Vayikra: And God called

The first word of Vayikra means, “And [he] called him…” The context of this call is God calling to Moshe from inside the just constructed Mishkan/Tabernacle, right after God’s Kavod/Glorious Presence fills the entire structure, keeping Moshe out. Here is Moshe, having just put up this sacred structure, having created our first portable sacred space, and he cannot access it at all. That is until God calls him from inside. Moses wants to enter, but he cannot. Or perhaps he is afraid to enter, but it called to approach despite his fear and trepidation.

Who has access to our tradition and who does not? Who feels called to enter into dialogue with our tradition, and who feel distanced by it? When do we feel like we cannot approach? What are the qualities of those moments, days, weeks and even years? What would it take to make it feel like we could approach, that would could connect and find something meaningful in the encounter? What would the call need to be to get us to break through that cloud to engage more fully in Jewish life, to take that next step towards something sacred? What are the barriers that keep us away? Are they physical, emotional, spiritual, historical, or personal? All of the above? How do we lower or remove those barriers? Do we need these barriers?

A while back, I was  discussing with someone people’s natural defense mechanisms, and she shared that our defense mechanisms are originally put there (by us) to help us, but sometimes they become overzealous and can shift from helping us to being a barrier between us and something else. The next time we feel that call to approach, in whatever form it may be, and we feel that barrier, that resistance, take a moment to ask yourself, “What is it that I need in this moment?” If we want to approach, and at the same time feel that we cannot, what is it that this hesitant part of ourselves need to hear from us? The call is going come, at any moment, and we can make ourselves ready to hear it, answer it, and perhaps, respond to it.

Vayikra: The Book of Life

If you were asked to re-organize the Books of the Torah, and to put the most important one in the center, I wonder which book each of us might choose out of the five.

  • Would you pick Breisheet / Genesis, a book about God, the universe, and the beginning of the Jewish people?
  • Would you pick Shemot / Exodus, a book about liberation from slavery and freedom, and the Sinai covenant?
  • Would you pick Vayikra / Leviticus, a book that is primarily about animal and vegetable sacrifices, dietary laws, bodily flows and other priestly concerns?
  • Would you pick Bamidbar / Numbers, a book about the development of a people into a nation, ready to live on its own in the land?
  • Would you pick Devarim / Deuteronomy, a book about love, loyalty and law?

I may be going out on a limb here, but my gut tells me that Leviticus might be towards or at the bottom of the list. [Show of hands?…crickets]

If that is the case, why then does this book stand in the center of the Torah, in a physical location that suggests great spiritual importance?

Take a bird’s eye view of the first two books of the Torah for a moment.

Breisheet could be seen as a book about incarnation. God’s word creates the universe, which becomes the setting for the unfolding human drama, a process of selection that ends up focusing on one family, Avraham and Sarah, and their descendants, the seed of an entire nation. The book concludes with that family’s descent into the womb-like crucible of Egyptian slavery.

Shemot could be seen as a book about birth and liberation. The labor-like pains of the Ten Plagues, the parting of the Sea of Reeds, and the birth of B’nai Yisrael as a free people, who at the beginning of their eighth week of freedom enter into a covenant with God. Much like a Brit Milah.

Vayikra then could be seen as a book about life. Both are filled with tensions: beautiful and at the same time messy, complicated and yet systematic, filled with both life and death, blessings and curse, holiness and impurity, heath and disease, joy and grief, creating unity and at the same time drawing distinctions between different domains of life.

Vayikra calls out to us.

Rabbi Shefa Gold teaches that:

“We become feeling alienated, distracted, complacent, blind to what is essential; deaf to the music at the core of the silence; numb to the mystery that dwells at the heart of this life.”

Vayikra calls us to bring ourselves back to see the world through the lens of holiness, to bring ourselves close to the community again and stand before God:

“to come into harmony, balance, connection and intimacy with the God who has freed us for this love, and not only to return, but to establish for ourselves a system of continual returning.”

The korbanot were our way to continually return to God, in times of joy, guilt or sadness. The korbanot engaged our whole bodies, all of our senses, to witness the power of Life and Death, sharing a sacred meal in God’s presence.

This system of continual returning has been gone for centuries, and the Rabbis tell us that prayer now takes its place. Can the world of prayer fully replace the world of the Mishkan? Do we taste prayer? Smell it? Feel the blood? Hear the music and the silence? See the shadow of death and the spark of life? Do we leave prayer feeling as unburdened as we would have upon leaving the Mishkan?

Our challenge is to make Jewish life today as vibrant and multi-sensory as life in the Mishkan, as vital, compelling and rich. So that when we sit down at a Shabbat meal, we feel that God too smells the savory smells from the meal. So that when we come together at a celebratory meal, we feel that connection to the Divine that we would have in the Mishkan.

May we have the strength, creativity and passion to create for this generation a Jewish life as filled with life as the generation of the Mishkan, and may we continually strive to maintain our connection to holiness and the divine.

All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Parshat Mishpatim

Based on the book by Robert Fulghum All I Really Need To Know I Learned in Kindergarten. (A classic.)

When you read this week’s Torah portion, see if you can figure out which laws taught me these basic lessons. I also anticipate that you would be able to add to this list in beautiful ways as well.

