November 3, 2018 Parshat Chaye Sarah. After Pittsburgh. (Rabbi Margie Cella)

AfterPittsburgh

On August 5, 2012 a gunman entered a Sikh Temple in Oak Park, Michigan and murdered 6 people as they prayed. On June 17, 2015 a gunman entered an African Methodist Episcopal church in Charleston, South Carolina and killed 9 people as they studied the sacred text of the Bible. Almost exactly one year ago today—on November 5, 2017 a gunman entered a Baptist church in Sutherland, Texas on a Sunday morning in the middle of worship services and killed 26 people. And on October 27, 2018 a gunman entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and murdered 11 people during Shabbat services.

What religious denomination is next?

In the last reading from last week’s Torah portion, Vayera, we read the story of the Akedah, when God demanded that Abraham offer his beloved son Isaac as a burnt offering, a sacrifice.

As they head off to Moriah, Abraham knows what is expected to happen on the mountain; Isaac does not. At a certain point, they separate from the two servants who have made the trip with them.

​Genesis 22:5  And Abraham said to his young men, Stay here with the ass; and I and the lad will go yonder and worship, and come back to you.

Strange that Abraham should say this. If he really believes that he is going to sacrifice his son, how can he say that we will return? Some rabbis say that this demonstrated Abraham’s supreme faith in God, that somehow this would all work out. I think that would be presumptuous on Abraham’s part. But the verbs in this verse are really a form that is called cohortative, expressing a wish or a hope: let us go and let us worship and let us returnto you; better yet, may we go and may we worship and may we return to you. Abraham seems to making a plea to God, “please God, let us go and worship You together, and let us both return from there together.”

Later on in the passage, after the attempted and aborted sacrifice, the text only says that one of them returned:

         ​Genesis 22:19  So Abraham returned to his young men, and they

rose up and went together to Beersheba; and Abraham lived at

Beersheba.

Where was Isaac? One Midrash says that Isaac actually did die that day, along with all of Abraham’s hopes and dreams. Another midrash says that he didn’t die, but couldn’t bring himself to return with his father. And who could blame him? After all, his father had just tried to kill him. So instead he went off on his own for a time. Either way, Abraham has lost his son and is returning home alone.

And what awaits him at home? In the beginning of today’s Torah portion, Chaye Sarah, we read the news that his beloved Sarah has died, some say from a heart attack when she learned what had transpired on the mountain. His only remaining son dead or estranged, his wife dead, Abraham is truly alone in the world, left to mourn the loss of 2 people either way.

Though Abraham is 20 generations after Adam, and the Torah has recorded numerous genealogies in the text up to this point, this is the first recorded incident of any character in the Bible dealing with the death of a loved one. Abraham wants to find an appropriate burial place for Sarah and mourn her properly. And so he turns to the children of Heth, the non-Jews among whom he lives, to ask for their help in purchasing a burial plot.

​Genesis 23:4  I am a stranger and a sojourner with you; give me possession of a burying place with you, that I may bury my dead …..

Following this, Abraham negotiates with Ephron to buy a field and a cave from him, thus making him now a resident of the land. Once he has completed his mourning for Sarah, Abraham has one more important task to accomplish: finding a suitable wife for Isaac. For this, he enlists the help of his non-Jewish servant, Eliezer, whom he sends back to the land and family from which he had originally departed. There follows a lengthy description of Eliezer’s journey and his selection of Rivkah. Towards the end of today’s parsha, we read

​Genesis 24:67  And Isaac brought her to his mother Sarah’s tent, and took Rebekah, and she became his wife; and he loved her; and Isaac was comforted after his mother’s death.

So how do these 3 passages speak to us today in the wake of the senseless violence that occurred a week ago?

The people of Tree of Life never got to read the story of the Akedah last week. Rather, they actually lived it. Their Shabbat worship was interrupted by gunfire in a sacred space just like this one. God received 11 sacrifices in Pittsburgh last Shabbat.

