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Torah commentary by and for ordinary everyday. Everyone is invited to write.

Re’eh ~ Giving Is Its Own Punishment?

This Torah portion is the longest in Deuteronomy.  And it is full of all manner of things.  Re’eh means “see” and as with so many Torah portions it is the first word that is the title.

See, I set before you good and evil.  The good is the doing of good deeds and obeying the “rules”.  We Jews believe that giving rewards the giver more than the recipient. But here is where I get confused, there are awful punishments in this portion, particularly the pinning of a person to a wall or door with an awl through the ear.  We are admonished here to remember that we once were slaves but the treatment of servants here is not wonderful.

This portion contains the rules of kashrut, kosher eating.  It also contains the rules for Passover and Sukkot. So needless to say it is a jam packed parsha.  But for me, it is the core concept of giving and remembrance are the most important.

According to Maimonides the second to the highest level of “charity” is anonymous giving to anonymous recipients; the highest being helping someone to make their way through employment, loans and other forms of assistance.  So remembering we once were slaves, extending a hand of help to pull others out of poverty, oppression and enslavement should be one of the highest forms of help.   But many American Jews are on the immigration bandwagon, demanding the deportation of honest working people, the breakup of families.  Do we have a need for immigration reform? Sure we do.  But aren’t we the ultimate immigrants, from leaving Egypt to the formation of Israel we have wandered the earth unwanted, turned away?

So shouldn’t our remembrance, as in our repeating the story of our exodus at Passover, extend to giving? Shouldn’t memory require action?  Keeping the memory of wrong alive is only meaningful if we ensure that wrong, that evil, does not flourish. Should we not treat others as we would have wished to be treated? Isn’t that what we learned in kindergarten?

We are further obligated to action by everything in our tradition. Everything, we are taught, especially in Reform Judaism, s about social action, about tikkun olam, repairing the world. I am grateful that my tradition and belief allows me to interpret Torah as it applies to my life and times and as I personally read it.  And so I take from this portion the good and release the confusing and punishing. Doing good should, always, be its own reward.



Va’etchanan ~ Sh’ma redux

People often talk about Deuteronomy as the “laws” book, and there is a lot of that.  But Leviticus is all about rules too.  In fact, much of the Torah is really two strands, the historical saga and the rules.  These are always intertwined.

Va’etchanan – pleading. As with other parshat, it comes from the beginning of the portion where Moses tells of how he pleaded with G-d  to be allowed to enter the promised land, to be told no. He is only to see it from a mountaintop. The notion of pleading with G-d is interesting.  How often have you tried to bargain with your G-d, for relief from a behavior, redemption from a wrong, freedom from an addiction, life or peace for a suffering loved one?   Just as Moses was told no, so I think are we; I just don’t think it works that way.  I struggle to pray for grace, dignity, courage, strength, serenity and love and for the same for those I love.  The G-d I understand is more likely to help me to find those things than to grant specific wishes.  As usual, however, I digress.

I learned something new last week, because I am a Torah rookie. The Sh’ma has more verses than we normally presume, one of which is the v’ahavta prayer.  In this Torah portion the Sh’ma in all its glory and verses is repeated by Moses as an exhortation to the people.  What it is, really, is another “pleading” to retell our story, to remember the rules that make us Jews, to remind ourselves and our children in our homes and all the time what we believe.  As with so much in the Torah and our tradition, we are ever reminded of where we came from, we are encouraged to cry “never again”, we are instructed to teach our children well.

Whether you take a literal view of the Torah, or, like me and many reform Jews, a more expansive and interpretive view, everything you need to know about living in the world at peace and without anarchy, is contained here.  As is, again, our central prayer, the verse that binds all Jews, everywhere, of every kind, together.  And so we should plead with G-d for that, for a world in unity, at peace and without anarchy.  Isn’t that a vision of the world redeemed some day? And why we pour a glass for Elijah, on the off chance.  Shabbat Shalom



Devarim – sticks and stones

This  week we begin the final book of the Torah, Deuteronomy or Devarim which means words in Hebrew.  We are standing at the Jordan, waiting to cross over and enter the promised land.  Moses will never make that crossing, and he chooses to prepare the people by recounting the stories of the trials and hardships that brought them to this moment.  We are called the people of the book, we should be called the people of the story; the people of words.  We recount our history at every chance, for good reasons.  We say of the Holocaust’s racism, bigotry and murder “never again”.  How to avoid it if it fades from memory?  How will our children remember our history if we don’t retell it?

