Wednesday, February 24, 2010

"Biblical Fashion Statements": Reflections on Parashat Tetzaveh

Dear Friends,

Please follow this link to a personal favorite sermon that I composed in contemplation of Parashat Tetzaveh, which is read this week.

This image will prove very helpful in your visualization of the priestly garments under consideration.

Stay warm and dry, and keep studying!
Rabbi Blake

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Terumah 5770: Where Taxes and Torah Intersect

Dear Friends,

Greetings from Phoenix where I'm enjoying the escape from the elements. Well, there are still elements here, if you count sun and 75 degree weather.

I'm posting remarks on this week's Torah portion, Terumah, from an essay I prepared a couple of years ago.

Happy reflections and meaningful study.

If I did the math right, these words reach you concurrent with a flurry of tax returns. It's time to go through our receipts, meet with our accountants, put our finances in order.

Some of us anticipate a refund this year. Others must pay. Reading the fine print on the worksheets, we consider a perennial question. Where’s our money coming from, and where’s it going?

Our Israelite ancestors must have wondered the same thing when they received a windfall before leaving Egypt. The Torah reports that on their way out of town, the freed slaves “borrowed” objects of silver, gold, and clothing from the Egyptians who, probably fearing another plague, were uncharacteristically “disposed favorably” toward their former captives (Ex. 12:36). Thrusting goblets and bracelets and silk and linen at them, they must have cried, “Take the money and leave us alone already!” “So the Israelites stripped the Egyptians,” the text reports (Ibid). (“Borrowed,” indeed!)

What did the Israelites do with all that loot?

As you might imagine, public opinion among the million-fold desert throng was not unanimous, which takes us to this week’s Torah portion. In Terumah, a word that means a donation, we read that members of the community were invited to donate a portion of their precious materials toward the building of a Tabernacle, a place for God to dwell among them. “You shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart is so moved,” God tells Moses (Ex. 25:2). No one forced anyone to finance this project, but many did, contributing the rare woods, metals, and fabrics that were required for a sanctuary that would befit God’s presence.

We can infer, however, that not everyone's philanthropic budget financed the Tabernacle. Soon after, a second, different public works project is also financed with the freewill contributions of the community. Enough gold earrings and baubles are donated and melted down to fashion a golden calf, a glitzy idol acclaimed with song and dance, sacrifice and fealty. Some three thousand Israelites, the Torah reports, determined that the golden calf was a worthy investment.

We scoff at such obvious folly. But the message of these two adjacent tales applies today more than ever. Namely: the way we spend our money reflects our priorities, our values.

Consider the different ends to which contributions went. In Parashat Terumah, the people’s wealth ultimately serves to bring God into the midst of the community—to create a home that would enshrine the Jewish principles of morality, holiness, and justice, and that would bind the members of the community each to the other. In one notable example, some of the gold given by the people was used to overlay—and inlay—the Ark of God’s commandments. Why put gold on the inside, where no one would ever see it? The Talmud suggests that the gold within and without signifies that the exterior reflects the spiritual luster of its innermost contents (Yoma 72b). Similarly, the way we spend our gold out in the world should (and does) reflect our innermost values.

In the Golden Calf story that we will read two parashiot from now, the people’s gold serves an unholy purpose. Their donations alienate God. A famous midrash depicts Moses descending Sinai, tablets in hand. So powerful and uplifting were the words inscribed on them, we read, that it was not Moses who carried the tablets, but the tablets that carried Moses. But when he approached the base of Mount Sinai, he spotted the golden calf. Then God’s holy words and the unholy idol confronted each other. The sacred letters detached themselves from the stone, and floated away. Moses was left holding a blank, inert thing, too heavy for him to carry.

It is not the case, the legend continues, that Moses threw the tablets to the ground, shattering them. He had no choice. Either he had to let go or be crushed beneath their weight. Once devoid of meaning, the stones became too much to bear (Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer 45).

A line in the Talmud describes the use of wealth for such an ignoble end: “Hadein arka min hadein mashka,” literally, “Such a [shoddy] belt, and from such [fine] leather!” In other words, what a poor product, considering the precious goods invested in it. Too often our precious goods end up invested in valueless ends. No wonder the Talmud refers to a person who refuses to give charity as one who has committed idolatry (Ketubot 68a, cited in Joseph Telushkin, Jewish Wisdom, 16).

Judaism invests us with the freedom to invest our money where we see fit, but it also names the consequences. Our money can bring God into our midst, or it can finance any one of modern idolatry’s many forms. When, to the exclusion of God and Torah, our money sponsors power, materialism, or celebrity, we promote idolatry. Judaism discourages asceticism. It does not demand deprivation of our worldly goods or luxuries. But Torah urges us to choose our priorities wisely, and to allocate our currency accordingly. God’s home among humanity is built with donated resources. Could we allocate our resources to bring God into our midst? What causes might we support? Would we invest in a future free from fossil fuels? Would we give more to alleviate sickness or poverty? Would we build up our synagogues? Would we change our investments to end genocide? Right now, our investments in PetroChina (to name but one company) aid the Sudanese government, perpetuating the catastrophic situation in Darfur. If you want to know where to give and where not to give, look within and find your inlay of gold.

Do you know what the most important book in a Jewish home is? It's your checkbook! There we find the truest accounting of our values. Who benefits from our gold? Where do we spend the freewill offerings of our hearts? Take a look. It’s all there.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Mishpatim 5770 - Remarks by almost-rabbi Rachel Steiner

Dear Friends,

I am delighted to share with you the following remarks which WRT Rabbinic Intern Rachel Steiner will offer from our bimah tonight at 7:45 PM. Rachel is on track for ordination from the Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion in New York this coming May and has worked as a vital part of the WRT clergy team for the past four years. I hope that you will come this evening to support Rachel and to hear her deliver this powerful address.

Shabbat Shalom!

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Rachel Shafran Steiner

WRT Rabbinic Intern

February 12, 2010

Mishpatim 5770

“Building latrines.” This was the answer to the question, “What are you going to be doing in Senegal?” that I was asked repeatedly before my trip with the American Jewish World Service Rabbinical Student Delegation last summer. I would then emphasize that I was going to build latrines because it was hard to believe that I had chosen this activity for my summer trip. I was part of a group of 24 rabbinical students from across the denominational spectrum that was going to Senegal to learn about hunger, poverty, sanitation, and our Jewish responsibility to be engaged in social justice work. The work we did in Senegal would be similar to work that AJWS has been doing in places like Haiti for over a decade. I had no idea how one went about building latrines or how 24 rabbinical students would succeed at such a task, but I was up for the challenge and certain that the experience would broaden my worldview, push me outside of my comfort zone, and connect me with a group of colleagues who were also committed to engaging in serious social justice work. I was right.

In the days leading up to the trip I was busy with packing and blissfully unable to wrap my head around the upcoming experience. In the abstract I knew what to expect, but the lasting impact was not real yet. In a way I was ignorant, but not because of laziness or apathy. I cared deeply about this work. But I only knew about social justice and global work from my vantage point here, in the New York area, where I am clothed in privilege and security.

Looking back, I found a new appreciation for Adam and Eve when they lived in the Garden of Eden before Eve plucked that piece of the forbidden fruit that grew on the tree in the center of the garden. The serpent, we know, told Eve that eating the fruit would not kill her, as God had warned, but that it would cause her to open her eyes and share in the divine ability to distinguish between good and bad. It was then, when Eve saw that the tree was a source of wisdom, that she and Adam bit into the fruit. It was then that they felt their blissful ignorance disappear. They saw their nakedness. For me this moment began when I disembarked from the plane in Senegal and continued in full force for the days, weeks and months that followed. Our tradition and my experience then confirmed this truth: ignorance is, in fact, bliss.

This is one of our beloved and oft-used idioms. “Ignorance is bliss,” we say wistfully. This phrase comes from the last stanza of a poem by Thomas Gray written in 1742.

To each his sufferings: all are men,

Condemn'd alike to groan—

The tender for another's pain,

Th' unfeeling for his own.

Yet, ah! why should they know their fate,

Since sorrow never comes too late,

And happiness too swiftly flies?

Thought would destroy their Paradise.

No more;—where ignorance is bliss,

'Tis folly to be wise.

Like much of Gray’s poetry, this is a lyrical lament of the loss of innocence. Gray reflects on his student days and longs for that simplicity. Even more, he underscores the complexity of knowing.

Perhaps Adam and Eve were happier before they saw their nakedness, before they became self-aware and had to leave the Garden of Eden. Perhaps my life was simpler when I believed my biggest challenge would be to learn how to build a latrine. Perhaps we can look back in hindsight at certain situations and know that our ignorance offered us something that resembles shelter. But ignorance surely is not bliss. We know in our kishkes that Judaism does not support this philosophy and we know in the collection of English idioms that the opposite must be true. Ignorance is not bliss. Knowledge is power!

To be fair, the phrase “knowledge is power” is not originally English. Francis Bacon said it first in Latin in 1597 and the literal translation is, “for also knowledge itself is power.” But I believe it is fair to claim that this idiom is now beloved and frequently used in the English language. Moreover, Judaism is all about learning and using knowledge as power for improving our lives and the lives of those around us. Scholars of Bacon’s work have searched for his inspiration for this truth. One of the sources is Proverbs 24:5, “A wise person has power, and a person of knowledge increases strength.” Here again is the underlying Jewish belief that insists that knowledge is power.

While in Senegal, we spent most of our days in two rural villages. The kinds of places you see on TV, actually. Families live in huts made out of mud, wood and whatever else they can find. Nice dwellings have tin ceilings. The water is thoroughly undrinkable by our standards, the children have flies in their faces, and their clothing is worn but alive with bright colors and beautiful patterns. People die from things we treat with over-the-counter medication and proper sanitation. Also, it turns out, we rabbinical types are not trained latrine builders. Fortunately we were great at moving bricks and shoveling the sand and cement needed to mix the mortar to construct the latrines. This physical work, however, was not what kept me awake at night in my mosquito net. I was accumulating more knowledge than I imagined I would encounter but I felt totally disempowered. I could not understand how I was going to return home and do anything constructive enough to make a difference in the lives of the men, women or children I met.

On my last afternoon in the village a woman with a child on her back came over to where I was sitting. She was trying to ask me for something but we did not speak the same language. She was pointing to her baby, her forehead and also into her mouth. Finally I understood. Her daughter was sick. She had a fever. Did we have any aspirin to give her to bring down her daughter’s fever? I had nothing for her but even if I had some, it was our group’s policy not to give in that way on this trip. I had no idea if that little girl was going to survive or if that fever would kill her. But I did know that I was starting to question our idiom, knowledge is power. These were moments that I longed for the bliss of ignorance.

Perhaps, then, both idioms have truth but neither alone expresses the whole truth. It is easier to be unaffected by the world around us, blissfully ignorant. But ignorance is only bliss in hindsight. And, as Jews, we are not actually permitted to remain ignorant. We pursue knowledge. We know that knowledge is power. But we also acknowledge that knowledge can sometimes be a burden. Though it might be easier to remain inactive and unaware, that is not what it means to be a Jew. We accept the yoke that comes along with knowing when we accept the yoke of the sovereignty of Heaven, ol malchut shamayim. Accepting the burden and the power that comes with knowledge is intrinsically part of what it means to be a Jew. We are obligated to pursue knowledge so that we can use the power that accompanies it to work for justice. Francis Bacon also followed this line of reasoning when he further taught, “if we do not maintain justice, justice will not maintain us.”

Another word for justice is Mishpatim which is the name of this week’s Torah portion. Parashat Mishpatim pushes us on just this issue. We meet the Israelites right after receiving the Ten Commandments. What is one of the first things that God chooses to teach? It is not building the Tabernacle. It is not kashrut. Instead, this parasha deals with the way we treat those around us – our colleagues, our parents, our friends, and the stranger, the poor, the orphan and the widow who live in our midst. Why this first? Because human suffering must not escape our attention.

Reflecting on his experience in India, author Rodger Kamenetz writes, “If Jews are responsible for relieving the suffering of the world, knowing the size of the task is critical. I felt how much I ignore, how often I redefine the world as my world, and suffering as the suffering of the Jews.” We are taught immediately in parashat Mishpatim to care for the poor, the widow and the orphan because we might not otherwise want or feel compelled to do so. Not because we are naturally evil but because it is easier to see only what immediately surrounds us and to care for our immediate needs. But this is not what Jews do. That is why we learn about caring for others right after we meet God at Sinai. We need a push to move away from ignorance toward the power, and burden, of knowledge.

It is amazing how much power we all have to make a difference. Here are just some of the things that would make a significant difference in the lives of the Senegalese I met:

- mosquito nets to help minimize the number of people infected with malaria,

- support for organizations like Green Senegal which is using the drip irrigation system created by Israel to help turn the deserts of Senegal into fertile land [see photo],

- the introduction of a waste removal facility so that there is some place to collect the black plastic bags that cannot disintegrate and that litter the otherwise natural landscape,

- accessible trained professionals with basic medical supplies,

- access to elementary education that does not require a mile of walking back and forth on hot, parasite-filled sand,

- careful attention to the imports and exports of products in places like Senegal with attention to what might help grow their economy,

- access to cleaner water,

- more latrines,

- more food,

- and training in skills that are necessary to succeed in today’s economy.

These are just some of the ways we can make a difference. We cannot solve all of these challenges but we can use our knowledge as power – in the way we spend money, the organizations we support, and the stories we tell. I heard innumerable stories that screamed of inspiration and perseverance. I sat with women who welcomed me into their homes even though we could not communicate with any shared language. I peeled vegetables, I danced to unfamiliar music and rhythms, and I played with children whose faces I cannot seem to forget. I was inspired daily by a genuine love of life and courage to use creativity to overcome enormous obstacles.

Knowledge is power; it is a burden; and it is also a privilege. This is true for us as individuals but also for us as a community. These are our shared burdens and our shared responsibilities. Fortunately we also have each other to problem-solve creatively. Imagination and creativity inspired many of the programs that are making a difference. The Senegalese I met have an inspiring outlook – they laugh and sing and seem to enjoy what they can.

Francis Bacon explicates this aspect of human nature, too. “Imagination was given to man to compensate him for what he is not; a sense of humor to console him for what he is.” Humor is an outlet for release and imagination is a tool for making change. Albert Einstein said it differently, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” Imagination is the next step. Imagination enables us to use our knowledge, burdensome though it may be, to bring about change.

Thank goodness Eve ate that piece of forbidden fruit. Thanks to Adam and Eve we are now able acquire wisdom on our own, to emulate God each time we make the distinction between bad and good. Imagine a world that does not require the instructions in parashat Mishpatim but rather benefits from our own wise use of our power. May each of us seek and find the knowledge and imagination to take our places as God’s partners in creating a world of justice, security, and peace.

Shabbat Shalom.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Mishpatim 5770 - Update

Dear Friends:

Stay tuned on Friday for a posting of a sermon on Parashat Mishpatim to be delivered by WRT's Rabbinic Intern, Rachel Shafran Steiner. Her remarks reflect on her experience in Senegal last summer with the American Jewish World Service. Please join us for services at 7:45 PM to hear her sermon, and stay tuned to our study blog for the posting.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Yitro/Shabbat of Inclusion - by Susan Wiener

Dear friends,
I am pleased to offer this posting of remarks to be delivered at WRT this evening by our member Susan Wiener who chairs our temple's Inclusion Committee, in observance of Inclusion Shabbat tonight.

I hope you will attend if possible to celebrate the spirit of inclusion that informs not just this Shabbat but every minute of our sacred work within and without our congregation.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Shabbat of Inclusion

February 5, 2010

Yitro –Exodus 18:1-20:23

Susan Wiener

There are many times Moses struggles with the task at hand given to him by God. He feels he is not a man of words nor eloquence for the job. In Exodus we begin with the story of the burning bush. God instructs Moses that he is to lead the Israelites out of Egypt and to the land of Canaan. When Moses protests his inadequacy for the task, God gives him a sign through which he is to convince the Israelites and Pharaoh. His brother Aaron is appointed to be his spokesperson. Although I am certainly no Moses and would not even begin to compare myself to Moses I can relate to the feeling of inadequacy for the task… hand.

As you may know February has been designated Disabilities Awareness Month. The goal is to raise awareness, within the Jewish community, of people with disabilities and the issues of disabilities and inclusion in general. When talking to Rabbi Jacobs about Disabilities Awareness Month he asked me if I would give the D’var Torah tonight. I at first was not sure that was what he asked……… you want me to do that…. I of course said no, I was not up to the task. He said, “Think about it.” Several weeks went by and I figured I was safe now but then he asked again. Lucky or maybe not so, I was really cranky that day and told him it was not the time to ask me to do anything. See you can say “no” to the Rabbi when he asks….well at least for a little while. I had wondered what the portion for inclusion Shabbat was…..Yitro my son Jacob’s Torah portion for his Bar Mitzvah – one year from now….a sign….

So, time passes, and, wouldn’t you know? Here I am. It turns out that Tonight’s Torah portion, Yitro, is all about inclusion.

Jethro, priest of Midian, Moses’ father in law, heard all that God had done for Moses and Israel, God’s people, how the Eternal had brought Israel out from Egypt. So Jethro sent word to Moses, “I, your father in law Jethro, am coming to you, with your wife and her two sons. Moses went out to meet his father in law, he bowed low and kissed him: each asked after the others’ welfare, and they went into the tent.

The relationship between Jethro and Moses beautifully illustrates the way to treat people with equity and how to be open to diversity. Not only did Jethro accept Moses for who he was, he offered him his daughter. Let’s face it: Moses was often an outsider who did not always fit in. Moses had a speech impediment was often excluded; he traveled from place to place trying to fit in; and, did I mention, there were some behavioral issues. For example, Moses was about 40 years old; he saw an Egyptian beating a Hebrew slave, and he was so outraged that he struck and killed the Egyptian (Ex. 2:11-12). But when both his fellow Hebrews and the Pharaoh condemned him for this action, Moses was forced to flee from Egypt. Another time, Moses was told to speak to a rock to get water from it, but instead he struck the rock repeatedly with a rod, showing improper anger and a lack of faith (Num. 20:7-13). So Moses wasn’t perfect. Like any man, he had his flaws and his moments of weakness, and the Bible faithfully records these shortcomings.

The next day, Moses sat as magistrate among the people, while the people stood about Moses from morning to evening. But when Moses’s father in law saw how much he had to do for the people he said “what is this thing you are doing to the people? Why do you act alone, while all the people are standing about you from morning until evening. Moses replied to his father in law “it is because the people come to me, and I decide between one person and another, and I make know the laws and the teachings of God. But Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “The thing you are doing is not right; you will surely wear yourself out, and the people as well. For the task is to heavy for you; you cannot do it alone” (Ex. 18:13-18).

Moses follows Jethro’s advice, and Jethro returns to his own land in Midian.

When I read that I immediately thought about us at WRT. Our clergy and staff embody inclusion. It is the fabric of who they are, of what WRT stands for. But many with disabilities or family members of those with disabilities don’t always feel welcome even in a congregation that celebrates inclusion. For a culture change to occur, our clergy cannot do it alone. We need to empower others in this task. Jethro instructed Moses to empower those who fear God--not those who fear people.

How do we as a congregation ensure that those with disabilities are given a place in our community? It is important to recognize and accept that we all have differences and make an extra effort to include all members of our community in all facets of synagogue life, worship, community, and education.

Many of us have no prior experience with interacting with people with different kinds of disabilities. Attitudinal barriers are the hardest to change, but they can be changed. We are often uncomfortable when we see someone in a wheelchair. Some of us are uncomfortable reaching out to a fellow congregant who may feel on the outside because of his or her disability. These feelings of isolation don’t always occur because of a disability. It may be someone who may have just experienced the loss of a family member, or a new cancer diagnosis, and who doesn’t know where to turn… and who may not feel fully embraced anywhere.

Some would argue that my son Jacob’s disabilities make him less than perfect. There are times when we feel like outsiders, even I, even here at WRT. As a parent we look for that sameness, that “perfect-ness” we hope each of our kids will achieve. Was I to throw Jacob out because he was different, or did Jacob’s differences have something to teach me and those around him? I would argue that having Jacob, especially as a third child, has taught me more than I can tell you here today. It has taught me to slow down and to and appreciate him for who he is. I take notice of his achievements and I am there to help and support him with his struggles. He has taught me that it is okay to sing loud and yes, off-key, at services, as he participates with joy. Jacob has taken me on a journey where I have met people I would most likely not ever have met. He is why I am here today. But most importantly I have the opportunity to help make a difference in our community by helping to raise awareness for the next Jacob and his family. We need to raise awareness so everyone can feel included. Our rabbis and cantors cannot do the work alone.

I challenge each of us to open our eyes, open our hearts, and open our mouths. I challenge each of us to step out of our comfort zone and reach out to all the members of our community. Those in mourning, those with disabilities, those who just lost a job……those who are sitting alone at services, those who may be standing alone at the oneg, those who are afraid to come in the front door.

As Reform Jews, we affirm the importance of inclusion. Our communities are open to those who would like to join us. Our communities have extended a welcome to individuals and groups who were once permanently outside the camp: intermarried couples, gay men, lesbians, and children born to Jewish fathers but not Jewish mothers. Our efforts toward inclusion are a reflection of our ongoing commitment to tikkun olam, repairing the world.

Today’s Torah portion demonstrates that each of us should acknowledge that people have differences. It is wrong to exclude or make fun of others who are different. Rather, we should welcome and befriend those who are different.

My eldest daughter Tracey recently wrote an essay for school about her brother. In it she shared the pain she feels when others exclude and make fun of him.

“To some, siblings can be a pain or even a burden, but for me my brother was more of an inspiration and a role model. My brother and I have a relationship that not many people have with their siblings, especially with such an age difference. For me being the big sister has been hard. My brother has ADHD as well as other learning and behavioral issues that have caused him to live a life that a ‘normal’ child would not have to experience. Watching him go through what he has been going through has changed me and made me who I am today. I’ve watched him be made fun of and treated differently because of how he acts and how he behaves in certain situations. It hurts me to see how some other people react to him when he is loud or impatient. I can’t express how proud I am of my brother for how he has handled this sort of discrimination. Maybe he doesn’t know exactly what is going on but he knows that he isn’t doing the same things as other kids his age. Having the type of relationship I have with my brother is one that many don’t understand. Believe it or not, my friends, people my own age make jokes about my brother and his behavior when they see him. But what hurts most is when an adult makes unkind observations or accusations because of his or her ignorance.”

I hope Tracey’s words humanize the need for us as a community to consider how our actions toward those who are different have an enormous, far-reaching impact on everyone.

It was Chassidic master Yehudi HaKadosh who said, “Good intentions alone not accompanied by action are without value. The main thing is the action, as this is what makes the intention so profound.”

Raising understanding and awareness of issues related to disabilities, both physical and cognitive, reinforces core Jewish values- most importantly that each of us are created in the image of God, B’tzelem Elohim, and thus worthy of infinite respect.

“You shall have no other gods besides Me.” We are all created in God’s image. These values are embedded in the very first of the Ten Commandments. Which, it so happens, we also find in this week’s portion.

Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Yitro: Remarks Forthcoming

Dear Friends,
It will be a pleasure for me to share remarks about Parashat Yitro courtesy of a guest later this week -- to be posted on Friday.

Enjoy your week and your studies....