Tuesday, May 30, 2017

When Society Falls Apart….

I sit and write these words as we begin our preparations for Shavuot (think Pentacostal, my non-Jewish friends, colleagues and readers). This is called Zeman Matan Torateinu or The Time of the Receiving of our Torah and is the celebration of what we have been waiting for since Pesah or Passover, commemorating our leaving of Egypt and our hopes and dreams for something so much better … a better way of life, a better society and better quality of the human condition, that finds its expression in the words, laws and instructive stories of Torah.

As always, our lives are so filled with so many mixed emotions and experiences for those of us who pay attention; and as you know so well by now, I am one of those who always do just that. Our family was blessed with a new soul that entered this world this past Thursday – our daughter Yoella and her husband’s fourth daughter, named this past Shabbat as Kassia Hannah (in Hebrew חנה קציעה ), in memory of both of my parents, Kenneth Gordon (Kalman HaLevi) and Hannah (Chanah), may their memories be a blessing for all and may this little girl carry and be guided by the grace of Hannah and the gentle strength of Kalman. Simultaneously, one friend of ours recently passed from this world and another is gravely ill. I often wonder how people go through their lives and to what degree they can hold onto their hopes and intentions as they navigate what life throws at all of us. So many emotions on a personal level!

Then there is the matter of our world and our country and these extremely frustrating, perplexing and troubling times in which we live. So I look at this new little girl and think about the legacy that she comes into our world with and the high hopes her parents and our entire family have for her and her amazing three sisters, Adel Raya, Neima Hadar and Neli Shimona – and all those whose legacies these little girls carry in their names from relatives and loved ones in their parents’ lives. And I wonder, how is it that we go from such high hopes and optimism to such opposite emotions and realities in our daily world? What is it that happens?

Today I completed learning of Masechet Sotah, the book of the Talmud that is titled for the wife that is suspected of going astray and committing adultery and the “test of the suspected adulteress” that is particularly painful to read about, much less imagine anyone going through this horror. While the Tractate begins with discussion of this woman who has done something so terribly wrong, it becomes quite clear, as it often does in learning Gemara, that she is not alone and this is NOT all about her. Rather, it is also about the man with whom she commits this act, the lawlessness in society in which they lived, and the conditions that led to the lawlessness that characterized that society in which these actions occur and may even be tolerated to varying degrees. The latter part of this Tractate clearly articulates that so many practices that represented the best of who the Jewish people were meant to be went by the wayside as time went on. Once the Temple was destroyed, the people lost their “clubhouse” and strayed a bit. Then learning ceased, great teachers died, and the chaos intensified to the point that practices that depended on the righteousness of that society had to be suspended and no longer practiced.

We are taught that the trial of the suspected adulteress was one of these suspended practices, never to be initiated again for there were not enough honest and blameless people in the community to point to the Sotah, who was to be an aberration. The point of the trial was not just for the wrongdoers, but to act as a clear warning and object lessons for the rest of society reminding them to act according to the laws that were set in place for a reason – to allow all to be the best they could be. If numbers of pious and righteous people were no longer the majority or critical mass, than who is blameless enough to point to such a person and wrongdoers are no longer the aberration but rather the norm! Certainly, we worry about that in our lives today when the question is too often no longer “what did X do wrong?” but rather, “can they get away with it?” As one lawyer stated to me several years ago when I was clearly wronged, “Just because its legal doesn’t mean its moral and just because its moral, does not mean there is legal recourse.” That was the point of Torah – it was truly intended to be both!

There is a critically important message here. We MUST hold onto our legacies as well as respect our past and the proper rule of society so that our children will continue to do so. This is, I believe the role of Torah (or whatever your code of law and practices is in your faith community, reader) in our lives – to remind us of what was, what should be and how we MUST continue to live so we can regain a sense of how we should properly go about this business called life.

So here it is Erev Shavuot and we are prepared to sit up all night and learn as we commemorate the excitement of receiving the code of laws that were intended to keep us honest and forthright and living in a way in which our dreams and hopes can be realized, while our wonderful legacies are protected. This is my hope for these four little girls and all of our children and future generations. May we all continue to be guided by the Torah we celebrate this week (or our appropriate Holy Writ) and bring its light into our world, regardless of what others around us are doing. In so doing, I hope that Kassia, Adel, Neima and Neli and all of our beautiful children will fulfill the hopes and desires we have for them as they grow and take on their place in our world and in our respective histories. In this way, they will fulfill the wonderful legacies they come into our world with as support.

