Thursday, December 26, 2013

Sh'mot

In Sh'mot we begin to read the narrative that changes the story of our ancestors from a story about a familial tribe to the becoming of a people.  The parasha starts with a real page turning statement that let's us know things are different:  And a pharaoh rose up in Egypt who knew not Joseph.  This lines clearly creates a new era for the people.  The prosperity of Israelites was coming to an end, first through taxes and then through slavery.  But a man in born to help them become free again, Moses.

Moses is called by God at to free the people from their oppression.  This begins a long drawn out narrative of the fight between Moses and Pharaoh for the freedom, Moses and the people, who struggle with their freedom, and at times Moses and God over what God wants of the people.

Moses, born to Jewish slaves, is saved by the courage of his mother and sister to keep him alive by floating him into the arms of the Pharaoh's daughter.  Being raised in the court of the Pharaoh, Moses knew wealth and privilege and yet when he learned about the plight of his fellow Israelites he empathized with them, to point of killing an Egyptian overseer.

Moses could easily have walked away from his people, his comfort was insured even if his identity was known.  Throughout history we have seen people of an oppressed group shift their identity to their oppressors. Some times it is to simply survive, but there are times it is just too difficult to buck the system or give up the benefits of you receive.  But Moses rose to become the leader of the people, he found parts of himself he didn't know existed.  It was because of that he was called by God.  The symbolism of him finding God's presence in the burning bush when he left camp in search of a stray lamb.

Moses becoming the leader of the people  made his life more uncomfortable for the greater good.  He models that for us today.  We often have opportunities to help those in need from afar, writing a check, attending a fund raiser or even baking, knitting or building things in the comfort of our own spaces.  But Moses challenge the authority directly while giving up his own comfort.  He strove to go beyond himself.   Moses tells us we should make reach beyond our comfort zones.  We often strive to do what we call tikkun olam, repairing the world.  But to really repair the world we need to find the cracks and breaks.  As we approach a new year we should challenge ourselves to not only continue to do good work in the world but to truly understand the good we are doing.  Who we are helping, and what we can learn from them.  Often when we find ourselves doing something to serve others we see so much that they have to offer us.

Moses made a choice to give up comfort for justice, but he was reluctant at each step he took.  it isn't about being brave or careless, it is about moving in a direction.  Add to what you are doing now and continue to expand your world.  You may not become the next Moses, but you may find a better you out there, and you are worth finding.





Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vayechi

This past week we closed the book of Genesis, and read about the death of both Jacob and Joseph.  Both they and their family have become settled in the land of Mitzraim and are somewhat comfortable.  But both long for the land of their ancestors.  At Jacob's death he asks that he is buried with his parents and grandparents and Joseph exacts a promise that when the children of Israel eventually leave Mitzraim that they take his bones back to Canaan.  While living in the land of another culture, there was a real effort by these leaders to keep a connection to land of their ancestors and to their God.

For Jacob there was a time of concern.  There is a famous midrash in Rabbah  that on his death bed Jacob worried that his children would forget God in this foreign land.  Seeing the struggle in Jacob's eyes they said to him:

“Listen, Israel (Jabob's name given to him after wrestling with a divine being earlier in the Torah), Adonai is our God. Adonai is one.”  In other words: Shema Yisrael. Adonai Eloheinu. Adonai Echad.
With his last dying breath  Jacob whispered:  “Praised is God, whose glorious reign will go on forever.”
or  Barukh Shem K’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed.  This is our continued declaration of faith that we repeat up to today.

I can sense an analogy to today.  The pressure of the greater culture to overwhelm our young people to move further and further from Judaism is real.  Jewish Identity has become the most important topic in the life of Jewish educators due to a recent study.  I think there is something to it.  I find that many Jews my age in liberal communities have a very stunted understanding of their Judaism, the result of leaving formal Jewish education after Bar or Bat Mitzvah.  It is like thinking you know all about history if once you finished 7th grade.  But despite a distancing themselves from synagogue and practice I also see a trend of their children coming back to building meaning of their Judaism.  Students in their late teens through the late 20s seem to be looking for ways to create a Judaism that works for them.  One that may not look like their parents Hebrew school or even like the way they learned when they were in Aleph classes not that long ago.  I have found a real effort to not only wanting to be Jewish but have a way of talking about what that means and to do Jewish.  It may not be in synagogues or even in Jewish institutions that have existed in the past.  But like Jacob's children they are holding on to the gift of tradition they received from their parents and preparing it for when it comes time to give it to their children.

Like in the deep and rich culture of Egypt, we remembered who we were I think we will continue to do it today, we just have to make room for it to be something we may not have seen before.






