Friday, January 21, 2022

Yitro: Layers of Meaning Hidden Under *The* Place

Greetings, everyone! I've been on a bit of a break from the blog, but wanted to get back into it. As I hit the 650 (!!) blog post mark, I'm thinking about possible ways to mix things up, change my focus, or in some other way restructure the blog. Please feel free to reach out with any thoughts/comments/suggestions. Thanks!

Over the years, I've several times found myself reflecting on "famous" quotes from the Torah. These are verses (or parts of verses) that, for any number of reasons, caught someone's attention and made their way into other texts. Sometimes they can be found in the prayer book, other times a zemer (a special Shabbat song), or some part of the Jewish lifecycle. As a result, these verses may stand out in the text, almost like a well-known movie quote that you all of a sudden get to hear in its original context. I stumbled upon one such verse in this week's Torah reading. In this particular instance, the meaning in the parashah and how it has become used in Jewish life are quite different, which makes it an excellent candidate for a blog post! :-)

First, let's look at the context: The Israelites are in the desert, having passed through the Sea of Reeds and are about the receive the Ten Commandments. (That momentous occasion *does* occur in our Torah portion as well, but I decided to focus on something else this time around...) Our text begins with Moses receiving a visitor. His father-in-law, Yitro, comes from the land of Midian, bringing with him Moses' wife and two sons. While there, Yitro sees Moses presiding over every legal dispute and question that any Israelite may bring up. And he strongly encourages him to instead appoint various levels of judges, to essentially create a hierarchy of lower courts, appellate courts, a supreme court... and MOSES. The last thing Yitro says to Moses is that this new-and-improved system will be easier for everyone, and adds, "[if you do this,] you will be able to endure, and all these people too will return to their homes in peace." (Ex. 18:23)

Initially, I just passed over this verse and kept reading. But I glanced at the Hebrew, and noticed something familiar. The phrase about people returning home in peace reminded me of something else, so I looked it up. Sure enough, our ancient rabbis "borrowed" this sentence for a surprisingly different purpose. When I officiate at funerals, and we have finished lowering the casket into the grave, it is customary to say "Al Mekomo Yavo v'Shalom," which is exactly the same statement in our text. I find this fascinating, because the expression is being repurposed in a clever way. At some point in Jewish history, our ancestors began using the word "Makom," which literally means Place/Spot/Location, as a euphemism for God. When someone dies, we console them by saying: "Ha-MAKOM Yinachem Etchem..." - "May God comfort you..." Again, we use the word "place" as another Name for the Divine; perhaps imagining that God is the *ultimate* place; the home to Which (or Whom) we all return after death.

It just intrigues me that this text about judicial proceedings - and about people returning back to their tents after receiving a verdict from Moses or one of the other newly-appointed judges - was seen as a good candidate for a burial rite at the graveside. It is not, by the way, unusual for the rabbis to extract new meanings from Biblical texts. This is a good example of them mining the Tanach for recyclable material! Context was often less significant, and if a quote could be used in an entirely new way - as long as you weren't jumbling the words around and actually manipulating the meaning of the text. If the phrase reads correctly, then by all means interpret it to connote something *completely* different. To me, this is one of the truly beautiful features of our ancient texts. It creates layers upon layers of meaning; constantly shifting as time passes. What the text comes to mean for one generation may be entirely different from the previous generation, the one before that, and countless others before that. It makes our ancient texts come alive, and invites us to scour the text for our own meaningful passages, regardless of what it used to mean to our forbearers. I think it is a subtle, but fantastic aspect of our heritage... and you can quote me on that! 

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
2. ArtsyBeeKids on Pixabay
3. Page from my rabbi's manual about including this verse

Friday, December 17, 2021

Va-Yechi: Bless *this* Moment

This week’s post will be my last of 2021. Thanks to all of you fabulous readers for sticking with me for yet another year of Take on Torah. It boggles my mind that I’ve posted well-over 600 times over these 12+ years. Thank you. 