It is all about communication, though, isn’t it? And we strive for the right words to contain our feelings, to express our desires, to describe our history.  And this week a Jewish girl named Aly Raisman did her brilliant Olympic floor routine to Hava Negila on the 40th anniversary of the slaughter of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.  Her own re-telling, her own “never forget”.

In our daily lives we use words carelessly, we toss them around with little thought.  But when we have strong feelings, we struggle to find the right words, words that are adequate.  And nowhere do words seem so careless as in our current presidential politics.  Things are being said that would have previously been unthinkable, and should be still.  The words reek of that racism and bigotry and give rise, as historically, to violence.

Moses chooses his moment to recount, to use words to prepare the people, for building, for memory, for empowering them, for providing rules/structure.  Shouldn’t we take this moment to disavow the childhood admonition about sticks and stones? To remember that words can hurt us, can be destructive? We should take Moses’ example and use our words, and our recounting, to  empower each other.  In our national politic we should use our words to disavow ignorance and hate, deception and lies.  In our personal lives we should use our words to strengthen and honor each other.   We need all our strength as we stand ever on the banks of the Jordan, waiting to enter the promised land hand in hand, a people of words.

Shemot ~ Redemption and Terrorism

It is impossible to have been unaffected by the terrible events that transpired in France this week. And the Torah portion for this past week, Shemot, ends with a promise of redemption; ironic timing. So much happens in the parshat that choosing one thing to write of is problematic. Joseph has passed away and the people Israel are multiplying. Perhaps for this reason Pharoah and thus all Egypt changes its view of the Israelites, seeing them as a threat. “A new king arose over Egypt and he did not know Joseph”. The new king orders the death of all male Jewish babies and bravely, the midwives Shifrah and Puah refuse this command. As a result of this refusal, the Egyptians are commanded to throw all the babies into the river.

Moses is born to Yocheved and is raised by Pharoah’s daughter. He commits murder and flees, marrying Tzipporah and becoming a shepherd. While herding at the foot of Sinai, the burning bush appears and G-d commands him to return and demand that Pharoah “let his people go.” He does and, in short, is unsuccessful such that the suffering of the Jews is multiplied despite their belief in Moses that redemption is at hand.

In the space of a single generation, the lives and fate of the Jews is abruptly changed from a reasonably peaceful and presumably prosperous presence in Egypt to a feared and despised presence with the murder of their male children a priority of the culture. In the space of how many single generations has this happened to the Jews, the rise of anti-Semitism and the near complete destruction of the Jewish population in the Shoah. The inquisition and the forced conversion or death of the Jews of Spain.

How quickly public attitudes, fears and prejudices shift and change. The terrible rise of anti-Semitism and anti-Israeli sentiment throughout Europe, really in the space of generation or so, in this the third largest Jewish population in the world.

The swiftness of this shift is frightening and, coming in the wake of Chanukah, a festival of freedom poses a powerful lesson. Freedom, liberty and security are not to be taken for granted. The mundane, grocery shopping, turns to a nightmare at the hands of a terrorist with a gun in the blink of an eye; a cup of coffee in an Israeli café is blown to bits on a sunny day. We light our candles in the window because we can, because we declare ourselves publicly as Jews, as proud and as free. But we are at risk in doing so. Can we be as brave as Shifrah and Puah, resisting the public bent to anti-Semitism, speaking aloud our horror and resistance to acts of terror and physically violent anti-Semitic behavior?

Moses returns to speak with G-d and bemoans the difficulty of the lives of the Israelites and G-d’s response is the promise of redemption. But we do not have the luxury to wait for a modern redemption, G-d gave us will, G-d gave us choice and G-d gave us the ability to act. And act we must. If I am not for myself who will be for me. If I am only for myself, what am I. If not now, when? And so, what we learned “at Sinai’s foot” we need to attend ~ freedom is every and it is not easy.

And special thanks to Rabbi Joe Black for sparking this train of thought.

