Posts Tagged 'religion'

In Our Kishkas: Jacob’s Ladder

In VaYetzei, this week’s Torah portion, we see a rich image of Jacob’s ladder. There we read:

And Jacob went out from Beer-sheva, and went toward Haran. And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep. He dreamed and saw a ladder standing on the ground and its top reached up toward heaven. God’s angels were ascending and descending on it (Genesis 28:10-12)

Jacob’s Dream by William Blake (c. 1805, British Museum, London)

What are we to make of this image? What is the meaning of this ladder? The Midrash explains that this ladder represented the future empires that would rule the world (Pirkei D’rebbi Eliezer ch. 35) In many ways this is seeing the ladder through the lens of “Ma’aseh Avot Siman L’Banim- Everything that happened to the patriarchs is an indication for their children( Bereishit Rabba 40:6) Jacob was a sleep during the comings and goings of all of our collective diaspora’s. ( More on this sleep)

On another level I am intrigued to think about Jacob’s Ladder in the context that it itself might be indicative for later generations. I was thinking about it in the context of this great article on epigenetics I read in the Guardian. The article reported in a study by Rachel Yehuda that showed

Genetic changes stemming from the trauma suffered by Holocaust survivors are capable of being passed on to their children, the clearest sign yet that one person’s life experience can affect subsequent generations. (The Guardian)

Jacob was running for his life, what if that trauma has been communicated to us his descendants through our genes? In this sense, things that happened to our ancestors actually indicate things for us their children. It really gives new meaning to the image of Jacob’s Ladder itself looks like the  double helix  ladder of  atoms that make up our DNA. Image result for DNA

While we are often depicted as a religion it is clear that we are also a people; it is in our very kishkas.

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Let My Voice Know No Bounds: An Unorthodox Lesson in Race and Respect

I have only very fond memories of Esther Meyers z”l. She was an African American housekeeper who came to our house in the suburbs every day from her home in Southwest Philadelphia to take care of me. She was always kind, caring, and nurturing. She raised me as she raised my three siblings. And before working for my parents, she had worked for my Oma and Opa, German grandparents, raising my mother and my aunt in West Philadelphia. To the best of my memory, I believe Esther was the daughter of a sharecropper from South Carolina. But my memories are incomplete, being the youngest of my generation.

One of my earliest memories growing up is something that Esther said to me. I could not have been older than seven at the time. She had prepared egg salad on rye bread as she did throughout my childhood. I was about to eat and she called out, “Put that thing on your head. Show some respect up in here sugar.”

Today I am an Orthodox Rabbi with my requisite beard, four-cornered garment, and of course the signature head covering. I can quote you many ancient, medieval, and modern texts to explain why a Jew should wear a Kippah, a traditional head covering. But to be honest, it is not the voice of my tradition that I hear commanding me to wear a Kippah, rather it is Esther’s sweet voice calling me to “put that thing on my head”. Over 30 years has passed since Esther said these words to me, but to this day it is the proud voice of a god-fearing African American woman telling me, a white boy of privilege, how to show respect that influences how I see the world and, in turn, how the world sees me. Esther’s voice commands me to show respect by recognizing the privileges I have. I may or not be conscious of it, I have race, class, education, gender, sexual orientation, and gender identity, all on my side. I understand that it means I have a great deal of responsibility in our fractured society. Am I, as a German Jew – – am I white? I find the question of Jews being white or not to be largely academic. If I want, I can closet my identity to ensure that I do not lose my white privilege. But, choosing to wear a Kippah essentially problematizes the pristine racial construct of being white in America. I decide to reveal this about myself every day.

This makes me think about the biblical character of Joseph. At beginning of Parshat Vayigash, this week’s Torah portion, where we read of Joseph’s reconnecting with his brothers after they had sold him into slavery so many years previously. There we read:

Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried: ‘Cause every man to go out from me.’ And there stood no [Egyptian] man with him, while Joseph made himself known to his brothers. And he [Joseph] wept aloud; and the Egyptians heard, and the house of Pharaoh heard. (Genesis 45:1-2)

It was not just that Joseph passed for an Egyptian, he married into the priestly class of Egypt and his brothers did not recognize him. In his closeted identity, he enjoyed every privilege in Egypt. Joseph cleared everyone out of the room, but that did not include his brothers. Despite his being the second to the king, he had internalized the xenophobia and felt that he needed to clear the room to share his hidden identity. When Joseph did find that voice, it could know no bounds. Everyone heard about it.

In all of my world travels, when I meet someone else with a Kippah I experience a filial bond. But I am not satisfied with this being a sign of my religion, group pride, or nationalism; rather I want our head coverings to reveal both the positive and negative lessons of Joseph. During the years of famine under Joseph’s administration Pharaoh sold the stockpile of food to the Egyptian people. First Joseph took their money, then their cattle, then their land, and ultimately themselves as slaves (Genesis 47:15- 26). Essentially, Joseph created a large class of Egyptian sharecroppers. Only the Israelites and the Egyptian priestly caste were spared.

We cannot be complicit with a system of oppression in order to give our brethren preferential treatment. As we learn from Joseph and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”. Ultimately the system of slavery that Joseph helped create came back around to enslave his descendants. I want my Kippah to remind me and others of our joint responsibilities to our people and the larger world. In wearing a Kippah I aspire to be a dreamer like a young Joseph before he experiences his own slavery. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.’” I wear a Kippah to create a certain kind of consciousness. I want to identify with and be identified by the holy calling “to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable”.

There is a lot of work to be done to repair the racial divide in this country. This is not a black problem. I know that I can always put my Kippah in my pocket or under a hat; Esther could never hide her skin color. Those of us with privilege need to be vigilant about standing up for those who are marginalized and oppressed. Like Joseph we need to find our hidden voice and courageously speak out for freedom and justice for all.  All I know is when I fail to cover my head with a culture of consciousness I am not showing the appropriate respect. Thank you Esther.

 

Push Pull Hold

I have said for many years that my Rabbinate is defined by three simple words: Push, Pull, and Hold. My job is to push people to take the Torah seriously, to pull them in by not taking myself too seriously, and to hold them when they need shelter from the storm. One might find it peculiar that “my calling” is not so centered on God. I am a man of the cloth, but where is the cloth?

I was thinking about this when reading Vayeira, this week’s Torah portion. There we learn that God appears to Avraham as he is looking out of his tent for people travelling in the  desert to bring in as guests. The Talmud explains that God was visiting him because Avraham was recovering from circumcising himself (Bava Metzia 86b). It isremarkable that God comes to visit Avraham at the moment when he is in the most pain and selflessly looking to help strangers. And where the strangers? According to the Talmud they were Gavriel, Michael, and Rafael (Bava Metzia 86b). Gavriel was sent to overturn Sodom, Michael was sent to inform Sarah of her pending pregnancy with Yitzhak, and Rafael was sent to heal Avraham after the aforementioned circumcision.

Reflect on my Rabbinate of pushing, pulling and holding I strive to look out of Avraham’s tent for my own strange angels. Gavriel was sent to destroy the city. In the start of  his Star of Redemption Franz Rosenzweig writes, “All knowing of the All begins in death, the fear of death”. All deep thinking comes when we are pushed to confront and not evade death as part of our lives. Michael was sent to tell of the coming of Yitzhak. Here in our portion we read, ”

And the angel said: ‘I will certainly return to you when the season comes round; and, lo, Sarah your wife shall have a son.’ And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him. Now Avraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women. And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: ‘After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?’ And God said to Avraham: ‘Wherefore did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I of a surety bear a child, who am old? Is any thing too hard for God? At the set time I will return to you, when the season comes round, and Sarah shall have a son.’ Then Sarah denied, saying: ‘I laughed not’; for she was afraid. And the Angel said: ‘No, you did laugh.’ (Genesis 18:10-15)

It seems absurd to have a child at her age. So much so that the child in question is named Yitzhak- after this laughter. God is pulling them in with the news of this child. God knows that the weight of Jewish history would be crushing if we did not have an amazing sense of humor and not take ourselves too seriously. And finally we have Rafael who comes to cure Avraham.  Because some times we just need to be held and taken care of when things are tough.

The question that stays with me is if Avraham ever benefited from God’s visit. Was he too busy trying to be a good host ? Maybe he experienced God’s presence when he was helping others. I doubt my life is any different. I cannot claim to experience God with any regularity in my life. The closest I get is in helping others. Maybe God is in all of that pushing, pulling, and holding.

