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U’Rechatz: Our Matriarchs, #metoo, and Purification

Just after we start our Seder with Kiddush over the first cup of wine we do U’Reschatz– we wash our hands. While it is Jewish law to wash one’s hands and say a blessing before eating bread, or Matzah in our case, in this situation it is not the case. We are not about to eat the Matzah and we do not make a blessing. In the time of the Mishna it was common practice to wash one’s hands before eating moist food. That said, why should the Seder be different from all other nights that we would bring back this blessing-less hand washing?

I believe that on a mystical level the opening of the Seder is a reenactment of our entering the Temple to perform the Passover sacrifice. In some ways this hand washing speaks of this transition into holy time and space. Similarly in the time of the Mishkan when the Cohen would enter he would find the Kiyor, the Laver or Wash-basin, with which he would wash his hands and feet before performing the Service. At the end of the book of Exodus in Parshat Pekudei we learn about the construction of this Kiyor. There we read:

He made the Kiyor of copper and its copper stand from the mirrors of the women who gathered at the entrance to the tent of meeting.” (Exodus 38:8)

What is with these mirrors? Why did it matter that it came from the women? Rashi quotes the Midrash Tanchuma to answer both of these questions. There we read:

The Israelite women owned mirrors, which they would look into when they adorned themselves. Even these [mirrors] they did not hold back from bringing as a contribution toward the Mishkan, but Moshe rejected them because they were made for sexual temptation. The Holy One, blessed be God, said to him, “Accept [their mirrors], for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them the women set up many legions [i.e., through the children they gave birth to] in Egypt.” When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, the women would go and bring them food and drink and give them to eat. Then the women would take the mirrors and each one would see herself with her husband in the mirror, and she would seduce him with words, saying, “I am more beautiful than you.” And in this way they aroused their husbands desire and would copulate with them, conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song 8:5)…(Midrash Tanchuma, Pekudei 9; Num. Rabbah 9:14)

In this magnificent Midrash Moshe objects to using mirrors to make the Kiyor because the mirrors  were lascivious. God responds that this is his most precious gift because it lead to making another generation. Amram and Yocheved are two of these slaves who conceive Moshe under the apple tree. The most fascinating part of this Midrash is that God does not deny that the mirrors are sexual. God just rejects Moshe’s premise that being sexual is a bad thing. Positive sexual encounters are the inception of liberation. These sex toys were exactly what God wanted him to make the implement that will be used to cleanse the Cohen as he prepares for the sacrifice.

In the era of #metoo it is important to pause at U’Reschatz. As we are entering into the conversation of liberation we need to think deeply about the misuse of power. Our society is long overdue a deep reflection on the insidious and nefarious use of power for sexual gratification. How might we cleanse ourselves of this evil?

If sex is about coercion, submission, and is not mutually enjoyable it is lascivious and dirty and has no place in the Mishkan. This kind of interaction seems like slavery. But if we learn the lessons of our matriarchs in Egypt sex can be mutual, consensual, sensual, and playful. Sex can be liberating, purifying, and take a central space in the Mishkan. Slavery made the Israelite slaves forget how to look at each other. Like the leaders of the #metoo movement, our matriarchs had to teach their partners how to engage as equals. This act of intimacy led to their liberation and ultimately to the divine encounter at Sinai. On a deep level revelation is the highest form of intimacy.

The central commandment of Passover is that in each and every generation we are obligated to see ourselves as if we went out from Egypt ( Pesachim 116b). This year when my children ask me about U’Reschatz I will not talk about sex toys in the Mishkan. And at the same time if I ignore the issues brought up by #metoo I will not fulfill my pascal obligation. Firstly I will take the time to share with them the wisdom of all of our matriarchs. When take the time to share stories of our male and female role models it is easier for the next generation to value  mutuality and respect. I will also take the time to talk about the centrality of consent and the importance of being playful with those you love. We all need to be liberated from unwanted touching and lascivious behavior. I have no doubt that this conversation will be a purifying.

-Inspired by article by Rabbi Tamara Cohen in EJP

 

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Voices of Pesach

What does the word Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, mean? We read in Exodus:

And the blood on the houses where you are staying shall be a sign for you: when I see the blood I will pass over you, so that no plague will destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.
Exodus 12:13

God passed over the Jewish houses, sparing their first born, and just like that a nation was born. In the moment of liberation, we celebrate God’s compassion over the afflicted slaves, but it does seem harsh that our own story of liberation should find its context in the pain and suffering of others.

While playful, perhaps a better translation comes to us from Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev who explained that Pesach literally means pehsach, “the mouth (peh) talks (sach).” On Pesach, the mouth talks about the wonders and miracles of liberation. On the most fundamental level, our greatest freedom is using our voices.

In the past months, it has been powerful to witness the emergence of many mouths finding their voices and sharing their stories. From the recent momentum of the #metoo movement to the March for Our Lives, we are living at a time when voices that might have otherwise been silent are speaking up and creating platforms for change. And the Jewish community has heeded this call.

Camps, campers, counselors, and Jewish movements are showing up in leadership roles at rallies and marches. #GamAni (a platform for people to share experiences at the intersection of gender, power and culture) and community leaders are speaking truth to power in Jewish publications and on social media. The philanthropic community recently committed to join the fight for gender equality and creating safe spaces in Jewish life. The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Shmira Initiative brings together philanthropists, camp professionals and experts to examine camp culture around gender, sex, and power and explore how we might improve the field of Jewish camping. For so many, camp is where young people find their voices.

Perhaps it is the advent of spring, but this seems to be a unique moment of hope and optimism. There is much work to be done. How do we sustain and build on this surge positive energy? The Parkland students have chosen this moment to not only spread their message but to use their privilege to amplify the voices of people of color who live surrounded by constant gun violence, but who have received far less support and attention. How do we in the Jewish community similarly continue the much needed work around #metoo and ensure that all voices, and especially marginalized voices, are heard?

In the spirit of Pesach we must not shy away from confronting difficult realities in our own communities, and to speaking up for the vulnerable and marginalized among us. Among the most vulnerable, are the children in our midst who are being abused by the very people who are responsible for protecting them. The #metoo movement continues to gain momentum and generate change around issues of harassment and assault of adults in the workplace, but comparably little attention is being paid to children. Yet, the U.S. Department of Justice reports that two-thirds of all sexual assaults reported to law enforcement each year are perpetrated against children, and according to the Centers for Disease Control, one in four women and one in six men report having been sexually abused before they turned 18 years old.

It is easy to sit at the Seder and listen as the youngest child asks the Four Questions, but it is far more difficult to ask the necessary questions to confront a silent epidemic of child maltreatment in our midst. On Pesach we have the sacred responsibility to liberate the voices of the oppressed. Let all those who have been silenced come and speak. Our community is listening. To learn more about work being done to prevent abuse of power in Jewish institutions we invite you to check out Sacred Spaces. When we look back on Pesach we could ask ourselves did we fulfill the obligation to tell our children the story of our Exodus from Egypt, but it might be even more important to ask: did we listen?

Posted in EJP

Written with Shira Berkovits, Esq., Ph.D. is the founder and CEO of Sacred Spaces, a cross-denominational initiative to systemically address abuses of power in Jewish institutions.

Jewish Camp is a Gateway

Recently I had the honor of speaking at a dinner at the Foundation for Jewish Camp‘s Leaders Assembly 2018 in Baltimore. It was a wonderful conference. Unfortunately the sound was not really working during my speech so well so I figured that I would post the speech.

With Passover soon at hand I wanted to share with you a special story about leaving Egypt, but not the one from our Seder tables.

