Thursday, May 27, 2010

Beha'alotecha 5770

Dear Friends,

I am writing to you from my College Reunion where I am enjoying a quick overnight before returning to Scarsdale for Shabbat. By the time many of you read this, I'll already be back in town!

Ben Bag Bag, that improbably named Sage, was right to teach of the Torah, "Turn it, and turn it again, for everything is in it" (Pirkei Avot 5:26). Rare, even impossible, is the encounter with Torah that does not reveal some new insight, some new detail waiting to be discovered, turned over, explored, interpreted.

So it is this week in my discovery of a detail from the Torah portion called Beha'alotecha, the passage we read this week from the Book of Numbers. In Chapter 10 the Torah relates the marching order of the Israelite Tribes and their respective chieftains. With the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant traveling, piecemeal, up front, under the porterage of three Levitical clans, the The Torah depicts the tribes marching in a fixed formation and fixed order each time the Israelites would break camp, marching until they reached their next station in the wilderness, each encampment and departure prompted by God's atmospheric signals: a pillar of cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night.

Here, then, is the detail that caught my attention this week. For all of the tribes a simple formula is used to describe the marching: "Then the banner of the camp of [tribe name] set out, according to its ranks...." The formula deviates only once, when we get to the final tribe in the formation, the tribe of Dan.

"Then the banner of the camp of Dan set out, the collector for the other camps, according to its ranks..." (Num. 10:25, emphasis mine). What are we to make of the inserted phrase, "the collector for the other camps?"

RaSHI explains by way of the Talmud Yerushalmi: "The collector for all the other camps: The Jerusalem Talmud [states]: Because the tribe of Dan was numerous they traveled last, and if anyone had lost anything, they would [find it and] return it to him." (RaSHI ad loc.)

It's a touching and significant image: the Tribe of Dan, the final tribe in the Israelite formation, shouldering the responsibility to collect or gather up anything left behind by the tribes ahead of them.

It's an image, I believe, that offers wisdom to us Jews today, particularly us Reform Jews. Each of us marches behind the generations of forbears who have bequeathed to us Jewish wisdom, Jewish practices, the ethics of Jewish generations gone by. In most cases our forbears, our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents, and countless departed generations we never could meet, carried their Jewish banners with pride and commitment, leading the way from Sinai to all their lands of Promise, the Jewish tradition safe and intact under their care.

But every now and then our forbears let drop into the desert sands of time a teaching, a tradition, a custom, practice, or ritual--at times inadvertently and at times eagerly. Perhaps some of our forbears, all too eager to shed particular signifiers of Jewishness like ritual dress, restricted diet, Old World language and traditional synagogue melodies let drop their kippot and tallitot, their kosher food and their Yiddish words, their niggunim and their nusach into the sand.

And we who march last in formation, we who come of late trailing their footsteps in the sands of time, perhaps have spotted those little tribal treasures scattered here and there on our own Jewish journeys, and perhaps we have deemed them worthy enough to examine, blow off the accumulated dust of time and travel, and try them on for size again. The Tribe of Dan, collector for the all tribes who marched before them, thus played an important part in the life of the People of Israel and so do we who march only latest: gathering up the lost fragments of Jewish life, seeing how they might make sense today, and cherishing those treasures that enrich and deepen the Judaism that we shall leave for those who march after us.

As always, I encourage and welcome your comments below.

Happy Studying!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Consider the Nazirite

Shalom, Internet readers.

This week we're into Parashat Naso, the second portion in Numbers.

Among its hodge-podge of topics, Naso introduces us to the Nazirite, the man or woman who would take a self-imposed vow of a three-fold abstinence, with attendant further restrictions and conditions, and an itinerary of procedures should the vow be unwittingly compromised.

Please read Num. 6:1-21 for the details.

Specifically, the Nazirite would agree (1) to abstain from wine or any intoxicant (or any other product, for that matter) produced from grapes (including raisins); (2) to abstain from cutting his or her hair; and (3) to abstain from coming in contact with the dead.

In the Bible, our most famous Nazirite is, of course, Samson, he of the long locks and superhuman strength, whose miraculous birth narrative (more at prenatal annunciation) is offered as the Haftarah portion for Naso.

Here, then are my questions for you to consider both on this online forum and when we gather to study Torah on Shabbat morning:

1) Given the time-honored and even beloved place of wine in Jewish tradition, how do you square the Nazirite's vow to refuse this symbol of joy, the fruit of the vine?

2) What benefits come with abstinence? Have you ever imposed a vow of abstinence on yourself? From what did you refrain? To what end? Could you measure any benefits?

3) Can you offer a thoughtful critique of abstinence as a religious (or Jewish) norm?

I am eager to read and hear your thoughtful remarks.

Happy Studying!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Friday, May 14, 2010

D'var Torah by Rabbi Jan Katzew

Transitions – B’midbar

Westchester Reform Temple

May 14, 2010/2 Sivan 5770

Men’s Club Shabbat

RABBI JAN KATZEW, Union for Reform Judaism

& member, Westchester Reform Temple

I am honored to have been asked to deliver a D’var Torah on Men’s Club Shabbat. D’var Torah means “a word of Torah.” This week’s word of Torah is “B’midbar”. B’midbar means “in the wilderness”. It bears no apparent relationship to the English name of the Book we begin this Shabbat – the Book of Numbers. Appearances are often deceiving, in the Torah as in life.

B’midbar - In a wilderness, in uncharted territory, is where most of us dwell most of the time. The wilderness is not the same as the desert. The wilderness is a place of transition. Tevya almost had it right. Not “tradition” but “transition” may be the essential concept that holds the secret to Jewish life. William Bridges, whose surname is ideal for his authorial subject, composed an article entitled “Getting them through the Wilderness” in which he wrote: “Transition is very different from change. Change is situational… Transition, on the other hand is a three phase psychological reorientation process people go through when they are coming to terms with change. It begins with an ending – with people letting go of their old reality and their old identity. Unless people can make a real ending, they will be unable to make a successful beginning.”

In the words of Torah, unless we can learn to live b’midbar, in the wilderness, we will not be able to live in the b’eretz ha-muvtachat, in the Land of Promise. In the life of the Reform Movement, we are still in transition. The generation of our people that left Egypt spent forty years of meandering in the wilderness before they were ready to experience the responsibility that comes with freedom. It has not yet been forty years since the first woman rabbi was ordained or the first woman cantor was invested, and we are appropriately in the wilderness, still in transition, still holding on to old paradigms and prejudices, still trying to figure out the roles of men and woman in the evolving Jewish community.

B’midbar reminds us to be patient, not to expect that we will be able to take shortcuts, to walk directly from an anthrocentric Jewish culture to a dynamic equilibrium of gender and age balance. Transitions take time and it is as natural for us to have separation anxiety from our prior realities as adults as it is for a child to experience separation anxiety in her first day in school. As Reform Jews we are experiencing multiple transitions. It is now the statistical norm that a student in a congregational school in the Reform Movement is the progeny of at least one parent that was not born as a Jew. As far as I know, this is an unprecedented scenario in Jewish memory. The Reform cantorate has become predominantly female in a single generation. We are a people in transition, bamidbar, and we will do our share of misdirected wandering, just like our forebears. But, with God’s providence and our perseverance, we will learn what it takes not only to survive, but to thrive in our evolving, at times frustrating and almost always fascinating reality.

In the wilderness of Sinai, the Israelites took a census; hence the Book of Numbers is an alternative, appropriate name. Timing is everything, and in 2010, we have, I assume, all participated in the United States census. There were several substantive differences between Sinai and American censuses. Sinai counted only the men 20 years old and older, presumably because they could be counted upon to fight in order to defend the fledgling children of Israel against any enemy forces that would set out to destroy them. The American census seeks to count every person of every age that lives here, as a model of democratic principle. However, there is another distinction that is emblematic of a constructive tension between American and Jewish values. According to the US Census Bureau, “When you fill out the census form, you’re making a statement about what resources your community needs going forward.” According to Sefer B’midbar, the Book of Numbers, “Take a census of the whole Israelite company [of fighters] by the clans of its ancestral houses, listing the names of every male, head by head.” We count Americans in order to allocate resources. We count the descendants of the Israelites, ourselves, in order to defend the values of a minority, a people that is both ger v’toshav, a stranger and a resident, perpetually in transition, in a wilderness, B’midbar.

Shabbat Shalom!

D'var Torah by Susan Wiener



by SUSAN WIENER, recipient, The WRT Brotherhood Award 2010

I can still remember the day……it was Friday 11:45 pick up at from the 3’s program at the ECC. We gathered in the hallway, waiting for the door to open. Nervous moms, we all waited…..all of us still new to the ECC. Out comes my oldest, Tracey, hand-in-hand with her new friend. This new friend turns to her mom and then to Tracey and asks, “Are you coming tonight?”

I had no clue and I am thinking, “Coming to what?”

Tracey asks, “Are we?”

The new friend turns out to be Rena Singer and her mom turns out to be Rabbi Beth Singer, who explains that tonight is family Shabbat services….. at 7:30…….and we all know you don’t say no to the Rabbi.

That was my beginning at WRT……As soon as I walked into the sanctuary that night, I felt that sense of community, the sense of belonging…that my family counted.

Tonight’s Torah portion is Bamidbar. In the desert of Sinai, on the first of the month of Iyar, one year and two weeks after the Exodus from Egypt, G-d speaks to Moses. The leader of Israel is instructed to conduct a census of his people. Indeed this Book of the Torah is called “Numbers” in English because of its preoccupation with censuses and counting in general.

According to the Chassidic Masters, a census expresses two paradoxical truths. On the one hand, it implies that each individual is significant. On the other hand, a head-count is the ultimate equalizer: each member of the community, from the greatest to the lowliest, counts for no less and no more than "one." G-d repeatedly commands Moses to count the Jewish people to emphasize both their individual worth--the fact that no single person's contribution is dispensable--as well as their inherent equality.

Over the years, I have had the opportunity and privilege to participate in many activities and to be a member of, and chair of, various committees at WRT. It is here that I have learned what the words “process” and “patience” really mean…. and more specifically, what it means to be a part of a “thoughtful process.” Participating in these thoughtful processes came to mean that, in this congregation, everyone counts; everyone has an opportunity to have a voice.

But still I worry about how we reach out to the members of our community who may not feel “counted”--who many not feel they can participate--because of some disability.

This past March, I had the opportunity to attend the first Westchester Interfaith Network on Developmental Disabilities. The keynote speaker was William Gaventa, Director of Community and Congregational Support at the Elizabeth Boggs Center. Bill reminded us that by removing disabled people from the mainstream, we disempower the mainstream community and its leaders by robbing them of the opportunity for meaningful interaction with the disabled, who by definition as human beings have something to offer.

Here at WRT, our clergy make sure that each of one of us counts. They model inclusion. It is the fabric of who they are, of what WRT stands for. But still, many with disabilities, or family members of those with disabilities, don’t always feel like they can participate--even in a congregation that celebrates inclusion. For a culture change to occur, our clergy can not do it alone. It needs to be a partnership.

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 excluded because of his or her disability.

And these feelings of isolation don’t always occur because of a disability at all. It may be someone who may have just experienced the loss of a family member or a new cancer diagnosis….someone who doesn’t know where to turn… and who may not feel fully embraced anywhere.

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

Just a few weeks ago, I had the privilege of ushering at the Bat Mitzvah Rebecca Siegel. It was probably one of the most meaningful B’nei Mitzvah services I have ever attended. Rebecca struggles with epilepsy. Rebecca’s uncontrollable seizures have caused lifelong learning deficits and developmental delays. But this did not deter her parents from wanting a Bat Mitzvah for Becca. Randy and Lisa partnered with the clergy and educational team at WRT. Together they crafted a plan. Becca began her Bat Mitzvah lesson with one of our tutors, Nancy Abraham. On Saturdays she attended the Sharing Shabbat Service. Becca loved the music and prayers in song. When Becca came to this February’s Inclusion Shabbat, I saw firsthand her love of music reflected in her eyes. I know it brought a smile to those sitting around her. A service was crafted with an emphasis on music. The day of the service the room was filled. As the music began Becca’s face beamed. The joy she felt was contagious. Each time the music stopped, she responded with, “More, please!”

When I spoke with Lisa after the Bat Mitzvah she confessed to not having felt sure about this Bat Mitzvah in the beginning of their journey. But Lisa’s and Randy’s willingness and openness to partner with the clergy allowed the amazing day to happen. Lisa recently spoke with another parent of a special needs child who was contemplating having a Bat Mitzvah…. Would her child know the difference? Lisa’s response was, “How many of us give our ‘typical’ children an option?”

Each child at WRT is treated as an individual. Each child counts. Rabbi Jacobs uses the example of the "bullseye." The child is the bullseye and we, the clergy and educational team, paint the circles around them. All children can have a Bar or Bat Mitzvah.

This is just one example of how our doors at WRT are wide open. We need to raise awareness so that everyone can feel included…so that everyone feels they can be counted the way the Torah this week demands that each one must be counted.

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 zones 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. Those who want to be—and who should be—counted.

Speaking of counting: we are in the last days of counting the Omer. The Book of Leviticus describes this ritual, instructing us to count every day for the full seven-week period between Pesach and Shavuot. Long ago, when our ancestors were farmers in the land of Israel, they counted the days from the first planting of the growing season until the first harvest, the springtime harvest. Each night we count the day out loud. This period of counting helps to make us aware of each day.

We can also use the Omer period as a time to reflect on the “seeds we are sowing” in our own lives. May we reflect on our lives each day and remember that seeds planted today become tomorrow’s harvest. We may not even see the changes right away, but like seeds planted in the earth, each act of making another person feel counted, feel deeply valued, will surely yield a harvest of goodwill, a harvest of a fruitful community, blessed by God for its inclusiveness. Simply saying “Shabbat Shalom” to someone you don’t know may, in fact, allow you to answer a person’s unspoken prayer, an innermost wish to feel acknowledged, to know that “I am not alone.” To know that none of us is alone, and that each of us counts. Shabbat Shalom!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Bemidbar 5770 Announcement

Dear Friends,

In lieu of a video message this week, I will be pleased to share with our readers the remarks to be offered from our bimah this week. I hope to have printed copies of remarks by Rabbi Jan Katzew and our member Susan Wiener, the latter of whom is being honored with our temple's Brotherhood Award, and the former of whom is the Director of Lifelong Learning for the URJ and a member of WRT.

In the meantime, make time for a week filled with learning and moments of spiritual connection.

Yours warmly,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Behar-Bechukotai 5770: Dream Big or Keep it Real?

Please see and share the video reflection below on this week's double parasha, Behar-Bechukotai, and comment below!

Happy Studying,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake