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...