If we accept the standard interpretation that Isaac did notdie that day on Mt. Moriah, then we might ask who–or better yet, what—did die that day? I would suggest that what died was Isaac’s innocence. Despite all the promises God had made to Abraham about Isaac’s future, he now knew that the world that his father had created for him was no longer a safe place.

In much the same way, we see that the American Jewish community lost our innocence as well last Shabbat. For several hundred years we have told our children that they were safe in this country, that here we can worship freely without threat of violence. In the last 70 years since the end of the Shoah, we have told ourselves and our children, “It can’t happen here.” After the events of last Shabbat, we know that that is no longer true. Just like Abraham, today we come to synagogue and we say, “please God, let us go and worship You, and may we return safely from there.”

But unlike Isaac, who ran away from his father’s world, we have returned to our synagogues today.  All across the country we American Jews have come together to defy those who would deny us the freedom of our religion. We resolve that we will not abandon our God.

And we have not come alone. Just as Abraham turned to his non-Jewish neighbors to help him bury his dead, so, too, have we reached out for support from those of other faiths among whom we live. And all across the country, just like here, people of every faith have come to help us mourn and to bury our dead.

And just as Abraham relied on his non-Jewish servant to find a wife for Isaac, someone who could provide comfort to Isaac after the loss of his mother, so, too, do we look to the others who are here with us today to offer us support and comfort to help us through these difficult days.

Let us resolve to move forward together, strengthened in our resolve that no other house of worship should be desecrated by the sound of gunshots; and that we all can continue to worship freely and without fear.

I can’t tell you how that’s going to happen. But I can tell you that today is a start. May the momentum built up today in synagogues all across the country carry us to the voting booths on Tuesday where we can let our voices be heard. And may we continue to live together in peace. Ken yehi ratzon—May it come speedily and in our day.

PARSHAT VA’YIGASH; DVAR TORAH CAI.12.15.18 (Rabbi Moshe Edelman)

WHEN I WAS PREPARING TO SHARE WORDS OF TORAH THIS MORNING CORRESPONDING TO PARSHAT VA’YIGASH MANY THOUGHTS FLEW IN MY HEAD.

A LITTLE BACKGROUND FIRST IS NECESSARY. YAKOV IS INFORMED AFTER 22 YEARS AND LOTS OF INTERMITENT INTRIGUE THAT HIS BELOVED SON YOSEF IS ALIVE. NOT ONLY ALIVE BUT IN CHARGE OF THE FAMINE PLAGUED MIDDLE EAST, WORKING OUT OF EGYPT. YOU WILL RECALL THAT PHARAOH HAD TWO DREAMS WHICH WERE ACTUALLY ONE AND THE SAME. YOSEF’S BIG CHANCE TO GET OUT OF JAIL WAS WHEN HE WAS CALLED ON TO INTERPRET THE MEANING OF THE DREAM. HE EXPLAINED THAT EGYPT AND THE ENTIRE AREA WOULD EXPERIENCE 7 YEARS OF SUCCESSFUL HARVESTS, ECONOMIC WEALTH AND AGRICULTURAL PLENTY. YOSEF’S CONTINUED EXPLAINING THAT 7 YEARS WOULD FOLLOW FILLED WITH DEVESTATION, DESTRUCTION AND SEVERE HUNGER. IT WAS WITH THIS BACKDROP THAT YAKOV SENT HIS OLDER TEN SONS AS SPIES TO BUY FOOD, NOT ONCE BUT SEVERAL TIMES.

YEHUDA REPRESENTS THE FAMILYIN THIS WEEKS OPENING VERSES.  HE SPEAKS TO THE OVERSEER OF THE LAND. UNBEKNOWNST TO HIM IT IS HIS YOUNGER BROTHER YOSEF. YOSEF WAS NOT ONLY ALIVE BUT HE’S THE MAN!  THE MAN THROUGH WHOM ALL FOOD REQUESTS AND PURCHASES PROCEED FOR THE ENTIRE MIDDLE EAST.

