Thursday, October 16, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Bereishit - God's To Do List

I don’t know about you, but when I have a lot of jobs that need to get done, and I’m feeling a little bit overwhelmed, rather than start the work, I like to write a “to do list”.  I’ve always feel that much better once I’ve written down my “to do list” and I can then start crossing things off as I work my way through it. I know of one person who adds "write a to do list" as the first item to ensure at least one thing will be crossed off that day. 

I don’t know that God had a “to do list” ready when beginning the work of creating the world in this week’s Torah portion, but from the structured and ordered way that God works thru everything, one imagines that there was at least a plan that God was following. 

Day one – Let there be Light.  And there was light.  And then the separation of the light into day and the dark into night.

Day two – the separation of the water.

Day three – the creation of the dry land. 

And so on and so forth.  Each day following the specific details of what God needed to create.  Building one upon the other until eventually on the sixth day, God creates us – humanity.

In reading the account of the creation of the world in this week’s Torah portion, it all seems very structured and then in Pirkei Avot (the ethics of our ancestors), they come along and suggest that 10 things were created at the very end just before that first Shabbat.  These include, the mouth of the earth that swallowed Korach, the mouth of the world that followed the Israelites through the wilderness, the rainbow that Noah saw.  And, my favorite when it suggests tongs which were used to make the first set of tongs. 

What I love about this Mishnah is that it creates for me this image at the very end of creation, of God rushing around to make sure that these last few things were ready.  For me, the message is, that there are always some jobs that are left to be done.  No matter how ordered and structured the process is, there’s always a little bit more that we can do.  And, I like to think that God didn’t quite finish everything that needed to be done.  There were a few jobs left to be done on the “to do list”. A few things that didn’t get crossed out.  There just wasn’t enough time before that Shabbat to get everything done.  And that’s where we come in.  We were created to be God’s partners in the work of creation.  We were created, so that we might continue the work of God’s creation and perfect this world. 

The incompleteness of the world was intentional.  It was intentional because it gave us a job which we had to do.  As we read about creation in Parashat Bereishit, we might think that everything was done.  The world was created and now we just had to inhabit it.  But that misses the message that we also have a responsibility to this world.  We have a responsibility to continue checking things off God’s “to-do list” to continue the work of creating and perfecting our world.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Sukkot Special

Most of our Jewish festivals have some symbols that we associate with them.  On Sukkot, in many ways, we actually have five.  On the one hand, we have the Sukkah, the temporary dwelling place that we build, reside in, and eat our meals in during the festival; but then we also have the Lulav and Etrog, really the arba'a minim - the four species, which are necessary for the performance of various Mitzvot associated with Sukkot. 

The arba'a minim which consists of the Etrog, the Palm (lulav), the Myrtle (hadas) and the Willow (arava) are shaken around ourselves on each day of the Festival.  It is the part of the festival that always seems to engage the young people as they have the opportunity to shake the Lulav and Etrog in all different directions. 

There are many interpretations of the symbolism of these four species.  Some associate them with parts of the body, others with the elements, but my personal favorite is the one which associates them with different members of the community of Israel. 

The Etrog, the Lulav, the Myrtle and the Willow  are divided by some according to taste and smell.  In this way the Etrog has taste and smell, the Lulav has taste, but no smell, the Myrtle has smell but no taste and the Willow has neither taste nor smell.  This is associated and said to represent, Jews and our wisdom and our good deeds.  Some Jews have wisdom and good deeds, some Jews have wisdom but no good deeds, others have good deeds but no wisdom and some Jews have neither wisdom nor good deeds.

But, to perform the Mitzvah of the Lulav and the Etrog, we have to take all four species together and shake them.  Without each one of these four species the Mitzvah is incomplete.  And, so too, it is with our Jewish community. We all bring various levels of wisdom and good deeds but we are all necessary for the Jewish community to be complete.  From the wisest and the most  righteous to the least wise and the least righteous.  Each one of us needs to be present and involved and engaged for the Jewish people to flourish.

Sukkot, coming on the heels of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippurm can sometimes feel like the poor relation.  The synagogue is packed over the High Holy Days and then there is an inevitable, and unfortunate, drop off into Sukkot.  And, yet, Sukkot is such a joyful festival filled with so much celebration that I often feel that those people who come for just Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur really miss out in not joining us to celebrate on Sukkot and as the arba'a minim, the four species remind us we need everyone to be present.

This Sukkot may we open the doors of our Sukkah to welcome all Jews in, whether they are like us or different so that we as a community can be complete

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Yom Kippur Special

Recently, thanks to the Rabbi’s without Borders alumni list, a number of jokes have been circulating that might be appropriate to use for the High Holy Days.  I want to share one with you:

A Jew goes to his Rabbi and says, "I’m done with Judaism."  
The Rabbi says, "Why is that?"  
And he says, "Well, I’ve been coming every single year for the High Holy Days and I think that Judaism is just so serious, somber and boring."
The Rabbi replies, "Why didn't you say so? You've just been coming to synagogue on the wrong days, come back for Simchat Torah and Purim and then you’ll see, Judaism is actually very different from what you’ve previously thought."
So the man takes the Rabbi’s advice and a year later he storms back into the rabbis office and says "I’m done with Judaism, it’s all fun but it’s just not serious enough."

When we think about Yom Kippur, we think about it as the most serious and solemn day within our Jewish calendar, and yet, when we go back to the Mishnah we read that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, there were never happier days for the Jews than the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.  From those days the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so they should not embarrass those who did not own such and then the daughters of Jerusalem would go and dance in the vineyards and say young man lift up your eyes and see what you choose.

The 15th of Av has become effectively a Jewish Valentines Day where we celebrate love.  But Yom Kippur as a day of happiness seems quite far removed from what many of us experience.  In reality, Yom Kippur is a serious day, it is a day when we stand before God and admit our sins and pray for forgiveness.  But at the same time, there’s a transitional moment as we come towards the end of Yom Kippur approaching the Neilah service where we have faith that our prayers have been heard, that our prayers have been accepted and that we have been forgiven.  

In this way we move from somberness into joy and celebration at the year that lies before us.  On a day such as this it would be appropriate to then think about our families and think about finding a partner to spend one’s life with, and that gives us the joyfulness of Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur is a serious day within our calendar, and there is a somberness to much of the day.  But at the end of the day, we have faith, that we will be forgiven, we have faith that a year is opening up before us, and as such, we move to a mood of celebration. 

May this Yom Kippur be for us a day of reflection, a day of serious prayer and may it culminate in becoming a day of happiness. 

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Haazinu - On Eagle's Wings

Sometimes when watching nature programs, I marvel at the majesty and the beauty of the creatures being displayed (often with Sir David Attenborough narrating).  And then, a moment later, after admiring the beauty of the lion, you see it pouncing and killing its prey, and this thing of beauty turns into something quite savage.  The nature programs often move seamlessly between the beauty and the beast.  We know that certain animals might be majestic and beautiful to look at, but at the same time, we know that they can be savage killers.

In this week’s Torah portion, as Moses continues his final address to the people, he implores the Israelites to follow God’s ways, making it clear to the people that their suffering in the past has come about as a result of their rejection of God and the commandments which were given to them.  There is also a sense of Moses' own mortality with this fear of how they will fare once they enter into the promised land and he won’t be there to protect them, leaving them with Joshua and with God. 

One of my favorite images from Moses’ song is the comparison he makes between God and an eagle. "Like an eagle who rouses his nestlings, gliding down to his young, so did God spread God’s wings and take you, bearing you along on his pinions". This image was first used at Sinai, as we recalled that God brought us out of Egypt "on eagles’ wings". And it is an interesting image to use for God. The eagle, which can be dangerous and deadly, is also associated with rescue and redemption. It has the potential to be a killer, but it also has the capability to be a savior. In this context, we are urged to relate to the eagle not as its prey, but as its child; for the eagle was known to be particularly caring and nurturing of its young.

On the banks of the Jordan Moses’ song emphasizes the fact that God has the power to save and the power to punish. There is a hope that as we enter the Promised Land God will be like the eagle hovering overhead, keeping a watch on its young, and ready to swoop down and protect them if necessary. But the eagle is also, by its nature, a bird of prey. And there is the implicit threat that this bird of salvation may become an eagle of death, swooping down to attack rather than diving down to help and protect them.

As we read this torah portion on Shabbat Shuvah between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, this imagery of life hanging in the balance is very appropriate as we consider how we will be judged by God.

The image of the eagle reminds us that there is God who can save and God who can punish.  At this time of year as we continue with Teshuvah (repentance), Tefillah (prayer), and Tzedakah (righteous deeds) we hope that we will find the God of salvation waiting for us on Yom Kippur.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Nitzavim-Vayeilech - Our Words and Deeds

It may seem like a strange place to start a Dvar Torah, but I remember when Pope Francis was installed as the new Pope that many people were talking about his inspiration, St. Francis of Assissi.  At the time many people made reference to a quote from St. Francis: "Preach the Gospel always and if necessary use words.”

I was struck by this quote, and found it very interesting to think about the way that we preach through our actions and not just when standing up on the bimah and delivering a sermon.  And it’s something I’ve been thinking about ever since.

In this week’s Torah portion, we’re coming very close to the end of Mose’s life and the end of his speech which he has been delivering to the Israelites on the other side of the Jordan.  Part of the instructions this week, is about where to find Torah.  Moses said to the people, “It is not in the heavens that you should say who among us can go up to the heavens and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it, neither is it beyond the sea that you should say who among us can cross to the other side of the sea and get it for us and impart it to us that we may observe it.”  He then says the thing is very close to you, "it’s in your mouth and in your heart to observe it." 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea of Torah being both in our mouths and in our hearts and what Moses was really trying to say to the people.  On one level, I think that this is an indication that we need to internalize the message of Torah, we need to make it part of ourselves, not something that we see as distant and separate.  Hidden away in the Aron HaKodesh, in the Ark, in the synagogue, but rather something that infuses and is part of our daily life and our everyday existence. 

