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.

Friday, May 26, 2017

B'Midbar: Who's Ready for Another Annual Tradition??

I like rituals. Maybe you already knew that about me. Sometimes I enjoy the ancient ones, other times I prefer modern alternatives, and I ESPECIALLY love
helping create new rituals and ceremonies! For example, there's our "Lostice Shabbat," where we're trying to solidify an annual Ohev tradition of celebrating the Czech community from which we inherited a Torah scroll after the Holocaust. I've also helped create a yearly interfaith Thanksgiving service in our region, as well as a tradition of biennial theatrical Ohev Players' performances. Oh, and we try to run a trip to Israel every few years (with yet another one coming up in the fall of 2018...). What can I say? Creating new traditions helps us keep the concept alive, and makes us active participants in the various cycles of our own lives. It's meaning-making at its finest! Sooo, is there room for yet another annual event in our congregation? I sure hope so...

Over the last 2-3 years, you've heard me speak a lot about an incredible art project in our Main Sanctuary, called the Children of Israel Collection. Well, the project is done. There are no more panels to create, no more
facets of the endeavor to explore. The final pieces were hung on our walls, and our "formal" dedication ceremony took place last June, in 2016. So we're done, right? Nothing left to talk about. Well, except that artwork isn't ever really meant to be background noise. Certainly not sanctuary art, anyway! These panels represent the Ancient Tribes of Israel, but also the modern Children of Israel, i.e. YOU AND ME!! Our ancestors' stories are our stories; and ours represent vital links in the ever-growing chain of Jewish history. Creating new traditions and fusing them onto existing ones is a great way to bind together our individual and collective narratives to those of the Jewish people everywhere! And this Shabbat is the perfect weekend to bring together the Biblical text and our modern artwork.

Our parashah this week begins the Book of Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah. The Israelites are preparing to continue their march through the desert, and the reading begins with a census of all the Israelite tribes; who are the tribal heads, and how many people are marching under the FLAG of each group. And it was
from this Torah portion, B'Midbar, that we drew the inspiration for our mosaic art collection! Our panels are hanging in the exact order listed in Numbers 1:5-15. I also believe that connecting an annual ceremony to THIS particular parashah helps us identify some important lessons that we can all learn. Before the people can set off on their Exodus, they need to know who is present. Each person and each tribe needs to essentially declare "Hineini!" - "Here I am!" It is as if they are saying: "I matter! I am important, and my narrative is crucial to the story of my people. And we are stronger when we bring all our tales and myths and legends together into one." So let us celebrate, and let us, perhaps, call this our "Peoplehood Shabbat."

What, then, is our focus and our objective? Unity and diversity. Our mosaic art collection reminds us to bring together all our myriad cups, keys, shards, and jewelry, and respect others' family lore while giving voice to our own.
Hidden behind the artwork and the tribal names are also many different narratives that are sometimes ignored or unknown: Ethiopian Jews claim descent from the Tribe of Dan; the Bnei Menashe in India from the Tribe of Menashe! Furthermore, our panels highlight a gender disparity, and challenge us to think about ALL groups within the Jewish community today. The "Peoplehood" question may prompt us to consider who is "in" and who is "out," and where & when we engage with non-Jews, both inside Ohev and in our surrounding area. The blog is too short a space to dig much deeper, but I'll end by just encouraging you to think about the power of ritual, both ancient and modern. And also to URGE you to see your personal story as vital to the history of our people. Only when we can firmly declare "Hineini!" and feel rooted in knowing who and where we are, can we then go out and engage with the world around us and learn from one another. Sometimes it takes a collection of artwork to keep that message in focus.

Photos in this blogpost:
1. The Tribe of Asher (The Olive Tree) - The first mosaic panel we made.
2. The Tribe of Zebulun (The Ship) - One of my personal favorites
3. Seven panels along one wall of our Sanctuary
4. The Tribe of Menashe (the Oryx/Mountain Goat)

Friday, May 19, 2017

Behar-Bechukotai: Have I Got a Financial Opportunity for YOU!!

Sometimes you plan to write a linked series of posts, and sometimes it just happens. I didn't intend to create a theme here, but look what happened! I've also gradually realized that the unifying topic is different from what I first thought.
Last week, I spoke about a podcast called "Death, Sex, and Money," and how this week's blog post might round out my series on these three topics. Looking back now, the theme that I am ACTUALLY highlighting, that I now want to name explicitly, is "uncomfortable subjects." That may seem obvious to some of you, but I'm stating it clearly nonetheless. I have already received some fascinating responses to my two previous posts, from more than a few people looking to talk about things that rarely get discussed... and which they NEED to address. It makes me feel like I'm on to something... So again, let's own this topic that we're currently tackling, and let's delve once more into a tough, tough subject - possibly the hardest of them all: Money.

Money scares me (but don't tell my employers at Ohev...). One thing they don't prepare you for in rabbinical school is dealing with estrangements and bitterness
among congregants and families. But this community, like all communities everywhere always, has its share of heartbreaking rifts between individuals. And when you dig into the source of these disputes, what's at the root of it all? Money. Nearly every time. It may take the shape of who cares for an elderly parent or disputed possessions/homes/objects or whose motives are genuine; but somewhere along the way, money poisoned the well. It seeps in everywhere and whispers deceptively in our ears. The more you think about it, the more we should ALL be afraid of money... even though we all also need it and are dependent upon it. One way to combat that fear, or perhaps to counteract its underhanded effects, is actually quite simple: Talk about money.

That may seem counterproductive, but I assure you it isn't. So many things are taboo: What someone earns, what they pay for different services, how much to tip, and what they are worth. And in the darkness of silence lies shame, judgment, and gossip. Our Torah portion tries to battle
the plague of wealth as well (does that sentence make me sound like a Socialist?). First of all, the Torah reminds us that NO ONE truly owns anything. Our possessions, our successes, and our fortunes all exist at the benevolence of God. You don't get to lord your wealth over someone else. Why? Because it ain't yours to begin with. God says: "the land is Mine! You are but strangers resident with Me!!" (Lev. 25:23) Our parashah then goes on to discuss property laws, laws of helping the recently impoverished, treatment of indentured slaves, and other financial matters. Hidden just below the surface of our text, is the concern that money will contaminate relationships, and that power will lead one to take advantage, become cold-hearted, and act with cruelty.

After a long discussion of monetary laws, the Torah suddenly inserts a commandment against setting up idols, seemingly out of context. Except it isn't really unrelated, is it? Not all idols are made of stone, wood, or clay...
Money, stocks, mortgages, and assets can also become graven images, and when we "worship" them, we may also lose sight of the human suffering around us, and become callous to the misery of others. But you don't have to be a billionaire to be at risk. Think about money in your life, and in your family. Are you cringing yet? This is surely an uncomfortable topic, and one that causes a lot of pain and distancing. And I assure you that silence is amplifying and multiplying that pain. We should definitely approach these conversations with sensitivity, patience, and LOTS of compassion. Open ears and open hearts. But we SHOULD talk. Is it hard? Of course. Most worth-while conversations are. And it's actually like exercising any other muscle in your body. Talking about uncomfortable stuff is EXCRUCIATING... the first time. Little by little, it gets easier. And you never know the healing that may await on the other side. Please, take that first step.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Creative Tail on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of MagentaGreen on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Wonderlane on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 12, 2017

Emor: A Seat at the Death Cafe

I regularly listen to a podcast called "Death, Sex, and Money." Its host, Anna Sale, starts every episode by saying it's a show "about the things we think about a lot, and need to talk about more." Sale does a terrific job highlighting challenging subjects and interviewing fascinating guests in one (or more) of these three areas.
For some reason, I'm really feeling connected to these topics right now, and thinking a lot about how we indeed should be discussing them more. Well, last week my blog post dealt with sex, and this week I'd like to follow up by writing about death. Maybe next week we'll talk about money; I haven't decided yet. As someone who's officiated at over 100 funerals, and who has regularly dealt with dying, death, and grief, I sometimes forget that most people don't encounter the dead as often as I do. I know people's lack of exposure also means the subject can be seen as weird, spooky, uncomfortable, sad, and even terrifying for many. Some even avoid it at all costs. So let's talk about it.

I first realized the disparity when I was listening to that same podcast, "Death, Sex, and Money." At various times, I heard interviews with funeral directors and morticians, and everything they said sounded quite familiar to me, yet it seemed to surprise and amaze many of their listeners.
Soooo, I guess funerals and caskets AREN'T a regular part of most people's work week? Once, when I was driving Rebecca to a meeting, I had a sleeping baby in the car whom we didn't want to wake up. She jumped out to go to her appointment, and I kept driving. It seemed natural to me, then, to pull into a nearby cemetery in which I'd performed a few funerals, and to just drive around for a while in peace and quiet. I even stopped at one point and had a snack. Later, when I told my wife, she thought it was a VERY strange decision! I imagine her perspective is more common today, and yet, our sources, Biblical and Rabbinic, display a familiarity and comfort around death that seems more in line with my experience than with that of most people I know. So what changed?

The very first verse of our Torah portion, Emor, tell us that a priest in the ancient Temple could not "defile himself for any [dead] person among his kin" (Lev. 21:1), meaning that he could not handle a dead body for funeral preparations.
The Torah states this as an exception to the norm, suggesting that most (non-priest) Israelites did, in fact, physically handle their deceased loved ones themselves. Later on, the text enumerates things and actions that can make a priest impure, and thus temporarily unfit for temple service. Included in that list is "if one touches anything made impure by a corpse..." (22:4). In society today, this wouldn't be a concern for most people (excluding myself and other clergy). We aren't ever close to a dead body; how would we encounter anything that had also touched a deceased individual? For better or worse, people in the ancient world dealt with death all the time, and they therefore spoke about it often, wrote laws dealing with death in everyday life, and were just all around more comfortable engaging with the subject.

But WE can't actually escape it. These days, we try to employ euphemisms like "passed away" or "is no longer with us," to somehow avoid words like "corpse" and "dead." Death can be incredibly traumatic, and often causes terrible disruptions to our everyday lives, by inflicting chaos and upheaval upon us.
And that's true whether we discuss it or not! So simply not talking about it doesn't really protect us. Next fall, Ohev is going to host an evening called "Death Cafe." I imagine even that title provokes some kind of reaction in many of you. It is intended as an evening to talk about experiences, memories, fears, concerns, reflections, and all manner of questions surrounding death. Why? Because - as the podcast suggests - we NEED to talk about it more. It isn't part of our daily lives... which sometimes makes it scary and incredibly disconcerting. But that also leaves us terribly vulnerable to being devastated by it when death, inevitably, affects us somehow. Yes, there are topics that most of us avoid at ALL costs. Often because they're terribly, terribly uncomfortable. And yet, I encourage you to reassess your own reaction to these subjects. Maybe you can even lean in, rather than run away. And just maybe, death will start to seem a little less scary.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Drozdp on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Robbot on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Worksafe-commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of van Gogh's "Terrace of a Cafe at Night," courtesy of Szilas on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, May 5, 2017

Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: A VERY Scary Three-Letter Word!

Let's have an uncomfortable conversation. You ready? Take a moment, brace yourself, and let's begin. This week's Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, offers a lengthy list of the people in your life -
family members, distant relatives, friends, even animals - who's nakedness you should not "uncover." Yup, here it comes; let's talk about sex. (I warned you...). So, the discomfort itself is pretty interesting, don't you think? Why is sex, something so ubiquitous, intrinsic to life itself, and quite frankly enjoyable, SO difficult to discuss?!? And then you add religion into the mix, and now it's even MORE awkward!! Perhaps it's because sex is also closely linked to shame; and we mainly have religion to thank for that... But does the shame and judgment actually come from the Torah? Let's take a look.

The Torah does indeed focus a lot on sex. Even the very first commandment in the Book of Genesis is "Be fruitful and multiply" (1:28). A subtle euphemism, but I think we all know what God means... And as the Torah goes along, we don't just
read about marriage and reproduction, but also infatuation, seduction, adultery, and casual sex. I am a religious professional; I am not striving to add sex therapist or relationship expert to my resume, I assure you. But it saddens me when people assume that AS a rabbi, I must be the keeper of puritanical, prudish morals. That's not what I see in the Torah, and definitely NOT how I want religion or Judaism to be perceived. It is true that our parashah offers an exhaustive list of nakednesses that should remain covered. But the Torah was dealing with a reality that condoned incest, bestiality, and idolatrous practices involving cult prostitution. So yeah, they needed to be firm and unequivocal about CERTAIN things. But does that mean the Torah was being sex-negative in general? I really don't think so.

Our Torah reading also includes the very famous verse, known as the Golden Rule: "Love your neighbor as yourself" (Lev. 19:18). And it's referred to as the Golden Rule because it is meant to guide ALL our interactions with other people. Another variation on this same idea is "Do no harm."
This, I believe, is also meant to guide our sexual interactions with others; urging us to exhibit kindness, consideration, openness, and the removal of judgment and shame. You'll notice I didn't mention monogamy, marriage, or procreation. It's not that I'm against any of those things; I support all three! But I don't think the only acceptable relationship - or the only purpose for sex - is marriage and/or having babies. Maybe you don't hear that all the time from rabbis, but that's kind of my whole point. By being silent on difficult subjects like these, we (meaning clergy) inadvertently allow stereotypes to linger and fester. People think religious professionals are against casual dating, sex before marriage, and also assume we oppose LGBTQ rights. And the law against homosexuality, which is in our Torah portion too, isn't helping!

But I am NOT opposed to these things. I do not judge other people's relationships or sexual orientations. I want to especially make it clear that I disagree with that
infamous verse about homosexuals, Lev. 18:22. As with stoning people to death, owning slaves, the subservience of women, and various other laws in the Torah, some things are outdated and do not reflect our values today. The discomfort of this subject leads many religious professionals to just stay silent on the subject, but I think it does us harm. Organized religions appear shaming and judgmental, and congregants feel they can't bring their lives, their relationships, or their issues to the office of their rabbi/priest/imam. So let's acknowledge that it IS an uncomfortable subject... at least at first. But then let's talk, and maybe work through the awkwardness. Because sex and relationships are topics that permeate our lives, and shouldn't be filled with judgment and shame. Especially not from our rabbis. But how are we going to arrive at that realization if we don't start by talking? I'm ready when you are...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of MatthiasKabel on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of Horace Vernet's "Juda et Thamar" (Judah and Tamar, based on Genesis, 38:15-18) courtesy of Rsberzerker on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Bachrach44 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Jack Celeste on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 28, 2017

Tazria-Metzora: Learning From the Outcasts

I don't often use this forum to speak about the Haftarot that accompany each Torah portion. Technically speaking, this blog is called "Take on Torah," and
none of the Haftarah texts come from the Torah. What can I say, I'm a rule-follower! You see, our most narrow definition of "Torah" is the Five Books of Moses, and every, single Haftarah was chosen from a DIFFERENT part of the Tanach, the Hebrew Bible - from the prophets, the Holy Writings, almost anywhere else BUT the Torah itself - and attached to a Torah portion. One possible origin of the custom of chanting Haftarot relates back to a time when the Jews were forbidden from reading out of the Torah itself. So they chanted OTHER texts instead, but ones which subtly and secretly helped them remember which Torah portion SHOULD be read each week. Pretty sly... Well, this week I'm making an exception, so that I can talk about everyone's favorite topic: Leprosy.

Let's face it; our parashah is not an easy one to discuss. It focuses on a lot of laws of purity and impurity, skin conditions, menstrual regulations, mold on clothing and walls, etc., etc. In short, it highlights a lot of (our) dis-ease with disease. So, having spent all this time in the Torah talking about bodily ailments, the Haftarah continues the theme, in a way, with an odd story about lepers.
This tale comes from the Second Book of Kings. Four (unnamed) lepers are living in exile, shunned by their community. Cast out, they decide to try their luck at an Aramean battle camp. The Arameans are enemies of Israel, but the lepers figure, "hey, what've we got to lose??" To their surprise, they enter a desolate camp, and the narrator of the story explains that God fooled the Arameans by conjuring up the sound of thundering armies, and everyone abandoned the encampment and fled to the hills. First, the lepers eat and drink to their hearts' content (and even bury a little bit of blundered loot because... why not?). But then they say to one another, "We are not doing right. This is a day of good news, and we are keeping silent! ... Come, let us go and inform the king's palace." (7:9) The Israelites rejoice at this news, and all ends happily.

So what is the point of this strange, surprising, and even somewhat comical vignette? I think it is a subtle critique of hierarchies within society. ALL societies. As the names suggest, the two Books of Kings mainly feature royalty, priests,
prophets, and the leaders of our communities. But sometimes we can also learn important lessons from those with the least amount of social capital; the outcasts, the recluses, those looked down upon by others. If for no other reason, because positions change! Just because you're at the top NOW doesn't mean you'll stay there forever, and vice versa. So the protagonists - sort of - in this story are the lepers. Sure, it's incidental and the "real" hero is actually God. But no one else would ever casually saunter into an enemy camp. It is more likely that the Israelites would never find out, while the Arameans eventually might discover that no enemies were really attacking, and they would resume their posts. The lepers are instrumental to the story, and ultimately THEY are the ones who do the right thing and inform the king and their compatriots... people who - let's not forget - had excommunicated these afflicted individuals in the first place!

I think, perhaps, that we are all meant to learn some important lessons from this story: Don't judge a book by its cover. Or as the ancient rabbis put it: "Who is wise? One who learns from all people." (Pirkei Avot, 4:1) In the right circumstance, ANYONE can be your teacher. And remember that
positions change. When we are low, we want to be treated with respect and kindness. Therefore, when we are higher up, we must be the ones to model these same behaviors. Sometimes phrases like "be kind to others" become so cliché and rote, we just roll our eyes and treat them like white noise. And yet, it's STILL a serious problem in society. Who are the lepers today? Who do we discount, ignore, shun, and even mock? Why and when do we exile people from our communities and beyond our borders, and what can and do we demand of them for reentry? Like our cliché expressions, stories like this one about the lepers are easy to ignore and brush off. But we shouldn't. Because they actually reflect our communities TODAY, and in every generation. Details of the stories change in each new century, but the underlying message remains the same. So take care of the lepers! Some day, that might be you...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Vert on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of "Four Lepers Bring the News to the Guard at the Gate of Samaria," courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Anandajoti on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, April 21, 2017

Shemini: Lessons from a "Lost" Town in Moravia

It is hard to resist the urge to label things - in life - as either "good" or "bad." Sure, it's an oversimplification, but it just makes things so much EASIER! Experiences, memories, books and movies, even holidays; some are "happy," i.e. "good," and some are "sad," i.e. "bad." But we should resist. 
Real life doesn't take place at the black-or-white ends of the spectrum, it's mainly lived in the gray-scales in between. I mention this here, because of two moments I want to highlight in the Torah portion AND because of our Loštice Shabbat. Here at Ohev Shalom, we have a Torah scroll that was saved after the Holocaust. It came from a town in Czechoslovakia called Loštice, and last year we began an annual Ohev tradition of celebrating the Jewish community that once chanted from this same scroll. And yes, I do say "celebrating." With Yom Ha-Shoah right around the corner, we could, perhaps, simply reduce stories like that of the Jews of Loštice to a Holocaust narrative. But please, please, PLEASE, resist that urge!

We used to call this Torah our "Holocaust Scroll," but last year I lobbied the congregation to change the name. Loštice, like all the thousands of towns, shtetls, cities, and villages that were annihilated in the Holocaust, was a real place, not 
just a graveyard or a memorial candle. There was life there - real life - for centuries, and I feel strongly that we are adding to the tragedy of the Holocaust when we reduce their stories to death, destruction, and the Kaddish prayer. To be clear; we SHOULD also say Kaddish for them. The Memorial Scrolls Trust, which gave us our Loštice Torah back in 1980, actually has (and shared with me) the transport lists that tell us what befell many of Loštice's Jews. And this Saturday we WILL indeed say the Kaddish prayer and remember them. But is that all we can do? That, and put their holy scroll in a glass case and gaze at it mournfully? No, absolutely not! Their scroll lives in our Ark, among all its brethren, and on Shabbat we will read from it as part of our service.

The problem is, we're battling a ubiquitous human urge; to see the world in black and white. Take, for example, our Torah portion, Shemini. Included in this parashah is the story of Aaron's two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who brought "strange fire" (Lev. 10:1) before God and were instantly struck dead. And so, Shemini is often known ONLY for this tragic story. 
But the Torah portion is three chapters long! And it's filled with other material that is often overlooked and forgotten, because it's easier to just focus on this one, peculiar, upsetting (but also sensationalized) story. So I want to, therefore, share with you another verse from Shemini, and also connect it to a DIFFERENT narrative that I'll be sharing on our Loštice Shabbat. Our parashah mainly focuses on the sacrificial rite in the ancient Tabernacle. And early on in the reading, Moses says to Aaron and his sons: "This (ritual system) is what Adonai has commanded you to do, so that the Glory of Adonai may be revealed to you" (9:6). In the ancient world, God was accessed through sacrifice, but today we've replaced this with prayer. But either way, I think it's important to consider that our rituals - ancient and modern - can actually reveal to us the Glory of God. That what we do, and how we pray, MATTERS!

But religion can burn us as well. Nadav and Avihu certainly learned this, as did our ancestors in World War II. Neither story, however, should be reduced to just a cautionary tale of destruction. Loštice actually has many more secrets to reveal, and some truly bring forth the Glory of God. This Shabbat, I'll be sharing with our 
community the story of Fanny Neuda, who was married to Loštice's rabbi, and who composed a book of prayers for women. Her creation, "Stunden der Andacht," became a best-seller across Europe in the 1850s, and was republished in over 18 editions! And just a few years ago, it was translated into English by Dinah Berland, and published as "Hours of Devotion." Neuda's story is only one of many from Loštice. If we insist on labeling things as "Holocaust-related," or reducing narratives exclusively to "good" or "bad," there is so much that we miss! The fate of Nadav and Avihu is not the only lesson about sacrifice that the Torah seeks to tell; we need to also remember that worship can reveal the Glory of God and enrich our lives immeasurably. I hope you'll join us tomorrow to learn more about Fanny Neuda, her incredible and beautiful prayers, as well as the town of Loštice. Not only is it a fascinating, rich, and somewhat mystical story, but it's filled with gray areas and nuance. And don't forget; that is where life is truly lived.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of the synagogue in Loštice, courtesy of Cheva on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of graves in the Loštice cemetery, courtesy of Cheva on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image, also of the synagogue building in Loštice, courtesy of Lehotsky on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image of Rabbi Abraham Neuda (Mr. Fanny Neuda) from Dinah Berland's website

Friday, April 14, 2017

Shabbat Chol Ha-Moed Pesach: Quitting an Ancient Addiction

There is a very serious tension that resurfaces over and over again in the Torah. It's so severe, so deeply-problematic, that it's almost like an addiction. Believe it or not, I'm talking about idol worship. It sounds like such an insignificant thing; it is such a non-issue in our world that we forget how alluring, enticing, and tempting it really was to the ancient Israelites. For our ancestors, it was a PAINFUL habit to break; just like any modern-day addiction that plagues society today. Let me give you a couple of examples, and let's also examine why this is so relevant and prevalent during this Passover holiday.

Idol worship was all around. Our forebearers were the ONLY monotheists, and there wasn't even all that much atheism around, so EVERYONE you'd meet was essentially an idol worshiper. This was a problem
for nearly everyone we read about in Genesis. Abraham was concerned about his son, Isaac, marrying a local (pagan) woman. Isaac and Rebecca agonized over Jacob's marital prospects. And even when Jacob married cousins, they had trouble abandoning their idolatrous ways. In Genesis, chapter 31, we read about Rachel stealing her father's household idols; like I said, a tough habit to just quit outright. Throughout the Torah, and indeed later books of the Bible as well, we are warned about Moabite and Canaanite women, we are commanded not to make deals with the locals, and we are ordered to smash the holy places of any enemies we defeat. Why? The answer, in every instance, is fear of descending into idol worship.

So what is the big lure? Why is it so addictive and enticing? This Shabbat, our reading for Chol Ha-Moed (in-between days of) Pesach gives us some insight. The people want to SEE God. They simply cannot bear an invisible, intangible
God. Even after all the plagues and miracles they had witnessed, they still couldn't go without. They so badly needed an image, a THING to worship, it led them to build a Golden Calf. Despite being punished, the temptation persisted, and they kept clamoring for a statue, a symbol, SOMETHING!!! Our Torah reading shares with us a moment of vulnerability and insecurity, where even Moses himself asks God for something physical to hold onto: "Now, if I have truly gained Your favor, pray let me know Your ways, that I may know You and continue in Your favor" (Exodus, 33:13). And when God agrees to be present... but in a more general, vague, ephemeral sort of way, Moses can't help himself, and blurts out: "Oh, let me behold Your Presence!!" (v. 18) And God has to disappoint him: "you cannot see My Face, for humans cannot see Me and live" (v. 20).

Even Moses wants it. He's been "clean" of idol worship since the burning bush, but the pull is always there at the edges...
In part, it is indeed about the physicality of it, but what that REALLY signifies is assurance, dependability, guarantees. The idolaters could SEE their god, so obviously that meant their prayers were heard, and the god in question would take care of them. For us, we have to hope God hears us, and we are left in an uncertain world where bad things happen and good people suffer. We may not have idols in the classic sense today, but we DO have people all around us promising eternal paradise, and knowledge of "The Truth" with perfect certainty. And it's REALLY enticing. People are drawn to it like moths to a flame... or like addicts to a dealer.

And this is our reading on Passover! Why? Because this holiday celebrates our closeness with God, and all the ways in which God really WAS there for us, saving us from slavery. And the bond that we feel, that we felt back then, needs to last us and sustain us for generation after generation. God doesn't work miracles like that today; instead we need faith that can survive a lack of idols AND an imperfect world. Is it hard? Of course. But what's the alternative? The simplicity promised by the idol worshipers is an illusion. It always has been and always will be. Passover reminds us that reality is tough, it's filled with more questions than answers, but it's real. And in the end, after we quit the addiction, it's leaps and bounds more rewarding and satisfying than any other alternative.

Chag Sameach!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Gauraviit on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Dr Jorgen on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Dauster on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of 1Veertje on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 31, 2017

Vayikra: Why God Needs a Perfect Seder

Every so often, I get questions from congregants (and others) that basically amount to, "Why does God need x?" The context of each is unique, the holiday/
commandment/ritual/ethic affected is different, but the underlying curiosity is the same. I would rephrase what they're all asking me as, "If God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and good... why does God need something from us??" Just last week, an Ohev member asked why God needed the Israelites to paint their doorposts with blood, just before the firstborn Egyptians were killed in the tenth plague; doesn't God know who lives where?? A fair question indeed.

A similar query could be asked regarding this week's Torah portion. Vayikra (the Torah portion AND the third Book of the Torah) begins with a description of 
various sacrificial rituals. With every type of offering, an emphasis is placed on perfection. Animals must be "without blemish" (Lev. 1:3, 1:10, 3:1, 3:6) and grain/produce must be "the finest" available (2:1, 4, 5, 7, 12). I mean, everyone knows that God loves fancy things, right?!? What kind of an offering would it be, if your banana had a brown spot on it?? Is this a hobo-god we're dealing with?!?!? I don't think so!! God requires "the good stuff." God needs stuff to be pretty and perfect. OBVIOUSLY! (I hope my excessive use of exclamation points and question marks has made it clear that I'm being sarcastic. God doesn't want any of that silliness.)

But if God DOESN'T need perfection, and if God doesn't need our doorpost markers, then why are they listed as such in the Torah? Why do we regularly see God asking for things, gifts, gestures, and responses that an 
omnipotent Deity couldn't possibly NEED? So here's my answer to all these questions: It isn't about God. It's about us. No, I don't think God needs this "stuff." But WE need it. We need to be active partners in this covenant, this Jewish enterprise, for it to really mean something. If God does everything for us - if God just folded some arms and blinked some eyes and all the slaves magically found themselves settled in the Promised Land, with no plagues, no Exodus, no struggle - would we even really care? This is kind of a basic rule of human existence, right? If someone hands you a $100 bill, and you work your tail off to earn a different $100 bill; will they really be of equal value to you? We all know the answer.

This Sunday, April 2nd, Ohev is running a program called "How to Host a Seder." Hebrew School families are invited at 9:00 a.m. and the whole congregation at 10:40 a.m., to learn tips, suggestions, recipes, and (hopefully) interesting material about how to run a Seder. And I'm mentioning this here, because this too is about 
OWNING Jewish ritual. You can run a 5-minute Seder and call it a day, OR you could go a step or two further and make it a meaningful and spiritual experience. Not because God needs your super-Seder, but because you do. We get more out of experiences when we first put more INTO them. Offering a perfect specimen, rather than the shriveled one you were going to toss in the trash anyway, makes the sacrifice more special and precious. I promise that on Sunday we won't review animal sacrifice rules or smear blood on door posts; that might be taking it a smidge too far... But we WILL be talking about how to make the Seder more meaningful AND fun. Again, not for God's benefit. God's doing just fine. This is for our sake, because the Seder has much to teach us, IF we're willing to learn. As we say in the Haggadah, the Seder night IS different from all other nights; let's work together to figure out just how unique and special it can be.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image of a (appropriately named) "Pink Perfection" flower, courtesy of Chamaeleon~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image from "I Dream of Jeannie," courtesy of SreeBot on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Arthuc01 on Wikimedia Commons