Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Tazria-Metzora - Including All

Campaigning has once again begun in the British elections. And, as a result, it is inevitable that there will be debates about immigration policy and immigrants in British society.  Once again, political leaders will do battle trying to determine who is in and who is out.  And, all too often, they will try to score points by being harsh on immigration and the immigrants who have contributed and do contribute so much to British society.  At times, when listening to the politician’s campaign, it will seem like they’re trying to determine who is acceptable to be a part of "our" group and who is not, rather than seeking to find ways to include everyone in society.

In this week’s Torah Portion of Tazria-Metzora, we appear to get a similar kind of situation where the Torah lays down a legal system and laws for who is considered clean and unclean.  And, by virtue of a person’s uncleanliness, who needed to be removed or kept separate from the camp for a period of time.  Tazria-Metzora is often considered to be one of the yucky Torah Portions dealing with subjects such as skin disease, discharge, emissions, leprosy and other bodily functions.  At its core, the Torah Portion deals with when a person is clean or unclean and the ritual by which a person can be re-admitted and re-included in the camp. 

At first glance, when we look at this torah portion, we may therefore assume that it is about exclusion, about searching out the unclean and excluding them from society.  But I would suggest that it is the opposite.  Tazria-Metzora serves as a reminder of the importance of finding ways to include all, so that when a person was removed from the camp because of the suspicion of leprosy, this was a temporary removal.  Ultimately they would be returned and re-admitted into the camp and into society because Judaism and the laws of Tazria-Metzora sought to find a way to include everyone and to find a way back for those who had once been excluded. 


It would be nice if the politicians in this year’s British election remember the message of this week’s Torah Portion. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Shemini - No Words

Often, after having a conversation, when I’m sitting in the car driving home or at my desk, I’ll think – ugh – I wish I’d said this or that and that there was something I really should have said in that moment.  But in the moment I didn’t have the right words and I spoke anyway but with words that were less than they might have been. 

In this week’s Torah portion we read about the death of Nadav and Avihu, the sons of Aaron, who took fire into the Tabernacle and who were then consumed by Adonai.  Immediately after their death, we read that Moses said to Aaron, this is what Adonai spoke, saying “I will be sanctified in them that come near to me and before all the people I will be glorified”. 

And Aaron’s response Vayidom Aaron - And Aaron was silent, and Aaron held his peace.  In that moment, Aaron had no words to offer Moses, no words could be said in response to what his brother had just offered, and so he was silent.  And in the Hebrew, Vayidom we cannot help but hear also the word dam - blood.  Maybe the blood drained from his face, or maybe his cheeks became blood red in anger at what his brother was saying.  We cannot know, but immediately after this, Moses continues to talk, calling members of Aaron's family to carry their kinsmen from out of the Tabernacle.  And then Moses continues speaking to Aaron giving him further instructions.  We have a brief interlude where Adonai actually speaks to Aaron and then Moses continues with further instructions and laws for Aaron, his brother and for his sons. 

At the end of all of this, we get to an incident where Moses queries why the sin offering was not eaten in the holy place, and Aaron says to Moses, and we’ll never know exactly the tone he used, but we can imagine that he was less than pleased.  “Behold this day, they have offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before Adonai and such things have befallen me?  And, what if I had eaten the sin offering today, should it have been accepted in the sight of Adonai?” 

In Aaron’s words, we get a sense of his upset at his brother, at his situation and in everything that has happened.  And Moses' response, Vayishma Moshe - and Moses listened or Moses heard.  In this moment, perhaps Moses realized that there were no words to offer, that throughout this time when he sought to fill the silence with words, what he should have done, what he should have been, was quiet.  Listening to his brother, sharing his pain, and being there to offer support.  Sometimes the right response, the only response, is silence.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Pesach Special - Asking Questions

The central theme of the seder is to ask questions.  And, it’s not just about asking questions, in many ways, it’s about getting the younger children and the younger people around the table to ask questions and to engage with our story.

We read in the Talmud that Abaye as a young pupil was invited to the seder of Rabba.  And, at the beginning of the seder, Rabba instructed the servants to clear all the dishes from the table,  Abaye said why are you removing the seder plates when we haven’t yet eaten?  Rabba said to Abaye, your question has served the same function as the usual questions, the Mah Nishtanah.  So now let’s dispense with those and proceed directly to Magid, the telling of the story.

As we can see from this,  it wasn’t about asking those specific 4 questions, it was about asking questions in general.  And while the seder does lay out the questions that we should ask it also might be seen as an opportunity to  encourage simply the asking of questions.  Because alongside the Mah Nishtanah, which we think of as the 4 questions, we also have the story of the 4 children and we may read this section as 4 more questions posed by children to the adults around the table. 

Pesach says to us, it’s important to ask questions and to be inquisitive and curious.  And, in many ways, this fits beautifully with a festival that is all about freedom and emerging from slavery into freedom.  As free people, we have the ability to ask questions, we have the potential to question those in authority, to question our elders and to ask questions about the way that our society is run; something that slaves never have the opportunity to do.

The problem is, that all too often, we fail to question the authorities in our lives.  We fail to ask important questions of why we should do something, especially when the thing we’re being told to do may feel unjust or wrong.  The seder reminds us that one of the privileges of being free, is the ability and the obligation to ask questions.  In the Haggadah, 'A Different Night' by Noam Zion &  David Dishon (one of the ones that I like to use), it shares a story of Isidor I. Rabi, the Nobel Laureate in Physics.  He was asked why he became a scientist rather than any of the other professions that most of the immigrant kids in his neighborhood pursued.  He said that his mother made him a scientist without intending it, because while every other Jewish child in Brooklyn was asked “Nu, did you learn anything today?” his mother said “Izzy did you ask a good question today?”  The focus on questions, is what he said made him into a scientist. 

We might not become scientists as a result of asking questions but through asking questions, we can insure that we stand up to injustice, that we challenge authority when it abuses its power and that we insure that we appreciate and make use of the gift of being free people.

Pesach is an opportunity for us to celebrate our freedom and we must do this by asking questions.  

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Tzav - Keeping the Flame Burning

When we think about the synagogue and the various symbols and items that we see in every synagogue across the world, we might think of the Aron HaKodesh, the Ark which houses the Torah.  We might think of the bimah, although there are different styles, from which the service is led.  But most centrally, we often think about the Ner Tamid, the everlasting light, that is a requirement in every single synagogue. 

All synagogues have this eternal light, despite the fact that they may look different and may even be lit differently.  Once upon a time it probably would have been a wick in oil that was burning.  Today the Ner Tamid is usually electric and, in some cases, is even solar powered.  Providing new ways of fulfilling an old commandment.  

The Ner Tamid is generally related to the Menorah, the seven branch candelabra that was kept burning continuously in the Temple.  But we might also think about another flame that was in the Tabernacle as we read in this week’s Torah portion.

As we continue with the instructions for the Tabernacle and for the priesthood we are told about the ritual of the burnt offering and we’re told that the fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out.  Every morning, the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well being.  A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar - not to go out.  It is not a Ner Tamid in this case, it is a Esh Tamud.

The text makes it clear that if you want the fire to keep burning, you have to continue feeding the fire.  One of the interesting things about fires are that they burn up the source of their energy and their power so that eventually a candle must extinguish itself when there is no more wick left to burn and it is the same for all fires, eventually they are extinguished. The priests therefore, had the responsibility for insuring that the fire kept on burning.  

Today the Ner Tamid insures that the fire of the candelabra of the menorah still burns. But what of the Esch Tamud, the fire of the altar?  

We no longer have sacrifices, but how can we continue that tradition of the priest and keep that fire burning?  