Chag Shavuot Sameach and with hopes for all of us!

Thursday, May 18, 2017


I am presently learning Masechet Sotah in my daily Talmud learning. The Sotah in Jewish Law was the suspected adulteress and the trial to which one was submitted in such circumstances was quite grueling and upsetting. However, the Talmud in its typical and organic manner goes far beyond the surface details or the particular situation and in fact, this text and its discussion is about the downfall of society due to the lack of accountability for all of its members, from the most vulnerable to the most powerful. Most of this Tractate (lengthy text) is really about what happens when we stop watching each other and keeping each other in check regardless of position in society, whether elected or appointed. Throughout various discussion, there is a great deal of ‘handing off” with a succession of honored individuals in the procession when there is something important happening. For those of us in synagogue with any regularity who have witnessed how the Torah is handed to several different people when it is taken from the Ark in which it is kept, this too is outlined and explained in great detail in this particular text. The point often made in the Gemara is that NO ONE INDIVIDUAL is above the others, but rather all are accountable to the rules and regulations set forth by none other than G-d, and given to the Jewish nation in Torah (as well as other texts for other peoples who go by their own respective Holy Writ).

Within this discussion of all of the horrible things that will happen when society becomes lawless and lost is a treatment of leadership regarding going to war. There are specific proclamations, an order of actions to follow, a chain of command, and so on. The High Priest as well as the King have specific power but more important, there is clearly accountability for them as well. No one is immune to the system of checks and balances. This Tractate, which is so concerned with the downfall of society, shows how when power has gone to one’s head, so to speak, they fell, and they and all with them fell hard. It is only when the given instructions are followed, the proper blessings are said and the ones in power understand the LIMITS of their agency that the system works. Otherwise, disaster!

Okay, so is not all that difficult to see where I am going with this. I have been so upset with what is happening in our country these past months and am horrified by the circus that people are addicted to watching. I do worry about the ramifications of unbridled power and unchecked narcissism and do not find any of this entertaining in any way! I can honestly say that I have maintained this position since the very beginning when a certain individual claimed he was running for President of the United States because in his words, “I can.” NOT GOOD ENOUGH FOR ME! It never was and as time goes on, I am watching so many people come to this realization.

As I have shared before in this blog, in Devarim (Deuteronomy), we are taught that the King should write and have a copy of the Torah by his side at all times. Why is this? Here is your accountability! To remember, that as framed in Jewish law and teachings, the purpose of the leader is to implement the laws and follow them as an example; not to sidestep them, minimize their importance and act as if one is above or outside of the confines of the dictates of that system of limits and rules. This is the lesson of Tractate Sotah, which explores the notion that people will act wrongly and bring society down when their leaders do not act as appropriate role models for what it means to act within the lines of the established law and to honor it at all times as well as acknowledge its Lawgiver. Perhaps that is why every President until present ALWAYS from the beginning of their candidacy would end every speech with “G-d bless America.” This is understanding that there is a force or source or power to which even the Head of State is accountable. Otherwise, as taught in Tractate Sotah, we can be in a lot of trouble.

Monday, May 8, 2017

Parshat Acharei Mot-Kedoshim 2017 The Many Paths of Kedusha in our Lives

Please note that this D'var Torah (shared thinking) was presented at this past weekend's Eshel Fifth Annual Parents'Retreat. Eshel is a very important community to our family as the Orthodox LGBTQ Organization that works to create and encourage Orthodox Jewish communities that are inclusive and welcoming to all of our Jewish community members, wherever they are on the continuum of their gender and/or sexuality identity. For more information on this and other writings of this type, please contact me at shulisrose@aol.com

The theme of this Eshel Parents’ Retreat is “Happy, Healthy and Holy.” We all pray, hope and want our children and those we love to be happy, healthy and whole as well as holy (Kadosh).

The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches that every Jew, or every “yid” is Kadosh and does so many Mitzvot every day on their continuing path to higher levels of Kedusha.

In this week’s Parsha we read as follows:

You shall be Kadosh because I the Lord your G-d am Kadosh.

