Friday, June 30, 2017

Chukat: This Hurts Me More Than It Hurts You

You've probably heard me say this before: I really don't care for the expression, "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me."
I don't agree with it at all. And I have strong feelings on the subject, because not only do I think it's completely backwards, I also think it does us all quite a bit of harm. Bones heal. When someone is in a terrible accident - God forbid - their bodies do recover, either quickly or sometimes over a longer period of time and with the help of physical therapy. But the psychological and mental wounds often linger A LOT longer. In my time at Ohev Shalom, I have sadly seen many family rifts, where people have not spoken to one another for decades. Almost never did such a dispute begin with physical violence. Most of the time, it began with words... and it cut a lot deeper than a stick or a stone ever could.

Words are in the news a lot these days. Collectively, we parse the meanings of "bonafide" and "hope," and realize that even a single word can have many levels of nuance and tone; and sometimes people's lives hinge on those interpretations.
In looking at this week's Torah portion, I also find myself thinking about the use of words to attack other people, specifically with name-calling. Our parashah includes the particularly infamous story of Moses striking a rock to bring forth water for the thirsting Israelites. In doing so, Moses dooms himself to never set foot in the Land of Israel, as God vows: "Because you did not trust Me enough to affirm My sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them" (Numbers, 20:12). At first glance, it isn't clear exactly why Moses receives such a harsh punishment. It's not like he was doing anything new!

Back in Exodus, chapter 17, God told Moses specifically TO strike a rock to access water - so there was precedent. A few verses before this ominous incident, Moses' sister, Miriam, had just died, so emotion and grief could have clouded his
judgment as well. He'd also been leading the people for FORTY years, so his patience was understandably wearing a bit thin. On top of all of this, I want to add another possible explanation: His words. As Moses raises his staff to bash the stone, he calls out: "Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock!?!" (20:10) Moses never called them "rebels" before; he never previously resorted to name-calling and insults. Perhaps that was the step over the line? Maybe that was God's indication that Moses no longer could do his job properly, and needed to be replaced by another.

Verbal abuse and personal attacks are low tactics to employ in a confrontation. They divert attention away from the real issue(s) at hand, and turn everyone's focus onto the poor choice of wording. And it doesn't achieve anything either.
The Torah demonstrates how Moses' slander backfired, and ultimately wounded him more than it did the people. It is a good reminder for all of us that what we say - and how we say it - matters. A lot. It can do tremendous harm, and cause pain that lasts a very long time. Words often hurt much, much more than just stones and sticks. Here's the thing; Anger is an important emotion. It can be uncomfortable, and it sometimes blazes uncontrollably, and we don't know how to rein ourselves in. So instead we try to ignore it or stuff it away... but we can't. We need to acknowledge anger and bring it in, compassionately, to our lives. However, that doesn't mean we have license to injure others with our rage, or say whatever we feel like and expect it to be forgiven later. Remember the case of Moses and his name-calling. Meanness sometimes backfires, and injures the person trying to cause harm. Even when we just hear others employing verbal abuse, when we're "only" the bystanders, it can still hurt. Chukat offers us a cautionary tale; and it should trump our desire to attack others, with sticks, stones, tweets, or words.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of cogdogblog oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Zach Dischner on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Michael Griffin, US Army on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 23, 2017

Korach: I want more, more, MORE!!!

This week, I find myself asking the question, "When is it enough?" I would argue that this query can be applied to A LOT of stories in the news these days. The healthcare debate certainly brings up questions of who gets more, who gets less,
and why. There are also stories about the ride service company Uber that might cause us to ask this same question. Though I especially found myself wondering about "enough" in regards to the commerce giant Amazon purchasing the grocery chain Whole Foods. There is an accepted "wisdom" among tech companies that I think is inherently flawed and generally problematic, and interestingly enough, we see people yelling about this very same issue in the Torah right now.

Moses is under attack. At least two different uprisings are launched against him, and, if nothing else, it forces everyone (including us, the readers) to examine the direction in which the Israelite nation is heading. Are they moving towards
a better place, and are they led by the best people for the job? Korach, the primary would-be usurper, along with Datan and Aviram, question whether Moses should be in charge, and whether the tribe of Levi should be managing the sacrificial rite under the authority of Aaron, the High Priest. Interestingly, the first attack they hurl at Moses and Aaron is: "You have gone too far!" In the Hebrew, the phrase is, "Rav Lachem," which could also be translated as, "You have too much!" Maybe it's too much power, too much influence, too much exclusive access to God's (proverbial) Ear. Whatever it is, I find the statement itself - the accusation - so fascinating... and so current.

Amazon purchased Whole Foods so they could expand (further) into the food industry. Why? Because everybody knows: If you aren't growing, you're dying. Obviously, being the best in ONE particular industry
isn't enough. Obviously, companies need to offer photo storage and video streaming and music players and clothing and gardening equipment and furniture and pharmacy products and E-readers and, and, and... It feels like a battle for world domination. Every company wants to be the sole retailer for their customers, and everyone wants to pioneer the newest market for... whatever; flying or self-driving cars, fancier smartphones, homes that think for themselves. When do we all get to collectively rise up and scream: "YOU HAVE GONE TOO FAR!!!"

To me, these races between Google, Amazon, Netflix, and any number of other companies highlight a real problem in society. Fierce competition doesn't always lead to bigger, better, newer, smarter. And trying to destroy one another and swallow up every other industry and competitor seems not only foolish but
dangerous. Korach and his associates raise some genuine issues with Moses and Aaron, but the antagonism and the toxicity of the debate lead only to destruction and chaos. It's not constructive or productive. And I fear that society today faces a similar problem. It may be a good mantra for all of us to hold in our heads - when is it "Rav Lachem"? When is it simply "too much" and we need to scale back? Four verses after Korach's attack, Moses throws it back in his face. He uses the same phrase, "Rav Lachem," about Korach's audacity, his chutzpah. Indeed, it is a question that EVERYONE needs to consider, on a global, societal, and individual level. Sometimes we all could use a reminder that "less is more." Now how do we get that message over to Amazon?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Kcida10 oWikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Michaeldsuarez on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Infrogmation on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of FotoDawg on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 16, 2017

Sh'lach Lecha: Feeling Low Like a Locust (Guest Post)

Hello everyone! Last week, I was on vacation, so you didn't get a blog post. This week, we have unfortunately had several deaths in the congregation, though we're also joyfully celebrating a Bar Mitzvah; but all of it means I'm swamped! Luckily, my colleague, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, offered to "guest blog," and so here is her terrific post for this week's Torah portion:

I am honored to be invited to be a guest blogger this week - thanks to Rabbi Gerber for sharing this platform so generously. Before I get into this week’s parashah, I
want to come clean about something - I spend more time than I would like worrying about what other people think. How I look, how I come off in conversation, how my voice sounds on a given day. When I wear my kipah in public, I wonder what people think about that, too. What’s funny is that when I receive information (positive or negative) about how others do perceive me, I tend to only “hear” the part that confirms my own sense of self.  If I am feeling low about myself, I am more likely to take criticism as fact, or I might even imagine that others are observing me critically.. On a rough day, this can turn into a problematic feedback loop.  

I feel reasonably safe admitting this because my guess is that I am not alone.  I think that it is easy for many of us to spend a lot of our mental and emotional energy trying to figure out what others think, and we also tend to filter our understanding of how others see us through the lens of our existing self-image.

The good news is that our tradition is very clear about the fact that this is an error, and we are warned against letting this kind of cycle run away with us. One of the most colorful warnings comes from this week’s parashah.  
Our Torah portion deals with a secret spy mission into the Land of Israel - the spies are sent to determine whether the Land is as bountiful as God had promised, and they are also told to report on the military defenses of the people who already live there. When the spies return from their mission, all except two of them declare that the cause is hopeless. They report “There we saw the Nephilim, the sons of Anak, who come from the giants; and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight” (Numbers 13:33). This assessment of the situation leads the people, as a whole, to rebel against God and Moses, asking (once again) to return to slavery in Egypt rather than die by the sword. God declares the People unready to enter the Land, and they must wait another 40 years before making the attempt again.

While the 40 years of wandering is certainly framed as a punishment in the Torah, I also like to think that God (like any good educator) is also offering a teaching
through the form of the consequence imposed. When the People of Israel are stuck in a feedback loop of self-judgment and despair, God forces them to stop, step back, and take more time before acting. This is, in fact, good advice for all of us who may find ourselves in this situation from time to time. As we spend this Shabbat in Parashat Sh’lach Lecha, I want to offer the practice of Shabbat rest as an opportunity to stop, recalibrate, and get grounded in a sense of real self worth - the self-worth that comes from honoring our common humanity, and not from how we look, what we achieve, or how we think others might judge us.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Margareta Gaik on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Deepugn on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Bidgee on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, June 2, 2017

Naso/Shavuot: All in this Together...

I've been thinking a lot about communal responsibility lately. I find myself focusing on the idea that everyone has to do his/her part; everyone has to contribute to
make things - ALL things - work. It's true on a local level, and it's certainly essential on a global scale. Our Torah portion this week, Naso, spends a fair amount of time stressing this point. In fact, the longest chapter in the entire Torah, Numbers, chapter 7, is entirely dedicated to emphasizing precisely this concept. Also, Ohev hosted an incredible program a few days ago, which demonstrated our own commitment to communal responsibility and the importance of building a shared future, where we all take care of one another. Maybe THAT'S why this notion has been so central for me this week...

Naso informs us that Moses finished building the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, which was the portable worship and sacrifice space that the Israelites brought with them
throughout the Exodus. Once it's been dedicated, all the tribes bring sacrifices to the Tabernacle. And the Torah lists, in perhaps painful detail, EVERY item brought by EACH tribe; something that is especially surprising because they mainly bring the same "stuff." And yet, the Torah wants to be explicitly and unequivocally clear that EVERYONE contributed. They were all invested in this shared enterprise, and they had an agreement - like an accord - that bound them all together. It takes 89 verses to fully elucidate this ritual, making chapter 7 fully TWENTY verses longer than any other chapter in the Torah! The point is made really clear: We all need to do our part, and we all need to make sacrifices (sometimes literally!) to our shared, common goals.

On Tuesday night, Ohev hosted a program for the holiday of Shavuot. But this year was unlike any Shavuot event we've done before, and without question different from any Shavuot I've ever experienced.
You see, this year, Shavuot coincides with the Muslim month of Ramadan. AND it's the week of Pentecost for Christians. So we brought together a panel with representatives from the Buddhist, Christian, and Muslim communities, to dialogue with me about the concept of Revelation in each of our faiths. Over 110 people came, which made the evening all the more impactful for everyone present. After our panel discussion, people broke into small, diverse groups to continue the conversation. The Muslim group then broke their fast of Ramadan, chanted for us their Call to Prayer (which was amazing), and then held their own prayer service in a room in our building. When was the last time you heard of a Muslim group praying in a synagogue??! And finally, we shared a meal (complete with blintzes and cheesecake for Shavuot!) together. It was a night few of us will ever forget.

This is our community. In a sense, it's our world. And we do not live here alone. Like our ancient ancestors, we each need to bring ourselves to the shared table, and we need to invest in one another and commit to our common goals. Shavuot celebrates our receiving the Torah on Mount Sinai, but the Torah was never meant
to exclusively benefit the Jewish community! On Tuesday, we shared with over 100 people OUR Torah, here at Ohev Shalom. We demonstrated what we stand for by opening up our doors and our hearts, and by celebrating all the things we have in common with others, and honoring our differences as well. It isn't just about one special night either. We've been doing this for a couple of years now, with programs like FUSE, which has the same goal. And I know I can't pretend that everyone shares these values. But I also can't worry about what's going on in the rest of the world. Our Torah and our ancestors teach us to partner with others in our community, and build a better future together. So that is what we are doing; I hope you'll join in and do your part. Thank you.

Photos in this blogpost are from the event on Tuesday evening (before sundown...), courtesy of Amy Pollack.