How Do You Jew An educational, informational, conversational blog and (someday) podcast about Judaism, Jewish practices, customs, and rituals, Israel, and whatever else we decide to talk about.

August 21, 2017

Has the day come?

Filed under: Family,history,Israel,News,Politics,religion,travel — Tags: — howdoyoujew @ 17:44

For the second time in about a week, I’m sharing something written by my friend and teacher, Rabbi Daniel Gordis, which pretty perfectly encapsulates and captures my feelings and reaction to the current political and social climate in the United States and beyond. It bears mentioning that I have had no illusions about our situation since the fall, before the election, and of course well before the horrible events of the last couple of weeks. The fact is that on Nov. 9, 2016, I downloaded and completed the forms needed to obtain my American-born kids their Israeli passports. Just in case.

Watching Charlottesville From Jerusalem

August 19, 2010

Looking forward, looking back

I delivered the d’var Torah this past Shabbat at Ohr Shalom. I had volunteered to do this months ago, but had completely forgotten about it, so when the rabbi emailed me on Thursday night to remind me, I emailed back with a “no problem” message that, thanks to the emotionless nature of the medium, completely masked my anxiety about figuring out what to say less than 48 hours later about a parasha I hadn’t read yet (this year).

But, as as happened before, the texts along with the particular circumstances of my life (or God’s guiding hand, whichever you prefer) provided me with inspiration and I delivered this relatively succinct message:
***
While reading this week’s parasha, I was reminded of a conversation I had with Rabbi Meltzer about a week ago, toward the end of shiva for his grandfather, Poppa Harvey. It was a mundane conversation about corrective lenses – how long we’ve worn glasses or contact lenses, that sort of thing. In particular, there’s a passage in chapter 17, verses 18-20, that really jumped out at me:

“When [a Jewish monarch] is seated on his royal throne, he shall have a copy of this Teaching written for him on a scroll by the levitical priests. Let it remain with him and let him read in it all his life, so that he may learn to revere the Lord his God, to observe faithfully every word of this Teaching as well as these laws. Thus he will not act haughtily toward his fellows or deviate from the Instruction to the right or to the left, to the end that he and his descendants may reign long in the midst of Israel.”

I was struck by the implication of this passage about the centrality of the Torah – how consistent and constant a presence it must be, no matter our station in life. Throughout the generations, though, as our circumstances have changed for better or for worse – and let’s be honest, we’re Jews, so it’s mostly been for worse, right? – our perspective has changed. To put it another way, our vision has been impaired. Distance, in time and space, does that. So we’ve needed corrective lenses to view our central text – in the form of rabbinic commentary, midrash, aggadah, etc. – to help us see some things more clearly. So, for instance, the rabbis made certain that the rules for sentencing someone to death, laid out in this week’s parasha, earlier in chapter 17, were so strictly interpreted and adhered to as to make carrying out capital punishment virtually impossible; there is truly no recompense for errors in such cases.

Some lenses, though, don’t just correct, they OVERcorrect – they distort. I daresay there are interpretations of the Torah – lenses worn by some readers – that themselves make a to’eva (an abomination) of the sacred texts we work so hard to make relevant and accessible in our everyday lives.

Thus there have been numerous violations of chapter 20, verse 19,

When in your war against a city you have to besiege it a long time in order to capture it, you must not destroy its trees…”

The violations have occurred at the hands of settlers, and, to my great shame, at the hands of Tzahal, our Israeli Defense Force, when they have uprooted, destroyed or stolen Palestinian olive trees from land that is occupied – that is, arguably, under siege.

Too hard for you to swallow? Too bad; it’s true. But I’m not here to make a political speech, so I’ll move on to something a bit closer to home:

There have also been countless violations of chapter 16, verse 20,

Justice justice shall you pursue צדק צדק תרדוף

when rabbis and other community leaders deny the personal rights of a segment of the population. Rather than concentrate, as many have, on the fact that some of that segment’s behavior is described as abhorrent in the Torah, more leaders should have actively and eagerly pursued justice for all, a clear mitzvah explicitly laid out in this week’s reading. I do applaud the recent spate of positive news in this regard, but we still have far to go.

As we approach the new year, I encourage all of you to shift your focus inward – get as nearsighted as you possibly can. Take a look at YOUR corrective lenses. We ALL wear them in one form or another:

  • They may be frames that wrap around the sides of our faces;
  • tiny specks that sit right on our eyeballs;
  • or, the most common and insidious of all, those that are completely embedded inside our heads – our preconceptions, our stereotypes, our rushes to judgment, and so forth.

Take a good look at yourselves, and see if you can’t wipe away some of the schmutz that’s accumulated over the last year (or however long it’s been; it’s never too late to start).

Then crown yourselves monarchs – go on, you have my permission (the Rabbi’s not here, it’s OK) – and heed the call of the Torah:
As you sit on your royal throne, revisit our holy texts. Again. And Again. Look at them through your freshly polished lenses and reflect on the words, so that you do not become haughty toward your fellows, and so that you may continue to reign for many years to come.

Shabbat shalom.
***
A few days after delivering this drash, I received this Jewel of Elul, written by Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, which beautifully encapsulates the feelings he and I have as we prepare these sermons.

The blank screen that unfolds before each sermon is my darkness – formless and void. And then I begin to create. As I sit down to write, I am aware of this creation teaching, for it calls me to find the message needed for the moment.

I encourage you to sign up to receive Jewels of Elul via email, and browse the archive of previous Jewels. They are provocative, insightful, inspirational, and powerful.

May we all see more clearly in the coming year.

July 26, 2010

Pre-school profundity

I had a profound, important conversation with my three-and-a-half-year-old daughter Sunday evening.

We were visiting the home of a congregant from our synagogue for shiva minyan, the service held in a house of mourning. The friend (T), himself well past middle age, had just lost his mother (she was in her 90s). Since we had made plans to go to the service, we were able to tell H about it earlier in the day. We covered a few salient points, including the fact that we were going to T’s house because his mother had just passed away (Jenn’s choice of words)/died (mine) and he was sad, and one of the things you can say is, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Once we were there, H was terrific. She has attended Shabbat services with us essentially since she was born, so she’s very familiar with the basic liturgy, and she also had some friends there (the Rabbi’s kids) so she wasn’t bored.

The really interesting conversation began when she noticed a mirror completely covered with paper towels and asked me about it. I answered that it was a Jewish tradition to cover the mirrors in a house of mourning for a week after a person dies. When prompted, I repeated the explanation a couple of times, then she explained it to me with the brilliant circular logic pre-schoolers are so good at (something to the effect of “The mirrors are covered because they’re covered”).

She then asked, “Why do we say, ‘I’m sorry’?” Picking up on her confusion, I explained that we are not saying “sorry” as an apology (her frame of reference for that word) but as a way to show the person that we understand they’re sad because someone they love has died – that they’ve “lost” this person. She made a couple of comments about how our friend’s mother wasn’t sick any more (true enough), and then pulled out the crowning glory of the evening’s conversation, “Everybody dies, but some people are alive.”

I was a bit ferklempt at the end there.

Oh, by the way: this entire dialogue happened while she was sitting on the throne, going potty.

February 5, 2010

Shabbat shalom x2

Starting off the weekend right with a couple of outstanding drashot from two of my favorite rabbis:
First, again, is Rabbi David Wolpe from Sinai Temple in LA, whose weekly Off The Pulpit I’ve mentioned before – it’s consistently inspirational and thought-provoking (I’m including the sign-up information at he bottom so you can subscribe too):

Yearning to Learn

By Rabbi David Wolpe

Knowing where to find information is not the same as possessing it. Each fact we learn is arranged in the matrix of all we already know. One who knows how to Google “Shakespeare sonnets” cannot be compared to the one who has memorized Shakespeare’s sonnets. The latter carries the words with him. The former is an accountant of knowledge; he knows where the treasure is, but it does not belong to him.

Real education instills a desire for knowledge, not merely the tools to acquire it. We are shaped by what we know and what we yearn to know. The Talmud tells us that as a young man Hillel was so desperate for words of Torah that he climbed on the roof of the study house to hear the discourses of his great predecessors, Shemaya and Avtalion. Noticing the darkness, they looked up and saw the young man on the skylight, covered with snow. The rabbis rescued Hillel, washed and anointed him, and sat him by the fire.

“If you want to build a ship,” wrote Antoine de Saint Expury, “don’t drum up people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work, but rather teach them to long for the sea.” First teach children to love learning; the web will wait.

We hope that you will email these words to a friend, and encourage them to sign up by e-mail so they will be able to receive similar articles as well as updates in the future. Together, let’s create a virtual community of modern Torah for the 21st century!

Closer to home is my dear Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal of Tifereth Israel Synagogue, who co-officiated at my wedding and continues to be a valued spiritual leader and guide. The Mi Shebeirach prayer is on my mind and my lips a lot these days, so this is particularly poignant and meaningful for me:

Dear Friends:

I meet with our Abraham Ratner Torah School students one Wednesday a month. We usually meet in our Goodman Chapel. This month I introduced them to a new addition to our chapel, the Mishebeirach tapestry that was fashioned from the creative contributions of many members of our Sisterhood and congregation.

