Archive for the ‘D’var Torah’ Category

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.

 

 

 

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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?

My Guest Post

I was invited to do a guest post for the URJ’s 10 Minutes of Torah liturgy series. You can read my post here:
Psalm 116 Guest Post
Enjoy!

Tisha B’Av

Hello blog readers.  I know it’s been an age…

I did a sermon this past Friday evening on the subject of Tisha B’Av.  It’s the summer, so attendance at worship has been light.  We’ve seen about 25-30 on average at services.  This Friday, however, was the start of the London Olympics, with opening ceremonies due to commence at the same time as services.  We had 10 in attendance.  So, even though Tisha B’Av has come and gone for this year, I thought I’d share my sermon with you.  Enjoy.

 

(Sermon originally delivered at Temple Beth Torah 7/27/2012)

This weekend, Jews all over the world will observe the holiday of Tisha B’av. Tisha B’Av, which literally means the 9th day of the month of Av, is a fast day, and a national day of Jewish mourning. Both the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem were destroyed on the 9th of Av – 655 years apart. The holiday primarily recalls those terrible events, but our tradition also teaches that many of the worst tragedies in Jewish history, both ancient and more modern took place on that day. According to the Mishnah, the twelve spies sent by Moses to seek out the land of Canaan gave their fearful report on Tisha B’Av during Biblical times, The Romans crushed Bar Kochba’s revolt, destroyed the city of Betar and killed over 100,000 Jews on Tisha B’Av in the year 132. History also reveals that the first crusade began on August 15, 1096 – Tisha B’Av, Jews were expelled from England on July 25, 1290 – Tisha B’av, Jews were expelled from Spain on July 31, 1492 – Tisha B’av. World War I broke out on August 1, 1914 – Tisha B’Av and on the eve of Tisha B’Av in 1942 the mass deportation began of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka began.

512px-Wailing_Wall_Jerusalem_Victor_Grigas_2011_-1-50By Victorgrigas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 via Wikimedia Commons]

Because the main focus of the holiday has been on the destruction of the Temples, its observance has fallen out of favor among liberal Jews – both Reform and to some degree, Conservative. Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary said that Tisha B’Av has no appeal to the modern Jew who “no longer prays for the restoration of the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem.” He felt that the day’s modern meaning came from looking at the more recent national disasters that we also mark on that day.

We learn from the Talmud (Tractate Yoma) that the reason that the second Temple was destroyed was “Sinat Chinam” – baseless hatred. And baseless hatred is also behind many of the other tragedies that we mark on this day. It seems to me that perhaps the most meaningful way for liberal Jews to think about this holiday is through the lens of the damage caused by humanity’s tendency towards acts of baseless hatred. We see Sinat Chinam in acts of terror such as the tragic ones that we all heard about last week in Bulgaria and in Aurora, but we also see it on a less violent and less obvious scale in our day to day lives.

Earlier this week, I was listening to the podcast, “Freakonomics,” and the host was talking about how our political affiliations can be almost tribal (about 33:50 into the episode), that we often side with a political party, ascribing to their point of view without even fully researching or understanding everything that we say that we agree with. Political affiliation as tribal? A fascinating idea.

How do tribal affiliations make us behave? I think there are two primary feelings that come out of being a part of a tribe – pride and fear. I often get emails from congregants with lists or videos that talk about the great accomplishments of Jews over the centuries. The things that we, as a people, have managed to do that others have not. These are examples of our tribal pride and, to be honest, they always make me a little uncomfortable. A history of Jews in science, sports, or music makes us proud. A similar history that talked about the genetic or cultural advantages of being Christian, African American, or heaven forbid, white, would make us very wary indeed!

Tribal affiliations also make us feel fear and anxiety. We worry about “the other, “and about our persecution. As Jews we fear anti-semitism. As a liberal, I hear about “the war against women,” and countless other things we have to fear from the right. Conservatives too seem to have a great deal to fear from the other side of the aisle – their rights and liberties will be taken away, government will rule their lives, they will be taxed into poverty.

Both our fear and our pride make us want to close our minds and our ears to the other. Have you ever watched a “news” or talk show where political pundits are supposed to be “debating” an issue? Almost invariably they talk over one another to such an extent that the listener can not absorb any piece of the argument from either side. It’s better that way anyway, if we don’t agree with it, we probably don’t want to hear it. This sample is a little dated, but I think it illustrates my point perfectly.

I would not ordinarily think of myself as the kind of person who would not want to hear an argument that I don’t agree with. I believe that I am open minded, that I like to hear all sides of an issue before deciding how I feel about it. To some extent that is true. I do usually research an issue before I formulate an opinion (though I will admit that some of that research will be done on websites that agree with my political affiliations.) I do try to read both sides of the story, though. Once I have decided my stance, it is hard for me to not only revisit the issue, but even frankly, to listen to the other side.

