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

Vayeira ~ The Face of Faith

 Shabbat Shalom.   Yes, I know, it has been a while.  Life is good, life is busy, life is hard… God understands. 

This week’s portion, Vayeira, is unbelievably chock full of climactic and important events. When I first read it, I couldn’t begin to know where to start. First we have the promise to Sarah, and later the birth, of a son in her later years. We have Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot’s wife turning to salt as Lot flees with his sons. After the birth of Isaac we see Hagar and Ishmael cast out and Hagar’s despair believing the death of her son is near. Finally, we have the binding of Isaac, one of the most troubling portions in the Torah. There is more, These are just the highlights.

There are so many themes it is hard to know which to look at, which to talk about…..there’s the fallibility of humans and human love, Abraham and Sarah, Abraham and Hagar, Hagar and Ishmael, Soddom and Gomorrah; there is the struggle between human love and fallibility and the love of God – the story of Abraham and Isaac.  What struck me, this time, is that this portion is filled with stories of parents and sons and the role of faith in the parenting relationship.

In this week’s portion, Sarah is told she will have a child in old age. She doesn’t believe, in fact she laughs at the notion, but then . . . she does. As Hagar turned away from her son when their water ran out, God opened her eyes and she saw a well, the source of her salvation and, more importantly the salvation of her son. Finally Abraham is tested by the unseen, by God, and when he responds in faith, God’s presence is shown, is seen, and Isaac is saved. These are some of the most troubling stories in all of the Torah, with the exception of Sarah’s story, although the idea of having a child at such an advanced age could be troubling.  But, as you read, you think how could Hagar turn from her son at the time of what she believed would be his death.  How could Isaac be willing to kill his son for God.  I cannot imagine these things; I would throw myself in front of a train to save my child.  I would sooner kill myself than my child, even if God asked it of me. 

So is my faith imperfect because I would choose life over faith?  I think all faith is imperfect, there is no perfection in the human condition.  The God I choose to worship would not ask such a thing of me or I could not believe, that is how I solve it.  Different times.  My faith, imperfect though it may be, suits me, suits my life.  My faith helps me to love my child more dearly, to teach him values, to protect him and nurture his intelligence and his heart.  My faith asks me to offer my child to God by bringing him to Temple, to prayer, to Torah; not to the mountain for slaughter.

When you look into the faces of your children, I hope on this Shabbat you see the faces of faith, the meaning of faith and you feel closer to your God.

Naso ~ The Blessing Is In The Music

We are at Naso, the Book of Numbers roughly 4-7.  Reading this portion, which I do always before I read commentary (although I cheat and read it on the Chabad website in the Rashi commentary version just so I can have a little more understanding), it seemed to go on forever. 

There were some very compelling themes.  The first one that interested me were the rules of restitution; a fundamental idea of justice.  The second that struck me (yes, o.k., I am a lawyer) was the notion of presuming innocence (in the adulterous women section).  The third theme that made me think was the theme of abstinence for G-d, of choosing a period of offering and abstinence to show faith.  And then I came to the priestly benediction.  It is beautiful and somehow very comforting.  The commentary makes it clear that this is one of the most ancient texts in Torah and is clearly one of the most ancient in continuous use by humanity.  Then I read a commentary that talked about all the things we humans do in the name of our need for blessing.  This too is a very compelling idea.  But once I read the words of the benediction I was stuck.

I did not grow up in a religious home.  We did not go to Temple except for special occasions and I did not learn much about religious ritual until my now husband and I decided to enter into a covenant to create a Jewish home and raise a Jewish child and we both became involved in formal Judaism.  At that time we went to a very tiny synagogue congregation in Massachusetts where my husband converted and that had its own kind of magic.  But soon after we moved to New Mexico.  Our congregation there was filled with music.  I wrote about music in another blog this week. 

