Thursday, June 25, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Chukat - Time for a Change

When I began my college career, I was a student of history.  It had been my favorite subject at school so there was no question that it would be the subject for my college studies.  But very soon in that first year, I began to realize that history at college was not the same as history at school.  Despite this, it took me another full year until the end of the second year to work up the courage to say to my history teacher that I wanted to transfer to theology, where I eventually completed my studies and was much more engaged and happy. 

Change is difficult.  And, while we might realize that a change is necessary, it can still be hard to act upon that situation.  In this week’s Torah portion, as we emerge from the stories of the spies and the decree that that generation will not live to see the Promised Land, we get the story of the Waters of Meribah.  

The people complained to Moses and Aaron that there is no clean water and so Moses and Aaron go to God.  God speaks to Moses, saying, “you and your brother Aaron, take the rod and assemble the community and before their very eyes, order the rock to yield its water.  This way you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts.” 

When Moses gets to the rock together with Aaron with the assembled congregation, he is clearly angered by the people and says “Listen you rebels…” and then Moses raises his hand and strikes the rock twice with the rod and out comes the water.  While the people get the water that they need, God then says to Moses and Aaron, “because you did not trust me enough to affirm my sanctity in the sight of the Israelite people, therefore you shall not lead this congregation into the land that I have given them.”  

We must remember that God was the one who instructed Moses to take the rod with him, placing that rod in Moses hand, and therefore was it not inevitable that Moses would use it in some way.  And, yet, it’s because of this action that God decrees that Moses and Aaron shall not enter into the Promised Land.

We might think that the punishment was a little bit extreme, but we might also wonder, if God realized that perhaps the time for a change had come and that this was some kind of test of Moses.  How would he react with a rod in his hand, the people before him and the task of speaking to the rock.  In that instant, rather than talking to the rock, the anger, the frustration got the better of him.  And, so he struck the rock twice, instead of talking to it.  

While, this, in and of itself, might not have seemed like such a sin, or a crime worthy of the punishment of not entering into the Promised Land, it may have been the sign that God was waiting for to know that the time for a change had come.  God might have suspected this as a result of the incident with the spies.  But now with this pretext, God allowed and set up the situation whereby change could happen.  And, to his credit, Moses just continues with the journey, sending messages to the King of Edom.  Perhaps he too knew that the time for a change had come. 

And, while it is never easy to change, sometimes it is necessary. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Korach - God's Protective Nature

Occasionally my wife has accused me of being over-protective when it comes to our daughter, Gabby.  This generally entails me following her around a little closer than I possibly need to when we’re at the playground and being ready to jump to her defense if it’s ever necessary and, often when it isn’t because I anticipate that it could be.  I am an over-protective parent but I take that as being part of my role in being her father.

And, in reading this week’s Torah portion, I think God is also over-protective when it comes to Moses and Aaron.  This week we read about Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron’s leadership when he, together with Datan, Abiram and 250 Israelites assembled in front of our leaders.  And he challenged Moses saying, “you have gone too far, for all the community are holy, all of them.  And, Adonai’s in their midst, why then do you raise yourselves above Adonai’s congregation?”   

Korach’s challenge to Moses is striking because it is not a challenge against God, it is simply a challenge to Moses and Aaron as the leaders of the people.  And, Moses response is also telling in this way,  Moses does not call on God, when he falls on his face, instead he then speaks to Korach and his allies.  And in all of these exchanges, God is silent.  God is referenced by Moses, but we do not know what God is thinking.  

Only when Korach gathers the community against Moses and Aaron in front of the Tent of Meeting, does God finally appear, and then God is decisive in God’s statement and action.  God tells Moses and Aaron – stand back from this community so that I may annihilate them in an instant.  God is so protective of Moses and Aaron that God is prepared to destroy the entire Israelite community because of this challenge to their leadership.  And it is only because Moses and Aaron fall on their faces and pray to God that the community is spared. 

But God is still that protective parent.  God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to stand apart from Korach, Datan and Abiram; the ground then opened up and swallowed these people alive down to Sheol, an ultimate punishment from God.  We see in this instant that while God is upset when the people challenge God’s authority, God is even more upset when they challenge Moses and Aaron’s authority and right to lead.  In this moment we see how over-protective God can be and what it truly means to experience God’s love, care and protection.  

We know that an attack on ourselves can be painful, but an attack on those we love is even more challenging and often elicits an even stronger response, we see this from God too, and we can hope that we will be the recipients of God’s love and protection.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Parashat Shelach Lecha - How we see ourselves

[This week's Two Minutes of Torah was featured as the World Union for Progressive Judaism's Torah from around the world]

Whenever I look in the mirror, I’m always a little bit surprised at the face looking back at me.  It’s not that I don’t know what I look like, it’s just that in my mind I think I still look the same way that I did when I was in my early twenties.  In this way I’m always a little bit shocked at how little hair there really is on my head and how many lines have started to develop on my face.  I don’t mind either of these things, but it’s not the way that I see myself in my imagination. 

I approach life with my younger set of eyes, and therefore, sometimes it’s my body that can’t keep up with my expectations for what I should be able to do.  We know that our self-image is important. When we’ve had a shave, when we’re wearing nice clothes, or when we’ve just had a haircut, we approach situations in a different way to when we’re feeling that bit out of sorts, not looking our best, or unwell.

In this week’s Torah portion, we see just how important self-image can be as we read the account of the spies sent to scout out the Promised Land.  When the spies return, they say “We came to the land you sent us to; it does indeed flow with milk and honey” (Num 13:27).  But the ten spies then follow this with the information that: “the people who inhabit the country are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large” (Num 13:28), sharing their view that there is no way to conquer it, especially not with Anakites (a giant-like people) and various other peoples settled there.

In the midst of this assessment, Caleb stands apart from the rest of the spies, and with confidence asserts: “Let us by all means go up, and we shall gain possession of it, for we shall surely overcome it” (Num 13:30). Despite his assertions the spies return to their earlier claims that the people are stronger than we are, and they disheartened the Israelites, spreading fear amongst them.

In the crucial passage these ten spies say: “we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them” (Num 13:33).

We cannot know exactly how the Israelites looked to the residents of the land.  But, what we do know is that because they saw themselves as grasshoppers, this self-image was therefore applied to the people whom they encountered. In viewing themselves in this way, there was absolutely no chance that the people were ready, or able, to conquer this land.  And as such, it is unsurprising when a few verses later they are dealt a shattering blow by the Amalekites and Canaanites when they approached the hill country.

Our own self-image is the beginning of how we are seen, and perceived, by others.  It is no accident, that in Judaism, the commandment of the golden rule “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18) begins with the instruction that we must love ourselves, because if we do not love ourselves it is impossible for us to love anyone else.  In a similar way, because the spies, and by extension that generation of the wilderness, saw themselves as grasshoppers, there was no way that they could conceive of conquering the land, let alone actually achieve it. The way that we see ourselves, our self-image, can either elevate us or it can bring us down.

In the story of the spies, we see how dangerous it is when we have a low self-image, when we have low self-esteem, and what that can do, not just for the individual, but for a collective people.  We have to find ways to be happy in our selves, to like the face looking back at us in the mirror, and therefore to have a self-image that exudes positivity.   When we can do that we can find ways to reach towards and conquer our own personal promised land.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Behalotecha - Include don't Exclude

Often, with the time of Pesach in America, the Seder night comes close to tax season which, for a lot of accountants, is their busiest and craziest time of the year when they often find themselves working round the clock to make sure everything gets done in time for the deadline that the IRS sets upon them.  This year, when talking to one family, of which an accountant is a member, they told me they were not going to be able to have a Seder on the designated night of Pesach, but instead on that weekend would be having all the family together so they could celebrate Pesach with a Seder involving everyone.   While that might sound like a nontraditional way of responding  to the challenges of the time, it actually fits very nicely with what we read in this week’s Torah portion.

We read that God spoke to Moses and said “ to tell the Israelites that when any of you or your descendants are defiled by a corpse or on a long journey when you come to the time of offering the Passover sacrifice to Adonai, they shall then offer in the second month, on the 14th day of the month at twilight.”  In this way, the Torah portion sets up the idea that there is an opportunity for a second Pesach for anyone who is unable to fulfill the regulations of the first Pesach. 

Someone, overwhelmed by the burdens and the stresses of  tax season, may therefore fall into that category who delays their Passover until that second month.  This text in our Torah reminds us of the importance of everyone being involved with the Pesach celebration and making sure that everyone can be present.  We see how important Pesach is a few verses later when it says that if a person is clean and not on a journey and refrains from offering the  Passover sacrifice then that person shall be cut off from their kin.  One of the ultimate punishments that the Torah has.  It even goes further and includes that the stranger must also bring the Passover sacrifice. 

This passage in our Torah reminds us of how important it is that we celebrate Passover as that reminder that we were slaves in Egypt.  Our memory of that slavery experience informs so much of the way that we’re supposed to live our lives as Jews, that without it, we are excluded from the community.  But more than this, it is an important reminder that it’s always a priority to find ways to include people rather than exclude them.  

We offer an opportunity for a Second Pesach so that someone can still be included rather than just exclude them because they fail to observe the celebration and the sacrifice at the appropriate time.  We need to be mindful of this, as we approach our Judaism today.  How can we find ways to include people, rather than, all too often, fall into a default position of excluding. 

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Naso - Sharing a blessing

I remember as a child going to an Orthodox synagogue to celebrate a family friend becoming Bar Mitzvah, and, at one point in the service, seeing a number of men go to the front, put their tallit over their heads and then reach out their hands in some strange gesture as they said words of Hebrew.  I commented that it looked like a Ghostbusters moment with the way that the tallit covered them.  Later on I would discover that this was the moment when the Cohanim, the priests of that community, stepped forward to offer the priestly blessing upon the whole congregation.  Today, I have the opportunity to offer the priestly blessing in two contexts.  As a Rabbi, I give the priestly blessing to the B’nai Mitzvah and to various other people who come up to the Bimah to receive blessings.  But, as a father, I get to give the blessing to my daughter Gabby every Shabbat, when my wife and I together, bless her. 

The words that we use for the priestly blessing come from this week’s Torah portion where we’re told “and God spoke to Moses saying speak to Aaron and to his son saying, in this way you shall bless the people of Israel, saying to them…and, then God gives the blessing which incorporates God.  And so God tells us to bless each other by saying “Yevarechecha Adonai veyishmerecha, may God bless you and keep you, Yaer Adonai panav elecha veyichuneka, may God’s face shine upon you and be gracious to you, Yisa Adonai panav elecha veyasem lecha shalom, may God lift up God’s face to you and give you peace.” 

It’s a beautiful blessing that God gave to the priests that we, in turn, give to one another.  The first part of it just speaks of blessing and being protected, the second part has this idea of God’s face shining and then being gracious to us.  But in that final part, we have a sense of God really lifting up God’s face to look upon us, eye to eye, directly and then giving us peace.  In this way, we might see that the blessing elevates and gets bigger and bigger so that ultimately, the final blessing is one – for God to see us, and two – for us to have peace. 

There’s something very powerful about this blessing and I know that when I get to offer this blessing to B’nai Mitzvah, and, when I get to offer it to my daughter, I am always struck by what it means to give a blessing and to share a blessing.  And, in the end, in the following verse of our Torah, it says “and they shall put my name upon the people of Israel and I will bless them.”  In this way, when we give this blessing, not only do we share in this history stretching back to Aaron the priest,  not only do we get to offer wonderful words, but we firmly associate ourselves with God, as God places God’s name upon the people of Israel.

It is wonderful to receive a blessing, but it is even more powerful to be able to give a blessing and share that blessing with others.  I hope that we all have many opportunities to share our blessings.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

What the General Election can teach our synagogues

[Originally published in The Jewish News - Britain's Biggest Jewish Newspaper]