THE MOMENT ARRIVES. YOSEF CAN NO LONGER HIDE BEHIND HIS TITLE, HIS BEARD, HIS CLOTHES HIS FANCY JEWELRY AND HIS EGYPTIAN NAME OF TZAFNAT PA’NEACH. IN CHAPTER 45 VERSE 2, “V’YITAIN ETKOLO B’IVCHEE, HE CRIED ALOUD AND REVEALED HIMSELF TO THE BROTHERS. IN VERSE 3, “YOSEF SPOKE TO HIS BROTHERS, BESEECHING, “HA’OD AVI CHAI?”HE ASKS, “IS MY FATHER STILL ALIVE?”

GO TELL FATHER, THAT YOSEF IS ALIVE AND TO COME TO LIVE IN EGYPT FOR THE DURATION OF THE FAMINE. WHEN THE BROTHERS RETURN WITH YOSEF’S MESSAGE THEY ANNOUNCE, “OD YOSEF CHAI”! YOSEF IS ALIVE! AND THE TORAH OFFERS THAT YISRAEL’S SPIRIT WAS REVIVED AND HE STATED (45:28) “RAV, OD YOSEF CHAI”. WOW.YOSEF IS ALIVE AND I MUST GO TO SEE HIM BEFORE I DIE.

SO, WHO ACCOMPANIED YAKOV TO MITZRAYIM?!IN 46:7 WE ARE TOLD THAT HE DEPARTED WITH “HIS SONS, HIS GRANDSONS, HIS DAUGHTERS AND HIS GRAND-DAUGHTERS. AND ALL OF HIS OFFSPRING TRAVELED TO EGYPT AND ALSO IN ORDER TO MEET BROTHER YOSEF, UNCLE YOSEF, WHO IS NOW AN ABBA HIMSELF, THUS MAKING YAKOV, A ZEYDE.

I WANT TO SUGGESTTHAT WHAT APPEARS TO BE AN INQUIRYBY YOSEF “ANI YOSEF, HA’OD AVI CHAI” “I AM JOSEPH, IS MY DAD STILL ALIVE”, I CHOOSE TO READ AS A DECLARATIVESENTENCE AS FOLLOWS, “ I AM JOSEPH AND WHEN HE HEARS ABOUT ME, MY FATHER WILL ONCE AGAIN BE TRULY ALIVE”.

IT IS THE PRESENCE OF G-D THAT IS CRUCIAL AS WELL. IN CHAPTER 46, YAKOV HAS A “MARAT HA’LAYLA”, A NIGHT VISION, IN WHICH HE IS CALLED AND RESPONDS AS DID HIS FATHER AND GRAND-FATHER WITH THE POWERFUL WORD “HINENI”, HERE I AM!

G-D TALK TO ME AND SHARE WITH ME YOUR DIVINE MESSAGE. JACOB IS TOLD THIS JOURNEY TO EGYPT WILL CONTINUE AS A LONG PERIOD OF TIMEIN EXILE. BUT IT WILL EVENTUALLY RESULT IN A RETURN TO CANAAN, TO ISRAEL, THE LAND PROMISED TO AVRAHAM AND YITZHAK AND TO YOU AND YOUR DESCENDANTS.

EACH TIME THAT I JOURNEY TO ISRAEL IT IS A SPIRITUAL RECONFIRMATION OF THE CENTRALITY OF ISRAEL EVEN AS I RESIDE IN THE DIASPORA.

EACH OF USMUST REMAIN PASSIONATE FOR ISRAEL.BY SENDING FRIENDS AND FAMILY TO VISIT. TO STUDY. TO TOUR. TO SUPPORT ITS ECONOMY. TO SPEAK UP FOR ITS SECURITY.

AND FINALLY, LET ME RETURN TO YOSEF’S QUESTION OR DECLARATION, THE PHRASE “(HA)’OD AVI CHAI?” IF WE TAKE AWAY THE LETTER HEY” IT EMERGES AS A SONG WITH ITS LYRICS “AM YISRAEL CHAI” BUT WITH ITS OWN RE-INTERPRETATION “OD AVINU CHAI”.

THEN WE CAN READ IT AS “ISRAEL’S NATION IS ALIVE”. OUR FATHER JACOB’S NATION IS ALIVE.

AM YISRAEL CHAI, OD AVINU CHAI.

MY MESSAGEFRIENDS AND PRAYER THAT I OFFER TO YOU AND TO MY CHILDREN AND MY GRAND-CHILDREN IS TO GUARANTEE THAT THE STATE OF ISRAEL, THE PEOPLE OF ISRAEL, THE JEWISH PEOPLE AND THE LAND OF ISRAEL BE A VITAL PART OF OUR HEART AND SOUL.

AMEN

Moshe Edelman

12.15.18  edited/revised

ROSH HASHANA 5779: HOW TO STOP YOUR “NEW REGRETS NOW! (Rabbi Moshe Edelman)

Harry Chapin died more than 35 years ago in a terrible car accident on the Long Island Expressway. His music lives on and the lessons they offer have resonated for me over the years.  His classic song Cats in the Cradle rings in my ears on this Rosh HaShana day, the theme of life’s regrets.

As we read this morning’s Torah portion, I wonder if Avraham felt any regrets about the way in which he treated Yishmael, his son by Hagar. According to the Midrash, he did. In the Torah, Avraham under the influence of Sarah casts Yishmael and Hagar into the wilderness to die. God intervenes and they do not die, but Avraham does not know that! The Midrash, on the other hand, has a narrative in which it imagines a regret over the banishment which haunts Avraham as the years pass. Avraham travels by camel to visit Ishmael. He arrives at midday but only finds Yishmael’s wife. “Where is Yishmael?” he asks. She responds “ Halach hu lirot et ha-gemalim ba’midbar.

“He went with his mother Hagar, to tend to the camels in the wilderness.”

“Amad Avraham v’hu mitpalel lifney HaKadosh Baruch Hu”

“Avraham pauses to pray to the Almighty that Yishmael and his household be blessed with only good.”

When Yishmael returns home, his wife tells him of his father’s visit.’Ve’yada Yishmael sh’ad achshav rachamey Aviv Alav” “And Yishmael knew all this time that his father had mercy upon him”

It is a poignant account by the Rabbis of Avraham’s lifelong regret.  Contemporary rabbis, parents and therapists often hear regrets as well.

“If only I had…” If only she hadn’t; Why didn’t I; I can’t believe I didn’t; If I had to do it over again; If only I had known; I should have; I shouldn’t have”

 

When we look at these remarks now, we realize that we are speaking of yesterday’s regrets, but what about tomorrow? What are our significant regrets not from “the yesterday”, but what will be our regrets a year or five or ten years from now? The Sages of the Talmud ask, “Who is wise?” “Aysey hu chacham?”

And offer the answer. “Ha’roeh et Ha’nolad!” The person who anticipates what is ahead. Let me suggest some personal regrets which exist in many of our lives. Perhaps we can stop short of them before they emerge years from today. Here are three:

DON’T REGRET JUDGING THE WORTH OF YOUR LIFE BY EMPLOYING THE WRONG CRITERION. What is the gauge by which to measure success or failure in our life? I believe that the answer is we should judge life’s success more by life’s personal and interpersonal bonds than by life’s material rewards. Sort of like the connection made in the mahzor at the time of the sounding of the shofar. We say after the blasts “Ashrey ha’Am Yodey Teruah”

“Happy are those who know the sounds of the shofar”. How precisely is one’s happiness to be measured the Sages ask. They answer by connecting this phrase with another verse in the book of Psalms: “Wealth and riches are in God’s house forever.” Does it sound like material goods are the gauge of happiness? Not really. The verse, according to the Sages, applies to a person who writes the Torah, Prophets and Writings, the TaNaKh and then lends those to others. So, how are wealth and riches defined? It is the privilege after one has written to lend to someone else.  “Happy are those who really understand the sound of the shofar. The shofar stimulates us to share values, moral teaching, ethical standards and profound ideas.