This fabrication of this tapestry was the brainchild and labor of love of Sharyl Snyder. Sharyl had seen a similar tapestry on display on Temple Emanu-El and thought we should have one as well. Our Mishebeirach tapestry enlivens our chapel with its very personal artwork and stands as a reminder to all who are ill or in pain that they are not alone. At Tifereth Israel Synagogue they are a member of a community that cares and prays for them.

I asked the students to find the multiplicity of Jewish symbols on the tapestry. They correctly identified many of them and shared how they thought creators of each square expressed their care and concern for those who are ill.

I also used the introduction of the Mishebeirach tapestry to explain to our students the Mishebeirach prayer we say each morning at our daily minyan and on Shabbat (“May the One who blessed our ancestors…send healing to…”).

On the spur of the moment I also said the prayer with them and asked them to share the names of their relatives and friends who were ill and pray for their recovery. It was very quiet during our prayer and I found myself surprised by how it had turned our learning into a spiritual and sacred experience.

That same evening we talked about the Mishebeirach prayer at a meeting of our Ritual Committee. We all expressed the same thought: we all believed that our communal prayers for those who are ill are efficacious and powerful even though we are not sure how they work.

The next time you are in the synagogue, please stop by the chapel to see the new Mishebeirach tapestry. I also invite you to find as many Jewish symbols as you can and try to discover their relationship to Jewish healing and life. You may also want to use the opportunity to say your own prayer for those you love who are suffering or in pain.

Even though your prayer does not guarantee that those who are suffering will be healed, I am confident that their burden will be eased by your caring.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
Tifereth Israel Synagogue
San Diego, CA
rabbi@tiferethisrael.com

Hope these words help you have a truly peaceful and meaningful Shabbat.

December 25, 2009

Holiday Greeting

Filed under: entertainment,funny,humor,Life Online,religion — Tags: — howdoyoujew @ 00:50

I was inspired to post this to Facebook earlier tonight, and I think Wil Wheaton had something to do with it:
Merry Christmas to all*, and to all a good night!
(*Some restrictions apply, see your spiritual advisor for details. If visions of sugar plums persist for more than four hours, seek help immediately. Not responsible for damage to chimneys, rooftops, cookie plates, and milk cups.)

June 4, 2008

Something…something…COMPLETE!

I’ve been wearing a kippah full time now for three years, I think (somebody can check me on this; I’m pretty sure I have previously blogged about this), and that one little mitzvah definitely has me thinking more consciously about all the other mitzvot I observe and those I don’t.

There are some mitzvot that I can observe daily, others that present themselves less frequently but with some regularity (various Shabbat observances, for instance), and then there are those that only occur irregularly and that I have no control over – namely, those related to life cycle events that are not my own. I’ve had the honor of being a kvatter at a bris (the person who carries the baby boy to the sandak, the person who will hold him during the circumcision), I’ve held the chuppah and signed the ketubah in a wedding, I’ve participated in taharat ha-met, and this week, I witnessed the delivery of a get.

I was recruited for this last task in typically impromptu fashion by my friend and teacher Rabbi Scott Meltzer, with no question posed as to my willingness to participate nor warning given as to the purpose for which he was pulling me (and a fellow congregant) out of the congregational meeting for which we had gathered at our shul. Since I’m not entirely daft, I guessed what we were doing when the Rabbi walked us up to his office accompanied by a couple who didn’t display the kind of joy you reserve for, well, joyous occasions. We all stood in the Rabbi’s office and listened to him read the document in Aramaic, translate/explain it in English, then instruct the man on the proper procedure of delivering it to his soon-to-be-ex-wife, and finally guide her in the final steps (literally – the woman takes 4 steps away after taking possession of the get to signify that she accepts it), making the deed official.

I was uncomfortable for a bit, feeling like I was standing in this couple’s personal space, witnessing something so intensely private and painful. But I recognized, too, that, just as the wedding is a communal event, so this too must be. After all, these two individuals deserve their own happiness, and they could not find it with each other. Just as witnesses were required when they declared their commitment to each other, they had to go through this ritual, witnessed by two unrelated members of the community, to free them to seek that happiness with someone else, both times according to the laws of Moses and Israel.

And, like with my previous opportunities to fulfill life cycle mitzvot, I got a chance to reflect on and marvel at the wisdom of the sages who framed these rules, and thank God that I am part of this tradition.

Oh, and Paul: Yes, I purposely waited until the end of this post to acknowledge our in-joke just to force you to read all the way through it so that maybe you’d learn something. Yeah, I know it’s not really our in-joke if Family Guy has lampooned it.

