Archive for the ‘D’var Torah’ Category

When you are just… DONE

In Genesis 25:29, we read: “One day, when Jacob was cooking a stew, Esau came in from the hunting field. He was famished, and he said to Jacob, ‘I’m famished: let me gulp some of that red stuff!… Jacob said, ‘Sell me your birthright here and now.’ And Esau said, ‘Here I am going to die; what good is the birthright to me?’”

The Hebrew word that gets translated as “famished,” is ayeif – which also means exhausted. We see Esau coming in from the field at his wits end – exhausted, hungry, or just, as we would say today, “DONE.” His exhaustion is such that he doesn’t even care if he gives up everything. I think we can all relate to this at some level. The exhaustion of our family lives, our efforts at tikkun olam (repairing the world), keeping up with social media, making a living, and so much more. The exhaustion at hearing what is happening in the world and how so much of it just keeps happening, with no lessons learned. It is so easy to feel overwhelmed, to want to throw up our hands in feeling ayeif and just be DONE.

Ah, but you see, we cannot be done, because if we give up, or give in, we risk giving away our birthright for a bowl of stew. So, what do we do when we are as done as Esau was?

If Esau had taken just a moment to stop, to relax, he surely would have known the folly of selling his birthright. But he didn’t stop. Shabbat is our birthright as Jews – it is the gift of stopping, of refilling our personal, spiritual, and emotional buckets. On Shabbat we can have family time, alone time, friend time. We can take a moment for the art and music that feeds our souls. Whatever it is that helps you to face another week, relieved and ready. When you, too, are ayeif, I hope you will take that moment and take care of you.

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We Shall Not Die, But Live

In this week’s Torah portion, Chayei Sarah, our matriarch, Sarah dies. “…and Abraham proceeded to mourn for Sarah and to bewail her. I imagine that the entire community must have mourned for Sarah, yet that mourning would have been different in color and weight than Abraham’s and Isaac’s.

I have been thinking a lot about communal mourning in the wake of the Pittsburgh attack. When eleven Jews are shot in cold blood as they gather to worship on Shabbat, the worst anti-Semitic attack in US history, we all mourn. Those who lost loved ones mourn the deepest. Their loss is fresh, unfathomable, and personal. But we all mourn too. We mourn sympathetically for their loss and we mourn for the hatred and antisemitism that have increased so alarmingly in the last few years. I have been so sad to see the looks on the faces of my fellow Jews, so many appearing lost and broken as we grapple together with this tragedy.

After Sarah passed, Abraham’s first task was to procure a burial place for her. He honored her memory by staking a claim in the ground that was hers, and that was his in perpetuity. We too must stake a claim in the ground, a claim to our right to be Jewish in this country. The gunman went after this particular congregation, not just because they were Jews, but because they supported HIAS, fighting for the rights of immigrants. We must respond by putting our feet to the ground – we will not be moved. We will continue to fight for the rights of others because that is what we do as Jews. We will continue to show up at our synagogues to worship, to do mitzvot, and to perform acts of loving-kindness. This is our claim in the ground. We will respond to this tragedy, by grieving and then by acting, by fighting against gun violence and against intimidation and fear. Our matriarch, Sarah welcomed all into her tent. We will honor her legacy and that of all those who died in Pittsburgh by doing the same.

We shall not die, but live, we shall not cower in fear, but show up to worship, sing, and support one another and to continue to make the world a better place.

Shabbat shalom.

Korach

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Korach, Korach and his band stage a rebellion against Moses and Aaron saying, “You’ve gone too far.  Why do you raise yourself up above us?”  When Moses hears, he falls on his face.  He puts it to G-d to decide.  This ends badly for Korach and his followers.  History views Korach as a jealous demagogue, and we are meant to learn from his mistake continually.  His fire pans are incorporated into the alter as a reminder to be humble.

Korach presents us with a challenge.  He is arrogant and tries to take power from Moses.  On the other hand, some of what he says rings true.  “All the community are holy,” he says.  Well, isn’t that true?  Doesn’t the Torah tell us in Parshat K’doshim, “You shall be holy, for I, G-d, am holy”?  If you look closely, though, you will see that there is an important difference between Korach’s words and those in K’doshim.  The Israeli philosopher Yeshayahu Leibowitz notes that Korach doesn’t understand that holiness is a process.  Holiness isn’t something that we are, it is something that we strive to become.  If we are already holy, as Korach believed, we have no more work to do, no more purpose in our lives.  Holy means set apart for a sacred purpose – the act of setting ourselves apart, of seeking sacred purpose to our days, is a process, not a state of being.

Korach missed something else.  In the wilderness, Korach had a role, a job to play.  Moses did too.  Korach’s  jealousy blinded him to the importance of his own work, of what he had to offer.   Strange to think that arrogance and jealousy would actually mean that he wasn’t valuing himself enough, but by refusing to see the significance of what he was already invited to do, he doomed himself to always be less than his potential.

