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