Tag: Torah Tidbits

Journey Forth to Inclusion and You Shall Be a Blessing – Parashat Lech Lecha

Lech L'cha - our journeys, especially those that lead us beyond the familiar or out of our comfort zones, can lead to inspiring metamorphosis. When Abraham and Sarah ventured into the unknown, they became a long lasting great nation. We pray that by embracing inclusion our synagogues, camps, youth movements, day schools, JCC’s and other Jewish organizations will similarly heed the Divine call.

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Be Careful, Don’t Curse Your Parents, or else…

Nothing is more energizing in the midst of Torah study than gaining new insight about the text. I love working with Bar/Bat Mitzvah students because they approach the Torah text with new perspectives that so often illuminate a chiddush (new insight). I relish the moments when the student leads me to discover something entirely new in the Torah. 
This Shabbat’s Bar Mitzvah, Ethan Shanfeld, inspired me when he pointed out a verse I do not remember focusing on previously. Then he went ahead and taught us about it. 
Did you realize that in Torah, there is a verse that states: if one curses one’s father or mother, he or she shall be put to death? It goes without saying that this law is not, and should not, be actualized in any community – Jewish or otherwise – anywhere. 
Then what is it’s import? I’ll let Ethan’s own words explain it:

My Torah portion, Mishpatim, is in the Book of Exodus or Shemot. You just heard me chant Chapter 21, Verses 12 through 29, which deal with the laws of the Torah. Some of these laws, when read literally, may seem pretty extreme. But, I don’t believe we are supposed to interpret the Torah literally. The stories and laws of the Torah, when taken metaphorically, provide us with valuable lessons on how to act and how to be a good person.

Verse 17 of my Torah portion illustrates my point. It says, “Um’kaleil aveev v’eemo, mote u’mat” – whoever curses his father or mother shall be put to death. I don’t think any of the kids here prefer a literal interpretation of that. But, we can certainly learn from this law of the Torah. 

I’m guessing that a lot of the kids sitting in this congregation have said something to their parents that they regret. In the heat of our frustration, we don’t always choose the most respectful words. Just the other day I told my parents they were annoying, and I may have mumbled a couple words that I shouldn’t have.

Thankfully, we don’t adhere strictly to the law of the Torah. If we did, I wouldn’t be standing here today. But, I did get in trouble for my disrespectful words. No iPhone the next day. The law, on a metaphorical level, has great meaning. 

We should always respect our parents. They love us. They care for us. They make sure we have all the necessities, and the comforts, of life. The Ten Commandments tell us to “honor our father and mother”. I certainly love and respect my parents. And, as a Bar Mitzvah, I will make an effort to think before I speak. I definitely will not curse my parents.

I asked my parents what they thought of the Torah law that imposes a death sentence on any child who curses his parents. They noted that the law is ridiculous on its face, but they understood the message behind it. They explained that being a parent is difficult and tricky at times. You want to be your child’s best friend, but at the same time, a parent’s main responsibility is to make sure their child grows up to be a responsible, respectful and good person. And that means that parents must discipline their children when they act out and are disrespectful. Certainly, cursing your parents is one of the most disrespectful acts a child can do.

While death is obviously not the solution, there are valuable lessons behind the law of the Torah. We must appreciate our parents. We must show respect. And, we must learn from our actions.

Pointing the Way Forward

From my Grandpa Eddie, I learned the importance of enjoying life with your family.  Instead of hoarding his money and leaving us a bigger inheritance, he and Grandma Esther decided that they would rather see their grandkids having fun and bonding.  They sent us all to Jewish summer camps and spent regular time with us.

My Dad and Mom do the same, taking the family – especially when the kids were younger – on big family trips such that today all the cousins have strong connections one to the other.

My parents have also passed onto us (and continue to do so) the important of mishpacha (family), tikkun olam (social activism), kehilla (being part of a community), ahavat yisrael (love of Israel), and more.

This Shabbat we read from the first parasha (portion) in the book of Devarim (or Deuteronomy), the final of the 5 Books of Moses.  Taken together, the words of Devarim represents Moses’ final teaching to the children of Israel, before he goes off to die and they continue on under Joshua’s leadership and enter the Promised Land.  Sometimes we see Devarim as one long sermon – filled with stories and retellings of the past, hopes and warnings, songs and poems.  It is as if Moses, aware that he is about to die, wants to point the way forward to ensure that his peeps survive long into the future.

