Thursday, May 31, 2012

Jealous much?

12 Sivan 5772 / June 1-2, 2012

In this week’s portion, Naso, there is no shortage of controversial material.

In particular, there is a section dealing with how to handle a situation in which a husband is convinced that his wife has cheated on him and gets insanely jealous, but there are no witnesses to her supposed crime.  The steps set forth for dealing with this have some Hogwarts-like elements to them, as the Torah says the husband must bring his wife to a priest, and then describes a procedure involving both spells and potions.  I encourage you to take a close look at it – it’s quite a read.

Believe it or not, in the Jewish tradition, one could argue that being jealous is expected of us, and even can be considered Godly. 

After all, God states in the Book of Exodus: “I the Lord your God am a jealous God.”

Thus, when we’re jealous, we are in some way reflecting a Divine attribute.

What is it to be jealous?

I would argue that to be jealous is to care, that the opposite of jealousy is passivity, and that it is preferable to be jealous and care than dispassionate and passive. It is those who are discontent with how things are (i.e. jealous of what could be) who work towards change, who invest their time and skills, and who have a significant impact on the world around them.

While letting jealousy consume you is clearly unhealthy, and while our tradition teaches us that it is the person who rejoices in his/her portion in life that is truly rich, having an appropriate amount of jealousy and accompanying care is absolutely a positive characteristic, and has the ability to meaningfully transform the world around us.

This week, think about what makes you jealous.  Focus on how you can translate that jealousy into care, and that care into meaningful action.

Thursday, May 24, 2012


5 Sivan 5772 / May 25-26, 2012

This week we read the portion of Bamidbar, the first portion in the Book of Numbers (book #4 of the 5 books).  The Book of Numbers chronicles the journey of the Israelites from Mt. Sinai, where they received the Torah, to the edge of the Promised Land. 

At the beginning of the portion, we immediately encounter a census.  It was understood that the journey to the Promised Land would inevitably have some battles along the way, so the Israelites took a census of fighting-aged males, and then stationed them in particular locations around the Tabernacle (and the Ark) by tribe (each tribe being the descendants of one of Jacob’s 12 sons).  Not including the Levites (who were to take care of the Israelites’ ritual needs), the Torah tells us that all together there were 603,550 males aged 20+ who were able to bear arms.  Not too shabby!

Due to the tribal divisions in this week’s portion, I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the concept of tribalism v. universalism.  I am a proud Member of the Tribe (“MOT”), while at the same time I feel a connection and appreciation for my role as a citizen of the world. 

What is it to be part of a tribe?  Or part of THE tribe?

There is no question that throughout history, the need has existed for groups to form in order to ensure self-preservation. Our history as a human species is incredibly tribal, as there is power (and thus security) in numbers.

My Jewish upbringing, values and continued learning without question impact my feeling of being an MOT, as does the realization of shared experience.  I staffed a Birthright Israel trip a couple of years ago, and in discussions with one of the Israeli soldiers randomly assigned to be on our bus, who remains a close friend, we learned that both of our grandmothers had fought in the Haganah – an instant link shared between two complete strangers living across the world from one another.  Tribal.

Even within the Jewish people, it could be argued that there are numerous tribes (just as there was a tribe formed by each of Jacob’s sons’ families).  And yet, the concept of it being a “small Jewish world” due to the ability for most Jews to be within three degrees of one another (with apologies to Kevin Bacon), and, as I like to joke, with Jewish Geography being offered as a minor at my alma mater of Brandeis University, also adds to the sense of being part of a unique subset of the global population – a distinct group.  A tribe. 

But what is it to identify as part of a tribe in a world that due to technological advances continually becomes flatter and more accessible? Is the love we have for our own truly any different than the love we have for human beings everywhere?  And in particular, those who are suffering?

I think the answer lies in the beauty and power of organizations such as the American Jewish World Service.  Informed by our tribal instincts to care for our own, we harmonize those values with our vision of a just and interlinked globe, and thus our universalistic ideals and connectedness to humankind become expressions of our tribal identities.

This week at the close of Shabbat we begin the holiday of Shavuot, where we celebrate the Israelites receiving the Torah at Mt. Sinai. The Torah, our tribe’s narrative, is what has distinguished our Tribe from others throughout history. 

I challenge you to make the time to read and study it.  To learn our tribe’s narrative.  To learn why we are the way we are, and why we value what we value.  To learn how to ensure that our tribe remains strong, and through our collective strength, to bring our universalistic ideals to life.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Get Your Learn On

27 Iyar 5772 / May 18-19, 2012

In this week’s double Torah portion, where we complete the Book of Leviticus by reading the portions of both Behar and Bechukotai, we are immediately introduced to the concept of the land resting. 

“Six years you may sow your field and six years you may prune your vineyard and gather in the yield.  But in the 7th year the land shall have a Sabbath of complete rest.”

Who knew the ground needed a break!  It’s hard to remember sometimes that most of our ancestors were farmers, and that our major holidays (of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot) have agricultural underpinnings.

After 7 sets of 7 years (49 years) there is a Jubilee year.