KADOSH/KEDUSHA – this is such an important and central word and concept to us as Jews. Clearly, it is difficult to translate accurately, even more so to encapsulate in its entirety and magnitude. As we read about the system of laws and practices that so defines us as a people and individually as members of this collective, this directive is repeated in various formulations with stark regularity. We attach the highest levels of sanctification, spirituality and the very core of our identity to these regulations as well as their foundational ethical components in connecting with our past in a visceral, as well as intellectual and practical manner. Rashi teaches that most fundamental teachings of the Torah depend on this part of the text; so much so that it was always and often taught in public assemblies.

This week’s double Parsha (Torah reading) is included in Chapters 17 – 27 of VaYikra which are indeed about the practices and intentional actions of our lives that define us as those commanded to be Kedoshim; and are dubbed The Holiness Code by Biblical scholars, including those in the secular world. These chapters are marked by a concern for holy living on the part of the people rather than a concern with sacrificial systems or ritual purity, as are the first sixteen chapters of the book. The standard of living to which the Holiness Code calls the B’nai Yisrael is to be exemplified in all arenas of life--economic, social, personal, familial, and in relation to each other. The refrain that marks these chapters -- "I am the LORD" or "I am the LORD your God." occurs only two times in Leviticus 1-16, but forty-seven times in chapters 17-26, with the majority in our reading today. We are to be KADOSH because the Lord our God is KADOSH. This sense of and identity with Kedusha is to mirror God's and these chapters provide us with a myriad of ways in which we do this.

One cannot escape noticing that this code of Ethical Behavior or those actions that bring Kedusha into our lives is juxtaposed with the narrative of our leaders, Aaron’s very sons, the Kohanim, who did not follow the prescribed manual of actions but rather offered their own strange fire; and Aaron’s need to use both his personal experience and his public office to remind the B’nai Yisrael of how we are to be and what should motivate our actions – our aspirations to be Kedoshim. Within this narrative we read about atonement, what to do to set straight what has gone off center when we are NOT ONE with G-d. It is immediately after learning about this process of re-centering ourselves that we are confronted with so many different ways to remain centered, or the many paths of Kedusha that are accessible to us in our daily lives – that is to ALL of us, regardless of status (we are not all Kohanim, for example, nor are we Nazirim with their situational designation of Kedusha), whether we are men or women, whether we observe the places and times so identified with Kedusha, and regardless of our means.

Moshe Safdie is an Israeli architect who is known world-wide for his work on a variety of ventures, including several places of worship for Muslim, Christian and Jewish faith communities as well as the 2005 design for Yad v’ Shem and the Mamilla Mall in Yerushalayim with its signature blend of historical footprint and contemporary rhythm of life. Safdie explains that no matter where in the world he has worked, “ our designs are specific to place and culture – they are inspired by and woven into the historic, cultural and social fabric of their site.” When asked by Dov Elbaum in an interview on Israeli television what קדושה means to him, he explained that he feels that sanctity is created by the people who infuse the spaces he creates with meaning through their actions and the purposeful involvements of their lives. Safdie explains how in this way our Beit HaMikdash and practices from long ago and the memory we have of these chapters of our collective lives can translate into many other meaningful spaces through the merit of the actions of those who maintain the community and its institutions. Here Kedusha happens where we are and through what we do.

A very different definition of Kedusha is suggested in speaking of the “Sanctity of Place,” as taught by Prof. Israel Knohl:

The biblical word “kadosh” (holy) denotes something distinct and lofty. According to the Bible, kedusha[1] (holiness or sanctity) stems from God, who is sanctified and distinct from the created world. Anything closely connected to God receives its sanctity, kedusha, from the divine kedusha. The sanctity of a place derives from the presence of God there. Thus, when God appears to Moses at the burning bush, that ground automatically becomes sanctified (Exod. 3:5). Once God’s presence leaves that place, it loses its sanctified status.

Do we have conflicting notions here or is there something else to consider? What do we as Jews bring to the space in which we are to amplify the sense of Kedusha?

Most, if not all of us are all so familiar with the pivotal words of VaYikra 19:18 -- כמוך לרעך תואהב -- And you shall show love to YOUR RE’AH as you would for/to yourself -- and its centrality for such notable teachers as Hillel and Rabbi Akiba, as well as what some may perceive as its overuse as the distillation of all that is Torah which some of us may feel minimizes this sense of Kedusha as well as its own intrinsic meaning. Professor Menachem Hershman, a well-known teacher of Talmud and Jewish texts in Israel teaches that this concept is truly, as Hillel teaches “a great precept/rule in the Torah.” Prof. Hershman teaches that it is LOVE, this AHAVAH, that should define and be the prism through which all of our actions come; and by acting out of this love, we will act intentionally and carefully, showing care to others in so many actions and that it is THIS that will bring Kedusha to all of the PLACES in which we find ourselves through the activation of our initiatives.

So let’s look a bit more carefully for context. We read verses 17 and verse 18 as follows, immediately after being told to not stand idly by while our רע is in harm’s way:

17 Thou shalt not hate thy brother in thy heart; thou shalt surely rebuke thy neighbor (who wrongs you), and not bear sin because of him. 18 Thou shalt not take vengeance, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the LORD.

The development of these verses is quite specific. Do not bear hatred towards those closest to you --- hold your relative accountable and do not embarrass him in public; do not hold a grudge or take revenge against those with whom you share a destiny, and then show love to the other – ךרעל -- as you would do for yourself.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks teaches as follows (5767) regarding the very specific and intentional wording of these two verses:

The inner logic of these verses in our sedra is therefore this: “Love your neighbor [?] as yourself. But not all neighbors [or even brothers!]are loveable. There are those who, out of envy or malice, have done you harm. I do not therefore command you to live as if you were angels, without any of the emotions natural to human beings. I do however forbid you to hate. That is why, when someone does you wrong, you must confront the wrongdoer. You must tell him of your feelings of hurt and distress. It may be that you completely misunderstood his intentions. Or it may be that he genuinely meant to do you harm, but now, faced with the reality of the injury he has done you, he may sincerely repent of what he did. If, however, you fail to talk it through, there is a real possibility that you will bear a grudge and in the fullness of time, come to take revenge ...”

What is so impressive about the Torah is that it both articulates the highest of high ideals, and at the same time speaks to us as human beings. If we were angels it would be easy to love one another. But we are not. An ethic that commands us to love our enemies, without any hint as to how we are to achieve this, is simply unlivable. Instead, the Torah sets out a realistic program. By being honest with one another, talking things through, we may be able to achieve reconciliation – not always, to be sure, but often. How much distress and even bloodshed might be spared if humanity heeded this simple command.

This means that one is to ‘love your friend [ רע] as yourself.’ We know that there are in fact many words in Hebrew for indicating relationality .. here are a few relevant to our discussion at hand: גרך -חבר -רע -עמיתך- אח Why is the word רע used in this instance? Why not חבר, for example? Why not גר or אח? חבר or אח indicate someone who is similar to you; chaver shares a root with the word lechaber -chibur (to join/connect) and chabura (a gathering) - a chaver is someone who is thus easy to befriend because he is just like you, maybe even more so than say an אח – a familial relationship (brother). Note for example, the use of the word חבר as such, in Shoftim 20:11:

חֲבֵרִים אֶחָד כְּאִישׁ הָעִיר אֶל יִשְׂרָאֵל אִישׁ כָּל וַיֵּאָסֵף And all of Israel came together to the city as one man joined together with each other

Here, all the nation of Israel gathered together in a shared mission against the force of Giv’eah. Here they were JOINED TOGETHER in a sense of shared purpose; this is NOT the sense of our commandment here.

A re’a is someone who may indeed be quite different from you, but perhaps not as much as a גר (often translated as stranger) – maybe in ways that one does not understand nor accept; he or she might have different goals, different viewpoints, different identity points or a different personality. A re’a is not familially or nationally connected to you. The use of re’a is particularly telling; the Torah is commanding us to love davka someone who is different and not as compatible as you might like. Its easy to agree with those who agree with us; not so much with those who do not. And here is a wonderful opportunity to show and be Kedusha personified in facilitating such a relationship.

Rambam, teaches in Hilchot De’ot 6:3 that ‘it is a mitzvah [incumbent] upon each person to love each and every Jew, as well as others according to some of our teachers, like himself. He extends this to teach that we should show the same empathy towards others we would hope they would exhibit towards us. By contrast, Sforno, Ramban, the Chizkuni and many others teach that the mitzvah is not intended to instruct us to have the same love for others as you do for yourself; this is impossible for the most basic of reasons. Would HaShem command that which is impossible? So what exactly does the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha obligate us to do? We are to want good things to happen to other people just like we would want good things to happen to ourselves. Just as Bruria taught her husband Rabbi Meir to not wish for the destruction of wicked people but rather to pray that they would repent and be offered atonement so that wickedness would be destroyed but not individuals. When we carefully look at the passuk itself, we are asked by some of our teachers to note that it does not say love your friend as yourself (ve’ahavta es re’acha kamocha), but rather, show love to your friend as yourself (ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha), by wanting good things to happen to them. This is the meaning of Hillel the Elder’s teaching to “not do to others what is hateful to you, i.e. what others would do to you.”

