Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Last Year Chayei Sarah - A Zionism for 2009

Parshat Chayei Sarah – 2008
“Reflections on Return from Women’s Mission to Israel -2008
Shabbat Shalom. At the beginning of this month I was blessed to travel to Israel with the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance Women’s Mission so before I begin with some reflections I want to thank the women who came to join us this morning from the mission – they are each remarkable women – committed to the continuity and growth of the Jewish people. It was my honor to be with them as both a participant and in their terms a “spiritual advisor” – and of course a heartfelt thank you to the Jewish Federation and several members of our own AAE community for making this trip possible and finally Rabbi Bernhard for holding down the fort without me.

We were in Israel for 10 days – give or take some people who came early or stayed late. As most of you know that is not nearly enough time to see and do everything but the trip was packed. While we travelled there I had little time to reflect on the journey- between the 6:00 am wake up calls and the dinners that lasted often until late into the night and perhaps with a bit too much wine I was so busy or so tired from being busy I did not think much on the trip about how I might reflect or process what we had seen. I remembering feeling elated, sad, and moved and I definitely remember feeling a sense of urgency and purpose – a sense of mission. However, I couldn’t quite identify what the feeling was until of course that long and painful plane ride home – most of you have done it hours and hours with a crowded flight, a baby crying and bad airplane food. On the way there you have Israel to look towards but on the way home – well I had some time to think. So I pulled out my Chumash my Torah and took a look at this week’s Torah portion – Chayei Sarah and I very quickly came upon a strange and difficult text.
“Then Abraham rose from beside Sarah who had died and spoke to the Hittites, saying, "I am a ger toshav among you; sell me a burial site among you, that I may remove my dead for burial."
The problem with the text is the two words I left un-translated ger and toshav. Now one might sound familiar to you because the word ger is the modern day word for convert – or as was suggested to me on our mission one who embraces Judaism by choice and not by birth. The word here though does not mean that, instead it means stranger in biblical Hebrew – as in one who does not fully belong. Then the second word toshav means resident, one who dwells in a particular place but is not a citizen. They are opposing descriptions – resident stranger? Is Abraham a stranger or a resident? Isn’t it impossible to be both? Why would he describe himself in this contradictory way – unless he was saying something about his relationship to the land? I left the question unanswered as I fell asleep some place over Europe and woke up again in New York.
Zionism and the complex nature of our relationship with Israel is something I have not really spoken about here at shul. Not because I do not believe it is important but because we in the American Jewish community descend quickly on these issues into heated and often disrespectful political discussions which have little if any practical applications. I am more interested in discussions about Israel which lead us to questions of religious and spiritual life and religious and spiritual action in the world. Instead we often find ourselves arguing over questions of military decisions and nation-state assessments. We see our relationship with Israel as a political statement. It is a country under siege – both from its neighbors and all who seek its destruction – I need not tell you how often your children or grandchildren need to defend Israel on college campuses. So we focus on those aspects which often need defending. The complex relationship between Jews and the Land of Israel has yielded a series of political questions and though those questions are important to some degree for me they yield little fruit in how our Zionism should be articulated and I would say re-born. So more interesting for me as a rabbi and instructive as a Jew who considers herself ohevet zion and a Zionist are the moral quandaries a true and deep relationship with Israel creates. In addressing these issues we often lose sight of some very important moral dilemmas and socio-economic woes which plague Israel and with which we might actually have the influence and power to create change.
In our relationship to Israel we have a choice we can choose to develop either a narrow or expansive vision of what "Zionism" is, weighing the relative importance of living in the land per se on the one hand or on the other hand questions about our responsibility towards the way we build a society and conduct ourselves on that land. We in the American Jewish community seems to believe that a relationship to Israel means arguing and developing opinions of what we believe Israel should do about its neighbors and enemies. So perhaps, a radical suggestion – this does not a relationship make. These are important discussions – ones we should have but we should also understand have their limitations. This may be stating the obvious, but we do not live in Israel or vote in Israel or serve in her army. And in reality we have every right to opinions and ideas but these discussions have very little impact on daily life in Israel. Relationship is about impact, about being engaged and when it comes to issues of national security, safety, borders and refugees our influence our opinion should simply be a small piece of our engagement – we should use our knowledge, beliefs and information on these issues to defend Israel to her critiques here in America and all around the world but internally inside our own communities, our own congregations and amongst its supporters where Israel right to exist is not in question we must be developing and engaging in a new form of Zionism; doing work on the ground to make a difference in the lives of Israelis.
So what would this look like? How should we be engaging as North American Jews – with a deep and powerful relationship with Israel and her people? Here is where I want to return to the verse from this week’s Torah portion – ger v’toshav to be a resident and an alien. Abraham feels and understands something specific and unique about our relationship to the land of Israel and her people.
Abraham's connection to the land becomes essential in the opening of this week’s Torah portion. Over and over again in the last several weeks we are told he can only thrive morally by having his survival and that of his descendants assured. That assurance comes in the form of God's promise that Abraham will lay claim to this particular land, with guarantees of divine protection and prosperity. Yet it is Abraham who must establish this claim for himself. As the parashah begins, Abraham purchases the cave of Machpelah from Ephron the Hittite as a grave for Sarah, the transaction between the two is especially revealing. Ephron repeatedly offers the land to Abraham for free, expressing that it would be an honor for him to do so. But Abraham flatly refuses the offer, insisting that he pay the full price. By acquiring the land at a premium, Abraham establishes not only a claim on the land but a responsibility for what happens in the land. And it is here in this description of the transaction when Abraham refers to himself as ger v’toshav. Our tradition makes a big deal out of the fact that Abraham, reeling with grief over the death of his life-mate, negotiated at length with Efron and purchased the Cave and the adjoining field at full market price, rather than just helping himself to that which God has promised him. Witnessed by the entire the community, Abraham approaches Efron with great respect and formality and calls himself a ger v’toshav, a stranger and a resident.
Resident and stranger – so what if this description and its natural consequence is a model for how we where to see ourselves, as American Jews in our relationship to Israel as both residents and strangers?
