Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Parashat Emor- More than Jews have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jews

Sheishet yamim tei’aseh m’lakhah u’vayom hashvi’i Shabbat Shabbaton mikra-kodesh kol m’lakhah lo ta’asu Shabbat hi lA’donai b’khol mosh’voteikhem.
Six days you will do work, and on the seventh day will be a Shabbat Shabbaton, a sacred occasion; all work you will not do; it will be a Shabbat to the Lord in all your settlements. (Vayikra 23:3)
Ahad Haam, pen name of Asher Zvi Hirsh Ginsberg (1856-1927) and contemporary of Theodor Herzl, looked toward a vision of a Jewish spiritual center. In his book, The Jewish State and Jewish Problem, he wrote of the importance of “a Jewish state and not merely a state of Jews.” The future state had to educate and strengthen Zionism in the Diaspora. He understood that, while not every Jew would make aliyah, every Jew must have a connection to Judaism, the Jewish people, and the Jewish land- Israel. It was not enough to create a place; we had to create a revival of spirit in the Jewish heart. To this effect, one of Ahad Haam’s more famous quotes is “More than the Jewish people have kept Shabbat, Shabbat has kept the Jewish people.
Observance of Shabbat is the fourth of the Aseret Dibrot, commonly called the Ten Commandments, following immediately after the statements focusing on God. It is at the center of our beliefs as Jews. Not only we, but also all those in our community are given this rest. However, not all work is forbidden. Kol m’lakhah lo ta’asu, all m’lakhah you shall not do. M’lakhah comprises 39 categories of action. These 39 categories related to the labours required in the creation of the Mikdash. Each is a creative act that allows us to exert control over our environment. Perhaps the verse is better translated “Six days you will create, and on the seventh day will be a Shabbat Shabbaton, a sacred occasion; you will cease creating; it will be a Shabbat to the Lord in all your settlements.”
For so many of us creative labour is the way we relax. We garden; we blog; we doodle. While some of these acts many be communal, many are solitary. Today, activities can even be both communal and solitary in a single moment. Blogging, like much internet activity, allows individuals to interact with the entire world while sitting alone. Shabbat, as a time when we must cease this creative work, pulls us out of our own heads. It is a time we step out to reconnect with the community. As a sacred day, we gather for shared rituals and meals. We focus on community- on Judaism, the Jewish people, and Israel. Ahad Haam means one of the people. Perhaps he chose his pen name to stress the importance of our interaction as a community, that we are all just one of the people needing to interact as a community. A name is a distinction. Like our creative acts, it marks our individuality. But to maintain who we are as Jews, to build a future in Israel and as a world community, we need to connect and reconnect to each other. Shabbat ensures this. It raises our interactions to holiness, making our relationships sacred. Through Shabbat, a connection shared in all Jewish communities around the world, we continuously revive and renew our Judaism, our connections as a people, and our link to our homeland.
Shabbat shalom.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Yom Ha'atzmaut D'var from Rabbi Tzvi Graetz, Director of MERCAZ Olami & Masorti Olami

"a good land... a land of wheat and barley, of vines, figs and pomegranates, a land of olive trees and honey"
taken from the Torah reading for Yom Ha'atzmaut, Deut. 8:7-9

The Haftarah for Yom Haatzmaut (Isaiah 10:32-12:6) is one of the most beautiful and poetic of the entire Jewish calendar.  

But what is the connection of this Haftarah to the modern State of Israel? Why read it on Israel's Independence Day? Every Jew can easily celebrate the anniversary of the declaration of the State in 1948 by going to the beach and having a bbq like the majority of Israelis. There you can witness fly-overs by the Israeli Air Force, naval ships proudly sailing on the Mediterranean and an Israeli flag flying from car windows.   

The day is marked by a Torah reading, Haftarah and the inclusion of an updated version of Al Hanisim that is added to the daily Amidah and is based on similar prayers recited on Purim and Hannukah. All three prayers start with this formula of thanking God for "the miraculous deliverance, for the heroism, and for the triumphs in battle of our ancestors in other days and in our time". 

The Haftarah contains themes of peace among the nations, the pursuit of true justice, a utopian world of tranquility, the ingathering of the exiles to Israel and the centrality of Israel. We rejoice in the gifts that God has given us and thank God for saving us from our enemies. 

Of course, a vision of peace and a perfect world is nothing new. What then makes this particular one so special and inspiring for this day? It starts with a twig.  

At the very beginning of Chapter 11, Isaiah prophesies about a leader that will come from the family of King David "the spirit of the Lord shall alight upon him: A spirit of wisdom and insight, A spirit of counsel and valor, a spirit of devotion and reverence for the Lord. He shall sense the truth by his reverence for the Lord: "
The modern State of Israel is looking for a leader such as this. During the elections, this past January, Israelis filled the Knesset not with lifelong politicians but with representatives of all races, different professions and life experiences in the hope that they can help to lead the nation on its path to peace and to making Israel a better society.   

The fact that Israel jails politicians for corruption or worse, for rape and puts on trial soldiers for abuse of power serves only to make us "normal" among the nations, not a "light unto the nations" as Isaiah tells us in later chapters.  

We must strive to fulfill the words of the Haftarah "In all my sacred mount Nothing evil or vile shall be done; For the land shall be filled with devotion to the Lord as the water covers the sea".   

The vision that guides MERCAZ Olami is to support and push Israel into becoming an exemplary state. Not just in terms of other nations, but also in terms of what happens in the State itself. We must fight for and promote religious pluralism, to end the marginalization of women in the public arena and work to free agunot to get on with their lives. The status of all streams of Judaism must be recognized by the State and these streams must have the freedom to worship how and where they want to.  

It has been said that making a permanent peace for Israel can only be done by a courageous leader with a courageous heart. The same can be said of tackling the internecine squabbling of the Jews in Israel about who's Judaism is more authentic and will be more effective in ensuring its longevity. 

The road map provided by the Haftarah and Isaiah's vision expects a lot of a leader. But it is just that; a guide for the leaders of Israel on how to lead us to the path of our Redemption.
Chag Ha'Atzmaut Sameach! 
Rabbi Tzvi Graetz 
Executive Director 
Masorti Olami & MERCAZ Olami

My Israel- a D'var for this Week

During the past two weeks we have observed/celebrated three important days in our modern Jewish calendar. Yom HaShoah v’Ha’G’vurah is on the 27th of Nisan, Yom HaZikaron on the 4th of Iyar, and Yom Ha’Atzmaut on the 5th of Iyar. 
Yom HaShoah v’Ha’G’vurah, the full name of what we call Yom HaShoah, is the Day of the Holocaust and the Heroism. The world recognizes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet troops. It is a day chosen by the United Nations recognizing our degradation and the horror done to our people. In contrast, 27 Nisan is a day meant to go beyond the terror. The date originally chosen was the 14th of Nisan, the start of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and the eve of Pesach. Out of necessity, the date was moved to the 27th of Nisan, post-Pesach but within the time of the uprising. It was an interesting choice. Other dates were debated. Other historical connections noted. The month of Nisan is a time when public mourning is prohibited. How could we mark such a day in Nisan? The full name gives us the answer. Yom HaShoah v’Ha’G’vurah recognizes the awfulness of the event, one unsurpassed in history. However, it also sees beyond the event. The proximity to Pesach cannot be overlooked. In every generation someone has risen to destroy us, but we have, and we will continue to overcome these tyrants, bigots, and destroyers. We shall overcome. Yom HaShoah v’Ha’G’vurah recognizes not only the large acts of heroism, but also every act of defiance. It recognizes that to survive in such a world is heroic in itself. Furthermore, it recognizes the strength of those who went on to rebuild our Jewish world, going forth from horror to marry, raise children, and defy those who would have seen us annihilated in the world.
Just a week later, we observe/celebrate Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha’Atzmaut. These days are connected not to the Shoah, but are significant in that the strength and determinism that led our people to survive is the same strength we call upon as a people to build our modern State. To be in Israel for these days is surreal. It is a day of national mourning, for not a family in Israel is untouched. In Israel’s 65 years, over 23,000 soldiers have died in the line of duty. To move from this day to the elation of Yom Ha’Atzmaut can give one whiplash. We are a people with a long memory. We care for others, and hold ourselves to a higher standard because we were slaves in Egypt. We seek to build a better world. But also for this reason we know there is a positive future on the horizon. We are always looking for the rainbow, for the opportunity to say a bracha, to celebrate the future.
This year the Israeli consulate held a video contest asking individuals to create an original 65-second video on the theme of “What Does Your Israel Look Like?” Here is what my Israel looks like. My Israel is warm, not in temperature, but in the feeling it creates in my heart. It is a place of opposites, from the stark, empty beauty of the desert, to the lushness of the Hula Valley to the bustle of the cities. It is ancient and modern, with the road on which Joseph once walked evolving into a super-highway. My Israel is a place where I am with family, some I have known for years, and others I have yet to meet. My Israel is a place where I am comfortable. It is a place no longer divided into ultra-Orthodox or secular chilonim, but where Jews can worship and practice as they see fit. It is my favourite felafel and shwarma stand. It is chocolate and almond bread. It is Kinley orange soda (which I both love and hate). It is our favourite pickle place. It is fresh baked pitot eaten on the bus home. My Israel is ever changing and always constant. It is the place in which I celebrated my becoming bat mitzvah, and where we will celebrate Gavi’s and Keren’s coming of age next summer. You’re all invited. We hope you will come.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Kitty Blog #16, by Gandalf the Grey

The weather is great.  I'm spending lots of time outside.  I've become a door-cat.  I go in and out at will.  Nora is stuck inside.  Serves her right.  She can't be trusted.  She keeps jumping over the fence.  You'd think it wasn't worth the effort.  I mean, it's 6 feet high.  Why exert the energy?  What's she going to see anyway?  There are plenty of birds and squirrels to watch in the yard, and who knows what outside.  Besides, I know that the people give her treats when i'm outside, and I'm not bitter.

But clearly she is bitter.  She keeps eating my food.  As if the horror of being on a diet with measured out food wasn't bad enough.  Now, I have less food than I'm entitled to.  Plus, she gets the good food, while I get the diet food.  Who died and made her the boss of food?!  If I even try to approach my bowl when she's around, she flips.  It's my bowl!

I think it's all about jealousy.  She may think she's in charge, but I have freedom where she doesn't.  So ha on her!  I will deal with her obnoxiousness, because, in the end, I know that Jen & Sean will make sure I have food, while she still won't get to go outside.  Serves her right!

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Keeping the Faith- the Movie

I have a treadmill.  I use it.  It's the excuse I use to watch lots of television.  I can watch as much as I want as long as I am doing my walking.

This week I started watching the movie "Keeping the Faith."  It's billed as a love story about a priest, a rabbi, and their childhood friend.  The love story is there.  It's sweet and not too far-fetched.  But what I really love about the movie is the portrayal of the clergy.  All too often, in movies and shows, clergy are  portrayed in one extreme or another.  They are bumbling or way too holy.  In reality, clergy are just human. This is clear in "Keeping the Faith."  I especially like the supporting cast of the senior rabbi and priest.  They haven't always been perfect, but they've gained wisdom with their years.

It's also about communication, communication with friends, with family, and within our communities, and how it's effected by our roles and what we think we know.

There are so many wonderful tidbits in this movie.  I couldn't possibly name them all.  Here are a few:

A bar mitzvah student, Alan, whose voice is cracking horribly in his lesson says, "I suck! They're gonna take away my Yamulka!"  As expected, Rabbi Jake replies, "No you don't. You don't suck."  
Alan says, "I suck."  Rabbi Jake pauses, thinks, and tells Alan, "Okay.  Yes, you do.  You suck, but that's okay.  You're supposed to suck.  This isn't a talent contest.  This is a rite of passage...  God knew your voice was going to change when you were 13.  There's a reason why you have to do your haftarah at this age.  It's a challenge..."  Alan learns to embrace the suckiness.  Every bar/bat mitzvah student should watch this scene.

There's also a scene between Father Brian (the lead priest) and his senior in the church:
     Father Brian: "I keep thinking about what you said in seminary, that the life of a priest is hard and if you can see yourself being happy doing anything else you should do that."
     Father Havel: That was my recruitment pitch, which is not bad when you're starting out because it makes you feel like a marine. The truth is you can never tell yourself there is only one thing you could be. If you are a priest or if you marry a woman it's the same challenge. You cannot make a real commitment unless you accept that it's a choice that you keep making again and again and again."  
     Father Havel also says, "I've been a priest over 40 years, and I fell in love at least once a decade"  It shows it's not about suppressing feelings.  Following a calling is about making a choice, just like other life choices.  

Anyway, I just really love and appreciate this movie.  

Parashat Tazria- Thanking God

U’vimlot y’mei tahara l’vein o l’vat tavi keves ben shnato l’olah u’ven yonah o-tor l’chatat el petach ohel-moed el hakohain.
(Vayikra 12:6)
And when the days of her purification are complete, for a son or daughter, she shall bring a yearling lamb as an olah, and a young pigeon or dove as a chatat.
Parashat Tazria begins with the purification ritual following childbirth. Following childbirth, the new mother is to bring two sacrifices to the Temple. The second of these sacrifices is a chatat, a sin offering, brought to atone for being unable to attend the sanctuary. The first of these is an olah, the regular sacrifice offered twice daily as a thank you to God. Eventually, with the destruction of the Temple, the practices regarding impurity began to fall by the wayside. However without this same outlet, the need for a means to thank God for experiences grew. From this need develops the practice of reciting two t’fillot, birkat Shehechiyanu and birkat Gomel.
Most of us are familiar with birkat Shehechiyanu. “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who has granted us, sustained us, and enabled us to reach this occasion.” We recite birkat Shehechiyanu at new and happy moments in our lives, holidays, the wearing of new clothes, or experiencing something joyous that has not happened in at least a season (a new fruit or seeing the leaves turn in autumn). Birkat Gomel, “Blessed are You, Lord, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who bestows goodness upon those liable (for death), has bestowed every goodness upon me.” Traditionally is recited when surviving a danger or illness or when making a great trip, such as a cross-ocean voyage, or upon release from prison. Today, where cruises and air travel have become commonplace, birkat Gomel is rarely recited for this reason.
I have been blessed to recite birkat Gomel on five occasions. Three times following the birth of my children. Childbirth, even in our world, takes an extreme toll on the body. We are fortunate to live in a country where all can rely upon the healthcare system for proper care during pregnancy and childbirth. But even in Canada, maternal mortality is still a concern. On these occasions the community knew why I was bentching Gomel, and was celebrating with me. The other two occasions stemmed from less positive circumstances. Once I was involved in a car accident, and once I was mugged. On each of these Shabbatot my action caused a flurry of concern and questioning. In both cases I had not truly wanted to recite Gomel. I didn’t want to talk about why I was reciting Gomel. I felt it was over, and I wanted simply to put the experiences behind me. I came and said birkat Gomel, not because I thought I needed to, but because I felt halakhah dictated. What I learned is sometimes halakhah knows better than we do. Yes, people asked questions. They wanted to assure themselves that I was really okay. And through their expressed concern I was supported. Not only that, the act of reciting birkat Gomel served as a separation to put the experience behind me.
What the halakhah surrounding birkat Gomel realizes, that we sometimes forget, is that these experiences, even after any physical healing is complete, leave emotional residue behind. This can be great or small, but it is always present. Both the ritual and the communal support it engenders serves to aid the healing of and cleansing from those emotional sores and wounds all too often buried in our focus on the physical and our desire for privacy. Jewish life, which encompasses every aspect of living, is a life lived in community. Whether we recognize or welcome this, the halakhah realizes that this is a positive way to live.

Parashat Shemini- What Lies Beneath the Surface Counts

Ach et zeh lo tochlu mima’alei hageira umimafrisei haparsah…. V’et hachazir ki mafris parsah hu v’shosa shesa parsav v’hu geirah lo yigar tamei hu lachem.
Nevertheless these you shall not eat, they that only chew the cud or they that only splits its hoof…. And the pig because it splits its hoof and is cloven-footed, but does not chew its cud; it is taboo for you. (Vayikra 11:4,7)
There is a concept in kashrut of that which goes beyond treif. In some circles it is referred to as “High Treif.” For example: shark is treif. Lobster is High Treif. Unkosher beef is treif, but pork is High Treif. High Treif occupies a different realm. Those who do not keep kosher will often still refrain from High Treif. In contrast, those who wish to be spiteful in their anti-religious practice will davka eat High Treif. There is something ingrained in our collective memory about High Treif; something the Rabbis have always sought to understand.
As a sociologist of the Jewish community, this division begins to make sense. In terms of kosher aquatic animals we are told, “Whatsoever has fins and scales you may eat.” A shark, while not having scales (kaskeset), does have fins, and so appears closer to that with which we are comfortable. Shellfish, on the other hand, are completely foreign to our sensibility of what is allowed, and so enter into the High Treif domain. When the discussion turns to large land animals, there is a caveat. We are not only given a rule, but also specific examples. The camel, the shafan (probably a hyrax, but translated in older texts as coney) and the hare are mentioned because they appear to chew cud, but do not have a split hoof. The pig has a split hoof, but does not chew its cud. Interestingly the camel and rabbit do not seem to enter into this High Treif category. Camels have purposes beyond being a food source, and so inhabit a different place in our mindset. The rabbit or hare is so foreign to us as a food source it is forgotten. Perhaps in a different timeline this would have also happened with the pig, not a popular food source in ancient Israel. However, with the invasion of the Greeks and then the Romans, pork became a food associated with these invaders. It was easy to raise, fed on slop. Wild boar, indigenous to the forested areas of the Middle East, such as Lebanon and around the Mediterranean, was not a food source for mostly peaceful herds-people who lived on the plains. Conversely, for the militaristic Greeks and Romans, who traveled through these forests, the wild boar was not only a food source, but hunted as a show of strength with a feast as a reward. Even in Egypt, pork was a food for the priests.
It is likely this affected the way we think about pork. The Rabbis explained this verse by saying that these animals tried to appear kosher. Especially the pig, whose outward appearance (the split hoof) teaches us to be careful of what we may see on the surface. Perhaps this is a warning not to take things for granted. In each case, the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans, it appeared as if we could have a home within the culture. Unfortunately in the end, whether it be Egyptian enslavement, Greek desecration of the Temple, or the Roman destruction of Israel, we could not trust the surface. Always delve behind the facade. Look beyond the first impression, Learn what lies beneath the surface. Knowledge, and the pursuit of knowledge, is at the basis of our people. It provides us with a foundation and a future, and keeps us ready for anything.