Thursday, July 29, 2021

Eikev: Thanks for the Grub - Yay, God!

Judaism considers it important to bless our food. We have short phrases to recite *before* we eat something (with specific wording for basically ANY food or drink you can imagine!), and then longer prayers that are recited or sung *after* we eat as well. So let's take a moment and ask ourselves, “why?” Well, the Biblical explanation comes from a single verse in this week’s Torah portion… but that only tells us part of the story. It can get us thinking about the importance of blessing our foods, but then we need to dig deeper still. Our ancestors believed a fundamental truth about how food relates to the Divine, to the earth, and to our bodies, so let’s examine their perspective and see whether it remains relevant for us today as well. 

You may be familiar with the traditional Jewish Grace after Meals, a.k.a. Birkat Ha-Mazon, a.k.a. “the benching” (Yiddish for "blessing") There are shorter versions and longer ones, with special additional paragraphs for Shabbat and holidays. Interestingly, in even the longest version, there’s only ever ONE verse that comes directly from the Torah. The benching does include psalms and other Biblical quotes, but in terms of material specifically from The Five Books of Moses, it’s just this one verse from our parashah: “When you have eaten, and are satiated, you shall bless Adonai, your God, for the good land which God has given you.” (Deut. 8:10) So back to our original question, why? Why do we bless God? Because the Jewish theology around food is quite clear - you don’t own anything that you eat. It all belongs to God, and you/me/everyone needs to express gratitude for our ability to eat and be satisfied. 

Maybe that concept seems obvious to you… or maybe you fundamentally disagree (and feel free to comment below and share your thoughts), but it has always resonated with me. Whether we grow our own food, support a farm collective, or buy everything from a store or online grocer; the food still isn’t ours. We really need to acknowledge that in our community today, many of us do not struggle with food insecurity, the way millions of people do across the globe every single day. We had no control over where we were born or in what era. Our financial means and our abundant access to food - all these things are miraculous gifts from God! Yet sometimes we let ourselves think that we made this happen. 

All around us, we hear sentiments in society that essentially amount to some version of: “Why should I share my resources with others who don’t deserve it?” The Torah’s resounding answer is, it’s not your decision. God gave you this bounty, not you yourself, and you are expected - required even - to thank God for all these blessings. There are so many dangerous pitfalls where we may be tempted to think we made our own successes happen. We contributed, sure, but God’s partnership was, and always will be, vital for anything to work. When we acknowledge that, we hopefully learn to be humble, and then ideally show compassion towards (all!) others who have less than we do. So many of us are truly blessed to not worry where our next meal will come from. That verse I quoted from Deuteronomy reminds us that when it’s effortless for us to eat, and obvious that we’ll get to feel satiety, we must then also bless God. Now, who’s hungry?

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. jimbomack66 on Wikimedia Commons
2. AllaSerebrina on Deposit Photos
4. The US National Archives

Friday, July 23, 2021

Vaetchanan: Reflecting on our Jewish Creed

Let’s take a few minutes to talk about the Shema. I don’t even really have to add the other five words, do I? I bet you can hear it in your head right now, to that same heralding tune we all know! This probably isn’t true for everyone reading this, but I bet for many/most people, if I hypothetically woke you up at 3am and said “Shema…!”, you could add - bleary-eyed and confused - “… Yisrael, Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad.” And then promptly fall back asleep. The Shema prayer is essentially *the* most well-known verse in all of the Torah, and in all of our daily prayers. And yes, its triumphant, exclusive appearance takes place in this week’s Torah portion. Sooo… what do we really know about the Shema?

Well, for one thing, I wonder how many people have stopped and noted that our #1 most famous prayer - and prayer, as we know, is directed to God - isn’t addressing God at all. It’s right there in the first two words, I just don’t think a lot of people have reflected on it: “Shema Yisrael,” meaning, “Hear, O Israel…” Usually we say things like “Baruch Atah Adonai,” “Praised are YOU, Adonai,” but not here. In my mind, I picture Moses - who most often is speaking with, to, and for the Divine - turning around, facing *away* from God, and speaking to us, the people. It’s not even really a prayer, but a declarative statement. It’s entirely a human-to-human interaction; heavily emphasizing the importance of community, collective belief, and shared creed. And more than anything else, it is a proclamation of monotheism, and of complete loyalty to THE One God, who has a unique relationship with us, the people of Israel. 

