Friday, August 18, 2017

R'eih: Helping to Bend the Arc of the Moral Universe Just A Little Bit

We should be able to expect progress. When we look back at the lengthy span of human history - and realize that our species has evolved from primates to ancient discoverers of fire, nomadic shepherds to primitive civilizations, feudal societies to modern cities - I think it's fair to hope, and even expect, that things would improve.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, quoting Theodore Parker, a 19th Century Unitarian Minister: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." Let's face it: We've had a really rough week. The violence in Charlottesville was still reverberating in our minds when yet another terrorist used a van to attack innocent people in Barcelona. Right now, that arc is feeling longer than ever, and it doesn't feel like it's bending towards justice as much as we desperately need it to. And yet, our Torah portion tells us we have a choice.

Parashat R'eih begins with Moses declaring to the Israelites: "See, I set before you this day blessing and curse: blessing, if you obey the commandments of Adonai, your God, that I command you today, and curse, if you do not obey the commandments..." (Deut. 11:26-28)
God isn't going to FORCE us to make good decisions. If any of you out there are parents, you know what I'm talking about. You can teach your children, you can encourage them to make good choices, and you can even punish them when they make bad ones. But at the end of the day, you cannot MAKE them behave a certain way, and neither can God. But God isn't even interested in TRYING to compel us! I believe God truly wants us to figure this out for ourselves, and learn from the consequences and repercussions of both the good AND the bad decisions we make. Right now, we are all watching how terrorists - domestic and international - feel brazenly emboldened to spread fear and hate. In the absence of clear condemnation and the firm drawing of lines in the sand, violence persists. But we SHOULD be able to expect something else.

Just a few verses later in our Torah portion, Moses reminds the Israelites of an important change that is coming: "[When you enter the land] you shall not act at all as we now act here, every individual as s/he pleases, since you have not yet reached the resting place and the inheritance that Adonai, your God, is giving you." (12:8-9)
Standards changed. Once they entered the land, they had to abide by new rules. And later in our history, Temple sacrifice ended and synagogues took over. The world changed too! Slavery ended, suffrage happened, and civil rights were enacted. As the arc of human history keeps bending, the stakes get higher and we must emphatically insist: You can't keep acting in these old ways. We all have a choice, sure. And we believe wholeheartedly in the freedom of speech. Some people will continue to choose curses, and pick hatred and violence over love and peace. But the rest of us need to keep insisting on society evolving; the arc must continue to bend.

So now that same choice is placed before all of us. Right now, at this moment, we are each staring at a crossroads; with blessing on one side and curse on the other. Standing still is not an option. The Israelites couldn't remain in the desert, and we don't get to wait on the sidelines any longer.
Not when there are tiki torches and rental vans being wielded as weapons to try and force us into silence and terror. I can't tell you what that choice looks like for you. But one thing I'll say is that we should all refuse to accept the new normal, where excuses are made for white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and Ku Klux Klan members. This is NOT normal, and we must REFUSE to go back to a time when it was. It may feel like progress is slowing down right now, at this moment in our history. But never forget that our history is long, and it WILL keep bending in the right direction. And as it continues to do so, we all need to make sure we're on the right side of history... and maybe help the arc bend just a little bit.

On a related note, I offered an invocation at an Interfaith service last week, in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville. Click here, if you'd like to read my invocation. Thanks!


Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of Antoine Bourdelle's "Herakles the Archer," courtesy of PierreSelim oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of US Fish and Wildlife Service on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Mstyslav Chernov on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of T at English Wikipedia on Wikimedia Commons

Invocation at Interfaith Service after the Violence in Charlottesville, VA

This invocation was inspired by several beautiful prayers written by my colleague, Rabbi Menachem Creditor. You can find more of his incredible prayers, meditations, and readings at www.rabbicreditor.blogspot.com


Eloheinu, Veilohei Avoteinu - Our God, and God of our ancestors,

We thank You for the opportunity to come together this day, from different backgrounds, different religions, different communities; and to stand here together as one.

We pray to You, O God, for the understanding and intelligence to learn well the lesson that the unity, closeness, and resolve that we all feel today must be lived each and every day of our lives. Help us recognize that all people are members of one human family. Strengthen our resolve to know – always – that xenophobia, islamophobia, anti-Semitism, oppression of the LGBTQ community, and all forms of hatred and the weaponizing of fear will NOT divide us. Our goal for ourselves, our communities, our country, and our world is for all humans to lead good lives while dwelling together in peace.

