Thursday, October 14, 2010

Enough Said...

Bravery in the flesh and blood!

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Wisdom of the Rabbis in 48 steps

In Pirkei Avot - a compilation of rabbinic wisdom and teaching in Chapter 6: Section 6 we read:

"Torah is great than the Priesthood, than kingship, for Kingship is acquired through 30 steps, the Priesthood through 24 steps and the Torah/Torah is acquired through 48 steps and these are they..."

I am going to include a listing here based on a translation by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, my first order of business will be some work on this translation but each week I am going to focus on one of these qualities and study of it. Does it still work for us today? What value, principle can we learn from the form and how can we work on sharpening that quality in our daily life? How does it really help us to "acquire Torah"?

Without further ado...48 steps these are they:

1. Study

2. Attentive listening

3. Well-ordered speech

4. Intuitive understanding

5. A discerning mind

6. Awe

7. Reverence

8. Humility

9. Joy

10. Serving the wise

11. Association with colleagues

12. Debate with students

13. Serenity

14. Knowledge of Scripture and Mishnah

15. Minimizing time spent on business

16. Minimizing worldly matters

17. Minimizing pleasure

18. Minimizing sleep

19. Minimizing small talk

20. Patience

21. A kindly heart

22. Faith in the Sages

23. Acceptance of suffering

24. Knowing one's place

25. Being happy with one's lot

26. Restraining one's words

27. Claiming no credit for oneself

28. Being loved

29. Loving God

30. Loving human beings

31. Loving righteousness

32. Loving justice

33. Loving admonishment

34. Shunning honors

35. Avoiding arrogance in one's learning or delight in giving decisions

36. Sharing someone else's burden

37. Giving a person the benefit of the doubt

38. Guiding other human beings to truth

39. Guiding other human beings to peace

40. Concentrating on one's study

41. Asking questions

42. Answering questions

43. Listening and adding to one's knowledge

44. Learning in order to teach

45. Learning in order to do

46. Making one's teacher wise

47. Being precise in one's studies

48. Reporting a saying in the name of the one who said it

Some questions to think about for now:

- Most interesting one?
- Most challenging? Problematic?
- One you are most passionate about?

Signing off for now.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

1 step forward 2 steps back

3 Links to read before reading my posting:

These are three seemingly distinct articles - about different communities, different issues and different discussions. Yet, they are very much interrelated and inter-woven.

The first link directs you to a newspaper article outlining a statement made by a group of Orthodox rabbis, educators and community leaders earlier this summer on issues regarding the GLBT community. Though constrained by a very specific view of Halachah (Jewish law) when I read this statement this summer in light of an ever-right leaning Orthodox community I felt hopeful. Hopeful not just by the effort made but by the serious, earnest and real recognition the community leaders had to make clear the sanctity of all human life, the dignity of every person and truth be told mostly the bravery for those who signed the document. In a community which recently responded to a female Rabbi with a lot of negative and hurtful language and deed, it brought me hope for my Orthodox GLBT friends and hope that some day the entire Jewish community would support and celebrate all people seeking to create Jewish homes and families no matter their sexuality. Did it go far enough is another question for another time but I felt for the first time in a very long time truly hopeful.

Then came the second "controversy" from a local NJ paper meant to be a community paper in Bergen County. In the paper, A Simcha section appears in each publication celebrating weddings and other smachot (joyous lifecycle events). For the first time a gay couple was featured in the wedding section. As a result of this public statement about the upcoming wedding of Avichai Smolen and Justin Rosen the paper was the receipient of a significant amount of angry responses and in response the paper published the following apology stating:

"It would no longer publish announcements of gay or lesbian engagements, and apologizing
for any pain we may have caused.”

Finally over the last month it has been noted that 5 teens have committed suicide as a result of bullying or taunts regarding their sexual orientation. It is unclear statistically why this jump but for certain these incidents are devastating and frightening examples of what happens when a community does not respond or deal with the mistreatment of human beings based on sexual orientation.

It is all of these incidents in close succession and the wording of the newspapers apology that got me thinking. It got me thinking about pain, who causes it and what are our obligations as a Jewish community with regard to these issues.

There is no Orthodox newspaper in the country, world for that matter would publish a gay wedding announcement. This is pretty clear, in a community newspaper who decides. Who decides what is celebrated? Who decides what smachot are marked, selected, chosen for publication? Does an Orthodox standard determine how a community should act? Are Orthodox rabbis the authority for community newspapers? What about community organizations - like JCC's or Federations? Who makes decisions about who to celebrate? Pain, what about the pain caused to people who feel ashamed of who they are, embarrassed to be their true selves in their own religious community for fear of being ostracized? How about the embarrassment and shame on a human community which allows so much embarrassment and shame to be out in our world that we are complicit in the deaths of 5 teenagers in the last two months as a result of bullying and public embarrassment about their sexuality. Who apologies to those families who have had to bury their children?

This reminded me of this week's Torah portion and something noted by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks Chief Rabbi of Great Britian. The questions he and other commentators ask about Noah is what does Noah say to God when the decree is issued that the world is about to perish? What does he say when he is told to make an ark to save himself and his family? What does he say as the rain begins to fall? The answer is: nothing. Not a sentence or a word just silent obedience. We assume this would be what the Torah would have aggrandized but it is not Noah who is chosen as the father of the Jewish people. Intuitively, the sages understood that the hero of faith was not Noah but Abraham - Abraham who fought a war to rescue his nephew, who prayed for the people of the plain even though he knew they were wicked; Abraham who challenged heaven itself in words unrivalled in the history of the human encounter with God: "Shall the judge of all the earth not do justice?" What might an Abraham not have said when confronted with the possibility of a flood. "What of there are fifty righteous people? What if there are ten? Far be it from You to do such a thing - to kill the righteous with the wicked, treating the righteous and the wicked alike." Abraham might have saved the world. Noah saved only himself and his family. Abraham might have failed, but Noah - at least on the evidence of the text - did not even try. Noah's end - drunk, dishevelled, an embarrassment to his children - eloquently tells us that if you save yourself while doing nothing to save the world, you do not even save yourself.

You see all of these incidents - the Orthodox statement on homosexuality, the incident in Bergen County, the suicides they are all linked. Linked by our obligation toward respect, toward human dignity, toward community responsibility toward acting like Abraham and not like Noah. When we stand by and allow our community, the human community, to dignify the mistreatment of others, to denigrate the celebration of life, in this case to diminish the celebration of the creation of a new Jewish family we are in a sense allowing behaviors that diminish the fundamental Jewish value, God's image inside of each of us. God's image is more than simply spark of God inside - it represents, embodies in it the value that all human beings deserve K'vod Ha'Briyot - literally, the dignity of creation. The person sitting next to you at the office or on the train home tonight, the person bagging your groceries, cleaning your car and Avichai Smolen and Justin Rosen all deserve to be honored for who they are a part of God's creation. If we are not able to behave this way - to live out this fundamental Jewish value then we will end up with more stories like that of Tyler Clementi, Seth Walsh, Asher Brown and Billy Lucas all of whom under the age of 19 when they killed themselves as a result of bullying, public outing and embarrassments with regard to their sexuality.

If we do not stand up and say differently in the world - speaking out like Abraham taught us and Noah was unwilling or unable to do, our world and our small Jewish community will stand responsible for these deaths. In celebrating commitment, to the creation of a family, in celebrating what it means to be human no matter who you love we become exemplars of God's creation, living truly in God's image. Ken Yihi Ratzon - so may it be your will and my the memories of Tyler, Seth, Asher and Billy be a blessing because of our words and deeds.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Elul Day 16

Elul 16: Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, "Guilt is out of fashion these days, like sports jackets, courtesy, humility and handkerchiefs...For us, when things go wrong, it was someone else’s fault: the boss, the colleague, the system, the government, the media, our parents, the way we were brought up, society, bad luck or our genes. Feeling guilty, they say, is bad for us. It lowers self esteem..."
Judaism offers an opposing perspective all about responsibility and honesty where forgiveness as Sacks writes "melts into the flames of God's forgiveness" - So do you take responsibility for your mistakes? Missteps, dare I say it sins? And equally important are you ready to offer your forgiveness to those who have wronged you...

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Elul Day 4-15

Elul Day 4 and 5

In the kiddush on Friday night we recite the words, B'ahavah U'vratzon -with love and intention, God gave us Shabbat with love and will/intention/desire. How do you understand this pair? How do you give and receive gifts in your life? How about during moments of frustration, disappointment or sadness?
Shabbat Shalom U'mevorach - A peaceful and blessed Shabbat.

Elul Day 7

Rabbi David Wolpe once wrote/spoke "sometimes our relationship with money is ugly, is distasteful, it is extravagance without goodness." Judaism sees money not as entitlement but as an obligation - when you look back at this year how would you characterize your relationship to money? Are you greedy? Are you giving? Do you view your relationship to money as a religious obligation? Do you give enough?

Elul Day 8: 1 person. 1 encounter. 1 moment. This month of preparation offers the possibility we can change, our lives can be different. Change comes from others & from our own inner compass.

Who changed your life this year? 
Was it because of something positive/negative they did? Share with them. 
How has your life changed? 
How are you different? 
Do you think you changed anyone else's life?

Elul Day 9 - How do you define what it means to live Jewishly? Is it based on actions? Beliefs? 

- In what ways have you lived up to those expectations of living a meaningful Jewish life?
- In what ways have you fallen short?
- Have you thought about how you might change that for the coming year?

Elul 10:

What is your most memorable day from this past year since Rosh Hashanah 5770? 

Who do you remember most when you think of this year?

Elul 11 and 12
“We boil at different degrees” – Ralph Waldo Emerson

Day 1 – what is the temperature of your anger today? This year? How do you deal with it when you boil, in a productive or hurtful way? Do you know how to let go and forgive? What is hard about this act? Why is it easier to remain angry?

Day 2- does anyone get angry with you? When do they boil? How do they deal with their anger towards you? Have you ever expressed how hurtful that is? Have you ever thought they are right? Has anyone’s anger ever helped you to change for the better? If so how?

Elul 13 Cheshbon Ha-Nefesh: An Accounting of Our Essential Self! This is the title of the work we are to be doing during these days in advance of RH. Today's questions focus on our relationship to God. Do you reach out to communicate with God-how? If not, why not? Do we hold anger/disappointment at God? What do you think is God's perception of you? Have you held up your end of the relationship, how so? If not, why not?

Elul Day 14 - Finally, David Brooks returns from vacation & does not disappoint. See this

And then ponder this quote from his column "Very few in public life habitually step back and think about the weakness in their own thinking and what they should do to compensate" - what are the weaknesses in your thinking? As we approach RH what are you doing to compensate or in other words adjusting, shifting, changing toward strength and away from weakness?

Elul Day 15 - Are you a religious pluralist? Do you value as authentic other views of your traditions or religious beliefs?? Can you see things from another persons' perspective and see its truth - or is your truth the only one?
 How can you live this year as a passionate advocate for your strongly held beliefs while not only respecting but understanding as authentic the views of others in your religious community?

Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Mosque

I tried hard to avoid speaking on this issue but I couldn't help it after a comment I heard riding the bus to work today "I am against it, let them go somewhere else." This has become in my mind beyond simply a political issue and has now crossed the line into question of human dignity and freedom and thus a religious issue at its heart.

The essential fundamental principle is the right of all people to practice religion, in this country, wherever they choose. There is not a blanket blame to be laid upon all Muslims for the atrocity of 9-11. Those who attacked the US on 9-11 and their supporters and trainers certainly are at fault for such a horrific crime, a crime against humanity in many ways. However, all Muslims were not complacent in said attack nor should Islam be relegated to certain locations as a result of 9-11. In the United States the entire purpose of the concept of Freedom of Religion is the ability, assuming you aren't preaching or perpetrating violence, to practice your faith wherever, whenever and however your community chooses to do so. It is this very freedom which as a Jew allows me walk the street of NYC, Missouri or Florida with a Yarmulke on my head, a tallit on my shoulders and a siddur in my hand - if I so desired. It is the same religious freedom which allows all of us to practice our religion as we choose. To me this represents the greatest gift America has given to its people. We are at home here because we are allowed to be ourselves.

The mosque near ground zero is no affront or disrespect to those people who lost their lives on 9-11 or to the families who continue to mourn their loss each and every day. In fact wouldn't religious intolerance be an affront to their memories? Wouldn't allowing bias, narrow minded and hateful views to win out disrespect their lives - for wasn't it just those things that allowed human beings to de-value human life so greatly that they flew planes into buildings. In Judaism every life matters, every life is filled with possibility and potential for godliness. Our responsibility is to ensure everyone has the ability to live in their unique, individual way. One of the ways we do this is by ensuring the ability to practice religion freely.

The mosque should be built, this is the United States of America may freedom of religion always reign as one of our highest ideals and values. If we live up to that ideal then perhaps the memory of those who lost their lives on 9-11 at the hands of fundamentalist who didn't understand the value of human life, human dignity and true freedom, will be a true blessing - ma'atah v'ad olam, from this moment forward.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Elul 5770 Kavannah Day 3

From the Bedtime Shema

“I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or provoked me or sinned against me, physically or financially or by failing to give me due respect, or in any other matter relating to me involuntarily or willingly, inadvertently or deliberately, whether in word or deed let no one incur punishment because of me. May it be your will Adonai my God and God of my Ancestors that I will not sin further and in that which I have sinned before you may you blot out with your abundant mercy…

Questions to Consider
1. What would your daily life look like if you recited this prayer each night before bed? How would it change things for you?
2. What do you think is the crux/meaning of the prayer?
3. What does the request for abundant mercy about past sins indicate about the “prayer’s state of mind?
4. Review the listing at the beginning of the prayer of sins committed – what do you notice? Is there an order of magnitude?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Human Kindness Elul 5770 Day 2

Randy Newman's Lyrics I Think Its' Going to Rain Today - sung by Bette Midler below...“Human kindness its’ overflowing and I think its going to rain today…right before me the signs implore me help the needy and show them the way, human kindness its overflowing and I think it’s going to rain today.”

Is human kindness overflowing in your life?What about in your own heart? What signs do you see in your everday life? Do they implore to act with human kindness? Do you help the needy or show them the way?

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Elul 5771 Kavannah

DAY 1 – Rosh Chodesh Elul 8-10-10
Today we begin again.
We start the process officially, the work of self-work.
We come together as individuals, in community to strengthen our resolve.
Our journey towards wholeness, towards the call of shofar, towards the sweetness of the apple and honey begins right now at this moment wherever you are, in this holy space. How will you prepare:
in song, shira
in shtika, silence
in limmud, study
in tefilla, prayer.

So the journey begins…

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

On Journeys Leaving and Arriving

Poker and Torah: A Match Made in Heaven
Parshat Sh’lach June 7th, 2010
Final Shabbat at Adat Ari El

