Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Gift of Sukkot

The Jews are a people with agricultural roots, finding many ways to mark the seasonal and environmental changes that occur throughout the year. Sukkot, the Festival of Booths, recalls those days of wandering in the desert.. It is among the festivals that fall during the month of Tishrei, and therefore it places emphasis not just on the cycles of the earth, but also the cycles of our lives. The celebration of Sukkot leads us to focus on the importance of shelter and housing, our responsibility to welcome others into our homes, the environment and nature, and how we use the food we gather from the land to feed ourselves and others. We build the temporary dwellings, and decorate them with pumpkins and corn-stalks, palm fronds, candles and hanging fruit…to celebrate a harvest. Just as the sukkah, the customary temporary hut, is fragile and subject to wind and rain, so, do we also recognize the precious fragility of human life, and the importance of doing all we can to help those in need around us. Even though the Sukkah is a frail shelter, the liturgy instructs us to “sit there”. Why should we “sit there” in an inadequate shelter? The reason is that shelter is not found in the strength of the walls or the size of the room, but in being connected to life, and to being a part of the gift of the harvest.

The ceiling of the Sukkah should have holes in it, so one can see the stars. This is a reminder that God promised Abraham to make his descendants as numerous as the stars.
One of the most important things that Sukkot teaches us is that life is fragile, and our world is not complete, Spending time in a flimsy hut makes you appreciate the things that you do have, and makes you realize that life can change very quickly. The symbolism of the hut is, for some, a sobering reminder of the insecurity of life. Sukkot is a time that makes us pause and reflect, but hopefully, also, moves us to action.

Friday, September 28, 2012

You Can Look, But You Can't Touch - Parashat Haazinu

“You may view the land from a distance, but you shall not enter it – the land that I am giving to the Israelite people.”          (Deuteronomy 32:52)

            The end of Moses’ life had arrived.  God called him to the top of the mountain to look over the Promised Land.  He can view it, but he will never enter it.  Moses would leave behind a powerful vision of a new nation living in a new land.   He himself would never live there.  But his great vision will sustain the people. Our story continues as God’s people, but the Torah is almost at an end with the final chapter of Moses’ life and the opening chapter of our new life in the Promised Land.
Moses spends his whole life journeying toward the Promised Land. The great goal of his entire career is to bring the children of Israel from Egyptian bondage to freedom in the Land of Israel. Surely if anyone ever deserved to reach their ultimate goal, that person was Moses. Yet even Moses cannot enter his final destination, he can only approach it, only approximate it, and only view it from the outside.
Moses was blessed to have that great vision, even though he would never attain it. His vision was a gift for future generations—to our children and to all generations.

Honi the Wise One was also known as Honi the Circle Maker. By drawing a circle and stepping inside of it, he would recite special prayers for rain, sometimes even argue with God during a drought, and the rains would come. He was, indeed, a miracle maker. As wise as he was, Honi sometimes saw something that puzzled him. Then he would ask questions so he could unravel the mystery.
One day, Honi the Circle Maker was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. Honi asked the man, “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?”
The man replied, “Seventy years.”
Honi then asked the man, “And do you think you will live another seventy years and eat the fruit of this tree?”
The man answered, “Perhaps not. However, when I was born into this world, I found many carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted trees for me, I am planting trees for my children and grandchildren so they will be able to eat the fruit of these trees.”

This has always been a perfect story for Tu b’Shevat. But, it also reminds us how important it is for us to keep our dreams alive, so that future generations can realize them. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

We're In This Together

The Ten Days of Repentance…. We’ve been reflecting on the mistakes we may have made during the past year and promise to do better in the year to come.
It's really quite an idea: taking ten whole days each year to acknowledge our own wrong-doing and shortcomings, rather than focusing on the faults of others. We say the prayers as a community…”We have done this” “We have done that”.  We’re all tied together, like it or not. What each one does affects the other. Maybe the Rabbis of ancient days were onto something. Can you imagine if everyone in this country started to feel a shared responsibility. Wow… not focusing on each other’s faults! Whether we realize it or not, we do have a shared responsibility. Everything that we do affects the next person. We vote. We pay taxes. We choose not to vote. It does make a difference.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Our Greatest Strength Lies In Our Ties To Each Other-Parashat Vayelech

As we approach the Day of Atonement, we look to this week’s Torah portion for some inspiration. What might we expect to find in our search for motivation? Vayelech…and he went. “And Moses went…” Where did he go? Instead of bringing the people to him, Moses reached out to them. His message must have been pretty important.  Moses was announcing his retirement. He gave the people a lot of instructions, and announced that Joshua would be his successor.