Some years ago I wrote an ethical will to my children, articulating those values and ideals that I wanted them to know I held dear.  My parents continually share their wisdom in subtle and not-so-subtle ways.This wisdom, imparted in big ways and small, form a Torat Horim (the teachings of my parents) that continue to influence me today – in big ways and small.  What is the wisdom that your parents or grandparents bequeathed to you? 

Blasphemers No More: Parashat Emor Commentary

Published in the Jewish Journal of Greater LA.

My sister just touched down in Israel. I can feel her elation way over here in California. Time stood still; there was silence. The land and the woman were one. She had returned home.

My sister made aliyah 22 years ago, with her then-husband and 1-year-old daughter. After building a life and birthing three more kids, they followed his dream and returned to America.

Fast forward 10 years, and after healing from the divorce and the bittersweet return of her two older children to Israel, my sister has returned to the Holy Land, if only for an extended Pesach pilgrimage.

In moments, my sister felt it again. She e-mailed: “… this so feels like home and I haven’t even arrived in my Israeli hometown of Karmiel. The smells of the bakeries, the sea, the air, the oranges. The taste of the food and coffee. Speaking Hebrew — it’s flowing well already. And soon, hugs of my dearest friends. I’ve made a life for myself on America’s East Coast … but it will never feel like home the way that Israel does.”

What is it about Israel that makes us feel so connected? Might it be a special spice or something in the air? Perhaps walking the stone pathways that our biblical ancestors traversed or witnessing the renewal of a once-lost nation? Or sensing the Holy One in the Holy Land. Or the way that kodesh v’chol (holy and regular), historical and contemporary, coexist everywhere.

This week, my sister enjoys Israel yom-yomi (day-to-day). Next week, Pesach. By the time you read this, she will be back in the States, connecting from afar with the land we love so much. Like the rest of us, she will wrestle with simplistic black-and-white portrayals of Israel in the press and in the Jewish world, and grapple with the urge to both kvell (praise) and kvetch (complain) about our beloved homeland.

Conveniently, America hosts a variety of organizations, each speaking about Israel, its status as an American ally and its place within the Jewish heart. Still, any oheiv Yisrael (lover of Israel) must tread carefully, because American Jews are a vociferous bunch, quick to declare this or that opinion to be kosher or, heaven forbid, to be anti-Zionist or worse, chillul HaShem, a blasphemy before God.

Once, arguments about how to relate to the Land were machloket l’shem shamayim, an argument for the sake of heaven. Today, in America, many have forgotten that eilu v’eilu divray Elohim chayim — this and that opinion are both the words of the living God. The self-appointed arbiters of Jewish truth condemn opinions about Israel that diverge from their own. They implicitly reference this week’s parasha, Emor: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp, and all who heard [his blasphemy] shall lean their hands on his head. And the entire community shall stone him” (Leviticus 24:14). Then they act dumbfounded when a Jew picks up a gun to kill the prime minister, or they remain silent when an Arab picks up a gun and kills a Jewish family just over the Green Line.

It is high time we American Jews take a “chill pill” and, while remaining unwaveringly committed to Israel’s security and safety, become very slow to invoke Torah’s condemnation of “blasphemer.” Israeli newspapers host a robust debate about everything imaginable. Israeli journalists and bloggers — not to mention Yosi Yisraeli on the Midrachov, Jerusalem’s outdoor pedestrian mall — argue vociferously, offering opinions that are quickly reviled here.

Our Israel is beautiful, precious and perfectly imperfect. It exists in a dangerous neighborhood. But we need to remember that most American Jews are cross-addicted to Israel. Some are AIPAC supporters out of a desire to ensure Israel’s close relations with our government even as they donate to the New Israel Fund to help Israel remain true to her Jewish and democratic ideals. Others invest heavily in Israeli technology while supporting J Street, one of the few places that openly and honestly talks about the plight of the Palestinians. Some enjoy Shabbat at the Kotel, davening with the various minyanim, while also finding inspiration in Israel’s 85+ Progressive and Masorti communities. Let us become more like most Israelis, accepting that an oheiv Yisrael can disagree profoundly without being among Emor’s blasphemers.

Remember, the love of Israel easily inflames our hearts and souls. My sister wrote: “We ate at a restaurant right on the beach. Mushroom and green olive pizza for my son; grilled cheese on a bagel for the youngest. I enjoyed the most delicious hummus I’ve had in a long time. That stuff from Whole Foods may be healthy, and Sabra hummus is closer, but nothing compares to the smooth, almost white creaminess of Israeli hummus with whole chickpeas, tehina, olive oil, lemon, and parsley on thick warm pita. That and a café hafuch, and I was one happy woman.”

May our love for Israel entice us to put away our sticks and stones, to kvell more, kvetch with compassion, and to treat both the kvellers and kvetchers with kavod (honor).

Omer Day #5: People Stepping Out Toward their Destiny

Today is the fifth day of the Omer, five days into the 49-day journey from Egypt to Sinai to the receiving of Torah.

We Jews are a people on the move, journeying from one place to another.

  • Our existence began with a call to set forth: Lech lecha, God said to Avram and Sarai  – Go for yourself from your land, from the place of your birth, from your father’s home, to a land that I will show you. With few words, God sent our ancestors off on a journey for their own benefit, on a trek that would help them find their true selves. Off they went, to find their destinies and to become a blessing.
  • The transition between generations – from Abraham to Isaac – also began with a call for Abraham to take his son on a journey, three days out into the land of Moriah, to a place that God would show him. Whether for sacrifice or for a spiritual experience, this desert trek transformed both participants, encoding a terrifying experience into their hearts and our history.
  • On a journey to meet up with his brother Esau after 40 years of separation, Jacob pauses for the night and awakens to find himself wrestling with something – an angel? himself? his conscience? There his name is changed from Ya’akov (the one who tries to hold another back) to Yisrael (one who struggles with God). From there he limps off to become a blessing, to assume his role as the father of a great people.
  • On a journey in the wilderness, chasing after a stray lamb, Moses slows down enough to notice that a bush burns but is not consumed. There he hears God’s call: to become the mouthpiece of holiness, to speak truth to power, and to emancipate his people Israel from under the yoke of a tyrant.
  • Then as a whole people, we embarked on a journey, with Moses, Miriam and Aaron leading them. Out of Egypt, up to Mt. Sinai, and later for 40 years wandering in the desert. Reborn after passing through the metaphoric birth canal of the Red Sea, our people Israel met the Holy One at the holy mountain, receiving Torah and becoming a holy people.

So many steps taken by so many of our ancestors, traveling to find themselves and discover their true calling.

How much strength they must have had to take leave of the familiar!
How courageous they had to have been to embark on a journey to the unknown!
Can we even begin to understand the internal struggle, the conversations inside their heads?

And stil, this one up and leaves (Avram). And then answers a divine call (Avraham). This one stops running long enough to wrestle with his inner voices (Jacob). And that one slows down enough to witness a miracle (Moses).

We Jews embark on these journeys not because we want to, but because journeying itself is encoded into our very DNA. Always on the move, always seeking to discover our destiny. From slavery to freedom. From pain to healing. From hopelessness to hopefulness.

What journey are you on?
Are you ready to answer the call?
God promises that once we embark, we shall become a blessing. To ourselves and others.

So take a chance. Step out into the unknown. And may your journey be blessed.

Today is the fifth day of the Omer. I am off at Congregation Or Ami’s Seder in the Wilderness. And as my wife assured me, once I ventured forth, I am having a great time!

Welcoming Chaverim, for Developmentally Disabled Adults

Torah teaches, “Do not place a stumbling block before the blind.” The RiPiK, a twentieth century commentator, suggested that beyond refraining from placing blocks, we should actively remove stumbling blocks. To what might this be compared?

A story…

Even as the Director of Chaverim, a local program for developmentally disabled adults asked the question, his discomfort was evident: “How do you feel about opening your congregation to a local group for developmentally disabled adults?”

“Why wouldn’t we?” I asked.

“We’ve been to other synagogues that have opened their doors, only to feel slowly push us out, after their members became uncomfortable with the presence of our members,” he responded.

The conversation continued. “What’s the worst that might happen?” I asked.

“We have one member who can sing loudly, and sometimes off-key.” He paused, “And you might have someone read slowly, completing a communal reading after others have already finished.”

“Sounds like some of our current members.”

“However, they will usually be accompanied by the Chaverim program director or program rabbi, either of whom will help direct our members if necessary. Would you like to come by one of our events to check out the Chaverim members?”

“Why? Give me a heads up when you think there might be an issue. Make sure that in the early months you attend services only when I am leading them. That way I can witness and deal with any issues that might arise.”

So We Welcomed Chaverim
“Yes, we would love to welcome you,” I said. “Let me speak to our Board in two weeks, when I know they will openly embrace the idea and your members. We will extend to any of your members full membership at our synagogue. Two High Holy Day tickets per Chaverim member – one for the member, one for his/her driver or guest. We will make you, as Director of Chaverim, a complimentary synagogue member, so that we can give you access to our synagogue afterhours for use during your scheduled programs and classes. We ask only that your members fill out a synagogue membership form so we can get them into our system.”

“They should pay membership dues,” he said. “So that they have a sense of commitment. How much should they need to pay?”

“We won’t care. Whatever you think is appropriate. No more than $50; no less than $10. We only ask that they pay it in one lump sum, to ease the work on our bookkeeper. To make it easier, you collect the forms and information, and pass them onto my assistant, who will oversee the processing of the forms.”
“Are you sure you don’t want to meet them first?” he inquired.

“Listen, we pride ourselves on being a congregation that is open and welcoming. And we have families with developmentally disabled children and relatives. So no, I don’t need to approve them. They are Jews. Let them come home.”

Not a Mitzvah (good deed), but a Mitzvah (religious obligation)
It saddens me when I hear kvelling about how this synagogue or that is especially accessible to people with disabilities. This is no mitzvah (colloquially, a good deed); it is a mitzvah (literally, a religious obligation). It is the responsibility of every Jewish community to make Jewish life and celebration accessible to every Jew and Jewish family. We strive to remove stumbling blocks from before all Jews – including those with disabilities.

As expected, the Board discussion lasted less than five minutes. The motion to welcome Chaverim was a “no-brainer.” Our CFO and his wife volunteered to be the liaisons with the program; our Program Director was tasked with smoothing the process from the staff side. We created a new membership category called ‘Chaverim,’ though we were aware that it would be a few months before anyone would officially sign up.

The next week, we designated a few Friday nights as Shabbatot when they would officially come worship with us. As I had been informed, only a few Chaverim regulars showed up at the first services to check us out and to make sure we were welcoming. Based on guidance from the Chaverim Director, early in the service when we welcome others, I just said, “We welcome our members who are connected to Chaverim, a program for developmentally disabled adults, ages 18-88.” We did not ask them to identify themselves at that time; we let them just be Jews at services.

A Service Honoring Exceptional People
We are now close to a year into our relationship. I am told that Chaverim members have attended services regularly and appreciate NOT being singled out. They hang out at the oneg like everyone else; last week I enjoyed watching our president chatting up a few Chaverim members, just like she does ever other non-regular who shows up at services. A few read prayers in our annual Service Honoring Exceptional People (our annual “Special Needs” service); others sang along and just felt like they belonged.

All because of one 20-minute phone call, one email from the Rabbi, five minutes in a board meeting, and a few calls by the Program Director. All in the span of a month.

That, and because we took seriously the Torah teaching, “Do not put a stumbling block before the blind.” It should be that easy. Please tell us your story.

10 Commandments 2.0 – Is it Time for an Upgrade?

Moment Magazine offers an interfaith exploration of the 10 Commandments, which answers the questions: For millennia, these ancient laws have been central to our way of life. Are they still relevant? Or is it time for an upgrade?

NEARLY 3,500 YEARS AGO, Exodus tells us, God inscribed the Ten Commandments onto two stone tablets for the Israelites. Although Jewish tradition counts 613 commandments in the Torah, the Ten have taken on a life of their own, inspiring millions of Jews, Christians and Muslims over the centuries and evolving into a symbol of morality that has influenced Western thinking. Over the past 50 years, they’ve become a contentious subject in the United States, emerging at the heart of the culture wars between conservatives and liberals who disagree over their role in American law and ethics. Moment speaks with a range of American scholars about the Ten Commandments’ contemporary relevance and meaning, and discovers—surprise, surprise—that
their opinions differ dramatically. Read on.

And the Next Genocide Will Be In… (Top Ten List)

As this secular year rolls into the next, we will be besieged by Top Ten lists chronicling the year gone by. Top 10 movies. Top 10 Electronic Gadgets. Ten most newsworthy events. Will anyone compile a list of the Top Conflicts Most Likely to Become the Next Genocide?

Though it won’t appear on the cover of Rolling Stone, Jewish World Watch (JWW) did compile such a list. JWW reviewed and collected material from an array of human rights reports and news sources, creating a genocide risk assessment that did place Congo among the ignominious top ten. The atrocities in Congo just keep escalating; like during Egyptian slavery, the violence and death are almost incomprehensible. Yet according to JWW and the aid agency International Rescue Committee:

  • 5.4 million civilians have been killed by war-related violence, hunger and disease since 1998.
  • Up to 45,000 continue to die each month.
  • Hundreds of thousands of women and girls have reportedly been raped in a systematic campaign to destroy entire communities by using women’s bodies as battlegrounds.
  • 75% of all rapes reported to Doctors Without Borders worldwide occur in the Eastern Congo, considered the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman.
  • 2 million have been internally displaced, often uprooted several times by various warring factions
  • 900,000 civilians have been newly displaced just since January 2009.

Congo is one country where our voices can be heard. We are unwitting participants in this war, implicated by the phones in our pockets and computers on our desks. The armed groups perpetrating the rapes and violence are funded by an estimated $144 million annual trade in tin, tantalum, tungsten and gold. These minerals go directly into the components of electronic products that we use every day, from our iPods to our BlackBerrys.

How do we – children and grandchildren of the post-Holocaust generation, descendants of Egyptian slaves – respond to this conflict? Rabbi Harold Schulweis teaches “To be Jewish is to care for the world. Torah does not say ‘love thy Jewish neighbor’; it says ‘love thy neighbor’ (Lev. 19:18).” Similarly, Torah does not allow us to stand idly by while our non-Jewish neighbor bleeds, because we are commanded to stand up whenever any neighbor bleeds (Lev. 19:16).

The 21 largest electronic companies are poised to accept a campaign committing them to source their minerals to the mine of origin. Jewish World Watch is part of a coalition of stakeholders influencing and directing the Conflict-Free Minerals designation and the international oversight process. Our community must demand an end to the use of “conflict minerals.”

Lo ta’amod al dam rei-acha – Don’t stand idly by while our neighbors bleed. How will you answer your descendents? Take a moment to remember the generations of Israelites who died in service of Pharaoh’s bloody war machine. Then be like Shifrah and Puah, the two Egyptian midwives who refused to stand idly by. Go to JewishWorldWatch to take the Conflict-Free Minerals Pledge. Then leave a comment so I know you signed.

Everything I Needed to Know, I Learned from Noah’s Ark

This week’s parasha, Noach, offers a flood of wisdom.

  1. Don’t miss the boat.
  2. Remember that we are all in the same boat.
  3. Plan ahead. It wasn’t raining when Noah built the Ark.
  4. Stay fit. When you’re 600 years old, someone may ask you to do something really big.
  5. Don’t listen to critics; just get on with the job that needs to be done.
  6. Build your future on high ground.
  7. For safety’s sake, travel in pairs.
  8. Speed isn’t always an advantage. The snails were on board with the cheetahs.
  9. When you’re stressed, float a while.
  10. Remember, the Ark was built by amateurs; the Titanic by professionals.
  11. No matter the storm, when you are with God, there’s always a rainbow waiting.

Repost: Akedah: Abraham Failed God’s Test, but God Loved him Anyway!

Each Rosh Hashanah, we read the horrid tale of the Akedah (Genesis 22), the almost sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham. Commentators throughout the ages characterize this story as an example of the heights of faith. Abraham loved God so much he was willing to give up the child he waited so long to bear.

But in as much as this might have been a test of Abraham, I read the story as a clear indication that Abraham failed the test.

Consider this: Did God really command Abraham to sacrifice his son as a burnt offering? Read closely. According to one commentary, Midrash Tanhuma, it all hinges on one word – olah. In the Torah, God said to Abraham v’haaleihu sham l’olah, bring up Isaac as an olah. The Hebrew word olah, comes from the root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning, “to rise up.” Must olah here mean, “sacrifice,” as in the smoke of the sacrifice rises up? Or might it be connected rather to a more familiar word aliyah, also from the Hebrew root Ayin-Lamed-Hey, meaning “spiritual uplift?” In this reading, God only said, “raise up your son with an appreciation of your devotion to Me.” Perhaps Abraham was so dazzled to be speaking to God that he became confused. What if he misunderstood God’s intended purpose?

Rashi, the greatest Biblical commentator of all time, also hangs his interpretation on the same word. He explains (on Genesis 22:2), perhaps God was saying, “When I said to you ‘Take your son’… I did not say to you, sh’chateihu, ‘slaughter him,’ but only ha’aleihu, ‘bring him up.’ Now that you have brought him up, introduce him to Me, and then take him back down.” Instead of wanting Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, God really only wanted him to spend some spiritual “quality time” with his son. Had Abraham only paid close attention, he might have spared himself, Isaac, and Sarah a significant amount of stress and pain.

But in a strange twist, the angel of God who stopped Abraham from killing his son responds with love, not rebuke. God praised Abraham. Why would God praise him if Abraham misunderstood the command? Perhaps God, through the angel, reaffirms to Abraham how much God loves him, but also signals that Abraham and his followers should no longer employ cruel or intimidating means to ¬¬show their love for God.

This need not, however, be understood as condoning Abraham’s actions. Rather, the angel’s words remind me of that parent who walked into his freshly painted house. Dad is greeted at the door by his young son who, with a big smile on his face, says, “Daddy, come see how much I love you.” The boy brings his father into the next room and proceeds to proudly show him a picture drawn in magic marker on the living room wall. It was a red heart, inside of which were the words, “Daddy, I love you.” How does a parent respond to such a display of love, especially after spending thousands of dollars to paint the house just right? Most of us would yell, and yell loudly. But if we stopped first to think about it, we might say, with tears in our eyes, “I love you too, my son. Try to use paper next time. And you may not write on the walls. But, I love you too!” Similarly, through the words of the angel, God, the patient One, who cherishes Abraham, teaches love and forgiveness as an example for future generations.

Now consider this… Prior to the Akedah, each encounter between God and Abraham occurs in direct one-on-one conversations. But from this point on, God never again speaks to Abraham directly. All further communication is passed through an angel. Why? Because Abraham simultaneously passed and failed the test. He showed his love of God, yes, but he employed violent means to pursue that love. The use of an intermediary – the angel – proclaims a message for future generations: Abraham really didn’t listen to God’s teachings of compassion, did he? [For footnotes and citations on this reading, see What Does God Want from Us?]

Interested in the implications of this reading of the story? Check out:

The Ick Factor: Rabbi Denise Eger on Tazria/Metzora

This from my colleague Rabbi Denise Eger on Tazria/Metzora (Leviticus 12:1-15:33):

This week’s double Torah portion Tazria/Metzora describes spiritual defilement by means of child birth, physical ailment, and discharges of both semen and blood by men and women. A small section of this week’s portion describes a kind of tzarat or affliction that attacks houses and fabrics. This week we enter an ancient mindset that seemed to revile some of the natural functions of the body along with physical ailments that were poorly understood. It made everything from menstrual blood to semen as something to revile rather than as natural and normal functions of the body. Both blood and semen in these Torah portions with the potential for life are treated in a special category that can cause spiritual impurity.

The opening of the portion describes the conditions of childbirth that bring the mother spiritual impurity or uncleanliness. When a woman gives birth there is a lot of blood. It is part of the process of the body. And so according to this portion she must purify herself following the ordeal of giving birth and coming into contact with blood that holds life. Depending upon whether she has a male child or a female child there is a different ritual for restoring her spiritual purity. For a male child she is unclean for 33 days. For a female child it is double the time for 66 days. According to tradition she has to account for both her own and her daughter’s potential to bear children later on.

In the ancient mind and certainly the Biblical mind blood and semen were the sources of life. When blood or semen was spilled or oozed from the body they understood that the potentiality of life was being leaked. Thus ancient mindset called for a spiritual and holy state of being that needed to be restored in the individual. Balance needed to be restored, the balance of life and life giving forces. And this week’s portions describes ancient methods of restoring that spiritual balance put out of whack by contact with blood, semen and whatever the affliction of tzarat may be. There is an intertwining of the physical disease of tzarat which is some kind of scaly skin affliction and a notion of spiritual impurity. This idea gets further reinforced because the priest acts as diagnostician and also has a role in figuring out when the person is no longer impure but clean. The priest is in part doctor and shaman.

But the tzarat mentioned in this week’s portions is not only in human beings but can also be a condition in houses or fabrics. Scholars believe it is some kind of fungus or mildew that brings impurity to the household. This week’s portions also describe ways of cleansing the house and fabrics of this “ailment”.

Today for us moderns these two chapters of Torah give us much consternation. It is hard to relate to the ancient attitude that holds these very normal conditions as something unholy. But this ancient mindset continues to inform our own attitudes about sicknesses. We continue in our own day and time to sometimes see certain disease as punishment rather than as the random acts of contagion or functions of the body. We are sometimes reviled by skin conditions and turn our heads when someone is afflicted or looks different. We sometimes don’t affirm a person humanity who is ill. We isolate and ostracize those who are sick and the “ick” factor is high! Indeed a ritual of re-entry to the community might be exactly something that would help. The Torah portion has within it ways for all these people with these various afflictions to re-enter the community and to be cleansed. No one stays outside the camp forever.

And perhaps that is the message for today. There are times when our own health issues take precedence and we need to attend to them. We need our doctors and nurses and health care professionals to diagnose and help us on the road to recovery and healing. But healing doesn’t just happen physically. We can understand that there is a spiritual dimension to our physical realities. And this spiritual reality also needs attending to. Whether through prayer like a healing Mishabeyrach or going to the ritual bath to celebrate recovery, these acts help us reintegrate our spiritual and the physical realms. And that is exactly the point of these two portions. We have to recognize how the spiritual can express itself physically and how the physical expresses itself spiritual. And when we do so we can rebalance our lives. Perhaps that is the message of this week’s parasha.

Breathing the Name of God

In this week’s parasha, we encounter Moses at the burning bush, speaking to God. In response to the instruction to go down to Egypt to free the Israelites from Pharaoh’s oppression, he asks a simple question: When people ask who You are, what shall I tell them? The answer: Ehiyeh asher Ehiyeh. I am who I am. I was who I was. I am who I will be… God uses God’s name: Yod-Hey-Vav-Hey. Usually pronounced euphemistically as “Adonai,” God’s name is something more.

At services tonight at Congregation Or Ami, we will talk about what God’s name is and what the name teaches us about our lives. Here’s a foretaste…

My teacher, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner, the Reform Movement’s Rabbi-Mystic-Scholar, explains this name in Breathing the Name of God [From Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: Eyes Remade for Wonder]. Read and consider:

The letters of the Name of God in Hebrew are YOD, HAY, VAV, and HAY. They are frequently mispronounced as “Yahveh.” But in truth they are unutterable. Not because of the holiness they evoke, but because they are all vowels and you cannot pronounce all the vowels at once without risking respiratory injury.

This word is the sound of breathing. The holiest Name in the world, the Name of the Creator, is the sound of your own breathing.

That these letters are unpronounceable is no accident. Just as it is no accident that they are also the root letters of the Hebrew verb “to be.” Scholars have suggested that a reasonable translation of the four-letter Name of God might be The One Who Brings Into Being All That Is. So God’s Name is the Name of Existence itself. And, since God is holy, then so is all creation. At the burning bush, Moses asks for God’s Name, but God only replies with Ehyeh-hasher-ehyeh, which is often incorrectly rendered by the static English, “I am who I am.” But in truth the Hebrew may denote the future tense: “I will be who I will be.” Here is a Name (and a God) who is neither completed nor finished. This God is literally not yet.

How Does a Rabbi Replenish His Soul?

For years I have been studying Torah weekly with one or two Chevruta (study) partners through the Institute of Jewish Spirituality (IJS). I have studied with a Reconstructionist Rabbi from Cleveland (Steve Segar), a Conservative Rabbi from Portland (Dan Isaak), a Reconstructionist Rabbi from Malibu (Judith HaLevy), and for years, a Reform Rabbi from Los Angeles (Karen Fox). Recently, I have renewed my study with the Clevelander Rebbe.

We have never really sat in the same room to study. We study by phone, with texts before us, and headsets over our heads. (It has been suggested that we begin using Skype so we can face to face study. Something to consider.)

Often we spend 20 minutes of the study hour talking with each other about our lives, our families, the joys and challenges of being a pulpit rabbi, our spiritual struggles and successes. Acquaintances begun at a week-long retreat have blossomed into friendships that have sustained us through life’s challenges and struggles.

Each week, we receive by email a text. Our IJS teacher, Rabbi Jonathan Slater, sends weekly an email that gets us learning. It begins with a primary text (currently Degel Machaneh Efraim) – in Hebrew and English, Rabbi Slater’s explanation of the Degel text, some reflection questions and a guide for spiritual practice drawn from this text. The Chasidic texts are sometimes thick, laden with references to Zohar, Talmud, Midrash and other commentators. Thankfully, Rabbi Slater has done the heavy lifting by discovering and reprinting the texts cited. He also guides us through the sometimes incomprehensible discussion, pointing us always toward some deep insights about spirituality or life. The text study becomes the highlight of my week.

My learning this week?

In this week’s parasha, Shemot, we learn that vayehi ki yar’u hameyaldot et ha-elohim vaya’as lehem batim – And because the midwives feared God, God established houses (batim) for them (Ex.1:21). What does it mean that God established “houses” for the midwives? Connecting “houses” with vessels, Degel Machaneh Efraim leads us on a journey to realize that wisdom, when bounded and held in a vessel of fear/awe ensures that our wisdom is used for justice and good.

As Rabbi Slater explains:

“Fear gives boundaries to wisdom.” The basic understanding here is in the dynamic tension of the right and left sides of the sephirotic tree. Chokhmah (wisdom) is on the right side. Its tendency and desire is to expand, like love (Hesed). Yet, for wisdom to be useful, for it to apply in the world, it must have some definition, a framework in which it can be understood. That is the role of the left side, where Gevurah (which includes the quality of fear, yirah) constrains, sets boundaries and provides a vessel for Wisdom. This is the same process of constriction (tzimtzum) by which God’s vital force and light come to be contained and present in all creation. Fear – as limitation and gevurah – creates a home for God’s outpouring of life and wisdom.

As Rabbi Slater guides us:

R. Moshe Chaim offers us a practice insight here. What is wisdom? Ultimately it is the capacity to perceive and respond to the truth of any given moment, any given circumstance. We all know that there are times that we are clearer, more connected to our experience and so better able to choose how to respond, and times when we are not. On those occasions that we are not so free to choose how to respond – when we are surprised, angry, depressed, jealous, smitten by love, confused, etc. – it is not that we are not “wise”, but our wisdom is not connected to the totality of our experience. It runs wherever our passions run; it is misapplied. For our natural and acquired wisdom to be effective, for it to bring us happiness and benefit to one and all, it needs a container, a frame in which to function.

“Fear of heaven” is just such a framework. This is not fear in the sense of terror before pain or loss (although both may be present), or fear of punishment. Rather, it is the fear that arises when we recognize the unbounded and uncontrollable outcomes of our actions. We may strive to live impeccably, but we are likely to fail. That induces fear: awareness, caution, compassion for ourselves and for others. When we stop to consider the fact that every deed implicates us, it may become impossible to act. Yet, we must act. There is no holding back, no backing out. The goal is to act as much as possible, with our greatest wisdom and as well as we can to do justice, live with compassion and humility. And when we realize we have made a mistake, the challenge is to strive to rectify the mistake, to compensate – as best we can – for past mistakes, and minimize the mistakes we make into the future.

Learning with my chevruta (study partners) ensures that I replenish my Torah, the source of my wisdom and compassion. It points me to deeper levels of understanding and thus becomes a central part of my weekly spiritual practice.

In Love with a Book

I am in love. Of course, with my wife, with whom I recently celebrated as our eldest turned 18, our baby became a Bar Mitzvah, and our middle one continues to be wonderful. Such simchas always bring forth the love.

I am also in love with a book, a novel about love, archeology, life and death. Zoe Klein’s first novel, Drawing in the Dust, has been called “a magically inventive archelogical expedition into love’s psyche” by Rabbi Lawrence Kushner. Like The Red Tent before it, this novel weaves Biblical stories – the book of Jeremiah – with modern midrash to create a tale that enthralls and even educates.

I confess that I learned more about archeology from this book than I have since leaving rabbinic school. Moreover, the book, simultaneously an exploration of death and life, challenged me to reconsider ideas about what comes after this life. All this, while being caught up in a fast moving, engaging book. Perhaps that is why Rabbi Harold Schulweis called it “an archelogical adventure which resurrects buries romance.”

Read the Jewish Journal and Ha’aretz review of the novel.
Read it for the romance.
Read it to reconnect to the Bible.
Read it if you are interested in learning from Zoe Klein, one of Los Angeles’ most inspiring rabbis.

I gave copies of the book to my mother and sister, two women who love to read and who love Judaism. My wife will be reading my copy next. Let me know what you think when you have a chance to read it too.