Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Shofetim- Righteous Justice

Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tichyeh v’yarashta et ha’aretz. 
Justice justice you shall pursue, so that you will endure and inherit the land.

This verse is usually translated as “Justice, justice you shall pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land.  You may think the difference in the translation is the word “live,” but the actual difference is in the comma following the first “justice.” 

“Justice justice!”  The ta’amim, the trope or cantillation marks, connect the words.  There is no pause from one to the other.  In doing this, the Torah proscribes for us an absolute.  All of us, from the highest magistrate to the lowest commoner, are to be a just people.

But the word tzedek goes beyond justice.  It’s true meaning is righteousness.  It is possible to translate the phrase, “Righteous justice you shall pursue.”  Justice cannot just be blind.  It must go beyond to be honourable, good, and blameless.  Throughout the Torah we are reminded to remember and care for the needy in our community. How can true justice turn its back to the slave, the widow, or the orphan?

Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tichyeh v’yarashta et ha’aretz. 
Justice justice you shall pursue, so that you will endure and inherit the land.

But there is also that second difference, the word tichyeh.  Coming from the root for life, it is usually translated, “you shall live.”  However, it can also mean to endure.  Without righteous justice, our society cannot continue.  This has been proven again and again.  Societies that have allowed justice for the rich and famous, but ignored the common people have eventually fallen.  Without justice and righteousness, any civilization is bound to fall.  From Babylon to Greece, from Rome to Romenia, and we are seeing it in the news today. 

Tzedek tzedek tirdof l’ma’an tichyeh v’yarashta et ha’aretz. 
Justice justice you shall pursue, so that you will endure and inherit the land.

Let us endeavour to deserve it.

Summer Camp

Each summer Sean & I spend some time at Ramah.  I have done this for 16 summers.  For ten of those summers I was on staff at Ramah Poconos.  For the past six summers I have spent between one week and one month at Ramah Canada.

It's a wonderful opportunity.  Studies show that the #1 indicator of Jewish continuity is summer camp.  Choose your affiliation, and send your child.  There's something unique about living Judaism for 4-8 weeks without the imposition of the outside world.  Does this mean kids without summer camp won't have the same connection?  Of course not.  There are many factors, from family to school to community, but summer camp is unique.

Camp is also time away.  Camp time moves at a different pace.  It is exhausting and renewing at the same time.  Peace can be obtained in an afternoon of staring out at the lake.  Equality can be reached when everyone has to take a turn cleaning the bathroom.

Since I've become a parent I've developed a second perspective.  It's one most parents can never hope to experience.  At camp I get to see my children in their element.  Jesse's second summer was spent toddling around Ramah Poconos.  Keren & Gavi have almost grown up at Ramah Canada, from Gan into camper age.  It's their world.  They live apart from us; eat apart from us. Sometimes they walk right past us, but not in the obnoxious teenage way.  They're simply in their own world where parents don't exist.  It's an interesting space, a bit of a throw-back to a simpler time, and a generally safe environment to work out the dynamics of growing up.

For Sean & me this summer was a bit different from previous summers.  Usually Sean & I teach.  This summer we cleaned out the library.  We examined old siddurim and buried them in the camp geniza.  As we covered them up with the kids, we discovered staff names on books from their camper years, and pastic covers from siddurim long returned to the soil.  It was an interesting moment looking back and seeing the cycle from past to future, from our antecedents to us.  Humbling and proud at the same time.

Re'eh- The most important word- LOOK!

Parashat Re’eh is a darshan’s dream. It is chock full of material, covering blessings & curses, kashrut, shmittah, rejoicing, prophecy, sacrifices, slavery, and Hagim.  But amidst all of this, the opening verse offers too much to pass up.

“Re’eh Anokhi notein lifneichem hayom bracha uk’la’ala.”
“LOOK, I have put before you a blessing and a curse.”