Today, we feel lost. We look for leadership… and hear silence. Our heads spin and we cannot wake up from dystopian nightmares. Our souls are burning with anguish. Until When, O Lord?! Until when, Dear God?!? Until when, leaders of our nation??? How long must we live in fear? How long must we endure violence and hate?

God, You have given us the tools of progress, and we wield them to hurt.
Our plowshares have jagged edges, and Your children are dying.

We ask You, O Lord, for the courage to face what numbs us, the strength to stand up for the oppressed even – and perhaps especially – when they don’t look, pray, love, or speak like us. And grant us the resolve to not let our vulnerability make us feel powerless.

We are not.

For we, Adonai, we are your images, and we are being erased.
In our world today, we are erasing ourselves, and in so doing we are erasing You, O God.

Dear Lord, this hurts so much. Teach us; guide us; make us save each other. Help us know that we are not alone, that we are here for one another, and we can unite against what plagues our lives.

May this world, our world, know no more hatred and violence. May people some day, please God, live in peace. If we will it – if we act on it and dedicate ourselves to it, it is no dream.

And let us now, together as one, all say: Amen.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Eikev: On the Heels of a Really Big Word

I don't always spend an entire blog post on a single word. Or, for that matter, on THE central word that gives a particular Torah portion its name. But this week, let's do just that. Our Torah portion is called "Eikev."
It's sort of a funny word, and is used in several different contexts. For example, in Genesis we are told that it's the root of Jacob's name, "Ya'akov." Jacob and his twin brother, Esau, are born in Chapter 25, where the text tells us that Jacob came out holding on to Esau's heel, his "Eikev." However, two chapters later, Esau offers a different interpretation of his brother's name, right after Jacob steals Esau's blessing from their father. "Va-ya-k'veini zeh fa'amayim," "he [Jacob] has supplanted me these two times" (27:36) - Esau spins a pun with the root "a-k-v" to link Jacob's name to the word for "usurp" or even "deceive." Interestingly, our Torah portion employs Eikev with NEITHER of those sentiments in mind. Instead, you might say that in our parashah, it is the biggest word in the Hebrew dictionary.

Ok, there is a slight linguistic connection to the word "heel," I'll give you that. "Eikev" is used in our reading like the English expression, "on the heels of," but it doesn't really have anything to do with that body part. In our Chumash, the word
is translated as "if." And I say it's the biggest word in Hebrew, because people sometimes quip that "if" is the biggest word in English. As in, "If I only had a million dollars..." or "If I could be president for a day..." It's such a big, pivotal, transformative word, because the entire world would look different IF... In Parashat Eikev, Moses begins by stating: "And IF you do obey these rules and observe them carefully, Adonai your God will maintain faithfully for you the covenant that God made on oath with your ancestors" (Deut. 7:12). And nearly the entire rest of this chapter rattles off a list of rewards and assurances that Israel will receive from God. God will favor us, bless us, multiply us, and give us grain, wine, oil, and plentiful herds. God will ward off sickness, send plagues against our enemies, dislodge them from before us, and deliver their kings into our hands. And guess what? All of this is true IF, IF, IF, IF, IF we hold up our end of the deal!!

Now listen, I'm not going to suggest that God's got a fabulous track record here. Sure, we humans need to take responsibility for a lot of the bad things that have happened in the world, but at least a few earthquakes, tsunamis, children's diseases, accidents, and other tragic and terrifying calamities cannot be blamed on
human flaws or sins. Some things can ONLY be prevented or averted by God. Even if God didn't directly cause them, it is still hard for us to understand why and how God could decide not to intervene. And yet, despite that, we are also to blame. All of the anger and frustration and fury that we direct at God cannot remove the word "Eikev" from this text. IF we don't live up to our end of the deal, and IF we don't try to be the best people we can be, and IF we don't do our darndest to make the world a better place; we don't really get to demand that God give us our rewards. We just don't.

