Archive for Agost de 2012

The Stone Cold Truth

One of my favorite passages in the Torah is found in this week’s parashah. Deuteronomy 21:18-21 reads:

If a man has a wayward and defiant son, who does not heed his father or mother and does not obey them even after they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his town and at the public place of his community. They shall say to the elders of the town, “This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not heed us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Thereupon the men of his town shall stone him to death. Thus you will sweep out evil from your midst: all Israel will hear and be afraid.

Guiltily and somewhat irreverently, I read this passage year after year and have a quiet laugh to myself. Could you imagine the parents bringing the child to the bimah at the synagogue to complete such a ritual? In the presence of the Rabbi and the elders of the community (perhaps the Board and the past presidents of the congregation), the parents would vouch for child’s disloyalty and defiance, and then stand by while the child is stoned to death.

I really am crying now. I can’t, I simply can’t imagine, don’t want to imagine, such a horrible scene. I don’t think anyone wants that – not for my children, certainly not for theirs. In the thirteenth century, Nachamindes offers a mitigating remark to suggest that the child referred to by Torah is not a minor, and thus capable of knowing right from wrong, but still I don’t want to imagine such an unspeakable fate for even the most obnoxious and rebellious teenager. I am unable to find God’s presence in a literal reading of this portion of Scripture. I cannot understand how God would sanction, recommend, and command the execution of a child.

I wonder how to accept the validity, the beauty of Torah when I read a passage such as this one. On each Shabbat when I recite the prayer Be ana rachetz from Kol HaNeshamah (just before the Torah comes out of the Ark), “In You alone I place my trust, and to your holy precious name I call out praises… May You fulfill the yearning of my hearts and the hearts of all your people Israel, for goodness, for life and for enduring peace” (p. 387). And in light of these words from our siddur, I wonder how the passage from our Torah reading can be indicative of the best that is in us personally, and communally as a people.

For what we see in this section is evidence of a community which has gone astray – parents who have lost their way, elders and members of a community who seem unable to offer guidance and impart their wisdom, and a child, who is so complacent and distant as to remain silent and voiceless during these proceedings. The community in this passage is so broken as to believe that stoning a child to death is the answer for removing evil from within its midst. Such activity denotes the absence, not the presence of God.

But Torah is explicitly clear regarding the result of such heinous, unthinkable, horrifying behavior. A community acting in this way destroys its future and destroys itself. The community may believe that they have “swept evil out of their midst,” but in consequence, all Israel will learn of this episode and be afraid.

We too are to fear a community that acts in this way. Perhaps we are to even fear a community that takes this “teaching” as the literal word of God, instead of seeing this episode as containing the strictest of warnings – namely, never let a relationship get to this stage. For when we decline to this dreadful level, love and justice, goodness and hope are replaced only by fear. As long as we are able to talk, communicate, share, listen, learn from our mistakes and seek meaningful counsel, there is still hope for all of our relationships, no matter how difficult they may seem to be. In this way, even when a text creates a visceral reaction, we can still learn, still reflect, and still find God’s presence, offering us guidance which both challenges us


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Refuge and Renewal

Refuge and Renewal

In this week’s parashah we read about cities of refuge, special cities set aside for people who have unintentionally committed a homicide to flee and find safety and security. These cities were to be clearly signposted and the roads leading to them, well maintained. Everything possible was done to ensure the safe passage of a person to these cities. Last Shabbat we entered Elul, the month leading to Rosh Hashanah, traditionally a time of contemplation and self examination. During this month we begin the process of examining our deeds, looking back through the year that has passed and reflecting upon the path we have traveled. Are we proud of the way we have been in the world, happy with our dealings with others, our families, friends, community? Have we managed our time well, do we have our priorities in order? Where have we excelled and in what areas have we fallen short of our goals, not been the best we could have been?

Sometimes this process can be incredibly difficult and confronting. It is challenging to hold a mirror up to our lives and see not only the beautiful parts but also the flaws, the stains, the tainted moments and places of challenge. In these moments we need our own cities of refuge, places we can retreat to feel safe and secure to do the difficult work asked of us during this month of Elul. We need havens where we can feel embraced, loved and safe enough to begin the task of self examination required of this time of year. So where can we turn? What can be our place of refuge?