We are strangers and residents of Israel – this is not contradictory for us, this is very real and Israel’s growth, success depends on our recognition of this description. To be a stranger means to go into a place, into a land and understand the sacrifices of its citizens, the daily danger they place themselves in and to tread cautiously with opinions and assumptions of rights and wrongs. Instead of assuming he/she knows best the stranger – studies, looks, assesses and stands back to watch, to learn and to grapple with the people, the land and the problems. The stranger is not quick to try and solve – the stranger knows they are a bit of an outsider, that they must take there cues from the insiders from the people of the place – from Israelis. The stranger watches – patiently assessing what is happening inside the intimate lives of the people of the country. This is where we should stand – watching, studying and seeing what is happening inside of Israel.
So we are strangers but we are also residents – not citizens but residents who visit and send our children there, who write checks and who study there –we are strangers and we are residents ger v’toshav.. We have friends and family who we visit and support, we read newspaper articles from afar and wonder how Israel will do it, we fly there in crisis to show support and so we are residents too along with being strangers. Residents who want so much to do something to help Israel grow and yet often feel helpless – we do not vote or serve in the army and so we are unsure what to do but know we must help. This is the role of resident to role up our sleeves and help, to find a way, a path in to the daily life of the Israelis that is helpful and constructive and not a role that is unhelpful and lacks power and force. So if our new Zionism asks us to be both humble, to understand our role and to act on behalf of the development and growth of Israel what should we be doing?
Our mission spent so much time – painful and important time looking at some of the domestic socio-economic problems of Israel. Problems that I believe highlight this new Zionism I referred to, the Zionism we must have in order to ensure Israel’s growth and flourishing. The situation is bleak – Israel has the largest gap between rich and poor of any developed country, it has taken in thousands of African refugees from war torn regions like Darfur who face severe emotional trauma in addition to culture shock and economic desperation, the foreign workers who are filling the shoes of Palestinians who can no longer come to Israel for work – from Thailand, from Eastern Europe and the old Soviet Bloc, from South America or from Africa are creating a second class citizenry who are illegal. Then of course there are the children – children who live impoverished lives – Jewish children who live in war ravaged cities like Kiryat Shemonah on the Northern Lebanese border and in Sderot – who face not only issues of trauma but tremendous poverty. Or children who have been abused and neglected and whose parents are unable to care for them safely. So if we are both strangers and residents of the land – a part of it and separate from it – our impact is made more powerful and meaningful if we engage in works which impact the type of society being created in the land. There are many issues and many projects to highlight but I would like to focus on three areas we should be working on: education, poverty and young leadership.
Education – the public school system in Israel is a disaster. It is over crowded and underfunded. It is a rife with challenges and needs our help; our expertise, our money and our support. We visited a school there, the Ragozin School in south Tel Aviv, one of Israel’s poorest neighborhoods and spent time with a principal working tirelessly on issues of identity, poverty and parental involvement – she needs our support with our educators and psychologists, our money and our physical presence. She has students from all over the map, some with parents who are illegal – some native born Israelis and her community is working hard to prepare these children for the real, harsh world – of army service, university or work. Ger v’toshav – stranger and resident with responsibility to build a just society, to take ownership like Abraham did – to buy the land for himself and to own what goes on inside of it.
Young Leadership – Israel has for many years faced an absence of young leaders interested in and involved in growing the land and committing to lives of service. Slowly a small group of young people are beginning to change that and they too need us, our support and wisdom and our presence. The best example of this is a group called Ayalim – dynamic young Israelis just out of the army who are creating new communities in periphery areas in the Northern and Southern parts of Israel. After completing their army service these young people go to school full time and commit to hours volunteering in local underdeveloped areas – building care centers and after school program, parks and play grounds. They choose instead of Hebrew University or Tel Aviv to live in Kiryat Shimona or the Negev where services are minimal and social interaction is limited. They make this choice because of their growing social activism. They volunteer to work with underprivileged youth and change the shape of their commitment to the land by literally helping to bring forth non-existent communities. They help to strengthen communities which are in desperate need of role models for children, safe places to gather as a community and support networks for families in need.
Finally, poverty just one statistic “one Israeli child out of three lives below the poverty line” – every third child in Israel lives below the poverty line. The poverty is so pervasive and deep that parents, Israeli parents find themselves unable to care for children. These children are often neglected and in some cases abused – now this is not only a problem of wealth but often the neglect begins in communities where parents become desperate because they are unable to support their children materially. We visited a home in Netanya called Bet Elazraki where over 200 children live who have been taken from their homes from neglect or abuse – Israeli children. The work of director and his staff is remarkable the opportunity to give these children a home, a chance to be loved and care for, place which is warm and secure. This is am Yisrael –the nation of Israel taking responsibility for the ills at the heart of our nation Israel, our country and our homeland.
Ger v’toshav for us as much as for Abraham is not about one's citizenship status, as it were, but a description of a religious attitude towards life itself. As American Jews it is possible to view our relationship with Israel as simply protecting it from external threats – or it is possible to take the rhythm of the heart of its people, its struggles and align them with the beat of your own heart and soul. The Israel of today is what we have and it is struggling – with devastating poverty, lack of leadership and a mediocre (at best) education system; we are "residents" of our homeland – that is what makes it a homeland and therefore, we must be committed to the improvement and betterment of her communities and societies. Our hearts must beat with rhythm of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem of Katzrin and Netanya. We can't just say, "oh, I'm just passing through, it's not my problem, I don't care, and what's the use? I don’t live there" and we should not only say “I believe in the fence or I hate the fence – we should give up the Golan heights or we should not” we must say something more, more powerful and profound – my heart rests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, in Katzrin and in Netanya – we belong there because we are willing to role up our sleeves and deal with the poverty, the education, the leadership – the hope and the despair and to make a difference. If you are ready to say ger v’toshav ani – I am a stranger and resident then you stand with me ready with your muscles and your check books to commit to a new kind of Zionism, a Zionism for 2009 – a Zionism which creates an Israeli society of which we can all be proud. Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, October 26, 2009

