Sunday, December 18, 2011

Ain Somchim Al HaNes

Parashat Miketz is always read during Shabbat Hanukah. The Etz Hayim Humash points out that “just as Hanukah celebrates the victory of the weak over the powerful, the parasha begins with Pharaoh’s dream of the lean cows conquering the well-fed ones.  As the parasha begins with Joseph in prison and ends with Joseph as ruler, the story of Hanukah begins with Israel oppressed and ends with Israel triumphant and independent.” 

On Rosh Hodesh Kislev I participated in a Hanukah program.  One of the guest, Rabbi Peretz Weizman said, “We are living in the period of Hanukah.” Rabbi Weizman pointed out that from until the addition of Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel’s Independence Day, no new holiday celebrations were added to the Jewish calendar. I spoke with him afterwards about this statement.  All other holidays are biblical.  Most of the commandments surrounding celebrating biblical holidays give us the reason that we do this because God took us out of Egypt.  In all these cases, the holidays are connected to the fact that God fought for us, but on Hanukah we fought for God.

This is the irony of Hanukah.  The mitzvah of Hanukah is parsum et hanes, to publicize the miracle.  The question is what was the miracle.  The easy answer is that the oil lasted beyond the one day, but then the miracle would only be for seven days.  Why do we celebrate for eight days.  One answer passed down through our tradition is that we celebrate the first night for our victory. 

There is a Jewish belief, ain somchim al hanes, do not depend upon the miracle.  We hope and we pray for God’s help, but we act for God.  Just as Joseph had to come to the realization that he had to be brave enough to act to bring about change, this is a message for us all.

Hag Hanukah samech.

Long Live the King

I'm going to Israel in January.  Just me, without hubby or kids, sad to say.  I'll be on a Masorti Mission.

I started thinking about my favourite falafel joint.  It's Moshiko on Ben Yehuda in Jerusalem.  Then I found this:  It's from 2008, the Top 5 Jerusalem Falafel Joints.  Not surprisingly to be, Moshiko tops the list.  It was such a favourite of ours that Sean & I had a picture of the store on our bulletin board until our last move.

One word of disagreement with the article.  We like Melech HaFalafel.  Yes, it's cheap, greasey, fast food. To compare it to Moshiko is like comparing White Castle (forgive the treyf reference) to a fine steak house.  White Castle knows this.  They proudly call their little squares of grease covered in watery chopped onions Sliders.  You can just imagine all the reasons why.  There is a time and a place for greasy, cheap food.  Certainly my digestive system could handle that much better when we lived in Israel almost 20 years ago, but sometimes Melech HaFalafel is just what you want.  Sean & I used to get a 1/2 felafel every time we went shopping at Machane Yehuda.  There's something to be said for a quick, cheap spot of grease to hold you over until a better meal.  Here's what Go Jerusalem had to say,  Long live the King.

Do as I do.

Last week I was walking with Keren & Gavi to Just Bags at Lawrence Plaza (BTW, they're a great spot to buy luggage, knapsacks, purses, lunchboxes, etc.  Wait for a sale, although there's always something.  They're great about repairs.  My kids are very hard on their stuff!)

Anyway, back to the story....

I was walking with the kids and we passed a man asking for money.  I didn't have anything with me, and I said so.  I rarely have any cash, change or otherwise, in this day of ATM, debit, and charge cards.  I did make it a point to look him in the eye and answer though.  It's a value Sean and I have tried to instil in the kids.  Eye contact- realize you are speaking to a person, a valuable human being.  We also keep change in the car to give out.  We most often encounter beggars while in the car.  I felt bad having to say no.

After a few steps, Keren stopped.  "Eema, I have some money."  She unzipped her bag, pulled out a twoonie, and went back to give it to the man.  I stood, looking on, very proud of her.  She spoke to him; looked him in the eye, and handed him the money.  She didn't expect anything back, but the satisfaction of doing a mitzvah.  (We put a twoonie in her bank, unbeknownst to her.)

Wow, kids really do learn what we do.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Upon Hearing Your CV Read - or- Be The Seed

Tonight, as I wrote earlier, I spoke at Beth David B'nai Israel Beth Am (Yes, that really is the shu's name). Whenever I speak, as with most speakers, there is an introduction.  The intro comes from my CV.  It's an interesting thing to hear one's CV read aloud.  Wow, did I actually do that?  Boy, I'm actually pretty cool, and there is a reason people should listen to me.

I have discovered that although to me these are details of what feels like a normal life, others are impressed.
Yes there are cool things- I have been appointed a "Submarine Lady of the Submarine Force."  I do have a certificate from the US Department of the Army in "The Spirituality of Trauma."  I have been published, and I did receive an award from my USY Pilgrimage group (group 2 in 1985) "Most Likely to Marry a Rabbi."

Still, to me, this is just who I am.  I forget that these are accomplishments.  I forget the power I can wield, and I forget that I really can make a difference.  Then I get to hear my CV read.  It's a good reminder.

A parable I heard from Pete Seeger-  there once were some seeds scattered to the wind.  Some fell on the path and were trampled.  Some fell on the rocks and so they didn't grow.  But some fell on arable land and multiplied by the thousands.  We never know when a word or deed will find that small spot of good growth material, but if we never cast our seeds, we'll never make a difference.

Each time I hear my CV read, and see the faces of those listening, I cast out my seeds to see where they may grow.  The CV is the fertilizer that helps plant my ideas, my values and my teachings in the fertile minds and hearts of others.

Thanks for listening.

Vayeshev- Sometimes The Path to Righteousness Comes From Below

Vayomer Yehudah el ehchav mah betza ki naharog et achinu v’chisinu et damo. L’chu v’nim’ch’renu laYish’m’eilim v’yadeinu al t’hi vo ki achinu b’sareinu hu vayish’m’u ehchaiv.
And Judah said to his brothers, “what do we gain by killing our brother and covering up his blood? Come, let us sell him to the Ishmaelites, but let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, his is our flesh, our brother.”

Have you ever wondered why we are called Jews, Yehudim?Vayomer Yehudah… and Judah said…” Jews, from the name Judah. We are known by our leaders- b’nei Avraham, the sons of Avraham, b’nei Yisrael, Israelites, and Yehudim, the descendents of Judah.

It can be said that the best mentors are those who have been where we stand, and have come out positively. Avraham, Jacob/Israel, and Judah, none were perfect, yet from all we have much to admire. It may be difficult to accept this from the verses above.  Just prior to this the brothers had thrown Joseph into a pit and sat down to eat. Their anger at Joseph so great that they were indifferent to his needs or cries.  Just beyond is the story of Judah and Tamar, another mixed story in Judah’s life.  One may wonder if this isn’t Judah hitting rock bottom, but I would rather look at it as a turning point in Judah’s life.  We could focus upon “what do we gain…” or upon “let us not do away with him ourselves. After all, he is our flesh, our brother.” 