Actually research supports the definition of success. People are not happiest when earning more and more. At a certain point we are happiest when our earnings are used to assist others. Under-indulging rather than over indulging. What is done with extra earnings makes for happiness? Interpersonal relations with a spouse, with children, grandchildren, friends, and family are more profound than professional success.

DON’T REGRET IN TEN YEARS NOT PAYING ATTENTION TO THIS GAUGE.

The second measure.

WHAT IS AN OBSTACLE TODAY TO EFFECTIVE FAMILY RELATIONS?

In 2018 the flight to technology has become an end in itself rather than a means. Hi tech sometimes interferes with personal relationships. In 10 years, you don’t want to regret that technology impaired rather than helped the rest of life. I-pads, I-phones, emails, texting are to be celebrated for their convenience. We use these as tools to enhance connections and communication.

A few years ago, Thomas Friedman writing for the NY Times wrote about being Drunk on Technology. A while ago he took a trip to Paris. When he got off the plane, he was met by a taxi driver who had been sent to pick him up. The man was carrying a sign with his name on it, but as Friedman approached, he noticed that the man seemed to be talking to himself. Of course, a Bluetooth was clipped to his ear. Friedman pointed to himself as the person he was supposed to meet. The driver nodded and went on talking on the phone.

When the luggage arrived, Friedman took it off of the belt. The driver pointed to the exit. Friedman followed while the taxi driver kept talking. In the car Friedman asked him if he knew the name of the hotel. The driver said “no”. He showed him the address. The driver took it and went back to his conversation.  As the driver spoke, Friedman opened his laptop. He was finishing his column while listening to his i-Pod. When he got to the hotel he reflected on this trip. He and the driver had been together for an hour and between the two of them the driver drove, talked, Friedman rode, worked on his laptop and I-Podded.

 

The one thing they had not done during the entire trip was speak, except for one word.no” Too bad. The two of them in one car but a million miles apart for the conversation they COULD have had.

Being Drunk on Technology can mean the end of education and communication. One teenager had a book assignment but he read only 42 pages in 2 months. He said, “On U tube you can get the entire story in 6 minutes. A book takes too long.”

When a Bar or Bat Mitzvah young person is offered the opportunity to prepare and deliver a D’var Torah for the day of celebration, it often requires assistance to slow the youngster down in the reading pattern. The speech is sometimes so rapidly shared as to be unintelligible. Running from one task to another in tech terms results in no time to pause. Most of our children are in a constant mode of stimulation and the brain is not given the time to have down time.

A Hebrew word for conversation in the Torah is “si-cha”. It is introduced when Yakov, Jacob, goes out to the field “la-su’ach” to meditate on God’s Presence and with Ha-Shem. Conversation with someone requires focus. Texting,”I’m thinking of you” or “I love you” with lots of abbreviations like “lol” or “xoxxes and “oos” does not truly deepen a relationship.

In years from now don’t regret the destruction or minimizing of real relations because the tech side of life overwhelmed the love and care. When we are at a meal or when we are speaking with someone try to silence your technology. For our ancestors and for us, Shabbat is the cessation of manual labor. Our challenge is to be able to “unplug” our tech connections for 25 hours and build human relations and a Divine relationship through study and prayer and meals and rest and refreshing the neshama, soul time.

 

 

A third regret that we can avoid is OUTSOURCING TOO MUCH OF LIFE.

Have you seen ads for “Surrogate soccer mom taxi service?” Ads for rent a mom? An ad for ending a relationship, “Breaking up is Hard to do, Let us do it for you”?  “Rent a dad”? Even “rent a rabbi” for weddings or funerals. We have “life coaches” wedding planners, rent a friend. We know that there is good reason for out-sourcing some parts of our lives. We are time deprived. We are likely to turn for professional services to finance things we cannot do due to longer work hours. We can rent a closet tidier service. We can arrange for stand in care for elderly parents. We can hire a tutor to assist a child in prepping for college entrance exams or high school tests.

