Yitro – Chosen? For What?

February 15, 2017
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Yitro – Chosen? For What?

In the classic Broadway musical “Fiddler On the Roof” the main character Tevye the dairyman ironically quips while entreating G-d, “I know, I know. We are Your chosen people. But, once in a while, can’t You choose someone else?” In his frustration, Tevye echoes 4000 years of Jewish experience. At first blush it would appear being G-d’s Chosen People is not always all it is cracked up to be. Tevye’s little shtetl is continuously assailed  by political violence, poverty and the unrelenting demands of modernity. But in the midst of all this perhaps the greatest challenge to the village of Anatevka will be that of maintaining their traditions in a world that demands sameness and conformity.

This week’s parasha contains the dramatic summit of the Exodus story, Israel encounters the Master of the World at the base of Mt. Sinai. Here the Jewish people and G-d exchange pledges of love and loyalty, and embrace the Ten Commandments, the first clear articulation of mutually agreed upon covenant. But prior to this G-d speaks to Moses and clearly articulates the special bond He plans with Israel; “and now if you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of ., all peoples, for mine is the entire world.” (Ex. 19:5)  this statement though, appears to contain an internal conflict, the conflict of a “chosen people”.

How can the G-d of the entire universe choose just one people. If G-d is truly omniscient, isn’t the restriction of His choice to only one people group bad form. Shouldn’t G-d love everybody equally?  Isn’t the concept of “chosenness” just a bit xenophobic? Many Jews today would argue that such a claim denigrates the rest of humanity. Read more »

Accepting Our Heritage

January 26, 2017
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Accepting Our Heritage

It has been said that the life of Moses can be seen as three distinct movements, forty years each.  First Moses spends the first forty years thinking he is somebody. He has fallen by providence into the royal court of Pharaoh, raised as a prince of Egypt while his people, the Jewish people unbeknownst to him suffer.  In the second act he discovers that he is nobody. In a rather extended midlife crisis he winds up down and out, tending sheep in the wilderness among the tribes of Midian. But it is in the third forty years of Moses’ life that he discovers what Hashem can do with somebody who accepts he is nobody.

Parashah Va’eira begins as Shemot ended, with Moses returning to the presence of Hashem, pleading petulantly. Moses was sent to Pharaoh to demand the release of the Israelite slaves. But instead of releasing them, Pharaoh takes away their straw for brickmaking and they are absolutely outraged. Moses asks the Holy One how he might expect Pharaoh to listen to him, when even the children of Israel seem totally uninterested in his leadership. Moses goes so far as to accuse God of being unfaithful. “My Lord, why have you done evil to this people, why have you sent me? From the time I came to Pharaoh to speak in your name he did evil to this people, but You did not rescue Your people.” (5:22-23) Read more »

Vayeshev – Servants of The Holy Blessing One

December 21, 2016
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Vayeshev – Servants of The Holy Blessing One

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So often it would seem that the focus within American Judaism is on impressive edifices, building funds, synagogue attendance and business protocols – and why not? These values merely mirror those of our everyday lives. Sadly Judaism appears to have forgotten the purpose of Jewish identity. We were not called to be Jews in order to spread borscht belt humor, or believe it or not to give the world the perfect bagel. We were called, and are still enjoined, to be a people of priests, a holy nation. Our mission in the world is to embody a communal life that will concretize God’s highest values, holiness, learning, sensitivity and justice. We are called to be a living testimony of the faithfulness of the Creator, who maintains His creation in love. As we pray every Shabbat, we are summoned to be “servants of the Holy Blessing One.” Read more »

Toledot – The Power of Blessing

November 29, 2016
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Toledot – The Power of Blessing

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We tend to think of people; who lived long before us as primitive and less intelligent. Yet, contemporary Americans have made the alternative medicine industry a multi-billion-dollar throwback to the ancient craft of herb treatment. Studies have shown that the age-old practice of therapeutic massage has amazing healing results. And despite the obvious benefits of e-mail, blogs and social media, there truly is no substitute for the human voice and especially face-to-face contact. It would appear then that sometimes the “old-fashioned” way is the best way. It behooves us then to try to understand why both Jacob and Esau seemed to place such a high price on their father’s blessing. Read more »

Sukkot – Finding Shelter in a Transient World

October 20, 2016
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Sukkot – Finding Shelter in a Transient World

Sukkot remembers that freedom came as the result of pitching tents over 14,600 days and honors the 43,000 meals prepared in the dessert. But more importantly Sukkot reminds us that God is everywhere and undermines the idolatry of rootedness. This doesn’t mean that home and hearth are bad values; rather it serves as a dialectic reminder that we are first and foremost citizens of God’s kingdom, sojourners in this present reality. Our journey in the wilderness began at Passover when Hashem took us out of the land of Egypt and commanded us to eat our last meal there in great haste with “our staff in hand and our loins girded” (I am still a little uncertain and just a little scared of the alternative), an idiom which suggests that we are to be perpetual wanderers.

We look for shelter in our possessions, but they can only give us temporary comfort. We seek reassurance from our jobs, but they can’t really protect us from uncertainty. We turn to hobbies, people and places to fill the emptiness, but ultimately, our souls cannot be filled from the outside.

The idea is to remind us of the fragility of the world that we occupy, a world that relies upon the sustenance and the benevolence of the Creator. This is why we add the following statement to the daily Amida between Sukkot and Passover; “Who makes the wind to blow and the rain descend”. It is wedged between two other affirmations in the prayers; “You resuscitate the dead and are able to save” and “Who sustains the living with loving kindness.” The placement creates the unambiguous suggestion that God’s provision of our agricultural needs that provide our daily sustenance is no less miraculous than the resurrection of the dead, and no less important than the care of our individual health. Therefore we are reminded that all that we are, all that we have and all that we need are in the hands of the one who created us. Read more »

Shabbat Shuvah: Re-Righting Our Stories

October 4, 2016
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Shabbat Shuvah:  Re-Righting Our Stories

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“ I am now one hundred and twenty years old, I can no longer be active.” With that surprising realization, Moses begins his final address to the children of Israel. When Moses completes this address he will have accomplished what few others take the opportunity to do. With the completion of Devarim Moses gave Israel its code of law, ethics and ritual practice, but also he successfully managed to record for posterity his own story. But not only did he w-r-i-t-e his story, Moses managed to r-i-g-h-t his story.

It has been observed that the life of Moses played out like a three act play in which each act had a forty year duration. In the first act Moses thought he was somebody, having found himself through providence a prince in Egypt, removed from the lowly plight of his brethren. In the second act Moses found out he was nobody having been sent into exile in the wilderness of Midian and encountering the inscrutable God in a fire retardant bush. Finally in the last act Moses learns what God can do with somebody who thinks they are nobody. Though Moses could not control the events of his life, he nonetheless took the opportunity through obedience to write and re- right the conclusion of his own story.

This reminds me of Alfred Nobel (1833-1896) the inventor of dynamite, who had the rare opportunity to read his own death notice. When his brother passed away a local newspaper believing he had died ran his obituary. They described him as the man who had made it possible for more people to be killed quickly than any person had had ever lived. It was not how he wanted to be remembered so he began to re-“right” his own story. He created the Nobel Prize and his name is now tied indelibly to the Peace process, and the advancement of the sciences and the humanities.

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