Wednesday, December 22, 2010

When Tzedakah Becomes Social Justice

So, one of my favorite teachers, my daughter, Rachie, is teaching my high school classes today, Wednesday December 22, 2010. She is presenting a seemingly innocuous concept but one that is important for all of us to consider – namely the similarities as well as the differences and connections between Tzedakah and Social Justice. It’s a very interesting differentiation to make to be sure.

Rachie has really been dedicated to causes within the framework of Social Justice and was able to put this dedication into practical and ongoing application throughout her one year with Avodah, The Jewish Service Corps (part of Americorps). She worked in New Orleans in the office of the Public Defender. Her clients were the poor, under privileged, lacking resources, and poorly educated. She continually shared how she was struck by the vast differences between her life and theirs, and that when people do not have access to the ongoing resources and support which we generally take for granted, we are all responsible in some way for this unbalanced inequitable distribution of resources.

I always teach that Tzedakah is NOT CHARITY, but rather it is THE OBLIGATORY SHARING AND CARING WITH OUR RESOURCES. Consider the many practices we are taught in our Torah about which parts of our crops that are harvested in our fields are ours and which parts BELONG TO OTHERS, with our responsibility being to insure that the distribution of THESE resources to THESE others actually occurs, through giving them an opportunity to COME INSIDE of “our property,” so to speak, and WORK FOR THEIR ACCESS TO THESE RESOURCES. This is Social Justice in a Jewish way – it is not just distribution of resources, be it money, food, clothing, or even pockets of donated time. Rather, it is the ongoing engagement in BRINGING THE OTHER INSIDE OUR CIRCLE and providing for each person as ONE OF US. This is the society that John Rawls encourages us to strive for – in which each person can achieve their potential in a constructive and meaningful manner through such access.

Rachie talks often of her experiences in townships in South Africa when she was a student at the University of Cape Town a few years ago and more recently in New Orleans. She explains how cultural context creates significant boundaries of which we must be aware. In Cape Town, she was this rich, white, educated privileged young woman who came to help (and she tried to do so in a meaningful manner) poor black kids in the townships who were without resources and with very limited opportunity. In New Orleans when she works with her predominately male prisoner population, she is the Northeast white Jewish girl with the education and the opportunity that they never had.

How do we help in such situations? How do we ENTER the world of the other and more importantly, bring them INTO OUR WORLD? Is this even possible on any level at all? For me, Tzedakah is about giving out…. We are taught by our Jewish sources to not have our hand JUMP when we give money, that is to do so graciously, looking the other person in the eyes and letting that person know that WE SEE THEM. This is difficult enough to do. How much harder it is to work, truly and continually ENGAGE OURSELVES in the tasks related to social justice with those with whom we cooperate and work to build such a community? Here we bring the people with whom we are engaged into our world. We recognize that this is an ideal but in actuality how much are we prepared to do so?

Consider this one fact that Rachie pointed out to me. Churches often run shelters IN THEIR BUILDINGS for homeless members of the community, invite these same people to worship and prepare food for and SIT AND EAT with these same people. How many of our synagogues, shuls, and temples do this?

This is a challenge. I love the teaching (words that Rachie lives by) that “If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time,… but if you have come because your liberation is tied up with mine, then let us work together.” This comes to us from an Aboriginal Activist Group from Queensland in the 1970’s.

So how do we do this in our world, practically, really, and honestly? Is it even possible? Maybe Margeret Meade can help us with this one, when she teaches that if we each take care of our one square foot of the earth (and all that are included), we will have accomplished some degree of social justice, so to speak.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Our Leaders and A Reality Check

So, I am in the process of teaching the work of Rabbi Moshe Chayim Luzzato, or Ramchal, to my Tenth Grade class on Jewish Thinking and Philosophy. I love teaching Luzzato because he brings so many different endeavors of thought and intellectual pursuit in his work. He also reminds us of probably the most important tenet to remember as human beings, Jews or otherwise. WE ARE FLAWED HUMAN BEINGS and must be content to live with these flaws. The only true perfection or שלמות אמיתית as Ramchal calls it resides with G-d. ONLY THE CREATOR IS PERFECT NOT THOSE THAT THE CREATOR CREATES – that would be us. Now, on one level this can be disconcerting, but what does every therapy and support program known to us teach us – the best way to love and cherish ourselves is to accept ourselves – our flaws along with what we love best about us. I think this is so basic (remember the very middle of the Torah teaches “and you shall love your neighbor/friend, including that which is not so great about him, as yourself!” ואהבת לרעך כמוך

A simple concept to be sure, but…. This is not always the behavior modeled by our leaders. We are seeing ongoing articles and information in so many public arenas about our leaders in our country, in Israel, and yes, in the leadership of our Jewish community who are leading by tying the noose of the power they wield around the necks of those of us who live in the community, while abusing and considering themselves above and beyond the reach of law. This is absolutely against everything I have ever learned about what it means to be a Jew. Don’t we always teach that we are to lead BY FOLLOWING THE RULES AND LAWS GIVEN US BY G-D, THE ONLY PERFECT ONE and not make it up as we go along, so to say? Isn’t that the point of Torah M’Sinai?

So, why is it that I am constantly dealing with people who are feeling the horrible impact of what is going on with the reversal of conversions that are LEGITIMATE and HALACHIC in Israel while some of the very gatekeepers of this decision are being investigated for crimes and misdeeds that we would never accept in our own lives – those of us who care, anyway?! Why are we seeing such abuse of individuals in our community, such as our brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers and friends and others who are gay while they are so intent on being שומרי מצוות and yet feel that they are not welcome in our shuls and Jewish institutions too often? Why are women becoming more and more invisible in a growing sector of the Orthodox observant community? This pains me to no end.

My own children who are all as observant as they can be on so many levels DO NOT FEEL COMFORTABLE AND EMBRACED by our Orthodox world because of this… and yes, let’s call it what it is, HYPOCRACY! How sad this makes me, how very sad and despondent. They are each wonderful role models and fabulous exemplars of everything that is wonderful about being Jewish and yet, feel marginalized too often. Admittedly, I have certainly felt this as well but just plod on through because I have just been doing so my whole life. This is not good enough for my children! I can’t fault them for this. They can and should be AMONGST OUR LEADERS but alas, will not…. not in that way anyway, not within the community in which they grew up and learned how to be the wonderful human beings they are. What a loss. How many other wonderful people feel the same way? Who does this leave us with for our leadership? I know…. the ones who make up the rules as they go along without the feeling of modesty and respect that we see in our fathers and mothers of old… and as they lead, the community over which they wield their power will become more and more depleted of wonderful Jewish exemplars of the closest to perfection we as humans dare come while these leaders might feel that they can continue to cross every line of decency and lawful behavior.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Melech Chezkiahu and the Wall -- Soulful Teaching of Text

I have written before about the value and focus of Soulful Teaching and Learning. In fact I am now looking forward to a week of this careful and quieter mode of learning and consideration of texts and teachings with all of my high school classes I teach – I habitually try to do this the last week of the academic term when there are so many other pressures and demands on them. I love the notion of truly engaging in Torah Lishmah – learning and consideration of the texts for the sake of …. learning and consideration of the texts. It’s kind of like intellectual yoga.

So, as I prepare for this week (my Hannukah gift to myself and my students as it turns out, I guess) of soulful learning, my son Brian and I came across a great text in our learning of Gemara that is instructive in soulful learning, prayer, and so much else.

On Berachot 10b, we find a discussion regarding King Hezekiah and Isaiah in terms of asking and answering the question of whether the King should come to the prophet when there needs to be a delivery of news or the prophet should go to the King to do so. As the teachers and voices of the Gemara often do, there is an example given of each case, when the prophet Eliyahu came to King Achav to deliver news and conversely, King Yehoram came to the prophet Elisha to hear his news. So, G-d, we are told facilitates the answer that Isaiah should go to Hezekiah and this occurs circumstantially when Hezekiah falls ill (how did G-d manage that, you might ask?!).

At any rate, Isaiah has some particularly difficult news to deliver to Hezekiah, that his entire lineage and household will die and end. The report is specifically “you will die and you will not live.” In the Gemara, we see a discussion in which it is suggested that “you will die” refers to what will happen in this world (HaOlam HaZeh) and “you will not live” refers to not being given a portion in the world to come (HaOlam HaBa). Hezekiah is devastated, as we can imagine, and we read as follows “he turned to the wall and prayed to G-d.” As the discussion moves on, we are confronted by the question “what is meant by wall?” Then comes the suggestion that is the reason for this inspiration. The notion is presented that Hezekiah turns inward to THE WALLS of his heart. What a wonderful idea! When we soulfully learn and pray and consider our station in life, we are to move away from all of the distractions and STUFF around us and focus on turning INWARD TO THE WALLS OF OUR HEART.

As the text continues, Hezekiah tries to make what he has done wrong better and tries to undo his ultimate punishment. This does not happen and Hezekiah dies --- perhaps a broken man. But, look at the powerful lesson he has left us – we should engage in soulful learning and prayer by turning to the wall – that is the walls of our heart, for there we find G-d, we find our past, present and future, we find ourselves! Hag HaUrim Sameach, Shabbat Shalom, and my gift to all of us is may we find our way to soulful learning and prayer.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Is There a Glass Ceiling in our Text Study Community? – Part II

This discussion is dedicated to my wonderful daughter Talie (presently in Medical School at Ben Gurion University), with whom I discussed the last posting this morning during our pre-Shabbat chat. She was not sure what my point was and that I was inadvertently agreeing with those who say women should not study these texts, so perhaps being subject to the venue of blog writing here, I need to continue this discussion. That same daughter along with her sisters and brother explained that my first entries when I started this venture were too long and that blogging is a shorter format than the publishing venues with which I am more familiar. So in the interest of brevity, I may have sacrificed clarity. Here goes! [Feel free to review the previous posting at this point before proceeding.]

My point was that women and the “feminine side” of all of us --- men and women --- bring with them a different type of analysis of the texts we study. This is not a matter of “women are touchy feely and soft and sensitive” and thus falling into the Rabbinic trap of precisely why women should not study Gemara. RATHER, there is a GREAT DEAL to be said for the SOFTER and more COMPASSIONATE side of who we are. It is this side of the text that women often give wonderful voice to. Remember we are told by our sociology and psychology experts that we all have both a masculine and feminine side to our personality, some more of one and others more of the other. There is NO magic formula that works for all of us.

