Thursday, March 15, 2018

Haftarat Shabbat Ha-Chodesh: A Battle Between a Prince and a Paschal Lamb

I want to do something a little different on the blog this week. Don't worry; we're still talking about the Haftarot. However, I am introducing a new element, focusing on who ELSE is reading these texts. I'm sure it will
come as no surprise to most (if not all) of you to hear that Jews are not the only ones who read the Bible. And while the Five Books of Moses DO allow for interpretations that differ from ours, the texts of the Prophets REALLY lend themselves to new perspectives, especially Christian ones. If you're looking for "clues," "hints," and "allusions" to Jesus, you can certainly find them all over the Bible (or what the Christians call "the Old Testament"). You might be surprised to hear me say/admit that... but it's true. This Sunday, March 18th, I will be leading an Interfaith Seder at Christ Episcopal Church in Media, PA, as I've done for the past eight years. In this season of Pesach and Easter, I think we should spend a few (potentially uncomfortable) minutes seeing our Biblical texts through someone else's eyes.

I've had the privilege of engaging in interfaith dialogue for many years now, and I almost always learn something new and fascinating when I try to take off my own Jewish "glasses," and borrow someone else's lenses for a spell. I recall one
particularly fascinating (albeit uneasy...) series of conversations I had with a Coptic priest from Delaware, who kept wanting us to look at specific verses in the Bible, and asking me how I view them. Naturally, each verse in question seemed to allude to the Christian understanding of Jesus and/or a Messiah and/or God's "son." What I tried to explain to that priest - as I often do when examining these passages together with Christians - is that our Bible is big enough for the both of us. There are verses and themes that "work" for them and don't speak to us, and yet others that mainly appeal to a Jewish audience and NOT a Christian one. Why can't that be ok? I don't feel we should be mining our texts for "The Truth"; for proof that one of our religions is RIGHT, and the other - therefore - is WRONG. Isn't that what "coexistence" is all about???

This weekend, we are chanting a fourth, and final, special reading leading up to Pesach. (Except for the one next week, but let's not get into that right now...) This Shabbat, our Haftarah comes from the prophet Ezekiel, who writes: "On the fourteenth day of the first month, you shall have the Passover sacrifice, and during a festival of seven days, you shall eat unleavened bread" (45:21).
I sincerely hope I don't have to explain to you why it makes sense that we read this text leading up to Pesach... The holiday is, you know, right there! Even when we share an Interfaith Seder experience with Christian friends and neighbors, it's still pretty clear that the ones observing the laws of this holiday are, well, the Jews. And yet, just a few verses later, the text also speaks of "a prince" coming to Jerusalem, and entering through a special gate to offer a very special "sacrifice." The language of this entire section lends itself almost exclusively to a Christian audience. When I searched for commentary on Ezekiel 46 online, the Christian writers I found were giddily describing how clearly this text was foretelling Jesus, the Prince of Princes, and how verse after verse was all about their Messiah.

Well, that can be hard for us to hear. It's uncomfortable, perhaps, and even unsettling. But take a moment to ask yourself "why?" It's their Bible too, isn't it? Some of the greatest Biblical scholars over the last many centuries were Christians,
and they unlocked aspects of the text that benefited Jewish audiences as well. When we point out similarities between Passover and Easter (eggs, sacrificial lambs, and such), why does that have to feel weird? I suppose it might have something to do with our history of religious "dialogue" including forced conversions, torture, and painful deaths... Nevertheless, I think we need to challenge ourselves here. Ok, it's uncomfortable. But let's not walk away. We need to work on cultivating our Jewish self-confidence; it's our text too! When we can feel grounded and safe in our own readings, and in the meanings we, as Jews, glean from Scripture, we open ourselves up to the potential for a much richer interfaith dialogue. I think the Matzah and the Messiah in our text can live side by side, without one needing to vanquish the other. Ezekiel was a pretty good guy; I'm pretty sure he can hang with both of us. Don't you?

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Syker Fotograf on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of United States Navy on Wikimedia Commons 
3. CC image of Jerusalem's Golden Gate courtesy of Kordas on Wikimedia Commons (If you want to know why it's walled up - and how that relates to the Coming of the Messiah - read about it here...)
4. CC image courtesy of Yoninah on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 9, 2018

Haftarat Shabbat Parah (Vayakhel-Pekudei): What's Hiding Behind the Walls

No one really likes the language of "clean" and "unclean," ESPECIALLY when it comes to religion and ritual. It's icky (to use a technical term...). It feels unsettling, judgmental, and discriminatory. But if you ever read our Bible (and I've perused it
once or twice), the language of cleanliness returns again and again. So why do we still read this stuff? And what do we make of it today? This week is a good example. We are reading the last section of the Book of Exodus, where we're learning about all the tools and implements used in the ancient Temple. We are also told who can touch what, because of ritual purity or impurity. This leads straight into the NEXT Book of the Torah, Leviticus, which loves to talk about cleanliness. This Shabbat is also a special one, called Shabbat Parah, leading up to Passover. The reading for Parah is all about purity as well, because purity is obviously an essential part of Pesach... sort of. So what IS this all about, and what's it got to do with Pesach???

First of all, I think it's talking about something else entirely. The text is using ancient language and ancient metaphors to articulate some pretty universal values and concerns. A mentor of mine once taught me, you've got to listen for "the music
behind the words." When the Tanach talks about "clean" and "unclean," what it REALLY means is "included" and "excluded." Do you now see how something ancient and antiquated is actually incredibly relevant? It's about bullying, immigration policy, the DACA debate, LGBTQ issues, and a whole host of other topics. And here's the thing that especially fascinates me: Even from the period of the Torah to the period of the later book of the Tanach, the meaning of these concepts changed. Ideas need to evolve and stay current, and we can indeed witness that transformation taking place before our very eyes!

Again, the Torah's focus is cleanliness. Actual, literal bathing to merit entering the Temple: "Moses and Aaron and his sons would wash their hands and feet; they
washed when they entered the Tent of Meeting and when they approached the altar - just as Adonai had commanded Moses." (40:32) Shabbat Parah takes its special Haftarah from the writings of the Prophet Ezekiel. "Parah" literally means "Cow" or "Heifer," and on the surface it appears we are still talking about purification. In ancient times, the ash of a sacrificed heifer was used to PURIFY items and people performing Temple worship. However, Ezekiel then morphs this idea into a new concept. He writes, "As Jerusalem is filled with sacrificial sheep during her festivals, so shall the ruined cities be filled with flocks of people" (36:38). Speaking to Judean exiles in Babylonia, who were banished from their land, Ezekiel is talking about purification as a thing that will one day happen, when our people merit to return to our land. It's about national redemption and salvation; NOT soap and water!

Now it's our turn. We need to do the same thing. We need to listen to the music behind the words, and help our texts and our laws evolve. If purity really means "inclusion" and "exclusion" today, how can we bring more people in? Our Pesach observance is no longer about bringing sacrifices to an altar, but it IS still about remembering how we were redeemed, and praying for peace and redemption once
again. Only this time, not just redemption for ourselves, but for all people. And we can't just pray for it, we need to bring our actions and voices into it as well. You may not LIKE that some are included in society and some are excluded, but you KNOW that is our reality. So what are you going to do about it??? That is the REAL question of Passover. You know what salvation looks like, you know what freedom from oppression can do to uplift an entire nation's spirit; so how can you possibly justify not DOING SOMETHING about it?!? If our texts and our customs are going to survive, they need to evolve. We need to help them evolve, and we need to MAKE them relevant. This Passover, ask yourself (and your guests) the tough questions that are hiding behind the words of the Haggadah. I think you'll find it will make your Seder table come alive in new and exciting ways. Good luck!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Benzoyl on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Bpenn005 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Daniel Schwen on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of The Deceiver on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, March 2, 2018

Haftarat Ki Tisa: Ignore Those Screaming, Injured Prophets For a Sec...

Sometimes I think the Torah gets a bum rap. Often, in fact. People talk about the "vengeful God of the Old Testament" or they dismiss the text - all of it - because of fantastical miracles, supernatural phenomena, and talking animals. I get it.
Our ancient texts occasionally feel more like fairy tales or sci-fi movies, or they're full of slaughter, smiting, and sins punishable by death. And yet, I don't read the Torah that way. I still have A LOT of problems with many of the stories, and I struggle with its questionable morals on more than one occasion. But hidden in between the lines, sometimes even buried under the oddest of stories, are some real-life lessons that we ignore at our own peril. At its core, these texts of our Tradition are speaking directly TO US, and are offering incredible teachings that can enrich and enhance our lives. This week, I want to point out a couple of gems that you might miss, what with the 450 idolatrous prophets gashing their flesh and screaming to their god to defeat one Israelite prophet. Distracting, I know, but let's see if we can look past it anyway, shall we?

Ki Tisa, our parashah this week, contains the infamous transgression of the Israelites, when they doubt God's and Moses' leadership, and build a Golden Calf to worship instead. To put it mildly, it doesn't end well. Paralleling this story,
the rabbis offer us a Haftarah from the First Book of Kings, about another instance when the Israelites "went astray" and found new gods to worship. Again, it doesn't go well. On its surface, this is an action-packed scene to rival any Hollywood blockbuster. The evil king, Ahab, and his equally loathsome wife, Jezebel, have been killing off Israelite prophets. The only one left is Elijah, who evades capture. Ultimately, he reappears, and challenges 450 prophets of Baal, as well as 400 MORE prophets of Asherah, to a theological duel. Each side will call upon its god to engulf a sacrifice in flames, and this will prove who is a "true" prophet. What a scene, right? 450 (or possibly 900!) against 1. I won't spoil the ending, but you can probably guess who wins...

Now, back to my earlier point; there is certainly enough here to occupy ALL our time. But I want to peek behind the supernatural "stuff." Here are two interesting threads that are ALSO going on in this story, but which are easily overlooked.
There is another hero in our story. The palace steward, Ovadiah, works for Ahab and Jezebel... but he's secretly loyal to God. When Jezebel was killing off prophets, Ovadiah hid 100 of them in caves and provided them with food and water (18:4). Later, when Ahab is hunting for the last prophet, Elijah, the one who finds him is Ovadiah. Elijah tells Ovadiah to let Ahab know he's back, but Ovadiah balks. "What wrong have I done, that you should hand your servant over to Ahab to be killed... when I leave you, the spirit of Adonai will carry you off I don't know where; and when I come and tell Ahab and he doesn't find you, he will kill me!" (18:9, 12) It's a classic case of "Don't kill the messenger!" Right?? In the midst of an thoroughly mystical story, we find a very relatable human emotion. This book was written thousands of years ago, and yet we can all imagine feeling Ovadiah's anxiety in this moment.