We are often given imperatives. SHEMA, HEAR. RE”EH, LOOK. But do we think beyond the face value of these words? What does it mean to really hear? What does it mean to truly look? Our opening verse seems simple. “I have put before you a blessing and a curse.” The choice seems easy. Yet all too often we make the wrong choices. The blessings are not so obvious; the curses seemingly not so bad. We need to look beyond the surface, beyond the immediate effects to see actual end. SHEMA- understand; RE”EH- recognize.

In my shul growing up, the High Holiday Supplementary Readings booklet contained a poem by Jack Riemer with the following line, “The person who walks amid the songs of birds and thinks only of what he will have for dinner, hears, but does not really hear.” Dinner is important. We have children to feed. Our meals impact our health; our food choices effect the environment. Still, if that is the only thing on our minds, we will miss what is right before our eyes. We are too involved in our own minds and our individual lives to realize what is around us. We forget to look for the rainbows, to listen for the birdsong, or to hear God’s voice.

“Re’eh Anokhi notein lifneichem hayom bracha uk’la’ala.”
“LOOK, I have put before you a blessing and a curse.”

Choose well.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Parashat Ekev & Tu B'Av

It is appropriate that Parashat Ekev occurs in the weeks following Tisha B’Av.  This is a period of consolation, the rebuilding of the covenant between God and Israel.  The parasha reiterates the terms of the brit between God and Israel, reminding the people of what God has done for them and what they still need to do.

At a time when we are mourning the loss of the Temple and Jerusalem, it is a relief to be reminded that God is still with us.  It is a comfort before we enter Elul, leading to Selichot and the Yamim Noraim. 

The parasha also repeats God’s promises to us, that if we “obey these rules and observe them faithfully” God will favour us, bless us, and multiply us, fulfilling the promise made to Avraham that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the heavens and the sands in the seas.

Also occurring at this time of year is Tu B’Av, the fifteenth of Av, also called Hag Ha’Ahava, the Holiday of Love.  The Mishnah reports that on Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur the unmarried girls in Jerusalem would dress in borrowed white dresses, and go out to dance in the vineyards, setting up marriages for the coming year.  It is told that no days were as happy for the Jews as those two.

The Talmud gives six reasons for the celebration of Tu B’Av.
  • During the forty years of wandering female orphans could marry only within their tribes to maintain the line of inheritance. Once the Israelites were settled in Israel, this ban was lifted on Tu B’Av.
  • Following an incident in Shofetim, the rest of the tribes had vowed not to allow their daughters to marry anyone from the tribe of Benjamin.  Later, realizing the tribe could be wiped out, an agreement was reached where a Benjaminite could “carry off” one of the dancers (by previous agreement), saving Benjamin from extinction.
  • In the fortieth year of wandering, the deaths sentence, following the sin of the spies, was ended.
  • Pilgrimage to Jerusalem was restored after the split of the kingdoms.
  • The Romans allowed those killed at Beitar to be buried.  It is said that the bodies did not decompose during this time.  For this reason the Hachamim added the blessing of Hatov v’hameitiv to Birkat Hamazon to honour Bar Kochba’s fighters.
  • The period for cutting down trees for use in the Temple ended on Tu B’Av, ending the labour for another year.

Each of these led to building of the Jewish community, closeness to God, honour to our people, and the future of the Jewish people, increasing the opportunity for God’s promise to come true.

VaEtchanan- Transition in Leadership

Parashat VaEthannan begins with a conversation between Moshe and God about the passing on of Moshe’s leadership. 

For most of us, accepting that the time to pass the baton has arrived is not easy.  Put yourself in Moshe’s place.  Here is a man who grew up as a prince in Egypt.  He could have continued to live in that great dynasty, but he saw the injustice around him and fled.  In Midian he builds a new life, one with a family.  He is secure, and lives a full life there.  Then, at age 80 God calls him, and Moshe could not refuse.  He returns to Egypt.  He enters the palace of his youth, and he acts as the messenger of its downfall.  Leading the people Israel out of slavery, Moshe thinks his job is almost done.  Then, with the sin of the spies, he is given a forty-year extension.  For forty years Moshe continues to lead the people, dealing with their squabbles, their needs, and their constant griping.  Then, on the precipice of entering the Promised Land, Moshe must step down. 

Moshe’s death in the wilderness is often seen as a punishment.  Even in our parasha Moshe says,  “The Lord was angry with me” (Devarim 4:21).  But Moshe’s life of 120 years is also seen as the ideal full life.  Jewish custom wishes someone ad meah v’esrim, until 120, on his/her birthday.  Perhaps God was angry with Moshe, but perhaps God was also simply saddened to realize that the traits that made Moshe the perfect shepherd would also hinder him on the next leg of the journey.

There is a time for every leader to train others, to step down, and to be willing to watch as the organization moves on.  Our experiences make us who we are, and sometimes ready us for leadership, but at other times those same experiences mean we must step down.  For Moshe, his experiences as a shepherd made him the perfect leader to guide the people, but those same experiences made him unfit to be the military commander Israel now needed. 

Soon we will begin the month of Elul, a time to examine our past and look towards the future.  As we do so, I hope we can all examine our experiences to lead ourselves on the journeys for which we are best suited.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Summer is for Judaism

Every lesson we learn has an unintended consequence, for example: school summer break teaches us that learning takes a vacation.  

Still, there are great Jewish things to do even in summer to counteract this odd lesson.  And while summer is half over, there's still time to make a Jewish impact.

Here are my top ten suggestions for having a great Jewish summer...
  1. Read a Jewish book in your backyard (Wear sunscreen or sit in the shade)*
  2. Eat a kosher hot dog at a Jays game (I recommend having the Old Spadina curly fries on the side.)
  3. Learn a new Jewish skill (Sean is teaching a second beginner's Hebrew class at Pride starting August 25th.)
  4. Buy a new kosher cookbook and experiment with the recipes.  
  5. Have a Shabbat barbecue.  Shabbat starts late.  Invite everyone over, and get the barbecue going.  When the food is done, light candles, and eat Shabbat dinner in the backyard by the light of votive candles while serenading your neighbors with ruach.
  6. Attend an Eicha (Lamentations) reading on Tisha B'Av.  Join us at the Pride next Monday night as we sit on the floor reading by candle/flashlight.  The tune for chanting Eicha is haunting, recalling all the tragedies of our people.
  7. Buy some Jewish music.  Listen to it while taking a trip. 
  8. Read your machzor during Elul.  Write notes in it so you have something to read during long High Holiday services, or even the rabbi's sermon.
  9. Have a special Shabbat lunch.  Try a cold blueberry soup.  Ontario blueberries make a great cold soup (Soup: A Kosher Collection, by Pam Reiss, has a great recipe.)
  10. Choose a new mitzvah to start.  Daven Mincha in the early evening when you get home.  Start lighting Shabbat candles every week.  Put on your t'fillin each day (Can't get them on before work?  Don't worry.  The hiyuv, obligation, lasts until sunset giving you plenty of time).  Choose a charity to support (I can recommend some good ones).  Be a Zionist; support Israel on your table, in your home, and with your tzedakah.
*Last summer I read "Walking the Bible", by Bruce Feiler, an excellent read. This summer I'm reading "The Spirituality of Welcoming", by Ron Wolfson.  It's informative, and Ron is a great person.  I am also reading, and thoroughly enjoying, "A Letter in the Scroll", by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England.  

To me reading voraciously is a Jewish activity itself.  It's part of the Jewish ideal of learning throughout life.  Besides the books by Wolfson and Rabbi Sacks, I finished books 1-4 of the series, "The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel", by Michael Scott.  It uses mythology from cultures all over the world, and I've really enjoyed researching some of the mythical creatures in the series beyond the story.  I can't wait for book 5!  I am also reading "Why Does E=mc2 (and Why Should We Care?", by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw.  

If this seems like a lot, I have a tendency to keep a pile of books on my night table and one in my tallit bag.  The Rabbi Sacks book is my Shabbat morning book.  I read during the repetition and even sometimes during the Torah reading.  I alternate with the others Shabbat afternoons and most evenings.  My kids have all inherited this, and books are piled on their night tables, and even in their beds.

Eventually they Grow Up- Now What?

I have to thank my parents.  Every couple of years they offer to take the kids so we can go off and just be a couple.  When they visit they always suggest that we take a night together away from kid responsibilities.  We usually take them up on the vacation offer, not always on the evening offer.  Still it has stressed to us the importance of maintaining our relationship beyond our children.

This is our first summer sans children.  Keren, Gavi, and Jesse are all at camp.  Mostly we're working around the house.  There's a lot that needs to be done since we bought it, and if we don't do it ourselves it won't happen.  Still, here we are, no children.  There are no karate classes to run to, no meals we have to make for them, and no worrying about being home for them.  Today we planned a day just for us.  We made a picnic lunch (potato leek soup, smiked tuna and halibut, crackers, and cucumber salad- not what the kids would eat), and we headed to Centre Island with our bikes.  Our day went from 2-9 PM.  There were no worries, no curfew.  It was a lovely day together.

The ferry home was filled with families.  There were moms and dads and extended families all juggling children, diapers, snacks, and bathroom breaks.  Sean and I just sat back and watched, our day made all the sweeter by watching what we were missing.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Parashat D’varim/ Shabbat Hazon

Shabbat Hazon, the third Shabbat following Shevasar B’Tammuz and Shabbat immediately preceding Tisha B’Av, is so named for the special haftarah read. The haftarah foreshadows the destruction and devastation of Israel, which we will read about on Tisha B’Av. 
The words of Isaiah in the haftarah “Eicha, haita l’zonah, kriya ne’ehmanah,” “Alas, she has become a harlot, the faithful city,” and its theme of God asking, “Why do I need your sacrifices when you continue to do evil?!” hearken to the opening verse of Eicha, the book of Lamentations, and the themes of the day.
The cantillation of that verse calls out to the heart of the Jewish people.  The cry “Eicha!” tears at the deepest parts of our collective Jewish soul, and to who we are as a people.  Our connection to Jerusalem and Israel is such that we continue to mourn with that same cry nearly 2000 years later.  But Tisha B’Av is not only a day to mourn the loss of the Temple, but to reflect upon what caused our loss.  According to tradition, the Second Temple was destroyed due to sinat hinam, senseless hatred. 
The story is told that a wealthy man sent his servant to deliver invitations for a party.  One invitation was supposed to go to his friend, Kamsa.  The servant accidentally delivers the invitation to Bar Kamsa, whom the host hated.  Bar Kamsa was surprised, but chose to attend the party, assuming the host wanted to put their issues behind them.  When the host sees Bar Kamsa at his party, he orders Bar Kamsa to leave.  Bar Kamsa begs the host not to embarrass him.  First he offers to pay for any food he eats.  When this is refused, Bar Kamsa offers to pay for half the party.  This too is refused.  Bar Kamsa offers to pay for the entire party.  The host still refuses, and physically ejects Bar Kamsa from his party.
Embarrassed and angry, Bar Kamsa vows revenge on the Rabbis present who did not come to his aid.  Bar Kamsa visits the Roman Caesar, and tells him the Jews are planning a revolt.  The Caesar, unsure of the rumour, sends an animal to be sacrificed in the Temple as a peace offering.  Bar Kamsa deliberately wounds the animal in a way that disqualifies it as a Temple offering, but not as a Roman offering. 
The Caesar, incensed that his offering was refused, laid siege to Jerusalem, leading to its and the Temple’s destruction, along with the exile of the Jewish people.
For this reason our tradition teaches that to embarrass someone is akin to murder.  Furthermore, he who saves a life saves a world, and he who destroys a life destroys a whole world.  It is a lesson people everywhere need to continue to learn.
Shabbat shalom.
If you're interested in reading Eicha, here's a great site where you can hear it.