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Archive for Desembre de 2012

Endings and Beginnings

Every year as the weather begins to grow colder and we enter winter time (when snow piles up outside the house and we curl on the sofa under a blanket sipping a cup of warm tea), we take stock of our lives and examine how we wish to change and grow in the coming year. Our celebrations of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, our focus on introspection, atonement, and forgiveness, offer us a solemn perspective on the fragility of our lives and our relationships.

Our secular celebrations at this time of year take a slightly different focus. Apples and honey aside, there is no escaping the excitement of the ranch coming down in Mechanicsburg or the gigantic pickle in Dillsburg, music, and joyful parties that will usher out 2012 and usher in 2013. Certainly there’s still something seductive about New Year’s Eve. It is a time of possibility and hope. A chance to draw a line through all the disappointments and letdowns of the previous year and, just for a moment, convince ourselves everything can change. Really, it can.

But why do we need moments in our lives like Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and New Year’s Eve? Why do we need rituals like dipping an apple into honey? Why do we need to fast and afflict ourselves? To borrow a phrase from our Pesach celebrations (incidentally, another “New Year” celebration according to rabbinic tradition), is this night really different than all other nights? Is there something spectacular that is going to happen between 11:59 PM on Monday, December 31, 2012 and 12:00 AM on Tuesday, January 1, 2013?

Only if we let it be so. Only if we choose to see moments in our lives as filled with potential, opportunity, and new beginnings. Perhaps we throw ourselves into the feasting of Rosh Hashanah, the fasting of Yom Kippur, and the partying and commercialism of New Year’s Eve, because throughout the year, amidst the hectic, hustle-bustle, ever-running never-stopping nature of our truly busy lives, that we lose sight of the little moments, the blessings, the opportunities, the freshness, the change, that even every day, and sometimes even moments in each day actually afford us to begin again. It may very well be easier to address and identify “the significant moments,” rather than those times that seem in-between or ordinary But every ending point is at once a conclusion, and also representative of a new beginning.

This final Shabbat of the 2012 secular calendar year also brings us to the conclusion of the book of Genesis. The end of the lives of Joseph and Jacob marks only the beginning for their family, their descendants, as next week we venture once more into the story of Exodus, and begin to understand the formation of our ancestral people. When we conclude a book of Torah, as we do this Shabbat, we add the words Chazak chazak venitchazek – meaning, “be strong, be strong, and let us strengthen one another.” Not just this Shabbat, but every Shabbat, and for that matter, not just on the days which we acknowledge as “the big moments,” but in the times that are seemingly ordinary too – in those moments, beyond the times of solemn introspection, beyond the times of grand festivity, let’s be sure to bring strength to our world and strength to one another.  

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Crying and Moving Forward

At 10:30 pm on Saturday, 9 March 2002, in the Rehavia neighbourhood of Jerusalem, just one hundred yards from the prime minister’s residence, a suicide bomber walked into the crowded Moment Café and detonated a powerful explosive charge killing 11 people and injuring 54. The explosion completely gutted the popular restaurant. In the days following the attack, the remains of the café became a memorial to those who had perished. One of the signs contained the expression in Hebrew, “Bochim, bochim, umamshichim ha’lah,” meaning, “We are crying, we are crying, and we continue moving forward.” Such words offer some vision of hope amidst horrific tragedy, some proverbial light at the end of a tunnel to strive for, to reach for, when it might be preferable to drown oneself in all-encompassing grief.

Crying as an outpouring of emotion in response to tragic circumstances is both acceptable and necessary. News of last Friday’s massacre, in which twenty primary school-aged students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, U.S.A. were brutally killed, has left many of us shell-shocked and dumbfounded. In the wake of such an event, tears come easily. Continuing to move forward is much, much harder.