The second thread I want to mention is one of humor. As you've probably realized by now, I love finding instances of humor in our ancient texts, because that makes them incredibly familiar to us. We can picture ourselves saying, feeling, or experiencing the same things our ancestors did, even when so much else in the text seems foreign and bizarre. The priests of Baal holler out to their gods and cut
their flesh, but nothing happens. Elijah clearly feels confident that he's got this, so he begins to taunt them, and his jibes would fit on any stand-up comedy stage today: "Shout louder! After all, he [Baal] is a god. But he may be in conversation, he may be detained, or he may be on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and will wake up!" Detained? Asleep?? Pretty terrific humor for a guy who's up against 450 adversaries; oh, and a royal couple that are itching to behead him! But my point is this: I completely understand why the crazy stories in the Bible can be distracting. Nevertheless, there really is SO much else going on here. More, perhaps, than anything else, the text is calling our to us - to you and me - for relationship. Amidst the fire and brimstone, the special effects, and the goriness, these stories are also trying to address anxiety, altruism, and even humor. Sometimes you just gotta squint a little to see it. But when you do, it's well worth it; I promise!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Bastyoje on Wikimedia Commons
3. Image courtesy of
4. CC image courtesy of Jeremy Segrott on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, February 23, 2018

Haftarat Tetzaveh: What Dorothy Learned in the End... and Why it's All Wrong

Well, folks; this is my last Wizard-related blog post. I hope it hasn't been too arduous or redundant to listen to me pick apart the movie and search for Jewish messages under fallen houses and behind emerald curtains. Our last two performances are Saturday night, 2/24 @ 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, 2/25, @ 2:00 p.m. All are welcome! And then, I promise, I'll stop talking about Oz once and for all. Probably...

They were so close. They almost, almost got the message right. But then failed completely. The lingering sound byte is good, right? What is (perhaps) Dorothy's most famous line? "There's no place like home."
Lovely. And it still rings true to this day. But in both the movie and the show, Dorothy's explanation of what she TRULY learned after this long journey - the conclusion that leads her to declare "There's no place like home!" - seems totally off to me. Before I remind you what Dorothy says, take a minute and think about it for yourself. Go on; I'll wait. What does this epic quote mean to YOU, and what is the lesson that you believe it should be imparting? How and when do you feel it's been an important principle in your life, if ever, and how do you then pass that on to others in your family and community? And then the real question is: How did Dorothy get it SO wrong???

Ok, ok, so let's look at what she actually says. At the end of the play/movie, after the Wizard has flown off in his balloon and all seems lost. Glinda, the "Good" Witch, appears and reveals to Dorothy that she had the power to return home all along, but she had to learn "The Lesson" for herself first. And the lesson, according to
Dorothy, is: "Well, it's that... if I ever go looking for my heart's desire again, I won't look any further than my own back yard, because if it isn't there, I never really lost it to begin with. Is that right?" To which Glinda smiles and nods, "That's all it is!" And to which I shake my head and scream, "NO! That's not it at all!!" Think about it: Should home be a place you're afraid to leave? Should the message be that we should all remain where we started and not seek adventure or difference, that it's important to be content with our lot in life and the circumstances we find ourselves in? OR, should that same sentiment - There's no place like home - be about grounding ourselves and learning important values. Feeling loved, encouraged, self-confident, and compassionate in our home environment... SO THAT we can go out and make the world a better place???

The way Dorothy describes it, she never should have left in the first place! Her journey through Oz was a mistake all along, and she's lucky to have finally realized it's better to never, ever leave your home and your backyard.
We, as Jews, are no strangers to epic journeys. We have also been ripped away from our homes in a "tornado" of destruction, and been forced to navigate strange lands, with people in weird clothing, eating odd foods, and with enemies who seem to hate us for no good reason. The Haftarah for this week's Torah portion, from the Prophet Ezekiel, comes from the period right after the Babylonian Empire destroyed our "home," our Temple in Jerusalem, and dragged the majority of Israelites back to Babylon in chains. And there, in exile in 587 BCE, Ezekiel preaches to the people about "home," about a rebuilt Temple someday in the future, somewhere, far, far away. And THAT is why this bothers me so much. That is why I get animated about Dorothy's supposed lesson; we KNOW her story!

But the lesson we learn is NOT to sit on our hands and accept our circumstances. If someone tries to do us harm - whether it's anti-Semitic, xenophobic laws... or a mean old "witch" trying to kill an innocent dog - we stand up to tyranny! EVEN when the journey is long, and even if we have to shake up the status quo and risk things
that are "easy" or "convenient." And one of THE central reasons we've survived for millennia, is because we've redefined - again and again - the word "home." It isn't a physical place that cannot be rebuilt or moved if destroyed. No, it's community, it's our Torah, it's our portable synagogues and our religious traditions that can NEVER be taken from us. One Temple was destroyed (the only one we'd ever known, in fact), and right away, Ezekiel begins to preach about building a new one on that same spot. So yeah, I reject Dorothy's conclusion. One's back yard is NOT the only place to look for your heart's desire. There's a whole, wide world out there to discover, but we're better equipped to explore and enjoy it, if we are first grounded in values and stability that give us the tools we need. It IS possible to get those tools from many different sources. But you know what the best place is? You know where you should start that search? Well, "There's no place like home!"

Photos in this blog post, once again, from our Ohev production of The Wizard of Oz (most courtesy of Allan or Shari Baron). 
1) A terrifying visit to see Oz, the Great and Powerful!
2) "I think her name is... Emily!"
3) "Can't you read???"
4) Preparing for a balloon ride into THE OUTER STRATOSPHERE!!

