Friday, April 25, 2014

Holy Love

26 Nissan 5774 / April 25-26, 2014

In this week’s portion, Kedoshim, we find a slew of guidelines for how to treat others in polite society. Under the overarching theme of aspiring to be “holy,” we’re instructed to leave the corners of our fields and vineyards (as well as anything that falls to the ground while being collected) for the poor, to pay day laborers on the same day, to avoid causing harm to the deaf and blind, to rise before and respect the elderly, to refrain from cursing at our parents, to treat our bodies as sacred, and again to refrain from certain (largely family-based) forbidden sexual relationships.

In Kedoshim (which itself is the plural form in Hebrew of the word “holy”), we also find the Jewish version of the Golden Rule:

You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against your countrymen; Love your fellow as yourself; I am the Lord.” (Lev. 19:18)

Some of you may be familiar with the phrase in Hebrew: V’ahavta l’reyacha kamocha.”

Our tradition puts tremendous influence on this instruction. Some of our most cherished ancient rabbinic teachers actually designated it as the very core of the Torah.

For example, in the Jerusalem Talmud (Nedarim 30b) we learn:

Rabbi Akiva taught: [Love your fellow as yourself] is the most important rule in the Torah.”

In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a) we find Rabbi Hillel delivering a similar message, utilizing the negative construct:

Hillel said to him: That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow; that is the whole Torah – the rest is commentary; go and learn it. 

At first glance, one might think the concept leaves little room for empathy. In acting a certain way, one could justify said action by saying: “Since I wouldn’t have a problem if the other person took such an action and I was in his place, it’s thus okay if I take such an action – regardless of how the other person may actually feel about it.”

However, I would argue that upon a closer look, the strong (and veiling) counterargument is that given that we would want others to try and empathize with us before acting, so too should we strive to empathize and put ourselves in the place of others before acting – meaning that we cannot only be concerned with how we think certain actions will impact us – but rather, we must also be cognizant of how those actions might impact others.

This Shabbat, reflect on the following:

If you were to boil Judaism down to a single teaching, what would it be and why? 

Are we making enough of an effort to examine the potential outcomes of our actions and their impact on others before acting?

How can we strive to be more loving?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Self Love

Acharei Mot
April 11-12, 2014

This week’s portion, Acharei Mot, begins by sharing the specific instructions for what the High Priest is meant to do on Yom Kippur (the holiday is introduced as well).  We’re told that the High Priest is charged with making atonement for the Israelites and their sins once a year.  We also find the fascinating invention of the scapegoat – literally a goat that the High Priest would place the sins of the Israelites on and then send out into the desert. We learn that the average Israelite is no longer permitted to offer up sacrifices / burnt offerings on his/her own, but must utilize the priests (it’s often good to have a monopoly when you’re in charge…). We also are reminded that consuming blood is a no-no, and are provided with a large list of prohibited sexual relationships (sleeping with family members is generally a no, in case you were wondering).

I’m particularly intrigued by the order given in the Torah as it relates to the High Priest’s atonement efforts on Yom Kippur.  We learn that the High Priest is instructed to make expiation (1) for himself, (2) for his household, and then (3) for the nation as a whole.

Why this order? Aren’t the priest’s actions really about the nation as a whole? Don’t we often say that we want our leaders to be selfless, putting the needs of the nation ahead of their own? Why wouldn’t the High Priest atone on behalf of the entire nation first, and only worry about himself later?

Practically speaking, there’s an argument to be made that one needs to have atoned oneself in order to have obtained the state of heightened purity necessary to be in a position to atone for others.

But in a more meta way, I think our major takeaway point needs to be that before we can go out and take care of others, we need to make sure that we’re taking care of ourselves. Are we exercising regularly and eating healthily? Are we getting enough sleep? Are we forgiving ourselves for our own perceived shortcomings as we walk through the world?

Are we recognizing that sometimes those we hold up as leaders also need private time on their own and with their families?

By taking care of ourselves (and recognizing that we all need to do so), we truly become capable of taking care of others.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Somebody Call A Doctor!

27 Adar II 5774 / March 28-29, 2014

In this week’s portion, Tazria, we learn that in some ways, the ancient Israelite priests doubled as doctors. If you were suffering from some sort of skin affliction (the Torah goes into depth about some of the different kinds you might be experiencing – weak stomached folks beware!), your first trip was to go see a priest. The priest would then determine, depending on the appearance of the affliction, whether or not you needed to be isolated, and for how long.