"Eikev" is a challenge, a promise, and a warning. IF we don't take care of our planet, our nation, (our nuclear responsibility...), our communities, and the less-fortunate in society, we may some day be supplanted from our place as the primary
stewards of this earth. That sounds terrifying and ominous. But let us also not forget that there are SO MANY rewards out there waiting for us, IF we take our role and our charge seriously and work EVEN harder to be more compassionate, loving, inclusive, and committed. "If" is indeed an enormous word. It is the fulcrum upon which so much hinges, and in truth I think we all spend much of our lives pivoting to one side or the other. Sometimes we are scared, judgmental, suspicious, and possessive. Other times we feel charitable, understanding, hopeful, and generous. It is important to remember how much power we really DO have, and how much impact we can have on the world around us. But only IF we choose to care and choose to act. And when we do, our actions will bless our future and reward us (all) bountifully.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Vveia784 oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Daniel Case on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, courtesy of Apollomesos~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Wyatt915 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, August 4, 2017

Va'etchanan (Shabbat Nachamu): Our Obligations to the Land... Even in Chester

I want to be honest with you, and share what I like to think of as a "trick of the trade." Sometimes, when you're writing a sermon (or a blog post...), the text
influences your message, and other times, your message influences the text. In other words, it does happen that I FIRST know what I want to say, and lo and behold, I find an example in the Torah text that helps me convey that message. I think this concept is true in life as well; occasionally we have a narrative set in our minds, and then we see the world reflecting that already-held-belief. I don't feel that this is necessarily a "worse" way to write, I just think it's good to acknowledge when this method is in play. And this week, it is - indeed - in play. You see, Ohev won a big award.

As a Conservative synagogue, we belong to an organization called the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism (USCJ). Every two years, at their biennial convention, the USCJ gives out Solomon Schechter Awards to
congregations for programs, events, or efforts that they feel are deserving. This year, we won for the Children of Israel mosaics (about which I've spoken many times), AND for our community work with FUSE, the Fellowship of Urban-Suburban Engagement. Out of 190 applications, we won two of the thirteen awards given out! This is obviously very, very exciting for us, and so these two projects are really on my mind at the moment. So it should come as no surprise that I look at the Torah portion and see messages about the importance of our synagogue work reflecting back at me from inside our Biblical texts.

Parashat Va'etchanan is a MAJOR parashah; it includes both the Ten Commandments AND the Shema, all in one Torah portion!! And swirling around each of these crucial teachings are the themes of land and peoplehood. Several
times, Moses reminds the Israelites about keeping the laws specifically in order "that you may live to enter and take possession of the land that Adonai, the God of your ancestors, is giving you" (Deut. 4:1). Adherence equals thriving community and total security. Furthermore, we live observant and ethical lives in order to inspire the people around us, so that they might say: "Surely, that great nation is a wise and discerning people" (4:6). So much of our Torah is about building community and being in relationship with the peoples around us, which, to me at least, speaks deeply to our work with FUSE. At its core, FUSE is about creating a better society for EVERYONE. When we confront racial disparities and engage with one another in uncomfortable but vital conversations about systemic problems, white privilege, and otherness, we ALL benefit.

Having our FUSE work recognized by the USCJ is really exciting. It makes me feel like we're on the right track, and that others see how beneficial and essential this endeavor is. If you'd like to learn more, or if you'd like to participate in an event, I want to highlight a unique and exciting one coming up
NEXT week. On August 10th, we're going to meet in Chester for a tour of their central neighborhood, called Overtown. You can read more here. If you've ever heard or read anything about Chester, THIS is a great chance to challenge those assumptions and expectations, and see the place for yourself. Chester is an important city to Ohev Shalom. Our congregation was born there, as were many of our older congregants. It is part of our home, and our Torah portion reminds us that we are responsible for it. If we want to "long endure" and "prosper," we need to acknowledge our responsibilities and be in relationship with our heritage and our fellow community members. We need to "fuse" all of these priorities together into one. I hope you'll be able to join me on August 10th, and that you'll see the texts of our tradition speaking to these kinds of concerns just as I do. If we want to "enjoy long life" (6:2), as the Torah promises, this is the type of work we need to engage in. And now is the time to begin.


Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Ffahm oWikimedia Commons
2. Children of Israel mosaics at Ohev Shalom (in case you forgot what they looked like...)
3. From a FUSE event in 2016
4. Our FUSE logo, created by Amy Pollack (Twist n' Shout)

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Devarim: What My Stories Say About Me

Everybody has his or her own truth. The notion of an objective reality is a little bit of a myth. Certainly our current political climate makes that unmistakably clear; even the idea of "facts" seems to be entirely in dispute!!
We look at the world around us, we process our experiences, we form ideas of what's going on - and the conclusions we come to may be VASTLY different from the person next to us, experiencing the very same things. In fact, we see an incredible example of this in the Torah, as we now begin the fifth and final book. It may be surprising to see how stories can get so fundamentally reinterpreted, or how seemingly objective facts are changed. But maybe the reason the Torah puts it out on display is for all of us to learn something crucially important: Lean in.

The last book of the Torah is called Deuteronomy, or Devarim in Hebrew. It primarily consists of one person's recapitulation of the Exodus story. This is Moses' chance
to give his version of what happened, when, and why. One of the things I find so fascinating about this, is that we have the original version of these events IN THE SAME BOOK! We can just flip back a few pages or chapters to verify what he says, so it would seem pointless to try and change facts. Nevertheless, Moses remembers things a little differently than what we see in Exodus or Numbers. In Deuteronomy, 1:9, Moses suggests that he alone decided he couldn't decide EVERY dispute among the Israelites, even though Exodus 18:17 informed us that Moses' father-in-law, Yitro, was the one who urged him to delegate responsibilities. Later on, he gives himself credit for ideas that God came up with, and also distances himself from embarrassing incidents that earlier texts DEFINITELY indicated were Moses' fault! It's really quite astounding...

So what do we make of it all? For one thing, even Moses has his own "truth." Life isn't experienced in objectivity. We spend so much of our time looking for what's "real" and "definite," because it's hard to accept that everything is subjective, nuanced, biased. Especially when it comes
to moral and/or social issues that we feel - with every fiber of our being - should be agreed upon by ALL PEOPLE, it's challenging to admit that not everyone agrees. So maybe universal acceptance shouldn't be our goal. If that's impossible to achieve, why wear ourselves out fighting to get there? We cannot make everyone see things our way. We can, however, make ourselves known. We can try to help others see us more fully. Moses isn't intending to say "this is how it happened." He's saying "this is how I experienced it." This is HIS reality, and it helps us understand HIM better, not the play-by-play of the events he's describing. And sometimes that's actually a more important insight.

Society teaches us to disregard bias, because it isn't real. Or not real enough. But in actuality, EVERYTHING is biased, we just need to account for it. Moses' story
isn't "fake," it just isn't the only version. And when we know that, we can use the two (or more) different narratives to paint a richer picture, and we can understand the author of each a little better. Their bias is part of the story as well. And so is ours. What you believe about the world, and about healthcare, immigration, the military, foreign affairs, the environment, Israel, religion, and every other issue, it says a lot about YOU, even more than about the issues themselves. So as we keep reading the Book of Deuteronomy, we should see it as an opportunity to understand Moses better. And we should learn from this part of the Torah to see the world that way too. Listen to the news and what the people around you are saying, and see it as a way to understand THEM better. And the way you interpret all this information, the conclusions you draw from it, it says a lot about you yourself as well. If you're willing to listen and learn.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Maria Qumayoo oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Nevit on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Darheim on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of K.C. Tang on Wikimedia Commons


Friday, July 21, 2017

Matot-Masei: I'll Annul My Own Vows, Thanks.

Oversimplification is a bad idea. And yes, I realize that even that statement was made categorically, so it kind of violates my own maxim. But in MANY situations,
when we try to simplify an issue and define it in terms of good vs. bad, right vs. left, correct vs. incorrect, we get in trouble. "All people in x demographic group feel this way..." "Anyone who says y is wrong." Life just doesn't work that way. There's complexity, grey areas, nuance. I know I've said this before, but it bears repeating. This week, in the Torah, women are the targets of this overgeneralization. As a rule, women simply don't know how to make good decisions for themselves. You see? Look how much trouble we are in already!

The first chapter of our Torah portion, Matot-Masei, begins by telling us that if a man makes a vow to God, he is obligated to fulfill it.
This could be in regards to a business transaction, an interpersonal relationship, a military duty; once he makes that vow, he's on the hook to see it through. If a woman, however, makes a similar vow, her father or husband can annul it on her behalf. Why? Because women (supposedly) make bad, rash, emotional - dare we say hysterical??? - uninformed decisions and "need" a man to decide whether the oath was valid or not. I hope I don't have to spell this out, but this argument is INCREDIBLY offensive. It's offensive to women, first of all, but really to everyone! To me, it's an example of the Torah narrative at its most antiquated, patriarchal, and misogynistic. In short, I don't like it. And the only way that it resonates with me, personally, is to see it as a challenge.

