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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Nitsavim – Choose Life

September 28, 2016
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Nitsavim – Choose Life

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God is dead! Or so some would say, such as Richard Rubinstein the esteemed former professor of religion at University of Florida and Bridgeport University. As a leading cultural analyst, and a most prominent “Death of God” theologians this is Rubinstein’s response to the horrific atrocities of humankind against itself in the 20th century, especially following the holocaust. God is dead! After all, in the wake of Auschwitz the highly valued norms of modern culture were deeply implicated in creating the backdrop to the mass murder. It is no small wonder then that when confronted by the sinister nature of human reason and the implosion of the modernist paradigm of moral progress, Rubinstein responded with the language, reasoning and rugged individualism that had ironically defined the failure of his generation. In his famous book After Auschwitz he states, “We learned in the crisis that we were totally and nakedly alone, that we could expect neither support nor succor from God nor from our fellow creatures.” Sadly, Rubinstein’s thoughts echo the philosophers of the 17th century who after observing the decline of the church and crowns of Europe, found certitude in nothing but their own machinations, and in the declaration that the only hope, is to confess that here is no hope at all. For Rubinstein the covenant with Israel is an illusion and the only Messiah is death. Read more »

Ki Tavo – Do Not Neglect Nor Transgress

September 21, 2016
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Ki Tavo – Do Not Neglect Nor Transgress

Listen to an audio version …lo avarti mi’mitzvoteycha v’lo sha’chachti “I have neither transgressed nor neglected any of your commandments” (Devarim 26:13). This is the pledge that God commanded the children of Israel to declare every third year after removing their tithe from their premises and having given it to the Levites and the indigents in the Land. It was only after they had fully divested themselves of all portions of the crop that were to be donated that they could make this formal declaration and pray for God’s continued blessing upon the land and the people of Israel. Why then the apparent redundancy in this statement? One who has not transgressed the commandments has obviously not neglected them.

The S’fat Emet, a nineteenth century Chasidic rebbe and scholar, comments that sometimes we may perform a mitzvah only out of habit neglecting the reason behind it. While we may fulfill the commandment we might lack the proper kavanah, or intent. Therefore, we might expand this declaration to say, “ I have not performed any of the mitzvot mindlessly, perfunctorily, without feeling, or proper devotion.”

As the High Holy Days are approaching, we are to turn our intentions to the sins that we have committed over the past year. The shelichot (penitential prayers recited following the last Shabbat prior to Rosh Hashanah) ask us to examine our negative actions and our negative attitudes such as mendacity, frivolity, haughtiness and dozens of other words that we do not use in normal conversation. But the spirit of repentance during the Holy Days demands that we go beyond negative commands (the “Thou Shall Nots”) that we have transgressed, and requires us to consider the positive commands (the “Thou Shalls”) that we may have neglected.

In other words our introspection should include not only sins of commission, but also sins of omission. This I believe is why we are asked to declare that we have not only transgressed the command not to oppress the stranger, as the Egyptians did to us when we sojourned among them (vv. 5-8), but that we are not to neglect the plight and the needs of the stranger, the widow and the orphan (vv.12-13). In Judaism helping the needy, the helpless and the homeless is not merely a nice thing to do, but rather is considered a sacred obligation commanded in the Torah. Read more »

Ki Tetse – Making Sense of the “Texts of Terror”

September 15, 2016
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Ki Tetse – Making Sense of the “Texts of Terror”

If we are to be perfectly honest, much of the law codes reorganized and restated in the book of Devarim seem oddly archaic, highly impractical, and at times, even disturbingly unethical! This week’s parashah, Ki Teitse is chocked full of very specific ordinances and stipulations and therefore present many of these apparent difficulties.

The ethical value of scriptural narrative can often be difficult to apprehend. Explanations for God’s instruction surrounding the wars of Israel can often be as uncomfortable as the theodicies used to alleviate our discomfort with the omnipotent and omniscient sovereign’s apparent silence during the Holocaust. But none of the narratives are as tough a pill to swallow in contemporary society as those famously dubbed by feminist theologian Phyllis Trible as the “Texts of Terror.” These are the biblical narratives that describe the regular and dehumanizing rape, mutilation, and general bartering of women as commodities. Though polygamy is a common occurrence on the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures, women never possess more than one husband.  The woman in scripture is completely dependent upon a man for her sustenance and survival. Of course the biblical narrative is a product of its time and accurately portrays the events within their historical setting. What is striking, however, is the apparent silence of the text concerning any condemnation of these practices, especially the taking of “war brides” at the outset of this week’s readings.  In fact, the program of God seems to be advanced through these events and normative practices. If we were to derive any precepts concerning the treatment and role of women solely from the narrative and explicit prescriptions of the law books, they might be as follows.

  • A man can have multiple wives and concubines so long as he can support them adequately.
  • Actually if a man’s wife is unable to have children it is laudable or at least acceptable for him to sleep with her personal attendant.
  • Should a woman’s husband die, it is incumbent upon a righteous relative to take the poor woman in as his own wife.
  • It is better for a woman to enter into what we might deem an incestualize marriage rather than for her family inheritance to pass to another tribe.
  • If a man takes a woman as a spoil of war, he should give her a place in his harem rather than merely discarding her, in this way domesticating and systematizing war rape.

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