Friday, April 27, 2018

Haftarat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim: You Got Something to Say??

My daughter, Caroline, is five-and-a-half. She talks a lot. Basically, all the time. As I'm sure many/most/all of you can imagine. But once in a while, when she's frustrated or annoyed at something, she'll just grunt or groan at us for something - usually food. She goes non-verbal. Sometimes, based on
history and just knowing my kid, I might know what it is she wants, but often I have no idea. And even if I DO know, I'm likely to say, "Use your words, please." You may be chuckling right now - either out of personal experience or just a general sense of how kids are - but the reality is that non-verbal behavior is NOT limited to children. Breakdowns in communication, or just flat-out NO communication, are common among adults as well. And sadly, their repercussions can often be MUCH more dire. A fundamental building block of any society is relationship; and often the way we know if a relationship is firm or unstable is through communication. Do you know what I'm saying?

Translating this relationship/communication conversation to a Jewish framework, I really like a description that I once heard, which stated that the prayers we recite from the Siddur are OUR way of speaking to God; while the chanting of the Torah
portion every week is God's way of speaking back to us. In essence, it's a dialogue. The problem, however, is that we are often not listening. Our Torah portion includes an important command, namely "Kedoshim Tihyu, Ki Kadosh Ani Adonai Eloheichem" - "You [the people] shall be holy, for I, Adonai, your God, am holy" (Lev. 19:2). And then the Torah goes on to list a long series of commandments and behaviors that will help keep the relationship strong. They will bind us to God, and allow us to hold on to God's favor. But then, the Haftarah which our ancestors chose to link to this Torah portion cries out a different message altogether.

It comes from the prophet Amos, who railed against the people for their sinful behavior. He proclaims: "All the sinners of My people shall perish by the sword, [those] who boast: 'Never shall the evil overtake us or come near us'" (9:10). Yikes! Clearly a serious breakdown in understanding. God is incredibly angry, and our ancestors continue to pretend they're invincible.
Perhaps most hurtfully, Amos exclaims, "To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians." In essence, he's saying "You think you're so special? I've got a relationship with ALL my children, you dope! Clean up your act!!!" I'm paraphrasing, of course... But the reason I am highlighting this for all of us, is that the rabbis are using a subtle technique to convey a message to US; not just to an ancient audience. Relationships - whether Divine or between humans - take CONSTANT work. We started out super-holy and super-connected. A rock-solid relationship with Adonai. And yet, it's actually more fragile than it appears. Every year, make sure to read Amos along with Leviticus, because you HAVE TO remember that all relationships and important connections between individuals require work, maintenance, and consistent communication.

This issue has especially been on my mind this week. I led a discussion with our Sisterhood about Interfaith relationships, Same-sex marriage, and Transgender inclusion. We mainly focused on the overarching principle of who is "in" and who is "out," and how can we widen our circle, open our arms, and most importantly,
CONVEY that we live our principles; we don't just talk about them. Two days later, I led a very different discussion with Men's Club, about the pervasive loneliness of men in society. In particular, our lack of communication, our inability to be vulnerable and to reach out to others for help, and our insistence on declaring over and over "I'm fine" (when we're not), is truly harming us males. I also attended a relationship-building retreat with members from Ohev and another nearby shul, Beth Israel. In short, I feel this is an extremely important topic. I'm going to stop talking now. But that means YOU have to pick up the baton. What's going on with you? When do you keep emotions shoved down deep inside, when they desperately cry out for release?? Don't wait. Remember Amos' prophecies, don't rest on your laurels and just HOPE it'll all be fine. Act now. I'm listening...

Photos in this blog post:
1. Image of my children, Caroline and Max, playing outside our house, April 2018
2. Image from the Bar Mitzvah of Seth Fein, November 2010
3. CC image courtesy of QUOI Media on Flickr

Friday, April 20, 2018

Haftarat Yom Ha'atzmaut: Praying and Pushing for the Ideal

Two weeks ago, we concluded the holiday of Passover. In the waning hours of the festival, I was chatting with my father back in Sweden, who was VERY ready for 
Pesach to end. He noted that, for a holiday all about freedom, he sure felt bound to a lot of rituals and laws throughout these meddlesome eight days! During Pesach, he didn't feel very free AT ALL. I thought about it for a moment, and then replied: "Maybe that's the whole point." The freedom we're celebrating doesn't come DURING the holiday, but rather after it. We spend a week and a day obsessing over crumbs, leaven, and food labels, so that when Pesach is finally over, we will have a newfound appreciation and gratitude for the freedoms of everyday life. The holiday is a vehicle for thinking about, and feeling closer to, freedom; it is not the end result. Right now, as we observe a DIFFERENT holiday, I've been feeling like the State of Israel functions in much the same way.

