Thursday, May 30, 2013

Scouting the Land

Shlach Lecha
23 Sivan 5773 / May 31 – June 1, 2013

In this week’s portion, we learn about the scouts that Moses sends ahead to scope out the Promised Land.  Needless to say, they have some awesome Jewish names – if you’re looking for creative options, this is the portion to turn to!  Of the 12 spies sent, all but Caleb and Joshua return with negative reports, frightening the nation, and highlighting their continued lack of faith (despite having experienced the various miracles that accompanied the Exodus).

As I prepare to head to Israel this week myself, I can’t help but wonder what kind of scout I would have been then, and what kind of scout I am today. 


Would I have looked past the giants that were described as inhabiting the land and seen its beauty? 

Could I have brought myself to give a positive report despite the obvious obstacles?

Would I have been able to quell my fears and have unbreakable faith?


Can I look past the complicated political situation and competing values to still see the land as beautiful and desirable?

Can I find and report back on moments of joy, and remain ever optimistic, despite the challenges Israel faces?

Can I put my fear for the country’s future (and personal safety) aside and trust?  Is doing so too passive on my part?

Our ancestors were scared – and I too am scared.  In the portion, God offers Moses the chance to lead a different nation.  Moses refuses and sticks up for his people.  I don’t need or want to be part of any other nation.  But Lord do I wish there were some things I could change…

This Shabbat, reflect on how you talk about Israel.  What informs your language choice / feelings?  If you were a scout today, how would you report on the situation in the land?

Report back.

Wishing you a Shabbat shalom from the Holy Land.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Humble Pie

16 Sivan 5773 / May 24-25, 2013

This week’s portion, Beha’alotcha, shares a verse that I would argue is more powerful that just about any in the entire Torah:

“Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.”  [Numbers 12:3]

Moses, the man who our tradition describes as the ultimate prophet (and thus arguably wielding more power than any other human being alive), is also described as the most humble man on earth in his generation.

What is the association between humility and leadership?

One of my favorite personal rabbis is someone who is incredibly unassuming and humble, despite his stature as a giant in the rabbinic world.  His humility is part of what makes him approachable and accessible, and as a result, his wisdom and guidance are overwhelmingly received with an open heart and mind.

But is humility all it’s cracked up to be?  In today’s hypercompetitive job market, it seems near impossible to land a position without at least a little bit of self-promotion and strong sense of self-worth.  One of the most revered personalities of our generation is Steve Jobs, and he certainly was not humble.  Can we be humble while selling ourselves? 

What are we doing as a community to help inspire and show that we value humility (do we value humility still)?  Many of us tell our children that they’re special.  What we often fail to do is remind them that they’re special… just like everyone else.

We learn in Pirkei Avot, the Ethics of our Ancestors, that it is a virtue to be humble in spirit (Avot 4:12 and 5:22).  Maybe there’s a compromise position here, where we strive to be humble in spirit, and being such doesn’t diminish our ability to advocate for ourselves when need be.

This Shabbat, reflect on what it might mean to be more humble in spirit.  See what it's like to put those ideas into practice.  Report back.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Let’s Bless Them All And Get Vashnigyered!

9 Sivan 5773 / May 17-18, 2013

In this week’s portion, Naso, we find the language Aaron was instructed to use when blessing the Israelite nation:

  יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה וְיִשְׁמְרֶךָ          
May God bless you and guard you;

 יָאֵר יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וִיחֻנֶּךָּ
May God make God’s face shine upon you and be gracious unto you;

 יִשָּׂא יְהוָה פָּנָיו אֵלֶיךָ וְיָשֵׂם לְךָ שָׁלוֹם   
May God lift up God’s face unto you, and give you peace.

[Numbers 6:24–26]

We find this blessing still being used regularly today.  For example, this is the blessing traditionally offered by parents to their children at the Shabbat dinner table on Friday nights.  It is often recited for a bride right before her wedding, and sometimes under the chupah as well for both bride and groom.  It is part of the standard repetition to the Amidah, and thus for many years has been recited (or at least heard) by observant Jews on a daily basis.

Is the blessing one that is familiar to you?

If not, what are your initial reactions to it?

If so, does it hold any meaning or power?

Perhaps the power of the blessing comes less from the words themselves, and more from the fact that we know Jews have been offering this blessing to one another for over 2,500 years?  For me, knowing that the words being offered are the same as those my ancient ancestors used and received is quite moving, even if theologically I’m not quite sure that those are the words I’d come up with if tasked with crafting a blessing to offer to my children in the future.

What is the value of offering a blessing today?  Do we believe that blessings really contain any sort of power?

On a metaphysical level, many would argue that a blessing is a form of putting positive energy out into the universe.

