Friday, March 29, 2013

Trix Are For Kids

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Pesach
19 Nissan 5773 / March 29-30, 2013

Some Passover Reflections:

Did you know that there was actually debate originally by the ancient rabbis over whether or not there should be 4 cups of wine vs. 5 cups of wine at the Seder?  Maybe with time they recognized that our standard bottle of wine possesses enough for only 4 glasses (assuming a 6oz pour)…

Have you ever introduced a new ritual at your Passover Seder or put a new object on the Seder plate?  Some are familiar with the practice of putting an orange on the Seder plate – but maybe not for the reason you think.  Check out the real story behind the Orange custom here.  Some also put olives on their Seder plate to signify their hope for peace in the Middle East.  What would you add to the Seder plate and why?

At the Seder, we traditionally talk about 4 sons (or children), and the commandment of intergenerational transmission.  What do we do if there are no children at the Seder?  How do we make sense of that portion of the Hagaddah and still find meaning in it?  Is the Seder, like Trix cereal, really just for kids?

We read in the Haggadah that we’re obligated to view ourselves as if we had been the ones to depart Egypt.  I found out from a friend that she was at a Passover Seder this past week in Cairo celebrating the liberation of the Jews from Egypt, while viewing that liberation as one she personally experienced, while sitting at a Seder table in Egypt.  Talk about confusing! 

What does it really mean to view ourselves as if we had been the ones to depart Egypt?  We’re instructed to tell our children that the whole reason we’re having the Seder “is because of what the Divine did for me when I went out of Egypt.”  What does it mean for our narrative to constantly recall our enslavement?  Does it help us empathize with those still in bondage?  Or does it make us focus on our issues and ourselves rather than on those who are far worse off than we are?  Can it be both?  Note the tension.  How do we deal with it?

Wishing you a joyous and matzah-riffic Passover!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Pants Party

12 Nissan 5773 / March 22-23, 2013

In this week’s portion, Tzav, we find the specific instructions delivered to Aaron and his sons as to how to perform the ritual sacrifices.  In particular, we learn about a few different types of offerings: burnt, meal, anointment, sin, guilt, and well-being.  We learn that priesthood would only be passed on to Aaron’s male descendants, and we learn that we’re not permitted to eat certain animal fats (who knew the Bible was so ahead of its time as it relates to eating healthily!), and that eating blood is not permitted.  And at the end of the portion, Moses anoints Aaron and his sons (and their vestments), and they begin their duties as the Israelites’ designated priests.

I can’t help but be fascinated with the concept of anointing vestments.  The notion that certain clothing can be spiritually uplifted via a ritual process is quite intriguing to me, as I sit here writing this Dvar Torah while wearing jeans and a t-shirt.  I try to think back to my lucky sports socks or the baseball hat I wore every day for almost 3 years, and I have a hard time remembering what it was that made those objects so special and out-of-the-ordinary.  I don’t recall there being any sort of formal “you are now special because I’ve sprinkled special water on you” moments…

And yet, our tradition certainly creates space for making otherwise mundane garments holy.  Think for example of the difference between a rectangular piece of fabric, and of the same piece of fabric now containing fringes on the four corners (making it a tallit). 

Even more so, think of the garments we use to clothe our Torah scrolls, such as a belt and cover.  While in and of themselves ordinary, by virtue of covering our sacred objects, these garments take on an elevated status of holiness in our minds. 

Should the clothing we wear be any different?

If we each contain a Divine spark, and given our traditional belief that to save a single human being’s life is to save the world, should we treat ourselves and our adornments any differently than we would those that cover our Torah scrolls?  In a world where many are unclothed, what would it be like to view ourselves as holy vessels, and to elevate what we consider routine and mundane, such as our clothing, to a higher status?

In the traditional morning blessings, we praise the Divine for clothing the naked (“malbish arumim”).  But the reality is there are still many who don’t have the clothes they need, and that those of us who do often are not appreciative enough of them. 

This Shabbat, take stock of your wardrobe.  Examine your relationship with clothing.  Donate some of your lightly used items to help clothe others.  Recognize that simply by virtue of you wearing them, your garments can, if you allow them to, take on an elevated, and even holy status.

Friday, March 15, 2013

Grill Masters Like Woah

5 Nissan 5773 / March 15-16, 2013

This week, we begin the Book of Leviticus, with the portion of Vayikra.  Leviticus contains what we refer to today as the Priestly Code – effectively, most of the initial rules and regulations pertaining to how our ancient priests were to conduct themselves and perform their service.  In many ways, our ancient priests were grill masters, as a big part of their job consisted of offering sacrifices up to God.  In this week’s portion, we learn about the various types offerings that were made, such as cattle offerings, flour offerings, well-being offerings, and sin offerings.  We also learn that salt was offered with each of the offerings (one of the symbolic reasons we put salt on Challah on Friday night before eating it!).

Needless to say, the notion of animal sacrifices as a mechanism for connecting with God seems a bit out of date when judged by today’s societal standards.  I can’t really think of a good public place to offer up sacrifices off the top of my head without feeling a bit self-conscious… Furthermore, the structure was obviously incredibly hierarchical -- we needed the priests to do things for us!  This hierarchical structure continued on in a new form after the ancient Temple was destroyed, with the Rabbis making legal determinations for the people, and later in synagogues, with Cantors serving as prayer conduits for a largely uneducated populace.

In many ways, times have changed (which I would argue is for the better).  The power to connect, more than ever before, rests with the people.  One can go and get a PhD in Talmud and be more textually learned than one’s rabbi.  One doesn’t need a cantor in order to connect with the Divine, as due to our shifting to a prayer-based faith, we each have the opportunity to pray whenever we want, in our own words, creating connections as often as we’d like.

The challenge, however, is that while having the power is significant and valuable, it admittedly takes more effort and willpower to exercise it than to simply allow others to serve as conduits on our behalves.  So my challenge to you this week is to take advantage of the power we’ve been granted.  Commit to learning something new, to expressing gratitude in whatever form speaks to you best, and to acknowledging that while it may have been awesome to have ancient Bar-B-Qs on a daily basis hosted by the priests, today we each have the ability to be our own grill masters, and should seize the opportunity. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

I Have A Very Particular Set Of Skills...

27 Adar 5773 / March 8-9, 2013

In this week’s double portion of Vayakhel-Pekudei, we find the Israelites finally constructing all of the various ritual objects to be housed in the Tabernacle, as well as the Tabernacle itself.  We learn that Moses asks “everyone whose spirit moves him” to contribute gold, silver, etc. to the project, and that eventually he has to tell the Israelites to stop giving because they had contributed more than enough to complete the various projects.

A couple of obvious questions.  

(1) After hundreds of years of slavery, how did the Israelites come to acquire such precious materials? 

Well if you’ll recall, right before the 10th and final plague in Egypt (which we read about a few weeks ago), we learn that the Israelites asked their Egyptian neighbors to “borrow” such valuables, and that God had a hand in turning the hearts of the Egyptians towards the Jews (as juxtaposed with hardening Pharaoh’s heart).  Upon leaving Egypt, the Israelites took these valuables, and now in the wilderness were in a position to contribute them.

(2) Who was in charge of designing these specific ritual objects and overseeing their construction? 

Betzalel ben Uri (the master designer), along with Oholiab ben Achisamach (we’re taught that they both were endowed with the skill to do any kind of work).  We learn that they did not build everything by themselves however.  While we know that an overwhelming amount of valuables were contributed by the people, we also learn that those who were skilled laborers gave of their skills to help construct everything.

Too often in today’s Jewish community we focus in on those giving dollars, and neglect the inherit (and significant) value that comes from those contributing their skills and time. 

How and when have you been asked to contribute specific skills to help your community? 

Would your feelings change about Jewish communal institutions of they asked you to contribute your skills rather than asked you to contribute dollars? 

Have you jumped at the opportunity if and when it has been presented?

At the end of this week’s portion, we learn that the Tabernacle and its accompanying sacred objects were completed, due to the generosity of the Israelites -- both of material wealth and of their time and skills.  Let this important combination serve as a model for us of what our community can be, how we can include everyone regardless of means, and how in the end, doing so brings us closer to Divine service.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Get Up, Stand Up

Ki Tissa
March 1-2, 2013

In this week’s portion, Ki Tissa, we find specific instructions on how to take a census of the nation, we learn that Aaron and his sons (the priests) are required to wash their hands and feet before making offerings on the altar, we come upon the episode of the golden calf, God wanting to destroy the Israelites as a result and Moses speaking up on their behalf, Moses smashing the first set of tablets (supposedly carved by God), 3,000 Israelites slaughtered by the Levite tribe at Moses’s instruction as punishment, Moses seeing God’s backside, and Moses going back up the mountain and returning 40 days and nights later with the second set of tablets.  Action packed!

The prevalent theme running through this portion is the need to “stand up.” 

As it relates to the census, the Israelites had to “stand up” in order to be counted as part of the nation.  Are you ready/willing to stand up and acknowledge that you ally yourself with the Jewish people?

Aaron and his sons took on leadership roles as it related to the service of the Divine without being asked if they were willing or wanting.  Are you ready to stand up when called upon to serve others in ways you may not have been planning on?

Moses stands up to God when God expresses a desire to kill all of the Israelites due to their creating and worshipping the golden calf.  Moses says to God: “If you’re going to take them all out, you need to take me out too.” Are you ready to stand up and put yourself on the line for the wellbeing of others?

With Passover only a couple weeks away, what can we do as individuals and as a community to stand up for those who are still enslaved around the world, as our ancestors were in Egypt?

There’s no room for passivity.  Stand up and make something happen.  Report back.