Sunday, July 29, 2012

Vaetchanan- Sometimes the Answer is No

Vaetchanan el A-donai….  E’b’rah-na v’ereh et ha’aretz hatovah…. Vayitabeir A-donai bi lma’anchem vlo shama eilai vayomer A-donai eilai rav-lach al tosef dabeir eilai od badavar hazeh.
And I entreated God…. Please let me cross over and see this good land…. But God was incensed with me for your sake, and He would not listen to me, and God said to me, “Let in rest; do not speak to me again on this matter.”
It’s interesting that in the midst of his dissertation of Israelite history, Moshe shares with the people this conversation with God.  Between histories of battle and a reminder to stay faithful, Moshe shares his disappointment at being forbidden to cross the Jordan into the land of Israel.
Why share this disappointing conversation, and why here? The Torah, while it may seem so, is not a contiguous document.  Not every event or conversation immediately follows the one before.  There are gaps and missing information.  What then is the purpose of Moshe sharing his disappointment?
Within our daily t’fillot, and beyond into the personal prayers we say throughout our day, we ask God for numerous things.  Many of these prayers are intangible; others are general for the greater community, but some are very specific.  We ask for specific favours.  We make deals to get what we want. 
Sometimes the result is not what we wished.  At the most simplistic and self-serving, sometimes we still fail the test or fail to get a desired job.  In the worst moments illness persists or worsens.  Deaths occur.  Sadness and mourning come.
And all too often, if the result is not the one for which we asked, we say that God didn’t listen, or God didn’t answer.  What we fail to realize is, sometimes the answer is no.  We do not often understand the reason, or know if one even exists, so we instead close our ears to the answer, and blame God.
Here, in the middle of understanding our history, between those who attacked us, and reminders to follow God, is a reminder to listen even when we don’t like the answer.

Conservative or Orthodox?

Whenever Sean travels I have no time to blog, while he has evenings free.  This always leaves me playing catch up.  This past trip there was a lot Sean wrote, on which I also wanted to comment, but lacked the time to read his blog.

Since I was in my last year of university I have been fully shomer Shabbat, meaning I have fully observed the laws of Shabbat. 

I first decided to begin being observant as a high school student.  My family, and therefore home, was not.  It was a wonderful learning experience.  Everyone was supportive, and I would bend as far as I felt I could in order to be with my extended family and respect my parents and grandparents.

At university there was a new learning curve.  Although at Brandeis University, my group was not observant.  I questioned why I made the choice I had, and I often fell out of observance.  Still, by my junior year (that's third year for my Canadian friends), I was fully observant.  It was the place I belonged in Judaism, and I've never looked back.

My observance is solidly grounded in Conservative Judaism.  I believe it to be the most authentic Judaism.  Please note Conservative Judaism is not the Movement.  It is a theology.  A Movement is a group of people and, in this case, organizations, with all their strengths, weaknesses, conflicts, and compromises.  Judaism is, and always has been, fluid, and its observance has evolved throughout the centuries for better or for worse. (We no longer do animal sacrifice, but we have an elaborate kashrut system that seems to challenge the sacrificial system in the sheer volume of law and interpretation, but I digress.)

One of the wonders of Shabbat is sharing the time with friends.  Pre-children I (or Sean & I) would often spend Shabbat with others, either for a meal or the whole day.  Often my visits took me into the company of Orthodox Jews.  It is amazing how often people would say to me, "Wow, you're really frum."  What they meant was for a Conservative Jew you seem really Orthodox. 

Within the Jewish community there seem to be the following definitions of Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Jews- Reform do nothing. Conservative do some.  Orthodox do all.  Reality is far from this.  Add in Reconstructionists, and you've got a very confusing group that doesn't follow any real rules.  In all the movements there are those who follow the theology and ideology, and those who don't.  There are Orthodox Jews who drive to shul, and Reform Jews who walk.  I have a cousin who joined a Reform shul just so she could walk.  Is she Reform?  I'm not sure.  That's for her to say.

What I do know is Conservative Judaism requires that we follow the mitzvot- all of them.  Of course there are some that require a Temple in Jerusalem, and others that are gender specific or dependent on the Land of Israel.  Still, all those that are required of you- do!  What Conservative Judaism does look at is how we observe.  Does observance change as society and culture change?  When halakhah tells me, a woman, not to wear a man's garment, what does that mean?  Are my slacks, designed for women, a man's garment?  Is a tallit or a set of tefillin, a mitzvah given to all the people from which women were exempted later, a man's garment?  How do we define this?  This is where Conservative Judaism seeks to understand and evolve.

Yes.  I am frum.  I am an observant Conservative Jew.

D'varim- Models of Leadership

Yehoshua bin Nun haomeid l’fanecha hu yavo shamah oto chazak ki hu yanchilenah et Yisrael.
Joshua bin Nun, who stands before you, he will go there; strengthen him because he will cause Israel to inherit.
In the book of D’varim, Moshe recounts the history of Israel’s wanderings.  The tale begins with Israel, having just left Egypt, standing at Mount Horeb, ready to, in God’s eyes, enter the Land, and the rebellion of the people leading to the forty years of wandering, which are finally coming to an end.  Additionally, Moshe recounts the decision to appoint Joshua the heir apparent to Moshe.
Joshua’s faith and steadfastness never waiver in our text.  However, from Moshe’s words, it is clear that to be strong and steadfast a leader needs support.  Originally, God said to Moshe, “oto chazak…” strengthen him.  In his training of Joshua, Moshe must help Joshua to be strong.  He has the faith, but, as Moshe knows, even with God on your side, faith can be tested.  Throughout Joshua’s apprenticeship, it is Moshe’s job to build up and toughen Joshua.  Now, as Moshe prepares to pass on the mantle of leadership, he shares this job with the people.  Moshe himself has been worn down by the Israelites.  How many times has he cried out to God about their rebelliousness even as he defended and protected them? 
Leadership does not occur in a vacuum.  There are said to be three types of leadership styles: charismatic, consensual, and self-differentiated.  Charismatic leaders can bring along a community, but the base beneath him/her is lacking.  Without the leader before them, the community has no direction.  Consensual leaders bow to the majority, even when it differs from the communal mission, changing the path for all.  A self-differentiated leader must stand by his/her convictions.  S/he balances the needs of the community with the desires of the majority, drawing the people along the path of the communal vision.
Moshe begins as a charismatic leader.  He is able to lead a slave community to freedom, but he cannot change them.  During the years of wandering Moshe’s style changes, drawing others into his leadership circle, each with their own opinions, while still keeping them on the path set forth for the community.  Joshua continues in this style, leading the Israelites along the path, but only as long as the community provides the strong base. 
A congregational community is similar.  The leaders of the community set the mission’s path, but to accomplish it we work together at all levels, from the clergy team to the board, from committees to members.  Together we build a base for our community while we strengthen and support our communal path.

Mattot-Masei- We Are ONE!

In the double parshiyot of Mattot-Masei, the Israelites stand on the verge of the land of Israel.  It is within sight, and the end of their wandering is so close, they can taste the milk and honey on the air. Still, at the end of Mattot, the children of Reuven, of Gad, and part of the tribe of Menasseh choose the land on which they stood, forfeiting their portion to the western side of the Yarden. When at first, they ask for this land, citing its appropriateness for their herds of cattle, they are despised for their choice. Moshe declares, “Hinei kamtem tachat avoteichem tarboot anashim chata’im lispot od al charon af A-donai el Yisrael!” “Behold, you have risen up in your fathers’ place, a brood of sinful men, to again cause God’s extreme anger towards Israel!” However, they have not chosen to abandon God nor their brethren. Amongst themselves, they believe that this land, on the eastern side is to be their inheritance. They assure Moshe that, as soon as they have provided proper fortified cities for their families and pens for their flocks, they will not only march into battle with the rest of the Israelite tribes, but march at the head.

Until this point the children of Israel have functioned very much as separate tribes.  Even after entering the land, this tribal identification, for the purpose of inheritance and marriage, remains as a means of identification. However, in Mattot-Masei we see the effect of the years of wandering. Throughout those years in the wilderness the individual tribal identities begin to wane and a people is created. We left Egypt, although bonded by blood and common purpose, as separate tribes with differing personalities, but through the shared experience became a united people.
This attitude has been carried throughout history, even as Jews have scattered to every corner of the globe. Wherever Jews are, other Jews are welcomed. It is this bond that keeps Reuven, Gad, and Menasseh connected to liberating the land even while remaining on the eastern bank. It is this bond that has kept Jews around the world connected to each other and to Israel throughout history. As a people we have wailed for the loss of Israel on Tisha B’Av.  As a people we have ensured the birth and survival of the modern state, and as a people we have protected, defended, cared for, and supported each other around the world.  It is what has ensured Jewish survival, and it is what makes us unique among the nations.

Pinchas & Zealotry

Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon haKohein heishiv et chamati mei’al b’nei Yisrael b’kan’o et keen’ati b’tocham…
Pinchas ben Elazar ben Aharon haKohein has turned My wrath from the children of Israel, in that he was very jealous for My sake among them…
Kein b’not tzlofchad ovrot noton titein lachem achuzat nachala b’toch achei avihem…
Yes, the daughters of Tzlofchad speak correctly; you shall surely give them a share of the inheritance among their father’s brethren…
Parashat Pinchas begins with the aftermath of Pinchas’ killing of Zimri and the Midianite woman. This act appeases God’s anger at the Israelites having slid into sinning in Shittim. This incident has been problematic for Jews throughout the ages. On the one hand, Pinchas’ zeal saves the people, but, throughout history, Jews have stood witness to the damage that zealots can do.
At the other end of the parasha, we are witness to the flexibility of the law. The daughters of Tzlofchad, whose father had died in the wilderness, contest the inheritance laws. They go before God, stating that it is unfair that, merely because they were all born female, their family would receive no portion in the land of Israel. God listens to their argument, and pronounces judgment. They are correct. The law is amended.
It’s an interesting juxtaposition, a balance between zeal and moderation. Pinchas is the foil to Zimri’s total disregard for the law, but lest we think that his actions are the ideal, the significant story of the parasha is the willingness of God to adapt and amend the law.
On June 17th, the chief Sephardic rabbi in Israel wrote a memo, on official government letterhead. In it he referred to Conservative and Reform Jews, calling them “uprooters of Torah” who would “corrupt and sabotage” the Land of Israel. Schechter Rabbinical student Arie Hasit responded in the pages of Haaretz. The future Masorti Rabbi Hasit writes, “I believe that the Torah is truth. At the same time, I believe, as Rabbi Yishmael taught nearly 2000 years ago, that “the Torah speaks in the language of humankind.” As such, certain principles of the Torah are meant to be understood anew as human beings’ understanding of the world changes.” He concludes, “According to the Midrash, Moses did not recognize the teachings of Rabbi Akiva as Judaism. In the same way, Moses, Rabbi Akiva, Maimonides, would not recognize my brand of Judaism, nor would they recognize yours [Rabbi Amar]. Your brand of Judaism is no more authentic than mine. My Judaism comes from the same Torah as yours, and I refuse to apologize for it.”
Perhaps the time has come for us all to learn to balance our zeal with moderation, accepting that, as with Pinchas and the daughters of Tzlofchad, there are many faces of the Torah, and we should embrace them all.

Balak- Modesty Versus Privacy

Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov mish’k’notecha Yisrael.
How wonderful are your tents Jacob, your dwellings Israel.