On this Shabbat, let us think about how we can engage in the process of holiness, becoming more true to our own best potential, so that in the end, we will leave this world better than how we found it.

Kvetching…

keep-calm-and-dont-kvetch

A famous Buddhist parable tells of a group of blind men who heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town. Since none knew what an elephant was like, they endeavored to describe it based on their sense of touch. The first man, standing near the trunk of the elephant declared, “an elephant is like a thick snake.” The second, standing near the ear declared the first wrong, “an elephant is like a fan.” The third, standing by a leg said that the elephant is like “a tree-trunk.” The fourth, standing by the side of the animal said that an elephant is “like a wall.” The fifth standing near the tail said an elephant is “like a rope.” The last man, near the tusk said, “an elephant is hard and smooth like a spear.” Focusing in only on that part of the animal that they could immediately experience limited their understanding of the whole.

In this week’s Torah portion, B’ha’a lot’cha, the Israelite people in the wilderness complain bitterly. They weep and cry saying, “If only we had meat to eat!! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to.” (Num 11:4-6) The manna that they refer to, the Torah tells us, came free with the dew, could be made into cakes, and tasted “like rich cream.” (Num 11:8) Because they are so focused on one single aspect of their past, they ignore the fact that the food they got in Egypt came along with slavery, torture, and subjugation. They forget that the manna they eat in the wilderness comes abundant, free, and tastes good. Like the blind men in the story, their attention on only the one thing right in front of them prevents them from experiencing the entire wondrous animal. Now perhaps manna got tiresome after a while, but widening their scope would have allowed them to witness the miracle and appreciate its essence.

We Jewish people love to kvetch. Sometimes I think it’s almost like a social lubricant. We can all relate to misfortune so easily. We can laugh together at the little things that go wrong, the shared indignities of life. Talking about our joys can seem a little like bragging, but sharing our troubles does not. It can go too far, however. Kvetch too much and you are a whiner, someone unpleasant to be around. The literal meaning of the word, kvetch, is to squeeze or press. This Shabbat, let us take a moment to press a little less, to broaden our vision to encompass the many blessings abundant in our lives despite our valid reasons to complain. In short, let’s not let our kvetches turn us into wretches but rather focus on our b’raches (blessings) and share our naches (sources of pride).

Shabbat Shalom!

Tazria / Metzora

The double portions of Tazria and Metzora continue the Torah’s discussion of ritual impurities. Tzara’at, often translated as leprosy, is a plague that can afflict people’s skin, their clothing, or even their homes. If someone suspects tzara’at, a priest is summoned, and after judging various signs determines whether the person or object is tamei (ritually impure) or tahor (ritually pure).

Whenever I read this Torah portion, it makes me think about how we deal with illness. Skin diseases are visible, and thus we can imagine how people presenting with leprosy must have been so easily and quickly scorned, feared, reviled, and shunned. Serious illnesses today are often less visible, and also carry the weight of far less stigma. Nobody whispers the word cancer anymore. We know it is not contagious, and we rush to be supportive of our friends, family, and community members who suffer.

Rabbi Sara Davidson Berman pointed out in her beautiful d’var Torah on this portion that the term “leper” is used today to describe anyone who is ostracized. “Who are the lepers in today’s society?” she asks. “Those with mental illness.” In times of old, our sages questioned what moral failing had caused people to come down with leprosy. Today too, mental illness is so often viewed as a personal, moral failure. Those who commit suicide are said to be “selfish.” Most people do not consider a death from suicide to be one from a disease – mental illness. Suicide is not a personal failing. It is a medical one.

Our rabbis taught that the disease of tzara’at was caused by “motzi shem ra” – spreading a bad name, or gossip. I would take the concept of spreading a bad name further. Through the misnaming or misunderstanding of mental illness as a personal failing, we add to its misery and turn symptoms into shame. A few weeks ago, a young songwriter in a facebook group spoke in a live video about her struggles with depression. I was alarmed for her, thinking about the shame and stigma that could potentially now follow her career. But almost immediately afterwards, I thought about how truly brave she was. She is perfectly aware that mental illness comes with this stigma, but she also knows that only by discussing it as a disease, will we move away from looking at it through a lens of motzi shem ra – gossip, and instead approach it with compassion, understanding, and love.

Shabbat shalom.

Becoming a Menorah for a Holy Flame

I delivered this sermon for Parshat T’tzaveh on Friday evening, February 23, 2018.

We read in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat T’tzaveh, “And you shall command the children of Israel, that they bring unto you pure olive oil beaten for the light, to cause a lamp to burn continually (neir tamid).”  And there it is, the neir tamid in our Temple.  Every synagogue has one – a light that burns eternally in good times and bad, in an empty building and a full one, whether we see it or whether we choose to look away.  It has been a pretty dark week.  Stories of the horror of what went down in that high school in Parkland, FL, continue to abound.

At first it looked a lot like what we’ve seen every other time this happened.  One group offers their “thoughts and prayers.”  The other say the time for thoughts and prayers has ended and we must act.  One side accuses the other of politicizing a tragedy.  The other replies – if not now, when? 

But this time does feel different to me.  This time, we are hearing the voices of protest, not completely, but at least in part, from the full range of the political spectrum.  This time we hear the cries differently through the thoughtful, articulate, and enraged voices of our youth and we cannot help but see in their eyes our own sisters, cousins, friends, and children.

Some have tried to dehumanize and distance themselves from these voices by engaging in conspiracy theories that these children are nothing more than paid actors.  Fortunately, for the most part, I think that those who believe this are roundly scorned.  Because this time is different.  Our children are crying out for our help.  Our children want us to wake them from this nightmare.  Our children will rise up and fight the fight for us if they must. 

There are two themes in this week’s Torah portion.  The concept of the neir tamid – the eternal light of holiness that must, through effort, be kept pure and burning continually is the first.  The second is a lengthy description of the clothing of the High Priest.  From his undergarments to his decorative breastplate, we learn about the intricacies of every thread of this sacred garment.  The thing is though, underneath this outfit – the priest is still a man.  If he didn’t wear it, you would not know that he was a priest. 

I am struck, this week, by these children who have suddenly donned sacred garments and become the vessels of the neir tamid.  They appeared to be nothing but ordinary, self-absorbed teenagers, but this tragedy has adorned them and changed them and I doubt that we, as country, will ever be the same.  They are our light.  They are showing us the path.  Cameron Kasky, a junior who survived the shooting said, “This isn’t about red and blue.  We can’t boo people because they’re democrats and boo people because they’re republicans.  Anyone who’s willing to show change, no matter where they’re from.  Anyone willing to start to make a difference is somebody we need on our side here.” 

And they have something that most of us have lost – hope.  These teens expect to win, and because they do, they actually might.  We never told them that you can’t win against the NRA – most of us have practically given up the fight before it even begins – leaving the gate from a position of severe compromise.  Emma Gonzalez said, “If you actively do nothing, people continually end of dead, so it’s time to start doing something.”  They don’t care that it has never worked before.  They don’t care what people say or think about them.  They are showing us all what being awake, alive, and furious can accomplish. 

Can we come together for their sake?  Can we learn from what they have to teach us?  These children have been lit up by this tragedy, but a fire must be kept burning.  A fire must be tended and supported and helped.  If these students are to change our country, they cannot do it alone.  It is up to us to support them, help them, work with them.  They are the fire – we must be the menorah.

I posted earlier this week on facebook, that this was not the time for thoughts and prayers.  I recant that statement.  A prayer is a guided wish.  A prayer reminds us what is truly important, and if our prayers mean anything at all – they lead us to work as partners with G-d to make change.

Shabbat shalom.

Remember that We Were Strangers

Torah

This week’s Torah portion is MishpatimMishpatim means judgements and the parshah contains a collection of rules covering virtually every aspect of human life.  Many of the laws have to do with behavior and moral values.  The Torah reminds us that we are obligated to treat others with kindness because we were once strangers in the land of Egypt.

It is interesting that the Torah doesn’t just tell us to treat the orphan, the widow, and the stranger well because it is the right thing to do, but rather repeatedly reminds us that we were once like them.  Why is this important?  I think that there is a difference between something that you do because it’s what you should do, and something that you do because of a deeply held personal feeling, a sense of empathy rather than sympathy.

Sympathy is feeling concern, sorrow, or pity for another’s hardships.  We have all felt sympathy for others and hopefully it has lead us to be compassionate.  Empathy is about relating to another’s pain vicariously, as if having experienced that pain ourselves.   The Torah demands more than sympathy when it comes to our treatment of those less fortunate.  The Torah puts us in their shoes by reminding us that no matter how well off we are now, our history is in slavery, our ancestors were refugees.  We keep that historical memory alive so that it will always inform our actions towards others.

Thirty-six times the Torah reminds us that we were slaves in the land of Egypt.  In Jewish numerology, the number eighteen spells out the word, chai – life.  We consider multiples of eighteen lucky for this reason.  Perhaps the reminder of our historic oppression appears thirty-six times in the Torah because the value of our lives is doubled by the experience of empathy with those in need and by giving life to others through our actions on their behalf.

May this Shabbat help us to reflect on our historic redemption and the ways in which it can guide us to empathize with those who suffer and lead us to their aid.

Consider a donation to the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Shabbat shalom.