Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Here We Go Again...

24 Tishrei 5774 / Sept. 27-28, 2013

Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start.

At the outset.

This Shabbat, we start reading the Torah all over again, having completed the last portion as part of the Simchat Torah holiday taking place on Friday.  Around the world, Jews will roll their Torah scrolls all the way back to the other end, in order to start re-reading the Five Books of Moses.

I’ve always been intrigued by this reality… For literally thousands of years, we’ve been publicly reading the same text aloud, year after year.  While the Torah is filled with incredible narratives that certainly maintain intrigue, I can’t help but wonder why our ancestors didn’t get so sick of it that they’d opt for some newer addition to our traditional canon…  Granted, the reality that many of them (and still many folks today) believed that the Torah was God’s own words and that they were commanded to read/study them with regularity likely played a part.  And yet, I still find it shocking that this custom of publicly reading the Torah has lasted as long as it has.

When is the last time you heard someone read from the Torah (or read from the Torah yourself)?  What was that experience like?  Did it touch you in some way?  Was there meaning in it / behind it?

An interesting trend is that for many Jews (especially during their college years and young adult lives), if they attend services at all, they attend on Friday nights, when the Torah traditionally is not read.  Thus, public Torah readings are generally not a part of their (or your) lives.

If given the choice, would you continue on with the public reading of the Torah on a weekly basis (traditionally, we read it on Mondays, Thursdays, Saturdays and holidays)?  If so, why, and if not, why not?

If the Torah is read and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

As we begin this new cycle of reading a designated section of the Torah each week, consider reading along on your own, or finding a study buddy to read with, if you don’t regularly attend services.  Recognize that the Five Books of Moses is a part of our heritage, and that having at least a cursory familiarity with our traditional texts should be both an individual and communal goal.  

Some of the stories in the Torah make sense.  Some are erotic.  Some are just downright ridiculous given our contemporary views of right and wrong.  But it’s ours, and we read it from beginning to end and back to the beginning, year after year.  Make it yours.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

To Everything There Is a Season

Shabbat Chol Hamoed Sukkot
17 Tishrei 5774 / Sept. 20-21, 2013

There are moments in our lives when we have to recognize that no matter how stable we think our structures (both literal and figurative) are, inevitably, they are but dust in the wind.  Fortunately, the Jewish calendar provides us with that opportunity in the form of the holiday of Sukkot, as we commemorate the temporary dwellings of the Israelites while they wandered in the desert for 40 years by constructing our own temporary dwelling huts.  We’re told to take our meals in these huts, to spend our down time in them, and even to sleep in them, in order to commemorate, and to reconnect with the fragility of life.  We also traditionally read the Book of Ecclesiastes (Kohelet) this Shabbat, which opens with a commentary about how “all is vanity,” and where we also find the famous words of “to everything there is a season…” (eventually hijacked and made popular by The Byrds), which at first glance, has the book come across as incredibly depressing.

For many, humankind’s fragility and mortality are a source of fear.  And yet, for the Jewish people, they are meant to be a source of joy.  Sukkot is referred to traditionally as “zman simchateinu” – “the season of our joy.”

How do we reconcile our fragility and the temporary nature of our lives with joy?

One potential response might be that it helps remind us of how blessed we are to have stability the rest of the year. 

Another might be that connecting with nature and having the opportunity to look up at the stars and feel the power of the world (perhaps phrasing it as, “the simple things”), is inherently a cause for joy.

For me, Sukkot is joyous because knowing that our time is finite is inherently a source of joy, as it allows us to dedicate the limited time we have to living lives of purpose, love and meaning.

This Shabbat, reflect on those activities that bring joy into your life, and how you can make sure to partake in them during the Sukkot holiday.  Acknowledge your ability to help bring joy to others, and strive to do that as well.  Recognize that while our living days are finite, the impact we’re able to have, and the joy we can spread in the world, can transcend time.  

Friday, September 13, 2013

Yom Kippur as a Joyous Holiday?

Shabbat Yom Kippur 
10 Tishrei 5774 / September 13-14, 2013
Our tradition describes Yom Kippur as “Shabbat Shabbaton” – the “ultimate Shabbat.”
Given our usual association of Shabbat with rejoicing (whether by eating great food, relaxing with our families, being intimate in the bedroom, etc.), it seems odd that we’d compare a day like Yom Kippur, where we specifically avoid comforts, to Shabbat.
On Yom Kippur, we’re not meant to wear leather shoes or other animal products, we’re not meant to eat or drink, to have sexual relations, to bathe, or to put on deodorant, perfume or lipstick.  All in all, that makes it a bit challenging to rejoice and treat Yom Kippur like it’s the ultimate Shabbat; and this year, even more so, as Yom Kippur falls on Saturday (which is not always the case)!
In Hebrew, Yom Kippur is called “Yom HaKippurim.”  One of my rabbis once pointed out that the construct of the name is particularly interesting, as if read quickly, one might hear it as “Yom K’Purim” – which literally translates to “a day like Purim.”  We’re meant to be joyous on the holiday of Purim.  What are the implications of suggesting that Yom Kippur is meant to be joyous like Purim, despite us denying ourselves our traditional comforts? 
Can we come to view Yom Kippur as a celebration of having been fortunate enough to live / survive the past year?  As a day of joy given that our tradition makes clear that the power is in our hands to apologize for our wrongdoings and to recommit ourselves to being better people?  As an opportunity for rejoicing given that one’s shortcomings are lifted off his/her shoulders and are embodied by the community?
Yom Kippur, and everything it stands for, provides myriad opportunities for us to express our joy and gratitude - just as on Shabbat, we're meant to rejoice (oneg Shabbat).  While we may practice self-denial in some ways, the fact that we even have those things to deny ourselves is cause for great celebration, as it’s a reminder as to how blessed we are.
This Yom Kippur, find a way to appreciate and find joy in the holiday.  Make your Yom HaKippurim just a bit more like Yom K’Purim. Have the ultimate Shabbat experience. Come be part of community.  And may we all be sealed in the Book of Life.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Change Up

3 Tishrei 5774 / September 6-7, 2013

This week’s portion, Ha’azinu, takes the form of a poem, which the text tells us Moses recited in front of the entire nation.  While arguably not as talented a Jewish poet as Shel Silverstein, Moses’s poetic skills aren’t too shabby, with some pretty nice imagery shared.

For example:

May my discourse come down as the rain,
My speech distill as the dew,
Like showers on the young growth,
Like droplets on the grass.     (Deut. 32:2)

Impressive, right?  And this goes on for 43 verses!

Emma Lazarus (another famous Jewish poet) would be proud.

Why would Moses choose to deliver this final teaching to the Israelites in the form of a poem, when his previous speeches had overwhelmingly been lecture-style? 

What can we glean from this decision?

A few potential reasons I can think of:

·      Changing up the way you address people makes a huge difference.  While a traditional lecture style might work for some, more and more we’re learning about the various ways that people process information and learn.  Utilizing a different speech delivery style may have helped Moses connect with a part of the audience that was otherwise disengaged.  After a book-long speech given by Moses to the Israelites (seriously – the entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’s final speech), perhaps the poem was his summation of everything he’d already said, and he chose to deliver it in a form that would make it distinguishable from everything else he had said up to that point.

·      If the ultimate goal is for the Israelites to remember much of what he has said, putting his language into poetic form may have been a mechanism to help the nation memorize his words with comparative ease.

·      He wanted to show off what a master poet he was, and to inspire future generations of Jews to pursue poetic endeavors.

As this Shabbat falls between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, technically, it is the first Shabbat of the Jewish new year of 5774.  Make sure to set aside some time in the year to come to change things up a bit.  If you usually do something in one manner, try doing it in a different one.  Stretch yourself.  Mix it up.  Continue the lifelong process of self exploration and growth.  Report back.  L'shana tova!