This week, Israel is celebrating her 70th birthday. It's Yom Ha-Atzmaut, our annual celebration of Israel's Independence Day, but this year is a special milestone. In some ways, it is truly a miracle that Israel is still here, despite the best efforts of some extremely violent and antagonistic foes. Yet in other ways,
it is sad that seven decades later, Israel still faces daily existential threats. Its leaders struggle to figure out how to govern a diverse, stubborn, strong-willed, passionate population, and stability and peace feel VERY far away. So how does Israel remind me of Passover, and vice-versa? Each has a side that is flawless and ideal, and also a side that is harsher, harder, and more real. We envision perfect, peaceful, effortless versions of the holiday AND the state... but the lived experience sometimes (often) does not measure up. Let's be honest here; Israel has fallen - and is currently falling - short in many, many ways. Expelling African asylum seekers, using live bullets on protesters in Gaza, and widespread corruption in the government; these are all painful reminders that our Zionist dreams have not been fulfilled. Sure, many countries commit similar atrocities. Israel isn't the only culprit, and by far not the worst. And yet, today, on Yom Ha-Atzmaut, we also must remember that we had higher hopes for The Holy Land.

Over the last couple of decades, liturgy has been written to make Yom Ha-Atzmaut seem less like a modern-day quasi-holiday, and more like an official, legitimate-as-any-other festival on our Jewish calendar. We chant the Hallel prayers, we speak 
of the War of Independence as a "miracle," comparable to Chanukah or Purim, we have a special Torah reading for the day, and we even chant a Haftarah. Interestingly, the Haftarah that was chosen is the same one chanted on the eighth day of Passover, again inviting comparisons between the holiday and the country. The text includes Isaiah's famous vision: "the wolf shall lie down with the lamb... the cow and the bear shall graze together... in all of My holy mountain, nothing evil or vile shall be done" (11:6, 7, 9). This is an important prophecy to read on this day, because it reminds us that we are caught somewhere between the real and the ideal.

Isaiah is NOT describing Israel today. When we try to claim that, or wear blinders so we can talk about what a marvelous, fabulous, unassailable place it is, we are not only kidding ourselves, we are also constraining our ability to have thoughtful, productive, necessary discussions about the state of the State. 
But if we abandon the vision altogether, we may become overly harsh and condemning. We then cede the conversation to the BDS movement and other objectionable (in my opinion) groups. So I actually think it's imperative that we chant Haftarot like this one and recite prayers for Israel, AND voice both our support and our deep concerns. Passover teaches us to be free, and to appreciate freedom, by forcing us to spend a week quite constricted. Many of us feel similarly constricted and conflicted regarding Israel, but those feelings are actually teaching us and reminding us what freedom could - and MUST - look like. And so we do both; we pray and we push, we chant prophecies and challenge prime ministers. And all the while we strive diligently and unwaveringly for peace. That is our birthday wish, on Israel's milestone 70th.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Rainerzufall1234 on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of Churchh on Wikimedia Commons
3. CC image of William Strutt's 1896 etching, "Peace," courtesy of Tomisti on Wikimedia Commons
4. CC image courtesy of Gnash on Wikimedia Commons

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

L'Chaim (Monthly Newsletter Article) - April 2018: No mo' FOMO...

Hello everyone,
Recently, someone in the congregation asked me if I could put my articles for our synagogue newsletter, L'Chaim, on the blog. It had never really occurred to me, but I am certainly happy to make them available here online! Therefore, moving forward, I will put my L'Chaim articles here as well, while not interrupting any of the weekly Torah (or Haftarah) commentaries in the process. Any and all feedback (including whether the articles should be on this platform or not...) is welcome! Thanks!!

Rabbi's Message - April 2018: No mo' FOMO

Are you familiar with the expression, “FOMO”? It stands for “Fear of Missing Out,” and is a popular expression these days. It’s not just an acronym, but can absolutely be used in a sentence, like “Man, I just found out that a bunch of people from Ohev are going on a weekend-long retreat, and I’m feeling major FOMO…”

Since you mentioned the weekend retreat, I thought I would take a moment to talk about it. I’ll begin by highlighting a grant we received from Jewish Federation, divided up among the four congregations in Delaware County. Thanks to their “Kehillah Grant” (unrelated to the daycare center operating out of our building…), we are able to partner with Congregation Beth Israel to take a group of 50 people off-site to a Jewish retreat center outside Baltimore, called Pearlstone. I also want to give a really big shout-out to Rabbi Miller here at Ohev and Rabbi Nathan Martin at Beth Israel, who did a TON of work planning for our little getaway.

An experience like this is called a “Shabbaton,” an extended Shabbat. But it’s not about making Shabbat longer, but rather about expanding the concepts of rest, relaxation, time in nature, fun, games, singing, good food, and community, and putting a Jewish spin on it. Feeling the FOMO yet??? I was surprised to learn that no one can remember Ohev EVER doing a Shabbaton before! I certainly hope it won’t be our last. This is our chance to “do Shabbat,” to feel connected to our traditions, our community, our world, and ourselves. Sadly (but not really), we’re already fully booked. I know, the FOMO is truly setting in now.

