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

Friday, March 24, 2017

Vayakhel-Pekudei (Ha-Chodesh): Don't Pass Over This New Beginning!

Well folks, Passover is around the corner! The weather (sort of) is turning towards spring, the days are getting longer, and Seder prep is upon us (oy...). On the
Jewish calendar, this is the start of the New Year. Didn't you know? On Shabbat, we will be reading a special maftir that introduces the month of Nisan (which includes Pesach) as follows: "Adonai said to Moses and Aaron in the land of Egypt: 'This month shall mark for you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.'" (Exodus, 12:1-2) And indeed, Nisan is known as the first month of the Jewish year. Only one problem though: Don't we refer to Rosh Hashanah as "The Jewish New Year"? And if Nisan is the first month, why does the calendar tick over from 5777 to 5778 on Rosh Hashanah, in the seventh month of the year, Tishrei??? Yup, you guessed it; it's crazy Rabbinic Math!

I like to say to people, if the ancient rabbis had a choice between a simple solution and a complicated one, they almost always opted for the latter. Or they made up a
third option, or perhaps a sixth. Sigh. The answer to our question of when the year ACTUALLY begins is (of course) both. Rosh Hashanah marks the beginning of all Creation, and we read the beginning of Genesis about how the world came into being. And since Jewish tradition purports the earth to be 5,777 years old, it makes sense that the calendar changes in Tishrei, when we celebrate Rosh Hashanah. Passover, on the other hand, celebrates OUR Genesis; the origins of the Jewish people. We were a ragtag band of nobodies before this story; the Exodus from Egypt put us on the map of world history! It is the first month on the JEWISH calendar, because it marks the start of our formation into a a nation. So believe it or not, BOTH months celebrate an important new beginning. Not as dumb as they look, those rabbis...

I share all of this to help ground us, and to take stock, as we prepare for Pesach. That same maftir reading, which introduces Nisan as the first month, goes on to
describe how the very, very first Passover Seder was conducted: "They shall eat it (the Paschal lamb) roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs... You shall observe this ritual as a statute for you and for your children forever. And when your children say to you, 'What do you mean by this service?' you shall say, 'It is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, for God passed over the houses of the people of Israel in Egypt, striking the Egyptians but sparing our houses'" (Ex. 12:8, 24-27). According to Tradition, that Seder took place nearly 3,500 YEARS AGO! And even if you don't believe that, it is certainly true that our ancestors have been sitting down for a (too lengthy) Seder as far back as we know there were Jews. Regardless of your theology or opinion of tradition, you are participating in a ceremony that is REALLY old.

Many of the rituals have definitely changed, and they will continue to shift and evolve; but at its core, our Seder is the same. We're still eating Matzah and Maror, and still listening to curious children prod adults for answers to EVERYTHING.
This holiday is where it all began for us, and I think that's a really big deal! And it's also NOT about the specific rituals you do or don't do during your Seder. Don't worry about all that. But I hope you do find yourself at a Seder - of some variety - and that when you do, you take a moment to appreciate how ancient this ritual really is. And how it celebrates our very origins as a people. When we know where we've been and where we are, it can truly transform our understanding of where we're going. May we all use this opportunity for New Beginnings, and feel a genuine sense of renewal and replenishment this Passover season. For our ancestors, Pesach meant the start of a New Year. May it mean that for us as well.

Chag Sameach and Shanah Tovah!

Photos in this blog post:
In honor of the upcoming holiday, I'm including pictures from my collection of Haggadot. I don't actually know how many I have, but it's A LOT! In this post, I've included pictures from:
1) The American Heritage Haggadah
2) A Japanese Haggadah
3) My Swedish Haggadah growing up
4) A wooden-cover, illuminated Haggadah

Friday, March 17, 2017

Ki Tisa: Are These Cows Making You Uncomfortable?