If we use this as our guiding principle in bringing Kedusha into our world and showing this concern for others, we see why Perek Yud-Tet (Chapter 19 of VaYikra – Leviticus) is at the center of the Holiness Code and according to some of our traditions, the very text of the Torah itself. Here we see so many actions, reminding us that in undertaking these initiatives including honesty and transparency in all business dealings, interacting with those in our communities with various needs and deficits such as visual or hearing impairments, sharing our crop with others, not injuring others by use of words, not bearing grudges, judging fairly, and so much else, we enact what Rabbi Harold Kushner states when he says that “Human beings and their actions are G-d’s language.” This fulfills the notion oft repeated in the Gemara (e.g. Sukkah, Yoma, Sotah) that when one does a single Mitzvah intentionally it is credited to him as if he or she has observed the entire Torah. There are so many ways to achieve this sense of connectedness, of Kedusha.

According to the Rambam, how are you supposed to go about fulfilling the mitzvah of ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha; is it enough to meditate and think about it, i.e. to love in your heart but not through actions? What if this intentional action does not come naturally? The key is that such attitudes, feelings or emotions will hopefully come about as the result of actions one does, as we are carefully taught in the Sefer Hachinuch. It is only when these feelings, attitudes, etc. are clothed and expressed in the form of actions that they are internalized and take root within an individual. It is in this way that one fully acquires the ability to love others as one loves oneself; one does actions that show love to others. And this is what Hillel was saying when he instructed the potential convert ‘what is hateful to you do not do to your friend;’ he did not merely say ‘love others as you love yourself,’ because he was teaching this potential convert how to go about fulfilling this mitzvah - by wrapping emotions in action to make them real. And here is where we achieve Kedusha, or intentional and unique wholeness.

We learn in Sotah 14a, for example, that indeed we bring G-d into the world by following the sanctified actions of intentionality that G-d does, such as clothing those who need clothing, visiting the sick, comforting mourners, and burying the dead. Ibn Ezra, among others, points out that the refrain of Ani HaShem and its constant presence in our text is alluding to the concept that we reflect HaShem in this world; and unity amongst Bnei Yisrael allows HaShem’s Shechinah to reside in this world. Similarly, Rashi and others teach that it was only when we put individual differences aside and we were ‘like one man with one heart and one voice ’that HaShem gave us Torah. Rav Eliyahu Dessler teaches that this is the goal for us to work towards yet again – finding our shared sense of mission and humanity that unites us all and here we will find AHAVA and KEDUSHA.

Further, we do not stop with the one in our midst with whom we disagree, but also embrace those who come into our communities from the outside, as we are instructed in verses 33 – 34:

33 And if a stranger sojourn with thee in your land, ye shall not do him wrong. 34 The stranger that sojourneth with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and thou shalt love him as thyself; for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.

Here we see the one Mitzvah that appears more than any other in our Torah; asking us to extend ourselves even further, not just to love the one with whom we share purpose as in Yehoshua; or the one who is tied to our destiny by heritage as in our text; but now we are asked to accept and NOT turn away the stranger precisely because that happened to us and we know what it feels like.

Returning to verse 19:16 -- Do not have a gossiper in your community; do not stand by the blood of your re’ah, we are again reminded that the saving of life is above all, even to the point of setting aside other Mitzvot when needed. This valuing of human life is what should motivate us to feel the love we are told to feel and cloak that love in actions that truly make a difference, bringing Kedusha to our world. Further, we see that our very use of language itself can be a vehicle to save or destroy life. Let us all commit ourselves to using our language, our actions, and the many paths to Kedusha at our disposal purposefully and in so doing follow the central dictate of:

You shall be קדושים because I the Lord your G-d am קדוש

Finally, let us commit ourselves to acknowledging the many ways our children are indeed Kadoshim in so many aspects of their lives and the many Mitzvot(intentional actions) they do on their path to achieving this shared goal!

Shabbat Shalom.