places, but it either presents conflicting
information or leaves vital information out of one (or both!) of the sections. If you're familiar with the text, you sense that you need to dig a little to get a fuller picture. You need to make sure you've gathered all the information, compared and contrasted it, and identified the context, language, and history, along with various other factors that add essential details to our understanding. Snap decisions or drawing conclusions from insufficient data can get you in A LOT of trouble... and as we read in news reports from around the world, it often does!

Here's a very good example from this week's parashah: Deuteronomy, 15:12-18 tells us that a destitute Israelite can become your indentured servant, but you must release him after six years and help him get back on his feet. However, he may choose to remain your servant, at which point he is your property for the rest of your life... Wait, I don't get it.
Why would the servant CHOOSE to stay a slave, rather than become a free man? Our text doesn't say. But if we do a little digging, we might find an answer elsewhere. Back in Exodus, 21:2-6, we read the very same set of laws. In that instance, however, we ALSO learned that if the slave got married and had a family while in your service, the wife and children are NOT set free! You get to keep his family. But hey, at least he gets his freedom, right??? That section tells us the slave must make the following declaration to remain your life-long slave: "I love my master - AND MY WIFE AND CHILDREN - I do not wish to go free" (21:5). We are, perhaps, meant to understand this as an admirable proclamation of loyalty to his master; THAT'S why he wants to stay. Yeah, sure. I hear him saying something very different, don't you?

He's being blackmailed! He wins his freedom, but he has to leave his wife and children behind! The text, in both Exodus and Deuteronomy, claims the slave is choosing to remain in bondage, but I don't think it's a choice at all. And I think many of you would agree with me.
But again, we might not have fully understood the emotional ramifications and the context of his declaration, if we only had the passage from Deuteronomy. This should leave us with two important realizations: 1) Don't make snap judgments. Things are rarely black-or-white, and don't have simple answers. Look for the nuance and the subtly in all areas of your life. And 2) Always put humanity and compassion first. Whether someone is a slave or a world leader, an ally or an enemy, don't reduce them to an object or a caricature. They, like you and me, have more depth and detail. The truth, in all its complexity and intricacy, is worth the extra effort. Do a little digging, read articles before you share them, and I think you'll find the reward is worth the hard work.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. Image courtesy of Rabbi Gerber's iPhone (screen shot from Facebook)
2. CC image courtesy of lchor202 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Hanay on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of Lincoln caricature courtesy of ken g6 on Wikimedia Commons