Friday, February 24, 2012

What's your space?


2 Adar 5772 / February 24-25, 2012

In this week’s portion, Terumah, we learn the very specific instructions communicated to the Israelites for constructing the Tabernacle (the portable sanctuary that the Israelites would keep with them while wandering through the desert) and its furnishings (including the Ark of the Covenant, the Menorah, the Alter, etc.). With required contributions of gold, silver, copper, ram skins, oil and the like from the populace (we now begin to understand why it was essential that the Israelites leave Egypt with great material wealth), a picture is painted of a majestic dwelling place built in honor of God, who had brought the Israelites out of Egypt and given them the Torah.

The Tabernacle in many ways served as the logical precursor to the Holy Temple built in Jerusalem, which was even more impressive in its structure and grandeur (the Western Wall we visit in Israel now and that we deem our religion’s holiest site is but a small section of the outer protective wall of the ancient Temple).

It is no surprise that upon being exiled from Jerusalem and with the accompanying development of Diaspora Judaism (not to mention eventual suburbanization), that we decided to build grand structures of our own, in many ways meant to reflect the Tabernacle and the Temple: synagogues. Like the Tabernacle and Temple, our synagogues have arks, menorahs, curtains and tables. The eternal light that hangs in a synagogue’s sanctuary is meant to signify God’s presence, as the reason given for constructing the Tabernacle in this week’s portion is so that God may constantly dwell among the Israelites.

Needless to say, synagogues in America are currently struggling. Built to be awe-inspiring and to fit an entire congregation (who often only attend, if at all, on the High Holidays), these massive structures are under-utilized, rarely filled, and cost a significant amount of money to operate (think heating, electric, and cleaning costs, to name but a few). Those overhead costs are then inevitably passed along to potential members.

To attend Shabbat morning services in a sanctuary made to fit 1,000 people that has maybe 100 people in attendance doesn’t leave you feeling like you’re doing something meaningful as part of a community. While walking into the sanctuary may initially move you due to its beauty, you cannot help be left wondering: “Where is everyone else?” “Why am I here but no one else is?” “What could I have been doing with my time instead?” The ability to seek out and connect with the Divine (arguably the purpose of attending synagogue worship) is often not achievable with such questions, which are 100% legitimate, permeating our thoughts.

There has been a significant increase in the number and impact of independent minyanim (prayer groups) that are not affiliated with synagogues. These minyanim are often led by community members (rather than professional clergy), and meet in smaller spaces. The membership feels empowered, and recognizes that one can be authentically Jewish without a large physical building. Admittedly, these minyanim have this luxury due to not needing to accommodate a much larger number of attendees on the High Holidays, as a significant percentage of their membership attends services weekly, as opposed to annually.

The ability to form and participate in community exists everywhere – from synagogues, to parks, to our homes, and everywhere in between. A small room with no decoration or niceties, filled to capacity with those who are engaged and praying intensely, will always be a more attractive venue for prayer and community building than gigantic grandiose spaces devoid of people. The nature of the structure, no matter how grand or simple, doesn’t substitute for the collection of individuals who come together to pray and learn as part of a community.

Our ancestors built the Tabernacle, the Temple, and eventually beautiful synagogue structures, sparing no expense. As a community, we simply can no longer afford to operate enormous physical buildings for the sole purpose of catering to those who choose to visit them only on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. The model simply is not sustainable.

Finding substance, meaning and spirituality through Judaism is the common thread that links us to our ancestors. While the bricks and mortar have taken on different shapes and sizes, often reflecting the societies in which Jews lived, and the freedoms (or lack thereof) they enjoyed, in the end, the portability of Judaism – the substance – will render the form – the buildings – obsolete.

This Shabbat, reflect on where you feel most comfortable gathering as part of a group and why.

What kind of physical space allows you to create the greatest spiritual connection?

What kind of community allows you to create the same?

What are the conditions that would allow you to feel you are an integral part of your Jewish community?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

"You Shall Not Permit a Sorceress to Live"

Mishpatim 25 Shevat 5772 / February 17-18, 2012
Shabbat Shekalim

In this week’s portion, Mishpatim, God instructs Moses to transmit numerous laws that the Israelites are required to follow. Having just received the 10 Commandments, the Israelites now become subject to a smorgasbord of both criminal and civil laws.

For example, we find legal statements such as:

“One who strikes his father or mother shall surely be put to death.”

“If a person digs a pit and doesn’t cover it and an ox or a donkey falls into it [and dies], the person [who dug the pit] shall pay restitution [to the animal’s owner].”

“If you encounter an ox of your enemy or his donkey wandering, you shall return it to him.”

Some of the laws contained in this portion we might conclude to be common sense, while others may seem a bit harsh (see, e.g., “You shall not permit a sorceress to live.”).

One of the most interesting laws we find deals with how we assist those in financial need.

“When you lend money to My people, to the poor person who is with you, do not act toward him as a creditor; do not lay interest upon him.”

