Friday, May 26, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 19, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 12, 2017

Emor: A Seat at the Death Cafe

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, May 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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