We can do better. We HAVE TO do better. No group - women, minorities, the LGBT community - should be defined with broad strokes and categorical statements. We all need to dig deeper, understand the nuance of individual people, families,
communities, and see the complexity that is so fundamental to all our lives. This isn't an ancient problem; it's going on around us RIGHT NOW! We judge and label "the Other" as suspicious, lazy, fake, corrupt, unreliable. And we then become desensitized to their story and the challenges they face. The Torah is goading us to disagree, and to push back: "No! I will not label ALL women, or ALL gays, or ALL foreigners in any one way!!" We need to cast off that yoke and refuse to accept that narrative. And that has to be a conscious, deliberate decision. Oversimplification and generalization creeps back into our minds, if and when we let it. "Those people always..." and "They never..." In a way, the Torah is actually reminding us that we can't let up, we have to remain vigilant and proactive.

Each of us needs to make a concerted effort to learn more, to embrace the nuance and "messiness" of life. Who is "The Other" really? What are the deeper elements in their story and how can I learn something new that I didn't know before?
The Torah provokes us by saying that women - in general - don't get to make decisions about their own actions. You don't agree? That makes you mad? Well, what are you going to do about it? It's not enough to be outraged and say the Torah is wrong. How are YOU going to change that narrative and help others see things differently? There is probably some area where you too make generalizing statements, even just to yourself, about some group of people. Maybe not women or Jews or gays, but SOME group. It is very humbling, and challenging, to confront those beliefs. But that is the work! That is what we have to do. Getting angry and feeling outraged is just Step One. What comes after that is the real question. And it's a hard one to answer...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Joowwww oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of New York Public Library on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of United States Armed Forces on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of LSE Library on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 7, 2017

Balak: Uh Oh, Your Core is Showing!

Being a human being is a complex endeavor. It's no simple matter. Each of us is the sum of so many parts; family history, individual experiences, traumas,
triumphs, loves, losses, genetic material, to name just a few. And as varied, intricate, and multi-faceted as we are, there is also a theme that runs through our lives. At our core, each of us stands for something - or some series of things - and even as we evolve and grow, that locus remains. I invite each person reading this to really think about what your own core might look like, and how it makes itself known in various ways throughout your life. Sometimes it's overt, and sometimes it's subtle and hidden. This week's Torah portion, mainly about enemies of Israel trying to plot our destruction, teaches us something interesting about human nature and how core traits make themselves known... no matter how hard we try.

The name of our parashah is Balak, from the name of a Moabite king who tries to curse the Israelites. But he isn't actually the main character; he tries to hire a prophet to do his dirty work, and that is the guy we are primarily examining.
Bilaam, son of Beor, seems to have been a BIG deal in the ancient world. We don't know much about him, but the fact that the Torah doesn't list his accomplishments is itself a clue that his reputation preceded him. In our text, even God seems concerned that Bilaam might curse the Israelites, which is a shocking concept as well! Bilaam appears to us very powerful, and in his own eyes, he certainly is mighty, important, and ferocious. But he is also petty and greedy. At his core, he is small and ignorant, and no matter how many bells and whistles try to hide that fact, or how many dignitaries pay him tribute, his pettiness comes through nevertheless. We especially see this in the way he treats those "beneath" him: For instance, a donkey.

In Numbers, 22:21, we read a fascinating (and humorous) tale of Bilaam setting off to curse the Israelites for King Balak. God doesn't want him to go, and places an angel with a drawn sword along the road, to block Bilaam's access.
Only Bilaam can't see the angel (some powerful seer he is...); only his donkey can see it. The donkey three times attempts to veer out of the way, but Bilaam repeatedly tries to force the donkey back... and with each yank of the harness he also beats his poor, defenseless animal. Incredibly, God gives the donkey the power of speech, and when she asks Bilaam why he is beating her, he yells at her and says he wishes he had a sword so he could kill her! (v. 29) Putting aside all the fantastical elements in this little vignette, Bilaam is a bully. Compassionless, aggressive, pompous, and in his own estimation, always right. He tries to present himself in different ways in our story - to Moabite dignitaries, to Balak, even to God - but he cannot hide who he truly is on the inside. His core speaks for itself, and it isn't pretty.

