Posts Tagged 'spirituality'

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

Mark of a Tzadik

In Tazria-Metzora, this week’s Torah portion, we read about various forms of biblical ritual impurity. It addresses cleansing from skin disease (צָּרַעַת, tzara’at). What was tzara’at, this skin disease? The person with tzara’at has to present their case to a priest to determine the right course of action. Why would you need to present a medical case to anyone other than a doctor?

One approach  is simply that  tzara’at not a medical condition.  In the Talmud Rabbi Samuel bar Nahmani said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan that skin disease results from seven things: slander, the shedding of blood, vain oath, incest, arrogance, robbery, and envy (Arakhin 16a.) Even so, how would a priest help you deal with one of these seven sins?

Ideally the priests followed in the ways of Aaron. The priests tried to literally be the “disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing peace; love your fellow creatures and draw them nigh unto the Law!”( Avot 1:12) They were peacemakers. Who else would be able to deal with these seven sins?

I was thinking about the person of Aaron this past Shabbat. My wife was away and I was having Shabbat dinner with our three children. While I was making Kiddush Emunah (3)  started screaming. In response Yishama (6) yelled at her saying he hates her and her screaming and stormed off to the living room. Emunah started to cry. Without saying a word Yadid (9) went off to the living room leaving me head in hand. I have no idea what they talked about, but a couple of moments later Yadid returned to the dining-room.  He gently but his arm around his crying sister and said, “Yishama apologizes for what he said”. And just like that, we had peace again.

At that moment all I could think about was Aaron.  He was an ideal priest of the people, far more beloved for his kindly ways than was Moses. While Moses was stern and uncompromising, brooking no wrong, Aaron went about as peacemaker, reconciling man and wife when he saw them estranged, or a man with his neighbor when they quarreled, and winning evil-doers back into the right way by his friendly interactions. (Avot de-Rabbi Natan 12 and Sanhedrin 6b). I grabbed Yadid  and give him a big hug. I said to him that he is the gilgul, reincarnation, of Aaron. Yadid is a Tzadik.  I hope by the time Yadid reads this blog his tender soul is revealed to more of the world. But, for now I am happy that this Tzadik saved my Shabbat meal last week.

Having this experience with my son makes we question what else could restore peace to the world. Other then someone who works tirelessly to help people make peace for themselves, what else could heal the world? What else could remove the blemish of one of these seven sins?

I hope that this Shabbat goes smoother for everyone. Shabbat Shalom.

Timely Growth

I am excited. Tonight we will begin celebrating Chag Ha Aviv – Passover, our spring holiday – also named Chag HaMatzot the holiday of unleavened bread. But why do we eat unleavened bread –matzah –  on Passover? We read in the Haggadah:

Because the dough of our fathers did not have time to become leavened before the King of the kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, revealed God’s self to them and redeemed them. Thus it is said: “They baked Matzah-cakes from the dough that they had brought out of Egypt, because it was not leavened; for they had been driven out of Egypt and could not delay, and they had also not prepared any [other] provisions.” (DIY Haggadah)

aviSo yes, as the Haggadah says, when the time came for the Jews to finally leave, they did not delay. Yet, the final plague was not the first time they heard of their pending exodus.  Moses came and told the slaves long in advance that they would be leaving. While they did not have Ziplocs and Tupperware to pack provisions for the trip, I still think they could have done a better job preparing for this arduous journey. They weathered the elements so well before that you’d assume they would have prepared some bagels for the trip.  Now wouldn’t a holiday where we just needed to eat a lot of bagels be a great one? So,why matzah?

It is understandable that the slaves would be reticent to leave the only world they knew, could it be that was not the only reason that they were not well prepared for their trip? We all run late, waiting until the last-minute to get things done. Even when  we are told that something is going to happen, or that we have an assignment, we can be surprised and unprepared when it comes to pass or be due. While completely natural and common place, this procrastination comes from an interesting lapse of faith. Maybe Pharaoh was not alone in doubting the God of the Israelites. While we call matzah “the bread of affliction,” it appears that the affliction itself is procrastination.