I also want to add that I’m dedicating this post to the Daled (fourth) and Hey (fifth) grade classes in our Hebrew School. They put together a terrific D’var Torah for this Shabbat, and truly inspired this post. I feel really blessed to get to work with such awesome students! 🤩🤩

What does it mean to bless someone? Is it just something nice you say to them? “I think you’re great!” Or “you look lovely today.” Are those blessings… or just nice compliments? These were some of the questions I discussed with our Daled & Hey students over the last few weeks, as we prepared a D’var Torah together for this parashah. I think what really threw them for a loop (along with basically anyone reading Genesis, chapter 49…), was how our ancestor, Jacob seemingly intended to offer blessings to his children before he died… but then cursed and scorned several of them! Some of his “blessings” were pretty terrible... perhaps even mean. So that really challenged us to discuss what it even means at all to bless someone. I invite you to take a moment for yourself and think about how you would answer that question…

First of all, Jacob only blessed his sons, which upset everyone in the class. What about his daughter, Dina?!? Patriarchal society, sure, but total silence?? However, we then read the first couple of “blessings,” and decided that maybe Dina actually dodged a bullet. He started off telling his oldest son, Reuben, that he’s the firstborn and deserving of honor (v. 3). BUT then proceeded to chastise him for something that happened *years* earlier (4), and ended his words with rebuke and a curse, all because of this grudge he never could shed (or even express aloud!). As if that wasn’t bad enough, his second… um… “blessing” (?) was even worse. He admonished his two sons, Simeon and Levi, also for something that happened years prior (5-7), and finished his statement by declaring that he did NOT want to be associated with the two of them. Ever. Yikes. 

Some of his subsequent declarations were much more kind and praising… but in some ways that just made the bad ones sting even more! Many of the students in the class were incredulous, and when they each took on the persona of one of the children, and expressed how that person felt about their father's words, even the ones who got good blessings mostly just expressed how badly they felt for their “siblings.” So having read all of Jacob’s… er… opinions, we came back to this challenging question of what it means to bless someone. And we discussed how it could indeed be praise or filled with kindness, yet we also acknowledged that sometimes it can be about saying something hard to hear. Perhaps Jacob meant to challenge his more rebellious children; bluntly telling them that if they don’t shape up, bad things will befall them? Or even if he didn’t intend it that way, we talked about how the recipients of these reproaches could choose to reframe them for themselves, and vow to prove their father wrong! In a way, that too could serve as a blessing, regardless of intent. As a wakeup call, an eye-opener, or a jarring rebuke; it could *still* prove beneficial if the person took action or changed their behavior, to ensure that the future would be better than the prediction.

My favorite part of this endeavor - other than the wonderful responses the students created for each Biblical character - were the blessings their parents offered them. The class teacher, Allison, and I asked each child’s parents to offer a short blessing for their child, using the guidelines our class had discussed about what is, and is not, a blessing. What they wrote was truly beautiful. And it reminded me that blessings can be incredibly powerful. Our words can lift someone's spirits… or scar them for life. And when phrased as a blessing - one that actually intends to help and inspire the person - it can be an incredible force in their lives. So my final takeaway from this Torah portion, and this wonderful class (and the end of 2021...), is to not let any moment go to waste. We should bless one another now, later, and as often as we can push ourselves to think of it. It can be an immense gift to share with someone, and it costs us absolutely nothing. At this holiday season, and as we prepare to enter a new year, let’s think about the gifts we give one another. Let us perhaps move away from the material presents, and instead offer a blessing and some inspiration to one another, which can really help each and every one of us start this new year in the very best way possible. 

I'll offer you an intention to conclude this post: We often say that kind things "go without saying." They're obvious and known; why mention them? I challenge us all to have our sentiments of goodness, kindness, praise, and support instead go WITH saying. Even if/when you think they know it already, take a moment and say it. Out loud. Trust me. May you all have a blessed AND HEALTHY start to the new year!

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. elycefeliz on Flickr
2. (from the movie, The Matrix)
3. Jerney Furman on Flickr
4. kalhh on Pixabay

Friday, December 3, 2021

Mikeitz: What Did Shimon Ever Do To You?!? Oh, wait...

The Joseph story in Genesis is *filled* with comeuppance. For Pharaoh’s courtiers, for Joseph, his brothers, their father (Jacob), and more. Various stories begin in one place, and then - some significant amount of time later - that earlier occurrence comes back to either haunt or honor the same people. Sometimes it’s overt, while other times it’s subtle and hidden. I think a fascinating example of the latter comes in the story of one of the lesser-known brothers, Shimon or Simeon. You don't actually hear much about Shimon, whether in this story or elsewhere. As a tribe, in later generations, Shimon melts away into oblivion. So much so, in fact, that by the time our ancestors put together the book we now call The Torah, and included Moses' final farewell blessings to each of the tribes; Shimon is left out entirely. But I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's go back to the man himself in the Book of Genesis.

The first time we really were introduced to Shimon, the second-oldest of all of Jacob's sons, was when he and brother #3, Levi, avenged their family's good name. Their sister, Dinah, was taken for a wife - by force - by a non-Israelite named Shechem. Surreptitiously, they plotted against Shechem, and indeed his entire clan, and killed all the men for what they had done to Shimon and Levi's sister. The reasoning behind their action is understandable, and certainly I have no interest in defending Shechem, but their methods and the end result are obviously shocking and reprehensible. I personally believe that violence only begets more violence, and even though their father, Jacob, doesn't really chastise them at the time, he recalls this gruesome event at the end of his life, and curses his sons for their bloody behavior. So before we even arrive at the Joseph story, we might have preconceived notions about Shimon's... temperament.

That all happened two Torah portions ago. Last week, when Joseph's lengthy narrative began, all the brothers together conspired to throw him in a pit and then sold him into slavery. They had grown furious (more hot-tempered behavior...) at him for being such a brat and flaunting their father's favoritism of him. And this story never singles out Shimon OR Levi... yet subtly it indicts him nonetheless. You see, the oldest son is Reuben, and the text, back in chapter 37, informed us that Reuben opposed the brothers' aggressive, violent plants. So if he wasn't the instigator, and we similarly heard that brother #4, Judah, also tried to mitigate the severity of their plans, then who were the ring leaders? It certainly seems plausible that the two remaining oldest family members - who also already had a history of rash, callous behavior - Shimon and Levi, were indeed the biggest culprits.

And now, time for the comeuppance. Years later, Joseph has survived his enslavement as well as time in an Egyptian prison, and has risen to become the second-most powerful man in Egypt. When a famine devastates the entire region, and everyone comes to Egypt for provisions, Jacob's family arrives at Joseph's doorstep like everyone else. And when he plots his own revenge, he tells the brothers that one of them must remain in bondage in Egypt, while the others may return home to fetch their youngest brother, Benjamin. Who does Joseph seize? Our text states: "... he [Joseph] returned to them and spoke to them; and he took Shimon from among them and had him bound before their eyes." (42:24) Coincidence? I think not. I believe Joseph knew the personalities of his brothers, and he knew who was the biggest threat. And he also clearly remembered - and still bore the scars from... - when his brothers sold him as a slave. Which face was most prominent in his mind? His hot-headed brother, Shimon. I'd like to think that Shimon recalled all these events as well. Sitting alone in prison, feeling abandoned, forgotten, and at the mercy of an ill-tempered bully, perhaps he finally felt true remorse for all the things he had done. And perhaps in that moment, he too had to acknowledge the comeuppance and poetic justice of what had befallen him.

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Anthony Jauneaud on Flickr
3. Michael Hiemstra on Wikimedia Commons
4. Prettysleepy on Pixabay

Thursday, December 2, 2021

L’Chaim (newsletter) article, December 2021 - A New Jewish Connection in Mbale, Uganda

I like projects. You may have figured that out about me already, considering some of the endeavors we’ve embarked upon here at Ohev Shalom over the course of the last twelve-and-a-half years! I want to also state (for the record…) that I *do* love ritual and routine, and I think each of these concepts has its time and place. Annual traditions, holiday celebrations, and community customs and events are vital for creating togetherness, and for fostering a sense of belonging and familiarity. However, if we don’t also challenge ourselves to take on new ventures and invite unfamiliar perspectives, our beloved routines and rituals can easily become stale and hollow.
One way that I think we create newness and push ourselves to constantly evolve and change is through original (and hopefully somewhat innovative…) projects. As we round the corner into the last month of 2021, and begin to look ahead into 2022, I thought this would be an excellent time to explore something novel. Here is an idea that I am already mulling myself, and which I’d like to put forth to the congregation, to see if there is interest in taking on something new and different:
I recently began an unusual correspondence through Facebook. A man named Jonathan Mwosuko reached out to me about purchasing Jewish ritual objects from his group, called the Uganda Jewish Arts Special. Mr. Mwosuko comes from a small Jewish community, called the Nasenyi, located in the very small town of Mbale, located five hours by bus from the capital city of Kampala, UgandaOver the course of the last few months, I have been learning more about the Nasenyi, and have been hearing about the extreme hardships and poverty they experience on a daily basis. I purchased several items from the Uganda Jewish Arts Special, in part to see what they produce and in part to confirm their story. They make beautiful hand-stitched and brightly colored kippot, as well as challah covers, tallit bags, baskets, and more! 
The items I ordered have arrived, but this does not (I hope) conclude my dealings with them. I want us to explore how we can partner with, and support, the Jews of Mbale. This is a Jewish community, one that has been there for a very long time, and we have an obligation to assist them in any way that we can. Mr. Mwosuko has already shared that they need clothing for their children, toiletries, mattresses and sheets, tallitot for their synagogue (the ones they currently have are tattered and often don’t have tzitzit attached!), and more. We may feel discouraged in our limited ability to change their circumstances, but we nevertheless must try.
In Pirkei Avot, a 2,000-year-old book of rabbinic wisdom, the ancient sage, Rabbi Tarfon, states: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it” (2:16). I have no idea how much we’ll be able to impact Jonathan Mwosuko and the Nasenyi Jewish community of Mbale. I hope to engage other congregations to purchase Judaica objects from them, and to bring some items to our own gift shop for people to purchase. Rabbi Miller and I have talked about connecting our Mispallelim students with the Nasenyi children. Perhaps future Mitzvah Projects for B’nai Mitzvah could incorporate our new friends in Uganda? There are so many possibilities! But will any of it make a lasting and significant difference? I do not know. But I am 100% certain that doing nothing won’t help them at all; and I firmly believe that we are obligated to try; to not desist from this holy work.
If anyone would like to learn more, and/or get involved in this project, please let me know. Thanks so much! 
Rabbi Gerber

Friday, November 19, 2021

Va-Yishlach: Jacob is so two-faced... and so is Israel!

In our Torah portion this week, a Divine messenger - an angel - attempts to change our ancestor, Jacob's name to "Yisrael." Oddly enough, it doesn't "stick." In Genesis, 32:29, the angel renames him... yet in the very next verse, the text begins, "Jacob said..." A few chapters later, God tries this again; yet this time coming down to change Jacob's name to Yisrael once and for all! Chapter 35, verse 10, states unequivocally: "God said to him, 'You whose name is Jacob, you shall be called Jacob no more. But Israel shall be your name.' Thus God named him Israel." Surely it'll work this time, no?? Four verses later, we read: "and Jacob set up a pillar at the spot where God had spoken to him..." (v. 14) What the heck is going on here?!? God has changed people's names before, and will do it again later, and every time the shift has worked. So how come Jacob - I mean, Israel - stubbornly refuses to let go of his birth name???

I had the pleasure of studying this text with Ohev's new rabbinic intern, Amotz Kohlmeier, this week, and we stumbled upon an interesting commentary. The Hebrew professor and Biblical scholar, Robert Alter, recently came out with a new translation and commentary on the Torah text, in which he discusses the life of Jacob... sorry, "Israel." He offers this fascinating insight when talking about the famous scene of Jacob (pre-name change) wrestling with the angel: "The image of wrestling has been implicit throughout the Jacob story." Alter refers to Jacob and Esau wrestling in their mother's womb; then Jacob stealing Esau's birthright and then their father's blessing; later, Jacob fights constantly with his uncle, Laban, and Laban's herdsmen; and now his life of struggle is made EXPLICIT with this name change. Another great commentary, that of Everett Fox, even translates the name "Yisrael" as "God-Fighter." It sure sounds like strife and contention are the hallmarks of Jacob's - dang it; Israel's! - entire life.

It sounds burdensome and exhausting to be constantly fighting like this, and yet I also find it incredibly human and relatable. None of us behave in one way, all the time, with every person in our lives. How we are with our parents differs from our interactions with friends, and is not the same as how we treat our children, which deviates from exchanges with students, colleagues, or co-workers. Does this make us two-faced? The implication of which is disingenuous, fake, hypocritical, and even devious? Personally, I think to be human is indeed about learning to interact differently with the various groups of people in our lives, and maybe that *is* two-faced (or three- or four-faced), but I don't think it necessarily has negative connotations. In the Torah text, our patriarch seems to hold onto *both* identities at the same time; sometimes feeling like Jacob and other times like Israel. On occasion, he is strong, confident, and a leader... while other times he cries, messes up, and is frightened. Isn't that true for you and me as well?

It isn't easy to balance these multiple identities. Having acknowledged all of the wrestling that Jacob (argh! ISRAEL!!) did throughout his life, things don't exactly get easier for him. There is more fighting, deception, and strife ahead. And again, I think there's an incredibly valuable lesson for all of us in this narrative. Maybe the goal isn't to achieve Oneness. Perhaps that is exclusively the realm of God. Our task is to strive for harmony and balance. We embrace the occasions where we feel fearful and insecure, and accept that it's ok to frequently NOT have all the answers. We also need to be present to our successes and our achievements, and allow ourselves to feel pride and gratitude for the things we are able to do well. The goal may be to find a sense of balance and equilibrium among these disparate emotions, personas, and characteristics. I think by the end of his life, Jac... *Israel* learns to embrace his various components. He isn't done wrestling or arguing... but at least he comes to an understanding about his varied roles and relationships. It seems to me that is a very good goal to which each of us can strive. After all, we are the Children of... Israel, aren't we?

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. JamieHarrington on Pixabay
2. Filip Lachowski on Wikimedia Commons
4. bertomic on Pixabay

L’Chaim (newsletter) article, November, 2021: Experimenting with Prayer

One of the congregations in New York City that is considered edgy, progressive, “out there,” and forward-thinking is called LabShul. Even the name of the community embodies who they are, and the principle they’re espousing with their “brand” really resonates with me. What might it mean to think of prayer, services, the Siddur, and our individual relationships with God as opportunities for experimentation and exploration? We don’t often think of the synagogue or the Sanctuary as a laboratory… but why not?

There is, of course, value in repetition and familiarity as well. The two do not have to be mutually exclusive. It can be a tremendously spiritual experience to close your eyes, sing along to the Shema or the Aleinu, or any other oft-repeated prayer, and just feel comfortable and in sync with everyone else. AND there are also times when we can - and maybe should - delve deeper into the meanings behind the prayers. I think it is vitally important to ask ourselves why we chant these words, why we sit or stand or bow, and why we start where we do, move along through these particular prayers in this prescribed order, and then conclude where we always have.

So, how would we find answers to these questions, and maybe discover new questions we didn’t even realize we had before?! Perhaps we need to put our services, our tefillot, under a microscope or in a test tube, and really investigate their core properties. Well, that is exactly what we intend to do! Starting on November 7th, our Sunday morning minyan is going to magically transform into “MinyanLab.” We are going to depart from the regular order of services, and instead focus on just 3 or 4 prayers, over the course of a 45-minute service, to really explore and dissect what they are all about. We’ll also incorporate some chanting and meditation, to help create the mood and proper atmosphere for prayer.

I want to thank Naomi Wicentowski, our new Ritual Committee Chairperson, for working with me on launching this, and a very special thank you to the minyan regulars - our Minyanaires - for allowing the congregation to experiment with our Sunday morning minyan. MinyanLab will take place *every* Sunday, and each week will focus on a different aspect of the service and how (and why) we pray.

I hope you’ll consider attending. MinyanLab can’t work if we don’t have participants to delve and deconstruct and question and explore. I want to go on this journey with all of you, and I want us to craft and discover meaning within Jewish prayer *together*. I can’t do it alone. So please bring your questions, your struggles, and your curiosity, and join me every Sunday at 9:00 a.m. (starting in November) for our new Ohev Shalom MinyanLab. Happy exploring!


Rabbi Gerber

Friday, November 12, 2021

Va-Yeitzei: The Power of Biblical Karma

Karma isn’t something we talk about all too often in Judaism. But even when we don’t use the term, the concept is actually quite prevalent in the Biblical text… especially in Genesis. Time and again, the Torah wants its readers to understand that our behaviors and actions - all of them - have consequences. When we perform mitzvot and acts of kindness, we are often rewarded in one way or another. (And sometimes in ways we NEVER expected or could have predicted…) At the same time, when we behave deceitfully and hurt other people, a similar fate may indeed await us. Now, I think we all know this isn’t a one-for-one equation. You can’t observe a mitzvah and then be disappointed when you don’t see the immediate return on that “investment.” In fact, sometimes we may not notice the repercussions at all. Yet I personally feel that there is a lot of power in energy, attitude, and inclining ourselves towards the good. If you conduct yourself seeking out opportunities to love (all) your neighbor(s) as yourself, the compassion and kindness you are putting out into the universe DOES come back to you. And I would say that our Torah preaches that very same concept.

In this week’s parashah, Jacob has fled from his parents’ home, and he makes his way to his uncle, Laban’s house in Haran. It isn’t clear at first whether Laban knows what happened in Canaan, or why his nephew has shown up on his doorstep (tent-step?). Has word gotten back to him that Jacob deceived his father, Isaac, and stole his brother’s birthright and firstborn blessing? The text doesn’t reveal the answer explicitly, but the message is nevertheless conveyed loud and clear. When Laban tricks Jacob into marrying his older daughter, Leah, instead of the girl Jacob WANTED to marry, Rachel, Jacob complains to him about this dastardly thing that he has done. Laban retorts, “It is not the practice in our place to marry off the younger before the older…” (Gen. 29:26) It is possible that Laban STILL knows nothing of the drama back in Canaan, but it sure sounds like he’s throwing it in Jacob’s face: “Maybe you think that you, the younger child, can get away with anything you like back home… but that ain’t gonna fly around here, buddy!” Or, perhaps, phrased another way, the message that Jacob hears - and that really stings - is, “what goes around, comes around…”

But Laban isn’t exempt from this either. Every time we’ve seen him, he’s tricking someone, scheming something, or saying one thing while behaving in the opposite manner. Several times, he tries to ensnare Jacob or con him out of his wages, his livestock, or even his family! In the end, however, God helps Jacob keep what is rightfully his - due to hard work and honest behavior (maybe Jacob *finally* learned to improve his own karma…) - and punishes Laban for his dishonesty. By the end of Jacob’s twenty-year service, he has taken both of Laban’s daughters, his baker’s dozen of grandchildren, most of his flock, and more possessions still! I wonder if Laban had anywhere near enough self-awareness to see that his bad fortune was indeed the result of his own behaviors. He only had himself to blame for living by deceit and making his fortune through treachery. The end of his story brought him precisely the comeuppance he deserved…

What I especially like about this Biblical lesson is that it doesn’t apply to “bad” people in the Torah. Everyone, back then and even today, can be affected by the energy that we put out into the universe. Sadly, it doesn’t protect us from accidents, illness, pandemics, or tragedy. It isn’t a protective and impenetrable dome. Nevertheless, I believe our deeds matter, and in the long run, we DO experience reward for the mitzvot we perform and the acts of chesed (kindness) we commit to. If nothing else, we may earn the respect and gratitude of those around us, and from people who can see the true value of our character. Even then, bad things may befall us and we can always become the victims of bad luck… but I still stubbornly maintain that the karma we create follows us around through life. We certainly see it play out in the lives of Jacob and Laban, and it’s a message the Torah hopes you and I will take to heart as well.

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Nick Youngson on Alpha Stock Images
2. Seth Lemmons on Wikimedia Commons
3. Zane A. Selvans on
4. 8 Kome on Flickr

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