  • Nothing is forever, including suffering.
  • Keeping a family together is more important than getting more work done.
  • Loving someone means giving up a measure of personal freedom.
  • Breaking a promise brings a serious consequence.
  • Life, and not any object, is the most precious thing in the world.
  • My intent to do good or to do evil in the world matters.
  • Treat my parents, grandparents and elders with respect; it is a matter of life and death.
  • Take responsibility for the messes one makes in the world, and the damage that they cause.
  • Never treat people like property, no matter what their role in society may be.
  • Take responsibility seriously.
  • Putting faith and energy into pointless endeavors is a waste of energy.
  • Remembering my own suffering helps me be compassionate to others.
  • Always show compassion to the vulnerable in society.
  • Holiness is more than what I put in my mouth, but it is also about what I put in my mouth.
  • The tongue is a mighty thing, and can cause life and death.
  • We are all connected.
  • To pervert justice is to deny God.
  • Shabbat-ing is holy work.
  • Part of praying is remembering who I am.
  • Gratitude is essential.

If you would like to add to this list, please feel free to do so in the comment section below.

Az Yashir – The Reconstitution of Freeze-Dried Prayer

Az yashir Moshe u’vnei Yisrael et hashirah hazot vayomru leimor: Ashira ladonai ki ga’o ga’ah…

Thus Moses and B’nai Yisrael sang this song: I will sing to the Eternal, for God has done mightily.

On this Shabbat Shirah, I have been wondering why we call this day “Shabbat Shirah.” After looking into this matter, I have found that this week’s Torah reading gets to the core of a question that I often hear: Why pray?

It is a good question, and it gets to the heart of what Shabbat Shirah is all about.

Lately, I have been reading the book “Starting with Why,” by Simon Sinek, who has a good TED talk on this topic. In “Starting with Why,” Sinek begins with the assertion that most people do things in response to two main questions: “What do I do?” and “How do I do it?” Most people don’t act based on the most important question: Why? Why do I act?

The siddur, the Jewish prayer book, which is an evolving body of work, gives us a lot of What? and How?, but what we need is to get back to Why?

Why pray?

A major part of my personal journey as a Jew and as a human being has been my ongoing relationship with prayer, and in particular Jewish prayer. It is not something that I was taught how to do as a child, and then just kept on doing, like tying my shoes or riding a bike. One thing that I have learned is that prayer is about much more than the skills to do it or the performance, saying the words correctly, as fluently and often as rapidly as possible. Much more.

Tefillah, Jewish prayer, is one of the pillars of Jewish life, and has been for thousands of years. Worship in Jewish life has undergone centuries of revolution, evolution and development. What we have today is a far cry from the animal, grain and oil offerings of our ancestors, which they offered in both Temples in Jerusalem for centuries.

We have in our hands this siddur, our prayer book, a document whose various components span thousand of years, with texts and sources that go back to our earliest moments and memories as a people and as a human species. The passages range from the practical to the sublime, written in stunning beautiful Biblical and later versions of Hebrew. The ideas and values enshrined in these pages represent some of the most profound religious thinking that humanity has ever created.

All of this is well and good, until one comes into a sanctuary, picks up a siddur from the back of the room (because that is what we do), opens it up, and is supposed to do something with it. But what?

When we encounter the siddur, what often happens is that we are confronted with a sea of words, swimming across the pages, half in a language that almost none of us speak, let alone can read with serious comprehension, and the other half in a translation that may or may not speak to us today.

The good news and the bad news is that the siddur is not prayer. The siddur does not contain tefillah. To rephrase an old koan, if a siddur is opened in a forest, with no one around, is anyone praying? Of course not. Better yet, if there is someone in a forest, who is praying with all their heart, mind and soul, but does not have a siddur, are they praying? Of course. Is that Jewish prayer? It depends.

There is something in the relationship between the one praying and the siddur in hand, a symbiosis. Authentic Jewish prayer involves a relationship, the interplay between the individual and the siddur.

Reb Zalman Shachter-Shalomi thought of the siddur as freeze-dried prayer. Like freeze-dried coffee, it has almost all of the ingredients of tefillah/davening/prayer: the words, the ideas, the thoughts, feelings, and hopes, but it is all missing one final component: hot water.

I suppose that one could take a spoonful of freeze-dried coffee and just eat it, but something tells me that the experience would lack many of the qualities of a hot cup of coffee, with steam rising and the aroma wafting out of the mug. One could also sip a nice big mug of hot water from a mug with nothing else in it, but again, that would lack many qualities of a cup of coffee.

The siddur needs something to come along and activate it – to make it live again, to make the words on the page come alive, and dance in our hearts, minds and souls. This ingredient is who we are in this moment.

In rabbinic terms, we call the parts that are freeze-dried, (the What and the How) –  Keva, meaning all of the fixed forms and details about Jewish prayer – everything from the times, the body movements, down to the words. The hot water (the Why) – is Kavannah. What Jewish prayer needs is the hot water, the Why, the Kavannah.

There is one word in this week’s Torah portion that is perhaps the best one word summary of what kavannah is all about: Az, Thus. Such a short word, but it is no small word. The Rabbis see in this word a great deal about the meaning of prayer.

Rashi sees in this word, not an introduction to the Song of the Sea, but rather a word that creates a bridge between the experience of the past and the moment of the Song. He comments that: “Az / Then” when Moses saw the miracle, he decided that “he would sing.” What Moses brings to his song, which becomes the song of the entire people, is the full impact of the experience that they have just gone through. In this case, it is the quintessential experience of walking through the Sea of Reeds.

Nachmanides adds another dimension to the the word Az/Thus.

“It is a phenomenon of language that a narrator places himself at whatever point in the story he wants: sometimes in the present, “Then Israel sing this song,” as if they were singing in front of him; sometimes in the future, to confirm that something will happen by treating it as if it already has.”

Nachmanides sees Az as the worlds’s smallest linguistic time machine. When we read the Song of the Sea, we become the narrators, and place ourselves in that moment in time, and it is if “they were singing in front of us.” I would take it one step further and say that when we become the narrator, we also become Israel-in-that-moment and we are the one who cross the Sea of Reeds, and we are the ones who step into the experience of the Exodus.

And at the same time, Az also points to this moment and to the future, and confronts us with the question of what this moment from our past has to say to us today. How have we experienced the Exodus in our days and in our lives? Perhaps it is a personal exodus from something that enslaved us during the week. Perhaps it is the passing of the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. Perhaps is anticipating an Exodus for the Jews of France from a year filled with fear and hate.

Az is the bridge between the experience and the song. Az invites us to enter into our own moments of liberation, the exuberance of knowing that a period of oppression and pain has come to an end, and that you are now taking the first steps into the rest of your life, and to bring them into service, and then to sing, as they sang, as we sang at the edge of the sea. This is what Reb Zalman means by adding the hot water to the freeze-dried coffee. It is the interplay between our lives brought as an offering into the service and the siddur that leads to the song.

Az reminds us to bring our all of our own experiences, be they joy, gratitude, regret, liberation, grief, worry, hope, into the moment of tefillah, to this place, and to sing, with our whole bodies, like the psalmist says: Azamra l’elohai b’odi / I will sing to God with my Od. The rabbis understand Od to be the wholeness of the self, one’s entire being. This sanctuary is a place that we make safe to be ourselves, to bring those experiences in, and to sing.

Another dimension of Az is that it reminds us that every part of the siddur came from someone’s immediate experience, either an individual or a group. In some sense, the siddur is an elaborate game of Jeopardy. Every part of the siddur is an response, an answer. Our task is to discover the Az, the experience that led to the expression of song. What are the stories behind the songs? What is the memory, the feeling, the recollection, or the direct experience that led to that prayer. What recovery from illness led a rabbi to compose the blessing that thanks God for the miracle of the human body’s functioning? What experience near death experience led someone to compose the blessing Mechayei Meitim, which thanks God for reviving the dead? Once we discover those stories behind each tefillah, we can then find our own similar stories, our own Az, that connects us to the siddur. Az is the pouring out of the soul into the freeze-dried words of the siddur. When we find our own sources of heat, light and light, our own hot water, our own kavannah, we bring that tefillah back to life. And then we sing!

To answer the question: Why pray? To pray is to embrace every moment and aspect of life as sacred, to see in all of those moments opportunities to serve. We pray because we are alive.

Shabbat Shirah Shalom

Shabbat Shirah: The Stirring of Liberation

Why us this Shabbat called Shabbat Shirah? We sing all the time, whether it is Shabbat Shirah or some other occasion! Why is there a Shabbat with the special designation “Shabbat Shirah”?
One possible answer is that it is called Shabbat Shirah because we read both the Song of the Sea AND the Song of Devorah. Both of these ancient songs come from the earliest layers of the sacred Torah, and are each layed out in brick-work patterns in the traditional sources.
But we come across the Song of the Sea in the daily siddur? For those who daven as part of a daily or regular practice, the Song of the Sea is there to be sung every morning! What makes this particular occurrence of the Song of the Sea special?
According to the Netivot Shalom, when we read the Song of the Sea, at the time when it occurred in the narrative’s timeline, that awakens a calling out, a k’riah. Now that we are still in the throes of winter, it is the reading of this passage that awakens the feeling of the time of year. When we rise, and chant/sing the Song of the Sea this Shabbat, it awakens in each of us that feeling of spring, liberation, and freedom. The illumination of Pesach is awakened within us, like a seed that has been implanted in the earth all fall and winter, and is now beginning to stir and break through the outer shell and starting to grow.
This phenomenon of liberation and growth is brought on by the reading itself. This awakening, this full bodied prayer is what is meant by Shirah.
May we all come together on this Shabbat, and sing with all of our bodies, holding nothing back, and feel the beginning of the Exodus stirring from deep in our souls, and expanding out into the world around us.

Guest Blogger: Judy Stanton’s Dvar Torah for Sisterhood Shabbat 5775, Parshat Bo

Note: It is my pleasure and honor to share with you a Dvar Torah written by a member of Congregation Beth Sholom-Chevra Shas, Judy Stanton.

Shabbat Shalom.

I want to thank Deb Sikora for giving me the honor of delivering my 3rd Sisterhood Shabbat d’var Torah.  It’s also, coincidentally, my 3rd d’var on Parshat Bo. In 2011, I explored the many different calendars by which we live. In 2012, I discussed tradition and changing gender roles in modern Judaism. This year, as I re-read Bo, it was a bit difficult to choose a central topic, plus I’m one of those people who find it all too easy (and enjoyable) to wander off in whatever directions an idea leads me.

