What More Do You Need

Eikev is this week’s Torah portion; the word has too many meanings for me to really understand or expound on. Suffice it to say that it can mean “heed”, “hear”, “follow” and “heel”, among other things. The portion is always named for the first word so Eikev it is.

Moses, who will never enter the promised land with his people, reminds them of the covenant, the b’rit, that G-d made with them. But he also reminds them that they must be observant and follow the “rules” faithfully for G-d to maintain that covenant. He proceeds to remind them of their bad behavior, of their “trespasses against G-d”. He reminds them that although they will inherit the promised land from the idolatrous, they are far from virtuous.

This portion tells us that the promised land, Israel, will be a “land of milk and honey” if and only if the people obey the commandments and teach them to their children. What a metaphor for our time. If we were to obey the commandments, those basic social rules, we would be in a world at peace.

You have heard the idea that everything you need to know you learned in kindergarten. You didn’t learn the basics to build a rocket, or a building, splice a gene or write computer code. You did, however, learn the basic rules of how to live in the world, how to treat other people, how to share and how to care. You learned to be nice, to be polite, to stand up for those less fortunate, to tell the truth, not to take or destroy other people’s things, not to cheat, to respect differences and to respect proper authority. As an aside you also learn to “tell on” improper authority figures. All of these values, if we were to actually translate them to adult behavior would make the world a much better place.

We do teach these values to our children, or at least many of us at home, and many of our schools and houses of worship do. But somewhere along the line we seem to forget these values and instead of what we learned as children persisting, we start learning from others, adults, who have also forgotten those values. We have stopped thinking for ourselves. We have stopped standing up for the less fortunate. We have forgotten how to look past our differences. We accept cheating. We have forgotten how to share.

So you may not have learned all you need to know in kindergarten, you definitely learned what you need to know about human interaction. But you have forgotten it. According to the Torah, G-d gave Moses the basics and instructed us to… Click To Tweet

So you may not have learned all you need to know in kindergarten, but you definitely learned what you need to know about human interaction. I think in the main we have forgotten it. According to the Torah, G-d gave Moses the basics and instructed us to follow them faithfully. And the promise is that if we ever manage to do that we might globally take a turn for the better.

Shabbat Shalom

Love and Family

This week’s Torah portion is, as always, chock full of things and covers quite the span of time. Significantly, Moses is born and his life is defined early on by acts of compassion and love, first by his mother who fears for his life and next by Pharoah’s daughter in defiance of his order that all Hebrew boy children be killed. Pharoah’s distrust of the Israelites is formed essentially by the fact that they are multiplying, that their families are growing and so he attempts to limit them by killing them off.

A great deal else happens in this very first book of Exodus but I think, at this season, we should talk about compassion, love and family. I listen to the news and read a Facebook feed and I hear people talk and I see bumper stickers and I am overwhelmed by the division, contempt, ignorance, rudeness and downright hatred. This to the point that I can barely stand to be part of the world.

And then, a package from one of my brothers arrives and in it is a canvas shopping bag inscribed large and in bright red “Be Optimistic”. Now that is a reminder. So I stop and think about my aging mother who loves me. About my brothers and their children who love me. I think about my friends who love me and who show me compassion when I am unlovable. I think about my students who I love. I think about my amazing son and his equally amazing fiance who love me and who I love more than anything. I stop and think about my life and how blessed I am.

The Torah portion reminds me of the sacrifice it takes to be a true leader of integrity, intelligence and courage. It reminds me of how dear our families and friends are. It reminds me that it takes great faith to do great things and that sometimes compassion is all that is needed to send someone on their way. It also reminds me that great faith and adherence to principle sometimes also demands great sacrifice and great courage.

I think in this season of many holidays that what is needed is not an argument about how we greet one another but that we act towards one another with compassion and love. We are, in the end all the same, united in the common bond of humanity. Be gracious, be grateful, love your family and those who matter, tell them often, look up at the moon and know we are all looking at the same beautiful sky. Whatever your faith, compassion, love and courage will carry us through.

Can You Still Believe In Magic?

I wrote on Vayeira, this past week’s Torah portion last year and what struck me was that it is full of magic and miracles. Although there was much punishment and destruction, there was still magic and miracles.

It is hard to write, today, about magic and miracles. Saturday, in a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Jews were gunned down as they prayed their Sabbath prayers. They were not gunned down by Muslim extremists or other “imported” terrorists. They were gunned down by a homegrown anti-Semitic extremist who believed that Jews were somehow “alien” and a threat to his way of life. In Pittsburgh. He was known on extreme web sites as a virulent anti-Semite. He posted, essentially, what he planned to do, that he had had enough of us. And eleven innocent people are dead.

So it’s hard, today, to write about magic and miracles.  I taught religious school this morning and we talked about how you believe, how you have faith, in a world where bad things happen. We worked hard at this, at finding the path. These are 12 and 13 year olds, trying to find their path in so many ways. And then they have to think about and deal with things like this.

Why would they want to be Jews when Jews are targets? Why would they want to believe in a world where they can be shot down in school, in shul? I don’t think it is my place as a teacher to tell them what or how to believe. I can share what I believe, I can try to help them see a possible path, but everyone, teen or not, needs to find a way to faith on their own.

In the end I can’t promise them safety in their Jewish identity, we can only talk about the courage and self worth involved in being and standing up for who you are. We can only talk about living life not in fear. And that’s where faith comes in. We finally agreed that probably G-d does not create or cause bad things; life happens. Faith is what helps us through those things. The stories of the G-d of Genesis, testing and testing, are meant to instruct us but we need not take them literally. We work to find the lessons, everyone has to find their own path to belief. It would be wonderful if we could wave a magic wand and disappear the evil, the scary things, but alas we cannot. What I do know is that despite the evil in the world it is truly still full of magic and miracles – you just have to believe, and know where to look.

The Beginning of the World ~

Yes, this week we start the Torah over with the first verses of Genesis and it is one action-packed Torah portion. Never mind that G-d creates the world in six days and then, understandably, has to rest. Never mind that the first man and first woman can’t behave themselves and are cast out of the garden. Never mind that the first generation of children of Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel are born and Cain kills his brother. Never mind that ten generations are listed down to Noah.  And yes, at this point G-d is sorry about the whole mess and Noah has to save us, and everything!

Is that enough for one week of reading?  I think it is enough for a year myself.  This Torah portion talks about creation, something people still argue about but there are many scientists that have faith as well as science in their hearts and minds.  There is “sin” and sex and punishment.  And it only gets worse, there is massive familial conflict that ends in murder.

And then there is the flood.

One of the things that has stood out to me as I prepare and teach on some of these early stories in Genesis, and one of the things my class and I have discussed, is what is missing.  There is all this drama and trauma but there are huge gaps.  And the gaps are the lack of communication, the lack of dialogue.  In most of these stories the details of interactions and discussions are omitted. Of course if they weren’t the Torah would be considerably longer, but it is interesting to think about what the conversations must have been between Adam and Eve for instance. It didn’t happen in the blink of an eye, you know there was more going on.  And while we are given the smallest of details of what was ailing Cain and Abel there must have been much more discussion, conflict, insults, what have you.  Cain didn’t just see a sheep over the line and decide to kill his brother.

One of the things that make Judaism interesting for me is that anyone can write midrash. Midrash are the stories that we tell to fill the gaps.  Midrash are the ideas we have about what must have happened. Midrash is how we add in what we know, what we have experienced, to make the stories of the Torah make sense for us now, today. Because I believe the Torah lives and flexes as needed in the same I believe the Constitution does the same.  The stories of Genesis mean very different things for different people, different generations, different Rabbis and different students. We all bring our colors to the stories if we are willing to dig in to them and really try to understand what they mean for us.

And so, do I really believe there was a global flood?  Maybe, so much of the earth was covered by water at one time.  Do I really believe all the animals got to go in one great boat two by two, not really.  Do I believe that creation is angry for what we have done with our free will, I do.  But that same free will allows us the opportunities for tikkun olam, repairing the world that we are destroying. And Midrash allows us to find meaning in the ancient stories.

And so, every year, we begin the cycle of reading again and the world is born anew.  Shabbat Shalom

Really, We Are All The Same

 

Nitzavim – You stand this day, all of you, before the Eternal your G-d.  And it means everyone, from the lowliest to the highest and all those in between.  I love this, it makes everyone equal, it makes all of us the same, at least within the house of Israel.

As always, there is a two edged sword, a little threat with the promise.  Even as Moses tells the people that G-d will not forsake them, he does tell them there will be punishment if they are idolatrous.  There can never just be a promise, but that is another story.

As we are nearing the end of the story, as the generations are looking to the promised land, as the people have become a people, this leveling happens.  Community is a process, in this case forged over many trials, travels and tribulations. Today as well, community building is a process, a labor of love and work.  And in that work, we become equal. Although teams have leaders, good teams work on a level playing field no matter the assigned or adopted task of each team member.

In our current world we have forgotten what team is.  We have forgotten what community building means, from the lowliest to the highest, it takes us all.  Someone needs to adopt, or volunteer, for every task no matter what it is.  In this way society works and all the jobs are accomplished, the rewards are reaped by everyone in some proportional way.  We seek these days to eliminate those that would do the tasks we do not wish to do but have no plan as to how those tasks will be done. Nor do we wish to pay for those tasks in a way commensurate with the necessity for the work.

So to, in families. That community needs to be built as well. All the tasks need to be accomplished and some agreement needs to be reached as to who will accomplish them and how they will be accomplished.  Respect, trust, equality, fairness, love, sympathy, empathy and faith.  All are necessary to the task of building community.

So in Nitzavim we are told we are all equal, and in standing equal we will all be rewarded. The reward of course is figurative for us, we won’t all be entering the promised land. The reward is the community, the respect, trust, equality, fairness, love, sympathy, empathy and faith.  And as we approach, in mere days, these most holy of days in the Jewish calendar, we indeed stand equal before G-d and one another . There is still time to correct what needs correcting and return to those values of community building. And one more, most important of all, forgiveness.