June 2, 2008

D’var Torah: B’Chukotay

Filed under: religion,San Diego Jewish Community,Shabbat,Torah Commentary — howdoyoujew @ 16:04

Yeah, I know I’m posting it a week late, but I delivered it on time (Shabbat, 24 May 2008, 19 Iyar 5768) at Tifereth Israel. Among other things, B’Chukotay is notable for the inclusion of the tochecha, the section of punishments I refer to below, which, according to tradition, is to be read quickly and quietly, in contrast to the rest of the Torah reading this or any other week.
***
In this week’s parasha, BeChukotay, we reach the end of the Book of Leviticus. It is here that Moses passes along to the people of Israel God’s admonishments to observe the mitzvot and prosper, along with God’s warnings that if the people fail to observe the commandments, punishment will ensue.

The rewards include a bountiful land & plentiful crops, general prosperity, peace with Israel’s neighbors, and, in the case of those not interested in making peace, enemies withdrawing in defeat from the mighty Israelites.

Similarly, the punishment for failure to observe the mitzvot is delineated in graphic detail: drought & famine throughout the land, hunger to the point of parents having to eat their own children, war and consequent defeat, and finally exile – the ultimate punishment for a people whose very existence and relationship with God is tied to a specific parcel of physical space.

Speaking as we are in the early 21st century, in the diaspora, looking from afar as Israel marks its 60th anniversary while under relentless missile attack and constant attempts at “smaller, more minor” attacks, it may seem like things aren’t going so well (I’ll remind you that a suicide truck bomber failed to kill anyone but himself with four tons of explosives at the Erez crossing from Gaza Thursday, and another suicide bomber was shot and killed as he tried to detonate his explosives at a checkpoint outside Shchem in the West Bank on Monday). Sure, not all Jews follow all the mitzvot, but is that really what the text – what God – wants us to achieve?

It’s significant to me that the language used in this section of the parasha, the blessings and curses, is, in contrast to the language used later when talking about the endowments and sacrifices, communal language. That is, it always talks about “the people” doing or not doing this or that, and being rewarded or punished, en masse.

Reading this, I was immediately reminded of the Talmudic saying, kol Israel arevim zeh la-zeh – all Jews are responsible one for another.

Little did I know that, in coining this phrase, the Talmudic rabbis were commenting on this very parasha! Specifically, on chapter 26, verse 37 (page 751),

–>This is where I read the Hebrew. I gotta figure out how to display Hebrew properly in my posts… images, perhaps?<-- “With no one pursuing, they shall stumble over one another as before the sword…” No lesser a commentator than Rashi first explains the verse literally, envisioning people bumping into and falling over each other in their frightened retreat. But he then cites the Talmud's midrashic comment, found in Tractate Sanhedrin:

“”…they shall stumble over one another…” meaning one will stumble over the sins of another for all Israel is responsible one for the other.”

Thus, the “stumbling” the Torah warns about is not physical, but spiritual; that the sinning of one – an individual’s failure to follow the mitzvot – will cause others to stumble, eventually bringing the promised retribution from God.

The Hebrew root word that is here translated as “stumble” is CaSHaL, which also means “to fail.” The double meaning is itself significant, for when one stumbles over the sins, or failures, of another, that means the stumbler failed as well.

This spiritual stumbling itself could be interpreted in a couple of ways:

First, one could stumble over the sins of another in the sense that one observes another sinning and is tempted to, um, “join in the fun.”

Alternately, the stumbling could refer to the result – the punishment being meted out on all the people as a result of the sins of some.

This means, friends, that we can’t just look the other way when we see sinning, or the failure in others to observe the commandments. Not only would this be an active shirking of our stated responsibility for one another, but if I “look the other way,” I cannot easily continue walking along the straight path I was headed down in the first place – and I would thus be that much closer to stumbling myself.

Either way, the lesson that we are all responsible for one another should not be lost. There may be individuals in the community who, for a variety of reasons, are incapable of observing some mitzvot without assistance. Some may need a little more… “encouragement” than others. We all need to do our part to live lives that warrant reward, and persuade others to do the same.

Peace on earth, plenty of food, adequate social support for those who can’t support themselves, etc. – all this is possible, and it will come, as the text suggests, as an act of or a gift from God. But not in the way many people expect such gifts.

Gifts from God are rarely obvious miracles of Biblical proportions. We are all created b’tzelem Elohim, in the image of God, and we all have within us the capacity to carry out God’s work. We must engage in this work if we are to enjoy God’s blessings.

Shabbat shalom.