This is the famous phrase from parashat Balak. When the prophet Bil’am is called upon by Balak to curse the Israelites, he travels to where he can overlook the camp. However, upon seeing the Israelite encampment, Balak is so overcome that, instead of a curse, he pronounces a blessing. This blessing is so wonderful, it graces the beginning of almost every siddur prior to the start of Shacharit, as a way for us to greet the day when we enter the synagogue. Rabbi Reuven Kimelman, at the time a Brandeis University professor, in explaining our collective decision to recite the words of a foreign prophet upon entering a synagogue, defined the words of Mah Tovu as “It’s good to be in shul!”
What was it that so inspired Bil’am that, upon seeing the encampment, he was unable to fulfill his mission, and curse the Israelites? Midrash teaches that it was the modesty of the people. The tents of the Israelites faced each other, as was the custom of the time, but with an important change. The placement of each tent was staggered, slightly off from the tent it faced. By doing so, no one could look from within on tent into another, thus preserving he modesty of all. Such a society, that went to such lengths to preserve the modesty of even the lowest member of the society was certainly one to be praised instead of cursed.
All too often today individuals lack a sense of modesty. Their exploits, public and personal are splattered across the papers passing for news. This week CNN journalist, Anderson Cooper’s sexuality was made public. He had written a letter to a friend, in which he stated that he was gay. The friend, with permission, posted the letter to his blog, “The Daily Beast”. Mr. Cooper had always kept his private life private. The Globe & Mail reported that he “came to think his remaining silent had given some people a mistaken impression that he was ashamed.” Mr. Cooper was not closeted. He was not ashamed. He was modest and private, confining the details of his private life to those in his intimate circle, family, close friends, and his significant other.
Unfortunately, we live in a society where looking into others’ lives is considered acceptable. Mr. Cooper has been subjected to rumours about his sexual orientation for years. I applaud him for his statement. It is, unfortunately, necessary in our society, which so vilifies individuals for not doing what others think they should be doing, or being what others think they should be. Still, I hope for a time when don’t ask, don’t tell is not an oppressive mandate, but a statement of modesty employed by all.

Hukkat- Passing the Torch

Kach et Aharon v’et Elazar b’no v’ha’al otam hor hahar.  V’hafsheit et Aharon et b’gadav v’hilbashtam et Elazar b’no v’Aharon yei’aseif umeit sham… Vayafsheit Moshe et Aharon et b’gadav vayalbeish otam et Elazar b’no vayamot Aharon sham b’rosh hahar…
Take Aharon and Elazar his [Aharon’s] son, and bring them up to the base of Mount Hor. And strip Aharon of his clothes, and dress Elazar his son, and Aharon shall be gathered and die there… And Moshe stripped Aharon of his clothes, and laid them upon Elazar his son, and Aharon died there at the top of the mountain.
This section of Torah is replete with lessons on leadership. Each week we are treated to vivid images of leaders: good and bad, charismatic and self-differentiated, those working b’shem shamayim (for the sake of God and heaven) and those looking for power. We see the effects of these leaders, and, in Hukkat, we see the passage of leadership.
Miriam’s leadership comes simply through being who she is, and she leaves the position through her death, mourned by the entire community. Moshe will lay his hands on Joshua before going to God. For Aaron, not only does the theoretical and philosophical mantle need to be passed on, but the literal mantle as well.
Together, Moshe, Aaron, and Elazar come to the base of the mountain God has designated as Aaron’s burial site. There, commanded by God, Moshe strips Aaron of his mantle, and passes it on to Aaron’s son Elazar.
There are a number of lessons we can take from these few verses. As leaders we need to do these things:
-       To be able to recognize when others need to step down, even when we are swayed by personal feeling, and be able to talk to others about the need and the time of passing on leadership. God tells Moshe it is time to do this. Perhaps Moshe feels for his older brother, and sees the end of his own position in this passing.
-       We must be willing to hand over the mantle of leadership. Aaron is often quiet in our text, but our traditions see him as actively involved, deep in thought, rather than passively accepting. Aaron understands it is time to pass the mantle to the next generation, and he submits gracefully.
-       Finally, we must be compassionate about this passing. Was Aaron vigorous until the end? Did he die due to his loss of position/purpose, or was his death near, and therefore he was ready for Elazar to take over. Having Moshe act as the conduit of power from Aaron to Elazar may also remove some of the sting of the loss.
We will never know the true feelings of those standing at Mount Hor that day. We can learn from their actions. We can work to create positive experiences at all stages of leadership, helping renew our organizations, while continuing to appreciate the lessons learned from those who came before.

Korach- United We Stand; Divided We Fall

Hibad’lu mitoch ha’eidah hazot...
Separate yourselves from this community.
Hein gava’nu avadnu kulanu avadnu.
Behold, when we are undone, when we perish, we are all lost.

Korach and his followers attempt to wrest the leadership of the community from Moshe and Aaron. With their downfall comes the downfall of their wives, their children, and all of their households. The entire parasha is a reminder that leadership within the Jewish world comes not from a prideful desire, but hopefully from the heart of those chosen by God, a calling.
However, beyond the attempt to gain power is a message of the damage done to the community through such a division. Even as Moshe and Aaron try to broker peace with Korach and his followers they stand as one community. So entangled are they that God has to tell them to step aside, to create two separate communities so He could punish Korach.
Ingrained in us is the idea that we are one community. Hillel taught (Pirkei Avot 2:4), “Al tifrosh min hatzibor; do not separate yourself from the community.”  The Rabbis expounded on this saying we should be a pliant as a reed. Alone, a reed is flexible, bending in the wind, but combined with others its strength is enormous. Korach’s strength was in his creation of a separate community within the greater Jewish community. Unfortunately, instead of using his power for good, to lead the entire community forward, he wielded it like a club, destroying not only himself, but also generations with him.
Such is the power of many, for good or for evil. We have strength together, but as our parasha later states, “Hein gava’nu avadnu kulanu avadnu; behold, when we are undone, we perish, we are all lost.” Our actions produce ripples which spread throughout our community in all directions, binding or dividing us, giving us strength or tearing us apart. Al tifrosh min hatzibor. In other words, united we stand; divided we fall.

Shlach Lecha- Reminders

…v’amarta aleihem v’asu lahem tzitzit al kanaf bigdeihem l’dorotom vnatnu al tzitzit hakanaf p’til t’cheilet. V’hayah lachem l’tzitzit ur’eetem oto uz’chartem et kol mitzvot Hashem va’asitem….
…and say to them, “And you will make for yourselves fringes on the corners of your clothes for all generations, and place in these corner fringes a thread of blue.” And you will look at these fringes and see them, and you will remember all God’s mitzvot and do them.

A cherished idea in Judaism is free will. Without free will, we could not be human.  Whatever you think of the place of animals in our world, in Judaism it is this idea, that knowingly we can choose a negative path, that makes us human, and therefore separate from the animal kingdom.
Parashat Shlach Lecha begins with a reminder that we can act as independent beings. We had been following for so long, first as slaves in Egypt, then following (or trying to) instruction from God or Moshe, this idea may come as a surprise. Shlach lecha, send for you, for you and not for me, or send if you wish. God is giving Moshe and the people a chance to choose for themselves.
Whether this choice was clear to Moshe, or whether a people raised for generations in slavery were ready to make an informed choice is lost from our text. We know only that the scouts are sent out with instruction and the charge “v’hitkhazaktem” be of good courage. Perhaps they were not ready, for this piece of instruction they could not follow. They were “like grasshoppers in their own eyes, and so in the sight of the Canaanites.”
A new generation had to be raised up to take possession of the Land, a new generation that would understand and be fully informed of the choices to be made. It is a story repeated through our history. We have accepted our wanderings with hope that the new generation we raise is the generation that will triumph in whatever challenges God sets before us. To keep this idea of informed choice alive in every generation we make tzitzit, fringes on our clothes. The fringe is the ultimate string around our nation’s finger, reminding us of the mitzvot we should choose to follow.
And if there is ever a question as to why, we add a thread of t’cheilet, royal violet-blue, to remind us that we are a special and chosen people, taken from slavery to freedom, and there is a responsibility that goes with the privilege.

B'ha'alotecha- Not By Might & Not By Power, but by Spirit

Vzeh ma’asei hamenorah… kamareh asher her’ah Hashem et Moshe…
And this is how the menorah was fashioned… according to the pattern Hashem had shown Moshe…

The menorah is an ancient and powerful symbol. Its creation and design are commanded by God. Its light illuminated the Ohel Moed during our wandering and the Beit Mikdash afterwards, until being carried into exile, as we were, by the Romans. This is a recognizable picture to any familiar with the Arch of Titus. For centuries, Roman Jews have refused to walk beneath this arch, which has symbolized the end of our sovereignty in the Land of Israel.
In Haftarah B’ha’alotcha, Zechariah sees a vision of the menorah. An angel explains to him the meaning, “…lo b’chayil v’lo b’choach ki im b’ruchi amar Hashem Tz’vaot; not by might and not by power, but by My spirit said the Lord of Hosts.”
Today, the menorah stands outside the Knesset and adorns the emblem of Israel. On the emblem, it is flanked by olive branches with Yisrael beneath. The image of the menorah is taken from the Arch of Titus. Its presence on the emblem represents a return from the Diaspora to the Land. The connection of the menorah to our haftarah stands for the Jewish ideal of peace, hope, and faith.  We have reached this point not by might and not by power, but by Spirit. With the two olive branches representing the balance between secular and religious, the symbol of the menorah connects our history as a great and ancient nation, but also just as connected to our ancient religious traditions.
When David Ben Gurion declared the establishment of the State of Israel, the chief rabbi gathered the Roman Jewish community by the arch. Together they walked, in solemn procession, under the arch towards Israel acting out our return. With the establishment of the modern state, the tangible menorah may not have returned, but the one forever illuminating our hearts burns bright.

Naso- Moderation

V’zot torat hanazir byom m’lot ymei nizro yavi oto el petach ohel moed. V’hikriv et korbano la-donai… l’olah… l’chatat… lishlamim.
And this is the law of the nazir- upon fulfilling the days of his consecration he shall bring it to the ohel moed [tent of meeting]. He shall present his offering to the Lord… for a burnt offering… for a sin offering… [and] for a peace offering.

The nazir is an interesting person in the Jewish world.  He, or she, dedicates himself to God for a period of time (although there are nazirites whose lives are also specifically dedicated). During that time, the devotee abstains from cutting his hair, from the drinking of alcoholic beverages, and contact with a dead body. Upon fulfilling his vow of nazirut, he is to present himself at the entrance to the ohel moed with three sacrifices, the standard burnt offering- olah, the sin offering- chatat, and the peace offering- shlamim.

Within parashat Naso the reasons for these three offerings are not given. The olah seems logical.  It is a standard offering. Having completed his consecration, this standard act would be the logical end, so too with the shlamim. The nazir has spent his designated period of time specially consecrated to God. Having ended that period, one may argue that it makes sense to offer a peace offering to God. Shlamim also has the meaning of completeness. The nazir has completed his time in special consecration and is also making peace with his return to being a complete part of the Israelite people instead of set aside from them.

Why though the chatat, the sin offering? One would think that to consecrate oneself especially to God, to separate himself from the community in order to be closer to God would be an act of praise, a spiritual level others would want to emulate. This is not true. Judaism teaches us that when we die, and are called to stand before the Kadosh Baruch Hu, that we will be called upon to answer for every legitimate pleasure we denied ourselves. The basis for this is set forth in the Torah. The Torah understands that some individuals need a method to be closer to God. That is the nazir. However, this ascetic attitude, ever trying to attain a holier level, is not the ideal of Judaism. When we seek to be closer to God than the general community, whether through a new chumrah, a stringency added onto the law, or denial, we separate ourselves from our community and we must seek to repair this rift.

B'midbar- Leading from Within: An Open Door Policy

Ach et hamatei Levi lo tifkod v’et rosham lo tisa b’toch B’nei Yisrael.
However, the tribe of Levi- do not number, and do not count them among the Children of Israel.

The tribe of Levi, and from within Levi the Kohanim, are excluded from the general census of the Israelites. There are many reasons for this: the Levi’im do not go to war.  Their duties are to protect and care for the Mikdash. They are not rewarded with land in Israel, but are given cities in which to live and supported through the tithes and sacrifices offered by the Israelites.
The Levi’im are set apart as the protectors and caretakers of the Israelites’ spirituality. They are in no way the only spiritual leaders. In parashat B’ha’alo’techa seventy elders go with Moshe into the Ohel Moed where Moshe places the spirit of God upon them, but it is not limited to the. Remaining outside the tent are Eldad and Medad. When Ruach Ehlohim, God’s spirit, descends, they too are touched by God’s imminence, a fact witnessed by the People. Still the Levi’im are set apart. They live in a spiritual time and place coexisting with God and the Israelites and yet separate from both. 
Over time this model of leadership, separate even while within, began to fade.  It is hard to always live separate, neither with God nor the community. With the development of rabbinic leadership a new model emerged. Students lived with their rav. They shared meals and holidays, learning and jokes. They married and became part of the family. As the Diaspora spread far-flung communities were in need of constant answers, and a professional rabbinate developed.  No longer were the rabbis also the community’s farmers and doctors, but still the rabbis lived as an intimate part of the community.
However, over time Jews were influenced by the cultures in which they lived, for better and for worse. The model of rabbi began to imitate the priest or minister, living separate, uncounted in the general census, in the archetype of the Levi’im. Rabbis spoke from on high. They held their congregants, and were held by congregants, at arm’s length.
The past few decades have seen a return to the original rabbinic model. Influenced by the Jewish camping movement, youth groups, and the chavurah movement, rabbis began to descend the bima, both physically and intellectually. The doors to the rabbis’ homes were opened, meals were shared, holidays, s’machot, and difficulties. Instead of being divided between congregants and clergy, synagogues created communities. It is a model of warmth and belonging, and one we hope to share with Pride for many years to come. Our door is always open.

Behar-Behukotai: Self Care in the Torah

…V’chai achikha imakh.
…And your brother shall live with you.

A man once came to Shammai and said, “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot, and I will convert.” Shammai chased him away. The same man then went to Hillel and said, “Teach me the Torah while I stand on one foot, and I will convert.” Hillel responded, “That which is hateful to you do not do to your neighbour.  The rest is commentary.  Now, go and learn.”
Hillel made a good point.  His “golden rule” has been adapted by religions around the world. But I would argue that this, v’chai achikha imakh, and your brother shall live with you, is a better explanation of Torah.
Beginning with lo tov heyot haAdam l’vado, it is not good for Adam to be alone, in Breishit, the Torah teaches us both to live in community and how we should do that.
Chai achikha imakh, your brother shall live with you. This idea goes beyond humanity.  Even the earth is wrapped up within it.  From the shmittah year’s release of slaves and loans to homes and land, everything we do, everything we are gets its meaning from this phrase, from how we live with others.
This is not just a statement about community.  It is a statement about each of us. Chai achikha imakh. Imakh, with you, it is not only our place to care for others, but for ourselves.  If we do not first do this, we will be unable to care for others and unable to care for the community and the world. 
Hillel summed this up in another of his famous statements. Im ain ani li mi li? If I am not for myself who will be for me? Ukhshe’ani l’atzmi mah ani? When I am only for myself what am I? V’im lo akhshav eimatai? And if not now, when?  This balance is the meaning of living together with our brothers.

Parashat Emor- One Law for All

Vayomer Hashem el Moshe, “Emor…”
And Hashem spoke to Moshe, “Speak…”

While it is not until the end of the book of Vayikra that we have a parasha called Emor, meaning Speak, it is a theme throughout the Torah.  This text is not a secret code for the Kohanim, our priests, or even only for the Israelites.  It is a spoken text passed on from generation to generation among all of Israel and beyond to the world.  As a people we have referred to ourselves as the Chosen People, meaning chosen to receive God’s word in order to share it with the world.  Torah and God’s law was never seen as the Israelites sole possession.

Mishpat echad yi’h’yeh lachem kager kaezrach yi’h’yeh ki Ani Hashem Ehloheichem.
You will have one law for the stranger and for the home-born for I am Hashem your God.

With words like these the Torah becomes a unique text for a unique people. Until this point law depended upon status, whether it be gender, social standing, or citizenry. Even after the receiving of the Torah, law throughout the world did not change much.  Until recently, and even now in some areas of the world, there are different codes for men and women. Citizens, whether of the land or the religion, fall under different rules, and social standing, based on title or land ownership, allows individuals to manipulate the rule of law for one’s own purpose. 

The Torah is for all people, one law for the Israelite and the stranger.  When we can respect each other, seeing each of us as equals under the law even through the lens of our differences, we can seek peace for us and for the world.

Friday, July 27, 2012

I Love Lucy

As a kid I was a big fan of I Love Lucy.  Anyone who is a fan of I Love Lucy knows that if something can go wrong for Lucy it will, and it will do it in the most humorous way possible.

Fast forward to my future-  I have managed to take that idea to heart, and institute it in my life.  Just some of the ridiculous things I have done...

  • As a teen- while walking backwards I have fallen over a hydrant.
  • Again, walking backwards, I suddenly turned to walk into a sign.
  • At Ramah Poconos I was the Rosh Hanutiyah (I ran the canteen).  At the end of the summer I was going in to clean up on one of the last days.  The door got stuck.  I yanked.  I yanked again.  I yanked a few more times until, suddenly, the door swung open, and hit me in the head.  I was knocked on my tush.  I may even have been knocked out for a moment or two.  I don't know.  I do know that I gave myself a concussion.
  • On a trip to Chicago for a family bat mitzvah, I was walking in the zoo, and I fell.  There was seemingly no reason, and I wonderfully wiped out in front of a crowd.  I scraped my knees and arms, and mostly my pride.
  • There was the wonderful story with the iron, sparks, and a black eye while Sean was in Japan.
  • Tuesday I was at kick-boxing.  Suddenly, I missed the bob (the man shaped pad we hit- sorry Bob; I didn't name it.).  My punch landed smack on my nose.  I saw stars.  It was a good hit.
Sean asked that I point out that when I did all these he either did not know me, or was out of town.  This is true.  Trust me that many silly things happen while Sean is home, but not so spectacularly.  I have been on crutches over ten times.  Amazingly, I actually have very good balance.  Because of that good balance, I am very careless.  Add that to a chronic knee problem that doesn't like it when I fall down, and you get disaster.

Lucy brought many hours of laughter into the lives of many people with her hijinks.  I hope I bring just a little into yours.  I certainly laugh about it.

Shabbat shalom.

On the Subject of Reading- Biff & Perspective

While I'm on the subject of reading...

I just finished the funniest book- Lamb: the Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore.  This book was one of those that made me actually laugh out loud, not figuratively, but a full-on burst of laughter, even when I was reading on the subway or in the doctor's office.

Here's the premise-
     For a significant anniversary (the book was published in 2002, so maybe it was the millennium) Biff is resurrected by anger Raziel to write a gospel.  The gospel focuses most of its efforts on the missing years of Jesus' (or Joshua's, as he is called here) life.

The book is not meant to be a sacrilege or poke fun at religion.  Mr. Moore takes his writing seriously, and has done his research.  He is portraying Jesus/Joshua as a real person, albeit with special powers and knowledge.  He has curiosity, fears, desires, love, questions, and misgivings.

The boys first meet when they are six years old.  Jesus/Joshua is resurrecting a lizard his younger sibling keeps killing (it's not on purpose, but through rough play).  Imagine a six year old boy left to care for his younger brother.  Rather than trying to take the lizard away, and to explain to the younger child that he can't have what he wants, Jesus/Joshua has resigned himself to simply bring the thing back to life.  He is the ever-suffering big brother put in charge of his younger siblings.  In a world where people were adults by age 12 or 13, we see them grow up as adults, but with the quirks and interests of the teens they are.

It helps to have some understanding of religion- Judaism, Christianity, Buddhism, and Hindi, but you don't need much.  Added knowledge of the history of Israel at the Temple times can enhance the experience, but, again, it's not necessary.

What the book also does is give an insight into Jesus/Joshua as a real person.  In teaching I have often spoke of the DreamWorks movies Prince of Egypt and Joseph: King of Dreams.  They are wonderful teaching tools because they portray these great figures as real people.  Moshe loves and worships (as a younger sibling to an older) the man who would one day become Pharaoh.  Joseph's brothers are thrilled that Rachel is finally having a child, and are equally excited that they are to have a new brother, until their father tunes them out.  These historic figures are not two dimensional.  They had lives and emotions.  Many do not want to picture Jesus as interested in sex, but he was once a 18 year old boy.  Whether you believe he was celibate all his life or not, he went through adolescence and puberty, and wondered.

From Biff, his childhood friend, you get an insight into what it was to be around Jesus/Joshua.  I loved how the miracles become normal.  Biff has seen it all.  It's just a talent his friend has, and sometimes he appreciates it a little less than most true believers would like to think about.

Sean and I had a discussion last night about Moshe and the first set of tablets.  The pasuk says that Moshe flung (or sent) them from his hands.  The Mishnah uses the passive verb "they became broken." Discussions that follow give Moshe all sorts of outs, from the most far-fetched (aka miraculous),
            that when Moshe looked upon the celebrations surrounding the golden calf, the letters on the  
            tablets flew off to Heaven.  With the divine letters gone, the tablets took on their real weight, and  
            Moshe was unable to hold them.
to the simplest,
             in shock, they slipped from his hands.

I believe the Rabbis had great trouble seeing Moshe as a real person.  He was surrounded by the divine light of God (from which my daughter gets her name).  Isn't someone chosen by God somehow more holy than we?  The same problem happens with David.  Any reader of the Tanakh can tell you that David (and Solomon after him) did a lot of not so okay things, but God loves him.  Many commentators try to make him better than he was.

But they, and Jesus/Joshua too, were human with all our gifts and all our faults.  Just like them, we too have the divine in us, if we would just reach inside.

Read the book.  No matter your religion or lack thereof it will give you two gifts- laughter and perspective.

Reading & Recipes

Sean already picked on me about getting a recipe out of a book.  By the way I made a mistake.  It wasn't a salad dressing.  It was a dip to accompany salmon- watercress, cilantro, and sour cream.  Sounds wonderful.

This morning was a rare morning.  I got to sleep in.  I can't actually remember the last morning I had that ability.  It should have been Monday, but after Sunday at Ramah, I napped then couldn't sleep, so my sleep-in was still only 5 hours of sleep.

I woke before my alarm, grabbed my latest book from the night table, and read for an hour, a real treat. I'm re-reading Powers That Be.  It the first of a sci-fi series by Anne McCaffrey and Elizabeth Ann Scarborough.  There's a lot of cultural references and friendly interaction, which understandably take place around meals.  Dinner was moose spaghetti.  Yum.  Moose is kosher, but where would I get one properly shechted at this late date, and besides, it's the 9 days leading up to Tisha B'Av, so no meat.  Turns out we're also out of spaghetti.  The compromise- bowties with (fake) meat sauce topped with Parmesan cheese and pine nuts- A decent compromise, which I am enjoying while I type.

I love to cook, even more than I love to eat, although the two are, obviously, intertwined.  The best eating is the picking and tasting done while cooking, and I'd be happy to have that as my meal many a day.  As a child, a favorite part of family holiday celebrations at my Aunt Dawn's and Uncle Paul's house was standing in the kitchen, with all the other kids, while the turkey was being carved.  If any of us saw an opening, we'd thrust forward a hand to snag a small piece of the turkey that had fallen off.  Arnold was a master carver, and it's only through his skill that no one ever lost a finger.  Those stolen scraps were sweeter than anything served at the table.

These are the types of memories that make me go "yum" when I'm reading a book.  It's the meal around which significant moments occur and special memories are formed.  This is true for books, and it's true in real life too.  Faye Kellerman, in her Peter Decker/Rina Lazarus series knows & uses this, as does Susan Wittig Albert in Lavender Lies. Both have includes recipes at the end of their books to share the moment with the reader.

It's a known fact that, the more senses you engage, the stronger the connection of the memory.  Good author's use this purposefully, others by accident, but it connects their characters to us, and makes us care.

By the way, a favourite genre for me to read- cookbooks.  The best includes stories with the recipes.  I recommend Recipes Remembered: A Celebration of Survival, by June Feiss Hersh, and Welcome to Junior's! Remembering Brooklyn With Recipes and Memories from Its Favorite Restaurant, by Marvin & Walter Rosen.  Sean's favorite is the Junior's cookbook, although he also loves the stories and pictures in a couple of Israeli cookbooks we have.

Happy reading & eating!

Thursday, July 26, 2012

And This is Precisely My Point

To comment on my wonderful husband's blog, yes, men & women are different, and we get very different things from what we read.

The Fifty Shades series has certainly gotten the continent talking.  With plenty of "romance" novels and erotic books, why has this series made it into the hands of so many women (and men, although they are talked about less)?  Most of the discussion centers around the large amount of sex in the books and that the sex goes past "vanilla."  I am a huge fan of romance novels.  I even have some where the character and relationship development have touched me so much that I keep them, and read them over and over, whenever I need a pick me up.  I go through many when Sean is away.  Most I can read in a day or two.  This is not fine literature, but if the writing is good, the story will touch you.  I am unlikely to reread Shades of Grey.

Yes, there is a lot of sex in the text.  But as I posted previously, the books are not wonderfully written.  The author shows promise.  Her development of the main characters has been good.  Although, even there, readers know much more about the character of Christian Grey than Anastasia Steele, his significant other.   Unfortunately, the peripheral characters barely see any development.  They are background, window dressing on her story.  Nevertheless, E.L. James has created a good story.  The story itself is a good one, beyond the sex.  It is a story of Grey, a damaged and abused individual caught in his past, barely coping, and how he moves beyond his past to be free of it.  Even while recognizing the flaws in the writing, you care about the character of Grey, and want to know what happens next.  James does not do the expected, and there are bursts of very promising creative writing.

Really the story is not the books, but the wildfire, public spread into the hands of so many.  Why this book?  Why now?  Better and more well-known writers have written erotica.  Anne Rice, of the original vampire craze, wrote a series.  Why E.L. James and not Anne Rice?

At first I thought it might have been the timing.  When the are barely dressed models selling sex cars, food, and even cleaning supplies, the shock factor slips away.  Still, Fifty Shades is often downloaded because people do not want others to see them holding the book.  We clearly are still embarrassed on some level.  There have been periods of time when erotica, and even porn, was mainstream.  Crowds publicly flocked to see Caligula and Deep Throat.  Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Story of O have had their day in the sun.  There were obscenity trials, but that just made more people want to read them.    And that is the key to the Grey series- PUBLICITY!

In sales the key is often location, location, location.  Location provides you with traffic and noticeably.  In the publishing world location is all about publicity.  Where can you publicize?  How do you publicize?  Shades of Grey won the world series of publicity.  t became a news story.  Whether intentionally or not, like the news of obscenity trials spurred sales of Lady Chatterley, and feminist critism the sales of "O", the news that... oh my God! SOCCER MOMS ARE READING ABOUT SEX... spurred others to buy the book, which in turn created more news, which created more sales.  Brilliant.

By the way, soccer moms, and other types of moms, know about sex.  We have children.  And... there's a good chance not all the sex was, as Grey puts it, vanilla.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Raising Children- A Work in Progress

A friend once said raising kids is like flying an airplane while trying to build it.  This is as apt a description as any I can create.  During the past month Sean was away for 3 weeks.  Before Sean left I told Jesse we needed to go through his clothes to ensure he had everything he needed for camp.
  Week #1- Jesse had exams- Of course this meant he had no time to go through his clothes, or listen, or not be obnoxious, etc.
   Week #2- Last 2 exams, now of course he needs time to recuperate.
   Week #3- Trying to make up to his mom- he's actually helpful, but I suspect it's because he doesn't want to take the bus.  "Maybe if I'm good to the chauffeur (read Mom), she'll drive me."  He still hasn't cleaned his room or started packing for camp.

Fast forward- The day before Jesse's luggage was set to leave for camp, he finally realizes he doesn't have enough underwear or swim shirts.  Underwear was easy, swim shirts not so much.  A lesson is relearned- "Failure to plan on your pert does not constitute an emergency on mine."

Two weeks of camp have passed.  A letter has finally arrived.  He's having a great summer.  I didn't doubt it.  If things were lousy, he would have written.  He needs a care package: nail clippers, a puzzle book, the swim shirts I didn't have time to buy, and a book that's heavier than his duffel bag.  I see if I can find the swim shirts.  The book he ain't getting, and the other things... well, good things come to those who wait.

Outing My Husband & 50 Shades

If you follow Sean's blog (, you already know he's reading the 50 Shades series.  What you may not know- weeks before he blogged about it, I outed him to the Toronto Jewish community.

While Sean was at his 3 weeks of ADT (not the alarm company, but a type of US Naval Reserve duty), he purchased and began reading "50 Shades of Grey."  I, of course, knew since we talk more at night when he's away than when he's home (at home we rarely get a moment alone to talk until we are collapsing in bed. Sean has an amazing knack for falling asleep mid-sentence.).  Each night we'd try to skype, not always the best for me, but then again, he is the man I love, and I even like him.

Fast forward to his last week of ADT.  Back at home, the kids were finishing school.  Each year one of Keren's classmates has very generously invited the grade to her grandparent's home for a pool party. (Really it's the grandparents who are generous, but this is a family that is wonderful in all generations!)  In past years I have been working full-time.  Keren has gone to the party with friends, and I have arrived for the last 10-15 minutes to pick her up.  This year I am working part-time, plus my hours begin early so I can be with the kids in the afternoon.  I had the lovely benefit of being able to spend my late afternoon pool-side talking to other moms.  The hot topic of the day was (can you guess?) the latest trend- mommy-porn, aka "50 Shades of Grey."  As talk turned to the book, I blurted out, "Oh, Sean just bought that.  He's reading it while he's away."  Reactions were "Really?"  There was some laughter and a general state of impressed-ness (no, that's not a word, but it should be.).  Kudos to Sean for seeing a new trend racing through the community and instead of just wondering about it, checked it out.

Second story- a week later, when Sean was home, I ran to the Superstore late one evening to get the shopping done.  Wandering the aisles, I noticed they had "50 Shades Darker".  I bought it for Sean with the intent to stick it in his suitcase for him to read on his next AT (another type of Naval Reserve duty).  While in the store, I bumped into a young couple.  They are engaged, and come to our shul.  It was her first time in a Superstore.  I said, "It's great. (gesturing to my cart) I have vitamins, sunscreen, books, and broccoli.  What more could I ask for?!"  What I did not realize until I arrived at the check out was the spine of "50 Shades Darker" was sticking up.  Here I was with the latest mommy porn, and I'm showing it off to potential congregants.  Well, everyone wants their rabbi to be in touch with the latest news and trends- don't they?

But really, Sean was asking me (and later in his blog) what's the popularity of these books.  They're okay, not really well written.  There's a lot of repeated words.  You can tell the author is a TV producer as the character development totally focuses on the main couple only.  In books we usually get varying sorts of development in all the characters, but in "50 Shades" we know nothing of Ana's best friend and roommate, or Christian's siblings, even though they seem important.  What we do have is a great romance (over the top and beyond what most of us would want, but great nonetheless).  Ana & Christian are devoted to each other.  Some theorize that the popularity comes from the idea that what seems at first as dominance is really serving Ana.  Others think it's just the abundance of sex.   Personally, I don't think it's the sex.  Yes, there is sex in the book, a lot of sex, but most of it no different than many so-called bodice rippers.  More- yes, but different- not so much.  It's a formula that works. This one just has much better pr, which may also come from it being written by a producer who would know how to promote.

One more story- I didn't put the book in Sean's suitcase because I wanted to share the second story with him.  (I'd already shared the first.)  He began to read the book, and so did I.  While the writing is adequate, you really do want to know what's going to happen to Christian & Ana, and you wonder how Christian got to be who & where he is.  I was finishing it up on Sunday, sitting in our den. In the story there was a description of a lunch. (Food is important in the book.  Unfortunately we know more about the food they eat than the people to whom they are closest.)  As I get to this description (it's actually a salad dressing), Sean walks by the den just as I say, "yum."  All this sex, and my verbal outburst comes from the salad dressing.  We laughed about it in the moment, but it got me to thinking.

Okay, yes there's a lot of sex in the book, and, while I believe E.L. James could have cut much of it out, without the sex the book probably wouldn't have sold as well.  It's not great writing.  The gift was in the promotion- "Wow, a book full of sex- beyond the mainstream sex- being marketed to moms (normal women)."  When these moms heard this, some went to buy the book.  Newsflash- moms are buying this book- it's mommy porn. Now the self-fulfilling prophecy is realized.  The more the news talks about this books, the more women wonder & buy it to see what everyone else seems to be reading.  With more buyers, there's more news, not to mention the promotion.  It was a wonderful marketing concept.

For Sean, there's wonder- why are so many women reading this book?  What questions should the popularity of this trilogy make us ask about our relationships?  He wonders if people are bored and looking for more (although maybe not this much more). Sean questions whether couples need to communicate more about their physical needs, not just about the shopping list or the carpool.  He may be onto something.  For me, happy, satisfied, and fulfilled in my relationship, "50 Shades of Grey" is just another romance novel, one I will likely not reread. (BTW, I do like romance novels.  I have a couple of favourite authors, and I do reread them over and over and over again.)  What I really liked was a new idea for the salad dressing.  We're always looking for new recipes.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Self Care

Sean recently posted about self care.  Chaplains are bad at it, so are other clergy, doctors, and most of those involved in the so-called "helping" professions.  

One of the pluses of being a rabbi couple is that while we are not so good at taking care of ourselves, we are very good at taking care of each other.  Most of the time it works.  I frequently remind Sean that he is supposed to work two parts of any day, meaning morning and afternoon, afternoon and evening, or morning and evening.  It's a lesson stressed in the last year of rabbinical school.  Sean doesn't always pay attention, but it's a niggling thought in the back of his mind.

Sean reminds me that I am supposed to work 21 hours a week.  I sort of listen.  It keeps me from working too many more.  I am also the last person in the world not to have a smartphone.  My phone doesn't know how to check email.  I like it that way.  It too helps me keep my part-time job part time.

Unfortunately, when Sean is away my self care reminder leaves.  Even worse, he turns into a catch-22.  We often skype in the evening.  Talking to Sean regularly helps me digest my day, relax, and lower my blood pressure, usually, but being tied to the computer trying to condense a full day's worth of talk into a short time simply stretches the evening well past its expiration time.  Single parenting also has its ups and downs.  Our schedule is based on two parents.  It takes about two weeks to create a new schedule. That's how long Sean's usually gone.  He returns and it starts all over again.

Still, I'm working on it.  I kick-box twice a week.  We got a treadmill.  We actually use the treadmill for its intended purpose.  We do not hang laundry on it.  I watch lots of silly movies and some not so silly. I read and read and read (another catch-22- I often get so involved in the book I forget to sleep).  It's a work in progress.

Currently, my work in progress means I need to log off and go to sleep.  It's midnight.  Pleasant dreams.