5) Curtain call

Friday, February 16, 2018

Haftarat Terumah: Pay No Attention to That God Behind the Curtain!

This week, I'm continuing my series of posts on the Wizard of Oz. And, in fact, this Saturday, February 17th, is our Opening Night! If you're around, and would like to see a terrific show, we're doing four performances, and you can find more info on our website, On with the show!! (Or post...)

In our synagogue production, I play the Wizard of Oz himself, so I've had a lot of time to think about this character. I'm really enjoying playing him, but it's also true that the Wizard - as well as his alter ego back in Kansas, Professor Marvel - is a
charlatan. He's a snake-oil salesman. He's a great talker, but he's a fraud. A "humbug," as they say in the show, when the curtain is pulled back. He doesn't have any magical powers at all! He can't provide a heart, a brain, or courage, and he certainly can't magically send Dorothy back to Kansas. In the show (and the movie), the Wizard plans to take Dorothy home in a balloon, but by accident he flies away without her. I often wonder, if he HAD gotten Dorothy into that basket... where would he have taken her? He had no idea how to get from Oz back to Kansas! What was the plan??? He's actually LUCKY it failed! But here's the interesting thing: If he's a humbug with no real powers at all, how come everyone gets what they wanted in the end?

To me, the links between the messages of Oz and our own relationship with one another, the world, and religion are unmistakable. And the Wizard is perhaps one of the most interesting characters of all. We might ask ourselves, how does religion
"work"? When are our prayers "successful"? It's not magic or hocus pocus, it's about believing in something, or allowing religion and prayers to give you strength, courage, hope, and resolve. Another essential part is community, both in our own lives and in Oz. But it's interesting though, isn't it? We are told the Wizard will MAGICALLY grant them all their wishes... then he's proven to be a sham... but then somehow he manages to show them all they had the powers in themselves all along. The Scarecrow WAS smart; the Tinman compassionate and kind; the Lion brave. Given my assertion above, I even wonder if he never had any intention of bringing Dorothy onto that balloon, but knew that if he removed himself, she would finally realize (with Glinda's help) that she could get herself home all along.

This week, our Torah portion AND our Haftarah are obsessed with buildings. Terumah tells us about all the work Moses, Aaron, and the Israelites put into creating a Tabernacle in the desert, where they could experience God. And the Haftarah parallels this story by recounting how King Solomon built the Temple in
Jerusalem. But in some ways, both stories are actually a little absurd! The Israelites just experienced God's power in Egypt, then at the Sea, then through manna, quail, and water pouring out of rocks. God is everywhere; so why the heck are they bending over backwards to build a structure in which to "confine" God??? And King Solomon essentially turns his own people into slaves, to build giant monuments to himself and to God. So much so, that when his son takes over the thrown, the people rebel against him for suggesting he might continue the punishing behaviors of his father. We don't NEED these absurd structures. At their core, they are all smoke, mirrors, and giant "pretend" heads booming at us. THAT is not where the real power lay. And, in fact, God tells us as much in our Torah reading!

One of the most famous lines of our parashah is "v'Asu Lee Mikdash, v'Shachanti b'Tocham." "Let them build for Me a Sanctuary, and I will dwell in them" (Ex. 25:8) And to really emphasize the importance of this verse, it is actually echoed in our
Haftarah! The very last verse says, "v'Shachanti b'Toch B'nai Yisrael," "I will dwell within the Children of Israel" (I Kings, 6:13). The verse is intentionally grammatically incorrect. It COULD have said, "build Me a building... and I will dwell IN IT," but it doesn't say that. The building isn't actually the central thing! It's just bricks and mortar. When you dedicate yourselves to this enterprise, then God will dwell in you. The journey of getting to Oz was the important part, not actually arriving! The journey, the self-realization, the forming of bonds and trusting one another, THAT is what led to each character getting what s/he wanted. When Oz says "pay no attention to the guy behind the curtain," it's because he's inconsequential. But you know what, so is the giant, green, talking head. The magic is inside all of us, if we do the hard work of building it up, and then taking the time to see it.

The Great and Powerful Oz has spoken!!

Photos in this blog post from our Ohev production of The Wizard of Oz.
1) The Lion, the Tinman, Dorothy, and the Scarecrow
2) Rehearsing Munchkinland
3) Put 'em up! Put 'em up!!
4) Flying monkeys attack!!

Friday, February 9, 2018

Haftarat Mishpatim: How to tell a Good Witch from a Bad Witch

I'm dedicating this blog post to the fabulous Philadelphia Eagles, who won the Superbowl this past Sunday. I'm not a native Philadelphian, but my mom grew up in Trenton, and my grandfather (of blessed memory) would take us to Phillies' 
games when we were kids. So I HAVE been a Philly sports fan since forever. And it is SUCH a joy and a blessing to be a football fan in a city like this, to genuinely root for the home team, and to share in the celebrations. In the words of Dorothy Gale, in the Wizard of Oz: "There really is no place like home!!" 