Friday, December 6, 2013

Vayyigash

I write this today with a sadness.  The world has lost a great man, Nelson Mandela.  Mandela is a towering figure in the history of our world.  A fighter, a prisoner and later a man who struggled, even with his own people, to secure some kind of reconciliation.  Mandela's efforts changed the way the people of the world saw how an oppressed people might find a way to overcome their oppression and not focus solely on revenge.  This couldn't connect more to my thoughts of this week's parsha.

Joseph is a great man in Egypt and we enter the story in the middle this week.  Joseph's brothers, not recognizing him, have come to Egypt for food.  Joseph plays with them, gets them to bring Benjamin, makes it look like he is a thief and plans to imprison him but in the end relents and reveals who he is and that God had sent him to pave the way for his family to settle in Egypt during this terrible famine.  He longs to see Jacob and throughout the rest of Joseph's life we find he takes no revenge on the brothers that caused him so much pain.   The family reconciles and while the brothers never fully trust Joseph, he shows them he cares about family.

I can't fully liken Joseph to Mandela.  But there is something to be said for both of these men that can teach us.  In both cases they were treated poorly, in both cases they were freed from bondage and rose to positions of power, and in both cases they found a way to set aside revenge and focus on building new bonds.

Revenge is easy and even the fantasy of revenge gives us some great feelings.  I once found myself cut off in traffic causing me almost to go off the road.  About 5 minutes later the car that cut me off was in a ditch, back end in the air and front end smashed.  I waved to the guy as I rolled passed him.  It felt good but also it felt horrible.  I felt small.  In the case of Joseph and Mandela both could have exact much worse revenge.  Joseph could have easily kept his secret and turned his brothers into slaves far from where he lived.  He could have had them executed, tortured or simply locked them up forever.  He chose not to, he chose to listen to the voice that healed rather than split the group.  Mandela too could have led a uprising of Black South Africans who were ready for violent revenge.  Some occurred after the fall of Apartheid, but he struggled to make sure that he didn't become the people he fought his whole life not to be.  He didn't want to leave a legacy of pain in his wake.  I wonder if he read the Genesis narrative to guide him in this.

Reconciliation is harder too when others shared your pain.  For Joseph he was a single individual, injured by his brothers.  He simply saw it as his role in the grand scheme of things.  But Mandela was one of many who were imprisoned, tortured and some killed.  As an Anti-Apartheid activist in the mid-80s I met several.  Some seemed to struggle with the ideas of non-violence, some saw hope in the future and yet others were ready to create a revolutionary army to kill and crush all whites in South Africa.  The hate I saw in their eyes was clear and I remember being worried about the end of Apartheid and the potential of blood baths.

I have always been struck by people wronged who can find a way to forgive those who have hurt them and move forward together with a new view of life.  Joseph does this in the Torah in a way that can be a lesson for all of us.  Mandela did it in our life time in a way that shows peaceful co-existence is possible between oppressor and oppressed after the oppression stops.  The hope of a world of peace for all is there if we remember that so often there is a choice when we feel wronged.  A choice to find a way to hit back or to help the other person become a better person and end the initial beatings.  It isn't easy, but easy lives are for pampered pets and grass on the side of a hill.  We live through the difficult because it makes the colors of the world brighter.

If you are memorializing Mandela this week, think of how he overcame the searing hate that must have grown in him while in prison and how you in a small way can give up some grudge you carry.  Think of Joseph holding in his hand the power to crush the siblings who caused so much hardship and chose to hug them instead.  That is what life is really about, finding a way to make the next moment better than the last, not just for us but for everyone.

We use to sing "Free Nelson Mandela" , today he is free of a huge burden, and it is up to us to carry it now.  We have the Torah as our guide of where to take it and we have the hope of  the next moment.
Shabbat Shalom.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Miketz


Sorry, it appears that vacation made it harder for me to write than I thought it would.  So a day late but I think we all have to think about the fact that it was Hanukah and Thanksgiving so give me a break. 

So we read Miketz yesterday.  Miketz tells the story of the rise of Joseph in Egypt due to his ability to interpret Pharaoh's dream and the prediction of a coming famine.  Joseph becomes an important leader in Egypt, so much so when his brothers come to seek food at the time of the predicted famine, he is the one who bargains with them. He had become so Egyptian they did not recognize them.   It is Joseph who not only saves the lives of many but also creates the economic circumstances that centralize power in Egypt. 

During that time Joseph adopted a total Egyptian persona and became the father of two sons, whom Asenath daughter of Poti-phera, priest of On, bore to him. He named the first-born Manasseh, meaning, "God has made me forget completely my hardship and my parental home." And the second he named Ephraim, meaning, "God has made me fertile in the land of my affliction." 

These names give us insight into Joseph’s story.  Alone in a foreign land and away from his family, he continues to recognize the God of his ancestors, even when acknowledging the pain his family caused him.  He embraces his role in Egypt but also continues to hold onto the faith tradition he was born into. 

We read this in the middle of Hanukah, a holiday of that speaks of a battle for the Jewish soul between the Greek culture and remembering the past.  Today there is another battle in our culture.  Hanukah has taken on a very large place on the Jewish calendar because of its proximity to the Christian and more and more the American holiday of Christmas.   Hanukah/Christmas has become a pivot point in the new Jewish American identity.  It gives us an opportunity to discuss who we are as a people amongst ourselves and with our neighbors.

In places that have few Jews or communities that tend not to interact with Jews, what people know about Jews can be summed up with the 4 Hs.   Hasidic Jews seen on TV, Hallah, Holocaust and Hanukah.  I don’t want to be defined by any of those but the last one truly shows the complexity of the historic Jewish experience.  We are more than the Hasidic community, who are known for their exotic nature, Hallah, while wonderful, reduces us what many people do with ethnic ignorance to a food stuff, while the Holocaust is an important part of our history and the history of the world, Am Israel Chai, the Jewish people survived the events and we are a strong and diverse community.  But Hanukah gives us the unique opportunity to acknowledge that there was a time when Jewish people fought with each other over how much we give up our Jewish nature and how much we don’t want to change, just as Joseph had to balance his Jewish nature and his new Egyptian identity.

Joseph as a child who was hurt by his family and became an important member of the Egyptian leadership, however he still connected to his faith tradition in the new land as Torah teaches us from how he named his sons and later he will enact a promise that his bones be taken out of Egypt when the people finally go back to Canaan.  While he forgets the pain of his history he connects to God of Abraham, Isaac and his father Jacob.  Joseph blends that need and the desire to give up the past and create a new identity while at the same time building that identity on the tradition that taught him by his ancestors. 

Joseph gives us a way to see a blending of the desire to be part of the greater culture without giving up our own special identity.  Joseph adopted the trappings of Egypt but kept his connection to his past.  We can do that with how we express our faith through Hanukah.  What’s more is that we can also use it to help others see the importance of the past to us as Jews while allowing us to speak of its complexity.  Most of the Jews today would not want to be Maccabees but the other choice was an oppressive culture meaning to stomp out the Jewish faith.  Today we have options.  Being Jewish can be many things, with different ways of approaching Torah, practice, traditions, and even God.  However, the foundation must go back to the heart of what it means to be Jewish.  The tree may bear many different kinds of fruit, but the root still is the Torah and what it means to us.   We don’t have to give up our Jewishness completely or totally buy into the celebration of someone else’s important holiday to be part of the culture.  Jews in the time of the Maccabees were willing to give up all of their Judaism and totally buy into the Greek culture even before they were forced.  They had little choice.  Today we can choose our own to find our Judaism along side our neighbors.  As the days of Hanukah fade we should remember the lights are lights of freedom to be Jews but also lights memory.  Like Joseph, we can feel part of the culture we live in, but we can also remember the past with all its warts and create a new identity that builds on who we are and not what others want us to be.  It is up to us.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vayyeshev

So I have been lax at writing but I think I can get back into the swing starting this week.  I hope that I can do it with the holidays coming up.


This week's Torah portion is a running narrative of Joseph and his dreams, the jealousy of his brothers, Joseph being sent into slavery in Egypt and winding up in prison due to his interactions with Potiphar's wife.  But right in the middle of the story we take a break to follow a completely unrelated stand alone narrative about Judah, one of Joseph's brothers.

The story tells of Judah, marrying and having three sons.  The first son Er marries a woman named Tamar.  But the Bible says Er was wicked and so the God struck him down.  So as was the practice of the ancient near East, Judah's second son, Onan, was to marry Tamar because she was childless.  But the practice, known as the leverate marriage, also meant that any children from that union meant that they would be considered the sons of Er, not Onan.  Onan would be considered childless, so he chose to "spill his seed on the ground".  This was either simply never orgasming while inside Tamar or masturbating.  Masturbation was called Onanism.  The Torah tells us that God was displeased by this and Onan dies.  So Judah withholds his youngest son from Tamar, making her ineligible for marriage to another and still childless.  So Tamar goes to a town that Judah has business in and dresses as a prostitute for Judah to patronize.  When he does he leaves his signet and other things as promise for payment, but Judah could never find her later to deliver the payment.  Judah had gotten Tamar pregnant  and when Judah discovered her pregnancy (not knowing it was his child) he became angry.  He accused Tamar of evil and sought her death.  However she produced his signet and argued that the since Judah was the father she was helping to continue the line of her husband Er.  She was forgiven and she was seen as the hero of the story.

