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;
VoilĂ , 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