But the recent horrifying attacks in Paris, coupled with the world-wide threat of radical Islam, plus the unending conflicts between Israel and her neighbors got me thinking about the concepts of collective guilt and collective punishment. Parashat Bo has a lot to teach us about these.

Our starting point is Exodus: chapter 11, verses 4 – 6, where Moses delivers God’s terrifying warning of the deadly tenth plague to Pharaoh. This translation is by Robert Alter:

And Moses said, “Thus said the Lord: ‘ Around midnight I am going out in the midst of Egypt.  And every firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the slave-girl who is behind the millstones, and every firstborn of the beasts.  And there shall be a great outcry in all the land of Egypt, the like of which there has not been and the like of which there will not be again.’ “

And again, in chapter 12, verse 29, where the wording is slightly different:

  “And it happened at midnight that the Lord struck down every firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh sitting on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and every firstborn of the beasts.”

These are very troubling verses.  God seems to be is punishing the innocent along with guilty! Collective guilt, collective punishment!  Rabbinic commentaries attempt to explain and justify God’s actions. The eminent 16-century Italian rabbi, philosopher, physician and scholar Ovadiah Sforno characterized Pharaoh and “the captive in the dungeon,” as, respectively, “the most guilty and the least guilty.” Rashi wrote that “the Egyptian slaves themselves looked down on the Israelites and took joy in their suffering.” Commentary in our Eytz Chaim chumash says that the non-Israelite slaves were punished because they did not join with the Israelites to rise up against their common oppressor.

I agree with Sforno’s assertion that the Pharaoh was “the most guilty.”  As leader of the Egyptian nation, he sealed its fate by his judgements and actions. But who were “the least guilty?” Was the entire Egyptian population really to blame?  After all, how much control did they have in their own lives?  Weren’t the vast majority of them virtually powerless?

And what a cruel punishment is meted out! The death of the firstborn — whether an infant, an adult, or a young ram growing its first set of horns — was the ultimate demonstration of God’s power.  Not even the Pharaoh—a god within his own culture— was spared.  None of his people—who worshipped him and believed he could protect them—were spared. Imagine the impact of thousands of dead herd-beasts in an agricultural society!  And what is the worst thing that can happen to a parent but the death of a child?

But I think the tenth plague was also a demonstration of the power of God’s mercy and compassion.  After all, God could have destroyed the entire nation of Egypt. Why didn’t God do that?

It’s a natural human reaction to rejoice in the downfall of one’s enemy, as Moses, Miriam and the Israelites did when the Egyptian army drowned in the Sea of Reeds. But a midrash from the Talmud teaches us that, “the Almighty chastised the angels and said, ‘How can you sing when my people are dying?’ ” (Talmud Sanhedrin, 39b)  It was not a happy occasion for God.  I assert that God grieved for God’s children, just as the Egyptians did for theirs.

We follow God’s example when, during the Pesach seder, we empty wine from our glasses drop by drop while reciting the ten plagues. It’s a powerful reminder that our rejoicing must be tempered by acknowledging that often it comes at the cost of others’ suffering.

I believe this idea lies at the heart of conflict resolution and is the basis for the administration of true justice.  And when we recognize our common humanity, it’s much easier to “refrain from doing to others what is distasteful to ourselves,” as Rabbi Hillel taught. (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 31a)

We modern, Conservative-Egalitarian Jews do not practice blind obedience.  We question authority and parse halachah, striving to maintain our core values while adapting in a changing world.  We acknowledge the complexities and contradictions inherent in life and in conflict. Like the great sages of the Talmud, we agonize over how to deal with brutal realities without ourselves becoming brutalized. We struggle against the natural longing for revenge instead of justice.  And, because of both our long history as outsiders, and our current status as accepted and valued citizens, we abhor bigotry.

Unfortunately, this is not the case where fundamentalism and fanaticism hold sway. But before I go any further, let’s define those terms.

Most authoritative dictionaries define fundamentalism primarily within the context of either Protestant Christianity or Islam. For our purposes, I prefer this generalized definition, as cited in Webster’s New College Dictionary:

 Fundamentalism is a strict adherence to or interpretation of a doctrine, set of principles, etc., as of a social, legal, political, or religious group or system.

So what is a fanatic? According to the Oxford Online Dictionary:

A fanatic is a person filled with excessive and single-minded zeal especially for an extreme religious or political cause. The fanatic displays very strict standards and little tolerance for contrary ideas or opinions.

One comment I read online added:

“The fanatic is a person who is so sure that his or her views are the truth that they see anyone who holds different views as evil or inhuman.”

There is a difference between fundamentalism and fanaticism.  An anonymous contributor to the website Quora wrote:

“A fundamentalist wants to strictly adhere to the correct doctrines of his religion; a fanatic wants to make you adhere to them.”

This is my own definition:

A fundamentalist is someone who sticks to his guns.  A fanatic is someone who uses them.

We are all aware that Jewish fundamentalism and fanaticism are very real, and pose a  threat to the state of Israel and to Judaism itself. In Israel, the fundamentalist rabbinate sets rules for the secular population.  They wield far too much power, both personal and political.