We humans are indeed complex. But one thing that is particularly true is that we don't get to tell people who we are; we show them with our actions. Sure, we can redeem ourselves and make amends, we can change direction, grow, and
mature. But even then, we need to DEMONSTRATE our desire to change with our behavior, not with groveling apologies and grandiose promises. It is also true that we CAN choose to say one thing and do another. It's not physically impossible; people do it constantly. Each time, however, we undermine our own integrity, and we chip away at our credibility. There's only so long hypocrisy can persist. Again, think about your own core. Do you like it? Do you want that to be how you are known? Who we are is NOT about words or promises - Bilaam talked a VERY good game... and then he threatened to beat an animal to death. In the end, it's about action, behavior, and results. And I firmly believe it is also about compassion, kindness, and empathy - living those traits, not just talking about them. You can present yourself as the mightiest person on the planet... but if you're also kicking a (proverbial) donkey behind the scenes, then you really aren't so powerful at all.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Jopparn oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Pharos on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Winslow Homer on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gerrit on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 30, 2017

Chukat: This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You

You've probably heard me say this before: I really don't care for the expression, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."
I don't agree with it at all. And I have strong feelings on the subject, because not only do I think it's completely backwards, I also think it does us all quite a bit of harm. Bones heal. When someone is in a terrible accident - God forbid - their bodies do recover, either quickly or sometimes over a longer period of time and with the help of physical therapy. But the psychological and mental wounds often linger A LOT longer. In my time at Ohev Shalom, I have sadly seen many family rifts, where people have not spoken to one another for decades. Almost never did such a dispute begin with physical violence. Most of the time, it began with words... and it cut a lot deeper than a stick or a stone ever could.

Words are in the news a lot these days. Collectively, we parse the meanings of "bonafide" and "hope," and realize that even a single word can have many levels of nuance and tone; and sometimes people's lives hinge on those interpretations.
In looking at this week's Torah portion, I also find myself thinking about the use of words to attack other people, specifically with name-calling. Our parashah includes the particularly infamous story of Moses striking a rock to bring forth water for the thirsting Israelites. In doing so, Moses dooms himself to never set foot in the Land of Israel, as God vows: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers, 20:12). At first glance, it isn't clear exactly why Moses receives such a harsh punishment. It's not like he was doing anything new!

Back in Exodus, chapter 17, God told Moses specifically TO strike a rock to access water - so there was precedent. A few verses before this ominous incident, Moses' sister, Miriam, had just died, so emotion and grief could have clouded his
judgment as well. He'd also been leading the people for FORTY years, so his patience was understandably wearing a bit thin. On top of all of this, I want to add another possible explanation: His words. As Moses raises his staff to bash the stone, he calls out: "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock!?!" (20:10) Moses never called them "rebels" before; he never previously resorted to name-calling and insults. Perhaps that was the step over the line? Maybe that was God's indication that Moses no longer could do his job properly, and needed to be replaced by another.

Verbal abuse and personal attacks are low tactics to employ in a confrontation. They divert attention away from the real issue(s) at hand, and turn everyone's focus onto the poor choice of wording. And it doesn't achieve anything either.
The Torah demonstrates how Moses' slander backfired, and ultimately wounded him more than it did the people. It is a good reminder for all of us that what we say - and how we say it - matters. A lot. It can do tremendous harm, and cause pain that lasts a very long time. Words often hurt much, much more than just stones and sticks. Here's the thing; Anger is an important emotion. It can be uncomfortable, and it sometimes blazes uncontrollably, and we don't know how to rein ourselves in. So instead we try to ignore it or stuff it away... but we can't. We need to acknowledge anger and bring it in, compassionately, to our lives. However, that doesn't mean we have license to injure others with our rage, or say whatever we feel like and expect it to be forgiven later. Remember the case of Moses and his name-calling. Meanness sometimes backfires, and injures the person trying to cause harm. Even when we just hear others employing verbal abuse, when we're "only" the bystanders, it can still hurt. Chukat offers us a cautionary tale; and it should trump our desire to attack others, with sticks, stones, tweets, or words.


Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of cogdogblog oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Zach Dischner on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Michael Griffin, US Army on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 23, 2017

Korach: I want more, more, MORE!!!

