Category Archives: Relationships

A Passport- a gateway and a journey

I just received my new passport. The old one was expiring and I dutifully followed the instructions, got a new picture, completed the DS-82 form, mailed it and in the mail was the new passport. But I miss the old one.

I got the old one as I prepared to enter a new phase of my life, leaving a 30-year career in business to become a rabbi. Looking back, it has been a fascinating decade chronicled by this small blue book. Stamps representing my trips to and from Israel as a rabbinical student, my trips through the Former Soviet Union celebrating Pesach in Moscow and cities in Siberia, my honeymoon in Italy with Naomi as a newlywed, the trips to Israel as a rabbi, and a wedding in the Dominican Republic, were all documented by this small blue book with worn edges. Each page is a reminder of a very special experience.

I remember the process of obtaining it, completing other forms and taking other pictures that showed a younger version of me with more hair on top of my head and less gray on the face. The book was empty and new. It was literally and figuratively my passport to my future. Each of those stamps represented an amazing journey. Each was memorialized in that precious little book that I scrupulously guarded but whose inside page I copied just in case my best-laid plans to protect it was subverted.

Extraordinary memories of extraordinary experiences are evidenced in my old passport. It serves as a reminder that we continue to grow and each passing day is another page in our life journey. I reflect back on them and see something I learned and perhaps can share with others. My life is enriched and so too is my capacity to teach.

So now I have the new passport. The picture inside is of an older, current version of me. The pages are clean and new. I can only wonder about the adventures and how those pages might be filled over the next decade. The fresh pages beckon with anticipation and promise. I can only hope that when it is time to replace this contemporary passport, it too will worn and maybe tattered, filled with visas and stamps of exciting travels evoking meaningful memories declaring that my continuing life journey remains a rich experience of growth and sharing.

How Do We Receive Torah

At Shavuot, how we receive the gift of Torah is one of the great questions posed.  I found a path towards understanding in a passage of the Talmud.

One is really two and two is really four. This is not a set of alternative facts but an insight from the Talmud (BT Shabbat 2a) about the nature of things. Shavuot is the time of the giving of Torah. But in any transaction there are two components, giving and receiving; one is really two. But it doesn’t stop there.

Both giving and receiving are either active or passive. In giving, we can thrust it towards another actively or we can be passive and open our hands for the other to take it. Similarly, in receiving, we can actively take the gift with eagerness and enthusiasm, or we can open our hands to passively receive the gift that is to be bestowed upon us. Two is really four.

So at this time of matan haTorah, the giving of the Torah, how do we receive it? Our tradition focuses that this is a gift from God to us and it is about the giving. The Eternal gave it once but we are always receiving Torah. And although we think of ourselves as all being at Sinai in this incredible moment, each generation comes to Torah to take it as their own. It is entirely up to us to accept it passively or embrace it actively.

How will we come to Torah?

Will you grab the Torah with gusto or just accept it. Is it truly a gift a living thing that brings meaning to us, something extraordinary to be treasured, loved, and lived; or is it some musty manuscript kept safely away in an Ark in a place we rarely visit if ever? The choice is ours, collectively and individually.

Perhaps it is this distinction in the way we receive this gift that helped God understand that the generation that received Torah was not the generation ready to enter the Promised Land. For the way we receive a gift can affect how the giver gives the next gift, which builds on the first. If we receive it enthusiastically and with gratitude, the gift giver might be more excited to bestow the next gift. And if we receive it passively perhaps the giver might consider whether, in fact, the recipient was ready for it or for the next gift.

This brings to mind the phrase mitzvah goreret mitzvah (Pirkei Avot 4:2) a good deed encourages more good deeds. So at this special time and place, are we able to exclaim a special Shehecheyanu, enthusiastically offering gratitude to God for this amazing gift of Torah, and use it to live our lives fully and with meaning, and preparing ourselves for God’s next gift?

 

Time to sit down for a beer

I need to talk about the current ad Heineken has produced and also the talk about the talk surrounding the current ad.

For starters, we all need to acknowledge the ad is designed to promote Heineken beer. With this disclaimer, we can proceed. Bottom line, I found the ad had a positive message (beyond Heineken is a good beer to drink with someone). I believe the message was that people operate according to preconceptions whether or not they are fully informed or people hold opinions that keep them from hearing another viewpoint, but it does not have to be so.

The ad was a message about building bridges across those divides, seeing that the other is not merely stupid or a threat, or perhaps something even worse. We can find ways to connect ways to create relationships where they did not exist before; we can find that despite the things that differentiate, our common humanity can be something that brings us together.

The ad is precisely that, a four-minute frame into which the message of building bridges and the selling a product are interwoven. It is neither Shakespeare nor the Bible; although interesting, it is not the best of plots, or cinematic artistry, or even acting. But it is an important message none-the-less, one deserving of notice and embrace, not ridicule or cynicism.