The more we depend on out-sourcing our life the results will be lessening our interpersonal and human relationships.

In Jewish life rather than out-sourcing we need to be empowering. Rather than “Rent a more knowledgeable and observant Jew” or “Rent a Kaddish reciter” we have to try to empower one another and one-self. The task of clergy and leadership is to enable through education to fulfill the sacred tasks.

Changing our life patterns is very difficult. However, these 3 patterns, if they continue…

JUDGING OUR LIFE BY INCOME AND NOT INTERPERSONAL RELATIONS

ALLOWING TECHNOLOGY TO BE A MEANS AND NOT AN END

OUT-SOURCING CRITICAL PARTS OF OUR LIVES…

They can become regrets in years from now. While regrets for yesterday cannot be eliminated, regrets for tomorrow can be mitigated and corrected before they occur.  Each of us on this Rosh HaShana day must commit to a personal strategy and each family to a set of goals and a revised standard of life.

Less regrets. No regrets.

Avraham had regrets as a father. The midrash seeks to explain and correct his decisions and to teach us a profound lesson.

Harry Chapin teaches us about regrets and we have a chance to learn from his lyrics and insights.

May this Rosh HaShana have more changes and less regrets for now and for years to come.

 

Shana tova.

Moshe 5779. Rh edited 6.28.18

Elul continued

Every day is a winding road, said Sheryl Crow and the Beatles.

 

Life changes in ways we are never quite prepared for. As a hurricane visits friends and family, making their lives more challenging, it reminds us of the hurricanes we have overcome.

 

When tragedy strikes what do we do? Do we hide or fight? Do we help or ignore? It is interesting that some senators and representatives who did not want to support Hurricane Sandy relief suddenly want federal help for Harvey. Should we ask our representatives to ignore them or offer our assistance? As much as revenge is a dish best served cold, I think there is only one answer. We must do the right thing. We must offer our hand to our neighbors and friends. Should they be punished for having representatives who make cruel and vicious choices?

 

In this time of hope, as we march towards Rosh Hashanah, we must try to forgive.

 

I’d love your thoughts. Please respond in the comments-as long as you aren’t selling viagra!

The true meaning of Shabbat

We are blessed to be having company for Shabbat dinner this week.  We will be asking our guests questions as part of https://onetable.org/togetheratthetable/

We will find a positive spin on the craziness that has been this week.  Shabbat is a gift to us.  It is an opportunity to be apart rather than a part of the regular news cycle.  It is a time to separate from all that drives us berserk and allow ourselves time to recover.

This week let us find calm.  Let us find peace.  Let us find Shalom.

The root of Shalom is Shalem, שלם meaning wholeness.  When we find true peace, we feel ourselves a little more whole.

Tonight we are having a dinner that blends east and west.  We will have Sesame Chicken, Veggie Lo Mein, challah, brownies.  The recipes are Americanized versions of Asian, Jewish, and wherever brownies came from cuisine.  I think it will be delicious.  When we come together, we can create new opportunities.  Blending these different elments and flavors is not just a hodgepodge, but a statement of identity.  It is a reminder that we all look different.  We all come from different places, but we can find ways to sit down together.  We can talk to one another.  We can love one another.

Shabbat Shalom!

Working and celebrating together

This past Friday night we celebrated Aloha Shabbat together.

With the support of the Jewish Federation of Orange County, the Newburgh JCC organized a beautiful Shabbat dinner. Grilled chicken skewers, salads and more helped bring TBJ and CAI together. Beautiful music from Ross Levy inspired us all.

Rabbi Freedman reminded us what a blessing it is to work together. Too often we live in a society divided. Politics, religion and stubbornness push us apart. We forget our shared values-even among Am Yisrael-among the Jewish people.

Yet here in Newburgh, we find ways to work together. We celebrate our differences and even find time to pray together!

Across our denominational lines, we made beautiful music. We recognized the unity of the Holy One. We sang; we danced; we ate!

Thanks to the blessing of all coming together, finding a moment of unity in a seemingly discordant world. These are the moments that will help us build a peaceful future. When we can come together under one tent, we can find beauty and love.

The world really does change in a moment-and you are a part of it!

Comfort my people

Nachamu, Nachamu Ami…
Listen here for Neshama Carlebach's beautiful rendition of the opening of this week's haftorah:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XFAFOQlBCmw&list=PLPQFCYsbHfHEawXD4VCyKZS8eVyvIz57j

Comfort me, comfort my people opens this week's haftorah. After Tisha B'Av, we remind ourselves that we are counting down to Rosh Hashanah, to the opportunity of redemption, repentance, tshuvah, and the resulting forgiveness. How often do we think about our capability for change?

So often we live in a world that assumes our own immutability. We see the world around us and even ourselves as static. We say you can't teach an old dog new tricks.

And yet, and yet, and yet our tradition says the opposite. Our counter-cultural Jewish tradition reminds us that we ALWAYS have the capability to change. It doesn't matter if we are 4 or 104. We can choose our destiny. We have the free will to create new opportunities for ourselves. We can hit reset-right now.

As you listen to Neshama's beautiful rendition of her father's song, think about what you are going to work on this year. Don't get trapped into thinking your life is what it is today. What small steps will you take? What big steps will they lead to? Are you satisfied with yourself and the world around or can you make new partnerships to improve both?

Shabbat shalom a wee bit early!

Destruction and rebirth

Observing Tisha B'Av and its accompanying fast is far too rare in this modern world. It is a commemoration observed mid-summer, when people are away and children are at camp. In fact, it is only at camp that many Jewish children ever hear of this holy day. Yet the day can be one of the most meaningful, giving us a time to mourn the losses of our history.

Tisha B'Av commemorates the destruction of both the First and Second Temples. Remembering the holy site where the Jewish people once had the opportunity to unite and worship together, we read the Book of Lamentations by candlelight. Sitting on the floor we find the past feels more present. The mournful chanting of the short book, of Eicha, shows us how brutal and terrible life can be. Yet when we look around the world, we see that for too many, the world is still brutal and terrible.

For almost two thousand years, it was incredibly difficult for Jews to return to their holy cities. Israel was off limits for most Jews. The journey was too difficult; the conditions too challenging; the borders closes.

Today we can book a flight and stay in five star hotels. Jewish sovereignty seems reborn. It is incredibly hopeful.

Yet we still see violence. The last few weeks have seen great contention at our most holy sites. Peace still seems distant, yet calm appears briefly.

As we fast (or not) tonight and tomorrow, let us pray for peace. Let us hope that the days to come will see true cooperation. The glimmers of hope are there. Redemption seems possible. Let us play our roles and work toward it.

Peace will come with faith and work.

Vows and Oaths–the Israeli Dream edition

Note: These were my notes for Parshat Mattot-Maasei.  The spoken version rarely coincides with what I wrote, but it should give you an idea of my thought process!

וַיְדַבֵּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־רָאשֵׁ֣י הַמַּטּ֔וֹת לִבְנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֵאמֹ֑ר זֶ֣ה הַדָּבָ֔ר אֲשֶׁ֖ר צִוָּ֥ה Hashem׃

Moses spoke to the heads of the Israelite tribes, saying: This is what the LORD has commanded:

אִישׁ֩ כִּֽי־יִדֹּ֨ר נֶ֜דֶר לַֽHashem אֽוֹ־הִשָּׁ֤בַע שְׁבֻעָה֙ לֶאְסֹ֤ר אִסָּר֙ עַל־נַפְשׁ֔וֹ לֹ֥א יַחֵ֖ל דְּבָר֑וֹ כְּכָל־הַיֹּצֵ֥א מִפִּ֖יו יַעֲשֶֽׂה׃

If a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he shall not break his pledge; he must carry out all that has crossed his lips.