On a more practical level, I know that before I proposed to my fiancée, I made sure to ask her parents for their blessing…

If asked to compose the words that you would use to bless your children, what would they be and why?

How do they compare to the blessing we’ve inherited from our ancestors?

This Shabbat, reflect on the power of blessings – both in form and function.  Be in awe of just how far back in history some of our blessings go.  Resolve to explore meaningful ways to incorporate and when necessary, to create, blessings that speak to you today.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

As We Go On, We Remember…

2 Sivan 5773 / May 10-11, 2013
A Dvar Torah for Recent College Graduates

In this week’s portion, literally translated as “in the desert,” we find the Israelites conducting a census of all the men who are over the age of 20 and capable of bearing arms (not counting the Levites, who deal with the Tabernacle, the reported total was 603,550).

Once counted, each Tribe was designated a specific geographic area in which to camp, so that the Tabernacle would be surrounded on all sides and remain in the middle of the nation.  Needless to say, it’s amazing to try and picture what it actually would look like to have over 2 million people camped out around the Tabernacle.

Later in the portion, we learn about the various Levite clans and the specific Tabernacle responsibilities each was assigned.  We also learn that the priests were responsible for covering the various ritual objects with skins and cloths before a specific Levite clan was charged with physically moving them (don’t forget – the Tabernacle was portable, and was used while the Israelites were wandering in the desert for 40 years).

Covering objects -- and portability in particular -- have been on my mind quite a bit lately.  My guess is that for those of you who graduated last week, packing and moving is on your minds as well.  While hopefully you’re not bound to wander for 40 years the way our ancestors did, it’s likely that your next life stage will comprise a number of adventures that inevitably will involve moving (possibly multiple times if the New York Times is right). 

What do you take with you?  What do you leave behind?

Furniture?  Clothing?  Memories?  Legacy?

What does it mean to establish a home (apartments count!) somewhere new?  What are the steps that go into making a space your own, and having it be a place guests feel comfortable and welcome in? 

How do you go about consciously building community in a new city?

The answers are different for each of us.  But asking the questions is essential.

Despite wandering in the desert for 40 years and the inevitable frustrations that must have arisen due to such transience, our ancestors were ultimately able to remain a community and stay grounded.  They figuratively and literally had something at their core that bound them together.  Community is valuable.  Community is grounding.  And community is worth building and investing in.

Wherever your journey takes you, whether it’s one that involves some wandering or is relatively fixed in terms of its location, join and build the Jewish community of your dreams.

What Does It All Mean?

24 Iyar 5773 / April 3-4, 2013

In this week’s double portion, we find some of the most theologically challenging verses in our Bible.  In particular, we find a number of verses that say that if we follow the commandments, things for us will be great; but if we don’t, we’re told that God will wreak misery upon us, and discipline us seven-fold for our sins.  Woah.

This doesn’t seem to suggest a real choice as it relates to accepting the commandments – we’re threatened with severe punishment if we don’t follow them!  Given that we so recently left slavery in Egypt in our narrative, it’s hard to understand how exactly being coerced to perform a significant number of new commandments is necessarily all that much better.  Rather, it appears like we went from one form of bondage into another, as God brings the Israelites out of Egypt so that they can serve God rather than their Egyptian masters.  How do we make sense of this?

Some say that true freedom is the ability to willingly put restrictions on oneself (as opposed to having them put on you by another).  In terms of how we stomach what at an initial glance appear to be God-imposed requirements, we can look to Exodus 24:7, which states: And he [Moses] took the book of the covenant, and read in the hearing of the people; and they said: 'All that the LORD hath spoken Na’ahseh V’nishma - we will do, and will we hear.'”  This passage from the Torah shares that the Israelites knew what they were getting into when accepting the Torah, as it was read for them, and after having heard it, they assented to being bound by it.  Thus, the commandments were expected and accepted, so any accompanying consequences wouldn’t have been a surprise.  The line “we will do and will we hear” has also been pointed to by traditional commentators as demonstrating the faith that the Israelites had in God, saying that they would do as instructed before understanding what they were doing fully.  Some argue that our entire lives as Jews are based on this model of doing first, and then later on with time coming to understand and appreciate.

The reality is that for many of us today, we’re looking for underlying meaning and value in the actions we take – and specifically in our Jewish actions, as without meaning, and outside a framework of commandedness, there’s no real rationale for doing them.  While Na’aseh v’Nishma may have worked for our ancestors, it is not as convincing (or workable) a model for many of us today.  Doing without meaning leads to disconnect and distaste.  Infusing meaning with doing is the secret to success.

This Shabbat, examine the Jewish activities you do on a regular basis.  Why do you do them?  What are the common denominators that have those activities add meaning to your life?  Do you find that you simply do things without really understanding them?  If so, what keeps you from dedicating yourself to doing the requisite learning?