Friday, December 29, 2017

Haftarat Va-Yechi: Be a Man! (Guest Blogger, Rabbi Kelilah Miller)

Shabbat Shalom, and Happy New Year! I want to thank Rabbi Gerber for once again lending me this platform (while he is on vacation), especially in a year in which he is exploring the Haftarah each week! It is a wonderful reason to do a deeper reading into the Books of the Prophets:

This week’s Haftarah mirrors the Torah portion rather closely in theme.
In the Torah portion, Jacob shares his final wishes and blessings with his sons; in the Haftarah, King David gives his final charge to his son Solomon, who will rule after him. Both are deathbed scenes involving the final requests of the dying, but there the similarities seem to stop. 

Jacob seems interested in bringing his shattered family back together by urging forgiveness. He asks that Joseph forgive his brothers for what they did to him, and Joseph appears ready to let the past go (Gen 50:16-17).  Conversely, David urges revenge. He gives Solomon a list of who is to be rewarded and who is to be assassinated.  Perhaps most disturbingly, some of the grudges appear to be personal (I Kings 2:8), rather than strictly rooted in political necessity. David appears in this text as a savvy but merciless ruler, right up to his death.

It seems that I am not the only person who has been bothered by King David’s approach.  According to the commentary of Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane, a section was added to this Haftarah that tries to mediate David’s ruthless message.
Right before David’s political directives, there is a section in which David gives Solomon religious advice. He urges Solomon to follow God’s Laws and to walk in God’s ways. He adds that, if Solomon will follow these rules of conduct, his line will be secure on the throne forever (I Kings 2:3-4). Fishbane suggests that a later editor of the text added this section in order to make a clear point: lasting leadership is based on principle and faith, rather than military might and political maneuvering.  We, like David, live in the “real world” of violence and politics, but that reality is not everything. There are things more lasting and more crucial to remember than a list of friends and enemies. There are qualities more valuable than the power to enforce one’s will upon others.

It is striking to me that, before all of this religious and military advice, David prefaces his words by telling Solomon: “I am going the way of all the earth; be strong and show yourself a man” (I Kings 2:2). We live in a time in which many of us are trying to
reassess what it means to “be a man”. As the parents of a boy, my husband and I are particularly interested in this question, as we prepare our child to take his place in his family and community.  I am grateful to the later editor of this week’s Haftarah for providing us with a reminder that this is an old conversation - not just a new one. Our larger society (both then and now) sometimes tells boys that power over others is all-important, but we can do our best to teach our children to make choices based on the teachings of a Torah of mercy and kindness - as Jacob tried to do in the end.

Photos in this blog post:
1) CC image courtesy of Internet Archive Book Images on Wikimedia Commons
2) CC image courtesy of Thomas Quine on Wikimedia Commons 

3) CC image of Leonardo da Vinci's "Vitruvian Man," courtesy of Lviatour on Wikimedia Commons 

Friday, December 15, 2017

Haftarat Shabbat Chanukah: Balancing Light and light

Happy Chanukah, everyone! I hope that you are all finding - in the midst of this darkest season of the year - that the glowing candles of the Menorah, along with the shimmering Christmas decorations from houses all around, are bringing some light and some warmth into your lives. The Menorah
(or Chanukiah) always strikes me as one of our most powerful Jewish symbols. It carries great historical meaning; both for our people throughout the millenia, but also for many of us who have personal, warm, glowing family memories of lighting the Menorah in years (or decades) past. It is SO ubiquitous, in fact, and so tied up with Chanukah and/or the Ancient Temple in Jerusalem, that we rarely (if ever) stop and question what the Menorah actually means! What does it represent, with its many branches and little cups of oil? If you don't know the answer, don't feel bad. One of the first people ever to be presented with this image, 2,500 years ago, didn't get it either.

Though we read a regular Torah portion this Shabbat, Mikeitz, and continue the story of Joseph in Egypt, we add a short, final reading (maftir) from a different part of the Torah. This addition relates specifically to the holiday, to Chanukah, and then we continue with a Haftarah just for Chanukah as well. This may seem curious to
you, because the entire Torah - and indeed our Haftarah - are MUCH older than the holiday we're celebrating! Like hundreds and hundreds of years older!! But the rabbis found episodes in the Torah AND in the later prophetic writings that talked about OTHER dedications or rededications of holy spaces, and connected those ceremonies to the more modern Festival of Lights. Pretty crafty, those rabbis... So our Haftarah for Chanukah comes from the prophet Zechariah, who preached to the people around 530 BCE, when the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonian Empire, and allowed all the various groups enslaved by the Babylonians to return to their homes. Fifty years after their Temple had been destroyed, the Jews found themselves back in Jerusalem, planning a big reconstruction project! Enter Zechariah.

In his prophetic proclamations, Zechariah tells the people that God will return to Zion. He talks about the purification and investiture of the High Priests, and then shares a vision of a magnificent lampstand, a Menorah.
In chapter four, an angel approaches Zechariah and asks him what he sees. Zechariah responds: "I see a lampstand all of gold... the lamps on it are seven in numbers, and the lamps above it have seven pipes" (v. 2). The angel then asks him, "Do you not know what those things mean?" And Zechariah responds, "No, my lord." (6) I kind of find it comforting that even a Biblical prophet was puzzled by this. Indeed, even when we were first introduced to the Menorah, back in Exodus 25:31-40, the people were given instructions on HOW to build it, but not WHY! Zechariah's angelic buddy finally offers an explanation. The seven arms of the Menorah represent "the eyes of Adonai, ranging over the whole earth" (10), and commentators also connect the branches to the seven days of Creation; God's first gift to our planet.

I like those images, but I want to add another thought to it. Every year, we - humans - have to light the Menorah. It's not like the Eternal Light in our sanctuaries, burning perpetually. When Chanukah returns, year after year, we have to actively light the candles and bring God's Presence into our lives. This is further strengthened
by the miracles of our holiday, which also embody Divine-human partnership. Whether you focus on the military victory of the Maccabees over the Assyrian-Greeks, or the rededication of the Temple and the conservation of oil; when we work hand-in-(anthropomorphized) "hand" with God, amazing things happen! Even now, when something great occurs on Chanukah, people are inclined to say, "It's a Chanukah miracle!" I know it's a little tongue-in-cheek, but I think there's actually a serious lesson in there too. The message of Chanukah is the balancing act between self-reliance and faith in God. We need some of each. If we have zero faith, our actions often feel devoid of meaning. But if we leave everything up to God, and practice blind faith, we may ignore our own moral compass and allow zealotry to corrupt everything.

Chanukah reminds us to walk that middle line. As we light the candles, let us remember to maintain that vital balance. Bring God's light into our lives and our homes... and let our own light shine just as bright and vibrant as well. Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Maor X on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of  on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Djampa on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of fruity monkey on Flickr

Friday, December 8, 2017

Haftarat Va-Yeishev: Be a Candle

It is really hard to focus on just one topic this week. With everything going on in politics, in Israel, and so many other issues - not to mention that I just attended a very thought-provoking conference of Conservative Jews in Atlanta - it's tough to
zero in on ONE thing I want to say. Oh, and Chanukah is starting this week too... Soooo, what should we discuss? Well, two points in the Haftarah this week jumped out at me, so I guess that's as good a place to start as any. This week, it is the prophet Amos who is yelling at us. And no, it's not in your head; many of the Haftarot do indeed consist of one prophet or another chastising Israel for their misdeeds. Keeping to BOTH the Halachic (legal) requirements of the laws AND the ethical expectations was not, shall we say, a strong suit of our ancient ancestors...

In the first verse of our Haftarah, Amos lambastes the people because "they have sold for silver those whose cause was just, and the needy for a pair of sandals" (2:6). This, by the way, is also one of the links between our Torah portion and its Haftarah. Just as Joseph's brothers sold him
into slavery, and suffered for such a heinous crime, so too the Israelites will pay for not protecting the weak and innocent. Today, we certainly find ourselves debating who is REALLY looking out for the poor and those in the working class. It is popular to describe oneself as defending the defenseless against some specter of oppression, but Amos is particularly angry at those who would exploit the impoverished for their own financial gain. This is truly a desecration of Biblical law; both the literal meaning of our mitzvot as well as the moral spirit of the Torah.

In the next chapter, Amos explains why God is especially incensed, and why the Israelites are being held to such a high standard: "You alone have I singled out, of all the families on earth; that is why I will call you to account for all your iniquities"
(3:2). When you are called to a special relationship, to a position of leadership and esteem, it DOES come with responsibilities as well. Your conduct is scrutinized, and the pressure IS higher. Whether you want it to be or not. To me, our chosenness as Jews does not mean we are "better" than anyone else. But we hold ourselves to a code, and we try to live our lives with integrity, compassion, and meaning. When fellow Jews are celebrated in the news, we feel immense pride and closeness... and when they are called out for misbehavior, criminal activity, and moral bankruptcy, we all cringe and groan collectively.

Amos' prophecies foretold the eventual destruction of the Northern Kingdom of Israel in 722 BCE. Later prophets would chastise the remaining Southern Kingdom of Judah for its own offenses, but eventually they too were punished with ruination in 586 BCE. These two stories - as well as
the story of Chanukah, which also focuses on a desecrated Temple and its rededication - remind us of the importance of Israel and Jerusalem. But they also remind us how fragile and impermanent even the strongest of places and ideas can be. As we prepare for the upcoming Festival of Lights, let us remember to be a "light" ourselves, a candle of wisdom, enlightenment, progress, and justice, but also of humility, kindness, compassion, and love. Amos reminds us that success is fleeting and false, if obtained on the backs of the vulnerable and innocent. Sometimes winning isn't really winning, if the cost is too high. Let the candles of Chanukah remind us to focus on what really matters, and to seek to bring more good into a world that sorely needs it.

Chag Urim Sameach - Happy Festival of Lights!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Carlos Delgado on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Metropolitan Museum of Art on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Christian75 on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Dov Harrington on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, December 1, 2017

Haftarat Va-Yishlach: Forging a New Relationship with Esau

In the wake of the US president retweeting anti-Muslim videos, I want to dedicate this blog post to interfaith relations and interfaith dialogue. Is there a problem of fundamentalist in the world? Absolutely. And is much
of it done in the name of Islam and Allah? Sadly, yes, though Muslims around the world have decried the violence, and have emphasized time and again that Islam is a religion of peace, love, and compassion. Would we, as Jews, want the ultra-Orthodox in Israel to speak for all of us? Or allow their brand of Judaism (if you can even call it that...) to be considered THE official representation of what we stand for? How fitting, then, that our Torah portion this week speaks of our complicated and multi-faceted relationship with other peoples, and the Haftarah echoes that tension in a powerful and eternally-reverberating way.

The real tragedy - in my opinion - of those tweeted videos is that they stereotype and generalize. "Islam is..." And yet, NONE of us are just one thing. We are all complex and layered. Earlier in Genesis, we learned that Jacob and Esau are
brothers, children of the same two parents. But rivalry poisoned their relationship, and Esau vowed to kill Jacob for stealing their father's blessing. This week, we read about their dramatic reunion, which takes place decades later. And to our (and Jacob's) great surprise, Esau offers only love and reconciliation. They are a family once again. It is a beautiful scene... and yet we know that the descendants of Esau, the Edomites, become our bitter enemies. Then, in a later generation, we are allies again. Our Haftarah, the entire prophecy of Ovadiah, takes us (most likely) to yet another, later era, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in 587 BCE, where the Edomites are once again an enemy of Israel. And so on it goes...

Ovadiah rails against the deceit of Esau when Israel lay in ruins: "How could you enter the gate of My people on its day of disaster, gaze in glee with the others on its misfortune on its day of disaster, and lay hands on its wealth?!?" (1:13) He goes on to prophesy that "As you did, so shall it be done
to you; your conduct shall be requited." (15) You'll get what's coming to you!! And what I find so sad here is the endlessness of it all. We did to them and they did to us; Jacob tricked Esau, and Edom attacked Israel. We're still doing it today! We engage in so much senseless "whataboutism," where we say, "sure, we did x, but what about what THEY did???" It's an endless cycle, and truly nobody wins. Our ancient rabbinic ancestors loved Ovadiah's prophecies, because they used "Edom" as a euphemism for the evil Roman Empire, and heaped insult upon curse on Edom when they couldn't castigate their ACTUAL oppressors, the Romans. All these cultural memories, the millennia of fighting, are today wrapped up in our associations with Muslims, Arabs, and The Other.

We CAN break the cycle. But we first have to realize how ancient and deep the distrust is, see it in ourselves, and then actively choose - again and again - to reject that narrative. To spurn the objectionable videos that perpetuate stereotypes, and those who traffic in them. Just last week, I had the tremendous privilege of being honored by a local religious group that is a tremendous partner of ours.
The Islamic Center of Chester, also called Masjid Mustaqeem, asked me to be one of their honorees at their Appreciation Banquet. A dozen Ohevites joined me at this wonderful ceremony. And we were blessed to see some of the best that the Islamic faith - and its adherents - have to offer. It is a beautiful religion, with SO many similarities to our own. They are our brother; Esau to our Jacob, Ishmael to our Isaac, in the purest sense of that bond. We are family. Another honoree at the banquet offered a beautiful poem that touched each and every one of us. And I am posting it here, because it utterly encompasses my own view of the world, and of our shared God. We know our history; we know what the Edomites did, what Ovadiah witnessed, and the rabbis endured. But that is not my reality. I wholeheartedly spurn that narrative. I will form my own relationships and my own opinions; my hand is entirely and lovingly held open to my brother, Esau.

Muslim poem by an unknown author:
“I asked Allah for strength and Allah gave me difficulties to make me strong.
I asked Allah for wisdom and Allah gave me problems to solve.
I asked Allah for courage and Allah gave me obstacles to overcome.
I asked Allah for love and Allah gave me troubled people to help.
I asked Allah for favors and Allah gave me opportunities.
Maybe I received nothing I wanted, but I received everything I needed – Alhamdulillah.”

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Victorgrigas on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of CFCF on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image of Twitter post that (sarcastically) embodies "Whataboutism"
4. Image of honorees at Masjid Mustaqeem's Appreciation Banquet, courtesy of Amy Pollack