Sometimes you just get lucky. And no, I'm not talking about the Philadelphia Eagles. A few weeks ago, I told you I'd be writing a series of blog posts about The Wizard of Oz, and this week I was already planning on writing about witches. Well,
sure enough, our parashah this week includes the verse: "You must not allow a sorceress to live" (Ex. 22:18). Not a bad coincidence, right? Sorceresses/Witches are only mentioned twice in the whole Torah... and one of them is this week's Torah portion. So obviously that's a good place to start, but I actually want to focus our discussion elsewhere, but we'll get back to this verse, I promise. But the whole reason I wanted to write about this topic is because there are two things that really trouble me about the witches of Oz. It is also true that the Wicked Witch of the West TERRIFIED me as a kid, but even that is not the crystal ball into which I intend to gaze. So let's talk about witches, shall we?

The first point that troubles me is a line that appears in BOTH the movie and the show. When Dorothy first meets Glinda, the [Good] Witch of the North, she tells the glittery lady with the wand that she cannot be a witch, because witches are old
and ugly. Somewhere, hiding in the bushes, the Munchkins giggle, and Glinda explains that she - in fact - is a witch, and then (here's the part that makes me cringe), with a big smile, she declares that "only bad witches are ugly." As if this weren't offensive enough by itself, it makes things much worse when you realize the movie came out in 1939, at the height of the Nazis' peddling their lies about race biology, or scientific racism. Time and again, history has proven that there are tremendously evil people who are beautiful, charismatic, and articulate, while people who are not "conventionally attractive" can be courageous, compassionate, and brilliant. So, as scared as I was of the green-faced Witch of the West, I now reject the notion that her appearance justified or explained her wickedness.

This is where my second troubling realization comes in. Did you ever wonder why, in the movie, the second Dorothy "melts" the Wicked Witch, all her cronies celebrate and rejoice? The movie never really explains it, but interestingly enough,
the show does. It turns out, the witch's minions are actually an entire race, called Winkies, and the witch enslaved them. And this - believe it or not - links us right back to our Torah portion and our Haftarah. A central tenet in Mishpatim, and indeed the entire Bible, is the equality of all people, and the importance of releasing slaves. In the Biblical world, slavery and indentured servitude were a fact of life... BUT God continued to insist - over and over and OVER again - that land owners and business people must act compassionately, and must release their slaves on a regular basis. The rabbis wanted to double down on this point, so they linked a portion of Jeremiah's prophecies that deals SPECIFICALLY with freeing slaves, to our Torah portion, so the message continues to reverberate.

Jeremiah proclaims God's message that the Israelites were freed from Egypt - from "the house of bondage" (34:13) - and THEREFORE "you must let go any fellow Hebrew who may be sold to you; when s/he has served you six years, you MUST set them free!" (14) And then Jeremiah turns on his audience, and shouts: "But now you have turned around and dishonored My Name; each of has brought back the people who you had freed, and forced them to be slaves again." (16)
And physical appearance plays NO role in this, whatsoever. We are judged on our actions and the way in which we manifest kindness and compassion in the world. When Exodus tells us not to let a sorceress live, I picture a flame that needs oxygen to keep burning. If we allow its poisonous behavior to spread, the fire burns stronger and consumes everything. And that is EVERYONE'S responsibility. Society allows evil to grow and thrive, or it speaks out and refuses to accept injustice. Physical appearance is a distraction, a red herring. However, beauty IS important. But it's the beauty of our souls and the warmth and acceptance that we give to another. Is there anything more beautiful than that, in this land or any other?

Photos in this blog post:
1. Benjamin, Jeremy, and Nomi Gerber - with two Philly Phanatic puppets to show our Philly "cred," from back in the day!
2. Caroline and me, showing our Eagles pride!! E.A.G.L.E.S - Eagles!!!
3. CC image courtesy of Ali on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of JasonAQuest on Wikimedia Commons
5. CC image courtesy of MB298 on Wikimedia Commons
6. CC image from the ongoing Winter Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, courtesy of Carlodar.97 on Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Haftarat Yitro: Where Do You Go For Courage, a Brain, and a Heart?

Last week, I told you that I was going to devote the next few weeks' blog posts to The Wizard of Oz, because the synagogue is performing the show later this month.
Well, luckily for me, this week's Haftarah lends itself quite well to my theme. In fact, it's SO good that I had to decide which sermon idea to focus on! The Haftarah, from the Prophet of Isaiah, begins with Isaiah's vision of appearing in front of God, seated on a mighty throne, with smoke billowing around and a loud booming voice sending him off on a dangerous mission... sound familiar? And yet, despite these obvious connections, this is NOT going to be my post about the "myth" of the Wizard, and what happens when you pull back the curtain. No, this week, I want to talk to you about searching for brains, a heart, and "da noyv"!

Obviously, these pursuits are the focus of the plot in The Wizard of Oz (along with searching for a way back to Kansas, of course). But interestingly enough, when you put your emerald-colored glasses on, we actually find references to brain, heart,
and courage in several Jewish sources! Take, for example, the famous Shema prayer. In the first paragraph that we sing together, we declare that we should love Adonai, our God, "b'chol levav'cha, uv'chol nafshecha, uv'chol me'odecha," "with all your heart, soul, and might" (Deut. 6:5). The importance of a heart is explicit; the link between might and courage isn't too challenging; and indeed the rabbis imagined that intelligence and understanding could be found throughout the body, in essence coursing through our very soul. Based on the verse from Deuteronomy, we often talk about living Jewishly with "head, heart, and hand." Our tinted glasses may help us see that the Scarecrow, the Tinman, and the Cowardly Lion are not searching for disparate objects, unrelated to one another. Rather, their pursuits complement one another; each is needed to fully realize the potential of the other two.

As I mentioned above, the text from Isaiah that we read this week actually speaks to our topic. Not just the values of head, heart, and hand, but specifically how they are interconnected and interdependent. God sends Isaiah to prophesy to the people this message: "Hear, indeed, but do not
understand; see, indeed, but do not grasp." (6:9) And God adds, "Dull that people's mind...lest they repent and save themselves." (10) Surprisingly, the word for "mind" is "Lev," usually translated as heart! Just one chapter later, God instructs Isaiah to say to King Achaz: "Be firm and be calm. Do not be afraid and do not lose heart [because of the approaching enemy]" (7:4). Here, Isaiah is saying "be brave," or (for our purposes) "have courage"; and the term he uses is "do not lose heart," with the same Hebrew word, "Lev." It would seem that "Lev" can signify brains or courage, while the literal meaning is heart. These three qualities are sides of the same coin, and also vitally important for the success of one another. We are not meant to emulate the Lion, the Scarecrow, OR the Tinman... but rather all three.

Our Torah portion this week is a significant one, where God presents the Israelites with the Ten Commandments. Like our Haftarah, the scene is one of fire and brimstone, as God pronounces these ten, central laws, by which the people must abide. And yet, our rabbinic ancestors are ADAMANT that all 613 commandments
are of equal value; none is more important than another. Why, then, are ten elevated to this central status?? Many authorities respond that they are headers, categories under which all other commandments fit. I would add that the Ten Commandments each activate one of our three qualities, and sometimes all three! Reread the famous Top Ten, and think about whether God is asking you to use your hands, your heart, or your head to make yourself or the world around you better. The Wizard of Oz is actually not a tale about a ragtag band of new friends who join together their disjointed missions. In fact, when we scratch the surface and connect this story to the wisdom of our ancient tradition, we discover that all three (or really, four) objectives are interwoven. And furthermore, we are actually the ones skipping our way down that Yellow Brick Road. We ourselves are on a constant quest to use all our heart, all our soul, and all our might to the very best of our ability.

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of Oz, the Great and Powerful, from the movie, "The Wizard of Oz"
2. CC image courtesy of Aymatth2 on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Nevit on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Crakkerjakk on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 26, 2018

Haftarat B'Shallach: I Don't Think We're In Kansas Anymore...

I wasn't going to write about it this week. I was going to start a series of blog posts/Divrei Torah NEXT week, when we entered February. But I had no choice.
The signs were everywhere, and I simply couldn't ignore them. Of course, there are non-believers out there. My colleague and friend, Rabbi Kelilah Miller, poo-pooed me and said, "When you're wearing green-colored glasses, anything will jump out at you!" Well, maybe she's right. When I opened up the Chumash to write about this week's Haftarah, I had a totally different idea in mind. But the commentary on the Song of Deborah caught me totally by surprise. And then one after the other, I saw clues and hints that were unmistakable. So here we go, folks: We're off to see the Wizard!

As you may (or may not) know, Ohev Shalom is putting on a production of the "Wizard of Oz" in a few weeks (2/17, 18, 24, and 25), and both my daughter and I are performing in it. Four years ago, when we put on "Fiddler on the Roof," I wrote a series of blog posts that explored several concepts underlying that story. And now, once again, I plan to do the same. So far, the topics I intend to explore include:

- Where do you go for Courage, a Brain, and a Heart?
- Pay no attention to that God behind the curtain!
- How to tell a Good Witch from a Bad Witch
- What Dorothy learned in the end... and why it's all wrong

If anyone would like to discuss other related topics, please let me know. Perhaps we can keep this yellow brick road going just a little bit longer... But for now, let's talk about how a 3,200-year old Biblical text was clearly telling me I HAD TO talk about the Wizard of Oz!

Some brief background: Our Torah portion includes the Song of the Sea, which Moses, Miriam, and the Israelites sang to celebrate their freedom from the
Egyptians on the banks of the Sea of Reeds. To parallel this "song," the Haftarah presents a laudatory poem, attributed to an ancient judge, named Deborah, after a great military victory. I was all set to write about one idea, when a rabbinic commentary on the Song of Deborah stopped me in my tracks. One repetitive motif in the song, is the constant use of a Hebrew word, "Az," meaning "then." But the commentary points out that the word evokes a military term, namely "Oz." Uh, what? And by the way, the word "Oz" happens to mean "courage," which is pretty Wizard-relevant too, isn't it?

Sure enough, as I continued reading the Haftarah with my new "green-colored
glasses," I noticed a king named "Jabin," from the Hebrew word "Yaveen," meaning "to understand"; which, of course, is what the Scarecrow seeks! In Judges 5:16, Deborah proclaims that the Tribe of Reuben were "great searchers of the heart," or perhaps a Tinman might read it as "searching FOR a heart"! And then, wouldn't you know it, verse 21 declares: "March on, my soul, with courage!" I couldn't find any references to wizards or witches, but I hope you'll agree that the parallels are there nonetheless.

If nothing else, I think this is a good reminder that EVERYTHING can be found in
the texts of our tradition. It - the text - doesn't change, but we do. Every year, we are different, and our Scriptures are always ready to meet us where we are, and connect to what's going on in our lives. You've just got to open your eyes, click your heels together, and what may have seemed black-and-white before may all of a sudden be BURSTING with color!

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Nabokov on Wikimedia Commons
2. Image of a Munchkin, waiting to make her theatrical debut! :-)
3. Image of a Wizard costume, slowly but surely coming together...
5. Image of the Tinman's Heart, from the movie, "The Wizard of Oz
6. CC image courtesy of dbking on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 19, 2018

Haftarat Bo: We've Been on This Ride Before!

This week has truly been a roller-coaster. In politics, deals on funding and immigration were made, broken, repaired, and then broken again. In foreign
relations, we saw a reconciliation on the Korean peninsula after months of fearing that nuclear war was imminent. But our fears and concerns have not been fully assuaged either. It's hard to keep up! We get excited... we feel dejected. We are furious! And then celebratory again. A roller-coaster of emotions indeed. And in this, my 435th blog post, you surely know what I'm going to say next: How fascinating it is, then, to see a back-and-forth of emotions reflected BOTH in our Torah portion AND in this week's Haftarah. In fact, it is "almost" a literal push-and-pull. (And I loathe using "literal" to mean "not literal"...) So let's buy a ticket and hop on board!

Even the very name of our parashah reflects this tension. The reading is called "Bo," which most translations render as "Go." The directive is issued by God to Moses and Aaron, instructing them to return once more to Pharaoh to announce
the eighth plague, locusts. The problem is, the word "Bo" doesn't mean "go"! I could only find one translation, the Everett Fox Bible, that agreed with me, but I nevertheless feel confident with this reading. Exodus 10:1 SHOULD state "Come to Pharaoh..." The Hebrew word means "to arrive," with the thrust of "come here to me." But the rest of God's sentence tells us that Moses and Aaron are then going to be thrown out by Pharaoh for pronouncing yet another plague. Right away, we see the push-and-pull; come forward to Pharaoh, and then he'll throw you out. After the plague, he'll bring you back in, only to eject you once again!! And this "whiplash" continues in our Haftarah as well.

The parallel text that accompanies Bo comes from the Prophet Jeremiah; specifically his prophecies against Egypt. Jeremiah explicitly mentions locusts, in 46:23, so there's a pretty clear linguistic connection between the two texts. But then we have our give-and-take repeated as well:
In verse 25, God promises to punish Egypt for betraying Israel... only to forgive the Egyptians (?!) in verse 26, and pledge to return them to their land. The part that REALLY caught my eye, however - that flips side-to-side like a pendulum - is the very end of our Haftarah. God first vows to defeat our enemies. But then reminds Israel that we have been banished from our own land. Then returns to assure the people that we will not remain dispersed forever, and concludes with the most push-and-pull line of them all: "I will not leave you unpunished, but I will chastise you in measure" (46:28). I believe God is saying, "You've been bad and you DO need to suffer some of the consequences of your actions... but I will go easy on you." Is anyone else as exhausted as I am? Can we get off the roller-coaster yet???

Again, I find it interesting that this all reflects how many of us feel in light of reading the morning newspaper, or listening to a daily podcast. Of course, the text hasn't changed in millenia, but different things jump out at us, based on what's going on in
our lives. And right now, I find it helpful to know that life OFTEN consists of pushing-and-pulling. It always has, throughout our history, and it continues to this day. It is ok to feel mentally fatigued; this is tough! But there is no option to give up, or to just check out. Our ancestors went through generation after generation of experiencing God's favor tangibly and miraculously saving them from harm... alternating with feeling utterly rejected and pummeled into the ground by one enemy or another. Nevertheless, we keep going. We get back up, we try to glean meaning and purpose in all the good AND the bad that occurs,  we dust ourselves off, and we keep fighting for a better tomorrow. And yes, even when we're dizzy and a little nauseous, we buy yet another ticket to get back on that roller-coaster...

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Sam-Pig on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Ryan Child on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Fizped on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Corey Coyle on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 12, 2018

Haftarat Va-Eira: How Trust and Betrayal are Related

Betrayal is unfortunately something that we all encounter in life. When an enemy strikes a blow or undermines us, we're ready for it. We don't expect anything different. But a friend, an ally, an advocate; when they betray us, it stings beyond
words. Our Haftarah this week offers an interesting gloss on the Torah portion - a foe turning over into a friend... but then ultimately double-crossing our ancestors. But so what? Why should we care about a prophet, 2,500 years ago, railing against the betrayal of a would-be-ally? Well, for one, history repeats itself, especially when we don't learn from it. Understanding our past helps us be more deliberate, proactive, and vigilant in the present and for the future. And second, when we look closely, the imagery and the emotions are strikingly familiar. We all know betrayal, and we know how much it hurts; seeing ourselves in the stories of our ancestors truly makes the text come alive!

Our Torah portion, Va-Eira, tells of the clash between Pharaoh and Moses, leading up to the Ten Plagues and eventually the Exodus from Egypt. There are "good guys"; God and Moses. And there's a villain; Pharaoh.
Somewhat surprisingly, the Haftarah - written centuries later - knows a world where Egypt is NOT the "bad guy" anymore! In 586 BCE, the small nation of Judah, with its capital, Jerusalem, was desperately trying to hold off the might Babylonian Empire, approaching from the north. They turned to the south-west, to Egypt, in hopes that this other powerful kingdom would defend them against the Babylonians. They might have been our saviors! Imagine how differently we'd have remembered the Exodus story if THAT had happened... But Egypt does nothing to save Judah, and the Babylonians capture Jerusalem, destroy our Temple, and enslave the people. It is in this context that the prophet Ezekiel writes about the untrustworthy Egyptians.

Ezekiel declares: "You [Egypt] were a staff of reed to the House of Israel: When they grasped you with the hand, you would splinter and wound all their shoulders. When they leaned on you, you would break and make their loins unsteady"
(Eze. 29:6-7). Pharaoh violated their trust! Perhaps meant to evoke an earlier betrayal, when the Pharaoh who promoted Joseph in the Book of Genesis welcomed Israel with open arms... and a generation later the Egyptians enslaved Joseph's descendants. At its core - and this is where the message shifts (for me) to present day - the pain of the betrayal is the realization that so many people care only about themselves and their own family members. We thought the Egyptians were sharing their home and their land with us, but they were not. We hoped the same Egyptians, centuries later, would come to the aid of a neighbor threatened by a foreign power, but they ignored our plight. And our hopes and expectations make the treachery all the more painful.

This Shabbat is also Martin Luther King weekend. And amidst all the important messages that Dr. King shared with the world, I think one particularly crucial call that we all need to hear is about our interdependence: "All [people] are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."
The Torah echoes this very same principle over and over again. It is easy to forget (or just ignore) this directive, because we always have our own needs! "Blood is thicker than water," right?? We should care for our own. And yet, the Torah, the prophets, our entire Jewish history, and our modern prophets like Dr. King remind us that this is false. It has always been false, and it will ALWAYS be false. We are actually interdependent, and we MUST care for one another. We must be there to support others in our society and across our planet, and we have to keep trusting that they will do the same. There may always be betrayal in the world, but we need to challenge ourselves to be better. We need to heal rather than injure, and welcome others with open arms. It truly is our garment of destiny.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Arunbc1987 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Balabinrm on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image courtesy of Sanba38~commonswiki on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gorskiya on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, January 5, 2018

Haftarat Shemot: May the Force (of History) Be With You

Over the years of writing this blog, I've noticed a few different themes emerge. Some are overt and resurface over and over, while others are more subtle, but present nonetheless. One that I enjoy returning to
revolves around "famous" texts from the Bible. That is to say, the texts of our tradition sometimes function like some of the most well-known movie quotes of all time. If you watch a particular movie - or read a certain passage from the Bible - a statement or a verse may pass entirely unnoticed. Yet somehow, somewhere along the way, that line became incredibly famous. How did that happen??? In context, the quote is unassuming and, frankly, unremarkable, but it obviously resonated with SOMEBODY, and today it's become larger than life. I want to share with you one such example from our Haftarah. If I told you to pick a verse from this section of Isaiah's prophecies, this likely would NOT have been the verse you'd chosen. But, now that it's famous, let's try to figure out why.

This week, we have moved into the Second Book of the Torah, Shemot (or Exodus). We begin to learn again about Moses and the enslaved Israelites in Egypt. Our Haftarah, from the Prophet Isaiah, reminds us that for nearly all of Jewish history, the story of the Israelites was about SO much more than just an exciting fairy tale or the
basis for a Passover Seder. For most of our ancestors, reading about the Israelites' liberation from oppression was the foreshadowing of their own liberation. They too were suffering! And they hoped God would also "remember" the story of the Israelites and free them, the readers, from bondage/violence/pogroms/anti-Semitic propaganda, inflicted upon them by (insert enemy empire here). And Isaiah prophesies a future redemption that will mirror Moses' freeing of the Israelite slaves. His visions include images of God wearing a Crown of Beauty and Glory, they recall the plagues inflicted on the Egyptians and hope for more to befall their own enemies, and they conclude with all people standing in awe of the God of Israel and hallowing God's name. And none of those visions were turned into a song.

Instead, a somewhat obscure image was elevated into a popular Jewish tune. Isaiah, 27:13, states: "An on that day, a great ram's horn will sound, and the strayed who are in the land of Assyria, and the expelled who are in the land of Egypt, shall come and worship Adonai on the holy mountain, in Jerusalem."
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, both famous and, sadly, recently more infamous, wrote a melody for part of this verse (bolded above), and today it is a well-known song that you might hear at weddings, at Simchat Torah celebrations, and even at Jewish concerts. You can find one version of it here:
It's a catchy song, upbeat and fun, but why is THIS verse the one being emphasized? Again, like a famous movie quote, it's hard to know for sure. It's not the most impressive verse, or the most poetic, or even the most dramatic. And yet, there IS something compelling about the message.

I especially think this is true if you can see "Assyria" and "Egypt" as metaphors, not intended to be geographic locations. And honestly, for us as Diaspora Jews, even the "holy mountain" and "Jerusalem" are kind of metaphors as well. The point is that
Image result for pacino creative commonswherever we are, however spread out across the globe we Jews may be, we can find one another again. We are bound together across time and space, and God continues to maintain a Divine relationship with us, no matter what. Sometimes we especially feel the absence of God, and we experience emptiness, loneliness, and a total lack of empathy. But all of that is temporary. Whether we're stuck in Assyria, Egypt, or any other emotional place of distance and isolation, there IS a way back to God's favor and God's Holy Mountain. And like a good movie quote, the more you think about that message, the more it starts to resonate with you. You find yourself quoting it to others, even when it seemed so meaningless before. And just when you thought it was out... it pulls you back in! 

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image from the movie "Cool Hand Luke" ("What we've got here is failure to communicate...") courtesy of GDuwen on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image from the movie "Wizard of Oz" ("Toto, I have a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore...") courtesy of Aylaross on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of "Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi" ("May The Force Be With You") courtesy of Rakruithof on Wikimedia Commons
4. Image from the movie "Godfather, Part III" ("Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!")