I have this friend on Facebook. We aren’t really friends. We’re colleagues – but Facebook makes no distinctions. We are polar opposites politically and he posts about politics ALL the time. And my blood pressure goes up with each and every posting. I’ve considered “unfriending” him. I’ve thought about blocking his posts. It is the mere fact that I have pondered these things that illustrates my point. It is hard for me to tolerate this person from another political tribe in my friendship circle. His arguments make me angry. And I am sure the reverse is true. Unfortunately for him, I think most of his “friends” are members of my political tribe.

Is it different face to face? Unfortunately, no. A political discussion between friends at a recent barbeque that I attended almost necessitated the calling of the police. One of the people refused to let the other even finish his side of the argument before talking, yelling, standing and towering over, and then almost physically assaulting. And over what? They disagreed politically? Really?

One of the most brilliant things about our American political system is its innate balance. A president has no real power without congress. Congress is elected by majorities in all of the states. The far left and far right are balanced (we hope) through this system. Real work can only happen when politicians put aside, as much as possible, their “tribal affiliations,” and work for the greater good, listening to what one another has to say and working for balance.

The watchword of our faith is Sh’ma – Listen. It’s a harder thing to do than most of us know, but it is the doorway to peace. When we really hear one another, we can disagree, but it’s harder to hate because you can see the humanity in the face of the other. This means being patient enough to hear their entire argument, and being willing in the end to say, “we agree to disagree.” Our tradition teaches that when we argue for the sake of heaven, the presence of G-d dwells between us.

The Temple was destroyed for Sinat Chinam – baseless hatred – a feeling that can only come about with eyes and ears closed. This year as we mark Tisha B’Av let us resolve to bring the essence of Judaism, that listening, into our relationships and our politics. We can mark Tisha B’Av best by donating to organizations that work tirelessly for peace, and dialogue, and by engaging in that work ourselves.

Shabbat shalom.

Making Holy Space and Space for the Holy

The following is the D’var Torah that I delivered Erev Shabbat:


 

“G-d spoke to Moses saying: “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him. And these are the gifts that you shall accept from them: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and for the breast piece. And let them make Me a sanctuary that I may dwell among them.”

In this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Terumah, G-d lays forth a plan for creating a holy space – a portable sanctuary to be carried through the wilderness. G-d begins by asking for gifts. If the whole of creation belongs to G-d, why does G-d need gifts from us?

The answer is two-fold, and we can understand it by looking at the items requested. The first is that these are all objects of value and difficult to find. Blue, purple and crimson yarns are rare and expensive. The metals and skins would have been heavy to transport and hard to get. And… dolphin skins? In the desert? Really?

Finding, gathering, and then donating rare and valuable items is a hardship. G-d is asking people of means to give a real piece of themselves to the building of this Tabernacle. This is an investment, and when we finance a project, we often devote ourselves to it emotionally as well. This is the first layer.

You will notice that G-d doesn’t ask people to bring a gold lamp, a silver breast piece, or a blue mantle. The items that G-d requests are all raw materials out of which these can be fashioned. G-d then spends the rest of the parshah describing what the artists should create. This brings us to the next layer of G-d’s request – the emotional and artistic investment. Those who have been blessed with artistic skill will now give of themselves to fashion this house of G-d out of the raw materials brought by those of means. The people will literally “make” a sanctuary for G-d – devoting their time, energy, and creativity to the project. G-d said, “Make me a sanctuary that I may dwell there.” It is the act of making that allows God to live among the people.

The Hebrew word here “asu” means both make and do. It is the same word used in the prayer, Oseh Shalom. We must Do in order to Make. Peace isn’t something that simply descends upon the people from on high. We ask G-d to be active in making peace and then we do the same. In the building of the sanctuary we are involved participants in the creation of holy space which G-d then echoes by dwelling there.

This brings us to the next important question that this passage raises. If G-d is indeed everywhere, why does G-d need a dwelling place? Doesn’t G-d live among us wherever we are? I view most of the Torah as telling the story of the psychological and spiritual development of a people. The exodus story for me represents the adolescence of the Jewish nation. Having escaped from slavery, as a mixed multitude, we were not yet unified and had a very childlike understanding of G-d. We needed a G-d that we could see, so we built an idol, the golden calf. From this, G-d saw that we needed to be brought into a mature faith gradually. G-d gave us many signs and wonders, but as a people we were used to visual reminders of G-d’s presence. If we could not actually see God, at least we needed a concrete place to go to find G-d. We were not ready to find G-d in the beauty and wonder of nature because we had a tendency to rush into idolatry. At this stage of our spiritual development, we had to have a House for G-d. By having us build the dwelling (as we had actually made the idol), G-d allowed us to invest ourselves in its art and its design, but this time it was toward a place, a space for worship – as opposed to an object of worship. While we built the external structure for worship, we would also be building a spiritual connection to that place – making room for G-d both within our own souls and beyond.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his famous book, “The Sabbath,” talked about the fact that one of the problems with Temples and Tabernacles is that they can always be (and ultimately have always been) destroyed. The one thing that no person or ruler can take away from us is time. Shabbat, Heschel writes, is a permanent sanctuary in time. When observant people talk about Shabbat, they often talk about “making Shabbat.” Although Shabbat comes every week whether we observe it or not, it cannot be a sanctuary for us unless we “make” it so.

Over the past several weeks, I have had many conversations with students about what it means to observe Shabbat. Traditionally speaking there are 39 categories of “work” that you cannot do. These categories are, interestingly enough, derived from the activities necessary for building the portable sanctuary, the mishkan, in the wilderness. So, in order to build a sanctuary in time, we must stop building a sanctuary in space. Another way to look at the Shabbat commandment is that G-d did the work of creation of the world in seven days and then rested. Echoing G-d, we too, must stop creating in the world in order to create a sacred space in time.

What does that mean for us today, as Reform Jews? How do we create sacred places during the week and sacred spaces on Shabbat? Heschel wrote, “The meaning of Shabbat is to celebrate time rather than space. Six days a week we live under the tyranny of the things in space; on Shabbat we try to become attuned to the holiness of time. It is a day on which we are called upon to share in what is eternal in time, to turn from the results of Creation to the mystery of Creation, from the world of Creation to the creation of the world.” How will we achieve that goal?

In Parshat Terumah, G-d asks us to bring gifts, raw materials, to create a dwelling place for G-d. In bringing their financial and artistic gifts to the endeavor, the Jewish people bring their souls to the creation of a sanctuary. Having worked toward creating that sacred space, we are asked to mimic G-d’s actions and rest from the work of creation. We are asked to make Shabbat a complete and joyful day, a day different from our six days of work.

So Parshat Terumah offers us the chance to reflect upon what we will create this week and to consider how to make that creation holy. And in having created, we also turn our thoughts to making our rest separate and holy, too, a true “sanctuary in time.”


So my readers here is my question to you:

How do we, as modern Reform Jews, create that sanctuary?

What do you do on Shabbat to make it holy?  What do you refrain from doing?

An Inspirational Moment

Hello!  As you’ve probably noticed, I took a little break from blogging for a few months.  I think I’m back now.  I’ve had a bit of writers block, and I think that one good way to get past it is to have a guest blogger write for me Smile.

At B’nei Mitzvah services at Temple Beth Torah, students deliver a creative prayer.  The Rabbi and I do not see or edit these before the Bar or Bat Mitzvah because we don’t believe that we have a right to edit people’s prayers.   These prayers are often both beautiful and inspirational.  A little while back, a student delivered one that I thought my blog audience would particularly enjoy.  I asked her permission to share it with all of you.  She said yes, but only on condition of anonymity.  So, I can’t tell you who wrote this beautiful piece, but I hope that you will enjoy it as much as I did.

Photo Credit: Fotolia via microsoft.com

Creative Prayer

I pray that everyone can have a special connection with God, no matter what your religion. Say you were born into an atheist family and you were raised not to believe in God. This does not mean that you cannot change your view on whether God exists, and if He does what is He like? Is He mean or kind? Is He fair or unfair? Is He even a He? I strongly believe that you can choose for yourself. However, this is usually not the case. Most people are born into a religion that drills into your head that God exists, resulting in blind support for a significant portion of your life. Then, as you experience more trials and become wiser, you might begin to question God’s existence. The idea of some mysterious person you cannot see hear or touch controlling you and the people around you could be hard to accept. You might also ask yourself a commonly asked question: If God exists and is generous and fair, then why are there so many misfortunes in life like hunger, homelessness, sickness, and life changing events like the Holocaust? As a believer in God, I argue that God must show us the worst, in order for us to recognize the best.

I might also add that I personally went through this journey, questioning what I was taught to believe by my parents and in Hebrew school. But after going through some experiences and figuring out my views on God and Judaism, I can proudly say that I believe in God. The way I see it, God works through the people He created. What I mean by that is say you are nervous for a test coming up in school. You do not know if you will do well, even though you studied extra hard because you know this is not your best subject. Then, a friend observes your worries and says, “I know you will do well on the test because you studied a lot, you are a great student, and I have faith in you.” I believe that God was showing Himself through that friend’s words, so that pep talk was really from God. This has definitely happened to me before, and sometimes I wonder if God ever sent a message to someone through me. Because of these beliefs, I have a strong connection with God and I pray that everyone can experience what I did with Him.