The shortest Torah portion of the year – begins with Moses, preparing his people for national continuity after his death. The Israelites are about to lose the only leader they have ever known. He reminds them that they will have leadership beyond that of Joshua. "The Eternal your God marches with you...God...will not fail you or forsake you" (Deut 31:6) Moses senses that the Israelites are afraid; life without him is difficult to face. So he reminds them that, in addition to God and human leadership, they have two sources of strength, Torah and community. The Israelites shouldn't fear – God will champion their cause. Joshua will assume national leadership. God reveals, though, that Israel will go astray after Moses’ death. So, Moses writes down God’s “teaching”, which he delivers to the priests. They are instructed to read the “teaching” to the assembled people Israel every seven years during Sukkot. This will serve to indoctrinate future generations, who, unlike the generation of the Exodus, did not experience God’s redemption and miracles personally. This will allow them to learn devotion to God and to embrace the covenant.
The public reading of the Torah reminds the Israelites of the goals that they are committed to as a community, reintroducing the blueprint for repairing the world to those who are mandated to carry it out.
There are times like this when a community goes through transition and needs to depend upon each other for support. Our greatest strength lies in our ties to each other.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Facing the Challenge

Do you remember waking up on September 12, 2001? It was a very different world than what we woke up on the day before.
The 10th was just a normal day. And on the 11th the world changed before our eyes. We watched in horror as the towers fell. We were glued to our T.V. sets for hours, looking at the same images over and over again. I can’t seem to get the picture out of my mind of the Pakistani children dancing with joy when they heard about the destruction at the other side of the world. What cruelty in our darkest hour.
And then it was September 12th.  We asked: “How can we, as adults help our children cope with their 1st (and God-willing only) encounter with terrorism?” Those images will always be there, but how can we make them feel safe, in this pretty unsafe world?
September 12th was a challenge. And it still is.
What is the legacy that we want to leave our children?
Today there seems to be a pile-on of blame against President Obama for attacks on U.S. diplomatic posts in Libya and Egypt," even as many other leaders counseled caution and support for the democratic underpinnings of the Arab Spring."
The strength of our country is its leaders, its communities, and its people. Is this the example we want to set?
Seems as though the challenge is always facing us. Our goal should be try to build a community where love, order and creativity are welcome. Rabbi Isaac Luria was correct when he said, “unless the vessels are open and flowing, exchanging their powers with one another, they will shatter.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

I Was There- Parashat Nitzavim

Vacharta bachayim l’ma’an t’hiyeh atah v’zarachah
Choose life, so that you and your descendants may live.
I try to imagine all of the generations that came before me….the ones that might not have made it out of Egypt. The ones who died in battle, and suffered during those years of wandering in the desert. Our ancestors stood together with their entire future before them. They accepted the covenant, not just for themselves, but for us, and all the generations that would come after.
Who was standing at Sinai to hear God’s voice and promise to do God’s will. “You stand here this day, all of you before the Lord your God. The leaders, the men, the children, the women even the stranger, Everyone, no matter what his or her profession or position in life— everyone had a role to play.
If you were a part of the community, then you were as responsible for the covenant as anyone else.
There’s a story that describes a scene at Mount Sinai when God gave us the Torah. The story claims that God appeared at Sinai as if he were a statue with faces on every side. A thousand people might be looking at the statue, but it seemed to each person as if the statue was looking directly at him or her. So when God spoke, each and every person in Israel could say, "God is addressing me."
So, as we embark on this new year, God is looking at you, and you are asked to reaffirm your commitment to the covenant.  For our past, for our present, and for our future generations. And we’re reminded that its not impossible to carry out. We can do it. This is who we are. The sound of the Shofar awakens the spirit within us so that we can be our best selves.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Is the Chauffer Ready? No, the Shofar !

The story of the Shofar goes back thousands of years. It was the voice of the Shofar which rang from the thick cloud upon Mt. Sinai; the walls of Jericho fell at the Shofar's sound; the sound of the Shofar echoed through the country of Ephraim the day Ehud slew the thousands of Moab; We know that throughout biblical times the Shofar resounded on the festival of the new moon and on the first day of the month of Tishrei. In times of danger, flood or siege, the Shofar even acted as a present day alarm system. 
We learn in the books of Leviticus and Numbers, that in the 7th month, we are to sound the Shofar loud throughout the land, and that this sacred day is commemorated with loud blasts. The mention of blowing a Shofar appears in many other places in the Tanakh as well. In 5th century Babylonia, the Shofar was sounded to announce a death in the community. During the Middle Ages, it was also blown on fasts, at excommunications, and at funerals. On Friday afternoon, six blasts were sounded at various intervals. At the first teki'ah, workers in the fields ceased their work. At the second, shops were closed and city workers ceased to work. The third signalled that it was time to kindle the Shabbat candles. And the fourth, fifth, and sixth were a teki'ah, teru'ah and teki'ah in succession, formally ushering in Shabbat.

The sounds of the Shofar are jarring. The intent is to arouse us….perhaps arouse our heart and soul. Being taken from a living thing, every Shofar sound is different, like every listener is different, and every community is different. 
The sounds of the Shofar summon us to remember the Exodus from Egypt, that we were slaves, and now we are free, so that we know how it feels to be a stranger. The sound of the Shofar must awaken our spirit and our conscience, so that we are able to look within ourselves, and see and hear the needs of others.
May the call of the Shofar inspire each of us to respond with our unique abilities, as we rise to the challenge that is set before us.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Let's Ensure The Right To Vote--Finally

It might come as a surprise, but the Constitution does not guarantee Americans the right to vote.  In fact, the United States is in the minority on this one. (apparently, Singapore is another) What the Constitution does have is a list of “thou shalt nots”….
What an amendment would do is help the courts do a better job doing what they are doing now. For better or for worse the courts have become the referees of election disputes.
Check out “Electoral Dysfunction”

Who knows….maybe one day our government officials will stop trying to make it harder for poor people, or young people, or people of color to vote.  I think what we need is a right to vote that would finally say after all of these years that an adult citizen of the United States has a right to have his or her say on Election Day and the government must ensure that their right is protected.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Can You Face The Challenge? Parashat Ki Tavo

Parashat Ki Tavo is a treasure trove of ideas.  In it, we face a challenge.  It contains a section that is referred to as the ‘Tokecha’, a warning of what is going to happen when we don’t follow God’s laws. It contains the notion about the issue of Reward and Punishment.  In it, we read that “The Eternal will let loose against you calamity, panic, and frustration in all the enterprises you undertake, so that you shall soon be wiped out because of your evil doing in forsaking Me.” (Deut. 28:20)  Yes, sometimes bad things can happen to good people.
Asked by reporters a couple of years ago to name his favorite book in the New Testament, Democratic National Chairperson Howard Dean answered that it was the Book of Job.  He was one testament off, and returned later to tell reporters that he knew it was in the Hebrew Bible.  He said that he liked it because it “sort of explains that bad things happen to very good people for no good reason.”

Maybe he was onto something.

Theodicy is the attempt to vindicate God’s goodness in the face of the existence of so much evil in the world.  The Book of Job is entrenched in the problem of Theodicy.  And Job asks God the same question, in one form or another: Why?  God never tells him why.  At the conclusion of the book, He appears to Job out of the whirlwind, and affirms that He is the Lord who created heaven and earth. That’s why.

Pulitzer-Prize winning columnist William Safire wrote that Job is the most controversial book in all theology—the outraged cry of a blameless sufferer, a call for someone to take God to court on a charge of moral mismanagement.  In his book, “The First Dissident”, not everyone thinks that God comes off well in his response.  Others fault Job for his confrontation with God, or for his subsequent response to God’s speech.  The ending to the story is controversial, but what is indisputable is that the confrontation caps a literary, religious and political story that is among the greatest of all time.

Until the premature death of his son, Rabbi Harold Kushner believed, as many do, that God was all-good and all-powerful.  This tragedy resulted in the re-examination of his beliefs, and his book “When Bad Things Happen To Good People”.  Rabbi Kushner looks to the Bible, especially the Book of Job, for answers.  He concludes that God is loving and just, and therefore never wills that bad things happen to people.  The problem is that God does not have the power to insure that this happens in every situation.  God intends good, but is not always able to work out the details in actual experience.  If we can accept life’s challenges as neither God’s punishment nor in His control, then we can turn to our God for strength and comfort in the belief of God’s compassion and desire for our well-being.  We can maintain our own self-respect and sense of goodness without having to feel that God has judged us or condemned us.  We can be angry at what has happened to us, without feeling that we are angry with God.  More than that, we can recognize our anger at life’s unfairness, our instinctive compassion at seeing people suffer, as coming from God who teaches us to be angry at injustice and to feel compassion for the afflicted.  So, the basic question, finally, is not, “Why do bad things happen to people?” Rather, the question we need to come to terms with include: ”Can I find a why, a meaning, to go on living, despite what has happened?”
 If we can become capable of forgiving and loving the imperfect people around us—of forgiving God despite His limitations, then we may recognize that the ability to love are the weapons God has given us to enable us to live fully, bravely and meaningfully in this less than perfect world.