In parashat Vayeshev Judah is struggling, but there is honour in struggling.  Judah is self-differentiating.  He is emerging as the leader, moving beyond the influence of anger and hatred, working to become better.  For so few of us is the path to righteousness a straight upward line.  There are bumps, and there are dips and there are mistakes.  Sometimes even, the path of righteousness comes from below.  If we seek to move ever forward, to improve ourselves, and to help others where we can, perhaps we too will be lucky enough to live on through the righteousness of our descendents.

Vayishlach- the lasting power of our words

“Eileh toldot Eisav hu Edom; these are the generations of Esau who is Edom.”

Reading the Torah text, Esau is a redemptive character.  Esau, while hotheaded in his youth, makes up for it.  He is a devoted son, caring for both his parents.  When Esau hears of his mother’s disappointment at his choice of wives from the local tribes, he takes a wife from among Rebekah’s kin.  Towards the end of the parasha, Esau genuinely misses and clearly loves his brother.  He comes to greet Jacob upon Jacob’s return to their land with his entire community, 400 men, the loving family welcoming the prodigal son.  Esau embraces Jacob, kissing him on the neck.  A number of commentators, including Ibn Ezra see this as heartfelt, and most reading the text would likely agree. 

Interestingly, many commentaries do not interpret Esau in this manner.  As the text above reads, among the descendents of Esau were the Edomites.  To the Rabbis, Edom represented Rome.  The Rabbis connected Esau’s red hair with the royally coloured robes of Caesar.  Perhaps the bile poured out at Esau comes from anger at the oppression of Rome, the ruling nation of their time. 

In every Torah scroll there are a series of small dots written over the word, “vayishakeihu, and he [Esau] kissed him [Jacob]” (33:4 This can also be seen in the Humash on page 125).  Since nothing in the Torah is extraneous, these dots clearly have meaning.  The question then is- what?  Throughout our history Esau has been portrayed as cruel and bloodthirsty.  The dots are interpreted as a meaning change- from kissed to bit. Our rabbis and other Jewish leaders have always been experts at word play and polemic. This verse is most likely being used as a polemic against assimilation into Roman culture.  It is a warning, “although Rome may seem to embrace you, watch your neck.”  Once codified in commentary, the vitriol meant for Rome was passed to new generations.

No matter what the meaning- the dots teach us that we must take care with our words lest something meant for one time and place is removed from its context and held up beyond its relevance.

Vayetze- Seeing God in the everyday

10“And Jacob went out from Beer Sheva and went toward Haran.  11And he arrived in the place, and stayed there because the sun had gone, and he took one of stones from the place and he put it under his head and lay down in that place.  12And he dreamed, and he beheld a ladder set on the earth and its top reached the heavens, and he beheld angels of God going up and coming down on it.  13And here was Hashem standing beside him, and he said, “I am Hashem, the God of Avraham your father and the God of Isaac; the land on which you lie, to you I will give it and to your descendents.  14Your seed will be like the dust of the earth and spread to the west, the east, to the north, and the south of this land and all the families of the land will be blessed by your seed.  15Behold I am with you and will guard you everywhere you go, and I will bring your back to this land because I will not leave you until I have done that which I said to you.”  16And Jacob woke from his sleep and said, “Surely, Hashem is in this place, and I, I did not know it.”

In 1998 Rav Sean and I moved to Hawaii.  After a long flight with a toddler, we deplaned late at night, hustled into a cab, and headed to a hotel.  Our hotel room was innocuous, like almost every other hotel room.  We fell into bed, simply glad of a place to lay our heads.  In the morning, shortly before dawn, we awoke, jet-lagged and still on eastern standard time.  To avoid waking Jesse, we sat on the lanai (aka balcony), huddled against the pre-dawn chill.  Suddenly the sun rose above the mountains, like a lunar sunrise, the peaks alight with fire.  Rav Sean turned to me and said, “Now I know where God lives.” I would soon discover though that when you spend your days going to work, volunteer, the market and pre-school, that life even where God lives looks like life anywhere. 

How often can we stand somewhere that just looks just like any other place?  Then, suddenly we are hit with the feeling we are not alone, that theirs is something significant in that place beyond us.  Maybe it’s an avoided accident or averted problem.  Whatever it is, we have the feeling that we are not alone in the world.

God comes to Jacob when he most needs it.  In that moment, fleeing from home, angry and alone, perhaps even Jacob did not realize his need.  Once he lets his guard down, relaxes during sleep, Jacob is conscious of God’s presence.  “I is in this place, and I, I did not know it.” Even in Hawaii I had to remember to look up to see the rainbows.  Sometimes feeling God’s presence in our lives is just a matter of opening ourselves up, letting our guard down, looking around and being willing to believe.

Toldot- It's all in the family

“V’eileh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham…”  “These are the generations of Isaac son of Abraham…” The word toldot is usually translated as ‘generations’.  In the case of Yitzhak, however, the understanding is that the word toldot refers to Isaac’s narrative.  With previous uses, the text following “toldot” has been a genealogy.  In parashat Toldot, it is not a list of descendents that follow, but the story of Isaac’s family.

The change here is that the simple existence of Isaac’s generations does not define him.  Isaac is defined in his relations to others.  He is included first in the stories of his mother and father, then in the story of Rivka, and now he is defined by the birth of his children. The individual nature of Isaac escapes us. For many scholars, this passivity is a sign of something lying under the surface. “There is something naive, almost simplistic, about our second patriarch (Isaac) that jumps out of the Genesis narrative…  he is portrayed as being reserved, non-aggressive, and even, dare I say, slow” writes Rabbi Avi Weiss.  “For some, spirituality is exclusively bound with the intellect. Those of lesser intelligence are not viewed as having the capacity to have spiritual depth… spirituality emerges from the whole being- not only from the mind, but also from the soul. Those with Downs [Syndrome] may be blessed with the spiritual brilliance to become the greatest tsadikim or tsidkaniot of their generation.” 

We tend to think of our patriarchs as strong, brilliant individuals.  But of course they are human, with human frailties and limitations.  It is important that we see special needs and limitations in our text, and that these individuals occupy important roles in our history. God chooses imperfect people.  Each of us has limitations, but still plays an important role in Jewish life.  As a community we need to note the importance of relationships and ensure there is a place for everyone in our community.  Creating welcoming communities allows children and adults with special needs to go beyond the idea that Jewish life “applies to everyone who is normal, but not to me.”

This issue of inclusion has been acknowledged in North America. In Toronto the Zareinu School provides a place for many.  Most of our day schools integrate children with smaller challenges, and our synagogues make efforts to be inclusive and accessible.  Unfortunately in many Jewish communities this is not the case.  All to often those with special needs are not fully integrated. In all of Israel there is only one program to teach children with special needs for bar or bat mitzvah, administered through the Masorti Movement, but open to all teens.

Relationships are important.  The place of the individual in the community is significant.  Imagine where we would be if Isaac had been denied his place in the community of Israel. “V’eileh toldot Yitzhak ben Avraham…”  “And this is the story of Isaac,” and our story as well.

Catching up

 Okay, so I'm behind again in posting, and really behind in posting anything but the parshiyot.  So here's goes catching up...

  • Can you believe it the kids grew again?!  It's strange sometimes looking at my children to realize that they're not the babies they were.  I think the key moment was looking at our Little Tykes kitchen and saying, "I'm not going to get rid of the kitchen.  The kids still use it sometimes, and others do when they visit.  I'll put it downstairs.  Besides, in ten years we could be grandparents."  OH MY GOD- ten years!  it's possible.
  • Sometimes meanness masquerades as curiosity.  I spent time talking to kids about conversion, derech eretz, and Jewish identity sparked by obnoxious comments from one child to another.  Lots of interesting questions, but the kids who needed the talk- who knows if they got anything.
  • Sometimes shaarey shayna is the place to be.  The past two weeks have been go, go, go.  This makes Shabbat a very special time (although motzei Shabbat has been busy, so the effect is mitigated.)  It lets me rest, sleep, and turn off.  (BTW- Shaarey shayna means Gates of Sleep)
  • Hanukah fry-down.  Last Sunday we had a pre-Hanukah fry down.  We made lots of latkes- potato (the all-time favourite), sweet potato, parsnip, pineapple, and cheese.  All yum.  The pineapple are sweet, and would make a nice dessert sprinkled with some powdered sugar.
  • I love my job.  I spoke tonight at Beth David for MERCAZ-Canada and Canadian foundation for Masorti Judaism.  I made my notes, looked them over, and spoke for 45 minutes from the heart.  I could have gone on for another hour.  I guess I really do love my job and what we support.  New tagline- CFMJ- Supporting the Masorti/Conservative Movement in Israel- MERCAZ-Canada- Your voice in Israel.  You have more power than you think.  Best line of the night- "My diverse background make me a better, stronger person.  A diverse, pluralistic Israel WILL be a better, stronger Israel.
  • I love Pete Seeger.  He taught me I have power.  I also have lots of important things to say, even if I did live a bit of a privileged life (okay, not as privileged as some, but still pretty darn lucky).
  • I also love the person who discovered the first antibiotics and set in motion the science of antibiotics.  It's amazing what a 2 inch by 2 inch infection on the skin in the middle of your back can do to mess up your life.
  • Just bought tickets for Potted Potter,, for February with the kids.  Can't wait!
Wow, all that and it's only December 14.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Fine Young Man

So I'm behind in my posting of parsha comments and everything else, but before I catch up I had to share Zach Wahls' testimony before the Iowa House Judiciary Committee and subsequent comments.  He's a fine young man, a regular guy who stood up for a principle.  Interesting how those of us who do something special never really think we're special.

Kol hakavod Zach; hazak ve'ematz.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Chayei Sarah- The Tenth Test

“Vatamot Sarah bKirbat Arba hi Hevron b’aretz Canaan vayavo Avraham lispod lSarah vlivkotah…  tnu li akhuzat-kever imachem v’ekb’rat meiti milfanai…  Va’ydabeir el Efron b’oznei am haaretz leimor ach im atah lu shmaeini natati kesef hasadeh kakh mimeni v’ekb’rah et meiti shama.” 
“And Sarah died in Kiryat Arba, which is Hebron, the land of Canaan, and Avraham came to eulogize Sarah and to weep for her…  ‘Give me possession of a burial site with you so that I may bury my dead from before me’…  And he [Avraham] said to Efron in the hearing of the people saying, ‘If you will hear me, I will give you the value of the field.  Take it from me, and I will bury my dead.’”

Parashat Chayei Sarah, the Life of Sarah, is not about her life, but about her death.  Actually, it is not even about her death, but about Avraham’s deeds following her death.  It is said that Avraham was given ten tests in his life, testing his faith in God.  There are many lists of these tests.  One of the most interesting tests suggested by the commentaries is the burial of Sarah.  Rabbeinu Yonah (mid-13th century Spain) includes this as the tenth test.  It is interesting because most lists reach their end with the Akeda, the (almost) sacrifice of Isaac.  For most, the willingness of Avraham to offer Isaac to God is the pinnacle of his demonstrations of faith.  However, at least one commentator, Rav Nachman (1772-1810), sees the fact that the tests end with the Akeda as a failure on Avraham’s part to fight for the life of his son as he fought for the strangers in S’dom v’Amorah.  Rav Nachman stressed that a tzaddik is not merely born a tzaddik, but must always strive to be righteous.  The failure of the test is a fall from the connection with God.  This fall should cause the person to strive ever harder to become closer to God.

Rabbeinu Yonah puts the burial of Sarah as the tenth test.  It’s not enough to be willing to do things for God through mitzvot bein adam l’Makom, the mitzvot between humans and God.  To be fully connected to the Divine, we must also understand and respect the connections among people, and fulfill the mitzvot bein adam l’chaveiro, mitzvot between people.  That Avraham was moved to secure a proper burial site and fulfill the mitzvot of burial amidst his mourning is significant.  He could have buried Sarah anywhere, taking the easy way out, but instead he went to the effort, even during his mourning, to secure a proper site that would endure.  

That Jews physically bury our own, not leaving it to hired workers, sets us apart from other groups.  It is one of the greatest mitzvot we can do since it is a favour that can never be returned.  That this could be the pinnacle, not of devotion to God, but to another person is a noteworthy statement.  In the end to be a tzaddik is not about Heaven or Olam Habah, the World to Come, but about the here-and-now.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Parashat Vayera- Do What I Do

Vayera eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre, v’hu yosheiv petach haohel k’chom hayom.  And Hashem appeared to him (Avraham) by the trees of Mamre, and he sat in his tent opening during the heat of the day.
This is the opening verse to parashat Vayera.  On the surface it seems simple that Avraham would be sitting in his tent during the heat of the day, but generations of rabbinic commentary teach us that it is anything but.  First, God appears to Avraham.  God does not speak to Avraham; God simply appears, then is gone by the time we reach the second verse of the parasha. In the last verse of Lech Lecha, Avraham and all the males of his household were circumcised.   Immediately following is God’s appearance. The Rabbis connect these together; declaring that God is performing the mitzvah of bikkur holim, visiting the sick.  From these few words, Vayera eilav Hashem b’eilonei Mamre, And Hashem appeared to him by the trees of Mamre, we learn of our obligation to fulfill this mitzvah.  Further, God does not speak to Avraham, nor overstay the visit.  From this we learn to sit and just be with the person we visit, not an easy task.  It is companionable time, not time to fill with idle talk, which may have the added problem of causing the ill person to feel s/he has to respond.  God is also gone by the next verse, teaching us not to overstay our welcome.
But the verse doesn’t end its teachings there. The second half of the verse reads, “v’hu yosheiv petach haohel k’chom hayom, and he sat in his tent opening during the heat of the day.”  Avraham and Sarah are known in our tradition to be the ultimate hosts.  Even in his weakened condition, Avaraham is sitting in the tent opening watching for the opportunity to do hachnast orechim, to give welcome to guests. 
There’s almost too much to write on this subject.  Here are the rules of hachnasat orechim we learn from Avraham.
  •        Avraham is sitting in the opening of his tent available and welcoming.  Tradition teaches that their tent was open on all sides so no guest could go by uninvited. (18:1)
  •        Doesn’t wait for the guests to come to him.  He runs to greet them and bring them to his home. (18:2)
  •        He is deferential- bows to them, “I am your servant.” (18:3)
  •        Makes them comfortable and sees to their needs- offers water to wash their feet in the heat of the day (18:4)
  •        Feeds them- first a light snack, then a meal(s) with choice ingredients (18:5-8)

Hospitality is a big deal in desert cultures, where it can mean the difference between life and death.  Still today, although Jews have spread throughout the world, adapting to new cultures and climates, hospitality is considered one of the greatest mitzvot.  So ingrained is this that the first lesson I learned at JTS was “If you feed them, they will come.”  The importance of this mitzvah in Jewish life can be seen in the following:
  •        The statement at Pesach, “All who are hungry, let them come and eat.”
  •        The over-flowing food at a shiva home, both caring for the mourners, but also providing hospitality to those who come to visit.
  •        Most Jewish meetings have some nosh, and we like to share.  I was once sent home from a meeting at UJA with a doggie bag.
  •        You actually cannot crash a simcha with a seudat mitzvah.  All of JTS attended Jesse’s bris, inc. the high school on the grounds.) (now that b’nei mitzvah, and most s’machat are by invite, many have the custom of giving a portion to Mazon)
  •        And finally, there is a custom that there must be food on the table for birkat hamazon, “V’achalta, v’savata, u’v’rachta;  you will eat, be satisfied, and bless.” If there aren’t leftovers you didn’t make enough. 

Parashat Lech Lecha- Our Teachers Make our Souls

“Vayikach Avram et Sari ishto v’et Lot ben achiv v’et kol r’chusham asher rachashu v’et hanefesh asher asu b’Haran…”  “And Avram took Sarai his wife and his nephew Lot and all the belongings that they gathered and all the souls they made in Haran…”  (B’reishit 7:5)

Parashat Lech Lecha begins with God commanding Avram to leave his land, his birthplace, and his father’s house to go to a land that God will show him.  For this God promises great blessings.  Without a question Avram leaves with Sarai, Lot, and “all the souls they made in Haran.”  The p’shat of this most likely refers to the servants and slaves that were part of Avram’s and Sarai’s household along with any other dependents who left with them. 

Commentary on this verse focuses upon “hanefesh asher asu…  the souls they made…”  What does it mean to make a soul?  The Rabbis teach that these are the converts whom Avram and Sarai gathered and taught.  Later in the Torah our laws are incumbent upon all who reside within the Israelite camp, whether Israelites, slaves and servants, or strangers residing with us.  All these are followers of God.  In fact, we are expected to teach any strangers who are part of our community so they can join the community fully.

“All the souls they made…” also gives us a sense of obligation.  As teachers Avram and Sari were responsible for these people, and these individuals obligated to Avram and Sarai.  Interestingly, our tradition teaches that we are obligated to say Kaddish for parents, siblings, children, and spouses, but we also say Kaddish for our teachers.  This is based upon parashat B’midbar, “Eileh toldot Aharon u’Moshe;” “these are the generations of Aaron and Moshe.”  The rest if the verse only mentions the sons of Aaron.  Rashi teaches, based on Talmud Sanhedrin, that this is because whoever teaches Torah to another, our tradition regards that person as a parent to the student.

In the summer of 1996, while pregnant with Jesse, Bob Brown, aka Moshe, was the program director at Ramah Poconos.  He was ill, and camp had rented a golf cart for him to get around.  Bob, a teacher of mine for many years prior to our time at Ramah, decided it was his job to drive me around camp.  Bob said to me, “As your teacher I am your parent.  I need to take care of this grandchild.”  Five years later, we named Keren after Bob, but that’s another story.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Peace At Last

There's been a lot of debate as to whether the so-called prisoner exchange was the right choice.  Both sides have cogent, correct arguments.  How can anyone compare the pain of those who have lost loved ones to terrorism and the pain of those whose children have been captured.  I cannot imagine the pain both sides feel.  

Still, watching Noam Shalit this week, I know in my heart that Prime Minister Netanyahu did the right thing.  The peace in Noam Shalit's face is clear.  After five years of not knowing if Gilad was alive or dead, after five years of imagining the worst, Noam Shalit is at peace with his son in his arms.  One who is able to give that to another person can never pass up the opportunity.  Prime Minister Netanyahu did not just give a life back to Gilad Shalit, but also to his father Noam, his mother Aviva, and his siblings Hadas and Yoel.  Along with them, a new life and hope has been given to all of us around the world.  The Shalit family has become our family.  Gilad everyone's son, and his parents parents to us all.  We have shared just a fraction of their pain.  Those who have lost loved ones to terrorism cannot be healed, but others can.

Welcome home Gilad.  May you and your family and all of Israel share a lifetime of peace together.

Parashat Noah- Walk Humbly With Your God

"Eileh toldot Noach… These are the generations of Noach…”  These are the opening words to parashat Noach.  “Eileh toldot ShemVayamot Terach bHaran.  These are the generations of Shem… and Terach died in Haran”  Thus ends parashat Noach.

There are ten generations from Adam to Noach and ten generations from Noach to Avraham. Parashat Noach lays out the genealogy humankind and the line of Avraham.  Midrash teaches the Torah begins with just two people so that no one could say ‘My father was better than your father.’  Breishit gave us a start with two people, Adam and Chava. Noach starts over with one family.  From that line we will have one more beginning with Avram and Sarai in Lech Lecha.  Parashat Noach creates a universal history for those who will become the Jewish people. 

Also interesting about parashat Noach is the universality of the rest of the parasha. On every continent, almost every culture has a flood story.  So too the Babel myth exists on every continent in multiple cultures.  These are fascinating stories, while not all share similar details beyond the flood or confusion of language the effects and lessons of these acts is universal. 

Judaism sees humans as being ruled by two inclinations, the yetzer hara and the yetzer hatov, the evil inclination and the good inclination.  However, evil and good does not really explain the effect.  The yetzer hara is the drive that leads us to want.  It is our desires, our Id.  The rabbis teach that without the yetzer hara no one would learn a trade, build a home, get married, or have children.  The yetzer hatov is our spiritual, ethical, and moral side, but it can prevent us from engaging with the world and recognizing the needs of others. 

Judaism attempts to balance these inclinations for the best of the individual and the community.  When we ignore the yetzer hatov we are overwhelmed by the flood or unable to communicate with others.  But it is not the perfect person either that is our ideal.  Noach is an “ish tzadik tamim, a whole-hearted righteous man.”  It is not that he is perfect, but that “et Ehlokim hithalech Noach, with God Noah walked.”  The prophet Micah said, “What does the Lord require of you?  Only to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”  With this balance we too can be ish tzadik tamim, whole-hearted and righteous.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Breishit bara Ehlokim....

Breishit is an interesting parasha.  It reads like a history, but clearly isn’t.  Look at the possibly conflicting creation stories, at Adam & Chava in the Garden of Eden able to live eternally as long as they do not eat from the Tree of Knowledge, at the creation of woman from man’s side, at their being cast out to toil the earth, the first murder and responsibility, a statement on revenge, and the introduction of Noah.  Ten generations rush past in one parasha, but even more meaning.

But if Breishit isn’t a history, what is it?  Breishit is a theology. 

To examine the theology of Breishit, just this first parasha could take an entire semester university course, and the parasha is so full we might still only scratch the surface.  The first word alone can fill a paper.  Breishit, b-reishit.  It is usually translated as “In the beginning…” although that should be BAreishit.  It is often also translated with the words that follow, “Breishit bara Ehlokim…”  “When God began to create…” A better translation might be “On beginning….” “B”- on; “reishit”- beginning.

In verse 2, “V’ha’aretz heita tohu vavohu vhosech al p’nei t’hom vruach Ehlokim mrachephet al p’nei hamayim.”  “And the earth was tohu vavohu and darkness on the face of the water, and Ehlokim hovered upon the surface of the water.”  Tohu vavohu is usually translated as null and void or as chaos.  How can something be null and chaos at the same time?  The Torah does not preach creation ex nihilo.  God does not create out of nothing.  The earth is there.  It is tohu vavohu, but it does exist.  Water is present, and God hovers over it.

Verse 27, “Vayivra Ehlokim et ha’adam b’tzalmo btzelem Ehlokim bara o’to zachar v’nekeivah bara o’tam.”  “And God created HaAdam in His image; in the image of Ehlokim He created it; male and female He created them.  On the sixth day God creates a being.  It is singular- o’to- it, and plural- o’tam- them, at the same time.  Centuries later Plato would see this as a creation of a hermaphroditic being split into two in the second chapter of the Book of Breishit.  This being is blessed like no other.  Beyond the blessing of pru urvu, be fruitful and multiply, God tells HaAdam to care for the world, its animals and plants.  “V’hinei tov m’od, and it was very good.”

But there is so much more to say about HaAdam.  Chapter two tells us that when God created the earth nothing grew; there was no Adam to work the ground.  Unlike the animals HaAdam is filled with nishmat hayyim, living breath straight from the breath of God.  Vayomer Ehlokim lo tov heyot HaAdam lvado; And God said, ‘it’s not good for HaAdam to be alone.” (Chapter 2, verse 18)  Unlike the animals, HaAdam is unique, alone, but this is not the final form.  In verse 5, we were told that nothing yet grew because there was no Adam to work the ground.  In just these few verses we learn that the being of HaAdam was always meant to be transformative.  We were always meant to work the earth, but also to care for it.

It is a heady message at the start of the new year.  Fall is a time for planning and for planting.  It is a time when the earth lies pregnant with all the possibilities of the spring and summer.  This has already been a transformative year.  Where it continues is up to each of us.

A Grateful Nation

(Oddly, as I typed that I had a strange image of bears dancing across a map of Israel.)

I feel asleep at the kitchen table last night.  No, I was not so exhausted from the Hagim that I collapsed onto my dinner plate.  Instead, it was after 1:00 AM, and I was listening to Gilgalei Tzhal for news that Gilad Shalit had come home.  When I woke with my head on the table I decided it was time to pick myself up and get to my bed.

Sean, ever the early riser, woke up before me, but his motion woke me.  My first thoughts and my first words- "Is he home?"  These were my second words also.

"Is he home?"  There's no need to ask who "he" is.  We all know.  We've been waiting five years for him to come home.  Thoughts of the last prisoner exchange could not help but swim in my head.  Coffins being carried instead of men walking.  Signs of cruelty and torture.

I worry for Gilad Shalit.  He was taken as just a boy, 20 years old.  He returns a national symbol.  The world has changed tremendously.  Things move faster.  He returns to a different Israel and a different world.  Gilad, with his parents, Aviva and Noam, and his brother, Yoel are part of all our families.  As Sean & I listened to news coverage from Israel no last names were mentioned.  They are our family.  We are intimate, on a first name basis.  Gilad is son, brother, friend to all of us.  We feel for his family, and cry with them.  We have written letters and visited the tent when possible.

I cried this morning as Sean told me he was at Kerem Shalom I found myself crying.  I cried for the joy that he was on his way back to his family.  I cried for the last five years of pessimism, anger, hatred, and pity.  And I cried for the loss of the life Gilad should have had, the fun, the friends, and the goofiness of those early twenties.  They were sacrificed for a grateful nation.

God bless you Gilad, you and your family.  I wish you luck, love, and most of all peace.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Just Turn Around- Yom Kippur

Part of the morning reading for Yom Kippur is taken from Ahrei Mot, describing the ritual of Yom Kippur.  As part of Aaron’s preparation, he must first do teshuvah for himself.  The haftarah reading, from Isaiah, speaks of the path to teshuvah.  It comforts us saying that if we only turn to God and the mitzvot that God will be there to accept us.  We merely need to turn around.