But I hope you’ll start to think about the Shabbaton idea. Even if you aren’t joining us at Pearlstone, just imagine what a weekend of relaxation WITH a Jewish angle might feel like. And hopefully the next time we run a Shabbaton (very soon, I hope…), you’ll be right there with us.

Rabbi Miller and I talk about this a lot. A religious community isn’t meant to be something you dip in and out of. For some people, that is what it’s become; like an alternative to the Healthplex, a country club, or a theater subscription. I want to challenge you – everyone reading this – to think of our Jewish community differently. As something you do, that you live; something you incorporate into other aspects of your life, and that enriches your day-to-day. The Shabbaton is one example, but I believe it’s a powerful one. Shabbat is a central pillar of our religion; how can we make it more of a focal point at Ohev?

I invite you to think about this for yourself. Why are you a member of a synagogue, and why this place in particular? What are you hoping to get out of your affiliation, and – equally importantly – what are you willing to bring to the table, to contribute to help enrich others in this congregation? Whether you’re a new member or have been an Ohevite for close to a century, I assure you this question is relevant to YOU.

There’s a lot going on at Ohev Shalom. You can read about it all in this newsletter, on the website, the Facebook page, or just by strolling through the building. But the real question isn’t what we’re doing, it’s what YOU are doing to be a part of this. Because if you don’t get involved, you’re gonna be feeling that FOMO an awful lot. Just sayin’…


Rabbi Gerber

Friday, April 13, 2018

Haftarat Machar Chodesh (Shemini): Do I Listen?

I have this T-shirt that I love. I received it for being a supporter of WHYY, our local NPR affiliate. It's a black T-shirt with the radio station's logo on the sleeve, and the print on the front says just two, simple words.
They're meant to reflect my pride in enjoying their programming, but I love this shirt for its rabbinic and pastoral message as well. The shirt says: "I listen." It's such a succinct and straight-forward phrase; yet many, MANY people around the world are terrible listeners. We talk about poor communication - in our political discourse, the Middle East conflict, the gun violence debate, the abortion debate, and in just about EVERY important conversation that takes place anywhere - but communication is often not the problem. We know how to talk. Some of us incessantly, in fact. But we don't listen. We don't hear one another, and we cannot truly imagine ourselves experiencing what they live with every day.

We're not the only ones, by the way. Our Biblical ancestors were no more skilled listeners than we are today, and I can't decide whether that makes me feel better or worse. Humans have struggled with this for millenia, so it's not exclusively OUR
fault. And yet, it's also tragic that we haven't been able to learn from the mistakes of our forebearers. Our Torah portion this week features a heart-breaking case of a communication (or really listening) breakdown, and our Haftarah - a special one chanted whenever a new Jewish month starts the next day - deals with a story that is just as painful. In each, we see men who don't talk or listen, which shouldn't surprise anyone (least of all women...), because my gender is notoriously terrible at both. One scenario ends with lethal consequences, and the other just barely escapes the same fate. And together, they are meant to teach us that this is a SERIOUS issue. It's not a small matter; we NEED to work on our listening skills, people!

The Torah portion, Shemini, tells the joyous story of Aaron, the High Priest, finally dedicating the Tabernacle in the desert, and all the Israelites bring sacrifices to celebrate. Then, out of nowhere, two of Aaron's four sons, Nadav and Avihu, approach the altar - unsolicited - and offer something
the Torah calls "strange/alien fire" (Lev. 10:1). Immediately, the two are struck dead by God, to the horror of everyone watching... especially their father. Moses then does what men do, and says something utterly lacking in sympathy to Aaron. Aaron remains silent. Even God says nothing. And we still never learn WHAT Avihu and Nadav did wrong, or why they suffered this gruesome fate. No communication; no compassion. Sure, the rabbis offer a plethora of explanations and interpretations that try to smooth things over... but the pain remains. We can and must learn from this story: You can't "talk away" death or grief; but you CAN offer kindness, sensitivity, and a loving, open heart that is ready to just listen.

The Haftarah tells us a little about the early life of King David, and in particular his friendship with the son of David's predecessor, King Saul. Unfortunately, Saul HATES David, and plans to kill him so he cannot unseat Saul and seize the throne.
To make matters worse, David and Jonathan have a bond that seems to go beyond friendship, possibly even a romantic love that was LONG before its time. The threat of violence tears Jonathan and David apart, and also causes an irreparable rift between Jonathan and his father, Saul. There is no understanding or empathy... and no listening. And so I urge us to sit with these two stories. To sit with the knowledge that these same struggles and obstacles remain, right now in 2018. So much pain and grief, and so many fights between individuals and nations, come down to lack of communicating; though in truth, at their core, to an inability to listen mindfully, attentively, and with kindness. I see that WHYY T-shirt as a challenge, not a statement of fact. We all need to work hard - really on a daily basis - to live up to that maxim. It seems so simple, yet takes so much effort. But I promise you, it's worth it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Connormah on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of kurichan+ on Flickr 
3. CC image courtesy of piviso_com on Flickr