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 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.

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.

January 31, 2010

We must be doing something right.

Earlier this evening, after a terrific day that started with our amazing music class with the fabulous Ms. Laura and continued with a fantastic get-together with our awesome chavurah (including you, Bernsteins! See you soon!) at Fanuel St. Park, my beautiful 3-year-old daughter, of her own volition, helped clear our dishwasher (she did about half of the top rack while I was on the phone). I briefly thanked her, but I owe her a bigger show of gratitude tomorrow (for the help in the kitchen and for the fact that she was asleep before 8 PM).

It made me think of this beautiful drash by R’ David Wolpe that I received just the other day as part of his Off The Pulpit series (highly recommended subscription; some of the drashot are even shorter than this one, but they’re always thought-provoking, often profound, and ever relevant; I’m including the signup info at the bottom so it’s easy for you):

For My Daughter

By Rabbi David Wolpe

This past Shabbat I had the great joy of addressing my daughter on her Bat Mitzvah. I pointed to the phrase in her parasha (Torah portion), “… a night of watching.” (ex. 12:42) It occurs twice in the Bible, both times in the same sentence. The first time it refers to God’s watching; the second to the Israelites watching.

What were the Israelites watching? It was the eve of redemption and they had to protect their children as plagues ravaged Egypt. Parents do many things — we dream and disappoint; we hope, we advise, we criticize, we draw close, we puzzle, we praise. But mostly, we watch. We watch as our children grow and change. We watch as they listen to our stories and create their own stories. We watch as they become not who we plan for them to be, but who they truly are; as they step from our vision into God’s.

My wife very beautifully said that when she looks into my daughter’s eyes she sees not just where she is, but all the phases of her life. The parallelism in the verse makes sense: as God watches us, when we see a child flourish, we get a glimpse of God.

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!

Author’s note: Yes, I’m very aware of how long and full of adjectives the first sentence of this post is. It’s MY blog. I’m my own editor, and that’s how I like it.

March 10, 2008

Lovely and talented people I know

Filed under: entertainment,Family,Good News,music,tikkun olam,video — howdoyoujew @ 10:36

The lovely and talented Hazzan (Cantor) Alisa Pomerantz-Boro, who just happens to be the person responsible for introducing me to my lovely and talented wife, conducts the children’s choir at her shul, Congregation Beth El in Cherry Hill, NJ (her lovely and talented daughter, Rebecca, is third from the right in the top row):

February 6, 2008

Elective inspiration

Filed under: Commentary,movies,music,Politics,tikkun olam,video — howdoyoujew @ 15:39

Yeah, it’s specific to one candidate, but the message is so universal, and so beautifully produced, that it’s well worth sharing: a song, based on Barack Obama’s speech after the New Hampshire primary, produced by the Black Eyes Peas’ will.i.am. I especially like the inclusion of the chorus phrase in Hebrew, spoken by actress Maya Rubin, and his use of the term “repairing the world”:

December 20, 2007

Give away something you don’t need

Filed under: environment,Good News,Life Online,technology,tikkun olam,tzedakah — howdoyoujew @ 15:16

If you get a new cellphone this holiday season, why not donate your old one to Secure the Call Foundation? They’ll pay for shipping your old phone to them and turn it into a 911-only emergency phone for people in need. Simple and effective way to 1) help someone in need and 2) keep old but functional cellphones from ending up in a landfill.

November 22, 2007

On giving back, giving thanks, and not giving up

We got up bright and early this morning to walk 5K in downtown San Diego to raise money for Jewish Family Service and the San Diego Food Bank. Felt good. Ran into many people we know, and saw the power of grassroots passionate politics in action: two Ron Paul supporters I saw walked the entire route with extra promotional material showing their allegiance.

One carried a “Ron Paul – Hope for America” preprinted cardboard sign, raised in his right hand, the whole length of the walk/race, during parts of which he faced runners coming the other way. A few people offered cheers in response as they ran by, and one lady came up to him and asked him who Ron Paul was while I was walking next to him. In my opinion, he got into way too much technical detail and talked too much, and possibly lost the lady by the time she managed to extricate herself and walk on, but that’s the risk you take with a candidate who doesn’t have a well-oiled campaign spin machine with professionally distributed talking points, etc. This guy turned out to be a very recent convert to the cause (like one month ago recent), which also explains the rusty preaching. If it were me, the spiel would be something like:

  • He’s a strict constitutionalist
  • He’s the most principled, honest, straightforward congressman on the Hill
  • He wants to end the war in Iraq/bring the troops home immediately
  • He wants to reduce the size and power of the federal government, and
  • He wants to increase and protect your personal freedoms and liberty (by, among other things, repealing the Patriot Act)

But that’s just me. I’m not even sure I’m going to vote for the guy.

The second supporter ran the entire race while towing a Radio Flyer wagon plastered and stacked with Ron Paul stickers and signs. I didn’t talk to him, but seeing both these guys was eye-opening. No other candidate was visible in the race – I don’t recall ANY t-shirts, let alone anything more visible like what these guys did. It’s amazing to me how passionate Dr. Paul‘s supporters are, and it makes me sad that the entire electorate doesn’t share this passion.