Still, just the telling that God will be there if we only turn to him is not a recipe for success.  Even knowing how to do something, we may still have trouble accomplishing it. 

Yom Kippur afternoon we read the book of Jonah.  Jonah is a story that illustrates teshuvah.  It teaches that the path to teshuvah is not direct.  Jonah runs, arriving in Tarshish, and boards a ship, reminiscent of Adam and Eve hiding from God in Eden.  Quickly realizing that it is impossible to hide from God, Jonah has the sailors throw him overboard.  He is willing to sacrifice himself for their safety.  God is connected to Jonah through this act of teshuvah, but Jonah is still not ready to make the full turn.  Jonah still needs to hit rock bottom, to be taken to the depths of despair, illustrated by Jonah’s existence in the belly of a great fish.  When Jesse was a child, he used to refer to the bottom of the sea as the deep, dark depths.  The deep, dark depths is a great analogy for Jonah’s place in the belly of the whale.  From here he turns to God, ready to follow through.  The fish spits him back on dry land, and Jonah continues on his journey to Nineveh.  He follows God’s command, announcing his prophecy, and heads off to watch the results.  But teshuvah is not a straight path.  Jonah falls back into despair, putting his own comfort ahead of the welfare of all of Nineveh in his heart, dipping back to despair and heading out again.

Jonah is a lesson not to lose face.  Teshuvah is not a straight path.  We do not wake one day to move from darkness to light, never to see the darkness again.  It’s a reminder that to be human is to live in a cycle.  There are times when we feel like we are in those depths, existing in the belly of the fish.  When we are prepared to call out, help will answer.  We may lose our way, but we are never so far that we cannot return. 

“Lo hayu yamim tovim l’Yisrael khamisha asar b’Av u’hYom HaKipporim.”  “There were never such joyous days for Israel as the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur” (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:6)  All we need to do is remember to turn back around.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Va'anachnu Koreim

There's an old joke that goes like this-

Seudah Shlishit, Aleinu, and the mamzer all go to God with complaints.  Seudah Shlishit goes first.  "God, I'm just as important as any other Shabbat meal, yet no one really cares about me.  They're all looking to the end of Shabbat, and their plans for the week."  Aleinu follows.  "God, I have the same problem.  I am an important prayer, yet no one cares.  They're all taking off their tallitot and thinking about kiddush."  The Mamzer finishes.  "God, what about me?  It wasn't even my sin.  I did nothing wrong.  Why should I be punished?"  God thinks for a moment and replies.  "Seudah Shlishit, don't worry.  You may not be a big meal, but the most poignant songs will be sung during your time.  The Jews will actually lament the ending of Shabbat.  Aleinu, you will be placed in the High Holiday repetition, and will have a tune that strikes the heart of the Jew.  And to the mamzer God says, 'You, you will be the president of the synagogue.'"

It's an unfair joke, and I have had the pleasure and honor of knowing many good people who gave of themselves fully to be the synagogue president, but it does make a point about Aleinu.  At the Yamim Noraim, the Days of AWE, Aleinu takes it's original place in the heart of the musaf repetition.  It's tune is m'sinai, meaning it either came for Sinai with the Torah, or is so old that it seems as if it has been carried in the Jewish heart that long.  It is a deserved reputation, but Aleinu here means so much more.

Va'anachnu koreim umishtachavim umodim, but we bow, and worship, and thank...

During the year we bend our knees and bow at these words.  On the Yamim Noraim the hazzan (and others, including me) falls to his/her knees then bows his/her head to the floor.  It is a humbling experience.  Aleinu, it is upon us, lshabeach l'Adon hakol, to praise the Lord of everything.  Here we stand three days a year and act that out before the supreme God.  It is more than words, more than tunes we sing.  On these three days we worship with our full bodies, humbling ourselves before God.

Humbling, only through falling koreim have I begun to understand this word.  Standing in a room with hundreds of others, caring not for how I look, but falling to the ground before God- Va'anachnu koreim umishtachavim, but we bow, and worship... it is an experience I cannot describe but with this one word- humbling, umodim, and thank- and I thank God for the experience of it.

A Sweet Year

At least five years ago I was driving home along the NYS Thruway.  I stopped at a rest stop where a local vendor was selling jams, chutneys, and honey.  I was struck by the dark color of the buckwheat honey he had, and bought a jar.  I thought it'd be interesting to have a different honey for Rosh Hashanah.  As the Hag approached we found some local honey here too.  We put it, the buckwheat honey, and some Billy Bee in separate bowls, and a new tradition was born- The Gorman Rosh Hashanah Honey Tasting.

It turns out that honeys are very different. Each year the assortment grows.  Honeys have very distinct colors and flavors.  We try for a range of color, and compare each year.  Everyone chooses his/her favorite.  By the way buckwheat honey smells and tastes like hay.  The kids asked why we always have it if no one really likes it.  I think it's cool- dark and musky.  Sean likes the strangeness it brings to the honey palette.  He told the kids that someday they'll also have the bottle of buckwheat honey to use from year to year, and when their kids ask they will say, "Because my mother always had one."  Minhag avoteihem b'yadeihem (their parents' custom is in their hands).

This year we had nine different honeys:
1. Israeli sisyphus (aka Middle Eastern acacia) blossom
2. Israeli citrus blossom
3. Israeli wildflower
4. Buckwheat (a must every year)
5. Indian wildflower (with a deep caramel flavor)
6. Canadian summer blossom
7. Canadian wildflower
8. Blueberry
9. Manuka (Australian)

I'd planned the three Israeli, blueberry, and buckwheat, but Jesse insisted we use all the types we had in the house.  The first twenty minutes of the meal are all about the honey.  We've had other Canadian honeys from multiple farmers' markets.  We've had Greek.  We've had Australian acacia (different than the Israeli).  Each has its own distinct taste and color, noticible only when lined up.  Some years we've put them all in clear glass to see the range.  This year each had it's own distinct bowl, with a list to keep them straight.

With such an auspicious beginning, how can the year be anything but sweet?!

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Out of the Mouths of Babes- It's what we make of it

Erev Rosh Hashannah t'fillot at the Pride were early, too early for us to get everything we needed to do done.  So, with over an hour to the Hag, Sean, his parents, and our two younger children headed off to shul, leaving Jesse and me to finish in a blissfully quiet house.  