Music for me is the place I am most able to express myself, it speaks to me and for me.  I love other art forms but music is inside me.  So what I got stuck on was the sound of the priestly benediction as my then Rabbi and Cantor sang/chanted it.  They never recited it, they sang it, one speaking, one singing.  That is how I think of that ancient benediction.  It became almost like a lullaby for me, like the Hashkivenu melody that I love, it calms me.  As I settle into Shabbat and become quiet, these melodies speak for me, quiet me, fill me with prayer and reverence.  That is what I think about music and that is what this week’s Torah portion brought me to.  It hasn’t much to do with Naso but for me each week it is what the portion makes me think of.  The quote I posted elsewhere this week follows:

“Bach gave us G-d’s word, Mozart gave us G-d’s laughter, Beethoven gave us G-d’s fire and G-d gave us music so we might pray without words.”

I can’t attribute it because I don’t know where it came from.  But it says what I mean.  The priestly benediction brings us the joy of knowing that G-d loves us, it spreads itself over us and says that we can be happy and at peace.  And the music, well, it is peace.  Shabbat Shalom.

B’midbar ~ We Count

We are in B’midbar, the book of Numbers.  There are some wonderful commentaries on this portion.  The word B’midbar is the name of this whole book, as well as the name of this particular portion, the first verses of the book.  It means “in the wilderness” and, predictably, there are lots of discussions of that phrase and its many meanings and applications to our lives, then and now.   The last time I wrote on B’midbar, a year ago (wow!) I wrote about the journey into faith, a wilderness sort of discussion.  This time, the notion of counting took me.  In this portion the people of Israel are divided by tribe into four groups of three.  Only the Levites are excluded, for they will serve the priests and the house of worship.  The rest are each divided by their father’s houses, their tribes, and are assigned a specific place in the encampment around the Tent of Meeting, the Mishkan, that they take with them everywhere; it is the house of worship, the place of the priests.  Not only is each group ascribed a  camping place, they are ascribed a job, a function that is theirs alone within the society.  So before we get to camping… having had much discussion of the more individual rules and rites in Leviticus, we are now involved in rules regarding groups within the larger group.  I have to digress to talk about rules again. One commentary I read says that this “dividing” of the people gives a perception of disunity but in reality does precisely the opposite.  The idea is that when there is order people not only have the perception of well being, that things are good, but there is a practical advantage in the absence of chaos.  That order preserves unity of the whole by defining role, direction and purpose within the group.  But later.  The very beginning of this portion is G-d counting the people Israel, again.  G-d counts us and counts us and counts us.  Another digression… is this how G-d expresses love for us as a people?  What is interesting about the counting is that there is this notion that it is not the “individual” counting but the aggregate totals that matter (Rashi).  So everything is given in the totals of people, first born, members of a tribe.  What is important about this?  Perhaps that same notion of unity.  As a whole we are far more important, stronger and more capable than any particular individual.  As a whole we are just more than we are as each individual.  In the individual we value creativity, individuality.  In the group, we value consensus and the achievement of the whole.  As individuals we are not a society, a congregation, a family.  Counted together, we are.  G-d’s count, it seems to me, values each of us individually because we are to be counted; and values the aggregate for what we can be together that we are not by ourselves.  So there is unity in order, and there is unity in being counted.  Together, we count for something larger than our individual selves; our social, congregational and family values are promoted and strengthened by our numbers.  And isn’t that G-d’s work?  Shabbat Shalom.