Why the priests?

Because our ancestors viewed these kinds of skin issues as physical manifestations of (and/or as punishment for) spiritual shortcomings.

While today we often don’t actively associate physical illness with our spiritual lives, perhaps with a bit more attention to our inner selves, we would find that our spiritual existences and experiences often do set the table for external bodily expressions.

For example: Loneliness or feeling unloved often leads to excessive eating or drinking, which have negative physical health implications (e.g. obesity).

This Shabbat, reflect on the following:

What are my own perceived spiritual shortcomings?

When do my own spiritual struggles manifest into physical ailments, if at all?

How can I develop spiritual practices that have me in tune with my body and the world around me?

May we all be blessed with health of mind, body and spirit, and may we be strong enough to make the active choices necessary to help foster such health.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Jewish Texts and their Relevance Today

22 Adar II 5774 / March 21-22, 2014
This D'var was billed as “Jewish Texts and their Relevance Today.” Let’s learn a little bit together and see whether or not we find some of our traditional texts relevant to our lives.

The first brief text I want to share with you comes from the Talmud - the basic compendium of Jewish law and thought, compiled and edited at the end of the 5th Century CE in Babylonia – and is one of my favorite:

“The members of the household of Rabban Gamliel did not used to say ‘Good health!’ in the House of Study so as to not interrupt their study.”  (Berachot 53a)

What’s going on here?

Well, for the Spanish speakers, you might recognize “Good health” as “Salud!”  And for the Hebrew speakers, as “Livriyut!” German and Yiddish fans: “Gezundheit!”

 And when do we say these things? After someone sneezes!

So what do we learn from this? That more than 15 HUNDRED years ago, people were saying “Gezundheit” or its equivalent when people sneezed!

To me, that’s amazing! Our traditional Jewish text, in the context of a broader conversation about when it’s appropriate to interrupt one’s study / immersion in sacred endeavors, reveals a connection point that we share with our ancestors in a very real way.

So the next time you hear someone sneeze, when offering up a “Gezundheit," "Bless You" or" Livriyut,” you’re forging your connection to a chain over 1500 years old.

Let’s look now at a 2nd text – it’s another one of my favorites. This particular text comes from the Mishna - the first compilation of the oral law, authored by Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi (approx. 200 C.E.) – in a section called “Pirkei Avot” – the Ethics of our Ancestors.

In this particular clause, which comes in the first chapter of Pirkei Avot (there are 5 total chapters), Shammai (1st century BCE), one of major rabbinic sages at the time, outlined three steps to enhance one’s life.  

"Shammai would say: Make your Torah study a permanent fixture of your life. Say little and do much. And receive every man with a pleasant countenance."
(Avot 1:15)

So the three bullets Shammai outlines are:

1.    To have set times dedicated for Torah study (anyone who has tried to get into better physical shape by working out knows that having a routine is a key component!);

2.    To say little and do much (actions speak louder than words – the concept shared over 2000 years ago!); and

3.    To greet everyone with a smile.

So Shammai’s recipe for success? Develop meaningful routines, let your actions lead the way, and let your smile be infectious.  By the way – contemporary science is showing that smiling – even forcibly – decreases stress and increases happiness. I love it when 2,000 year old advice has practical contemporary applications!

Let’s now look at a few verses from this week's Torah portion, Shemini.  In Shemini, we find Aaron and his sons filling their priestly roles for the first time since their 7-day inauguration ceremony.

Leviticus Chapter 10: 1-3
Verse 1: And Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, each took their fire pan and put fire therein, and laid incense thereon, and offered alien fire before God, which God had not commanded them.
Verse 2: And there came forth fire from before God, and devoured them; and they died before God.
Verse 3: Then Moses said to Aaron: This what God was referring to when saying “Through them that are close to Me I will be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified;” And Aaron was silent.

So we learn that 2 of Aaron’s sons, the priests Nadav and Avihu, make an incense offering that went above and beyond what they were commanded to do, and which the Torah refers to as an “alien fire.” Alien in this case means “not holy,” as opposed to, say, fire emanating from Star Wars spacecrafts.

In response to this action, in Verse 2, we learn that “A fire came forth from God and devoured them, and they died before God.”

Talk about an unforgiving boss! On their first real unsupervised day on the job, Nadav and Avihu aren’t only fired – they’re literally consumed by fire and burnt to death due to their perceived mistake!  It’s no wonder that there are so many vacant Jewish Temple priest jobs on 

In Verse 3, we find what I perceive to be one of the most profound verses in the entire Torah. In response to finding out that two of his sons are dead, Aaron, the High Priest, who was the individual designated as Moses’s spokesperson and mouthpiece when confronting Pharaoh, is silent.

Needless to say, this isn’t the response you might expect from someone traditionally so vocal…

Perhaps Aaron was in a state of shock and/or was unable to process the information he had received.

Perhaps he was devastated, but was so duty-bound that he found comfort in the fact that his sons had died while serving and fulfilling God’s expressed desire to be sanctified (which we find in the first part of Verse 3).

Or perhaps Aaron said nothing in order to avoid interfering with the joy of the inauguration festivities taking place.

Simply put, there is no way to know how one will react upon losing a child, or loved ones in general. 

Our tradition puts a tremendous emphasis on comforting mourners, and by highlighting the textual archetype of a mourner who mourns in silence (especially a person we wouldn’t expect silence from), we learn that individuals process loss in different ways, and as a result modify our behaviors today accordingly.

When we visit with mourners, the natural tendency is to want to try and explain the loss to them in philosophical terms. “She/he is in a better place now;” “It’s all part of God’s plan;” etc.  But our job is not to be philosophers or theologians – rather, it’s simply to be Present.

We learn in the Shulchan Aruch, the standard code of Jewish law set forth by Rabbi Joseph Karo in 1563 C.E., that “when comforting a mourner, one should not initiate (the initial) conversation, but rather let the mourner speak his or her mind.” (Yoreh Deah 376:1) The mourner may want to laugh, cry, or, like, Aaron, remain silent; and trying to engage someone in conversation who prefers to remain silent defeats the entire purpose of seeking to comfort. 

Thus, we take our cues from the mourner. We don’t assume anything. We’re Present. And we can contemporarily appreciate the guidance offered in text-form 450 years ago, cultivated from a Torah text that’s at least 2500 years old.

Needless to say we are a text-rich tradition. Admittedly, we have texts that are incredibly challenging, and that without question expose the normative cultural values of the time, many of which we do not share today. My hope is that rather than simply discarding those pieces of our tradition that we deem archaic or outdated, that we commit to struggling with and learning what we can from them. We are the Children of Israel – the translation of the name “Israel” itself means struggling with the Divine. To struggle is our legacy – we’re not meant to take the easy way out. Our texts have incredible wisdom contained within them that can (and often times, without even realizing it, do) add meaning and value to our lives today. May we all be blessed, to borrow from Shammai, to make Torah and text study a permanent fixture of our lives, and may our lives be ever the richer as a result.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Fire It Up

15 Adar II 5774 / March 14-15, 2014

In this week’s portion, Tzav, we find ourselves in the Book of Leviticus (often referred to as the “Priestly Code”) learning all about the steps Aaron and his sons (under Moses’s leadership) are required to take in order to formally induct them as the nation’s priests. We’re also given step-by-step instructions for how the priests are meant to prepare and offer up various sacrifices and burnt offerings (there’s something to be said about prayer being a really nice replacement for sacrifice given some of the gory details…!).

Here are the various offerings discussed:
The Burnt Offering
The Grain Offering
The Anointment Offering
The Purification Offering
The Reparation Offering
The Well-Being Offering

So many offerings, so little time!

Maybe it’s just due to the record-setting snow and accompanying vortexes of a chillingly polar nature of late, but I want to hone in on a particular verse that has to do specifically with the altar where The Burnt Offerings were made:

“A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Lev. 6:6)

The Israelites (and the Priests specifically) effectively were instructed to ensure that there was an eternal fire in camp – a spiritual pilot light, if you will. In this way, the Israelites were able to show their devotion and dedication to the Divine by attending to the altar at all hours.

Fire plays a significant role in our tradition -- from representing creation itself (thus why kindling on Shabbat, when theoretically we’re refraining from “creating,” is traditionally forbidden) to its role in myriad ceremonies (think: lighting Shabbat candles, lighting a Havdallah candle, lighting a Yahrzeit candle, burning chametz right before Passover, etc.).

This Shabbat, reflect on the following:

What role does fire play in my life?

To whom/what and how do I show devotion?

