Secrets & Courage

I had the great privilege of leading my Congregation’s Shabbat service tonight, what follows is the d’var from that service.

This week’s Torah portion is vayeishev, essentially the story of Joseph.  Often we who are not great Torah scholars think of Joseph as the story of the multicolored dreamcoat – perhaps you are old enough to remember that.  In my case it puts me in mind of a beautiful song written by the great song writer Dolly Parton called the Coat of Many Colors.  Both of these cultural references to the story of Joseph’s coat present a fairly sweet or optimistic picture.  Unfortunately, the story of Joseph is not, overall, a happy one.

My wonderful seventh level religious school class has been working through the early portions in the book of Genesis and each and every one is about family relationships; parents and children, brother and brother, husband and wife.  And most of these stories are full of conflict, violence or at the least deception.  And Joseph’s story is much the same, his brothers hate  him and he is exiled, going from place to place, away from his family.  Oddly he is generally oblivious to their hatred, tremendous self absorption.  But it is important to note here that no matter where Joseph went, through all his travels and travails even when he was the only Jew in Egypt, he determinedly retained his identity as a Jew.

What my students discerned is that in all these stories, there is a missing piece, much midrash but a big missing piece.  And that is the communication, the dialogues, the conversations that must have taken place between family members.  We are told the action, the facts of what happened, but not what was said.  It is hard to imagine that Cain and Abel went from nothing to murder with no talking or interactions between.  Or that Isaac trudged up the mountain with his father in complete silence.  These conversations are left to our imagination.  One hopes that the conversations took place and were just lost in the telling and retelling of the stories.  So it is with Joseph and his family, we know what happened but not what was said.

This portion generally falls on or near Chanukah so the challenge is to find the connection.  A side note here, the Chanukah story is not in the Torah or the Hebrew bible as a whole.  It was in the two books of Maccabees but when the Hebrew bible was canonized, the Rabbis left them out.  The Catholics, interestingly, did not – they included them.  There are many theories and as with so much of our tradition,  a great stew of debate.  But I digress.

This time of year is a time when many end their lives either intentionally or by simply giving up. And how much of that stress and sadness finds its roots in family relations, quite a lot  I think. And how much family dysfunction is a result of a failure of communication?  Again, quite a lot I think.  How many of us have families in which there are secrets? Those things we “don’t tell mom” or “don’t tell dad”.  In my family it depends on the subject as to who we don’t tell.  How many conversations have you had with family members in which you began or ended with the words “don’t tell…..”.  There are many reasons to keep secrets, some good, some not so much.

Maybe the story of Joseph is meant to remind us to bravely retain our identities, to fight for them as bravely as the Maccabees did to be public Jews.  This is the crux of the Chanukah story.  Maybe it is also to remind us to speak kindly to one another, to overcome our difficulties with family members, to listen to each other’s feelings and needs.  And maybe to remind us to reach out to the isolated, lonely, sorrowing or frightened among us.  To remember that a kind word or a civil dialogue can have enormous impact on someone or on a relationship.

As we light our channukiahs in the window, because we can, to symbolize our religious freedom, let us be proud of who we are and teach our children thus.   And may we be free from the bondage of silence, conflict, disunity and hatred.  Let us all be a light for kindness, freedom and peace.  Shabbat Shalom.

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Devarim – Last Week and the beginning of the end

Devarim is the beginning of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Moses, the Torah, and the beginning of the end of the cycle, bringing us again to the High Holy days and the joy of Simchas Torah and beginning all over again.

I am not sure being a Temple President is doing G-d’s work, but I like to think it is as it keeps me from doing this.

Most people who think of it at all, think of Deuteronomy as the lawyer’s book, the book of laws – all those gift prints for lawyers offices – “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” and so on. Being a word geek I was happy to learn that the root words are deuteros for second and nomos for law (yes, Greek). So Dueteronomy is the book of “second” laws. It is the book in which Moses re-iterates and review the laws of the Torah as he rebukes the people for their failing during their 40 years in the desert.

What spoke to me this time around was that this parsha is about wars. And there is lots of commentary, oddly, about “good wars and “bad wars” and the price of war generally. Obviously this resonates presently. It is in this parsha that Moses tells his successor, who will lead the people into Israel and into battle “Fear them not, for the Lord your G-d, He shall fight for you.” As I understand it, more than 7,000 rockets have fallen on Israel and the physical destruction of so many places, In Israel and in Gaza is horrifying. For the frightened children on either side, there is no “good war” no “bad war”, just fear and destruction. So save a place in your prayers for all the innocents. But I digress.

Although this is the week of Devarim, it was also Tisha B’av, about which I am sad to say, I knew nothing. It is characterized as the “saddest day in the Jewish calendar”. The 9th of Av is the day on which the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed approximately 2000 years ago. In looing further, I found that our “mythology”, or “history” goes that many things have happened on this fateful day:
1. The spies slandered the land and decree to wander the desert for 40 years resulted;
2. The destruction of the First Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 423 BCE;
3. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE;
4. The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans 65 years later in 135 CE (look it up!);
5. Pope Urban II declares the First Crusade; tens of thousand of Jews are killed and communities obliterated;
6. the Jews of England are expelled in 1290;
7. The Jews of Spain are expelled in 1492;
8. World War 1 breaks out in 1914 when Russia declares war on Germany; the German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for WWII and the holocaust;
9. On Tisha B’Av, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto begins.