Parshat Vayera - The Oaks of Mamre, the First Recovery Room

Parshat Vayera

“The Eternal One appeared to him by the Oaks of Mamre; he was sitting at the entrance of the tent as the day grew hot." (Genesis 18:1)

Right from the beginning, the Torah portions make certain we understand all that is about to happen is the doing of God. The next verse continues, "Looking up he saw three men standing near him." Abraham is sitting at the opening of his tent, shading himself from the heat of the day.” In the Talmud it teaches this was the third day after Abraham's circumcision, and God was fulfilling the mitzvah of Bikkur Cholim - visiting the sick. But even so, as he sat there convalescing, Abraham seemed caught off guard by these special visitors who seem to appear out of nowhere. He lifts up his eyes and suddenly sees they are standing by him. The language implies that he was startled by their sudden appearance. Although he does not realize it right away, these men are representatives of God.
One of the many things we learn about in the book of Genesis is the special nature of the Patriarchs’ relationship to God, they were singled out by the intimate nature of their relationship with God. But, at the very end of the Torah it says, "Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses, whom the Eternal knew face to face" (Deut. 34:10). So, if Moses was the only one to interface with God directly, then how did the others come to know God? More importantly what about us? How can we connect to God?
The nature of each of our relationships with God is personal and individual. However, in Judaism there are certain connections made within the context of a relationship with God - we have certain elements of practice which are supposed to help shape our interaction, so our connection is deeper, more profound. We get a hint of this in the story with Abraham where both he and God exhibit behavior to guide us in connection. In this story two mitzvot are at the center: Bikkur Cholim and Hachnasat Orchim (Visiting the Ill and Welcoming Guests) and so we too the Torah reminds us here must live up to this value – we too must care for others just as God cared for Abraham and all our ancestors. In so doing, by being dedicated to these mitzvoth we reflect our godliness, not only helping those in need and make our own lives richer but we also deepen our connection to God, creating a more powerful and actionable relationship.So what have you done this week or better yet today to live up to that example? Have you visited a hospital? Hospice? A home bound community member recently? And what about guests - Abraham on the 3rd day after surgery was willing to welcome guests into his home are you so generous with your home and time?

Parshat Noach - Our end of the deal and YOURS!

Parshat Noach
The Eternal smelled the pleasing odor and the Eternal said in His heart: "Never again will I curse the earth on account of humankind, since the inclinations of the human heart are evil from his youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living being, as I have done." (Genesis 8:21)

After emerging from the Ark, the first thing Noach does is build an altar and offer a burnt offering to God. God acknowledges Noah's offering and in return promises never again to destroy the earth, despite the human inclination to do evil. Rashi notes that the repetition of the promise, "Never again... nor will I ever again..." indicates that this promise is delivered as a solemn oath, a notion which is reinforced by the prophet Isaiah who states in this week's Haftorah, this to Me is like the waters of Noah: As I swore that the waters of Noah would nevermore flood the earth, so I swear that I will not be angry with you or rebuke you." (Isaiah 54:9). God then strengthens this oath, with a symbol the rainbow. So we ask have we kept our end of the deal? How about God – has God kept the Divine end of the bargain? Don’t we continue to give into the evil inclination? Even right after the covenant is made we see Noah getting drunk, Ham's sexually aberrant behavior, and the arrogance of the builders of the Tower of Babel.
So what happens? A set of safeguards are set up by God because there is recognition that we need help on our end, that we will not be able to fulfill our part of the deal and so after the deluge, the world is given another chance, but this time God is not taking any risks. After the flood humanity and the measures of our lives is defined by covenant and law. Therefore, safeguards are put into place, they are called Covenants and the first one is not for Israelites or Jews alone it is made with all of humanity so even before the Covenants with Abraham and the Israelite people a series of laws that were binding on all peoples according to the rabbis is established. There are seven precepts that are incumbent upon all people: they must avoid 1) idol worship, 2) incest, 3) murder, 4) blaspheming God's name, 5) theft, 6) injustice, and 7) eating flesh cut from a live animal. In this way we all stand equal in the eyes of the law before God – equal responsibility to hold up our end of the bargain.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Shabbat Shuvah

Shabbat Shuvah

Words by Rabbi Alan Lew (z”l):

“For ten days the gates are open and the world is fluid. We are finally awake, if only in fits and starts, if only to toss and turn. For ten days transformation is within our grasp. For ten days, we an imagine ourselves not as fixed and immutable beings, but rather as a limitless filed upon which qualities and impulses rise up and fall away again like waves on the sea.”

The Shabbat in between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur is simply not like every other Shabbat. Known traditionally as Shabbat Shuvah it falls in the middle of the 10 days of Teshuvah which Rabbi Lew references above. It is a chance, a moment in time, the liminal space between moments when we first celebrate the birth of the world (Rosh Hashanah) and second where we enter a period self reflection and personal introspection (Yom Kippur). It is the turning in between, the transition from celebration and renewal to deep inner reflection. This transformation is complex – it does not happen once and then we move on – it is a constant process. It does not have a beginning, middle and end – it should always be going on. However, for most of us this time is the moment – the opportunity, the chance to work on transforming ourselves. We should be striving to turn, for that is the root of this time period and this day. The name of the Shabbat is the Hebrew shin vav vet – to turn towards – turning towards home, to turn towards the person we want to become, toward our ultimate potential. Remember as you do the work, to start small to pick one element of yourself, your life and imagine a dial – the knob skewed, turned to a spot that is not where you want it to be and think about how you shift the dial turning it toward the aligned spot, the spot which centers you, places you along the part of the path that reflects your true potential. Like the words of the opening and closing of Haftorah we call to ourselves “Return, O Israel to the Lord your God…” and then to God “You will keep faith with Jacob, loyalty to Abraham as you promised an oath to our fathers”. May we have the courage to return to God and be granted through our efforts the oath and loyalty God promised our ancestors – speedily in our lifetime.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah –May we all be sealed for goodness in the book of Life, Shabbat Shalom.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dwelling in God's House-Psalm 27

I have made a pledge to a friend this year. I promised that in lieu of money this year I would, to street people begging, only offer food or clothing or something of that sort. The exercise has been rather interesting for someone who in the past handed out money pretty indiscriminately. In fact, I was/am one of those people who essentially thinks if someone is in a place to beg, who am I to judge. My job is not to tell someone what to do with or how to use my gift but simply to try and help with a bit of extra cash.

We all know the arguments against this - they will use it for drugs,for alcohol etc etc. I find this a rather disturbing claim simply because adult people, with da'at (consciousness, awareness) make choices and who am I to tell them what to do with the money I just gave them. Alas, the argument my friend made was a bit more convincing - food and clothes much more helpful for someone in need. So I agreed at least for the past year to try it and so I have. The journey has been illuminating and mostly I like it for selfish reasons because I get more from my giving than ever before. I am not in a rush, if I have to buy someone food instead of handing them a bill, or reach into my glove compartment for the snacks I now store there or wait with them to purchase something at Starbucks I am simply much more conscious of my efforts - I pause, the experience has that built in inherently and I am forced to think. Think about society, about life, about what I have (instead of my usual what I don't) and of course about the person next to me and my discomfort - at their smell or how they look or how dirty they are.

During the Season of the High Holydays we recite Psalm 27 every day for approximately 6 weeks. There is a famous line in the Psalm:

One thing I ask of the Lord, only this do I seek: to live in the House of the Lord all the days of my life, to gave on the beauty of the Lord and worship in God's Temple.

I always wondered about this beautiful line - knowing the Psalmist's intention was to refer to life after death, that when we die we would be "with God" - in Judaism' version of Heaven. The problem with this of course is during this season life is on the brain we are thinking, hoping for life so I really wanted to know how we might understand this line a little differently. And then I went on errand just before Shabbat this past week. As I emerged from checking my mail and began my walk to Starbucks a man, clearly homeless or at least in need, disheveled and dirty, called out "Mam, Mam". Taken aback I turned around toward him, he continued "can you spare a dollar or would you be willing to buy me a sandwich?" Now as I wrote above, I wasn't giving money this year so I quickly replied "happy to buy you a sandwich". I told him I needed to return to my car (I had only enough cash for a Starbucks not a Subway sandwich) to get my debit card. He asked if he could get in line, he did and when I walked into Subway it was his turn to make a selection. I encouraged a generous option, (telling him to go footlong instead of 6inch figuring he could get two meals out of me) after selecting a cookie and asking if he might also get a drink - I handed him his food, he offered some kind words and I in return asked him to stay safe. As the employee ran my card - he looked at me with a dead serious look and said "you shouldn't buy him anything, he isn't really homeless, I have seen him in a car". I paused and smiled, thinking about the man's dirty clothes, fingernails and stench and wondered to myself who knows, who ever really knows? The Subway sandwich maker asked me why I was smiling I said to him "if someone asks for food I provide it because I can, no matter whether his story is true or not. If he is so desperate to ask, then I am more than happy to swipe my card and have $10.00 less in my bank account." He looked back at me, unconvinced and said "I've called the police on him before," knowing he wasn't going to be convinced I said "you can do whatever you feel is right, but if I have to live in a world with people who beg I am going to respond no matter the real tale behind their request." I smiled, told him to have a nice weekend and signed my receipt walking out the door with this drash in hand.

I don't know what the Psalmist really meant by that line but God's House, dwelling in the Lord's house in my life is the ability to respond to the call of the imperfect world. God's creation humanity is imperfect our world is filled with flaws, disasters, loss, devastation and to be able to respond to one of those needs, to answer someone's crying out is to dwell in God's house. God's house in this world is the one that answers skepticism with compassion and destruction with construction. So I respond to the call with a small token, some food, a smile or clean pair of socks. And when I daven that line, when I really say it what I am asking God for during this season is the opportunity to do these acts because they grace me with the ability to dwell with God and to act in God's ways.