In the 50th year, the Jubilee year, the land rests and is returned to its original owners (with a couple of exceptions) and private debts are forgiven.  I know quite a few folks who would love for the Jubilee year to be reinstated so as to extinguish their mortgages!

We stopped celebrating the Jubilee for a number of reasons.  A couple of thoughts: (1) It was hard to keep count as a Diasporic people spread all over the place.  (2) There was a rabbinic argument about when the 50th year technically started, thus there were conflicting opinions about when to observe it.  It’s hard to have a society-wide phenomenon, where land holdings are returned to their original owners, if you don’t know when exactly that’s meant to happen.

Also – there were practical issues. 

Every 7th year, we were required to let the land lay dormant, and to only eat what it naturally produced.  We could not plant, sow, harvest, etc.  The Torah says that God promised to provide enough food in year 6 to cover years 6, 7 and 8.  If the 49th year was a 7th year, which it would be, that means that for both the 49th and 50th years, the Israelites would not have been allowed to grow food!  While the Torah says that God will provide, having that kind of faith is admittedly difficult.

During the 7th year of each 7-year cycle, as well as in the 50th year, all debts were forgiven.  If you were a lender, and you knew that all debt would be forgiven in the near future, why on earth would you lend anyone money, knowing you might not get it back?  We see in our own economy today that having the ability to borrow money is essential for meaningful economic growth. 

As you might expect, lenders were loathe to lend when close to the 7th or Jubilee years, despite God’s explicit instruction to do so in the Torah (effectively making the potential lenders sinners). In response, Rabbi Hillel created a legal fiction called “Prozbul” that allowed for lenders to lend to others, even when approaching the Jubilee year, by creating a legal document that would accompany the interest-free loans (charging interest to fellow Jews is forbidden in the Torah) that stated that the loans were to be transferred to the courts, making the debt public, and thus not required to be released during a 7th year or during the Jubilee.  Prozbul benefitted both borrowers and lenders – borrowers had access to cash, and lenders knew their money was safe.  And yet, Rabbi Hillel created a system that explicitly went against God’s specific instructions!

In doing so, Rabbi Hillel established a meaningful tradition that has guided many rabbis in terms of how they make decisions.  We look to the Torah, our texts and traditions; we look at the realities in the world around us; and we find a way to meaningfully and authentically blend the two. 

But how can we find meaningful ways to blend the two in our own lives?  Particularly if many of us don’t have a firm grasp of our texts and traditions?

We learn from Rabbi Shammai in Pirkei Avot, the section of the Mishnah that shares the “ethics of our ancestors,” that we as Jews are meant to set aside a regular time in our schedules for Torah study.  Rabbi Hillel echoes Shammai, saying: “Do not say when I have free time I will study Torah, lest you not have free time.”  Rabbi Hamnunah says in the Gemara that "[t]he first thing a person will be held accountable for on his day of Heavenly judgment is whether he fulfilled his duty of studying Torah."

While most of us aren’t really thinking about our day of Heavenly judgment, what we are thinking about is all of the work we have to get done this week, the errands we need to run, the room we’re meant to clean, the friends we want to spend time with, figuring out why the Tigers’ offense stinks, and the desire we have to read the third book of the Hunger Games and/or watch the season finale of Glee.  With all of those things, how on earth are we meant to set aside time to continue our Jewish educations?

I have a secret to share with you.  You may not believe it’s true, but I’m going to tell you anyway:

There is nothing more fun or more meaningful in the entire world than learning.  Seriously.

The desire to learn is programmed into us as human beings, both naturally, and with some societal nudging. As babies, we take in the world around us and by trial and error learn what’s dangerous.  In elementary school, we learn how to read and write.  In middle school, we learn what it is to have a crush on someone.  In high school, we start to really figure out who we are as people, and what we really believe about the world around us.  In college we lay the foundation to achieve our professional goals. The pursuit of knowledge – and on a higher level, of Truth – is our de facto motivator as humans.  And wouldn’t you know it – Truth is one of the ways we describe God.  We end the Shema with the words “Hashem Elokechem Emet” – “The Lord your God is Truth.”

In the spirit of furthering my argument that learning in general, and Jewish learning in particular, is both fun and meaningful, I have some suggestions for topics you may like to study as you continue your Jewish education:

Did you know that there were several different ancient versions of the Torah, mostly differing by spelling, and that there are words that are traditionally read differently from the way they’re written?

Go and Learn!

Did you know that in the Torah, Moses never actually says “Let my people go!” – rather, he tries to trick Pharaoh by having him let the Israelites go on a 3 day trip into the desert in order to have a festival to God, with the promise that they would then return?

Go and Learn!

Did you know that in the Mishna, our legal code published around the year 200, there is a whole section about people who are “Androgynous” and don’t fit neatly into the category of “male” or “female?”

Go and Learn!

These are just a few of innumerable interesting realities begging to be studied.

Like Rabbi Hillel and his creation of Prozbul, so too do we have the ability, and I would argue, the responsibility, to meaningfully engage with our sacred texts, to be aware of the world around us and the events taking place in it, and to devote ourselves to finding ways to enhance our own lives and the lives of all we encounter by meaningfully and authentically combining the two.  To do so, we need to commit to learning from our tradition and to learning about the world around us.

How do we know where to start when it comes to Jewish learning? In the words of our ancient sage Joshua ben Perachyah, also quoted in Pirkei Avot: Provide for yourself a teacher and get yourself a friend.  Utilize the rabbis and teachers you’ve formed relationships with.  Reach out to new rabbis and teachers.  Develop meaningful relationships with them and others.  Make our tradition truly your own.  Never stop learning.

Tzeh Ul’mad – Go and Learn.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Truth Like a Blazing Fire

20 Iyar 5772 / May 11-12, 2012

God spoke to Moses, saying:

“Command the Children of Israel that they take to you clear olive oil, pressed for lighting, to kindle a continual lamp. Outside the Curtain of the Testimony, in the Tent of Meeting, Aaron shall arrange it, from evening to morning, before God, continually; an eternal decree for your generations.”

In this week’s portion, we are commanded to kindle an eternal flame.

While the commandment was specific to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem which has since been destroyed, we find this commandment acknowledged in most synagogues, where there is an “eternal light” that hangs over the Ark.  The light has come to symbolize not only the ancient lamp in the Temple and its eternal flame, but God’s unwavering presence in the world.

Fire and its accompanying light are quite significant in our Jewish tradition.

We light candles to sanctify the Sabbath.

We light a Havdallah candle to signify the Sabbath’s end.

We light yahrtzeit candles to remember loved ones on their death anniversaries.

We celebrate the story of Hannukkah – the Festival of Lights – which the ancient rabbis teach was partially about how our ancestors were afraid that the eternal flame described in the Biblical verse above would go out, as they did not have enough pure oil on hand to keep the flame going for two days, let alone eight, once it was rekindled.

Jews are supposedly meant to be “a light unto the nations.”

There is something inherently holy about fire.

I watched a Ted Talk this week called “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do” by Gever Tulley, founder of the Tinkering School.  The #1 item on the list was to let kids play with fire, given its mystery and its power as an elemental force of nature.  We have all been mesmerized when staring into a flame, and have all been humbled knowing the power that fire can wield.

I also happened to visit a Jewish funeral home this week in Skokie in order to be trained on how to ritually prepare a deceased Jew for burial. While tradition mandates that once a body is prepared, a guardian watch over it at all times before it is buried, this is not practical for many. In lieu of having an individual watch over the body, some have the tradition of lighting a large slow-burning candle, and having the flame serve as the guardian, until the body is buried.

This concept of flame as guardian really resonated with me, and helps me understand why my Israelite ancestors were so diligent about keeping the eternal flame in the Temple lit.

On a purely elemental level, does fire move you?  Do other things in nature?

Is it fair to say that the eternal fire that once burned in the Temple now burns within us as Jews? 

Let us strive to live our lives in a way that allows us to emanate the glow of the ancient eternal flame. 

To sanctify and uplift our lives and the lives of others.

To recognize our vulnerability as humans.

To be a flame for good in the world.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Homosexuality, Judaism, and a Pastor from North Carolina

Acharei Mot - Kedoshim
13 Iyar 5772 / May 4-5, 2012

This week we have another double portion.  In addition to being introduced to the holiday of Yom Kippur and the concept of scapegoating (True story! There is a literal goat that becomes the scapegoat!), we are also provided with a significant list of sexual relationships that are considered forbidden, perverse and abominable, as part of a broader narrative dealing with holiness.

One of the most challenging verses in the Torah appears in this week’s reading:

“You shall not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; it is an abomination.”

This is the verse that has traditionally been used to condemn homosexuality, and the associated punishment in the Torah is the death penalty.

One of the most important verses in the Torah also appears in this week’s reading:

“You shall not hate your brother in your heart; you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him.  You shall not take revenge and you shall not bear a grudge against the members of your people; you shall love your fellow as yourself – I am God.”

According to Rabbi Akiva, one of our most heralded rabbis (who lived between 50 and 135 CE), “love your fellow as yourself” is the fundamental rule of the entire Torah.

Regardless of your feelings as it relates to the applicability or interpretation of the first verse, there is a significant lack of love being shown to those whom it is perceived are in violation of it.  While the Torah says that at times it is necessary to reprove others, it says that it must be done from a place of love, and cannot be from a place of hate.

This week, as a mechanism for countering homosexuality, a North Carolina pastor encouraged fathers to break the wrists of their sons, to “man up,” and “give them a good punch” if they started to act in ways perceived as effeminate. 

While he would likely argue that his intent was to reprove and to help individuals avoid sin, it would be farfetched to argue that the pastor’s suggested methods could be perceived as coming from a place of love.  Countless studies have shown that physical violence, even in the form of a simple spanking, is not the most effective or healthy way to discipline children… let alone breaking bones and throwing punches, which under any legal definition would be considered child abuse.

We are all imperfect creatures. 

We all have a Divine spark within us.

Physical violence is the opposite of love.

Love your neighbor as yourself.