This is a very earthy bit of Torah.  We have lies, sex, family intrigue and of course a powerful woman who uses her sexuality for her own gain.  But it is interesting what we take away from this story.  First we see the "spilling of seed" is a offense worthy of death.  But Judah also is seen as in the wrong for denying Tamar children.  But what is not criticized and in fact seems almost matter of fact is Tamar's prostitution.  That is seen as part of the culture.

The Torah was written in its time and too often the actual events in the story seem far outside the realm of what we think is appropriate today.  Think about it here in this small, out of place, story in the Torah.  The concept of levirate marriage for one.  What would we say about a culture that forces a brother of a dead man to marry his wife and the children belong to the linage of the dead man?  What about the wife?  Or the comfort of a man visiting a prostitute in the narrative, a man who gave his name to our people.  These are things of the time of the Torah and not our time.  They have no place in our culture, in our time.

But that is because the Torah and the Bible in general was written for its time.  It is full of stories that use the surrounding culture as part of the backdrop and to teach lessons.  Sometimes those were lessons only for their time, but we can glean some of the timeless nature of the Torah by writing ourselves into the story.  This was the work of those who taught Torah throughout the ages and later added commentary and other words to explain.  But some stories just don't seem to lend themselves our modern understanding and in those cases we must remember them as part of our evolving tradition.

Too often it is these stories whose meanings may have been lost to the ever changing culture that challenge us to fully embrace our sacred text.  But if we take the moment to understand them in their context one does not have to reject the truly timeless stories of the text as well as those we can find meaning in for our times.  But for some it is too easy to stand on these kinds of stories to attack the text or religion in general.  This is no more dishonest than those who want to ignore these stories or mold them into teachings for our times.

The beauty of the Torah is that it is not sanitized.  It lives with us like a family member that is known for some public embarrassment  but we still love him or her.  We don't ignore the history but it sits there next to all the good we can see.

The Torah is full of nuggets like this.  It puts the story in its time, but also gives us the opportunity to explore some darker or earthier writings in our scripture.  The ones skipped in Sunday school but the ones that make us understand the people we inherited the tradition from, and that has value even if we can't wrap our head around the prostitution or the death penalty for spilling our seed.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Chaye Sarah

Sorry I missed last week.  I was busy in New York with a group of teens.

Chayye Sarah, meaning the life of Sarah, actually recalls the death of the matriarch and comes just after the binding of Isaac.  In this Torah portion we see Isaac begin to take on a bigger role in the narrative as Abraham calls his servant, Eliezer to travel back to Abraham's hometown to  find a wife for Isaac.  Going with wealth of Abraham he travels until he comes to the public well.  Resting there he has a moment to think about the important task and says this:

 "O God, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham."  "Here I stand by the spring as the daughters of the townsmen come out to draw water."  "Let the maiden to whom I say, 'Please, lower your jar that I may drink,' and who replies, 'Drink, and I will also water your camels' -- let her be the one whom You have decreed for Your servant Isaac. Thereby shall I know that You have dealt graciously with my master."  He had scarcely finished speaking, when Rebekah, who was born to Bethuel, the son of Milcah the wife of Abraham's brother Nahor, came out with her jar on her shoulder.

Rebekah of course will do as Eliezer predicted and she will become the wife of Isaac.  This plea to God, a prayer, is ridiculed by the Rabbis of the Talmud and to this day.

In Tannit it says:
How could Eliezer have asked God for this favor using such careless language?! This is not the way to speak to God! Eliezer's master, Abraham, sent him on a long journey,  back to his kinsmen in Haran, to find a bride for his son Isaac. When Eliezer got to the well of Haran he said to God, "If You will show me the right woman,  I will know who I should bring back to Canaan as Isaac's bride. Let the woman  You choose come here to the well and let down her pitcher of water for both me and my camels. That way I will know who the right woman is." God forbid, what  if a perfectly horrible, ugly, shrewish woman had come to the well and given  water to Eliezer and his camels?!

Ibn Ezra, a 12th century commentator on Torah said, 
"Eliezer was completely wrong in his approach to God, forcing God to perform a miracle for him this way. If the woman who answered him in the way he expected had been physically blemished with an artificial leg or blind, it would have been Eliezer's fault.  Eliezer should have been more specific in his request to God. He should have told God to make sure the woman was not only kind and generous, but physically perfect as well. Unquestionably, God would have arranged the right match for Isaac, but one should not depend on miracles for they certainly do not happen everyday or just because one asks God for them, no matter how prayerfully or sincerely."

Rabbi Sampson Raphel Hirsch, a 19th century Torah scholar said,
The method of petitioning God and then expecting specific signs to occur that Eliezer used is certainly not recommended for the rest of us! This is not a way to talk to God or to choose a wife! Only an Eliezer, sent on a mission with the confidence and  faith of an Abraham, told by Abraham that one of God's angels would accompany  him and help him, only such a person could act as Eliezer did and speak to God the way Eliezer did.

While some contemporary commentators like Nahum Sarna do indeed see Eliezer as doing no wrong, the idea is that this is foreigner giving a foreign prayer to the God of his master.  This is a prayer from the heart.  A prayer of petition but a prayer of emotion.  Unsure of himself, Eliezer seeks to define what he sees a good wife.  Actions speaking louder than beauty or formality.  I find the prayer remarkably Jewish.  It is what I think the connection to Godness should be.  The interaction of Eliezer and Rebekah are crucial in understanding what kind of person would be good for Isaac.  Her kindness to a stranger and his animals brings holiness to the moment.  Eliezer didn't need an angel to understand his role in making the interact a holy thing.

Too often when we pray in our culture we are looking for a miracle.  Something to happen apart from us.  Something to solve a problem that we can't seem to wrap our hands around.  But miracles are not something that we simply have happen to us.  Miracles are the result of the on-going partnership we share with the divine.  We must seek out the miraculous by creating the possibility of miracles.  We must find a way to bring God into the equation.  Eliezer did by looking straight into the eye of the problem and realizing that if the woman he seeks was among the women of Haran, then she would have to posses certain character traits measurable by her actions of kindness.  His prayer called on God not to produce a miracle, as Ibn Ezra suggests,  but to show he is seeking the miracle, like all miracles, that are around us every day.

I recently read an article that questioned the roll of God in the modern world.  It recalled how a parent might use God as a boogyman, always seeking to find us doing something wrong.  What I call the celestial hall monitor.  This is part of the Western concept of God, but is not really how we should expect Judaism to see God.  God can't simply be a concept designed to find wrong doing, but should by the light on the horizon that guides us to good.  Our prayers should focus on how best to understand the light.

What is all our prayers were coupled with actions that would help us focus the Godness we seek into our lives.  Might we then spend less time waiting for the repair of the world and more time repairing it?  What if we find out.

Shabbat Shalom.



Friday, October 11, 2013

Lech Lecha

When we open parsha Lech Lecha Avraham is still Avram, he is living in  Ur Kaƛdim.  He is called by God to leave every thing he knows and goes to a land  “asher arekha" that I will show you.  That is quite a thing.  Imagine if you will being called by an invisible God to leave all you know and not have a destination in place.  You will simply be shown.  

How often do we feel we can do that?  There is an ad running on TV that a travel website is picking people out, apparently just on the street, and giving them a trip anywhere in world if they left right now.  The ad doesn't fully define "right now" but I imagine there is time to pack.  How many of us could simply take that dream vacation if we had to leave at 8pm today.  (and by today I mean whenever you are reading this).  But at least there is a destination in mind.  At least there is a place to go with some idea of what it is like.  

Add to this notion that this God that called to Avram was not fully known in Avram's world.  The Midrash teaches us that Terah, Avram's father was an idol maker.  Ur was in the heart of modern day Iraq, Babylon, where idol worship was plentiful.  And here this God calling to Avram said, "Get out"  "Leave".  

It is weird.  The power of the story here is that Avram does it.  He listens and only later is promised to be the father of great nations, which comes true as the faiths that grow out of the story of Avram currently include half the world's population and are as diverse as snowflakes.  

But think about us, could we do it.  Rabbi Marc Gellman tells a story that the call was not to Avram first.  In fact three times God called to someone.  Using the Biblical names of Shelah, Peleg and Serug, God called to each and each wanted to bargain with God about what they would get out of it.  They were not interested in giving up their lives for a promise that was not clear.  It would be difficult and frankly I am not sure I would drop everything I know to go and see what would come.  But Avram teaches us that sometimes risks are what we must take for the greater good.  

We hear the call of something, it may not be God, but a call that asks us to change direction.  But so many things get in our way.  The Canadian band (and good Jewish boys) the Barenaked Ladies some up some of those things standing in our way with these lyrics:

We've got these chains that hang around our necks,
people want to strangle us with them before we take our first breath.
Afraid of change, afraid of staying the same,
when temptation calls, we just look away.

