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.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Shoftim - Spreading and Pursuing Justice

According to the old joke one Jew brags to a friend, “My Rabbi is so brilliant that he can speak for an hour on any topic.” 
And the friend responds, “And my Rabbi is so brilliant that he can speak for 2 hours on no topic."

Traditionally we Rabbis are known for talking a lot and some would say too much. What is interesting, is that while Rabbis are known for being wordy, the Torah itself is considered to be a text that never uses a word superfluously.  It is for this reason, that in this week’s Torah portion when we read the word justice repeated, it is all the more striking.

In this week’s Torah portion, we’re told to appoint judges and officers in all of our communities, we are then told tzedek tzedek tirdof - justice, justice, shall you pursue.  It’s interesting to think about the way that one might go about pursuing justice as though chasing after something elusive.  But what is striking is the fact that the Torah says tzedek tzedek - justice, justice.  Many commentators have tried to understand why this word is repeated, some have talked about 2 types of justice that could be pursued, others have suggested that it refers to 2 ways of applying justice.

For me, in the first instance, I think that the repetition of tzedek is a reminder that we must pursue justice for ourselves, but we must also pursue justice for others.  Justice cannot exist in isolation, it has to be justice for us and for other people.  But the other thing that the text does is that it insures that we really pay attention to those 2 words: tzedek tzedek.  In Hebrew, the word tzedek shares its meaning with the word tzedakah which we generally translate today to mean charitable or good deeds.  In this way, the Torah may be expanded to saying that we must pursue good deeds and charitable actions, acts of tzedakah in the world.  But more than this, in the repetition of the word, I think it’s telling us that we need to help others to also pursue justice. 

In this way, as we pursue justice - tzedek, we must also help others to join us in our pursuit.  On Tuesday evening we began the month of Elul, which is a month of preparing for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a month of spiritual reflection.  This year, we’re taking part in the Elul Mitzvah Challenge, where we’re asking people to do a Mitzvah in terms of a good deed, record themselves doing it and then challenge others to also do a Mitzvah themselves www.facebook.com/elulmitzvahchallenge. 

In this way, we’re pursuing Mitzvot in the month of Elul and hoping that we can really help mitzvot to go viral.  What a great way this could be for us as a community together to prepare for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur and what a great way for us as a community to fulfill the words of this weeks Torah portion: tzedek tzedek tirdof - justice, justice, shall you pursue it.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Re'eh - The world as it could be

Last week the world mourned the loss of Robin Williams, a remarkable man who touched so many through his art, and his comedy.  When thinking about his life and the various roles he filled, I always come back to the role of Professor Keating, in Dead Poets Society; this wonderful teacher who really challenged his students.  And when I think about Professor Keating, I always think of that scene as they looked at the photos of the former pupils of the school and Professor Keating whispered to them “carpe diem,  seize the day boys, make your lives extraordinary”.

When I think about Professor Keating’s message to the students, he encouraged them to dream.  He urged them not to be bound up by the world as it is, but to imagine the world as it could be: imagining their lives as they could be, imagining their lives being extraordinary and then pursuing those dreams. 

Professor Keating’s message relates well to this week’s Torah portion of Re’eh when we have a really interesting take of the world as it is and the world as it could be.  As the Israelites prepare to enter the Promised Land, once again we receive the law of the sabbatical year; instructing us that in the 7th year there shall be a remission of debt.   And then the Torah says to us,” there shall be no needy among you, since Adonai your God will bless you in the land that Adonai your God is giving you as a hereditary portion.”  In this way, the Torah imagines once the Israelites reach the promised land there will no longer be any needy people.

And then, only a few verses later, it says “But when there is a needy person among you, one of your kinsmen in any of your settlements in the land that Adonai your God is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman.”  In the space of just a few verses the Torah moves from this ideal situation of no needy people to what will inevitably  be the situation where there will be those in need. 

We can look at the Torah and the way that it precedes as rather beginning with the world as it is and then moving to the world as it could be, the Torah begins with the world as it could be; a world with no needy people.  And, only after considering that option, does it allow itself to then consider the world as it really is.

In this way the Torah allows us that moment where we might dream of what could be without being bound or constrained by what really is.  While it’s important to always have our basis in reality, in the world that we experience, beginning with the world as it could be rather than the world as it is, frees us and opens our minds to dream of how we can really make this world a better place, beyond what might otherwise be possible.


This is the message of the Torah, I think this was also the message of Professor Keating.  And for each one of us, we need to think, how we can imagine that world, and what will we do to build this world that could be extraordinary.

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Two Minutes of Torah: Ekev - Remembering where we've come from

On one of my first trips to New York City I participated in a tour of the Lower East Side.  It was quite amazing to see where the Jewish community had originally settled here and to visit the tenement blocks and the buildings which made up their homes.

For me, what struck me most, was the fact that they lived in such difficult conditions, in such trying and hard times, and yet, through this, they had struggled and overcome the challenges placed before them to establish a community. This was the generation that built the institutions, and laid the foundations, for their children and future generations of the Jewish community and we are the lucky heirs to their building.

In this week’s Torah portion, as Moses continues to talk to the people about what will happen when they enter the land of Israel, Moses warns them, when you have eaten your fill and built fine houses to live in and you have accumulated much wealth, beware, lest then that you forget God. In this way, Moses recognized that when we become comfortable, when we become affluent, when we no longer have to struggle, it’s easy to forget where we have come from. It’s easy to forget our past and to forget those people who put in so much so that we would be able to live in the way that we do. 

In the Torah, Moses was talking about God and the way that God had led our ancestors out of slavery in Egypt through the wilderness to the Promised Land.  And for us, we might wonder about whether we forget God but we might also wonder whether we forget those previous generations who sacrificed so much.

And as we remember where we came from, and remember our community’s history, we might wonder – what is our obligation?  What can we learn from those that went before us?  How have we laid foundations for the future?  Where have we built up communities?

In many ways we are the lucky generation who live in the fine houses and are able to eat our fill and we must always remember those that came before us and we must always be conscious that we have a responsibility not just to their memory, but to the future generations who will come after us.



Thursday, July 31, 2014

Some more articles about Operation Protective Edge and the current situation in Israel

As we continue to watch events in Israel escalating, I feel that it is time to post a few more articles that I have found interesting. With so many people writing about this subject, and with a real escalation in the anger and animosity on both sides, it was a much harder task this time round. I therefore reached out to friends and colleagues for help, and I thank them for their recommendations. Once again I stress that I do not necessarily agree or disagree with these articles, I do however feel that they offer important insights into the situation in Israel and the continuing conflict.

Rabbi Danny  (July 31, 2014)

As Jews, we can’t be neutral in this conflict
My friend and colleague Rabbi Neil Janes offers a letter to those people looking for information about the conflict, and reminds us of why it is impossible to be neutral in approaching this conflict.

7 Things to Consider Before Choosing Sides in the Middle East Conflict
Ali A. Rizvi poses 7 questions which frequently come up in relation to the conflict, and then offers his answers to these questions. He attempts to see things from both sides, attempting to move people away from being “pro-Israel” or “pro-Palestinian”.

You’re wrong to hate Israel or even criticize over Gaza
Marc Goldberg (who I spent a year in Israel  with) writes about the double standards applied to Israel’s actions in contrast to other things that happen in wars and conflicts elsewhere in the world.

We ignore the new anti-Semitism taking hold at our peril
Richard Ferrer warns us of the way that anti-Semitism is taking hold in Europe as people come out to protest Israel’s actions.

No War Is an Island
David Brooks considers why the conflict between Israel and Hamas is actually part of a wider clash within Arab civilization.

Hey, Liberals Who Oppose Israel: You’re All Right-Wingers Now

Liel Leibovitz writes about the people on the left who are supporting Hamas, and questions what supporting Hamas really means and how it is in conflict with the very progressive, liberal values this group seeks to espouse.