Sunday, August 28, 2011

Guest Blogging: Parashat Re'eh 5771

Dear Friends,

This week's (well, last week's, technically) D'var Torah comes from WRT "alumna" Sarah Weingarten who is a rising senior at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland! It was delivered to our congregation on Friday, August 26th, 2011.

Hope everyone is safe and warm post-Irene.

Shavua Tov,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

Shabbat Shalom.

I thought I would begin by acknowledging the 900-pound gorilla in the room by pointing out that this week’s portion, Re’eh, is filled with so many incredibly important and well-known commandments that I was, at first, slightly daunted by the spiritual and secular weight this portion carries for our lives. This Shabbat evening, I hope to share with you just a small part of what I think is beautiful about this portion, especially now, when we are in between the seasons and a new Jewish year lies just ahead.

Re’eh teaches that it is a combination of personal ritual and wider social consciousness that will lead the Israelites on a path towards holiness. God first presents the Jews with a choice, commanding them with the words: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse”. In other words, God affirms the Israelites’ freedom to choose either to obey or to disobey the laws God decrees. Re’eh, which translates as “See,” is thus, in a way, the very first commandment in the portion, and remains a constant reminder throughout that a state of holiness is not only a result of God-decreed ritual but is also a mindset – a choice from within ourselves.

That is not to say that there is any shortage of rules to which the Israelites must adhere. Later in the portion, God commands that the Israelites follow the kosher laws and grant their slaves freedom after six years of service. God also commands the Israelites to remit debts owed to them every seven years and to periodically leave a portion of their yield on their land so that the needy and the stranger in their midst can eat. Thus, in these few pages, God gives us personal rituals and a more general ethical code with the ultimate result of enabling us to instill purity on several levels – in our bodies, in our homes, and in our communities.

As I said earlier, this portion could not fall at a better time. Between end-of-summer vacations and back-to-school shopping, August is a very busy month – and a very expensive one, too. I was interested to see how often Re’eh addresses money matters with the dynamic between personal doctrine and humanitarian concerns. By the same token, I was equally surprised at the relevance of God’s financial advice to modern-day economics. God says to the Israelites, “You will extend loans to many nations, but require none yourself,” a piece of advice which certainly applies, or should apply, not only to our personal practices, but also to current events in our national and global economies. When it comes to money, however, God also advises the Israelites to “wrap up” their money before they spend it, which, according to one commentator, is meant to suggest that we must choose to rule over our money, and not have it rule over us.

It is with this in mind that I would like to explore the portion’s emphasis on charity as an individual and community-wide requirement for attaining holiness. God’s commandment in Re’eh is that we periodically leave a portion of our harvest for the needy, an act of tzedakah and organized social justice that got me wondering: How charitable are Americans? I read an article in Forbes from 2008 that claimed that Americans give more to charity than the citizens of any other nation. Most of the article sought to figure out why this was, and one line in particular caught my attention. It seems that while our wealthiest citizens give the most in dollar amounts at any given time, it is, in fact, low-income Americans who tend to give the highest portion of their income to charity. That we live in such a culture of giving, particularly among those who have the lowest income, is a testament to the choice God presents to us in Re’eh – that the act of giving is also a mindset that we, all of us, must choose in order to purify both ourselves and our communities.

As a final note, I want to mention one aspect of Re’eh that I found very unusual, but which I now understand to be an important foundation for the path to holiness prescribed in the Torah. When God commands the Israelites to give – whether it is by donating food or granting freedom to a slave – God always adds that they should “have no regrets” and “not feel aggrieved” by what they are losing. I was struck, at first, that God is here commanding not only our physical act of giving, but also our instinctive and emotional reactions to giving.

I now see, however, that it all comes back to the freedom God gave us by allowing us to choose between blessing and curse. Our responsibility is, as ever, to the purification of the community, but it is also to the purification of our minds and hearts. Between the personal ritual and the social action, in order for us to walk the path to holiness, it must be the joy we feel in performing the mitzvah that is, ultimately, the holiest gift of all.

Something, I think, that we all need to keep in mind as we approach the season of our High Holy Days and the opportunity for atonement and renewal that God offers us.

Shabbat Shalom!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Guest Blogging: Parashat Eikev 5771

Dear Friends,

This week's D'var Torah comes from the remarks presented by our congregant Fran Scheffler-Siegel. Thank you, Fran!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

D'var Torah - August 19, 2011 - Eikev

Fran Scheffler-Siegel

About six weeks ago, Rabbi Blake invited me to present this week's D'var Torah. It seemed to me that I had plenty of time to prepare, and he did say that Eikev was a particularly interesting parashah. So, off I went to prepare, and prepare, and prepare...... I have read Eikev many times, reviewed the more accessible commentaries, met with two rabbis, and thought about Eikev when I am at home and when I am away, when I lie down, and when I rise up.....

When I think about the responsibility of creating a meaningful D'var Torah, my mind goes to an meditation based on Ahavat Olam, that appears in Mishkan Tefila, our prayer book:

"As you taught Torah to those whose names I bear, teach me Torah too. Its mystery beckons, yet I struggle with its truth. You meant Torah for me: did you mean the struggle for me, too?......"

So, what follows is the results of my struggle:

Eikev is the third parashah in the book of Deuteronomy. Moses is speaking to the Israelites at the near end of their 40 year journey through the wilderness as they are soon to enter the Promised Land. Moses warns the Israelites to take note of all the evidence of God's love and to return it by keeping the covenant He made with Abraham Isaac and Jacob. After all, Moses says, God has protected you during your journey through all the hardships you have endured; God has provided manna when you were hungry; protected you from illnesses; sustained you and empowered you to fight and win many battles as you crossed through or around hostile territories. God has shown you love and has considered you above all the other people of the earth.

Moses is old, and won't be entering the Promised Land with them. Moses's speech is filled with his fears for the Israelites. He has fears about their future. Without him there to intercede with God and to teach them His laws, he fears that they will revert back to their pagan ways and become no better than the peoples they defeated. His message is a strong one filled with threats of punishments. Moses wants them to "own" his fears. He wants them to be more fearful of defying God, than of the hardships they will still endure.

Fear is a familiar experience for the Israelites. Fear of annihilation is what most likely drove them in battles; Fear for the well-being of their families is mostly likely what gave them resourcefulness during famines, or illnesses, or natural disasters. A deep and abiding feeling of fear was familiar to our ancestors in ways most of us have never experienced. Moses' message to the Israelites is, "you know what fear is - you felt fear when you battled a powerful enemy. You felt fear when you were hungry in the desert. You felt the fear of uncertainty when you were driven to construct the Golden Calf. You have been driven by fear many times in your lives. That visceral fear - fear of your powerlessness belongs only to God. God has proven many times during your 40 year journey that He can cause you to confront great and powerful enemies and then give you the tools to fight and vanquish them. He can cause the drought that starves your crops, and then produce the rains to nourish them. He can cause you tobe childless and then to produce many children. And so, you know what fear is. Fear of other people, and of the natural elements is misplaced. God is more powerful than any of those. You should fear God.

Moses tells them how to show their fear of God: That you fear God, is to go in all His ways,

And, he tells them how to show their love of God: serve God with all your heart and all your soul" (10:12).

And, so, the Israelites must fear and love God and show Him both by their deeds or be punished.

For me, fear of God is a troublesome concept. Moses suggests in Eikev that there is a direct relationship between one's actions - good and wicked - and the rewards bestowed and punishments inflicted. At first, this did not resonate with me - we all know that bad things happen to good people - there is no one to one relationship between legal, moral, and ethical behavior, and whether or not we will be healthy, or have healthy children, or achieve great wealth, or live a care-free life. I have only to remember my friend from the time I was a toddler, Gail, who died of muscular dystrophy at 32 years of age, or my college roommate, Barbara who was killed by a drunk driver at age 34, or the many children with developmental challenges I have known, or the world news that informs me about suicide bombers, or natural disasters that take the lives of innocent people - I have only to remember these tragedies to know that some things have nothing to do with living a life reflecting the covenant God made with our ancestors.

My struggle with the "fear of God" concept brought me to realize that my original interpretations of Eikev were too literal. My struggle shifted my understanding to a more spiritual level. Moses was actually telling the Israelites, "if you live by God's laws, you will acquire great strength of character. You will withstand hardships with courage, and you will flourish. You will acquire the ability to be empathetic so you can be of service to others and thereby build a strong society. And in these ways you will live with purpose. You must perform mitzvoth in every step you take and every breath you breathe."

Moses wasn't concerned with their material mundane well-being - he was concerned with their spiritual health. If they live in God's way "[they] shall be blessed above all other peoples". If they perform God's mitzvoth, God will continue to bless them - this relationship - God's blessing and their performance of mitzvoth provide them a special place in the world. If they don't follow God's teaching they will perish - essentially because they would have no place, no mission, no purpose.

So how does Eikev inform us in these modern times to elevate ourselves to become spiritual Jewish seekers of justice and truth? Mitzvoth are still the answer. Our mitzvoth may take different forms for each of us, but the message is that we must do them mindfully each day. We all do mitzvoth every day - Being here tonight is a mitzvah!

We perform Mitzvoth through acts of loving kindness toward our family, friends, and strangers. We do it by teaching our children to to respect their peers, and be gentle with animals. We do it as adults when we choose to work in the helping professions - like policeman, or teacher, or doctor, or speech-language pathologist. We do it as volunteers by donating money, or by donating time to good causes. We do it by words of thanks to those who are helpful to us.

There so many ways of performing mitzvoth that sustain us by sustaining others..... "Befriend the stranger", Moses says.

In many parts of the world, there are people who live in material fear every day. Hunger, poverty, and crime dominate them. We don't have to go far from home to see examples of abject poverty. In Mt Vernon, many people live in poverty. They live in homeless shelters, or in dilapidated buildings. They are loving parents who are unable to find work. They have children who they fear for every day as these children must walk to and from school with the fear of being accosted by other children who are worse off than they, or by adults who hang around street corners up to no good.

But there are loving parents who are members of WRT who empathize with the parents of Mt. Vernon. They take on the role of mentor, benefactor, advisor, tutor, coach. And there are high school students at Scarsdale High School, who empathize with the children of Mt Vernon, and take on the role of 'big brother" or "big sister".

In the midst of Mt Vernon, there is a school, The Edwards Williams Elementary School, where most of the children live below the poverty line. Where school is a kind of safe haven, and an after-school program is a necessity, not a luxury. There is an exemplary after school program there known as the Amazing Afternoons. This program gives 120 children in first through fifth grades a safe place to play and learn and to acquire the basics donated by others: food, clothing, household goods and appliances. There are 80 volunteers, adults and high school students, who show up Monday through Friday from October through June to help with homework, coach in basketball and chess, teach dance and music. There are parent discussion programs led by professional therapists and concerts organized by professional musicians. There have been many mitzvoth performed at Amazing Afternoons over the past 10 years.

Up until this year, the New York State Department of Education funded approximately 60% of the Amazing Afternoons. Last June, NYS defaulted. Amazing Afternoons would have to close. To many of the WRT volunteers, this was not a tolerable option.

So, they formed a SAVE AMAZING AFTERNOONS COMMITTEE and have over the past 4 months done the impossible. They raised enough funds to reopen Amazing Afternoons in the fall. They did it by requesting donations from all their friends, from many local organizations, and from foundation grants. They need to raise more money, but it doesn't seem as daunting a job now - the funds are coming in. The children will have their Amazing Afternoons. Moses would be proud!