Another interesting feature of this verse, Deuteronomy 6:4, is how it is actually written in the Torah. In every Torah scroll across the globe, the last letter of the first word, and the last letter of the final word, are written in large, bold font. The letter Ayin in “Shema,” and the letter Daled in “Echad,” seemingly radiate off the page to form their own word, “Eid,” meaning “witness.” The rabbinic interpretation of this peculiar script is that we all are meant to testify and bear witness to the essential truths of this verse. It is not enough to just know it on your own, but we encourage one another to remember the exclusivity of God, and how precious is our relationship with Adonai. 

Several rabbinic commentators also point out that while Moses more often instructs the Israelites to be loyal to “Adonai, YOUR God,” here Moses makes a point of including himself, both because of everything God has done for him, and to further hit home the point that we are *all* part of this covenant and theological partnership; no one is excluded and no one is exempt. What a powerful message to convey in only SIX words! Add to this our Jewish history of times when we’ve been banned from saying these words aloud; have huddled together in secrecy to declare the Shema for comfort, unity, strength, and courage; and stories in our tradition of martyrs who died uttering these very words - and the Shema becomes even more meaningful. Many of us know it by heart, and it may seem mundane and basic, but I hope we can all pause and appreciate the depth and potency of this short, majestic, declarative creed. Do you hear what I’m saying, O Israel??

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Pxhere
2. Katrina Cole on Flickr
3. Yaniv Ben-Arie on Flickr
4. Wolfgang Sauber on Wikimedia Commons

Friday, July 16, 2021

Guest blog! Tisha b’Av: We are still here.

This week, I am THRILLED to share with you a D’var Torah that my mother, Debbie, shared with her Executive Board of Women’s League. My mom is a Jewish educator with over half a century of teaching experience. She is also an active member of her synagogue in central New Jersey, and serves (or has served) on countless boards and committees in all aspects of Jewish life. And, quite frankly, I’m a bit embarrassed that I haven’t invited her to guest blog for me sooner! 


The Jewish calendar is filled with wonderful joyous holidays and days when we remember some of our victories in Jewish history. But it also has sad and mournful days when we recall some of the terrible moments in our past. One of those sad days is coming up this week – on Sunday. It will be Tisha B’Av- the 9th day of Av. This is a day to remind us of many of the worst dates in Jewish history which all happened on or close to the 9th of Av. 

Some of the major ones are: 

- In the second year after the Exodus from Egypt, the Israelites listened to the spies and refused to go into the Land of Israel. Their cowardice and lack of faith led them to spend a full 40 years wandering in the desert. 

- Many of you may know that in the year 586 BCE the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and the Second Temple by the Roman Emperor Titus in 70 CE; both on or near this date. 

- Another lesser known event was the Edict of Expulsion of the Jews from England which was signed by King Edward I in 1290 around this date. 

- The beginning of the Inquisition in Spain - where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella expelled 100,000 Jews and forced them to board ships to leave Spain -happened also on the 9th of Av. 

So we recall these awful incidents by fasting and not drinking for a full day in the middle of the heat of summer. But in the calendar we have actually been building up to remember these terrible events for several weeks. Three weeks prior to Tisha B’Av, we don’t schedule weddings or musical celebrations, we avoid getting haircuts, and we do not buy new clothes. The nine days before the fast day are a more intensive period, beginning on the 1st day of Av, where the custom is to stop eating meat and drinking wine. 

Then, on the fast day itself, there are special customs that more intensely show that we are in mourning:

- The meal before the fast is a simple one including boiled eggs and lentils- foods often eaten in a house of mourning. 

- We shouldn't bathe or use any skin oils or creams

- lovemaking is prohibited on this day.  

- When arriving at the synagogue, people don’t greet one another as they usually do when they come to a service.  

- In the synagogue, shoes are not worn, and we sit on the floor or low benches with the lights turned down low, or often just with candles burning to provide dimmed lighting. 

- The book of Lamentations - Eicha - is chanted in a low voice using a special plaintive melody. - - The ark is sometimes draped in black shrouds and the Sifrei Torah are also covered in black cloths.  

The rabbis of the Talmud also said that there was a strong connection between Tisha B’Av and our duty to others. The First Temple was destroyed, they say, as a punishment, but the Second was destroyed because of causeless hatred. People need to learn to treat each other with love and respect. WE all need to work together - B’yachad - to make this world a better place. 

We cannot understand why the terrible things we remember on Tisha B’Av happened – nor why God let them happen. We can not understand why bad things happen to us or our families in general, but as we look back - particularly as we get older - over the history of our people, something becomes clear: We may not be able to find a reason for everything that has happened to us in our past, but Jews have been able to find a lesson in almost everything that happens, and it has helped us become better people. We Jews are still here and we need to work B’yachad, together, to preserve our people and our heritage.

So, what lessons does this fast day have for us? In his book, When a Jew Celebrates, Harry Gersh writes: “The cycle of sorrow and comfort, pain and joy reminds us once again that life is precious and must go on. We remember and we mourn but not for too long. After the mourning we return to our lives once again.” The whole Jewish calendar - the whole Jewish sense of time - is a series of lessons about appreciating life and where we’ve been, while also recognizing and being thankful that we are still here… and, God willing, we will continue to be here for many generations to come. 

Friday, July 2, 2021

Pinchas: What About MY Point-of-View??

How could anyone be expected to appreciate another  person’s perspective, if s/he never knew there was another way to see things? As human beings, we are conditioned since birth to see the world through our own eyes, our cultural lens, and our inherited biases. That’s how you develop a sense of self, identity, and pride in who you are. However, EVERYONE’s point-of-view is different, so we eventually have to learn to take others into account, in order to learn empathy, compassion, and curiosity. It’s fine to expect the world to think/act/behave like you when you’re four years old… less so when you become an adult. 

This week, the Torah wants to teach us the value of multiple perspectives… and in particular emphasizes how critical it is that people who don’t feel seen or acknowledged speak up and advocate on their own behalf. Our specific example comes in the form of five daughters (with wonderfully unpronounceable names…) whose father died in the wilderness before the Israelites could enter the Promised Land. These confident women approach Moses (and God) and point out that since their father is dead, and they have no brothers, their families will receive no land allocation once they enter Canaan. They declare: “Let not our father’s name be lost to his clan just because he had no son! Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (Num. 27:4) Moses brings the matter before God, and God agrees with the daughters. 

What I find especially striking here is the notion that God hadn’t considered this before! Or any issue, for that matter!! It never occurred to God that families with only daughters could lose their inheritance? The idea of God learning and adjusting is unique in-and-of-itself, and I kind of love it. If even God can be persuaded… shouldn’t we humans be willing to hear new ideas and allow our thinking to shift and evolve? But even if that *isn't* the case, and God DID already know, I still think there’s a powerful lesson here: Speak up for yourself! Advocate on your own behalf, because someone else truly might not have seen it from your vantage point. Perhaps they did… but you’re never gonna know until you step up, come forward, and let others know what you’re experiencing. 

And from a leadership perspective I think the lesson is equally crucial! You don’t know what others are seeing or feeling. There’s simply no way for you to know! So you have to solicit feedback and create an environment where people feel their input is valued and heard. For me, as a white, straight, cisgender male, I need to invite anyone and everyone to offer their opinions - their own Takes on Torah, if you will… - to enrich and expand my outlook. I can’t know what it looks like from your seat, so please tell me. But it isn’t all on you to speak up. I’m not released from any obligation to be inclusive, just because others haven’t spoken up. It is absolutely my responsibility to create the space and vulnerability for others to know their input is welcome and appreciated. This Biblical story is about one, ancient, brave, trailblazing, confident group of women; but right now, today, we all can truly learn from their example!

Friday, June 25, 2021

Balak: God Already Knows the Answer… Do You?

I like questions a lot. If you’ve been reading this blog for any amount of time, I have to believe that statement doesn’t come as a surprise to you AT ALL. At the Passover Seder, I always like to spend the most amount of time on the questions in the Haggadah… as well as the ones NOT in the text, but which we, ourselves, might ask. Introspection (asking questions of oneself…) is always a central theme for me during the High Holidays, and whenever I see questions in the Torah text (or have questions of my own *for* the Torah…), I light up! And sometimes the very best questions in the Bible are not, in fact, asked by humans at all. As an aside - and a reward for you blog-readers - I will offer a hint that you might hear more about these Divine Questions in this year’s High Holiday services… There is something really special about the moments when God asks a question - ANY question - in the Torah, for one, obvious reason: Doesn’t God, being Omnipotent, already know the answer?