So we have Chag HaMatzot a holiday that you cannot do last-minute. We actually start to prepare for Passover a month in advance. As we eat this “bread of procrastination” it is a time to reflect on our faith. When I am running late or procrastinating, I assume that other people will understand because I am doing God’s work, but God forbid someone wastes my time… We all have ways we can grow; matzah is there to flatten us out and remind us that this growth might not fit neatly into our schedule.  Which is why I am excited, because after spring comes summer and with summer comes … camp a time for growth for so many of our children!

– As seen on the FJC Canteen on My Jewish Learning

To Love or to be Loved

In VaEra, this weeks Torah portion, we read,” And God spoke to Moses and said to him” I am HaShem. I appeared to Abraham Isaac, and Jacob, as El Shaddai, I did not make Myself known to them by My name HaShem”( Exodus 6:2- 3) Did the Patriarchs have a limited relationship with God compared to Moses? Rashi (Premiere Medieval Commentator) explains this in terms of  God’s having not fulfilled the mission of giving the people to the land of Canaan. In so doing El Shaddai would be realized as being truth- HaShem. But Moses neither sees the Truth of God bringing them in to the land or ever seeing/ knowing the unknowable Hashem. So I wanted to offer another reading of this apparent inequality of relationships.

It might be likened to lovers who are in love at first sight compared to the rest of us who need to work out our relationships. By and large the Patriarchs seem to be in covenantal relationship with God,  where as Moses and in turn the Israelites are in a dynamic relationship with God. But what is the quality of being in relationship with HaShem?

A number of years ago I worked as a chaplain in a hospital in New York City. There I met a lovely elderly French Jewish woman. During our conversations she asked me a profound question, “Is it better to be loved or to love?” While being loved is comfortable, it is not as rewarding or as risky as the proposition of being in love. We might feel that God is very distant from our lives, but maybe that theology itself is us expecting to be loved.  Where might me find the presence of God in our lives? Might it be better (even if riskier) for us to articulate where we want to see God in our lives.  Clearly few of us has a romantic relationship with God as might the Patriarchs, but the first step is recognizing what it is we are looking for. El Shaddai might not have a different type of relationship, it was the one the heard our cries. What are we crying for today? I am fearful, that we have all grown too apathetic to cry for anything any more.

Achilles Heel

In Greek mythology, when Achilles was a baby, it was foretold that he would die young . To prevent his death, his mother Thetis took Achilles to the River Styx, which was supposed to offer powers of invulnerability, and dipped his body into the water. But as Thetis held Achilles by the heel, he had a chatzitza and  his heel was not washed over by the water of the magical river. Achilles grew up to be a man of war who survived many great battles. But one day, a poisonous arrow shot at him was lodged in his heel, killing him shortly after.

Achilles’ name can be analyzed as a combination of ἄχος (akhos) “grief” and λαός (Laos) “a people, tribe, nation, etc.” In other words, Achilles is an embodiment of the grief of the people. Achilles’ role as the hero of grief forms an ironic juxtaposition with the conventional view of Achilles as the hero of kleos (glory, usually glory in war).

Achilles stands as an interesting foil for the person of Yaakov. In Vayishlach, this weeks Torah portion we read:

25 And Yaakov was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day. 26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Yaakov’s thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him. 27 And he said: ‘Let me go, for the day breaks.’ And he said: ‘I will not let you go until you bless me.’ 28 And he said to him: ‘What is your name?’ And be said: ‘Yaakov.’ 29 And he said: ‘Your name shall be called no more Yaakov, but Yisrael; for you have struggled with God and with men, and have prevailed.’ (Genesis 32:25-29)

What is Yaakov’s name? As we learn from Toldot, Yaakov was named for when he was born he was grabbing the heel of his brother Esav. Through his adolescence he seems weak compared to his hunter brother living as a tent dweller. Here, this week, he returns as a warrior having worked hard in the world for many years, confronted his father-in-law, and now wrestling this angel. Having struggled with men and God he is renamed Yisrael. Like Achilles Yisrael is the glory of his  people, tribe, and nation. And interestingly he gets this name when he in injured.  Esav is not his Achilles Heel as his name Yaakov might have indicated. Ultimately his Achilles Heel is he himself  both his physical hip and his own character. Confronting the angel is how he can resolve his years in exile. All to often we  point at other people instead of ourselves as the source of conflict in our lives. In the end when we mature we grow and accept that we are the ones that need to choose to change. What makes Yisrael great is not his being perfect or Godly, but rather his being vulnerable and human.  Our collective Achilles Heel is thinking that there is any glory in war. Yisrael’s glory to be emulated is being introspective and reflective from a position of strength.