Shabbat Shalom! I imagine this won’t really be my last time speaking from this bimah but it is my last as your Assistant Rabbi so I want to say goodbye as simply as possible. Thank you – each of you for listening to me with an openness of heart and spirit I am not sure exists in many congregations in this world, with a joy and love of Torah that made me feel at home here and most of all for allowing yourselves to be challenged by a young rookie rabbi just getting her start. I was honored to serve you, speak to you, teach you, minister to you but most of all to learn from you – it was a gift – thank you, now on to my final gift for now – a word of Torah.
I want you to imagine the following scene: when I was a young teenager, must have been around 13 my brother Ari and I organized a weekly poker game. We would meet up with our friends about an hour after Shabbat ended on Saturday nights – there was a rotation of about 10 of us, depending on who was free on a particular evening. I want you to really picture this, some 10 nerdy Orthodox Day School kids (mostly guys, I think I might have been the only girl) playing poker. And here is the kicker, we met in my grandmother’s basement – my Baba’s house – no joke; in an older ladies basement. What can I say she had a great table for it, awesome snacks (who wouldn’t want strudel during poker) and she left us pretty much to our own devices. This game happened pretty regularly for several years. As funny as it might seem I learned a lot of lessons during these games, beyond the one about me having a great poker face and learning how to take most of my friends’ money. [PAUSE] Torah and poker actually have a lot in common – both require intense study and practice, both demand not only intellectual savvy but insight into the human psyche and both have very high stakes.
There is one similarity, between the lessons of poker and the messages of Torah, boy I never thought I would say that from the pulpit, the message offered by both poker and Torah, is the lesson of “all in”. In Poker, if you don’t know the game, all in means when the final round of betting comes to you and you are certain you can take the game – whether it is because you have a great hand or more impressive you are a great player with a typical hand you bet your lot on yourself, you believe in your ability to win the game no matter the stakes and so you bet all of your chips and if you do it well you run the table, win all the money.
In this morning’s Torah reading the Jewish people are at a precipice moment; waiting to enter the land of Israel, ears perked hoping to catch a sense of their new home from the returning spies who have scouted the land, the Israelite advance team of sorts. Imagine for a moment what it must have felt like. The air must have been thick with anticipation, the people gathered, the spies exhausted from a journey into the land and the moment comes as they, the spies return to the camp. The community waits and wonders what is it like? Can we go there? Will there be a freedom for us there? The spies watching their people – so frightened, anxious and uncertain; how do they respond? What can they say?
The spies’ response to the people according to the Torah, “The country we have travelled and scouted is one that devours its settlers. All the people that we saw in it are men of great size…we look to ourselves like grasshoppers. And so must we have looked to them.”
The problem in this response, and yes, of course there is a problem was not the spies’ description of the land or the people of the land that in fact was likely a factual truth. However, their last statement – “we look to ourselves like grasshoppers and so must we have looked to them,” according to the rabbis was their downfall, their mistake and why God is so angry with them in the Torah. The midrash, the rabbinic imagination creates a narrative to explain the difficulty with this statement. The rabbis describe a God distressed at the spies, dumbfounded by their lack of faith, confidence, boldness or hope. In the rabbi’s imagined conversation God says “I can forgive them for thinking they look to themselves like grasshoppers but I cannot forgive them for assuming that’s how they appear to others. How did they know, says God, according to the rabbinic rendering perhaps they look to them like angels?
The midrashic understanding of the spies’ weakness, their failing if you will is a reflection of a certain theological perspective – a view which has God caring about the process of human development. A God who along with us is motivated to be moving towards faith, towards a life view, a world view which is essentially being willing to put all of ourselves, the deepest parts of our soul, heart and mind into every endeavor, every task, every mitzvah every day we are blessed to live in. You see in a Poker game, the really, really great players know how to be all in and win no matter what their hand is. If you have never played poker you will just have to trust me. The cards you are dealt don’t as much matter as whether you play them well. And this is a truly Jewish message and the lesson the spies did not learn.
Inevitably as a simple fact of being alive we are all dealt some hardships and sadness, some triumphs and joys– some more tragic than others but all of us struggle, suffer and some are blessed with more joys but all of us celebrate. Like the spies we all sometimes face a challenge which is seemingly overwhelming insurmountable and beyond our grasp. At times the challenges are overbearing - how to manage a tight financial month or a too busy calendar or a child who simply will not listen. Then, there are those challenges which are even more devastating an illness in a young person, the loss of a job, the loss of a loved one or a crisis in our marriages’. On the flip side there are the triumphs – promotions at work, a special needs’ child standing on this very bimah becoming a Bar/Bat Mitzvah or an wedding anniversary at 10, 20, 30 years.
However, the demand Judaism asks of us is if no matter the hand we are dealt can we put it, the traditions, the mitzvot, the ethics at the core of our very existence in triumph and in tragedy, woven into every decision we face helping us to be people who live with that all in attitude. The Torah says to us when life comes at you in great times and in the most difficult can you be all in, can you never allow yourself to think you are seen by others as a grasshopper always know you can be seen, you have the capacity to be viewed by others and by yourself as an angel. Judaism both asks us to be all in and gives us the resources to live a life that is exactly that – a life that bets all in.
The spies failed at this challenge they allowed themselves to believe they were small, unable to use their community, their tradition and their God to overcome the people in the land, to find a way to risk their very life on Judaism and God. So I ask you today CAN YOUR JUDAISM give you the strength, the courage and the wisdom to be all in – to face every question in life, every dilemma, every triumph and put your whole self into your Judaism so it gives back to you as much as you give to it.
The inevitable question is how? How do we play in the Jewish version of Poker, this game of life with the all in attitude? For Judaism being all in means seeing ourselves like angels in each part of our lives, in our relationship to God, our relationship to others and in our commitment to mitzvot. Judaism asks us to believe what we do, how we are seen by others and how we see ourselves when faced with daily life and life’s greatest challenges makes a difference. When you are all in it means you are brave enough to live your life seeing yourself as an angel and not a grasshopper. We do this in Judaism in three ways – in our relationship to caring for others in the world, ensuring our universe is a better, more equitable and holy place. In our relationship to mitzvot – by committing ourselves to observing a tradition handed down to us from previous generations with the gifts of Shabbat, Kashrut (I know it doesn’t always feel like a gift) etc. Finally in our faith in God, connecting to holiness through a deep and abiding faith in a God of goodness, of hope, strength and compassion.
You see it wasn’t the spies fear or trepidation which was their downfall for who wouldn’t have felt frightened and anxious – it wasn’t even their doubt about whether the Israelites were strong enough to overcome the inhabitants of the land. It was the spies’ inability to believe in themselves enough, to see their own greatness, to know their own ability to be in a high stakes game in life and bet on themselves, to bet all in because they lacked commitment and faith to themselves and to what their community and tradition could have given them. Judaism asks us to do just the opposite. Let us know the stakes are high, let us believe we are angels from the perspective of others and let us be willing to risk it all for the sake of Torah, for the sake of God’s goodness and for the sake of our souls – be all in, always. You are a Jew and that is what Judaism expects of you and offers you – the rituals, resources, faith, coping skills to be all in. Live your life this way and you will be a richer Jew and a richer human being for it. Shabbat Shalom.