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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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 »