Our sacrifices have been replaced by our prayers and the words that we recite, but do these words have fire?  For the words to really be a descendant of the Esh Tamid, it is important that they are not simply words but they are words that are accompanied by actions.  The prayers that we recite in the synagogue, the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts, should inspire us to act in the world and should motivate the way that we live.  When we do this, we truly can see the way that we can continue the work of the priest and insure that the Esh Tamid, the eternal fire keeps on burning in each one of us and in our world.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Vayakahel-Pekudei - Take a Break

Have you ever found yourself so immersed in a project that you forget to stop for lunch.  Sometimes we’re working on something that we become so engrossed in what it is we’re doing, so focused on the work at hand that we forget about everything else.  We forget to eat, we forget to sleep, we forget to drink, everything becomes secondary to the task with which we are faced. 
And we know that this is really not the best way to work, and that it’s not good for our productivity  and it’s probably not good for the project with which we’re involved.  But there’s something about it that just keeps us hooked. To the exclusion of everything else.

We might imagine that for the Israelites in the wilderness as they were given the task of building the Tabernacle, of building God’s dwelling place on earth, that this would be the kind of project which would be all consuming.  With all of them dedicating their time and effort round the clock to complete the building project and to have God dwell amongst them.  And, we know that the people were very moved by the project and that they gave more than Moses required and that, ultimately, he had to tell the people to stop in this week’s Torah portion.  Telling them to make no further contributions towards the sanctuary.  

But at the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, in the midst of the description of the building of the tabernacle, we suddenly get the command of Shabbat.  Moses brings the whole Israelite community together and says to them these are the things that Adonai has commanded you to do, on six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a Shabbat with complete rest - Holy to Adonai. 

It seems strange to get the command of Shabbat once again amidst the building of the tabernacle we’ve had this command and instruction already and yet here it is restated in the Torah.  For the rabbis’ the positioning of the Shabbat command here in the midst of the tabernacle building was a clue as to what types of work are prohibited on Shabbat.  And the list of forty works less one, effectively 39 works, come from the work involved in creating the tabernacle.

But I want to suggest, instead of coming here to tell us about what work is, the Shabbat command was included here to tell us how important it is to take a break from our work.  Whatever the project we’re working on, whatever it is that we’re engaged in, is it as important as building the tabernacle, as building God’s dwelling place on earth?  Because even in the midst of that building project, the people knew that they had to take at least one day off a week.  A day of Shabbat, a day of rest for themselves and the community. 


For us, in our lives, they can serve as the inspiration and the reminder that whatever it is we’re doing, however important we feel the project is, however engrossed we are in our work, we still have to take a break.  Shabbat comes as a weekly reminder that while we might consider our work important, to rest is sacred.  And commanded by God.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Welcoming you to my home: Welcoming you to Israel

(This is the text of the sermon that I delivered on March 6th 2015 at The Community Synagogue in Port Washington) 

I want to start this evening by asking you to close your eyes and picture home.

I am sure that all of us will have different images that flash before our eyes, picturing our current houses, the family home in which we were raised, or various other places to which we have a connection. We might even have the picture of people coming into our heads, as we know that home is not just about the bricks and mortar, it is also, and even more significantly, about the people.

Next week my grandparents will be leaving their home, the apartment in which they have lived for the last 18 years. At the age of 87 it is unfortunately no longer practical for them to live on the third floor of an apartment block without an elevator and so they will be relocating to live nearer my uncle and aunt.

I have heard people talk about the challenge and in some cases distress they felt when their parents left the home in which they were raised – their childhood home; but I have never heard anyone speak about the upset at their grandparents moving. I am feeling this sadness right now. While I am sad that their move is necessitated by their old age and in my grandmother’s case her deteriorating health, I am also sad that I will be losing my connection to their apartment.