Being afraid of change is normal.  But it also means that we miss out on chances to be more than we currently are.  Avram took a big risk, and it wasn't easy.  There were demands, hurt, decisions.  He wasn't always right as we will see in the future sections of Torah, but he found a way to be part of something bigger than himself.  Challenged by God, he accepted.

In small ways we too can do that.  I was thinking of inspirational friends today.  One, an author, decided to travel the world on her own.  She decided that the world was something to experience and not be frightened by, even as a woman traveling alone.  Every day is an opportunity for wonder and she finds it and shares it in her writing.  That writing inspires so many others and shows us what is out there waiting.

But it doesn't have to be so dramatic.  Sometimes leaving home to escape the narrative of who people think you are is a hard step but one that can help make you fully discover yourself.  The noise of a small town, where you play your role, can be stifling when you no longer fit the role you grew up in.  While you may still love home, day-to-day finding being someone different can be liberating and healthy.  For Avram, leaving home meant leaving behind the idol worship of his parents and culture.  It must have been difficult, but in the end he grew into a great man.

Lech lecha, can also be about our own internal growth.  Letting go of those things that keep us tied down.  I read today about forgiving someone even if they don't ask you to.  Carrying around the pain they caused blocks blessings it says.  Leaving behind, Going forth from a place of hurt to a place of freedom is a risk as well.  But doing so frees up space for more love and kindness to enter.

But it could be any chances we pass up out of unwarranted fear.  Not talking to someone who is different from you.  (I was privileged to hear Alicia Ostriker the other night who said God gave us imagination so that we can understand the people who are not us), not going to that job interview because we know they won't like us, not asking that girl or boy out because we feel he or she is out of our league.  Every moment of every day could be a Lech Lecha moment.  If only we embrace the road to the land that is still unseen, until then we will never know. 

Too often, we reduce Avram's story to one of "the first monotheist" or the father of nations.  But you know what he most teaches us?  To take risks.  To move away from what people think we should be, to what we feel we are.  That may mean challenging a whole lot of things in our current lives.  It may be difficult and the reward may not be becoming the parent of great nations, but if it makes you a better person, if it makes you more able to connect with who your really are, and thus treat all your encounters with honesty and wonder.  Then you do not just create nations, you create new universes, because to paraphrase Anias Nin, each positive encounter between people births a new universe.  And that is worth any risk you can take.  

Friday, October 4, 2013

Noah

If last week's portion is the most talked about Torah portion for adults, Noah has become a story that most western children know as it has been almost Disneyfied.  Having a son named Noah I also know that you can get anything with a Noah theme, anything.

Noah's ark is also used by many businesses for impact.  From a Kosher deli (ironically) in New Jersey to 100s of veterinarians' offices to environmental groups.  Noah's ark is a sign of comfort and caring for the earth.

But the story of Noah is not a good one.  This is the story of an angry God, destroying creation and starting over.  The killing of all of humanity save one family.  The destruction of all civilization because people were wicked.

However the story brings us symbols that today have powerful images of peace in love, the dove with an olive branch and the rainbow.

This parsha has been picked apart by many but there are two stories that I think could use reflection.  The first is the story of Noah getting drunk on homemade wine right after the everyone left the ark and the ending of the story of the Tower of Babel.  (yes sometimes we forget this story is in this parsha).

The story of Noah and the wine if fascinating because it occurs at at time and in a place that should be a more serious time.  The world, destroyed, is being reborn. But Noah decides to get drunk.  Now his son Ham sees "his nakedness" and then Shem and Japheth cover Noah's nakedness without looking.  Now the Torah seems to be leaving something out of the story.  Did Ham do something with his father's nakedness?  Did he make fun of the old man's shriveled body?  Was Noah aroused and Ham explored that in some way?  We really don't know.  What we do know that this was a crisis in the Torah.

What happens next is a genealogy that includes a condemnation of Ham and his son Canaan.  But beyond that there is a clear discussion of the peoples of the earth growing out of these families.  Each son will father a different race or ethnicity of people.  The results of this strange encounter is that God defines humanity not as a single homogeneous group but as a diverse population that will spread out and engage the world.

In the midst of this story we get the story of the tower of Babel.  This story, like the flood narrative, is a common story among the people of the ancient near east.  What we find is a group of people, living closely in an urban environment all with one language.  They decide to build a large tower to make a name for themselves.  Some people say to become god-like.  God's solution, confound their speech, create new languages and make it impossible for them to easily work together.