This week, I want to talk about a seemingly minor point in our Torah portion, and then make a shameless plug for an upcoming synagogue program. And no, it's not tomorrow night's
(slightly late) Purim Masquerade Ball. I just wanted to be up-front about my intentions, so you know what you're in for. Ok, here goes: This Shabbat, our Torah reading includes a pretty major incident in the Exodus story, and strangely enough, we are also observing a special weekend (leading towards Passover), called Shabbat Parah, which contains a similar theme. Both have to do with cows. The parashah tells the infamous story of the Golden Calf, and Shabbat Parah focuses on a peculiar, mystical ritual involving a Red Heifer. But I am (mostly) not going to focus on either bovine.

The episode with the Golden Calf comes in the midst of God's giving Moses many, many, MANY laws of ritual and observance. Our Torah portion begins with laws of Temple service for Aaron, the High Priest, and his family, and ends with commandments regarding holiday
sacrifices and rites. And between these two subjects, the people rebel. And the reason I DON'T want to talk about the calf itself, is because I think there's an important lesson to learn on either side of this story. You see, folks, I get it. I know why God gives Moses (and the people) so many laws. They're creating a society and a nation from scratch; they need rules and regulations. There is comfort, safety, and familiarity in ritual, and it can build a solid foundation that will stand the test of time. Again, I get it. But sometimes we cross a line. When are the observances helpful... and when do they veer into the realm of harmful?

The mitzvot we learn about at the start of our parashah are REALLY detailed and specific. We are told about tools and utensils for the Temple, and given PRECISE instructions on where to put these items: "...a laver of copper and a stand of copper for it, for washing; and place it [the laver] between the Tent of Meeting and the altar." (Ex. 30:18)
God wants everything done just so; no questions asked!! And on it goes. Sometimes ritual pushes us away, rather than inviting us in. It feels harsh, judgmental, and even dangerous, rather than spiritual, meaningful, and compassionate. The rebellion of the people could, and should, be a wake up call for God and Moses that maybe it's too much too soon. I've implemented a lot of changes at Ohev in my time as rabbi, but if I had tried to make all those changes in the first two or three months, I doubt I'd still have my job! Ritual CAN BE a force for good, but it can also be a sledgehammer that we bludgeon people with, if we don't realize the power it can have AND use it wisely, carefully, and sparingly.

And now, my smooth transition to a shameless plug: Next Saturday morning, we're doing a program during Shabbat services called Bimah 101. The purpose of Bimah 101 is to help make OUR rituals, OUR observances, and OUR Jewish practices a bit more accessible, meaningful, and user-friendly. We will go over how to have an aliyah,
how to lift and dress a Torah scroll, the blessing recited when putting on a tallit, and over similar rituals. That is, we'll do all this IF people come who want to learn... It's hard to admit when we're unfamiliar with something. If you're not great with Hebrew or sanctuaries or convos with the Almighty Creator of the Entire Universe, it can be tough to just say so. But ritual is always going to seem foreign, mystical, and inaccessible - like the sprinkling of ashes from a Red Heifer mixed with water (don't ask...) - until we put ourselves out there and try to learn something new. So I invite you all to come to Bimah 101. AND I also invite (urge, even) everyone, whether you're coming on March 25th or not, to send me questions you'd like answered and/or rituals you'd like demonstrated. You can submit them here on the blog, or send them to me directly, if you prefer. I know ritual can be scary. But I promise that if you reach out, ask for help, and allow yourself to learn something new, it's amazing how quickly it becomes a little more familiar, and stops looking like a bunch of mysterious, ancient, weirdo cow-stuff.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Teaser image of Ohev's Wolf Auditorium, getting "spiffed up" for tomorrow night's Masquerade Ball (ok, this is kind of a sly, sneaky plug for the ball as well... sorry...)
2. CC image courtesy of Alexandr Ivanov on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of North Carolina National Guard on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image of how to perform a Hagbah (lifting the Torah) courtesy of Michal Patelle on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 10, 2017

Tetzaveh and Purim: The Clothes Make the Man...or the Queen (Guest Post)

A big thank you to my friend and colleague, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, for filling in for me this week. I have been in California all week, and so haven't had time to write the blog. Included below is Rabbi Miller's post for this Shabbat and the upcoming holiday. Enjoy!

Thank you, once again, to Rabbi Gerber for offering me the opportunity to guest-blog this week while he is away visiting family.

I am especially happy to guest-blog this week, because I have always liked this Torah portion. One might rightly ask: Why? We
are now deep in the part of the book of Exodus that is notoriously boring (even to rabbis!).  We have gone from the drama of the liberation from Egypt to a series of lists describing the laws of property damages, architectural details of the Tabernacle, and the garments of the priests.  Not “edge of your seat” material, no matter how you look at it. BUT, there is a really lovely connection to the holiday cycle that makes me smile every year.  

So what does this week’s Torah portion, which describes the priestly garments, have to do with Purim? Well…..costumes.  
Both the Torah portion and the tale of Queen Esther show us how important it is to dress the part.  The priests are defined by how they dress - each article of clothing signals something about their role, from the breastplate to the bells on the hems of the priestly tunic. We are even told that the priests are required to wear undergarments to preserve their modesty- no detail is left out!

When we turn to the Purim Megillah, we see clothes and costumes showing up everywhere - Vashti is deposed for refusing to appear wearing (only) the royal crown, Esther spends a year perfecting her appearance before meeting the King, Mordechai is scolded for wearing sackcloth and ashes near the palace, and is then later paraded around the capitol wearing the king's own clothes. The importance of clothes and costumes in the Purim story is one of the sources of the custom of dressing up (the costume custom?).

So, other than noticing this little coincidence, what might we do with it?  In honor of the bravery of Queen Esther, it has become one of my own Purim practices to give my Purim Tzedakah to a
cause that has some special impact on women.  And to acknowledge the importance of “dressing the part”, I have recently taken up the tradition of giving to organizations that provide affordable professional wear to women who are returning to the workforce after a long absence.  As we enter into the Purim weekend, I encourage all of us to find ways to think about the Mitzvah of malbish arumim - providing clothing for those without.  I also encourage us all to find something truly outrageous and fabulous to wear - after all, this is our chance to dress for the part we really want (even if it’s Batman).

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of "La Toilette d'Esther" courtesy of Center for Jewish History, NYC on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Jonund on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of AdamBMorgan on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 3, 2017

Terumah: Home is Where the _____ Is

One of the things that always amuses me in Judaism is when we try to explain a word in Hebrew with an equally-if-not-more-obscure word in English. So what are tefillin? Oh, they're phylacteries. How do we refer
to the four-letter holiest Name of God in English? It's the Tetragrammaton. And how might you translate the Biblical word "Mishkan"? It's the Tabernacle. Wow, I'm so glad we brought these everyday English words in to help us explain the Hebrew... I mention this here, because I want to talk about a little about the Mishkan... you know, the Tabernacle. I probably don't need to explain this any further, since I've given you the (helpful) English translation, but let me say a few more words about it anyway, just in case...

A few years ago, a student of mine came up with a MUCH more helpful explanation for Mishkan, which is "synagogue on the go." In later generations, the Israelites would build a Temple in Jerusalem, but while they're still a nomadic, displaced population in the desert, they need a portable, collapsible structure to reflect their migratory existence;
Voilà, the Tabernacle. And what's really interesting about this week's Torah portion is that we are given super-precise instructions for how to build it. God even regulates design flourishes and materials used - everything has to follow a micro-managed blueprint. And yet, the later Temple did NOT look like this Tabernacle. Why not? If God was incredibly deliberate about EXACTLY how God wanted the prayer space to be designed, why didn't we follow those same instructions later, when we built a permanent structure? Furthermore, nearly EVERY synagogue, temple, and shul today looks different. Not only do they not reflect the model of the Tabernacle, they don't resemble one another AT ALL either! What gives??

I think there's an important clue in one of the most famous lines of our parashah. In Exodus, 25:8, God says, "Let them make for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell among them." We may not have followed the Tabernacle blueprint, but this verse is carved into synagogue and sanctuary walls around the world!
And I want to highlight two parts of this phrase: 1) God says "make for Me," "v'Asu Lee." In a sense, this is the structure GOD likes! God is saying, "If I were to build a prayer space, this is what it would look like." It is God's ideal. But is it ours? Obviously not, since every generation has built synagogues to mirror their own style, their ideals, and the models they were seeing among their neighbors. And 2) God also says, "I will dwell among them," or a literal translation may even yield, "within them." When we build our own sanctuaries, that reflect who we are and what we stand for, God infuses those spaces (and even the people themselves) with God's Spirit. God's dream home is different from yours or mine, but there's no "right way" or "wrong way" to construct them.

Which leads me to my final point. Lately I've been looking at this text differently, and seeing it as a way to express and envision the embodiment of "home." God is saying: "This is what 'home' looks like to Me... what does it look like to you?" So amidst all these excruciatingly precise blueprints, the real question we should be asking is, "what does home mean to me?" Who inhabits that space, who is excluded,
what does it do for me, and why do I need it? Perhaps most difficult to grapple with is the question of how to treat others in your home, if you even let them in to begin with. Again, we go back to God's model, where God wants this Tabernacle-home for God's Self... but then shares the space with others and infuses those who contributed to its construction with holiness and spirituality. How can we emulate this ourselves? How do we open our homes to others and dwell among them, even as we let them dwell among us and influence our lives? One of the hardest principles for humans to learn - throughout the ages - is that we receive more back when we give away. Generosity and compassion breeds the same emotions in others. That is what God is modeling, and, challenging as it may feel, that is what we need to model for one another as well.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Inyan on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Hallwyl Museum on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Ram-Man on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dru Bloomfield on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 24, 2017

Mishpatim: Doing and Understanding for a LOOONG time!

I want to take a little break from my usual focus of blog-posting, and address something else this week. Don't worry, I'll still make a connection to the Torah portion (I know you were concerned), but I
actually want to take a step back and reflect for a moment on the blog as a whole. You see, this week we hit a milestone, and it feels (to me) like a big deal. I began writing a weekly article in 2009, so this year, 2017, is the NINTH calendar year in which I'm writing a blog post! That's not the milestone. The words you are reading right now are part of my 390th post, which is - quite frankly - really hard for me to even believe! In another couple of months, I will have written FOUR HUNDRED installments of this blog!! I'm shocked. But that is also NOT the milestone I wanted to highlight.

A couple of days ago, this blog was viewed for the 100,000th time. As of the moment of my writing, it's 100,698, to be precise. Obviously, we aren't talking about that many SEPARATE individuals reading Take on Torah; we get a few repeat customers. But that's still an AWE-SOME number for me to contemplate, and I just wanted to stop, take stock, and mainly say "Thank You" for reading this blog 100,000 times! :-)
You have a lot of places to which you can turn for Torah thoughts, and a lot of rabbis, teachers, professors, scholars who are happy to share their own "take" on the texts of our tradition. It means a great deal to me that you keep coming back, and many of you have sent me reactions, comments, and questions over the years. Thank you, thank you, thank you, for all of it! I never imagined that I would compose (nearly) 400 separate Torah reflections, or that my writing would be read THAT many times. But here we are. And every once in a while, someone asks, "how many more articles do you intend to post?" I have no idea. I still enjoy writing and hearing your feedback, so we'll just keep forging ahead for now, and if/when you all get bored of listening, I guess I'll pack it in. But again, thank you.

As I was contemplating this milestone, and my experience of having written the blog for so long, I found myself focusing on two words in our Torah portion. This week's reading represents a shift in the text.
The first book-and-a-half of the Torah mainly offered narrative stories about one ancestor or another, but starting this week, we primarily hear about laws, laws, and more laws. All manner of societal governance are laid out, and we see the early formation of a legal system and a communal structure. Towards the end of our parashah, after having heard so very many mitzvot listed already, the Israelites respond to Moses, saying, "Na'aseh v'Nishmah," roughly translated as "we will do, and [then] we will listen." (Ex. 24:7) I like to think of it as "walking the walk" before you can "talk the talk"; first, we'll DO, THEN we'll understand! Sometimes (often?) we just need to start engaging in a particular task, and it will eventually begin to make sense. Trying to understand it fully FIRST, before committing, doesn't always work. And to me, the blog frequently feels a little like that.

