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Archive for Octubre de 2015

This week in parashat Vayera, we continue the story of Abraham and his family and we are confronted with scenes of family conflict and drama. Abraham does not demonstrate the most exemplary of parenting skills as he expels Hagar and their son Ishmael to the harsh wilderness, and takes his son Isaac and almost sacrifices him to God. There is conflict between Sarah and Hagar, there is some kind of disturbance between the brothers, Ishmael and Isaac; brothers, wives, parents, children, all arguing and disagreeing. There is trauma and dissent in this small family and once again the Torah shows us that our patriarchs and our matriarchs – in fact, all the biblical figures – are flawed characters. They are human and, like us, they make mistakes; they say the wrong thing and they struggle with their relationships. They act from places of anger and hurt, they feel scared and alone. We can all find a little of ourselves in them, and that is what makes them such powerful and important role models — because they are not perfect. We learn from them how to behave and how not to behave; we learn that everyone, even our great heroes, sometimes acts in ways that are not just or right, and we learn from their mistakes and as well as from their triumphs. We not only learn from the figures from whom we trace our ancestry and heritage, but from everyone in the Torah. Each of their stories are honored and remembered alongside ours.

Rabbi David Segal wrote so eloquently in his Torah commentary this week:

We read repeatedly about God’s special love for B’nai Yisrael, the people of Israel, our unique covenant and our election to receive God’s word. But we also read about God’s revelation to others outside the community of Israel. Noah precedes Abraham and receives both blessing and law. Hagar, in this week’s portion, receives God’s direct blessing and protection after her expulsion. It is striking that our tradition would preserve stories of God’s special revelation to outsiders. These examples remind us that we have no monopoly on God’s blessing; no exclusive claim on God’s word. We have our special, sacred text; others have theirs. Pluralistic truth should lead us to humility, for God transcends religion. It should also call us to responsibility, to respect and protect the divine word in every tradition and the divine image in every person — our fellow Jews, our neighbours and the strangers in our midst.” (Rabbi David Segal “Protecting the Divine Image in Everyone” in Ten Minutes of Torah: Reform Voices of Torah, 26th October 2015)

Our story is interwoven with all the stories in the Torah and we can learn, understand and grow from each of the people we encounter, their relationships to each other and to God. Stories are powerful sources of learning and growing — they remind us how alike we are and how much we have to learn from one another. I pray that we can always see the Divine in each person and that we continue to hear and learn our stories.

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This week we read the call to Abraham to leave his homeland, his birthplace and everything he has known to follow God. Abraham, the faithful servant, obeys the command from God and he packs up his household and heads off to distant lands. The commentators of the Torah note that Abraham and many of the other patriarchs are sent on journeys. They travel far from the familiar and the secure to challenge themselves in new and different ways. For many, there was little choice: a famine, a drought, escaping from a brother who is trying to kill you for betraying him, a call from God, but whatever the circumstance each was called and like Abraham, they left. So why a journey? What was the purpose of their travel? Was it more than the chance to send back a postcard saying “having a great time, wish you were here?”

The commentaries note the unusual wording at the beginning of the portion: “lech lecha” If the Torah merely wanted to tell Abraham to “go” it could have just said “lech” but instead it adds “lecha” The Torah never uses two words when it could use one so what is the meaning of the extra word? The rabbinic commentators say that it is no accident and it must be to teach us something. Lech lecha can be translated as “go to yourself” meaning “go to become who you are going to be.” This rendering suggests that Abraham needed to go in order for him to become who he was going to be. If we look at all the people who journeyed, each of them was changed by their experience, it shaped who they were to become. The challenges they faced by being away from the familiar comfort of home, helped them to grow into the human beings they would become. It was certainly true for Abraham. His leaving shaped the man he was to be, standing up for justice, caring about the wandering, displaced people, welcoming strangers. He knew what it was like to be alone in a strange land with none of the safety nets about him. He knew what it meant to receive hospitality and care when faced with adversity. Until embarking on his journey, Abraham had lived a sheltered, relatively privileged existence. He had land and servants, he was settled and happy. But when God uprooted him, sent him out, leaving behind his support systems, his comfort zone, he found himself at the mercy of others. And from that time he knew what it was like to be homeless, to be a wanderer, at the mercy of those around him. Abraham was blessed, he never went without, but his time being uprooted from the familiar taught him the importance of treating the stranger with compassion and warmth, giving them a welcoming embrace.

Abraham could not have known that would be the outcome of his journey but it shaped the person he would become. And for many of us, adversity and trials, much as we wish we could have avoided them, have helped to make us who we are. Our journeys through life, like Abraham’s, are a mixture of dark and light. We face challenges and adversity as well as moments of joy and happiness. We cannot know what the next day will bring. Our calling is to find a way to move forward from the dark places and become the light in the world, to understand that nobody’s path is a smooth one, all of us will have to weather the storms of life. I pray that we can all walk the path finding moments and ways to be the light and to becoming who we are going to be, and to emulate Abraham’s compassion and hospitality this Shabbat and during each and every Shabbat.

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This week in our parasha we read the stories of Noah and his ark and the Tower of Babel, both great Sunday School favorites and stories most of us encountered for the first time as children. We know the tales but rarely do we go beyond the animals marching into the ark two by two, Noah, usually with a long, grey beard and a staff standing at the door of his ark, the dove, the raven and the rainbow in the sky. We remember the great tower stretching to the heavens and all the people being confounded, unable to communicate as new languages come into the world and people are scattered to the earth’s four corners. Great, fanciful stories but what deeper teaching do they reveal for us? What links the stories together and what can we learn from them?

On one level, perhaps the stories are about humanity’s domination over nature, our concern with the material world, with consuming and ruling over all others. Maybe the link is the concept of humanity taking and reaping from the land without taking time to consider the effects and to give back. If we view the stories in this way, then they become cautionary tales of the destruction and damage we can do through our self centered domination of the world and people around us. Shabbat is the antidote to this ailment, this malady which is rife in our societies where we seek dominion over all before us, working to tame the world around us. The Shabbat comes to remind us to step back from the consumerism, from the relentless pursuit of bigger, better and more, and instead to dwell in a place of harmony and peace with the universe and with ourselves.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote:

six days a week we wrestle with the world, wringing profit from the earth; on Shabbat especially we care for the seed of eternity planted within the soul. The world has our hands but our soul belongs to Someone Else. Six days a week we seek to dominate the world, on the seventh day we try to dominate the soul.”

(The Sabbath)

Shabbat is our gift, our time to step back from the world and tend to matters of the spirit. On Shabbat we are reminded of what is most important; the relationships we share, the connections between people, the beauty of the world and nature, being in harmony with the earth and not in competition with it. We create our own sanctuary of peace, a time for contemplation, rest, rejuvenation. A time to consider what is most important and to connect with ourselves, the earth and the people around us. Shabbat is a precious gift which is presented to us each week — we join together as a community to celebrate and affirm what is important. Instead of trying to subdue the world and those around us, we strive to be in harmony and connect with the earth and people. May we all have a Shabbat of rest, of joy, hope, peace, love and harmony.

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Parashat Bereshit

Just following Simchat Torah, we begin the cycle of Torah reading again, with the stories from Bereshit that set the themes for the rest of the book, and in a sense, for Judaism. These stories should be understood metaphorically, not literally, holding deep truth although not scientific or historic. Each of these could lead to a lifetime of study and learning.

The first story is that God is the Creator of all and that one of the most important ways we experience God is through the sanctity of time. Judaism does not insist that we reject the notion of evolution or science when we speak of God the Creator. Rather, these very opening verses of the first seven days serve as a construct, explaining that behind all matter is a sense of mystery and purpose. Moreover, on this planet, the most evolved creature is the human, who is able to perceive time and through dedicating time for rest and reflection, develop a spiritual self. Shabbat, which means “stop”, is the day we as Jews have designed to stop from our production and consumption, in order to reconnect with our soul. It is a time all more crucial for each of us overwhelmed with the 24/7 onslaught of information and activity.

The second story focuses on the creation of the singular human. As the rabbis teach, this story becomes one whose intent is to teach principles of equity and egalitarianism. According to a more accurate reading of the Hebrew, the woman is taken not from the rib but from the side of human (parallel to the Greek story of the creation of two humans, one male and one female, from a singular androgynous being). The rabbis say this teaches that no human being can say that “my blood is redder than yours” and that “whoever saves a single life saves the entire universe.” The sanctity and primacy of life is taught from this story, let alone egalitarianism (alas, not accentuated by the tradition) and obligations for justice.

Finally, the story shifts to God issuing a simple command to the human, not to eat of the “fruit of the tree of knowledge.” This most paradoxical story creates a tension with which we continue to live. On one hand exists free will and the human choice of good and evil; on the other is “paradise”, where as the Talking Heads say in their song “Heaven”, “nothing ever really happens.” To be in the world of action, to move into history, means leaving behind innocence. With choice comes pain and consequence. The Torah unfolds as the story of the celebration of Creation, the responsibility of free will, and the expectation of repair and right action. The words of the festivals just completed should echo in our ears as we ree-ncounter the stories of Torah yet another year. May we understand them yet more deeply and apply their truths ever more meaningfully.

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King Solomon who, according to tradition, is the author of the book. He says:

I know there is nothing better for man than to rejoice and do good in his life. And also, that every man should eat, drink and enjoy the good of all his labour, it is the gift of God.”

(Kohelet 3:12–13).

Sukkot is the festival described in our calendar as the “z’man simchatenu / season of our joy”. The one festival where we are commanded to rejoice and be happy, to celebrate and be glad. All the traditions connected with Sukkot assist us in bringing the joy of the festival to the fore; eating and drinking in our sukkot with friends and family, smelling the distinctive, refreshing scent of the etrog, shaking the lulav with its beautiful greenery, and reading the book of Kohelet to inspire us to live with better purpose and more joy. Kohelet stresses the importance of enjoying the bounty with which we are blessed, of eating and drinking, of sharing special moments and being grateful for the blessings in our lives. And it is particularly meaningful that we read these words in the sukkah, in the temporary structure and dwelling in which we live for the seven days of the festival.

The sukkah is a fragile structure. It is not the solid bricks and mortar of our homes, rather, it is exposed to the elements, offering some shelter but not providing much protection from a storm or unrelenting heat and sun. The sukkah though, by its very nature, causes us to do what Kohelet is encouraging through his words: to take stock and think about what is really important, what in our lives is temporary and what is permanent. When we sit in the sukkah, we begin to realise the fragile nature of our material possessions — that our homes, as safe as they might be, could be gone in an instant.

Sukkot is a poignant reminder that there are many in the world who are without the shelter that we sometimes take for granted: those in our own larger community who are without homes and others for whom their home is not a safe environment of shelter. This Sukkot we are also witnessing on tv the plight of refugees and asylum seekers. There are more people currently seeking refuge than ever before. During this time in our calendar we are reminded to address the issues faced by those without a home, to think about what we can do.

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