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Archive for Juny de 2012

After the Pain

On the evening of Kol Nidrei, in 2005, I was in my final year of rabbinic school in Detroit, serving as a rabbinic student. That night, the theme for my sermon was “Life begins after the tear.” I specifically mentioned the ritual of k’riah – making a tear in one’s garment as an expression of grief just prior to attending a funeral service. And after the tearing, after painful and emotional acknowledgment, it is possible for a person to demonstrate resilience, to begin the challenging process of embracing life once again, of living, even in the shadow of loss.

While this sermon referred specifically to death, there are other moments in which we feel deeply torn – the loss of a job, a conflict with a family member or a colleague, a disappointing outcome, a moment in which we lose hope. Such circumstances require us to begin after the tear too, to acknowledge our pain and frustration, to pick ourselves up, to continue living, to demonstrate resilience, even if we feel that life’s experiences have left us feeling diminished.

Moses was no stranger to disappointment. After leading the Israelites through the wilderness and being God’s emissary to the people for forty years, Moses encounters a series of challenges as the Israelites grumble repeatedly in the wilderness. This time, they find themselves in a location without food and water and complain to Moses and Aaron that they would be better off if they returned to Egypt. God tells Moses to get water for the Israelites by speaking to a rock. In a show of anger and frustration, Moses smashes the rock twice with his staff and copious water issues forth.

While much has been written about the fabulous and seemingly unbelievable elements of this story, this small episode remains an integral part of our Torah narrative and we must try to learn from it. The consequence is dire for Moses – he will never lead the Israelites into the Promised Land; he will only see the land from afar. No matter how much he resisted the initial call from God at the burning bush, Moses has become inexorably linked to the Israelites. He has instructed them, challenged them, and even defended them. And now, he will never achieve his most cherished goal – he will never taste the sweetness of the land flowing with milk and honey.

But does Moses give up? Does he bury his head in shame? Does he cry out at the seeming injustice of God’s fateful pronouncement? We can only imagine the depth of emotion that Moses feels – his disappointment, his despair, and his heart breaking with sadness. He has endured a tear – an indelible mark in the fabric of his life, but he chooses to go on.

He chooses to be resilient even when confronted with pain and injustice, even when life threatens to become devoid of meaning.

But within a few verses, Moses returns to leadership. He sends messengers to Edom and says, “You know all the hardships that have befallen us.” While his statement can be seen to evoke sympathy, it can also be read as Moses’ acknowledgment. He still has a duty, a responsibility, an obligation. Even denied his ultimate wish, he needs to continue leading and continue living. Like Moses, who demonstrated that resilience is possible even after a tear, we too can see such moments, however painful, as opportunities to begin again and to continue living. 

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Becoming Holy

At first reading Korach may seem like a great hero as he challenges the authority of the status quo and speaks up, in apparently democratic fashion, for the equal rights of all the individuals of the community. Korach criticises Moses for elevating himself above the rest of the community, stating that each individual is equally holy. Is Korach not correct? Are we not all equally holy? The premise seems reasonable enough, but upon closer examination we discover that Korach, like other demagogues, hides between populist language in order to advance his own agenda and usurp the leadership from Moses.

And what of our holiness? According to the Torah, holiness applies to time (Shabbat and the festivals), space (the Holy of Holies containing the ark, located inside in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem), and God Itself.

Holiness does not automatically apply to individual human beings; while we are created in the image of God, it is only an image. Unlike Korach who pumps up the children of Israel by telling them, “You are holy”, Moses challenges them by instructing them, “You shall be holy”. Holiness is a quality for which each of must strive, not something we are born with or into. In Judaism, holiness is achieved through the study of Torah and the living of mitzvot .

The rabbis have noted that the rebellion of Korach follows immediately after the teaching of what has become the third paragraph of the Shema, where we are told “Look upon the tzitzit and you will be reminded of all the mitzvot of God and fulfill them, and not be seduced by your heart nor led astray by your eyes.”

Ironically, it has been far easier for Jews to hear the message of Korach than the message of Moses. The catchphrase for some Jews has become “individual autonomy and informed choice.” Individuals tend to make many choices but without much information or knowledge. Individual autonomy and choice are only completely meaningful in the context of a knowledgeable and committed Jewish life.