In sixth century BCE, when building the Second Temple in Jerusalem, a  man named Nicanor set out to attain a special gate for one of the doorways of the Temple. We learn in the Gemara in Yoma:

Nicanor went to Alexandria in Egypt to bring the doors, on his return a huge wave threatened to engulf the boat. To save themselves the ship’s crew took one of the precious doors and cast it into the sea, but still the sea continued to rage tossing the boat around. When the crew prepared to cast the other door into the sea, Nicanor rose and clung to it, saying, ‘Cast me in with it.’ The sea immediately became calm. He was, however, deeply grieved about the other door [lost to the sea]- mitzta’er al haverta- literally- he was saddened about its friend. As they reached the harbor of Akko, the door broke through and appeared from under the sides of the boat.  [Yoma 38a]

Nicanor  teaches us the lessons of grit and determination, selflessness and reward. Just like my mama told me, ‘The harder you work the luckier you get’. Nicanor was willing to give of himself  because for him “Good enough was simply not good enough”. He really wanted these special doors to be in the Temple.

Often when we think about the utility of a gate we think about who it is keeping in or keeping out. That was not the case for Nicanor. He went back to Egypt —  a place of our bondage –for a gate that would adorn the experience of coming and going at the holiest communal space. Like our camps, these doors would house much more than simply people, but holy memories and experiences that form our personal and national identity.

Tonight we come together as a community to celebrate the people who, like Nicanor, really have given of themselves and inspire us with their grit and determination. Camp professionals sacrifice sleep, personal resources and free time in order to go above and beyond in the pursuit of providing meaningful Jewish experiences that shape people’s lives. The Jewish knowledge and experiences we gain at camp give us access.

Jewish camp is a gateway.

Jewish camp is a gateway to make friends for life.

Jewish camp is a gateway to learn valuable skills for our future careers.

Jewish camp is a gateway to get the building blocks for making a Jewish family.

Jewish camp is a gateway to belong to a Jewish community.

Tonight we celebrate just a few of these extraordinary professionals whose hard work and dedication to excellence deserve recognition. Mitzta’er al haverta – We would be at a loss without you friends. First, we will acknowledge some monumental milestones in our field. These are the people who have made the long journey. We are blessed in this room to have people who have been working with generations of campers and staff members, impacting entire communities. 

Next,  FJC, with the support of Avi Chai Foundation, is proud to recognize three early career Jewish camp educators. Though closer to the start of the journey, these professionals  have already inspired their camps with their creativity and commitment to opening up Jewish life to the next generation. Each will get a generous investment of $3600 to be used for continued education to support them in their journey.

And then Genesis Philanthropy Group will recognize one camp that has   made great strides in accessibility for Russian Speaking Jews in our community and the iCenter will recognize two camps which have gone above and beyond to reimagine Israel education.

Tonight we express Hakarat HaTov– gratitude- to people who have clung  to the gate to ensure that Jewish Life is accessible to our community. Each of our honorees shows us that the harder you work the luckier we all get. Their efforts have ensured that more campers, staff members, and their families pass through our gates and connect to the majestic experience of  Jewish camp. They are inspirational.

I also want to take a moment to express my Hakarat HaTov– gratitude to Julie Finkelstein and the rest of the FJC team who have really clung to this Leaders’ Assembly to make it everything thing it is. We all appreciate your self-sacrifice for excellence. And I can see the second gate coming out of the water now.

Thank you  

Welcome All to Leaders Assembly

Here at Foundation for Jewish Camp we are excited and gearing up for Leaders Assembly 2018. We are thrilled to welcome close to 800 leaders in the camping community to Baltimore to see how we might move the field forward.

This week we start reading the book of Leviticus. It is fraught with information about sacrifices that can seem meaningless to the modern experience. In our Torah portion we read that when a leader sins, he brings a he-goat as a sacrifice (Leviticus 4:22-26). This is in contrast to a commoner who is charged to bring a she-goat or a lamb in the same circumstance (Leviticus 4:27-35). What is the purpose of the commoner and the leader bringing two different offerings? What is the reason that we allow the commoner to bring either a goat or a lamb?

To explain, I wanted to share with you a great custom I heard a couple of years ago quoted in the name of Danny Siegel. Synagogues put out two color cups for their Kiddush receptions after services. The Rabbi announces that all new comers are invited to partake of the blue cups, so that all of the people with the white cups know to whom they should introduce themselves. This custom allows the community to be welcoming without forcing the newcomers to feel like outsiders; you are always welcome to pass and take a white cup.

Similarly, in our week’s portion, we read that the commoners had the option of which sacrifice they wanted to bring. In either case, the priest would know they were outsiders, but that information need not be public. The outsiders could choose to pass and bring a goat.

All too often, when we make an effort to bring people in, it has the reverse effect of indicating them as outsiders.  Camp is an amazing gateway for people to experience belonging to the Jewish community. I look forward to seeing old friends and making new ones this week in Baltimore. I have no doubt that together we will find new ways to make people feel welcome in our community. Surely, there is no great sacrifice in making our community more inclusive.

Shabbat Shalom!

WE CAN’T WAIT TO SEE YOU IN BALTIMORE. #LEADERS2018

-Also posted on Jewishcamp.org 

Shabbat in Person: Present of Presence

In Vayekel Pikkudei, this week’s Torah portion,we read that Moshe  assembles the people of Israel and tells them the details of what is needed to build the Tabernacle. The rest of the portion discusses all of the giving and the artisans who set out to build the tabernacle. But before Moshe talks about the Tabernacle he reiterates the commandment to observe the Shabbat. There we read:

And Moshe assembled all the congregation of the children of Israel, and said to them: ‘These are the words which the Lord has commanded, that you should do them. Six days shall work be done, but on the seventh day there shall be to you a holy day, a Sabbath of solemn rest to the Lord; whosoever does any work therein shall be put to death. You shall kindle no fire throughout your habitations upon the Sabbath day.’  ( Exodus 35:1-3)

In the Gemara in Shabbat this juxtaposition of the laws of Shabbat and the Tabernacle is the root of 39 types of work used in making the tabernacle are categories of prohibited behavior on Shabbat. On another level , what is the connection between building the Tabernacle, Shabbat, and assembling people?

We also learn in the Talmud:

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: One who sees his friend after thirty days have passed since last seeing him recites: Blessed…Who has given us life, sustained us and brought us to this time. One who sees his friend after twelve months recites: Blessed…Who revives the dead. (Berakhot 58b)

In that the absence of a friend is tantamount to their death there is a clear value of connecting with people in person. In many ways Tabernacle was a place for us to connect “in person” with God. Likewise Shabbat is a chance for us to be in God’s presence.  That might be too hard to really connect with for most of us, so at least Shabbat should be a time for us to connect face to face with each other. In an era in which most of our relationships are filtered though electronic screens Shabbat is a real present of presence.

-Similar message in Technology Shabbat by Tiffany Shlain

 

Purim Today: Xenophobia, Sexism, and Violence

At a town hall meeting last Wednesday night, Senator Marco Rubio was grilled over gun control by students from Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 people. On Comedy Central’s Daily Show, Trevor Noah argued that Rubio was “totally out of sync with the entire room,” also pointing out the clip about assault-rifle loopholes. “That was such an epic fail. Rubio said the solution like it was the problem.”

Then Noah related the moment to the “Me Too” movement: “It reminded me of the reaction that a lot of men had to  the ‘Me Too’ movement, you know, when people were like, ‘If we carry on like this, we’re going to live in a world where men can’t even hit on their female staff. Oh, that is what we want? Okay. OK, fair enough, I misunderstood.'”

I was thinking of this when reading Megilat Esther. At the start of the story Achashverosh is having a series of parties. Amidst the revelry the king instructs his wife Vashti the Queen to show up to his party to display her beauty. She refuses and a crisis ensues. The king has no idea what to do when she refuses to obey him and calls on his advisers. Memuchan steps forward and advises that the king.  He warns: “Queen Vashti has committed an offense not only against Your Majesty but also against all the officials and against all the peoples in all the provinces of King Achashverosh. For the queen’s behavior will make all wives despise their husbands…“( Esther 1:20). The fear is that the Queens sleight of her husband’s unreasonable request will have implications all over the kingdom that women will not obey men.

This in turn becomes interesting in that one of the critical moments of the Megilah is when Mordecai beseeches Esther to proactively meet with the king without being asked and reveal her hidden identity to save her people. After the whole Vashti affair Esther knows that it is risky but relents on the condition that the people fast with her in solidarity. There we read:

“Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day. I and my maidens will observe the same fast. Then I shall go to the king, though it is contrary to the law; and if I am to perish, I shall perish!” So Mordecai went about [the city] and did just as Esther had commanded him. (Esther 4:16-17)

Esther is courageous and as we know the whole plan comes together and the people are saved. The story turns on Esther’s leaning in and also Mordecai doing what he was commanded to do. At the start of the story the fear was that women would not obey men, and here in the end we see that we were saved because a man obeyed a woman. Like Rubio and Trevor Noah’s making fun of Rubio, the perceived problem is actually the solution. Throughout history  xenophobia, sexism, and violence are mixed together to distract people from the real problems facing their lives. The more things change the more they stay the same. These forces of division are just out of sync.

Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah Speech for Tetzaveh and Purim

This week marks the first anniversary of Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah. It is hard to believe that he is about to be 14 years old and in a few short month he will be off to high school.  To mark this moment I wanted to share the Dvar Torah Yadid gave at the ceremony he had at our synagogue.

When I was in Toronto, for my cousin Eliyahu’s Bar Mitzvah, our friends the Horowitz’s suggested I go to a high quality, low cost tailor nearby. I went to the tailor and I tried on a couple of suits. While wearing the suits I felt like a king. I started thinking about how clothes affect how people are seen and see themselves. My sister, Emi, can be intensely focused on her clothes and has said, “ Clothes is life”.  While I was learning with Rabbi Marder I had a thought that clothing has a role in helping people connect with the the idea of majesty. But how? You might ask.

In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we see an elaborate description of the Bigdei Kehuna. Part of the Bigdei Kehuna is a vest that is turquoise- Techelet, gold and purple (Exodus 28:6-8). Like the blue color of a hyperlink linking web pages the Techelet connects the Cohan’s clothing to the Techelet  in our ancestor’s tzitzit, eventually to G-d’s  Kisei Hakavod– saphire heavenly throne. Now we see that our ancestors looked at the Bigdei Kehuna and saw a representative of God in heaven.

What does it mean to represent God? In regard to this I wanted to share  an interesting piece by Kafka. He wrote, ” The emperor of the imperial sun sent a messenger out with an important message; a strong indefatigable man running through the crowd. Every time the messenger met resistance he would point at his breast which bore the sign of the sun- the king’s symbol and people would get out of his way ( Emperor of China).

Maybe this is why my Abba is always getting on my case about wearing tzitzit?

So when our ancestors saw the Kohen Gadol they saw a representative of God. If that is how our ancestors saw the Kohen Gadol, how did the Kohen Gadol see himself?

We read in Tetzaveh that the Kohanim were dressed like this because, “ l’kavod uLetriferet” (Exodus 28:2). Meaning they were dressed up for honor and splendor. But whose honor and whose splendor? Who? The Kohanim, God, or even B’nai’ Israel? The answer is, likely, that it was for all three. The Kohanim are singled out and special. How could they not see themselves as special sporting the tekhelet and the special robes?

The symbolism of clothing, and its connection to both honor and position, is very much present in this week’s Haftorah as well. King Saul has failed to carry out G-d’s instructions and the Prophet Samuel announces that HaShem has now rejected Saul as king. Samuel turns away to leave and Saul grabs Samuel’s tunic, ripping it. In response to that Samuel said just like this, “HaShem has ripped the kingship of Israel away from you today.”  Here we see that the  clothing carries the full symbolism of the role.

In the words of the Bard, “Spend all you can afford on clothes, but make sure they’re quality, not flashy, since clothes make the man” (Hamlet). Saul admits to his wrong doing, then begs Samuel to not embarrass him in front of the elders of the people. He pleads Kabdeni– for his honor.  We hear the root Kavod here, echoing the use in the description of the Kohen’s clothing, “l’kavod ultifaret” and G-d’s Kisei Hakavod – heavenly throne.  Saul is not worried about how he represents God’s honor, only how his honor is perceived by B’nai Israel. Unlike in this week’s parasha,Torah portion, when the Kohanim are serving God to honor God, Saul, having lost God’s favor, is not focused on how he represents God as the king. Rather, Saul is more concerned with how being king represents him in front of the people.  Sad for Saul.

Interestingly we see a similar discussion in Megillat Esther which I will be reading tomorrow at my Bar Mitzvah ( Yadid’s Bar Mitzvah was celebrated the next day on Purim). Achashverosh wakes up in the middle of the night and he has the book of chronicles read to him. It is brought to his attention that Mordecai saved his life and was never recognized or rewarded for this. Achashverosh asks Haman: “מַה לַעֲשׂוֹת בָּאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר הַמֶּלֶךְ חָפֵץ בִּיקָרוֹ- What he should do  “to honor someone the king wants to honor” ( This was according to Onkelos’ translation of  yakar as kavod )?  Haman says that the man should be dressed in the king’s clothes, wear the king’s crown and be paraded around Shushan on the king’s horse. The king agrees – well, sort off.  He says that Mordechai should be led around with the king’s clothes and the king’s horse. Notably, he excludes the crown. By Haman’s asking for the crown and the king excluding the crown we can see that both Haman and Achashverosh see the crown not just as another accessory of his outfit, but wearing the crown has symbolic value which means that the person donning the crown is king.  The clothing themselves imply something royal, and that crown seals the deal.

So, what connects our three texts? And how do they help our understanding of the concept of honor? In the Megillah, on a superficial way honor can be worn, but it is much harder to actually  attain. In the haftorah, we learn that even if one is stripped of kingship, one should not be stripped of honor.  There is a baseline of honor due to everyone, even someone who has failed God. In Tetzaveh, the clothing is there for honor as well, but it less so to demand respect as to a king then to inspire a connection to the King.

The berachah, blessing, for seeing a king is Shechalak Mikvodo lebasar v’dam– that G-d has shared some of his honor with flesh and blood. When you see a king you should honor them- give them kavodI can imagine at the moment of my being faced with a real life King- l’kavod uLetriferet with all of their pomp and circumstance I would be overwhelmed. The very nature of taking this moment to make a beracha to God reframes the experience. Like our ancestors, we can double click on the Techelet from the Bigdei Kehunah and be taken to an image of God’s Kisei Hakavod – heavenly throne. The honor due to do a King is but a helek, a part, of God’s infinite honor.

It is true that we are all created B’Tzelem Elochim, in the image of God, and when we see a King we get a chance to see a magnified version God’s majesty.  This blessing gives us a way to give a flesh and blood king the proper respect regardless of their imperfection. This is like what we learn from Samuel. It also reminds us never to be fooled like Haman and Achashverosh into thinking  that majesty is as simple as wearing a crown. But how do we make sense of this blessing in light of the Megillah and in our world in which God is often hidden from view? As we will read in the Megillah tonight this corrupt world view leads to thinking that people can be bought and sold with no respect of their divine nature. Perhaps this is why we dress up in costume on Purim. In the absence of perceived God we can project an ideal that clothes might inspire us to seek out God and dress ourselves in the moral fabric that ensures that we treat everyone with respect and honor.

And when I stand here today in my Bar Mitzvah suit, I feel a little majestic. My family and friends are here from all over the world to celebrate me. But I take this moment to realized that clothes should inspire us to emulate something greater not make us think we are greater.

Thank you Rabbi Marder for helping me with my speech, thank you everyone for joining me for this coronation of sorts. Thank you Abba and Mami for helping me with troupe, planning and more, and thank you Shama, Emi and Libi for cheering me up when I was down and helping me see myself for what I can be with or without a majestic suit. Shabbat Shalom and have a majestic Purim.

I am still so proud of my majestic son.


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