In both crisis in this story God's solution to the problem of stepping outside of appropriate behavior was to diversify the population.  With Noah and Ham, the close relationship that grew deeper than father and son while cramped on the Ark make it hard for Ham to fully appreciate, let's call it, personal space.  A danger that can lead to all manner of problems.  Even if there was no contact between Noah and his son there was something that occurred that made the familiarity of the people too central.  Spreading them over the earth and having them create new cultures will focus their energy on something, hopefully positive, instead of what was occurring.  With Babel, the people had grown too comfortable again.  They wanted more.  God's actions remind me of a Sci-Fi story where a group (usually humans) are moving to fast with technology and not allowing their morality to catch up with them.  A godlike alien sends them backward in some fashion to make them figure out a new hurdle and in doing so give them more time to grow.

Perhaps that is one of the morals of Noah.  That we see humanity growing at too fast a pace.  God uses the flood to end the evil and make it easier for humans to grow more and perhaps better.  Then he separates the family of Noah who grew too comfortable by making people different.  Creating a test that we still struggle with today.  How to we work closely with someone so different in thought than us?  Then we see the final story of Babel.  Language confusion makes it hard to work together on a project of conceit.  Learning how to speak with your neighbor who has a different language is difficult without a reference point.  Just think of the work one has to do to get someone to understand them.  Point at a glass of water and say the first word that describes it.  Did you say clear?  glass?  container?  water?  liquid?  wet?  drink?  Think of all the words we take for granted.

In the end parsha Noach is a parsha that sees us as still children, and God is worried that we are growing too quickly and thus gives us a test.  A test of diversity that we must figure out.  We must find a way to balance who we are from those who are different and must humble ourselves to learn about others, their language and their culture.  In doing so we might find a new way to seek God, not by building a tower (or getting drunk) but by seeing God in the person so different from who we are that we have to get into his or her soul to see the real humanity there.  Diversity is good and a tool of God.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Bereshit


This week we begin again at the beginning of Torah in our weekly cycle. Like paging through an old family photo album we open the Torah from the first page with Bereshit.  The beginning. 

This portion is probably the most talked about in western culture.  It is written to answer the fundamental question of humanity:  Where did we come from?   Every culture has sought to create a story of origin.   This ancient Jewish story, adopted by Christianity, became the shared narrative of Europe and the Americas and the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is a recognized metaphor all over the world. 

But for many the opening of our Bible is not read as metaphor but as scientific fact.  In Northern Kentucky, not far from the Ohio border, is a so-called museum dedicated to teaching the story in the Bereshit as fact.  The Creation Museum is a temple to Creationism, the idea that Bible narrative of creation is a science.  In fact within a few feet of the entrance one of the first things said in one of the many multi-media presentations of the story is that if science is discovered contradicts the Bible the science is rejected.  It is a remarkable statement.  While the Bible has much to teach us, using it as the ruler to measure visible facts against for the purpose of understanding science simply isn’t a healthy way of looking at the world. 

When faced with overwhelming evidence of science, some try to blend the two in some mental calisthenics to attempt to create the supremacy of the Bible over science or suggesting science is proving the Bible right.  It is an interesting argument.  The most interesting is an attempt to link science’s mitochondrial Eve and Y-chromosome Adam to their Biblical namesake.  Science has discovered that everyone alive today can trace their genetics to the genetic line of these two.  While an over-simplification, this idea sparked some to link it to the Biblical narrative.  The problem is that these two probably lived 50,000 years apart (we still aren’t sure) and neither were the only people.  In fact some of decedents of other women alive at the time of Mitochondrial Eve are alive today, but they are all male.  Mitochondrial Eve is the most recent female ancestor.  Either lack of knowledge or purposeful distortion drives some of this talk of the Bible being a science book.  This seems like a terrible distortion of what the Torah is designed to teach. 

But there are those who reject the Torah all together because it doesn’t match science.  Certain people hold the Bible to a very binary position.  They see it as without value because it doesn’t tell the truth, especially when it comes to creation.  I regularly read and hear people who say only fools would read the Bible with talking snakes and donkeys.  These people don’t just throw the baby out with bath water, but gather their other children and the neighbor’s kids and toss them out too.  Often seeking out the most outrageous statements from creationists to paint all that even read the Bible with the same brush.  If fact, sometimes the reject someone’s personal belief system as being fake since it doesn’t fit their stereotype.   One can find value in the Torah, even if it doesn’t get the facts about the development of the universe correct.  Too often it is us that do that who are not allowed in the conversation. 

Now there is a question that can be asked about the Torah, if it is not a true telling, and it is not science, what do we get out of it.  I am often reminded of the words of one of my teachers, Rabbi Hanan Alexander who said, “The stories in the Bible are true, they just didn’t happen that way.”  This is a liberating statement.  It allows one to seek truth in a story that is known to be written as a metaphor.  Like the famous story of George Washington’s honesty over the chopping of a cherry tree, and being faced with his father’s wrath.  This often repeated story was created out of thin air by Parson Weems, the Washington biography.  But to this day teachers use it to teach about the importance of honesty.  Seeking the message of the story is far more important than seeking to discredit a story over lack of facts.  And Bereshit is a prime example.  There is so much to be gleaned from the creation story of our people.  And our people knew this centuries ago.  Commentary on the parasha speak of the universe being created to be a place for humans to eliminate God’s loneliness, the idea of all humanity reaching back to the same parents makes us all related and none better than another, and so much more can be gleaned. 

This is our story, created by our ancient ancestors in their attempt to understand God, morality and how we should live as a people.  It is well-crafted poetry that has much to teach us.  Crawl inside the text this year, walk in the spaces between the words.  Chew on them.  You can find a lot in there.  Avoid the noise of those that want to tell you what is suppose to mean, read many who give you ideas of what it could mean.  You will be surprised what is in there and what you can pull out.

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Nitzavim/Vayelech


This week’s parsha comes near the very end of the book of D’varim and begins on Moses’ last day on earth.  Moses is struggling to make sure the people will have all the tools they need to move into the land of Israel and continue as a coherent and strong nation, living by Torah and the guidance it teaches.  Some of what he tells them is harsh.  But, like a good parent with a child, Moses knows that a little bit of reality to consider is good for any transition.

And there are some serious transitions to think about.  Not just in the Biblical narrative but we read this portion at the last Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.  It is a sort of last chance to hear the words that should help us make our own journey into a new year.  Will we make Torah a part of how we choose to continue growing as individuals?  As families?  As a community?  We will ask ourselves that next week as we stand in shul and hear the familiar words that sung out. 

This parasha includes a powerful statement to the Israelites.  Moses gives them a choice, follow the mitzvot and live or do not and die.  He commands them to choose life.  Much has been written on what this might mean.  Is it a simple behaviorist idea or something more?  That is for us to decide. 

But it is clear that it is difficult to fully understand what the Torah is asking of us, and as we leave the wilderness and the connection to God through Moses, it will get difficult to maintain the energy and dedication without some support.  But Moses throughout this time wanted to make the Torah something the people would keep close to their heart and on their mind.  In fact he says the Torah is not far away, it is not in the heavens, it is here with the people.  It is something that will remain with the people as long as we continue to learn from it.  One way of looking at this is that Torah is something for us to continue to struggle with, chew on, and find meaning in.  It is a document that grows with the people.  It is a document that defines us as a nation and we find our meaning in it.  However it is not static, it is not meant only for the people in the wilderness but it belongs to all of us.  In fact tradition teaches us that it is up to us to find meaning for ourselves. 

Stories in the Talmud are often used to help us understand what the Torah is meant to mean to us.   One particularly well-known story that relates to this parsha comes from  Bava Mezia 59b. The story is a discussion over the ability to make an oven kosher when it had become unkosher.  While almost all the sages felt it couldn't be, Rabbi Eliezer, a lone voice but a great scholar, disagreed:

The rabbis argued over the rules and nine stood apart from Eliezer. 

Frustrated he said to them, “If the halakha is according to me, let that carob­tree prove it.”

The tree outside the House of Study uprooted itself and moved several yards and replanted itself in the ground.  But the nine said, “We do not learn Torah from trees”. 

Rabbi Eliezer then said , “If the halakha is according to me, may that stream of water prove it.”

The stream of water then turned and flowed in the opposite direction.

The nine said , “We do not decide Torah based on a stream of water.”

Rabbi Eliezer, continuing in his frustration, said  “If the halakha is according to me, may the walls of the House of Study crumble before us.”

The walls of the House of Study began shake and collapse, bending inward. Rabbi Joshua then rose up and yelled to the heavens,  “We are arguing Torah as we are charged to do, why do you interfere?” 

Was walls stopped and stood in their bent state.   But a voice from the heavens came and could be heard by all.  

“Why do you disagree with Rabbi Eliezer? The halakha is correct according to him.”

"Then Rabbi Joshua rose up on his feet, and said, 'It is not in the heavens'  quoting this week’s Torah portion.  (Deuteronomy 30:12).

Rabbi Nathan later met the prophet Elijah. He asked him, “What was the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing in that hour?”

Elijah responded that at that moment God was dancing through the heavens and laughing saying, “My children have defeated me.”  


Clearly the ancient Rabbis found a way to help us better see that the Torah is ours to understand.  God wants us to make meaning out of it through our continued struggle.  It is not meant to be the stimulus-response prescription, the Torah starts a conversation, we must continue with it.  We must keep up our end of the dialogue.  When we stand in shul next week, let’s see if we can make that happen.