These grandparents are my mother’s parents, and this apartment is their home in Israel, in the heart of Tel Aviv.  I was trying to work it out recently, and on various trips to visit them, as well as two years when I lived in Israel, I have probably spent close to 6 months squeezed into their small spare room. But more than this, their apartment was my home in Israel, it was my space where I felt comfortable to kick off my shoes, rummage through the kitchen cupboards, and lounge around in front of the television.

When I picture home I have 3 images that come into my mind. In the first instance it is wherever Micol and Gabby are, this is the place that I call home, and it is currently our house in Port Washington. Then there is my parent’s home in London, the house in which they have lived for almost 25 years, and where I spent all of my teenage years and beyond, really growing up. And then there is a third place, my grandparent’s home is the tangible building, but in reality it stretches outside of their walls to encompass the whole city of Tel Aviv and to stretch north, south, east, and west covering the rest of the country of Israel, the other place in the world that I call home.

In the weeks leading up to our community Israel trip I found myself getting increasingly nervous about our ten days in Israel. Yes, there were a lot of logistics to take care of, and various educational resources that needed to be prepared in advance of our departure. But I began to realize that it wasn’t all of this work and the practical details that were making me nervous, I was generally anxious about bringing people from our community to Israel.

This was not about any security concerns, as the participants on the trip commented often they felt so safe that they didn’t even think about security, and it wasn’t about being responsible for 30 other people in a foreign country. My anxiety was the kind of anxiety you feel when you bring someone home for the first time, opening your house to them and introducing them to your family. I wanted them to love the people as much as I do, I wanted them to feel the warm embrace of the country, and I really wanted them to fall in love with the place, so that they too would consider it to be their home.

I would love to spend the next hour sharing pictures and telling you about every element of our ten days in Israel, but I won’t. Instead I want to share with you a few experiences that really speak to the Israel connection our group was able to develop.

When we left for Israel we thought that we were leaving the snow and bad weather behind, little did we realize that we were actually taking it with us.

In the middle of our trip we made our way south to the Bedouin village of Kfar HaNokdim. That evening we were welcomed into their tents, and given the weather luck that we had all trip, it then proceeded to rain for most of the night. People slept as best as they could in preparation for the next morning when we were making our way to Masada for our hike up the mountain.

Now I have been privileged to climb Masada with a variety of groups on several occasions, and the one constant each time has been a little of bit complaining from the participants. They’ve admired the view and they’ve appreciated the history, but they’ve also always moaned about the struggle to the top. This was the first time I have ever climbed Masada without hearing a single word of complaint from anyone in my group.

It might have been because our Community Synagogue members are a hearty bunch, who don’t let mountains stand in their way, or it might have had something to do with the group of people climbing the path alongside us.

As our bus pulled into the Masada parking lot, yes, Israel has not just made the desert bloom it has also ensured convenient parking for tourists, we saw literally hundreds of Israeli soldiers slowly walking up the path towards the base of Masada. As we discovered these young boys, virtually all of them around 18 or 19 years old, were coming to the end of a 50 kilometer hike, through the night, to mark the conclusion of their basic training. While we had heard the rain through our tents, they had been marching outside, in the rain, for over 30 miles, in boots and uniforms, carrying backpacks and supplies.

Some of the boys were limping, others were making their way slowly up the mountain, but all of them were determined to make it to the top. As we walked alongside them it was impossible to complain about our hike to the peak of Masada, knowing what they had been through over the previous 12 hours. I think that none of our group complained because we were in awe of these young men and their dedication. Struck by their youth, they all looked so young; and impressed by the fact these Jewish boys were taking responsibility not just for Israel’s safety and security, but for ours as well.  

On the top of Masada our tour guide Uri told us about the history of Herod’s desert fortress and about the Jews who made their home there in the aftermath of the Second Temple destruction. As we learned about the bitter end to our people’s story atop this mountain, choosing suicide rather than death or slavery, in the distance we saw our Israeli soldiers.

Together they were gathered around Israeli flags, being addressed by their commanders and officers, most of whom were not teenagers, but were in their early 20s. As we heard about the powerlessness of our people on top of this mountain we watched the soldiers chanting and cheering, declaring together Sheynit Masada lo tipul – Masada will not fall again, before singing our national anthem of Hatikva in one unified voice. In this place of death and destruction we bore witness to the Jewish rebirth in the land of Israel and to the young people who are ensuring our Jewish future there.

In what would become a recurring theme on our trip, the weather interfered with our plans for Shabbat afternoon in Tel Aviv, and so instead of a hike we made our way to Kikar Rabin – Rabin Square, in the heart of the city. It was in this square that my sister and I played as children, running around with my parents and grandparents. It was here that I danced with a Torah scroll, celebrating Simchat Torah outside with a group of Hasidim. And it was to this square that I came together with over 200,000 Israelis to remember the legacy of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, 2 years after his assassination.

For the group, I was uncertain of what they would make of this site. There is a powerful monument to Rabin, with stones broken from the Golan Height, placed together at the spot where he fell. But it is a site where you tell a story, rather than looking at ancient buildings or museum pieces from the past. Uri shared his story about being a student in Israel in the aftermath of Rabin’s assassination; of how a somber mood swept across the country, of people crying during lectures for no reason, and of the uncertainty of Israel’s future.

And I shared my story of hearing the horrifying news while at a friend’s Halloween party, of assuming that it must have been the work of an Arab terrorist, never suspecting that it could have been a Jew who did this. And then I talked about how it felt to be surrounded by 200,000 people singing songs of peace and crying as we remembered this hero of Israel, this man who embodied the military struggle for the State of Israel, and died, as he sought to beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks, fighting for peace.

Members of our group were visibly moved, struck by the gravity of the events which took place in the spot on which we stood. And lost in their own thoughts about war and peace, about a man who defended our people, and who gave his life with a song of Shalom, a song of peace, on his lips.

And then towards the end of our trip it snowed, and virtually the entire city of Jerusalem came to a standstill as everything closed down, not for Shabbat, but because of the white stuff all over the ground. We were not to be discouraged, and on Friday morning we wrapped ourselves as warmly as we could, we put on whatever semi-appropriate footwear we had (because who brings snow shoes to Israel?) and we made our way to the windmill in Yemin Moshe, the first Jewish settlement outside the walls of the Old City.

And even in Jerusalem, what do you do when it snows? You build a snowman; or in our case, we built a snow Rabbi. But this was no ordinary snow construction, because our snow Rabbi overlooked the Old City. As we took photographs we captured not just the snow, but the Tower of David and the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem. We did what people do when it snows across the world, but we did it in a place that is steeped in history for our people and for all of the Abrahamic religions.  

Coming from the snow of Port Washington to the snow of Jerusalem was a reminder of the fact that Israel is at the same time like any other place in the world, but also totally unique and different from any other place in the world. It is the place where young men and women, like the soldiers we saw climbing Masada, are determining what the Jewish future will look like, how Judaism and power can coexist, and what it means to live as Jews in a Jewish State. And then as we experienced at Kikar Rabin, it is a young country in a difficult neighborhood, struggling to pursue the values of peace and justice, while at the same time ensuring safety and security for all of her inhabitants and citizens.

As we shared reflections on the afternoon of our final day in Israel, it was clear that the members of our group had found a new place to call home; a place with which they all felt a deep connection through the history, the land, and most importantly the people. In unique and different ways each person in the group had fallen in love with an element of Israel, each love was personal, but it was clear that the fire of passion for this small country had been ignited in the souls of each one of us.

And the challenge for the group, and for each one of us who considers ourselves Ohavei Zion – lovers of Zion, is what to do with that Israel connection now that we are back in America.

I would like to suggest that we need to keep ourselves informed, we need to advocate, and we need to be active in our relationship with Israel.

We need to be informed, ensuring that we are able to go beyond the black and white portrayal of Israel in much of our American media. All too often the issues of Israel are simplified so as to fit into sound bites on the nightly news. We miss the nuance of the arguments, the struggles of a young country, and the challenges of what it means to have our Jewish home in the Middle East. We are lucky to have access to so many sources of information, and we have to be diligent in remaining up to date with what is happening there.

Today, as Israel, and by extension the Jewish world, faces new threats and challenges in the court of public opinion, in the theater of global politics, and on university campuses in America and the Western World, we need to be her advocates and defenders. That is not to say that everything Israel does is right, but it is to say that she deserves to be treated in the same way as any other country, and not to be singled out for abuse, condemnation and attack. We can rely on the Israel Defense Force for military protection, but they need to be able to rely on us for protection in both Global and American politics. We must be their front line defenders and advocates.

And then we must be active in having our say over Israel’s future. We cannot vote in the Israeli elections taking place in a just over a week’s time, but we can vote in the World Zionist Congress Elections. We can have our say on who will represent American Jewry as Jews and Zionists from across the world come together in Jerusalem this October to debate and determine the future for important institutions of our community such as the Jewish Agency, Jewish National Fund, and others. Rabbi Z and I are proud to stand as part of the ARZA slate, and we hope you will take the time to vote for the type of Israel you want to see in the future.

When you board the El Al plane, flying to Israel, the slogan says: hachi babayit baolam. It literally means the most at home in the world, but they translate it as ‘home away from home’. Israel’s national airline, like all of Israel is for us our home away from home. And I hope that each one of us has the opportunity to experience firsthand what it feels like to go home when that home is Israel. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Two Minutes of Torah: Mishpatim - Taking Care of Others

The story is told of 2 men in a boat when one suddenly decides to start drilling a hole underneath his seat, the other man protests – “what are you doing, we’re all going to drown”.  But the man drilling his hole says “it’s none of your business, I want to drill a hole, I like drilling holes and so I’m drilling a hole on my side of the boat, under my seat, what’s it got to do with you.”

When we hear the story we all know that if the man continues  drilling his hole both of them will suffer.  And it’s the same in our lives, we live in relationship with other people and our actions don’t just impact us, but they impact those around us. 

In this week’s Torah portion of Mishpatim, we receive a whole selection of laws to govern Israelite society.  And amongst them we’re given many laws that deal with our relations with other people.  At one point, it says in the Torah, when a person opens a pit, or digs a pit and does not cover it and an ox or an ass falls into it, the one responsible for the pit, must make restitution paying the price to the owner but keeping the dead animal.  And, it says, when a person’s ox injures a neighbor’s ox and it dies they shall sell the live ox and divide its price.  They should also divide the dead animal.  If, however, it is known that the ox was in the habit of goring and its owner has failed to guard it, that person must restore ox for ox but shall keep the dead animal.  


In this way, the Torah insures that we have to be aware of how our actions can impact others.  If I dig a pit, I’m responsible for insuring that it is covered up so that no one falls into it and similarly if I have an ox that is known to attack others, I have to be responsible for taking care of my ox and preventing it from causing damage to someone else’s property or someone else’s animal. 


The Torah was very aware of the fact that it’s easy to be absorbed in our own world, to ignore those around us and to forget that our actions have an impact on other people.  And, in this way, these laws in Mishpatim come as a reminder that we do not live in a bubble.  And, that my actions have an impact on the people around me.  And, I can never ignore that.  

And, more than this, I have to be responsible for my actions and recognize the potential within them for good, and the potential within them to harm other people.  Mishpatim tells us that we should never be the one drilling the hole in the boat, because everyone is going to suffer as a result of our actions.  And it reminds us that when we do cause suffering or damage, we are the ones who have to make amends.  We are the ones who have to make the restitution to the person who has lost and suffered.  We do not live in a bubble.  We have to be responsible for taking care of each other.