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Archive for febrer de 2013

This week is the Shabbat of cows. We read parashat Ki Tissa which recounts the incident of the golden calf. And also this Shabbat is Shabbat Parah, one of the special shabbatot leading up to the celebration of Pesach, when we read about the mysterious red heifer; a cow whose ashes both defile and purify. There have been many interpretations about the meaning of both these bovines, their place in the tradition and what we can learn and understand from them. Tradition teaches us that there are 70 facets of Torah, every passage has multiple interpretations and it is for us to turn it, turn it and turn it again until we uncover the many ways we can find meaning in our ancient texts. Our challenge is to continue to refine and shape our Judaism through interpretation, midrash and alongside the challenges of modernity, to discover that meaning and include all in the embrace of Judaism.

 

In some cities this week is the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. We, at TBS, join with the GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) community in Harrisburg during the past 7 summers to appreciate the many gifts which they bring to strengthen the spirit of diversity. During the years, we have used the process of interpretation and understanding to reimagine the laws of Judaism to be inclusive and welcoming of gays and lesbians. But there is still a long way to go – both legally and within our culture. Many young people have difficulty coming out, and others have very strained relationships with their families – or co-exist in loveless marriages, unable to find the support to step away.

 

It is up to us all to help change attitudes and get to know our GLBT brothers and sisters, for we all stood together at Sinai and together we now shape the Judaism that we want for the future. May we continue to work together to create a Judaism which celebrates diversity, is embracing and welcoming of each individual with our uniqueness and finds the holiness and godliness within us all.

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Shabbat Zachor

Paradoxical Rememberance

The Shabbat before Purim is always known by the name Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Memory. On this Shabbat we read a selection from the book of Deuteronomy instructing us to remember how Amalek ambushed the Israelites when they were leaving Egypt. Hungry, tired, and attacked from behind, the Israelites are commanded to erase the “memory of Amalek from under heaven,” lest they forget the horrible events that befell them in the wilderness. Additionally, we read from a special Haftarah from the book of First Samuel, depicting King Saul’s incomplete conquest over the Amalekites. The prophet Samuel orders Saul to destroy the Amalekites, but Saul spares the life of Agag, the Amalekite king, and is shamed by Samuel and by God.

These respective passages from the Torah and the Haftarah are perplexing. On the surface they appear to indicate that the proper behavior in each circumstance is to attack your enemy before your enemy attacks you. There is no peaceful solution to ambush and war. “Remembrance” does not seem to involve participating in ceremonial ritual with speeches, elegies, and musical accompaniment. Rather, one seems to achieve “remembrance” through acts of war and vengeance, and by “blotting out the memory” of the other side.

It comes as no surprise then that the command to annihilate the Amalekites, and its accompanying story in the prophetic literature, have survived for countless generations. Their stories have become our story too. Too often, in contemporary media coverage of world events, we see that so much attention is given to stories of murder, larceny, abuse, war and other hostilities. But if the command that we are given on Shabbat Zachor is to blot out Amalek’s name from history, perhaps we might accomplish such a goal by endeavoring to blot out all of the evil that Amalek represents in our world. There needs to be “remembrance” for other reasons, more positive reasons too. There are brilliant people and extraordinary moments that we celebrate and remember, people who bring love, goodness, and peace into our world, every hour of every day. When we celebrate the festival of Purim every year we acknowledge the heroic acts of Queen Esther, and we remember how tirelessly she worked to save the Jewish people. On Purim, we are instructed to stop and to listen, to hear the words of the Megillah, to reflect on the ancient story of our people, and to celebrate the miracles of the Purim story. We are commanded to engage in a Purim seudah, a special meal, where we join together with family and friends. We are obligated to give mishloach manot, offering gifts to those in our community who are in need.

All of these sacred duties represent positive commandments of our tradition, activities in which we both remember the story of Purim, and act to do something positive with our observance of the festival.

Thus, Shabbat Zachor acts as a brilliant paradox. The readings from sacred literature teach us to “remember” heinous wartime actions, but hopefully, by remembering, we know that we have other options, and we recognize that we will not have to resort to the actions of our ancestors. This Shabbat, as we remember Amalek, and we celebrate Purim, we recognize our challenge is to move beyond war, to commemorate, to remember, and to do a positive and loving act in our world, to move our contemporary reality closer to lasting peace.

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Parashah Terumah

Reminders of Creation

 

Build me a sanctuary so I may dwell among you” says God to Moses and the children of Israel at the opening of this parashah, Terumah. How can God, the source of all Creation, need a place to dwell? As King Solomon said upon the dedication of the First Temple, modelled upon the Tabernacle whose construction is first told of in this parasha, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this Temple I have built.” (1 Kings 8: 27) If God dwells in all that is, it seems superfluous to create a sanctuary in which to dwell. However, what our ancestors knew is that God’s infinite presence can only only be approached and encountered by finite humans through space and in time that is constructed with right intention.

 

Many commentators have noted that the construction of the tabernacle parallels the story of creation. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes, “The tabernacle was, in other words, a micro-cosmos, a symbolic reminder of the world God made. The fact that the Divine presence rested within it was not meant to suggest that God is here not there, in this place not that. It was meant to signal, powerfully and palpably, that God exists throughout the cosmos. It was a man-made structure to mirror and focus attention on the Divinely-created universe. It was in space what Shabbat is in time: a reminder of creation.”

 

The funding for the construction of the Tabernacle comes from the gifts, or “terumot”, that give this week’s parashah its name. “Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.” (Exodus 25:2) The word itself means “to raise up”, teaching that each time we give, we are elevated spiritually. Further, the word contextually translated in English as “bring” in the Hebrew is actually “take”. One of the main lessons our which commentators have noted is that the gifts we give were originally God’s – everything we possess, our very lives, are basically gifts. As we give, we are raised and we receive; the personal benefit of generosity is greater than its cost.

 

Our sages have understood that since the time of the destruction of the Temple, every synagogue and study hall is considered a mini-sanctuary (See Talmud, Megillah 29a).In a sense, every communal institution – from those who provide for the elderly, the ill, or our children’s learning – are mini-sanctuaries worthy of our support. Each time we give something of physical value we gain something of spiritual worth.

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Parashah Mishpatim

In Every Space and Every Place

It was a fascinating view when 2 days ago the researchers at the Leicester University (U.K.) unveil the face of King Richard III. Combining their efforts with DNA tests, genealogical surveys, computer imaging, and academic research, the team concluded “beyond a reasonable doubt” that the skeletal remains that they uncovered beneath a Leicester car park were indeed those of Richard III, who was killed in battle in 1485.

It seems as if the car park will now become a tourist attraction, a central focus for history buffs and the otherwise curious to come and examine for themselves. How quickly circumstances change – yesterday a car park, today a burial site, tomorrow a tourist attraction.

Renewed interest in the events leading to Richard III’s death and the uncovering of his remains has an interesting parallel with a particular event at the end of the Torah. We are many months away from our celebration of Simchat Torah during which we will read the accounting of Moses’ death at the end of the Torah. The Torah records, “Moses, the servant of the Lord died there, in the land of Moab, at the command of the Lord. He buried him in the valley in the land of Moab, near Beth-peor; and no one knows his burial place to this day (Deuteronomy 34:5-6). The Etz Hayim Torah commentary adds, “Many commentators have conjectured that the gravesite of Moses was concealed to prevent people from turning it into a shrine and using it as a location for a cult of Moses worship” (p. 1211). To be fair, tourists won’t be flocking to the grave of Richard III to worship him or idolize him, but the search for his remains has now concluded, and his death is now tied to a central location, a particular place, a focal point.

In contrast, Torah and Jewish tradition have different focal points. In last week’s parashah, Torah was revealed at Mount Sinai, a central location where the Israelites gathered after their redemption from slavery in Egypt. But this week’s reading from the Torah, Parashat Mishpatim, stresses the observance of the laws of Torah – in relationship with other human beings, in relationship with animals and the environment, and in relationship with God. Once we finish standing at Sinai, we take Torah with us – into every single encounter, every single moment of our lives.

While many of us are rightfully curious about the location of Mount Sinai or Moses’ burial place, the message of Torah is that holiness is not limited to outlined, predetermined places. Living a life of Torah, dedicating ourselves to understanding the ethical and moral commands of our tradition, seeking the spiritual and the transcendent, is something that we as Jews need to anywhere and everywhere we happen to be. Our Torah reading reminds us not to look in particular places, but rather, that we look in each and every place where we find ourselves. 

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