Most people vote for one of two reasons, I think: 1) for convenience (how I used to vote), or 2) for who they think will win, as long as the candidate is within a very broad margin of where the voter’s interests lie. I decided several years ago to stop voting for convenience and start voting my conscience. I’ve thus technically “wasted” my vote a few times, voting for libertarian and other independent and other party candidates who have very little chance of winning the seats they’re running for. But I recognized at the time I made this decision that my vote is not really wasted – in fact, I’m getting more value out of my vote than most people, because… I was going to say because I can sleep at night, but I’m sure most other people don’t have sleeping problems based on their voting record, mostly because they’re too complacent and content to feed on the bullshit that the political machine and mainstream mass media feed them. They also probably think that, in the few cases where they actually do care about something and it’s not going the way they want, they can’t make a difference, so they don’t try, and resign themselves to the status quo. I want to raise my daughter to be a true critical thinker with advanced analytical skills applicable to all aspects of life, and to always know that she CAN, in fact, make a difference, so I will not be one of the mindless masses meandering about making do with meaningless materiality.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the 5K walk… Anyhow, after that we went home and all three of us took a nice nap, then got our day going getting ready for the family-and-friends feast at the Meltzers’, which didn’t disappoint. Among the highlights of the afternoon/evening was finally meeting and getting to know Rav Menashe East and his wife (and their adorable infant daughter). We’ll be spending a considerable amount of time next summer with them in Israel, so it was good (not surprising, but still good) to discover they’re cut from the finest quality menschlichkeit cloth.

November 21, 2007

It feels like Friday

Which means that since it got dark a few hours ago, I’ve felt like it’s Shabbat and I shouldn’t blog until after… but it’s not Shabbat, it’s Erev Thanksgiving, and there’s nothing to prevent me from writing, using the computer, etc.

Jenn spent much of the day cooking and baking for Thanksgiving, which we’ll be celebrating at the Meltzers’ with a bunch of extended family and friends. I successfully lobbied one of my favorite community organizations (in this case, Ohr Shalom Synagogue) to send out an email to the membership about the Give One Get One program I wrote about yesterday. Phyllis & Joel commented on Jenn’s post about the Bone Marrow Donor Appreciation event. Hadarya had a great day and a good evening, including when we went down to minyan.

This week’s parasha is Vayishlach, which includes the story of Yaakov’s struggle (commonly translated as “wrestling”) with… well, with someone – the Hebrew is ha-ish = the man, but this is usually understood as an angel of God. Tonight, though, we looked at four possibilities of who the struggle could have been with:

  1. God
  2. An Angel/messenger of God
  3. Yaakov himself
  4. Esav (Esau, Yaakov’s twin)

The discussion that ensued about each of these was the richest exploration of this story I’ve ever engaged in. My contributions included the following:

  • Assuming the struggle was with God, I thought of the conversation God has with Moses later in the Torah (verse 20) when Moses asks to see God’s face and God tells Moses that “no man can see my face and live.” That said, Yaakov may have gotten so close to God by engaging in this “struggle” that he came away with a physical wound (the hobbled leg, the limp).
  • If it was an Angel (and somewhat spanning the possibility of a struggle within himself): Yaakov remembered, of course, the dream he’d had some 20 years before of the ladder with angels climbing up and down. This time, rather than remaining passive and simply watching, he tried to engage his visitor. He was more mature, more ready this time, but it was still a serious spiritual and physical challenge, and he came away changed (spiritually with the name change, physically with the limp).
  • If the sparring partner was Esav, the thing that struck me most was the parallel of lower limbs in their history: at the beginning of their lives, Yaakov grasped at Esav’s heel, then engaged in some rather unsavory behavior to usurp his brother’s birthright. Here, decades later, HIS leg is injured, mirroring his brother’s “wound,” and the very next day, Yaakov and Esav meet and reconcile.

There was some very nice input (not mine; I think it was Rabbi Scott’s) on this last option, raising the possibility that Yaakov and Esav had to have a physical confrontation, a cathartic wrestling match, to get out their aggression and relieve their longstanding animosity, and that only after this fight could they embrace and kiss and weep.

All in all, a nice lead-in to the holiday. Tomorrow first thing in the morning we head downtown for the 5K Walk for the Hungry, then relax and eventually head to dinner to give thanks ourselves. Happy holiday!

Yay! Another easy way to reduce waste

Filed under: environment,Good News,technology,tikkun olam — howdoyoujew @ 14:27

Catalog Choice is an awesome site where you can sign up to opt out of getting all those junk catalogs you don’t need in your snail mail. This is very much on my mind, as we just got TWO copies of the Uno Alla Volta catalog the other day, and even one of them is too many. I’ve signed up, and I’ll fill out the details as soon as I get home and fish those puppies out of the recycling bin.
(thanks to MH)

November 20, 2007

Two things that could change the world

1. I’m on Rabbi David Wolpe‘s weekly d’var Torah email list. He can say more with fewer words than almost anyone I’ve ever met. Anyway, a few days ago I received a special message from him:

Below is a mitzvah of worldwide significance. This program, which involves all faiths and nations, is an attempt to bring computers, curricula, and education to the very poorest parts of the world. By purchasing one remarkably inexpensive – yet remarkably effective – computer – you will enable a poor child to receive a computer as well. If you decide simply to donate both, or more, that would be an even greater mitzvah. This is limited; we have only two weeks to act. Let us join people from all over the world seeking to help those who crave knowledge, information, connection. These computers work without electricity and are specially designed to enable the poorest children to benefit. The Talmud teaches that Jews are rachamim b’nei rachamim – merciful people and the children of merciful people. Please show your mercy to children all over the world.

The program he’s referring to is the Give One Get One promotion of One Laptop Per Child, which I’ve been aware of since its inception several years ago by Nicholas Negroponte. I’m hopeful that Jenn and I can find the extra cash somewhere to get involved directly, but I wanted to put it out there for you to see as well, so you could decide if it was worthwhile.

2. In the news over the last couple of days is the recent discovery by Japanese and American scientists that they could essentially transform human skin cells into stem cells. This, too, could change the world, in entirely different ways than OLPC, but I love the thought that some kid with a laptop from OLPC could one day contribute to the effort to treat or cure a major disease using stem cells because he was given a window to the rest of the world by this program.

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