Starting the Year Right: Lessons from Simchat Torah

Just when you thought that we were finished with the holiday season, there is more. Tonight we celebrate Shmini Atzeret and then on Thursday night we start Simchat Torah. In Israel these two holidays are celebrated on the same day. In many ways Shmini Atzeret is a completion of the Sukkot holiday. But what is Simchat Torah? I have always understood it to be the day that we celebrate the completion of the liturgical reading of the Torah. Why do we start reading the Torah right after Sukkot on Simchat Torah instead of another time like  Rosh HaShanah , the Jewish New Year, or even Shavuot, the holiday celebrating the receiving of the Torah?

Sukkot is a time in which we surround ourselves with nature and bask in our being dependent on God. Even before we get to all of the rich symbols of Sukkot we see that the experience is challenging us to live in an Eden-like environment. I think that Simchat Torah is less about finishing reading the Torah then a perfectly timed re-reading of the Torah. Coming on the heels of Sukkot, a holiday in which we were able to easily achieve the will of God, we read the story of Adam and Eve again. This time, maybe we will have learned the lesson.  Instead of starting off the year with the negative reinforcement of getting kicked out of Eden, we start the year off right dwelling in the Sukkah of God. As we have been saying since the advent of Elul,

One thing I ask of the Lord, that I seek- that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to see the pleasantness of the Lord and to visit God’s Temple every morning. ( Psalms 27:4)

In this light we see that Shmini Atzeret is a very holy time in which we leave Eden on our own terms. We are not kicked out, instead we leave the Sukkah determined to make the world a better place. We should all be blessed with a year of learning lessons the first time around, giving people we love positive encouragement to succeed, and finding our own ways to make the world a better place.

Promises for My Gay Children: Reflections of an Orthodox Rabbi for Yom Kippur

As I prepare for Yom Kippur, I have been giving some thought to all of my and our collective sins. To paraphrase the Al Het Prayer, I have been thinking about both the sins which I have committed intentionally or unintentionally. What have been my sins of commission and my sins of omission? What have I done inadvertently by not doing anything at all? How will I be judged for my actions?

I was thinking about this yesterday when I read a profound blog post by John Pavlovitz, a pastor of North Wake House Church in North Carolina. In his piece entitled If I Have Gay Children: Four Promises From A Christian Pastor/Parent he boldly came out as a person of faith in support of his and other peoples’ children who might be Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, or Questioning.

Reading this, I got to thinking ahead to the Torah portion we traditionally read in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. This portion is comprised of a list of sexual prohibitions (Leviticus 18:1 – 30). Why would we read the primary religious source used to substantiate homophobia on our most holy day of the year? While I might not have an answer to this question, I do feel that silence on this issue is its own sin.

As a human being, I feel a need to speak out on this because there are those for whom it is not just their comfort or happiness that are at risk, but their very health, safety, and actual lives. As a Jew, I cannot stomach senseless hatred toward people because of who they are. An integral part of our Jewish identity comes from our experience as victims of the world’s hatred. We cannot stand idly by as other people suffer from bigotry. As a Rabbi, I feel a need to speak out for justice.

I feel a visceral need to speak out on this issue, not despite my being an Orthodox Jew, but because of that fact. As it says in the Statement of Principles on the Place of Jews with a Homosexual Orientation in the Orthodox Community, which I feel honored to have signed, “Embarrassing, harassing or demeaning someone with a homosexual orientation or same-sex attraction is a violation of Torah prohibitions that embody the deepest values of Judaism.”

To this end, in the spirit of Yom Kippur, I wanted to make my own promises to my children. Amen to Pastor Pavlovitz (1-4 paraphrased from his blog):

1) If I have gay children, you’ll all know it.
My children won’t be our family’s best kept secret. If my children come out, we’ll be out as a family.

2) If I have gay children, I’ll pray for them.
I won’t pray for them to be made “normal”. I’ve lived long enough to know that if my children are gay, that is their normal. I will pray for them just as I pray for all of my children.

3) If I have gay children, I’ll love them.
I don’t mean some token, distant, tolerant love that stays at a safe arm’s length. It will be an extravagant, open-hearted, unapologetic, lavish, embarrassing-them-in-the-school cafeteria, kind of love.

4) If I have gay children, most likely; I have gay children.
If my kids are going to be gay, well they pretty much already are. They are today, simply a younger version of who they will be; and today they’re pretty darn great.

5) If I have gay children, I expect them to participate in community.
Not only are my children a critical part of my family, but they need to know that they are a critical part of the larger Jewish family. We are a kehilah kedosha- sacred community. Bigotry and hatred pose a much bigger risk to this sanctity than the issues that one might profess regarding my children’s orientation. I promise to fight with anyone who would want to limit their involvement in school, camp, synagogue, etc.

6) If I have gay children, I will learn Torah with them.
Learning Torah is a central Jewish practice. Engaging Torah writ large is the life blood of our people. I believe in the Torah. My commitment to my children is to have them join the conversation of our people and to have their voices heard. I promise to learn with my children– not just the nice parts, but also the Torah portion we read traditionally in the Yom Kippur afternoon service. I expect to listen and promise to have their interpretation heard. And when my time comes, I look forward to giving God some feedback. They should have the confidence that I will be waiting there for them when they meet the Judge on high. My commitment to my children is unwavering and eternal.

7) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their partnership.
My wife is my ezer k’negdi- she is my helpmate. She pushes me to make sure I am my best self. The key to sustained happiness and a life of meaning is finding a partner with whom to share your life. Having a healthy partnership is not just the key to surviving in the world; it is the key to thriving. This partnership is the bedrock for a bayit ne’eman b’yisrael, a faithful home in Israel, which is the basic building block for Jewish society. I hope that we were good role models for partnership and my children should expect that we do not just tolerate their life partner, but that we find ways to celebrate that partnership.

8) If I have gay children, I will celebrate their family.
Our children are the greatest joy in my life. While my children might not have children in a “traditional” manner, it does not mean that they should not feel the obligation of Pru uRevu- to procreate and raise another generation of proud Jews. I promise to be a great Zayde to link the next generation back to our past. While my gay children will have taught me about liberation, perhaps being older I have what to share with their children about exodus from Egypt. It is my job to hide the Afikoman; I expect their children to read the four questions. I promise that they will never question their connection to Jewish history and their role in our lustrous future.

There is no doubt that some of you may be offended by what I have said here. But as Pastor Pavlovitz wrote, “This isn’t about you. This is a whole lot bigger than you.” It is about my children and the parent I aspire to be. On these issues I could not stay silent. That is how I hope to be judged on Yom Kippur.

-Reposted from the Canteen

 

In the Field – Thank You Camp Directors

According to Hasidic thinking the days of Elul are the time when “the King is in the field.” The metaphor follows that gaining an audience with the King during Tishrei is a whole to-do. We must travel to the capital city, arrange an appointment, and then get permission to enter the palace. It may be days or weeks before we are finally allowed to enter. And even then, when we do finally get to see the King, the audience is likely to be short and very formal. Lost among the throngs of people, it is hard to imagine it being a deeply personal interaction. Since very few of us actually live in the capital city, these royal surroundings we experience during the High Holidays makes us feel out-of-place. By the time we get there we might have even forgotten why we came to seek the audience of the King in the first place. It hardly seems like a good plan for a meaningful experience.

jca_C130629-0122 crop

Once a year, the King leaves the capital to visit the various constituents of the Kingdom. According to the Rabbi Schneur Zalman (the first Lubavicher Rebbe) during Elul “anyone who desires is granted permission and can approach the King and greet the King. The King received them all pleasantly, and shows a smiling countenance to all” (Likkutei Torah, Re’eh 32b) Now a King can’t just enter a city unannounced. This explains the shofar. Here in the field the formality is transformed into familiarity. We the common folk are allowed to come out to greet the King and receive personalized blessings. During Elul, with limited effort, the King is accessible. We just need to go out and greet the King.

When I try to imagine that space of meeting the King in the field I am transported to rich memories from my youth in nature at camp. Jewish summer camp is an amazing place where many of us had our first experiences of spirituality, community, and personal connections to Jewish life.

In my six years working at the Foundation for Jewish Camp I am consistently amazed by the senior leadership at camp. Each of them in their own way play an incredible role in setting the stage for joyous Judaism in their camp utopia. While most of the year they are running a business called camp, when the time comes to move up to camp they are transformed. You will see many of them walking around their camps picking up trash as if you were in their living rooms. They treat camp as their home and they invite hundreds of people to sleep over. Walking around camp they know everyone’s names, their stories, and how to make personal connections. They decide who stays and who goes. They are responsible for so many lives, but they are not cowering behind their desks. Rather, they are out there on the playing on the baseball field. In the environment of camp the senior leadership is king, but camp is special because they know that their power is making room for others and being accessible. Each camp is creating an environment in which their campers and staff feel that they belong, make a difference, and are part of something bigger then themselves. We all owe the camp leadership a great deal. Thank you. In these moments we can experience the majesty of Elul.

Have a wonderful New Year.

- Reposted from Canteen Blog

Getting Past the “How” of Torah: For the Love of Learning

In Nitzavim VaYelech, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the reception of the Torah. There we read:

For this commandment which I command you this day, it is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say: ‘Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say: ‘Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it to us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?’ (Deuteronomy 30:11–13)

Learning should be hard, but not to hard and definitely not out of reach. Here we see learning Torah depicted as some elaborate scavenger hunt. What zeal would we bring to trying to learn Torah if it was in fact hidden in the heaven or on the other side of the ocean?

I was thinking of this when I saw this article on dangerous journeys to school around the world. Here are two pertinent images:

Not in Heaven:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-25

Beyond the Sea:

children-going-to-school-around-the-world-42

It is inspiring to look at the rest of the images. In the world there are so many barriers to education, but as you can see there is still a hunger to learn and grow.

In our community there are many efforts to make Torah more accessible, but still people feel alienated. What are we missing? Perhaps we have made Torah too accessible? We have lost our zeal. Would we try harder if it was in heaven or across the sea? But I do not think that is all of it.

We fail because we have not done a good job expressing the “why”? Yes I am Hassid of Simon Sinek.  And if you have not seen this TED talk please stop everything and watch it now.

Why is learning valuable? I have my thoughts on this, but for now I just want to put the question out there. In Sinek’s words,

People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it. And if you talk about what you believe, you will attract those who believe what you believe.

As we prepare for the High Holidays it is interesting to think about your own “why”. And once we figure out our “why” it will not matter if learning Torah is in heaven or across the sea, that is just a “how”.

Creating Memory – 9/11 for Another Generation

This week we commemorated the anniversary of 9/11. This was a transformational day for me personally. A the time of the event I was learning in yeshivah and living in Manhattan. There are so many memories I have from that time it is hard to imagine communicating them to someone who has not experienced it. I was shocked to realize that all of the Bnai Mitvah from now on were not even alive when 9/11 happened. I pause  to ask, how will we communicate the nature and gravity of this event to the next generation?

I was thinking about this when reading Ki Tavo, this week’s Torah portion. There we read about the ritual of Bikkurim, bringing the first fruit on Shavuot to the Temple. About this we read:

And you shall come to the priest that shall be in those days, and say to him: ‘I profess this day unto the Lord your God, that I am come unto the land which the Lord swore unto our fathers to give us.’ And the priest shall take the basket out of thy hand, and set it down before the altar of the Lord your God. And you shall speak and say before the Lord your God: ‘A wandering Aramean was my father, and he went down into Egypt, and sojourned there, few in number; and he became there a nation, great, mighty, and populous. And the Egyptians dealt ill with us, and afflicted us, and laid upon us hard bondage. And we cried unto the Lord, the God of our fathers, and the Lord heard our voice, and saw our affliction, and our toil, and our oppression. And the Lord brought us forth out of Egypt with a mighty hand, and with an outstretched arm, and with great terribleness, and with signs, and with wonders.  ( Deuteronom7 26:3-8 )

The generation who entered the land of Israel did not have first hand experience of the slavery and redemption in Egypt. This ritual was a means for this next generation to preserve a memory they never had. It is interesting that this ritual had a script. We learn later that in order to make the script more accessible the priest would say it and the person coming would repeat it.

We have a crises in being Jewish today. How will we share our memories with the next generation? I think we can point out a few things from the ritual of Bikkurim. Like the priest repeating the words,  we need to find ways to make it more accessible to more people. We need to build this difficult memory into something festive and not let the next generation get stuck in the gloom We also need to find the balance between the script that they need to say and the innovation. The next generation needs to find a way to breathe their own imagination into the ritual in order create their own memories around the ritual.

The script from this Bikkurim ritual is the foundation for the Hagadah. The Hagadah is the model of balance between tradition and innovation in order to keep memories vital throughout history.  In every generation we are to see ourselves as having been redeemed from slavery in our own Egypt. I would venture to say it is the most rewritten book in history. In order to get my children to connect to Jewish History  or even 9/11 I need to give them the space to explore what these events mean to them in their lives without the full burden of my understanding of history and what it means to me in my life. Rituals help preserve a dynamic tension between tradition and innovation. Without this tension we will break the chain linking our past to our future and our future to our past.

Fence on The Roof- 50 Years Since Fiddler

It has been 50 years since the production the Fiddler on the Roof. Til this day it stands as a unique artistic phenomena  explaining the old world Jew to the contemporary American audience. In her great article on the subject Professor Ruth R. Wisse brilliantly explores some of the challenges presented in the theatrical and film adaptations of Tevye and his Daughters (or Tevye the Dairyman) and other tales by Sholem Aleichem. Like others Professor Wisse thinks they went too far in rewriting  Tevye to make him more accommodating  to the new world. While this might be true, the idea of adaptation itself was part and parcel of the original conception of the character of Tevye. How will the simple old world Jew make his way in the emerging complex new world?

These issues are themselves explored in renaming the work as the Fiddler on the Roof. The title stems from  Marc Chagall surreal paintings of Eastern European Jewish life which often including a fiddler.

   

In the play Tevye says:

A fiddler on the roof. Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn’t easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it’s so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word: Tradition!

The Fiddler is a metaphor for survival, through tradition and joyousness, in a life of uncertainty and imbalance. While life beyond Anatevka might be much more pleasant and simple, it seems that here America in relative security we are struggling to keep our tradition.

I remember when I was little I was climbing on the roof of the garage. My mother came yelling,”If you fall off there and break your leg I will smack you”. I was thinking about this and Dr. Wisse’s great article when reading Ki Tetzei , this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

When you build a new house, make a fence around your roof so that you may not bring the guilt of bloodshed on your house if someone falls from the roof. (Deuteronomy 22:8

Obviously their architecture was different at that time and they actually used their roofs, but still I have to ask, who would be stupid enough to go on a roof? Well, the Torah wanted us to take precautions even for the person who might end up on the roof. How might we preserve this sacred balance as we try to maintain our tradition in the 21st century?

This makes me reflect on the first teaching in the Perkey Avot. There we learn, ” Be cautious in judgment. Establish many pupils. And make a safety fence around the Torah.” ( Avot 1:1) If we are “cautious in judgment”  and work in the service of universal justice and not just “what is good for the Jews”, we will not have to worry about continuity. Simply put we will have “many pupils”. When we have many pupils will have many different interpretations. While this is exciting it might ultimately erode our sense of having one community to marshal a more just world. To this ends we need to build a fence. I realize that everyone will have different notions of what these limits are, but we can all agree we need them. With theses fences in place each of us needs to find our own way to become that Fiddler on the Roof.

Stammering Justice

Stuttering, also known as stammering, is most commonly associated with involuntary sound repetition, but it also encompasses the abnormal hesitation, blocks,  or pausing before speech. Stuttering is generally not a problem with the physical production of speech sounds or putting thoughts into words. Despite popular perceptions to the contrary, stuttering does not affect and has no bearing on intelligence. Apart from their speech impairment, people who stutter are normal. Anxiety, low confidence, nervousness, and stress therefore do not cause stuttering, although they are very often the result of living with a highly stigmatized disability.

Although the exact etiology of stuttering is unknown, both genetics and neurophysiology are thought to contribute. A variety of hypotheses and theories suggests multiple factors contributing to stuttering. Auditory processing deficits have been proposed as a cause of stuttering. Stuttering is less prevalent in deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals, and stuttering may be improved when auditory feedback is altered. Although there are many treatments and speech therapy techniques available that may help increase fluency in some stutterers, there is essentially no “cure” for the disorder at present.

So, what is my sudden interest in stuttering? In Shoftim, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the establishment of the court system. There we read:

Tzedek Tzedek-Justice, justice shalt you pursue, that you may live, and inherit the land which the Lord your God gives you. ( Deuteronomy 16:20)

Why the repeating word, “Justice”? Most commonly it translated to assume that it is emphatic. As to say, “Justice you will surely pursue”. But, maybe this reading overlooks the speaker.

When Moshe is called to be God’s messenger, he resists saying, “Please, O Lord, I have never been a man of words…. I am heavy of mouth and heavy of tongue.” (Exodus 4:10). From this the Rabbis concluded that Moshe had a stutter.  Rashi  explains k’vad peh, “heavy of mouth,” and k’vad lashon, “heavy of tongue,” by which Moshe describes himself, as stuttering. Rashi translated it into medieval French word balbus, stuttering or stammering (from which comes the modern French verb balbutier, to stutter).

Moshe had a unique relationship with God and surely the voice of God. In this you can also say that he had an auditory processing issue.  It does not seem the Moshe has a problem communicating with people when God is not around. Maybe it the presence of God that causes Moshe to have this auditory processing problem and this stutter.

If you made it this far in my argument maybe you will join me in this last question. If all this is true, why is this the one time the Torah tepresents Moshe’s stuttering in print? Maybe it has something to do with the pursuit of justice itself. Beholding true justice would mean seeing the world from God’s perspective. If you truly pursue justice you will achieve being in the presence of God. This would cause anyone to stammer.  Surely there is no shame of pursuing justice.

 


Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 2,703 other followers

Archive By Topic


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,703 other followers

%d bloggers like this: