Archive for the ‘D’var Torah’ Category

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.

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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.

 

 

 

Jewish Identity – Parshat Vay’chi

With parshat Vay’chi, we reach the final parsha of the book of Genesis.  An ailing Jacob prepares to offer a final blessing to his children.  He tells Joseph that Joseph’s own sons, Ephraim and Menasseh “shall be mine no less than Reuben and Simeon,” and Jacob therefore will offer them blessings as well.  When Joseph brings his sons to Jacob, Jacob says, “Who are these?”  The Torah tells us that Jacob’s eyes were dimmed with age.  Perhaps this was the problem.  Or maybe, as Louis Ginzberg suggests in Legends of the Jews, he didn’t recognize them because, having been born and raised in Egypt, they appeared, acted, and dressed like Egyptians.  They didn’t “look” Jewish.

As modern, liberal American Jews, many of us don’t “look,” “act,” or “seem” Jewish.  Our Judaism is a piece of our identity, whether major or minor, that we carry inside.  Some of us can hide it, if we choose.  That is our privilege (one not afforded to people whose minority status is visible on their skin or through clothing mandated by their religion.)  But despite our ability to hide it, if we choose, we are a member of a minority group that faces increasing threat around the world and, sadly, here at home.

This past week, sixteen Jewish Community Centers received bomb threats.  One of these was at a location very close to home where I and several members of our choir perform annually.  This isn’t some far off threat in Europe.  It’s not a story from our history.  This is now, today.  This is happening here.  Swastikas, threats, and anti-Semitic hate speech have suddenly blossomed all across the country.  Because I know history, I deeply and viscerally want to hide.  And because I know history, I also want to cling even harder to my culture and traditions because if our fear leads us to hide and our traditions disappear, the ones who hate us win.

We are American Jews and we are also Jewish Americans.  Both halves are integral to who we are.  We ask ourselves today as Jacob asked of his grandchildren, “Who are these?”  I can only answer for me.  I am Jewish.  I am American.  I am proud and strong and defiant.  I will cling to both of these identities with all of the strength of my being and will abandon neither in my quest to make both communities better.  I hope that you will join me.

 

Lech L’cha

G-d said to Avram, “Lech L’cha.” “Go forth. Go from your country, your kindred, your father’s house to the land that I will show you.” And from this moment, Avram’s journey truly begins. “Lech l’cha,” G-d says, a phrase that could be literally translated as “go to yourself.” Avram was 75 years old at the start of this journey – no spring chicken. But he was not too old to begin to find himself, become a father to two sons, become a father to an entire people. All of this happened well past the age when most people have decided what to do with their lives (and before you tell me that age means something different in the Torah, which it does, the Torah does not view Avram as a young man in this story.) Avram literally had a calling. It’s a rare thing, how many people do you know who can honestly say that their life’s path is a calling?

I officiated at a funeral this afternoon. After the ceremony was over, I had a discussion with the apprentice funeral director. I asked her what made her go into this line of work. I expected her to tell me that it was a family business, but instead, with a fire in her eyes, she described this as a calling that she had felt from a young age, but had ignored. She studied to be a speech therapist instead. But this is what she really wanted to do.

When we are children, everyone asks, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” But very few children actually follow these plans. If I had, I would be a rare-hybrid “teacher-doggie.” By the time we graduate college, we are supposed to know. We are supposed to now be grown-ups. It’s amazing how many adults I talk to who tell me that they are just kids trapped in big-people bodies. As adults we are supposed to stop thinking about what we want to be, what we can be. We become defined by our career. I am a doctor. I am a lawyer. I am a cantor. We all know that these things do not need to limit us.

At 75 Avram begins his journey to himself. In the process, he becomes transformed. He becomes a person who is willing to bargain with G-d over the fate of Sodom and Gemorrah. His identity evolves and changes. At the age of 90, a piece of G-d’s name gets appended to his own and he becomes Avraham. All it took was a moment of opening his mind to the possibilities.

G-d’s name yud-hey-vav-hey is unpronounceable because it is breath and being. It is a word made up of the only Hebrew consonants that are also vowels. It is also the verb to be in the past, present, and future tenses with a masculine future prefix and a feminine past suffix – The verb to be in masculine and feminine, present, past and future. The hey in G-d’s name makes an “h” sound, the sound of breath. It is this hey that gets added to Avram’s name – a small touch of the breath of G-d, a little wind at his back to move him forward into this new self – this new way to BE.

Sometimes I think that we forget that life is about continually becoming. The moment we stop dreaming about what we want to be when we grow up, we limit what our journey can be. So, this Shabbat, I invite you to reopen your child-like heart and dream. Your journey is just beginning. Who do you want to be?