I know men that DO get this. On the other hand, I know women that “just want the facts.” This is not a delineated either/or matter. My point was that those women who are grabbed and intrigued by the study of these texts and their many layers of meaning bring an “appreciation of the variegated shades of grey” to a discussion that often incorporates so much BLACK or WHITE types of discourse and can add the perspective of the existence of this important continuum.

One way I test this with my students in my text study classes (high school and college/graduate school level) is to present several commentators and ask which ones they prefer. For example, I can use just the choice between Ramban and Rashi to illustrate my point, and of course, they were both males. Rashi is to the point, clear and dedicated to the PROPER READING of the text. Ambiguities are explained, two different tellings of one event interfaced, and details in language and word choice explicated in a manner so that there is NO QUESTION of the Divine Authorship of the text of Torah or Talmud. Ramban on the other hand will consider all of the sides of a given issue, even using language like “it appears to me that” or “on the other hand one could consider that” and so on. This is a process language. Elements of the narrative and their understanding for Ramban feel to me like process, while for Rashi the narrative seems more like events and details to be clarified.

This was the preference of my son – just explain what happened and why. He was not so interested in the many different shades of WHY such and such happened and the different perspectives through which one could view a given chain of events, as is the soul (I think so anyway) of Gemara study. This is where he says “Too much analysis and deep reading, I want to move on.”

Clearly, this is a matter of personal preference. To be sure, I have female students who are the Rashi type personalities and male students that are more akin to Ramban. Of course, when it comes to football….. well, many more male Rambans jump out in my mind’s room of friends and family!

At any rate, we all learn and analyze the texts we learn differently in consonance with our personality. My only point was that I think that many women who are drawn to this study come with these layers of grey possibilities when looking in the text, making our study experience wider and more extensive as well as compassionate regarding the various motivations and circumstances about which we read, while being applicable to our own lives in a deeply personal way. I would hope that these voices add to the landscape of text study for ALL OF US, both males and females.

Any questions?

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Is There a Glass Ceiling in our Text Study Community?

So, there we were, Brian and me, studying our Gemara text one night last week. We are almost up to 10b and I just continue to get jazzed and excited about the ideas and the thoughts that are flying across the space of time and place on the Daf and at our table of study. I think about these ideas and their ramifications for how I put my world together continuously, as I always do when studying such thick and deep texts. In our lesson together, we get to a point where the prayer of Hannah is mentioned, so we go to the text of Shmuel Aleph. We read a bit of Chapters One and Two and we discuss the events that have occurred, Eli’s observance of Hannah praying, and his assumption that she was drunk and the ensuing prayer she offers. I am really focused on understanding the value of what happens here and what we can extract as powerful lessons on spirituality, practice and so much else. Precisely as I am in this mindset, Brian begins to ask lots of questions about Hannah and Eli and other personae in the Tanach text – where they were, who they were and what they did – and then proceeds to tell me that he is really tired of learning Gemara and wants to return to study of Tanach. I am crestfallen at the thought of losing my built-in chevrutah (for this study anyway) and ask him why he feels this way. At this point, he says something to the effect of the fact that I like to think about and delve into and analyze ideas, but this is boring for him because “it does not change anything.” He prefers something with a story line. Enter the Tanach text.

So then, of course I begin to think about the IDEA of what just happened. Brian would expect nothing less of me I suspect! We really are wired differently in a most general yet distinct way, we males and females. Clearly we all have our feminine and masculine sides and inclinations, but I have to wonder if the inertia of what happens when studying Gemara and other Jewish texts has not changed and been significantly enhanced in our world today precisely DUE to the inclusion of more and more women in the process. I note this sometimes when many of the young men in my classes may not be as excited as many of the young women when we are analyzing a text to death. I know…. They are SO there when what we are analyzing is a football game or a car’s engine. But, as Brian would say, what changes by virtue of the fact that we go over and over what G-d might have prayed if G-d indeed prayed; or why the Shema of the evening can be said far more into the wee hours than the permitted boundary for the eating of the last part of the Pesah Seder. What is an AHA UREKA! moment for me is often an “okay enough already” moment for Brian and a good amount of my male students as well, I suspect. To be sure, female students may feel “enough” as well; but I wonder if I am not on to something here.

Yet when we think of the groundbreaking strides made by Nechama Leibowitz z’l, Aviva Zornberg, Tamar Ross and others like them in leading us through texts with their scholarly guidance; when I sit and learn with so many others in a variety of venues in which women have much more of a voice and so many more resources to pull from; when my daughter Talie was able to have this amazing year at Midreshet Lindenbaum; when my daughter Rachie is part of the Hadar community in New York; when my daughter Yoella prepares a Shiyur like no one I know – I really have to wonder if indeed all of these voices and so many more bring a different level of sensitivity, an increased desire to really explore and expand upon ideas, and a perspective that adds both dimension and intelligence to our text study world.

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say yes! I have always been a big fan of Rashi’s daughters, Bruriah, Devorah, and others who ventured into the male world of Jewish study and scholarship. I do believe that we have a different perspective as women that we bring to the text and to the fabric of the process of studying that text. I can only hope that we will continue to be able to share that perspective in as many venues as possible

Friday, November 5, 2010

So Rashi, I think I finally get you!

As a teacher of Jewish texts, I find that Rashi is often one of the discussants at our learning table when we are learning material from Tanach or Talmud. Further, I often think that more than only considering Rashi’s analyzing of text, we often analyze Rashi himself. As Nechama Leibowitz (z’l) always taught, “Mah Kasheh LeRashi?,” that is “what is bothering Rashi?”. So, I personally have had my battles with Rashi through the years, or to be more precise, with THE WAY IN WHICH MANY PEOPLE USE the commentary of Rashi, on a par with the actual text, be it Torah or Talmud! Somehow, this always bothered me. As a response, I have tried to figure out not WHAT Rashi says but WHY HE SAYS IT. Nechama would be proud of me, I think!

Now, you know how you do the same thing so many times and then one time you do this thing, a light bulb goes off in a way that it never did before?!

Now, we all know the teaching of Rashi that

אין מוקדם ואין מאוחר בתורה
(Loosely translated as “there is not chronology in the Torah”)

Allow me to explain how this always bothered me on a rather simple level. Of course there is chronology in the Torah. One explanation of this principle is that there is not chronology within Parshiot. But this also does not necessarily hold. So, after hearing Rashi’s voice when he asks “Why is this story connected to that story?” as he did a few weeks ago in Parshat Va’Era in terms of why the story of Sarah’s pregnancy and birth of Yitzchak is right after the incident of Avimelech’s illness and setback and in looking at the connectedness of the narratives of the scouts going into Eretz Canaan and the conflict between Miriam, Aharon and Moshe over Tzipora in BaMidbar, I think the question regarding his stated principle is different. This is not necessarily about chronology per se. It appears that what Rashi is saying is to not assume or think that chronology dictates how stories are joined together but rather LOOK FOR THE BIGGER LESSON! So, for example in Va’Era, we are taught that there is a “Midah keneged Midah” (a measure or a lesson to complement a measure or a lesson) dynamic where Avraham prays EVEN FOR HIS ADVERSARY in asking G-d to heal Avimelech and those with him; AND THEN immediately after this, we hear about the healing of Sarah and Avraham with the birth of Yitzchak. In BaMidbar, the story of Miriam and the contention in her family and that of the Meraglim/scouts are both stories that teach important aspects of how we should and should not use language. These are, we are told, both stories tied by the theme of how we should not use destructive language/Lashon HaRa, even with the most positive or benign of intentions.

The point is, I think, that we are to always look for the BIGGER LESSON and the Torah is written and crafted in such a way as to give us a hint regarding the presence of these lessons. This makes sense!

So, while I may have intuited this idea along the way, it blasted through me like a lightening rod when Brian and I were continuing our intensive learning of Berachot, Perek Aleph from the Gemara this past week. There is a discussion of HaMelech David and his crafting of the Tehilim/Psalms (10a). One of the questions that is posed in the Gemara is why does the Tehila/Psalm that is connected to David’s running from his son Avshalom before (chronologically speaking) the one that is dedicated to his experience of running from Shaul. Once again we listened to Rashi’s voice and then Brian and I tried to figure out the meaning – that is the BIGGER LESSON found in this ordering. We came to the point where we proposed that it is more painful to have to run from one’s son than from one’s political opponent, so to speak. This makes sense in terms of one idea I remember hearing that Tehilim generally move from Tehilim of vexing and anguish to those of praise and thanks. It was at this point that the light bulb shone brightly in my head – we are to look first for the BIG LESSON and afterwards, ONLY THEN attend to the other aspects of how Torah and the texts of our beginnings are handed over, for it is in fact these BIG LESSONS that are the raison d’etre of our continued and repeated study of these important documents and their narratives. It is this deeply rooted emotional and personal reflective aspect of study that is most valuable when we consider the purpose and timeless presence of these texts in our lives and the purpose of relearning and reviewing them in an ongoing rhythm.

Thank you, Rashi; and thank you, Brian. Now, I really get this!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

On The Fifteenth Anniversary of the Murder of Yitzchak Rabin z’l

Today, Wednesday, October 20, 2010 is the fifteenth anniversary of the death, murder really, of Yitzchak Rabin, may his memory be a blessing for us all. I say FOR US ALL because it is irrelevant whether we agreed or disagreed with his politics. He was a man of peace who was trying to achieve this impossible goal in the best way he could. I was reminded of this sad memorial by my good friend, Esther this morning. We were discussing this as we drove together to work and she further told me that in Israel there is a lot of energy being expended on trying to stop observance of this anniversary, claiming that enough time has passed and it is the moment to move on. But wait! Who, I asked, is behind this? Using the old standard of lawyers that say you should know the answer to the questions you ask, I received the expected response – a lot of very religious people want us to take this annual reminder off the calendar.

Reminder of what, we must then ask! I remember that day very well. It was Motzei Shabbat and my father-in-law respectfully waited until we had said Havdalah and then called and told us to turn on the television. Yitzchak Rabin had been murdered! Needless to say we were all horrified! This was definitely one of those moments that as we recall, I remember exactly who was with us, where we were and what we were doing. As so much of the world was doing already, we then depended on the television as our life line and informant regarding what exactly had happened. Then the horrible story and its details unfolded.

Yigal Amir, an Orthodox University and Yeshiva student who claimed that his Rebbes taught him that Yitzchak Rabin was a “rodef chayim,” that is, a threat to Jewish life, as a seeker and crafter of peace with Arab and Palestinian neighbors and residents, felt that he was given permission (even asked to) murder this danger to society! Amongst all of the tears and horror that followed, there quickly ensued a barrage of statements, letters and writings from within the Orthodox world about how we have to be careful how we use our words, thus observing the just as strict laws (as many other things) of Shmirat HaLashon! There was a genuine Heshbon HaNefesh, a taking account of one’s actions and motivations, for….. of, about a couple of weeks, as well as distancing from what this one young man took into his own hands to accomplish. Then life went back to normal and the diatribes and overstatements continued, as if nothing had happened. Everyone was back at each other’s throats, accusing, yelling and defaming!

The reality is that we live in an increasingly dangerous and scary world, inside our communities as well as outside. The hatred amongst different as well as within various religious groupings is truly cause for great concern about our viability as a future society who will ever achieve any modicum of peace. The lack of care that is shown in words that we use never fails to startle and disappoint me in a most profound way. From where I sit, WE NEED THIS ANNUAL REMINDER DESPARATELY regarding the words we speak and the effect they have on those who hear them.

How many of us think that in using the language we choose, we might be screaming and inciting the hatred of the next Yigal Amir? For this reason, if for no other (even though clearly there are many), this anniversary MUST CONTINUE TO BE OBSERVED by all of us in the Jewish community and beyond!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Our Faith in G-d and G-d's Faith in Us

We all understand that we are to have faith in G-d according to many voices and teachers in our various Jewish communities of faith. The challenge for today is What about G-d and the need for G-d to have faith in us?

We are in the middle of the travails and triumphs and challenges of the life of Avraham Aveinu in our weekly readings from the Torah. As we move from Lech Lecha to Va’Era and then on to Chayei Sarah, we note that the challenges just keep coming as Avraham is tested regarding his faith. I am presently teaching these stories to a wonderful group of ninth graders and we are considering to what degree does G-d have faith in us? On one hand, it might appear to be a somewhat presumptuous question, but hold on and consider it for just a moment. My students love the notion that we are wrestling not only with our consideration of G-d in our relationship with G-d, but also G-d’s perspective towards us.

G-d tells Avram to leave all that he knows and start a new entity and a new life – for him and for the generations that will follow him. Why does G-d specifically come to Avram? What about Avram does G-d know that validates this placing of trust in Avram? Were there others to whom G-d came first with this particular direction (this is clearly a rhetorical question!)? Do we or do we not understand this special reciprocal placement of faith of G-d in Avram and Avram in G-d – after all, we are at best bystanders separated by many, many years.

At a later point in our history, we all know the Midrash about how before G-d gave the Aseret HaDibrot to the B’nai Yisrael, G-d went to other peoples and asked them to accept this code of law. As the Midrash goes, one group of people said that they could not get along without murder, another claimed that stealing was part of their daily lives, and so forth. Finally, G-d comes to the B’nai Yisrael and they respond, “Naaseh v’Nishmah.” We will do what you ask and then we will ask about what we do! This is clearly a leap of faith or so it appears and too often, so it is taught! Perhaps, just perhaps, somewhere in this story we can find and consider the notion that the people of Israel had faith that G-d had faith in them to make the appropriate choice so that G-d could and would do the same for them. If we do accept this, then it is more understandable to consider how this relationship outruns the many disappointments G-d will have in the B’nai Yisrael and vice versa in later years as they wander through the spiritual as well as any physical desert in which they were found.

In such a scenario, faith goes both ways. It makes sense that this could be the case. Think about this in terms of our own lives. Don’t those people in whom we have faith reciprocate in their relationship with us? I don’t think it would really work in a one direction only trajectory.

Similarly, Avraham, the father of this people, takes this leap of faith. G-d says “Go” and Avram goes! That is the way we often read and are taught the text! Is this blind faith or does Avram, later to be called Avraham (The Father of Many Peoples) as a reward and acknowledgement for his continual show of faith) question what G-d does and commands?! We really do not know. We like to say that Avram just does what G-d asks, but there are clearly other narratives in which we observe many challenges to G-d’s requests and dictates. Does G-d have enough faith in Avram to get past these feelings of uncertainty and questions? Are these indicative of a lack of faith? Might Avraham have had questions and feelings of ambivalence? Clearly, it would be most human of him to have had these and this would probably make the stories we are reading even more believable.

In this week’s coming Parsha, we read about the Akedah. Personally, I like to consider the proposed translation of v’ha’alehu as “prepare him for an offering.” This is a possibility provided by some of our classical commentators. Many modern readers say this is merely an apologetic that takes the sting out of the strange request G-d makes. So, G-d gives Avraham directions to prepare his loved son as an offering. Avraham goes with Yitzchak, leaving the other members of their entourage behind, to the appointed place as G-d directs. If G-d does show that G-d has faith in Avraham to allow G-d to direct what is to transpire and Avraham ascertains that others will not understand, is this the result of an unspoken agreement between Avraham and G-d – that special type of unspoken agreement between two souls in a special relationship of trust that others may not and will not necessarily understand. Perhaps in looking at this story we are reading it from the perspective of the entourage left behind, not Avraham. We all know people in our lives that have a special degree of faith in us and us in them that outsiders may not completely understand and therefore are hard put to judge.

Contextually speaking, on a very human level, might the faith that Avraham placed in
G-d, even hiding this most pivotal event from his wife, Sarah, be somewhat like the distressed family, whose loved one is going in for a complex surgery, places in the medical team. We constantly place the well being of our life in the hands of others while bystanders may not understand; is this not what Avraham was doing?!

Maybe this is yet another lesson to come out of these stories. It is difficult for those of us left behind to judge the reciprocal relationship of special faith between two people – in this case, between G-d and Avraham. Further, many of us might not dare ask if G-d has faith in us, but why not?!

Monday, October 11, 2010

Before Lech Lecha, What Exactly Was Abram/Abraham Leaving?

Before Lech Lecha, What Exactly Was Abram/Abraham Leaving?!

I know here I go again on my soapbox… we are so (way too much, actually) quick to criticize others, find the wrong in those with whom we don’t agree and villianize those who do not agree with us! Think about the Sunday School vision of Terach we all grew up hearing and taking on as our own. He was a horrible idol worshipper and Abraham had to run as far away from him as possible so that he could be and do the good he was meant to pass on to the rest of us. In fact, Abram was able to fool his stupid father by claiming that one of his idols broke all of the others. Silly Terach! But WAIT, where in the Torah do we see that Terach was so horrible or pedestrian? Let us look carefully at those verses that give us what information we have at the end of Parshat Noach.

In chapter 11, verses 31 – 32, we read:

Terach took his son Abram, his grandson Lot the son of Haran, and his daughter-in-law Sarai, the wife of his son Abram, and they set out together from Ur of the Chaldeans for the land of Canaan; but when they had com as far as Haran, they settled there. The days of Terach came to 205 years; and Terach died in Haran.

Translation from Jewish Publication Society’s Tanach:The Holy Scriptures.

So, we know these stories of Terach the idol-worshipper did not come from Torah. Where do they come from? The Midrash! Remember, this source tries to rationalize, simplify and give us reasons for things that happen when it appears that there are none. So, why would Abram go on his journey? Right – to leave his father and his wicked ways! BUT, we do not see this in the words of the Torah either! Why? I do not know and frankly, I am not so sure anyone else does either! But wait, there is something here!

At the end of this Parsha of Noach, we have a story that is quite compelling, that of The Tower of Babel. This is the last narrative of importance before we read the generational listing, the next story being that of Abram leaving his home under the instruction and tutelage of G-d. What happens here in this last story of Noach? People have perhaps learned the lesson of the Mabul, the Flood, regarding how poorly people were treating each other (and how this even corrupted the very land on which they lived) and are trying to get along better in working towards a common goal. The problem is that this goal is to “reach the heavens,” that is to try to raise themselves above the human condition and limits! Now, this could be a noble goal to be sure, but in fact, it can lead to excessive hubris and forgetting the limits and realities of what it means to be truly human! We clearly see such dynamics in our world today among so many who claim to KNOW the truth and try to push it down our throats or choke us around the necks with it.

Could this be what Terach was leaving (since we do not know why he took his family and left home either!) when he takes his familial grouping from Ur and moves to Haran? Might it be possible to consider that Terach was actually a decent and realistic person who felt that a new beginning was imminent, not following the ways of those who completely corrupted all around them or those who aspired to reach far further than a human should try to reach? Is it possible that Abram inherited this understanding from his father and thus we might better understand his reasoning for leaving his home and listening to G-d? Does Terach set out roots for Abram to know that there is one G-d and that we are supposed to follow G-d, not “reach for the heavens” as the generation of Babel did? Might Abram be a credit to Terach in carrying on what he learned as “a member of his household?”

I don’t know and clearly all I have at this point are questions, not clear answers. As Martin Buber taught, “Questions unite, answers divide.” Maybe we are JUST NOT SUPPOSED to know all of the secrets of this text… or any other for that reason. Maybe instead of deciding who is right and who is wrong, we should follow the lead of Nechama Leibowitz and so many others who implore us to ask WHY the commentators, or Midrash or modern thinkers say and propose what they do? Why does the Midrash teach about idolatry and Abram’s distancing from it? Remember, its practice does NOT disappear at this point.

Look, I am not saying that this is a correct idea. That would be rather presumptuous of me. What I am suggesting is that we can all engage in the art of interpretation. That is the beauty of the Tanach – “one text and so many different meanings.” Now, zil gimor – go, think, learn and enjoy!

Monday, October 4, 2010

So when are we forgiving and when are we enabling; some thoughts about Mechilah!

We have just completed the full cycle of Tishrei Hagim. One of the most compelling themes of the season is that of asking for forgiveness and a fresh start – both from G-d and from each other. I, for one, take this very seriously and do ask for Mechilah (forgiveness) from friends and family members whom I may have hurt intentionally (G-d forbid!) or unintentionally (much more likely and producing so much guilt on my part I don’t even imagine trying the former!). So here is the question that is still floating around in my head more than usual (which it does as well) as we prepare for the entire year. The gates have closed at Neilah and then the one small bit of opening has been locked with Hoshanah Rabbah and its colorful beating of the willows and I am still quite perplexed.

When does forgiving another become enabling poor and inappropriate behavior, even abusive, dare I say, on their part and to what degree am I responsible for that? Rambam (Maimonides) teaches that one is not to say “I will sin and I will repent, I will sin and I will repent, I will sin and I will repent” over and over again for this is not repentance, which is truly a change of heart. Yet, I find that people do exactly this all of the time.

So, what do we do when someone who has continually and consistently wronged us in a profound way (ruining a reputation or trying to, for example) through ongoing actions (as opposed to one time long ago that no one really remembers!) comes to ask for Mechilah from you? I just had this happen, where someone did ask for such forgiveness. I must say I do not know exactly what my response should be. I know this much – I must not ever be in a position that makes me vulnerable or accessible to the type of abuse that this person has meted out in the past. Yet, my religion and everything I believe tells me that another, no matter what they have done (and this is the most difficult part!) is just a human being as I am and is deserving of another chance. True, we are all flawed and imperfect. True, we are all supposed to strive to go “higher and higher” in our attempts to be the best person we can be. True, if someone comes to ask forgiveness, it is our responsibility to give that. Wouldn’t each of us want and hope for the same from another – I know I would! So what do I do?

We are all familiar with the expression “forgive and forget!” But really, forget… erase past wrongs so that you are beginning yet again! Remember that definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over again hoping for a different result. Where is the balance?

I actually once went to a Rav to try to figure this out. This is the advice he gave me. Forgive and give the benefit of the doubt (“Dan Lechaf Zechut”) but don’t forget and put yourself in a position to be hurt again. Play the defensive. Give a guarded and conditional apology – I forgive you but will not allow you to hurt me again. After all, don’t we learn “Im ain Ani Li, Mi Li?” – If I am not for myself and do not defend myself, who will do so?

So, as we move into the busy, hectic, crazy year of activity and further away from this season of Mechilah, I will allow for new beginnings but/and am just as committed to not repeating old mistakes. This is the best I can do in this difficult balancing act!

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Reflections on Becoming a Savta

Reflections on Becoming a Savta

So, our oldest daughter, Yoella, and her wonderful husband, Jeremy are now parents of adorable and very beloved (so quickly they come into your lives, these new souls entered this world a mere 13 days ago on September 15, 2010) identical twin girls. We had the privilege of being part of the very special naming ceremony (Simchat HaBanot or Zeved HaBanot – to cover both Ashkenazic and Sephardic ground being the pluralists and Klal Yisraelniks we are!) this past Sunday, Chol HaMoed Sukkot for Neima Hadar and Neli Shimona. Beautiful names, a beautiful ceremony shared with family and friends, and so well thought out by my daughter and son-in-law. In these almost two weeks we already see that they are going to be fun parents with a fun family that will embrace, value and nurture these two girls, truly presents from G-d (the translation, rough though it may be, of the Sephardic name for the ceremony).

As I was sitting there for yet another special occasion (as if Tishrei does not throw enough special days and events our way generally), I noticed the wonder of the moment. The birth of these beautiful girls, the joy in my daughter’s and son-in-law’s faces, the presence of about 120 family and friends, skyping in (thank you, technology!) our daughter Talie from Be’er Sheva where she is in Medical School, and Mira, Jeremy’s sister who is presently in Australia, and so much else.

One profound highlight of the service, aside from the naming itself and the subsequent ceremony and explanation of the names, was an unusual and deeply moving Hoshanot procession with Torahs, Lulavim and Etrogim and babies in tow! Everyone was near tears! We brought together my daughter and son-in-law’s Modern Orthodox congregation from Center City Philadelphia (M’Kor HaBracha), a sizable number of their fellow Akiba Hebrew Academy alumni and classmates, members of our own Young Israel shul, a representative grouping of Germantown Jewish Center, a Conservative synagogue in the area, active Reform and Reconstructionist Jewish practitioners, and people who are part of the larger Jewish community, those who are part of other faith communities, and so many other wonderful human beings.

During the explanation of the names of the newest members of the Jewish community (though we did wait 11 days for this, so there are no doubt newer ones by this point), it was clear the amazing thought and consideration that Yoella and Jeremy put into these choices. The souls that are recalled in these names were all people of great faith and character and their legacies will be carried on in these new lives and in this newly configured family. What honor (and responsibility) these girls carry with them as they begin their own exciting journeys!

I am watching all of this with tears in my eyes and a swelling of gratitude in my heart that was difficult to contain. How dare any parent be as happy and fulfilled as I am – how can it be possible to be so blessed?! G-d has truly given us so much. I am looking at my children – Yoella and Jeremy, Talie (on the computer screen), Rachie who came back from New Orleans and her work in repairing the world, and our fourteen year old Brian who is already the proud and care giving uncle, and of course, my wonderful husband Ken and it is hard to put into words the depth of feelings I have. The greatest blessing of all for a parent is to feel that your children are exactly what you had dared to hope they would be – wonderful human beings, caring individuals, committed Jews (in our case), and grateful for all that they have.

I know that Neima Hadar and Neli Shimona are truly blessed to be their parents’ children, the niece of their uncles and aunts, grandchildren to seven grandparents, and the member of this wonderful family with four great-grandparents, cousins, friends and community, and oh yes, among all of this a new Zaide (Ken) and as for me….. we don’t use the G word or the B word, just call me Savta!

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Learning to Appreciate and Acknowledge all of G-d’s Children

It’s truly funny how our learning experiences are so cumulative and connected if we are truly paying attention. I think its one of those coincidences of life …. You know, G-d’s way of remaining anonymous.

So, my son Brian and I have finally returned to our regimen of learning Gemara after his various camp experiences this summer. Lo and behold, here we are on 8b of Berachot and we read the most amazing information. Loosely translated, here goes:

It was taught in a Baraita by Rabbi Akiba: There are three things I like about the people of Medes. When they cut their meat they cut it on a table (as opposed to using their hand for a base, which could lead to injury and spilling of blood); when they kiss, they kiss only on the hand (as opposed to the face or mouth, thus spreading germs); and when they hold counsel, they hold counsel only in the field (and not in public leading to possible embarrassment).

A bit later, we continue with another group of admirable practices of a grouping other than the Jews:

It was taught in a Baraita by Rabbi Gamliel: There are three things I like about the Persians. They are modest in eating, they are modest in using the privy, and they are modest in their marital relations.

These Baraitot occur within the discussion of practices that the Jewish people should or should not engage in, specifically not to cut meat or food using one’s hand as a base and not walking by a synagogue while there is a minyan and not going in. It is within this discussion of appropriate practices that these Baraitot appear, indicating that important teachers amongst our Jewish scholars found these practices of other peoples admirable, perhaps so much so they should be emulated within our Jewish ranks.

Who says that only WE know what G-d wants? Who says that the most devout amongst any group, even the Jews cannot learn about refinement and proper behavior from others? After all as we learn in Pirke Avot, “The Mitzvot are given to us to refine us.”

There is an important lesson here, especially in our day of fractionalization and so much enmity between different groups of faith communities, both within and amongst them.

Merely a few weeks earlier this summer at the Sholom Hartman Institute, we learned a chapter of Isaiah, specifically 19. The end of this chapter goes as follows (verses 23 – 25):

In that day there will be a highway out of Egypt stretching to Assyria and the Assyrians shall come into Egypt and the Egyptians shall come into Assyria; the Egyptians and the Assyrians shall serve and work together. In that day Israel will be third with Egypt and Assyria; even a blessing in the midst of the land. The Lord of hosts shall bless them saying, “Blessed by Egypt my people and Assyria the work of my hands; and Israel my inheritance.”

This text was presented with the challenge that it was probable that the 130+ Rabbis and scholars in the room had rarely, if ever, taught it. As we learned it together we discerned why. This text as well as the texts above from Berachot goes against the grain of the particularism that so many Jews hold dear. Here we learn that Egypt and Assyria will also be blessed if they can “pass the test” of cooperation and we come in third. How humbling!

To be sure, we are NOT G-d’s only children and G-d does not ONLY have expectations of us and no others. Clearly there are practices of other people such as those of Medes and Persia that are noteworthy and valuable to consider and there is potential redemption for all peoples, even Egypt and Assyria if they (that is WE) learn to work together.

Clearly something to consider as we approach the Days of Awe and listen to the call to ALL of the Shofar these days of Elul!

Creator of the Universe! Let us learn to work together and travel to and fro from each other’s land and ways of understanding. Let us acknowledge what is praiseworthy in each other. Let us learn to live and work together while maintaining the important aspects of our individual identities!

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

So, how strict do you want to be?

We all know how the joke goes. Moshe Rabbeinu is having a conversation with Ribbonu shel Olam about Kashrut. G-d asks how its going and Moshe, who must himself be rather amazed by the developments since his departure from this earth, explains about the waiting increasing lengths of time between meat and dairy, separate pots and pans, separate ovens, bugs in lettuce, no longer eating the fruits that cannot be peeled, various hechsharim devised by those for whom the existing ones are not good enough and so on. G-d has finally heard enough and says, “Wait a minute, they got all of that from not boiling a kid in its mother’s milk?!” Irreverence aside, there is a reason for the joke and an important lesson in its message. As Charles Kimball explains in his very important book When Religion Becomes Evil, religion (and in our case, Judaism) is a most valuable and important institution that becomes severely compromised and tainted when the Created Being knows better than the Creator what G-d wants from us as G-d’s Created Beings.

So, during this last week’s Parsha, we all heard the Tochecha, the list of warnings given for wrong doings that were of a private nature. As my daughter, Yoella Leah Epstein, pointed out with the acuity that naturally accompanies her thinking, in this list of misdeeds that we read in a particularly quiet and thoughtful voice to reflect the private nature in which we go against G-d and all that we stand for in such misdeeds, any statement about the injunction against single sex loving relationships is missing. What do we make of this, if anything, given the intense emotions, sometimes bordering on hysteria with which such discussions often occur about our homosexual sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, sisters and brothers and our many loved ones and close friends? Could it just be -- really could it (?!?) that G-d is conveying the notion that gang rape and abusive and demeaning sexual relations of ANY KIND is a public chet while we should continue to love and support and FULLY ACCEPT those close to us who are biologically wired for intimate and loving and nurturing relationships other than the man-wife notion presented in the beginning of Bereshit? Could this be another “intended loophole” much like the one we note with the daughters of Zelophachad in which we learn that yes, there might be ideals inherent in our Torah law, such as there will always be sons to inherit, children will never die before their parents, and men and women will marry and love each other and produce children! Yet, reality does not always meet ideal and clearly G-d adjusts, why can’t we?

In a day and age where our Young Israel national organization has recently declared that Gerim/converts are not allowed to lead our congregations’ lay boards as President, and burkas are worn by women in Ramat Beit Shemesh and so much else is going on that I nor so many other students of Torah and Gemara cannot find anywhere, one has to ask what else is found in the Tochecha in terms of what appears and what does not? Perhaps, just perhaps we are missing a most important notion of our Jewish law – that there are limits (as seen in the Gemara itself if one carefully follows many of the discussions that end with Teiku, that humble statement that at the end of the day we may not know exactly what G-d had in mind and this DOES NOT give us blanket permission to make it up as we go along, adding more and more restrictions that makes being observant feel more like a fraternity hazing than the structured, caring, disciplined system of law it is intended to be.

So, if Moshe Rabbeinu popped in today, what would he think about these developments? What would G-d? Something to think about as we all ready ourselves for the coming Days of Awe, don’t you think?!

Friday, July 23, 2010

Why I Am Still An Israel Junkie

I just returned from my annual summer stay in Israel approximately 24 hours ago. As always I was extremely busy with work, family, friends and just living in Israel. A most special feature of this time in Israel was that my 22 year old daughter Talie accompanied me. This past Wednesday night after three weeks together in a lovely Emek Refaiim apartment, I got on a plane to return to the United States and Talie drove down to Beer Sheva where she begins four years in Medical School at Ben Gurion University. We are all so excited for her and I know this will be an amazing experience.

As for me, this was my sixth summer as part of the Shalom Hartman Institute’s learning community. We focused on some work that is being undertaken at the Institute called Engaging Israel. There is so much talk out there about Israel, its problems, people’s disappointments and anger with Israel and so on. There is also so much to be proud of in terms of what Israel has managed to accomplish in 62 short years. If only more people would acknowledge and appreciate these accomplishments, but to be sure, this is not the point! What we focused on in this two week seminar was the fact that somewhere along the line, this conversation about what we do not like about Israel or what we think Israel should do differently has morphed into a dreaded question about Israel’s basic right to exist! To me this is nothing short of horrifying!

We must always remember that we are not perfect, we are not without fault and we will not always make the right decision for all people concerned in every situation. This is clearly the reality of the human being, our institutions and the countries in which we live and govern. No institution or country will be more perfect than the sum total of the imperfections of those that are part of it and comprise its reality. We accept this in our daily lives, our relationships in those lives and in the institutions with which we are associated in our reality. Why is it that Israel is held to a higher and ultimately unachievable standard?

True, we set ourselves up for this dilemma. Israel continues to try to be the best Jewish state possible. Israel continues to try to be the best democracy possible. Israel continues to try to do as much as possible for other peoples, for all of her citizens and residents and to fulfill that prophetic charge of being an Or LaGoyim, a light to the nations. Yet, with all of these efforts, Israel often falls short of her own expectations to say nothing of those of the invested as well as occasional or even reluctant spectators. Yes, there are groups that are not as supported as many might like. True, there is poverty, crime, dirty streets, lack of sensitivity towards others and all of the other shortcomings of a country. Find me one that has none of these!

Yet, and my family and I continue to return, often more than once per year, to spend some time in this wonderful place and just ….. breathe, take it in, and be part of it. Why? I could say that I am part of the start up nation gang but that is not it. I could speak about the feeling of thousands of years of history pulsating through my body when walking around – still very true and overwhelming, but that is not it either. I could say I love the feeling of being with “my” people, but clearly the way I see people treat each other on the streets as well as at holy sites mitigates against that feeling too often. So what is it? I think that in some, perhaps very strange way to be sure, measure, the very fact that we hold onto our hopes, our desires, expectations, and dreams about what “ought to be,” to use very Hartmanesque thinking, and continue to maintain these as goals for Israel is exactly what makes it so special. Israel is a real country with real problems, real challenges, real shortcomings, and everything else that being real brings about and evokes. That being said, there is something inherent in Israel that continues to ask of us to be our best and try for something better while we collectively support Israel in trying to do so as well. We are self-critical and accountable as we are commanded to be in a way that brings pain in our love of people and land, but there is no avoiding its place in the equation of just being.

At the Hartman Institute, there is constant talk of needing to have a new vocabulary with regard to how we speak about Israel. The old nostalgia will no longer do. The Chalutznik talk of the early years is irrelevant for today. Yerushalayim LeMaaleah (the utopian Jerusalem) is eclipsed by the dirty streets, the fighting factions and the lack of reverence for each other and place. I completely agree – we have to find a language that is somewhere on the continuum that includes our dreams and our reality, that challenges us to look at the REAL Israel and see it for what it is while encouraging ourselves to be seen for WHO we are. That being said, I still think Israel wants us to be the best we can be and to help Israel be the best she can be. This is what I feel so strongly and why I am so overjoyed that my daughter Talie will be living within this strange juxtaposition of hope and reality for the next four years. We will be there to share it with her and so many others as often as possible.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Shir HaShirim, My Father, and an Eleventh Grade Tanach Class

We always value the repetition and review that is endemic to Jewish learning. We repeat cycles in our annual reading of Torah portions, celebrations of Jewish holidays, revisit learned material and consider ongoing review or “chazarah” as part and parcel of learning Gemara. So, this year as we celebrated Pesah, we all read the book of Shir HaShirim, the text of the greatest love poem and story of all time – that between the people of Israel and G-d, according to Rashi and classical commentators; and between a man and his beloved wife/woman according to the words of the text as read by so many. Others have suggested a variety of additional possible readings. My contention is that this is a great love story between A and B and that it is not critically important which identity we give to these two lovers. Isn’t that the sign of great poetry and literature – its potential for universal appeal and application?!

So, I was teaching the text of Shir HaShirim to a wonderful group of eleventh grade students as I have often done as part of my teaching and learning life. This year was different though. This particular group of students really grabbed on to this writing and its multitude of meanings and possibilities. As a result, my experience in this wonderful Community of Teachers and Learners (always my goal and how I see my mission as a Jewish educator – to see all of us as both teachers and learners in a community I facilitate!) was even more thoughtful and intense than in the past. We really grappled with the text in a meaningful and soulful manner. (Thank you to this wonderful group of intelligent young people!).

So, as a result of my experience as a learner with this group, I considered the love story and what is really going on. To be sure there are many issues that bother and concern commentators in terms of the language, ambiguity of voice, mixed pronouns and so much else. But this year, I had a wholly (and holy, you might say) different insight and experience. What if Shir HaShirim reflects an intentional use of mixed metaphors, ambiguous references, changed pronouns, etc. to show how in a great love relationship the point is that two realities blur into one, in a symbiotic and wonderful way so that the dividing lines between the reality of each party are blurred and in so being such, joined together. Imagine two people who love each other immensely chasing/running to meet and then their silhouette appears as if it is one entity. Where does the one begin and the other end? This is the love we strive for…. With our life partners, our soul mates (called ahavat nafshi in the text); between parents and children and in other nuclear family relations on a different level; between best friends who truly understand each other and so on. To be clear, I am speaking here of relational intimacy, not sexual or physical, necessarily.

So what does it mean to blur the lines of our separate beings for the sake of our relationships with those we truly love? Isn’t this the point of the “chase” to love and be loved; and my contention is that it is precisely this chase that is found in the words of this beautiful text. To be sure, this is hard for many people to do. Clearly, we are taught the importance of being defensive and assertive about our clear identity and to not “lose ourselves.” I don’t think that this is what is at stake. I think that if we love so much, that we are willing to let go of our expectations for the other – the one we love so dearly – to enter our reality, and instead are willing to become part of theirs, what different and richer perspectives we may have. Prepare to be amazed as well as humbled!

So to move away from the text for a moment (but clearly my intention is to return), my personal life this year has been deeply colored by my father’s ongoing health concerns. As part of a variety of physical and other manifestations, he has some dementia at this point. It is more present some days than others, due to the various complications involved with managing his complex health care needs. A few weeks ago, my husband, one of our daughters and I went to be with him and my mother in the hospital. We try to be with them as often as possible, considering the distance between where we live outside of Philadelphia and their residence in Baltimore. We entered the hospital room and it was clear that this was going to be a day of confusion on the part of my dad. At other times when I would see this, I was so overwhelmed by what was going on, I would have to leave the room and cry it out before returning. This particular day, however, this was not the case. I felt strong and ready to be there with him!

My dad was somewhat agitated and I asked him what was wrong. He replied (from his lying position in his hospital bed) that he was making omelets and that the egg shells were on his hands and he could not get rid of them. I asked him if he wanted some help. He replied that he did so I placed my hands in a cup under his and “pulled the egg shells off his hands.” We did this several times, I helped him get the bowl to stir the eggs, get the onion skins off of his hands after he “finished cutting the onions” and otherwise assisted him with this vivid culinary scene in his mind, participating in his reality and stepping out of mine. My daughter, husband and mother looked on with varying degrees of puzzlement and understanding. My dad was happy and whole for a piece of time.

Back for a moment to my eleventh grade learning group and the text we were learning.

In Shir HaShirim, chapter 7, verse 1, we read:

שׁ֤וּבִי שׁ֨וּבִי֙ הַשּׁ֣וּלַמִּ֔ית שׁ֥וּבִי שׁ֖וּבִי וְנֶחֱזֶה־בָּ֑ךְ
Return, Return, (to) the state of being complete;
Return, return, lets us gaze at you

In this part of the great love story and the chase in trying to come together, the notion is that by returning to each other and embracing each one’s reality as one and the same, there is a completeness that can only be the product of a love and a loving relationship. I felt that completeness with my father. I remember vividly as a child when my dad, with great aplomb would prepare elaborate omelets. In his mind at this moment in the hospital room, that is where he was, nurturing and loving his family. And I, his daughter, for a few minutes, was right there with him.

Return, return to the state of being complete! I now have a completely new understanding of that verse and what it teaches about love …. True love between the A and B of your choice! For me, it helped me love my dad.

Please include Kalman HaLevi Ben Rachel in your prayers. Todah Rabbah!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

My Ongoing Confusion About Sefirah

I grew up as an observant pre-1975 Conservative Jew for whom Halacha was clearly the authority. As part of that upbringing I was acutely aware of the lack of music and celebrations between the Hagim of Pesah and Shavuot, those days known as the Counting of the Omer, or Sefirat HaOmer. This was not merely a function of my mother’s Orthodox background and the fact that she was the Morah D’atra of the home, but also the fact of the matter was that this was universally observed in our congregational community’s world.

Now, after living squarely in the center of the Orthodox community for my entire adult life, Sefirah has become quite the curious time for me. Some people only observe the restrictions with which I was brought up from after Rosh Hodesh Iyyar, others stop the restrictions at Lag B’Omer, and still others count a certain number of days. These Sephardim to this, those Ashkenazim do that. I even remember one wedding years ago on Yom HaShoah, clearly not observed at all by the Orthodox community in which the wedding was held. All I know is that I have gone to festive parties, weddings and other celebrations during a period of time that was basically quiet and void of these things when I grew up…. So, it is clearly understood that I am confused.

It is a confusion that I can, and obviously do, live with. That is not the problem. It is the lesson of this confusion that I find so curious. We actually know that if a family in our Orthodox community has a simcha and their celebration occurs on a day which is during the period of restrictive behaviors that we observe as the standard that I have known my whole life, we are able to join with them – that is to yield to their minhag, their custom, while temporarily suspending ours in order to join in the simcha, an important mitzvah in its own right. What a wonderful way to build community and to show that in the end we are all connected to each other enough that we can put aside such personally held observances, and even stringencies, dare I say.

My question is why we can not apply this to other areas of our life. We, who are so lenient on this point, which was admittedly difficult and uncomfortable for me (and I think still is to some degree), will not budge one bit on other matters, which are probably analogous, or even less profound. For example, there are specific matters of personal stringencies of Kashrut that, while important to the individual, need not be fodder for embarrassment of others in the community. The extension of what is mukseh (not to be touched for purposes of improper use) on Shabbat is one of my personal favorites. Years ago, my children and their friends were playing nicely when a neighbor really overreacted to their personal understanding of whether or not it was proper for ME to allow MY children to play with Connectix (which are yielding only temporary connections between pieces, and therefore, in our understanding do not quality as mukseh – truly a whole other discussion), but trust me, not anywhere near the cause for the reaction and concern it caused.

We are a community and I continue to believe that G-d is much more lenient on what we forego as individuals to make that community than are many members of the community. Ironically, it is these very members of the community who often have their semachot during the time that was “black out time for celebratory events” in my younger years. No problem – I am glad to celebrate with them. I just wish others would agree that it is more important to live as a whole and caring community than to not be willing to yield when G-d is!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Back to the Gemara and Lessons about why and how we learn Torah

Back to the Gemara and Lessons about why and how we learn Torah

In my ongoing Gemara learning with my son, Brian, we are approaching the end of 8a of Berachot. This week we learned the following text:

And Rabbi Chiya bar Ami said in the name of Ulla, Greater is he who derives benefit from his own labor and efforts (while showing awe for G-d) than the one who shows awe for G-d (and does not labor on his own but depends on others for sustenance). (translated from the text on Berachot 8a)

At this point, as often happens in the Gemara, Rabbi Chiya quotes texts from Tanach to amplify the point just presented. The two texts that are quoted both come to us from Tehilim, the Book of Psalms:

About the one who has great awe for G-d and does not depend on his own labor for sustenance, we read in Tehilim 112.1 that

א הַֽלְלוּיָ֨הּ ׀ אַשְׁרֵי־אִ֭ישׁ יָרֵ֣א אֶת־יְהֹוָ֑ה בְּ֝מִצְוֹתָ֗יו חָ֘פֵ֥ץ מְאֹֽד:

Happy is the person who has awe for G-d and wants greatly (to do) G-d’s commandments.

About the one who derives benefit from his own labor and efforts while showing awe for G-d (this is understood as always being part of the equation in such texts and omission is not due to lack of presence, but the fact that this awe is a given), we read in Tehilim 128.2 that

ב יְגִ֣יעַ כַּ֭פֶּיךָ כִּ֣י תֹאכֵ֑ל אַ֝שְׁרֶ֗יךָ וְט֣וֹב לָֽךְ:

You shall eat from (enjoy) the efforts (fruits) of your hands (labor); you will be happy and it will go well for you.

The text of the Gemara now shows that Rabbi Chiya points to the fact that in both cases people are happy (note the root for happiness: aleph – shin – reish), but only when one works and then depends upon and derives what he needs from this labor, do we add the blessing that “it will go well for you.” The notion is presented that the happiness will come in this world, in Olam HaZeh, while the “good” that will be his reward comes in Olam HaBa. This second blessing does not appear for the one who only depends on G-d, but does not provide for his family and himself.

Clearly this runs counter to the well known joke of an intended son-in-law who comes to his future father-in-law before the wedding. He has already indicated that his plans are to learn full time in Kollel and he does not intend to work at a profession. The father-in-law-to-be is appropriately concerned and asks him, “So, how will you pay for your home?” The young man quickly replies to this, “G-d will provide.” The father-in-law then continues to ask, “What about the food that you need to eat?” Once again, the young scholar answers, “G-d will provide.” “How will you educate your children?” persists the father-in-law with his line of questioning. Again, the same response, “G-d will provide.” This goes on for some time with the father-in-law questioning and the intended son-in-law continuing to pronounce his simple response. After the conversation the father-in-law-to-be goes to see his wife. “So, how did the conversation go,” she asks. “Great,” replies her husband, “The young man thinks I am G-d.”

This is not an empty joke based upon a theoretical situation but reflects the truth for many families in many of our communities. I distinctly remember years ago when I heard a D’var Torah by one of the Rabbaim in our community who insisted that we are responsible for the education of every child and once we finish paying for our own children, those who are paying ARE OBLIGATED to pay for the other children in the community whose families cannot (will not?! because of their choices) do so. I was extremely offended by the implications that we all understood. Namely, for those who study full time, I and the other professionals are supposed to join that father-in-law and provide. What does doing so deny my children for whom I take COMPLETE FINANCIAL responsibility and work hard to make sure that they have what they need? More importantly, what would doing so TEACH my children about not relying on their own skills and capacity to support and take care of themselves?

Now, true many will charge that the teaching cited above is Aggadic material (the stories we tell) and therefore is not weighted as much as Halachic (legal) material. In this framework, this story has little if any standing to support my case for not buying the “support our Kollel families” mentality. However, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches us that the stories we tell as part of our Jewish foundational texts are not only as important as the laws we teach but more so in that they give us a sense of the application of the laws by real people in real times. In other words, for Sacks, these stories are not devoid of Halacha but rather the activation of their practice and applications in our lives.

One does not have to go far to understand this. Remember that the Tanaim and Amoraim had professions in addition to their reputation as learners of text. They were water carriers, hewers of wood, teachers, doctors, and contributed to society as well as supported themselves and their families by a variety of means. Why is this NOT the example followed in too many (though clearly not all!) corridors of Jewish learning communities today?

Now, we return to our text at hand from Berachot 8a. The message is clear. We are to study Torah, have awe of G-d, AND understand that the best way to actualize and put these things and teachings into practice is precisely by being involved in a worldly occupation. Shimeon Bar Yochai learned this lesson when he emerged from the cave in which he was for so long and misunderstood what he saw when he observed people preparing for Shabbat by dealing with their crops and produce. As a result of not understanding that this is the way of the world and actualizing Torah in the world – namely to be involved in the world in practical ways – he was sent by G-d back into his cave. Perhaps this is the problem – too many in our communities have willfully created their own caves and refuse to be part of worldly pursuits.

It is at this point that the text of Berachot 8a comes to teach us that we have to take responsibility for ourselves. We have to provide for our families and the wellbeing of those for whom we are responsible as well as learn and show that we have awe of G-d. In fact, by taking responsibilities we ARE SHOWING our awe for G-d by taking care of ourselves and others created by G-d to whom we are directly accountable.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Revisiting the Story of Nadav and Avihu

This past week, we read the Parsha of Shmini in the book of VaYikra. In it occurs the most disturbing and perplexing situation involving Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron who offer something strange to G-d and are then consumed. As the text reports:

א וַיִּקְח֣וּ בְנֵֽי־אַֽ֠הֲרֹ֠ן נָדָ֨ב וַֽאֲבִיה֜וּא אִ֣ישׁ מַחְתָּת֗וֹ וַיִּתְּנ֤וּ בָהֵן֙ אֵ֔שׁ וַיָּשִׂ֥ימוּ עָלֶ֖יהָ קְטֹ֑רֶת וַיַּקְרִ֜יבוּ לִפְנֵ֤י יְהוָֹה֙ אֵ֣שׁ זָרָ֔ה אֲשֶׁ֧ר לֹ֦א צִוָּ֖ה אֹתָֽם: ב וַתֵּ֥צֵא אֵ֛שׁ מִלִּפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹ֖ה וַתֹּ֣אכַל אוֹתָ֑ם וַיָּמֻ֖תוּ לִפְנֵ֥י יְהוָֹֽה: ג וַיֹּ֨אמֶר מֹשֶׁ֜ה אֶֽל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן הוּא֩ אֲשֶׁר־דִּבֶּ֨ר יְהוָֹ֤ה ׀ לֵאמֹר֙ בִּקְרֹבַ֣י אֶקָּדֵ֔שׁ וְעַל־פְּנֵ֥י כָל־הָעָ֖ם אֶכָּבֵ֑ד וַיִּדֹּ֖ם אַֽהֲרֹֽן:

Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took their fire pans, put fire in them, and placed incense on it; and they brought these before G-d, with a strange fire which G-d did not command them to bring. Fire came forth from G-d and consumed them and they died before G-d. Moshe said to Aaron, “This is what G-d meant when G-d said, “Through those near to me I show myself holy, and before all of the people I will have glory.” Aaron was silent.

So many of the classical commentators talk about the sin or the misdeed of Nadav and Avihu and indicate that this fire from G-d is punishment for bringing something as an offering to G-d that was not commanded. What is most curious is that this story occurs after we have read for many chapters about exactly how and what we were to offer to G-d on a variety of different occasions and for different reasons. Further, after this brief but critical departure, we will go back to laws of purity, discipline and boundaries, namely those involved with the practices of Kashrut, structuring the eating patterns for the entire nation. Rashi and Ramban both explain that this offering of a strange fire was the cause for the death of Nadav and Avihu and to be sure, this is the conventional reading of the text.

