Friday, March 16, 2018

Shabbat 3/17/18 - Three Celebrations in One Day

Today we celebrate three occasions in our Torah service.

We celebrate starting a new book of the Torah – Vayikra, the Book of Leviticus – the book that in traditional communities is the first book of Torah students study.

We celebrate the next of the 4 special Shabbatot before Passover, Shabbat Ha’Chodesh, Shabbat of the New Month – the moment we recognize the beginning of time for our ancestors as they prepare to go free.  The first month is this Month, the Month of Nisan.  When we go free from Egypt, we begin to live on our own calendar.

And today is also Rosh Chodesh Nisan, the first day of the month, the day that our ancestors assembled the Mishkan, the Tabernacle in the wilderness.

And as we prepare for Passover, these three celebrations, these three themes, are the core of the Passover spirit.

Pesach was originally based upon a sacrifice, the sacrifice of a lamb to God to bless the season and the hopefully growing flocks.  Sacrifice and holiness are the centerpieces of Leviticus.

On Rosh Chodesh we recite Hallel as we do at the Seder – Passover is a day of singing out our gratitude to God.

And the calendar is a celebration of freedom – me’avdut l’cherut, we go from slavery to freedom, and we re-experience that journey each year.

It’s the third point that stands out for me today as I’m looking at the variety of Haggadahs available for Passover.

Which Haggadahs do you use?

There are over 1,000 editions of the Haggadah since the first edition of the Haggadah was printed in 1482.

The Escape Velocity Haggadah is one of the most surreal.  Stanley Aaron Lebovic’s artwork is reminiscent of Salvador Dali, and his commentary is a deep personal and mystical reflection.

The title of his Haggadah itself is a reflection on the journey to freedom.  In Lebovic’s words:  Escape Velocity is the speed an object must reach to escape the gravitational pull exerted upon it by another objects, thereby allowing it the possibility of an autonomous existence, unburdened by outside influences and free to soar untethered and unencumbered by the restrictive confines of a subservient orbit.

Lebovic is suggesting here that our people must achieve escape velocity to free ourselves from the confines of Egypt. 

We literally have to spring into action, and into the future.

But there are so many forces that push us in the opposite direction – as we know, every action has an equal and opposite reaction.

For our ancestors, even freedom was not sufficient.  They want to see and interact directly with God, and that’s in party why they create the golden calf.

Now, in Leviticus, as we begin this new book God delivers a subtle and essential lesson.  The only tangibles in our relationship to God are the sacrifices, the korbanot, what we choose to give – ourselves, our energy, our time, our heart and the relationships we build with each other.  It’s ironic that this book that is so little about ancestor stories and families is the place where we find perhaps the most central teaching of the Torah when it comes to relationships ve’ahav’ta l’re’a’cha kamocha, love your fellow human being as yourself.

Rashi explains the book of Leviticus opens with one of the essentials of the Torah, God instructing us to be holy, and then later on love your neighbor – love God, bring holiness into the world, and love one another. 

Our people have to reach escape velocity first though, otherwise they will never be able to go free in order to pursue these goals.

We, on the other hand, can start with them – we seek to love God despite a world around us that is too often violent and chaotic – we mourn with the families of the victims of school violence, of the bridge collapse in Florida.  We seek to bring holiness into the world because we know deep in our hearts that as rough as the world around us may be there are sparks of light within it, that redemption is possible.  And we seek to love one another – at the Seder this year, try and picture that the people sitting next to us are not just family, friends, our guests, but that they are the people walking out of Egypt next to us, and that we are encouraging each other to reach escape velocity – to go free, reach for the stars, and to only remember Egypt as a launching place – when we decided to pursue the dream that were not dependent on any one piece of land on earth.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Shabbat Parah 2018/5778: Reflecting on AIPAC Policy Conference

It was wonderful to join together with fellow TBEMC members at the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washinton this past weekend.

I find the most inspiring stories about Israel that emerge at the conference are the ones that do not make major news headlines.

One story, amongst many, that stand out has a meaningful connection to the special Maftir reading for today, Shabbat Parah, the Shabbat when we remember the ritual of the red cow – sacrificed to create a mixture that had the ability to turn someone ritually pure from their impurity.

Sivan Borowich-Ya’ari is the founder and director of Innovation:  Africa, a not for profit organization that sets up solar water pumping stations in remote African villages, now working in 8 African countries – their work has impacted the lives of 1 million Africans.

They work together with Africans, creating an energy leadership committee within each village where they work – The engineers work together with the villagers so that they can take ownership of the project.  Israeli solar technology enables villages to enjoy fresh water pumped from the ground – They also provide light and refrigeration to schools and medical clinics enabling students to learn and medical personnel to safely store and provide medications.

The fresh spring water pumped into each village gives the village life, strength, and hope.  They can use the water for irrigating crops and so better feed the people.

Our ancestors used the ashes of the red cow, parah adumah, and mixed them with spring water – mayim hayim, spring water. 

For our ancestors, then, spring water enabled the mixture that could give people renewed purity and re-integration with the community after their period of staying apart.

For Africans who’ve benefited from installation of water pumps, they have a new life, and a new and productive relationship to their land.

It is heartening, and inspiring to hear of the many ways that Israeli innovation and commitment to gemilut hasadim have impacted the lives of so many.  We pray that those who aim their hatred toward Israel will soon see how such a small country reaches far beyond its own borders to help earthquake victims in Nepal and Mexico city, victims of natural diasters in Haiti and the Philippines and more. 

Other Israeli innovations that we witnessed at this year’s conference enable better coordination of first responders to emergency situations, protection of aid workers working in zones where there have been nuclear accidents, monitoring of crops and agricultural water usage remotely from devices installed in the soil, methods to maximize and maintain olive and olive oil production in groves shared by Israelis and Palestinians.

The wise King Solomon could not make sense of the ritual of the red heifer that somehow can purify the impure while at the same time making impure the pure. 

The nations of the world looked on this ritual and derided us about it, challenging our faith in this ritual and in our whole system of beliefs.

We know all too well the ways the nations of the world single out Israel for condemnation when many of these nations oppress their own people within their borders, when many of these nations, including the bulk of those who surround Israel, are dictatorships while Israel is a democracy.

It is time for us to know and tell the stories of how Israel is serving as an or la’goyim, a light unto the nations of the world, and to share how the people in Africa, amongst so many other places in the world that have benfited from Israel’s gemilut hasadim and tech innovations, how they so appreciate the caring and support even if they might still be a bit puzzled by our ritual of the red heifer.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Shabbat Zachor 2018/5778: The Parkland, FL Tragedy - How do we remember?

In an old favorite World War 2 movie, actor Eric Stoltz, playing a crewman on a B-17 bomber out of England, reads a poem to his crew-mates as they wait to go up on a mission – I’d like to share just the end of the poem:

I balanced all
Brought all to mind
The years to come seemed a waste of breath
A waste of breath the years behind
In balance with this life
This death

In this poem, an Irish fighter pilot reflects on his fate.

As the poem ends with these words, there is a deep and lasting silence.

It is the same deep and lasting silence of Aaron after God strikes down his 2 sons Nadav & Avihu – Vayidom Aharon, and Aaron was silent.

And it is the same silence, as we continue to reflect and remember, and amidst a flurry of advocacy and lobbying, that surrounds Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, and Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. 

What is the best way to remember?

This Shabbat, Shabbat Zachor – the Shabbat of Memory – asks us this question.

We always read the Maftir reading from the 2nd Torah on the Shabbat just before Purim.   It is the story of how Amalek, marauders in the wilderness, attack the Isarelites, ambushing the weakest of us first.  Haman from the Purim story….wait, I said Haaayman! a descendant of Agag, a latter day King of Amalek.  The attack they launch against our ancestors foreshadows Haman’s planned massacre of the Jews during the days of the Persian empire.

Our maftir reading begins, telling us Remember what Amalek did to you in the wilderness, but then toward the end God instructs us to obliterate the memory of Amalek from under heaven.

These two statements contradict.

And then the final two words are lo tish’kach, do not forget.

How can we eliminate the memory of Amalek but remember what happened at the same time?

Could somehow choose to forget the name while remembering the incident? 

The mind does not work that way – our minds keep everything together.

In Florida, they will tear down building 12 and put up a memorial in its place.  In Connecticut, the new Sandy Hook school opened in 2016 after the prior building was demolished.

In Europe, they preserve the concentration camps as places to witness and learn. 

The teaching of Shabbat Zachor is that we may want to rid the world of places that carry horrible memories, but if we do that in every case – we risk also losing a place of witness, a place that makes us uncomfortable so that we remember whether we want to or not.

We tend to forget easily when we’re not compelled to remember.

That’s what God is concerned about since we will be settled comfortably in the Promised Land, and then the sense of urgency will be gone. 

If only that were the case today.

And so we need to keep alive the sense of urgency.

Especially on this Shabbat as we get ready to celebrate Purim, that remembers a time when Esther stepped in to prevent the violence from happening, and we sing, and we’re silly, we need to continue to re-light the fires of awareness and empathy with the families of Parkland, Florida, Newtown, and all the other places where violence stained otherwise happy places of learning, socializing, and more.

God says, remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, asher k’archa ba’derech, I’d like to thank Art Werschulz for sharing this midrash earlier this week that is especially appropriate today – what happened to you, kar’cha – our Sages in this word heard the word kor, meaning cold, that Amalek took away our excitement and spirit and replaced it with coldness, with doubt and fear.  The Rabbis compare this to one who has a very hot bath set up, so hot that no one even wants to get in, and a nudnik comes along and jumps in, and even though he gets burned, he’s made the water cool enough for others to jump in.

According to Rashi, Amalek did the same thing – they “cooled us down” as it were, made us vulnerable.

And if we are feeling vulnerable, or feeling our kids are vulnerable, then we need to join together in unity, faith, and mutual support so that when a moment of deep and lasting silence comes again, God forbid, we can rise again, rebuild, strengthen ourselves and others, and know we are not alone.

Friday, January 26, 2018

Beshalach 2018/5778: How do we leave Egypt?

You may have heard this story, it may be a true story, that Chaim was lost in the desert, desperately searching for water.  He came upon a lone building, which turned out to be a store.  He asked the owner, ‘Please, I need water, help me, I’m dying of thirst!’  The owner responded, ‘I’m sorry I can’t help you, as you can see, I only sell men’s ties.  No water here. But there is an inn about 40 miles away.  Go there and they can help you.

The next day, late in the afternoon, the store owner saw Chaim dragging himself toward the shop.  ‘I see you came back’, the owner said.  Chaim responded, ‘Yes, I came back, they wouldn’t let me in without a tie.’

Our dress, our body language, our words, all combine to set the tone for us when we step forward into the world.

What tone, what message do our ancestors send to the world when they cross the Reed Sea to freedom as we will read today?

We think about this question today on Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat we celebrate crossing the Sea and finally going free from Egypt. 

Today, January 27, is also International Holocaust Remembrance day – a day the United Nations established to remember the 6 million.  January 27 is the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau. 

And so today we also remember the day the last prisoners were set free from the camp, the gate opened, like the parting of the water for our ancestors.  As we remember the few who survived, we honor the memories of all those who did not, the same way many Israelites died in Egypt before they could witness liberation.

How do our ancestors leave Egypt?

One story, the Passover story we tell every spring, describes the way we leave at night, packing our things be’chi’pazon, quickly, in haste, so that we leave before Pharaoh may change his mind – again.

The other story is the one we read today:

וַיְחַזֵּ֣ק יְהֹוָ֗ה אֶת־לֵ֤ב פַּרְעֹה֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיִּרְדֹּ֕ף אַחֲרֵ֖י בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וּבְנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל יֹצְאִ֖ים בְּיָ֥ד רָמָֽה׃ 
The LORD stiffened the heart of Pharaoh king of Egypt, and he gave chase to the Israelites. As the Israelites were departing defiantly,

We leave ‘beyad ramah’, with a ‘high-hand’, translated here as ‘defiantly’, perhaps in comparison to the first leaving, the night time escape.  Here we are, in broad daylight, former slaves walking with heads held high, even as Pharaoh’s chariots approach.

But there is a spectrum of perspective on these two words and what they mean about how we present ourselves in that moment.

Rashi suggests we are daring, bold, to walk ahead in this way.

Ibn Ezra suggests we are moving slowly, confidently, not in the way of people who are trying to escape unnoticed.  Just the opposite, there’s something brewing here that Pharaoh himself will need to witness.

Chizkuni explains we’re leaving ‘totally confident’, with no worries about anything but the journey ahead.

Rabbi Yakov Tzvi Mecklenburg (Haktav v’Hakabalah) emphasizes we are singing on our way out, not preparing for war – we’ve finally found that our faith in God gives us confidence and hope.

The Rashbam cautions us, that our confidence, rejoicing and hope are short-lived.  We leave beyad ramah only until the people notice the Egyptians approaching, and then, the mood changes.

The Chasidic master, the Bal Shem Tov, once said, you can try to run away from your problems, but you will turn around and see your problems following right behind you.

I try to imagine the happiness, the uplift of walking out free into the wilderness and the utter fear of seeing the six-hundred chariots, symbols of Pharaoh’s power, his best soldiers.

But perhaps it is not only Pharaoh who’s coming after the Israelites – the chariots represent the power of Egypt that’s ruled over them for generations, and, try as they might to appear defiant, confident, and joyful, there is a recognition that you can take the Israelite out of Egypt, but it’s going to be much harder to take Egypt out of each Israelite.

They are in a moment of transition, vulnerable and exposed, and so I imagine their expressions to be neutral, more upright than when they were carrying bricks, but uncertain of the future now, of what their lives will be like, uncertain of what God will ask of them.

This moment is similar to a moment in the great film Chariots of Fire about Jewish athelete and gold medal winning sprinter Harold Abrahams.  After he wins the gold, his teammate comes right up to him, full of energy, in the locker room to congratulate him, but Abrahams is solemn and quiet.  The achievement is sinking in, he’s all of a sudden got to think about what will happen next.

We’ve all been in transitions moments like our ancestors experience at the sea.  When we might expect to be yad ramah, standing up tall, but we’re feeling in-between – who are we in this moment?  Have we changed?  Are we ready to face the next challenge or has the previous one drained us? 

Today, Shabbat Shirah, is a day to internalize the song of the sea, to make our ancestors’ celebrations a reminder that their joy is ours, their hope is ours, but also their reality check is ours too – the Rabbis themselves recognized the truth of this reality-check, when the Egyptians are drowning under the waves, the angels want to sing praises to God, the Redeemer, but God rebukes them saying, ‘How can you sing when my creatures are dying.’(Megillah 10b, Sanhedrin 39a) 

But still we sing – and walk forward into the wilderness, together, supporting each other, giving each other strength.