What kind of observance do any of us have, not just concerning Shabbat, but about the daily commitment of being a Jew? How do we live the mitzvot of shmirat lashon (proper speech), tzedakah (righteous giving of money), gemillut chasidim (deeds of loving kindness, such as visiting the sick and caring for the bereaved) and limmud Torah (the study of Torah which leads to a life of mitzvot.) Ultimately, the message of Moses, the message of Torah, is that holiness is not a birthright by default; it must be taught, learned and lived.

The battle between Moses and Korach is not just about leadership, but about the essence of what it means to be a Jew. Korach in his play for power, encourages individuals to be self satisfied and congratulatory, a static state of being. Moses, by contrast, sets the bar high: “if only all of my people were prophets.” As a consummate teacher in word and by example, Moses challenges each of us to grow by daily learning Torah and observing mitzvot. We should celebrate individual autonomy and choice, necessary to be a contemporary, liberal person; however these values are not sufficient for being an engaged Jew, which actually obligates us to learn and to do, as we strive toward holy living.

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At the opening of this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Shelach Lecha, God instructs Moses to select twelve spies who will journey from camp and reconnoiter the land of Israel. Moses asks these scouts to consider a number of important questions. He says, “Are the people who dwell in it strong or weak, few or many? Is the country in which they dwell good or bad? Are the towns they live in open or fortified? Is the soil rich or poor? Is it wooded or not?” (Numbers 13:18-20). Moses and the Israelites are preparing for the conquest of the land and will need as much information as possible if they will be successful in their endeavors.

Much to Moses’ disappointment though, ten of the spies return to camp explaining that the people who inhabit the land are powerful, the cities are fortified, and groups of other people, including Anakites, Amalekites, Hittites, Jebusites, Amorites, and Canaanites are already present in the land (Numbers 13:27-29). Given such challenges, these ten spies suggest that it will be impossible to conquer the land. It would be better to return to Egypt than engage in an unsuccessful campaign. Only Caleb and Joshua iterate the stance that it is still possible to pursue conquest of the land; they need to have faith both in God and in their own abilities to ensure success.

The actions of the spies come with harsh consequences. Because of what appears to be a lack of faith in God’s ability to deliver the Israelites victory in their conquest, the Israelites are condemned to wander in the wilderness for forty years until their generation dies off. So many Israelites are punished because a small sampling of their community demonstrates a lack of faith and a fear of the possible consequences.

What would have happened had the Israelites proceeded with the conquest of Israel at that point. We are left to wonder whether or not they would have been successful, whether or not this particular generation would have lived to have seen and experienced the flowing milk and honey of the Promised Land.

All of our actions come with consequences. A seemingly minor decision to participate in an event or not participate, to support a cause or not, to accept or shirk responsibility, may cause a small situation to escalate into something significant, with lasting implications not only for ourselves but for other people around us as well.

What is amazing about this week’s Parashah, as well as in the conclusion of the Torah, is that in the entire story of the Torah, we hear about the beauty of the land of Israel, we are poised to conquer and enter the land, but we never actually enter the land properly.

Perhaps the lesson is that like the ancient Israelites, we can never know in advance the consequences of our actions. We can never know if our actions will yield the beauty of the promised land or what the promised land will actually look like.

The journey of our lives is replete with highs and lows, successes and failures, challenges that we are able to overcome and others that we can not. We must always be conscious that our actions will have consequences, but not be fearful of this fact. Like Caleb and Joshua we must continue to have faith in God for strength and guidance, as well as faith in our own abilities to accomplish and achieve what we desire. Living in fear of possible and potential outcomes is reflective of no life at all. Shabbat shalom 

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This week’s parashah paints two very different pictures: it opens in harmony, with the establishment of the Tabernacle and the beginning of our ancestors’ march to the land of Israel, and closes with stories of complaint, conflict and dissolution. In between these two starkly different narrative pictures come two verses, separated out in a way that has led tradition to speak about them as a book of their own. To many these two verses would be familiar because they have since become part of the Torah service. In their Torah context they have militaristic imagery: “When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: ‘Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered and may Your foes flee before You!’ And when it halted, he would say: ‘Return, O Lord, You who are Israel’s myriads of thousands!’”. If these verses form a book of their own, it is a short, two verse book, with a beginning and an end, but nothing in between. With the Ark guiding the people on their way, not just to the Holy Land but also into battle, perhaps the missing content is the “Book of the Wars of the Lord” referred to later in B’Midbar (Numbers 21:14).

It is most likely because of this “militaristic imagery” that these verses have been removed from many Reform Siddurim. Ironically, it is the removal of these verses from the Siddur that maintains their more militaristic image, while the inclusion of them in the Torah service itself enables us to approach them as yet another teaching about the essence of Torah. Reciting, “Advance, O Lord! May Your enemies be scattered and Your foes flee before You!” just before we take the Sefer Torah from the Ark makes us reflect on what it means to be “an enemy of God”. While there will be some who suggest that this concept of “God’s enemy” proves that religion is the cause of all wars and God an evil projection of humanity, deeper reading can take us elsewhere.

Everything written – whether in Torah or another’s scripture is a story about God, not necessarily an expression of God Itself. We must always remember that the name of God in Hebrew is a conjugation of the verb “to be”. God is another name for being and existence. Understood in this context, “God’s enemies” are forces of death and destruction. Hearing this verse chanted as we take out the Sefer Torah we recall that Torah itself is ultimately a teaching to overcome these forces. Most of Torah, from its opening teaching of God as life force, is life affirming. As we learn in the Proverb of Torah (and these verses are also part of the Torah service), “Its ways are ways of pleasantness, and all its paths are peace.”

God can only work through us, and we as Jews can only be guided by Torah. When we hear verses about scattering enemies and fleeing foes we are reminded what it means to be a Jew. We do have foes in those who oppress, use violence for solutions to problems, those who in many ways threaten individuals or societies with death. To wish for their energy to be scattered and for enlightenment to reign supreme is to encapsulate the message of this week’s reading. Just as the Torah begins with the creation of light, Beha’alotecha opens with the command to place the menorah, from which light emanates, in the Tabernacle. The haftarah, the stirring words from the prophet Zechariah, understands the menorah as teaching: “not by might nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord”. We live Torah and serve God when we bring light to the world. 

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This week in our parasha we read one of the most well-known passages in the Torah: the Birkat Cohanim, the priestly blessing. It is only three lines in length, a total of 15 words but they have been used throughout the centuries to bless our people. We hear them during every Shabbat service, at lifecycle events, whenever a blessing is bestowed it is these words we use. This blessing is one of the oldest known, discovered written on a papyrus 27 centuries old and on amulets and charms from the ancient world. Its rhythm and structure are almost mystical, as it touches and reaches people with its power.

 

Yevarechecha Adonai veyishmerecha: may God bless and protect you. This verse is generally agreed to be about material wealth and well-being. Judaism has never been an ascetic religion, and we are commanded to enjoy the richness of the earth and all its fullness. But along with that comes a caution, “may God bless you with material wealth AND protect you” …so protect us from what? From our material wealth. We should take care not to become so enchanted by our wealth that we see only ourselves and we forget to share it with those in need. We need protection from the trappings of wealth and abundance so that we are always able to look beyond ourselves and see those around us.

 

Yaer Adonai Panav eilecha veyichunecha: May God shine upon you and be gracious to you. Judaism holds in high esteem learning and knowledge. In the center of our tradition are intellectual pursuits, debates and striving to be the best we can be. Yet the blessing we recite for our scholars and teachers is that they have grace, love and compassion. For as much as learning is valued, it is not greater than grace, loving-kindness and compassion. Study should lead us to become better people in the world, reaching out to others with goodness, and if we do not do that, then our learning is worth nothing. But if we do bring those qualities into the world God will shine through us. God’s presence will be manifest in our realm through our good deeds and the blessings we bring to others.

 

Yisa Adonai Panav eilecha veyasem lecha Shalom: May God’s face be lifted towards you and always bring you peace. This is not the peace of the absence of war, this is the peace of wholeness and completeness. It is asking that each of us receive the blessing of knowing and seeing the godliness within ourselves and in others. When another person lifts their face to us, may we see the essence of God shining within them, so that we see them and love them for who they are, and if we can do that, then perhaps others can too, and we can see that in ourselves as well. Bringing us wholeness and peace.

 

So this Shabbat as we bestow the priestly blessing upon our community may we all be blessed with its three fold benediction now and always. Amen.

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