VaEtchanan – How Do You Spell Relief?

August 16, 2016
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VaEtchanan – How Do You Spell Relief?

Do you like to make choices? Whether you do or not, it seems as though for each of us there is a never-ending stream of options that place demands upon our time and threaten the normal and easy flow of our lives. With the blessings of the information age, come even more options, more choices and a still greater demand upon our lives.

Some options are necessary and demand our immediate attention. We get hungry and eating becomes a necessary option. We are worn out and sleeping is our best option.

Most options though, are postponable, and we respond in kind. It would be nice to wash the car, change the oil, and tune the engine on a regular basis. But if push comes to shove, the car will run a long way with mud on the hood, dirt in the crankcase, a miss in the engine, and even wear on the tires. It is obvious, though, that even postponable options demand their due. We can put our taxes off for a time, yet doing them on April 16th could be a bad choice.

Some options are undoubtedly bad, and yet we argue that we are propelled into them beyond our control. The alarm goes off earlier than we expect so we shut it off and go back to sleep. We might wake up late and let everyone know we are a tad grouchy. We might speed to work and once we arrive, make promises predicated upon only the most perfect of conditions in order to quiet the incessant demands of clients, customers, coworkers or employers. All along excusing our behavior as necessary. Read more »

Tish B’Av – A View From the Rubble

August 9, 2016
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Tish B’Av – A View From the Rubble

People don’t get along all of the time. We are often tired or stressed out and it can be hard to keep our cool when someone cuts us off on the highway during the commute, let their kids run amuck in the restaurant, or let their dog mark its territory on our front lawn.

As a Rabbi, part of my job is to help people see the big picture and to keep things in perspective. Much of my advocation involves living in the creative tension between many people’s differences, concerns and angst.  It often is communicated in anger or frustration.

People might be surprised to hear that clergy like therapists are at a significant risk of burnout from their work. There is even a specific term of psychological lingo – counter-transference – that describes the intense feelings that therapists and psychiatrists experience during their clinical work. I am sure that clergy experience the same. But I believe that due to social media, reality television, and divisive “news” sources, we are all susceptible to a unique version of this.  For me personally, the best antidote for addressing my own counter-transference reactions has become striving to find the good in each person, no matter how challenging the case may be.

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Matot – A Place of Refuge

August 4, 2016
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Matot – A Place of Refuge

This week’s Torah portion contains a theme that in the ancient world was peculiar to the religion of Israel – the compassion, care and grace of their patron God. A historically popular approach to theology is a bifurcation of the two Testimonies of Scripture.  According to this approach, the older testament is presented as a harsh, inflexible and graceless document, that’s sole purpose is to point to the futility of human effort to do good and ennobling acts.  But here in Matot, we see the true purpose of Torah – teaching and direction to move Israel and human kind from their natural inclinations toward violence and vengeance, and toward Hashem’s highest standards of peace and mercy.

The concept of `cities of refuge’ is unique to any in the ancient world, and contrary to human nature. The pronouncement `an eye for an eye’ should not be viewed as legislation, but rather as an accommodation to the hardness of the human heart. Here the Holy One ordains the Levim as peacemakers and grace givers. Their inheritances are places of refuge, safe places where those who have made mistakes are shielded from excessive retribution. With this provision, HaShem infers that vengeance is not an appropriate human agency. Read more »

Pinchas – Zeal Appeal Or The Real Deal

July 28, 2016
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Pinchas – Zeal Appeal Or The Real Deal

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There are always two unseen guests at every bris, neither has been specifically invited, yet the spirit of each is evoked. Of course Elijah is the first unseen guest as he often is at Jewish celebrations and commemorations. Elijah represents more than Israel’s glorious past, but in addition he embodies our most precious hopes. It is in his chair that the baby is held signifying the messianic promise that is being cut in this covenant. But also Elijah’s alter ego is present in Pinchas. The beginning of today’s parsha is read at every bris.

The LORD said to Moses, “Pinchas son of Eleazar, the son of Aaron, the priest, has turned my anger away from the Israelites; for he was as zealous as I am for my honor among them, so that in my zeal I did not put an end to them. Therefore tell him I am making my covenant of peace with him. He and his descendants will have a covenant of a lasting priesthood, because he was zealous for the honor of his God and made atonement for the Israelites.” (Bamidbar 25:11-13)

What an odd invocation for a bris; odder still Pinchas is never mentioned again during the ceremony. So who is this Pinchas, and why evoke his name?

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Shelach Lecha – Monsters, Giants and Other Formidable Obstacles

June 27, 2016
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Shelach Lecha – Monsters, Giants and Other Formidable Obstacles

 In the spring of 2002 I went to an art exhibit that was featuring a grouping of pictures painted by a good friend who was beginning the process of leaving the safety of a career as a commercial artist and pursuing an art form that was uniquely his own.  The collection was entitled quite simply, “Monsters”. I was not prepared for the transition in his work. My friend’s commercial work had always been clean, crisp and professional and uncluttered. His new art was dark, convoluted, layered and primitive, obscuring warm colors with dark shadows.

What my friend had done was to take his seven-year-old son’s crayon drawing of monsters and reinterpret them in a more adult, almost surrealist genre. The oil re-creations hung next to the crayon originals in this sophisticated Massachusetts gallery. Though there was no written explanation of the work, it communicated to me an honest, yet often ignored reality of life.  The fears, horrors, and insecurities of our childhoods do not disappear with time as we might imagine, but rather remain buried deep in our psyche only to reemerge in more sophisticated genres and expressions. Unless we deal with, slay., shrink or unmask the monsters and giants of our past, they make a subconscious home next to our “child within.” Read more »

B’halot’kha – Salvation On Trial

June 20, 2016
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B’halot’kha – Salvation On Trial

This week parsha will introduce a theme that will characterize much of the remaining narrative of Bamidbar. Chapters 11-25 contain a series of refusals on the part of Israel to accept authority. In chapter 12 even Miriam challenges Moses’ authority. In chapter 11 the people grumble about the unpleasantness of their journey contrasting it with all of the nostalgic pleasantries of slavery in Egypt, exasperating both God and Moses. Moses’ increasing frustration will later culminate with the incident of his striking the rock in chapter 20.

From a slightly different perspective though it is not the authority of God that is on trial in the wilderness, rather it is His salvation. While still in Egypt Jacob’s progeny were concerned as to whether, Israel’s God could and even more importantly would deliver them. Even after the miracles wrought by Moses humbled Pharaoh and his court, our people still doubted by the banks of the Reed Sea, and despite the parting of the sea, the drowning of their pursuers and their own preservation they continued to have doubts. Could they really have continued to question the power of God to deliver? Perhaps, but more likely they were uncertain of His desire to sustain and protect them, after all the pantheons of the ancient world were capricious and the perils of life were uncertain. Read more »