If I had an internal, metaphorical, spiritual fire, what is it (activities, foods, people, etc.) that would keep it burning?
One of those foods just might be Hamantashen!  (Don’t forget, Purim is Saturday night / Sunday!)

Friday, February 28, 2014

Mission Accomplished

29 Adar I 5774 / Feb 28 – March 1, 2014

In this week’s portion, Pekudei, we wrap up the Book of Exodus and learn that the Israelites have finished constructing the Tabernacle. We find an accounting of how much gold and silver were used in its construction and learn that all of the ritual objects and garments had been completed as well. We also learn the results of the recent census (603,550 males over age 20). Upon the completion of the Tabernacle, Moses blesses the nation.

This action by Moses strikes me. What cause was there for a blessing to be offered? The Israelites had simply completed a project they had been assigned…

Too often in life we don’t carve out the necessary time to acknowledge and reflect upon our accomplishments. When we complete large-scale projects, we’re often so focused on moving on to whatever is next that we fail to pause and take stock of where we were when the project began and how far we’ve come and developed during the time it took us to complete it. Moses, in blessing the nation, essentially provides the space for the Israelites to reflect on and bask in their collective efforts.

Reflect on the following:

Am I making the time to acknowledge my completion of major tasks? 

What would it look like for me to create a regular time to reflect on my personal growth?

Can I help create space and time for others to reflect on their accomplishments? 

Traditionally, when we finish reading a book of the Torah, we say “chazak chazak v’nitchazek” – “be strong, be strong, and may we be strengthened.”

This Shabbat, let’s remember that while going from strength to strength, and from project to project, that it’s important to make the time to reflect on the recently completed experience.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Legen- Wait For It…

Ki Tissa
15 Adar I 5774 / Feb. 14-15, 2014

In this week’s portion, Ki Tissa, Moses is still up on Mt. Sinai receiving instructions from God. We learn about how to take a census (everyone gives ½ a shekel!), how to go about making ritual anointing oil, and we learn that even during constructing the Tabernacle and its accoutrements that working on the Sabbath was a no-no.

While Moses was up on the mountain, the Israelites demanded of Aaron that he make them an idol of gold.  Without much protest, he proceeds to create the Golden Calf, and the Israelites dance and sing around it, showering it with adoration. God takes note of this on the mountaintop with Moses and shares a desire to destroy all of them, and to in turn make of Moses (and his progeny) a great nation.  Moses’s response: no thank you.

Moses comes down the Mountain with two stone tablets, sees what’s going on, and proceeds to hurl the tablets onto the ground, shattering them. He then incinerates the Golden Calf, and is so angry that he makes the Israelites drink water mixed with its ashes. Plague ensues. When he confronts Aaron, Aaron says, “I hurled the gold into the fire and out came this calf!” Talk about not taking responsibility for one’s actions…!

The scene continues as Moses has the Levites slay 3,000 Israelite men (which was a very big deal). He then goes back up the mountain in order to ask forgiveness on behalf of all the Israelites for their actions. Moses descends over a month later with a second set of tablets, his face aglow. After delivering instructions, we’re told that he put a veil over his face in order to mute its radiance, and that the practice continued going forward – whenever he spoke to the nation, the veil was removed, and afterwards, he’d cover his face again.

I can’t help but think about the connections between this portion and the need for patience in our lives today. 

The Israelites couldn’t handle Moses being away for over a month – despite knowing he had promised to return – and as a result, resorted to creating and worshipping a physical object.  How short term were their memories exactly? Did they forget about the miraculous plagues in Egypt that they witnessed (and were spared from), and the parting of the Sea, after which they watched their tormentors drown? These were recent events! And yet, they still couldn’t seem to wait for Moses to return and instead turned to idol worship.

Too often today we also lack patience – whether it’s waiting for a return phone call, text or email, waiting for a favorite TV series to start its new season, or waiting to hear from grad school admissions committees or potential employers. We drive ourselves crazy wondering why we can’t have exactly what we want when we want it. We may even sink as low as our Israelite ancestors by watching American Idol because there’s nothing else good on TV, rather than reading a book or doing something useful with our time (apologies to those of you who are AI fans!).

This Shabbat, reflect on your own ability to be patient. Are you meaningfully utilizing waiting times? Are you responding to others as quickly as you wish you were being responded to? Unlike Aaron, take responsibility, and begin developing a personal practice that harnesses your potential frustration and channels that energy into productivity.