Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Parashat Ekev~ Striving for the Moon

V’hayah eikev tish’m’un eit hamishpatim haeileh ush’martem va’asitem otam v’shamar A-donai Elohekha l’kha et habrit v’et hachesed asher nishba la’avotekha. Va’aheivkha uveira’kh’kha v’hirbekha uveirakh pri vit’n’kha u’fri admatekha d’gan’kha v’tir’sh’kha v’yitz’harekha shgar-alafekha v’ash’t’rot tzonekha al ha’adamah asher nishba la’avotekha latet lakh.
And it shall come to pass if you observe these ordinances, and keep and do them A-donai your God will keep the covenant with you and the mercy that [God] swore to your ancestors. And [God] will love you and bless you and multiply you, and [God] will bless the fruit of your body and the fruit of your land, and your wine and your oil, and the increase of your cattle and the young of your flock on the land, which [God] swore to your ancestors to give to you.
Throughout our history people have speculated about our relationship with God. As a people, we are the bride of God. We are the children of God. God is our judge. God is our saviour. God loves us and we are to love God. What we do not have is unconditional love. To most of us, God is omnipotent. God is benevolent, and God is omniscient. We expect a wholly loving God, one who knows all and cares for us. But the question is what does it mean to love us. Bride/groom, children/parent, judged/judge, saved/saviour, none of these relationships are unconditional. The important relationships in our lives are ones where actions matter.  In Judaism, faith alone is not enough. It must be accompanied by action. God’s love alone is not enough. It too much be accompanied by action.
In last week’s parasha, we read the Shema and V’ahavta. How are we to love God? We are to love God with all our heart, all our soul, and all our might. We show this by teaching our children. We show this by placing God’s word as a sign around us, both physically and spiritually- in time.  This sign reminds us to live a life with purpose, a life with direction. That direction emanates from God’s law. This week’s parasha tells us how God loves us. God shows us how He loves us through the blessings He provides. We are blessed in our longevity as a people, in our wealth, not the wealth of money, but rather, the wealth of sustenance as a people and our connection to the land of Israel.
Together, our love and God’s, represent the brit, the covenant we honour everyday. Like all meaningful relationships, this one takes effort and energy. Whether a marriage or a parent/child relationship, meaningful relationships take a 100% effort every day. We may not always hit as high as we want, but if we always aim for the stars, even when we miss we land on the moon. This is one more lesson our relationship with God teaches us daily.

Parashat Vaetchanan~ Listening to the Answer

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.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Parashat Devarim- This is YOUR Future

Eileh had’varim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisrael b’eiver haYardein bamidbar baArava…. Vay’hi b’arba’im shanah b’ashtei-asar chodesh b’echad lachodesh diber Moshe el b’nei Yisrael k’chol asher tzivah A’donai oto aleihem.
These are the words that Moshe spoke to all of Israel across the Jordan in the wilderness, in the Arava…. And it was in the fortieth year, in the eleventh month, on the first of the month that Moshe spoke to the children of Israel according to all that A’donai had commanded to them. (D’varim 1:1, 3)
These are the words… The book of D’varim is a summary of the Torah, not the entire previous books, but the teachings that God gave to the Israelites throughout the years of their wandering in the midbar. After forty years of daily wandering, Moshe takes it upon himself to remind the children of Israel all that God had commanded. In the forty years prior, as the commandments are presented, the Israelites are involved in the day-to-day grind of living in a wilderness. In the day-to-day they cannot be properly focused on God’s commands. They complain. They wheedle. They whine. They are focused on their needs, the needs of a large people living in a wilderness without a permanent home. Now, standing on the banks of the Jordan, looking forward into the land, their land, the land for which they’d been searching, even though it was right there all along, for the first time since Jacob went down to Egypt with his family, the Israelites have a future.
As a people in the wilderness, the Israelites are without a future. They are in a holding pattern, waiting for the generations to die off. But now they are glimpsing their future, and the mitzvot must be revisioned and reinterpreted in this context. This is also in preparation for the passing on of the mantle of leadership. Moshe has not only been the leader, he has been the repository of all Jewish knowledge. Joshua is not the same type of leader as Moshe. He is a military leader not a shepherd. In the coming years, Joshua will be dedicated to the reconquering of the land of Israel. The Israelites will no longer be in one camp. They will be spread throughout the land. The time has come for the Torah to be shared amongst all the Israelites, as it was meant to from the start. Next week, in parashat V’etchanan, as Moshe continues his discourse he quotes the statement of faith originally stated by Jacob’s sons, we are all reminded of our connection to God and to the mitzvot. From now on, they are to be kept in our hearts, the Jewish seat of intellect. We are to speak about them every day. No longer do we have one person who embodies this knowledge and connection to God. We are each this person. From this moment on we each become the leader, the teacher, the embodiment of what it means to be a Jew.

Deportees- Named at Last

On January 28, 1948, a plane chartered by US Immigration, left Oakland carrying 32 people, 28 Mexicans and the American crew.  Some were deportees, others part of the government-sponsored bracero program whose ride home was part of the contract.  Twenty miles west of the Coalinga the plane's engine exploded, bringing down the plane, and killing all on board.  News accounts reported the crew names, but referred to the passengers as "deportees," even though many were on government sponsored contracts.

Woody Guthrie read about the crash.  In response he wrote a poem protesting the anonymity of the workers.  A schoolteacher named Martin Hoffman set the poem to music.

The sky plane caught fire over Los Gatos Canyon
A fireball of lightening, and shook all our hills
Who are all these friends, all scattered like dry leaves?
The radio says, "They are just deportees."

Is this the best way we can grow our big orchards?
Is this the best way we can grow our good fruit?
To fall like dry leaves to rot on my topsoil
And be called by no name except "deportees?"

It's a song I grew up knowing, and a song that has shaped how I think of people.  It's a song with a sad ending for those anonymous individuals and their families.  People needed for our economy, but either ignored or looked down upon.  Their story has finally come to an end.  Here's how...

In 1974, Jaime Ramirez came to the United States.  He was 18.  He knew his grandfather had died in the US in a plane crash along with an uncle.   He planned on looking for their graves.

In 2009, writer Tim Hernandez was doing research at the Fresno County Library.  He had been listening to the Guthrie's song as part of his research, and couldn't get the lyrics out of his mind when a 1948 headline about the crash caught his eye.  He began to wonder  if their families back home ever knew what happened.

In 2011, Carlos Rascon was appointed Director of Cemeteries for the Diocese of Fresno.  In making rounds of the cemeteries, Rascon noticed a bronze marker noting the death of "28 Mexican citizens who died in an airplane accident."  It "didn't sit right" with him.

Eventually Hernandez's and Rascon's paths crossed.  Through their collective research names, often misspelled and missing in part, were discovered.  They wanted to do something to honor those 28 previously nameless.  They raised money and looked for the families.  As their monetary goal was nearing they hadn't found a single family member.  However, after meeting Nora Guthrie, who told him, "My father believed in the importance of names," Hernandez agreed the time had come to dedicate the memorial.

Meanwhile, Ramirez told someone about his grandfather who told someone else who had seen an article about the memorial.  In June, Jaime Ramirez met Tim Hernandez.

On Labor Day, a fitting date, a monument etched with four falling leaves bearing the initials of the Americans surrounding a list of the 28 Mexican citizens' names will be unveiled in front of an oak tree in Coalinga still blackened from that crash all those years ago.  It's about time.

To read the article about this too long delayed event, go to http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-deportees-guthrie-20130710-dto,0,2642231.htmlstory

To hear Woody Guthrie's and Martin Hoffman's beautiful tribute, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8lRf6fATWE. 

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Parashat Masei- Where we are matters

Eileh mas’ei B’nei Yisrael asher yatz’u mei’eretz Mitzraiyim l’tziv’otam b’yad Moshe v’Aharon. Vayichtov Moshe et motza’eihem l’mas’eihem al pi A’donai v’eileh mas’eihem l’motzaeihem.
These are the stages of the Children of Israel by which they went out from the land of Egypt as their congregations under the hand of Moshe and Aharon. And Moshe wrote their goings out in stages according to the word of A’donai, and these are the stages of their goings forth. (B’midbar 33:1-2)
God commands Moshe to keep a log of the wanderings of the children of Israel. They journey from Ramses to Sukkot, and from Sukkot to Eitam, and from Eitam to Pi-Hakhirot, and so on, and so on. Sometimes we are told what happened in a place. Aaron dies at Mount Hor on the border of Edom, but mostly we were simply on the move. It is a pattern that has followed us throughout history. Avraham was a nomad, leaving his home, his parents, his birthplace. Jacob wandered from his home eventually bringing his family to Egypt. The Israelites wander for forty years. And after the destruction of the first Temple in 586 BCE, we again began to wander.
From the time Avraham purchased the land surrounding the caves of Machpelah, Hebron, we have kept a presence in the land of Israel through landmarks, such as Avraham’s wells, remarked by Isaac, and through a physical presence. However, even as we have done this, we have, as a people we have touched every corner of the globe. And wherever we go we have written. There are histories of Jews in Shanghai. There are histories of Jews in Rome. There are histories of Jews in Australia and Brazil, in Scotland and Iraq, in Ethiopia and Canada. Sometimes these histories are long giving us details about how we lived and died there. Sometimes these histories are just a knowledge of our presence.
In every place and every time we have left our mark and the places and times have left their mark upon us. This past week we celebrated Canada Day. With all of Canada we flew the colours. We wore red and white. We ate barbecue. We drank Canadian beer. We watched fireworks. Maybe we enjoyed some peace at the cottage, a definitively Canadian experience. We traveled- to Ottawa, to Montreal, to Muskoka, to Peterborough.
Every year at Remembrance Day, at Canada Day, at Thanksgiving there are those in the Jewish community who will wonder whether we should be marking these days. After all, they are not Jewish holidays. They are not collected to our homeland. The answer is simple. Yes. Celebrate. It is important to note where we are and whence we came. These places and what we do in these places make us the people we are. Especially here in Canada, where national discrimination has not been part of the government, we need to acknowledge these days in order to celebrate this place, and to mark and remember that not only does this time and place effect us, but we too have made this place, Canada, what it is today.