The message seemed particularly appropriate on the day we mark the tragedy that is 9/11 when people used violence to destroy God's house. However, the memories I take with me in addition to those lives lost are those people who went back into the buildings risking their own lives- firemen, police officers and ordinary folk who went into destruction in order to exhibit acts of unparalleled compassion and love. I remember those clergy people and others who went down to the site of the towers to offer comfort, support and a shoulder. In those moments, in those terrible moments - those people they were exhibiting what it means to dwell in God's house - so the one thing I ask of God this year is the opportunity to respond to the imperfect world with acts of loving kindness and compassion - moments, actions which remind me that I do dwell in the House of the Lord and will continue to do should I choose to continue to respond to that call.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Carrie Bradshaw Meets Elianna Yolkut: What to Wear to Shul


Dear Zeigler Community,

I have seen only some of the postings regarding the issues that might arise for women in the rabbinate or women who choose to wear a kittel as part of their garb for the Yomim Noraim. I wanted to briefly address this question as a woman in the field who spends a significant amount of time on the pulpit and thinks regularly about clothing, the rabbinate, issues of tzniut and body image.

It is nearly impossible (this may be true for male rabbis as well but I speak from my own experience here) as a female rabbi to not become constantly engaged in thought about what you wear on the bimah, in front of classrooms and in your work generally. Whether, fair or not, there is in our culture a particular focus on women who are leaders and what they wear, from jewelry to make-up to shoes, I rarely (and by this I mean almost never) go through a Shabbat without a comment, question, or discussion about what I am wearing or how I look. From the top of my head to my toes – people have a lot to say to me about my clothes, hairstyle, nails, shoes etc. This holds true from my congregants of an older generation as well as those of the younger generation.

In turn I have come to spend a lot of time thinking about what I wear: how it looks, what kinds of comments it might elicit and whether or not I feel comfortable wearing “it” whatever the “it” is. In some ways this is a very good thing – it reminds me that how I dress impacts how I am perceived as a klei kodesh and whether this is a fair measure of judgment. Still, it is a reality and we, each of us in our way must deal with these questions. It helps me to think about what modesty in Judaism demands of us in dress and behavior. On the flip side of the positives is, in my opinion, a very heavily weighted negative. I spend much more time than I would like fielding these comments, questions and thinking about my clothes, my ritual garb (which ones I wear), my make-up, or my shoes. I would much prefer to spend time focused on other things – that at least for me feel more important.

Now I come to the point at hand – the Kittel for women during this season. I have come as a rabbi to love Rosh Hashanah & Yom Kippur... and not just because I do lots of talking J. I have come to appreciate what it affords me as a female rabbi because I avoid the comments altogether about my dress, which the rest of the year plague my Kiddush conversations and post Shabbat emails.

I wear a plain white “men’s” kittel, underneath of which is some sort of skirt and top – the thing is, these are the only days my dress doesn’t matter. I have never received a single comment about my physical appearance when I wear the kittel.The kittel affords me a wonderful opportunity to focus on the “rabbi-ing” part of being a rabbi – teaching Torah, and engaging my community in a deep and meaningful prayer experience. In fact for me this happens at the Shelosh Regalim as well because my community has the custom of having its Klei Kodesh wear our kittels during all of these festivals. I think less about what I wear, and in turn find myself more focused and dedicated to elevating the holidays to their true meaning. As such I am so grateful for this plain white garment – it probably doesn’t look good--but isn’t that the point? We all look simple and plain – standing before our Creator and community on an even playing field – fanciness seems to matter so much less. I sort of wish everyone in my community would wear kittels. In fact, no one says a thing. Not one single comment has been made to me about my kittel or my shoes or make-up on those days. I simply stand on the bimah looking a bit like a simple rabbi teaching a little Torah. In fact, in my understanding of the minhagim surrounding the Kittel, this is the point – to elevate us to a place where we are nothing more than a corporeal being, a person trying to live even as we face our ultimate limited potential on this universe. Whether we are rehearsing our deaths with the kittel or celebrating our angelic whiteness, those plain old “men’s” kittels feel like a gift to me– one that I wouldn’t trade for any other garment. This keeps my life simple – teach Torah and let your community focus on your Torah and not on how you look... at least for a few days of the year.

Torah Take Away - Nitzavim/Vayelech


As we approach the New Year, Rosh Hashanah, we also face the prospect of the last few parshiyot (Torah portions) of the Torah, getting prepared to closes the book of Deuteronomy. As the people Israel step closer to the land of Israel we are told Moses too approaches a transition – coming close to the end of his time as leader of the people Israel and the end of his life. Moses writes the Torah gives it to the priests with the instruction to teach it to the people.
Afterwards, God instructs Moses to write a song that will be sung to the people and specifically notes the song should be heard by the children who did not live in the desert, “who have not known”. The song will speak about God and teach the people to listen so that they fear God and observe the words of this law. Moses then teaches it to the people.
Some food for thought:

Why do you think Moses is told to give his final teaching in a song?

Why would a song be preferred over a traditional speech?

Why does God emphasize the song be taught to the children? How does that relate to the discussion you have/had with your children around your Shabbat table or about Judaism?

At the end of your life – what “words” will you leave your loved ones with? How would you end your time as a leader of a community of people?

A clear message does emerge when you think of Moses in the fullness of his life. Moses completes his time as the leader of the Jewish people with all of this talking, all of these words – as the book of Deuteronomy opens we read “these are the words which Moses spoke…” and now he finishes his last moments with the people with words. Remember this was the man who begin his time as a leader in the Book of Exodus saying to God why do you want me – “I am not a man of words...” – Moses a man with a speech impediment, uncertain of himself at the beginning of his journey ends his time as the leader of the Israelites speaking words of wisdom, insight and song. The message is relatively simple and clear but rather important – we must constantly be striving as Moses did to transform ourselves, turn our weaknesses into strength – a perfect message for the High Holiday season. What challenge – of words or deed- do you face and how do you turn it into a triumph this coming year?