First we both got to speak with my brother, to whom I do not speak often enough.  It's great to be the fly on the wall while my children speak with him.  This day they were talking about the trumpet, which Russell played in school, and Jesse is just beginning.  After they finished their conversation Jesse set the table.  He did a lovely job- china (complete with bread plate for the honey), crystal, utensils, and cloth napkins.  Jesse just laid the napkins on each plate in a pile.  When I began to fold them he stopped me.  "No Eema.  They're supposed to be like that.  It's whatever people make of it, just like the new year."  Wow.  Out of the mouths of babes.

Ha'azeinu- What would you say? How would you change?

Rabbi J. Hertz, in the Hertz Chumash, begins his commentary with the observation that Moshe begins and ends his ministry with a song of the greatness of God.  Unfortunately, his observation ends there.   Rabbi Hertz fails to elaborate on the comparison.  The differences between the songs should not, however, be overlooked.

On the shores of Yam Suf, usually translated as the Red Sea, Moshe’s song is one of military victory.  It is a song sung by all the people together.  Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael…”  “Thus sang Moshe and the children of Israel…” Together we sang for the glorious military victory God had just won over the Egyptians.  “Ashirah LA-donai ki gaoh ga’ah; sus v’rokhvo ramah vayam.” Together we sang, “I will sing to A-donai for he is surely exalted; horse and rider He has thrown into the sea.”  This is even the verse repeated by Miriam as she leads the people in song and the women in a victory dance. On the shores of the sea, leading a downtrodden people, the message is clear- A-donai ish milchamah, A-donai is a man of war.” 

Here now, in Ha’azinu, on the banks of the Jordan River, as the people ready themselves for a military campaign, it is only Moshe that sings.  Furthermore, his song is not about the Ish Milchamah, the Man of War, but about faithfulness.  This song is not a song of victory.  It is not a song of might for the enemies we are about to encounter.  Instead, Moshe sings to the heaven and earth itself.  Much like at Sinai, the land and the elements are witness to what is to be.  On the eve of this great military campaign, Moshe reminds the people that God is faithful and so shall we be.  “Hatzur tamim poalo, ki kol d’rakhav mishpat; Eil ehmunah v’ein avel, tzadik v’yashar Hu.”  “The Rock is perfect in His work, for all His ways are law; a God of faithfulness without blemish, righteous and just is He.”  We have not been an easy flock, and are warned that any corruption will be ours. 

No longer the leader beginning a journey with the Song of the Sea, Ha’azinu is Moshe’s ethical will to the people Israel.  How many of us know, as Moshe did, that the words we say may be our last. Imagine what we might say if we knew they were our last words.  The song ends with Moshe entreating the people, “All the words I testify to you today, that you may charge your children to guard to do all the words of this Torah….  For it is your life.”

“And God spoke to Moshe during that same day saying, “Go up this mountain of Avarim, Mount Nevo… and die on this mountain that you go up and be gathered unto your people…For you shall see the land across, but you will not come to the land which I gave to the children of Israel.”

Gmar hatimah tovah.  May we all be bound up in the Book of Life.  Together we pray for a shanah tovah umetukah, a good and sweet year.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Children surprise me

I'd like to say every once in a while my children surprise me, but while much they do simply fits who they are, they also surprise me daily.

Jesse spent yesterday morning at the Museum of Innuit Art.  My cousin Wayne was visiting for 2 nights, although we really only got to see him for 1 evening, all too short, and I miss him more than I realized.  On Wednesday morning Wayne decide he'd visit the museum before his flight, since Sean & I had unchangeable plans at work.  I told Jesse, who had a PD Day, where Wayne was going, and surprisingly, he put off time with a friend to be with Wayne.  I thought it was just to hang with his cousin (who is 11 years older than me, but of course much cooler than hanging with parents).  Still he had a great time; said it was very cool.  Innuit art and a 14 year old boy, who'da thunk it?

Nitzavim/Vayelech- One Raindrop Raises the Sea

“Atem nitzavim hayom kulchem lifnei Hashem Ehloheichem: rosheichem, shivteichem, zikneichem, v’shotreichem, kol ish Yisrael; tapchem, n’sheichem, v’geircha asher b’kerev machanecha- meihoteiv eitzecha ad shoeiv meimecha.”

“You are standing this day, all of you before Hashem, your God: your heads, your tribes, your elders, and your officers, every member of Israel; your little ones, your wives, and the stranger that is in the midst of the camp- from the hewer of your wood to the drawer of your water.”

This is how parashat Nitzavim begins, with a message for every Israelite, from the highest head to the lowest servant, from the youngest to the eldest.  Each one of us stands before God.  We stand as individuals, kol ish, and as part of a greater whole, Yisrael.  Together we accepted the covenant, and together we stand poised on the edge of our land to affirm it.  There is no one to say “I didn’t choose to live this way,” no one to say “God wasn’t talking to me.”  It’s an interesting point of view that Judaism takes.  Whether confession or teshuvah, joyous occasions or sad, we do things beyond a vacuum. 

My children love a series of books, later a miniseries, called Dinotopia.  A favourite saying there is “one raindrop raises the sea.”  As the Israelites stand on the edge of the land, as we stand on the edge of a new year with promise for both peace and war, we never know when that raindrop will return or for whom.  It may not be the trained leader or officer, but the child or the servant that makes the difference in another person’s life or the life of the Israelites as a people.  Moshe was a shepherd following a sheep when Hashem spoke to him.  Joshua and Calev were just two regular people when then spoke up against the rest of the spies emerging as leaders, and now, in parashat Vayelech, Moshe shares that Joshua will be the leading Israel into the land.

All of this, Moshe declares, shall be read publicly when the Israelites gather.  It is to be spoken as shirat hazot, this song.  We will sing it to our people that it will be in our ears and in our mouths, and we will remember, “one raindrop raises the sea.” 

Rav Sean, the family, and I wish you a Shabbat shalom v’shana tova u’metuka.

Ki Tavo- Pesach in September?

“Arami oveid avi; vayeired Mitzraima vayagar sham, bimtei m’at, va’y’hi sham l’goy- gadol, atzum varav.”

“My father was a wandering Aramean; and he went down to Mitzraiyim and dwelled there, few in number, and he became a nation- great, mighty and numerous.

If that sounds familiar, it should.  We read it each year at Pesach, many of us with this exact translation.  At JTS, my Midrash professor gave us a gift.  He put this piece on our final exam.  If you had looked around the room at that moment, you would have seen most of us mouthing the translation from the Haggaddot of our youth.

As such a recognizable piece part of the Pesach, it seems out of place to read this now.  How is it that this famous piece of text that we so closely associate with the Pesach story should be read now?!

The parasha begins, “Vhayah, ki tavo el ha’Aretz asher Hashem Ehlohecha notein lcha nachalah, virishtah v’yashavta bah.”  “And it shall be, when you come into the Land that Hashem Ehlohecha gave to you as an inheritance, and you will possess it and settle there.”  The Israelites are just five parshiyot from the end of the Torah, just five parshiyot from entering the Land promised by God to Avraham and his descendants.  They, and we, need to be reminded of why and how we came to be standing on this precipice, on the edge of a world and a lifestyle about to change.

The Israelites are about to be transformed from a wandering people to the possessors of a land that connects three continents, a land that is holy to multiple people and a crossroads from one end of the world to another.  Should we fear that we are an unimportant people, merely nomads with no roots, remember this--“arami oveid avi; vayeired Mitzraima vayagar sham, bimtei m’at, va’y’hi sham l’goy- gadol, atzum varav.”  “My father [Jacob] was a wandering Aramean; and he went down to Mitzraiyim and dwelled there, few in number, and he became a nation- great, mighty and numerous.”  But even more so, once we are settled in the Land we should not forget our beginnings, and so we are given this formula to recite when we bring our first fruits of our new land- Remember, --“arami oveid avi.”  “My father was a wandering Aramean.”

We should never forget our humble beginnings, but neither should we deny the heights we have and still can attain.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Moving on after Ten Years (9/11)

9/11 is one of those formative moments for a culture.  Anyone conscious enough to remember can tell you exactly where s/he was when hearing about the planes that hit the World Trade Center and then where s/he was when they fell.  

I was driving over the Verrazano Bridge into Brooklyn.  I was driving with my father and my sons to stay with my parents for the Hagim.  Sean was leaving that morning for Mountain Warfare Training Camp with the 2nd Marines.  We were supposed to stop at Dover Air Force Base for the night, but I wasn't tired, and had decided to push on.  

The Belt Parkway is known for traffic, and I tuned to 1010Wins for the report.  Within seconds of turning on the radio we heard about the first plane.  A marketing rep for 1010 lived near the towers and saw the plane hit.  She immediately called into the station, and they put her on the air.  No one believed it was a airliner.  They kept asking, "Are you sure it was a full-sized plane?"  

The Belt Parkway had a beautiful view of the NYC skyline, and in a few minutes we could see the smoke pouring from the north tower.  I am grateful to a large stand of reeds that blocked our view of the towers when the second plane hit.  As soon as we heard the news of the second plane, it was clear this was a terrorist act.  We drove on, waivering between  numbness, horror, and fury.  On our way home we stopped to buy food, as we were unexpected.  At our stop we shared our sorrow with everyone we met.  

Once home, I tuned into the news.  We watched as the towers fell, too horrified to turn away.  

Sometime after the north tower fell, Jesse came to me.  "Eema, can we watch some of my shows now?"  Pulled from my stupor, I realized the terrorists had accomplished more than destruction.  They had forced America to stop, if only for a moment.  Key to triumph over their hate is our ability to go on, to keep moving, and for the better.  Jesse and I watched Sesame Street that morning.  It's a wonderful show Sesame Street.  It understands that people are different.  We come from different backgrounds, different races, different cultures, but rather than fear or hate these differences, we can embrace them, share and learn from them, and be better because of them.

Today, that young boy is still insightful, and still often when he does not realize it.  He is a high school student, and has created a fictional world where peacekeeping means something real.  He searches for a world that embraces that lesson from Sesame Street, a world filled with respect and awe for all our wonderful differences.  I pray someday we will see it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

School has begun

So today was the second day of school.  While my children's reactions have been mostly predictable, I don't understand a couple of things.

1-How is it that any rules we had last year (Rules that are printed out and on the fridge) seem to be forgotten.
2- Why do I need to say everything between 3-6 times to be heard now that school has begun.

That being said, all three kids have reacted to school as expected.

The most interesting (and annoying) is my eldest, in the throes of his teen years.  I suggested he go to school with a binder divided for each class.  Once he discovered what his teachers expected, we'd get all his supplies.

  • One week before school- good idea.  
  • Erev school- not so happy.  
  • Night after first day- I am the most horrible parent for making him do this.  He knows what he wants, and I am 1000% (yes, 1000) wrong!  
  • Second morning- next year everything has to go on the day of locker set-up.  He hates this system, and possibly me.
  • Second night (after putting together only 3 binders divided into general studies, Jewish studies, and electives [his idea], and discovering that the dozen notebooks he wanted may not have been the best idea, plus he doesn't need folders)- "I see why this was the best way to do this."

Ki Tetze- Be Strong and Courageous

“If a bird’s nest happens to be on your path, whether in a tree or on the ground, if there are chicks or eggs and the mother bird is sitting upon them, do not take the mother with the children.  Send the mother away, and the young ones you may take; it will be well with you and you may prolong your days.”  (Devarim 22:6-7)

This section, along with much of parashat Ki Tetzei teaches compassion.  It’s not an easy thing to teach, nor an easy thing to learn.  Amazingly, much compassion is taught through action or mimicry, a fact understood by the Torah.  The child that is hugged when sad or hurt does the same for a friend.  First the action, then the feeling.  It’s a lesson that takes years to truly internalize.

 “Send the mother away, and the young ones you may take; it will be good with you and you may prolong your days.”

Unfortunately, it is also a lesson easily undone.  That same child, scorned or teased only once, not receiving the reward expected, may then react negatively rather than continuing on the path of compassion.  Teens and adults are not so different from that child.  We expect the world to be fair and balanced, and when it not, we are disappointed and disillusioned.  What happens when our positive action or acts of compassion are not met with goodness or the lengthening of days? Tradition connects this verse to the greatest apostate in our history, Elisha Ben Abuya.  The story is told that Elisha Ben Abuya saw a youth climb a tree to a nest.  After shooing the mother bird from the nest, the youth took the eggs and climbed down, but, upon reaching the ground, the youth was bitten by a snake and died.  Struck by, what he saw as hypocrisy, Elisha turned from mitzvoth and God. 

Our world is not so literal as Elisha Ben Abuya would like it to be.  There is goodness for individuals and long life beyond the number of years we live.  The lesson to learn is how do we strive to attain this, and how do we define it.  Looking into Elul we my be able to find an answer for this in Psalm 27, added to the liturgy morning and evening through Sukkot “Hazak v’ya’ameitz libecha…”  “Be courageous and God shall strengthen your heart…”  To find goodness and life is an attitude.  It is an attitude we all should strive to adopt.

Shabbat shalom.