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Archive for gener de 2013

Parashah Yitro

Is All that Glitters Gold?

This week we read one of the central parashiot of our Torah; the giving of the ten commandments on Mt. Sinai. There are many wonderful legends about what it was like for the Israelites who stood together, heard the voice of God and bound themselves to one another and to God in a covenant. Some suggest it was like a wedding; Mt. Sinai, covered in flowers, held over the heads of the Israelites like a chupah, the commandments serving as the ketubah, the marriage contract and that day, a true celebration of their freedom as they committed themselves to a life together with God.

The ten commandments form a central part of Jewish life, they are the overarching principles by which we are to direct our actions in the world. Most of the rulings today seem obvious: don’t murder, don’t steal and hopefully we are not regularly transgressing those commandments, but one of the rules has always been a struggle for me. It seems to be controlling our thoughts and by the time we have the thought, it is too late, we have broken the commandment! It is number ten, “you shall not covet.” We are told; you shall not covet your neighbor’s house, wife, servants, ox, donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor. It is a simple commandment, do not envy, do not be jealous of your neighbor, yet as soon as we have the thought, we have transgressed the commandment. As soon as we wish for something our neighbor has, we are in violation of the commandment, and it is very hard to un-think a thought. So other than knowing that Yom Kippur affords us the opportunity to seek forgiveness and proving that we are all fallible, what is this commandment trying to teach us?

I read a lovely commentary from Yossy Goldman, a luvabitch rabbi, which brings a slightly different take on the commandment and gives a new insight into its application. He draws on the commentaries which ask: if there is a list of objects which we should not covet, why also include “or all that is your neighbors?” They answer that we should be careful not to envy what our neighbor has without looking at ALL our neighbor has, meaning, that it is important to consider the totality of the person’s situation and maybe we will discover that our envy is misplaced. Our neighbor may have a beautiful shiny new boat, but he had to work from morning until night in a high pressure job to afford it. He has the boat but no time to enjoy it and his children are growing up without him. Our neighbor may have a glamorous lifestyle; parties, designer clothes, fame but she is lonely and craves the anonymity of regular life, real friends. We all have our burdens to bear and what may appear on the surface to be the perfect life is often far from it.

We all have our struggles, our times of difficulty and challenge and this commandment is reminding us to look at it all. Before we envy our neighbors we should remember to look at the reality of their lives and to see what is really there rather than be blinded by the objects and items we desire. I hope this Shabbat we can take a moment to be grateful for what we have and recognize that all that glitters is not necessarily gold.

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Shabbat Shirah

The Audacity to Believe

A bookstore owner continually gives sound advice saying:

In the event that a major film is released, based on a novel or other book, I say, without reservation, you must read the book first! Reading the book allows you to form your own images and opinions of the material; the journey through the narrative is your own. In a film, you become limited by the perspective of the film creator; you are presented only with their images.”

It was with this thought in mind, that given the hype, given the eleven Academy Award nominations, I looked for Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. Not knowing anything about the book in advance, I could tell from the coming attractions in the cinema that the book had something to do with a shipwrecked boy and tiger. What I didn’t understand until after reading Life of Pi was that it is a story about faith and frustration, hope and heartbreak, a story about belief and disbelief in God, all at the same time.

Life of Pi asks a question which relates directly to this week’s parashah – namely, After all that we have seen, heard, and experienced in life, do we still have the audacity to believe? At the conclusion of the story, when Pi is convalescing in Mexico he is visited by Mr Chiba and Mr Okamato who find Pi’s account of his survival with the tiger preposterous. Pi says, “I know what you want. You want a story that won’t surprise you. That will confirm what you already know. That won’t make you see higher or further or differently. You want a flat story. An immobile story. You want dry, yeastless factuality.”

For many years, archaeologists, anthropologists, biblical scholars, evangelical ministers and everyone in between have been trying to prove or disprove the validity of the Exodus narrative. In Parashat Beshallach, God defies the forces of nature, and in a dramatic scene, splits the Sea of Reeds so that the Israelites may escape from the Egyptians who are ready to ensnare them at the shore of the sea. The scene is considered so remarkable that Shirat HaYam, “The Song at the Sea” is printed differently in Torah scrolls and the congregation rises when it is sung in the synagogue.

As a grand finale, Shirat HaYam has come to be recited every single morning of the year in the synagogue liturgy, as if to say, “God made it possible for us to cross the Sea of Reeds. Let us have faith that God will give us the courage and strength to cross other seas, to tackle other challenges in our lives, everyday.” Yet our minds race with seemingly unanswerable questions. How do you expect me to believe such a story? What about the cruelty inflicted upon the Egyptians? What about the fact that the story defies the laws of nature? What do we with the times in our lives when we find ourselves hoping for a miracle that doesn’t come to pass?

It takes great courage, great strength, and great resolve, even audacity, to continue to believe. Here, in the heart of the book of Exodus, in the core of our people’s narrative, Torah asks us to continue believing. To question, debate and discuss for sure, to be reflective and introspective too, but not to nitpick, not to feel the need to pull apart, to knock down, to degrade, until there is nothing left. At a certain stage, we have to let go of control, to let go of that niggling, disapproving voice deep inside of ourselves, to allow ourselves the space for belief.

Pi Patel could have given up his faith at any point, but he chose not to. When he makes an inventory of all of the items that he has on his lifeboat, he acknowledges that he has “one God.” When he writes a list of his daily activities, he includes regular daily prayer as part of his rituals and routine. No circumstance could force Pi to lose hope, or to stop believing.

Interestingly, Rabbi Edward Feinstein writes, “To be Jewish is to never give up hope. No matter how powerful evil may be, it can never destroy our dreams; it cannot enslaves our imagination, our spirit, our love. The Red Sea split. One day, all evil will drown itself and we will find ourselves on the road to the Promised Land.” This Shabbat, we reconnect with what it means to be the “People of the Book,” to study our texts, to learn our stories, to reflect on the images that these sacred narratives bring to our minds, and to look within ourselves to see if, after everything, we might still have the courage, the endurance, the audacity to believe, as individuals, and as a community.

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Parashah Bo

Freedom to Serve

Parashat Bo is the penultimate portion in the narrative known in the tradition as “Yetziat Mitzraim”, or the Exodus from Egypt. At the heart of the story of the Exodus is not just our freedom from oppression but our freedom to serve God. In the opening of this week’s parashah we hear again how Moses challenged Pharaoh in last week’s parashah Vaera: “Thus says YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve Me.” Most of us know the refrain “let my people go”, far fewer recall that it is in order to serve.

Unfortunately, a growing number of Jews no longer even believe in God to serve. How can we be servants of God, how can we recite Shema Israel, if we do not believe? Yet how can we believe in God given our knowledge of history and science that contradicts aspects of the stories in the Torah, including the Exodus; moreover, how can we believe in God given some of the Torah’s unethical teachings, such as commanded genocide?

While Torah is the foundational document in guiding us toward the service of God, it is the beginning of our ancestral wisdom and call to service, not the end. We must be careful not to turn the Torah into a false idol, which we do when we equate it with God’s literal word. Believing that God is the author of a book (whether our scripture or any other) undermines belief in and service of God. Nowhere in the Torah does it say God is the author of every word therein; that is a later rabbinic teaching. Our ancestors wrote the Torah and it contains our first memories of who we are as a people and our first principles of faith: there is only one God, the creator of all that exists, including all time and space.

That the Torah does not accord with history and science is irrelevant, because the Torah is not a book about history or science, but a teaching of how to live as a faith people. That the Torah has unethical passages is relevant, because it is our core teaching of how to live as a faith people. When we understand that these passages are the work of humans, our ancestors, we can constrain and contextualize them, just as did our rabbinic sages thousands of years ago.

For example, changing the meaning of “an eye for an eye” and rendering inoperative the prescription about “the rebellious son”. In our interpretation and adaptation of Torah, we follow in our ancestors’ path of attempting to understand how best to serve God. There being only One, no human being can ever claim the role (as did Pharaoh) and all human beings must recognize that we, and all in life, are interconnected and responsible for each other’s welfare. This responsibility for the other – the environment, other animals, and all humanity – is at the core of service to God.

It is arrogance to assert that any book is the literal word of God, or that any of us knows exactly what God commands. Human hubris must give way to humility. Today’s Pharaohs are not kings of Egypt but self-appointed kings of “the truth” who actually hold back others from believing in and serving God. “Thus says YHVH, the God of the Hebrews, ‘How long will you refuse to humble yourself before Me? Let my people go that they may serve Me.”

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Shemot – Names

And these are the names…

The poem below, by Israeli poet Zelda Schneersohn Mishkovsky, is often read at Holocaust commemorations and ceremonies honouring martyrs. Given the title of this week’s parasha (Shemot – meaning “names”) and given that the Hebrew name for the book of Exodus (which we begin this week) is Shemot, it seems fitting to include Zelda’s words:

Everyone has a name given to him by God

and given to him by his parents.

Everyone has a name given to him by his stature

and the way he smiles, and given to him by his clothing.

Everyone has a name given to him by the mountains

and given to him by the walls.

Everyone has a name given to him by the stars

and given to him by his neighbors.

Everyone has a name given to him by his sins

and given to him by his longing.

Everyone has a name given to him by his enemies

and given to him by his love.

Everyone has a name given to him by his holidays

and given to him by his work.

Everyone has a name given to him by the seasons

and given to him by his blindness.

Everyone has a name given to him by the sea

and given to him by his death.

Our Torah reading this week opens with the words “v’eileh shemot –And these are the names of the Children of Israel who were coming to Egypt; with Jacob, each man and his household came” (Exodus 1:1). Jacob’s children are the original b’nei Yisraeil, the children of Israel, but in many circumstances, we, the Jewish people, are often regarded as being b’nei Yisraeil, descendants of Jacob and his family too. What does that name b’nei Yisrael mean to us, both on this Shabbat, and throughout the year?

The beginning of the book of Exodus affords us the opportunity to retell the story of the inception of our people and understand in greater depth how their struggles in Egypt, their redemption from slavery, their journey to become a people in covenanted relationship with God influence and impact our own journeys through life.

In constant consideration should be the meaning of our own names. What do our names, our shemot, say about us? What do other people understand of us when they hear our names? What values, qualities and attributes do our names remind us that we should stand for? This Shabbat affords us an opportunity to reflect on both our sacred ancestry and what it means for us to carry a good name.  

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