Kavannot Edition 1 High Holidays 5770

As we sit together during this High Holiday season so many words, thoughts and ideas will pass through our hearts and brains. We are often overwhelmed and unable to take it all in, to find meaning in any of it. So here is a chance to pause for a moment, take the time to linger on some of the words of our rabbis related to the season so you might find a brief kavannah – idea that helps intend your heart, incline it towards forgiveness, introspection and renewal. Shanah Tovah U’metukah!

- One must ask oneself: “What have I done?” (Jer. 8:6) What have I become? (Rabbi Jonah of Gerona, Gates of Repentance, First Principle)

- Who has achieved complete t’shuvah? A person who confronts the same situation in which he [or she] sinned and abstains, although that person has the potential to commit the sin again. -- (Moses Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:1)

- [Torah] is like a rope which the great and gracious God has thrown to us as we drown in the stormy sea of life, that we may seize hold of it and be saved. (The Memoirs of Glükel of Hameln, Trans. Marvin Lowethal)

- When all we see and feel is negativity, we must search within ourselves for an aspect of goodness, what he called a white dot within the black, and then find another and another until these dots form musical notes. Our task it to find enough white notes to form a melody – a melody that will define our core and affirm our fundamental goodness. (Rebbe Nachman of Bratslov

- Accustom yourself to say again and again, ‘create for me God, a pure heart and renew within me an upright heart. – (Rabbi David Lida, Spanish Kabbalist)

- Prayer will not come about by default. It requires education, training, reflection, contemplation. It is not enough to join others; it is necessary to build a sanctuary within, brick by brick, instants of meditation, moments of devotion. This is particularly true in an age when overwhelming forces seem to conspire at destroying our ability to pray. (Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel)

- Teshuvah essentially represents a lifelong journey back to unflagging soul-searching. It is a response to a spiritual disquiet that gives us the urge for Teshuvah. Indeed, we fell we are no longer the right person in the right place we are becoming outsides in a world which escapes us. The main thrust of this season is indeed to show the definite intention of changing the scheme of things. Someone who does Teshuvah feels the need not only to redeem but to rebuild this or her past. (Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz)

- I lost my way I forgot to call your name. The raw heart beat against the world, and the tears were for my lost victory. But you are here. You have always been here. The world is all forgetting and the heart is a rage of direction but your name unifies the heart and the world is lifted into its place. Blessed is the one who waits in the traveler’s heart for his turning. – Leonard Cohen

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

A Republican and Democrat Walk Into A Bar

A Democrat and A Republican Walk Into a Bar: Judaism’s Elusive Pursuit of Justice – Parshat Shoftim 5769
In four weeks we will all stand together for the first day of Rosh Hashanah so in the spirit of the season of honesty, repentance and truthfulness I must come clean with you today, I cannot hide any longer. I am a card carrying member of the Democratic Party - hard to believe right? However, as the joke goes one of my dearest friends is a Republican, not a sort of moderate Jewish American Republican who might perhaps be conservative on a few particular issues like Israel and taxes but a really born and bread staunch Republican who believes passionately in a hands-off type of government. Often we wonder and are even asked how this friendship works when our political views are so distinct from one another. There is a very clear explanation to our ability to be so profoundly close and yet hold such vastly distinct views and it is an understanding which reflects a fundamental Jewish value foundational to how the Torah would like us to construct our communities. Perhaps, I can explain. I imagine she, my Republican friend feels much the same way I do about her strongly held beliefs. Most of the time, if I am honest I want to think of myself and what I believe as the right way, the correct answer – that the other side is plainly wrong or incorrect. It is not hard to imagine this is true for most of us – personally, politically and even sometimes religiously we sit on a high horse assuming our world view is the right one. This is often true and profoundly dangerous in religious life. Religions are often known, both to their most loyal followers and to their staunchest critics, as purporting the One True Way to live. In fact this is clearly a logical deduction, because there is One God there must be one way of fulfilling that God’s wishes, or at least one best way. To the one who is a believer this makes things very simple and clear - easy we might say. However this myopic view is at the heart of the problem for the critic.
Judaism in general and especially the Book of Deuteronomy, sees the Oneness of God as a core truth. It is possible then to understand Judaism as a tradition which adheres to this view – because we have this fundamental belief there must in Judaism, be one single path to God, to doing what God wants of us. However, what we lack and perhaps what makes Judaism so compelling and complex is diversity regarding finding a way to best accomplish what God wants of us. Disputes will arise, debates will ensue with human beings at the helm certainly there is no uniform way to reach God, to follow God’s ways and so because of this the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion are on the surface rather simple but truly are simply profound, “Judges and officers you shall appoint in all of your gates [that is, cities] which Adonai gives you, for your tribes, and they shall judge the people [with a] judgment of justice. (Devarim 16:18). But why do we need that extra clause, “for your tribes?” Who else but the residents of the city, who are members of tribes, will be judged? The phrase seems superfluous. Rashi, the great medieval commentator is illuminating on this point. He sees the phrase as referring back to the initial command regarding appointment: have judges for each tribe, and in each city. Each community, then, has judges who understand their unique practices, and each city has courts for disputes between communities. Other commentators see this as a system of appellate courts. In any event, a picture emerges of appointed judges, not hereditary, who get their jobs based partly on this first qualification: ability to judge with justice. The subsequent qualifications in the Torah text are in line with this first one.
In either interpretation, there is recognition that even in a system that puts forward a Divine lawgiver and judges obligated not merely to judge, but to do so with tzedek, justice, there can be disputes, and thus a justice system is needed for peaceful resolution. The underlying message of this law then is what? Good, qualified people can disagree about what is right, what is just, and what God wants of us. There is no monopoly on Truth. With the knowledge of this, to live together in a society, we still need to settle divisive disputes one way or another, but we do so humbly, and only with the help of different voices registering their views of justice. It is only with this that we can fulfill the command two verses on: Tzedek, Tzedek tirdof, Justice, Justice, you shall pursue.
However, this idea is not new to Deuteronomy In Parashat Mishpatim in the book of Exodus the Torah already speaks of bringing civil disputes to a court for resolution. It indicates that instead of each person simply using force and might to make right, the litigants must bring their dispute to elokim, which in context refers to an ad-hoc court of some sort. In contrast, our parsha does not speak of the court as being exclusively reactive. In the land of Israel where the Jewish people will be sovereign and exist on a national level, it is not simply the amelioration of injustice that is sought, but the proactive prevention of exploitation and problems from arising – that is creating a just society from the outset not simply repairing future injustices. The establishment of a vast network of courts insures that justice can be sought and achieved quickly and professionally without great lags in time and expense to the litigants.
It is no accident that the section that deals with the national institutions of the Jewish people opens with the establishment of the court system to ensure that everyone in Israel, including the King, the generals of the army, and any other elites in the society, is subservient to nothing less then a communal effort towards justice through the expression of these differing views of justice. A social discourse which leads community’s towards a law which all can subscribe to even amidst distinct views.
So how do we do this? With so many distinct opinions about right and wrong, with divergent views on what the rule of Jewish law or what constitutes a justice and equitable society how can we possibly build this “ideal” Torah society? Exactly by hearing these distinct voices, struggling together in conversation, social discourse, respectfully and humbly can we build this imagined world the Torah draws the blueprint for hence the line tzedek tzedek tirdof –it is a pursuit, an effort for us to live out and practice the understanding in Judaism that there is no monopoly on truth – it forces us to hear each other, to listen to discordant voices to ensure the world of Aleinu - tikkun olam be-malkhut shadai – a world repaired under God’s watchful Kingship. The meaning of this lesson in Judaism is that truth is in the pursuit of justice, amongst human beings, it dwells in the struggle with each other, the struggle with multiple truths. That is why my friend and I work so well together – we understand that our relationships rests on our ability to humbly and respectfully struggle to find the ways to reach holiness and wholeness by putting forth what we believe, listening and moving towards a common understand of fundamental values – Judaism does not ask us to believe one thing or find one right path simply that we travel together, engaged in disputes respectfully and humbly seeking that elusive justice – that is why it sets up a system of courts and judges, ensuring our community’s have methods and structure in reaching towards the justice the Torah demands from us. Perhaps if we did so our communities would be a bit closer, our discourse more respectful and productive, bringing us closer to a society which is truly tikkun olam b’malchut shaddai – a repaired world under God’s watchful eyes. Shabbat Shalom!