But at the same time, I’m struck by the fact that Moses said in our mouth and in our hearts.  In this way, I think that Moses was reminding us that when we do Torah properly, it’s about our actions and our words being in sync.  There needs to be an agreement between our words and our actions to fully observe the Torah.  Isaac Bashevis Singer, famously said, we know what a person thinks, not when they tell us what they think, but by their actions. 

In this week’s Torah portion, Moses reminds us that it’s all well and good to speak about Torah, to talk about Torah, and to teach Torah but the important thing is to couple what comes out of our mouths with what’s in our hearts and our actions in this world.  In this way, we can teach Torah by the way that we act and, if necessary, we can also use our words.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Ki Tavo - The Power to Choose

When spending time with my nieces and nephews, I've learned about the concept of making good or bad choices.  When they have an option set before them, it's clear that the good choice involves doing what their parents tell them, following the rules, or making a safe decision.  But, as young children, they also have the potential of making bad choices, doing something dangerous or disobeying the rules, and they know that for the good choices there are positive consequences and for the bad choices there are negative consequences.

For Gabby, our 17 month old, she’s not yet really at the point of understanding good and bad choices, but already she has some sense of what is right and what is wrong.  And you can see it in her face when she is being intentionally mischievous.   

In this week’s Torah portion, as the Israelites prepare to enter the land of Israel, Moses, once again reminds them of the choice that they have.  Moses says to them “If you obey Adonai your God to observe faithfully all the commandments which I adjoin upon you this day” and then goes on to list the blessings that will be before them. Blessed shall you be in the city, blessed shall you be in the country, blessed shall be the issue of your womb, the produce of your soil, and so on.

But then, Moses turns it on its head, and says, if you do not obey Adonai your God observing faithfully all of the commandments and laws which I enjoin upon you this day then these will be the curses that will come upon you, Cursed shall you be in the city, Cursed shall you be in the country, Cursed shall be in your basket and your  eating bowl,  Cursed shall be the issue of your womb and the produce of your soil.

In this way, Moses lays out blessing and curse and in the text, one can see clearly that they are opposites of one another.  Blessed in the city or cursed in the city.  Blessed in the country or cursed in the country.  It’s not hard when reading the text, to think about which one we would choose, obviously we would want the blessing.  However, throughout our history we can see how often it seems to be the curse which has come our way, rather than the blessing.

But what is striking to me at this point in our Torah, as we get towards the end of Torah and the end of the Book of Devarim, is the fact that we, as a people, have the power to choose.  In many ways, we have made that step into adulthood, into a moment where we can take responsibility for our actions.  We can choose between blessing and curse.  This would not have been possible as a slave people preparing to leave Egypt.  This is only possible for us as free people preparing to enter our own Promised Land.  

Whatever we might think about the blessings and curse set before us, what is significant in this week's Torah Portion, is the fact that we, now, have a choice.  We have reached that point in our people’s history where we can choose.  We have the power to choose the blessing or the curse.  And in many ways this is the important thing in terms of how far we have really come.  

Friday, September 5, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Ki Tetze - A Sustainable Environment

Over this summer, my wife and I joined the New York City Zoo as a result of our daughter Gabby’s love of animals.  So far we've been to the zoo in the Bronx, the zoo in Queens, the zoo in Central Park and even the New York Aquarium and each time, Gabby has loved watching the animals at play.  She’s developed favorite animals, she makes the noises of some of the animals, and she generally has a wonderful time as a child looking at these wonderful creatures.

But for us, as her parents, while we appreciate the animals and certainly do enjoy them, we’re also struck by the fact that across these zoos, at various points, are all sorts of posters and signs reminding us about the threat that some of these species are facing in the wild. Talking about our responsibility to the environment and about the dangers of the way that human behavior is really challenging the sustainability of animal life on this planet. 

It's worth noting that the Torah has an opinion about this.  In this week’s Torah portion, we read the fascinating line “if a birds nest chances to be before you in the way in any tree or on the ground whether there are young ones or eggs and the mother sitting upon the young or upon the eggs you shall not take the mother with the young, but you shall let the mother go, and take the young to you”.

While we might be a little struck, at least in our modern world, and with our modern sensibilities about the idea of taking the young from a nest, this was the way that society functioned.  But, what’s striking here is that while you could have made off with the mother and the young, or the mother and the eggs, the Torah comes in and clearly prohibits this from happening. 

And, a reward is even suggested immediately afterwards, and it says that it may be well with you and that it may prolong your days.  This is clearly an important enough commandment that the Torah specifies the reward for fulfilling this command.  In prohibiting the removal of the mother together with its young the Torah is making a statement about how we use and abuse the environment and what is appropriate and inappropriate.

But with the reward, it's striking to see that it says it may be well with us, but it is also about prolonging our days.  Now we may read this in the sense of prolonging our personal life, that we will receive a long life by fulfilling this commandment, or perhaps we should read this in terms of our planet and our species as a whole.

If we don’t take care of the environment, if we don’t invest in sustainable environmental projects, then our days on this planet are numbered.  And, so in many ways, as we fulfill this obligation in this week’s Torah portion, we don’t just prolong our personal days, we prolong our days as custodians of planet Earth.  As those who back in the Garden of Eden were told to till it and tend it.