Elena Kagan and Anti-Semitism On the Rise

I posted this on my other blog and realized that it belongs here too.  In the last few days I have read more anti-semitic trash than I can wrap my head around. Everywhere I look there are articles about the fact that the appointment of Elena Kagan will, if she’s confirmed, result in a Supreme Court made up entirely of Jews and Catholics. The first comment I heard about it was from my Rabbi several weeks ago. I thought it was interesting and so did he. He spoke of diversity and history, education and curiousity and the Jewish legacy of questioning and learning. He most specifically did not speak of any idea that somehow the Court would be “skewed” or manipulated as a result of the religious makeup of the Court. I am shocked that many of the comments I have read have been in Jewish publications! First, I should say that I am a lawyer by training and I spent most of my working life as a public defender; whose primary job, I believe, is to defend the fundamental principles contained in our beautiful constitution. I believe deeply in the freedoms embodied there and that they comprise the essential safeguards of our society, the first and last protection from unchecked power, often kown as fascism. Next, I believe that those who serve as jurists in our Federal Court system generally feel the same way. Often they share different beliefs about how best to interpret the constitution which, like the Torah, should be a living document, interpreted to be relevant in the modern world. What constitutes judicial activism is a controversy that has gone on for decades; centuries? And that debate is a healthy one, the different views keep our system in balance. Those who serve on the Supreme Court, I believe, are always changed by that service. Witness the number of democratic appointees that have turned conservative and republican appointees who have turned the other way. They should be changed. The responsibility of those who serve on the Supreme Court is awesome in my opinion and I believe that most who serve take that responsibility very, very seriously. The one exception currently being Clarence Thomas but I will save my opinion on that for another day. So, what stands out most is this. When the entire Court, for virtually all of its history until the last decade, was white, male, protestants, nobody complained. There was no talk of diversity, or the lack thereof. There was no talk of a “skewed” Court because of the religious, gender or racial makeup of the Court. So instead of one protestant there will be none. Why do so many care so much all of a sudden about the religious composition of the Court? Look around, our country is becoming more and more “diverse” every day. My son’s friends are Hindu and Muslim, Jew and Protestant, with the Protestants in the minority. The Court should be comprised of the best and brightest, the most thoughtful and the most caring. The Court should be comprised of those who, like Elena Kagan, have dedicated their lives to learning the law, living the law, teaching the law and loving the law. Why do so many care so much? Because racism and anti-semitism are all too alive and well here in the land of the free. It may be better but we are not done yet.

For Right’s Sake ~ Pay It Forward

This week’s portions, B’har ~ B’chukotai are filled with, surprise, surprise…. rules.  Yes people we are still in Leviticus, G-d’s rulebook.  There is much ado about the value of land, the redemption of slaves and the rules for working and selling your lands or selling your house, your slaves.  As usual, I have to digress for a moment.  The portion is very specific about the value of men and women at various ages.  Of course it is no shock that men in their prime are worth 50 shekels and women only 30.  But older women are relatively worth more than older men.  At least that part seems right! Much more intriguing generally, however, is the idea of tzedakah or charity that is contained in these verses.  This portion makes it clear that it is part of our obligation as Jews to treat the poor and the dispossessed with dignity and charity.  What is surprising is what charity means for us.  Rabbi Rapport, again, hits the nail on the head when he says that charity for Christians is equated with kindness where for Jews it is, or should be, equated with justice.  The word for charity, tzedakah, has the word justice as its root.  So the idea is that it is just for us to give; it is part of our covenant with our world, with G-d and with each other that we are to repair what we have broken (remember Emor and the rituals of repair).  For clearly it is we who have broken it.  Jewish commentary says that giving a loan, with no interest, is a better or greater act of charity than giving pure “charity” because a loan permits the recipient to retain their dignity and a donation does not, it demeans or belittles the recipient in some way.  Several commentaries I read recited stories of what we call “paying it forward”; the perfect example of pure charity in the most Jewish sense.  Give a loan and instead of accepting repayment, request that the person pay it forward rather than back.  I was the recipient, some years ago, of a generous helping hand from a friend during difficult times.  She told me to pay it forward when I asked how to repay it.  It was a wonderful feeling to do so.  When I was able to help someone else it was a blessing to me and to them.  To me, all this comes down to the idea that for Jews, you do right for its own sake, you do justice because it is just; not for the reward in the world to come.  I often talk about the here and now because it is what I believe and, in addition, it seems to me perfectly consonant with Jewish ideals.  You walk right because it is right, not because you might be rewarded; now or later.  You act justly because you will be content with your life, not because you might be awarded.  Rabbi Lamal Lam wrote a D’var about honesty in work, in performing services and a reality show in Israel.  The punchline from the Chassidic plumber, who did the right thing, was “the camera is always on”.  When you act in right ways there may be no person to see it but you will know and G-d is always watching.  May you know the peace that true charity and justice bring.  Shabbat Shalom.

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Emor ~ Rituals of Repair ~ Written for Sisterhood Weekend 2010

Here we are, counting the days until we receive the Torah, but we are studying it! How wonderful. We are still in Leviticus, the book of rules. This week’s portion is EMOR what one commentator called the section of sacrifice!
There are two primary themes in this week’s Torah portion. The first is the rules for the Cohen, the priests, to keep themselves pure and loving and not “defiled”. The second is the festivals. As always, it intrigues me to try to find a connection between the themes. As always, I read a lot of what others write. I shamelessly steal ideas if they are appealing and because they force me to think more critically myself.
The first theme seems to me to follow the general demeanor of Leviticus as a whole, for me it is the book of rules and rituals. There has been much more erudite writing about rules and society than I can hope to achieve. But … the rules are intended to define our behavior as a group, as a society. Every group of two or more human beings has politics, some more obvious than others. Without some set of defining rules not only would we not know how to act, we would “act out”, as children do who do not yet know the rules. Sometimes rules need to be broken. But in order to thoughtfully and intentionally break the rules for some other political purpose, you have to know what they are first. As I explained the protests of the sixties, and Mahatma Ghandi’s non-violent protests to my son, you have to know how you are expected to behave in order to use your behavior to make a statement. But this is a digression. As another digression, I did like in this portion, as in lots of Leviticus, that the rules are for men when so many rules in the Torah are directed at women! Not so much that of course, all the Cohen are men! What matters most is that G-d’s rules are intended to help us in living correctly, kindly and with reverence toward each other, our world and G-d.
The second theme is the festivals. It talks about booths, and living in booths that are temporary during the festivals. It is intended, one commentator wrote, to remind us that we are “guests in the world”. Although this leads to a discussion of literally tikkun olam (recycling, energy, etc.) that is too great a digression and we will leave that for another time. As guests in the world we are expected to accomplish as much good as we can in the time we have, as opposed to our general obsession with having and getting more, better, more. In the Pirkei Avot, the Mishna says in part that “it is better to have one moment of repentance and good deeds in this world than all of the world to come.” This is a partial quote, I’m sure I’ll be forgiven. What this says to me is that the opportunity to do G-d’s will is in the here and now, not in the world to come. Here and now, right now, is the only opportunity we have to fulfill the mitzvoth, to better ourselves and our world.
The URJ Torah Commentary today has an amazing D’var by Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport that talks about our relationship to G-d. It talks about one sentence in the portion that implies that it is us, we, that make G-d holy, that we are partners more than we are the children of our Avinu Malkeinu (as comforting as that concept and those words often are). That in our part of the relationship, we can perfect the broken and, in effect, make G-d holy; make G-d, G-d. Rabbi Peter Kessler responds by saying that poetry, however beautiful, and prayer, don’t make G-d holy. That it is our deeds that create holiness. It is his idea that Reform Judaism is about the practical rituals of “repair” and not the spiritual rituals of creative prayer that perfect our relationship with G-d.
I believe that both are true. I believe that we need practical rituals of repair. In these I include the rules, for they inform us of the practical rituals of repair, how to act, how to go about in our relations with the world G-d created, with other humans and with our selves, our bodies. But I believe that we also need what Kessler calls the spiritual rituals of creative prayer. In order to repair ourselves we need poetry and we need to pray in our own and creative ways to rejuvenate our spirits, to bring us to a spiritual fitness that enables us to go on with the practical rituals of repair. Someone wrote, more than we keep the Torah, it keeps us. The rules keep our behavior and the cycle of the festivals keeps our spirit. The task is so great, the repair that is needed is vast. The natural world, and the world we have created are filled with pain and sorrow. Some we can fix, some we can’t. Our relationships are filled with missteps and mistakes, some we can fix, some we can’t. Our homes are filled joys and tragedies, some we celebrate, some we just have to accept. The practical rules tell us how to fix what can be fixed, the spiritual rules tell us how to live in G-d’s will, to accept what can’t be fixed and move on. This creative prayer, this spiritual bonding, is part of what creates holiness, the deeds we do, as individuals, as a congregation, as a sisterhood, is the other. When these two things come together, I believe we have created a moment of holiness. Shabbat Shalom.

Acharei Mot/K’doshim

Ok.  This is roughly 16-20 of Leviticus and I was almost afraid to even take it on.  I am certain, and this is confirmed by other writers of commentary I read on this portion, that this is generally a favorite of Rabbis because it contains (drumroll please)…. the RULES.  One commentary I particularly like talked about how disconnected this seems as opposed to other books, that other books tell a story, but Leviticus is just a huge mass of seemingly unconnected and often irrelevant (to the modern world) rules.  So not really wanting to take on the commandments, I searched the portion and the midrash for ideas that appealed to me, as I always do.  Two ideas piqued my interest.  The first is the goat that is not killed at the altar or the tent as a sin-offering but is sent away (to Azazel the “hard” mountain) bearing away all the sins of the Israelites.  Now I wouldn’t have thought of this myself because I am no genius, but it is suggested that this is where the concept of a “scapegoat” was born.  How interesting.  But unlike the modern idea of a scapegoat where you just blame someone else for whatever you don’t want to take responsibility for, here there is a conscious transfer of sin from Aaron to the goat and a conscious carrying away of the sins of the people, an act of conscious confession if you will.  Somehow this ancient ritual morphed into the blame game!  The other idea that caught my interest was this… the portion says that when Aaron makes his atonement (inside the temple) there shall be no man present but him.  Aaron of course is the great priest and he is making atonement for his and everyone’s sins.  Without going into a lengthy discussion of all the rules and rituals of atonement, inside-outside, linen-gold, etc., suffice it to say that at this most grave of moments, he is to be alone.  Since all of this discussion is about Yom Kippur, and the rituals attendant to it, this is particularly interesting since we now make our confession, our atonement, as a whole people, as a congregation together.  Nevertheless, what does it mean that he is to be alone?  Why is he to be alone?  One commentator (I never remember who said what) said that the idea is that you should act as if the world doesn’t exist when you make atonement; that what others think of you shouldn’t matter.  Again, this is a conscious decision about confession and repentance; it should be for you alone.  Similarly when you stand up for your convictions, the lesson learned in solitary atonement should support you in this attitude of not caring what others think.  In both instances you do what is right because it is right, you make a moral decision because it is moral and you make a conscious decision not only to atone, but to trust G-d alone that it is the right thing.  This is yet another moment of covenant, I think, between each of us and G-d; that G-d will support us in our repentance and in our convictions, our right-thinking and acting.  The act of consciously sending away your sin is very like this too, it is the same type of decision; to act in a new and moral way, with a clean slate.  There is so much in this portion that a person could write forever but this is enough for me.  Now I know why we wear white linen on Yom Kippur (or we did).  More important,  I believe the conscious decision of atonement and that of conviction is one we can make every day, a decision to do better, to speak more loudly for justice and more softly in anger, to make right ourselves, our homes and our world.  Shabbat Shalom.