We wonder how we can reconcile the loving presence of a living God with such horrific tragedy. Kohelet wrote that “Everything has its season, and there is a time for every experience under the heavens.” If this is the case, what is the appropriate season for a 20-year-old man to walk into an elementary school and kill children? If this is the case, what is the appropriate season for a principal to sacrifice herself in the hope of defending her school? If this is the case, what is the appropriate season for a teacher to barricade fifteen students in a classroom closet, have the foresight to take out art supplies so that they might occupy themselves by coloring pictures, and be told by one of her children that he was taking karate lessons and was willing to protect his teacher and classmates? So many questions, so few answers. So easy to cry, so difficult to find any semblance of meaning in the face of such terrible circumstances, and so painfully challenging “to continue moving forward.”

In a time such as this one, where there are few or no words for events such as the Sandy Hook massacre, perhaps there are, at the very least, positive actions, constructive ways in which to continue moving forward. The opening of our Torah portion this week offers us a glimmer of light amidst darkness as we read of the dramatic reconciliation between Joseph and his brothers. Previously, Joseph’s brothers threw him into a pit and sold him into slavery. Subsequent to that episode, Joseph rose to prominence in Egypt, advising the Pharaoh on a serious famine that spread throughout the region. Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt in search of food, but do not know that they are speaking with Joseph. It is only in the opening of this week’s parashah that Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers. What is remarkable about our portion is the lead-up to Joseph’s revelation. The parashah opens with the words Vayigash ei-lav, which our Etz Hayim commentary translates as “Then Judah went up to him” (Genesis 44:18). But more than a simple approach or “going up,” the Midrash explains, “He drew close to him emotionally as well as physically” (Genesis Rabbah 93:4, Etz Hayim p. 274). What the Midrash wishes to explore here is the depth of our level of connection, the closeness that we share with each other, the presence, support and comfort that we offer to one another.

We respond to the tragic events in Connecticut with the fullness and depths of our emotions, by grieving, honoring those who lost their lives, and at the same time by savoring the preciousness of and recognizing the very fragility of our own lives. We respond by telling our children how much we love them, how much we care about them, by telling them how much we appreciate their uniqueness, their smiles, by giving them cuddles and hugs and reassuring them, even though we as parents know that much as we would like, we can neither protect nor shelter them from every circumstance or situation they will face in life. We respond by reaching out, by offering our support (google “supporting victims of the Newtown shooting” for more information), by continuing to speak about such an event, so that positive action emerges from tragedy.

Ultimately, Joseph and his brothers moved from darkness toward light too. When Joseph reveals his identity to his brothers, Torah tells us, “His sobs were so loud that the Egyptians could hear,” (Genesis 45:2). It is only when Joseph recognizes the depth and fullness of his emotions and owns them that he is able to go forward in relation with his brothers. It is only when we do similarly, drawing close to each other physically and emotionally, that we find the strength to continue on in our journey through life. Bochim, bochim, umamshichim ha’lah.  

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Shabbat Mikets

See the Light


This Shabbat we come toward the conclusion of our eight-day celebration of Chanukah, famously known for “the miracle of oil”. It was our rabbis about 1,500 years ago who told this story as part of their effort to shift our attention away from the historical aspects of the story toward the spiritual. The historical aspects of the story are told in the First Book of Maccabees, written with a generation of the Hasmonean’s’ (or Maccabees’) reconquest of Jerusalem and rededication of the altar, nearly 2,200 years ago. The original Chanukah celebrated the rededication of the Second Temple after it had been defiled by pagans who had conquered it and sacrificed pigs within it. The war that the Hasmoneans fought was the first in history that was more about freedom to practice one’s religion than claims to territory and resources.


While the Maccabees won the battle to reconquer Jerusalem, the war actually raged for decades more, until with the help of Roman allies, the Hasmoneans defeated the Syrian forces, briefly establishing sovereignty in the land. Unfortunately, the Hasmoneans turned out not to be the best of rulers – and 235 years after they rededicated the Second Temple it was destroyed by the Romans. For the sages living after the destruction of the Second Temple and in the midst of the exile from our homeland, the story of the Temple’s rededication needed to be reconstructed.


Looking back on all this war and devastation, our sagacious rabbis decreed that we should focus on “light” and not “might”. They made up a story of the miracle of oil and ordained that on this Shabbat we would read these words from the prophet Zechariah: “Not by might, nor by power, but by my spirit says the Lord of Hosts.” Subtly, by writing prayers and selecting scriptural readings, they moved us away from recalling military battles, victories and defeat, to the spiritual notion of rededication. The Temple cleansed by the Hasmoneans no longer exists, but our battle for religious freedom continues (even in our own land of Israel!) Chanukah actually means “dedication”, from the same Hebrew word meaning education. It is important to learn our story to better May we continue with our learning, with our enlightenment to make this season one in which we come to deeper understandings of Zechariah’s message.

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Clothes (Un)Maketh the (Hu)man

 

Several years ago in a local restaurant, the four year old daughter asked what, as always, seemed like a very simple question: “Mummy, what is fashion?” “Well,” the mother began confidently, “fashion is to do with clothes, what is fashionable and what is not.”

 

But what does fashionable mean Mummy?” she pressed.

 

Realizing the mother she had not actually explained fashion she continued; “well, fashion is the clothes we wear and some people decide what people are going to wear at the moment and when we do, we are fashionable, we are wearing fashion…” she continued for a long time, digging herself into a deeper hole with every sentence and realizing just how ridiculous the whole thing sounded. The discussion concluded with the daughter saying “We had a fashion parade at preschool once, we dressed up.” “Exactly!” the mother replied and made a hasty retreat into safer territory!

 

This overhead conversation had started me thinking about fashion, clothes, their power and their place in our world. Why does it matter what we wear? What power does clothing really have? It shouldn’t have any, but it actually does have a great deal. There is a (excuse the pun) thread running through our parashah this week, where clothing plays a pivotal role in three of the narratives.

 

The first, and most obvious, is the colored coat which Joseph is given by his father as a sign of his favoritism. That coat caused Joseph’s already distainful brothers, to hate him even more and led to their heinous act of throwing him in a pit and then selling him to passing slave traders. Next, when Reuben returns to the pit and finds Joseph gone, he tears his clothing, a sign of mourning and grief. Joseph’s brothers then take the coat, dip it in blood and use it to deceive their father into thinking that Joseph is dead, whereupon Jacob tears his clothing as a sign of mourning. A link is made with this act of dipping in blood, which eventually leads to the Israelites being resident and then enslaved in Egypt, and the dipping in blood the Israelites performed when leaving Egypt.

 

Next our parasha takes a slight diversion into the story of Judah and Tamar. Again, clothing plays a pivotal role. Tamar, the widowed daughter in law of Judah, is being deprived of Judah’s youngest son to conceive a child in her first husband’s name. She takes matters into her own hands. She removes her widow’s clothing, a sign of her mourning, and disguises herself to trick her father in law into doing the right thing.

 

He thinks her a prostitute, sleeps with her and then leaves his cloak and other identifying items with her as a pledge. She later uses those items, including clothing, to demonstrate her innocence. And finally, we return to Joseph who has found work in Potiphar’s house and he is left alone with Potiphar’s wife. She attempts to seduce him and clutches him by the coat. He resists her advances and flees, leaving her with his coat as evidence which she then uses to have him arrested. So clothing once more consigns Joseph to a pit, this time, jail.

 

Clothing is found throughout the parashah, sometimes it is an outward reflection of what is happening within the wearer, other times it is concealing the person inside, it is used to condemn and to exonerate, to deceive and reveal, its manipulation causes pain and joy, suffering and passion. Clothing gives power to those who wear it and to those who react to it. And despite the passing of time, clothing has lost none of its power. It can help define who we are, connect us with communities, groups, ideologies, beliefs, it shapes part of the message we project into the world. We make assumptions based on clothing, we draw conclusions and we also use it to mask insecurities, hide flaws, project the image we wish to have in the world. It is far more than just a means by which we can protect ourselves from the elements. I wonder this week, when our parashah is so focused on clothing, if we could take a few moments to think about clothing, its role, its function and its power.

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