Why the emphasis on giving loans?
While giving straight up charitable dollars is wonderful and essential, giving loans often better helps preserve the self-respect of the borrower, and often results in positive action towards achieving financial independence due to the sense of gratefulness to the lender and the accompanying desire to repay the loan. Note the incredible success of micro-loan programs around the world.

Why can’t we charge interest to poor Jews but we can charge interest to non-Jews?
Because the Torah specifically states the prohibition against charging interest to “MY people” – meaning the Israelites. The Torah’s requirement is for us to take care of our own first.

Why would Jews ever lend money to poor Jews rather than non-Jews, when it is permissible to collect interest when lending to non-Jews, allowing for a profit?
Due to the phrasing of the Biblical statement – “WHEN you lend money” – the ancient rabbis, with Rashi taking the lead (Rashi’s bio here), determined that assisting the Jewish poor with a loan is an obligation; not an option. Thus, helping the Jewish poor is not a choice, but rather, a commandment.

How does this commandment manifest itself today?

Did you know that many communities have Hebrew Free Loan funds that provide interest-free loans to Jews in need? See, for example, the organizations in Detroit ( and Los Angeles (

Take the time to learn about the institution(s) in your community focused on providing interest-free loans for those in need. Consider making a donation to your local fund, or to providing an interest-free loan to someone who has asked for your support. Recognize that we too may someday find ourselves in need of financial assistance, that having the ability to lend money is a blessing, and that to do so for Jews in need, interest-free, is a significant piece of our tradition. Finally, note that the importance of helping our own financially get on their feet does not abrogate our responsibility to care for those in need around us, regardless of their religious affiliation.

Friday, February 10, 2012

So you think you know everything?

18 Shevat 5772 / Feb. 10 – 11, 2012

In this week’s Torah portion we find Moses reunited with his father in law Yitro, after defeating the Amalekites in battle. Yitro observes that Moses is in the habit of settling any and all disputes that arise between the Israelites (there were approximately 600,000 men alone!), and recommends that Moses set up a tiered judicial system, whereby Moses is only consulted on major/difficult matters. With his burden lightened, Moses is summoned by God to prepare the Israelites to receive the 10 commandments, which after a three-day preparation, they do.

I've always found it fascinating that this portion, which is so significant to us due to its containing the Decalogue, is named for Moses's father-in-law, who happens to not be Jewish.

Jewish communities are often not welcoming to JEWS different than they are, whether in external appearance, family structure, or ritual practice! So it's no surprise that for many communities, finding ways to meaningfully respect and include those that are not Jewish does not come easily.

Moses, our ultimate prophet, modeled how to relate to non-Jewish in-laws (and family members in general) – a skill that many contemporary Jewish families require. Moses bowed to Yitro upon reuniting, felt comfortable sharing the wonders that the Israelites had seen and experienced as well as some of their travails, and took to heart the advice/counsel offered by his non-Jewish father-in-law.

Our Jewish communities increasingly include non-Jews. Let's make sure we're welcoming them in with open arms, as Yitro, a non-Jew, did for Moses our ancestor, and that like Moses, we make sure to listen to their voices and benefit from their wisdom as well.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sing, Sing a Song


11 Shevat 5772 / Feb. 3-4, 2012

In this week’s portion, Beshallach, we find the Israelites journeying out of Egypt, exploring the world around them as free people for the first time. Once he sees that the Israelites are gone, Pharaoh’s heart again hardens and the Egyptians chase after the Israelites, trapping them against the Sea of Reeds. At God’s command, Moses raises his arms, splits the sea, the Israelites cross to the other side on dry land, and the Egyptians pursuing them drown as the waters crash down on them. The Israelites rejoice with song and dance at the demise of their former tormentors, and continue on their journey into the wilderness.

The “Song of the Sea” shared in the Torah in this portion is one of the more beautiful pieces of prose we find in our Bible. How we express thanks – how we connect spiritually to the world around us – can often be accomplished through song. Whether lyrics or melody speak to you more, whether harmonizing while singing with others or slam poetry gets you going, fulfilled expression is a key part of human existence, and as our ancestors demonstrated, is inherently part of being Jewish.

In honor of those who came before us, below is my humble attempt at a little spoken word sharing the themes of this week’s Torah portion and the lesson I hope we’ll take away from it.

The plagues are over; the Egyptian firstborns are dead

The Israelites are heading out of Egypt; Pharaoh’s got no slaves to make his bed

Backed against the sea by Pharaoh’s army; Moses throws his arms up to God above

The sea splits, the Israelites cross; for Egyptian bondage they have no love

The Egyptians chased after; their futures suddenly ending

The waves crashed down upon them; leaving none but Pharaoh requiring mending

The Israelites saw Divine intervention; raucous rejoicing ensued

Praising the Lord for being on their side; expressing gratitude

So too when we have moments in life; that require us to pause

To give thanks for our many gifts; for escaping life’s often-unrelenting jaws

Let’s think back to our ancestors before; who knew just how and when

To give appropriate due and shout it out loud; with a Halleluyah and an Amen!

This Shabbat, find your own song. And shout it from the freakin’ rooftops.