These days, the terms “price tag attacks” and “settler violence” are all too familiar to anyone who follows the news from Israel.  Many of these fanatics are admirers and followers of the late Meir Kahane.  We remember with sorrow the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, killed by a 27-year-old Jewish law student named Yigal Amir, who told the court that he did it because Rabin wanted “to give our country to the Arabs.”

So why do people become fanatics?

For answers, I turned to a classic work that I first read in my teens, that time of of life when most of us search for answers to “the big questions” and begin to create a separate identity from our parents’. “The True Believer: Thoughts on the Nature of Mass Movements” by Eric Hoffer, was published in 1951 and instantly recognized as a classic, receiving critical acclaim from both scholars and laymen. Hoffer, the son of German immigrants, was a self-educated, lifelong learner who worked as a longshoreman and laborer for most of his life.

In 168 pages, Hoffer analyzes and dissects the motives and responses, the potential and power, of “the true believer.”  I’m going to share a short passagefrom  the book;  please keep in mind that this was written during the aftermath of World War II:

 All mass movements generate in their adherents a readiness to die and a proclivity for united action; all of them… breed fanaticism, enthusiasm, fervent hope, hatred and intolerance; all of them are capable of releasing a powerful flow of activity in certain departments of life; all of them demand blind faith and single hearted allegiance. All movements, however different in doctrine and aspiration, draw their early adherents from the same types of humanity; they all appeal to the same types of mind.”

A central tenet of Hoffer’s states that it is from among the frustrated, the alienated,  the directionless, that charismatic leaders draw their followers. The typical follower feels personally inadequate, often worthless, and blames outside forces for his or her personal failures.  People are hungry for certainty, and sometimes it’s a toss-up as to whom they will follow. For example, in pre-Hitler Germany, a young person was more likely to join the Communists rather than the Nazis, if that’s what his/her friends were doing.

The radical Islamic terrorists who murdered the staff of “Charlie Hebdo,” and Amedy Coulibaly, who murdered four Jewish people in a Parisian kosher market, fall within these psychological parameters.

Remember, the fanatic’s mindset is an either/or mentality. I am right, you are wrong.  We are right, all of you are wrong.  The fanatic has no problem in assigning collective guilt and meting out collective punishment.

Extremist Jewish settlers are a tiny fraction of the total population in the West Bank, but their destructive actions have an enormous impact. They believe with all their heart and with all their soul and with all their might that the Torah is literally true and that God gave the land of Israel to the Jews.  The only authorities they recognize are God and Torah. They are religious, not political Zionists, and for that reason alone, they are very dangerous.

Now, there is no denying that the underlying structures of a society are what create fertile ground for radical movements.  Nations everywhere, throughout human history, have been  plagued — and I use the word deliberately—by the deep schisms within society.  A schism is a split or division between strongly opposed sections or parties, caused by differences in opinion or belief.  From schisms come “isms” – racism, sexism, classism, anti-Semitism, anti-Islamism. An “ism” that is shared by the majority of a population becomes a part of the national psyche.  In modern terminology, it’s deemed an “institutionalized” ism, such as institutionalized racism.

At this level, the concepts of “collective guilt” and “collective punishment” play out within the context of mass movements, which may incorporate governmental laws and policies.

I have neither the time nor the credentials to explore the enduring nature of anti-Semitism.  But I have to admit there are times when I wish I could stand up in front the whole world and say, “Why are you all so obsessed with us Jews?  What is your problem?  Go away, leave us alone!”  (By the way, that’s the polite version.)

As we confront the current alarming rise in anti-Semitism, which is fueled in great part by anti-Israel fundamentalists and fanatics, what I find most disturbing is the intolerant attitudes of and escalating actions by students on college campuses here in the United States and elsewhere.

Young people are natural “true believers.”  They pour their energy and passion into trying to right the wrongs of the world—as they perceive them. And they are impatient!  (I speak, of course, from personal experience.) They are especially vulnerable to falling under the sway of leaders and teachers who seem to know all the right answers and have all the solutions.   And, whether consciously or not, they feel guilty about their own privileged existence. So they fight for the underdog! Excoriate the oppressors!

American college students can’t change American history, and they don’t seem particularly eager to give back the land they live on to the Native Americans, but by golly, at least they can make sure the Jews don’t do the same thing!  Jewish students are often leaders of these groups.  Their dedication to justice is admirable, but they have a double dose of guilt to assuage. (I’m not being facetious.) The worst part may be that they don’t understand they’re helping empower the fanatics.

In Israel, young Jewish extremists carry out “price tag” attacks and shout “Death to the Arabs!”  They throw rocks at Arabs and they throw rocks at the IDF, both of whom they consider heir mortal enemies.

Collective guilt, collective punishment.

So what can we do?  Quite a bit, actually.  We must make our moderate voices heard. Join together with moderate voices from the Islamic community to counter the fundamentalists and fanatics who seek to divide and destroy, both here and around the world.  Support the Masorti movement in Israel and the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform Movement there.  Check out organizations like “Stand With Us” to learn how to counter anti-Israel propaganda. Subscribe to the online newsletter published by “U.N. Watch,” which monitors the United Nations’ actions, and advocates for human rights for all the people on this planet.  Come here tomorrow at 4:00 p.m. for the presentation by the Syracuse Area Middle East Dialogue Group.

There isn’t a nation on earth whose citizens are of one mind.  Utopia is not just unrealistic; it’s unobtainable, because we are imperfect beings.  The United States is our home; Israel is our spiritual homeland and we will continue to support and defend them.  But we must constantly be on guard against the longing for certainty. We must find a balance between passion and rationality if we are to “create the change we want to be.”

And let’s leave the collective judgements to God.

Shabbat Shalom

Vayigash: Stopping Along the Way

[I wrote this one three years ago, when we last came to this Torah reading in the weekly cycle. I post it today because I was thinking about the issues that it raises again. RAP]

Why does Jacob stop in Beer-Sheva?

Today’s specific Torah reading is the final journey of Jacob from the land of Canaan to the land of Egypt. From this point onward in the Torah, we are going to find ourselves outside the land, in Egypt or Sinai.

Jacob travels to Egypt because he has just been told that his long lost, presumed dead, son Joseph is alive and well in Egypt, where he is second only to Pharaoh. At first, Jacob does not believe his sons, but once he sees the wagons that Joseph has sent, he knows that they are telling the truth.

 And Israel says: “My son Joseph is still alive! I must go and see him before I die.”

Jacob, going by his other name Israel in this narrative, knows that the reason he is going to Egypt is not to survive. He does not need to leave Canaan. He could just stay put, get food from Egypt, and finish his days there as his father and grandfather did. 

In fact, one might expect that this would be the case. Abraham arrived in Canaan and was only forced to leave due to famine that would have killed him. Isaac never leaves the land, and when he considers doing just that, God tells him not to. Jacob has already been out of the land, when fleeing from his brother and looking to return to Haran to begin a family.

But in this circumstance, Jacob does not need to leave the land.  One could reasonably argue that Joseph himself has the power to travel to Canaan to visit his father whenever he wants. Indeed Joseph does come to Canaan to bury his father (in next week’s Torah portion), so we know that this could have happened.

 So what is Jacob’s plan? Is it to return to Canaan right after the visit? Is the plan to stay in Egypt for the five remaining years of the famine? The latter is clearly Joseph’s plan for the family.

 “Quickly go up to my father and tell him, thus says your son Josef. God has made me master over all Egypt. Come down to me, do not stay in Canaan, for you should live in the land of Goshen to be near me, you and your children…And I will provide for you there, for another five years of famine, lest you die, you and your entire household.”

The plan seems to be a five-year stay to wait out the famine and then to return to Canaan. But so goes the old Yiddish proverb: Humans plan and God laughs. God revels a different plan to Jacob on his way down to Egypt when they stop in Beer Sheva.

“And Israel traveled with all that was his, and they came to Beer Sheva, and he offering zevachim (sacrifices, peace offerings) to the God of his father Isaac.”

Why does Jacob stop at Beer Sheva? In fact, why stop at all? Why does he offer offerings to the God of Isaac? What about Avraham? Why does he make offerings at all? Why zevachim? No one else has done that! Why is he referred to as Israel and not Jacob?

To answer all of these, we must think about what Jacob is going through at this time in his life.

  1. Jacob is worried. In fact this is what God says to him, “Don’t fear OR Don’t worry…”
  2. Why is he worried? Probably because he is leaving Canaan. Abraham was chosen and then sent to the land. Isaac was chosen and not allowed to leave the land. If Jacob had not come back to Canaan, perhaps Esav would have become to chosen son. Jacob may be worrying now that if they leave the land, they risk giving up their chosenness.
  3. They could live in the land, get food from Egypt, but Joseph is inviting them to live in Goshen and avoid the famine altogether.
  4. Or is this exit going against God’s will?

Such worries!

Why Beer Sheva? This is the site of Isaac’s prayer. This is the point of departure for Jacob’s last journey out of the land, which ended with his return, albeit twenty-one years later. This is also the official southern border before the wilderness begins.

Why the God of Isaac? Perhaps to seek permission to leave the land, which Isaac was not granted? Or perhaps it could be that Jacob knew that this was going to be the beginning of their enslavement in Egypt, which God told to Abraham and the knowledge of which could have been passed down to Jacob.

So at this time of great anxiety, why offer a zevach? A Zevach is normally an animal offering offered at a joyous occasion! Every offering prior to this has been an olah, which is completely burnt up. A zevach’s full name is a Zevach Shlamim, which connects to a feeling of fullness or completeness.

There are three other major zevachim mentioned in the Torah:

  1. The Pesach offering is a Zevach, which marks the completion of the Exodus.
  2. The offerings made at Mount Sinai, which mark completion of entering the Covenant.
  3. The offerings make at the completion of the Mishkan, the Tabernacle.

All of these have to do with some process that is now at a successful end. Jacob might have been offering his gratitude this at the moment that his family is about to become complete for the first time in twenty-one years.

 If so, what a complex range of emotions Jacob is going through at this moment. Fear of leaving the land, risking his special role in Abraham’s family, beginning a period of suffering for what is to become a nation, and at the same time the joy of a family reunion that felt impossible just a few days prior.

So what doe God say to Jacob at Beer Sheva?

 Then God spoke to Israel in a night vision, and said, “Jacob, Jacob.” And Jacob said, “Here I am.” And God said, “I am the God of your father Isaac, do not fear to go down to Egypt, for I will make you there a great nation. I will go down with you to Egypt, and I will surely bring you up, and Joseph will close your eyes with his hand.”

If Jacob had been planning to live in Egypt for a short visit, or even five years, God new reveals a different plan. They are going to be out of the land for hundreds of years. This descent to Egypt is not only the fulfillment if Joseph’s dreams, but also now clearly the beginning of enslavement and the exodus from Egypt.

God reassures Jacob that this is all part of the plan. The covenant with Abraham is not at risk. God is going to transform this reunited family into a mighty nation.

 So what can we learn from this moment in Jacob’s life?

We all come to these borders or moments in our lives when we are acutely aware that a chapter in our lives in concluding, when we are either about to end a part of our lives or begin a new one. These borders can be physical, mental, geographic, emotional, or developmental. They are all borders the same, and when we cross them, there is anxiety.

  • Will everything be ok?
  • What is going to change?
  • What is going to stay the same?
  • Am I ready?
  • Where will I turn for help?

At these moments we naturally have mixed emotions. Mingled joy and grief for a process now complete, excitement and trepidation when we take those first steps into the unknown. Those moments can be huge, a birth, a death, a marriage, a move, a new job, new school, or small, like going to sleep after a hard day, or looking behind at a week gone by or a week advancing upon us.

Jacob reminds us to stop at those moments, and not to rush through them. These are moments for pausing and reflecting. Just as Jacob stopped at that border crossing, so we should stop at that passage in our lives. Just as Jacob prays, we should pause to express what is going on in our lives, the anxiety, the gratitude, the fear, and the joy, no matter what the feeling. And then, as Jacob did, we should make ourselves receptive to hearing God’s response. Jacob heard God call out his name twice, Jacob, Jacob, and he responds, Hineni, Here I am. Just as Abraham did, and just as Moses will at the burning bush. Jacob was ready to hear what God had intended for him in the next phase of his life. We too can stand at that border, and open ourselves up to the possibility of whatever may come next. Just as Jacob was assured that his family would grow and change and become a nation, we too, through our openness to whatever comes next will enable us to grow and change into who we are to become.

Mikketz: Breaking The Terrible Silence

In each Torah portion, there is a moment upon which the entire portion hinges. It might be a word, a phrase, an action. In this week’s Torah portion, there is an awkward silence, filled by the speech on someone who is not remarkable. But had that person not spoken, Jewish history would have had a very short span ending with a terrible famine.
This week, we begin with our third set of dreams, and this time they belong to Pharaoh. These two dreams of thin ears of corn and thin cows devouring their healthy counterparts are agitating the king. On all other nights, his dreams don’t bother him. But after this night, with such nightmarish images, Pharaoh knows that these dreams are not the night time musing of a king. They are trying to communicate something important.
Pharaoh gathers together all of the magicians and wise men of Egypt. All of them. All in one room. Then he asks them to interpret the dream. This would be the equivalent of the President calling together every brilliant mind in the entire country at one gathering, and asking them for advice. For some reason, could be that they simply have no idea, or that no one wants to interpret such ominous dreams, they are silent.
This is the silence that dares to be broken. One person breaks the silence. And it is a person who is not on hand to offer a solution to the problem of these two dreams. It is the cup bearer, whose job is to pour the king’s wine, not to offer solutions to the matters of state (or state of mind!)
“I must make mention today of my offenses….” The opening words of the cup-bearer reveal that to step into this silence is to risk his own life. He knew about a person with the ability to interpret dreams for two years and never told anyone! But in this moment, Pharaoh’s need to have these dreams solved is more important than the cup-bearer maintaining his silence. Were he to remain silent, all would have been lost. And it is because of his speaking up, of his breaking through the silence that Joseph is brought out of jail, cleaned up, and able to interpret the dreams, saving not only Egypt, but the lives of everyone in the region, including his own family, who fatefully shows us looking for rations as well.
  • What are the silences in our lives that fill us with dread?
  • What are the words that we must utter that open us up to becoming vulnerable to the others in our lives?
  • What do we give up by maintaining our silence?
Consider how much was gained by the courage of the cup-bearer in opening his mouth in the presence of Egypt’s most brilliant! 
Speaking up in those moments of terrible silence can save the world.

Vayishlach: Jacob, Dinah and Vulnerability

Like father, like daughter. In last week’s Torah portion, Jacob “goes out.” He goes out from all that is familiar to him, to the larger world, to his family’s native land, to his mother’s household.

When he leaves home, he feels vulnerable. He has nothing but the shirt on his back. When he camps for the night, he uses rocks on the ground as his bed and pillow. Perhaps for the first time in his life, he feels truly vulnerable. Anything could happen to him out in the larger world beyond the familiar comfort of the tents of home. Out in the world is where Esav, his opposite-in-all-respects twin, felt at home, out on the hunt, out on the trail, with the smell of the field on his clothes. But not Jacob.

But still, Jacob is a man. Jacob may have felt vulnerable, and he was to an extent, but when a man leaves his home on his own and goes out in to the larger world, there is no overarching sense of anxiety, no feeling of foreboding, of looming danger. We often portray this kind of man as being on an adventure, as a pioneer, as brave and true.

Alas, this is not the case for a young woman who does the same. After Jacob returns back to the land, after a twenty-one years absence, his one and only daughter does just what her father did. She “goes out.”

Dinah, daughter of Leah and Jacob, goes out from all that is familiar, from her tents, from her father and mother’s presence, from her brothers, from home. We know that Jacob was going out from a murderous and angry brother and going towards the possibility of finding a wife and starting a family. What is Dinah going out towards and what is she going out from?

Perhaps she is going out from a home life dominated by men, by boys, where women play an important but minor role by sheer force of numbers. Perhaps she is looking for a peer, a friend who understands the life of a teenage girl. Perhaps she is going out just for the sake of going out, to find something new, something different, something that she has never seen before, a city with all the trappings that come with urban life. She has lived her entire life in the tent or in the fields with sheep. This might be her first time in the “Big City.”

Whether she knows it or not, when she goes out into the world, even for all the right reasons, she is vulnerable. But she does not feel vulnerable. Unlike her father, this does feel like an adventure, like a woman blazing a new trail for herself. But, society sees her a vulnerable. In an ironic inversion of Jacob’s going out, where he felt vulnerable, but was not as much as he thought, she is far more vulnerable than she realizes.

To be a young women unaccompanied by either her father, a brother or a trusted servant (think back to Rebecca and Abraham’s servant) is to risk being taken advantage of by men, who may or may not have her best intentions at heart.

What meaning can this story have for us? When do we leave the comfortable, the familiar, and go out into the unknown? What are the factors in our decision to either stay at home or to venture out into the larger world? When is it worth being vulnerable? What makes us vulnerable? Is it an internal vulnerability, like with Jacob, or an external vulnerability, like Dinah?

May this Shabbat be one where we reflect on the times when we made ourselves vulnerable, and one where we consider when in our past we might have been over-confident and where we could be been more confident. May our going out of the week, out from the familiar and into Shabbat, be one of blessing.

@Unscrolled – #Toldot #BigQuestions

I asked my congregation to read Parshat Toldot, and come up with some Big Questions. Here are some of the questions from them, which I plan to use tomorrow at our New Member Shabbat as material for discussion. [Note: These are not real Twitter accounts. I just used the @ sign to be cute.]

From @Jerrold_Abraham

  • With this history of common ancestry and generations of envy, rivalry and hostility, what is God’s ( or anyone’s) recipe/guidance for achieving a peaceful co-existence in the foreseeable future?

From @Jef_Sneider

  • Are we supposed to be proud of Jacob’s cleverness, or Isaac’s apparent lack of it, or Rebecca’s collusion?
  • Are we supposed to feel that somehow Esau deserved his treatment?
  • Should we assume that God intended everything to happen just the way it did?
  • What is a birthright anyway? How does it differ from the blessing? What does it all have to do with the inheritance of wealth or possessions?
  • What does Isaac’s blessing mean? Is it a prophecy? Is it a prediction? Is it something that is binding somehow on God to fulfill?
  • Why couldn’t Isaac just call Jacob into his tent, scold him and then give his blessing to Esau, if he wanted to?

From @Howard_Weinberger

  • Why were the Patriarchs (and Matriarchs) such poor role models as parents? (E.g. Abraham loved Isaac more than Ismael; Isaac loved Esau more than Jacob, while Rebecca was the opposite; Jacob loved Joseph more than all his other children.)
  • Why did the Patriarchs lie so often? (E.g. Abraham passed his wife off as his sister (twice), and so did Isaac; Isaac tricked Esau out of his birthright; Rebecca and Jacob tricked Isaac).

From @Bob_Tornberg

Jacob represents the second generation when the younger son inherits his father’s favored portion and becomes the one through whom God’s blessing of Abraham flows. Because of this, we trace our Jewish lineage through these younger sons back to Abraham. We also know that in some weeks ahead, we will learn that Joseph, one of Jacob’s younger children will be the major actor in the continuance of the “Jewish family.”

  • What does the Torah mean by tracing Jewish lineage through younger sons and how has that shaped the history and character of our people?

From @Phyllis_Turtle

  • This story made me think about making judgements about people who work with their hands versus people whose labor isn’t physical.

From @Alice_Honig

  • How should we consider deception and lying in the light of Rebecca’s’ choices…or in considering  our own choices in difficult situations… terrible ones, such as hiding a friend from the KGB in Russia, or easier ones, such  as when an auntie asks if we like their new coat or hat?

From @Karen_Beckman

  • If Jacob becomes Israel, what currently represents Esav?
  • Looking back at this story from today, does the birthright really matter? Shouldn’t they have attempted to preserve the relationship instead?

From @Joan_Burstyn

Within the larger story in Toldot, is another story about an incident where Isaac, fearing for his safety and that of his family, tells the Philistines that Rebekah is his sister, not his wife (see Genesis  26:6-12). This story seems to be parallel to a story told earlier where Abraham tells Pharaoh that Sarah is his sister not his wife (see Genesis 12: 14-17). In each case, the Israelite man later reveals the fact that he has lied, and that the woman is really his wife. On hearing this, both the Egyptian (in the case of Abraham) and the Philistine (in the case of Isaac) become so fearful that they send the Israelite on his way in peace, with various gifts.

  • Why were Abraham’s and Isaac’s ploys so successful on these occasions?
  • What do these two stories tell us about the ethical norms of those societies at that time?