This week, the question I wanted to focus on is also unique, because it’s not being posed to one of our ancestors, or indeed to any Israelite or even an ally of our forbearers! Our parashah is entirely depicted from the perspective of Balak, the king of the Moabites, who reaches out to a non-Israelite prophet, Bilaam, to curse the Israelites on his behalf. Theologically speaking, it always fascinates me that God intervenes at all, because I wouldn’t have thought that the curse of an idolatrous prophet would be something God (or we) would worry about at all! Nevertheless, God shows up in this story, and questions Bilaam about his intentions regarding Balak and his emissaries. In one of their first little tête-à-têtes, we find the question that peaked my interest: “God came to Bilaam and said, ‘What do these people want of you?’” (Num. 22:9) How puzzling, don’t you think, that God wouldn’t know why these emissaries of Moab and Midian have come to Bilaam?? Gosh, and here I thought God was omniscient and all…

As with so many of these wonderful, Divine, often-rhetorical questions, I firmly believe that God already knows the answer. So what, then, is the purpose of asking it in the first place?? Wouldn’t it make more sense for God to say to Bilaam (assuming our God and Bilaam talk at all, which I’ve still not gotten over…), “Don’t speak! I know what you’re going to ask me… and the answer is ‘NO!!’” In my estimation, there’s actually more going on here. God is showing us - here and in several other no-brainer questions - that the real work has to happen inside us. GENUINE learning comes from within, not from an external source. The best teachers know that lecturing from the front of the room only ever gets you so far. If you can provoke students to think critically, challenge assumptions, and draw their own conclusions, that learning may prove to “stick” in their brains a whole lot better. God is modeling that for us, throughout the Tanach.

In Bilaam’s case, God may be curious to see how much the prophet is willing to disclose about why these men are approaching him: “Why do *you*, Bilaam, think they are here… and how do you feel about that?” Every person has a unique and individual perspective, so asking several individuals what they heard, what they understood, and what they think should happen next, may often yield vastly different answers and opinions. So God wants to know, what does Bilaam think is being asked of him, and does he understand the ramifications of cursing an entire people on their behalf? In the end, I feel strongly that God is challenging us to take ownership of our lives and our experiences. Don’t sleep-walk through life and do what’s expected of you or what is comfortable/easy, when you can achieve *so much* more by being active, alert, curious, and interested! We should be pushing ourselves to make a positive impact on the world, and on the people around us, by asking ourselves good and tough questions on a regular basis. And I guess the Torah is cautioning us; if you don’t ask yourselves those questions, God may just show up and ask them of you. What then??

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. geralt on Pixabay
2. George Parilla on Flickr
3. Conmongt on Pixabay
4. Barry Schwartz on Flickr

Friday, June 18, 2021

Chukat: You. Shall Not. Pass.

It’s an all-too-familiar story for us as Jews. If you listed countries that have treated us well consistently vs. those that have viewed us with skepticism, suspicion, and distrust - or worse; fear and hatred that led to violence - it would be a bleak picture. We often see our Jewish story as that of a nomadic people, but rarely has it allowed us to fly under the radar, avoid attacks, or remain undisturbed. WAY more often in our history, we have been immigrants, foreigners, and The Other… and it’s come with persecution and oppression. Obviously, this isn’t a very rosy picture, and it’s not one I enjoy lingering on. However, we can’t really ever hope to change our own narrative if we don’t first *see* it! So when our Torah portion this week provides an ancient example of this same treatment, I’m not suggesting it’s a “fun” episode to highlight. But I think taking the time to acknowledge how unpleasant yet disturbingly familiar it is, and how intrinsic it has been to our millennia-long history as Jews, can help us both strive for a better future for ourselves AND make us more sympathetic and caring for the plight of others.

Right now, we’re in the Book of Numbers. Parashat Chukat places us in the fortieth year of the Exodus, and the Israelites are getting both very good at, and very sick of, wandering. In chapter 20, we read: 

“Moses sent messengers to the king of Edom: ‘Thus says your brother, Israel: You know all the         hardships that have befallen us, that our ancestors went down to Egypt, that we dwelt in Egypt a long time, and that the Egyptians dealt harshly with us and our ancestors… Now we are in Kadesh, the town on the border of your territory. Allow us, then, to cross your country. We will not pass through fields or vineyards, and we will not drink water from wells…’” (14-17)

Any guesses how the king of Edom replied? I doubt this next verse will surprise you at all: “But Edom answered him, ‘You shall not pass through us, else we will go out against you with the sword.’” (18) A couple of verses later, Edom repeats its threat and even backs it up by approaching the Israelites armed. And the whole time I am wondering to myself: Why? They don’t explain their refusal to grant safe passage, and they don’t justify their antagonism. But then again, would an explanation have made me feel any better about it? Probably not.