 

 

 

Sacrifices of Israel

Like most years as I am getting ready for Yom Kippur I try to think through and make sense of the liturgy. And as always, I get stuck at the Avodah, which retells the Temple Yom Kippur sacrifice. It is hard to imagine being into it even if I was actually at the service in the Temple. Thousands of years later and in a synagogue which does not resemble the Temple it is really hard to relate. It seems that I am just out of touch with the sacrifices.

This past Sunday I read in the New York Times of the passing of Haim Hefer.  He was one of the great song writers from the founding of  the State of Israel.  Curious to learn about the impact that he had on Israeli music I looked into some of his writings. I was amazed to see how many of the songs that I took for granted as always being there were actually penned by him. I believe the most famous of these was Hafinjan. Please feel free to watch this classic video:

I always thought it was simply a song about a coffee pot until I read the lyrics. There he wrote:

The cool wind blows,
we’ll add a chip to the campfire,
and thus in scarlet
it will rise in the flames like a sacrifice.
the fire flickers,
its song rises up
the coffee pot spins, spins around.

The fire will whisper to the chip,
our faces grow so red by the fire
if more fuel is prepared for us
from every broken branch stub in the garden,
every tree and log
will sing so softly
the coffee pot spins, spins around.

When looking at the lyrics we see that this song was not written as a simple song of the Founding Fathers of Israel to sing around the camp fire. In a profound way Hefer was evoking the Temple sacrifice. Over time the fire which was “like a sacrifice” made their faces grow “red by the fire”. Hefer was not just playing with the language of the Temple in the reestablishment of a Jewish State, he was pointing us to the huge sacrifice made by that generation.  We need to make sure that we do not take their sacrifices for granted. Unfortunately for many of us it is as hard to relate to the sacrifices of that generation as the sacrifices of the Temple.  This Yom Kippur I will try to rekindle my connection to all of the sacrifices of Israel.

Just A Game

I wanted to share with you (again) one of my favorite stories said in the name of Maggid of Mezritch.  Once a Rebbe was walking and he saw a young boy crying sitting behind a wall. The Rebbe asked the boy why he was crying. The boy responded that he was playing hide and seek with his friends. The Rebbe said, ” But, that seems like a fun game. Why are you crying?” The boy explained that he was crying because he thought that his friends forgot about him. And hearing  this the Rebbe started crying. They boy asked the Rebbe why he was crying.  The Rebbe responded, ” Now I know how God feels”.

This week, in Vayehlech, this  week’s Torah portion,we read:

17 Then My anger shall be kindled against them in that day, and I will forsake them, and I will hide My face from them, and they shall be devoured, and many evils and troubles shall come upon them; so that they will say in that day: Are not these evils come upon us because our God is not among us? 18 And I will surely hide My face in that day for all the evil which they shall have wrought, in that they are turned unto other gods. ( Deuteronomy 31:17-18)

This is the Bible’s play at theodicy. God is not responsible for bad things happening, he is hiding his face in history as a response to our bad deeds. It is our fault for God being absent. But I think it is more constructive to understand this idea in the context of the Maggid’s storyof a God who is playing hide and seek? Like the Rebbe I am sad to realize how many have given up on the game. God must be lonely. More than sadness thinking about this today makes be feel terrified. I am terrified  by those who forgot it was a game. There is a troubling rise of militant fundamentalism ( in all religions) who are so committed to their ideology that they cannot enjoy the playful nature of living in a world with doubt and wonder. And even worse, they have grown callous to seeing the pain of others. It is disheartening to see that we are living in a world that is painfully divided. Personally I am not invested in your finding God or proving to you that God cannot be found.  I am invested in realizing that the game is worth playing. If for no other reason than in the process of playing we might learn how to play together nicely.

 

A TED Prep for the High Holidays

Over Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur we will get to recite the Unetanneh Tokef, a medieval a piyyutThere we read:

On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed how many will pass from the earth and how many will be created; who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast, who by famine, who by thirst, who by upheaval, who by plague, who by strangling, and who by stoning. Who will rest and who will wander, who will live in harmony and who will be harried, who will enjoy tranquility and who will suffer, who will be impoverished and who will be enriched, who will be degraded and who will be exalted. But Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree!”