As the dust settles on the recent General Election the campaigns and result have come in for widespread retrospective scrutiny. Despite living in the United States, having followed the campaign, I was delighted to be able to watch the bulk of the results come in live.  Seeing the commentators, as well as many politicians, struggle to make sense of the unanticipated outcome added to the interest of the evening. 
I am a Rabbi, not a political analyst, but I believe the election results offer a number of important lessons for our work in synagogues. 
The day before the election the opinion polls suggested a very tight race between the Conservatives and Labour. The result proved very different, with the Conservatives gaining an unexpected overall majority; while Labour’s 232 seats were significantly lower than forecast. The analysis of the Labour defeat will continue for some time, with many divergent opinions. Several commentators have suggested that Labour simply didn’t offer the people what they wanted; as David Miliband said: “they didn’t want what was being offered.” 
In synagogues we may have many programs we want to offer, but the leadership, especially the Rabbis, need to be conscious that what we want to offer may not be what our members want to receive. We need to meet people where they are, not where we want them to be. They will ultimately “vote” with their feet so we need to be conscious of what they want, and what we are willing and able to do within our understanding of Judaism and synagogue life. Otherwise just like Labour we could see many more empty seats. 
The other major loser was clearly the Liberal Democrats, crashing to 8 seats; they are now a shell of their former selves. Their defeat, as Nick Clegg acknowledged, appeared to be as a result of their entry into the Coalition; it is likely that without their support the Conservatives would have been unable to govern for a full term; the Liberal Democrats kept the institution standing at tremendous cost to themselves and to the dissatisfaction of their members. 
Often in synagogues we expend significant amounts of energy in protecting structures and programs because that is the way it has always been. We need to be aware that times change and if our members no longer want such programs we have to be willing to think differently. Programs and activities desired by synagogue members in the 1980s are not necessarily what people want today. Refusing to be flexible may mean our members become unhappy and desert the synagogue.
Despite gaining 12.6% of the national vote, UKIP were still losers, gaining only one seat; their result stands in contrast to the focused SNP who received 56 seats for just 4.7% of the national vote.  This reminds us in our synagogues that we need to be focused, we cannot do everything at once, and if we want to be successful in bringing about change it needs to be gradual with a step-by-step approach. 
The success of the SNP offers other lessons; coming hot on the heels of their defeat in the recent referendum on Scottish independence (a reminder that we need to be prepared to fail forward). The people of Scotland voted to remain part of the union, but they then voted, en masse, for the nationalist party at the next opportunity. They remind us that we have significant numbers of people who want to remain part of our synagogue communities, but also want to have their say on the direction those communities are going in. 
Finally, the biggest winners were the Conservatives; despite the polls suggesting it would be a challenging night for David Cameron the public gave them an overall majority. Since the election people have talked about “shy Tories”, people who didn’t want to share their Conservative support with pollsters. 
We can ask people what they want from their synagogues, but they won’t always tell us the whole truth. Telling the Rabbi that you don’t like the format of Shabbat services or aren’t interested in adult education can be difficult, and advocating for major changes can be overwhelming. In the words of Isaac Bashevis Singer “we know what a person thinks not when they tell us what they think, but by their actions.” People come to the synagogue events and programs they want to and ignore the ones that are of no interest. Rather than listening to the polls we have to see what works and what doesn’t work, it is essential that we communicate with our communities. 

The General Election might not have been intended as a lesson about synagogues, but it offers some important insights. We might not have an election to worry about, but if we don’t listen we might very soon find ourselves out of office. 

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Bamidbar - Look how far we've come

When we talk about numbers, there’s a point where the numbers become almost inconceivable because of the vastness and the size of them.  When we think in small numbers, we can imagine four people, we can imagine ten people, we can even imagine what two hundred, three hundred people look like.  And with sporting venues we can maybe even get up to fifty, sixty thousand.  But once we start getting above those kind of numbers into the hundreds of thousands, it’s really hard to imagine what that means and what that’s like.  And, in some ways, the numbers can lose a sense of meaning.

This week’s Torah Portion of Bamidbar begins with just that kind of list of numbers.  As we take the census of the Israelite males over the age of twenty in the wilderness.  At this point, as we begin numbering off the different tribes, we get numbers of forty-six thousand five hundred, fifty-nine thousand three hundred, forty-five thousand six hundred and fifty and so on.  The vastness of these numbers is hard to imagine.  Ultimately concluding with the total number of Israelite males age twenty and over at six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty. 

The implication must have been that if that was the males alone over the age of twenty, there were probably something like two million Israelites in the wilderness when the census was taken.  This contrasts with the book of Shemot, Exodus, which begins with the names of Jacob’s twelve sons who went down to Egypt and we’re told that seventy souls went down to Egypt with Jacob because Joseph was there already. 

From seventy to six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty if not more.  It is clear that in the four hundred and thirty years in Egypt and the one year in the wilderness, we, as a people, have grown from a family into a real community, a nation.  Amidst the enormity of the numbers of the census, it would be easy to lose sight of the individual people who made up those Israelites counted by Moses. 

In contrast with the book of Exodus, Shemot which begins with the lists of the names of Jacob’s sons, we have this six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty, an almost incomprehensible number.   But, yet we still have individuals.  Because before we get those numbers, we’re told of the twelve people who will help Moses and Aaron with the counting of the Israelites.  From Reuben Elizur son of Shedeur, from Simeon, Shelumiel son of Zurishaddai, from Judah Nahshon, son of Amminadab – and, so on and so forth.  We remember that despite the growth, despite how far we have come from a family into a nation – individuals still matter. 

And that nation is still made up of individuals and each one of those six hundred and three thousand five hundred and fifty people count as well.  We’ve come a long way from the family that moved down to Egypt and grown exponentially but at the same time we remember, no how big the nation, the people or the community, it still, at its core, about the individuals of which its comprised.