Mysterious Impurities ~ Tazria

The wonderful thing about the Torah is that each portion comes around again and again, giving a person the chance to think more about what it means.  The bad news is that each portion comes around again and again, meaning a person has to write about it AGAIN.  Tazria Metzorah is not a pretty portion and I have written on it at least 3 times, I think 4.  I have tried to avoid the obvious as I cannot begin to compete with the incredible semantic “parsing” that is out there about this portion.  This portion deals with the “impurities” of childbirth and menstruation ~ an entire subject in itself; and rituals for purification.  It also deals with a leprosy-like affliction that appears mysteriously.  What I wrote about this last year had to do with the concept of evil speech as the genesis of the impurity.  It was written for a talk I gave to my Sisterhood and focused on gossip and backbiting.  In looking at this portion again, I am still intrigued by the way in which the mysterious impurity manifests itself.  It begins with the most impersonal of all ~ the outer walls of the home, moving to the clothing of the person and finally to the body of the person themselves.  What struck me this year was the idea that the afflicted person was being given opportunities to avoid the ultimate and most personal affliction of their body.  G-d gives the afflicted, apparently, several opportunities to avoid the final disgrace.  So if the affliction is due to some behavior, as many scholars see it, the evil speech for instance, then theoretically stopping the behavior will halt the spread of the affliction.  We humans are a stubborn bunch.  We clearly need more than one warning and often even the multiples are not enough.  We persist in thinking we are right and good no matter what the consequences.  We say what we say despite the hurt it may cause.  We fail to stop and reflect that some of our “afflictions”, sadness, lonliness, isolation, fear, may be the result of our inability to open our minds and our hearts to the problems and perspectives of others.  In this way Tazria can be read as a metaphor.  The afflictions we cause ourselves are small at the onset, perhaps affecting our “outside” lives, our marginal and fleeting interactions with people we do not have lasting or substantial relations with.  Next are our friends and family, those we are close to, and our closed mindedness and stubborness may begin to damage our relationships with them.  They are the layer around us, much like the afflicted clothing.  Finally, we lose ourselves and our relationship with G-d.  The impurities in our minds, hearts and attitudes growing so great that we cannot find our way back to faith.  I have digressed, but that is what the study of Torah is all about.  Shabbat Shalom.

Sh’mini ~ True Humility?

In this week’s Torah portion, Sh’mini, from the book of Leviticus, there are two obvious primary thematic ideas.  First there is the inauguration of the mishkan, the tabernacle of prayer, that G-d gives the people and the death of the two eldest sons of Aaron after bringing an offering to the altar of the sanctuary.  Then there are the laws of kasruth, the kosher dietary laws; which things are ok to eat and which are not, the pure and the impure.  There are a lot of writings on these two things, especially the kosher.  I did a lot of reading and I enjoyed many of the points of view I read but I couldn’t find something that really hooked me to write about.  Until I read one comment which talked primarily about the statement in the portion that Aaron was afraid to come into the presence of G-d.  Now I should say that being Jews, even this simple sentence has given rise to a host of opinions.  Nevertheless, I plunged onward.  The next thing is that Moses says to Aaron to come near and “make your heart proud serving G-d”.  Hopefully I haven’t butchered the translation too badly.  There are many reasons that Aaron may have felt afraid, not altogether for no reason as his eldest sons did so and were killed.  Notwithstanding that tragedy, Moses tells Aaron to make his heart proud.  In our vernacular perhaps to “hold your head up”.  I particularly like the idea of one commentator that it means to have “pride in your prayers”.  There are two ideas embedded in that concept for me.  One is the idea of true humility which is not to make yourself  less or more but just what you are ~ as Moses says to Aaron, this is what you were selected for.  Two is the idea of standing up with pride for what you believe and what you are despite the efforts of others to demean it or take it.  What comes to mind for me in part is my son’s reticence to wear anything that identifies him as a Jew.  This is painful for me because I want him to be proud of what he is.  He experienced a fair amount of prejudice through his school life, especially early on, and I think this made him afraid.  I continually hope to show him by example that it is not a bad thing to be “selected” for this.  It is humble to be exactly who you are, no more, no less.  To make yourself less or more is an affront to G-d I think if we are made in G-d’s image that should be good enough for us.  The other issue was written about in one commentary in a way I won’t forget, it was about understanding the value of what others would want to take from you.  This is where that writer weighed in on the kosher laws.  They are not just rules of obligation but rules that make us more connected to G-d.  In most prisons where Jews have been imprisoned throughout history it has been important to their captors to inflict non-kosher food on them.  If it is something otherw wish to deprive you of…it must have value.  For some reason it is a means of identifying us, separating us and therefore must be stripped from us.  I don’t keep kosher and that’s ok, but there is a place in this portion where the physical and spiritual collide and it is here I think.  All the “rules”, the mitzvot, are ways of regulating society, behavior, relationships and finally formalizing our relationship with G-d.  Again there are many ways to think about them, another hundreds of commentaries and ideas, but this is mine for today.  True humility, living as you were selected to live, being who you are and living in a relationship with the G-d of your understanding, are  two central precepts of living a spiritual life.  Shabbat Shalom.