In learning this recently with my son and daughter, we discussed an alternative possibility. Nadav and Avihu were leaders in their own right, good people to be sure by any measurement. Clearly, the commentators are deeply troubled by what is seen here as a misguided action for which they (as well as Aaron, their mourning father) are punished in the most extreme way, through death by fire as a response to the fire they offered.

What was their motivation? Why would these two good people commit such a heinous deed? Or, perhaps, something else entirely is going on here. What if this offering was as a result of their zealous desire to please G-d? What if in their excitement and passion, they “made up” this offering in a moment of inspiration and desire not unlike those felt by brilliant poets and songwriters, dramatists, artists, and others whose moments of intense insight result in strokes of genius, figuratively and literally? If this was what happened, now how do we read this event and extrapolate important and meaningful lessons from it?

On one hand, I made the point during our study that this one text would serve as a clear directive against creative prayer. Yet, while many members of our community may love this idea before we run too fast with it, remember that so much of our structured and disciplined Tefillah scripts were in fact the result of such inspiration and genius. So, that does not seem to completely work as a reading to me.

Maybe, just maybe, there is another message here. A message of boundaries and discipline and remembering that too much of anything is not always the way to go. We observe that Judaism continually teaches us the value of moderation and boundaries. We pray but are also to study. We study and we are also to work in a livelihood. We work to support our families, and we are also supposed to contribute to the larger community. We spend time improving and refining ourselves and we are also to concern ourselves with the well being of others and be an active participant in the larger community. We are truly the ultimate multi-taskers, we Jews are!

To multi-task, one cannot become too wrapped up in any one aspect of one’s life. That is why we do not have Jewish monks, nuns or ascetics of any type. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches, we value the sage more than the saint; that is to say, we are to improve ourselves while we refine society and as part of that effort, as opposed to living in isolation and “far away from that maddening crowd.” Perhaps this is the lesson of Nadav and Avihu. Offering sacrifices to G-d was not simply and singularly about the single minded devotion to G-d, but rather involved following all instructions, observing the limits and boundaries that each person in the community had to respect, and acknowledging that ultimately we serve G-d by the totality of all of our various actions and involvements, not by a single stroke or inspiration of genius.

I love the lesson of solar eclipses; it is a spiritual lesson that is very relevant here. We are not to look at the naked sun because we will become “blinded by the light,” as the song goes. This can happen with any single-minded effort in our lives if we are not careful. The very thing that draws us to it, be it the light of the sun, the love of our soul mate, the passion we have for an activity, or our desire to be one with G-d and G-d’s desires for us, can ultimately destroy us if we approach this object of our affections with disregard for boundaries and the discipline that will protect us throughout our strivings.

I think that Nadav and Avihu can come to teach us this lesson as well. Strange fires are those that can come from within us if we do not observe the protective covering that discipline, rules and boundaries provide us just as dark glasses and protective coverings will prevent blindness when the sun, which we may crave, is so exposed. Perhaps the lesson is that we have to temper our excitement and our passion, no matter how noble the motivation may be. Otherwise, we too may be consumed by the light that is way too bright, as were Nadav and Avihu.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Okay, so I have been thinking about this Jewish Education problem and...

Okay, so I have been thinking about this Jewish Education problem and …

I learned a very long time ago that to state a problem is not enough. One must think about and propose some ideas to fix what is wrong so that we can move on. Therefore, I must provide at least some initial thinking regarding the issues I discussed in my last blog entry, though clearly I could write tomes on this topic. Now, before I begin, remember my philosophy that we will never fix in five minutes... or five days … or five months what took decades to evolve, or devolve, as the case may be. That being said, we all know that the only constant in our lives is change. Our communities change, our priorities change, the very context of our teaching changes, and so forth…. And of course, we change.

So, our educational institutions must change as well, and herein lies part of the problem. Years ago I was consulting with a large congregational school and had helped them reconceptualize and ultimately rewrite their curriculum and trained their teachers to incorporate the new strategies and pedagogic style into their teaching. At one of the last meetings when everyone was so pleased with the work we had collectively done, one of the congregational leaders stood up and said, “I don’t understand why we had to go through this process. This was done forty years ago or so and we had a perfectly good course of studies from then.” Needless to say, there was a collective audible gasp in the room for all of the obvious reasons.

Thus, here we sit, understanding and accepting that we will never come up with the PERFECT and TIMELESS solution and magic formula for Jewish education or any program in which past, present and future conflate in different and variant ways in different places and spaces. Rather, we should strive for the contextually appropriate model and insure that it works within our present reality. That being said, I will revisit a few of the problems indicated in my previous writing and suggest approaches that we may want to and more importantly, need to consider.

1. Dreaming and visioning of educational planning and goals were the stuff of which Jewish Education in the Eighties and into the Nineties prided itself. Today, often people feel that we have ceased dreaming and visioning to the degree we should. Concerns about testing results, covering required material (which grows exponentially as time passes), what is fiscally responsible and making sure that we “hold onto our customers,” as one colleague put it (?!), overrun our initial understanding of our roles as educators. THIS ROLE NEEDS TO BE RECLAIMED. When I work with communities as a consultant, educator or educational leader, I always focus on my role as facilitator and gatherer. What do I mean by that? As we work together, there are three general outcomes – building a sense of community ownership of the program and school on which we are working; the work product, be it a curriculum, actual school entity, new mission statement and goal structure, or whatever; and the acquisition of the tools necessary to go through and replicate the process we have just engaged in as the community continues to change and grow. As I often explain, I have parented four children. Our youngest is a fourteen year old young man who is growing by the week. We are buying new wardrobes monthly, not because the clothes from before are now bad or he, G-d forbid, is bad; but rather these good clothes and this great child just do not fit together any more. So, we use our well honed skills of shopping to rectify the situation. This is actually analogous in many ways to how we need to look at “the what and the how” of our educational system, consistently holding ourselves accountable to the foundational elements while stretching, putting in new parts and the like as needed.

2. In hiring Heads of School, many communities have not distinguished whether
they are looking for a COO/CEO or an Educational Director.
This often leads to confusion in terms of the expectations of the person being entrusted with the running of the school on the part of all involved. It is a reality that we are not in the same fiscal situation we were in twenty or thirty years ago. Our demands for our institutions are greater and the available dollars are harder to find (though I would contend that more are out there than we think and that how they are used is sometimes problematic). Nonetheless, to sacrifice the quality of the product so that we are fiscally responsible is actually being institutionally, communally, and yes, fiscally irresponsible. I am amazed at how communities tout their brand new beautiful facilities and state of the art technology and then don’t have enough money to pay faculty, make individual classes larger and larger, and the like which is counterintuitive to how we must regard the education of our children, with so many different needs and learning differences. It appears that the problem is further exacerbated by the many advertisements for Heads of School that begin with fiscal skills as the first skill set. THIS PROBLEM MUST BE ADDRESSED as wonderful educators are sitting and languishing while, frankly, the wrong people are too often in these top positions, earning much higher salaries than these institutions can afford, adding yet another obstacle to putting dollars where they are most needed. Communities MUST distinguish their legitimate needs for HEAD ADMINISTRATORS from their increasingly profound need for VISIONARY EDUCATORS. As communities that used to work together to insure that both types of support were provided are now torn and make forced choices, the educators are the ones that are relegated to being expendable. WE DEPARATELY NEED VISIONARY EDUCATORS AS HEADS OF OUR INSTITUTIONS AND THESE SPECIAL PEOPLE NEED to be able to work on educational viability and growth.

3. To whom and what are we comparing our Jewish day schools? Who is our
target population?
To be sure, there is a long and changing history of Jewish
Day School options and programs in our lives. As a child, I remember when you
either went to an Orthodox single sexed program or public school supplemented by a religious education within the movement in which you were raised, including those of us who were Orthodox. Now, we boast our many day schools and affiliations. I noted in my consulting in the eighties and nineties that every small Jewish community had a day school. Recently so many of these schools and others have closed their doors. To be sure, demographics have played havoc with our Jewish communities. However, when I hear many community members and even community leadership, up to and including area Federations, speak of their Jewish day schools as analogous to fancy private schools, I am profoundly confused. This was NOT the choice my family was making when we worked hard to provide the resources for our first three children to attend Jewish Day School. At this point, this is among the many reasons our fourth child is NOT in Jewish Day School and instead attends our wonderful public school district and is home schooled in Jewish Studies. Further, looking at the widely differentiated scale of what day school tuition is in various communities indicates that this equation of affordability of Jewish Day School education for those who are not looking for FANCY PRIVATE SCHOOLING is even more of a profound problem in some of our Jewish areas in this country. If Jewish Day Schools were to provide a substantial and meaningful dual curriculum and infuse students with the notion of living in an American Jewish laboratory, how much of our board meetings and decision making time is allocated to these issues – these goals, this vision?

There is so much more to discuss, but this is enough to begin with for now. How sad it is to watch the demise of so much that has been built, hoped for and created through the years. I do sincerely hope that the future will greet us with brighter days and possibilities.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Oh dear, what is happening to our Jewish Educational Institutions?

Oh dear, what is happening to our Jewish Educational Institutions?

I have worked in the field of Jewish Education for thirty five years. I have seen so many developments during that time; for a long time, many of these changes were positive and exciting. When I began my position as Educational/Youth Director for a large synagogue early in my career thirty years ago, I promised myself that I would create a meaningful viable Jewish community and the experiences that the students, teachers, family and all vested members would have within that community that I would work hard to facilitate would be different … different from the staid, programmed experience I had experienced in my younger years – you know the days when you walked in the house with the SAME book that your mother used in Hebrew school and this was a GOOD thing! I do feel that I was successful and still run into people from that chapter of my life, including the friendships I have maintained since then, and we speak with love and fond memories of that time. I was feeling good as I moved from that experience on to others and really was heartened by the fact that I am my colleagues were making profound differences in the field of Jewish education – in Central Agencies, afternoon school systems, day schools, formal and informal settings, and so forth.

Those were also the years of a wonderful organization called the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE), which became, among other things, the annual watering hole for creative Jewish educators, those who were challenging boundaries and barriers in everything from how one teaches and transmits information to the very definitions of what it means to be Jewish, observant and so many other things. Together, we shared our dreams and hopes for our communities in our fishbowl on random university campuses in this country as well as Israel and during the year, we tried to actualize some of those dreams and hopes – in our various settings in all our denominational groupings. These were indeed heady and exciting times for a Jewish educator that wanted to make a profound difference in the larger world of Jewish education, and then….

Here I sit, in 2010, disillusioned and extremely disappointed. Several of my wonderful colleagues – some of the most creative, committed Jews and passionate people I have ever met – are no longer in the ranks of Jewish education. Others languish in institutions that no longer dream and move towards a vision – not the way we used to. Too often, this profession and the communities that support it have eaten up their best and thrown them to the curb. How sad and depressing. CAJE ran its course for many reasons though there are a few hearty souls trying to restart it. I do have some intermittent contact with wonderful colleagues from different settings in which we meet – often in Israel or as parents of children that are friends of my children and choose and go to the same University communities where committed Jewish kids feel comfortable and validated. But we all share a feeling of the passing of an era. Yes, to be sure, there are wonderful schools out there, fabulous communities to be found, and people who are still excited about what they are doing…. But, the reality is that many of the communities in which I have worked as a consultant through the years have lost their own dreams and sense of future vision. I definitely see and feel this where I live.

In my own larger Jewish community in which three of our four children went through the day schools that we have and graduated, our fourth child, a wonderful, insightful, Jewishly committed 14 year old that exudes a sense of integrity and respect, attends public school due to the fact that he needs to be in an institution in which people treat each other with respect and the vision is shared, and he and those with whom he learns as well as those that teach and lead them have a sense in which direction they are moving. Sadly, we had to pull him out of day schools for reasons of compromised personal safety, not even considering what were increasing profound academic concerns.

I note that Financial Managers, COO’s and CEO’s are now more important in our educational institutions than seasoned, capable and experienced Jewish educators in too many cases. I have often heard statements to the effect that “I do not understand. This school used to have a vision and a soul. Now it is a business, one that is supposed to make money.” A business that is supposed to make money?! What happened to the days when our schools and educational institutions were known to be our loss leaders in the supermarket of Jewish agencies and institutions? This was our investment in our future – created an educated, excited, able Jewish population and they WILL be our wonderful leaders of tomorrow. The buildings may not have been the best and various aspects of the institution not state-of-the-art, but the places in which such learning occurred were often happy, soulful and nurturing venues. In the past year and a half, so many day schools have closed, programs that were dedicated to the professional enrichment of seasoned educators terminated, tuitions for day school education are now being compared to “other private schools in the area” and many families are forced out of this option, afternoon programs are more watered down than ever, there are less vehicles for shared visioning, and there are lots of granted dollars being spent on….., well, state-of-the-art technology and beautiful buildings and I am not sure what, too often. What has happened?

In our Orthodox community as is the case elsewhere, we have many more public school families than one might expect. Families acknowledge having to compromise on many things they believe (not to mention choking their family budget considerably) and “close their eyes” so that they can send their children to day school, and in these schools there are behaviors and occurrences that would NEVER be acceptable on any level in my son’s public school (back to that matter of personal safety).

What is wrong with this picture? Someone might say it is a personal reaction (even ranting) BUT I am most certainly not the only one with this story. None of my children will even consider going into Jewish education as a profession – the work which I felt so passionately about for so long. Years ago, I was so in love with my work, I desperately wanted at least one of them to continue and move into this path. Now, in 2010, I no longer feel this way. Some time ago, an older and beloved colleague once said to me, “I do not envy you, Sunnie. This was a great profession for me; so much is changing I am not sure what it will be for you.” For many years I disagreed respectfully with her as I was so excited and invigorated by my work. Now, I think she was prophetic. How sad!

Friday, March 5, 2010

The Power and Challenge of Community and the Spirit that Guides It

The Power and Challenge of Community and the Spirit that Guides It

We in our worldwide Jewish community just celebrated Purim, for which the story is told in the last chronological chapter of the Tanach. We always note, as we read the Megilah, that G-d’s name seems to be eerily absent in this story. We all know of the accounts of how scrolls of Megilat Esther were used to wrap other scrolls and texts of Torah when they had to be saved in times of terror, such as the Holocaust precisely because of the absence of the name of G-d in its words and verses. Ironically, while this particular narrative of Jewish existence and survival was used as packing material, the fact is that G-d was truly protecting all of the texts that were being shielded in this special covering; just as G-d is always there for us, whether perceived directly or not. This was as it should be, and as it was in the story of Esther itself in which there are many screens through which the power of G-d comes through and gives fortitude to the community G-d was guiding. Whether found in the very name of Esther, in the many times the word Melech is used, the notion that the saving power for the Jews will come from another place – mimakom acher – or even in special encoded pesukim, we generally agree that G-d was clearly present throughout the saga that we just read this past week.

While one has to look for and acknowledge that G-d is found in the personae, actions and events of this chapter of Jewish history at some point in the fourth century b.c.e.; on the other end of the spectrum, G-d’s name appears constantly in the beginning of Bereshit. One cannot miss G-d’s direct and obvious presence in the formative stages of our existence as a universe and a human community. G-d has to act directly upon every aspect of Creation as G-d is alone and without partner. In fact, many take the entirety of the Biblical narrative as the story of how G-d comes to partner with the human being individually and ultimately with the human community that the individuals build collectively with G-d guiding them.

In this week’s Parsha, Ki Tisa, appearing towards the end of Sefer Shemot, we read about a census that is taken as all members of the community prepare to act and function as a complete unit, with a Mishkan, leadership of its Kohanim, laws in place and so much else that has been accomplished in their arduous and adventurous journey on the way to becoming the Jewish people. As we consider this narrative which is set during the years between the leaving of Egypt and taking on the responsibility of forging a group identity in preparation for living in their own promised land of Eretz Yisrael, we note the need for the B’nai Yisrael to become a functioning community, with a sense of independence and confidence. Yet, we also see in this Parsha that this is not to be – not at this point anyway.

In one of the saddest tales to date in our Torah readings, we read the narrative of the Egel HaZahav, which represents a test taken and failed, and the resulting loss of community strength and its need for rebuilding. As we read about the perceived absence of G-d by people, we must sadly admit that they are not yet ready for the independence that they would need to take as they moved into their destined future.

As we read this difficult text about the power and the potential of the group, we are also confronted with the problematic nature of group mentality. In the beginning of Chapter 32 of Shemot, we are told

א וַיַּ֣רְא הָעָ֔ם כִּֽי־בֹשֵׁ֥שׁ מֹשֶׁ֖ה לָרֶ֣דֶת מִן־הָהָ֑ר וַיִּקָּהֵ֨ל הָעָ֜ם עַֽל־אַֽהֲרֹ֗ן וַיֹּֽאמְר֤וּ אֵלָיו֙ ק֣וּם ׀ עֲשֵׂה־לָ֣נוּ אֱלֹהִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֤ר יֵֽלְכוּ֙ לְפָנֵ֔ינוּ כִּי־זֶ֣ה ׀ מֹשֶׁ֣ה הָאִ֗ישׁ אֲשֶׁ֤ר הֶֽעֱלָ֨נוּ֙ מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֔יִם לֹ֥א יָדַ֖עְנוּ מֶה־הָ֥יָה לֽוֹ: ב וַיֹּ֤אמֶר אֲלֵהֶם֙ אַֽהֲרֹ֔ן פָּֽרְקוּ֙ נִזְמֵ֣י הַזָּהָ֔ב אֲשֶׁר֙ בְּאָזְנֵ֣י נְשֵׁיכֶ֔ם בְּנֵיכֶ֖ם וּבְנֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם וְהָבִ֖יאוּ אֵלָֽי: ג וַיִּֽתְפָּֽרְקוּ֙ כָּל־הָעָ֔ם אֶת־נִזְמֵ֥י הַזָּהָ֖ב אֲשֶׁ֣ר בְּאָזְנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיָּבִ֖יאוּ אֶֽל־אַֽהֲרֹֽן: ד וַיִּקַּ֣ח מִיָּדָ֗ם וַיָּ֤צַר אֹתוֹ֙ בַּחֶ֔רֶט וַֽיַּֽעֲשֵׂ֖הוּ עֵ֣גֶל מַסֵּכָ֑ה וַיֹּ֣אמְר֔וּ אֵ֤לֶּה אֱלֹהֶ֨יךָ֙ יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הֶֽעֱל֖וּךָ מֵאֶ֥רֶץ מִצְרָֽיִם:

Roughly translated, we read as follows:

And the nation saw that Moshe delayed coming down from the mountain and they gathered and pounced on Aaron. They said to him, “Get up and make for us a god that will go before us, because this man, Moshe, that brought us up from the land of Egypt left and we have no idea where he is. We need direction! So, Aaron said to them, “Take the rings of gold that are in the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters and bring them to me. The people removed these rings of gold that were in their ears and they brought them to Aaron. Aaron took them from their hands and put them together and created for them a golden calf (egel masecha). They said, “This is your G-d Israel that has brought you up from the land of Egypt.”

The B’nai Yisrael feel that they have been abandoned. Where is G-d? Where is Moshe? Who will lead them in the perceived absence of their leaders? Who will teach and guide them through the coming challenges they will no doubt face? They are afraid and in that fear, the very sense of balance and understanding of who they are as a group is also absent.

What is the purpose of group? It is meant to strengthen and validate who we are. Its raison d’etre is to provide a forum for a collective of people with shared values and beliefs to move forward. Here the group fails, the community falters. Aaron knows this and obviously while many commentators try to figure out why exactly he plays along with this sham, perhaps he hopes to show the B’nai Yisrael how immature they really are, needing a physical, albeit false, representation of the power that guides them.

Note that while G-d is always here, covering and protecting the group with G-d’s protective nature, direct leadership is invested in others – in Aaron, and in Moshe. The B’nai Yisrael have matured and are continuing to do so, even through these obvious setbacks. They were supposed to take responsibility and do their part as well as acknowledge that G-d’s presence may be more nuanced but there at all times, nonetheless.

Here is where they failed. G-d is, until today, seen in the actions and motivations of human beings according to many theologians and Jewish thinkers across the spectrum of belief. We question and we wrestle with G-d individually and as a community, but we try to remember that as in Megilat Esther, G-d is always there, to be perceived through the many screens in our lives. Hopefully, we have progressed significantly since the generation of the Egel HaZahav and do not need to revert to a shallow and false physical presence to indicate this, no matter what challenges we face as individuals or as a group.