May 13, 2008

Brain dump, Tuesday night

I have to blog a thousand things, but I’ll just keep this to the top that I’m able to think of, in no particular order, before my fingers get tired:

  1. The evil bastards who control the food packaging disaster that is hot dogs and buns are even more devious than I previously suspected: We recently got Hadarya a play kitchen (and PLEASE don’t start with the sexism/promoting gender stereotypes/etc. arguments – she is a very well-rounded child who spends time doing lots of other things, but she sees us both working in the kitchen and loves to pretend to do so on her own), and Grandma Bonnie came through with a ginormous vat of play food to fill the kitchen. The play food container has, I kid you not, six hot dogs and TWO buns. What the???
  2. I’m completely engrossed in the audio recording of Wil Wheaton‘s Just A Geek. His writing is excellent – the stories of his time on TNG, including the hindsight on what a bonehead he was to not appreciate it at the time (he WAS a teenager, after all; it would have been more surprising if he HAD appreciated it); working the con circuit with fellow cast members; his brutal honesty and openness about his emotional fragility over the lack of work, with the concomitant ups and downs of auditions and wasted hours waiting for phone calls; his beautiful stories about his family and his struggles to support them; all of this is good source material, and it’s well put together on paper. But his performance of his own material is evocative, moving, funny, and true, with occasional asides and deviations from the written source that make this feel at once like the special edition of the book with extra features and like he’s performing it exclusively for me (it helps that I’m listening to it in the car when I’m either alone or with a sleeping toddler in the back).
    I’m able to relate to virtually everything he talks about because I grew up with a father who worked in “the industry” (what people who work in the movie/television business call their line of work), so the terms are familiar, and so are many of the settings (walking around studio backlots and sets, the peculiar hurry-up-and-wait schedule of a typical shoot, etc.). In some of the stories, the empathy is even stronger because our paths were even closer – growing up geeky, playing role-playing and video games, seeing all the same movies and listening to much of the same music.
    Then there’s his audition for the co-host spot on Win Ben Stein’s Money. Listening to that chapter was amazing, since I was a contestant on the show. Wil was up for the co-host spot after Jimmy Kimmel’s first replacement, but that wasn’t clear from his description, and since I stopped watching the show after I played on it (that story will get its own post), I didn’t even know there WAS another co-host, nor that he was Jimmy Kimmel’s cousin. That was all cleared up by Wikipedia, thankyouverymuch.
  3. It’s been a very long time since I was as wrapped up in a television show as I was in this week’s House, the penultimate episode of the season. I started watching the series when the strike took my other vegout shows off the air, and haven’t been disappointed, but they really nailed it this week. I’m going to catch up on last week’s episode via Hulu before enjoying the season finale next week. Then Veronique and I can discuss amongst ourselves, dahling.
  4. Is it just me, or is it weird that Hillary Clinton is ignoring the fact that her base, according to all the data I’m hearing, is essentially uneducated white people, while Barack Obama’s core supporters tend to be college-educated? I guess that explains some stuff, like her pandering to people with the proposed gas tax holiday, and how she can get away with calling him “elitist,” and other things. Meh. I so don’t want this blog to be about politics.
  5. I’ve got basic show notes written up for like a dozen How Do You Jew podcast episodes. I just need to put some music together, do a little research on each of my core topics, and start recording. Actually, here are some of the things I want to cover. Any suggestions for straightforward sources of good, solid information about them would be appreciated. The idea is that I’ll introduce and briefly discuss/explain a specific Jewish tradition or halachic practice each episode:
    • Torah scroll, sofer, filling in letters to fulfill mitzvah
    • Kippot/yarmulkes – where is rule to wear, who’s obligated/allowed, different styles and their connotations in different communities
    • Yahrzeit/shloshim/shiva
    • Hamantaschen – Haman’s ears vs. Haman’s hat & possibly other traditional Jewish holiday foods
    • Pikuach nefesh
    • Alright, Jenn should be home soon from the synagogue board meeting, and I need to fill out Hebrew High report cards, so that’s it for tonight… Also, Hadarya is restless and needs some comforting, so off I go.

March 7, 2008

No words

In memory of the victims of the Mercaz HaRav Yeshiva shooting, March 6, 2008

February 8, 2008

Blasphemy has never been so funny.

The thing about Israelis is, they we are equal opportunity offenders.
Christians? No problem:
If Mary had been a modern Israeli woman (5 MB WMV download)

Chasidic and other ultra-orthodox Jews? We got you covered:

I’m sure there’s plenty of stuff out there to cover Muslims and others, too, but I’ll leave it to others to find (and point me to, of course).

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