I often don't know what I'm going to write. And occasionally I don't even really feel like writing! But if I just start, and open up the Chumash and begin to read, a topic and a direction usually present themselves. When I first started writing the blog, I thought there was a chance I'd continue for a year and then be done.
However, I have gradually come to realize that if you keep putting yourself in the right space, and commit to a task, the "Na'aseh" (doing) CAN indeed lead to the "Nishmah" (understanding). I recently heard an interview with the incredibly prolific writer, Nora Roberts, who was asked about writer's block. She instantly stated that she simply refuses to believe it exists. Roberts just keeps writing through any momentary challenges, and even if the result isn't great, it can always be edited later. Just Na'aseh, and the Nishmah will follow. I'm no Nora Roberts, to be sure, and certainly not a Moses. But I've enjoyed bringing you all along on this 390-stage journey, and I hope that in the future - God willing - I will be able to celebrate even greater milestones with you, as we keep learning and growing together. Onward to more Na'aseh-ing and Nishmah-ing! And thanks again...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image of an actual milestone in Sweden courtesy of Holger.Ellgaard on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Jmbyrd86 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of GifTagger on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Sreejithk2000 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 17, 2017

Yitro: When Leaders Need Suggestions, Reminders, and Even Rebuke

There is something very powerful going on in this week's Torah portion. I could, of course, be referring to the Ten Commandments, as they are indeed presented for the very first time in our parashah.
Without even looking at the wording of the commandments themselves, there is truly something powerful about the very notion of a stone tablet, carved by God (or by the Utterance of God), inscribed with the essential rules that we all must follow. And yet, what I wanted to focus on in this blog post is only tangentially related to the words on that tablet. You see, this IS a very important Torah portion - primarily because of those laws - but what I find REALLY remarkable is that the parashah is named after a non-Jewish, idolatrous High Priest.

Moses, we are told, is married to Tziporah, who is not an Israelite (a pretty early example of intermarriage, to be sure!). Her father, Yitro, comes to visit Moses in the desert, and this most central of readings is,
incredibly, named after Yitro. Now, the Torah does not come with paragraph breaks, or any indications of where one Torah portion begins and another ends. So a group of rabbinic leaders, early in our history, created these different parshiot, and THEY chose to name this incredibly significant portion after Yitro. Why? First of all, it is a reminder that we are not alone in this world. We often allow ourselves to be too insular in our thinking, and we live in siloed communities filled with like-minded people who look and act the way we do. But there is much we can learn from other people and other cultures, as this week's reading does attest.

I also believe there's more going on here. Moses' and Yitro's interactions are fascinating. In Exodus, chapter 18, we see the following scene: "Next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning until evening" (v. 13). Yitro comes out to watch what's happening, and is shocked to
discover that Moses is deciding over EVERY issue, dispute, gripe, and concern that the Israelites have. Yitro offers two powerful observations; we might even call them rebukes. First, he says, "The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and these people as well" (v. 14). What he's saying is, not only will you burn yourself out, but it's actually a huge disservice to the people as well, because you can't be all things to all people. It isn't fair to you... and it CERTAINLY isn't fair to them! Not even Moses - selected directly by God - was able to handle that kind of work load. It's a crucial reminder to us all that no leader can solve everyone's problems all the time; we need to learn to delegate responsibility to others, and expect that behavior from our leaders as well.

Yitro then goes on to urge Moses to create a judicial system. Essentially, he says to Moses: appoint judges for major issues and other judges for minor issues, and you yourself should only decide the most significant and challenging issues. One might imagine that Moses created his earlier system because he didn't think anyone else could do it as well as he could, either because no one could be trusted or because only he was
appointed by God. So accepting the rulings of these other courts was a leap of faith, but a necessary one to create a functional society. Without that trust, the whole system could break down, and Moses would be left with chaos and unrest. But it's especially interesting that this suggestion doesn't come from God, or even from someone within the system. Yitro, a foreigner with an outside perspective, is the one whose contribution brings stability and order. The Ten Commandments are absolutely the foundation of our Jewish system of mitzvot. And while they were initially carved in stone, they also MUST BE part of a living, breathing tradition that grows and evolves. Sometimes even our leaders can't see that, so we need to offer them reminders - both from within the community and without. You might even say the whole system depends on it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Djampa on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Lawrie Cate on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image "Leap of Faith" courtesy of Jasonanaggie on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 10, 2017

B'Shallach: Stuck Between a Tree and a Hard Place

It feels weird to think of my topic this week as controversial. It shouldn't be. This shouldn't look, feel, sound, or come across as a partisan
or political statement to make, and yet, it does. This Shabbat, we are celebrating Tu Bishvat, the New Year for the Trees, and many rabbis around the world are writing about our stewardship of the planet. It seems like as good a time as any to examine how well we're caring for the earth and living up to the commandments of Bal Tashchit, "do not destroy," and Tikkun Olam, "repairing the world." And yet, in this age of climate change denial and "environmentalism" being used as a dirty word, somehow this is a controversial and divisive issue to address. But after "enjoying" a disconcerting 66-degree day in February this week, I just don't see how I could let Tu Bishvat pass by without saying SOMETHING on this subject. So here goes:

Sometimes I think that, in order to sidestep the politics of an issue, it might be helpful to focus on the unequivocal imperative that we see in the Torah. From a religious point of view, one cannot deny our responsibility to steward the earth and be responsible, conscientious caretakers of this tiny rock, zipping around
the sun. Our Torah portion this week features many miraculous Divine acts that defy the laws of nature. A sea is split, a pillar of cloud forms to protect the Israelites, and a second pillar - of fire - to protect them at night. And we also read a short, relatively unknown story in which the Israelites complain about lacking potable water, and God has Moses throw an ordinary stick into the water, and it instantly turns sweet. But part of the message is; we are not God. We don't have the luxury of performing supernatural feats, and when we damage our planet, it cannot be undone. If you look past the fantastical part of these acts, we DO actually see all the elements of nature working to help us achieve freedom. Earth (wood), Wind (cloud), Fire (pillar of ___), and Water (splitting sea) - they are partnering with us and God to defeat slavery. Don't we have an obligation to repay the favor?

This week, I read a brilliant, but scathing, article about how we need to do more for the earth. Rabbi Yosef Abramowitz wrote a piece for the Jerusalem Post, entitled "Better Energy: Tree-sonous Value Gap," in which he compellingly chastised us all for not taking better care of our planet. He even singled out rabbis! And I can't disagree with him.
I do some things, sure, but not nearly enough. It's easy for us to shift blame elsewhere, but we really MUST resist that urge. Let others worry about their own carbon footprint; I need to examine mine! Rabbi Abramowitz writes about the damage caused by deforestation, stating: "These trees, covering about a third of the land, are Earth’s lungs gifted by God... Since 1990, a land mass the equivalent of South Africa – the 25th largest country on the planet – has been axed, making the planet wheeze and fever." What an incredibly evocative image! He goes on to talk about products we don't really need, and amenities we could live without. Change has to start somewhere. It's hard to give things up, and it's hard to change the comfortable status quo. But Tu Bishvat is meant to remind us of all the incredible gifts we get from the trees - and from our planet - and it should instill in us a real and heartfelt sense of obligation and gratitude back to the earth for all these things.

In yet another powerful part of his article, Rabbi Abramowitz talks about photosynthesis, and how "the trigger, of course, is the constant nuclear explosions 150 million kilometers away, with photons streaking out at the speed of light for eight minutes from the Sun to Earth and waking a sugary chemical reaction on a simple green leaf."
Have you ever truly thought about photosynthesis like THAT?!?! And at the end of his article, he again recalls this chemical reaction, though this time as a metaphor, and imagines US as the plants. We take in so much from our planet, but we're not giving back the way we should. The way we must. These things can be hard to talk about. They're too political, guilt-inducing, or perhaps just too darn scary. The thing is, you don't have to change EVERYTHING you do, and change it by tomorrow. But please use Tu Bishvat as an annual energy/green audit; as an opportunity to alter ONE THING you do. The planet IS getting warmer, and people ARE contributing to the problem. We need to move past the discomfort of saying that out loud, and get down to the business of being (more) responsible stewards.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Tony Webster on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Wolfgang Sauber on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of הגמל התימני on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Mbz1 on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 3, 2017

Bo: When Teenagers Demand an Answer

This weekend, we are hosting our annual Teen Shabbat. Our USY (United Synagogue Youth) group, WOhev, is hijacking the service and imposing its own agenda on all of us.
If you can't find me or Rabbi Miller in services on Saturday, it's entirely possible that we've been locked in the bathroom or the basement. Hopefully, they'll let us out again before Shabbat ends... But in all seriousness, I LOVE Teen Shabbat. We have an impressive group of young people at Ohev Shalom, and the last two years saw incredibly creative, visual, and thought-provoking services, orchestrated almost entirely by the WOhev board members. But this year is going to be pretty different. It might not be flashy, but it will certainly be full of depth and meaning. So what is the WOhev theme for 2017???

Well, it really isn't my place to reveal that. You'll just have to come on Saturday to find out! :-) But I want to share with you some of my reactions to their theme - and to Teen Shabbat in general - and I hope it'll be meaningful for you, regardless of whether you are able to join us
on Shabbat. And since we also print this blog in our synagogue bulletin, some of you may be sitting in a pew, experiencing the theme, as we speak. But wherever and whenever you are reading this, I am going to assume that you are familiar with teenagers. You've met one before. Maybe you even were one yourself at some point, long ago. If, indeed, you've ever known a teenager, I am also going to assume that right now you're letting out a big sigh and rolling your eyes. It IS a very unique time in a person's life. When you combine that with the Torah, and especially a Torah reading that includes themes like injustice, the hardening of hearts, slavery, and good vs. evil (loosely defined); you know sparks are going to fly.

As if this weren't an emotionally charged scenario to begin with, we now also throw into the mix the political realities of 2017, and tensions get ratcheted up EVEN HIGHER! And if you ARE able to join us, I think you are going to hear our teens challenging some Biblical assertions and touting many of the social justice messages that reverberate around
us right now. These kids are edgy, they're provocative, they're gutsy, and they sometimes see the world in black and white. And you know what? We need that in our lives. Sometimes, their sense of urgency is vital. Furthermore, if their generation is going to reap what we sow, then we SHOULD see the world through their eyes from time to time, because we have an obligation TO them. What are we bequeathing to our children? How will be hand over our world, our country, and our society to them to steward, in another decade or two? They have every right to push and prod us, and insist that we do better, that we BE better.

In the middle of this week's parashah, God instructs Moses, who then passes it along to the Israelites, that redemption from slavery is coming, and everyone needs to prepare to celebrate (what later becomes) the festival of Passover. Ceremonies are created, blessings are
uttered, and the people prepare to immortalize this moment for all eternity. And then, the text says, "And when your children ask you, 'What do you mean by this rite?' you shall say, 'It is the Passover sacrifice to Adonai, for God passed over the houses of the Israelites when God smote the Egyptians.'" (Ex. 12:26-27) The Torah insists that we turn to our children - of any and every age - and answer their questions about what we do and why we do it. We need to look over and see them watching us; KNOW that they are learning from our actions and our behaviors. More than being obligated to ourselves, or to our neighbors inside this country and outside, or even to God, we have to answer to the scrutiny of the next generation. They are asking: "What do you mean by all this?" We better have an answer ready.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of our Confirmation class in 2014 courtesy of Rabbi Gerber
2. Image of an Interfaith youth dialogue in 2012 courtesy of Rabbi Gerber
3. Image of our Confirmation class in 2011 courtesy of Rabbi Gerber
4. Weirdly posed image of the 2014 Confirmation class...