It always seems rather graphic to imagine the various ways that people might die, but perhaps that is what makes this piyyut so memorable. There seems to be some significance to thinking about death in order to get the high of the High Holidays.  I was thinking about this when I saw recent TED talk. It is totally worth watching.

I think that Candy Chang summarized her talk and the High Holidays well in saying, “Preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do. Thinking about death clarifies your life.” I know that I will be thinking about what I would write on a wall in the next 10 days.  We know that ” Repentance, Prayer, and Charity avert the severe Decree”, but it also seems that public art and sharing our inner most thoughts with others might also do the trick. Might we pursue ways of doing the same in our own communities( check out the website).

Cover Over

Today is Tu B’Av, the 15th of the Hebrew month of Av. On this Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel said:

Israel had no greater holidays than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur, on which occasions the daughters of Israel used to go out in white garments, borrowed so as not to put to shame one who didn’t have a white garment. (Mishnah Ta’anit  4: 8).

What does today and Yom Kippur have in common? In the Talmud it seems to mark the start (today ) and end (Yom Kippur) of the grape harvest. But is there any other connection between these two days?   In some ways these two days seem to be at odds. On Yom Kippur we work on our relationship with God. The day atones for our sins against God and does not speak to all of our sins to our fellow human beings (aka most of our sins). In contrast, we see that on Tu B’Av the unmarried girls of Jerusalem would dress in white garments and go out to dance in the vineyards attracting mates. Where Yom Kippur seems to be solely between human beings and God, Tu B’Av seems to be solely between human beings and each other.

Maybe one of the answers to this comes from the Shma which we read in VaEtchanan, this week’s Torah portion. There we read:

4 Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 And these words, which I command you this day, shall be upon your heart; 7 and you shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk on the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise up. 8 And you shall bind them for a sign upon your hand, and they shall be for frontlets between your eyes. 9 And you shall write them upon the door-posts of your house, and upon your gates. (Deuteronomy 6: 4- 9)

Love is the key. For some, their relations with people flow from their relationship with God, and for most I would assume it is the opposite. It is in their experience of love in the relationship in their lives that they encounter the divine. On Tu B’Av they covered over their economic status to allow people to see each other and start relationships without that status clouding their vision. Similarly  Yom Kippur is the day we cover over ( kaparah) our sins and restart our relationship with God.  As we see in the Shma  we plaster love all over our lives. We say the Shma three times a day. We wear it on our bodies in the tfillin. We put it on the doors to our house in the Mezzuzah. And of course we teach it to our children.  There is no joy without love. How will we help our children see that Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel is right? There is no greater holidays than Tu B’Av and Yom Kippur. We should not cover this up. Love reigns supreme.

Peeling the Layers

In this week’s Torah portion, parshat Tetzaveh, we read about the sacred clothes made for Aaron and his sons who are going to be the priests. It says that these vestments provide them glory and splendor (Exodus 28:1). It is clear that there are many layers of meaning behind all of the layers of the clothing of the priest, but do the clothes make the man? Would the same people be up to doing their job serving as intermediaries for the Israelites were not for the clothes?

It does seem that clothing gives us a social context for understanding someone’s role in society. So while wearing certain clothes does not determine the color of your character, it might inspire you to act the part.

Just as the priests are set apart in a special space with their special duties, Adam and Eve were set apart in the Garden of Eden charged to have dominion over nature. It is only after they eat from the Tree of Knowledge that they become uncomfortably aware of their being naked. Mark Twain once said, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or no influence on society.” If you hope to make a change in the world try to dress the part. Try an experiment of dressing up one day. See if people treat you differently. But, even more importantly – see if you act differently. What you wear can transform your  image of yourself and, in turn, transform you.

Recently I went to a great conference on Israel education representing education at camp. I got to thinking about camp people, Israelis, and how both tend to under-dress for events. I have said before and I will say it again;  I love camp people because we take our work, but not ourselves seriously. While the priests needed to dress up to take their work seriously, with Purim coming up I realize that some times we need to put on costumes to ensure that do not take ourselves too seriously.  We need to peel off  all of the layers and remember that we need to get out of our own way to do our work.  As my son Yishama always says, ” Seriously Abba? Seriously.”


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

Join 205 other followers

Archive By Topic


%d bloggers like this: