Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Parashat Shoftim- Keeping The Vision On Track

V'hayah kh’shivto al kisei mamlakhto vkhatav lo et mishnei haTorah hazot al-seifer milifnei hakohanim ha’l’viyim. V’ha’y’tah imo v’kara vo kol-y’mei chayaiv l’ma’an yilmad l’yir’ah et-Adonai Elohav lishmor et-kol-divrei haTorah hazot v’et-hachukim ha’eileh la’asotam.
And it shall be when he sits on the throne of his kingdom, that he will write himself a copy of this Torah in a book, out of that which is before the priests the Levi’im. And it will be with him, and he will read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear Adonai his God and to observe all the words of this Torah and these statutes and do them. (D’varim 17:18-19)
It is a universal truth that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. It is also true that people seek leaders, and in doing so, give those leaders power. These are truths that the Torah understands and seeks to balance. It is expected the Israelites will want a king, a head of state, to be like the nations that surround them. More so, as a nation, there must be one individual who can speak to other nations. This is necessary for trade and for peace. Yet, the Torah still works hard to ensure that Israel will not simply be “like all the nations around,” nor will the king be. We have been told that we are to be a nation of priests, where all are holy, and so too the king must be.
To that aim, as a protection, the king is commanded to write out his own copy of the Torah, and once that is done, to read it daily. It’s a good educational model, employing three modalities. The king will experience the oral teachings of the Kohanim and Levi’im. He will personally write his own copy, and he will have to read from it every day. The hope is that using his ears, his eyes, and his hands the king will absorb these lessons so they become part of who he is.
It is an interesting thing to have a job that is also who you are. There are few in the world. If you work in sales, when you go home at night, you can, and should, leave your job behind. The same holds true for most. But if you are a head of state, you can never leave the job behind. Every hour of every day you are your job. Doctors may be on call, but not 24/7 every day of the year. Teachers’ hours extend well past the school day, but once done, they are done, and even get summers off. But some, like heads of state are on call every hour of the day, every day of the year. Even once leaving the position, you never know when you will be called upon to fulfill the role.
I remember a picture of PM Harper early in his term. He had taken his son to school. It was a normal parent thing to do. But PM Harper isn’t a normal parent. He is the Prime Minister. It didn’t matter that he wasn’t at the office. The Prime Minister is never off the clock. The press and political commentators picked apart every aspect of the drop-off, from what he was wearing to how he said goodbye to his son. How does one stay grounded and focused amidst that? The Torah’s answer is to remind the leader daily of who he leads, why he leads, and how he is supposed to live. It is a regular refocusing. Every day the king will be reminded of the compassion commanded by our Torah, of our history, of the limits to his power. Every day he will have to think about the people he leads so they should be real to him instead of abstract.
It’s easy as leaders to think we know what is best. A leader should have a vision. Without it where will s/he lead? But just as important is a connection to the foundation upon which s/he stands and the people s/he leads.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Parashat Re'eh- Imagining Our Own Redemption

Va’avartem et-haYardein vishavtem ba’aretz asher-Adonai Eloheikhem manchil etkhem v’heini’ach lakhem mikol-oyveikhem misaviv viyshavtem-betach.
And you will cross over the Jordan and settle in the land that Adonai your God causes you to inherit, and He will give you rest from all your enemies around, and you will dwell in safety. (D’varim 12:10)
When God brought the Israelites out of the land of Egypt, they came to the shores of the Reed Sea. Caught between the water and the pursuing Egyptian army, the Israelites cowered in fear. They were angry at their situation, at Moshe and at God. The text tells us that Moshe stretched his staff over the water. The wind blows, and eventually the sea splits. The Midrash, however, fills in the details. Midrash teaches that Nachshon ben Aminadav took a first step. He waded into the water determined not to go back to slavery and oppression. At first nothing happened. Nachshon continued in. Still, nothing happened. Nachshon moved further still. Only when the water was up to his nose, only when his choice was to sink or swim, only when God saw that he, though afraid, wad determined to follow this path, did the sea finally split.
Right now the verse, “And you will cross over the Jordan and settle in the land that Adonai your God causes you to inherit, and He will give you rest from all your enemies around, and you will dwell in safety.” Seems ironic at best and an outright lie at worst. With the horror of the terror tunnels and a Rosh Hashanah attack fresh in our minds, how can we see rest from our enemies? With the threat of missiles being launched at our people, how can we dwell in safety? I imagine this may have been similar to what the Israelites must have felt stuck between the dual threats of the sea and the Egyptian army. I assume they too felt the helplessness that I, and many others, have felt this summer. But then, one man realized that feeling helpless did not have to equal feeling hopeless. Nachshon ben Aminadav set out in the worst of situations to take control and determine his own future. In Birkat HaMazon there are additional short prayers added after the required brachot. One of these says, “Harachaman, Hu y’vareikh et-M’dinat Yisrael, reishit tz’michat g’ulateinu.” “May the Compassionate One bless the State of Israel, the beginning of the promise of our redemption.” Redemption is not easy. We are caught between the sea of public opinion and the armies of terrorism. So many of us feel helpless. We are angry. We are afraid. But we must not be hopeless. So many times we have stood on this precipice. Each time we have moved forward. Although we feel the waves bombarding us, we must continue in, moving forward, knowing that our actions determine our own redemption.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Parashat Ekev- Put These Words Upon Your Heart- Go To Jewish Summer Camp

V’samtem et-d’varai eileh al-l’vavkhem v’al-nafsh’khem ukshartem otam l’ot al-yedkhem v’hayu l’totafot bein eiyneikhem. V’limadtem otam et-b’neiykhem l’dabeir bam b’shiv’t’kha b’veitekha uv’lekh’t’kha vaderekh uv’shakh’b’kha uv’kumekha. Ukhtavtam al-m’zuzot beitekha uvish’arekha.
And you will put these My words upon your heart and upon your soul, and you will bind them as a sign on your hand and as frontlets between your eyes. And you will teach them to your children; recite them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you rise up. And you will write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates. (D’varim 11:18-20)
Rav Sean and I have just returned from teaching at Ramah. For almost two weeks, we went to work in shorts. We sat on the ground. We ate in a loud, crowded dining hall. We swam; we boated; we walked the running path. We created Torah lessons involving crayons, markers, and ice cream. For almost two weeks we walked the camp’s grounds. We woke up each morning. I stumbled, Rav Sean walked, to morning t’fillot (I am not a morning person). We donned our t’fillin. We spoke with staff and with campers. We had snack. We said private brachot in the earshot of staff and campers. We sat in the library. We sat in the education office. We sponsored a kiddush for our children’s eidot. It’s the most rabbinic work we do all year.
This list may not sound rabbinic. Swimming? Boating? Snack? But to be a rabbi is to lead by example. Ramah camps are attended by over 6,500 teens around the world each summer, not to mention the thousands of staff. Studies show Jewish summer camps have significant impact on the Jewish community. Specifically, Ramah graduates are three times more likely to date only Jews. They are four times more likely to attend synagogue services, and three times more likely than the general Jewish population to spend significant time in Israel. The Jewish Agency for Israel refers to Ramah as “a lifestyle.” From this lifestyle come the best of our future leaders. For 4-9 weeks children, teens, and adults live a positive, enjoyable, inspirational Jewish life where being a Jewish leader is cool, and we are part of that.
As rabbis, we are usually called upon to lead from the front, standing upon bamot, speaking at events, writing articles and letters. We meet with congregants and community members about personal issues. We plan for holidays. We lead rituals.  But most importantly we lead by live joyful, observant Jewish lives. Every day we wear the words of the Torah on our hearts and our arms. We wear them on our faces. They are in every word we say. They are posted on our doors and on our walls. Rabbinic work is to teach others to live lives of Torah and joy in Judaism. Even more so than when we are in synagogue, we teach this when you see us at Home Depot. We teach this when we are at the Superstore. We teach this when we walk upon the road and when we sit together. We teach this in canoes and kayaks and on the soccer field. We teach this through living to support our current Jewish leaders and those of tomorrow.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Parashat VaEtchanan- A Land Flowing With Milk and Honey

V’shamata Yisrael v’shamarta la’asot asher yitav l’kha va’asher tirbun m’od ka’asher diber Adonai Elohei avotekha lakh eretz zavat chalav ud’vash.
And listen Israel, and observe to do it, so that it will be good for you and that you will increase greatly, just as the Adonai, the God of your ancestors said to you- a land flowing with milk and honey. (D’varim 6:3)
There was a commercial a while ago about happy cows. It was for the Canadian dairy industry. Happy cows produce more milk. This past March, CBC News displayed this headline, “Pampered cows help Ontario dairy farm boost production.” A farm in Smith Falls gave its cows waterbeds, oscillating grooming brushes, and pedicures. But it seems that, no matter what we do here, Israeli cows give more milk, almost 10% more than cows in the US, the next on the list, and 50% more than Germany. It comes down to technology. Israeli cows live in air-conditioned barns, and wear electronic tags and pedometers to constantly update handlers about their status. At any given moment, handlers know how the cow is chewing her cud, if she is agitated or frisky, or ailing in any way. Recently, Afimilk, on Kibbutz Afikim in the lower Galilee, began adapting its technology for goats.
But it’s not just real milk. It’s about abundance. Abundance comes from desire, determination, faith, and a sense of fearlessness. It comes from a willingness to stretch our minds. The Nobel Prize was established in 1895, 119 years ago. Since then 850 prizes have been awarded to individuals. That’s an average of 7.1 per year. In 66 years, Israelis have been awarded 12 Nobel Prizes. Out of the entire world, Israel averages 5.5 Nobel Prizes per year of its existence.
So what’s the Israeli advantage? Using technology and innovation for tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. Israel is THE Start-up Nation. If you look at mappedinIsrael.com, a site of Israel’s tech ecosystem, you will see 1147 start-ups, 111 technology and idea incubators, 60 investors, and 95 community and development services centres. Innovation and adaptation blankets Israel.
Parashat B’chukotai prophesies “And you, I will scatter among the nations, at the point of My drawn sword, leaving your country desolate and your cities in ruins” (Leviticus 26:33). When Israel returned, the land would again flow with milk and honey. It would blossom with abundance. It has not been an easy summer. How can we but focus on the sirens and the death? And yet, coming out of Israel is hope and promise, humour and caring. In the midst of hate, we sing of peace. Just for a moment, imagine what we could, what we will do when this peace becomes a reality.

Friday, August 1, 2014

My First Real War

I'm not sleeping. I'm not really awake.  It seems my mind is forever in Israel. I can't watch the news, but I can't stop either. I hear everyone talk about how worried they are. I am too. We all are. But it's not really the worry over here that's effecting us. It's the feeling of absolute helplessness. I desperately want to be in Israel right now, but to what real effect? Support? Yes. Could I volunteer to fill a job left by a reservist who's been called up? Yes. But really I want to be there because there I feel I have a role, while here I just feel helpless.

Why do I, and others feel this way? I've come to believe that for me, and many in my generation, it's our first real war. If you look up "wars in Israel, you will see that it's clearly not my first war. Here's the list:

1948- War of Independence
1956- Suez
1967- Six-Day War
1967-70- The War of Attrition
1973- The Yom Kippur War
1971-1982- Operation Litani in Southern Lebanon
1982- Lebanon War (which dragged on as the Southern Lebanon Conflict until 2000)
1987-1993- The First Intifada
2000-2005- Second Intifada
2006- second Lebanon War
2008- Operation Cast Lead
2012- Operation Pillar of Defense
2014- Protective Edge

This doesn't even include the Gulf Wars.

In every decade we have to fight. My cousin was in Gaza in 2012? So how is this my first real war?

I grew up in the 70's and 80's. It was a great time. The world saw Israel as the underdog. Everybody loves an underdog. The US was still suffering from the effects of Vietnam, and Israel's army was viewed as strong and moral. Although there was constant struggle, a children, as teens, and as young adults, we were always sure Israel would prevail. We were too young to appreciate the wars on Israel's soil. We  didn't fully appreciate the sacrifices our people made. We saw only the strength and the pride. For a world still recovering from the horrors of the Holocaust, to finally realize the promise made by the world, in the League of Nations, with the 1922 mandate to Britain to establish a homeland for the Jews in Palestine, was a miracle. We wanted to finally appear strong and courageous. It worked. It worked too well.

This is the first time I am truly fearful.

I am fearful for my family in the IDF, for the children of my friends. I am fearful for colleagues and students of mine serving our country. I stand proud of each one of them, but as a parent my heart aches for what may happen.

I am fearful for the consequences. The consequences of remaining in towns, kibbutzim, and moshavim where tunnels have been found, but just as fearful, if not more so of the consequences of leaving these places.

For the first time I am fearful for the future of Israel. The what-ifs overwhelm me. And it's that overwhelming feeling that makes this my first real war. I know in my heart that Israel WILL survive. I KNOW that tomorrow and the day after, and the year after that, and the decade after that Israel WILL be there, but my mind can't see it. My mind sees the pain, the fear, and the worry. My heart sings with songs of peace and love. Ani ma'amim b'emunah shelaimah beviat hamashiach. I believe with perfect faith in the coming of the messiah. Maybe it's folly. Maybe it's the influence of folk music, of Star Trek and science fiction, but I believe with all my heart that we can, and we will reach a messianic age. We will be able to beat our swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. Nevertheless, right now, and for the first time in my life, my mind can't stop. It can't move past the worry and the helplessness, it can't turn off the feeling of hate being thrown at us, and so, for the first time this is really my war.

May God and Shabbat bless us and our land with peace and all it's inhabitants with lasting joy. Let this truly be a Shabbat shalom.