This week, I find myself asking the question, "When is it enough?" I would argue that this query can be applied to A LOT of stories in the news these days. The healthcare debate certainly brings up questions of who gets more, who gets less,
and why. There are also stories about the ride service company Uber that might cause us to ask this same question. Though I especially found myself wondering about "enough" in regards to the commerce giant Amazon purchasing the grocery chain Whole Foods. There is an accepted "wisdom" among tech companies that I think is inherently flawed and generally problematic, and interestingly enough, we see people yelling about this very same issue in the Torah right now.

Moses is under attack. At least two different uprisings are launched against him, and, if nothing else, it forces everyone (including us, the readers) to examine the direction in which the Israelite nation is heading. Are they moving towards
a better place, and are they led by the best people for the job? Korach, the primary would-be usurper, along with Datan and Aviram, question whether Moses should be in charge, and whether the tribe of Levi should be managing the sacrificial rite under the authority of Aaron, the High Priest. Interestingly, the first attack they hurl at Moses and Aaron is: "You have gone too far!" In the Hebrew, the phrase is, "Rav Lachem," which could also be translated as, "You have too much!" Maybe it's too much power, too much influence, too much exclusive access to God's (proverbial) Ear. Whatever it is, I find the statement itself - the accusation - so fascinating... and so current.

Amazon purchased Whole Foods so they could expand (further) into the food industry. Why? Because everybody knows: If you aren't growing, you're dying. Obviously, being the best in ONE particular industry
isn't enough. Obviously, companies need to offer photo storage and video streaming and music players and clothing and gardening equipment and furniture and pharmacy products and E-readers and, and, and... It feels like a battle for world domination. Every company wants to be the sole retailer for their customers, and everyone wants to pioneer the newest market for... whatever; flying or self-driving cars, fancier smartphones, homes that think for themselves. When do we all get to collectively rise up and scream: "YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR!!!"

To me, these races between Google, Amazon, Netflix, and any number of other companies highlight a real problem in society. Fierce competition doesn't always lead to bigger, better, newer, smarter. And trying to destroy one another and swallow up every other industry and competitor seems not only foolish but
dangerous. Korach and his associates raise some genuine issues with Moses and Aaron, but the antagonism and the toxicity of the debate lead only to destruction and chaos. It's not constructive or productive. And I fear that society today faces a similar problem. It may be a good mantra for all of us to hold in our heads - when is it "Rav Lachem"? When is it simply "too much" and we need to scale back? Four verses after Korach's attack, Moses throws it back in his face. He uses the same phrase, "Rav Lachem," about Korach's audacity, his chutzpah. Indeed, it is a question that EVERYONE needs to consider, on a global, societal, and individual level. Sometimes we all could use a reminder that "less is more." Now how do we get that message over to Amazon?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Kcida10 oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Michaeldsuarez on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Infrogmation on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of FotoDawg on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sh'lach Lecha: Feeling Low Like a Locust (Guest Post)

Hello everyone! Last week, I was on vacation, so you didn't get a blog post. This week, we have unfortunately had several deaths in the congregation, though we're also joyfully celebrating a Bar Mitzvah; but all of it means I'm swamped! Luckily, my colleague, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, offered to "guest blog," and so here is her terrific post for this week's Torah portion:

I am honored to be invited to be a guest blogger this week - thanks to Rabbi Gerber for sharing this platform so generously. Before I get into this week’s parashah, I
want to come clean about something - I spend more time than I would like worrying about what other people think. How I look, how I come off in conversation, how my voice sounds on a given day. When I wear my kipah in public, I wonder what people think about that, too. What’s funny is that when I receive information (positive or negative) about how others do perceive me, I tend to only “hear” the part that confirms my own sense of self.  If I am feeling low about myself, I am more likely to take criticism as fact, or I might even imagine that others are observing me critically.. On a rough day, this can turn into a problematic feedback loop.  

I feel reasonably safe admitting this because my guess is that I am not alone.  I think that it is easy for many of us to spend a lot of our mental and emotional energy trying to figure out what others think, and we also tend to filter our understanding of how others see us through the lens of our existing self-image.

The good news is that our tradition is very clear about the fact that this is an error, and we are warned against letting this kind of cycle run away with us. One of the most colorful warnings comes from this week’s parashah.  
Our Torah portion deals with a secret spy mission into the Land of Israel - the spies are sent to determine whether the Land is as bountiful as God had promised, and they are also told to report on the military defenses of the people who already live there. When the spies return from their mission, all except two of them declare that the cause is hopeless. They report “There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come from the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:33). This assessment of the situation leads the people, as a whole, to rebel against God and Moses, asking (once again) to return to slavery in Egypt rather than die by the sword. God declares the People unready to enter the Land, and they must wait another 40 years before making the attempt again.

While the 40 years of wandering is certainly framed as a punishment in the Torah, I also like to think that God (like any good educator) is also offering a teaching
through the form of the consequence imposed. When the People of Israel are stuck in a feedback loop of self-judgment and despair, God forces them to stop, step back, and take more time before acting. This is, in fact, good advice for all of us who may find ourselves in this situation from time to time. As we spend this Shabbat in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, I want to offer the practice of Shabbat rest as an opportunity to stop, recalibrate, and get grounded in a sense of real self worth - the self-worth that comes from honoring our common humanity, and not from how we look, what we achieve, or how we think others might judge us.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Margareta Gaik on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Deepugn on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Bidgee on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 2, 2017

Naso/Shavuot: All in this Together...

I've been thinking a lot about communal responsibility lately. I find myself focusing on the idea that everyone has to do his/her part; everyone has to contribute to
make things - ALL things - work. It's true on a local level, and it's certainly essential on a global scale. Our Torah portion this week, Naso, spends a fair amount of time stressing this point. In fact, the longest chapter in the entire Torah, Numbers, chapter 7, is entirely dedicated to emphasizing precisely this concept. Also, Ohev hosted an incredible program a few days ago, which demonstrated our own commitment to communal responsibility and the importance of building a shared future, where we all take care of one another. Maybe THAT'S why this notion has been so central for me this week...

Naso informs us that Moses finished building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, which was the portable worship and sacrifice space that the Israelites brought with them
throughout the Exodus. Once it's been dedicated, all the tribes bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle. And the Torah lists, in perhaps painful detail, EVERY item brought by EACH tribe; something that is especially surprising because they mainly bring the same "stuff." And yet, the Torah wants to be explicitly and unequivocally clear that EVERYONE contributed. They were all invested in this shared enterprise, and they had an agreement - like an accord - that bound them all together. It takes 89 verses to fully elucidate this ritual, making chapter 7 fully TWENTY verses longer than any other chapter in the Torah! The point is made really clear: We all need to do our part, and we all need to make sacrifices (sometimes literally!) to our shared, common goals.

On Tuesday night, Ohev hosted a program for the holiday of Shavuot. But this year was unlike any Shavuot event we've done before, and without question different from any Shavuot I've ever experienced.
You see, this year, Shavuot coincides with the Muslim month of Ramadan. AND it's the week of Pentecost for Christians. So we brought together a panel with representatives from the Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim communities, to dialogue with me about the concept of Revelation in each of our faiths. Over 110 people came, which made the evening all the more impactful for everyone present. After our panel discussion, people broke into small, diverse groups to continue the conversation. The Muslim group then broke their fast of Ramadan, chanted for us their Call to Prayer (which was amazing), and then held their own prayer service in a room in our building. When was the last time you heard of a Muslim group praying in a synagogue??! And finally, we shared a meal (complete with blintzes and cheesecake for Shavuot!) together. It was a night few of us will ever forget.

This is our community. In a sense, it's our world. And we do not live here alone. Like our ancient ancestors, we each need to bring ourselves to the shared table, and we need to invest in one another and commit to our common goals. Shavuot celebrates our receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, but the Torah was never meant
to exclusively benefit the Jewish community! On Tuesday, we shared with over 100 people OUR Torah, here at Ohev Shalom. We demonstrated what we stand for by opening up our doors and our hearts, and by celebrating all the things we have in common with others, and honoring our differences as well. It isn't just about one special night either. We've been doing this for a couple of years now, with programs like FUSE, which has the same goal. And I know I can't pretend that everyone shares these values. But I also can't worry about what's going on in the rest of the world. Our Torah and our ancestors teach us to partner with others in our community, and build a better future together. So that is what we are doing; I hope you'll join in and do your part. Thank you.

Photos in this blogpost are from the event on Tuesday evening (before sundown...), courtesy of Amy Pollack.