I am struck that because I hold this opinion, some call me out as stupid for liking the ad and even stupider for not knowing how stupid I really am. People are reacting in a way that feels extremely condescending, or just smug,  contemptuous of anyone who does not have the incisive clarity that this dangerous insidious ad requires.

The ad can be scrutinized and might actually be a starting point for some of the serious conversations we need to have, including what the ad omitted, the subtle prejudices it contained, what are the important issues dividing us, etc. But a conversation is hard to have when only one viewpoint is acceptable. It seems like some of the people so vocal in criticizing the ad would have been good “before” characters for the ad. Consider that as a working premise, we share our common humanity. Then over a drink, let’s sit together to talk and listen.

This week’s Torah speaks to our world today

Tazria by Christina Mattison Ebert

Our world seems to be in a particularly harsh place. On all fronts we seem to be ailing. People seem unable to talk with one another; our government and institutions are unresponsive to our needs; countries withdrawing from one another, many spiraling into brutal regimes. Anger, fear, and frustration divide us rather than hope guiding and uniting us. This is the backdrop to the double portion of Tazria/Metsora (Leviticus 12; 1-13:59, Leviticus 14:1-15:33), which interestingly addresses these very issues.

 

These Parshiot contain peculiar rituals that are actually timely messages. The ailments that afflict us are more than skin deep according to the Torah, indicating perhaps some spiritual or emotional sickness perhaps that causes the infirmed to be separated from the community. Because these ailments can infect bodies, clothes and even buildings we recognize that there is something more here than meets they eye. It runs deeper and we are compelled to question what might the Torah be cautioning us about. Torah’s message rarely stops at the edge of The Land so we can engage what these portions say about us. But first, let us examine the Parsha a bit closer.

Tazria continues the conversation about ritual impurity from the previous chapter, Shemini. The Parsha moves into the conversation surrounding Tzaraat, an affliction affecting people. It is often referred to as leprosy because it manifests itself as scaly white patches, but more interesting is the decision to bring in the Priest.

The Priest, instead of a doctor, views the afflicted person to decide if indeed this is Tzaraat. The priest instead of the doctor raises our collective eyebrows. We are not the first to grapple with the texts here. Two of our classic commentators, Rashi and Abarbanel, wonder about this too. Rashi hones in on the phrase that notes the Priest is called when the white patch seems to go deeper than the skin of the afflicted person’s body. Arbarbanel focuses in on the idea that the priest is called instead of a medical Specialist to provide treatment for the individual.

We know that medical treatment options were available. Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans practiced sophisticated medicine. In Exodus and 2Kings Abarbanel notes the use of medical treatments. Our texts speak of something besides some physical problem.

Our tradition has seen afflictions as a punishment for sin against God. Nachmanides says the Divine Spirit keeps bodies, clothes, and homes in good appearance. But when one of them sins, ugliness appears on his flesh, clothes or his house. Later, the text tells us that if the affliction reappears, the clothing is burned and houses were taken down. Sforno, another commentator, suggests that perhaps the seven-day process of isolation of the afflicted is meant to rouse the sick person to repentance. We might build upon the ideas of our teachers to suggest our goal is to remedy and repair, performing Tikkun upon “people,” “clothes,” and “houses” instead of tearing them down.

Afflicted people are those who are motivated solely by their own selfish considerations. The “clothes” represent the identities or communities with which we recognize our place in the society, the roles and responsibilities of our jobs that serve others or only ourselves.   The “houses” are the institutions established to promote the common good, but have become corrupt perhaps undermining their missions, supporting very wrong they were intended to redress.

Judaism teaches us to care for the needy and weak. Clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, and caring for the widow and orphan is our charge. Our American tradition should measure our success by how well we care for the weakest among us. Freedom, liberty, and justice are our core values. They have made us a light to the nations. Our text gives us the opportunity to review what we do and consider course corrections to keep our sacred mission working. But the work begins with us.

Buber reflects that a person cannot find redemption until he/she recognizes the flaws in their own souls. A people likewise cannot be redeemed until it recognizes its flaw and attempts to efface them. Redemption comes only to the extent to which we can truly see ourselves. Redemption is not an act of grace; rather it comes when we make the world worthy of it. Only through our faith and deeds can we make so.

We are charged with a holy mission to be agents in the process of Tikkun and creation. We each are part of bigger things that begin with our own selves: family, country, and the world. How do we assume our responsibility in the work? It starts by living up to the standards to which we aspire, acting with kindness and respect for each other, and finding common ground to promote the common good; we must ensure our institutions embody our values, and actively support organizations that promote those values, here and in the world. Tazria/Metsora challenges us to act as though we are each a priest and to act embracing that each of us is B’tzelem Elohim, bringing the holy where it may not exist and effecting the changes we aspire to see in our lives.

 

 

American Jews in Turbulent Times

 

Lighthouse John Lund

Being a rabbi in Turbulent Times was the theme of the annual convention of reform rabbis. Indeed we live in particularly turbulent times. But it is times like these that can give us perspective and renewed commitment to our ideals.

Life in modern America is arguably the best that Jews have ever experienced. Our liberty and prosperity are superior to any other time in our history. Our forebears fought for our place here and American Jews have now full access to the rights, privileges, and responsibilities of being a citizen. We embrace these blessings and have worked toward expanding them to include others. However, the path forward has not been smooth. There have been times when our achievements and extraordinary blessings have been threatened. But these threats are opportunities that challenge us to do better, examining our resolve and commitment to our values.

Living in turbulent times forces us to ask difficult questions. How do we champion ethics and morals, protecting and preserving them when civil conventions are challenged or dismissed as unimportant? Ethics and morals, however, remain the fabric that keeps us together, binding us, enriching us and keeping us strong. Promoting these is the work that needs to be done now more than ever; this is the seminal and imperative challenge of our time.

The contemporary American landscape has parallels in Judaism; like the Jewish people, America is a nation of laws. The law’s purpose is to create a civil society where people live together respectful of differences and all citizens enjoy equal rights and protections. These laws are also a reminder of the work yet to do. Judaism teaches that changing hearts and minds is an evolutionary process. Compassion in our tradition has developed from the laws we are commanded to follow. We pray that the teachings underlying the laws will eventually be inscribed upon our hearts, but until then, the laws guide us. We recognize these laws and uphold them.

We rely on strong institutions and deeply ingrained principles to safeguard against assaults on these laws, believing that they will withstand the pressures. However, based on the history of our people, we are naturally wary of threats to our way of life. Even for those who believe in this New World, the idea that history might again repeat itself gnaws at us. Our patriotism is deeply intertwined with our Jewish identity. Therefore we become activists to protect and preserve this remarkable American way of life against threats, foreign or domestic, internal or external.

We have learned that however strong our institutions, they require dedication and nurturing by we the people, lest they wither. So now is our time to recommit to the noble purpose that is our country. We affirm the prophetic vision of the Promised Land. Despite all the progress we have made, we know we have so much farther to travel before the dream is fully realized for all. We stand at the threshold, challenging us to move forward toward a vision of what still could be. This dream gives us the courage and the strength we need at this moment in our Jewish and American history to move onward together. So now we redouble our efforts with renewed vigor and purpose to keep forging ahead. Let us be the change we want to see.

 

 

 

 

Shabbat Shalom

This past weekend, I had the honor of attending a wedding. In typical Orthodox fashion, it seemed the immediate world was invited. Friends and family from across the globe came to celebrate. It was an evening of unbridled joy; food and drink were in abundance, but most importantly there was dancing and music.

The Tisch was raucous and the men escorted the groom in a fever pitch of singing and dancing so he could veil his bride. At the conclusion of the ceremony, the crowd gathered to the chuppah to escort bride and groom out with the same energy and fervor.

The band was amazing, keeping everyone on dancing for almost the entire evening. The large dance floor was crowded to overflowing. At first, I tried to watch from the sidelines, clapping to the beat of the music, but an elderly chossid grabbed my hand and pulled me into the circle of other old men dancing and jumping in merriment.

The entire spectrum of Jewish practice was in attendance Sunday night. We were all united in the joy and celebration of a wedding, that magical moment of hope and light shining in a world so desperately in need of it, the central message of the Sheva Brachot. It was amazing to behold and to participate. May it always be so.

Shabbat Shalom

Gad Elbaz beautifully sings the final verse of Lecha Dodi, welcoming the bride to the music of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah.  Enjoy.

 

The Good Guys Won in Philadelphia- A new twist on Terumah

This week’s Parashat Terumah is about the building the Mishkan, the Holy Sanctuary the people built so God could dwell amongst them.

How interesting to think about this Torah portion in light of the incident at Mount Carmel Cemetery. Acts of cowardice reflecting hatred and bigotry have been turned into sacred and holy work where a community has come together as a holy congregation building and re-consecrating this final resting place. The ugliness of desecration has been turned on its head creating the beauty of one community coming together supporting each other in a time of need. The law of unintended consequences or perhaps the Divine that lives in each of us has taken the act of thugs and transformed it into something remarkable. The outpourings of love by the people of greater Philadelphia have brought a profound sense of hope where despair might have otherwise prevailed. It is almost overwhelming. We have more volunteers wanting to assist in this sacred work of rebuilding than we have space available. Faith leaders, politicians, and just regular people have all come together as one.

Through the rebuilding of Mt. Carmel, Philadelphians are demonstrating a profound love for each other, putting those who would seek to divide us with hatred on notice. Whether the acts of depraved individuals or something more widespread, the forces of darkness have not triumphed over the light shining in our sacred community of Philadelphia. The outpouring of my community of my country heartens me. I am deeply grateful to live here in Philadelphia in these interesting times.

Hate has no home here. Together we Stand Against Hate.

 

Listen as Cantor Julia Cadrain of Central Synagogue (NYC) sings Sanctuary: