Thursday, July 26, 2012

Where Didja Come From, Where Didja Go?

9 Av 5772 / July 27-28, 2012

This Shabbat, we begin reading the Book of Deuteronomy – Book #5 of the 5 Books of Moses.  The entire book is largely a speech given by Moses to the Israelites on the eastern bank of the Jordan River before they enter the Promised Land.  In this speech, Moses recaps just about everything that happened between the Exodus from Egypt and that moment, over 40 years later. 

The Israelites who were there to hear his speech were the children of those who had left Egypt.  It had been 40 years of wandering in the desert, and the Exodus generation had all passed away.

Of those who left Egypt, only 2 would be permitted to enter the Promised Land:  Joshua and Caleb (the two spies who had brought back favorable reports).  Everyone else, including Moses, will have died before entering.

But here we find Moses addressing the nation – knowing that he does not get to go with them.  He begins to recap their battles and adventures in this week’s portion; many of which the current Israelites are not old enough to remember and are too young to have participated in.  In a sense he is serving as a historian, and in another, he is providing the context and framing for the battles the nation will face when entering the Promised Land.

Knowing where we’ve come from is an essential piece of knowing where we’re going.

I was fortunate enough to visit my grandparents in California this past weekend and was able to learn quite a bit about my grandmother’s past.  My grandmother was part of the Kindertransport out of Germany in 1939 (  She was separated from her family at age 10 and sent to England to be housed with a family there.  She never saw her parents (her father was a kosher butcher) or a number of her siblings (she was one of seven) again.  She spent the next few years in Liverpool and did not attend high school – her schooling ceased at age 14 when she went to work.  She moved to London for a couple of years and eventually made her way to Israel when she was 20 years old in order to join the fledgling Israeli army.  In my conversation with her, I learned that her parents had actually originally been from Poland, and that one of her siblings had been on the Kindertransport with her, but had been housed with a different family in Liverpool.

Needless to say, there is a quite a bit to unpack in the above paragraph, and through further conversations with my grandmother, I intend to dive even deeper into her experiences.  I cannot help but reflect on my own life when learning about hers, and without question, as a result, my lens narrows and my personal goals come into sharper focus.

This week, make it a point to look into your own family history.  Like the Israelites, who were provided with historical context before their venture into the Promised Land, make the time learn about where you come from, as inevitably, doing so will help you focus on where it is you’re trying to go. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Vow – starring Channing Tatum and... Moses?

2 Av 5772 / June 20-21, 2012

This week, we read the last two portions of the Book of Numbers – Matot and Masei.

We learn immediately how serious it is to make a vow.  In our tradition, vows are significant and carry great weight, as a vow is made between a person (or people) and God.  If you do not fulfill the terms of your vow, you have effectively broken a promise to God, which has significant consequences.  Once a vow is extended, it becomes binding, and to not go through with it is cause for punishment.  From the tradition’s perspective, it would be much better to not make such vows, and then simply to do the actions or to make the lifestyle changes contemplated.  We find this guidance in the Book of Deuteronomy, in the portion of Ki Tetzeh, which we’ll read a few weeks from now:

"If you make a vow to God, do not be slow to fulfill it, for God will certainly demand it of you and you will be guilty of sin. But if you refrain from making a vow, you will not be guilty. Whatever your lips utter you must be sure to do, because you made your vow freely to God with your own mouth." (Deuteronomy 23:21-23)

To give you a sense of what might constitute a vow in the Biblical sense, here are a couple of examples:

Example 1: When the Israelites fought a battle in the portion of Chukat a few weeks ago, they vowed ahead of time to completely destroy the enemy’s cities if God granted them victory.  They were indeed victorious, and the enemy’s cities were completely destroyed as promised.

Example 2: In Samuel I (part of the Prophets section of the Hebrew Bible), Hannah, a woman who had been unable to bear a child, vowed that if God gave her a son she would consecrate him to the service of God.  Thereafter, she birthed Samuel, who was indeed consecrated to service.

While promises we make to one another on a regular basis are not treated by tradition as being the same as a vow, given that we each contain a Divine spark, are we conscious enough about keeping our promises / doing what we say we’ll do?

A buddy of mine recently told me that a friend of his invited him out to the bar, and when he arrived, his friend was nowhere to be found having bailed in favor of attending a house party without letting him know.

On the flip side, most of us have responded “yes” to an invitation and then failed to show up, whether the invitation and response were extended in person, via a phone call, an email, or on Facebook. 

While we often chide others for being noncommittal, there is certainly a strong argument to be made that not giving an answer is better than giving a “yes” and then failing to show up.  

When we break promises we’ve made, we break the trust that exists between us, and we damage our relationships – often irreparably.  

This Shabbat (and going forward), reflect on where and when you make promises that you cannot or do not keep.  Make a conscious effort to only promise to others what you can actually deliver.  Recognize the inherent Divinity in others, and treat your commitments to them the way our ancestors treated their commitments to God.  Your relationships will be strengthened, your reputation secured, and your word binding.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

All the Single Ladies

24 Tammuz 5772 / July 13-14, 2012

In this week’s portion, Pinchas, we find a unique stand taken for women’s rights.  The five daughters of a man named Zelophechad (try learning to spell that as a child!) approached the Israelite leadership and shared that their father had passed away without leaving any sons.  They hoped that despite being women, they would be able to inherit their father’s holdings, which at the time was not the norm.  Moses brings the question to God, who states that the daughters are just in their request, and that if a man dies without leaving a son, his daughters shall inherit.

While today this may not seem like such a big deal, to suggest a few thousand years ago that women were able to inherit property was quite significant.  And while the decree may not have been perfect according to contemporary egalitarian standards (as after all, sons would still inherit before daughters), in the time period, it was assumed that the daughters would marry men who had their own holdings, and thus there was arguably less of a need for them to inherit than there was for sons.

There are still a number of places around the world where women aren’t treated with such respect.  Frankly, while not as bad as in some other countries, there are myriad arguments to be made that women in the United States have yet to truly achieve equality with their male counterparts, be it by the failure to pass the Equal Rights Amendment or the reality that women are often paid less than men to do the same job.  Only 17 of 100 U.S. Senators are women (17%), and only 73 of 435 U.S. Congresspersons are women (16.8%), despite women being almost 51% of the U.S. population.  While the glass ceiling may now have a few holes poked in it, it is far from shattered.

While one might assume a lack of what we might contemporarily term “equality” in the Orthodox world today, at least from an egalitarianism point of view, even within the liberal Jewish community women often are not given the same respect and/or opportunities as men.  For example, female rabbis often have a much harder time securing pulpit jobs than their male counterparts; and when they do secure such jobs, they are often paid less, because the assumption is that they have a male significant other who is bringing home the primary paycheck.

This Shabbat, in honor of the daughters of Zelophechad who asserted their rights, reflect on the women in your life.  Find ways to show your appreciation and gratitude to them, and resolve to make our Jewish community and the world around us one in which women are full, equal partners, who are given the respect and honor they deserve.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

To Bless or Not to Bless?

17 Tammuz 5772 / July 6-7, 2012

In this week’s portion, we find a sorcerer named Bilaam approached by agents of the Moabite king named Balak.  Balak is concerned about the Israelites, and wants Bilaam to come and curse them before battle (back then, curses were a pretty big deal and were believed to carry significant power).  Instead of cursing the Israelites upon seeing them per Balak’s wishes, Bilaam instead blesses them – three times!

One of Bilaam’s blessings contains a verse now used in our daily liturgy -- the Ma Tovu“How goodly are your tents oh Jacob, your dwelling places oh Israel?”
Traditionally, we say this blessing as we enter into a synagogue’s sanctuary in the morning, expressing appreciation for having Jewish gathering places.

Many of us do not attend synagogue daily, let alone weekly.  As a result, we miss out on an organized chance to offer up blessings on a regular basis.  But the ability exists to extend and express such blessings on our own, out in the world.

Words have profound power.  On the one hand, they have the power to express love, to pay someone a compliment, and to wish someone well.  On the other hand, they have the power to hurt, denigrate, and bring down.  Every day, we encounter situations such as Bilaam’s, where we have to decide how to use our words: do we bless, or do we curse?

This Shabbat, make a conscious effort to seek out ways to bless others.  Whether it’s blessing your children before Shabbat dinner on Friday night, blessing those you know are traveling a great distance to have safe journeys, blessing the food you’re about to eat, or striving to be a blessing yourself to others in every way possible, find ways to infuse the world around you with your love, with your praise, and with your blessings.