My struggle with Moses' message elevated my understanding of a fundamental concept in Judaism ---- performing mitzvoth bring us closer to God and develop in us a sense of awe for His earth and its inhabitants. Moses tells the Israelites to remember not to forget their humility, to avoid arrogance. Stop complaining, appreciate your hardships as a test of courage, give of yourself to others: So, the choice is theirs: Follow God's laws and have a happy life; Refuse God's laws and become extinct. These are spiritual choices!

To follow God's laws does not insure material health wealth and happiness. It does something much greater! It insures us of spiritual health wealth and happiness, and a reason to live. After all, man does not live on bread alone (Deut. 8:3)! The work of living according to the laws of Torah is worth the struggle!

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, August 12, 2011

Guest Blogging: Parashat Va'etchanan 5771

Dear Friends,

I'm delighted to share with you the following remarks, to be delivered at WRT this evening at 6:15, by Melissa Fisch who recently graduated Scarsdale High School and who will enter the freshman class at Duke University in the coming days.

Melissa will be at services tonight for our annual College and College-Age Sendoff Service; please join us in the CJL!

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan Blake

"It was not with out ancestors that the Eternal made this covenant, but with us, the living, every one of us who is here today." - Deuteronomy

"This, I submit, is the freedom of a real education, of learning how to be well-adjusted. You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.

It is about the real value of a real education, which has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us...." - David Foster Wallace, "This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, About Living a Compassionate Life"

As I, and I’m sure my fellow graduates, begin to pack for college, I attempt the impossible, to try to fit my entire life into two duffel bags. Yet, as I stuff in shirts and desk fans, I feel as if something’s missing. Judaism has always been a large part of my life, from Sunday morning Hebrew school to Bat Mitzvah to Confirmation to today. As I stand on the bimah ready to be “sent off” to college, I know this is not a send off from Judaism as well. On the contrary, I think my Jewish education and upbringing will be more important than ever. There are so many online resources for Torah reading, or Jewish learning but if I were to remember only one Torah portion as I enter this new stage in my life, it would have to be today’s portion, Va’et’chanan. Va’et’chanan is in the book of Deuteronomy, a book which contains Moses’s final teachings and speeches as he readies his people to enter the Promised Land without him. Va’et’chanan has everything; it includes the 10 commandments, the Shema, and the V’ahavta. However, what I found most important and applicable for this send-off service as we soon part ways was Moses’s teachings on entering a new home. As it so appropriately is written in our portion, “See, I have imparted you laws and rulers, as the Eternal my God has commanded me, for you to abide by in th eland that you are about to enter and occupy.”

The first rule about which Moses reminds Moses the people is to make no graven images and to worship no false gods. As we enter the new environments ahead of us, we must remember this rule. What it boils down to is that God wants the people to be free of distractions so that they can focus on what is truly important.

With college comes new freedoms, more time, and unquestionably, many distractions. Sometimes distractions help further our education, whether it means joining a club, playing a sport or even just being social and hanging out with friends, but we must remember what is truly important. However, while God decreed that absolutely no graven images at all should be created, perhaps in college, a compromise would be more appropriate. The college student who never leaves the library except to attend class and uses every minute of his or her time to be studious is not really a college student at all. On the other hand, the student who skips every class and sees college as one big party is no student at all either. The most important thing is balance and could perhaps be the ultimate goal of our journey at college.

It so happens that the next law in our portion is to observe the Sabbath. I am not here to promote or demean the Sabbath, but I think the adaptation of this rule is God’s way of further endorsing balance. The Sabbath is the day where no work is done and people are not simply permitted, but commanded to relax. In the high stress environment of college, taking even a small break to relax is necessary for survival. With the pressure to do well in school, be social, and stay true to one’s identity all building up, a student could burst if he or she does not find some way to release their stress and tension. For some, it might mean getting out of the dorm and running around for an hour, for others it could be listening to music or talking to someone. In all cases, relaxation and stress relief is essential. Blowing off work for fun is not what this law teaches, but when we find ourselves inundated with our responsibilities, we can take a deep breath and remember that taking a break does not show weakness, but rather it is what God has commanded for us.

Finding a balance is never easy. Everyone in this room has and is constantly balancing and rebalancing their lives as the “new or unexpected” eventually comes along and impedes or ruins our balance. As a newly graduated senior, that “new or unexpected” is college or a gap year or another program that we will soon partake in; or, as a parent, that “new and unexpected” could be sending that child off to their new life, leaving a large void in that balance. As David Foster Wallace, an author and professor once so wisely said of the value of an education, “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn't. You get to decide what to worship.” Wherever our lives take us, through college and what comes after, we must enter (and constantly reevaluate) into our balance what we find meaningful, and worthy of our efforts.

While Moses was not interested in creating a spiritually balanced people after he was gone. He wanted assurances that their religious values, traditions, ad heritage would be preserved in their new home. After all, he had no guarantee that Judaism would survive after him. This is true in our lives as well. Our clergy hope that they have given us and taught us thoroughly enough that we will have a strong enough sense of self and self of religion that will carry us through our futures. So what will be do to ensure that our Judaism comes with us when we go to college. On many college campuses there are organizations such as Hillel that hold services and host events to bring together the Jewish students, and often curious students of other religions, on campus. It is a great way to meet Jewish people that might be just like you or could be the polar opposite. It’s also nice to have somewhere to go for services on the Jewish holidays that we can’t come home to WRT for. As it is written in today’s portion, “If you search there, you will find the Eternal you God, if only you seek with all your heart and soul.” In our new homes and new lands, it might not be as easy as it always has been to stay true to oneself, not only religiously but in general as well. As long as you can and are willing to put in the effort to search to find God or find yourself, He, and you, will always be there.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Guest Blogging: Parashat Devarim 5771

Shalom to all our readers!

This week's remarks come from Leah Citrin, "alumna" of WRT and 2nd-year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in Cincinnati. Leah delivered these remarks tonight at the temple and will explore these themes with us in greater depth at 9:00 AM at Torah study. Please join us in the Sifriyah as we enter a new book of the Torah (Devarim/Deuteronomy), share our insights, and celebrate Shabbat together.

Shabbat Shalom!
Rabbi Jonathan Blake

D’varim 5771

Leah Citrin

A year ago this past Monday, Rosh Chodesh Av, I was barely two weeks into my first year of rabbinical school in Jerusalem. Saying I was still overwhelmed would be an understatement. There were new people, a new school, a new city all waiting for me to get to know them. So many ways to spend my time! But I knew there was one experience open to me on that day that I did not want to miss out on. That is why I woke up at 5 o’clock, put on a skirt that reached below my knees along with a shirt that had sleeves, and set out on the forty minute walk from my apartment to the Old City. Why, you might ask? Nashot HaKotel, Women of the Wall.

It turned out to be a very eventful gathering on that July morning. After taking out a Torah in the Kotel plaza and beginning the hakafa to Robinson’s Arch, where it was to be read, Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center, was pushed instead into the back of a police car, Sacred Scroll still held tight in her arms. There are so many ways to describe my first experience with Nashot HaKotel last summer: confusing, unfamiliar, frustrating, surprising, exciting. But meaningful? Important? I wasn’t sure. Was it the battle that I wanted to fight? What exactly was the battle being fought?

In this week’s Torah portion, D’varim, we read again about the battles the Israelites fought as they gained possession of the Promised Land. Additionally, we are again reminded of the request by the tribes of Gad, Reuven, and half of Menasseh to settle outside of the land of Israel. Their request is granted, under the stipulation that “ חיל בני כל ישראל בני אכיכם לפני תעברו חלוצים ” (Deut. 3:18), “as shock troops, all your soldiers, you must pass over [the Jordan], before your Israelite brothers.” In other words, they are the front line into the land that they will not share a piece of; they are going to be the first to die.

I see several options for interpretation here. Maybe, being the front line is punishment for requesting to settle outside Eretz Yisrael. Or perhaps, God is looking to establish a stronger bond between these two and a half tribes and the rest of b’nei Yisrael, reinforcing the “all in this together” sentiment. Another option is to look at this logistically: if you are in the front of the pack, you cannot retreat or abandon your fellow kinsmen. Maybe this was a concern since the land for the tribes of Reuven, Gad, and Menasseh had already been conquered.

To add even more complexity, we can look back two weeks to parashat Matot in Numbers, chapter 32, verse 17, where this request initially came up. Here, these three tribes volunteered to go as shock troops. In this week’s parasha from Deuteronomy, they are commanded to go first. What a difference two weeks can make!

In the end, where does this take us? The question I find embedded in our text this week remains the same, regardless of interpretation—it is about fights and battles. What are the battles worth fighting? Beyond that, how do we know?

According to Jewish tradition, some battles are not only worth fighting, but are commanded. In his Mishne Torah, Maimonides introduces a concept of “milchemet mitzvah”, or commanded war. Specifically, Maimonides views “milchemet mitzvah” as war that is authorized by a specific obligation in the Torah. An example of this type of war is the Israelites’ annihilation of the seven Canaanite nations that we read about (again) this week. Another, perhaps more palatable example of milchemet mitzvah is the obligation to defend a fellow Jew. While typically, this refers to defending a fellow Jew against an attacking nation, perhaps we can broaden the interpretation a little as we remove it from its physical and literal context.

There are many who believe that the fight Women of the Wall is waging is a worthy battle in the best tradition of milchemet mitzvah. It is our obligation to fight for the equality of women. Many of us in this room right now—irrespective of gender—feel that at a place important to all Jews, such as the Kotel, women should be permitted to pray donning kippot or tallitot if they choose, or singing out loud in a group, or reading from Torah. Needless to say, Anat Hoffman and her followers would also agree. In some ways, I too am in line with this way of thinking.

On the other hand, our Tradition also identifies some wars that while permissible, are not required, and therefore, whether or not they are worthwhile may also be questioned. This might fall under the category identified by Maimonides as milchemet reshut. For some, the battle being waged by Nashot HaKotel would more appropriately fit into this category.

Particularly in Israel, there are many people in the progressive Jewish world who feel that while Nashot HaKotel may valiantly be fighting for the rights of women in an Orthodox setting, this battle does little in the way of advocating for religious pluralism. They feel that in a country such as Israel, where the recognition and embrace of Progressive Judaism is still a very real and daily battle, spending efforts to further women’s rights in an Orthodox setting are efforts that may be better spent elsewhere.

So, how do we know? How do we know what battle is worth fighting?

Let me be clear, I am not questioning whether or not the battle being fought by Women of the Wall is one worth fighting. My goal in using it as an example is to get us to think about the complexity of the battles we choose. For us to consider that we don’t always know which battles to choose.

What did I choose? I’m still not sure. I returned to Nashot HaKotel the following month to welcome Elul. I even participated in services by blowing the shofar. One month later, so much felt different. I was more comfortable davening—yes davening—out of a traditional prayer book. I saw my presence and participation as a Reform Jew as its own example of religious pluralism. Nonetheless I continued—and continue—to be torn.

I don’t have the answers. But I have started to think about it.

As we enter this time of reflection and introspection that leads us to Rosh Hashanah, may we have the strength and courage to search. May we consider the complexities of the struggles we choose as well as those that we don’t choose. May we constantly strive for a deeper understanding of others as well as of ourselves. Shabbat Shalom.