So, indeed, the saddest day of the year – the 9th of Av has much to answer for. For the orthodox it is a three week period of mourning and a fast of one day. It is a day of spiritual reflection and accounting, foreshadowing the coming of Yom Kippur.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life and identity, much as Israel is the center of identity for us today and why it’s perilous position feels so real and emotional to us. In this country we are in a war of words. We are a people of words, people of the book and we know the destructive power of words; politically socially and emotionally. This of “juden” printed on a yellow star to be worn on the chest. Think of “never again” and Am Israel Chai. it is why the words of the press, accounting war in bodies and not peril or fear are so hurtful.

In this parsha, Moses reminds the people that the ways of the book are everything, they are the laws by which we strive to live. And, really, he is reminding us to learn from our mistakes. As Deuteronomy urges us to pursue justice, so to the Qu’ran, verse 5:8 “O Believers, be steadfast for God with justice. Do not let hatred of the people make you act unjustly. Be just for justice is next to piety. AS we pray for peace and justice, take your Shabbat with you out into the world and carry shalom with you everywhere you go.

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Oops ! Last week’s Torah portion – Tazria

Leviticus still. This is my fourth d’var Torah on this parsha of Tazria and it is such a strange and difficult, really almost unpleasant, parsha.  It continues a discussion of ritual impurity, childbirth and the ritual of the mikvah, circumcision, etc.  Wait, we have not gotten to the icky part yet.  This is the parsha that most people associate with leprosy.  But Tzarat, or the affliction in question, is not necessarily that; it is a mysterious affliction that can affect the skin, the garments or even the s home. 

I have always found this dichotomy fascinating, the idea of the progression from outer to inner or conversely inner to outer.  From the inanimate to the animate or the reverse.  From the very impersonal (although your home is personal in some way) to the extremely personal or, again, the reverse.  Do we reach inward for G-d or do we reach outward or out-toward G-d.  If we are made in the image of the divine is that an outer, or physical likeness?  Or is it a spiritual likeness? As I do not believe in G-d as a humanoid figure, for me it is obviously an internal or spiritual/emotional likeness.  We strive for divinity in our behavior, in our everyday dealings; isn’t that what the mitzvah drive us to?  A striving for perfection and holiness, however unattainable it might be?

This too, presents a dichotomy of inner and outer.  There is the outer, or physical appearance of a person, and there is the inner, the spirit and character of a person.  The tzarat, or mysterious affliction, requires the afflicted to dwell alone outside the camp, tent or city until no longer afflicted.  This mandate of isolation brings me to two different ideas.  those with actual leprosy, continued to be quarantined or isolated in parts of the world considered civilized. 

The last compulsory isolation in the United States was enforced in 1960 and it was not until 1975 that the section Code of Federal Regulations dealing with medical care for person’s with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) eliminated the word “detention” from its text.  There was no debate in the United States regarding the appropriateness of compulsory isolation but, rather, “involuntary admission” was administratively abandoned until Congress addressed the closure of public health hospitals between 1981 and 1986 and the elimination of “hazard pay” for those who worked in leprosaria or hospitals for those with Hansen’s Disease.  The law finally passed in 1985 spared the one national center for the treatment of the disease and required that person’s with it be treated without charge.  There is much more to the history but you get the idea, compulsory isolation and involuntary admission was in part a result of the fear of infection.  But reasonably effective drugs for the arresting of the disease, although it is not technically curable, have existed since the 1940’s and yet this isolation and discrimination continued.  Why?  I believe it is because those with the disease were too hard to look at, they were sometimes disfigured in pretty horrible ways.  The history of more than three quarters of a century, just in this country, was primarily based on judging people on how they look.

Didn’t your mother tell you not to “judge a book by it’s cover”?  I think perhaps it all started with this parsha, with Leviticus and the tzarat.  Just as, perhaps, we should look for G-d within ourselves, for the spark of the divine within, the striving for perfection, we should look at the character of a person, at their spirit rather than at their physical appearance.  It is hard to look past physical imperfections or the difficulties imposed by poverty to see the person within, but that is what we are required to do.  If the divine image, or the spark of the divine in us is inner, then that is where we must look.  I have often told people who asked how I could represent murderers in my past life that nobody is the one worst thing they have ever done.  I wish not to be judged by any singular act but by the whole of who I am and what I have accomplished, tempered perhaps by what I am less proud of.  We are all a composite, the inner being much more important than the outer.

I would be remiss here if I did not note that on this Shabbat, which is the shabbat to fall on or before the first of Nissan we are commanded to read also Hachodesh, the portion of exodus that speaks of G-d’s words to Moses in Egypt, two weeks before the  exodus.  The portion commands us to bring the Passover offering and eat it with matzah and bitter herbs, abstaining from leavening for seven days.  Just as our mother’s taught us to judge a person’s inner beauty, so G-d commands us to teach our children of the exodus, of our journey from slavery to freedom.  The Torah is full of this idea of passing down or passing on, the stories and practices to our children as they were passed on to us.  Think of the V’ahavta, one of the most seminal prayers in our liturgy – teach them to your children, bind them as a sign.  The concept of l’dor vador, from generation to generation is crucial to us as a people, it is a cornerstone of our culture, our faith, our very survival.

But I digress. The second theme I found in this idea of isolation in Tazria is again of the inner and outer. As in the example of Hansen’s disease, we have historically isolated those whose outer appearance is distasteful to us for various reasons.  Those whose inner ppearance is distasteful are another matter altogether.  It is possible for the miserable of spirit to camouflage their ugliness sometimes, to learn to act in acceptable ways socially while acting out in uglier ways perhaps in business, or in their intimate relationships.  But what I think is ultimately true is that those who are miserable in spirit are almost always emotionally isolated, they have created their own isolation from which it is very difficult to emerge.  In this case the outer is perhaps more palatable than the inner.  And in the end,  those who are miserable of spirit do dwell alone, outside the tent.

 The two ideas come together when we think of how we feel, or make others feel, when we them by how they look, or their lifestyles, or their beliefs rather than looking at them to see how they actually “live”.  What matters is how they treat people, how honest they are, how gracious and how charitable.  When we judge them wrongly, we make ourselves miserable and therefore isolated.   

On this Shabbat, as we enter Nissan and prepare for our physical spring cleaning and the re-telling of our story of freedom, let us look within to find what is best in ourselves and others.  Let us look within to find the spark of the divine in each of us and clean our spiritual houses of judgment, gossip and ugliness and come to the table without tzarat in our homes and in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom

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Tetzaveh – Exodus 27:20 – 30:10

This Torah portion is primarily about the priestly vestments, clothing, adornments and the altars.  Two things struck me particularly.  The commentaries point out that in the Torah portion Moses’ name is not mentioned at all yet the “directions” are to him.  So it is selfless and ultra present at the same time. Moses said to G-d that he would be nameless in the Torah as a result of the people sinning with the golden calf.  The ultimate selflessness, to remain nameless in the holiest of holy works.  And yet, he is in this most intimate relation with G-d in this portion, G-d providing him with the instructions required for the priests to maintain the relationship between G-d and the people.  Which directs my attention to the tzedakah question – nameless?  I think so.  We as Jews talk about tzedakah, about charitable good works, about tikkun olam, all the time.  There are those who do many good works but feel it necessary to be recognized as often and as publicly as possible.  How close to G-d does that put the person?  The good is the good but I think the desire for a “return” undermines the value of the good.  Sometimes the recognition, the price to the recipient, is too much.  There are those who do small good works but do them anonymously.  How close to G-d does that put the person?  Much closer I think.  It is much more intimate an act to do small acts of kindness and charity without hope of reward.  Not to say that there aren’t those that do great works without the need of public reward.

The other theme in this portion that struck me is that of the “everlasting” light that is supposed to burn from morning until night.  Isn’t that a contradiction in terms?  All the time versus some of the time.  I loved a commentary I read which is essentially that this contradiction is a metaphor for the contrast between the perfect and the imperfect. That it is our job to find a relationship between the divine and the human, the eternal and the temporal.  And isn’t that the meaning of our lives, the striving for a perfection that we know perfectly well is unattainable, yet we continue to strive.  And as with tzedakah, doesn’t the striving for the unattainable put is in a more intimate relationship with g-d.  And this is not the same as striving for “success”.  It is striving for the divine; the perfection of our selves.  Ironically striving to attain the perfection of our human selves is by definition to only attain a better imperfection! 

Ultimately in this portion, both themes that spoke to me are about doing the best we can not because it is asked of us, not because it will gain us material goods or rich recognition, but because it brings us closer to the divine.  They are both about improving our relationship with G-d and what is best in us; in having a more intimate relationship with G-d and with ourselves.  Shabbat Shalom.

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Shabbat Shalom Y’all

About six years ago, we moved to the south. It was quite a culture shock. It is especially weird to go to Temple with blond big hair blue eyed goddesses with syrupy southern accents, especially after growing up in New York City with friends who ironed their seriously kinky brunette hair and had their birth noses reshaped! I realize that assimilation has taken a toll, as has intermarriage and the failure to affiliate. But its still funny. We grow up with stereotypes, which become stereotypes because they have grains of truth in them. I personally am married to a Jew by choice who celebrates St. Patrick’s day (ethnically speaking of course) so… stereotypes are dangerous as well. Nevertheless here we are. It is a beautiful spring day in full bloom here in the sunny south and Shabbat is coming. So Shabbat Shalom Y’all.

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