Our Real Center

In Netzavim Vayeilech, this week’s Torah portion, we read about the commandment of Hakel, the ingathering. Once every 7 years, the entire nation would gather in the Tabernacle and alter in the Temple in a reenactment of the giving of the Torah. This national expression of devotion served as an essential reminder that Torah was at the center of their national experience. Thousands of years later, I believe that it is still critical to maintain Torah at the center of our national consciousness. But what is the Torah that keeps us unified, without subjugating us to one notion or another of uniformity? It is often helpful to explore the intellectual limits of Judaism in an effort to deduce the center. Like the Jewish people the meaning of the Torah is wandering throughout history. I doubt that this will be something that I will be to resolve in this lifetime let alone a short blog post.

It might helping thinking about this question in the context of other aspects of Hakel itselfWhile, they came every 7 years to hear the Torah being read we do not know how well they listened. All we know is that they were asked to show up and they did. While, we in Western thinking often disappear into the world of our heads, we should not forget the importance of being together physically in one place even or especially when we do not agree with each other.

We recently just finished summer camp and next week we will all be together for Rosh HaShanah. It is truly amazing getting together with so many people with whom you have a connection in one place. There is a certain excitement that cannot not be discounted. While, this is amazing we cannot forget the importance of having one place for the Jewish people all the world over.  In the words of Ahad Ha-am, Israel is our “spiritual center” for a cultural and spiritual revival of the Jewish people. While it is important for us all to be grappling with the same Torah, we cannot undervalue the importance of having a geographic epicenter for our people. With things looming in Syria it is impossible for our thoughts not being with our Jewish family in Israel during this time of Year. May we all be in-gathered and inscribed together in the Book of Life.

Slow Choices

Recently I read a wonderful article by Atul Gawande, author of  The Checklist Manifesto, in the New Yorker. In this piece Slow Ideas, he discusses how in the medical field some ideas spread quickly while other ones languish. One might assume with our highly networked digital world good ideas would spread seamlessly and evenly throughout the field. Evidently being informed about the best ideas is not enough to get people to change their habits. In his article he gives a lot of medical examples to prove this, but seeing that I am a Rabbi I will spare you all of the examples. One of the most telling factors that led to change in medical habits was the perception of causality. Where doctors could see the impact of anesthesia sedating the patient right away, they did not directly see the consequences of washing their hands. In the case of anesthesia the surgical experience changed right ways. They did not perceive a direct causal link between the infections caused by germs and their lack of sterile surgical practices. It is not that doctors were lazy or ill-willed, they just were slow to wash their hands because they did not see its impact.

I got to thinking about this article in the context of Re’eh, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

See, I set before you this day a blessing and a curse: the blessing, if you shall hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, which I command you this day;and the curse, if you shall not hearken to the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside, out of the way which I command you this day, to go after other gods, which you have not known. ( Deuteronomy 11: 26-28)

The Torah is asking us to see the impact of all of our choices. Sight is central to the human conception of causality. Before us are always choices to be made between blessings or curses. At the same time we are empowered to make choices we are held responsible for the consequences of these choices. The Torah does not leave open the possibility of a pareve , neutral, choice. We are being asked to have the vision to realize the consequences of all of our choices.

There in his article Atul Gawande wrote:

The key message to teach surgeons, it turned out, was not how to stop germs but how to think like a laboratory scientist. Young physicians from America and elsewhere who went to Germany to study with its surgical luminaries became fervent converts to their thinking and their standards. They returned as apostles not only for the use of antiseptic practice (to kill germs) but also for the much more exacting demands of aseptic practice (to prevent germs), such as wearing sterile gloves, gowns, hats, and masks. Proselytizing through their own students and colleagues, they finally spread the ideas worldwide. ( Slow Ideas)

I do not think this conception is limited to surgeons. If more of us saw our lives in the context  of a laboratory we would be seeking out evidence to evaluate all of the choices we make every day. But do not worry I am not about to hand in my Tallit for a lab coat. Gawande is pointing out that often it is not what we know, but who we know that makes the biggest impact. As he writes, ” We yearn for frictionless, technological solutions. But people talking to people is still the way that norms and standards change.” It is the people that we see that influence our habits.  What Gawande calls apostles, we call hassidim. While Gawande is focused on medical practices, the Torah is asking us to think about in regard to all of our practices. We need to develop communities of vision that empower us to see the positive impact each of us can have on the world and stay focused.

Too Soon

In the Gemara we read:

Rabbis  Gamliel, Elazar ben Azariah, Yehoshua, and Akiva were once walking along the road when they heard a great cry of joy coming from the Roman camp 120 miles away. They all cried and Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” Rabbi Akiva responded, “And you, why are you crying?” The answered saying, “These heathens who bow down to idols, they sit safely and comfortably, and as for us, the house of God is burnt; should we not cry?” Rabbi Akiva said, “For that reason I am laughing. If for those that go against God’s will it is so, how much more so for those that abide by God’s will.”

On another occasion they went up to Jerusalem. When they got to Mount Scopus they tore their clothes and when they got to Mount Moriah, they saw a fox coming out of the Holy of Holies. They all cried, and Rabbi Akiva laughed. They asked him, “Why are you laughing?” He responded, “Why are you crying?” They said, “Foxes are now walking in the place about which it says, ‘the stranger that comes close shall die’ (Numbers 1:51), shall we not cry?” “For that reason I am laughing,” he ( Rabbi Akiva) said. “There is a verse that states, ‘I brought faithful witnesses, Uriah the Cohen, and Zechariah ben Berachiyah’ (Yeshayahu 8:2). What is the connection between Uriah and Zechariah? Uriah lived during the first Temple and Zechariah during the second, but the verse implies that the prophecy of Zechariah is dependent on the prophecy of Uriah. Uriah says, ‘Because of you, Zion will be plowed over like a field’ (Michah 3:12). Zechariah says, ‘Once again old men and women will sit in the streets of Jerusalem’ (Zechariah 8:4). Until the prophecy of Uriah was fulfilled, I was worried that the prophecy of Zechariah will never happen. Now that the prophecy of Uriah has been fulfilled it is certain that the prophecy of Zechariah will surely be.” They said to him, “Akiva, you have comforted us, Akiva, you have comforted us” (Makkot 24a-24b).

Quoted in the name of Carol Burnett, Steve Allen, Lenny Bruce, and Woody Allen, we all know that , “comedy is tragedy plus time”. Rabbi Akiva had the vision to see the comedy of the tragedy before his peers. You can almost hear Rabbis  Gamliel, Elazar ben Azariah, and Yehoshua saying, ” Too Soon”.

This is Shabbat Hazon, the Shabbat preceding Tisha B’Av during which we will have the vision of our future destruction. We should all be blessed to have a Rabbi Akiva in our lives. He had a capacity to foresee a time in the future when we will be able to look back at the worst tragedy and laugh. Rabbi Akiva teaches us that laughing does not make it light and surely is not about forgetting. Life is too short. I enjoy laughing over crying any day.

– Have a meaningful Fast

Revealing Jewish Camp

It is interesting that as we are in the final countdown to Shavuot we start the reading the Book of Numbers.  In Hebrew, the book is called Bamidbar, the wilderness. With Shavuot we celebrate the giving of the Torah, what is the significance of our “entering the wilderness?”

In the Midrash we learn, “There are three ways to acquire Torah, with fire, with water, and with wilderness” (Midrash Numbers Rabbah 1:1). This Midrash could be understood to mean that we acquire Torah through passion (fire), immersion (water), and through a long trek in unknown land (the wilderness). Shavuot coming means that the end of school is close at hand. And with the end of school, the camp season is around the corner. This Midrash seems to be lived out at Jewish camp.

1001_110811-FJC_x46Camp is an amazing place where our children will make s’mores and memories by a camp fire (the fire), take the deep water test (the water), and go on a physically challenging hike (in the wilderness). Jewish camp is amazing on another level though. There, our children will be led by extraordinary role models who will ignite our children’s passion (the fire). There they will be part of building their own immersive purpose-driven Jewish community (the water). And there, we hope their experience will set them on their life journey to have a community of people to travel with along life’s path (the wilderness). As we are getting ready for Bamidbar and Shavuot I hope we are all also getting ready for camp, they are all profoundly revealing and edifying.

Chag Shavuot Sameakh – have a great holiday and enjoy packing for camp!

– Reposted from the Canteen


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