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Parshat Emor - Perfection's Imperfection

Perfection is Imperfect
Shabbat Parshat Emor
May 9th, 2009- 14 Iyar 5769
Shabbat Shalom!

I am a big fan of therapy, a psychologist, a LCSW, a psychiatrist I don’t discriminate – don’t laugh I actually mean it. I am teased by friends for a mantra I have about this feeling…if everyone were in therapy the world would be a much happier and more peaceful place to live. So when HBO last season began to feature a new show called In Treatment I was well, excited – therapy and television, two of my favorite things what could be better? In fact the show is based on a remarkably successful Israeli television show B’tepool – loosely translated as In Treatment. The show, both the Israeli and the American version, which is now in its second season feature a therapist as the main character and each episode bears witness to a single therapy session, with one patient. Most people in talking about the show love to discuss the patients- their sadness, their struggle, their pathology anything about them but the most fascinating element to the show is the therapist himself played by the actor Gabriel Byrne. His character development is particularly compelling because he is a mess – his life is a mess, his psychology is complex and his therapeutic model certainly is impacted and profoundly effected by his imperfection. This flawed nature, this complicated life makes the viewer hang on every word he says, every question he asks and piece of advice he offers – in fact it is what makes him a very good therapist. A therapist who actually helps people, whose patient return because he is even when it is painful helping them deeply explore and struggle with their own flawed humanity. Even though for television the drama is created by having him cross some inappropriate boundaries or make questionable decisions which shall we say a bit problematic, his patients and the viewers are drawn to him because of his imperfection, because he is real, because he is in the end a human being who can live in the moment with the person on his couch, who can be with you when you suffer and when you triumph.

Our torah portion this morning details many basics of Jewish law – including the law of Eternal light in the sanctuary, the Calendric listing of holiday observance and the requirements for Kohanim, the priests, to be fit to officiate in the temple sacrificial ritual and to take part in the sacred offerings. We often ignore these rules and regulations because they simple do not seem to matter anymore – do not impact our daily religious life in non-temple based Judaism. However, if we look closely at the details of the laws concerning the priests we find an immense quantity and quality of guidance as to how to live out our daily existence as people of faith.
We are told in the parasha that just like the animals that were offered had to be perfect, so too, the priest himself had to be unblemished. The priest’s worthiness to serve the people required a high bar of perfection and ritual purity – the smallest blemish or life mistake would render him unfit from service in the Temple. We might find it problematic that the Kohanim (priests) had to be “perfect.” Doesn’t it contradict other teachings in the Torah the concepts of btzelem elohim, being created in God’s image or commands of compassion and respect for the deaf and blind? But here we are instructed that anyone with a disability is disqualified, that anyone with a blemish, a scar, a broken bone is unfit to serve the people before God. How do we make sense of this? The priests can't have real life experiences like death or divorce, disability or scars? Isn’t real life experience – suffering, pain, tragedy and triumph what make great leaders? Don’t we want those who serve the community, the messengers to God on our behalf to have experienced life in its fullest?
Maimonides, the prolific medieval Jewish philosopher and scholar explains in the Guide for the Perplexed (3:45) suggests the sanctuary and the Temple were to be revered and respected, and the masses would only find acceptable beautiful, handsome, perfect people with nice clothes. So if the priest wasn’t perfect, the people might think that the Temple and God might not be perfect, either.
We might think to ourselves this is ridiculous, but is it really so different than today? We expect our leaders, our politicians, our candidates, our rabbis to be perfect. We look for their flaws, we analyze their every word, their clothes, their relationships, and if, God forbid, their blemish is too great, than they, like the priests, are disqualified from service. But who is perfect? Who hasn’t touched death or divorce? Who does not have a defect of some sort? It’s a wonder that any priests were able to serve! And they did not even have plastic surgery or PR firms back then!

With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the sacrificial cult gave way to rabbinic Judaism. And the rabbis valued leaders for their imperfection! The rabbis say in the Talmud: “One should not appoint anyone as leader of a community, unless he carries a basket of bugs around his neck.” What does that mean? Contact with impure creatures made a person impure. Bugs: It’s the same word in our parasha for what renders a priest impure. The rabbis wanted leaders who wore their flaws around their necks. That’s quite different than expecting the priests, leaders or rabbis to be perfect.

There is a different model which is linked to this concept of owning our shortcomings as a way to true lead people- one that is much more realistic and powerful. In the Talmud the rabbis tell a story about the Messiah: one rabbi, Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, is meditating, and he has a mystical experience in which he encounters the prophet Elijah. He asks Elijah: How will we know who the Messiah is? Elijah’s answer: he will be sitting at the gates of the city, among the poor and the sick, untying and tying the bandages of his own wounds.
Humans are not perfect, the world is not perfect, and so the Messiah can only be someone who himself is wounded, blemished, in touch with the brokenness of the world. And the messiah unlike the priest is a descendant of King David, whose lineage is created by one sex scandal after another. The rabbis’ point is very simple – perfection, is no longer our goal– and perhaps it never should have been. We are flawed as an inherent quality of our humanity. We make mistakes – we err, we make decisions that hurt people and sometimes we do it more than once. We have complex feelings that cause our actions to be complicated. The priest had to create a façade that the world is perfect, but the Messiah – the person who would bring about redemption for the people must personally know imperfection so that he can bring healing and redemption to a broken world.
What does this mean in our lives? We like to speak and share publicly the perfect: the perfect scenery, our perfect homes, our perfect cars, our perfect children who get in to perfect schools. But our reality is perhaps far from perfect? I know mine is certainly not perfect and I don’t think I would make much of a rabbi if I was perfect or even trying to be. You see the priest is not our model for behavior – it is the Messiah that we should model ourselves after – whether we believing in a messianic redemption or we pray for the mashiach it is the rabbinic model which reflects our true understanding of the world and being Jewish in it. The rabbis imagined the imperfect Messiah, the wounded and bandaged Messiah, because of the hope that redemption can come out of brokenness, not out of perfection. We each have blemishes and challenges, along with beauty and remarkable courage, and by facing the complexities, we can do the real work that leads to messianic redemption.
There was a time when perhaps we expected the Kohanim to be perfect because that allowed us to believe that the world must be perfect, too. But we learned that the world is not perfect and neither are we, neither is my life nor is yours. And God forbid one would read this parasha and conclude that our flaws render us unfit for divine service. Actually, it is the opposite: it is acknowledging our imperfections, which allows us to do divine service, that is, the work of healing and redemption. So like the psychologist character in that silly television show our greatest strength, the magnetic power to draw people in and help others, repair the world and live a life filled with Torah and light is the imperfections which makes us real and make us human. God demands human service not Divine perfection. Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 02, 2009

"He kissed all his brothers and wept upon them, and afterward his brothers talked with him." (Genesis 45:15)
Yosef is unable to restrain himself any longer, and finally reveals himself to his brothers. In one of the most emotionally climactic moments in the Torah the brothers are reconciled. One might argue this scene is a climax to the Book of Genesis filled with the drama of sibling rivalry throughout.
Of course seeing a character in the Torah cry is notable. R. Zalman Sorotzkin, called the "Lutzker Rav," (1881-1960), explains that Yosef merited his high position precisely because he was able to cry:
We should note that Yosef was a man of tears. [Literally, a ba'al bechi -a "master of crying."] We find that Yosef cried in Parshat Miketz,in this parsha and in Parshat Vayechi. The one who cries in bad times will also be able to cry in times of calm or achievement. The brothers, who had never suffered in their lives, could not cry even when their situation called for tears. Because Yosef could cry even for the troubles of others he merited greatness. (Quoted in Itturei Torah)

If we add up each time Joseph cries in these last 3 portions – we come up with eight times. We are driven toward an important quality in leadership, a question we might ask of our modern day leaders - are they really able to "feel the pain" of others? Are they able to empathize?

Yosef cried when reunited with his family, and he cried when his father died, and at the very end of the book of Genesis, he cried when he finds out that his brothers still feared that he might take revenge after Yaakov is buried. His tears communicate in a way that goes beyond words, a deep and true connection to those he loved. Perhaps, Yosef's greatness was not only his political position, but his spiritual position, he becomes after a very rocky adolescence a man of deep empathy and emotion – he truly changes. Can we do the same change and grow to become more empathetic and connected to the emotions of others? Can our leaders cry at loss, tragedy in their own lives? What about in the lives of others?