The traditional commentators said that our place of refuge could be the Torah, the tradition, the words of our ancestors and sages, which can provide shelter and protection. If we open the pages of Torah and immerse ourselves in it’s teaching we find that nobody is perfect, built into the structure of Judaism is that we all make mistakes, we do the wrong thing, we stray from the path. But like the cities of refuge, there is a clear road to the place of shelter, Torah which teaches that there is a way, it is possible to start again, to wipe away last years stains and mistakes and begin afresh.

The process takes time, energy and commitment, it does not just happen, we have to travel the road to that city of refuge, but once there, we will be welcomed with open arms, embraced and loved for who we are and we can begin again.

I pray that these weeks leading to Rosh Hashanah are for all of us a time of reflection and rejuvenation and may we all find a safe place of refuge to be who we are and work on being the best we can be.

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Are we animals or just lower than the angels? A little bit of each, according to our tradition. In this week’s parashah, for a second time, we are taught the lessons of kashrut. In these laws, certain animals are prohibited to be eaten – land animals that do not chew the cud and have a cloven hoof, sea animals that do not have fins and scales, and birds that are not domesticated. It seems that we have so much authority over animals that we are allowed to eat them. Yet, nearly all the laws of kashrut are to limit our eating of animals. Many traditional rabbis look back to the opening of the Torah and say that the ideal human relationship to animal is to recognize the sacredness of their life as well and not to consume them at all. They note that the first story suggests that we should eat fruit and nuts.

However, all evidence indicates that one of the things that has distinguished the human animal from the other primates from which we have come is our ability to kill animals and eat their flesh. Perhaps the development of human civilization stems from our being carnivores. Again, the Torah hints that this might be the case – the opening chapters of Genesis describes humans as over and against animals: “the fear and dread” of us is upon all the animals. The question with which we must grapple is what is the ethical approach to animals. We are clearly animals – if we are to be “a little lower than the angels” we must look at them with eyes that are not merely human but humane.

Judaism states that we must not treat animals cruelly. These days, that requires that we rethink our approach to the farming of animals and their slaughter, their testing for products and many other issues. This week’s parashah tells us that we will have blessing if we follow “the commandments of God”. Throughout the Torah the notion of blessing, life and good are interconnected. If animals, as it is suggested, are driven by instinct, then humans have the power of discernment and the ability to make moral choices. That most of us consume animals does not absolve us from thinking about and taking responsibility for how they live and how they die. Our daily choices have life long consequences.

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During my stay in Jerusalem while in rabbinical school, I remember walking through the Old City around lunchtime and noticing a school group whose students were around ten years old. Their teacher, dressed in religious garb, was singing the Birkat Hamazon (the series of blessings recited after meals). As the man tried to bentsch, his voice became louder and he continued to encourage his students to join in. Meanwhile, his students milled around the plaza, chatted noisily, and some even played handheld video games.

The teacher’s interest in requiring his students to bentsch, to recite Birkat Hamazon, was grounded in religious obligation. As we read in this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Ekev, “When you have eaten and are satisfied, praise the Lord your God for the good land He has given you” (Deuteronomy 8:10). The word for praise in the Torah is the Hebrew “u-vei-rach-ta” meaning “and you shall bless.” Incidentally, the word has the same root as barukh, but in a different tense. The parallel word for reciting blessings in Yiddish is bentsch. The word bentsch can refer to the recitation of any blessing. Most commonly though, “bentsch-ing” involves reciting Birkat Hamazon, a long series of blessings required by Jewish tradition after someone has eaten a meal that includes bread. But while the teacher’s interest in bentsch-ing was genuine, his audience seemed reluctant to participate. Such a reaction is commonplace in other locations too, and audiences can seem not only reticent, but also dismissive of the practice. Bentsch-ing is sometimes seen as a delay in the festivities of a wedding or another communal celebration, and because of the length of the ritual (around ten minutes), bentsch-ing can also be relatively unfamiliar and inaccessible.

But there is still incredible beauty to be found in the Birkat Hamazon ritual. Beyond the obligation that originates in Jewish tradition, Birkat Hamazon offers us an opportunity to give thanks. The ritual is divided into four distinct blessings – (1) a blessing for the meal itself, (2) a blessing for the land of Israel, (3) a blessing for the rebuilding of Jerusalem, and (4) a blessing offering our thanks for all of the goodness in the world, and an expression of our ultimate hope that we will see our world perfected. While we focus our attention on giving thanks for the food that we eat, the practice of bentsching ensures that we remain mindful of the world around us.

Every morsel connects us to Israel, Jerusalem, to our people, and to our God. For those members of our community who are interested in exploring the ritual of Birkat Hamazon further, our recordings archive has a copy of the full blessings, and we would be happy to burn a CD or E-mail an .mp3. We would also be happy to provide a printed text in Hebrew, English, and phonetics.

But what if the task of reciting the full Birkat Hamazon seems too daunting? As our journeys are often more important than our destinations, trying and demonstrating a conscientious effort to take on a new ritual and practice still has inherent value. Such a journey might include refocusing our sentiment during meals. The traditional prayers are meant to be a bridge and often they are, but sometimes they are a stumbling block. If I’m walking down the trail and I see something wonderful, if I start thinking, “What’s the right prayer for that? It becomes a stumbling block. Where if I just say, “Wow, way to go, God. Nice sunset,” it’s praise and it’s authentic and genuine and it does what it’s supposed to do.” Such a comment is encouraging and reminds us that the meaning behind a ritual can sometimes be as important as the ritual itself.

An aspiration within the context of tradition is to learn the keva, the fixed rituals and practices of our tradition and our community. But another equally important aspiration is that of kavannah – of devotion and intentionality, whereby we build moments into our meals, into our days, for gratitude. Such a giving of thanks is the very core, the essence of Birkat Hamazon. The key is to allow ourselves to begin our journey – perhaps with a blessing before or after a meal, a moment of silent reflection, or a simple, personal expression of thanks.

As human beings, we are blessed with the ability to consciously think about our actions, to engage in reflection, to offer our gratitude. And as Jews, we do not eat merely to survive. Rather, food is seen as sustenance so that we might labor with sacredness. Our goal is to leave our meal strengthened for our crucial task of bringing healing and wholeness to our world. Both our meal, and the opportunities for ritual which surround our meal, fuel us for our ongoing journey through life.

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En recordar el dia de Tixà be Av aquest cap de setmana passat vaig agafar la Bíblia que havia fet servir per la classe sobre Eikha (Lamentacions) i vaig trobar-me amb una nota que vaig prendre al vol durant una d’aquelles classes que resumeix la essència d’aquesta data: la essència darrera de Tixà be Av és el sentiment de solitud, d’abandonament, sense ningú al costat que et doni la mà o que t’estimi, quan tota esperança perilla i ens sentim profundament sols. Em va impactar llegir aquesta nota després de tants anys.

Vaig imaginar-me els israelites tancats en presons de fosca, incapaços de veure o de tocar al que tenien al costat, sentint-se completament aïllat, sols, sense que ningú els vingués a socórrer. També imaginava la ciutat de Jerusalem engolida per la foscor, i el poble com a nació, apartat, separat, abandonat en un por de desesperança. Tot el llibre de Eikha, Lamentacions, ens recorda la foscor de la separació, el sentiment de que no ho hi ha ningú a qui podem anar per a demanar ajuda, ni tant sols els nostres pares en llegir que les mares devoraven les seves pròpies criatures per mor de la gana.

En el context d’aquest escenari tant negre que en el cicle de lectures sinagogal que arribem a aquest Šabat, anomenat Šabat Nahamu, o Šabat de la consolació anomenat així per les primeres paraules de la haftarà (lectura dels profetes) “Consoleu, consoleu el meu poble…”(Isaies 40,1-26) En la profunditat de la desesperança, en els moments més foscos, Déu ens crida, ens surt a l’encontre i ens embolcalla un cop més. Ens recorda: “Jo estic amb tu. No estàs sol.” I noslatres trobem en la Presència Divina un refugi, aixoplug, un raig de llum que trenca la fosca de la nostra solitud. Déu ens recorda que no importa com de sols o abandonats a la pressó de l’aïllament ens sentim, Déu també està allà amb nosaltres, una força constant, uns presència que ens fa sentir esperança, amor, contacte.

La lectura de la Torà (Pentateuc) i de la Haftarà (profetes) d’aquesta setmana ens conviden a sortir a la recerca, a sentir aquesta presència d’esperança que camina juntament amb nosaltres no només en els bons temps sinó també en els moments més foscos i difícils de la nostra vida i saber que no estem mai sols perquè hi ha sempre un pou del que podem treure força, conhort, aixoplug i amor.

Tot això és difícil de fer en el context de crisis en el que vivim, quan mirem al nostre voltant i viem tant de mal, patiment i sobretot, tanta solitud. Però els texts d’aquesta setmana ens recorden que si busquem aquesta presència en les nostres vides i sentim aquesta energia amb nosaltres i en nosaltres podem trobar conhort i descans, un bàlsam per a les nostres ferides. Déu diu: “Estic aquí. Camino amb tu per a que sàpigues que no estàs sol.” La Paraixà ens recorda que Déu va parlar al Sinaí amb trons i llamps i una veu eixordant en la muntanya, però també hem de recordar que Déu també parla en el silenci, com un xiuxiueig, allà on trobem la força per a continuar malgrat la foscor que ens envolta, on podem obrir la mà amb confiança que algú l’agafarà, quan trobem la força per a continuar esperant, somiant i treballar per la visió d’un demà millor.

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Shabbat Nachamu

From one of my classes on Meguilot in which we studied the book of Eicha, Lamentations I remember a commentary about the nature of Tisha be av, the commemoration of which we observed this week, that impressed me so much that I wrote in one of corners of my study bible. It reads : “the ultimate quality of Tisha B’Av (is) the sense of being isolated, abandoned, without another to lean on or to love, when hope is in danger of being lost and we feel utterly alone.” And this year, when I took that Bible to read Eicha and I found that note, I was washed over with that sense of loneliness and abandonment.

I imagined the Israelites being bound in prisons of blackness, unable to see or touch others around them, feeling completely isolated and alone, with none to help or save them. So too, the city of Jerusalem, encased in a tomb of darkness, the people collectively as a nation, cast aside, separated and left in their own pit of despair. The entire book of Eicha is awash with the darkness of separation, the sense that there is nobody to whom we can turn, not even our parents, as we read of mothers devouring their own children in an attempt to satiate their hunger.

And it is against this backdrop that we reach our readings for this Shabbat, Shabbat Nachamu, the Shabbat of comfort, so named for the first words of the Haftarah: “nachamu, nachamu ami,” “take comfort, be consoled My people.” In the depths of our despair, in our darkest moments, God calls to us, God reaches for us and enfolds us once more in an embrace. God reminds us: “I am with you, you are not alone.” And we find in God’s presence a shelter, a haven and a shard of light breaking through the blackness of our aloneness. God reminds us that as alone as we may feel, as encased in a prison of isolation it may seem we are, God is there with us, a constant force, a presence, offering hope, love, an embrace.

Our Torah portion and Haftarah this week call upon us to reach out to God, to feel God walking beside us in our pain as well as our joy. To know that we are never alone because there is a well from which we can draw for strength and comfort, for shelter, for love.

It is so hard when we look around the world and within our lives and we see and feel so much pain, so much suffering and so much loneliness. But our parashah this week reminds us that if we turn to God and feel that presence and energy with us and within us, we can find comfort and solace, a balm for our wounds. God says “I am here, I am walking beside you, know that you are never alone.” In our parashah we are reminded of the God who spoke to us from the thunder and the lightening, the voice from the mountains, but we must also remember that God is also found in the stillness, in the voice within, the place where we find the courage to continue despite the darkness, where we can reach out our hand in trust and faith to be embraced by a force of love, where we gather the strength to go on, to hope, to dream and see a vision of a better tomorrow.

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