Friday, June 27, 2014

So Much & Yet So Little

Shalom from K'far Adumim, one of the areas outside Jerusalem named for the red soil in the area.  We can see Jordan from our window.

We arrived yesterday after a strangely awake flight.  No one slept, but we were all so excited it didn't matter.  What did matter were the 3 hours it took to get out of the airport. We were clearly on the wrong passport line (not for us, but for the people 2 in front of us).  An hour later we headed to the car rental place, with a stop for the washrooms and to grab some food.  What was my kids' first food in Israel? Hot pretzels.  We managed falafel and shwarma and some great pastries, plus ice coffee and g'lida (ice cream).

A busy day- the Kotel, LRT, Arab shuk, Midrachov, Machane Yehuda, and Har HaSofim.

We need to light candles NOW!

Shabbat shalom.

Chukkat- The Yin Yang of Purity

Vkhibes b’gadav hakohein v’rachatz b’saro bamayim v’achar yavo el-hamachaneh v’tamei hakohein ad-ha’arev.
And the priest will wash his clothes, and he will bathe his flesh in water, and afterward he may come into the camp, and the priest will be tamei until the evening. (B’midbar 19:7)
Parashat Chukkat opens with the ritual of the red heifer sacrifice. This sacrifice is the only ritual that can remove from individuals, from the people Israel the tamei of death.
Tamei is a fascinating concept. It is most often translated as impure. Unfortunately, the word impure brings with it the negative connotations of evil or dirty. In English, impure is the opposite of pure; one negative, the other positive. However, tamei and tahor do not have an opposing relationship, but rather an ezer k’negdo (Breishit 2:18) relationship, one that is, at the same time, contrary and complementary.
The red heifer ritual is a wonderful example of this. While the ritual changes those among the Israelites from tamei, impure, to tahor, pure, the same ritual renders the tahor priest tamei. What is it then that renders us tamei? It is the interaction with the holy that renders us tamei. Touching life, touching life potential or the absence of it renders us tamei. Death, blood, bodily fluids, these are carrier of kedusha, and therefore of the yin-yang of tamei-tahor.
Beyond the tangible, there also exists that yin-yang relationship in the mitzvot. The red heifer ritual purifies us from the highest level of impurity- contact with the dead. But this mitzvah, to care for the dead is one of the most sacred mitzvot. So our desire to attain the highest levels of kedusha brings us in contact with the holiest moments, and, like the priest who performs the red heifer ritual, we become tamei; we become impure. Our impurity is in itself a special level of sanctity.
In our modern world, we spend much time running from death. We do not see the kedusha, the holiness in it. This is apparent in shortened shivas, extreme shiva hours and fear of the shiva minyan. As a community we no longer have the knowledge of how to deal with death. We seek to make small talk at a shiva, afraid of the silence. As mourners, we forget that we are there to be cared for, not to care for others. As our ancestors did with the red heifer ritual, we need to embrace our modern rituals surrounding death. It is our time to be tamei. We have encountered holiness and its absence. We must learn, or perhaps relearn, to embrace encounter, to allow it to pass through us so we can become rebalanced with the sense of tahor and move back into society.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Rating Rabbis and Others

The Jewish Week's "36 Under 36" arrived in my inbox today.  It is subtitled "Three Dozen Millennials And Gen-Xers Reinventing The Jewish Community."  I am curious about this need to rate people- top entrepreneurs, top Jews, top rabbis, cantors, educators, whatever.  Please be aware, I am not of the mindset that we shouldn't have winners and losers, or that competition is bad.  I never let my kids win, even as I coached them to learn a game. The result, Gavi, who is fiercely competitive, now uses all my tricks against me, and can beat me in just about any logic game.

How do we rate these people?  Sometimes there are clear guidelines.  Who leads in home runs, goals, yardage?  These can be objectively measured.  Who sold the most gold records?  What movie has the longest staying power or the biggest box office?  but in judging people it's a lot harder.  These people may have done, and are doing some great things, but what do we expect when we put them on such a list?  What if in 20 years they haven't reinvented the Jewish community, and it's still the frustrating and inspiring, searching yet apathetic, stiff-necked community we've always had?

My questions about this practice began when the Forward's 2014 list of "America's Most Inspiring Rabbis" arrived in my inbox a few months ago.  It is misnamed, as there is a Canadian rabbi on the list.  I also have a problem with the word "most".  These rabbis are culled from random submissions by Forward readers.  While a great newspaper, I cannot imagine it includes submissions from every Jew (or non-Jew) who has been inspired by a rabbi, nor does every reader who has been inspired write in.  The subtitle is better: "28 Men and Women Who Move Us".  why isn't that enough?  Why do we feel the need to argue, 'My rabbi is better than your rabbi?"

How are we to judge what makes an inspiring rabbi?  Is it a sermon?  Is it a moment of need?  Maybe it's a squeeze of a hand at a difficult time or a smile a a joyous one.  can my subjective judgment equal your subjective judgment?  Don't we all have inspiring people in our lives?

This year, Newsweek chose to end its "Top 50 Rabbis list".  It seems some rabbis and their congregants were lobbying for a spot on the list, or a better spot than the one with which they were honoured.  I would say that any rabbi who feels the need to lobby should immediately be stricken from the list.  How can we judge our own impact?  As Stephen Schwartz wrote in the song "Through Heaven's Eye's, "A single thread in a tapestry, though its color brightly shine, can never see its purpose in the pattern of the grand design."  

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach & Lust

I just read an article about Rabbi Shmuley Boteach & his take on lust.  He claims it's the real reason women get married, and that if we were looking for love we'd stay at home.  After all, "parents love them unconditionally." He's half right.  While parents may love unconditionally, they also seem to believe they have the right to comment or criticize whenever and whatever they want.  Just a few favourite comments I have heard from friends include,

  • "There's an age after which women should not wear shorts."
  • "Remember when you used to dye your hair? It was so pretty then."
  • "You used to be so thin."
All of these were said by loving parents.  That of course does not mean husbands cannot also say unfeeling things. We are all capable.  However, a love chosen is better and more meaningful than a love birthed. Love in marriage must be worked towards on a daily basis. To love unconditionally and without effort takes the meaning from a marriage.

However, Rabbi Boteach is also right. Lust is vital to every successful marriage. After all, if women are to be relegated to chief cook and bottle washer, we could do that with a roommate. But to know that our spouses both love and lust after us, this is a winning combination. 

Sean has often said, "It is nothing to seduce many women once. It's much harder to seduce one woman many times." This is what women really want.  It's the passion and lust of first love maintained over decades. The lust enhances the love and gives it its staying power. A spouse may tell his wife she is beautiful, but how will she truly know if he does not pine after her?

Korach- Dealing With Multiple Voices

Va’y’dabeir el ha’eidah leimor suru na mei’al o’holei ha’anashim har’sha’im ha’eileh v’al-tig’u b’khol-asher lahem pen-tisafu b’khol hatotam.
And he spoke to the community saying, “Depart, please, from the tents of these wicked people, and touch nothing of theirs lest you be counted among their sins.” (B’midbar 16:26)
Parashat Korach tells the story of Korach and his followers, who, seemingly consumed with self-importance, rebel against Moshe and are consumed by the earth as a sign from God. Following this punishment, a plague sweeps through the Israelites, ridding them of any other miscreants. The above admonition is issued prior to the punishment of Korach and his followers. It is the earliest form of the saying later immortalized by Benjamin Franklin, “If you lie down with dogs, you shall rise up with fleas.” More simply put- be careful of the company you keep.
The associations we keep mark us. Whether it is a teenager trying to hang out with the cool kids or Russia being shunned from the G8, now once again the G7. Our interactions and avoidances define us, both within the Jewish community and in the greater world.
Recently, J-Street, an extremely liberal advocacy group whose stated goal is to end the Arab-Israeli and Israel-Palestinian conflicts through a two-state solution, asked to join the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “The Conference of Presidents works publicly and behind the scenes addressing vital concerns with US and world leaders, key opinion molders and the public about Israel's security and vitality, threats posed by a nuclear Iran, global terrorism, anti-Semitism and the delegitimization campaign.” (CoP website) The Council voted not to allow them to join, 17 in favour, 22 against J-Street and 3 abstentions. J-Street is apparently not yet at the table of mainstream Jewish organizations. When J-Street appears to support organizations in the BDS movement, when it seems to endorse anti-Israel resolutions in the UN or oppose Iran sanctions, it steps away from the mainstream Jewish community and aligns itself with adversaries of Israel. Like Korach, the Executive Director of J-Street, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has never missed the opportunity to take a controversial position; usually one that veered close to, or even crossed the line, obscuring J-Street’s primarily pro-Israel posture.
Korach too claimed to be speaking for the community. Instead, he sowed discord and anger. Having J-Street at the table of major American Jewish organizations would affirm the reality and importance of pluralism within the American Jewish community. However, we must do so without the fear mongering and using our differing opinions as a path to power. We must ensure that our debates are productive and l’shem shamayim, for the sake of heaven, for the best of our community and not for ourselves.

B’ha’alotekha- The Menorah as a Way of Thinking

V’zeh ma’aseh hamenorah miksha zahav ad-y’reikha ad-pircha miksha hi kamareh asher her’ah Adonai et-Moshe kein asah et-hamenorah
And this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal, according to the pattern that Adonai showed Moshe, thus he made the menorah. (B’midbar 8:4)
The Torah gives us much detail on the making of the menorah. It is the oldest symbol of our people. God commands its creation and design. 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’alotekha, Zechariah sees a vision of the menorah. An angel explains to him the meaning, “…lo v’chayil v’lo v’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.” According to Isaac Luria, the 16th century kabbalist, the menorah represents the Jewish way of thinking. It represents balance. The six branches to the right and left of the menorah represent secular and academic disciplines. These surround, illuminate and are illuminated by the central branch, which represents the light of Torah. In order to achieve balance, we need both secular learning and faith. Each branch shines upon the others. Each discipline aids in revealing the others. Each branch is essential in the creation of the menorah. Were any one removed, the lamp would cease to be a menorah. Thus, knowledge that is limited by tunnel vision, knowledge in a vacuum not illuminated by is incomplete. It can only fully shine when added to other learning.
Science, history, language and Torah learning all build upon foundations from those who came before us. Shi’vim panim laTorah; there are seventy faces to the Torah. Each one adds to our learning, and if one is missing, then our learning is incomplete.

Shlach Lecha- Finding Balance

V’sham ra’inu et-haN’philim b’nei Anak min-haN’philim va’n’chi v’eineinu kachagavim v’khein hayinu b’eineihem.
And there we saw the N’philim, the sons of Anak [who come] from the N’philim, and we were, in our eyes, like grasshoppers, and thus we were in their eyes. (B’midbar 13:33)
 As observers, we are given little insight into any instruction the spies might have received when sent into Canaan to scout out the land. We only see the results of their ill-fated mission. Nonetheless, the text provides us with clues as to the state of mind of the spies as they walked the land. Va’n’chi v’eineinu kachagavim v’khein hayinu b’eineihem; we were, in our eyes, like grasshoppers, and thus we were in their eyes. It is not an interview with the N’philim that tells us this. No, the spies assume that their own self-image is projected into the eyes of others. “We were in our eyes,... and so in their eyes.” The Kotzker Rebbe gives us a response to this attitude. In God’s voice, he asks, “Why are you so concerned with how others see you? It distracts you from your sacred mission.” It is a valid question. Unfortunately, our concern with how others see us is a very real issue. We know self-esteem can be valid predictors of health and well-being. Our ability to complete a project or do well in an interview is directly proportional to self-image. How we feel effects how we dress and present ourselves, which, in turn, effects how others see us. Is it fair then to expect the spies to put aside their feelings of image? Is it even possible?
Two of the spies came back with a different attitude. Joshua and Kalev were unfazed. The saw the same land flowing with richness. They saw the same giants inhabiting the land. But their reaction was wholly different. Instead of seeing themselves as grasshoppers, bugs to be stepped on, a scourge in the land, they focused on God. Their reality was no different than that of the other ten spies. What was different was how they felt in the situation. The ten were still focused on their history. They were still slaves, worthless or worth little, easily crushed. Joshua and Kalev were bolstered by faith. Their faith informed their self-worth. To them, their value did not come from what others did to them, but from the value they gave themselves.
It is never easy to let go of the negatives on our lives. They are part of us. Nevertheless, we must each learn how to balance the bad with the good, to understand that others do not make us who we are.

Naso- “Planks and Bars, Posts, and Sockets”

V’zot mishmeret masa’am l’khol-avodatam b’ohel moeid karshay hamishkan uv’richav v’amudav va’adanav.
And these are their tasks in connection to their duties in the Tent of Meeting: planks, bars, posts, and sockets for the Mishkan. (B’midbar 4:31)
Parashat Naso begins with descriptions of the duties of those responsible for the day-to-day care of the Mishkan. For most of us, the Mishkan is a spiritual place. It’s where the laws are given, where we come to commune with God, to offer sacrifices and discover our spirituality. What we don’t often acknowledge is the care that goes into creating such a place. The Mishkan requires care. Someone has to assemble and disassemble the tent when the Israelites camp and move. There are ashes to be disposed of, and vessels to be cleaned.
We are no different today. We come to the synagogue for prayer and for community. We want to search and to learn. We expect spirituality and kedushah. What we do not think about is who cares for the space. When was the last time you thought about the synagogue electric bill? Have you considered who empties the garbage? Who vacuums the carpet, washes the dishes, does the shopping?
Mishkan comes from the root “sh-kh-n,” meaning dwell. The name is significant. When one dwells somewhere s/he needs to attend to all aspects of life. The thing on which we dwell is ever present in our minds and our hearts. In our homes there is laundry and yard work. There are bills for hydro and water. Someone needs to tend to the building, to clean and to care for it. We think about these things everyday in our own homes. We worry about the condition of the roof or the draftiness of the windows. We winterize and get our homes ready for summer. We do this for our homes, for our offices, and for our vehicles. We rarely do this for the synagogue. Should we not give the home of our spiritual life at least the attention we give to the places in our physical life. Like the Gershonites and the Merarites of the Torah, there are still individuals who ensure the “planks and bars, posts, and sockets” are safe and ready for us. They watch over the synagogue. They ensure the synagogue structure will be ready for us to come to pray, to search for our spirituality and kedushah and to gather with our community to learn. However, it doesn’t happen without all of us. Just as the Israelites are expected to participate in the support of the Mishkan to guarantee its continued presence, we too must, through our membership and ongoing donations of money and time, support our congregation to ensure its continued healthy presence.
An older colleague once told me of a meeting he had. A man had come to him so this rabbi could officiate at the funeral of a family member. During the course of the meeting, this man told the rabbi that he wasn’t a synagogue member because he didn’t believe in organized religion. The rabbi replied, “Aren’t you lucky then that my congregants do so that I can be here for you when you need me.” It is the responsibility of every Jew to ensure the “planks and bars, posts, and sockets” are safe, ready and waiting for us, in working order, for our future and for the next generation.

B'midbar- Changing Our Nature

S’u et-rosh kol-adat b’nei-Yisrael l’mish’p’chotam l’veit avotam b’mispar sheimot kol-zakhar l’gul’g’lotam.
Count the head of all the community of the children of Israel according to their families, to their father’s house, by the number of names, all males by their polls. (B’midbar 1:2)
B’midbar is the transition of the Israelites from a family to a nation and from slaves to free people. With the exodus, our national identity is sealed. Now we must develop it to become something beyond what we were. Numbers make up a community, but a community is not made solely of numbers. It is made of families, of parents and children, and of homes.
Parashat B’midbar begins with this counting, but it ends with descriptions of service in the Tabernacle. Avodah, loving service, is necessary. We must be more than residents. We must be active citizens. Throughout the Torah, we have many opportunities to participate, each according to his/her abilities and inclinations. The same is true today. Our communities provide many opportunities for involvement. The synagogue has committees and a board. There is the food bank. We have many events that require both support and participants. Read Torah or lead a part of the service at our lay led Shabbatot. Come make the minyan on a weekday. Sponsor a kiddush or a class. Be part of a discussion. It’s not enough just to be a number.
There is an apocrypha that Mahatma Gandhi once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” In reality, Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change. As a man changes his own nature, so does the attitude of the world change towards him. … We need not wait to see what others do.” In order to bring about change, and to make the world a better place, we must be aware that we cannot act alone, but we must always be willing to act. When we work for change, others will follow. Only by working as a group, in great numbers, can we enact change. As parashat B’midbar combines numbers and action, so too must we. 

Binge Blogging

Yesterday at synagogue a friend called me a binge blogger.  He's correct.  I blog when I have time or when I have so many ideas they have to go down on paper.  He suggested that I pace my postings. That is, I binge write, but I set them to post at a more regular interval.  It's a great idea.  t works when I have prewritten drashot.  I can set them to post as they come up. Unfortunately, I rarely pre-write.  Other ideas can work better.  It's been a month since I've binged, and here I am again.  Today, I'm trying a balance- a little binging, a little planning.  Hope you enjoy.