Devarim – Last Week and the beginning of the end

Devarim is the beginning of Deuteronomy, the last of the five books of Moses, the Torah, and the beginning of the end of the cycle, bringing us again to the High Holy days and the joy of Simchas Torah and beginning all over again.

I am not sure being a Temple President is doing G-d’s work, but I like to think it is as it keeps me from doing this.

Most people who think of it at all, think of Deuteronomy as the lawyer’s book, the book of laws – all those gift prints for lawyers offices – “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue” and so on. Being a word geek I was happy to learn that the root words are deuteros for second and nomos for law (yes, Greek). So Dueteronomy is the book of “second” laws. It is the book in which Moses re-iterates and review the laws of the Torah as he rebukes the people for their failing during their 40 years in the desert.

What spoke to me this time around was that this parsha is about wars. And there is lots of commentary, oddly, about “good wars and “bad wars” and the price of war generally. Obviously this resonates presently. It is in this parsha that Moses tells his successor, who will lead the people into Israel and into battle “Fear them not, for the Lord your G-d, He shall fight for you.” As I understand it, more than 7,000 rockets have fallen on Israel and the physical destruction of so many places, In Israel and in Gaza is horrifying. For the frightened children on either side, there is no “good war” no “bad war”, just fear and destruction. So save a place in your prayers for all the innocents. But I digress.

Although this is the week of Devarim, it was also Tisha B’av, about which I am sad to say, I knew nothing. It is characterized as the “saddest day in the Jewish calendar”. The 9th of Av is the day on which the first Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed approximately 2000 years ago. In looing further, I found that our “mythology”, or “history” goes that many things have happened on this fateful day:
1. The spies slandered the land and decree to wander the desert for 40 years resulted;
2. The destruction of the First Temple by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon in 423 BCE;
3. The destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 CE;
4. The fall of Betar and the end of the Bar Kochba revolt against the Romans 65 years later in 135 CE (look it up!);
5. Pope Urban II declares the First Crusade; tens of thousand of Jews are killed and communities obliterated;
6. the Jews of England are expelled in 1290;
7. The Jews of Spain are expelled in 1492;
8. World War 1 breaks out in 1914 when Russia declares war on Germany; the German resentment of the Treaty of Versailles set the stage for WWII and the holocaust;
9. On Tisha B’Av, the deportation of Jews from the Warsaw Ghetto begins.

So, indeed, the saddest day of the year – the 9th of Av has much to answer for. For the orthodox it is a three week period of mourning and a fast of one day. It is a day of spiritual reflection and accounting, foreshadowing the coming of Yom Kippur.

The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of Jewish life and identity, much as Israel is the center of identity for us today and why it’s perilous position feels so real and emotional to us. In this country we are in a war of words. We are a people of words, people of the book and we know the destructive power of words; politically socially and emotionally. This of “juden” printed on a yellow star to be worn on the chest. Think of “never again” and Am Israel Chai. it is why the words of the press, accounting war in bodies and not peril or fear are so hurtful.

In this parsha, Moses reminds the people that the ways of the book are everything, they are the laws by which we strive to live. And, really, he is reminding us to learn from our mistakes. As Deuteronomy urges us to pursue justice, so to the Qu’ran, verse 5:8 “O Believers, be steadfast for God with justice. Do not let hatred of the people make you act unjustly. Be just for justice is next to piety. AS we pray for peace and justice, take your Shabbat with you out into the world and carry shalom with you everywhere you go.

Oops again – I posted this in the wrong place! Tetzaveh – Exodus

Tetzaveh – Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
February 8, 2014 — trienahg | Edit

This Torah portion is primarily about the priestly vestments, clothing, adornments and the altars. Two things struck me particularly. The commentaries point out that in the Torah portion Moses’ name is not mentioned at all yet the “directions” are to him. So it is selfless and ultra present at the same time. Moses said to G-d that he would be nameless in the Torah as a result of the people sinning with the golden calf. The ultimate selflessness, to remain nameless in the holiest of holy works. And yet, he is in this most intimate relation with G-d in this portion, G-d providing him with the instructions required for the priests to maintain the relationship between G-d and the people. Which directs my attention to the tzedakah question – nameless? I think so. We as Jews talk about tzedakah, about charitable good works, about tikkun olam, all the time. There are those who do many good works but feel it necessary to be recognized as often and as publicly as possible. How close to G-d does that put the person? The good is the good but I think the desire for a “return” undermines the value of the good. Sometimes the recognition, the price to the recipient, is too much. There are those who do small good works but do them anonymously. How close to G-d does that put the person? Much closer I think. It is much more intimate an act to do small acts of kindness and charity without hope of reward. Not to say that there aren’t those that do great works without the need of public reward.

The other theme in this portion that struck me is that of the “everlasting” light that is supposed to burn from morning until night. Isn’t that a contradiction in terms? All the time versus some of the time. I loved a commentary I read which is essentially that this contradiction is a metaphor for the contrast between the perfect and the imperfect. That it is our job to find a relationship between the divine and the human, the eternal and the temporal. And isn’t that the meaning of our lives, the striving for a perfection that we know perfectly well is unattainable, yet we continue to strive. And as with tzedakah, doesn’t the striving for the unattainable put is in a more intimate relationship with g-d. And this is not the same as striving for “success”. It is striving for the divine; the perfection of our selves. Ironically striving to attain the perfection of our human selves is by definition to only attain a better imperfection!

Ultimately in this portion, both themes that spoke to me are about doing the best we can not because it is asked of us, not because it will gain us material goods or rich recognition, but because it brings us closer to the divine. They are both about improving our relationship with G-d and what is best in us; in having a more intimate relationship with G-d and with ourselves.

Oops ! Last week’s Torah portion – Tazria

Leviticus still. This is my fourth d’var Torah on this parsha of Tazria and it is such a strange and difficult, really almost unpleasant, parsha.  It continues a discussion of ritual impurity, childbirth and the ritual of the mikvah, circumcision, etc.  Wait, we have not gotten to the icky part yet.  This is the parsha that most people associate with leprosy.  But Tzarat, or the affliction in question, is not necessarily that; it is a mysterious affliction that can affect the skin, the garments or even the s home. 

I have always found this dichotomy fascinating, the idea of the progression from outer to inner or conversely inner to outer.  From the inanimate to the animate or the reverse.  From the very impersonal (although your home is personal in some way) to the extremely personal or, again, the reverse.  Do we reach inward for G-d or do we reach outward or out-toward G-d.  If we are made in the image of the divine is that an outer, or physical likeness?  Or is it a spiritual likeness? As I do not believe in G-d as a humanoid figure, for me it is obviously an internal or spiritual/emotional likeness.  We strive for divinity in our behavior, in our everyday dealings; isn’t that what the mitzvah drive us to?  A striving for perfection and holiness, however unattainable it might be?

This too, presents a dichotomy of inner and outer.  There is the outer, or physical appearance of a person, and there is the inner, the spirit and character of a person.  The tzarat, or mysterious affliction, requires the afflicted to dwell alone outside the camp, tent or city until no longer afflicted.  This mandate of isolation brings me to two different ideas.  those with actual leprosy, continued to be quarantined or isolated in parts of the world considered civilized. 

The last compulsory isolation in the United States was enforced in 1960 and it was not until 1975 that the section Code of Federal Regulations dealing with medical care for person’s with Hansen’s Disease (leprosy) eliminated the word “detention” from its text.  There was no debate in the United States regarding the appropriateness of compulsory isolation but, rather, “involuntary admission” was administratively abandoned until Congress addressed the closure of public health hospitals between 1981 and 1986 and the elimination of “hazard pay” for those who worked in leprosaria or hospitals for those with Hansen’s Disease.  The law finally passed in 1985 spared the one national center for the treatment of the disease and required that person’s with it be treated without charge.  There is much more to the history but you get the idea, compulsory isolation and involuntary admission was in part a result of the fear of infection.  But reasonably effective drugs for the arresting of the disease, although it is not technically curable, have existed since the 1940’s and yet this isolation and discrimination continued.  Why?  I believe it is because those with the disease were too hard to look at, they were sometimes disfigured in pretty horrible ways.  The history of more than three quarters of a century, just in this country, was primarily based on judging people on how they look.

Didn’t your mother tell you not to “judge a book by it’s cover”?  I think perhaps it all started with this parsha, with Leviticus and the tzarat.  Just as, perhaps, we should look for G-d within ourselves, for the spark of the divine within, the striving for perfection, we should look at the character of a person, at their spirit rather than at their physical appearance.  It is hard to look past physical imperfections or the difficulties imposed by poverty to see the person within, but that is what we are required to do.  If the divine image, or the spark of the divine in us is inner, then that is where we must look.  I have often told people who asked how I could represent murderers in my past life that nobody is the one worst thing they have ever done.  I wish not to be judged by any singular act but by the whole of who I am and what I have accomplished, tempered perhaps by what I am less proud of.  We are all a composite, the inner being much more important than the outer.

I would be remiss here if I did not note that on this Shabbat, which is the shabbat to fall on or before the first of Nissan we are commanded to read also Hachodesh, the portion of exodus that speaks of G-d’s words to Moses in Egypt, two weeks before the  exodus.  The portion commands us to bring the Passover offering and eat it with matzah and bitter herbs, abstaining from leavening for seven days.  Just as our mother’s taught us to judge a person’s inner beauty, so G-d commands us to teach our children of the exodus, of our journey from slavery to freedom.  The Torah is full of this idea of passing down or passing on, the stories and practices to our children as they were passed on to us.  Think of the V’ahavta, one of the most seminal prayers in our liturgy – teach them to your children, bind them as a sign.  The concept of l’dor vador, from generation to generation is crucial to us as a people, it is a cornerstone of our culture, our faith, our very survival.

But I digress. The second theme I found in this idea of isolation in Tazria is again of the inner and outer. As in the example of Hansen’s disease, we have historically isolated those whose outer appearance is distasteful to us for various reasons.  Those whose inner ppearance is distasteful are another matter altogether.  It is possible for the miserable of spirit to camouflage their ugliness sometimes, to learn to act in acceptable ways socially while acting out in uglier ways perhaps in business, or in their intimate relationships.  But what I think is ultimately true is that those who are miserable in spirit are almost always emotionally isolated, they have created their own isolation from which it is very difficult to emerge.  In this case the outer is perhaps more palatable than the inner.  And in the end,  those who are miserable of spirit do dwell alone, outside the tent.

 The two ideas come together when we think of how we feel, or make others feel, when we them by how they look, or their lifestyles, or their beliefs rather than looking at them to see how they actually “live”.  What matters is how they treat people, how honest they are, how gracious and how charitable.  When we judge them wrongly, we make ourselves miserable and therefore isolated.   

On this Shabbat, as we enter Nissan and prepare for our physical spring cleaning and the re-telling of our story of freedom, let us look within to find what is best in ourselves and others.  Let us look within to find the spark of the divine in each of us and clean our spiritual houses of judgment, gossip and ugliness and come to the table without tzarat in our homes and in our hearts.

Shabbat Shalom


We are at the very beginning of Leviticus and, I have to confess, it is my least favorite book of the Torah.  Maybe because I am not that fond of rules.  And this book is chock full of rules, many of which are entirely irrelevant to our modern lives.  At the end of Exodus we learn of the sanctuary being erected; a place built by human hands in which the divine presence would abide.  As one scholar put it, the tent of meeting between man and G-d.  I like that idea, but then we move into Leviticus and although G-d has entered our sanctuary, we must be schooled in the rules of the place.  But as with everything in the Torah, if you read and think, read and think, you can find a principle or an idea that is completely relevant to us. 

This parsha is all about sacrifice, in the most detailed and gruesome way.  It is about the dissection of animals in specific ways, about the uses of certain parts of the body, about what to burn and how, about what to use and in what order; cows, bulls and birds all suffer much the same fate. 

As an aside, I find it odd and ironic that the “peace” offering begins with the dispersal of blood on the altar.  I suppose all peace comes as a result of struggle or conflict, if I was trying hard to make sense of it.  An additional bit of oddity for me is the caste like separation, in the world of physical sacrifice, of the gadol kohanim  or high priests, the kohanim, the regular priests, and the rest of us.  But reflections on caste and culture are for another d’var.

Most important, for me, was the idea of sacrifice.  Life is full of sacrifice, isn’t it?  In so many large and small ways.  We sacrifice for our children; we sacrifice for our parents and all those we love.  Sometimes with money, sometimes with time and sometimes just in putting our own feelings to the side.  I remember all the Saturdays that I gave up taking my dad to the Winn Dixie.  A trip for 10 items would take hours.  And my life is so busy that I had to consciously tell myself, no, this is more important.  Now that he is gone I of course am glad of the sacrifice of time.  I think of all the times I didn’t shop for myself because my son needed something – I don’t think there is a mother in the world who hasn’t experienced that; unless you are so wealthy that it doesn’t matter.

Physical sacrifice, the dissecting, burning, eating of animals to show our faith or our belief in G-D is obviously not relevant to us today.  Leviticus is downright gory in its attention to detail so I sort of skipped over parts of it.

The thing that caught my eye about the sacrifices was the bit that says no “meal” offering may have leavening or sweetener but only salt.  I had to do some reading about this and in the end I found one explanation that spoke to me.  I am a cook so this explanation is something that I could understand and relate to.  It was that leavening changes the actual nature of the thing you put it in, causes it to rise and become something different.  Sweetener also changes the basic nature of the food by making it into something different.  A biscuit dough becomes a shortcake when you add sugar for example.  But salt, the one permitted, or even required item, only enhances the true nature of what it is incorporated into.  Chemists will not necessarily agree about this – look at a good vinaigrette!  Nevertheless, it is an explanation I can understand, one I can work with.

There are many explanations by folks much more scholarly than I about why sacrifice at all.  Is it because life is full of sin, that as imperfect beings we cannot help but sin?  If so, think about the explanation of leavening and sweetener.  When we apologize or atone perfectly, we do not say “but” or “I should have” or “I know”.  We say we are sorry without adding or sweetening.  One of the hardest things in life to do is to make amends to someone without expectation of how it will be received.  It is our nature to “sweeten” or minimize whatever wrong we have done, or to inflate our importance or goodness in order to deflate the bad.  So maybe it is that sacrifice is to be done without arrogance or self-promotion.  Maybe sacrifice is to be done without making ourselves “sweeter”.  All the salt should do is magnify to truthfulness and selflessness of the sacrifice itself.  It speaks for itself, as food does with a little salt, no need for additional frou frou as my husband would say, tossing the garnish aside.

This idea of sacrifice is the only one that I find palatable as I do not understand or accept the concept of a punishing or demanding G-d, although back in the day our G-d certainly was demanding and there are moments when I think perhaps we, as a people, a tribe, could use a bit more pushing.  Be that as it may, my personal G-d, the one I have a relationship with, would not demand of me what was demanded of Abraham as a test of faith, would not demand that I kill another living thing to proof my worth or faith.  So I have to take it all as a metaphor.

What is good in the world is the fact that we do choose to make sacrifices for the good of those we love, for the good of the earth, for the good of the community, for the good of each other.  We refrain from our worst behaviors because the primal idea of sacrifice has become entrenched in our social mores.  But we refrain from selfish behaviors because the primal idea of sacrifice has become entrenched in our hearts.  We give the young and old food before we serve ourselves; not because our society says so, but because we know it is right.  People die every day rescuing their children because it is impossible not to act in that way – every parent knows they would give their own life to save the life of their child.  Not because society says it should be so but because it is fundamental to us as sentient beings.

So life is full of sacrifice, great and small; and this Torah portion was given to me today because I needed to reflect on the meaning of sacrifice and selfishness.  Self-centeredness and selflessness.  I needed to be reminded that somewhere, every moment, someone’s life is much harder, more difficult and more painful than mine.  Those sacrifices that we make because they are primal, without thinking, are the part of us that is made in the divine image.  Those sacrifices we choose to make are because we are imperfectly human and wish to come more closely to the divine.

Bo ~ Identity & Identification ~ Shabbat January 11, 2014

So, we are in the middle of the exodus.  And we are at the last of the plagues.  Moses has made his demands of pharaoh, to no avail; the other plagues have come and gone, to no avail.  G-d sends the locusts so that nothing will grow, to no avail.  G-d sends the locusts so that nothing will grow, to no avail!  Then G-d sends the utter darkness, and still pharaoh is not convinced.  You wonder here who is the more stubborn, but I will address that momentarily.  Finally, G-d is going to kill the first born sons of Egypt.  This threat ultimately moves pharaoh and he virtually drives the Israelites out of Egypt so fast that we are all commanded, or should I say condemned, to eat nothing but matzo for seven days to commemorate the occasion for all eternity.

As to stubborn, I read a wonderful midrash about a fat man and a donkey.  There was a very fat man riding on a donkey.  As they go along the donkey is thinking “I will be so glad when this fat man is off my back” and the fat man is thinking “I can’t wait to be off the back of this donkey.”  When the fat man finally alights, it is impossible to tell who is happier, the fat man or the donkey! As with pharaoh and the Israelites, after the plagues and the killing of the first born, we can’t know who was happier when the Israelites finally left Egypt, them or pharaoh.

Last week I called it the Passover portion because the ritual is commanded there.  This week is literally the Passover portion because it is here that Passover gets it’s name.  In this portion the slaughter of a lamb is commanded of the Israelites and the blood is to be sprinkled on the doorways and lintels of their houses so that when G-d comes for the first born of Egypt he will literally “pass over” their homes, not killing their sons.

In the commentary on this portion, there is much talk about the darkness and the journey and how those might be metaphors for us.  There is a lot to think about in those metaphors.  What spoke to me most, however, was the idea of the marking of the homes of the Jews.  This is a moment of both identity and of identification.  As was the “marking” of Jews by the application of spray paint to their homes and stars to their clothes and finally numbers to their very skin during the holocaust.  Are identity and identification the same?  Or are they different?

The question is, is it necessary for us to identify ourselves as Jews in order t feel the completion of our identity as Jews.  The answer, as always, is probably different for different people.  And in order to complete our identity as Jews, do we need identification with others in our community?

Taking the idea of the metaphors in the portion, if we think of the exodus itself as a metaphor, if we all have our own internal Egypt, then how do we come through the wilderness of our feelings into the light, into spiritual and emotional freedom, if not through and with other people, if not through identification with others.  The Jews were not commanded to, nor did they, march through the wilderness one by one; they did not survive alone – leaving aside for a moment the question of divine intervention.  They survived the plague of the killing of the first born sons only through their identification with the group.  They survived the wilderness, in large part, because they were together one imagines.

The philosopher Michael Walzer wrote (and is loosely quoted in our Mishkan Tefillah Prayer book) that wherever you live, it is probably Egypt; that we imagine or believe that there is a better place, a promised land; and that the only way through the wilderness is by joining together.

So what of Jews who are not religious but who identify themselves as Jews?  How many of those do you know?  Have you been to New York, or Boca, lately?  There are many more “cultural” Jews than religious.  I think of my dear friend Sylvie who was Israeli and who was by her own admission what they call entirely secular, but she still identified herself as Jewish.  To be Jewish, many of us would proudly say, is a culture, a cultural identity, in a way that most religions are not, crossing boundaries of nationality.  Jews tend to be Jewish and whatever else they are.  I would identify myself, for instance (accurately or not) as English on my mother’s side and Russian/Polish Jew on my father’s.  It would not occur to me to identify my mother’s family’s religious affiliation.

The rituals of our faith, in many instances, have become the rituals of our identification, of our culture.  These rituals stay with us despite our intransigence regarding formalized religion or affiliation.  My grandmother did not belong to a Temple during my lifetime, nor did she particularly profess to prayer that I can remember. But she always lit Yahrzeit candles in her home, where else would I – the daughter of a shiksa – have learned to burn them safely on the stove.  She attended family seders, she buried my grandfather in a Jewish cemetery and she hummed Ein Keloheinu when she was unobserved.

So what matters more, culture or religion? Identification or identity?  Perhaps it depends on the context, is it personal or is it communal?  Is it inward or outward?  My identity is personal, my faith is part of that identity.  Identity is at our centers and is who we most basically are.  Identification is by its nature communal, when I want to make a statement to the world about who or what I am.  When I wish solidarity with a principle, idea or nation.  Or when I simply wish to be a part of a greater whole.

Religion and religious ritual seem to me to be, to some extent, where identity and identification intersect.  I am here because I practice my faith, my spirituality here in the sanctuary, among other places.  But I am also here because it is important to support the community, the whole, and the identity of the community through my identification with it.  In the end, they intertwine I think.  The ritual symbols of our faith sustain us personally but, just as we burn our chanukiah in the window because it is a symbol of our freedom to do so, so too the mezuzot on our doors proclaims our identity and identification, our freedom, our exodus from Egypt, wherever that might be, through the wilderness to safety, to home.


NOV 15 Vayishlach –  

NOV 15 Vayishlach –  How often have you dreamt of someone and they called you the next day? How often have you thought of someone and then dreamt of them? How often have you worried over a relationship only to have the person appear in a dream, or call you the next day? How often might you have avoided calling someone because the call would be hard or painful only to have the person call you, leaving you to say ” oh, I was just thinking of you” or “oh, I meant to call you”.  Often it is the truth, but embarrassing nonetheless. I know, I find myself in that situation often enough as my life is so busy that I frequently think of people, many times with a great sense of fondness, sometimes with a feeling of obligation; but then do not take the action, the follow up to my thought.  And so with Jacob in this parsha, he sent the angels to Esau, he did not go himself, he sent messengers.  Perhaps it was a dream, perhaps Esau dreamt of Jacob. Vayishlach is one of those portions that is filling with meaning and message, symbols and spirituality.  I always like to  read commentary but then see what strikes me.  And every time, it is something new. This time it was the ideas of separation and reconciliation, of humility and arrogance. This week was the second anniversary of my father’s death; and I am grateful that I had an opportunity to find reconciliation with him as our relationship was unusual and difficult.  He was an unusual and difficult man. But in the end I knew he loved me and was proud of me. And despite his anger, he knew I loved him too.  For many years my relationship with my brothers was equally unusual and difficult, for many and varied reasons. But, in part through my father’s passing, we have found  a new place of reconciliation, a new kind of  relationship.  We are all making an effort, we a re helping one another although we did not expect to. I do not believe that we just miraculously all changed into different people.  I believe that the grace of G-d touches us sometimes in miraculous ways.  Jacob in this parsha, if I understand it correctly,, says essentially that he is less because of all the mercies G-d has shown him.  In reading various commentaries I found lots of interpretations of this particular line. The one I liked best, however, talked about humility and that the closer we are to G-d, the greater G-d’s mercies and kindnesses, the closer we feel to G-d and therefore the greater our humility. So rather than “less” being a bad thing, it is a good thing and, topsy turvy, being more is by definition, arrogant. Now it makes sense because we understand that when we think we are “more than” or “better than” someone else, or what we are, we are surely arrogant. So in the moments that G-d gives us, of mercy, of kindness, of recognition,  and of reconciliation, we are made less in the best sense. I could not  control my father’s passing, the time or the manner, but I could control my behavior toward him, and therefore our relationship, in the later years of his life.  I cannot control my brothers or their feelings, but I can accept G-d’s mercy in allowing me to remain open to the possibilities of what our relationships could be. Jacob did just that, he remained open, he sought reconciliation although he did not expect it.  In this parsha, and in the loss of my father, I learned the very important lesson that you hear all the time, but few of us heed, let alone act on.  If you love someone, tell them.  If your relationships need repair, be the first to reach out, no matter by whom the first wrong was done.  If your spiritual house is awry, set it aright. I have talked a lot about service, to the Temple and the community and I believe, in this spirit of humility, of being close to G-d, of being less being a good thing that humility is called for there as well.  I believe you do service, tzedakah, tikkun olam, because you are called to do it, because in doing it, you are closer to G-od, fulfilling mitzvah.  And while we choose to honor and recognize those among us who serve, service must come from within and not from the need for recognition or reward. If you serve in the hope of recognition, you will always be disappointed.  But if you serve with humility, close to G-d, you will never be disappointed. Jacob was a complicated character, as are we all. These ideas of humility and reconciliation provide us with an opportunity to simplify.  This time of year, with it’s varied but consistent messages, provides us with an opportunity to simplify.  To be the first with apology, a helping hand, a message of love or hope.  These are the simple things.  In the spirit of Jacob,I urge you all to simplify and make right what is wrong in your lives and in the world.

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