And honestly, I know why the Edomites are hostile: Fear, distrust, suspicion, assumption of bad intent, and more! It’s just hard to look at, and to admit that this has been the response to us as Jews for millennia and all across the globe. But let us also remember how resilient we became, and remained, likely BECAUSE we were so unwanted. It has actually been a tremendous source of strength for the Jewish people to handle rejection and animosity, to build and rebuild as necessary, and to accept - and even embrace! - our nomadic predisposition. So while we may read this with sadness and despair (because neighbors have treated us this way for eons), I also think we should marvel at our ability to just keep on marching. If one border was closed, we just move on to the next one. And for all their bluster, you don’t see a lot of Edomites around today, now do you? Food for thought… 

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. Noborder Network on Flickr
2. Microsoft Corporation
3. SilviaP_Design on Pixabay
4. damian entwistle on Flickr

Friday, May 28, 2021

Beha’alotecha: Flesh or Spirit?

I don’t usually do this, but this week I’m going to introduce an idea here on the blog, and then continue developing the concept in services on Saturday. I know, I know; not everyone who reads the blog attends services, so this may seem unfair. First of all, I’ll be totally honest with you: I like to create incentives to try and get people to attend services. ;-) Second, I stumbled upon an interpretation and commentary on a section from this week’s Torah portion that simply cannot be encapsulated in four paragraphs on a blog. I could, of course, write a longer post... but I’m not going to. If anyone isn’t joining in for services, but wants to know more, feel free to e-mail me or leave a comment here on the blog. So, what I wanted to talk about are two subjects; meat-eating and prophecy. Super-related concepts, right? Well, let’s see if we can’t link them together.

As you’ve probably heard me speak (or write) about in the past, the Torah is filled with peculiarities throughout the text. Sometimes these look like typos, other times they are big letters, little ones, strange omissions, references to texts we no longer have, and so on and so forth. Occasionally, a principle that helps us unravel these mysteries is the idea that there are multiple authors. The Torah was potentially *not* written at one particular time; by Moses or ANY one individual. Rather, it is a compilation of sources and traditions, assembled over centuries. So when I stumbled upon this week’s oddity, I instinctively wanted to chalk it up to two intertwined narratives... but there's actually a lot more going on here. In the Book of Numbers, chapter 11, two seemingly-unrelated stories play out simultaneously. The first is about the Israelites grumbling and complaining (big shock...), and the second is about Moses’ frustration at constantly being the target of the people’s ire. Well, those two storylines sound pretty linked, right? Or do they...?

While they start out seemingly similar, one story unfolds into telling us how God promises to send the people quail, because they are sick and tired of eating Manna all the time. The second narrative has God instructing Moses to choose 70 elders to help relieve some of his burden of leadership and prophecy. While they still may sound connectable, the text jumps back and forth between these stories in a most awkward fashion. It breaks down like this:

Verses:        Subject:
4-15             The desire for meat
11-15            Moses' crisis of leadership
16-17           Prophecy: The seventy elders given by God in response to Moses.
18-22/23    Meat: God responds to the craving for meat by providing the quails.
23-30          Prophecy: the seventy elders
31-34           Meat: the punishment

On Saturday, I’ll talk more about how we determine whether these are one narrative or two. But I read a wonderful commentary by Rabbi Alex Israel on the juxtaposition of these two, and the idea that the Israelites are grappling between the needs of the flesh and the needs of the spirit. And he adds: “
Possibly, the people are still dithering between meat and spirit, between Egypt and Israel.” What a fabulous insight! These two stories represent their (and our...) struggle between, on the one hand, our bodies’ cravings and the related allure of idolatry, and on the other hand, faith in God and focusing on mental and emotional well-being. Ancient Egypt represented one extreme - of subservience, dependence, and fear - while the promise of a new homeland represented self-determination, unity, loyalty to God, and communal responsibility. And indeed, in all our lives, we often find ourselves waffling between the right-now needs of sleep, hunger, and instant gratification, and the long-term health of meditation, journaling, and introspection. Sometimes we think these are two totally disparate conversations, when in reality they are quite intertwined. And if you want to see more about just how linked these two narratives are - for our ancient forbearers AND for us - come to services on Saturday! ;-)

CC images in this blog post, courtesy of:
1. UNSW-Sydney
2. Jeremy Hiebert on Flickr
3. Becky Matsubara on Flickr
4. glossophilia

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