 

Our parsha opens with these sacred words.  The rabbis are very concerned about vows and oaths.  They strongly discourage us from taking them, noting in the Talmud that the Nazir, like Samson, the one who refuses hair cuts and wine, must offer a sin offering at the end of his vow.  The following verses detail how women’s vows are limited; that fathers and husbands can annul their daughters’ and spouses’ vows.  While patriarchal and seemingly sexist, it shows a deep discomfort with the concept of vows themselves.

 

While in other weeks, I have spoke about the concept of shalom bayit, of peace in the home, and how that might seem to occasionally supercede complete honesty; the arc of our tradition shows us over and over again that words matter.  Unlike many of our politicians who seem not to know truth if it smacks them in the face, who make campaign promises they have no intention of keeping, our Torah teaches us that our word must be true.

 

Words are incredibly powerful.  According to Bershit, it is with words that the Holy One created this world.  There are Talmudic stories of people who throw themselves in fiery furnaces to avoid embarrassing another person with their words.  There are many books on Lashon Hara and Motzi Shem Ra, discouraging us from gossip or even sharing painful truths about one another–words are powerful.  All these books show us that even a flippant comment can be dangerous to the wellbeing of others–I know I can be guilty of this!

 

I have been told that in the diamond district, many deals are sealed with a handshake and a “Mazel and Brocha”.  No contract need be signed, because the trust in that community is so strong, the word of one Jew to another is inviolable.  While I cannot attest to the reliability of those deals, I have heard that these words are stronger than any contract.  Is the same true for us?
This week we conclude the wanderings in the wilderness.  Next week we read from Devarim, as Moshe Rabbenu will help us be sure of our commands before we enter the land.  The parsha opens with concerns about vows, with concerns about words and their power.  As we prepare to enter Israel, we are envisioning a perfect society.  As such we are building it peacefully with a reminder of the importance of the truth!  We must be honest!

Gratitude: the intersection of faith, politics and psychology

The other day I was catching up on my podcasts, listening to Freakonomics with the title “Why is my life so hard?” http://freakonomics.com/podcast/why-is-my-life-so-hard/

Using psychological research called the headwinds-tailwinds asymmetry, they spoke about how many people find their lives more difficult than they need to be. We frequently discount the positive factors in our life and focus on the negative. While evolutionarily this might have had some use, ensuring that we are aware of threats to our existence, in our modern lives this can be a challenge. The result is that we all carry an unnecessary burden. We assume our political party is handicapped by the electoral college. We imagine our team’s schedule disadvantages them. We protect ourselves in work or school by claiming we didn’t have enough time or study enough.

Amazingly enough, there is a very simple solution:gratitude. Keeping a gratitude diary, meeting weekly with someone to share our written thanks can change everything. When I think of my faith, much of the effort is on reminding us of the importance of giving thanks. We are encouraged to say one hundred blessings a day, to find gratitude from the biggest things to the smallest. To appreciate our family,  to appreciate our very existence. To notice the flowers in bloom, the sun shining, the water flowing.

Some days the world can seem dark.  The news can seem uncertain, yet even in the depths of our despair, there is much to be grateful for.  This gratitude may even inspire us to action.  How can we ensure that those who do not have enough to eat are supported?  How can we help the homeless find a place to live?  How can we help those without medical care have it?  We might be reminded by the dozens of time in the Bible where it says variations of “do not mistreat the stranger” or “love the immigrant” because “you were strangers in Egypt”.  Every single human being on this continent came from somewhere else–whether 1 year ago or 50,000.  The gratitude that we should feel to those that came before us just might make us appreciate those trying to survive here now.  

 

Gratitude can change our lives–but appreciation can help us transform the lives of others!